Sunday, August 28, 2011

"To Ruin the Duke," by Debra Mullins

The Chick: Miranda Fontaine. When her friend Lettie dies in childbirth, Miranda swears she'll do right by the child, James, and ensure his noble father doesn't abandon him like hers did.
The Rub: When Wyldehaven swears the child isn't his, she's forced to think of other options to gain income for herself and the child - and now suddenly Wyldehaven's interested. Dream Casting: Hayley Atwell.

The Dude: Thornton Matherton, Duke of Wyldehaven, a.k.a. "Wylde." Determined to do away with his father's scandalous memory, Wylde's lived a proper and upstanding life - until an imposter starts committing offenses and blaming them on him - including fathering an illegitimate child a mysterious woman insists he claim as his own.
The Rub: This very woman makes him feel more alive than he has in years - but can he trust a woman whose background is so common and sketchy? Dream Casting: Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Plot:

Wylde: Damn and blast it! An imposter is ruining my reputation and being a general ass to everyone!

Miranda: You break it, you bought it, my lord! *hands over baby*

Wylde: But it wasn't me! It was my Evil Twin!

Miranda: LOL, are you for real?

Wylde's Dude Friends: Yes, he is!

Wylde: The kiiiiid is NOT my SON!

Miranda: Well that sucks. Guess I'll become an Italian Opera Singer then, since it's so easy and all.

Miranda: *sings opera, Italianly*

Wylde: You look just like Miranda! Do you have an Evil Twin, too?

Miranda: No. Evil Twins are stupid, trite plot points. Also I'm pretty sure they don't exist.

Wylde: You mean you *gasp* sing in *double gasp* public for *le gasp!* MONEY?! Clearly you are an untrustworthy whore!

Miranda: God I hope the baby doesn't turn out as stupid as you.

Wylde: I not-so-secretly want to have sex with you, but you won't let me put on the moves. If only a plot device could help me!

Miranda's Mum's Friend: Sorry-I-stole-your-mum's-money-and-gambled-it-away-these-thugs-might-try-to-murder-you-don't-mind-them!

Wylde: YESSSS. We can have sleep overs and eat s'mores and have wild untamed just-for-tonight sex!

Miranda: I wouldn't mind that last part.

Boots: *are knocked*

Wylde: Wow, now I totally want to marry you and love you and give you legitimate babies and shower you with money and affection.

Miranda: I feel like we're forgetting something...

Wylde's Evil Twin: Look at me! I'm evil! I hurt babies and look like Wylde!

Miranda: Huh. They do exist.

Wylde: Not for long! *kills Evil Twin* Oh, and the manly righteous action of murder in self-defense has cured my fear of babies! Let's have lots!

Miranda: HOORAY! ... I think.
Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Not-So-Secret Baby

1 Evil Twin

1 Secret Daddy

2 Threatening Notes

1 DudeGroup of Anti-Bullying Dudes

1 Eeeeeevil Wife (Deceased)

1 Not-So-Best Friend

1 Secret Singing Identity

The Word: Romance is a crazy genre in a lot of ways. We have secret pasts and dead spouses, lies and phobias and general angst. And somehow in the midst of all this, our characters have to fall in love and make us believe it.

To Ruin The Duke, plot-wise, has an Overheaping Spoonful of Crazy, and while this plot is coupled with protagonists blessed with Surprisingly Bountiful Reserves of Good Sense, the result is, unfortunately, shallow, bland, and a little silly.

Thornton Matherton, Duke of Wyldehaven a.k.a. "Wylde" - has returned to London for the funeral of a close friend, and discovers that someone who bears a striking resemblance to him has been using his name and reputation to get away with beating hookers, running up debts, and cheating at cards.

Thornton has missed most of the fun because he's been in the country mourning his dead (and Evil) wife, but now that he's back, he's determined to find this imposter before he does anymore damage, and he enlists his completely useless Dudegroup of Dudes to help him. Since his Dudegroup of Dudes formed in school in order to fight bullies and read Beowulf (don't ask), they are completely out of their element, since finding an imposter can't be solved by a) running and telling a teacher or b) quoting Beowulf.

Enter our heroine, Miranda, who shows up at Wylde's door to demand he take responsibility for childbirthing her best friend to death. Her friend, before passing into the Great Beyond, made Miranda swear she would do right by her newborn son James and ensure his father raised him as befits a son of a Duke.

Wylde's denial that the baby is his holds very little water with her. The illegitimate daughter of an actress who turned to prostitution, the inexplicably genteely-raised Miranda knows all about the Evils of Man. However, not really having any Plan B when Wylde continues to deny paternity, she lets an old friend of her mother's convince her to pose as a famous Italian opera singer to sing at parties for enough cash to raise James on her own.

Apparently this works, despite the fact that Miranda doesn't speak Italian.

And apparently Miranda can sing opera and play the piano like a star, despite there being no set-up to this aspect of her character at all.

But this is a book about Secret Babies and Evil Twins, after all. Our hopes are already suspended fairly high above our heads.

And of course, Wylde spots Miranda singing under a false name and his Evil Wimmin Alarm goes off (see: Evil Dead Wife). They proceed to spit and bite and flirt with each other, until a Plot Device conveniently forces Miranda and baby James into Wylde's home, where Wylde's Distrust of Deceitful Women is briefly upstaged by his Fear of Babies (see: Evil Dead Pregnant Wife).

On the plus side for this novel, both Wylde and Miranda are, rather surprisingly given the melodramatic elements of this novel, quite sensible characters. Miranda has perfectly good reasons to suspect Wylde of fathering James (1: there are witnesses, 2: an Evil Twin is the lamest excuse in the world) and knows exactly what sheltering under Wylde's protection might and probably will entail (explaining why she initially resists the arrangement until a violent Plot Device forces her to do otherwise). Miranda is a very open-eyed character - she seems to know exactly what she's in for and whether or not she should do it.

However, the ultimate negative which pushes this novel down out of Enjoyably Crazy territory is that these characters, for all their preternatural common sense, are very shallowly drawn with no real depth or proper backstory, Miranda in particular. She lived in a tavern with a mother who was a whore, and yet somehow acquired extensive lessons in classical music, singing, deportment, and speech. Her childhood and upbringing are very sketchily established and didn't ring true, and "surprising" aspects of her backstory will suddenly appear, with little to no set-up, in order to conveniently help along a thorny Plot Device - such as her decision to become an Italian opera singer. Nothing about her character up to this point mentions music, singing, or an interest in either until her mother's friend suggests she sing - and then suddenly she's awesome at it and "suddenly" remembers her mother "somehow" managing to get lessons for it.

It's the same with Wyldehaven - he apparently had a father with a scandalous reputation (to the point where bastards and by-blows are dropping by for hand-outs every other week), which is meant to explain why he's such a stickler for propriety and dislikes how this imposter is resurrecting his father's memory. And yet, Wyldehaven himself never discusses why his father's reputation bothered him, and his mother gets mentioned in one line and then never brought up again. Whenever I considered these characters' actions and motivations and tried to tie them up with what I know of their pasts and upbringing, I kept coming up with question marks.

Similarly, the plot's quick descent into Total Crazy (an Evil Twin Gunfight, a Secret Dad, a Thieving Friend, a Traitor Friend, a Secret Murderous Sister) further kept me from enjoying the novel. I can tolerate (and often quite enjoy) novels with Crazy elements so long as they have well-developed and interesting characters - because then it's fun to watch them react and deal with the Crazy, and learn more about themselves in the process. With characters as flimsy and unattached as Wylde and Miranda, the plot bats them about like a cat with a ball of yarn, and I had little to no emotional investment in any of it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Here on Earth," by Alice Hoffman

Our Principal Cast:

March Murray: Returning to her hometown after years spent raising a family, she still feels inexorably drawn to the boy who claimed her heart all those years ago.

Hollis: Raised as an unwanted orphan, and rejected by the one he loved, now that she's back, he doesn't intend to let her go, and he won't let anything get in his way.

Gwen Cooper: March's daughter, a troubled teen who finds solace and meaning in caring for an abused former racehorse.

Hank Cooper: March's nephew, who was adopted by Hollis after his mother died and his father descended into alcoholism. While he's looked up to Hollis his entire life, as matters between March and Hollis grow more serious, even Hank begins to question his adopted parent's reasoning.

The Supporting Cast:

Susanna Justice: March's childhood frenemy, current pal, and eternal busybody. Knows something isn't right about Hollis, and she's determined to find out what before March gets into something she can't get out of.

The Judge: Susanna's father, and March's father's legal partner. While an upstanding citizen and a good man at heart, even he has his dark secrets.

Judith Dale: March's housekeeper and surrogate mother figure - a kindly, giving woman with an incredibly private past.

Alan Murray/The Coward: March's estranged brother who turned to drink when his wife died in a fire. Lives in a shack out on the Marshes, and hasn't seen his son Hank in years.

Belinda Cooper: March's sister-in-law and Hollis' wife - whose suspicious death the entire town secretly blames on Hollis. And are they right?

The Word: So, if you're new to the blog, I should probably let you know that Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors of all time. Regardless of genre. Practical Magic, The Ice Queen, Second Nature, and my all-time favourite, The Probable Future. She has such a powerful grasp of small town environments and communities (which are my crack), and such gorgeous imagery and use of magical realism, that I could even consider some of her books (particularly Magic and Future) to be fantasies. So I was all eager and set to read Here on Earth, which made it into the Oprah Book Club.

March Murray grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, the daughter of the town lawyer. When her kindly father adopted an abandoned orphan named Hollis, she and Hollis formed an immediate attachment that neither society, good sense, nor March's cruel older brother Alan could tear asunder. However, when her father unexpectedly died, her brother Alan made it clear that Hollis was nothing but a burden, and Hollis eventually left town, dissolving their romance if not their powerful, unspoken bond.

Years later, March returns to the town of her youth, her troubled daughter Gwen in tow, to attend to the funeral of her beloved housekeeper and surrogate mother, Judith Dale. While March's head tells her it's best to avoid Hollis - who has grown incredibly wealthy in the intervening years and bought up most of the town and March's own childhood home - her heart is still inextricably bound to his.

It took me about fifty pages to realize, with some dismay, that Alice Hoffman was rewriting Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

I love Alice Hoffman.

I despise Wuthering Heights. And this comes from a loyal Jane Eyre fan. After reading that "classic" the first time, I had no desire to re-experience a story about a romanticized sociopath who makes everyone's lives miserable just for the hell of it. But oh, if only he and Catherine had been allowed to be together, none of this would have happened...

Here on Earth succeeds because it knows better - and because Hoffman realizes that the secondary characters have just as much, if not more of a part in the story. The literary world already knows the ultimate story of Catherine and Heathcliff - Here on Earth gives us March and Hollis, but it also uses the points of view of characters like March's daughter Gwen, her friend Susanna, and Hollis' adopted son Hank to give us an outside perspective on what their relationship looks like.

And it's not pretty. Towards the end of the book it gets downright terrifying. As much as their relationship is compelling, I am thankful that theirs isn't the only one in the book. Love is both a transformative and a destructive power in Here on Earth, depending on the folks it ropes together, but in either case, it can't be controlled.

Again, I've never cared for Wuthering Heights, but I appreciated that Alice Hoffman showed the dark side of that passion and where it might have led to had it not been thwarted by fate. That being said, don't read this book for March and Hollis - read it for Gwen and Hank, Susanna and Bill Justice and Alan Murray - the folks whose Heights counterparts were treated as so much collateral damage, but in Here on Earth rise up to surpass and survive the passion that eventually destroys the protagonists.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"A Dance with Dragons," by George R. R. Martin

I'd like to think this goes without saying, but I might as well mention it just in case - if you are a fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones, this book is FULL OF SPOILERS. Season 5 spoilers, yes, but spoilers all the same. I highly recommend you read the books anyway rather than wait five years, but still - SPOILERS! YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!

The Principal Cast:

Tyrion Lannister: Brother to a queen, uncle to a king, and The Reason You Waited Five Years For This Book, now this clever dwarf is a fugitive on the run from several crimes, a few of which he actually committed.

Daenerys Targaryen: Thanks to her gumption, her dragons, and an army of freed slaves, she captured the free city of Meereen and abolished its cruel slave trade - but how long can she hold onto it?

Arya Stark, a.k.a. "No one": Last seen being trained in the art of being a holy assassin, Ned Stark's tomboyish daughter is about to take the ultimate Final Exam.

Jon Snow: Voted Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Jon has some difficult decisions to make - about wildlings, wights, fire gods, and what the Night's Watch's true purpose is.

Bran Stark: Fleeing into the woods with a motley band of companions, Bran's only hope is to find the source of his visions of a three-eyed crow - which might just be a wizard or magic-user powerful enough to restore the use of his legs.

The Supporting Cast:

Cersei Lannister: The evil sex-crazed murderous incestuous queen who finally gets what she deserves!

Quentyn Martell: A young Dornish prince on a secret mission to capture Daenerys' hand in marriage.

Griff: This knight, disinherited and banished from Westeros, gave up his livelihood to protect a secret heir to the throne - whose day has finally come.

Ser Barristan Selmy: An elderly knight who has sworn himself to Daenerys' service after being cast out of the Kingsguard in Westeros.

Reek: The traitor formerly known as Theon Greyjoy, this tormented pet of a masochistic lord has endured years of torture only to be released as a pawn in a dangerous game.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

3 Vicious Dragons

1 (Mostly) Friendly Giant

1 Tree-Hugging, Dying-Out Mythical Race

1 Secret Prince

1 Jousting Pig

1 Ultimate Walk of Shame

1 Marriage of Political Convenience

1 Bungled Coup

Several Deaths of Characters You Loved and Were Intensely Emotionally Invested In

The Word: I can still remember when the book right before this one in the Song of Ice and Fire series came out. I remember waiting in line at Greenwoods' books to have George R. R. Martin sign it.

Ah, the halcyon days of 2005. Yes, it's been one long-ass wait for the latest book in this densely-plotted, irresistibly dramatic fantasy series. And is it worth it?



While, like the other books in this series, this novel juggles about a dozen plotlines all told, the three main ones concern the characters left out of A Feast for Crows - Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryan, and Jon Snow. People who have this read this book and are now reading this review (for whatever reason), I apologize in advance for not mentioning your particular favourite character/plotline, but there are dozens and hundreds of them and I want this review to clock in under a million words.

Anyway, Tyrion Lannister is now on the lam for the murder of his nephew, Joffrey (which wasn't his fault) and his father, Tywin (which actually was). Still reeling from his father's revelation that the love of Tyrion's life actually had loved him (and wasn't a prostitute as his father and brother Jaime had both assured him), Tyrion finds shelter with a band of rebels harbouring an enormous secret that could seriously affect the line of succession. Tyrion, now seeking vengeance against his crazed sister Queen Cersei and his lying brother Jaime, is all too willing to participate in anything that will blow over their house of royal cards. Still, as much as he wants to convince himself (and others) that he's a completely amoral, selfish Imp - there's an undercurrent of compassion, wit, and plain human decency to him that's the main reason why Tyrion is the most popular character of the series.

Meanwhile, up at the Wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the ravages of the north, Jon Snow has been voted Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, i.e. The Most Difficult and Unwanted Position in Existence. Much like the author himself, Jon is forced to juggle a number of demanding problems and characters while keeping everyone satisfied. His ultimate goal is to keep the Wall defended, but it's against what that is the real problem. Everyone agrees that the wights (horrifying re-animated corpses who nearly stormed the Wall in the previous books) must been driven back, but many of Jon's men disagree with Jon's decision to try and ally with the wildlings - clans of humans who live in the lawless north who also nearly stormed the Wall. On top of that, Jon has offered shelter to rebel King Stannis but must also struggle to maintain the Watch's traditional neutrality in political affairs.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys has crowned herself Queen of Meereen, a bloodthirsty slave-port brought to its knees with the might of her dragons and an army of freed, adoring slaves. However, her reign is anything but stable. Her rejection of the slave trade has earned her the enmity of the neighbouring city-states, as well as violently conservative factions within her own walls. To top it all off, her dragons are becoming larger and more unstable, and when one of them is accused of hunting The Most Dangerous Game, Daenerys may well be forced to take her three most valued assets off the table.

Of these three major plotlines, Daenerys' is probably the most prominent. Her conquest of Meereen made serious waves, and several of the smaller plotlines delve into the lives of people who seek to kill, ally themselves with, or marry her (particularly this last one - no fewer than four characters seek Daenerys' hand).

But, really, there are dozens of stories, both major and minor, going on in this jam-packed novel. I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly that compared George R. R. Martin to Tolkien, and I've never found that comparison more accurate than while I was reading this book. A Dance with Dragons' biggest weakness is its pacing - despite the book's 1000+ pages, the surplus of characters, subplots, and description means that no storyline (even the Three Major Ones) gets very much done in the larger span of things.

Like The Lord of the Rings, however, what this book lacks for in narrative momentum it makes up for in scope. A cast of thousands. A wide-spanning world, each corner of which has its own unique cultures and traditions. Three different religions (at least!). A Dance of Dragons is like the world's most glorious and colourful travel book - so even if the story isn't moving too quickly, you don't really mind because it gives you time to look around.

Yes, the pacing can be slow, but the writing is stellar, the characters are vivid, the morals are grey and blurred (just how I like 'em), the punches are un-pulled, and the scope is epic. On its own, A Dance of Dragons does shift to the bloated and unwieldy side, but as an addition to A Song of Ice and Fire it serves its purpose admirably.

Monday, August 15, 2011

"Indiscreet," by Carolyn Jewel

The Chick: Sabine Godard. When a malicious rumour destroyed her reputation, her uncle took her and departed to explore Egypt, the Levant, and Turkey, where she now works as her uncle's faithful secretary.
The Rub: There, she encounters a man who was also hurt by the same rumour, but before their love can truly develop, an avaricious Turkish pasha sets his sights on her. Dream Casting: Scarlett Johansson
The Dude: Edward, Marquess of Foye. Travelling to exotic locales in order to escape his own heartbreak, he falls for the lovely Sabine Godard, even though he was a witness to her ruin and a former friend of the man who did it.
The Rub: But is he bad-ass enough to rescue her from being sent to a harem? Do I really need to answer that? Dream Casting: A younger Liam Neeson.

The Plot:

Crosshaven: Hey, this chick and I, we totally had sex.

Foye: TMI, dude.

Two Years Later...

Foye: Yeah, I used to be friends with the man who ruined your reputation and had you banished from your homeland. But if it helps, he did it to steal my woman.

Sabine: It does help, and I find you disconcertingly attractive.

Foye: Likewise! Well, this was easy!

Evil Pasha: Not so fast! Yoink! *steals Sabine*

Foye: DAMMIT. Well, I'm here to rescue you, but you'll have to dye your skin, cut your hair and dress as a boy.

Sabine: Will do! *does*

Foye: I still find you disconcertingly attractive.

Sabine: Huzzah!

Foye and Sabine's boots: *knocked*

Foye: There's only one spot on the boat to England, Sabine. You have to take it!

Sabine: I'll never let go, Jack Foye!

Foye: You're going to have to if you're getting on that damn boat!

Sabine: I arrived in England! Yay!

Solicitor: Too bad Foye died!

Sabine: NO!


Sabine: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Vicious, Vicious Lie

2 Pomegranate Sherbets

Several Uncannily Accurate Tea Leaves

1 Evil Pasha

1 Daring Rescue

1 Inconvenient Shipwreck

1 Ingenious Disguise

The Word:
Some books, some blessed books, grab you with the first page, with language so lyrical and hooked you're excited to keep reading even before you're entirely sure what you're reading, with settings so vivid and intricately described, yet never so vivid and intricately described as the characters.

Indiscreet is one of them. It has the plot of an Italian opera, the theme of a fairy tale, and a writing style as rich, textured and gorgeous as only romances can be.

The story begins with a rumour, started by an entitled and foppish gentleman in the company of other foppish gentlemen. Our hero, Lord Edward, feels out of place in such company even before his friend, the Earl of Crosshaven, lets slip that he and the lovely orphan niece of an Oxford don may or may not have had improper relations (wink wink). Although Edward does not doubt his friend's word, he thinks less of the fellow for being so callous and unfeeling of his paramour's reputation, which will doubtless be ruined now.

Two years later, a sadder, more cynical Lord Edward (now the Marquess of Foye) meets the object of that rumour while touring Turkey. From looking at Sabine Godard, the lovely niece and secretary of famed scholar Sir Henry Godard, you'd never guess that such a self-contained, demure woman was ever cut by her friends and English society for a faux pas she never committed. While her loving, if cantankerous uncle refused to turn her out and instead took her abroad to escape the scandal and help him with his book, even he was never wholly convinced of her virtue.

But now Foye is all too certain that Sabine was innocent. It turns out Crosshaven had started that rumour to divert suspicion while he eloped with Foye's fiancee, and two years later, Foye hasn't fully overcome that heartbreak. At first he approaches Sabine only to admit and apologize for his unwitting involvement in her unjust ruin, but he sticks around despite his better judgement, her wariness, and the disparity in their ages (he's 38, she's 23). Attraction sparks instantly and brightly, but the real meat-and-potatoes romance doesn't truly set in until Sabine and her ailing uncle come under the dubious hospitality of a devious pasha, and Foye must come to her rescue.

Indiscreet succeeds through its unconventionality of setting, character, and pacing. No blissfully damp English climes here - our characters eat sherbet in sweltering and dusty streets, warily pass Bedouin warriors (thankfully not the Bonnie Vanak kind!), and smoke honey-soaked tobacco with a narghile.

And while there is definitely a Beauty and the Beast theme running beneath the foundation of Sabine and Foye, these are no cookie-cutter characters from Romance Central Casting - or perhaps they would be, if written by a lesser writer with a looser grasp of description. Foye is repeatedly described as an ugly, brutish looking man - "His nose was hooked, and the remainder of his features were set irregularly in his face, as if someone had put the parts together and then given him a hard shake before everything has settled into place." And yet, for such a physically enormous, leonine man, he worships his tailor and a fine suit of clothes. And he treats the things and people he loves with unbearable gentleness and detail.

Sabine is a naturally wary character, given her upbringing and the scandal that banished her family from England. She treats the people around her like puzzles - she likes to take a person's measure and click all their pieces into place before she deals with them. And yet, with Foye, she always comes up one piece short. And the longer Sabine comes to know him, through their romance and their trials, the more her perception of his looks shifts from aesthetic to subjective, as the personality that burns beneath the face begins to give character to it.

Instead of Jewel's characters being based on a single popular Romantic Ideal (the Savage Aristocrat alpha male character who would ordinarily be tamed by the end of the novel, and the Feisty Orphan in Pants who tames him), they're each a collection of small, interlocking details and memories and personality traits that render them so multifaceted and fascinating - just when you think you know them, you spot them from a different angle.

Lastly, the pacing in this book is surprising but effective. Sabine and Foye's love for each other blossoms quickly - almost too quickly. Less than halfway through. But it's not the burst of burninating passion that makes the story - it's how that burninating passion survives under pressure. It's how the passion survives Sabine getting kidnapped, Foye rescuing her, and a series of lies and disguises both must endure in order to escape and reach their happy ending. The first half of the novel convinced me of their love, but it's the novel's second half that will convince you of their ultimate HEA.

If there was one, teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy thing that wasn't perfect, it was an event that happens at the very end which seemed to add extra tension at the last minute that I don't think we really needed - it was very romantic, enjoyable and angsty but it was a little bit much.

I enjoyed Indiscreet from beginning to end. I read it during my vacation in Ireland - it helped me through flights, and on my last night on the Emerald Isle I even stayed up late in the hotel lounge to reach the end. It's gorgeously written, it works as both an intimate romance and an epic, far-reaching lovestory, and it has an unconventional setting. If you haven't already read this book, you should.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

"Then He Kissed Me," by Christine Ridgway

The Chick: Stefania "Stevie" Baci. When her younger sister Alessandra breaks her ankle, the middle Baci sister is roped into helping with the family winery's growing wedding business.
The Rub: Too bad this involves arranging the wedding of her recent ex-boyfriend and the beautiful blond princess he dumped her for. Dream Casting: Michelle Monaghan.

The Dude:
Prince Jacques Christian Wilhelm Parini - a.k.a. "Jack." Here to celebrate his sister's wedding, when he hears that his soon-to-be brother-in-law's ex is hosting the affair, he decides he needs to pay special attention to her to prevent any sabotage of his sister's perfect day.
The Rub: His interest quickly begins to get too personal - but he's got too much baggage to lay at any woman's feet. Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:

Stevie: Gah! I have to chauffeur my own ex and his new fiancee on New Yorks Eve! What could be worse?

Stevie's Sisters: You have to arrange their wedding!

Stevie: DAMMIT.

Jack: Hey! I'm a prince and can be both romantic and sleezy in five different languages! Don't fuck up my sister's wedding!

Stevie: I find you unsettlingly attractive, but as long as we don't end up in a fake engagement, we should be good.

Jack and Stevie: *caught smooching*

Engagement: *faked*

Stevie: DAMMIT.

Jack: I don't understand what's happening. I have a past. I'm afraid of the dark. And my sister stole your boyfriend. We shouldn't be together!

Stevie: Um, okay...


Stevie: ...

Jack: Yeah, I'm kind of in love with you.

Stevie: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist

1 Handsome Prince

1 (Surprisingly Decent) Ex

1 Inconvenient Phobia

Several Stolen Doo-Dads

1 Broken Condom

1 Fake Engagement

1 Secondary Romance

1 Tiny Vineyard

The Word: As the second book in Christie Ridgway's trilogy concerning three sisters and their struggling family winery, I enjoyed Then He Kissed Me far more than Crush On You.

Mainly because Stevie has much greater emotional impulse control than her sister Allie.

Which is a good thing, as the story begins when Stevie is talked/coerced/emotionally blackmailed into helping out with the family winery's wedding business, a relatively new venture designed to save the Tanti Baci winery from certain bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the first wedding on the docket is none other than that of Emerson Platt (her recent ex-boyfriend who callously dumped her) and Roxanne Parini (the blond princess he callously dumped Stevie for). Awwwwwkard.

While Stevie violently objects, she has little choice - her younger sister Allie broke her ankle, and her older sister is too busy running the other aspects of the winery in between acting angsty and provoking Man Fights between the two men who shall no doubt be competing for her hand in Book Three. Stevie, since her limousine service is only part-time, is the only one able to handle the job, and without the boost of their wedding service, the family winery faces certain bankruptcy.

To further complicate things, Everyone is Aware of the Intense Awkwardness of the situation - including the bride-to-be's brother, Prince Jacques of Ardenia, commonly known as Jack Parini. He and his little sister Roxy (the children of the King's second, American wife) went through a traumatic experience in their teens, and he's determined to protect her from any more pain and humiliation. The idea of a possibly jealous and bitter ex-girlfriend arranging his sister's wedding sets off every alarm bell he has, so he decides to be "the fly in her ointment, the thorn on her rose" to make sure everything goes according to plan.

As is common in Ridgway novels, there are lots of surprising character layers, a touch of darkness, and many surprises. Instead of vilifying Emerson as the weakhearted, wrongheaded, public-image-conscious cheating ex-boyfriend - Ridgeway gives him some unconventional characterization as well as a positive secondary romance with Roxy, who has some serious issues of her own to deal with.

And Jack is an interesting character - he has a reputation worse than Prince Harry's. As teens, he and his sister Roxy were kidnapped and held for ransom - but the vicious rumour that he somehow conspired with the kidnappers never died down, and instead cut Jack off from his family, kept him from taking life too seriously and kept him from making any deep emotional bonds. He's a character so used to bad press that he's started to buy into it himself.

As for Stevie, I quite enjoyed her. Yes, she's a tomboy in the sense that she's comfortable joshing around with men, but she's not too overbearingly I Don't Need a Man to ask for help from one when she needs it. Her issues are milder - mainly stemming from her recent break up, and on a deeper level, being an isolated middle child and the fractious relationship she remembers having with her mother before she died. All of this was handled pretty well (except for a Miraculous Motherly Revelation at the end that seemed too contrived to be real).

That being said, something didn't quite "gel" enough in this story to make me give it an A grade. Part of it is the curse of reviewing books from a backlog (I read this one more than a month ago), but part of it is that I was never really sure what each romantic protagonist ultimately offered the other that helped them both towards an HEA. I could see the attraction, I could see how each overcame their own issues, but looking back on it, I honestly can't remember what it was about their relationship that made it special, that made it The One. Frankly, I remember Emerson and Roxy's romance subplot more than theirs.

Still a worthy, romantic read.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

"Forbidden," by Jo Beverley

The Chick: Lady Serena Riverton. Recently widowed from a monster of a husband, when her greedy, feckless brothers decide to marry her off to another abusive lecher, her only option is to flee.
The Rub: Her only assets are her looks and "bed-work" skills, so when a gentleman rescues her from a storm, she tries to use both in order to secure him as a protector - with disastrous results.
Dream Casting: Christina Hendricks.

The Dude: Francis, Lord Middlethorpe. A man who is preparing to offer for another woman, he is not pleased to be roped into the trickery and games of an altogether too-attractive woman who is clearly Lying About Everything.
The Rub: However, he is an honourable man, and decides to take care of her - but the girl has more issues than Reader's Digest.
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.

The Plot:

Serena: My husband's dead! I'm free!

Creepy Brothers: ....Free to a good home, our slutty sister, in return for payment of our gambling debts? Who's ready to bid? Going once, going twice...

Serena: *gone*

Francis: What's a disturbingly attractive woman like you doing travelling alone? I immediately don't trust you.

Serena: "If you wish, you may mount me." **actual quotation from the book**

Francis: Um, NO.

Serena: *while Francis is asleep* Your mouth says no but your penis says YAY!

Francis: WTF??!!

Serena: No need to get snippy, I'm barren.

Three months later

Serena: *pregnant* Whoops. Guess I'm not.

Francis: *glare*

Francis and Serena: *married*

Serena: Woe is me, I'm broken and unwanted and he only married me because I raped him.

Francis: Woe is me, I love her but she's so delicate and fragile I don't want to break her with my lustful manhood!

Francis's Mum's Secret Boyfriend: Hey! Someone order a Big Misunderstanding?





Francis: Touche.

Serena: Getting angry makes me horny. Let's kiss and make up.

Francis: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Virgin Hero

1 "Well Trained" Widow

1 Sexy, Supportive DudeGroup of Sexy Supportive Dudes

1 Not-Entirely-Consensual Deflowering Scene

1 Nasty Racehorse

1 Bad Ass Spinster Aunt

1 Set of Pornographic Jewellery

1 Unwanted Pregnancy

2 Evil Pervy Brothers

1 Evil Pervy Husband (Deceased)

1 Surprise! MILF

The Word: I loves me some virgin heroes. They're just so... rare, and oftentimes there's usually an interesting story behind their celibacy (since apparently guys need a Special Reason not to stick their dick in something, but I digress). Plus, they're almost always Betas. So when I heard a bit about the plot of Forbidden, I decided to find myself a copy - even though my first Beverley read (the so-so Hazard, starring Francis' abandoned TSTL fiancee Anne Peckworth), hadn't impressed.

And also, as per usual in Virgin Hero romances, the heroine is anything but. At fifteen years of age, Serena was married off to a degenerate, abusive lecher who spent the years of her marriage "training" her in the art of "bed-work" to maintain his flagging sex drive, please his kinks, serve tea at his orgies, that sort of thing (to be fair, given the descriptions of what he did, it might have made for quite a pleasant erotic romance had their relationship been consensual).

However, now His Kinkiness has kicked it, and Serena is back with her creepy, spendthrift brothers who are all too willing to hand her off to the next perv with a purse in order to clear their own gambling debts. Serena would rather die than be married again so she flees into the night with barely the clothes on her back and nary a thought in her head (a popular Beverley Heroine Move, it seems to me).

Fortunately, she is rescued from death from exposure by a passing gentleman, Francis, who's been sent on a wild goose chase by his flighty mother who doesn't want him to discover that she's been exploring her inner Cougar with a younger math tutor. Thinking he's on the trail of someone who's been blackmailing his mother, he's not too pleased when a storm and a mysterious woman who is clearly of ill-repute force them to take a detour and spend the night in a farmer's cottage.

By this point, Serena is desperate to get herself as far away from her brothers as possible, so she tries (very clumsily) to seduce Francis and gain him as a protector. Although Francis assures her he'll drive her to the nearest town, he refuses her advances. But life has given Serena little reason to trust men, so she waits until Francis is asleep and takes, uh, matters into her own hands until a half-asleep Francis takes things to their natural conclusion.

So, several things happen from then on - first off, Francis is appalled to discover that he lost his virginity a) without his consent and b) without being awake enough to properly enjoy it. Secondly, now his Honourable Man Instincts are all riled up, double standards or no, and he feels obligated to help Serena by finding her a place with his Bad Ass Spinster Aunt. Francis' plans are further entangled when, three months later, Serena discovers she's pregnant.

And so the Unwanted Lovemaking leads to an Unwanted Marriage. And Serena's Creepy Brothers are still very much in evidence. And the girl Francis was going to marry is Not Very Happy (her Manly Brothers even less so). And despite her (deserved) guilt, Serena can't help but feel Unwanted as well, and her deep-seated sexual issues thanks to her late husband's abuse throw up even more barriers between her and the inexperienced but still willing Francis.

And, I may have forgotten to mention this, but Forbidden is apparently part of a DudeGroup series (more info on such series in the first paragraph of this review), the Rogues, so there are a bunch of Dudes and DudeWives (and even a former DudeMistress) thrown into the mix as well - although, to Beverley's credit, they are not as much of an obstruction or annoyance as former Dudes tend to be.

Character-wise, I enjoyed Francis (when Jo Beverley signed this novel at RWA 2011, she wrote, "In praise of gentle men!"), mainly because - yes, he's just a Nice Dude who gets Crapped On for much of the book. He's a regular, somewhat boring Dude at the beginning of the novel, who's remained a virgin because he's too picky to bed experienced whores and too nice to bed virgins. And, through no real fault of his own, his life is completely thrown upside down, and as he struggles to overcome the troubles he's been unwillingly dragged into, his true character (that of a Super Nice Dude) becomes more apparent.

I was a little less sympathetic towards Serena - it's hard not to feel bad for Francis as various people give him shit for "taking advantage" of Serena. We know why she did it, and her motivations are all there, but she's still a very shaky, scared, limp female character who spends most of the book feeling Super Guilty and Mopey. Again, she's a victim of abuse and it's all understandable, but these sorts of heroines have never been my cup of tea. While she belatedly comes into her own in a surprisingly funny and hot way at the very end, I kind of wish she'd found her spine earlier than the final chapters.

That being said, the main problems I had with this novel are the same problems I had with Hazard - uneven, slow pacing and lots of Inner Whining. Once Francis and Serena are hitched, the novel's pace takes a nose dive and becomes rather episodic, as linear obstacles pop up one by one to be quickly dispatched like wooden ducks in a carnival shooting game. Francis and The Gambling Horserace. Francis and the Pornographic Jewel Collection. Francis vs. The Brothers of His Jilted Fiancee. Francis vs. Serena's Brothers, etc. etc. And all of these episodes are glued together with moping from both Francis and Serena on how Life Isn't Fair. While it's understandable to a certain extent (and would be unrealistic if it wasn't present at all), it seems like there's just a bit too much of it here.

When all is said and done, however, I enjoyed the novel. Francis is a sweet character and his romantic scenes with Serena are lovely. The Dudes and their Wives don't make too much of a fuss. The pacing, while slow, isn't as slow as Hazard and there is enough angst and drama to explain most of the moping. While not a favourite, and not enough to truly convert me into a Beverley fan, it's nonetheless a solid romance with good characters.