Review: Where the Heart Leads by Stephane Laurens

My reaction to Where the Heart Leads by Stephanie Laurens can be best summed up by one phrase: I think I missed something. It wasn’t a bad book, certainly, and I did enjoy reading it; however, I kept feeling like I was missing something, or that some of the book was meta that an avid romance reader and/or fan of the Cynster series would get.

Penelope Ashford is the daughter of a viscount and runs the Foundling House, a home for orphans from all walks of life that trains them for jobs once they’ve grown up. Apparently this piece of sunshine, sparkles and treacle has shown up in a few other Cynster novels, because Penelope repeatedly refers to how her sister and friends are also involved in the Foundling House. Four boys have gone missing — in that their guardians died, Penelope went to pick them up, and they weren’t there. Concerned for their well-being, Penelope approaches Barnaby Adair, the eminently good-looking and intelligent private investigator to the ton. Of course, sparks fly. Barnaby is attracted to Penelope’s uniqueness and intelligence, and she is drawn to him for similar reasons.

The conflict preventing Barnaby and Penelope from getting together is largely internal and, quite frankly, a touch bothersome. Barnaby has this elaborate plan to get Penelope to propose to him (because he knows that if he proposed, she’d be afraid that he would try to control her life). It works, but it left me thinking two things — first of all, it was rather manipulative, which left me thinking less of the hero, and second of all, Barnaby keeps saying how he dislikes being constantly in Penelope’s wake, which makes me wonder how long it will be before he starts to resent her. And Penelope just seems unnecessarily wary of marriage — after all, she’s seen plenty of happy love matches around her, and yet she’s still terrified that if she marries, her husband will try to bend her to his will. Which is exactly what Barnaby does, just a heckuva lot sneakier.

The mystery is alright, although the ending wasn’t very strong. It felt like initially Ms. Laurens had one idea for who the culprit would be — by introducing a suitor of Penelope’s early on that seemed likely to be a rival for Barnaby — but instead that turned out to be a bit of sequel-baiting. In fact, we don’t see the mastermind other than as his alter-ego Mr. Alert until the reveal, which means that there’s absolutely no way the reader could have had a shot at figuring it out. Also, some of the bad guy’s motivations — like why Smythe turned to murder — don’t seem quite on par with their characters.

The secondary romance between Stokes and Griselda was very sweet, and I would have loved to see more of it, rather than the main one. In fact, some of the space that was devoted to about five back-to-back sex scenes, which after the first one I skipped, could have been devoted to Stokes and Griselda and greatly improved my enjoyment of the book. Oh, and those sex scenes! I don’t think anyone really thinks that much during sex, and if they do, they certainly aren’t enjoying it. The prose wasn’t too purple, thankfully, and I understand that the scenes were supposed to show emotional growth, but they got rather repetitive quickly and didn’t feel like they really moved the story forward. I believe from other reviews of books by Ms. Laurens that this may be a reoccurring issue for her.

Now, I know it sounds like I’m riffing really hard on this book, but in reality, it wasn’t bad. I would consider this to be one of the better historical romances I’ve read so far. The characters were well-drawn; the dialogue, though not as witty as I had hoped, was good; the plot was serviceable despite its tendency to hit on the treacly side of the spectrum. The main problem was that a lot of the book felt kind of meta — like the author was saying, “Hey look at how I’m using this trope! Didn’t I twist it nicely?” Add that to a bad case of seriesitis (which, thankfully, did not present in multiple appearance of adorably little nieces and nephews, at least until the epilouge), and unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as wanted to.

I’ve heard good things about Ms. Laurens, and I know some people swear by her, so I’m more than willing to give her writing another chance. I think, however, that I will find one of her earlier stories and start there — perhaps without the seriesitis I will enjoy her writing more.

Overall grade: B-/C+

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Not Quite a Lady by Loretta Chase


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Now I know why Loretta Chase is the go-to author when converting new readers to the wonders of Romancelandism.

There is so much I could say that is good about this book. Not only was it incredibly well-written, but the characters were believable and engaging. Nothing took me out of the story, and that’s pretty amazing, especially considering that this is a Secret Baby book. I felt a flat-out, completely cynicism-free enjoyment of the story that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

Lady Charlotte Hayward has a terrible secret — when she was seventeen, she fell in love with a rake and became pregnant by him. Unfortunately for her, he is killed in a duel (over another woman, no less) and she is left to face the scandal of a bastard child alone. Her stepmother, Lizzie, takes Charlotte away to the country, where the baby boy is born in secret and given to a clergyman and his wife who had been unable to have children of their own. Charlotte’s father, Lord Lithby, remains unawares of her plight, thinking his daughter is suffering from the same “wasting illness” that claimed her mother’s life a year before. Immensely grateful that scandal was diverted and ashamed of her actions, Charlotte devotes herself over the next ten years to being the best Lady she can possibly be. She lives in terror of her wedding night, when her husband will find out her shame and either her marriage will be ruined or scandal will erupt. To try to circumvent this she has become an expert in Not Getting Married, at least until she meets Darius Carsington.

Darius Carsington is the youngest son of the Earl of Hargate, and a devoted man of science. His particular area of expertise is the mating practices of animals; an expertise he puts into practice with the loose women of London society. He’s a slave to Logic and only has one rule regarding the women he beds — Don’t Sleep With Virgins. He has lived a relatively carefree life, but his father has given him an ultimatum. Either he turns around Beechwood Estate, which has been in Chancery for the past decade and is therefore falling apart, in one year’s time or he has to marry. Darius takes the challenge and finds himself next-door-neighbor to Lady Charlotte, who he can’t quite figure out.

I obviously can’t do justice to the plot or the characters in this review. When cut down to a few sentences of description they read like so many cliches, but on the pages they come to ferocious life, taunting and teasing and tumbling into piles of dirty laundry. While other readers more familiar with the Regency Romance genre may find these cliches to read tiredly despite Ms. Chase’s amazing writing, to me they were fresh and funny and new. And the dialogue — oh, the dialogue! It’s witty and dry without being over-the-top and there were several times that I laughed out loud. For example, when Lady Charlotte is reading some old love letters she found in a trunk and starts crying:

“I am not afraid of weeping,” came a deep voice from somewhere in the watery blur.

She looked toward the sound.

“My brother Rupert is not afraid of snakes, scorpions, or crocodiles, but he is afraid of weeping women,” Mr. Carsington said as he entered the room and gently closed the door behind him. “It is a terrifying sight, calculated to unman the stoutest-hearted fellow. Yet I am not afraid. I come armed.” He drew out a handkerchief.

Or after Darius dumps a pile of dirty laundry on Charlotte to hide her from the prying eyes of the local harridan:

He hastened to the heap of dirty linen in the corner.

An apron caught him in the face.

He saw Lady Charlotte’s upflung hand before he saw the rest of her.

The household linens and items of attire became a writhing mass as she struggled to extricate herself.

She sat up, sputtering, a pair of his drawers on her head. “You,” she said. “You.

He bit his lip. He coughed. He snickered. And finally, he let it out, a great whoop of laughter.

She scowled at him. “I was afraid to breathe,” she said. “Then my nose itched, and I dared not scratch it. Then –“

She broke off, glaring at him — no doubt because he must be grinning like an idiot.

“What?” she said. “What?”

“On your head,” he said. “My drawers.”

She looked up.

“You have my drawers on your head,” he said.

A pause.

Then, “Oh that,” she said. “Yes. I do that sometimes. Wear drawers on my head. It’s one of those interesting habits one gets to know about the other person as one gets to know the other person.”

“I should not wear them outside if I were you,” he said.

I loved how Darius and Charlotte talked about things to each other, and how Big Misunderstandings were avoided even though the potential for them was there. Yes, it was a little contrived how Pip comes back into their lives. Yes, the villain wasn’t particularly devious, just a little misguided (heck, I could see him as the hero of another book). Yes, her father must be dense to not have figured things out. But still, it was a good read, a solid story with excellent writing and strong characters.

Ms. Chase does such a brilliant job of capturing how people think and speak that it reads as real as anything I’ve ever read. She is certainly one of the best authors of our time and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves. I will be looking up her backlist.

This one definitely gets an A+.

Review: Putting on the Dog by Cynthia Baxter

Putting on the Dog
I am a longtime lover of the cozy mystery. I cut my teeth on Aggies (Agatha Christie and Agatha Rasin) and still want to move to Locdubh and solve mysteries with Hamish. Or maybe go burgling with Bernie. I had been looking for new reading material and vaguely remembered Wendy recommending a book about a woman with a weird cat solving murders. I spotted Cynthia Baxter’s books and thought they sounded about right, so I picked up Putting on the Dog. Unfortunately, I picked up the wrong book — the one I vaguely remembered was actually Killer Cruise by Laura Levine. While I could have been pleasantly surprised and found a new series to lovingly follow anyway, that was unfortunately not the case.

Ms. Baxter is actually quite the competent, if not excellent, author. I enjoyed her writing style quite a bit, and I liked her use of the first person POV (I may be in the minority on that one). The first chapter or two I was hooked, lapping up every sentence like a cat laps up cream. The only problem I really had with the writing was the constant reference to Max’s and Lou’s (the dogs) breeds — after the first couple of mentions, it became redundant. The main character is witty, her insights are funny, I could sink right into the narrative. Then, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t keep reading. It’s not a wallbanger like Dark Lover was, there was no sense of disgust when I set the book aside. In fact, I think I’ll pick up a different book in the series at some point to try reading this again.

What got to me was an accumulation of small, seemingly insignificant details that built up to the point where I didn’t really care whodunit anymore (which is weird for me — I can’t stand not knowing what happens). First there’s Chess, who is a cardboard cutout of a flaming homosexual. I know there’s people out there like that — I’ve met a few, for that matter — but his character just seemed like a stereotype for stereotyping’s sake. And after a few interactions between the heroine, Jessica Popper, and Chess, Jessica started seeming like a bit of a prude. She’s made extremely uncomfortably by his nipple ring. Granted, I wouldn’t want to stare at someone’s, but the squick factor isn’t as large as Jessica makes it out to be. Then there’s the boyfriend, Nick. When he first enters the story, the way he’s described makes me think he’s a total loser. It was hard to see what Jessica saw in him, especially when the alternative, Shawn Elliot, is described so much and so attractively. Granted, I know the tropes and it’s likely (although I’ll never find out) that Shawn turned out to be the murderer or some such, but he still seemed so much nicer and more hero-like than Nick. One of the big things that made me stop reading was Jessica’s interactions with Nick — I got to the point where reading about her making the obviously wrong choice for the umpteenth time would make me pull out my hair. She consistently neglects Nick, saying she really loves him and such but deliberately choosing to spend time with Shawn or go on “dates” with busboys to try to find out more about the murder. She knows her relationship is on the rocks but she still acts in ways that she even acknowledges will drive the wedge in further. And, to top it all off, she has sparkling Mary Sue level interpersonal skills, instantly befriending and then immediately taking advantage of nearly everyone she meets. I wanted to reach through the pages and strangle her — or maybe smack some sense into the poor schmuck she was manipulating. But those were all taste issues, and what didn’t work for me could be someone else’s mana from heaven.

Also, could we stop with the idiot arrogant cops stereotype? I know that there has to be some compelling reason for the protagonist to be trying to solve the mystery on their own, but I am so sick of seeing law enforcement portrayed this way. Yes, some cops care more about closing the case than what actually happened. And some are stupid, certainly. But there are intelligence and aptitude requirements to become a police officer, and it is extremely challenging and very coveted to become a detective. It would be nice to see that reflected more often in fiction.

Overall, this book had a lot of potential and got off to a great start, but turned into a DNF less than halfway through. It’s mostly a matter of taste, so I will be looking for other books and other primary protagonists from this author, and don’t let this review deter you from checking it out for yourself. Final Grade: Did Not Finish.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ruminations on Superhero Universe Creation

We went to X-Men Origins: Wolverine this weekend, and although it was a good movie, it got me thinking about both the nature of the comic book universe and the X-men universe in particular. Any movie, comic, novel, or what-have-you reflects the cultural mores of the time and the atmosphere of the time it was created in. As time goes on the way that we view certain things can change greatly, and that can greatly affect how the audience reacts to the media they are viewing.

Now, let me start by saying that my experience with the X-Men universe is limited to the movies and some brief explanations by my husband from his comic-reading youth. So in a way I am looking at the X-Men movies completely out of context from the rest of the series and am instead viewing them in context of the world today. Considering that X-Men takes place in a universe that differs from our own mainly in the existence of mutants, I, as a non-fan, would expect people in said universe to react to certain things much the same as people in our world. Thus, the behaviors and reactions of the characters and the general populace of the X-Men world does not necessarily make sense to me because their reactions are not those that I would expect from people today in our world.

This isn’t because of any fundamental issue with the X-Men universe (although they need to get their timeline straight), but rather an issue inherent to any series that is published over a very long period of time. While we as a society change and grow at a rapid pace in the real world, the characters in these long-running series generally stay close to the same age or do age, but at a much slower rate than the time that is passing between issues. For example, X-Men was created in 1963, at the height of the Cold War; long before computers became household appliances and shuttle missions became old hat. Nuclear annihilation hung on the horizon and was a very real possibility, and society was very different because of that. The government was actively engaged in secret tests of every sort that stretched and often broke the bounds of ethics. Naturally, the distrust of the government and fear of nuclear war at the very least influenced the construction of the society in the original X-Men, not to mention the social shunning of anyone different that was common at that point in time. As the years progressed the comics could adapt themselves to the times, somewhat, but the very bones of the story still kept their original forms.

Which brings me to the movies. The movies themselves are set in a time that seems to be very similar to our own. However, the illusion breaks down when some of the characters behave in what seems like an anachronistic manner.

Think of it this way: in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with being politically correct. Can you imagine if mutants were discovered/started developing today? They’d probably get spots on Oprah where she gushes over how difficult life is for them. The military would probably openly recruit mutants, most likely giving bonuses for more useful powers. None of this hush-hush stuff, either; they’d want the largest number recruited possible, which would mean plenty of mutant-recruitment-oriented publicity. Pro sports? Please. They would be all over mutants like white on rice. There’d probably be a congressional hearing on whether letting mutants play is the same as steroid use. There would be issues with whether mutants are covered by ADA and whether being a mutant is semantically the same as being disabled. They’re not disabled, they’re “differently abled,” seriously. How many class action lawsuits would be brought against major corporations or the government for causing the mutations through pollution/harmful chemicals/inaction/whatever? Most teenagers would be waiting anxiously for their powers to show up, and the ones without would probably go the same way the fake-fang-vampire-wannabes do in our world. Not to say life would be cushy for mutants, but in a way they would form a super-culture, rather than a subculture, one that is lauded and emulated by those not in it.

My point is that the X-Men universe, when taken in context of its Cold War era creation, makes a good deal of sense for the society that existed at the time. However, like many similarly long-running series, when it tries to keep up with the times, it actually loses some of its original punch. In a way it is best for series like that to stay at a fixed time in their alternate universe and neglect bringing in elements from today’s culture; the story will read more authentically and it helps to keep the timeline straight.

Which brings me to two other comments: first, the timeline for X-Men confuses the heck out of me. I think it’s because so many artists and writers have worked on the story over the years, adding and removing details as necessary for their tenure on the line. What I really wish comic artists/authors/creators/Stan Lee would do is write out the personal history for each significant character in advance. I know it’s a lot of work but it would really help to keep cannon cannon and to keep the audience from going “Huh?” Also, I would love to see a version of the X-Men where all the powers are kept a little more reasonably within the realm of science. Some of the characters are within the realm of plausibility but others jar me right out of the story because their powers are so absurd. I can suspend disbelief quite a bit, if you go the science-is-magic-and-we’re-not-going-to-explain-it route (like Star Wars before they mentioned the midichlorians) but when you start to give a scientific explanation and then throw logic and reality out the window I start raising my eyebrow. Then again, I may be in the minority on that one.

In any case, it was a good movie, by far one of the best in the series (I like the first about as much if not better and the only reason I like the second is because of Nightcrawler. The third made me go OMGWTFBBQ). If you’ve got the money and aren’t paralyzed by fear of the swine flu then by all means see it. I will say it’s rather dark, though — probably not good kiddie fare. Final grade: 3.5 out of 5 stars

On Fandoms

The other day, while watching Bones and NCIS, I got to thinking about Rule 34 of the internet. For those of you who don’t know, Rule 34 states that if it exists, somewhere on the internet there is porn of it. Dual thoughts struck me: first, that somewhere out there there’s a Duckie/Gibbs slash fic and I really don’t want to find it, and that the idea of there being a fandom for either Bones or NCIS seemed really strange. The only thing stranger would be a fandom for Law and Order. There probably are plenty of fan shrines to all of the aforementioned shows and their characters out there, but they aren’t exactly fandom material. When contrasting Bones, NCIS and the various reincarnations of Law and Order with other shows and comics and books that have huge, thriving fandoms, I discovered several key points that appear to be necessary to the creation of a strong fandom.

1. The world setting and plot must be epic in scope. Look at Star Wars, Star Trek, the Harry Potter series, the X-men universe, the Naruto universe, and the Bleach universe. Each of those series is set in a world is at stake if the hero(es) doesn’t succeed and where there are many, many ancillary characters that pass through over the course of the story. This makes it easy for fans to come up with their own characters and relatively smoothly introduce them to the cannon characters without really changing the overall plot. If you look at Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, however, the stories are more episodic in nature with the occasional overarching plot, and the cast of characters are fairly small and tightly-knit. In order to create and introduce a fan character into one of these settings, you would have to change either the cannon setting or characters.

2. The world setting is lush and unique. Star Wars, Star Trek, Naruto, etc, all take place in a world that is not like our own in some key way. Even Bleach and Harry Potter, which take place partially in a world almost identical to ours, depart from reality in significant ways. This allows the fan some creative freedom in their fanworks. Contrast this with Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, which all take place pretty much in the real world and in a very rule-bound portion of it. It puts far more of a limit on the fan creations.

3. Characters have special powers. What’s more appealing to the reader/viewer than the idea that they are special in some way? In the series/books/etc with the strongest, largest fandoms, characters have or develop special powers or talents above the norm. Fans who create their own characters can give them special powers as well and therefore feel special vicariously. In Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, there are no special powers (unless you consider being a genius a special power; and for a fan to create a genius character requires some specialized knowledge on their part, therefore making it far more difficult).

4. The cannon characters follow archetypes. This appeals to us because we love seeing the noble hero, the tortured hero, the wise old man (or Vulcan), and so on. In Bones/NCIS/L&O the archetypes are more subtle because the characters are supposed to be “real” people.

5. Additional plot is easily worked in, as in a “quest” style plot or an epic in scope plot. This comes back to the creativity of the fan. Also, Bones/NCIS/L&O are all mystery series, and it is quite complicated to come up with new and intriguing mysteries for the characters to solve. Not that fans can’t, but it is far more of a challenge.

In any case, I’m not a sociologist or English lit prof or psychologist or any of that, so take my musings with a grain of salt. I also don’t think fandoms are necessarily a bad thing, although sometimes they do get crazy. But it is interesting to examine them and try to figure out just why they are so special.

Review: Fool by Christopher Moore

Fool website

Well, at least I was warned.

The inside dust jacket (as well as the front of the webpage and a few other places) of Fool bears a cute little warning:

“This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that’s the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!”

and I have to agree, this book certainly reaches “unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity.” I didn’t do an accurate count but it seemed like some variant of spooge/spunk/giz/gizm/etc appeared on every single page, sometime multiple times. And some of the relationships — oy. This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart, weak of stomach or otherwise easily disturbed. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, however.

This retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear follows Pocket, the Black Fool and jester at King Lear’s court, as he struggles to set things right after Lear divides the British kingdom between his two spiteful daughters and banishes his loving daughter. When Lear devises an idiotic plan to split up his kingdom amongst his daughters based on how much they say they love him, his daughters Goneril and Regan spin lies while his youngest daughter Cordelia, whom Pocket loves dearly, thinks the whole test is a load of bupkus and says as much. Lear banishes Cordelia for speaking the truth, then banishes his staunch supporter Lord Kent for defending her. Pocket, though he views Lear as a father figure, is rightfully pissed off and sets out to make things right. And after quite a bit of subterfuge, magic, mud, and (as Christopher Moore would say) fuckwittery, he does. Sort of.

The story itself isn’t bad. The plot is satisfyingly twisty and the characters are fully realized. Considering that it’s pulled from Shakespeare a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, which adds some suspense to the reading. The footnotes are humorous and helpful, since some of the language sprinkled in is Old English and some is just British slang that American readers might not recognize. The anachronistic references — a specialty of Christopher Moore’s that worked very well in Lamb — and quasi-fourth-wall-breaking comments were hilarious, like the bit about how “there’s always a bloody ghost.” And the voice the story is written in, which is a Moore trademark, is humorous as always.

What got to me, however, was the amount of sex and wanking that went on. It was nearly constant and some of it was frankly rather icky. Not to mention the people Pocket has slept with — not only has he slept with Regan and Goneril, Cordelia’s half-sisters, but also (minor spoiler alert) Cordelia’s mother. And the laundry wench. And the kitchen wench. And some random wench in the great hall. And…well, the list goes on. Add to this Drool, Pocket’s assistant, wanking off to or humping just about anything that moves (and some things that don’t), and the descriptions of the quantities of spooge resulting from said wanking and humping, and you have a book that I very nearly put down forever after the first couple of chapters. Thankfully, the first few chapters are the worst in that regard, and after I got past them and the plot really started moving I was able to suppress the squick factor and enjoy the story.

Also, I wish the author’s note had been at the beginning instead of the end, because knowing that he had used bits and pieces from other Shakespeare plays (most notably the witches from MacBeth) would have saved me quite a bit of confusion.

Overall, this book is worth reading if you enjoy Christopher Moore’s humorous voice and if you don’t mind the squicky bits. It’s definitely not his best work — for me, his best is still Dirty Job followed closely by Lamb and Blood Sucking Fiends — but it is better than some of his others (I never did like Fluke that much. There was a lot of spooge in that one too — anyone else see a pattern here?) I give it a final grade of B-/C+.

Review: Dark Lover by J.R. Ward

Dark Lover website

When I picked this book up at the library, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had seen all the internet jesting about the ohveruhse ohf thhe lehtter “H” and some other bits and pieces, but I had also seen that the Black Dagger Brotherhood books have a devoted following, including some of the jesters. So I checked it out from the library, determined to find out what the fuss was about. As it stands I still don’t know. I never finished it.

The idea of a bunch of hulked-up, super-powered, ludicrously-named, hundred plus year old vampires talking in modern slang seemed…well, laughable, but I was willing to let that slide and just enjoy the story. Equating evil with impotency and the smell of baby powder (lolwut) was actually an interesting idea, though one I’m sure I’m missing something on (like the reason for the smell). Wrath musclesploding when he went through the change was funny as heck to me (though I don’t think that was intentional, but it did work for the world building) I suppose.

But all of that I could forgive for the sake of the story, for the sake of a few laughs and an enjoyable read. What made me nearly peg the book into the wall were the vigilante cop, the soulmate-as-consent and the bad timing of the sex. I am so sick of seeing cops in fiction taking the law into their own hands. Not only is that a completely inaccurate depiction of law enforcement — Butch would have been off the force and in jail faster than you can say “fhail” — but it feeds into the mentality that a) cops are the bad guys and you’ll get beat up for just about anything, and b) it’s acceptable for cops to behave that way because the justice system doesn’t work. I have friends and family in law enforcement and let me tell you, that bothers them as much as it does me. Behavior like Butch’s is the reason that cops’ hands are more and more tied when it comes to defending themselves. As far as the soulmate-as-consent bit, I’d like to refer you all to the Smart Bitches take on that topic. Which brings us to the timing of the sex scenes. I wish I could remember better — I flung this back at the library a while ago — but the sex scenes took place after incredibly depressing discussions, or after the heroine learned of her father’s death, or a big fight or something similarly not-happy-in-the-pants-making. It may have just been me but this left me feeling dirty and a bit disgusted.

And does every male character in the book have to be built like a Mac truck?

Not that J.R. Ward isn’t a good writer; in fact, despite their timing, her sex scenes are smokin’ hot. And the world building is interesting, to say the least. In fact, I think I’d be willing to read one of the other BDB books if someone recommended it to me. And for many, many others out there, Dark Lover may be their most cherished and beloved book. But for me, this book was a total DNF.

Sehriohsly.

Review: His Lady Mistress

His Lady MistressDownload the book for free at eHarlequin.com

Dear Harlequin:

I want my money back.

Yes, I know I got His Lady Mistress by Elizabeth Rolls for free as part of your 60th Anniversary celebration, but I still feel that somehow I was cheated in this deal.

Not that this is a poorly written book. In fact, I commend Ms. Rolls’ writing for drawing me in and keeping me reading even as part of me cringed and another part of me wanted to fling the book against the wall (which I didn’t do, seeing as I was reading this on my phone, and it was definitely not free). The prose flowed nicely and was unobtrusive — by which I mean that I didn’t see any glaring errors or awkward phrases that jolted me out of the story. The only time the prose got purple was during coitus, which is pretty well par for the course. Although the reoccurring comparison of her hair to “cool fire” or “cool silken fire” was a little paradoxical.

When Verity Scott was fifteen, her father killed himself. He is not allowed a proper burial due to the nature of his death and conventions of the time, so Verity tries her best to do what she can for him. A kind stranger named Max, who served under her father’s command, swoops in to help her honor her father and wins a place in her heart. For the next five years she is treated like dirt by her aunt, uncle, and female cousin and accosted by her cousin Godfrey Farringdon. She is forced to pretend her name is “Selina.” Mysterious and aloof Lord Blakehurst shows up to visit and protects “Selina” from Godfrey. She recognizes Lord Blakehurst as Max, and when he offers “Selina” a chance to be his mistress, she accepts.

Max came to the Farringdon’s to check up on Verity Scott, who he considers his responsibility (although he didn’t bother checking up on her for five years, which seems contradictory, but I digress). To his dismay, the Farringdons tell him that Verity is dead. Seeing a chance to make up for his failure to protect Verity, he offers “Selina” a chance to become his mistress (not at all because she makes him hornypants, no no). Then, of course, he finds out she’s really Verity, and has to marry her.

My problems with this book stem mainly from the number of tropes present. Not only do we have a heroine with Cinderella Syndrome, but she also has a Molesting Cousin (who Harms Animals!). The whole initial premise of the plot is a Big Misunderstanding, and just when you think they’ll start being smart and talking, another Big Misunderstanding rears its ugly head. A couple times the characters seemed to be forced to act a certain way just to fit in another BM. Almeria (Max’s aunt) seems to show up just in time to say something to set off another BM, and then disappears again. Verity is a martyr to end all martyrs and at times TSTL, not to mention a virgin. There’s Punishing Kisses. And for crying out loud, there’s even a Secret Baby tossed in for good measure.

All of that would have been tolerable — almost enjoyable, even, in a campy sort of way — if it weren’t for Max. Max is not an Alpha hero, he is an asshat. He calls Verity a bitch and a whore, insults her repeatedly, sees that he’s hurting her emotionally, and doesn’t stop. That right there is emotional abuse, folks, and it ruined the happy ending for me. I couldn’t help but feel that the abuse cycle would repeat itself sometime after the book ends. Plus, there was not nearly enough grovelling on Max’s part to even close to make up for what he said (bitch and whore? That’s damn near unforgivable when you consider the circumstances). Also, the age difference is never really addressed but it is hinted at that Max is older than 27. Verity is 20. That’s a heck of a gap and would probably have been an issue.

If I had borrowed this book from the library, sure I would be miffed that it was a waste of my time to read and yes I would be upset by the content. But what really bugs me is that this is part of the free eBook giveaway you are running for your 60th anniversary. I am a relatively new inductee into the romantic fold (yuck yuck) and I have to say that I’m lucky I read Bet Me and The Bride Thief before I read this. If this had been the first romance I read, I might never pick one up again. It not only propagates but encourages the negative stereotypes of the genres. A free eBook promotion is a great way to get new readers hooked on the genre and to attract readers who would never have thought to pick up a romance novel before. It seems like it would make more sense to offer some of your best and most stereotype-breaking books if you want to use the full potential of the promotion. But instead you offer us this trope tripe and readers get exactly what they expect — and not in a good way.

Well, Harlequin, I’ll give you one more chance, since even though this book had many (many) issues, it was very well-written. I’ve downloaded Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch and hopefully it will surpass this offering in enjoyability. Overall Grade: D+

Sincerely,

Dee

A Side Note

I can not help but wonder whether the situation I am in, in regards to my writing, is one which other aspiring authors have encountered. I have a complex, lush, and fully-fleshed-out world, teeming with unique, yet familiar creatures; I have villains with realistic, understandable rationalizations for their actions, and complex backstories that make you both pity and loathe them, and personalities to match; ditto for my ancillary characters. But my main characters? Can you say Vanilla Pudding?

The problem I seem to be having is that, unlike my villains and ancillary characters, my main character doesn’t have a terribly convoluted or tragic background. In fact, she’s just a pretty average country girl who’s going to University in the city. She is utterly devoid of personality. I keep trying to inject her with personality — like a quick temper, innate distrust of others, or naivety — but the Mary Sue Alarm in my head keeps going off when I do. Granted, I’ve been compensating for the Sueishness of these characteristics by having them actually cause her problems in the story, but it still doesn’t feel right.

Does anyone have any advice? Or perhaps an existential treatise on the very nature of personality? Either way, I’d love to hear it.

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 10:44 pm  Comments (3)  

Judging a Book by its Cover

The question has been bouncing around on blogs I read — most notably Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books — as to why so many people, without ever having picked up a romance novel, instantly declare the whole genre as trashy, pornographic bodice-rippers.

Having long done exactly that, and being a recent convert to romance-reader, I believe I can answer that.

It’s the covers, both front and back.

Take this as an example:

The title itself is a little off-putting: Forced Wife, Royal Love-Child. And get a load of the back copy:

Sienna Wainwright has one passionate night with international financier Rafe Lombardi before he unceremoniously casts her out of his bed. Sienna hopes never to see his seductively arrogant face again, but six weeks later their world changes—forever….

Rafe is no longer just a billionaire, but is revealed as the prince of Montvelatte. What’s more, Sienna is pregnant—with his twins! What choice does she have now? Rafe is determined to claim his heirs and take Sienna as his royal wife!

In two short paragraphs, several tropes are blatantly played, and the story sounds like the stereotypical one that most non-romance-readers expect in a romance novel. But this could very well be an excellently written novel with rich, engaging characters and surprising twists that take the traditional tropes and bend them in new ways. It must be doing something right — it is the number 2 best seller on eHarlequin.com.

Unfortunately, being a relatively new initiate into the world of Romance, I don’t have many examples to cite as to a great book wrapped in a terrible clinch cover with violent violet prose on the back. But, being new to the genre, I do know how hard it is to find that true gem amongst the gaudy baubles that line the shelves of the Romance section. When every back cover reads just about the same — vary only whether there’s a Secret Baby, a Marriage of Convenience, SexyVamps, or the time period — and the front covers either feature scary men in chest-baring poses clutching bored women or porn stars dressed up Regency style, it’s not hard to see where romances get their reputation. And when the books themselves are only available for a short period of time — a month or two, depending on the company and the author’s reputation — it makes it that much harder. Heck, I’m still trying to find a copy of Mr. Impossible, which is far more difficult than it should be.

Another way to think about this is to take a classic, one that is almost universally acknowledged as being well-written and enjoyable, and slap one of those terrible clinch covers on it, one of Fabio, dressed as a Regency gent, clinging to a narcoleptic Lady who is draped on his side, standing in a field of heather somewhere. Then imagine flipping it over to be assaulted by this for a back-cover summary:

HE was the ultimate gentleman, but he was as cold as ice.
SHE was a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to stoop for any man.
They were attracted by a force stronger than nature…but when scandal strikes, can the budding feelings they have for each other be saved, or will they remain forever slaves to HER Pride and HIS Prejudice?

Would you really buy that book if you saw it on the bookstore shelf? Or would you say “meh” and put it right back down? (Note: Hopefully you can tell that I’m referring to Pride and Prejudice, and if you can come up with a more groan-worthy or accurate back cover copy, please let me know and I’ll feature it here)

I don’t speak for all the people who either used to hate romance without having read it or still do. However, I think that this is a pretty reasonable explanation for the logic behind it.

Hopefully publishers will get the message — which they have, to an extent, especially with Paranormals — but I somehow doubt it. Their books sell no matter what they package them in, so there’s little motivation for change. So I’ll stick to reading Romances that have been recommended to me, and taking my chances with the rest, until the covers catch up with the content.

Side note: It’s not just Romance that suffers from this. Sci Fi and Fantasy have been suffering quite the cover conundrum lately too. In fact, I’ve avoided new Sci Fi and Fantasy for quite a while because they all have the same plot summary with a few subtle changes, and the covers are all either ridiculously boring or really terrible. Anymore, it seems like I don’t read something unless somebody recommends it to me or I recognize the author as someone I like to read.

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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