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  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Review: Not Quite a Lady by Loretta Chase


Browse Inside this book

Get this for your site

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: 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

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)  
Tags: , , ,