Friday, May 31, 2013

What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥

What would have happened if the Romeo + Juliet balcony scene had gone on for several days? What Happens In London gives us a pretty decent clue.

So... I liked this book. Very much. It was sweet and treated its characters with kindness. But I felt like several things were happening that kept me from falling for it.

First, a little background.

He: A baronet who grew up with a drunk father and absent mother. He fought in the war and now that he's home, works in secret as a Russian-English translator for the Home Office.

She: A pretty, coveted lady of the ton. She's quick-witted and doesn't use her beauty as a weapon even though she very easily could.

Conflict: No real reason why the H&h cannot be together - after a rocky beginning, they both like each other and are in generally the same echelon of Society so there's no impropriety to them being together. There's a background situation of covert dealings (baddies, Russians, the French) but nothing that really feels fraught with thrilling danger. Until a random little kidnapping subplot near the end.

There were many things in the book the I liked including the fact that everyone is really nice (even the guy who kind of looks like the "villain" of the piece). But there were some things I found unusual enough to stop me from really throwing myself into it.

1) We learn a lot of the H (his difficult childhood, his motivations, the source of his desire for a peaceful life) and I like that Julia Quinn shows rather than tells us that he has a "hero complex" (as so many romance novel heroes do) by giving evidence of the H's actions throughout the story. That said, we don't learn a whole lot about the h apart from the fact that she's beautiful and nice. I didn't really find any reason to really love the h.

2) The kidnapping plot seemed to come out of nowhere and gets resolved without anyone really putting anything on the line. 

3) The title seems to have little to do with the story. "What happens in London" suggests there is some Vegas-styled burlesquery that happens but that's not at all the case. There wasn't even a shot gun marriage.

4) The female characters in the story seem to get a lot of air time but ultimately don't seem to have a great impact on anything which I thought was a little disappointing.

a) For example, there is the doyenne of the hero's family - his Russian grandmother. She seems like a strong personality who will play a big part in the actual events. Apart from insisting the H learn Russian, she doesn't seem to impact the actual plot in any way. 

b) The hero's mother is a passive, defeated woman who plays no role in his life. At the very least you would expect the hero to go the other way and rebel against a woman like that and be attracted to someone quite the opposite. While the heroine isn't exactly passive, she's not exactly doing much with her life either. She's just sort of a light, amusing and pretty society chit. 

c) The heroine's own mother seems to show up from time to time to make her behave like a lady - but again, no real impact on important events. 

d) And the heroine's friends all seem to do nothing but sit around and gossip. 

By contrast, all the boys in the plot get to be kings, wonderfully funny dramatists and spies for the foreign office. The most awful man in the story is an amusing drunk who throws up a lot. Not someone to aspire to, true, but at least his antics have an effect on the main players (the hero, traumatized by his drunk of a father, never touches alcohol.)

In the end, I wasn't all that perturbed by these issues because What Happens in London made me smile - the banter was quick and the plot was light and it was a nice quick read for a random Tuesday evening.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lady Maggie's Secret Scandal by Grace Burrowes

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

Best quote ever from a romance novel:
"You're from the North, and your family motto is probably something like 'Thank God for friendly sheep'."

Oh no she didn't!

He: Benjamin Hazlit, an investigator who is paid handsomely by his fat cat clients to dig into the private lives of the ton for information. He goes by an assumed name, a simple Mr., but he is actually an Earl who is keeping his title secret.

She: The illegitimate daughter of the powerful Duke of Moreland. The Duke and his wife have officially adopted her but she still feels like an outsider looking in. She is harboring a secret that threatens to unravel and destroy her adoptive family. She engages the services of Mr. Hazlit to forestall the damage if her secret were ever to get out.
What I liked:
1) The words! I liked ALL the words Grace Burrowes used. Proper Regency cant with just the right amount of bone dry wit and sarcasm. 

2) A really heroic hero. He is eternally considerate of the h and he loves her for all the right reasons - at one point he even enumerates the reasons - and they are swoonworthy! "I am enamored of you ... You're gorgeous, passionate, intelligent and independent - also a financial genius." Sigh...

What I had SO many questions about:
1) I didn't really understand why he went by the assumed name Mr. Hazlit. There was some explanation given about how he wanted to separate his name from his sisters' sake because he didn't want them getting known as being a shady investigator's relations. Hmmm. Ok. So what would happen when he switches back to his real name the Earl of Hazelton. Wouldn't that be extremely WEIRD when he has to go about in society after he's just finished investigating all their scandalous secrets? It seemed weird and an unnecessary detail. He could have just been a stealthy Earl who did his sleuthing on the side. Scandalous, sure but he would be doing his sleuthing in secret anyway so it's not like anyone would find out.

2) I wanted to kick the h about a dozen times for her stubbornness in keeping her "scandalous secret". It wasn't even her scandal! 

3) I didn't like how the h felt overly grateful to the Duke and Duchess of Moreland for adopting her. I see how she would feel thankful to the Duchess for being her adoptive mother, but the Duke was the one who stuck it in the wrong place so he was just doing the right thing by adopting her. 

I get that most men of the time would have just paid off the mistress and forgotten about the child they had created, so we know that the Duke is more honorable than most. Good. Fine. But why the over-sized admiration for a man who had not one, but two bastards that he then foisted upon his wife. The h is supposed to be this extremely rational person so it was strange that she would have been so blinded by admiration she ended up keeping this secret so as not to rock the boat for her family.

Anyway, all these issues aside, this was a good story and so, SO well written. I love it when writers treat popular romance novels with the same respect they would show literary fiction doing all this great research and the wonderful use of language. And of course, that line about the sheep was MONEY.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Cowboy Takes a Bride by Lori Wilde

Skeptic scale:♥♥♥

I dunno. I'm so conflicted. The main thing I took away from reading this is that Lori Wilde is a virtuoso. She managed to take about a dozen tired (and tiresome?) cliches and turn them into something pretty good. Ultimately, I didn't love the story. I thought the stereotypes finally won the battle, but that didn't stop me from appreciating how superbly LW wielded her pen against them.

I will outline the Him/Her/Conflict through all the cliched elements in the story so I can explain what I mean a little better. Just a quick point - I am not giving away the spoilers with each of these cliches - there really isn't a twist anywhere - just regular, vanilla, romance-novel stereotypes that LW manages to coat in just enough savvy so I just manage to choke them down. Only just.

Cliche 1: Big City Girl Goes to Small Cowboy Town and Point That Small Town People are All Wonderful Heart-of-the-Land Types and Big City People are Stone Cold Bastards is Brought Home.*

*Except for the one obligatory small town villain who is a total anomaly but who is swiftly brought to justice so the heart-of-the-landers can continue to live their wholesome, perfect lives, unblemished by evil.

Cliche 2: Girl Starts on Path to Self-discovery But First, Needs to Do Some Shopping to "Pretty Woman" Herself Into Her New Part

It's like the path to self discovery simply cannot occur without a new pair of shoes and a kick@ss outfit. Even if you're broke and can't afford it. But what am I saying! YOU wouldn't have to buy those clothes, silly, the GUY would! He would do it because he wants you to be happy and if new shoes make you happy, then you got 'em baby! It is absolutely not a subtle symbol of chauvinism at all! Don't be so sensitive. I mean, you could buy those shoes yourself, obviously. That's what credit is for. You only let him buy them for you because it seemed to be something he wanted to do. 

I am being annoying about this point only because I think we can do better. This scene doesn't have to be there in romance novels anymore (unless this is a historical where it may be appropriate for the time). Authors can show the H's caring, kind nature some other way besides the old, "here's some money - go get yourself something shiny, hon" way.

Cliche 3: Girl Can "Have It All" if Having It All Involves Realizing That She Wants What Her Man Wants (Really, She Really, Really Wants What Her Man Wants).

Signs that indicate that she really Has It All are exhibited in an Epilogue that contains the following. (If all these elements are not present, you are reading a horror/suspense story where someone will die in a terrifying and horrific way. Be warned.)

  • Baby and/or pregnancy: If there's no bouncing little mini-me or at least a pregnancy in progress, then she has failed the Have It All test. 
  • She has a career - kind of: It's not the career she thought she wanted. No, that was misguided and totally not for her. Being in love with her Man showed her that.
  • Small City trumps Big City: C'mon guys, there's a baby involved. No one in the history of time has raised a family in a Big City. It's a proven fact that the water in Big Cities causes birth defects and babies are born with tiny dragon wings and horns. Besides, her Man lives in a Small Town and he turned out great.
  • She and her Man are still as attracted to one another as they were when they first hook up: We know this because they still gaze upon one another with passion and longing (even though they haven't slept for the past 5 nights on account of their Perfect Baby). If there is no explicit reference to how his eyes shine when he looks at her and how she glows with inner happiness, then you are reading a story where someone is about to get murdered.
And the cherry on top of this diabetes-inducing sugar bomb sundae...

Cliche 4: Referencing "Sleepless In Seattle" to Indicate What Perfect Love Looks Like Even Though The Movie Literally Never Showed The Actual Relationship Between Tom and Meg
Sleepless in Seattle - best movie ever because it showed that NY IS a romantic place and not just full of angry cabbies

I can't. I just can't. I LOVE this movie. I don't have the words to describe how much I ADORE this movie. But to reference it in a romance novel for adults is a head-frack of epic proportions. And then to actually have the characters sit down and analyze Tom and Meg, and ACTUALLY ENACT SOMETHING from the's just too much. 

There is a thin red line between cuteness and nauseation and this just breached that barrier like an F16 fighter jet through a wispy lace negligee. 

So you see how I was flummoxed by the book? It contained many of the tropes I find distasteful but LW handled them so sincerely that I had to swallow my scowl and just read on. Did I buy the Happily Ever After? Yeah, sure. Why not? Maybe cliches are cliches because they are true for so many people and I just need to get over it. Alls I know is that Lori Wilde can write a story.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥♥

Read at your own risk!! You WILL be reduced to a whimpering pile of longing - as I was when I first read it. 

ST wasn't writing a book here. She was writing a beautiful poem about a couple of pining, aching hearts kept apart by pride and tragic misunderstanding. Suck it, Romeo and Juliet! Believe me, if I had known that I would never have even begun this book because I usually hate pining, aching hearts - always comes across as cheesy and unbelievable to me. But ST grabbed me by the back of the neck and forced me to LOOK. And once I did, I just couldn't look away because within about 10 pages it was me pining and aching. Oh, shivers.

She: One of the most compelling historical heroines I have ever come across in a romance novel. The book is set in the 1890s -  much after the Regency period and just around the time of "modern" Britain. Women's roles had already begun to change and this heroine was very much part of the new vanguard of modern working women. She is a physician, and she is passionate (to the point of obsessed) about her career. I thought highly of her for her accomplishments even as I felt slightly put off by her reserve and unapproachable demeanor. She wasn't exactly a lovable h, but she was an amazing woman.

He: For the first time, I saw a truly modern man in a historical romance and my heart just became a glob of hot, melty marshmallow goo in my chest. It has barely reconstituted itself after all these days so revisiting this book is putting me in grave danger of losing my sh!t all over again. 

So... modern men. Authors will often write about a hero who is ahead of his times, how he doesn't try to squelch the heroine's spirit, how he respects her brain etc etc even when Society tries to crush her. But sometimes those heroes seem to be guys who are surprised by a woman's accomplishments and then learn to "accept" the lady for her uniqueness in spite of how unusual those accomplishments make her. This guy yearned for this woman because she was amazing - capable, heroic in her own right. He looked up to her. He wanted to be near her and to be with her, and was grateful that she chose him. And all this didn't detract from his alpha-ness. No sir! Alpha plus, my good man!

Conflict: Obviously, as you've seen from my description above, there was a great deal of longing, yearning, aching and so forth. What keeps these two apart is a terrible mistake the hero makes and the pride of the heroine that she doesn't confront him about it at the outset. Instead, she lets the wound fester until they develop a terrible, seemingly insurmountable chasm between them. The story is about how they try to mend that huge divide.

I'm going to write out some of my favorite lines from the book. There will be spoilers, so don't read on if you don't like reading bits from books ahead of time. ST is just such a beautiful writer, I wanted to make notes for myself so I can come back to them and feel all mopey again.

"Then one noticed the bleakness behind her green eyes, as if she were a nun on the verge of losing her faith"

"You were the moon of my existence; your moods dictated the tides of my heart" 
(This is cheesy-squeezy out of context. IN context, you will lose your mind, trust me)

"Curiously enough she had no aspirations at all concerning him. A drunk did not expect the bottle to love him back"

"Her heart slammed like an unsecured shutter in a windstorm"

"...millions of stars shone, a diamond heist gone awry."

"Her blue-black hair spread like the cape of Erebus"

"Even your love had such sharp corners and dark alleys"

"He did not look like an archangel - if archangels looked as he did, there would be no woman of virtue left in Paradise."

Poetry, am I right!? There are too many more. I think I am just going to re-read this and risk the melted marshmallow glob heart failure thing again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Part I: Most Romantic Thing Ever Said By a Boy to a Girl - Colin Firth Edition

I know, I know, enough already with the Colin Firth references. But I was going through my dvd's and came across the Diary of Bridget Jones. Obviously, I had to stop everything to watch it. You know what, my laundry never did end up getting taken out of the dryer and everything ended up looking all wrinkly and limp, but it was time well spent. Because I got to see, for the gazillionth time, my ALL TIME FAVORITE scene from a romantic comedy not featuring Tom Hanks.

Here's how it went down:

Transcribed by the Romantical Skeptic:

Mark Darcy: I don't think you're an idiot at all. (pause) I mean, there are elements of the ridiculous about you...Your mother's pretty interesting...and you really are an appallingly bad public speaker. And you tend to let whatever's in your head come out of your mouth without much consideration of the consequences.

(Continues to look all intense and adorable)

I realize that when I met you at the turkey curry buffet that I was unforgivably rude and wearing a reindeer jumper that my mother had given me the day before. (Awkward, but endearing pause) The thing is, what I'm trying to say, very inarticulately, is that, in fact, perhaps, despite appearances, I like you, very much.

Bridget Jones: (Laughs) Apart from the smoking, and the drinking and the vulgar mother, and the verbal diarrhea-

Mark Darcy: No. I like you very much.Just as you are. 

SIGH. So clear. So straightforward. I heart you Colin Firth. I heart you always.*

*Actually, even though you're not supposed to qualify love, I think even he wouldn't mind if I say that he is a little (only a little) less yummy when he puts on an American accent. It breaks my heart to say it, but there it is. So - I heart you Colin Firth, but only when you have a British accent.

His at Night by Sherry Thomas

Skeptic scale: ♥♥

What the heck happened here!! I just didn't GET THIS STORY. AAAHHHHH. Sherry Thomas, I love you and you're amazing but I have NO IDEA WHAT I JUST READ. 

Both H&h assume a "disguise" to navigate their complicated worlds but those disguises are almost permanent parts of their identities and occupy 95% of the book. In that other 5%, I didn't actually get a good picture of who these people are without those facades. And because I didn't really know them, I had a hard time rooting for them. 

He: A Marquess who plays the part of Society's fool. He acts like a bumbling idiot so that no one suspects that he is secretly solving crimes. I can see why he would play a part for the world, but what I did not like was that he deceives his family too, particularly his brother. All this because the H is harboring a secret (incredibly childish) resentment against his brother for some ancient misunderstanding that could have been clarified with two seconds of proper communication. 

She: A woman trapped by a cruel, sadistic uncle. She smiles to hide her pain. She needs an out and decides to trap the Marquess into marriage so she can escape with her aunt and he will keep them safe.

Conflict: This was not clear. There is the conflict of the H feeling resentful at the brother for keeping a secret from him, and then the H's resentment (lots of resentment, apparently) against the h for trapping him in marriage and being a scheming ho-bag. But then there is this other plot of a crime that has to be solved. It was all very confusing and tangled and I honestly didn't understand it well enough to summarize it coherently here. 

1) Here was my main issue with this story. The H was NOT hot. He was physically attractive, sure. But he spent his entire adult life pretending to have BRAIN DAMAGE. Acting stupid, even if it's pretending, is not a desirable feature in my book. Maybe, instead of pretending to be stupid in order to gain the confidences of people around him in order to solve crime, he could have spent some of those brain cells trying to figure out whether maybe there was a legitimate reason his brother (who by all accounts is a wonderful person) is keeping something from him.

2) ST is a super writer but the plot was just too absurd. There were some really strange and unnecessary plot twists at the end that just added further confusion to the already frantically discombobulated situation.

3) There was a little too much 'fairy-tale villain" in the uncle. He seemed to have no personality other than being this horrible person with severe psychosis. 

4) They are physically attracted to one another but there is really no reason that I can see that they should really like each other. There was no build up, no basic foundation for a friendship or passion or anything. Apart from the fact they both put on a fake face for the world, they don't seem to have anything in common at all. Oh, they both want the treasure, so that's something else they have in common, I guess.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥
Boy Likes Girl and Is Perfectly Clear About It, Saving Girl A Lot of Time and Energy: "It isn't simple for me," he cut in, stabbed again. "This must be Egyptian lust, because it isn't at all what I'm used to. I have...feelings."

He: Rupert Carsington is the rapscallion 4th son of the Earl of Hargate who has been banished to Egypt by his father. He's confident (cocky?), cheerful and too charming for his own good.

She: Daphne Pembroke is a wealthy widow of a much older man. She's a brilliant Egyptologist who studies hieroglyphics and ancient artifacts along with her brother.

Conflict: Daphne's brother is kidnapped by a band of villains and she is determined to find him. She goes to the British consulate in Egypt and requests reinforcements in her quest to find her brother. The consulate gives her Rupert Carsington who, at first blush at least, seems like a boneheaded fool. As they travel through Egypt in their quest to recover her mislaid brother, however, Daphne realizes he's actually much more than a good-natured blockhead. She has to overcome her reservations about Rupert to really risk her heart to another man.

What I loved:
1) What a stupendous hero! Tall, rakishly good looking Rupert Carsington is a good old fashioned British hero - a charming, roguish aristocrat with a penchant for trouble making and a heart of pure gold. He faces danger with dry wit and irrepressible good humor. Unlike other alpha heroes however, he does not suffer dark moods or a tortured past. He's not "broken" in any way and doesn't need any fixing by our heroine.

He actually reminded me of that hilarious hero/anti hero, Harry Flashman from George MacDonald Fraser's The Flashman Papers - a series set in the 1840s about another charming British rogue who always seems to land on his feet in spite of his insistence on charging into any scuffle within 10 miles of him. The difference is that Flashman was not a good person at all (he's a liar, a thief, a slave-trader, a philanderer and more), but our hero has all his charming attributes and none of the bad ones. 

2) Words, words, words. Loretta Chase is simply brilliant. She writes dialogue so you feel like you're actually hearing the screenplay of a movie. The language is perfect and she doesn't slip into American-isms. 

For example. This is one of my all time favorite romantic "reveal" scenes, where the characters share their feelings for one another. Could have easily been Mayor McCheesy, but in LC's hands, it was unbelievably sweet:

He said. "...You didn't need to warn me off. I know we're obliged to observe the proprieties. That's why I wish we were elsewhere."

"It doesn't matter where we are," she said. "This isn't the Arabian Nights. It was exciting, once-twice-to be carried away-"

"Was that all?" he said, and something stabbed inside, making him hot and cold at the same time. "You were carried away?"

"What did you want me to say?" 

He didn't have an answer. "I don't know," he said at last. "But you must say something more than that. You're the genius, not I."

"The matter doesn't require cleverness," she said. "What we experienced was lust, pure and simple - well, not pure-"

"It isn't simple for me," he cut in, stabbed again. "This must be Egyptian lust, because it isn't at all what I'm used to. I have...feelings."

I know, right? If only boys had been that clear with me in my youth. So much time could have been saved.

What was only ok:
1) I actually enjoyed the setting - Egypt in the 1820s. The heroine clearly is passionate about the history and legend of the place, but honestly, I thought it was a little much. Especially all the descriptions of the land as Daphne and Rupert make their way across the desert. But all that description was interspersed with PLENTY of action (the two seem to be set upon by thieves and bandits at every turn), so I can't really complain.

Colin Firth Is the Hottest Thing to Have Fallen Into a Muddy Pond, Ever

I think we can all agree that Colin Firth is the man. Not just for his pretty brown eyes or how tall he is. Or because he looks awesome all rumpled up. Not even because he does charmingly befuddled Brit man-candy like NO ONE else. If you have any doubts about his desirableness, recall that this is the man who made MUDDY PONDS look like hot tubs at the Playboy mansion. Extremely foxy.

To wit:

1. Man Stares Broodingly Into Muddy Pond Before Jumping In and Making Us All Wish We Were Eels So We Could Get All Tangled Up In His Business.

This is the scene that kicked it all off, of course. When Darcy jumps in the pond near his estate in his billowy white shirt and snug breeches. The best thing about this scene arguably has nothing to do with how cute he looked all drippy and disheveled when he runs into Elizabeth Bennett right after, but that it told us a few things about his personality. That in spite of his prideful demeanor, this hero has the capacity to be adventurous and unconventional. Because if the man was hot and sweaty after the long ride to his country estate, he would damn well jump in a pond if he wanted to.

2. Man Jumps Into Freezing Cold Lake After Girl Because He Doesn't Want Her to Think He's a "Total Spaz"
This one is awesome. Maybe even my favorite of all the CF Muddy Pond scenes. All the pages of his manuscript ("rubbish") fly into the lake because Aurelia, his housekeeper, mistakenly lifts the cup holding them all down. She jumps in the lake to save the pages. And he jumps in after her because he doesn't want her to think he's unchivalrous. The first words out of his mouth are "F&%$, its cold." Winner. What does his jumping in tell us about him? That he's a sweetie pie and that he's scared of eels (he freaks out when he thinks he feels an eel). 

3. Man Drags His Arch-rival Into Pond to Fight For Her Honor Even Though He Looks Utterly Ridiculous Doing It
Fighting for a lady's honor? Who DOES that anymore? Seeing as it's not 1540, the lady could probably have figured out how to handle her own honor so the gesture was largely unnecessary .. but the fact that he did it! Sigh. 

Anyway, I hope to see many more instances of CF leaping into small bodies of water. Because Colin + Muddy Ponds = Pond-tastic awesomeness. See. girls? Math is fun.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥

Eva's beautiful and charming sister dies leaving Eva unmoored and looking for a place to call home. She returns to the summer home of her childhood, Trelowarth mansion in Cornwall where she and her sister shared many happy memories. While there Eva starts experiencing some strange "hallucinations" of a time in the 1700s at Trelowarth. It turns out these aren't hallucinations but she's actually traveling back several centuries and meets people who are involved in the Jacobin uprising to return the Catholic King James from his exile in France in order to take over England's Protestant rule of Scotland. These men are also privateers - smugglers of contraband like brandy, tobacco, lace and other goods the British government taxes heavily.

One of the men she meets is the mysterious, handsome Daniel Butler - staunch Jacobite and privateer who captains his own ship The SallyEva passes in and out of the time periods without warning and she can't really control the timing of when she enters and leaves each period.

I don't like supernatural, magical stuff at all. The time-traveling was perhaps a little too much for me but I will say that SK is such a good writer that some of the romance of the story did sneak in and make me happy that the two main characters found each other - even if it was a cross-century romance. Talk about long distance!

The book was well-written and develops a nice, moody atmosphere but I just didn't buy the love story. Why does she love him? He's tall, dark and handsome, sure but what else? The two characters spend very little time getting to know one another and I don't buy that if someone from the future comes to visit, you don't immediately sit them down and make them tell you everything they know. Wouldn't you just be naturally curious? The characters in the 1700s seem to be a uniquely un-curious lot. The H does some gentle questioning (about the invention of matches!? There is a political event going on that could change the course of history and you want to know about matches?) and the h is extremely guarded about sharing her knowledge so as not to spoil things and rend the space-time continuum. 

The point SK wanted to make was that ultimately, even if you know what the future holds, you still need to do what you must in the present. But I guess I fundamentally don't believe that* so the story was a little tough for me to truly fall for. 

* The plot to return King James to the throne of Scotland ultimately failed and a lot of people lost their lives. If you know what will happen in the future, even if you can't change it, wouldn't you do everything in your power to at least minimize the horror for as many people as you could? This is what I find frustrating and confusing about time-traveling stories that tell you the future is "fixed". Seems like a fateful and passive way to think about things. You may as well not exist at all then - because the future will just happen all the same without you in it. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Make Me a Match by Diana Holquist

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥

It was better than the DH's other book about these gypsy sisters (one of which reviewed here). But worse than the feeling you get after running a really good 5 miles. She's a good writer. The fact that she held my attention even with the juvenile mumbo jumbo about One True Love means that DH must be a really talented woman. 

She: Overcommitted, in-control doctor who comes from a spacey family does everything in her power to control the outcomes in her own life - perfect apartment, perfect fiance etc etc. Everything falls apart when her psychic sister tells her who her One True Love is. 

He: Carpenter, widowed father of an 8-year-old girl, is sweet and sad and missing his dead wife. Nice guy. A bit on the beta side but a nice guy all the same.

Besides finding the whole psychic/One True Love crap hugely silly, the main trouble I had with this was that the 8-year-old daughter is simultaneously portrayed as precocious and wise beyond her years and then at times, borderline retarded. She seems to wander around the city of Baltimore (not a very safe city, I'm given to understand from The Wire) totally unsupervised but at the same time believes that she can magic up a mommy (or Santa, incidentally) through the Power of Wishes and Good Thoughts. Now, this is probably a sad commentary of the state of childhood, but there are zero 8-year-olds who believe in Santa anymore. The kid partakes in some sort of elaborate con* with the help of several other adults to get her father to move to Baltimore to find his One True Love. 

Are you still with me? No? It's doesn't really matter.

In the end, the mood set by the psychic stuff is so unbelievable and silly that your grip on reality is relatively looser here than in other books thereby allowing you to swallow some of the other absurdities with less difficulty.

Not a re-read but an ok little time-pass book if you need to change it up.

*Kids perpetrating cons to get their parents to Believe is a standard romantic comedy/romance novel device - remember little Jonah in Sleepless in Seattle? - and is usually quite cute. Most of the time, I enjoy a little quirkiness in romance novels/movies. Here however, I think the sheer number of zany themes were the tipping point that made this particular book unmanageable for me - starting with the psychic stuff and ending with the stuff with the kid and how she becomes pen pals with some lady in Baltimore and then starts calling this stranger "Grandma." In what alternate universe would this fly? 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Good Groom Hunting by Shana Galen

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥
Hmmmm. I wanted to like this more than I did. I loved that pirate one SG wrote and this one had some of the same positives - interesting H & h back stories, adventure story involving pirates and lost treasure - I noticed that it was even edited by one of my FAVORITE editors May Chen (who did some of Julie Anne Long's stuff). But I don't know... it just felt flat. 

She: 18 year old gently bred lady of the bon ton. She may be youthful but she is full of beans. She has half of a treasure map that her piratical grandfather left her and she's determined to find the other half so that she can find her fortune and be a truly independent women entirely free from society's restrictions.

He: Newly returned from India, this Earl was the black sheep of the family who spent his salad days ruining ladies and wagering away the family fortune. His elder brother and the parental favorite passes away leaving him the heir to the Earldom. He must take the saddle to make amends for his dissolute youth. His grandfather, who was also a pirate and a partner to the heroine's buccaneering granddaddy (that's right - there were TWO pirates) left him the other half of a treasure map - he just has to find it where that half is. To restore the coffers, he needs a fortune. Luckily he knows someone with the other half of a pirate map that leads to a chest full of shiny Spanish doubloons...

Conflict: She wants to be wealthy and independent - not just a wife but a career adventuress. He wants to regain the respect of his family and fulfill the role of Earl with dignity. They both need the booty. Ahem. 

Can they work together and trust each other to share the treasure once they find it?

Not a terrible plot, right? You figure you're in for some gadding about with a cutlass and evading  capture by some stealthy villains out to steal your gold. Alas, no. There were maybe 2 chapters of fun and games and the rest of it sort of just dripped along predictably - whispered innuendo at balls and trying to evade irate overprotective mothers. Sigh.

Let's talk it out and maybe I can figure out what was keeping me from truly hearting this book:

1) The age gap between H & h - she's 18 and he's 32. I know this wouldn't have been atypical at the time, but it was disturbing to read. The h was supposed to be this adventurous, risk-taking type - she could have been 23 and been those things. The extreme youth didn't really help the story in any way that I could see so it was just weird and slightly gross.

2) The chemistry was choppy and uneven. There wasn't a proper build up, more just events (fumbles in the dark, really) along the way that contribute to both of them feeling the bubbles. It was really more about finding the treasure. Which is fine, but didn't really create a lot of oopmh in the tension between the H&h. 

3) It sort of dragged at the end. I know the author was trying to tie up all lose ends (treasure, family, H&h etc) but after they Fall In Love and find the treasure, I immediately lost interest and had to skip read the last couple chapters. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Arousing Suspicions by Marianne Stillings

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥
From The Oatmeal
Q: What do you call a psychic midget who has escaped from prison?
A: A small medium at large
Cover of: Arousing Suspicions by Marianne Stillings
This is not only a HILARIOUS  joke, it is also marvelously apropos. Because our protagonist is a psychic. I know. Stay with me, it's not that bad. Mostly because Marianne Stillings is one funny writer. The dialogue is sharp and avoids being sitcom-y, and her characters are sweet and kinda goofy. And don't even get me STARTED on this cover. I was iffy about it at first, but I came around once I stared at the lovely wideness of the gentleman's shoulders for about an hour. I was mesmerized. He could carry the weight of the world on that bronzed back. 

He: Detective who is investigating a murder where the cops have very few clues. 

She: Psychic dream interpreter.  She "witnesses" the murder he is investigating" by channeling the thoughts" of one of her clients and goes to the cops with the information. 

Conflict: He (naturally) doesn't believe she has paranormal powers and thinks she's a crackpot. But there's chemistry between them and when there is a chance she might be the killer's next target, he goes into Alpha Dog Cop Mode and swoops in for the rescue. Since this is not 1820, the h gets to do some ass kicking of her own, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This was a funny and nicely paced story. I don't normally like paranormal stuff in romances because it ends up being really lame in a drippy our-souls-are-entwined kind of way. Makes me want to rip my eyes out and stuff them in my mouth. But here, the whole psychic dream interpreter stuff was presented in a quirky, cute way - like it was a part of the h's personality that the disbelieving H just learns to accept and believe. The mystery was at least 50% believable (no creepy stalker plot - thank Poseidon's scepter). 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Wedding Survivor by Julia London

Skeptic scale: ♥♥
I would say 2.5 hearts to be fair. 

Girl likes boy who kinda likes girl but has commitment issues. But then girl acts cute and talks his ears off and boy figures, what the hell, let's go for it. Basically, the plot of any real life romance enacted in the halls of junior high.

He: A partner in a company that arranges adventure tours for the rich and famous. He's the type of guy who goes kayaking and rock climbing with his buddies on the weekends. 

She: A newbie wedding planner hired by his company to plan the adventure wedding of a famous Hollywood couple. She's the kind of girl who's idea of exercise is going to the mall and buying things with her Little Gold Card. Cute, chatty and kinda annoying.

Conflict: He's a commitment-phobe. That's it. That's the entire conflict - that he won't commit. 

Apart from a vague annoyance at this chick for being such a helpless piece of fluff, I had a few specific issues with the story:

1) She is supposed to be 34 years old and doesn't have a proper job and lives with her parents. Ok, there was a dot com bubble, times were tough for everyone. Her lack of proper career, I can overlook. What is impossible to overlook is how she acts like an air head, yammers on about shopping like a 16 year old who's watched too much Sex in the City and flies off the handle when he doesn't call her the second after they Do It. Really? Did I just time machine myself to high school? I wanted to grab her shoulders and give her a good shake and yell "Be Cool, woman" 

2) I can't believe this supposedly professional company hired such a noob - a woman who has never actually planned a wedding before - to plan one for a high maintenance Hollywood couple? Most of the time she seems rather ineffectual and useless and needs the H to swoop in and do some rescuin'. Un-cute.

3) There was a dog in the story but he was rudely used as a prop to show how sensitive and responsible the H could be. It's not spoilery to say that poochie has to be taken to the vet and the H comes to her aid by taking them. Her thankfulness seems a tad out of proportion - I mean, he just drove her and the dog to the vet -  it's not like he performed mouth-to-mouth on the dog to revive him from almost certain death, right? Also, the other question that arises is why the heck doesn't SHE just drive herself to the vet? 

Anyway. I may be oversensitive to the use of animals and babies as props to show the alpha-dog H's gooey caramel center. I just think that dogs are people too and if you're going to have them be a character, they need to add to the story in an awesome way like the dogs in Kristan Higgins books or the direwolves of the House of Stark.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

The Winter Sea would make a great movie. It will be a crime against women if James McAvoy does NOT play the main dude. Granted he's a bit younger than the guy in the book, but we can suspend disbelief that far, can't we Skeptics?

See the YouTube trailer for the book below.

The Winter Sea is not a romance novel, per se, but it is definitely Romantical! SK's style reminded me of Tracy Chevalier's (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Lady and the Unicorn, Remarkable Creatures) and puts you in a sort of dreamy, trance-like state where you genuinely feel like you have been transported to the misty moors of the Scottish coast.

The story-within-a-story arrangement deals with two time periods, the present day, and the years around 1708 - the time of the Jacobin uprising of the Scots. This was a failed plot by the supporters of the exiled Catholic King James to take back the throne from the Protestant English Queen Anne. 

The historical heroine lives with the Countess of Erroll at Slains Castle, right by a swirling, grey sea, and through her we learn of the men who come and go through the castle, plotting to return the "rightful" king, King James, to Scotland. Scotland is at a crossroads; It is a tense and dangerous time and we see how its fate lies ultimately in the hands of those who love and those who ultimately betray each other and the country.

In the present day, the modern heroine rents a cottage nearby the Castle and falls under its spell. She channels the story of the historical heroine and of a Scotland that stands at the precipice.

In both the present day and historical stories, SK weaves in two rather lovely romantic stories that, at least in the historical story's case, drive the plot forward and infuse the characters with even greater purpose and passion for their mission to bring back the King. The romance set in modern times was just for fun! Although, it probably worked so well because as SK flipped back and forth in the two time periods we can see how elements of historical heroine's life were reflected in the modern one's.

The book was surprisingly "technical" - there was some thoroughly researched historical material about the Jacobin uprising and the major players in that intrigue. SK deals with it all with a light hand so I never felt overwhelmed with information. She uses the raw, Scottish landscape beautifully. Not only the sea, but the castle ruins, her descriptions of the moody weather and terrain were all gorgeous and made me wish for a wee dram of whiskey to complement the mood.

Glad I picked this one up and especially glad I didn't read any Amazon reviews of it because there were tons of spoilers in those! I look forward to watching Jimmy in the movie. And since it's set in Scotland, I shall expect him to be attired in a kilt. 

I have SK's newer one - The Rose Garden, which I shall begin soon. Watch this space...

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Heir by Grace Burrowes

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥

Q: How many dukes were there during the Regency period? 
A: Around 25

Q: How many books are there about a dashingly handsome duke set in the Regency period?
A: 862,657; "The Heir" is one of them.*
*Actually, he's "only" an earl right now, but he's heir to the dukedom, which is almost as good as the real thing.

Q: What gives?
A: We obviously like our men to be on top of the food chain.

I mean, given a choice would you rather get with a magnificent tawny lion, apex predator, Lord of the Jungle, or are you going to waste your time with a fribble of a Western Honey Badger? Both are predators, sure, but we know who's playing in the bush leagues here... 

Bring on the lions!

He: Gayle Windham, Earl of Westhaven, heir to the Duchy of Moreland is trying to evade matrimony - especially because his father has slyly been playing matchmaker behind his back in the hopes of forcing him to produce some grandchildren and secure the Moreland line of succession. He's described as serious, hardworking and kind. 

She: Anna Seaton is the housekeeper of the earl's bachelor townhouse in London. But she's obviously better educated and more refined than your typical housekeeper so you know she's got a back story. She's a babe (obviously), but also competent and sensible.

Conflict: Same one as always - different classes, different social circumstances. Except in this book, strangely, the fact that she was basically a maid in his employ didn't seem to faze the characters - even the earl's father, the duke who you would expect would have some objections there. You'd expect someone to say something about it. But this version of British upper crust society seems to have a rather more open minded picture of what constituted an acceptable consort for an earl. Anyway, the conflict ends up being this terrible secret she's withholding from him and repeatedly refuses to tell him about. 

The goods:
1) The writing really had some killer Regency authenticity! GB didn't break character with Americanisms (as authors, frustratingly, often do - "kid" was not a word used in 1800s. Neither was "I guess so.") I was reminded of that Grande Dame of the period, Georgette Heyer and that was just super.

2) Her characters were likable and "spoke" often enough that we got a sense of their voice and personality.

The mehs:
1) Not much really happened in the story. I guess a lot happened between the H & h, but apart from a few scenes at the end when her secret gets out, there is very little in the way of "action"

2) Speaking about action... I can't believe I'm going to put this in the "mehs" category - the sexy bits were numerous but absurdly clinical. There is a lot of calm, unruffled reference to his "genitals" and him getting himself off and whatnot. It was well-written, but I was just thrown a little by how medical it all sounded. Even with all the padding around those scenes describing how much they longed for each other, I just couldn't escape feeling like I had just been given a tutorial of the proceedings as narrated by some plummy British lady from a BBC nature program.

3) The end sort of dragged on and made me annoyed with the heroine. I didn't exactly agree with her reasons for keeping herself apart from him and it just went on too long.

All in all, a decent read in spite of the story being a little bit blah. The perfect language really did it for me. She obviously did tons of great research on idiomatic expressions and the customs of the times and it played well while reading the story. GB is on my list.