jmc_bks: (daffs)
After reading A Matter of Class, I moved on to Balogh's Simply Perfect.

Spoilers follow.

I think I have too modern a sensibility to appreciate the big horror of this book -- the hero has an illegitimate child whom he loves, and he is contemplating sending her off to school so he can get married to fulfill his family's obligations (heir to a dukedom). And when he reveals his illegitimate child, everyone is horrified and embarrassed, and they all expect him to abandon her.  Well, except for financial support, which would be the only suitable connection between them.  I couldn't really understand why everyone took such offense at him actually caring about his child, regardless of the circumstances of her birth.
The heroine was sort of interesting, in that she consciously chose her independence via running a school, even when there were easier, more socially acceptable ways of surviving (marriage).
Some dialog early on made me roll my eyes.  They talk about handicapped children and whether they are educable.  Although the word "handicap" existed at that time, it didn't come to mean disabled until World War I or later, not post Regency.  
Moving on, I switched genres entirely to mystery:  Mahu Surfer by Neil Plakcy.  Am liking it a lot.  Read a later book in the series, circling back now.  
jmc_bks: (flaming june)
Reginald Mason is a wealthy, refined, and, by all accounts, a gentleman. However, he is not a gentleman by birth, a factor that pains him and his father, Bernard Mason, within the Regency society that upholds station over all else. That is, until an opportunity for social advancement arises, namely Lady Annabelle Ashton. Daughter of the Earl of Havercroft, a neighbor and enemy of the Mason family, Annabelle finds herself disgraced by a scandal. Besmirched by shame, the early is only to happy to marry Annabelle off to anyone willing to have her.

Though Bernard wishes to use Annabelle to propel his family up the social lade, his son does not wish to marry her, preferring instead to live the wild, single life he is accustomed to. With this, Bernard serves his son an ultimatum: marry Annabelle, or make do without family funds. Having no choice, Reginald consents and enters into a hostile engagement in which the prospective bride and groom are openly antagonistic, each one resent the other for their current state of affairs.

So begins an intoxicating tale rife with dark secrets, deception, and the trials of love -- a story in which very little is at it seems.

I can remember a time when Mary Balogh’s European historical were auto buys for me. It was a narrow window, just after I’d discovered her backlog of traditional Regencies, as she was making the jump to hard cover series and single titles.

I stopped buying her books because she didn’t make my short list of hard cover auto buys, and then gradually stopped borrowing her books from the library or buying them in mass market release, too, although I couldn’t give a specific reason. Lack of distinctiveness in a glutted genre market, maybe, or just that I had other things to read that caught my attention first.

How have the more recent releases been received by readers? Now that I’ve read A Matter of Class, I’m going to have to look.

The cover art is nice, although I'm not clear which scene it might be representing.  More interesting to me is the use of cover quotes from Debbie Macomber and Christine Feehan.  Macomber used to write good categories but now her work seems to be more cozy and inspirational (I'm guessing, I haven't read anything of hers in at least 5 years).  Feehan is a big paranormal author who writes edgier, sexier stuff than either Macomber or Balogh (I'm guessing based on reviews, haven't read her).  So what market was Balogh's publisher trying to tap into by having cover quotes from both?  Is there a big overlap between the two readerships, or was the intent to appeal to both?  

As a romance novel, well, it wasn’t bad or poorly written. The characters were fairly flat, but I attribute that to the very short nature of the book – very little page space for anything other than clichés. The plot was extremely predictable. The backblurb hints at dark secrets and deception. Not sure what the dark secrets were, but I guessed the deception by the opening paragraph of the second chapter.

As an object, the mmp price ($6.99) was too high: length-wise, it was shorter than many category romance novels that sell for $4.50 to $5.50. The book is quite slender but is padded by 10 page author Q&A and then 5 pages of discussion questions. (Really? What market was the publisher going for? That seems very unusual for genre romance.) And it was originally released as a hard cover. Personally, I would have been very unhappy to pay $15.95 for that.

Meh. C for me.
jmc_bks: (flaming june)
Wendy the SuperLibrarian is hosting the TBR Challenge for 2011.  I slacked off last year and read very few books from the TBR, so I didn't feel like I should sign up to participate officially.  Serendipitously, I was reading a book pulled from the TBR on January's TBR day, even though it wasn't the correct subgenre.

Title:  Lord Carew's Bride
Author:  Mary Balogh
Publisher:  Signet
Subgenre:  Traditional Regency
Publication date:  June, 1995

Her Heart's Dilemma

Samantha Newman's heart skipped a beat when she found herself dancing with the irresistibly handsome and notorious Earl of Rushford. This ruthless libertine, who had betrayed Samantha six years ago, was waltzing back into her life. She had vowed never again to become his plaything, yet she could not deny the strong attraction that drew her to him.

Faced with a marriage proposal and feelings that have been stirred by Rushford's charming cousin, the Marquess of Carew, Samantha must decide if she can ignore the embers of an old passion--and ignite the flames of a new one....

I can remember loving Mary Balogh's European historicals back around 2000-2002. Since then? Eh, not so much. The Bedwyn series killed my interest: they were all pretty interchangeable, and were part of her move to hardcover. Was disinclined to pay hardcover prices for material that didn't feel original. But I have some of her older trad Regencies in the TBR mountain.

My synopis of the plot:
While staying with her happily-married cousin (see Balogh's Dark Angel), Samantha meets gentleman who works as a landscaper on the Marquess of Carew's estate. He's lame, but lovely company. Except he's actually the Marquess, he just introduced himself as plain Mr. Harley Wade. But she doesn't know that and just enjoys his company until it's time to go back to Town for the season. While there, she becomes entangled with Rushford, a nasty bit of work who nearly ruined her cousin (again, see Dark Angel) and Samantha herself. Slimy, smarmy, smirky, he's still nearly irresistible to Samantha, who is dumber than a stump. Up pops Mr. Wade to her rescue: he proposes and she accepts, thinking it will be a friendly marriage but not a love-marriage. But then she learns he's the marquess. And later that Rushford is now her cousin by marriage. Sturm und drang follows. But eventually they get a happy ending.

What did I think? Well, I might've enjoyed this if I'd read it when it was first released. Now, though, I think Samantha is a self-centered, ignorant twit, and Wade deserves better. The plot was slow. Extremely slow. I spent most of the book waiting for something - anything! - to happen. Maybe if you're looking for a quiet, slow read, with very little action and mostly introspection, this would be a good read for you? But I was bored.
jmc_bks: (title2)
For SBD, I'm sharing a vacation read.

Title: I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend

Author: Cora Harrison

© 2010 MacMillan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a journal must write all her secrets in it.

Meet Jenny Cooper: shy, pretty cousin of clever, sparky Jane Austen (who has lots of handsome brothers and a vivid imagination).

These are Jenny’s secrets:

• She has never gone to a ball.
• She hates her school.
• She longs to wear a new gown and flirt with a handsome naval officer.
• She wishes real life could be more like a novel.

A delicious dance between truth and fiction this is a thrilling story of a moonlight flit, a dashing young man, and two girls in search of a hero.

Why this book? Because I was wandering around the bookstore at Dublin Airport, searching for something to read, and the cover caught my eye. As a general rule, I’m not a particular fan of Jane Austen fan fiction, but I was in a rush and needed something new to read.

What did I think? Well, it’s YA fiction, which I often enjoy, but it felt very…juvenile.

The book is loosely based on reality, in that Jane Austen did have a cousin named Jane Cooper who lived with the Austen family at Steventon for a time. Jane becomes Jenny, for ease of reference in the book. Otherwise, it is basically a mishmash of characters and plot lines from Austen’s books.  Jenny and Jane spend a lot of time doing teenaged girly things, talking about boys and family and what they want from their futures.  Jane's not the most likable person, really, and Jenny is a bit of a twit, although they are both products of their time and social position.

I don't know, it wasn't terrible, as JA fan fiction goes.  Neither does it stand out as being particularly well-written or original.

Keep or pass on? Passing on.

Read this author again? I wouldn’t go out of my way to read her other books, assuming that she’s written any.
jmc_bks: (star fort kinsale)
It’s time for SBD again…and I have something to talk about! It feels like ages since that’s happened!

Okay, first, I must say that the reading slump is on-going.  Very little appeals.  I've finished two books -- two! -- in the last two weeks.  That's terrible!  Normally, it's two or three a week.  I shouldn't complain, I guess, since reading fewer books means buying fewer books, which is always better for my budget.  More for the vacation fund.

Finally finished the fourth mystery in the Adelia Aguilar series by Ariana Franklin, A Murderous Procession.

In 1176, King Henry II sends his ten-year-old daughter, Joanna, to Palermo to marry William II of Sicily. War on the Continent and outbreaks of plague make it an especially dangerous journey, so the king selects as his daughter’s companion the woman he trust most: Adelia Aguilar, his mistress of the art of death. As a medical doctor and native of Sicily, it will be Adelia’s job to travel with the princess and safeguard her health until the wedding.

Adelia wants to refuse – accompanying the royal procession means leaving behind her nine-year old daughter. Unfortunately, Henry has arranged for the girl to live at court, both as a royal ward and as a hostage to ensure that Adelia will return to the king’s service. So Adelia sets off for a yearlong royal procession. Accompanying her on the journey are her Arab companion, Mansur, her lover, Rowley, and an unusual newcomer: the Irish sea captain O’Donnell, who may prove more useful to Adelia than Rowley would like.

But another man has joined the procession – a murderer bent on the worst kind of revenge. When people in the princess’s household begin to die, Adelia and Rowley suspect that the killer is hiding in plain sight. Is his intended victim the princess . . . or Adelia herself?

I pre-ordered this book and it arrived on the release date. Sadly, it has taken me more than a month to read it. It’s not badly written or completely out of the normal style or voice established in the first three Adelia Aguilar books. It just…didn’t compel me to turn the pages consistently. It felt kind of episodic, starting and stopping in dribs and drabs, with the things happening in Aveyron not really mattering much to things that happened in Caen. Yes, yes, politically connected, but just not well-strung together. And, to be honest, a lot of the plot felt repetitive. Adelia and Rowley disagree because he withholds information and/or puts kingly duty above their relationship. She gives him the cold shoulder, but then regrets it when she learns the whys and wherefores. Separation followed by rescue at the last minute.  Where have we read that before?  Oh, right, in the earlier books of the series.

I think also, Adelia’s devotion to pure truth coupled with her brush-off of reality is beginning to frustrate me. Her precarious situation has been made clear in books past, between accusations of witch craft, her social situation being outside the nobility and the peasantry, and the physical threats and injuries she’s suffered. Her obstinate refusal to consider her own personal safety begins to feel a little blinkered and martyrish, verging on TSTL.

As usual, the blurb both reveals and misleads. Adelia’s daughter is not nine years old: the first book was set in 1171 and she wasn’t even conceived yet – how could she possibly be nine in 1176?  Also, the blurb implies that Adelia and Rowley work together to solve this mystery, which is not really the case. They spend the majority of the book separated, and while he suspects something, Adelia has her head buried in the sand about the possibility of someone seeking revenge against her.

The POV of the Big It felt like too much.  Knowing after the last book that he was still around was creepy, but the POV crossed out of creepy and into deranged to the point that I found it hard to believe no one noticed his psychosis.  There may not have been psychiatrists in the 12th century, but certainly there was crazy back then, and  people would notice, no?

This sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t – I finished it, after all, and I don’t begrudge paying the hardback price for it. The book is different from a lot of the current mystery offerings, a medieval forensic mystery, set in a locale that I find fascinating. I suppose it just feels not different enough from the first three books of the series.

One other reason I enjoy this series is the periodic cameo by Henry II. His unfortunate relationship with the Catholic Church and the murder of Thomas Becket aside, he was an amazing character, the father of English Common Law.  I may need to go watch The Lion in Winter, or maybe dig out some of Jean Plaidy's Plantagenet books.
jmc_bks: (title2)
And it must be time for SBD.

My topic today is:  Duchess in Love by Eloisa James.

This book was published back in 2002, but I haven't read anything from James since her first few books, the "Pleasures" series.  They came out in hard back and got all kinds of attention.  Romance!  Written by an academic!  OMG!  Validation for genre fiction!  Eh, whatever.  They were okay but not great, and I've felt no urge to read her since then.  Why this one?  Well, she was a speaker at RWA last year, and I really enjoyed her speech, so I thought I'd give her another try.  


A duke in retreat
Gina was forced into marriage with the Duke of Girton at an age when she'd have been better off in a schoolroom than a ballroom.  Directly after the ceremony her handsome spouse promptly fled to the continent, leaving the marriage unconsummated and Gina
quite indignant.

A lady in the middle
Now, she is one of the most well-known ladies in on the edge of scandal -- desired by many men, but resisting giving herself to any one.

A duchess in love
Finally, Camden, the Duke of Girton, has returned home, to discover that his naive bride has blossomed into the toast of the
ton.  Which leaves Cam in the most uncomfortable position of discovering that he has the bad manners to be falling in love -- with his own wife!

As usual, the blurb is pretty inaccurate.  And also, not very well written.

Gina and Camden were married as children (12 and 18, respectively) (for a trumped up reason that makes little or no sense when it is revealed) by his father, who appears to have been a right bastard.  Camden ran away and stayed away, even after his father died, leaving the estate to be managed by his estate agent.  Except there's a lot of stuff that the landlord needs to do that an agent can't, and so Gina's been doing all that stuff.  But she's now met someone she wants to marry, so she wants an annulment.  Camden comes home to give it to her, after spending twelve years living abroad, doing as he pleases.  He is purported to be a talented sculptor, known among the ton for his goddess sculptures based on his various lovers and mistresses.  He's planning on annulling his marriage, then returning to Greece and his sculpting.

Frankly, Camden as hero was a huge loser in my mind.  He ran away as a teenager, okay, fine.  But he behaved like Peter Pan for most of the book.  I can't put my finger on exactly why, but his sculpting comes across (to me) as dilettante-ish, rather than as a vocation.  He wants what he wants, and no one has ever made him grow up or think outside of himself.  The idea that the estate agent couldn't decide everything or take care of everything, or do the things traditionally done by a landlord in terms of the personal relationship with the tenants, seemed utterly alien to him, which seemed odd given his likely education and training as a young man.  (Weren't ducal heirs supposed to be brought up learning that kind of thing?)  

Plot-wise, the book felt too busy and a bit frenzied.  Readers are treated to not one but two subplots, both involving friends of Gina's who are estranged from their husbands for various reasons.  And there's series bait all over the place.

Also, when Rounton the solicitor returned to his offices in the Inns of Court, I wondered two things:  first, would he call them offices rather than chambers?  (Was "offices" even used in that sense at the time? Must look up the etymology.)  And second, which of the Inns of Court?

The cover art is pretty, if generic.

The plot was well-paced and did not lag in any spots.  The prose...well, it didn't stand out as being wonderful or terrible.

All in all, this was not a bad book, it just wasn't a great book.  Which makes me wonder where it falls on the continuum of James' work.  This alone wouldn't send me on a search for the rest of the backlist, which appears to include several books related to this one and a preponderance of duchesses.

C+ for me.
jmc_bks: (flaming june)
Seducing Stephen is, I believe, the first published collaborative work by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon.  And I was fortunate enough to receive an e-ARC, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

What does a jaded earl see in a studious young man? Everything he never knew he was missing.

The dark, alluring Peter, Lord Northrup, is Stephen’s every nighttime fantasy made flesh and he’s in Stephen’s bed, ready for passion. When Peter discovers the bedroom mix-up, he’s ready to leave until Stephen begs him to teach him all the things he’s only imagined.

The two men, visitors at a country house, begin a delirious, passionate affair with Northrup as teacher and Stephen his eager student. Peter knows their liaison is about hot sessions of sexual exploration, not love--and backs away when he sees shy Stephen’s heart is involved. Passion and commitment can’t coexist for men like them.

But Peter is haunted by memories of the summer fling and the quiet young man he spurned. But he may have taught him Stephen too well the lessons of a cynical roué.

Let me begin with a caveat:  In my reading of m/m romance, the majority of my reading has been of contemporaries, with the occasional paranormal thrown in.  I've read a few historicals, usually because they were highly recommended by reviewers I trust (False Colors by Alex Beecroft and the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries by Charlie Cochrane) or because an auto-buy author was trying something different (An Improper Holiday by K.A. Mitchell).  As a general rule, gay historical romance is a hard sell for me, because while an HEA may be possible, it seems inherently more difficult in an era when lovers could be executed for engaging in homosexual behavior. 

Having shared that...I was impressed by Seducing Stephen.  It's being added to my short list of favorite m/m historicals.

The book is set in Victorian England, which is such a promising time period.  Huge changes were taking place socially, politically, technologically, and those changes serve as part of the background of the book. The authors did an excellent job creating characters who felt accurate (as far as I could tell) for their era -- they weren't 21st century men plopped down in the 19th century, but were products of their time and social classes.  They cared about what their contemporaries and peers thought of them; their reputations were important; their obligations to their families and others had to be considered when making significant decisions.  Peter was very much the jaded lord; he wasn't jaded so much by experience (though he had that) but by the emptiness of his life.  Enter Stephen, a young man of the expanding middle class who was just figuring out his own sexuality and his own place in the world.  Their first meeting and entanglement left them both a bit worse for wear: Peter because he was surprised by how he still thought of Stephen after leaving him behind, and Stephen because he was abandoned by his first lover and love.  

The conflict within this novel was not just "does he love me" but "how can we (can we?) be together while meeting our obligations?"  The two struggled with their own obligations (family, financial, social) to others, and their situation at the end of the novel (together, trying to balance the different burdens) was clearly going to be a work in progress going forward.  That ending, while perhaps not the HEA that many romance readers would like to see with an epilogue and 2.3 children, was utterly satisfactory to me:  the lovers were together and they were committed to each other and their future.

ETA:  Forgot to mention -- look at that gorgeous cover art!  Dee/Devon lucked out with the beautiful job by Anne Cain.

ETA #2:  To be perfectly honest, as much as I enjoyed this book (it was a B/B+ read for me), the next book to be released by Dee & Devon, Wounded Heart, a Regency, utterly wowed me and is absolutely a keeper.  It is much more a fantasy-type romance, requiring a bit more suspension of disbelief, while Seducing Stephen felt more grounded in reality.  I'm not entirely sure why, although it may be a function of POV and narration.  My point being, I look forwarded to reading more (much more!) from these two authors.

Earlier this week, I mentioned that I would like to share this book with other readers, readers who perhaps are new to m/m romance or who are regular readers but haven't tried either of these authors yet.  Summer Devon graciously offered to provide a copy of the e-book for a giveaway.

If you are interested in checking out this new collaborative duo, please leave a comment.  If you feel like sharing, tell whether you've read any m/m romance before or if this will be your toe dipped into the waters, so to speak.  Or just comment saying you'd like to be included in the "drawing".  The winner will be selected randomly on Monday, February 15th. Wednesday, Feb 17th.
jmc_bks: (Book on table)
Laura Kinsale is a legend among romance readers. Even the Smart Bitches gush like fangirls about her work in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that while I have most of her backlist TBR, until last week the only Kinsale book I’d read was Uncertain Magic. And, tbh, I wasn’t all that impressed by it: yes, the writing was pretty – but the characters and plot were kind of ~meh~.

But I’d read awesome things about Ms. Kinsale’s Lessons in French, published this month after a five year hiatus. So I downloaded a copy for Kindle. Overall, I was very pleased by my reading experience with Lessons in French, despite a technical glitch.

Lady Callista Taillefaire is firmly on the shelf, having been jilted by three suitors. Jilted seems like such a kinder word than dumped, doesn’t it? But the end result is the same – she’s unmarried and stuck in her childhood home with the new Earl (a cousin) and his wife, desperate to be away from them. Trevelyan d'Augustin, her sort-of youthful sweetheart returns to Shelford as the Duc de Monceaux. While everyone in the neighborhood believes he’s won back the lands to accompany the title, in reality he is a successful prize fight promoter who is in England under threat of hanging. He’s been pardoned for forging a note, but only inasmuch as he was spared the hangman’s noose and exiled instead. Why is he still in England? Because he’s come to see his mother in her last days. And thus begins the farce.

Things I enjoyed:
  • the smart, quick dialogue between Trev and Callie
  • Trev’s pursuit of Callie, and their adventures as children and adults
  • the beautiful writing – cry havoc and unleash the hens of war!
  • Hubert the bull and his obsession with Bath buns. I sympathize, because Bath buns are tasty! Despite the description given, I pictured Ferdinand whenever I read Hubert’s name in the text. :D

Things I enjoyed a little less:
  • the duchesse’s malaprops – the first couple were cute, but they become progressively less cute and more irritating.
  • the epilogue – without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the thing revealed in the epilogue strained credibility and required more suspension of disbelief than I am capable of.
  • the constraints that both Callie and Trev put upon themselves when it came to their relationship. Oh, no, I can’t tell her the truth because she’ll waste herself on me! Please, respect her ability to make her own choices. Oh, no, I can’t accept him, I’ll accept another suitor I don’t even like because I want to be miserable – if he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve then I don’t want him. If they would just communicate rather than making “the best” decisions for each other, the store would’ve been shorter but the characters less irritating.

I’ve read someone describe this as a quiet romance, which boggles me. Quiet? There is a bar fight. And a near riot at the Hereford fair. And a bull let loose in a kitchen, then smuggled away in plain sight. At one point, Bow Street Runners appear and stake out likely locations to find Trev. How on earth is that a quiet romance?

As a reader, I had a similar feeling about the recent releases by Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Courtney Milan, all books that have received rave reviews. Beautifully written, all of them, which I appreciated as I read the books…but they weren’t keepers for me, or books that I’ll go back and re-read. I’m sure it’s a commentary about my (low) tastes in reading, rather than a reflection of the books. Perhaps also it combines with unrealistic expectations of the book, based on the glowing, squeezing fangirl love found across Romanceland. I’m contrary like that, y’know.

Anyway, Lessons in French is a fun romp  and a bit of a farce.  Charming, very charming.  B read for me.
jmc_bks: (title2)
Beth reminded everyone that Laura Kinsale's Lessons in French has been released to the wild, even though the street date has not yet arrived. Guess it's not a strict lay down date?  I dunno.  I'll pick up a copy.

My SBD: Courtney Milan's Proof of by Seduction

It's her debut release.  I think.  She had a novella in an anthology with Mary Balogh for the holidays.  Which is the debut? Does the novella count or does the full length book count?  I dunno.

Anyway, here's the blurb from the back:

She was his last chance for a future of happiness . . .
A gifted fortune-teller from a humble background, Jenny can make even the most sophisticated skeptic believe her predictions simply by batting her smoky eyelashes. Until she meets her match in Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, a sworn bachelor and scientis.

He just didn't know it yet
Broodingly handsome, Gareth is scandalized to discover his cousin has fallen under the spell of "Madame Esmeralda," and vows to prove Jenny a fraud. But his unexpected attraction to the fiery enchantress deifies logic.  Jenny disrupts every facet of Gareth's calculated plan -- until he can't decide whether to seduce her or ruin her.  Now, as they engage in a passionate battle of wills, two lonely souls must choose between everything they know . . . and the boundless possibilities of love.

First:  smoky eyelashes?  If they are on fire, she should put the fire out?  Who wrote this blurb?  

So, Jenny (as Madame Esmeralda) got to know a depressed maybe bipolar young man and more or less talked him into living.  His cousin, the Marquess of Blakely, is a scientist who is determined to cut Ned's association with the petty con artist.  Except he's attracted to her -- shocking, since he's a sworn bachelor and basically has a stone for a heart.  (Wasn't "sworn bachelor" code for gay in Victorian and Edwardian days?)  Except he decides to have sex with her in addition to driving her out of Ned's life.  Jenny's attracted to the Marquess as well, but is aware that it can't go anywhere.

The heroine was a fraud, or was presented as such.  Eh, I found that characterization to be odd.  Seriously, a psychic?  Maybe it's my modern sensibility (aka profound cynicism), but I find it hard to believe that anyone really took her predictions seriously.  And while con artist heroines or heroes are a hard sell for me, Milan did a good job selling Jenny -- there were relatively few respectable careers for women at the time, and she was making do.

Milan did a really good job building Gareth as frozen, cold and heartless.  Too good, in fact.  He spent too long being an ass to Jenny and to everyone else, incapable of communicating like a normal human being.  His reasons for being so frozen just...didn't work for me.  People get hurt every day without turning into automatons.  And his constant harping on the fact that Jenny was not his equal really bothered me.  It's something I struggle with in historicals generally, the idea that by an accident of birth one human being is deserving of respect while another is not.  And his lack of recognition of her humanity, her right to dignity and respect, his plan to fuck her and then discard her made his holier-than-thou attitude hard to take.  

It probably isn't a huge spoiler to say that the two marry and have an HEA.  But I find the HEA to be not all that convincing.  After telling Jenny that she isn't his equal, he changes his mind -- she's too good for him and he must marry her, despite the fact that he had determined not to marry and have an heir because the burden of the marquessate was too much to impose on anyone he might love.  So they marry because she is his equal and her birth (or lack) doesn't matter.  Except in the epilogue, her origins do matter to the extent that he feels the need to insult a woman of perhaps better birth or background in order to intimidate the ton and leave her history in the murky past.  Whatever.  

I appreciated the writing, which was lovely.  And the pacing, which was even and not at all clunky.  I even enjoyed the elephant.*  I just didn't care about the MCs all that much.  Was much more interested in Ned, whose book is due out later this year.

*As I read the elephant scene, all I could think of was Bujold's Simon Ilyan and his tale of procuring an elephant as a bribe for an ambassador in Memory.
jmc_bks: (title2)
So, for today's SBD, I'm going to talk about four really smart bitches, the (theoretical) main characters of Four Queens.

From the backcover:

The story of the four beautiful daughters of the count of Provence whose brilliant marriages made them the queens of Franch, England, Germany, and Sicily -- and a sumptuous buffet of glamour, intrigue, and feminine power.

There are also a bunch of very nice review quotes from sources ranging from Booklist to The Economist.

The book was lent to me by a colleague who loves historical fiction.  She told me that this nonfiction book read like fiction and she LOVED it, so I must read it.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Provence was a center for arts, full of poets and troubadours.  Raymond Berenger V was married to Beatrice of Savoy, and the two of them managed to keep the finances of the county afloat through what appears to be the medieval equivalent of CDOs and questionable lending/borrowing practices, while fending off the neighbors.  England was suffering an extended low with the disaster of King John's reign and the loss of its continental properties.  France was in a fairly good position, geopolitically speaking.  The Holy Roman Empire was still hanging on, despite the fall of Rome centuries before.  Crusading was big business and the Catholic Church was a megalith that seemed more interested in the worldly than the metaphysical. 

Raymond and Beatrice were politically savvy, and managed to get their eldest daughter married to the king of France.  Marguerite, their oldest daughter, was no heiress, but marriage to her gave the king of France (and his politically astute mother, Blanche, who'd ruled in her own right and not as regent until her son reached his majority) a power base in southwestern France, where Raymond of Toulouse and Simon de Montfort the elder were causing problems.  And then there was the second daughter, Eleanor.  The king of England chose her as a bride in part to secure a foothold in the region and maintain parity with the king of France.  Years later, the third daughter Sanchia was married to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of the king of England.  He was older, worldly, sophisticated, and the wealthiest private individual in Europe (perhaps the world) at the time.  The political upside to their marriage wasn't really clear to me in the book; it wasn't a love match either, since Cornwall seemed to have ignored Sanchia for most of their marriage and was reportedly disappointed by her lack of political acumen and drive.   This left Beatrice, the youngest child, who married a younger brother of the French king, and was more or less screwed by her older sisters and her mother as they jockeyed for power, money and position.  Eleanor and Marguerite were queens outright upon their marriages; Sanchia and Beatrice became queens later in their lives as lands were conquered and titles earned or bought outright; the two older sisters seem to have had signficiantly more input on the policies and governance.

The book read quickly and never bogged down in historical minutia.  (Caveat: due to a teenaged fascination with medieval european history, I was familiar with the general outline of what happened, although not so specifically as it related to the Provencal sisters.)   Although the book is ostensibly about the four sisters, they aren't the major players.  It's more that they are the framework or filter for a piece of european history.  Other historical characters (? are they characters if they were real people?) get considerably more page space, like Simon de Montfort, Beatrice of Savoy and her relations, and Blanche the White Queen. 

The book left me wondering if I've spoiled myself for historical nonfiction by all of the historical fiction I've read.  Because as much as I enjoyed the larger picture that was painted, I found myself wishing for a more intimate portrait of the four queens.  There are sources of information available about them; they were politically important after all.  But there is only so much speculation, psychoanalysis and inference that a historian can draw from letters and chronicles of the time.

This book gets a solid B from me.  Enjoyable, but not a keeper.

jmc_bks: (Default)

Am reading Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. This description of Simon de Montfort strikes me, I think because of the irony, enthusiasm and criticism all rolled up in it:

Simon de Montfort was one of the most renowned figures of his day, and a pivotal actor in the drama that would result in French hegemony in the region. Simon was austere, honest, pious, faithful to his wife, abstemious, uncomplaining, and relentless. His only flaw of character seems to have been the unbridled, exuberant brutality with which he slaughtered those whose religious beliefs did not conform to his own. Here was a man who loved his work.

Er, this text refers to the elder Simon de Montfort, not his son Simon de Montfort who called the first parliament and who was married to Eleanor Marshal nee Plantagenet.  It's also a bit of an understatement, since the other bits of information I've read about Simon Sr. indicate that he was notoriously cruel and brutal.
jmc_bks: (meninas)

This month’s TBR Challenge book is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.

Why this book? Avid Reader reviewed it when it was first released, and it sounded interesting. [I’ve been intrigued by the Plantagenets since first reading Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, grabbing them from my mother’s stack of library books. Henry II in particular, in part because of his queen, but also because of his legal reforms.] Sadly, when I borrowed this book from the library, I wasn’t in a mood for historical, so I returned it (late) unread. But I ended up buying a copy, because I knew I’d get around to it sooner or later.

Cover art? Beautiful, if a little macabre, given the way the woman is leaning on the skull. But it matches the content, since Adelia is the twelfth century equivalent of a forensic pathologist. She’s not quite comfortable with the dead, pretending they are pigs in her mentor’s body farm, but neither is she uncomfortable.

The blurb: In Cambridge, four children have been murdered. Wrongly accused of the crimes, a small community of Jews threatened by Catholic mobs is given sanctuary by Henry II. To assist in proving their innocence, he summons an expert in the science of deduction and the art of death. She is Adelia, a prodigy from the Medical School of Salerno, and an anomaly in a medieval world, who is forced to conceal her identity and her purpose from England’s grave superstitions and condemnation. One man willing to work with her is Sir Rowley Picot. His personal stake in the investigation makes him an invaluable ally – and in Adelia’s eyes, a suspect as well. From navigating Cambridge’s perilous river paths to penetrating the dark shadows of the Church, Adelia’s investigation will not only reveal the secrets of the dead, but in time, the far more dangerous ones buried by the living

What did I think of the book? Loved it. In fact, after reading it, I bought a hard copy of the second book of the series, The Serpent’s Tale, and then downloaded a copy of the third, Grave Goods, since I couldn’t find a hard copy at either of the local bookstores.

What did I like about the book? Well, everything. That’s not helpful, though, is it?

I suppose what I enjoyed most was the voice of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. She is alien to England, a scientist through and through, and her observations of the people and customs of her surroundings are fascinating. More than that, I appreciate how she recognizes her awkward position in English and Norman society, but still manages to maneuver and do the job she’s been sent to do.

It seems clear that Franklin did a monumental amount of historical research based on the descriptions and settings, but none of it is shared via infodumpery; the details seem to appear magically as appropriate.

The secondary characters are as wonderful as Adelia is herself: Mansur, her Moorish companion and guard; Simon the Fixer, who is the “real investigator” while Adelia is merely the examiner of the dead; Gyltha and Ulf, Cambridgeshire natives who are assigned to her as guards of a sort; and Abbot Geoffrey, a father-like figure whom I hope to see again in future books.

Without spoiling anything, I think the personal decision made by Adelia at the end of the book is right for her at that moment. But I’m sure that it is going to cause her no end of heartache in the future.

 Keep or pass on? Well, I loved the book, but planned on passing it on to someone else who’d mentioned interest in the book.   But there was an unfortunate accident involving an unfastened thermos and the book, so that won’t be happening. Just as well. I’ll pass on a new copy and keep the waterstained copy for myself. On to the second book now.

Anything else worth mentioning? Ariana Franklin has also been published under the name Diana Norman.  I read a book under that name,  A Catch of Consequence, but it didn’t grab my attention the way this one did, despite having a smart, strong protagonist. Also, I found the dialect used in ACC to be distracting to the point of irritation, which was not the case here. Some speech patterns were changed from what I would consider standard, but not enough to be bothersome.

The book's webpage is here, including excerpt.
jmc_bks: (title2)
Live Journal is not cooperating with me, so I'm posting my SBD here.

Althought I read it in 2008, Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly is actually my first keeper for 2009.

The title of the book is rather pedestrian. While the hero is a captain and the heroine marries him, there's so much else going on. But I suppose it is a standard Hqn title.

The cover art:

Eh. The hair is wrong for the heroine -- wrong color, wrong length. Nana's hair is brown and red and short, because she sold it to a wig maker; this is significant to the story, and it's unfortunate that the art department didn't pay attention to that. The man in uniform was okay, although the model seemed a little too young for Captain Worthy.

The tag line on the cover, How could he keep her safe?, actually makes sense, because Oliver worried about Nana's vulnerability, financial and social.

Carla Kelly's name is in larger font than the title. Normally, I would take that to mean that the author was fairly well-known and popular, that readers would buy the book because of who wrote it instead of being captured by the title. But perusing Harlequin Historical covers, their fonts seem all over the place, so I'm not sure that is the case here. I would be interested in knowing what kind of sell through Kelly has; her backlist is relatively scarce and expensive, and her readership, though not blockbuster-sized, is loyal.

Here's the back blurb:

The Captain and the Commoner

Ever since her father tried to sell her as a mistress to the highest bidder, Eleanor Massie has chosen to live in poverty. Her world changes overnight when Captain Oliver Worthy shows up at her struggling inn. Despite herself, Nana is drawn to her handsome guest . . .

Oliver planned to stay in Plymouth only long enough to report back to Lord Ratliffe—about Nana. But he soon senses that Lord Ratliffe is up to something, and Oliver will do anything to keep this courageous, beautiful woman safe—even marry her!

First, the blurb contains a serious spoiler.

Second, Oliver Worthy is handsome only in the eyes of Nana. Otherwise, he's thin lipped, prematurely aged by sun, sea, and stress. And I think they are both commoners.

Third, Oliver is in Plymouth drydock while his ship, the Tireless, is being repaired. He stays at Gran Massie's inn because of Lord Ratliff, but has a reason other than Nana to be in town.

Fourth, Oliver did NOT marry Nana in order to keep her safe, as he had already arranged things to keep her safe financially. He married her because he wanted to.

Okay, now that I've gotten those things off my chest, to the important stuff. I must admit to having a soft spot for naval heroes due to Captain Wentworth. Oliver Worthy lives up to that high standard.

There's a line in Bujold's Shards of Honor that I love; suspicious of espionage, one character derides the unlikeliness of a middle aged captain as a romantic hero. Many of Carla Kelly's heroes are the unlikely sort, and Oliver Worthy is one of them. He is only thirty, but that is middle aged for a man of his profession. Oliver is an even more unlikely hero when you consider that he had determined to never marry as a midshipman, not because he had a lady in every port but because of the risk of leaving a widow.

The book opens with Nana trying to scrounge business for her Gran's inn, which is located off the beaten path in Plymouth. Times are hard, and they are on the verge of starvation. Captain Worthy pilots his damaged frigate into Plymouth harbor in order to put her in drydock and have serious repairs done. Upon reporting to the Lords of the Admiralty, he is charged with checking on Nana Massie. The illegitimate child of Lord Ratliff, she rejected his efforts on her behalf and he is worried about her...or so he tells Captain Worthy. So Captain Worthy returns to Plymouth to oversee repairs to his ship, and stays at the Massies' inn, which is rather run down and empty. As Nana and Oliver interact during his stay, they fall in love. Nana, the bastard of a sailor, knows that naval men are not to be trusted; Oliver, an honorable man, knows that there is no future for Nana with him. And sooner rather than later, the Tireless is repaired and Oliver returns to the sea.

There is much more to the plot than that, of course, but I don't want to spoil the story. Suffice it to say that there is adventure, including a spy, a press gang, and a hostage taking in Spain. Everything ends well for Nana and her captain, though. (Ends well to the extent that the reader sees their HEA; what may befall them in the future is left open -- Oliver is a naval captain in the Napoleonic Wars, after all.)

The characters in Marrying the Hero feel very realistic, much more so than the characters often found in traditional regencies or european historicals. The vulnerability of an illegitimate child is seldom touched upon in romance novels; not so here. The same with poverty. The long travel times, so miraculously abbreviated in most novels, are not abrogated here. The very real risks of naval life, along with the horrendous food, lack of clean water, and cleanliness, all part and parcel of the story; more rareties in genre romance.

Kelly has a knack for showing her characters' physical attraction to one another and their sexuality without being graphic or vulgar. Her love scenes are tender, earthy and hot, but also brief and modest.

My only quibble about the book, if any, is the uber evil and cowardice of the Bad Guy. He just seems...too sleazy and oily, in a way that makes me (as a reader) wonder why none of the other characters noticed his sleaze sooner.

Still, the book is a keeper. My first keeper for 2009.

Available as an ebook and in paper format from An excerpt can be accessed here.

Afterthought: Kelly books usually contain easter eggs, glimpses of characters from earlier books. Very small glimpses, such as the hero of One Good Turn buying seeds from the Waterloo Seed Company (owned by the hero and heroine of The Lady's Companion. I didn't catch any in MTC...unless I missed a captain? Kelly has written a couple of other naval heroes (Captain Sir Daniel Spark of Miss Whittier Makes a List and Captain William Summers of Mrs. McVinnie's London Season).
jmc_bks: (meninas)
Check me out, I'm all post-y today.

For Keishon's TBR Challenge:

Red, Red Rose
By Marjorie Farrell, a new-to-me author
© 1999, Topaz

He came out of nowhere to save Elspeth Gordon from a band of Portuguese brigands. Although Lieutenant Valentine Aston thought only to save the lady from an unspeakable fate, the handsome soldier is surprised to find himself not only still alive but a hero to boot. Certainly Elspeth, daughter of one of Wellington’s officers, is intrigued by her brooding rescuer.

Ever conscious of his illegitimate birth, this bastard son of an English earl is convinced that there can never be a relationship between them. Indeed, he is determined not to fall in love with her. But the fortunes of war and a gallant heroine will prove him wrong—if he has the courage to seize love when he finds it.

The title comes, of course, from the Robert Burns poem. The red rose as a symbol of love is used repeated in the story, but not to great effect, I thought.

Summary: Val Aston is orphaned at the tender age of 7 (or 8?) and learns from his brute of an uncle that his mother was not the widow of an Army officer dead in India, but that he is the bastard son of an earl. Why the father didn’t take care of him? Revealed later. Why a bastard? Because the mother felt it was inappropriate to marry her seducer or give her child a name. [Here’s the deal – in contemporary society, I have no problem with children born out of wedlock. In stories set in the early 1800’s, that plot mechanism doesn’t work for me. It smacks of spite and stupid pride and a complete disconnect from the reality of the poverty and social stigma that illegitimate children faced.]

After years of living with his uncle, the legitimate son of the earl (Val's half brother) comes and finds Val, taking him home and trying to integrate him into that milieu with little success.

Fast forward twelve years and we meet Val again, this time as a lieutenant working for Major Grant (an actual intelligencer for Wellesley). He rescues a maiden in some distress – she actively participates in her own rescue – and eventually falls in love with her. There’s an intrigue plot mixed in, and some battles, and a Too Evil Sneering Fop who looks down on Val for his bastard status.

Why did I put this book in the TBR? I can’t remember why I bought this book or why it was in the TBR pile. Maybe it was recommended because there is a small subplot about homosexuality in the military in the 19th century?

What did I think of it? Well, as you may have guess by my parenthetical above, I felt rather impatient with the set up of the plot. Val struck me as a stiff, grudging kind of fellow who was unable to express any kind of emotion well. His younger brother was interesting, but didn’t get a huge amount of page time. I could not reconcile Val’s father’s concept of honor with his behavior, and didn’t believe what the author told me (that he loved Val) when his behavior was to the contrary. The romance was very much an afterthought, as well.

Would I recommend this book? No, not particularly.

Will I read other Farrell books? I don’t think she’s writing any longer, or not under that name. Will I seek her other books out? No.
jmc_bks: (Default)
Release date: July 8, 2008
First hard back of the series
Fifth book of the series (His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory)

Warning: there will be spoilers because I couldn't figure out how to write about this book without them.

It is a grim time for the dragon Temeraire. On the heels of his mission to Africa, seeking the cure for a deadly contagion, he has been removed from military service–and his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to death for treason.

For Britain, conditions are grimmer still: Napoleon’s resurgent forces have breached the Channel and successfully invaded English soil. Napoleon’s prime objective: the occupation of London.

Separated by their own government and threatened at every turn by Napoleon’s forces, Laurence and Temeraire must struggle to find each other amid the turmoil of war and to aid the resistance against the invasion before Napoleon’s foothold on England’s shores can become a stranglehold.

If only they can be reunited, master and dragon might rally Britain’s scattered forces and take the fight to the enemy as never before–for king and country, and for their own liberty. But can the French aggressors be well and truly routed, or will a treacherous alliance deliver Britain into the hands of her would-be conquerors?

More after the cut. )

Just a reminder -- if you want to win a FREE copy of Temeraire, leave a comment in yesterday's post before Friday COB.
jmc_bks: (Default)
The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer

This is a reissue by Sourcebooks, a trade paperback with a gorgeous cover. It is a fictionalized account of Harry Smith, a Brigade-Major in Wellington's Peninsular Army, and his wife, Juana, whom he met after the third siege of Badajoz. The book covers only their courtship and early marriage.

Being Spain obsessed, this seemed like a good book for me. And it was in one sense -- I appreciated the narrative describing the Peninsular campaign. The life of an army on the move was very well drawn. (Or so says a reader who knows little about military history or logistics.) As a Regency romance novel, the book failed. I felt vaguely squicked by the fact that Juana was 14 to Harry's mid to late 20s, and his paternalistic attitude combined with the fact that he called her hija magnified the squickage for me.

On the language front, I was not impressed with Heyer's prose. It wasn't awful, but neither was it particularly artful. And her smattering of Spanish phrases seemed not quite right. Having made it clear that Harry and Juana speak to each other in Spanish (because her English is very poor), why throw in the odd Spanish phrase after several lines of dialogue in English?

I think Heyer is not for me. Her humor and comedies of manners are highly touted as the original traditional regency novels, but I find them to be brittle and not very engaging. Of course, the traditional regency is not a favorite subgenre for me, so maybe this is to be expected.

C+ for me.

For more information about Harry and Juana Smith, check out this page.
jmc_bks: (Imperfect 2 by LJ Ase)
Every time I watch The History Channel, I wind up thinking, "That would be a great setting/character for a romance novel. Or any novel really." The great set up this time? Castner's Cutthroats, a group of Army scouts who were the advance men for the Aleutian battle of World War II. Brought to you (and me) courtesy of Alaska: Dangerous Territory.

You know the sad thing? I had no idea that the Japanese occupied any of the Aleutian islands. Most of my scant knowledge is related to the European and African theaters of battle, and very little to the Pacific front.
jmc_bks: (meninas)
I told myself that I wasn't going to read any more of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation spy series. Not because it was bad, but because it didn't seem original any longer. Yes, my attention span is diminishing.

But a copy of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose was standing on the library's new book shelf, so I checked it out. Overall, the suspense/spy plot seemed sluggish. I liked that the Eloise/academic plot advanced, along with the Eloise/Colin relationship, and found it much more believable than the relationship between Lord Vaughn and Mary. Felt like I was told they were attracted and then in love, rather than being shown. I don't actively doubt their HEA, but I can imagining it turning into the sort of unhappy union that Mary's parents are described as enduring.

Having said that, I loved their declarations to one another. Vaughn's in particular reminded me of Rhett's to Scarlett -- he loves and wants her because of all of her "unladylike" characteristics, not despite them.

"It wasn't your appearance that caught me. It was the way you put me down in the gallery at Sibley Court." Vaughn's lips curved in a reminiscent smile. "And the way you tried to bargain with me after."

"Successfully bargained," Mary corrected.

"That," replied Lord Vaughn, "is exactly what I mean. Has anyone ever told you that you haggle divinely? That the simple beauty of your self-interest is enough to bring a man to his knees?"

Mary couldn't in honesty say that anyone had.

Vaughn's eyes were as hard and bright as silver coins. "Those are the reasons I want you. I want you for your cunning mind and your hard heart, for your indomitable spirit and your scheming soul, for they're more honest by far than any of the so-called virtues."

More meh.

Apr. 7th, 2008 10:50 am
jmc_bks: (daffs)
I read Sherry Thomas's debut, Private Arrangements, over the weekend.  The language  was quite beautiful, I thought, but the book was full of characters and plot that did not engage me.  I kept reading, waiting for something original from either the plot or the characters, something that would wow me the way the book has wowwed so many other readers.  It never arrived.  PA reminded me of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in that way.

A for the writing/style, D for everything else.   What does that average out to?  B-?  C+?

Unrelated:  there's a home game today at 3:30pm.  I'm thinking about going, depending on the weather.  It isn't officially spring for me until I've gone to a baseball game.
jmc_bks: (Chocolate)
I saw sugar free Peeps at the grocery store last weekend. They stopped me cold. How do you make sugar free Peeps? I thought marshmallow was just processed sugar, more or less.

On the other side of the Peeps display nestled a variety of Mary Sue easter treats, including vanilla butter cream eggs and pecan caramel logs. Mmmm. I don't jones for Mary Sue candy during the year, but when it starts appearing at the grocery store, I have a hard time resisting. In fact, I have to just avoid that aisle of the store in order to leave without purchasing vast quantities.

On the reading side of things, I don't have much to say.

  • I started Demon Night but couldn't get into it, kept getting interrupted. I've set it to the side and will pick it up when I'm feeling better about reading.

  • Found a copy of Elizabeth Elliot's The Scoundrel. Everyone seems to love her historicals, but it didn't work for me. Wallbanger because the hero was an @ss, the heroine was a Mary Sue (not the good kind mentioned above, either), the plot was riddled with cliches.

  • Read and liked Drew Zachary's The Painted House, which was sweet, if a little bland in terms of plot/conflict.

  • The Ties That Bind anthology had one story I liked (friends to lovers) but was otherwise forgettable.


jmc_bks: (Default)

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