Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Pirate's Jewel

Title: The Pirate's Jewel (2004)
Author: Cheryl Howe (Leisure)
Period: American-Colonial/Revolutionary (1775 South Carolina/Carribbean)
Grade: C-

Cheryl Howe offers a standard Revolutionary pirate/privateer yarn. Sadly, the setting is the most interesting thing about The Pirate's Jewel.

Jewel is a barmaid and illegitimate daughter of a long-lost pirate. She has guarded a treasure map for him since childhood while patiently awaiting his return. When a man appears to claim the treasure map it isn't her father, but his protégé. Nolan claims her father is dead and offers to purchase the treasure map to allow her a life of ease. Jewel leverages Nolan's arrival as an opportunity to escape a life of drudgery and an arranged marriage to a ill-favored widower. She demands to accompany him on the treasure hunt. Nolan, who had organized the mutiny that he believes sentence her father to death, desperately avoids telling Jewel the truth of her father's disappearance.

Their attraction begins almost instantly and the shipboard romance and quickie wedding that follow are pretty standard. Cheery crewmates and predictable adventure abound. The crux of the conflict between Jewel and Nolan is her long-lost father. Jewel has a child's naiveté about her wastrel father that shapes her entire world view. She has imagined him as a plaster saint who is nothing like the real pirate was abandoned and used her at his convenience.

Surprise(not)! The dead father turns out to be not-so-dead. Howe couldn't have telegraphed this plot point anymore if she tried. Jewel is deeply conflicted over who to side with in the resurfaced blood feud between her allegedly beloved husband and her self-serving father who never returned for her. This isn't an easy choice for her. Huh? Not even after her father attempts to drown Nolan in cold blood. Nolan would be a doormat here if he seemed to give a damn about his wife's lack of commitment to their marriage. Loving his wife and hating her father seem to be the only emotions he is allowed.

Howell's writing is fair to good, but her character in A Pirate’s Jewel have the subtly and nuance of shadow puppets. Meh!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Untie My Heart

Title: Untie My Heart (2002)
Author: Judith Ivory (Avon)
Period: European Historical-Victorian (1896 England)
Grade: D+

I'm too busy of late to recap any reading but that which is truly spectacular. Spectacularly good or bad does not matter. And
Untie My Heart is a spectacular clusterfuck.

Judith Ivory is famous for adult romances about complex people. No secret babies or amnesia for her. Yet, sometimes Ivory lives so much in her own head that her writing is hard to connect with, at least for me. This book presumes that her reader is going to enjoy the minutiae of Stuart's family finances over a contested title (which I do not) and Emma's in-depth world of London confidence games (which I do). I've spent years looking for a romance that didn't talk down to me, but I don't want to open an Excel spreadsheet to folllow the financial plot contrivances.

The real meat of the story is the control that dominates the relationship between Emma and Stuart. This isn't just sexual control although Ivory includes that in a way I find disturbing. I've read my share of non-consent bodice rippers. Some I even liked. I'm well versed in the ideology behind BDSM. The pleasure is in willingly surrendering control. Not being tied to a chair, fucked by some dude who threatens to send you to jail, and afterward told that you enjoyed it so he is absolved of any guilt. In fact, he is especially proud of his prowess and flexibility on said chair. Emma spends the bulk of the book resisting Stuart's control in the con game and in their sex life while he suggests she is just an uptight prude who isn't as adventurous and worldly as himself. What the hell? She doesn't want to walk naked in a hotel or be bound during sex. She says she doesn't enjoy it. But that's okay, because even though she says no, she clearly means yes.

If Ivory wanted to write about BDSM sexual relationship I wish she had crafted a heroine who embraced surrender, not one who fought against it. That isn't hot or sexy. That just sucks.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deep As the Rivers

Title: Deep As the Rivers (1997)
Author: Shirl Henke (St. Martin's)
Period: American-Federal/Jacksonian (1811-15 D.C., Missouri, & Louisiana)
Grade: D+

Why the fuck is "As" capitalized and "the" is not in the title. Shouldn't they both be capitalized or neither one? It is really bothering me.

I love epic storytelling and real history in my historical romance. When Shirl Henke is good on that score, she's better than most of the standard romance fare. Here? She isn't very good. Deep As the Rivers is reminiscent of Connie Mason or Rosemary Rogers. Against the War of 1812 backdrop, Olivia and Samuel are constantly being separated and reunited by increasingly more asinine circumstances as if the plot was constructed by romance madlibs. Spunky redhead orphan heroine? Check. Spy hero? Check. Villainous guardian? Check. Evil wife? Check. Mystical survivalist mountain man? Check. Secret baby? Check. The world only needs one Johanna Lindsey, Shirl!

The exploration of Native American tribes roles during the War of 1812 is interesting and accurate, but occasional passages read like they were cribbed from the encyclopedia. I'd hate to she Henke become the next Cassie Edwards. The romance, on the other hand, is trite and barely worth recapping.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Bride Hunt

Title: The Bride Hunt (2004)
Author: Jane Feather (Bantam)
Period: European Historical-Edwardian (1906 England)
Grade: C-

The Bride Hunt is a romance in the vaguest sense. It is the romance of a deep love and affection between three society sisters. The alleged romance between the hero and heroine is considerably less interesting and less believable.

Prudence's story is the middle book in Feather's bride series about three misses of reduced circumstances. I've had it up to my ears with financially irresponsible and neglectful ton parents whose family's are kept afloat by resourceful children. The Duncan sisters publish a suffragette newsletter/scandal sheet and extort "charitable contributions" for matchmaking services because their father refuses to economize. The sisters actively hide the truth of their family finances from their detached father. I don't, as a rule, enjoy plots that operate on the basis that true affection is reflected in how much or how long you are willing to deceive someone you love rather than have an honest conversation.

When the sisters' publication is sued for libel they seek the defense services of divorced barrister/single father Gideon Malvern. He has no interest in defending a woman's magazine against what he feels are valid charges, but feels an attraction to the dowdy and circumspect Prudence. The financially strapped sisters offer to use their matchmaking skills as payment but Gideon is instead hoping to get Pru into bed. They become lovers, they quarrel over his ex-wife, they solve the secret of libel suit, the sisters are acquitted, father learns the truth and we get the HEA. The romance and the sensuality are pretty bland by Feather's standards.

The Bride Hunt spends so much time with the sisters, their relationship, and the libel plot the romance is almost ancillary. Also, I'm not a lawyer. I don't even play one on TV. But a magistrate allows a witness to testify in court veiled and with out revealing her real name? How could they plaintiff’s barrister preformed pre-trail depositions or prepared proper questioning? Shouldn't a romance with a legal setting know a bit about courtroom procedures? Maybe the American legal system has less in common with English common law than my college professors led me to believe.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

To Love a Princess

Title: To Love a Princess
Author: Patricia Grasso
Period: European Historical-Victorian (1820 England)
Grade: D

To Love a Princess is a shitty Beauty and Beast knock-off. Judith Ivory's Beast this ain't. I'm sort of embarrassed that I finished this book. On the other hand, if I hadn't finished it, I'd have missed the sucktatstic conclusion. In keeping with the Disney theme, Grasso clearly did the bulk of her research on Russian nobility by watching the Disney version of Anastasia.

Princess Amber (could be worse, could have been Madison), the illegitimate daughter of the Czar, has fled the home of her evil guardian who plots to sell her into a white-slavery breeding operation. Sure. She travels alone across Europe to England to seek refuge with her cousins. How did she finance this adventure? Why didn't her evil guardian pursue her until after she was safely in England? If you ask any of these questions you are smarter than the characters in this book. Also, when the hero learns of the guardians plot he thinks it is ludicrous because slavery is unheard of in England. Even though slavery doesn't end in England for another decade and half. Grasso must not own an encyclopedia!

Miles, Earl of Stratford, was widowed and disfigured in a deadly house fire. His business partner, Amber's cousin, suggest Miles needs a wife and Amber needs a husband to protect her from the evil guardian. The Earl allows her to be his house guest (unchaperoned!) but does not offer to marry her. This is a-okay with her allegedly overprotective cousins. Miles still grieves for his wife and believes no woman would want a scared husband so he is chock full of Beta hero issues. He comes to care for Amber, but rather than offer her marriage he offers her a degrading proposition. Which she accepts for no damn reason. She is a beautiful princess with connection in both England and Russia. Why can't she enter society and find herself another husband? Why does she put up with his shitty behavior? He spends a lot of time insulting her for daring to intrude on his late wife's memory. Hey it isn’t like he invited her to stay at his home! They eventually marry. I get why Amber feels she needs a husband. I don’t get why she needs this husband.

Amber is also a junior Miss Marple who solves the mystery of the suspicious fire/murder in mere chapter. Thankfully the culprit set the fire with monogrammed lighter. Only your stupider romance villains do that. Amber is your typical romance heroine who is sweeter, smarter, and prettier than any woman the hero is ever known. Miles keeps his love a secret well after she has admitted her love because all good Beta heroes have to brood through at least 3/4ths of the book.

The pinnacle of the To Love a Princess comes when Amber disappears and Miles believes she has chosen to leave him. He ignores all evidence to the contrary and refuses to even search for his missing wife. Her cousin is forced to save the princess while Miles broods and feels guilty. He takes some very drastic steps in her short absence. The repercussions should be important to the plot and healing their relationship in a good romance. To Love a Princess, however, is a bad romance so Amber forgives him almost instantly without any serious discussions. How totally not romantic!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Mistress

Title: The Mistress (2000)
Author: Susan Wiggs (Mira)
Period: American-Victorian (1871-2 Chicago)
Grade: B

I always forget about Susan Wiggs. I feel like her contemporaries are better known, but her historicals are always consistently good. Yet, I never include her in my list of "must-read" authors. Maybe it is that her books are plot/storytelling driven rather than character driven. In a character-based genre like romance that can make it harder to personally connect with books, and by extension, the author.

The Mistress is one book in a trilogy set amid the Great Chicago Fire. Why she chose the title still confuses me. Kathleen O'Leary (the daughter of the famous Mrs. O'Leary) works as lady's maid for an elite Chicago family's daughter. She has accompanied her employer to her finishing school where Kathleen, obsessed with wealth and privilege, has learned to imitate the manners and diction of the students. The fateful night of the fire she, on a bet between two society misses, attend a ball ala Cinderella. Kathleen so convinces everyone of her place in society that she captures the eye of Dylan Kennedy, a much-desired wealthy bachelor. Does this charade make Kathleen The Mistress?

When the fire spreads across the city the young couples flees for their lives. They marry in a spur of the moment ceremony believing they are about to die. When Kathleen confesses she is only a lady's maid Dylan reveals that he is frequently married con man who was attempting to beguile a fortune from a wealthy family when he wed her. His plans thwarted he attempts to abandon her. Repeatedly. Is Kathleen the Mistress because Dylan tries to reject their marriage? Kathleen stubbornly refuses to accept that his feeling for her aren't real. Her relationship with Dylan, and her family, reflects her growth from a young girl interested in aping the elites to a woman who learns the importance of love.

She is a bit too relentless and cheerful in her insistence they are truly wed. But Dylan isn't presented as a straight villain, but rather as a man with no family or resources who doesn't want to tie a good and generous young woman like Kathleen to his rootless criminal life. The bulk of the book takes place over only a few days, but the reader can feel the metamorphosis in Dylan as he comes to care about someone more than his own survival. Scenes with Kathleen's family (and the cow) are well-done with out resulting in the saccharine schmaltz that most author use to write about happy families or children.

The HEA, a necessity for all romance novels, takes too long to develop both in text and timeline. Dylan fear of love and his refusal to accept his marriage to Kathleen is a central crisis of the book, yet it seems to resolve itself in an abrupt and lazy fashion. He almost comes around by accident. The Mistress doesn't feel complete even though it pushes 400 pages! A great historical novel, but only a good romantic one.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Pleasure of Her Kiss

Title: The Pleasure of Her Kiss (2003)
Author: Linda Needham (Avon)
Period: European Historical-Victorian (1848 England)
Grade: D-

Gak! I usually complain about romances where the hero is required to save the heroine from her harebrained schemes ala "I Love Lucy," but in The Pleasure of Her Kiss the hero chose to enable and encourage the heroine's harebrained schemes. This book is about ten different kinds of awful. It is the kind of romance where the author thinks she's flipping romance convention but instead her book is just as dull and trite as anything else on the romance mass market shelf.

Jared, Earl of Hawksley, wed and abandoned Kathryn Trafford in Egypt moments after her father's death. The marriage was arranged to protect the heiress and her assets, but Kathryn was less than pleased about being sent to England and neglected by an absent husband. Jared, like all heroes in long-lost spouse romances, wants to settle into a life of domestic bliss with his wife and is shocked when she doesn't recognize him. There is a brief sub-plot of Jared posing as a visitor to the guest house she runs at his country estate rather than revealing his true identity. It is quite dopey and she soon figures him out which is pretty embarrassing when you consider Jared is a spy. Just not a good one.

The crux of the novel, as is the case with most Needham's, is adopted children. Kathryn has taken in a large band of abandoned children and work-house urchins. Jared is opposed to having a ready made family of 20+ children and instead wants to find the children good homes. This is presented as cruel and self-centered with Jared unable to appreciate Kathryn's Jolie-like benevolence. What is wrong with wanting each child to have a good home with families that could give them individual attention? Where they wouldn't be raised in a class that permanently regards them as less than by strict conventions and norms?

The Pleasure of Her Kiss
is set against the Irish famine and the grain embargo. Jared's latest mission is to uncover who is robbing and exporting grain stores to aid the Irish after the post-February rebellion embargo. Of course, amoebas can figure out this plot twist. Jared, in love with his wife, offers to financially support her Irish soup kitchens but that isn't good enough. She insists that she must continue to steal grain from the lords who support the embargo to "punish them" for their actions. In response, Jared suggests that he'll become a double agent and aid her in perpetrating her crimes! What the fuck? Is that supposed to be romantic? "Darling, let's get ourselves hung together! It isn't as if we have the responsibility of raising a brood of adopted children with no one else to care for them!"

There isn't anything feminist or radical about the hero supporting the heroine's goals when her goals are asinine.