25 December, 2012

Review: A Kiss For Midwinter by Courtney Milan

Merry Freaking Christmas, indeed.

In what shocks no one ever (assuming they read my reviews) A Kiss for Midwinter gets high marks from me. I love what Milan does with the emotional life of her characters. In this case she's taken a character that bored me silly in The Duchess War and reinvented her as a fascinating person. Lydia is one of those determinedly happy people. All the glasses are half full all the time and if they're not she'll figure out a way to use shorter tumblers. She's fond of everyone, looking as she does on their brighter side. Everyone but Jonas. When Lydia looks at him she can't maintain her facade of blithe cheer. Jonas knows a bit more about Lydia than she's comfortable with.

Jonas I loved from the beginning. He's the gruff medical character that ends up (eventually, not in this novella, but traditionally) grumbling about his bum leg as he's pulled from his bed in the wee hours to attend yet another odd medical crisis at the local estate. This is that guy, 40 or so years earlier. From the moment he tells Lydia she's the eleventh best looking girl in town I knew who he was. (I know a Jonas or two and that's how their brains work.) He wants a wife and he wants that wife to be Lydia. He needs her determined cheer and her ability to draw a gauze curtain over life's harsher realities. Jonas is a man who faces reality too clearly, too often. A touch of whimsy would serve him well.

For most authors, telling you all of this would spoil the novella. For Milan, that's just the opening pages.  Learning why Lydia avoids Jonas, watching Jonas teach Lydia that his opinion of her is not the one she made up in her head, all these things, are still ahead of you. Milan packs enough detail into her leads for a full length novel. Adding in a subtle (and very holiday appropriate) theme about the transient nature of established traditions, Milan brings Christmas in as more than just a seasonal setting. Times are changing in Victorian England. They're changing what people do and how people think. For Lydia the challenge is to stop acting happy long enough to really be happy. For Jonas, it's to accept (as every doctor must) that some things are beyond his ability to repair.

23 December, 2012

Review: Deck The Halls With Love by Lorraine Heath

I think Lorraine Heath and I just broke up.

There's nothing seriously wrong in Deck The Halls With Love. The hero was once interested in the heroine but stopped chatting her up because he felt obligated to make an offer of marriage to someone else. He's free, she's not, can these crazy kids get back together? Of course they can. Deck The Halls With Love is a classic novella in the sense that you know exactly what's going to happen. Storms lead to shelter which lead to sexy times which leads to... You've read this before, except you haven't.

It's a shame, because the bones of Deck The Halls With Love are good. If the heroine was engaged to an interesting man instead of a transparent (and rarely seen) fortune hunter then we could have had a book. As it is, the hero was really into her but honor demanded he marry another (who called off the wedding) and now he wants her to call off a wedding she's not really that into. Even then, we could have had a book if anyone truly cared about honor. They don't. Mild spoiler here - the heroine is due to be married in just a few weeks. The hero makes a public proposal. Everyone shrugs and toasts them. Sure, the heroine just told the former groom she wasn't going to meet him at the altar after all, but who knows that? Fortune hunter dude hasn't had time to process the information, much less make a public announcement or discuss it with her family. You'd think someone in the crowd might point out that she's already engaged. Or ask what happened to the other guy. Or something.

A mildly pleasant and fully predictable novella with a few eye rolling moments isn't enough to break me up with a favorite author. What may have killed it for me and Heath comes later, with an excerpt from the final Lost Lords of Pembrook. It opens with the heroine's brother selling her off to a room full of men under the uncaring eye of the hero. This isn't presented as something he struggles with, something odd for him or something morally repellant. It's just what you do sometimes. You're broke so you sell off a sibling. Of course our hero decides she's so touchingly innocent (unless she's a great actress, of course. Can't have him think well of her) that he will inexplicably demand that she be his. In fact, she should be delivered to his house the next day via UPS. Wow. How can I not want to know more about this couple? He's ok with treating women like livestock, she might be too dim to know she's being sold. Will they make it work? I think you're going to have to find out without me.

21 December, 2012

Review: The Lady Most Willing by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway

In this unconnected follow up to 2010's The Lady Most LikelyQuinn, James and Brockway continue the conceit that this is more than a collection of novellas. Where it worked well in the former, it's less successful in The Lady Most Willing. Unlike the prior collection, the stories fail to flow into one tale. I struggled to finish the book. Changes in character that might be forgiven in a grouping of shorts stood out strongly when presented as part of a whole. Adding to my boredom was no real sense of suspense. Here are the couples. Watch them pair off. Four men, four women, an engagement every few chapters.

In the first tale we meet the obligatory duke and his future duchess, the mistakenly kidnapped Catriona Burns. This was the most captivating of the couples, despite being as instantly forgettable as the rest. Catriona becomes our narrator, despite not being the actual narrator of the book. It's a shock when she abruptly departs at the next chapter heading. Now our heroine is Fiona of the ruined reputation and passive aggressive acceptance. This isn't quite the Fiona we think we've gotten to know, nor is her suddenly malicious sister Marilla the same desperate girl we've been reading about. (Where did this strong dislike between the sisters come from?) Instead of two very different girls tolerating each other it's open dislike with a veil of civility. Marilla switches from overly eager young colt to vengeful nemesis. I liked the new version of Fiona but I didn't understand her. The new Marilla I'll get to later. (Catriona is now reduced to ducal snuggle sessions.)

Fiona spends most of her tale in sexual longing. Or not. Honestly, my initial interest in her quickly turned to page skimming boredom. (Everyone thinks I'm a whore. Let's have sex.) There was some weird subtext going on I didn't quite grab hold of or care enough to unearth. Fiona, thought to be sexually open is actually the victim of unwanted male desire. As a result she's repressed her natural desires. Faced with a spoiled young sibling, she carefully guards her inner passions so they cannot be detected. (Sensing a theme?) Of course this leads to sex in the stables. Because that's what this character would do when faced with something she wants. (I liked Fiona better when she was throwing the hero over and planning an independent life.)

Our not so final heroine Cecily has an abundance of everything. Blessed with face, fortune and indulgent parents she has been waiting for The One. Of course she finds him in less than a second. Meeting her hero's eyes as she leaves a carriage, Cecily is certain he's the man she's meant to wed. There is so much going on with Cecily that I don't know where to start. I don't believe at love in a glance, I think it requires at least a conversaton. A women with Cecily's options and experience deciding to seduce a man with a love them and leave them reputation was a hard hurdle to jump. Add in her later qualms about whose place it is to make the first move and Cecily just annoyed me. Toward the end of her story she started to reclaim my attention but it was too late, the book was done. And this brings me to the fourth heroine, Marilla.

I had serious problems with the presentation of Marilla. Is she a woman making the most of an opportunity? Is she a hateful bitch determined to ruin her sister? Is she an underage seductress playing games far above her experience? Is she a sensualist used to indulging herself? Marilla has only one consistent aspect to her character. The other women dislike her. The other men (save her hero, presented as no prize at all) hold her in mild contempt. Every woman in the book is given a sympathetic viewing but Marilla. She's fairly young, she's ambitious, she wants to have fun and she wants to marry someone who will indulge her. During Fiona's story she's malicious, but for the rest of the book she's misguided and impetuous. Because she is obvious in her desires and open in her goals, the other characters strongly dislike her. This rather made me dislike them. It's not that Marilla was so likeable. None of her faces were sympathetic. In a book where each character's personality quirks were explored and explained, only Marilla was freely disdained. Her happy ending is a father figure of a husband. I had issues.

The Lady Most Willing was far from the worst book I read this year. If the shorts were sold independently I'd say grab Catriona's chapters and forget the rest. Since they come as a bundle, you'll have to decide for yourself.

*In reviewing my former thoughts about The Lady Most Likely I discover that a homophobia ran through it not unlike the homophobia on display in Eloisa James recent short Seduced By A Pirate. I need to quit Eloisa James. We're not good for each other.

16 December, 2012

Review: Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet

It's rare I'm actually angry when I finish a book. Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet seriously pissed me off. Not only am I done with the series, I'm done with Darynda Jones as an author. She's on my don't-for-the-love-of-self-ever-read-this list. While I suspected it in Third Grave Dead Ahead, Fourth Grave underlines it, wraps it in a pretty package and sticks a bow on the top. Jones has taken what was an irreverent and interesting world with a strong voiced heroine and reduced it to an abuse fetish. If women who love dysfunctional abusive jerks are your thing, Darynda Jones is writing for you.

In the last book Charley was beaten and left for bait by her lover, Reyes. Her father also set her up as bait in order to protect his other daughter and the bitch stepmother that made Charley's childhood hell. In both cases Charley is physically harmed by a man who is supposed to love her, then left for dead. As Fourth Grave opens Charley is suffering from PTSD (for about a minute) and dealing with the emotional fallout of the previous events. Mostly by chasing after Reyes and being totally up for it. She shows some token anger at her father (who also spends part of this book shooting her) but quickly forgives him as well. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. Bar. Be. Que.

No, Jones is not foxtrot kidding me, she's completely serious. Reyes controls Charley, misleads her, withholds vital information from her, threatens to kill her family (again!) becomes furiously angry at her when she asks questions or doesn't act on knowledge she doesn't have, gives her the silent treatment and deceives her. Charley cries and apologizes for not understanding him enough. I don't know why. Almost all of the book is Charley trying to understand poor, poor Reyes or wanting to have sex with super hot sexy Reyes. Reyes is an abusive homicidal ass. He leaves Charley high and dry over and over. She can't talk to his friends or his family. He doesn't even want her to know where he lives. He wishes Charley would just man up and quit sniveling because if she did she'd be so special.

Screw that. If I want to read about a woman being gaslit by an abuser with a savior complex I'll read the paper. I simply don't believe that if Charley takes enough physical and emotional abuse from Reyes and others she will become a better person. I no longer care about the heaven versus hell underpinnings of the story. The interesting characters have been sidelined in favor of more abuse dynamics. Charley is abducted by a bank robber and fantasizes about sex with him after he duct tapes her to a chair in an abandoned building. Charley mistreats a man who has (literally) been to hell for her and is always there for her. She treats with the most contempt the man who is the most considerate. Charley is ill. I can't watch the train wreck any longer.

Adding to my discontent is the inconsistent components of the other characters. Amber is 12. we are supposed to believe that this 12 year old girl kept a traumatizing and life threatening experience secret from her mother, whom she is close to. We are also asked to believe she finds Reyes attractive and finds overhearing relations between Charley and Reyes stimulating instead of embarrassing, disgusting or appalling. Like Charley, anything female of any age surrounding this abusive ass must be up for it, despite the unlikely age component involved. Cookie, her mother, places fighting demons above her child's safety. I can't even address Charley's father in this limited space so let's move on to her neighbor, Peri. Demons are possessing people who can see auras. Peri sees auras. Demons are surrounding Charley's life and looking for access points. Peri has access to Charley and is in her life. Demons never possess Peri, choosing bodies from other states instead. There is no longer any logic to Charley's world. People make choices to serve the story and for no other reason. Even seeing the dead has been shuttled to the side as an afterthought and a page filler instead of a way to drive the narrative forward. Jones gives every appearance of dragging the main points of the story through as many books as the market will bear. There is no end in sight for the reader. I'm disappointed that a series of such promise has devolved into an unpleasant experience.

11 December, 2012

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

*My reviews of Courtney Milan books are so very boring. "I loved this book. OMG this author. Read it because wow." (How many ways could a fan girl fan if a fan girl could fan girls? I don't know. I'm high on Sudafed.) Anyway. Courtney Milan. New Book. Commence raving. 

The Duchess War is a thing of beauty. How you feel about it may depend on how you feel about other Milan books or what you look for in romance. I'm drawn to character studies. I want broken people feeling their way through a broken world, and Milan gets that. Her characters are not heroic by birth or destiny, they are heroic by choice. In The Duchess War we meet Robert and Minnie. Both are working through the legacy of their parents. I found Robert the more interesting of the two, but it's Minnie who is  the more powerful.

Robert is the image of a man he has defined as a monster. Being his father's son has shaped him more than any other aspect of his life. Robert's life of emotional rejection and economic privilege has led him to embrace radical political views. He is not an unthinking agitator. Robert has taken pains to minimize the effects of his work on those around him. His goal is to unravel the system he believes sheltered his father and allows men like him to escape retribution for their crimes. Everything about him is a reaction to something else. His intense loneliness is a reaction to his parent's rejection and his subsequent rejection of their values. It's a greater self awareness that makes Robert more socially enlightened than his peers. If his father had embraced him, Robert could well have been a carbon copy of his sire. Without a rejection of his father's values, Robert can't make sense of his place in the world. Because of his mother's inclination to extremism, Robert's life as a radical made sense. I believed he would become this person, that he was this person. He may have frustrated me at times, but he didn't ring false. Robert is emotionally guarded to the edge of self harm.

Minnie is no different. Where Robert has embraced radicalism as a rejection of his father, Minnie has embraced conservatism. Her views may mirror Robert's, but her life does not. Having experienced the darker side of fame, Minnie craves security. Economically and emotionally, Minnie is in a precarious situation she knows she cannot sustain. When she meets Robert she's on the edge of a life changing move, one that she believes will lock down the secure box she's created for herself. Robert doesn't undertake any of the typical Hero Knows Best actions of the genre. He is the catalyst that causes Minnie to really look at the path she's forced herself down and consider if it ends in the victory or ruin. Strategy is a theme that runs through The Duchess War. Both Robert and Minnie lead carefully considered lives, perhaps too considered for their own benefit. I found them completely believable as a couple. The difference in social station and reveal of Minnie's past was also smoothly resolved in a way that felt plausible and true. The only off note may have been a scene between Robert and one of his father's victims. (While it granted Robert an understanding he needed, it felt incomplete. The topic was larger than the scene, but may be revisited later.)

I put Courtney Milan in the top ten, perhaps top five, of writers working in the genre today. She's on the front edge of hot trends (bad sex, virgin hero, Victorian social change) while working with time tested romance elements (family relationships, strength in partnership, issues of honor). It's too soon to say where The Duchess War will rank in her entire body of work but if it's not near the top I can't wait to read what beats it.

07 December, 2012

Review: The Importance of Being Wicked

*I've been off being all medical again, because everyone needs a hobby and reviewing books doesn't have the same flair as recreational use of anesthesia. 

Oh Miranda Neville. We should be a perfect match and yet I find myself turning you away. I admire you so. While I was reading The Importance of Being Wicked I found myself thinking how well done it was, what a refreshing idea this or that aspect of the story was. It was so polite. I didn't want to leap into the pages and shake a bitch or weep into a cotton hankie while urging them to value themselves more. It was all the admiration in the world and none of the emotional passion. This means it's not you, it's me? Or something?

Doesn't help. Let's move on. Your cover is eye catching. I hate it. It's got this shade of dyed red hair seen clutching early bird special menus coupled with a red and rust palette straight out of fall. Her tomato red dress, the crimson chaise, it's a big yawn. The title is fine. I totally want a gig naming Avon romances, except I don't drink. Avon titles are the things you come up with after a long night of partying, the punchy humor that begs for high fives. But they work. They move books and they're memorable.

The Importance of Being Wicked has nothing to do with Oscar Wilde slash (sigh) and everything to do with a Duke. (Can we just move on to pretend kings? All these dukes. I expect Julia Quinn's next book to be You Only Duke Twice featuring a widowed duchess choosing from six lovely dukes. Maybe she's been widowed twice but runs away with an earl. Crazy stuff. Or wait, it could be The Duke Of The Month Club! Our heroine has one year to choose from an assortment of dukes reaching their majorities! A free YA suggestion. It's a gift. Holidays. You know.) Thomas The Duke comes from a long line of men who marry rich women. His dad screwed that up, so Thomas wants to get back on track. Caroline is the completely broke widow housing his teenage bag of cash. Enter hijinks.

Actually there are hardly any hijinks. Neville does a great job with Caroline. Impetuous and bad with finances, she's the girl who never wants to leave the party. As long as she's hosting, people love her. With the food and wine on offer the artistic community she adores will fill the silent corners of her home. Caro wants to have fun and forget when the bill collectors come round. She's always one step ahead and two bits short. Mostly this is her ex husband's fault. Disappointing, but it's a time honored truth that a widow in want of finances is rarely to blame. Thomas The Duke is super interested in family honor, almost as much as he is in refilling the family coffers. When the bright and beautiful butterfly of Caroline crosses his path he wants to forget everything and follow her.

It's a classic set up. Neville gets deeper into the motivations and causes of the characters than most authors bother with. Caroline is alternately frustrating and delightful. Thomas is a little less clearly drawn but he's a character that can't communicate emotionally so there's that. Problems are generally addressed and worked out leaving the conflict one of putting two lives together, not finding authorial reasons to keep them apart. What kept me from connecting to The Importance of Being Wicked was the sheer amount of sequel bait it held. Here is a character, here is a ton of background, here is a different character. Rinse and repeat. So many side threads are left unresolved. I got tired of waiting for a player to factor in a meaningful way or have their own storyline summed up. The canvas felt too infinite, the players too multiple. This one is a friend but also a nemesis, an enemy but also maybe a relative, a thief but also maybe.... my patience wore out. Tell the story you are telling me. Don't lay the case for a different one. I stop caring about what we have when I'm constantly told what I'm getting. The product placement may be skillful, but it's not necessary to the tale.

Overall, my admiration for The Importance of Being Wicked overpowered my weary rejection of it's chorus line. If you like Tessa Dare or Julie Anne Long I think Miranda Neville will fit the bill nicely.