31 May 2012

Beth Revis doles out a little perspective (and advice)

I have a copy of one of Beth Revis's books (the first one?  I think?  I fail right now as a bookseller and blogger) but I haven't read it yet.

I'll need to now.

Beth Revis: How to Respond to Negative Reviews - in which she doles out a bit of healthy perspective.  For everyone in the book industry.

30 May 2012

A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith #2)

I lurked on the NOOK store and then quickly snarfed A Night Like This as soon as it became available for purchase after midnight.  Mmmm, books.

I find that the Smythe-Smiths are strangely endearing, bad taste in music and writing included.

Miss Anne Wynter, whom we met at the end of Just Like Heaven, takes the heroine's role this time and boy does she EVER have a backstory. So does Daniel, Honoria's elder brother.  They've both been running from their pasts, Anne by changing her name and station in life, Daniel by living a nomadic existence on the Continent.  Daniel arrives home just in time for the Smythe-Smith musicale - he spies Anne at the piano and that, as they say, is that (he also spies Marcus and Honoria kissing on the stair, giving us his perspective on that scene, but that's neither here nor there).  He pursues Anne over the next few days, even hinting that Lady Sarah Pleinsworth (who may-or-may-not-have faked her illness to get out of the musicale) might convalesce at his country estate which means all the Pleinsworth ladies - Anne in tow - remove to Whipple Hill. 

When mysterious incidents threaten both their lives, Daniel takes precautions to protect the woman he loves.  Anne, on the other hand, is acutely conscious that an earl, even one with a notorious past such as Daniel's, is unlikely to marry a mere governess no matter how pretty or genteel.  As much as she tries to keep away, she also wants to reclaim the part of her past that allowed her to dream.

Although the time frame of the novel seems really compressed the narrative just chugs along without to many stopovers along the way.  People were serious about their revenge during the Regency, I mean really serious (although, I have to wonder why people always exile the bad dude as opposed to throwing him in jail?  The ton needs to sort out its priorities).

I loved the little funny bits in the book, like the way Frances is obsessed with unicorns or how Harriet turns nearly everything into fodder for her plays.  I also quite liked Anne as a heroine - she manages to rescue herself once in the book, almost twice (Daniel sort of muddles up the second one), with just good, old-fashioned smarts and courage.

One odd thing: Anne plays the piano quite well, or at least well enough to muddle through a very difficult piece of Mozart (and hit most of the notes). Yet, we never see her practice....

Is the next Smythe-Smith heroine Sarah? Or Iris? And who will her hero be? (Someone say Hugh - that poor man needs something else to do beyond torturing his father with his possible suicide.)

29 May 2012

Julia Quinn: The Bridgertons

Alright, ladies and gents, I've finished the Bridgertons, a Julia Quinn series recommended by Janice (actually, she recommended pretty much any JQ except the Wyndham books).  Hold onto your hats because there are EIGHT siblings, therefore EIGHT books, and I did actually read them in order.

The Bridgerton siblings are named in alphabetical order (A to H) and the series opens not with Anthony (the eldest) but with Daphne in The Duke and I.  And not even truly on Daphne - the Prologue begins with the birth of Simon Basset, Earl Clyvedon, the long-awaited son and heir to the Duke of Hastings.  Poor little Simon lost his mother at his birth and when it was found the child had a stutter, he was reviled by his father.  He was raised by his loving nurse, overcame his stutter (in most situations), and developed a deep-seated loathing for his father.  He is determined that the Basset line will die with him, just to spite his father.

So he enters into a faux-engagement with his best friend's sister, Daphne Bridgerton.  I instantly liked Daphne - she's the nice girl who is everyone's friend and understands young men's foibles quite well (having three older brothers and one younger) but is never thought of as a romantic prospect. If Simon shows an interest in her, then other, appropriate (i.e. not old, not mean, and not ridiculous) men might also; for Simon, Daphne will keep the matchmaking mamas at bay.  This being a romance novel, the whole plot goes sideways, the fake betrothal turns into a very real marriage, and the semantic difference between "can't" and "won't" is angrily debated.  I did like Simon throughout the book, except when he was being pig-headed (and I'm totally with Daphne that it was pretty shady to use her inexperience regarding sex and fathering children against her - "can't" versus "won't" is a pretty big difference when there's nothing wrong with the equipment) but it turned out alright in the end.

With that first introduction to the Bridgertons (a very loveable bunch), I proceed to plow my way through the other seven.  Anthony comes up next in The Viscount Who Loved Me.  Anthony inherited the Bridgerton title when his father inexplicably died of a bee sting at the age of thirty-nine leaving Violet Bridgerton devastated and pregnant with the eighth child, Hyacinth.  Anthony is now convinced he will never live up to his father's memory (either in goodness or length of life) and is determined to make a marriage of convenience so that, whoever his wife may be, she will not grieve with a broken heart like his mother did.  His chosen intended is Miss Edwina Sheffield - lovely, good-natured, has a respectable dowry.  Her elder half-sister Kate, on the other hand, is absolutely determined that Edwina not marry the cold, rakish Viscount who will surely break Edina's heart.

And the plot goes "ha-ha-ha."  While Anthony and Kate debate the whole you-are/are-not-courting-my-sister point in the garden (alone) Kate gets stung by a bee during a house party and Anthony flips out and begins sucking out the bee venom so Kate won't die...and they are seen by Lady Bridgerton (who can keep a secret), Mrs. Sheffield (who can also keep a secret), and Mrs. Featherington (who couldn't keep a secret if her life and the fate of the world depended on it).  Because it appeared Anthony was ministering to Kate's breasts.  And this means they are getting hitched.  Immediately, because Mrs. Featherington saw it. Kate is now in possession of a viscount with absolute certainty he will die before his thirty-ninth birthday - how Kate and Anthony come together by the end of the book is a very satisfying read.  (Also, it is nice to see a step-mother who is actually a good person and loves her step-daughter, a rare thing in novels sometimes).

It certainly doesn't occur in the next book, An Offer From a Gentleman. Miss Sophie Barnes slaves away for her nasty bitch of a step-mother, Araminta (even her name sounds nasty).  Only Araminta never admits Sophie is her step-daughter in any way because Sophie was never recognized as her father's child.  One night, Sophie sneaks out to attend Violet Bridgerton's masked birthday ball and meets Benedict Bridgerton.  Love at first sight.  This is Cinderella at its finest, but Benedict can't find her the next day.  Or the next week, or month, or year.  Araminta, though, suspects Sophie did something and tosses her out on her ear.  When Benedict rescues a housemaid from an awful situation, there is something about her - but he doesn't recognize Sophie.  She becomes a maid in his mother's house putting her near him constantly, if he can only see what's below the surface.

JQ puts Sophie through various real-world situations - illegitimate-not-recognized-as-her-father's-child, dismissed without a reference, having to sell her hair (offstage), (nearly) being assaulted by drunken partygoers (not sure how often that happened, but it probably defenitely did happen) - before giving us the happy ending. She also has Benedict do something douche-y (offering to make Sophie his mistress) before doing the heroic thing for the HEA ending.

(Just an aside - Violet Bridgerton is THE nicest book character ever. Not only does she not bat an eye that her second son (who is Anthony's heir until a male child is born) is enamored of a mysterious housemaid, and even promotes the match, she also takes care of the Araminta problem. I guess she's just good ton.)

Book four, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, is my favorite of all eight books.  It is funny, warm, gleeful, and contains my favorite of all tropes - the good-hearted, slightly Plain-Jane woman who holds out for the man she always loved and succeeds.  This book is worth reading for Miss Penelope Featherington alone.  She ranks right up there with Letty from Lauren Willig's The Deception of the Emerald Ring. Self-sufficient, self-deprecating, and suffering from unrequited love (that got stomped all over in Benedict's book when Colin had to open his big trap). You have to like her.  Colin, on the other hand, has become a bit of a world-traveller after becoming tired of his reputation as an empty-headed charmer.  When he returns to London, and fate throws them together, their dreams just might come true.

It's really hard to discuss Penelope and Colin without blowing the major secret in the book, so it's hard to continue talking about it.  So instead I will talk about the Smythe-Smith musicale that features in a chapter - the pivotal Smythe-Smith concert from the denouement of Just Like Heaven. How do I know this is the right Smythe-Smith concert? Because Lady Whistledown mentions the very specific act of Lady Danbury destroying Honoria's violin and insisting on replacing it with a Ruggieri. And the dates match. In JLH, the piece they play is a Mozart piano quartet - two violins, a cello, and a pianoforte. BUT, in this book the piece they play is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik which is very specifically rejected in JLH because it is a string quartet - two violins, a viola, and a cello. No piano. Additionally, no one notes the oddity of a non-Smythe-Smith cousin in the quartet and the supposed illness of Lady Sarah. 

Eloise disappears during the ball at the end of Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.  As it turns out, all the correspondence she's been doing has been with Sir Phillip Crane, a widowed baronet and botanist.  When her best friend - and fellow spinster - Penelope marries, Eloise feels just a little bit behind.  So she slips away to visit Sir Phillip and see if they might suit (he is a good correspondent and he did invite her to visit).  When Eloise arrives on his doorstep without warning, Sir Phillip is a bit taken back.  He doesn't have a chaperone for her and he sort-of forgot to tell her he has two children who have just driven off their last governess (they glued her hair to the sheets).  Soon the Bridgerton males have tracked down their errant sister - Eloise and Phillip find themselves married by the middle of To Sir Phillip, With Love.  It's like the Regency version of Sarah, Plain and Tall.

If book four is my favorite, book five runs a close second.  Phillip and Eloise are well-matched - Phillip's emotional baggage aside.  The best scene, though, is the one where Anthony takes his sister to task for scaring them all half to death and not even thinking first.  It's the first time any of the Bridgertons get legitimately angry with each other and JQ renders it very well.

From here, we come back to the character that seems to have got lost - Francesca.  After An Offer From a Gentleman she just disappears into the ether, just mentioned a few times but never appears.  Apparently, she married an Earl and went to live in Scotland, and then was widowed.  In When He Was Wicked, Michael Stirling has loved Francesca since he met her at his cousin's wedding - she was the bride.  They were good friends, the three of them, then the husband died, Francesca lost the baby, and Michael found himself the new earl.  So he does the sensible thing and decamps to India because he feels guilty and Francesca needs to grieve.  Blah, blah, blah.  (This part happens between An Offer From a Gentleman and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton).  Then Francesca decides she wants to remarry, Michael comes back from India, and this book is rife with issues and it is boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  Particularly since Part Two of the book takes place while Eloise is off gallivanting around after Sir Phllip.  Least favorite of the eight. Moving on.

So now Hyacinth is old enough to have a book.  And she gets a doozy with It's In His Kiss.  Her hero is Gareth St. Clair.  Gareth is certain his father is beggaring the family estates simply because he detests his second son.  His only son now that Gareth's elder brother is dead, leaving only a wife and daughters.  In lieu of the plot detail, I've made a list about how over-plotted this book is (although it's still very readable and enjoyable):
1. Hyacinth seems a bit over-characterized as a youngest child, especially since she's been "the youngest child" in every single book so far (but that seems to be necessary for a romance novel...moving on).
2. Gareth has the Quinn-standard rake-reputation and shitty-father trope (twist: he's not really his father's son but was recognized as such and, unfortunately for Gareth's elder brother who seems like he was nice but died without male children making it fortunate for our plot, is now the heir).
3. Lady Danbury is his grandmother. He's her favorite grandson. Hyacinth is her protegee, of sorts, and comes to read to her on Tuesdays. You see where this is going....
4. Gareth is possessed of his other grandmother's journal. It's written in Itallian. Hyacinth speaks some Italian. You see where this is going....
5. There is a clue-trail for some missing jewelry necessitating improper house-breaking for an unmarried couple. You see where this is going....
6. Gareth has some anxiety that Hyacinth will reject him because he's not legitimate. Lttle does he know that the Bridgertons care more about character. Sophie is evidence of this. Hyacinth sets him straight.
7. There is a Smythe-Smith musicale (fewer specifics on this one, but it fits the descriptions from the epilogue of Just Like Heaven). And a poetry reading/play performance and the Pleinsworth house.  Which is delightful like the one that was read/performed in A Night Like This.
8. Everything turns out all right in the end (so NOT a spoiler).

So we come to the last unmarried Bridgerton, Gregory, and his book is completely unlike any of the previous seven.  For one thing, it starts at the end, with Gregory bursting into a church to break up a wedding then jumping back to explain what happened On the Way to the WeddingAnd this plot is complicated, let me tell you. Gregory falls in love with this girl named Hermione, her friend Lucy tries to help him because the guy Hermione loves is totally unsuitable, then Lucy falls in love with Gregory but she's more-or-less already engaged (has been for years), Hermione gets herself compromised and engaged to someone else (surprise), Gregory gets drunk then realizes he loves Lucy (which his entire family already knows), Gregory proposes, Lucy tries to get out of her engagement and finds out that family is being blackmailed but her marriage to Lord Haselby will prevent massive disgrace (her father is dead but her uncle/guardian is hideous and her brother is seriously a waste of space, the fiancee's father is possibly worse than her uncle - standard Quinn trope), she and Gregory knock-boots the night before her wedding, he tries to get her to come with him but she lies to him and goes off to marry The Wrong Man (Haselby isn't mean, he's just not into women), Gregory shows up to stop the wedding (now we're back to the beginning of the book), and LUCY GOES AHEAD AND MARRIES THE WRONG GUY.  Hot damn.  And then I had to figure out how JQ was going to get them all out of it.  It's completely crazy, and it works in the end, but it wasn't the sweetest romance novel ever. In fact, it made me nervous - which kept me reading. Lucy was such a duitiful daughter - as opposed to someone like Hyacinth, Eloise, or Daphne who would never have got into the position of being blackmailed into marriage because they have spines and so do their brothers - that it was a different book than it would have been if she possessed more spirit from the outset. 

So that's it, the Bridgertons.  JQ's series bleed into her other series so we might see them again from time to time.

And that's it for a very long blog post.

(One thing I've noticed about Julia Quinn's books - there are lots of mothers but no fathers. All the fathers are dead. Or, if there are fathers in the narrative, the father is perfectly dreadful ala Simon's or Sir Harry Valentine's, even Marcus's father from Just Like Heaven isn't wonderful; the only live, not-crappy father is Olivia Bevelstoke's father, the Earl of Rudland, and we only see him for a few pages in her book (I don't even recall him in Turner and Miranda's book).)

24 May 2012

Julia Quinn: The Bevelstokes (in reverse)

This reading backward thing is getting to be a problem. 

I wound up with a strip of Ten Things I Love About You by Julia Quinn.  Cute title, like the movie (duh).

Premise: Miss Annabel Winslow, coming from a minor and impoverished branch of an aristocratic family, has been brought to Town for a Season and to find a husband.  Specifically, she's supposed to accept the aging (and rather disgusting) Earl of Newbury who is on the hunt for a fertile young wife due to the loss of his heir.  At a house party, Annabel meets Sir Sebastian Grey - who turns out to be Newbury's newphew - and she hits it off with him.  Now she has two suitors and they both loathe one another.

I'm not sure why, but I couldn't put this down because I was terrified Annabel would wind up marrying the vile Lord Newbury even though we are practically guaranteed an HEA because it's a romance. Something about the tension in the story.  Some aspects of the story could have been better developed, especially why Lord Newbury always despised Sebastian because the fight at White's only scratched the surface. Also, it was never explained why Annabel thought Sebastian might not be able to provide for her because he was obviously not destitute (not as rich as Newbury but certainly better off than her family).  I really felt for Annabel throughout much of the book - as a "generously endowed" woman I know exactly what it's like to have everyone staring at your chest/assuming you're slutty simply because your breasts are more than eye-catching.

I liked the many parallels between Annabel and Sebastian - they like to make lists, they both have some trouble sleeping (although due to different reasons), how they both seem to prefer plain-speaking. Sebastian's fishing for compliments about his book was pretty funny (actually, the whole "I find the plot implausible/but that's what makes it interesting" conversation with Louisa had me rolling on the floor because that's pretty much what a romance novel rests on - an implausible plot). At least I know now who wrote Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron in Just Like Heaven.

Backing up one book, I picked up Olivia and Harry's story in What Happens in London. So, Sir Harry Valentine (love the name) is an ex-cavalry officer and translator of Russian for the War Office who leases the house next door to Olivia's family. To the south. Olivia Bevelstoke - gossiping with her friends - is soon apprised that Sir Harry is rumoured to have killed his fiancee. She starts spying on him, which he notices immediately since she's not very good at it, and silliness ensues.  When a Russian prince begins bestowing attention on Olivia, Harry is assigned to spy on the Russians (but not let them know he speaks Russian).  Everything culminates in a ball at the Russian Embassy where Olivia is kidnapped.

For the record, the Harry-killed-his-fiancee thing is a total red herring.  He didn't have one.

What makes this such a readable novel (unlike book 3 where I was unreasonably terrified Annabel would end up marrying The Wrong Man and therefore couldn't stop reading) are the little scenes between Olivia and Harry. Like the one about tea and sugar. In the alcove at the ball. Reading Miss Butterworth from their windows. It's very cute.  (And then Sebastian - who is Harry's first cousin on the Russian side - does a dramatic reading from Miss Butterworth and cracked me up.)

And so I finally backed up to book one, The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever, which could have belonged to an entirely different series considering that Miranda and Turner make no appearances in the other two (Olivia mentions their children, that's it).

Miranda and Olivia are childhood friends and despite Miranda's resignation that she will not become A Great Beauty she has harbored a crush on Olivia's eldest brother Nigel, Viscount Turner, nearly all her life.  Turner, who is nearly ten years older than Miranda, goes on to marry some hideous woman who breaks his heart then breaks her neck while riding out to meet her lover.  Fate throws Miranda and Turner together and somehow (because I really don't think Quinn did her due diligence in this plot) they both lose their minds and have sex.  And Miranda hies off to her grandparents' in Scotland when she finds out she's pregnant.  And Turner comes hauling after her only to find out that she's lost the baby.  And then they have to get hitched and Turner sill has jealously issues and Miranda loves him more than he deserves and the WHOLE PLOT DISSOLVES INTO ROMANCE-TROPEVILLE.  *facepalm* Did I mention that Miranda keeps a load of journals, if that wasn't implied by the title, where she confesses her Turner obsession?

I wasn't much impressed. I liked Miranda as a character, but Turner I wanted to shake until his teeth chattered. His repeated endearment of "You little fool" didn't seem that endearing to me.
so wanted Turner to finally realize that his inability to say "I love you" was utter crap and that Miranda wasn't Laetitia - on his own mind you, not because he thought Miranda might die.

Admittedly, reading these backward worked for me - if I'd read this one first I might not have felt the need to read the other Bevelstokes. 

I wonder if Winton (Olivia's twin) will get a book.

19 May 2012

Tessa Dare: Spindle Cove One and Two (and 1.5)

I'd been hearing good things about Tessa Dare - her Spindle Cove novels were funny and quirky.  Then I managed to read the second book before the first, with a Sarah MacLean novel in between (more on her in a different post).

Minerva Highwood has been living in Spindle Cove (which seems to be a vacation hotspot for unmarried ladies with health problems, cash-flow issues, and/or behavioral issues, such as not being so meek and obedient as the next debutante) with her mother, a variation on the Mrs. Bennet theme, and her sister Diana (Diana has asthma).  Min is a confirmed spinster bluestocking and is absolutely certain that she has found proof of prehistoric animals in a cave off the Cove.  Colin Sandhurst, Viscount Payne, is the rake to end all rakes - it's even rumored that he never sleeps alone, ever - and is nearly climbing the metaphorical walls in Spindle Cove.  He doesn't have the blunt to return to Town and he won't gain his inheritance (held in trust by his friend Bram, Earl of Rycliff) unless he marries or turns twenty-five, whichever comes first.  It is also rumored that Colin will offer for Diana Highwood, an instance that Min neither desires or things she can stomach.

So Min hatches A Plan.  She needs to present her scientific findings at a meeting of the Royal Geologic Society in Edinburgh - if she has the best "find" (and she's certain she does) she will win a monetary prize.  If Colin escorts her (and her plaster iguanadon foot, Francine) to Edinburgh, she will give him the prize money thereby eliminating his need to marry Diana.  To do this, these two caracters, fake an elopement, convince family and friends they're in "love" (courtesy of one faked diary), outrun armed robbers, survive their worst nightmares, and travel four hundred miles without killing each other (that sentence was cribbed off Goodreads since I couldn't write one better).  They have A Week to be Wicked.

This is a zany road-trip novel Regency Romance-style.  I laughed so much every time Colin made up some crazy-ridiculous story about his relationship with Minerva. Like any good lie, it gets bigger and bigger until it bites him in the tail (like the one where they pose as brother and sister missionaries to a family then Get. It. On. (loudly) after hearing another couple in the inn knocking boots, so to speak). Or how he introduces Min as his non-English speaking mistress (I'm with Min on that instance - would it have killed him to win that hand of cards?). Antics aside, Min was a wonderful character to root for with her scientific zeal and pleasant-ish family and Colin as her perfect foil bouncing between his rakish extremes and phobias about closed carriages. You will never look at mathematical terms the same way again.

Spindle Cove #2 being an excellent read, I picked up A Night to Surrender.  I'm glad I did because it explained so much about the Spindle Cove world and events that were only hinted at in A Week to be Wicked.  Miss Susannah Finch created a quiet haven at Spindle Cove, near her father's home, as a place where well-bred ladies could escape the rigors of the ton - particularly those ladies who don't quite "fit" as Society believes they should.  It is about to be invaded by His Majesty's militia.  Victor Bramwell, newly appointed Earl of Rycliff (for the tumbling-down castle of the cliff), has been ordered to create a militia out of a ragtag band of men and boys for the purpose of defending England's coast.  With him is a (reluctant) Colin Sandhurst and a Corporal Thorne, a career military man.  Susannah is absolutely determined that these men just leave (leave!) and let Spindle Cove enjoy its peace and quiet.

Reading A Night to Surrender helped quite a bit in explaining who does what in the seaside village of Spindle Cove - the characters are so intertwinted that in book #2, when the action moved away from Minerva and Colin, I was a bit lost in who Kate was, or Thorne, or Diana, or Susanna...definitely a series that benefits from reading in book order.

This first book was very well-constructed, with good backstories for everyone not just the hero/heroine couple. Susannah's father is different from Thorne, who is different from Colin, who is different from the Bright's absentee drunken father (who doesn't appear, but gets a number of mentions). Mrs. Highwood is curious mix of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Dashwood but she's the only flat female character, IMO, when compared to Kate, Sally, and Violet.

And although there are funny parts, this is a much more serious book in tone and much darker in the details.  Dare gets some serious props in this one with her historical research: those medical "treatments" Susannah mentions having undergone to "treat" "hysteria" are spot-on. I've done considerable research in 18th/19th/early-20th century medicine and it's all historically accurate. Barbaric, in a word.

I also found a little novella, a Spindle Cove #1.5: Once Upon a Winter's Eve.  Violet Winterbottom has endured The Disappointment.  She gave herself to a childhood friend, a man she thought loved her, and he left the next day with no word, no good-bye, and no explanation.  Heartbroken, she moved to Spindle Cove and rebuilt her life.  On the night of the Spindle Cove Christmas Ball, a dirty, bloody man crashes into the ballroom and passes out at her feet.  The other revelers think the man is a French spy but Violet knows who he is...Christian, Lord Pierce, the man she loved.  Violet has one night to get the entire story out of Christian before he disappears or dies.

This was short and sweet, a little nuts as far as plotting.  Just my opinion, but forgiveness comes a bit too fast - having been left with no explanation, Violet should have been waaay more irritated at Christian.  And how hard would it have been for Christian to leave Violet some sort of letter explaining that he worked for the War Office and to wait for him or something like that. 

Spindle Cove #3, A Lady by Midnight, is scheduled for August!

10 May 2012

Mary Balogh: The Bedwyns

One of my bookselling coworkers, knowing that I've been snarfing down Regency romance series, recommended Mary Balogh's Slightly series (aka the Bedwyns) - the story of six brothers and sisters starting near the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The series opens as Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn travels to Ringwood Manor to deliver a dying soldier's request.  He finds the man's sister, Eve Morris, on the verge of losing her home - now that her brother is dead she has less than a week to marry before the one-year anniversary of her father's death.  Having promised to protect Eve, Aidan (heretofore determined to escape marriage and remain in His Majesty's cavalry) does the only thing he can think of to help her: offer a marriage of convenience so that Eve may keep her home and Aidan will return to the cavalry.  Well, enter Aidan's elder brother Wulfric (the Duke of Bewcastle, to whom Aidan is heir), Eve's self-made family of lost "lambs" (unwanted distantly-related children, a governess who found herself an unmarried mother, maimed soldiers in need of work, etc), and one evil cousin who feels Ringwood is rightly his and Aidan and Eve go from Slightly Married to very married.

What I liked in this series opener is the very realistic portrayal of an aristocratic family as seen by someone who is an outsider.  Eve is barely gentry (complete with faint Welsh accent) and Wulfric makes it clear that she is hardly suitable as a potential duchess, even if Aidan has gone and married her.  Wulf isn't a friendly man, instead presenting himself as autocratic, domineering, ice-cold, and completely above caring about the feelings of his brother's wife.  Eve isn't sure what to make of the other siblings either: Alleyne is charming enough but still born with that automatic class difference of aristocracy and Freyja has enough personality to make herself scary (Rannulf appears briefly at the end of the book and Morgan is only mentioned since she is still in the schoolroom).  Even Aidan has trouble admitting or expressing emotion.  I had to give Balogh credit for making Eve doubt herself for a few chapters before deciding to use her considerable backbone.  Aidan and Wulf are both given considerable backstories, which is nice when working on a family series.  I just loved two other things about this book.  First, the character names are fabulous; someone's mom wasn't just a reader but a reader of old Anglo-Saxon/Norse/Celtic stories.  Second, none of the Bedwyns are conventionally attractive.  They all have dark complexions, hook noses, and oddly matched coloring (i.e. Freyja has blond hair and naturally dark eyebrows) but make up for the physical difference with loads of personality.  This is refreshing, especially in Freyja's case, because too many times a hero or heroine considers himself or herself plain but one look from their mate and there is insta-attraction/hottest person ever seen.  None of that here.

The second book, Slightly Wicked, picks up immediately after the first.  Rannulf (Ralf) leaves Ringwood and continues on his way to his maternal grandmother's estate.  She has made him her heir and has asked him to visit in order to tempt him into matrimony.  On the way to Grandmaison he rescues a red-haired young woman from an overturned coach in a rain storm, an actress he believes, and convinces her to spend a glorious night with him at an inn.  However, the tables are turned when he meets the young woman again at Harewood Grange, the home of the young woman he is meant to be courting.  Miss Judith Law, daughter of an impovershed vicar, was sent to Harewood to serve as companion to her ailing grandmother.  She is made to wear loose, ill-fitting gowns and caps over her hair, to feel ugly because of her attractiveness, to fetch and carry, and make herself agreeable and grateful (Fanny Price, anyone?).  By accepting Ralf's offer and purporting herself to be an actress, Judith snatched a little bit of happiness to see herself through the drudgery she knew awaited her.  While Slightly Wicked has a more conventional plot, Ralf and Judith are wonderful characters and the mystery of the missing jewelry keeps everything moving.

From Ralf and Judith's wedding we follow the Slightly Scandalous Lady Freyja to Bath.  Free (which is a great nickname) had her heartbroken once by neighbor boy Kit.  She loved him, but Wulf betrothed her to the elder brother, the heir, who died and when Kit came back from the Wars he brought a fiancee he loved with him.  Now that Kit and his wife are expecting Free wants to be anywhere but London and the family seat of Lindsey Hall and weddings.  Of course, adventure finds her on the way to Bath when a strange man bursts into her room in the middle of the night and begs her to hide him.  Joshua Moore, the absolutely scandalous Marquess of Hallmere, is as determined to escape matrimony as Free is herself.  Once in Bath the two combatants verbally joust with one another (Free throws a few of her famous punches) until they concoct a plan to announce a (false) betrothal just to rid themselves of unwanted suitors. 

As usual, false betrothals have a way of becoming permanent.  As it turns out, Joshua's extended family has more secrets and scandals than closets to contain them.  There's murder, pregnant governesses, overbearing aunts, etc., etc.  Overlaid with the continued false betrothal plot the book gets a bit overplotted but still very readable.  While Free isn't terribly likeable in the first two books she becomes one of my very favorite characters here: fierce and absolutely determined to show no fear or hesitation which can come off as brash arrogance to those who don't know her.  Both Joshua and Freyja have been badly burned by life and only very warily come to trust one another.

The next summer Alleyne and Morgan (now "out") find themselves in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo.  When Slightly Tempted opens Morgan is enjoying the social whirl with friends while Alleyne is attached to the diplomatic corps.  Morgan soon catches the eye of a man estranged from the ton, the half-French Gervase Ashford, Earl of Rosthorn, a man who loathes and hates her eldest brother, Wulfric.  Gervase sets out to ruin Morgan to revenge himself on the Duke of Bewcastle.  Before Gervase can fully implement his plan the Battle of Waterloo puts everything at sixes and sevens.  Alleyne is missing in action and Morgan refuses to leave Brussels without him.  As Morgan tends mortally wounded soldiers, Gervase scours the roadsides for her brother.  When she learns Alleyne was likely killed in action in the Forest of Soignes Morgan gives herself to Gervase, seeking comfort for her grief.  Gervase, however, finds that he can no longer bring himself to use Morgan as he had planned.  A lot of air must be cleared before this book comes to an end.

Meanwhile, Alleyne isn't really dead (which may or may not have been a surprise to readers when the series was in publication; knowing there are six books in the series and there are six siblings does give the game away later).  He was hit by musket fire and fell from his horse, hitting his head in the process.  In Slightly Sinful he is rescued by Miss Rachel York, a young lady fallen on hard times due to a swindler and now residing with four lively prostitutes, one being an old friend. When Alleyne wakes, he has no memory of who he really is...but he is instantly attracted to the lovely Rachel whom he mistakes as a "lady of the night" as well.  Eventually, the truth comes out. Rachel is an heiress but she can only claim her jewels when she marries (with her uncle's approval) or turns 25, neither of which are possible solutions to her dilemma, and she desperately needs the jewels to repay her friends their lost savings (also, due to the swindler).  Alleyne comes up with a madcap solution: he will pose as Rachel's husband (under his assumed name of Sir Jonathan Smith since he still can't remember who he is) and the whole lot of them will return to England to convince Rachel's uncle to give her the jewels.

These two were my favorite books in the series.  They run concurrently so once you've read Morgan's book you know what she and Gervase were doing when Alleyne and Rachel were still in Brussels.  The plotting in both books was excellent, most notably in bringing Gervase's backstory to light.  Rachel's four friends (Bridget, her old nurse, Geraldine, Flossie, and Phyllis) are excellent, sweet side-characters.  My only complaint was the constant flipping between using Alleyne and Jonathan in Slightly Sinful.  Although the reader knows that the amnesiac is Alleyne Bedwyn, it took a bit of the mystique away from him by calling him Alleyne during his POV sections and calling him Jonathan during Rachel's.

All of these weddings (and copious re-appearances of all the Bedwyn brothers and sisters and offspring in each of the others' books) leads up to Wulfric's book, Slightly Dangerous.  Nearly a year has passed since Alleyne's wedding and Wulf finds himself feeling more alone than ever.  He lives alone now in the very large, very old Lindsey Hall.  His long-time mistress, who he misses more than he ever thought he would, has died of a lung complaint.  And so, in a moment of rare impsulsiveness, he accepts an invitation from Viscount Mowbray (a bookish, absent-minded, but good-natured friend of-sorts) to attend a house party at his sister Lady Renable's house.  A few weeks of good conversation might be nice.  Unfortunately, the house party turns out to be one of those house parties - full of silly, unmarried chits and swaggering young men in celebration of the youngest Miss Mowbray's engagement.  Amid all these houseguests is one who catches his eye, literally.  Mrs. Derrick (Christine) is an impoverished widowed neighbor and friend of the Renables, invited to even out the dinner table.  She is funny, sunny, impulsive, intelligent, and prone to getting herself into the worst scrapes by accident.  In short, she is very ill-behaved for a member of society, in Wulf's opinion, but he can't figure out why all he wants to do is toss her into bed and have his way with her.  They are absolute complete opposites.  Christine, for her part, is absolutely mortified that fate keeps throwing her into the cold, imperious duke's path.  All she wants to do is go back to her mother's house and her quiet life there where no one will mind if she climbs trees or plays with the children.

Wulf really doesn't endear himself to the reader during the first three books.  He's a bit of a dick to both Eve and Judith at first since neither are "good enough" for duke's sons on paper.  However, Morgan's book began to show a different side of Wulf, one that cares and loves his brothers and sisters even though he was totally separated from them at age twelve to be "trained" as the future Duke of Bewcastle, a title he assumed at age seventeen.  This book really turns Wulf inside-out and Balogh allows her hero to be a complete ass before redeeming himself.  I really liked how neither character "changes" in the course of the book - Wulfric is still outwardly reserved and Christine is still very outgoing but they complement each other (Christine totally got him with the quizzing glass - such a ridiculous affectation and she called him on it when no one else dared).

I really liked all the books in this series.  Apparently, the Bedwyns appear in other Balogh books so I'll have to check those out, too.

05 May 2012

Mirror Mirror

Call me crazy, but I got a hankering to see Tarsem Singh's Mirror, Mirror before it left the theatres.  I've never been disappointed in his visual style...just in the scriptwork (and I'm not too sure where the fault lies in that).

Mirror, Mirror is no different.  Shot composition is excellent.  The use of color made the screen seem like Technicolor made new - bright, showy tones for the Queen's court, warm browns and greens for the dwarves' home.  The costume design, courtesy of the late Eiko Ishioka (her last movie), was fanciful and character-appropriate.  The music - provided by one of my favorite film composers, Alan Menken - brought the fairy-tale charm.  The prologue (voice-over aside) could stand on it's own as a short animated film: ceramic puppetwork that acts out the backstory.

And then there's the script and dialogue work. 

This is marketed as a children's movie.  I get it.  But couldn't Mare Winningham get better dialogue than what she does (and a better character name - Baker Margaret? Is she the lady's maid, too?)?  And couldn't Nathan Lane avoid overtly Nathan Lane lines like "When I was a cockroach a grasshopper tried to take advantage of me!"  Funny...but out of place in this movie.   Armie Hammer suffers from having almost nothing to do except have Julia Roberts fawn over his naked chest (and speaking of that, there were really young kids in my audience and they got super bored during the sexual tension scenes - I was snickering because it was so contrived).

The dialogue and accents were all over the map.  If you're going to build a world, make it believable to some extent.  You can't have Julia Roberts attempting a mid-Atlantic/soft English accent, Armie Hammer as himself (Midwest US), Nathan Lane as himself (Timon the Meerkat all the way), the dwarves all sound like they're from New York, and Lily Collins sounds nothing like her father (who is played by Sean Bean using his own North Yorkshire accent).  And the costumes are vaguely French mid-eighteenth century.

Mirror, Mirror also relies way too heavily on Chekhov's Gun: "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act."  The audience is told in the prologue voice-over (done by Julia Roberts) that we must remember that the King gives Snow his dagger, it will be important later.  There's also overt shots of a certain necklace....this all ties in with the casting: don't advertise that Sean Bean is the King, then keep him out of the action until the last FIVE MINUTES of the film....I had the outcome of the film called once the live action started.  Sorta boring then.  And kids aren't that stupid.

1. Paranorman - eh, still not impressed.
2. Three Stooges - No.  Just....no.  Ugh.
3. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted - this does look cute (and great line in the trailer: You can't drive a car, only people and penguins!)
4. Pirates: Band of Misfits - meh, still not interested
5. Dark Shadows - this looks stupid and I don't remember the TV show as being stupid

04 May 2012

The Avengers!!

Midnight premiere!  Whee!  I'm almost certain we had the theatre full of Joss Wheedon geeks. And Joss Wheedon douchebag fans - had a few of those, too.

With the buildup of the other Marvel movies (Captain America, Thor, two Hulks, and two Iron Men) The Avengers movie was going to succeed or fail on an epic scale.

I'm glad to say that the balance tips in favor of succeed.  Nick Fury's ragtag-ish band of demigods, geniuses, and super-soldiers mixed well.  It's a superhero/comic book movie with a buddy-cop vibe.  Wheedon picked through his characters' big personalities and let them pick on each other: Tony Stark and Bruce Banner trade mild barbs while simultaneously designing a hightech tracking system; Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America beat the tar out of each other school-yard style; Agent Coulson gets a fanboy moment.  As with Wheedon's well-known TV shows, the dialogue is snappy and comebacks crack one after another.

A note for the fanboys and girls out there:  THERE IS NO NEED TO BE THE LOUDEST ASSHOLE IN THE THEATRE.  You like Joss Wheedon, great.  There is no need to yell at the screen during a very poignant moment in the film.  You ruin it for the rest of us.  Save it for the DVD release.

Preview goodness:
1. Prometheus - I. Can. Not. Wait.  Michael Fassbender in an Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott.  Will be amazing.
2. The Amazing Spider-Man - I'm not sure how I feel about this.  I've never been super interested in Spider-Man as a character...I've got friends who are excited about this so I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing this in the theatre.
3. Frankenweenie - What? Oh, Tim Burton has an entire movie based on a meh picture book. Yawn.  I'm so over Tim Burton.
4. The Dark Knight Rises - I feel like the trailers are failing this movie.  Then again, this is a movie that will make serious box office money even if it's terrible.
5. Brave - SQUEEEEE!!!!!!!!!

02 May 2012

An Uncommon Education

The whole Netgalley/Edelweiss thing is new to me - making this my first review of a book read via eARC.

An Uncommon Education

Summary from Goodreads:
Afraid of losing her parents at a young age--her father with his weak heart, her deeply depressed mother--Naomi Feinstein prepared single-mindedly for a prestigious future as a doctor. An outcast at school, Naomi loses herself in books, and daydreams of Wellesley College. But when Teddy, her confidant and only friend, abruptly departs from her life, it's the first devastating loss from which Naomi is not sure she can ever recover, even after her long-awaited acceptance letter to Wellesley arrives.

Naomi soon learns that college isn't the bastion of solidarity and security she had imagined. Amid hundreds of other young women, she is consumed by loneliness--until the day she sees a girl fall into the freezing waters of a lake.

The event marks Naomi's introduction to Wellesley's oldest honor society, the mysterious Shakespeare Society, defined by secret rituals and filled with unconventional, passionate students. Naomi finally begins to detach from the past and so much of what defines her, immersing herself in this exciting and liberating new world and learning the value of friendship. But her happiness is soon compromised by a scandal that brings irrevocable consequences. Naomi has always tried to save the ones she loves, but part of growing up is learning that sometimes saving others is a matter of saving yourself.

"An Uncommon Education" is a compelling portrait of a quest for greatness and the grace of human limitations. Poignant and wise, it artfully captures the complicated ties of family, the bittersweet inevitability of loss, and the importance of learning to let go.

Elizabeth Percer's writing style is lovely.  She sets exterior scenes so well, as if she were painting rather than writing.  Those were my favorite parts of the book.

Most of this novel is very good and compelling especially once Naomi reaches Wellesley. Unfortunately, there's a lot of backstory and unpacking of childhood incidences to get through first. I was very uninterested in Naomi's story for about the first 120 pages - I just couldn't connect the pieces to understand her father's obsession with Rose Kennedy/the Rose Kennedy house, her father's heart attack, her friendship/first love with the neighbor boy, her mother's depression, etc. Naomi is a bit like the literary version of the manic-pixie-dream-girl from the movies: she has a photographic memory, she's smart, she's determined, she's quirky.

Once the story moves to Naomi's years at Wellesley the plotting of the novel is better.  The twists and turns of roommates and cliques is universal whether one attends an Ivy or a state school.  I could identify with the insularity of the Shakespeare Club because I also belong to a secret society.  So I really liked those later sections of An Uncommon Education.  I just felt the first section of the book bogged down early.

Dear FTC: I received an electronic advance reader copy of this novel.

01 May 2012

No Longer a Gentleman: a mini-review

Grey Summers, Lord Wyndam, has been stuck in gaol somewhere in France for nearly a decade for the singular offence of dallying with a married woman whilst spying for England.  Oops.  Fellow spy Cassie Fox (obviously, not her real name) is sent to spring him from his hellhole.

No Longer a Gentleman is the fourth book in the Lost Lords series by Mary Jo Putney.  Although I hadn't read the other three books, this one was fairly easy to follow (except the whole school/Hindu fighting style thing, that took a bit to figure out - Kirkland's spy network was not).

The plot had a very Count of Monte Cristo vibe with the "10 years in a cell with a priest to keep you company" plot device right down to Gray's penchant for revenge (although not as elaborate). Cassie was an interesting heroine and it was nice to see Putney attempt to work in some of the grittier aspects of the reality being an orphaned English girl during the French Revolution. OK, well, it wasn't "nice" but it grounded the narrative in a unique way.

The serious complaint is that it's too predictable, even for a romance novel. You know that Cassie will get Gray out of his hellhole, that they'll fall into lust then love, that Gray's family will accept him back without reservations, that Cassie will (in a plot move worthy of Dickens) be find her long-lost relatives, and that Cassie and Gray will wind up having to go back to France for the denoument of the novel. That last bit would have gone better if the reader hadn't been given the villain's point-of-view - that was unnecessary.  The novel was enjoyable, but I don't know if I'll go back and read the first three.