Saturday, October 12, 2013

Advanced Review: The Sum of All Kisses by Julia Quinn (4 stars, historical)




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Thoughts After Reading:
I’ve never had an “auto-buy” list. Even if I like an author, I like to research what the individual story is about - there are plenty of plots that simply do not appeal to me. Often times I’ll pick and choose books even within a series. The one time this rule does not hold true is with Julia Quinn. I’ve read every book she’s written, and will probably continue to do so for the rest of her writing career. Regardless of the storyline, I know it will be a book worth my time.

In many ways, The Sum of All Kisses is classic Quinn.  From the first page onward, there is an abundance of wordplay – wit, irony, sarcasm, it’s all there. Clever dialogue is one of my favorite characteristics of a book, and Quinn certainly knows how to put it to good use. She never misses an opportunity to reference the Smythe-Smith “talents,” with predictably humorous results. The plot is spaced out nicely, with most of the relationship tension being resolved after the major conflict – in my opinion, the right way to do it. The overall plot is quite interesting, as well. The reader gets a unique look at “the duel” from Hugh’s perspective - why it happened and the aftereffects from his side. As a result of the duel, the heroine - Sarah Pleinsworth – has developed a hatred of Hugh… and Hugh has never particularly liked her back. The plot consists of these two getting to know each other over the course of a couple weddings, and finding out there’s a lot more to like about the other than they had realized.

Although there were many good things about the novel, there are two major complaints I had. The first is the characters. Because this is essentially an enemies-to-lovers theme, the characters do not come off immediately as appealing. In fact, Quinn seems to do too good of a job at making the characters unlikable. The hero thinks the heroine is a bit shrewish and prone to dramatics because she really is a bit shrewish and prone to the dramatics. The heroine thinks the hero is somewhat standoffish and made a very horrible decision because he is, and he did. To be fair, the characters are eventually made rounded and given appropriate development. But a good 20% of the novel has to be waded through before the progression can even begin. I was also disappointed with the conflict. The story was moving along without any problems, and Quinn tends to be consistent. So – like clockwork – a conflict pops up at the 70% mark. Unfortunately, it was not a very believable issue. It truly felt like the issue was suddenly thrown in there just to have a roadblock. Following this is a kidnapping scene employed straight out the pages of a Minerva Press novel, and an unsatisfactory resolution is given to an unsatisfactory conflict.


I enjoyed Julia Quinn’s latest work, as I always do. The clever quips and comedic dialogue found in The Sum of All Kisses kept me smiling throughout. Most parts of the story were written excellently, and I applaud Quinn yet again for carefully handling the romantic development. There were some issues I had with the story, and I don’t think this was one of Quinn’s best efforts. But overall, a more-than-decent read.


*I received a free review copy of this novel.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I’m going to stop blogging

I have made the decision to stop writing blog posts. As much as I continue to enjoy sharing the thoughts on my latest read, by having a blog I have begun to feel obligated to write a detailed review for every book I read. And that, over the past months, has become a significant time commitment. I’ll still write reviews over at Goodreads, albeit mostly very brief reviews. So I hope I’ll be able to keep up with my book friends that way :). I have posted the ten remaining reviews that I hadn’t had a chance to publish yet. And on that note, I just wanted to say that I've appreciated everyone who has read and commented on my review posts.

Sincerely,
Chris


Ravished by Amanda Quick (5+ stars, historical)



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Thoughts After Reading:
It has been a long time since I've read a novel by Amanda Quick. I tried a couple of her books a few years back, and was not impressed. However, it seems I've been missing out on some excellent storytelling - Quick's novel Ravished is one of the most perfect romance novels I've ever read. It is a charming, sweet, and quite frankly hilarious take on the beauty-and-beast motif. I enjoyed every moment of witty dialogue, most particularly the constant give-and-take by the protagonists. Intertwined with this genuinely developed romance was an action-filled mystery storyline that included not one, not two, but a total of three separate villains. What more could a reader ask for?

For the first time since he had arrived, she appeared to comprehend the fact that Gideon was not altogether pleased by the meeting she had arranged. She tried a tentative smile. "Forgive me, my lord. Was my letter a shade peremptory in tone?"
"That is putting it mildly, Miss Pomeroy."
She nibbled briefly on her lower lip, studying him intently. "I will admit that I have a slight tendency to be a bit, shall we say, blunt?"
"Forceful might be a better word. Or perhaps demanding. Even tyrannical."

The heroine is undoubtedly the highlight of the novel. The twenty-four year old daughter of a deceased vicar, she has no expectations of a London season. But then again, she doesn't particularly care. Her life's passion is paleontology, and the only thing that excites her more than talking about a latest find is digging up a new fossil herself. In addition to being a bit of a chatterbox, she has - conversely - both a flair for the dramatics as well as a refreshingly open personality. The book opens with the hero visiting the heroine in response to her letter involving a "dark menace" that must be handled with "grave discretion." It turns that she has discovered a robber is using a cave to stash his goods - the same cave she explores to unearth remains. So, as the hero is the manor lord of the area, she politely demands that he takes care of the problem immediately and keeps her informed to the progress. As everyone knows, fossil collectors are an unscrupulous lot and may take over "her" cave. For the hero's part, he is greatly entertained by the truly one-of-a-kind woman. He is an unusually large man and has a large scar on his cheek, which the heroine doesn't seem to be bothered by, but most of his "Beastly" persona is not physical. Instead, he is given the nickname "The Beast of Blackthorne Hall" after being blamed for a tragedy he was not responsible for, a responsibility that everyone - including his parents - believe. Even the heroine starts to wonder about the rumors, but - as she is a woman who let's a person's actions stand for themselves - quickly ascertains that the hero is a man of honor. And once she figures that out, she remains staunchly loyal to the hero - repeatedly defending his honor with conviction. The storyline includes the well-used forced marriage resulting from an accidental compromise, but that's about the only thing conventional about it. The steadily growing relationship between the main characters is a joy to watch as they become close friends and proceed to singlehandedly take on the ton, side by side. The romance subplot is blessedly free of angst, and even the small romance conflict makes the appealing choice of comedy over misunderstandings. The heroine doesn't cry or run away, she gives the hero the silent treatment. Trust me, it's funny. The action and mystery sequences keep the reader even further engaged.

Amanda Quick's Ravished is one of those rare books I absolutely loved. The intelligent humor kept me laughing throughout without it becoming a truly lighthearted or silly read. Ever character, protagonist or otherwise, was given a delightfully unique personality. The romance was excellent, the mystery was excellent, the final resolutions were excellent - hell, everything was excellent. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel if you haven't read it already.

Rebel with a Cause by Carol Arens (4 stars, Western)



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Rating: 


Setting: 
  • Cedar County, Nebraska. 1881.

Characters: 
  • Heroine: It becomes clear to the reader almost immediately that the heroine is a true romantic, in the Tom Sawyer definition of the word. She sees misfortunes as grand adventures, finds beauty in the little things, and believes in the magic of life. It's easy to initially view the heroine as an airhead, with her naive views that stem from dime novels and her whimsical choices that could have disastrous outcomes. But as the story unfolds, the heroine's better qualities subtly come to light - the fact that she's eager for her sister to vicariously share in her adventures through writing, for example. Or that she's surprisingly cognizant to the repercussions of her actions, and staunchly sticks to her beliefs. And it's hard not to grin at the heroine's ability to wrap everyone she meets around her finger.
  • Hero: The hero is all the heroine could ask for in a man of the west. He's ruggedly handsome, about as honest as they come, and dependably chivalrous regardless of the inconvenience. He's a bit of a tortured hero, choosing the lonely and deplored life of a bounty hunter as a form of self-inflicted penance for not being after to save his mother's life. However, the hero's shell of unhappiness and cynicism is eventually worn down by the heroine's vibrancy.

Plot: 
  • The heroine and her twin sister have been adventurous hoydens since birth. But after a carriage accident two years ago - one that resulted in her father's death and her sister's paralysis - things haven't been the same. The heroine's mother and older brother have tried to fit the women into the restricted confines of Boston society, and it isn't working. So the heroine runs off to the west, with a brand new journal to capture all of her daily adventures and share them with her sister. Her only companion is a purebred Maltese lapdog named "Muff."
  • The hero stumbles upon the heroine fighting an outlaw in only her shift, as her dress was recently eaten by a cow. He is obligated to rescue her from the impending storm instead of catching the man he's after, and - with that auspicious start - their romance begins. The relationship develops authentically as the protagonists bicker, exasperate, and gradually open up to each other. The hero tries unsuccessfully to set the heroine up in towns and then leave several times, resisting what the heroine already realizes - that their relationship is forever.

What I did like: 
  • The lightheartedness. With a heroine named Missy and a dog named Muff, I knew right away that this wasn't a novel to be taken too seriously. And that was fine with me. Instead, what I found was a very enjoyable story of the old west. The heroine's thoughts and exploits are hilarious from the very first chapter, and the plot action never slows down. 
  • The characterizations. Both the hero and heroine are shown to be well developed characters, even if the hero's reasoning for continuing his job seemed a little unconvincing. What I found particularly enjoyable, however, was the heroine. It was just so much fun reading about the larger-than-life character and her pipsqueak dog.

What I did not like: 
  • The artistic license. While I mostly okay with the author discarding realism in favor of humor and fun, there were still moments when I winced - if this hadn't been fictionland, the heroine's actions could have had terrible consequences.
  • The final conflict and resolution. The main reason I lowered my rating for the novel was the ending. The conflict was particularly disappointing, as the heroine acts completely out of character in order to force some drama between the main characters. And the sudden resolution to aforementioned inane conflict was fairly corny as well.

Overall: 
  • I thoroughly enjoyed Carol Arens' Rebel with a Cause. Although the novel has its weaknesses, they can easily be overlooked by the abundant humor, admirable hero, and ridiculously charming heroine. It's a lighthearted western romp I definitely recommend.

*There were a couple of sensual scenes in this novel, but the actual consummation was mostly skipped over.

Review: Family Man by Carol Carson (3 stars, Western)



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Rating: 

Setting: 
  • Drover, Kansas. 1888.
Characters: 
  • Heroine: The heroine seems like a "take charge" kind of girl, trying to do the best for her nephews despite being overwhelmed. She has always seen herself as a plain Jane, and has a bit of trouble understanding male attention.
  • Hero: The hero ran with a bad crowd when he was younger, and tried to rustle cattle from the heroine's brother. After spending five years in jail, he comes back to the brother's farm in an attempt to make amends. His loneliness in jail has taught him a new appreciation of life, and - while he's never taken care of children before - settles quite easily in being a responsible, father-like figure.
Plot: 
  • Between raising her brother's abandoned nephews and taking care of his run down farm, the heroine has her hands full. To make matters worse, the heroine is afraid she might be dying - her monthly courses have stopped (and she's not pregnant). In desperation, she puts out an ad looking for a "family man" who can take care of the farm and children if she dies. The hero shows up, looking for the heroine's brother to make amends. When he learns about the heroine's situation, he fills the position and starts helping out around the farm in an effort to right his wrongs.
  • The hero settles into the farm life right away, fondly taking care of the children and doing his best to help out where needed. The protagonists clearly start to have deeper feelings for each other almost from the start, but before the wedding eventually happens the storyline meanders quite a bit with a fair amount of repressed feelings and a brief love triangle. Further drama ensues as the hero's former compatriots try to steal cattle from the hero's neighbor, and the hero is implicated in his efforts to stop it.
What I did not like: 
  • Most of the storyline. While the plot starts out promising, the author seems to quickly run out of new things to write about. So instead, the plot listlessly moves forward with silly situations and inane disagreements until the conflicts are finally resolved towards the end.
  • The neighbor. The neighbor plays a really weird role in the story. He's never showed the heroine any attention before the hero shows up, but then becomes a major competitor for her hand. There are several silly-to-the-point-of-being-stupid scenes as the hero and neighbor interact. And the heroine encourages his courtship, although she still wants to marry the hero. To make the hero jealous, I guess? I don't know, it was strange. But then when the neighbor suddenly sees the heroine's sister naked, he forgets all about the heroine and falls in "love" with the sister. He also almost kills the hero when he thinks that the hero stole his cattle, and urges everyone to have the hero hanged. Yeah...
  • The heroine's physical appearance. Everyone seems to think the heroine is plain, including both the hero and the heroine. Yet the hero also lusts after the heroine's womanly figure from he first moment he sees her, and the neighbor starts to lust for her as well. It all seems rather incongruous.
  • The mind-numbing romantic conflicts. The heroine is warmed by the hero's actions, is attracted to him, and frequently tells herself that she wants to marry him. Yet she repeatedly turns him down. And even when she finally agrees, she states firmly that she doesn't love him and she's only doing it "for the children." Oh, and she wants to make love with him... yet she's terrified of the wedding night. The hero is almost as bad, clearly smitten by the heroine yet tells himself he is marrying her to make amends for his youthful behavior. I can't stop rolling my eyes. The final romantic conflict is fairly annoying as well, basically consisting of the heroine being miffed the hero didn't tell her about his past. Even though he tried to before, and she told him she didn't care. Way to be consistent, lady.

What I did like: 
  • The beginning of the story. The first part of the novel was undoubtedly the best. It was also kinda silly, but it a sweet way. The main characters fall effortlessly for each other and the hero demonstrates his softer side.
  • The lightheartedness. While I thought the book was far too silly in places, the easygoing romance was enjoyable at times.

Overall: 
  • Carol Carson's Family Man was a rather disappointing western romance. The characters and majority of the storyline were all over the place, and their actions were lighthearted to the point of often being unrealistic and unappealing. The romance is never well developed, and the development that does occur happens almost right away - allowing for little to happen for the majority of the book. I feel it would have worked better as a novella, rather than a full-length novel with an unappealing plot. I cannot recommend it.

*There is one love scene in the book. Quite mild in content.

Snowdrops and Scandalbroth by Barbara Metzger (4 stars, traditional)



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Thoughts After Reading:
Every time I read one of Barbara Metzger’s novels that I end up hating, I’ll wonder to myself why I continue to read her works. But then I’ll find one of her traditionals where everything comes together perfectly – the characters, the humor, the happy ending – and she’ll be instantly added back to my list of favorite authors. Metzger’s Regency romance Snowdrops and Scandalbroth isn’t quite this paragon of a novel, but it comes pretty close. I admired the characters, I loved that their relationship was an odd mixture of lightheartedness and authenticity, and I enjoyed the mostly well-placed comic relief. So even if the romantic development was a bit light, and the second half a bit too silly for my liking, as a whole the novel was an excellent read.

I felt for the hero of Snowdrops and Scandalbroth, I really did. He is a man of honor and principles, and one of those principles is that he wants to wait until marriage for sex. It is this particular problem that causes him a great deal of grief. His ex-fiance, angry at him for ending the engagement because she is much more promiscuous than he, starts rumors about the hero being gay. He eventually feels that he has only two options: join the military and prove his masculinity, or compromise his morals. So he chooses the military. Even after the hero returns as a decorated soldier, however, his hard-earned respect by the ton still hangs upon a thread. He needs something that would solidify his social standing as a virile man. What he needs is a fake mistress. Enter the heroine. The heroine is a country miss without any wealth, after her parents died unexpectedly. I think she can best be described a generally easygoing woman that also has spunk. Too proud to accept charity from the local vicar indefinitely, the heroine takes a governess position in London. Her travel is beset by difficulties involving a jewel robber, and she arrives in London several days late alone and without a means of transportation.  The hero finds her being accosted by two drunk men, and hurries to her rescue. The hero and heroine butt heads and argue a bit, but the hero – ever the consummate gentleman – helps her find safe housing by bringing her to live with his old nanny. After a bit of back and forth, the heroine accepts the hero’s proposition to be his pretend mistress at a Courtesan ball… assuming that he wants a fake mistress because his war injuries have led him to be unable to perform. Some of the romantic development that follows is relayed, rather than shown through the characters’ actions. Nonetheless, it is very enjoyable to watch the protagonists get along perfectly at times, bicker strongly at others, and demonstrate a growing affection for each other. There is some nonsense at the middle of the story when the hero proposes with words of duty, rather than his growing love. I found this a bit odd, given his romanticized views of love. Nonetheless, the plot action that follows is humorously lighthearted, and I loved that the hero refused to give up on the heroine. Everything is tied up nicely in an endearing and triumphant ending.

Barbara Metzger’s Snowdrops and Scandalbroth was not my absolute favorite of her novels, but it certainly ranks up there. I loved how the characters were portrayed, particularly the hero. The romance was sweet and believable, the storyline was lively, and I enjoyed most of the humor. Throw on a great HEA, and the result is an excellent traditional Regency novel.

Review: When She Said I Do by Celeste Bradley (1 star, historical)



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Rating: 

Setting: 
  • Cotswolds, England. 1816.

Characters: 
  • Heroine: Unwed at the age of thirty, the heroine is mostly definitely a spinster despite her extreme beauty. It is alluded that the reason for her spinsterhood is that she has been busy taking charge of her immense family, rather than ever having a season. She is one of those characters that are wonderful nearly to the point of disbelief. Her mix of determination, welcoming eagerness, and just a tad bit of manipulation is exactly what the hero needs.
  • Hero: True to his "Beast" inspiration, the hero has been severely scared. Physical scars, when someone tried to murder him with a pike, but also emotional scars from being betrayed by a member of the spy network he belonged to. He feels quite a bit of self-loathing as he progresses in the physical relationship he has with the heroine, even though he always demonstrates restraint in her presence. For the most part, he is a good guy that struggles to feel any self worth.

Plot: 
  • The heroine and her family enter a seemly deserted estate, to recover from a near drowning experience. The heroine explores the house, idly playing with some jewels. The hero comes upon her, believing her to be a figment of his alcohol-addled brain. He makes a proposal in jest of the "angel" obeying one of his commands for every pearl, and starts to fondle her. One of the heroine's brothers finds them, and challenges the hero to a duel. The hero is perfectly resigned to be killed. However, the heroine does not want her brother to kill a man - so she gets the hero to agree to a marriage, with the same conditions of the pearls that he made before.
  • The plot progression spends almost as much time in the bedroom as it does outside it, as the heroine brings the hero out of his shell and he quickly comes to feel this woman is much too good for him. Yet he also rises to her challenges, rescues her when necessary, drives her mad with passion, and appears to be just the man for her. Much of the external conflict resolves around someone trying to kill the heroine.

What I did like: 
  • The romance development. It was significantly more physical than I would have preferred, and I didn't  completely understand the subtle layer of domination/submission within the relationship. But it is undeniable that Bradley crafts a moving romance of redemption, as the heroine breaths new meaning into the hero's life and she finds unexpected love.
  • The humor. The characters' thoughts, particularly those of the heroine, were frequently hilarious.
  • The writing. Even when the characters are at their most absurd, Bradley does an exception job of creating meaningful characterizations and deep emotions. I just hate that this skillful writing is later used to jerk around the reader's emotions.

What I did not like: 
  • The absurdity. So much absurdity. As much as I dislike it, I understand that sometimes authors like to operate outside the bounds of historical reality. But I really felt that Bradley pushed the limits of my disbelief. Such as with Mr. Button. I don't really know the whole history of Button in relation to Bradley's books, but - what I do know of the history of Regency England - suggests that it would be highly improper for a woman to take off her dress and allow a strange man to take her measurements. This, along with the close friendship they develop, would make almost any real husband jealous - particularly an insecure husband (like the hero), and most particularly in a time where men and women were not easily friends. But instead, the hero takes to Button as quickly as the heroine does and no mention of the improprieties are made. I also became annoyed with the whole Worthington brood. I understand that the plot wouldn't be as rich without the crazy family - hell, the family is the basis for the entire series. At the same time, though, their extreme antics boggled my mind. [Spoiler] One of the reviews on Goodreads mentioned their frustration with the heroine's sister shooting the heroine, and before reading the book I couldn't really understand. But now I am in complete sympathy with that reviewer - I though it was tremendously insane that a twelve year old is poisoning and shooting at a man. It's possible, I suppose, even in the repressed Regency world. But also crazy. Similarly, I felt almost like I was reading historical fantasy (or steampunk or something) by the time the family pulled out a strange, mechanical machine in the middle of a ball. And speaking of a ball, since when is an entire village invited to a noble's ball? Or openly belligerent to the lord and lady of the manor, for that matter? I found all these unusual elements to be off-putting in the extreme, rather than anachronistically charming.
  • The external conflict. If you've ever read a historical by Lynsay Sands, you've probably read a book where someone is trying to murder the main character. But they want to make it look like an accident, so they botch it up repeatedly until the conflict can be concluded at the end. It's not a very good external conflict, having been used many times before. But it is particularly bad in this book because the "villain" is portrayed as almost "accidentally" trying to kill to the heroine. Yeah, right.
  • The first major romantic conflict. Early on in the novel, I told myself I was going to love this book - as long as the author did not do something stupid at the end. So what does Bradley do? She uses one of the most cliche romantic conflicts possible - the hero lashes out in anger, and suddenly hurt feelings abound. The heroine leaves, then she stays. The hero loses faith in her, but only until she's seriously injured - then suddenly he realizes how much she means to him.
  • The second major romantic conflict. After the first major romantic conflict, I didn't think things could possibly become worse. But then Bradley uses something even more trite than the first conflict - the hero tries to break the heroine's heart with lies, because it's "for her own good." Gee golly, I've never heard that one before. This situation was particularly inane because it make no damn sense whatsoever. The hero's actions at the end are completely contradictory with his actions for the entire rest of the story, just so he can screw up and be forgiven in the last few pages. I was thoroughly disgusted.
  • The moments when the heroine lusts after a handsome man other than her husband. It's a small thing, and I quite aware that harmless fantasy happens in the minds of real life spouses. But still, I feel that readers would be a little less forgiving if it had been the hero that was fantasizing about a beautiful naked woman who was not his wife, rather than the other way around.


Overall: 
  • There was so much to Celeste Bradley's When She Said I Do that I loved. She manages to instill a great deal of authenticity in this beauty and the beast marriage of convenience that turns into everlasting love. The relationship progression is endearing, intelligently humorous, and passionate.  But all of that - the genuine romance, the well developed characters - made the mangled ending even more devastating. By the time all the drama finally played out, I no longer cared one whit about the protagonists. And to me, that is the worst kind of romance novel possible.

*There are numerous explicit love scenes in the novel.
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