Tag Archives: Anne Stuart

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Some days, I feel horrible that I write such honest reviews. If there was ever a trio of writers I’d want to throw roses at, it would be Julia Quinn, Anne Stuart, and Kate Perry. (Kate, especially, because I met her and she’s a lovely, bubbly woman; I hope she doesn’t crucify me for my opinions.)

Yet I would not be doing my (self-appointed) task and I would be ignoring all my training—in comparative literature and in copyediting—if I didn’t point out certain elements that bother me on a visceral level.

These things probably don’t disturb other readers. Then again, other readers may not see the same missed opportunities. And nothing makes me angrier, I think, than missed opportunities: they separate the decent texts from the glorious ones.

 

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

 

Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece (1984; reprinted 2012) 

I don’t know what to make Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece. It’s a pity because I liked one of her other novels. I like the concept of a romance set in the San Francisco art scene, too.

Molly McDonough is a buyer for the fictional San Francisco Museum of American Arts. She’s a dedicated professional who puts tons of effort into checking the provenance of the pieces she recommends. She grows outraged when another buyer starts snapping up all the good pieces, which drives the prices out of the museum’s reach.

Her competitor is James Eliot, a buyer who works for an extremely rich private collector. In a fit of pique, Molly drafts an insulting letter to her nemesis, accusing him of unethical buying tactics. She writes a polite version too, but in her irritated state, she accidentally sends James Eliot the wrong letter.

The letter gets James’s attention, and soon they start bumping heads more often. They argue over everything, from heirloom pieces to modern art. So far, so good. The book has many visual art references, and that’s great. What isn’t so great, however, is the romance itself.

I suppose I should call Museum Piece a contemporary romance. Yet it was written (and probably set) in 1984, and some of the details make the book oddly quaint by today’s sartorial standards. For instance, the heroine unironically uses a typewriter and wears sexy jumpsuits to dinner parties. Okay, so maybe to a reader in 2014, this might acceptable hipster behavior.

What isn’t acceptable, however, is the hero’s gross sexual behavior. When James first meets Molly, he pretty much forces his tongue down her throat. Later on, when she happens to fall asleep in his presence, he starts groping her even when she already made it clear she didn’t want to be touched.

Worst of all, at one point where Molly starts swearing at him, James actually turns her over in his lap and starts spanking her. His spanking is in earnest, mind you—it’s not play-spanking, and it’s not consensual. The heroine actually starts crying, and she promises never to curse again.

Eww.

I seriously wonder why the publishers reprinted this one.

I know fashions change fairly quickly. Yet some concepts—oh, like mutual consent—never goes out of style.

It makes me sad that the best character in Museum Piece is probably Sebastian Coddaire, Molly’s ex-boyfriend. Sebastian’s a fabulous caricature of a rising young artist. He’s so selfish, he thinks Molly exists to feed and house him so he can create his masterpieces. As a person, he’s almost as bad as the hero; as a character, at least he’s amusing.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I have to say that copies of Museum Piece belong in a private collector’s locked vault: not because it’s so precious, but so the novel goes unread by the unsuspecting masses.

heat meter: four chilis          final rating: bash

 

Kate Perry’s Say You Will (2013)

The first installment of the Summerhill series, Say You Will is a contemporary romance that features Rosalind Summerhill, a San Francisco-based fashion designer with major family issues.

Rosalind just flew back to London to be with her sisters (they’re all named after Shakespearean heroines), in time for the funeral of their father, Reginald Summerhill, the late Earl of Amberlin. The dearly departed was a jerk to most of his family, and he openly humiliated his wife Jacqueline with a longtime mistress, Tabitha Wells.

At the wake, Rosalind spots a good-looking man who turns out to be Nicholas “Nick” Long, a Formula One race car driver (and occasional endorser of designer underwear) in the crowd. Nick just happens to be Tabitha Wells’ step-son, and he was dragged to the wake incognito by Summer Wells. Summer is the earl’s illegitimate daughter, and she’s always been curious about all of her half-siblings she’s never met.

Nick’s immediately attracted to Rosalind but he goes along with Summer’s idea not to reveal their reason for attending the wake. So Nick pretends to be a lawyer (!) while Summer pretends to need a wedding dress (!!) and she asks Rosalind to design her one.

Aside from all these little white lies, the main conflict of Say You Will revolves around a missing will. Jacqueline Summerhill announces that she’s worried that Reginald left the bulk of the estate to Tabitha. Since Tabitha died in the same car crash as Reginald, her heirs might inherit everything.

Instead of doing the sensible thing in this situation, which would be to hire some lawyers and some private detectives, the Summerhill sisters decide to investigate for themselves. Rosalind takes charge, and the silliness reaches its pinnacle when the sisters break into the dead woman’s house. Instead of finding the will, Rosalind finds photos of her new boyfriend Nick and his step-sister all over the place.

If there ever was a moment meant for epic face palming, that would be it.

There’s a certain flatness about the escapades of Rosalind and Nick. For people with glamorous day jobs, both of them are bland people who only seem mildly acquainted with their work. It strains a reader’s credulity: if Rosalind is a top fashion designer, how come she’s never seen Nick before, who has underwear billboards plastered everywhere? Granted, she designs wedding gowns, but still.

Strangely enough, the most interesting section of Say You Will doesn’t involve a Summerhill sister, but a receptionist named Em Shepherd, who works at Summer Well’s law firm.

Em is convinced that she’s in love with Ben Cooke, a man who runs the local nursery. Even if she hates gardening, she volunteers all the time to be near Ben. Her horrible childhood left her scarred and Em thinks she needs a stable guy to complete her. The lady doth protests too much, though, because Em’s also attracted to Joe Winslow, a lawyer who has a big crush on her.

One character—Summer Wells—holds the two romances together, tenuously; yet the two stories aren’t counterpoints to each other in any way. It’s not like Couple A are hot and steamy while Couple B are sweet and tentative. (Do you know who mastered this trope? Iris Johansen. Read her old romances, like Midnight Warrior and Storm Winds, to see what I mean.) In the case of Say You Will, it’s almost as if they were two separate narratives crammed into the same space.

While many might find the concept of the Summerhill sisters charming, I’d have to say I enjoyed reading about Em more. Her sections of the novel felt more sincere and heartfelt, and I really wish more pages were spent on her story.

heat meter: three chilis          rating: borrow for Em

 

Julia Quinn’s Ten Things I Love about You (2010)

This reader’s confession: I’ve read more Julia Quinn than I’ve ever reviewed. Unfortunately, I made notes while reading a Quinn novel I feel ambivalent about. I feel like I have to apologize to the universe for this happenstance, this quirk of fate.

I digress.

Ten Things I Love about You focuses on a weird love triangle between a voluptuous but impoverished debutante, a gross old earl, and the earl’s heir presumptive.

The debutante in question is Annabel Winslow. She has the misfortune of being groomed to marry the earl of Newbury, a man old enough to be her grandfather. The earl is on the lookout for a nubile bride, since he’s determined to leave his estate to someone other than his much-hated nephew, Sebastian Grey.

Sebastian and Annabel meet under unusual circumstances, far away from a ballroom. After escaping her elderly suitor’s groping hands, Annabel stumbles upon a stranger who just finished a liaison with another woman. Loitering in the dark heath, Annabel and Sebastian don’t exchange names, they talk, and then they share a single kiss.

The next day, Annabel realizes her mistake once she finds out the identity of her handsome stranger. Like a dimwit, she tries to conceal her engagement to the earl when she’s formally introduced to Sebastian. And then things happen…

Ten Things I Love about You picks up What Happens in London ends. (It scares me that I actually know this without thinking too deeply about it.) Harry and Olivia Valentine show up and they’re happily married. Sarah Gorely’s gothic novels make a re-appearance too, since it’s revealed to be Sebastian Grey’s pen name. Yes, we have another secret writer on our hands, folks.

These elements usually make up a stellar Quinn novel, yet the novel itself feels lacking. The love triangle is unconvincing; it’s more like a tug of war between the two men. They have issues beyond both of them wanting Annabel. If I was in the heroine’s position, I’d dump them both. Nobody likes to be treated like the spoils of war…right?

Speaking of wars, Sebastian Grey is yet another Regency hero who suffers from bad nightmares, due to the number of people he shot during the Napoleonic wars. While this subplot is underdeveloped, one can reasonably expect that the heroine’s magic hoo ha will provide the ultimate cure.

Perhaps the cynicism of that last statement is misguided; perhaps I’m tired of the trope that love and sex can put an end to PTSD.

heat meter: three chilis           final rating: borrow (if you really like Julia Quinn) otherwise bash 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

This month’s installment features two early novels from my favorite romance writers, and a new title from someone I haven’t read before.

There are some spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something. 

 

Loretta Chase’s Knaves’ Wager (1990; reprinted 2013)

Knaves’ Wager focuses on a seemingly intelligent man making a stupid bet.

Lord Robert’s embarrassing the family by living with Elise, his scheming French mistress. Everyone thinks she’s just out to con the family and Lord Julian, the Marquis of Brandon, is finally called in to control his younger brother.

In his attempt to separate the two lovers, Lord Julian makes a dumb wager with Elise: if Lord Julian can seduce the virtuous Mrs. Lilith Davenant in eight weeks, Elise will leave Lord Robert and return all of his blackmail-worthy love letters. If Lord Julian fails, Elise will get everything she wants: marriage, perhaps, but most definitely money.

Lilith, however, might be the last woman to succumb to Lord Julian’s charms. She’s a virtuous widow who blames Lord Julian for her husband’s early death by dissipation. It doesn’t help that her husband owes Lord Julian thousands of pounds, and Lilith feels obligated to re-pay the debts despite her dwindling finances. To top it off, Lilith just accepted her perennial suitor, Sir Thomas Bexley, a baronet with political ambitions.

Lord Julian, however, relishes the challenge that Lilith presents. As the London season gets underway, Lilith keeps bumping into Lord Julian—whether by accident or not—and despite her better judgment, she’s attracted to him.

All these encounters brings Lilith’s spunky niece, Cecily Glenwood, to Lord Robert’s attention. He begins to realize he may not want to marry his mistress after all!

Knaves’ Wager might be more complicated than the average romance novel: it has well-developed characters and two love triangles. It somewhat reminds me of Mansfield Park. I think the connection is a deliberate one, as Lord Julian gives Lilith a copy of the book with the inscription “may life with your ‘Edmund Betram’ be truly happily ever after.” (I’m not sure if that’s a dig at Edmund―I love Edmund!―Fanny Price really loved Edmund!) Perhaps the “evil” of not marrying for love is the whole point of the literary reference.

I digress, though.

Knaves’ Wager is a quaint artifact from Loretta Chase’s early career. Like The English Witch, I dug this book out from the bowels of the Oakland Public Library, and once again I was surprised by the lack of sex. There were ample opportunities to insert sexy scenes into the novel without wrecking the plot, but I get the feeling that Chase was being held back (by an editor or a publisher) regarding the amount of sensuality allowed. If anyone out there ever wants to write Loretta Chase fanfiction, Knave’s Wager would be the place to start.

heat meter: one           final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s Angel (1984; Kindle edition 2010) 

Angel might be Dunn’s homage to Jane Austen: the eponymous character has twice the schemes of Emma Woodhouse and half the brains of Katherine Morland. It’s a truly frightful combination.

Lady Evangelina Brenthaven’s gotten eighteen marriage proposals and yet she’s  rejected them all. Bored with polite society and eager to find out if anyone would like her if she wasn’t titled and rich, Angel disguises herself with drab clothes and an assumed name. With her indulgent parents’ permission, Angel passes herself off as plain Evelyn Brand while on a country holiday with her cousins.

Angel finds play-acting fun until she realizes her cousins expect her to stay in character—they want her to do house chores and defer to the social rank of their neighbors! Not much can keep Angel’s spirits down, however, as she starts making matches for her cousin Catherine and Lady Elizabeth Markham, the daughter of a local lord.

The neighborhood is abound with eligible gentlemen, so Angel has many candidates for her friends: there’s Sir Gregory, Lady Elizabeth’s cousin; Lord Welch; Gerald Leigh, the nice but poor vicar; and the mysterious limping Mr. Marshall.

With so many men introduced as potential love interests, Angel becomes an entangled mess. Not content with a simple love triangle, this novel has a love dodecahedron. Throw in a ton of Shakespearean references, a priest hole, an attempted murder, a missing heir and voilà! Subplot madness.

This is the first Carola Dunn romance that disappointed me. Perhaps I should have lowered my expectations, seeing that Angel was only her second novel and that I had read her more polished historical romances first. Angel lacks the passion of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, the fleshed-out characters of The Improper Governess or Lord Iverbrook’s Heir, or even the elegant conceits of The Frog Earl or Crossed Quills.

I still like Carola Dunn. I haven’t called off my hunt for her other romances. I probably just won’t purchase Angel if I find it in a bookstore.

heat meter: one          final rating: bash 

 

Anne Stuart’s Never Kiss a Rake (2013) 

The Russell family is in deep trouble. A shipping tycoon known for his honesty, Russell died in a suspicious accident and became the scapegoat for his company’s bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Bryony, suspects foul play after inspecting his papers. Bryony decides to send her two sisters away so she can infiltrate the households of her father’s old business partners. With her face lightly scarred with smallpox marks, Bryony thinks she’s ugly enough to pose as the perfect housekeeper while searching for the truth.

Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartryn, has secrets of his own that can land him in jail, so he’s immediately on the alert when his new housekeeper isn’t quite like the other servants. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a cruel beauty, Adrian thinks Bryony is fair game, especially if the government sent her to spy on him. What follows is a titillating cat-and-mouse game, sandwiched between bouts of domestic politics worthy of Remains of the Day or Gosford Park. 

If this book was set in contemporary times, Bryony could sue Adrian for sexual harassment and win a million-dollar settlement―he continually makes suggestive comments while Bryony’s working, and at one point he pins her against the bed. The guy’s a sexual predator, and I don’t think that’s a compliment. Since this is a romance novel, however, we’re supposed to find this all charming, especially since Byrony’s always making excuses to search her boss’s bedroom for incriminating evidence.

The mystery and intrigue bits of Never Kiss a Rake are handled well, although it’s frustrating that some elements are deliberately left at a loose end. I hope this doesn’t mean that Anne Stuart’s recycling her villain for the sequels starring Byrony’s sisters! I assume they will be investigating their father’s other shady business partners. Ah, well. Some days I miss the era of standalone novels.

This is the first Anne Stuart novel I’ve read. While I do have some quibbles, Never Kiss a Rake was an enjoyable read. I’m not sure if I’d actually want to buy a copy, but I liked it enough to consider reading the author’s other novels.

heat meter: three           final rating: borrow