Tag Archives: Contemporary Romance

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 Four

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

 

The first Buy, Borrow or Bash for the year features three novels that have nothing in common with each other. In no time-space continuum should these three novels be lumped together in this graceless fashion. Unfortunately, I just happened to read them  in succession. Sometimes it just happens that way.

Since I did a ton of reading last month, I’ll try to post a second BBB next week. I read faster than I analyze and review.

I wish I could set a regular day for posting this feature, except I now have an erratic schedule that leaves me horribly muddled.

 

Carola Dunn’s Lord Iverbrook’s Heir (1986; Kindle edition 2010) 

Hugh Carrick, Viscount Iverbrook, returned from the West Indies to find that his brother and wife passed away, leaving his nephew Peter in the care of his in-laws, with the no-nonsense Selena Whitton in charge as legal guardian.

Since the child is his heir presumptive, Viscount Iverbrook is not keen on leaving Peter where he is. Hugh doesn’t have a high opinion of women, and having hung around ignorant ones most of his life. Hugh is determined to wrest Peter away—only to out that find the child thriving in an estate run wholly by women! The rich Whitton lands are run by Selena, who was brought up by her father to care for the farm. With Lady Whitton, who acts as the neighborhood apothecary with her herbal teas, and Delia, a younger sister addicted to gothic romances, Hugh finds the whole household charming. He finds it impossible to stay away, even as he butts heads with Selena over who has more claim to Peter.

Throw in a destitute Whitton cousin (Sir Aubrey) who wants to marry Selena to gain the estate, a scheming ex-mistress determined to stalk Hugh, a talkative best friend who always says the wrong thing, a couple of nosy solicitors, and ta-dah! You have all the ingredients for a romantic comedy.

Selena doesn’t trust Iverbrook easily. She always acts as if he’s about to kidnap the child, which might be grating to a modern audience. But during that era, men had the upper-hand in almost all legal disputes, so Selena’s paranoia is understandable.

Lord Iverbrook’s Heir was written after Angel, so this book doesn’t suffer from the flaws of that earlier novel. Lord Iverbrook’s Heir has tighter subplots without being simplistic.

Once again, there’s nothing more graphic than a few stolen kisses. At this point, however, I know I’m reading a Carola Dunn novel. I’m used to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Lily Everett’s Sanctuary Island (2013)

Ella and Merry Preston have been estranged from their mother since their parents’ divorce. Fifteen years later, however, with Merry pregnant and Ella having problems at work, the sisters finally agree to visit their mother Jo-Ellen, a recovering alcoholic who lives in a remote place called Sanctuary Island.

Ella’s a prickly, defensive heroine, the type who takes offense at practically anything. She immediately trades barbs with her mother’s handyman and friend, Grady Wilkes. Grady’s a decent man traumatized by a near fatal accident, and he only wants to help heal the rift between his friend and her grown daughters. For reasons known only to himself, Grady makes it his mission to show the beauty of Sanctuary Island to Ella.

Sanctuary Island revolves around themes of forgiveness and second chances. It’s a competent piece of contemporary romance. Unfortunately, its plot is somewhat cookie-cutter. Most the characters suffer from poor communication skills! One of the best parts of the book is when Ben, the local veterinarian, calls out the hero and points out, “this could have been resolved if you talked to each other, man.” (It’s not an exact quotation, but it’s a good estimate.) A Romance Novel Trope has been lampshaded.

Despite its predictability, Sanctuary Island has some good moments. Wild horses and horse-lore play a huge part in the novel, and this element brings freshness to the narrative. Horse therapy works for some people, and the author really knows this aspect of her story well. Readers who remember their childhood love of ponies should swoon. It’s worth noting that the first time Ella sees Grady, he’s riding a horse and looking manly. Of course he would be riding a horse…

While Sanctuary Island wasn’t the right romance novel for me, I’m definite other readers will just adore it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931; reprinted 2013) 

If you’re looking for a romp through the fringes of high society, look no further than Highland Fling. Reissued by Vintage with an introduction by Julian Fellowes, this volume presents Nancy Mitford’s world of dilettantes and workshy nobles to a new generation of readers.

Young Albert Gates decides to become an abstract painter on the day his best friend Walter Monteath proposes to Sally Dalloch. After two years in Paris, Albert returns to London only to be dragged off to a shooting party at a Scottish castle. There he meets Sally’s friend Jane Dacre, a woman ready to fall in love with anyone since she has nothing better to do. The guests assembled at Dalloch Castle are divided between the conservative ‘grown-ups’—an odd collection of peers and military men—and the younger set, who are only keen on poetry and partying.

It’s hard to sympathize with Sally and Walter Monteath’s money troubles or Jane Dacre’s indecisiveness. Only Albert has some sort of goal for himself, and even he’s haphazard and flighty. Overdrawn at the bank and yet coasting on allowances and their family connections, everyone in Highland Fling leads a charmed existence. Dorothy L. Sayers and Edward Gorey endlessly parodied these sorts of characters, in everything from Clouds of Witness to The Curious Sofa. 

Social comedy stems from the clash between the old and the young, the serious and the flippant, the moneyed and their dependents. There’s loads of 1930s pop culture references—everything from Jaeger pajamas to Laszlo—which will probably stump a reader unfamiliar with the time period. Maybe enterprising Downton Abbey fans should take footnotes for their fanfiction.

Highland Fling is like a well-made soufflé; it’s airy and insubstantial. It might leave you craving something with more meat to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow

 

This blog post incorporates ideas from earlier pieces written for the San Francisco Book Review