Tag Archives: Julia Quinn

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 

Lady Whistledown on Editing and the Perils of Self-Publishing

Lady Whistledown on Editing and the Perils of Self-Publishing

“Publish your travel memoirs,” she said.

“I’m not—”

“Publish them,” she said again. “Take a chance and see if you soar.”

His eyes met hers for a moment, then they slid back down to his journal, still clutched in her hands. “They need editing,” he mumbled.

Penelope laughed, because she knew she had won. And he had won, too. He didn’t know it yet, but he had.

“Everyone needs editing,” she said, her smile broadening with each word. “Well, except me, I guess,” she teased. “Or maybe I did need it. [. . .] We’ll never know, because I had no one to edit me.”

 

—from Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (2002)

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Writers and Editors in Love

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Writers and Editors in Love

Round Five of Buy, Borrow, or Bash features two literary-minded Regency romances.

As a writer and an editor, I had to read both of these novels when I stumbled upon them. How do these books measure up to my expectations and my professional biases? Let’s examine the textual evidence!

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

 

Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgeton (2002)

During her first London season, Penelope Featherington was slightly overweight, acne-prone, and ill-dressed. That pathetic image of her stuck in the minds of the haute ton and Colin Bridgerton, the man Penelope’s secretly loved for years.

Now considered a spinster, Penelope’s often overlooked by everyone, which suits her just fine…somewhat. What people don’t know is that Penelope’s put her years as a wallflower to good use. She has a secret: she’s been writing an anonymous society column for a decade. Writing as the witty and outspoken Lady Whistledown, Penelope cuts everyone down to size…except for Colin, of course.  No one, not even her best friend, knows her alter ego.

Colin Bridgerton has his own secrets: he has a temper, he eats too much, and he’s secretly jealous of his brothers who have a purpose in life. When he comes home from yet another aimless trip abroad, he finds that everyone has moved on with their lives—including Penelope Featherington, who doesn’t seem to be the same person he used to know.

Will Penelope and Colin go back to having the casual friendship they once had or will they get to the bottom of each other’s mysteries?

It’s usually a challenge to summarize a Julia Quinn romance due to the delicate and slow-moving nature of her characters. Somewhat like Quinn’s Just Like Heaven (one of my personal favorites), Penelope and Colin spend a lot of time talking and thinking. They don’t jump out of speeding carriages, become pirates, or chase ghosts. If you’re looking for an action-packed historical romance, this isn’t it. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is: 1) an ode to the ugly duckling trope, and 2) a love letter to every reader who wants to become a writer, and doesn’t know where to start.

Penelope’s a great heroine while Colin is a sweet, memorable hero. It’s adorable when a male protagonist can admit to being jealous of their loved one’s superior talent. Everything is resolved nicely, and the novel ends with unicorns and rainbows. (Not literally, but you get the idea.)

heat meter: three          final rating: buy

 

Carola Dunn’s Crossed Quills (1998; Kindle Edition 2010)

Wynn Selworth can finally put his years of writing racy gothic romances behind him. He just inherited a distant relation’s title and estate, and now he has enough money to do whatever he wants. Wynn’s spending for his half-sister’s first London season, but he isn’t keen to conquer high society. Wynn’s real dreams involves taking his radical ideas to the House of Lords.

Unfortunately, his usual writing style is just wrong for political speeches! Desperate for a writing coach, Wynn decides to look for his favorite essayist. Prometheus was the pen name of Lisle, a Member of Parliament known for his fiery rhetoric. Since Lisle’s death, however, someone else close to him has taken up the nom de plume, and Lord Selworth’s determined to find out.

Since her father’s death, Philippa “Pippa” Lisle has become more than a secretary—now she’s writing in his stead. Only three people know Pippa’s secret, because her slightly seditious essays can ruin her reputation and land her in jail.

Naturally, Pippa isn’t amused when the handsome Lord Selworth arrives at her doorstep, pleading to know who the new Prometheus is. Pippa doesn’t care how much Wynn’s willing to pay for editorial guidance.

Pippa’s mother, however, thinks Wynn’s arrival is heaven-sent. The Lisles needs the money, especially now that Pippa’s younger sister needs a London season. Besides, Mrs. Lisle hasn’t given up hope that both her daughters will find good husbands…

Crossed Quills is an engaging romance: it takes an unabashed look at middle-class husband-hunting while raising the issues confronted by socially conscious writers. The combined themes surprised me, to be honest.

I never thought a romance novel could ever remind me of my left-leaning writing years, but Crossed Quills managed to do just that. Pippa’s fear of discovery is natural, and her horror of social injustices—and her calls to action—feels genuine. I love how Pippa and Wynn are both members of the vacillating intelligentsia, concerned about child labor and the price of luxury goods. And yet they scramble so hard to appear politically moderate to everyone they know! God, that’s adorable. They want to be subtle about affecting social change.     

Crossed Quills is plotted around an elegant conceit: the heroine must hide her political writings, lest she be censured for unladylike behavior, while the hero must hide his past as a successful romance novelist in order for Parliament to take him seriously. Maybe I’m over-reading, but Dunn might be commenting on gender roles, writing, and paratext. How can I not like this book?

Despite my enthusiasm, Crossed Quills has its issues. I felt that the ending was rushed, and I wished there were “excerpts” of Pippa and Wynn’s writings. It’s a missed opportunity to show and not tell: their writings could have come in the form of epigraphs. Oh, maybe I ask for too much. Still, Crossed Quills has more depth than the average historical romance.

heat meter: one          final rating: buy 

 

Some Final Thoughts

Is it unfair to compare the two books? Probably. Still, for those who care about these things, I think Crossed Quills does the secret writer concept best while Romancing Mr. Bridgerton better articulates why writers feel the need to write at all.

In a contest between our two fictional literary heroes, Colin’s diary is pitch-perfect for the era but Wynn’s gothic thought-processes is full of purple prose. It’s a pity there are only hints of Wynn’s writing style because I’m sure he falls into “so bad it’s good” territory. God, I’d love to read that.