Tag Archives: book review

the book that cured all ills (ill-thoughts, at least)

Okay, I forgive Julie Anne Long everything. You’re in for another (much longer) rant, but at least this one’s almost all joy.

Yesterday I read the fifth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, What I Did For a Duke. I will use every adjective in my vocabulary (okay, I probably won’t, but superlatives will be thick on the ground, too) to try and express how much I loved this book.

It has been a long, long time since a historical romance got me like this.

Let’s get the premise out of the way first: The Duke of Moncrieffe has a bad reputation for serving revenge cold, even years after the fact. He has just found his fiancee in bed with Ian Eversea. He’s not happy. He’s also almost forty (this is often expressed in italics in the characters’ thoughts. I’m not entirely sure what the emphasis is getting at, but it feels cheeky, and I like it). He decides to seduce Ian’s youngest sister, then break her heart and leave her.

He just happens to catch her at a really bad time.

Genevieve’s best friend, Harry, has just told her that he plans to propose to her other best friend, Millicent. This breaks her heart rather severely, as she’d always assumed she would marry Harry. So when the Duke comes along, demanding her attention, she’s really not in the mood. She does everything she can to get rid of him, he does everything he can to get a response from her, and pretty soon they’re head-over-heels in fascination with each other.

The things I love about this book:

1. The Duke is an amazing hero. Ten out of ten.

He gradually unfolds as a character, so that we get to know him as Genevieve does. This is such a difficult, subtle piece of craft, and I applaud JAL for having the trust and patience to do it. He’s certainly magnetic right from the get-go, but he’s not an obvious choice. Characters are very often represented in this light, but only in-so-far as we’re told “He wasn’t an obvious choice” whilst seeing all the ways he obviously is. The slow reveal meant I could get to know him and fall in love with him piece by piece, too.

He’s also truly smart. The “hypothesis” of the book seems to be Experience Makes For Interesting People (you have to break eggs to make an omelet), and the Duke proves it every step of the way. He’s not just smart in the wordy way of Regency heroes – his conversation is challenging, and tough, and he doesn’t let up. He’s mature and experienced enough to push for answers even when Genevieve’s hugely reluctant, or embarrassed, or defensive. He allows those feelings to be present and demands something of her anyway. Which is how transformation really does happen, in my experience.

2. Genevieve is a gorgeous heroine – very much in the same vein as Beatrix Hathaway. A truly likeable heroine, which is a hard thing to pull off.

This is, in a sense, an ugly duckling story. Genevieve is “the quiet, sensible one” of the reckless Eversea family, but that’s not what she thinks she is, and that’s not what the Duke sees. But JAL – thank God! – never gave her a look-where-being-good-got-me,-I’m-going-to-do-something-crazy moment. No matter how well those moments are constructed, something always rings false about them to me. Genevieve never breaks character because she doesn’t perceive herself as others see her, so she continues to act according to her own nature – the difference being that she now has an audience and antagonist who also sees her truly. This is, again, fantastic writing.

3. The characters’ physicality is built over time as well, as an expression of how they come to see each other. One of my favourite moments in the whole book is when the Duke thinks: He’d never known a more clawing hunger for a woman’s body, and it shocked him, and he was clever enough to know it had only a little to do with her body.

Yes! Finally! I think so few romance writers think this connection through deeply enough – that all the heaving bosoms and luscious curves and pillow-like lips are an expression of attraction to a person, not a body.

4. I can’t say too much on this point without spoilers, and as I encourage all of you to read this book, I don’t want to indulge in those. All I’ll say is: JAL deals with the Big Misunderstanding that gets the plot rolling (i.e. the Duke is out to seduce Genevieve for his own, bad reasons) in such a brilliant way. She makes the BM work a lot harder than it would if she had dealt with it in a traditional “I’m keeping a secret that could destroy you” way.

What didn’t work for me:

1. By two-thirds of the way through, the plot rested too heavily on Harry’s thin shoulders. We’re reminded over and over how much Genevieve loves him – even when it’s become jarringly evident she doesn’t. That works. We can see the trajectory of her self-discovery through it. But there wasn’t enough of why she loved him in the first place – he was too thin and insubstantial – for this to hold up its end of Genevieve’s motivations for as long as it had to. She’s a smart chicken. She would have figured it out before then.

2. JAL really needs to get a new editor. Whenever I read her stuff my enjoyment is continually interrupted by bad grammatical errors and bad word repetitions (by this I mean: the repetition isn’t there to create a lyrical effect, it’s just lazy writing. A relief that was hugely relieving, for example). She also has a tendency to overwrite, which mostly pays off and occasionally doesn’t. A good editor should be on the lookout for all these things.

This Julie Anne Long book makes my top five. Go read it.

End rant.

the Covet review

I didn’t like this book. There. You have it straight up. At about page 450 of this 474-page book I came clean with myself that the itchy feeling in my fingers was to do with the fact that I wanted to put the book down. Without any impetus to pick it up again.

A couple of things:

I wasn’t going to read the fallen angels, but decided to because I was going crazy waiting for Lover Unleashed. I figured any Ward was good Ward.


I actually feel like it’s achieved the opposite: Because I had no investment in these characters, Ward’s writing palette was made very obvious to me, and it made the Black Dagger Brotherhood seem less special somehow, as though I’ll go back to it seeing all those things that my full immersion made unimportant before.

Ok, now time for some “it wasn’t ALL bad”.

And it wasn’t. I kinda like Jim, the fallen angel who has to help the hero get the girl. I thought his side-kick Adrian was too like Qhuinn, so I had to stop myself from imagining him anything like, and it skewed him in my head. Eddie? Huge guy with a long braid doesn’t really do anything for me.

Oops, I was on good points, right?

The dark stuff is good, she does really go there. And I think my favourite scene, which was executed brilliantly, is when we first see the hero. We’re in the POV of a jeweller who is selling him a $2,300,000 diamond ring.

After making the jeweller show him progressively worse stones for an hour, Vin says he’ll take the first one he was shown, adding: “If I’m giving you my money, I want you to work for it. And you will be discounting the stone, because your business needs repeat clients like myself.”

He comes across as hard, mean and powerful. In a really good way.

This is where my biggest beef with the book lies, though. The whole premise is the battle for human souls. They are souls that have an equal chance of swinging either way – that can be influenced equally by good and evil.

But all we see, the whole way through, is a bunch of people trying to do the right thing whilst evil throws up some obstacles in their path. This is particularly true of Jim, who Team Evil are supposedly very confident of being able to sway. There’s so much that could have been done with actual human desires, which sometimes do tend the other way. The only person who truly gave in to an evil desire was the baddie. Proper, normal baddie guy.

I think this is why the romance didn’t work for me in the slightest. I really couldn’t care less about these two being together. Marie-Terese as prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold was ok (or not – her problems got tiresome pretty quick. Vin kept admiring her backbone, and I kept wondering why she didn’t have one), but her reasons for resisting her attraction to Vin were tepid at best. There was a fear because the attraction reminded her of her first husband – another great opportunity to explore the dark side of the soul not taken.

I didn’t feel any vulnerability from her – falling in love didn’t feel like a risk. Which is funny, because that’s what we were told it was, as far as plotting went. Also, her as a desperate mother? Ward really should have read Dream a Little Dream before she ventured down that path.

When Vin and Marie-Terese first meet there are sparks. And then there’s just a whole lot of falling in love and gradually defeating some bad stuff, but hey, they’re in love. I so wanted to see that hard, cold man from the jewellery shop struggle to come good – but as soon as we got inside his head, he felt reformed. So when he finally makes love to Marie-Terese and it actually means something, I had nothing to contrast it with and I was just like “Oh, ok.”

NO conflict. Not in the love. Conflict in love is good.

Ah, what a rant. It was just so damn disappointing. I even have Crave sitting on my dining room table and I just don’t think I’ll bother.

the Blameless review

I didn’t review Changeless because it didn’t make all that much sense to me as a novel. I mean, it did but it didn’t. Clear?

I enjoyed reading it, but I couldn’t really figure out what it was about. The whole book seemed to be about the last chapter, which lead into this book – and reading Blameless confirms that. It’s like Part II. The more satisfying part.

Sort of.

I gushed about Soulless because it was such an oddity – a new, fast-paced, funny steampunk novel with some pretty cute world structures. By the third book I’m starting to figure out what keeps me-as-a-reader always hanging about on the fringes of Carriger’s world.

The stories are, first and foremost, farce. She does farce very well and it makes for a funny, enjoyable read. But it doesn’t invite you much deeper than the surface.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, by the way. Farce is the province of the greats – Shakespeare, Wilde, Wodehouse, Heyer. (haha, my definition of greats…) And in a way it does make the poignant moments punch a lot harder, because they are in no way overworked, and they come from left-field.

The style also suits Carriger’s heroine, who is without a soul and takes things head-on, without sentiment.

But where Soulless had the structure and emotional journey of a romance novel, books two and three don’t. It was fun to read about Lord Maccon getting plastered on formaldehyde, but it making him ridiculous to that extent kind of ruins him as a romantic hero.

There were some developments I really enjoyed in the novel, though – things that dipped a little below the surface into complexity and emotional intrigue. Professor Lyall plays a big part, and finds himself in a complicated – but very interesting – position by the end of the book.

And Lord Akeldama, though playing a mostly absent figure, arrives with more of a punch than his usual entertaining role.

Overall, these books are worth reading and enjoying, but I’m not consumed by the need to devour them as I read. Which is possibly a good thing.

the Lover Unbound review

when I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend, what made me the most terrified, the most heartbroken, was that in a couple of years it would no longer matter. I wouldn’t feel the pain, and he would be nothing more than a memory I might take out once in a while.

At the time, in the midst of breaking us up, that felt like a horror.

That’s a bit how I felt about the romance in this book. And as I realise that I probably need to catch you up on what I’ve been going on (and on and on) about (with spoilers):

Vishous is a vampire warrior/son of the vampire deity who has never let himself care about anything or anyone. Until a human cop joins the Brotherhood. Butch and Vishous become roommates and start finishing each other’s sentences. Butch becomes the first person V has ever let close.

Then V saves Butch’s life, is the only one who can keep him alive if Butch is going to do his part in the war, undertakes the gruesome rite to turn Butch into a fully-fledged vampire (no bite-and-bury in Ward’s world!) and sponsors him to join the brotherhood.

During that ceremony Butch offers his neck to V and they share the most intimate moment of any in any of the books. All the while Butch is apparently falling for Marissa, bimbo-extraordinaire. (Ok, so I don’t mind her so much outside of her capacity as Butch’s soulmate, but will talk more about Alphas and their females soon.)


Cut to Lover Unbound, and instead of brushing the whole thing off, Ward made the decision to actually name what V feels for Butch. The book opens with a whole bunch of delicious longing on his part.

In fact, it opens with Butch half naked, forcing V – with great tenderness – to look at him with the tip of a very sharp dagger.

So, it’s official. V is in love with Butch.

And then this miraculous thing happens. He meets a woman, who from one second to the next boots Butch out of “that secret chamber in his heart”. Ta da!

Jane was actually a pretty great character – an amazing surgeon, head of the Trauma team, stands her ground with aggressive men. But there was only really one moment in the whole book when I actually believed that she had gotten through to V: she makes a silly joke to him at an inappropriate moment and surprises a laugh out of him that no one else could.

I think there was the potential between these two for a great love story, but the problem was this: his love for Butch was just too much more convincing. So to have it just disappear in a matter of minutes?

Not good.

And then once it had magically gone, there was that feeling again. Instead of enjoying his new love story, all I really felt was the great melancholy that his love for Butch wasn’t going to matter soon. And what a horror that was.

I’m sorry to say, I have a lot more rant in me on this subject, so tomorrow I’m going to briefly touch on the give-and-take between writer and reader, and what I think has happened in this case.

Then I’ll move on. Promise.

(Er, though it might just be to the next book in the series…)

this is paranormal

I haven’t read much paranormal romance really at all, despite it being possibly the largest sub-genre at the mo. But have just started in on Kresley Cole‘s Immortals After Dark series and am well past impressed.

Loving it!

This is what first gave me the hint that I might feel this way: The heroine is called “Mariketa the Awaited” – a nice, fantasy heroine name and epithet. It sort of made me sigh a bit, with suspended judgement, and expect a mysterious, conflicted woman, possibly wearing a hood.

(Ok, so she wears a hood, but more in the style of a cheeky Little Red Riding Hood than anything else. She has a werewolf chasing her, after all.)

So I open the book and the first line is a quote from Mariketa the Awaited: Love spells are a lot like platform diving. Once you start the process, there’s no going back, and the end will be fugly if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

There goes the old-school fantasy heroine, replaced by a girl I love. It’s only made better when she tells the hero off, saying: “I need a male who’ll be able to get me through the ice world in Zelda.”

I’m reading the third book in the series, because it’s the only one the library had on hand, but the seventh has just come out, and I’m starting to suspect it’ll be one of those series that empties my wallet because I have to have them all.

The Perils of Pleasure review

I still don’t know what I really think about this book.

The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.

But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.

I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.

She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as

cart grease

her heart

Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in

the C minor concerto.

Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.

One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.

Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.

Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.

I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.

I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.

Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.

I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.

The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.

I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.

what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).

Day 11: The Last Supper

(This title was only supposed to refer to our dinner tonight – our last in Japan – in a kind of silly attempt to make it catchy. But I just realised that as today I finished reading Christopher Brookmyre‘s Not the End of the World, a pretty hilarious and thought-provoking (and full-on) anti-religion rant (in fictional form – there’s a tall Scottish lad with long hair and a mad televangalist who’s going to make a tidal wave), it’s more appropriate than I intended.

The dinner was a massive pork steak that was beaten then poached in a tub of fat then sizzled with some thick sauce and heaped onto a pile of shredded cabbage. They plonked the saucepan down in front of us, along with a huge bowl of rice (Japanese rice is SOOOOO good!) some miso, cold jasmine tea and a glass of beer.

Pretty great last meal.

Cute waitress too, who giggled uncontrollably into her hand when we tipped her. (This was after we’d endeared ourselves to the staff by exaggerating the tear-making properties of the onion they were cutting in front of us. Boohoo, we’re funny foreigners and we like your food, boohoo.)

How we discovered the place, seeing it from the flyover:

So now we’re in our Last Hotel, after our Last Supper, awaiting our Last Sleep in Japan. Special k wants to come back for good, but when I ask him why, the most coherent answer I can get out of him is that he thinks it would be cool if our kids were little white Japanese kids.

Not sure that cuts the sashimi.

breaking the tenth commandment is sexy

This has been a reading weekend, so here’s another book I’ve just read:

Oh how I love this book. This is Quinn at her absolute best. It begins thus:

“In every life there is a turning point. A moment so tremendous, so sharp and clear that one feels as if one’s been hit in the chest, all the breath knocked out, and one knows, absolutely knows without the merest hint of a shadow of a doubt that one’s life will never be the same.

For Michael Stirling, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.

After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught then turning the tables until he was the victor, of caressing and kissing and making love to them but never actually allowing his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and so hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing.

…the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.”

See? I didn’t mean to go on and on and transcribe the whole first page, but I just couldn’t stop. There’s so much narrative traction I’m surprised to look up and not find myself on some desolate stretch of the Hume Highway.

And the reason it’s so good? Duh. The tenth commandment.

When people covet other people’s people in real life it’s messy and there’s a hell of a lot of pain, bitterness, retribution… I dunno, has it ever worked out happily?

But fiction – that’s another, er, story.

Pain = thrill + desire for the end of pain. It gives our hero the perfect reason to love our heroine absolutely and without any chance of fulfillment. He also loves his cousin like a brother, so the guiding purpose of his life becomes to keep his awful love a secret.

Hey, breaking a commandment ain’t a guaranteed killer book, but Quinn pulls it off and then some. I don’t always like her heroines (see my Ten Things review), but there’s something lovely, poised, convincing about Francesca. And Michael is…delicious. Tenacious. Emo.

Check it!

the Disney cartoon of romance novels

Teresa Medeiros is chummy with a lot of my favourite romance novelists, so I thought I’d give her books a go. The result has been…interesting.

Medeiros’s writing is exuberant and charming, but reading this was seriously like watching a Disney cartoon. It’s kind of fun, because Medeiros just goes for it, in a tongue-in-cheek way. Her hero is such a champ on the battlefield that the time his enemies stretched him on the rack he took the opportunity for a nap. Her heroine has a driving desire to be loved that is rather hammered home, but fun all the same.

Medeiros said she based her hero on this pic:

which makes him look sort of silly and gormless, though I’d probably add some of this:

for the full, smarmy effect. The biggest problem her hero faces is that his sperm is too potent… It’s a laugh, but a silly one.

I loved the very earthy, real element to the book – she uses the word piss a lot and doesn’t politely misunderstand the musky smell in the brothel’s cottage the way a Regency romance would do. But it was an odd read, because most of it was playful and naive, and read almost like a children’s book. Then suddenly there was desire and swelling in the breaches.

It was like reading Cindarella, but suddenly Prince Charming has a massive erection and pulls Cindy behind the pumpkin for some hot sex.

Disconcerting, to say the least.

Anyway, I didn’t actually finish it, because as fun as it was, this is really not my kind of book. The characters didn’t exist for anything but to be irresistible to each other and overcome their, er, extreme fertility so that they could be happy together.

I don’t doubt in the slightest that this is the perfect book for some people out there. (It’s mighty New York Times Bestseller Listdom would be a giveaway.)