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Sophia James – “One Unashamed Night”

21 Aug

GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Harlequin Historical, 2010

WHY THIS NOVEL: I wanted to see how the hero’s poor eyesight was handled.

“Living in a gray world of silhouette, Lord Taris Wellingham conceals his fading eyesight from society. He has long protected himself from any intimate relationships.

Plain twenty-eight-year-old Beatrice-Maude Bassingstoke does not expect to attract any man, especially not one as good-looking as her remote traveling companion.

Forced by a snowstorm to spend the night together, these two lonely people seek solace in each other’s arms. The passion they unleash surprises them both. Then a new day dawns….”

One Unashamed Night begins with a carriage ride. It’s a public coach, it’s winter, it’s night, and one carriage wheel creaks more and more. Taris, the hero in this story, is the only one who notices because his fading eyesight has sharpened his hearing. Before he’s made up his mind if the creaks mean the wheel will break, it’s too late: the wheel breaks; one man is dead and the driver is badly injured. Taris and one of the two women in the carriage (of course that’s the heroine, Beatrice-Maude) go for help because at night, with the bad weather, it’s unlikely that help will come to them.

But on their way to the next village, Taris and Bea actually meet a rescue party. They tell Taris and Bea that there’s a barn nearby and they should seek shelter there while they go on to look after the other passengers. And so it comes to the night that gives this story its title.

Bea is a recently widowed woman of twenty-eight years. She was married with her husband for twelve years and is now on her way to London to start a new life. Her marriage was bad. Her husband drank, was a righteous prick and if Bea made so much as the wrong (in his opinion of course) squeak, he beat her. The last few years of his life he was seriously ill and Bea had to care for him. So now all Bea wants is to enjoy her freedom and finally live the life she dreamed of. After reaching the barn, she is mightily tempted to do more with Taris than just try to get warm again after being out in the freezing cold. He’s the most handsome man she’s ever seen while she considers herself plain, and who would know? Maybe there is more to love-making than she experienced in her marriage (which is nil).

Taris lives in a world of shadows. He knows that soon he will see not even them anymore. His poor eyesight is a secret only very few people know and he intends to keep it that way. He also likes to push himself, doing things like riding a public coach just to prove to himself that he’s not useless yet. The carriage accident is a disaster, of course, but because it’s night his handicap doesn’t show (too much) and he’s able to be useful for once. When later there’s the opportunity to spend the night with a woman who knows nothing about him and won’t see him again and realize his damage, he doesn’t say no.

Or course, fate (and Taris relatives) have other plans and Taris and Bea meet again. It’s a few months later and Bea established herself well in London. Her salon, rife with discussions about controversy subjects, is talked about in all of London and well received. She meets Taris again and although she thinks he sees herself beneath his notice (added along by his near blindness and the way he acted after their night in the barn), she’s still attracted to him. Taris couldn’t forget Bea either. The romantic conflict in large parts revolves around the idea that each thinks him/herself not good enough for the other.

Taris fears to be a burden to other people and even more so to Bea who nursed her sick husband for years and now yearns to live her life like she wants. Bea thinks there can’t be a future for them because of their different positions in society. Or course, it takes Taris some time to find out the truth about Bea’s marriage as it does Bea to find out what’s behind Taris’s lack of eye contact, for example, and the general air of arrogance that surrounds him. The romance itself seemed a bit bland to me.

There’s at least one situation when I didn’t quite get the motivation of the characters and there’s a mystery subplot that feels a bit unconnected and seems just to be there to get Taris to act at the end. Also, there are a few “fluffy” and tired romance elements like Bea dressing in colors and suddenly not looking so plain anymore (at least, it’s not as bas as every man who catches sight of her falls for her) or her becoming such a success so fast after living for more than ten years as a country bumpkin and beaten wife. So I half-expected the miraculous cure for Taris problem to show up at the end, too, but no.

On the plus side, these romance elements are tempered by darker tones when the story touches upon the rights (or non-rights) of women at that time or when Taris struggles to find a new sense of his identity in a life without sight. I also really enjoyed the way Taris fading eyesight was shown in the text, like here:

When he neither reached for it nor shook his head, she left it on her lap, the cap screwed back on with as much force as she could manage so that not a drop would be wasted. He had much on his mind, which explained his indifference, she decided, the flask and its whereabouts the least of all his worries. (17)

and what Bea made of his behavior.

Overall, I thought One unashamed Night a nice enough read although I wasn’t really captured by the story and the characters. So it’s very likely that I won’t read this one again but I can certainly see myself reading another novel by Sophia James.

Anne Stuart – “Fire And Ice”

10 Jul

TALK ABOUT LOST IN TRANSLATION…

In the wake of a failed love affair, brainy beauty Jilly Lovitz takes off for Tokyo. She’s expecting to cry on her sister Summer’s shoulder, then spend a couple months blowing off steam in Japan. Instead, she’s snatched away on the back of a motorcycle, narrowly avoiding a grisly execution attempt meant for her sister and brother-in-law.

Her rescuer is Reno, the Committee’s most unpredictable agent. They’d met once before and the attraction was odd– tattooed Yakuza punk meets leggy California egghead–but electric. Now Reno and Jilly are pawns in a deadly tangle of assassination attempts, kidnappings and prisoner swaps that could put their steamy partnership on ice.

Fire and Ice is the fifth book in the “Ice” series and it’s the story of Jilly and Reno. They met for the first time about two years (I think) before the start of Ice and Fire in Ice Blue, the story of Jilly’s sister Summer and Reno’s cousin Takashi. It was just a short meeting, more a glimpse, but they were both equally fascinated by each other, as unlikely as that seemed based on their outward appearance and their differences in background. Then Reno also was present in Ice Storm, the story before this one, and Fire and Ice starts where Ice Storm ends: with someone after the agents of the Committee. And that’s why Takashi and Summer are not where Jilly expects them to be when she drops by for an unscheduled visit* and why it’s up to Reno to see that nothing happens to Jilly.

I thought Fire and Ice could be interesting with the pairing of the carefree, no rules apply Reno and the brainy, unsure of her appeal Jilly. And it worked for some time for me. But not enough to make me not realize that Fire and Ice is basically a damsel-in-distress story. That’s what keeps the story together because otherwise, the plot is all over the place. First Jilly and Reno run from someone who works against the Committee, then there’s trouble within the organization of Reno’s grandpa, and then there is last part that happens in the US and that feels like it’s an afterthought to make the story longer based on a rather flimsy connection to what happened before. Hmm.

Sidenote: Jilly is supposed to be incredible brainy but other than telling that it is so, there was no evidence of it. This is no dig at the damsel-in-distress slant of the story: Jilly’s clearly out of her depth in nearly all situations and besides the kind of smarts needed there is a different kind of smarts than she’s supposed to have I think, so I didn’t mind that most of the time. I just would have preferred more than the mere mentioning of degrees or field of studies to show that Jilly is indeed an egghead (especially because there are times she could have acted a bit smarter; see below).

As for the romance, amidst all that running, Jilly and Reno are afraid to admit they are attracted to each other. Jilly thinks she’s unattractive – tall for a woman and a kind of recluse thanks to her being so smart she always was years ahead in school compared to kids her age. Reno is a firm believer in “sex, not love” and fears Jilly is different and not just because of the dire warning from his cousin, the husband of Jilly’s sister, to stay the hell away from Jilly. And even if Reno respects nothing, he at least respects family. Which means his cold behavior feeds Jilly’s insecurities about herself even more. Much angst ensues.

But yes, amidst all that running, Jilly and Reno fall in love. At least the novel’s end says so. I have to admit, I don’t know why. As I said, I enjoyed their “romance” (and the angst) in the beginning but no matter how much they worried about the futility of their attraction, it didn’t show me when or why their fascination with their differences turned into love so uhm…at the end of the novel, Jilly and Reno’s romance still only was a strong fascination with each other’s differences in my eyes.

And yet oddly enough, I liked this novel better than Ice Storm despite Ice Storm having the more convincing romance and the tighter plot and Fire and Ice having a heroine who throws the gun at the villain instead of firing it.

On its plus side for me: the angst-ing in the beginning, the Japanese background and setting, and – I suspect – the fact that Reno is based on a character from Final Fantasy: Advent Children, a movie which in turn is based on Final Fantasy VII a video game for the PlayStation (see more here – link to “The Final Fantasy Wiki”). If I should name one thing that shaped my love for games it would have to be Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VIII to be precise (more on that in a later post perhaps). So that’s why I suspect that I’m a bit forgiving for Fire and Ice‘s shaky plot and romance: Fire and Ice gets a (major) point for “coolness” from me.

* Funny: In Ice Storm the reason why Reno shows up in London is that Jilly is coming to Japan to visit her sister for some time. The story in Ice Storm covers only a few days and Reno leaves at the end of it to look after Jilly in Japan, but in Fire and Ice Jilly’s visit to her sister is unplanned?

~ * * * ~

I think I’m done with novels by Anne Stuart. The only problem is, I loved Black Ice, the first novel in this series, and now I’m afraid to read it again and find it lacking.

Kaitlin O’Riley – “One Sinful Night”

20 Sep

O'Riley, Kaitlin - One Sinful Night
GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Zebra Books, 2008

WHY THIS NOVEL: I liked O’Riley’s voice in When His Kiss Is Wicked and wanted to try more of her novels.

Scandals Are Forever

At sixteen, Vivienne Montgomery was utterly unprepared for the scandal that erupted when Aidan Kavanaugh abruptly left Galway for London, abandoning Vivienne to her ruined reputation. Ten years later, Vivienne has a new life, far from those who know of her past–until she and Aidan are both invited to a weeklong house party.

Aidan Kavanaugh never forgot the magical summer he and Vivienne shared, or the betrayal he felt on finding her in another man’s arms. Since leaving Ireland, Aidan has embraced his duties as Earl of Whitlock, including impending marriage to a young lady who will be the perfect wife in every way but one: she is not Vivienne….

Days and nights in close quarters quickly erode Vivienne and Aidan’s reserve, leading to breathless trysts that are as passionate as they are dangerous. For others are determined to keep them apart. And if one week is not enough to undo ten years of mistrust, Vivienne will lose her reputation–and her heart–all over again…

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was a bit wary of finding out that Vivienne’s beauty is the only reason Aidan is in love with her and that a five-minutes conversation could have cleared up why they broke up. I was wrong on the first account – there’s a lovely chapter that tells how Vivienne and Aidan meet and fall in love – and while the second might not be cleared up in a five-minutes conversation – well, actually I think it should – it was still aggravating.

Why couldn’t Aidan trust Vivienne?

You see, Vivienne and Aidan have known each other for a long time. They met when they were around ten and they were friends ever since before they fell in love one summer and progressed to being lovers. When Aidan finds Vivienne in the arms of another man (boy), he leaves. First Vivienne and the man, and then, shortly later, Ireland. He doesn’t give Vivienne a chance to explain what happened although she tries several times.

He’s hurt and in shock to find Vivienne with another man. He feels betrayed. And because he is young, it’s probably somewhat understandable that he deals with it by not dealing with it at all and that instead, he leaves the country and thinks of Vivienne as a scheming, lying bitch who was only interested in his money and (newly acquired) title.

My problem with that is:

  • He’s known Vivienne for a long time. They were best friends before they were lovers.
  • Even ten years after he saw Vivienne in the arms of another man, he’s not able to be reasonable and logical about the incident. In fact, he still prefers not to deal, think and talk about it at all.
  • After knowing Vivienne only for a few days, one of the villains in this books, Jackson Harlow, says this about Vivienne:

    But no, he did not believe it was in her character. Admittedly, he did not know Vivienne all that well, but he just had a sense that she was a moral and honorable woman. He’d never met a woman of such a noble character that he was so physically attracted to before. (242)

So I found it extremely difficult to refrain from wishing Aidan was real so that I could give him a good whack on the head. One moment that looks like Vivienne is unfaithful erases years and years of friendship and trust? What an idiot.

No talking to further the plot

There are other instances where things don’t get mentioned and they move the plot along in a more suspenseful and dangerous direction.

There’s Finley, Aidan’s valet, who keeps a vital information back even though he and Aidan developed a friendship over the years and they were so chummy with each other, it actually made me think it sounded rather unlikely for that time period.

And there’s Aidan who tells Vivienne to stay away from Jackson Harlow because he’s dangerous. Of course, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Harlow dangerous. He just expects Vivienne to fall in line with his command like she’s a child. One sentence would have been enough. In fact, that sentence would have helped the mystery subplot (Aidan suspects Harlow of sabotaging Aidan’s business but he can’t prove it) immensely. But no.

Is the novel bad because of that?

That’s a question I often struggle with a lot of novels. Just because I would have not much patience with Aidan in real life and I think him an idiot and jerk and just because I think the means that propel the plot forward (“misunderstandings”) are flimsy, easy, and weak, does that mean the story is bad?

I actually can imagine that some people would react like Aidan does (immature) or that Finley didn’t talk sooner even though I would have. A bit more difficult to swallow is probably the reason Aidan’s mother hates Vivienne and the lengths she goes to keep them apart because, well, I’m not all that clear about what the reason actually is.

But then, Aidan’s mother stays true to her character and prefers to go into exile instead of having to see Vivienne and Aidan together at the end of the novel. There’s no magical forgiveness here. And there’s also the mirroring of a vital scene at the end of the story and this time, it goes totally different than the first time. I like these kinds of repetitions because they often show what’s different at the end compared to the beginning.

What remains is that despite my impression that I’m actually not sure what Vivienne saw in Aidan except in the flashback chapter about their childhood (what a turnaround!), and some rather detailed explanations of motivations and feelings, I enjoyed reading this novel. I think O’Riley is a good writer and I like her voice. She managed to make me not care too much about the more convenient coincidences of the plot (I think the detailed explanations help here). And Vivienne, for all that she sometimes seemed a fool because she didn’t tell Aidan to get lost, is often able to see things clearly:

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. You will make me miserable, make us miserable. You will never trust me or believe in me again. You will hold Nicky Foster over my head and torment us both with what you think happened. You can never forget what you think you saw, and because of that, you will never give us a chance. We can never be at peace together. Are you ready for that?” (277)

I liked that.

And then there’s always the wonderful chapter that tells about how Vivienne and Aidan fell in love. So overall, I liked One Sinful Night and I’m looking forward to reading another novel by Kaitlin O’Riley.

Verdict: I would like to say 4/5 (it feels like it) but since I often asked myself what Vivienne saw in Aidan now (it’s clear that Aidan cares about Vivienne no matter what he says, but still, most of the time, he is a jerk) and this novel is a romance, I have to say 3,5/5.

Kaitlin O’Riley – “When His Kiss Is Wicked”

27 Jul

O'Riley, Kaitlin - When His Kiss Is Wicked
GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Zebra Books, 2009

SERIES: “The Hamilton Sisters,” #1

WHY THIS NOVEL: This review at The Romance Reader

After her father’s death, Colette Hamilton is left with four sisters, an invalid mother and a failing bookshop. The only way she can save the family business is with her unconventional ideas…or let her uncle marry her off. As for the handsome stranger in her bookshop? He’s Lucien Sinclair, son of an earl, and a known rogue uninterested in marriage.

Unknown to Colette, Lucien has begun an urgent search for a bride, so that his ailing father might see him married before he dies. He knows what he wants–a plain, biddable woman without the curse of beauty to endanger his heart. Yet no matter how he tries, Lucien finds himself unable to stay away from Colette. And as sinful pleasure lures them ever closer to the edge of ruin, the only question that matters is whether they can survive the fall…

When His Kiss is Wicked is one of the novels I find frustrating in that it could have been a great read (IMO, of course) if not for a few distracting things. I rather liked the author’s voice but I’m not sure if that helped my overall impression of the novel (made it seem “better”) or not (made it seem “worse” because the problems seemed more jarring).

Apologies in advance. I probably give even less an idea of the story itself in this post than I usually do but the blurb gives you a fairly accurate idea. And contrary to all appearances, I enjoyed reading When His Kiss Is Wicked quite a bit.

Problems

I don’t know of course and I really wasn’t all that bothered by it for all that it was present in a lot of scenes (I guess I decided to go with it), but I had the (strong) impression that a major plot element and a lot of the characters’ behavior didn’t seem to fit the time (1870). Especially the characters’ behavior seemed too modern to me (“Call me Lucien”). The only exception there is probably that Lucien is flabbergasted that Colette – a woman! – is in charge of a business. That seemed rather true to the time. But the way Colette “modernized” the book shop for example – I think she overshot there by more than a century.

I was a bit meh about all sisters being so stunningly beautiful and I had some trouble keeping them apart with the similar names. But that’s me, although it also might be because they weren’t really all that fleshed out as characters yet. More bothersome, some of the plot lines just wandered off, conveniently IMO. For example, the plot line with Colette’s uncle wanting to marry her off to the highest bidder starts conventionally enough. Colette is only introduced to lecherous old men as possible husbands and warned off of the young and handsome men (rakes), especially Lucien and his friend Jeffrey. But then somehow, there’s nothing and then her uncle and aunt are perfectly happy with Jeffrey and Lucien as prospective husbands. Huh? These two had their money and connections at the beginning of the story.

But funny enough, I didn’t think characters that appear too modern in their behavior and rather conventional and convenient plot elements a deal breaker (probably because I liked the author’s voice). The biggest weakness of the story is that I thought the romantic conflict, why Colette and Lucien couldn’t be together, paper-thin. The reason for it is that at the most, I only got a few sentences as to why Lucien was adamant about not marrying Colette for much of the story. Lucien had enough scandals in his past and a woman owning a business = scandal! He wants a nice, biddable wife who blends in with the wallpaper. Which also means, Colette’s stunning beauty alone is a problem. Without really knowing why Lucien wants to avoid scandal I couldn’t take his “I can’t marry Colette!” and the romantic conflict serious. Instead, I asked myself: what’s the problem? And in particular: what’s Lucien’s problem?

“It seemed he was in love with Colette, and apparently everyone knew it but him”

That’s on page 297 of the novel and thirty pages later, the novel is over. Yes, it takes Lucien that long, even longer actually, to recognize his feelings for Colette.

I actually didn’t mind much that Lucien didn’t know what he was feeling even though it was painfully obvious to me as a reader. In fact, I don’t think knowing it would have made any difference to Lucien’s conviction that he couldn’t possibly marry Colette (because of his past experiences with love). More likely, it would have set him running in the other direction even more. But in connection with the seeming flimsiness of his reasoning why he can’t marry Colette and his ungentlemanly behavior towards Colette after they’ve been intimate…

Well, Lucien is plain and simple a cad. Not once does he seriously entertain the idea that he has to marry Colette because they’ve been intimate. Not once does he think about the fact that what he does to Colette now is the same as what was done to him by his fiancĂ©. Not once does he think about how devastated he’d been and how devastated Colette must be. It’s all about him.

So why did I enjoy reading this novel?

Because I saw this novel exactly as being more about Lucien than about Colette.

While at first glance you’d expect Colette running into all kinds of problems as a woman who runs a business when women weren’t even allowed to vote, who has to take care of her sisters because her mother is too weak of will, and who has to fight of the unwanted husbands her uncle sics on her, it’s Lucien who has to struggle, who has his beliefs and expectations questioned and challenged. It’s Lucien who needs time getting used to the idea that he should take a woman’s advice about books, let alone the idea that a woman should be allowed to run a business on her own. It’s Lucien who expects women to fall in with his views without stating otherwise. There’s a nice little scene when his nice, biddable prospective wife questions him:

“Would you please kiss me, Lord Waverly?”
Certain that he had not heard correctly, Lucien asked, “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me,” she said softly. “Please don’t make me repeat myself.”
He could not conceal the incredulousness in his voice. “You wish for me to kiss you?”
“Yes.”
Lucien cleared his throat. “May I ask why?”
She gave him a funny little look, as if she had proven her point. “If you have to ask why, then it is evident that you have no desire to kiss me.” (240/241)

Lucien’s biddable prospective wife wants to marry for love. Colette, if she thinks about marriage at all, entertains that idea only if she marries for love. There’s a thread in this story about marriages that came into being for reasons other than love. Lucien on the other hand never thinks about love as a reason for marriage. In fact, he doesn’t even recognize love even though he so clearly is in love.

Lucien changes the most in the story; Colette goes more or less her merry way. That’s why I think this story is more Lucien’s story and why in some way I wasn’t so bothered by his non-existent self-awareness. Lucien has a few things to learn.

I also thought that O’Riley was rather good at showing the attraction between Colette and Lucien. That, together with my impression that When His Kiss Is Wicked is sometimes a look at marriage and how love fits in with marriage, is what made this novel an enjoyable read for me despite that I listed several things as problematic.

Verdict: An enjoyable read with a few things that rubbed me the wrong way (3,5/5). I’m looking forward to reading more novels by Kaitlin O’Riley.