Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Melody Thomas

REVIEW: This Perfect Kiss by Melody Thomas

REVIEW: This Perfect Kiss by Melody Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

I have described your Avon historicals as a “guilty pleasure,” but such a description undervalues their strengths, one of which is the romantic suspense subplot, which often engages me more than the romance itself. Still, the heroines tend toward stubborn and feisty, and the heroes toward dark and tortured, while the drama is high and the history, well, the history is definitely not why I read them. Somehow I managed to miss last year’s book, so I was especially excited to read This Perfect Kiss, because sometimes I crave a more old-fashioned Romance novel, and I find your books tend toward that experience. Unfortunately, This Perfect Kiss was not a perfect read for me, although I did enjoy a number of the novel’s elements.

This Perfect Kiss by Melody ThomasAt 17, Christel Douglas believes herself to be in love with Camden St. Giles, a young captain in the Royal Navy and heir to the earldom of Carrick. When she shares a passionate, stolen kiss with the young officer, Christel believes that if he knew who she was beneath her homemade costume of gold taffeta dress and bejeweled shoes, “England’s hero” would want nothing to do with “the bastard daughter of an adulterer.” And, as her half sister Tia gleefully informs Christel upon finding her at the masquerade ball, Camden is nearly engaged to Christel’s beautiful and legitimate cousin, Saundra. So Christel flees before Tia can reveal her secret, while Camden goes on to marry Saundra.

Almost ten years later, everyone’s lives have been dramatically changed by personal tragedy and war. Saundra bore Camden a daughter before she mysteriously plummeted to her death from one of the light towers on the Carrick estate. Having been gravely wounded and militarily disgraced in Yorktown, Camden is now passionate about only two things, both named Anna: his daughter and his commercial ship. Bitter and world-weary, Camden is loath to return to his Scottish estate, Blackthorn Castle, where his dictatorial grandmother and his reprobate brother, Leighton, reside, especially since Leighton is rumored to have been Saundra’s lover and the father of the child she miscarried shortly before her death. But when a woman claiming to be his late-wife’s cousin boards his ship in London, Camden is immediately taken back some nine years to that masquerade ball at which he kissed the lovely Christel Douglas, before she inexplicably fled Scotland for the colony of Virginia, where her uncle lived and fought for the colonial cause.

Christel was shocked to receive a letter from Saundra begging her to return to Scotland to take up governess duties for Anna. Since Saundra has now been dead two years, the provenance of the letter is even more mysterious, although Christel is still urgently trying to fulfill its request. Widowed herself, and without any money, Christel boards Camden’s ship dressed as a man and accompanied by a dog who adopted her on the London docks. It is not the first time Christel has seen Camden in nine years; after all, it was her uncle’s ship that rescued him and what was left of his crew from drowning after the disastrous Yorktown battle, and while he lay delirious in a Yorktown field hospital, Christel had nursed him until her own husband became ill. But she has no idea that Camden has spent the last nine years with a souvenir of that night at the masquerade ball – the golden shoes Christel had so proudly created and then watched Tia throw over the cliff at the edge of the Carrick estate. And now that they are isolated on the Anna, Christel and Camden have plenty of time to become reacquainted without any masks or costumes.

There is quite a bit of interesting backstory in This Perfect Kiss, much of it political. Christel has fought for the colonial cause against the British and through her dress shop in Williamsburg was able to gather information for the cause. Leighton, Camden’s younger brother, is involved in the black market trade of brandy and weapons, and it is widely believed that he was Saundra’s lover and perhaps even a traitor to the Crown. Following Camden’s military humiliation and devastating wound, Camden has entered the commercial shipping business with his close friend, Jacob Westmont, a chief magistrate and staunch loyalist. Renewing an association with Christel puts Camden in a precarious position regarding his own political and commercial interests, as well as testing the bounds of his friendship with Westmont. Christel’s past, much of which she does not initially reveal to Camden, also implicates her much more deeply in colonial politics than he ever would have suspected, and once he brings her back to Scotland, he is inadvertently inviting unwelcome official scrutiny into his and Christel’s families and properties.

On the surface, at least, there is quite a bit of ambitious political detail in the book, and because the novel takes place a mere year after the Treaty of Paris, the political context is both crucial and multi-layered to any story set in this time. Beyond the obvious political opposition between the British Crown and the newly formed American nation, there is Scotland’s complicated position economically and socially. Economically, Scottish shipping industries were imperiled by the War, while politically and socially, the revolutionary spirit of the colonists was an appealing ideal. Enlightenment values – the rise of individualism, reason-based philosophy, natural history, republicanism and the social contract, etc – were radically changing the way people thought about and viewed the world, and there is a distinct ethos characteristic of that period, even as it varied somewhat from country to country.

Unfortunately, despite the complicated backstory in the novel and the extensive political and historical references, This Perfect Kiss did not, for me, possess that late 18th century ethos marking it as a product of the momentous changes taking place during this period (and the attempts to mimic period speech with the “ayes” and the “nays” didn’t work for me at all). In fact, once Camden and Christel arrive back in Scotland at Blackthorn Castle, there were large stretches of the novel that felt very much like a Regency or Victorian historical, by which I mean the Romance genre’s interpretation of a Regency or Victorian-set story. A small example: while I appreciated the absence of women’s drawers (18th C women didn’t wear them) and the reference to shifts and stays (although “corset” is referenced in the prologue), the complexity (and width!) of women’s wear during the period never came through to me. Nor did the complexity of the changing political, philosophical and social views. I will say, however, that I was incredibly grateful for the absence of horrible Scottish accents, kilts, references to “savage” or “noble” Highlanders, and other terrible and inaccurate Scottish stereotypes.

In terms of Christel and Camden’s relationship, the surface/substance relationship is reversed. Superficially, at least, Christel and Camden would have been a bad match nine years ago – she, the bastard daughter of a Scottish lord and a colonial woman of no status – but now their pairing seems as if it would be disastrous. Christel has been involved with the Sons of Liberty, while Camden fought for the Crown. Both have been embittered by war and loss. And Christel still has no social status to offer the seventh earl of Carrick, let alone any apparent inclination to play the accommodating countess. On a deeper level, though, these two deeply wounded individuals, both rebels in their own way, have the potential to heal each other and properly value the fragile gifts of love and happiness.

Camden has been reluctant to stay in Scotland and assume residence as the Earl of Carrick, the sordid tragedy of his wife’s death and the pressure of his grandmother to marry again unwanted burdens. For all of his responsibilities – to his daughter, his crew, his family, and his earldom – Camden has been deeply burned by his own loyalty, and he finds it much easier to remain on his ship, where he has a smaller world to oversee. Christel, on the other hand, had always been a partial outsider and a rebel, and she refuses to count on anything in life being stable or secure, including her youthful infatuation with the handsome earl. Still, she cannot help being drawn to the wounded man, just as she has been drawn to other difficult and dangerous causes:

 

For most of her life, it had been easier to run from the frailties of her heart than to confront her own vulnerability, but there was something fragile about a man of the world who suddenly did not seem so worldly in all things. A man who loved his daughter and wanted to know his child better, who had been betrayed by his wife and brother and—if Christel really wanted to list all the evil culprits in his life—who had also been betrayed by the Crown he had served so loyally for so many years.

He was a man who’d used every situation to his own advantage, a strategist who’d played life like a game of chess or one of his naval sorties but who had suddenly found the new territory he was now sailing unnavigable.

 

Although I tend to like the ‘damaged hero and heroine save themselves through their mutual love’ device, with all of the extra baggage heaped on Christel and Camden throughout the novel – the mystery of his wife’s death, the implications of Christel’s social position and her political activity, the questionable activities of Leighton, etc. – the external obstacles are responsible for dramatic tension to sustain the reader’s interest. However, the sheer number of issues implies that resolving those difficulties should be no easy thing. Without issuing spoilers to the several mysteries that build over the course of the novel, I will say that the several substantial obstacles to Christel and Camden’s ultimate happiness seem almost magically resolved, deflating much of tension they originally created and diminishing their importance.

This Perfect Kiss is a very difficult book for me to grade, because I found its own ambition to be the ultimate source of its undoing. The political issues were plentiful but not resonant in the book, and the emotional issues were not incredibly inspired to begin with, and were ultimately hampered by the creaking weight of the backstory and the historical context, as superficial as it was. For all the details present in the book I was bored through a good deal of the novel, and as much as I liked Christel and Camden, I never convincingly felt the danger of their situation nor the depth of their suffering. As much as the novel gave me superficially, I kept wanting more substantively, and consequently, while I didn’t dislike This Perfect Kiss, it was far from a perfect reading experience for me. C+

~ Janet

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
| Sony| KoboBooks

REVIEW:  Passion and Pleasure in London by Melody Thomas

REVIEW: Passion and Pleasure in London by Melody Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

Your books remind me acutely how much of the relationship between reader and book depends on some chemical, perhaps even alchemical, reaction, indescribable yet potent in its effect. They also remind me of how possible it is, even now, for a compelling storyteller to make stock characters and situations come to life. Which is what I found to be the case in Passion and Pleasure in London, a book that once again blends romance and intrigue in a satisfying, albeit not thoroughly original way.

Passion and Pleasure in London  Melody ThomasWinter Ashburn is a thief, a petty thief for the most part, but a thief nonetheless. She is also a lady by birth, granddaughter of a duke, her father long dead following a horrific accident, her mother suffering from some form of dementia, and her younger brother fully in her care. Winter’s uncle, Baron Richly, has given her a small cottage, leaving her to her own independence in the wake of an incident eight years ago that set in motion both her father’s death and Winter’s larcenous behavior. An in-between existence is what Winter leads, not destitute but hardly flush, not disrespectable but still outside the society into which she was born. It is no wonder, then, that when she spots the half-English, half-Rom Rory Jameson, a man whose dark beauty matches his brooding manner, she is drawn to him, recognizing a strange kinship with the stranger.

Rory is similar to Winter in a number of ways. The grandson of a nobleman, the Marquess of Granbury, he has lived the life as an outsider – his Gypsy mother consistently derided and his disgraced father killed trying to defend her. Like Winter he has taken a different path in life than the one he was born to, a solitary path, as it happens. But now Rory is on his way to Granbury Court, summoned finally by his dying grandfather to assume his inherited position, and despite his resistance, his distrust, and his resentment toward the family who rejected his own parents, Rory finds himself wending toward a home he has never known, never expected, but that has always been intended for him. When he spots Winter in a local pub, he is instantly on alert; when he finds her going through his saddlebags, he is revealed as that time-honored combination of alpha maleness: anger and arousal. One forbidden kiss in the stable and an attempt on Rory’s life later, Winter and Rory find themselves irrevocably snared in a complicated mix of attraction and mystery.

Not everyone is thrilled with Rory’s appearance at Granbury Court, especially his cousin Trevor, who had hoped to become the marquess’ heir, Baron Richly, to whom the old marquess had indebted himself quite extensively, and Richly’s daughter Lavinia, who is contractually betrothed to the marquess’ heir. There is also some distrust among the those in the shire, who have suffered under Granbury Court’s mismanagement and are still uncertain of who burned to the ground Winter’s former home, Everleigh Hall, some years earlier. It is unclear who is behind the attempt on Rory’s life and their motive, but Rory’s extensive military and government experience (yes, he’s one of those heroes) tells him that the attack was not the random robbery it appeared to be, making him distrustful of practically everyone. And while he initially distrusts Winter, especially when he wakes to find her standing over his sick bed (following the attack) and assumes she is trying to kill him, he soon realizes that she presents a different sort of danger, the peril of excessive feelings.

Neither Winter nor Rory is lighthearted, neither is perfectly honest, neither is wholly forthcoming with the details of their life, but both have a basic integrity and loyalty that overrides their superficial deviousness and wariness of each other. Both have suffered a great wrong at the hands of family, both are essentially orphans (although Rory has a sister, Eve, with whom he’s close, and Winter has her brother and others in the shire who look after her), both have taken on too much responsibility at too early of an age, and both have guarded their hearts jealously despite their passionate natures. In other words, they are a perfect, brooding, Romance match.

I do not think the strength of this book is reflected in its basic characterization and plot, because so much of that detail comes across as derivative. For me the strength of the book is expressed in the emotional spark between Rory and Winter and the way the novel makes the most of their characters to develop that passion. At one point Winter tells Rory, “‘I have never known a person to touch as much as you do, my lord,’” to which Rory aptly replies, “‘And I have never known a woman who needs to be touched as much as you do.’” This exchange communicates perfectly the nature of Rory and Winter’s relationship – their mutual need for connection and the way it pushes and pulls at them, driving them to ever-deeper levels of physical and emotional intimacy:

She had never known anyone like him before. The man might be a scapegrace, but he did not seem overset by his faults. She envied his acceptance of himself. Never before had anyone made her so aware of her own body and feelings. Or made her feel so alive and unafraid. . . .

“I will not be a trophy,” she said. “The prize for a game won between us.”

“Is that what all of this is about?” he quietly asked.

“I don’t know. I only know is that I am all tight inside. Like I’ve been caught in an apple press. I can’t even seduce you properly, and you’re the easiest man I know.” . . .

He knelt and combed the hair out of her face. “Look at me, Winter.”

And she did. . . .

“You are seducing me, love.”

One of the things I like most about Rory and Winter is that they are not wincers and mincers; for the most part they say what they mean and they mean what they say, neither disposed to whining, self-pity, or cruel pettiness. Rory, for example, has many reasons to despise his grandfather, and yet his response to the marquess and to the prospect of taking on the title himself is not what I expected (it is deeper and more thoughtful). Winter, who is very aware of her growing feelings for Rory, is nonetheless not moved to besotted manipulation or stupidity. In fact, there is an honesty in both characters, in their portrayal and the way they function in the novel, that is compelling enough to push my sympathies past their superficial type-ness and make me care about them.

There are also a number of secondary characters in the novel who manage to contribute to the emotional authenticity of the central relationship, namely Angelique Kincaid, who becomes a much-needed friend to Winter and who challenges Winter to take new stock of past relationships. Rory’s sister Eve, who, like her brother, is strong and practical, also provides some help along the way, intervening in Rory’s relationship with Winter just enough to keep things from flying off the track and providing some much needed clarity to Winter. The ostensible villain of the book, Baron Richly, is not portrayed with a great deal of subtlety, but the effects of his greed and ambition reverberate through the novel in sometimes effective ways (especially in the economic challenges he creates for Granbury and the way that affects Rory). As was the case in the last novel, Sin and Scandal in England, there is still a fair amount of purple prose, especially during the love scenes, but I found it less frustrating in this book, in part, I think, because Rory and Winter were better suited to the linguistic intensity and also because it seemed less intrusive and less prevalent this time around. Also, I found myself negotiating fewer typographical errors in this ARC, which likely relieved my general crankiness in also navigating through the sometimes melodramatic prose.

The biggest disappointment in the book for me was the mystery plot, which had much more dominance in the last book than here. One thing I enjoyed about the mystery plot in the last book was the way it broke some of the romantic tension and provided a nice layering to the grossly overused spy Romance tropes. In Passion and Pleasure in London there is less emphasis on the spy stuff, but also a weakening in the strength of the mystery, which in this case revolves around the attempted murder of Rory. The resolution to this mystery, which was intended to tie a number of the novel’s elements together, was not particularly satisfactory for me. The reasons for this – which I will attempt to convey without giving away spoilers – are related to the characterization of the main culprit, which I found inconsistent (why didn’t anyone see it before?), the motive of one of the secondary culprits (this person’s involvement past a certain point was never explained), and the way this resolution invoked another Romance trope that frankly diminished the importance of some of the financial/economic issues that had been developing during the novel. I did, however, appreciate the way in which one of the would-be villains actually revised some of the presuppositions that predicated the initial attempt on Rory’s life. Had this character been nuanced a bit more, the mystery subplot might have been stronger and more effective in its unraveling.

Overall, though, I found Passion and Pleasure in London a compulsively readable book. As with the last book, I am somewhat torn between a C+ and a B-, but since I am still feeling fondly toward the book several weeks after reading it, its strengths are obviously enduring in my recollection beyond its weaknesses, so I will go with the B-.

~Janet

AmazonBNSonyKoboARE