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Sarah MacLean

REVIEW:  One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean

REVIEW: One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean

Dear Ms. MacLean:

The day before I wrote this review I was stuck in the library of a large public high school, waiting to be called to a debate tournament. I was there for eight hours and only judged one match. The rest of the time I spent re-reading One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and its predecessor, the first book in the The Rules of Scoundrels series, A Rogue by Any Other Name (reviewed here by Janet.) I like the series as a whole better than I like either book individually. I also like A Rogue by Any Other Name better than One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. While the hero in the first book–Bourne–is a jerk whose redemption is hard to buy, I found him and his brutish courtship of Penelope Marbury interesting. Cross, the hero of this book is so saintly and guilt-ridden, I wanted to toss him, tied to the heavy metaphorical cross he bears, straight into the Thames. His story and the woman with whom he is paired, Lady Philippa Marbury (Penelope’s weird younger sister as opposed to Penelope’s beautiful younger sister, Olivia), left me wanting.

Phillipa, in a scene that’s not actually in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover but in the final pages of A Rogue by Any Other Name, walks into the gaming hell the heroes of the series own, The Fallen Angel, and propositions Jasper Cross, one of the hell’s four partners. (The four are the Scoundrels of the series.) Phillipa is to wed, in less than two weeks, the kind but unintelligent Lord Castleton. She, a brilliant amateur scientist, is concerned she doesn’t understand specifically what the carnal side of marriage entails; she’s seen a bull mate but knows human coitus must be somehow different. After using her large brain to think very hard about how she might learn more about the machinations of mating, she’s decided to ask Cross, her brother-in-law’s friend and partner and a known rake, to prepare her for her sex with her future groom.

“As an obvious man of science . . . I should think you would be willing to assist me in my research.”

“Your research in the mating habits of bulls?”

Her smile turned amused. “My research in carnal lust and appetites.”

There was only one option. Terrifying her into leaving. Insulting her into it. “You’re asking me to fuck you?”

Her eyes went wide. “Do you know, I’ve never heard that word spoken aloud.”

And, like that, with her simple, straightforward pronouncement, he felt like vermin. He opened his mouth to apologize.

She beat him to it, speaking as though he were a child. As though they were discussing something utterly ordinary. “I see I wasn’t clear. I don’t want you to perform the act, so to speak. I would simply like you to help me to better understand it.”

Cross, who finds her maddeningly alluring, coldly points out surely she could and should ask someone else. But, because this is the silly plot device upon which this novel is based, Phillipa can’t. She can’t ask her sisters (Penelope only waxes lyrically about true love with Bourne; her two older sisters are unhappily married; Olivia is to be wed on the same day as Phillipa), and books are–and this is never made clear why–either unavailable or not appropriate. Cross crossly tells her no and she wafts out of his office with the rather random line, “I do wish you’d call me Pippa.”

Phillipa, or Pippa as those close to her call her, doesn’t give up. She keeps showing back up at the Angel and causing no end of hassle for Cross who, absurdly, has decided not to tell Bourne about Phillipa’s dangerous forays into the London forbidden to Ladies. Cross is a dedicated martyr and self-designated savior of the world. He feels it is he, and he alone, who must save Pippa from her dangerous curiosity as well as her propensity to run into Cross’s nemesis, Digger, the cretin who owns the low-rent hell next door. Digger is yet another headache for Cross–Cross’s crippled sister Lavinia’s husband (Baron Dunblade, a loser in many ways) owes Digger ten thousand pounds and, unless Cross marries Digger’s daughter, Digger will ruin Lavinia and her children. If all that drama weren’t enough for one martyr man, Cross has the constant stress of maintaining his reputation as a scoundrel when in reality, he’s better behaved than most choirboys.

Ms. MacLean can write beautifully and sensually; for me, the Love by the Numbers series greatest strength is the way Ms. MacLean explores sex and sexual attraction. In One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, however, the lust Pippa and Cross feel for each other from the start of the book is over-discussed and over-analyzed. Cross won’t let himself touch Pippa–and I mean that literally, he tries not to have any physical contact with her–because he has judged himself for his past sins and sentenced himself to a life of miserable, self-flagellating (not, thankfully, literally) aloneness. There’s far too much print devoted to Cross’s inner-monologues on his moral ruin–I’m not a big fan of guilt-ridden protagonists and Cross’s constant mea culpa litany drove me nuts. I wasn’t as bothered by Pippa–she’s one of those funky bluestocking heroines written to make readers celebrate the victory of brains over beauty (although of course she’s, behind her gold-rimmed spectacles, a knockout)–but I also grew tired of her inner chatter. Far too much of the novel takes place in the minds of the leads; all the telling distanced me from the narrative.

Though I didn’t enjoy the romance in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, I did enjoy reading the book. Ms. MacLean has created a great context for these novels. The world of the Angel and the characters who are a part of it are vividly rendered. I love the relationship between the four Angel owners–Bourne, Cross, Temple, and Chase–and am exceedingly curious to see where Ms. MacLean takes her last two Scoundrels. There are at least seven secondary characters whose stories wend through the series I want to know more about: the publisher Duncan West and the mysterious woman who longs for him (I have a theory about her identity….); Sally, the whore by choice; Didier, the cranky chef; Digger’s daughter, Maggie; Castleton; and the Austen reading doorman Asriel. They, and the Angel itself are hugely entertaining. I also liked the book’s penultimate finale–the plot’s resolution is by far the best part of the tale. (The last scene in the novel is predictable and pat but expected.) The prose is very good; Ms. MacLean is a strong, seductive writer and she excels at creating an almost visual sense of place. Here, Cross is looking down at the Angel’s floor:

His gaze flickered over the men on the floor of the hell. A handful at the hazard tables, another few playing ecarte. The roulette wheel spun in a whir of color, a fortune laid out across the betting field. He was too far away to see where the ball fell or to hear the call of the croupier, but he saw the disappointment on the faces of the men at the table as they felt the sting of loss. He saw, too, the way hope rallied, leading them into temptation, urging them to place another wager on a new number . . . or perhaps the same one . . . for certainly luck was theirs tonight.

Little did they know.

Cross watched a round of vingt-et-un directly below, the cards close enough to see. Eight, three, ten, five. Queen, two, six, six.

The deck was high.

The dealer laid the next cards.

King. Over.

Jack. Over.

If all casinos were as entrancing as the Angel, I’d better understand their pull.

I had a hard time grading this book. As a romance, it’s a C. As a novel and as a continuation of the many stories in the series, it’s a solid B. I’m going with a C+ since it does least well what it should do the best: tell a convincing, compelling love story.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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REVIEW: A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

REVIEW: A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

Dear Ms. MacLean:

This is the first of your books I’ve read, and it’s the first in quite a while that I’ve considered applying the mistorical tag to. Given the muddled nature of Regency history in Romance, as well as my insecurity regarding how much I really know that’s true about the period, I decided against tagging the book that way. However, the internal debate is indicative of my overall response to A Rogue By Any Other Name, specifically my inability to feel immersed in the lives of its characters or their world. Despite some likeably competent writing and some truly entertaining scenes, I pretty much stayed at arm’s length from the book and felt unconvinced by the progression of the romance.

A Rogue By Any Other Name By Sarah MacLeanAt 21, only six years after his parents’ tragic death, Michael, the young Marquess of Bourne lost all of his unentailed property in one hand of vingt-et-un. In a cruel irony, the man who took Bourne’s fortune was the man who helped him build it back over the past six years. So for nearly the past decade, Michael has been planning his revenge against the Viscount Langford, while building the wealth to re-aquire a stretch of land that, for Bourne, seemed to represent his future. As a partner of a notorious London gaming hell, The Fallen Angel, Bourne has the money to buy out most of his fellow aristocrats, but the deed to Falconwell remains elusive. Until, that is, Michael happens into a little bit of luck in Surrey.

At 28, Lady Penelope has had five proposals of marriage, none of which have resulted in a wedding. Her latest, from childhood friend Thomas Alles, was probably the easiest to reject, in part because after being spurned by a duke who went on to marry for love, Penelope would rather be a spinster than unhappily married. And now that her father, the Marquess of Needham and Dolby, has placed Falconwell in Penelope’s dowry, that chance has drastically increased. As much as Penelope would like to marry for the sake of her younger sisters’ matrimonial chances, she cannot imagine how that could ever happen. The one man she wished for has been gone from Surry for almost a decade, and for years her letters to him have gone unanswered (and lately unsent). So when, in the middle of the night, she decides to walk the neighboring land, Falconwell, in fact, she is absolutely stunned to come across Michael, who is equally surprised to see her.

Michael knows that if he lets Penelope go safely back to her home and bed, he will never again have a chance at Falconwell, so instead he basically abducts her to the long-abandoned Bourne estate, ensuring her “ruin” by ripping her dress practically in half and introducing her to the hot pre-marital sexxoring. Penelope, who had long been a young woman of propriety and respect for her parents and the many rules of society, is both incensed and tempted by Michael’s actions. Part of her has always wanted him to love her, and yet, as he makes clear that first night,

“I do not fool myself into thinking that the goal of marriage is happiness for one or both of the parties involved. My plan is to restore Falconwell’s lands to its manor and, unfortunately for you, it requires our marriage. I shan’t be a good husband, but I also haven’t the slightest interest in keeping you under my thumb.”

Still, it is difficult for Penelope to accept that her childhood friend Michael is now this seeming hard, uncaring man bent myopically on revenge, which establishes a difficult dynamic in their relationship early on: she consistently hopes for more, and Michael consistently shows her less. Until he doesn’t. But more on that later.

Some of my favorite books in the genre feature heroes who – through a mixture of traumatic loss and a diminished sense of self-worth – struggle with unaccustomed feelings of emotional dependence on the heroine and, in the process, end up hurting and disappointing her. One of the reasons those books are among my favorites is that the process of successfully redeeming such a man is both torturously painstaking and cathartically rewarding in direct proportion to the degree of alphahole behavior. And for almost the first half of A Rogue By Any Other Name, Michael is one serious alphahole, telling Penelope over and over again how incidental she is to his twin goals of Falconwell’s restoration and revenge against Langford, leaving her for days at a time, seducing and abandoning her without a word, etc. Standard alphahole behavior, in other words.

For her part, Penelope is tired of living in response to the whims of men, and if she cannot have the kind of happiness in marriage she once imagined, she can use the position her new marriage affords her to secure good matches for her sisters. She bargained that deal with Michael the first night he took her to his abandoned estate and convinces him that it will go much easier if they convince everyone they have a real love match. And unfortunately for Penelope, Michael is an incredibly good actor, which adds to Penelope’s confused feelings, her stubborn hopefulness, and the disappointment she feels when Michael reminds her, for the umpteenth time, how uncommitted he is emotionally to their marriage. It’s not until Penelope decides to take the freedom Michael’s disinterest offers her more seriously – making a late might trip to The Fallen Angel to explore Michael’s world – that her own marital fortunes change.

The character trajectories of Penelope and Michael are clear: as she becomes more independent of will, he becomes more connected emotionally, and thus they ultimately grow together. Because this is a Romance, we know they will end up happily and in love, so the main mystery in the story is how Michael will resolve his revenge plans, which implicate not only Langford, but also his son, Tommy, the mutual childhood friend of Michael and Penelope. Penelope, of course, does not want Tommy to suffer for Langford’s betrayal and Michael’s righteous anger, which creates a good deal of emotional tension between her and Michael, who is alternately jealous of his wife’s desire to protect Tommy and resigned to seeing himself as unworthy of Penelope.

Unfortunately for me, that tension around Michael’s revenge and his feelings for Penelope were just not enough to emotionally invest me in the story. Part of the issue was the way the two protags evolved. Penelope, for example, is initially introduced as this reasonable, proper young woman who has always put her responsibilities first and who even failed to stand up for herself when her thoughtless younger sister, Olivia, makes snide comments about her marriage prospects. And then suddenly she’s walking around outside – alone! – in the middle of the night, pursuing the strange light that turned out to be Michael’s lamp, demanding he take her home and then letting him have his wicked way with her. It wasn’t that I disliked her; it was more that I felt a fundamental lack of consistency in her character that made it difficult for me to trust her. I found myself annoyed at her constant waffling between dreaming of Michael falling in love with her and being let down by his alphaholery. And yet, despite the lack of consistency, she possessed a predictability that further distanced me. There was one point where Michael offered her an adventure, and I think I actually yelled out loud at the book, “Don’t say you want to go to the gaming hell!!!!!,” right before she did, indeed, say she wanted to go to the gaming hell.

Still, my bigger issues are with Michael, who spends at least 200 pages in alphahole mode, only to flip like the coin he gives Penelope as a marker when he promises to help her sisters. What facilitates the flip? Among other things, a late night therapy session at The Fallen Angel with his business partners, who tease and goad him, challenge and, when all else fails, brawl with him in service of getting him to see what he’s missing by spending all his nights at the hell. Now don’t get me wrong: this was one of the funniest, not to mention, truly unexpected, scenes in the book – all these tough guys gossiping like women and trying to get Michael in touch with his suppressed emotions. But the whole thing seemed kind of crazy to me, as well, both in its character and effectiveness. Like Penelope, I was taken aback at Michael’s change of heart, although unlike her, I was more unconvinced by the way it happened than by the fact that it did. After all, I expected that. Unfortunately, the process was unexpected in a way that made it feel more cartoonish than authentic to me. Even Michael’s backstory left me with questions: what happened to his entailed property while he disappeared from society? Didn’t he had many people who were counting on him to be responsible and take care of them? Did the Bourne manor house sit on Falconwell, and if so, why was it not part of the entailed property? And with so much property lost to Langford, why was it just Falconwell Michael wanted so badly? Part of me was never able to see Michael as the good guy, because I had no sense he felt there was anything wrong with taking off  for a decade after he had lost what he perceived to be “his future.”

I think, in the end, it was this combination of clichéd predictability and eccentric inconsistency that kept me from loving the book. Where I wanted more unpredictability – in how the characters developed and reacted and evolved – I felt it was too superficial, and where I wanted consistency, I felt like I got artificial shifts that propelled the plot forward. Instead of the plot serving the characters, it felt to me as if the characters served the plot, and I think they really suffered for it. I felt this even extended to some of the historical details. For example, I’m certainly no Regency expert, but I understand that gambling and cards were quite popular among men and women. And yet one character in the book boisterously insists he won’t deign to play cards with a woman, and vingt-et-un is basically described as a man’s game, in order, I think, to ramp up the dramatic tension of the scene. And while I understand that the book is set in 1831, it still feels very much a Regency Romance to me.

I cannot say, though, that I would not read another MacLean historical, as the writing was likeable, and at some points, really quite nice, especially some of the descriptions of The Fallen Angel:

Penelope had never seen anything so stunning as this place, this marvelous, lush, place, filled with candlelight and color, teeming with people who called out obscene bets and rolled with laughter, who kissed their dice and cursed their bad luck.

Perhaps my reaction would have been different had I read the book containing Penelope’s backstory. I will soon find out, as I will likely read Pippa’s book, as her match is quite an interesting choice. For A Rogue By Any Other Name, though, a C.

~ Janet

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