REVIEW: Once Upon a Ballroom by Caroline Linden, Katharine Ashe, Maya Rodale and Miranda Neville
Recently I purchased the self-published anthology, Once Upon a Ballroom: Original Short Stories and Exclusive Excerpts. I was drawn to this anthology by my interest in Miranda Neville’s story, “The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.” I’ve enjoyed everything I have read by Neville, by which I mean the four books in her Burgundy Club series.
To a lesser degree, I’ve also enjoyed a couple of Caroline Linden’s books, and she too has a story in this anthology. Rounding out the anthology are stories by Katharine Ashe and Maya Rodale, neither of whom I had read before, but I was game to try them. The anthology was priced at only 99 cents so I figured I had little to lose.
Each story is followed by an excerpt from a novel by the same author, but I will not be reviewing these, since I consider excerpts I don’t seek out akin to advertisements. I have a bit more to say on that topic at the end of the review, but first, reviews of the four stories.
“The Truth About Love” by Caroline Linden
Bookish Miranda married the glamorous, sought after Damien, Earl of Roxbury, and has been happy with him ever since. Damien has been devoted and attentive to her, so Miranda’s faith in her husband remains unshaken when her gossipy sister in law informs her that Damien has “taken up with” another woman, Helen Morton.
Damien was more or less ordered by the Prince Regent to come to Brighton and give his advice on the building of the pavilion there. He has written to Miranda regularly, charming letters that assure her of his love. But as more and more people hear of his affair and tell Miranda that she should not have married Damien, and as the letter stop arriving, it becomes harder for Miranda to keep the faith.
Miranda was a very sympathetic figure in this story and I could completely understand her reasons for believing in her husband even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I was glad when her faith was rewarded, but this story, like the others in the anthology, felt short to me. I was expecting something novella length, but it was more of a short story or perhaps a novelette on the short side. More on the length of content issue later.
A bigger problem with “The Truth About Love” is that while there was quite a bit about Damien in Miranda’s thoughts, he only showed up in person, so to speak, for a couple of pages at the end of the story. After all the doubts that were cast on him, that really wasn’t enough for me, especially since it was basically his word against everyone else’s.
I wanted more evidence of Damien’s faithfulness, but even more, I wanted the opportunity to know him better so that I could be sure he and Miranda were a good match. This felt more like a story about Miranda than a story about the two of them, and the ending felt abrupt, although the author has a nice voice. For these reasons, “The Truth About Love” gets a C-/C from me.
“Ask Me To Dance” by Katharine Ashe
In this story, Lady Fiona attends a ball in honor of the debut her friend Cecily, a girl “of low born gentility with two maiden aunts and no status to bring her out.” This ball is described in the French Count of Vaucoeur’s point of view as “a miserably unfashionable fete in a dilapidated townhouse.” But Vaucoeur does not care, since he is there to watch Fiona from the shadows.
Vaucoeur served in the military with Fiona’s brother James and read Fiona’s loving letters to the man. He fell for the girl in those letters, and since he carries a secret which he believes would keep Fiona from returning his feelings, he just watches her from the shadows for ball after ball.
Little does he know that Fiona is aware of his gaze and of his identity, and that she hungers for him almost as much as he does for her. When the ballroom ceiling topples, Fiona and Vaucoeur are separated from the other dancers and have a chance to open up to each other.
This story had a lot of potential, but it was weighed down by the heightened, rather purple language. For example:
But did she know all? For if she did not, and they finally spoke, he could not withhold from her the truth.
Other examples: “her insides pirouetted” (I pictured a miniature ballerina in Fiona’s belly) and “Her throat caught upon a swell of awe.”
Another problem with the story is that Vaucoeur’s baggage was heavy, and involved Fiona’s brother, yet these serious issues were cleared up in the blink of an eye.
Despite the language and the heavy baggage, or perhaps partly because of them, Ashe conjures an atmosphere filled with tension, both sexual and romantic. There is good chemistry between the characters. I give this one a C-.
Ashe mentions in a note after the story that these characters have appeared in a couple of her books, so I wasn’t sure if their romance is followed in those other books as well, or not. This left me with mixed feelings, because of my response to the Maya Rodale story.
“Once Upon a Dream” by Maya Rodale
Annabelle, a newspaper columnist, is desperately in love with her boss, Derek Knightly. Since Derek seems oblivious, Annabelle asked her readers for advice on how to attract a man’s attention. One of them, “Marriage-Minded Mama from Mayfair,” has suggested arranging to be caught in a compromising position with the man she loves.
Annabelle dresses to a ball in something referred to as The Dress, designed to catch a man’s eye. She gets Knightly’s attention. Soon they are in a private alcove, kissing and going further, until she snaps awake from the daydream. Like the others, this is not a long story and the daydream takes up a full third of it. When I realized Annabelle had been dreaming everything, I felt thwarted.
Unfortunately, the latter two thirds of the story aren’t any more satisfying. Another dream takes up another third of the story. And in the final third, everything is resolved in a rushed, unsatisfying way.
A second huge issue I had with this story was that it lacked conflict, either external or internal. Yes, we were told that Annabelle couldn’t get Derek’s attention, but everything we were shown indicated otherwise.
Almost as soon as Derek appears in this story, it’s clear he is attracted to Annabelle and a page or two later, he gets very serious about her. His commitment to her comes out of nowhere, at least to this reader who has not read the books that are linked to this story.
Further, since I didn’t know Annabelle or Derek from the previous books, I needed a reason to connect with them. I wasn’t given one here. In a story this short, the characters need to quickly become sympathetic or fascinating or at least, a little compelling. None of that happened here, so I was left feeling indifferent to whether or not Derek an Annabelle ended up together.
I was further frustrated when I reached the end of the story and read that Derek and Annabelle have their own book, Seducing Mr. Knightly. That being the case, I wasn’t sure if any of the scenes in “Once Upon a Dream” were excerpted from Seducing Mr. Knightly. Whether or not they were, I ended up feeling I had been advertised to rather than entertained. D.
“The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors” by Miranda Neville
This story was the reason I purchased Once Upon a Ballroom. After the Rodale story, I was half afraid to read it. I wondered if it too, would feel like a marketing gimmick rather than a work designed to entertain. I should have trusted the author more. Miranda Neville’s Burgundy Club works have all been charming, touching, and funny, and this little story was no exception.
Belinda Lawrence has recently lost her father, and wonders what to do with his book collection. James, Lord Corton, a childhood friend whom it was always assumed she’d marry, is the one she turns to for advice.
Belinda has always loved James but he seems to see her as a sister. He calls her Binny and doesn’t look beyond her spectacles. When she broaches the topic of the book collection, she hopes that James will propose at last. If they marry, her books will have a loving home, and so, she hopes, will she.
James has actually at last noticed Belinda, but he does not know if she wants to marry him or if she’d prefer the freedom to choose another husband. He almost works up the nerve to ask her to marry him, but at the last minute, trepidation gets the better of him.
When he confides this to Tarquin Compton, a fellow member of the Burgundy Club, a society of book collectors, Tarquin suggests that James needs “the Tarquin Compton School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.”
Tarquin advises James to discard his plan to dress as Henry VIII to an upcoming masquerade and wear a highwayman costume instead. Behind his highwayman’s mask, Tarquin promises, James will find it easier to woo Belinda.
Of course, Tarquin’s stratagem doesn’t go off without a few hitches. The humorous and emotional situations resulting from the change of costume are half the fun, but the endearing characters were even more central to my enjoyment. James and Belinda both felt kind and sympathetic, but never ingratiating or cloying.
I sometimes think that half the reason I prefer flawed characters is that so many times, with sympathetic characters, I can see the author’s hand manipulating me to like them. The thing I so appreciate about Neville’s writing is that I never get this feeling with her books. Her characters are likable and even sweet, but in a way that feels fresh and real.
In this way they resemble the execution of the storyline in “The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.” There is nothing new in a storyline about a heroine who has always loved the hero from afar and a hero who hasn’t noticed her until now. It’s the same premise used in Rodale’s “Once Upon a Dream,” but whereas in the latter, I didn’t care, in “The School of Wooing” the same familiar premise sang to me.
Small touches such as Belinda’s reminiscence of her father reading Robinson Crusoe to her when she was young, and James cradling the same book “as carefully as he would an infant,” wit sprinkled here and there, and most of all, a certain tenderness in the characters, make this plot feel as fresh as the Belinda and James do.
What keeps this one from an A range grade is that even here, the story feels a touch too short. I wish I had the chance to know these two people better.
There are also times when I want just a little more emotion. There’s a moment near the end of the story when James does something boneheaded that hurts Belinda. He apologizes quickly and it’s resolved very fast – a bit too fast for my taste. I wanted the chance to feel Belinda’s hurt and anger a little longer, since that would have made James’s apology that much sweeter. So this story gets a B.
Before I close this review, I want to say a bit more about the length of the stories. Again, these are not novella-length stories, but shorter works. I was expecting novellas, and that led me to disappointment.
Once Upon a Ballroom was 1757 locations long on my Kindle. According to this post a location translates to roughly 22 or 23 words. If true, this means that the anthology is somewhere around 40,000 words in length. The four stories are each, according to my calculations, between 7000 (28 pages) and 9000 (36 pages) words in length. Together they make up about 79% of the anthology, while around 16% of the rest is comprised of excerpts from the authors’ upcoming novels, and roughly another 5% is “About the Authors” content.
I was inspired to get out my calculator and figure all this out because he brevity of the stories and my feeling that three of the four ranged from so-so to downright frustrating caused me to feel cheated before I read the Neville story, despite the low 99 cent price. And even after I read that story, I didn’t feel that anthology was the bargain it had seemed to be at first.
Considering that I can spend the same 99 cents on the occasional good full length novel that’s on sale, or something like Milan’s The Governess Affair, I feel that with this anthology I got less for my dollar, and more importantly, less for the time I put in.
Once Upon a Ballroom is also often available free of charge (currently Amazon and Smashwords). At such low/no cost, some readers may find it worth checking out, but expectations should be adjusted according to the length of the content and the proportion of excerpts to complete stories.