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REVIEW:  Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

REVIEW: Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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Dear Ms. Phillips,

I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t get into this book at all. It seems to have been meant as a modern take on Gothic romances, but for me it didn’t work as either a Gothic or a romance.

Annie Hewitt once dreamed of becoming an actress, but ended up becoming a ventriloquist and specializing in educational puppet shows. As the book opens, she is travelling with the puppets in tow to her late mother’s cottage on sparsely populated Peregrine Island, off the coast of Maine. Annie’s mother Mariah recently passed away and left Annie an unspecified legacy at the cottage. Mariah had been heavily involved in the New York art scene during her life and would often host artists at the cottage, so Annie suspects that there could be something very valuable involved, but she’s not sure what. By the terms of Mariah’s divorce settlement, she or her heirs must spend sixty consecutive days at the cottage each year or it will revert back to her ex-husband and his family. Annie is broke and has few job prospects, so she decides to spend a couple of months at the cottage and sort things out.

While travelling by night to the remote location, Annie runs her car off the road while trying to avoid a rider on a black horse. She hikes out to the cottage in the bitter cold only to find it dark and unheated, and collapses there for the night. The next morning, she heads up to Harp House to track down the caretaker who should have had the cottage ready for her, but instead runs into Theo Harp, her former step-brother with whom she had a brief relationship when they were young. Annie is convinced that Theo is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were both teenagers by drawing her to a cave that gets flooded during high tide. The way his behavior as an adolescent is described suggests that she may very well be correct in her diagnosis. Theo, now a bestselling author of horror novels, has issues and wants Annie to go away. That’s the extent of his characterization for quite some time.

So we have a heroine looking for a mysterious artistic legacy, a widowed novelist hero with a difficult past, and some bad history between the two of them. If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because you used a very similar setup in Ain’t She Sweet, only this time the hero gets both the villainous teenager role and the brooding author one. Annie is no Sugar Beth Carey, though, and while it’s not badly written, the story is far less engaging.

Rather than coming across as quirky and irreverent, which was probably your intention, Annie was simply annoying. She regularly imagines conversations between her puppets (each of whom has its own personality and plenty to say) as an ongoing commentary about her life and behavior. For example:

-You mustn’t keep complaining, Crumpet, Dilly admonished her peevish counterpart. Peregrine Island is a popular summer resort.
-It’s not summer! Crumpet countered. It’s the first week of February, we just drove off a car ferry that made me seasick, and there can’t be more than fifty people left here. Fifty stupid people!
-You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.
-Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.
-Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain.
-Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.

The puppets are right; Annie’s decision-making really isn’t the best. She decides to come to Peregrine Island in the winter, practically unannounced, having only communicated with the caretaker by email and without waiting for his confirmation that the cottage is ready for her. She believes that Theo is dangerous, but spends her time snapping at him and occasionally trying to persuade him that his house is being haunted. That’s not cute, it’s stupid and childish.

It doesn’t help that the entire beginning, and a large part of the story afterward, is told from Annie’s point of view. As a result, there’s little insight into Theo, his thoughts and his motives, and while “dark, dangerous and brooding” may be classic Gothic material, it wasn’t enough here. There’s more from his perspective later on, but it was too late. It’s not that I can’t enjoy heroine-centric romances – Call Me Irresistible, for instance - but I need to like the heroine better, and for the hero not to be portrayed in such a disturbing way for so long.

As for the plot: someone is clearly trying to drive Annie out of the cottage for unknown reasons – island residents keep telling her that it’s not safe for her to be alone, the cottage is broken into, her grocery order is cancelled (a real problem, since deliveries are made from the mainland only once a week), someone shoots at her, and one of her puppets is left hanging from a noose. That’s actually pretty creepy. Annie first suspects Theo, but the two grow closer as it becomes clear that he wants to help rather than hurt her.

There’s a subplot involving Theo’s housekeeper Jaycie, who saved Annie from the drowning attempt, and her young daughter Livia, who won’t speak. Annie tries to draw Livia out, which involves engaging her with the puppets. I could have dealt with the puppets occasionally, but there were too many of them and their ongoing commentary was a distraction. I guess puppets aren’t my thing unless they’re vampire puppets.

Annie and Theo end up having sex, which seemed kind of out of the blue. I’ll give credit for not making it particularly good for either of them, and for having Annie understandably freak out afterward because they forgot to use protection. I managed to get through a few more chapters after that, then mostly skimmed the rest of the book to get to the ending.

The mystery of who’s tormenting Annie is ultimately resolved; not surprisingly, it also turns out that Theo is true hero material. I found some of the disclosures relating to his past disturbing:

Spoiler: Show

First, Theo tells Annie that his wife had mental health issues, became obsessed that he was cheating, and eventually committed suicide. Later, it also turns out that Theo’s twin sister Regan suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and couldn’t bear for her brother to become involved with anyone. She would make life miserable for anyone she suspected as being a potential romantic interest of Theo’s and sometimes physically harm them. Theo covered for her because he didn’t want her institutionalized and tried to stay away from anyone he was interested in. Regan was the one who tried to kill Annie, while Theo had only been trying to protect her and to keep Regan under control. Regan ended up committing suicide in her early twenties by going out to sea during a squall, soon after finding Theo with his college girlfriend. Theo believes that Regan was trying to set him free rather than to punish him.
I’ll grant that I may have missed some of the subtleties, but I was uncomfortable with the characterization of both women.

I know from past experience that your books can be very hit or miss for me, but I keep reading because the good ones are wonderful. Unfortunately, Heroes Are My Weakness joins the list of misses. D.

Best regards,

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REVIEW:  The Truth about Leo by Katie MacAlister

REVIEW: The Truth about Leo by Katie MacAlister

The Truth about Leo by Katie MacAlister

Dear Ms MacAlister:

I was delighted to see that you came out with a new historical novel!  I’ve enjoyed your period pieces before, though tend to prefer your contemporaries a bit more.  There’s just something about the utter madcap impossibility of the heroines that’s both appealing and just a touch appalling.  Once again, you didn’t disappoint.

Princess Dagmar Marie Sophie of Sonderburg-Beck, cousin to the Danish royal family, is in just the tiniest bit of a pickle.  With her father dead, her cousin Frederick, the crown prince, is demanding she and her companion, Julia, quit the only home Dagmar has ever known and make their fortunes elsewhere, anywhere, really, but where he is.  Enter Leopold Ernst George Mortimer, seventh Earl of March, a young man in service to the very British crown as a spy.  Leo has the unfortunate privilege of having crawled into Dagmar’s garden, injured, at just about the same time the penniless Dagmar finds out the only way she can secure passage to England on one of the British ships in the harbor is as the wife of an Englishman.  How was Dagmar to know Leo wasn’t going to expire from his wounds while on the sea journey?  What man doesn’t want to wake up in the middle of an ocean where he had no intention of being after several days of high fever, injured, married to an impoverished princess?  Resulting hijinks ensue as he tries to find a proper place to stash his new wife and her companion while all three of them search for a murderous Englishwoman.

Underwhelmed would probably be the best word I could use to describe how I felt reading this.   Usually I race through your books, giggling madly at the situations the characters find themselves in.  This one, however, felt rather weak on plot.  To be quite honest, it read rather like you’d phoned it in while counting down the days until you could be finished with historicals.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning premise, it dragged on way too long and Dagmar became less and less of a sympathetic character with each page turned.  I found myself wondering, at several points, why Leo didn’t simply drop her off in the worst part of London and keep going or maybe push her overboard on the trip back to England.  I think the only thing keeping him from strangling her was the fact that she and Julia nursed him back to health.  But, you know, after a few days of gratitude, even that wouldn’t have been enough.

Predictable is another good word to describe the book.  You’ve woven in a lovely little cold-case murder mystery subplot that has so much potential – but a toddler could figure it out.  The clues are about as subtle as a chamberpot to the head.  Combined with secondary characters who are sketched in, at best, and rely heavily on descriptions from previous books in the Noble series, and all of this makes for a rather unmemorable book.

Now, before you start thinking I hated the whole thing – I didn’t.  I found it charming the way Leo and Dagmar found themselves falling in love, despite their best intentions.  There was a bit of a “Gift of the Magi” theme going on there for a little while – and it was utterly delightful.  The call back to characters from previous works was a nice touch.  I love it when authors reintroduce people we’ve come to know in the past and let us see what happened after the final chapter.

At the end of the day, while predictable and a bit overwrought in places, this was a fun read – definitely a good popcorn / beach read or a palate cleanser after something heavier.  Like lemon sorbet, it’s light and refreshing, but ultimately unsatisfying.  D

Wishing for Something Different,

Mary Kate


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