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Elizabeth Essex

REVIEW:  Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

REVIEW: Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test.

Dear Ms. Essex,

I’ve read and enjoyed your first three books: Georgian histories steeped in naval history. Your writing style is distinctive and seductive—you have a gift for dreamy description and passionately portrayed love scenes. I looked forward to losing myself in this book, Almost a Scandal, and was startled when, half-way through, I realized I wasn’t especially enchanted by your plot or your protagonists.

Almost a Scandal Elizabeth EssexIn Almost a Scandal, nineteen year old Sally Kent hates the dull land-locked life she has as a young, unmarried woman in Falmouth. All the men in her family—brothers, cousins, and her famous captain father—serve in the British Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson. The Kents, with the exception of the youngest son Richard, adore the sea and Sally is no exception. Thus, when Richard acts on his threat to run away from his sea-faring destiny—he wants to be a minister—and doesn’t show up to report for his assigned duty on His Majesty’s Ship Audacious, Sally dons his uniform and takes his place.

It wasn’t the first time Sally Kent had donned a worn, hand me-down uniform from one of her brothers’ sea chests, but it was the first time it had felt so completely, perfectly right. She had always been tall and spare, strong for a girl, but dressed in the uniform of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, she felt more than strong. She felt powerful.

(I had a hard time believing any woman could pull off such a deception. How would she pee, hide having periods, or constantly keep a bunch of randy sailors at bay? But, I did some research and it turns out there were several women who did indeed serve as men in Nelson’s Navy and managed to remain undetected for years. The most famous was a woman named Hannah Snell who served for over five years on the HMS Swallow from 1745-1750.)

At the dock in Portsmouth, Sally is picked up and rowed out to the Audacious by driven, darkly handsome First Lieutenant David St. Vincent Colyear. “Col” is no stranger to Sally. He’s a close friend of her older brothers and, the summer she was thirteen and he nineteen, he spent six weeks living with her family while he studied for his lieutenancy exams. Sally is panicked he’ll recognize her but he does not. She’s easily brought onboard and presented to Captain Hugh McAlden (the hero of your last book, The Danger of Desire, reviewed here by Janine) and the other men aboard the ship. Everyone accepts her as a young man—she’s pretending to be Richard’s age of fifteen—and Sally is elated to finally be a midshipman. She loves the work and is a gifted sailor—flying up the rigging, full of knowledge about the sea and ships, deftly offering leadership to her peers on ship.

But, from the moment Sally steps on board, Col is strongly drawn to, as he calls her, Kent. And when, soon after she joins the crew, he hears her singing an old ditty he’d heard her sing years ago, Col suddenly realizes Kent is Sally rather than Richard. He confronts her with the truth and she begs him to let her stay onboard. Astonishingly, he does. I say astonishingly because for him to do so requires him to both break the law and risk all he’s worked for. Why does he do this? In large part because he’s desired Sally since he met her—when she was thirteen (a little icky for me)—and he’s compelled now to keep her near him.

Their romance—for Sally desires Col as well—must be kept literally under wraps (Sally binds herself) in order to protect them both. The semi-villain of the piece, a bitter older midshipman named Gamage, senses the attraction between Col and Kent and threatens to have Col unmasked as one who “likes pretty soft boys.” This need for Kent and Col to hide their waxing want for one another makes for lots of lusting and not a lot of actual romance. Plus, there’s something off about the Kent/Sally persona. When they first kiss, finally alone on a dangerous mission in France, the way they refer to each other is flat-out odd.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to kiss her again. To taste her again. To let his mouth drift down until her lips were there, beneath his. And she was soft and warm and yielding, and he kissed her slowly, breathing into her, filling her with his resolution.

“Mr. Colyear,” she whispered.

He laid his finger across her lips—plush and taut, and sweet, like ripe fruit. “Col,” he murmured, as he lowered his head to her lips. “For God’s sake, Kent, call me Col when I’m kissing you.”

Their love affair doesn’t have enough context—there’s next to no information about Col and his past other than how strongly he remembers the weeks he spent in Falmouth—nor did it spark for me. Their passion for one another, in the brief times it’s allowed free rein, bewildered me. They seemed more suited as friends than libidinous lovers.

Far more viable than the courtship between Col and Kent is the story of Nelson’s war against Napoleon. You have a degree in Nautical Archeology and your knowledge of ships and naval warfare prevails in this book. I found it interesting and, at the same time, distracting. Rather like the pairing of Col and Kent, the melding of so much fact with so little romance didn’t work for me.

I realize this has been a rather negative review. And I’ve meant every word. But….

Compared to much of what’s published today in historical romance, your work, even this book, shines. I didn’t love this book—and I had every expectation of doing so given how much I’ve liked your earlier books—but I didn’t hate it either. Your prose is gorgeous and your depth of knowledge compelling. The world of the Audacious is meticulously and engrossingly presented and your secondary characters are terrific. Almost a Scandal is a book I found hard to grade. I’ve read it twice and have decided, with reservation, to give it a C+.

I do look forward to your next book.

Dabney

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What Janine is Reading – Late 2011/Early 2012

What Janine is Reading – Late 2011/Early 2012

It’s been over three months (!) since my last “What Janine is Reading” post. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do one of these – the holidays got in the way, but it’s been six weeks since they ended and for that I don’t have a great excuse.

Here’s what I read between mid November and early February:

The Danger of Desire by Elizabeth Essex – This sensual regency era historical had its share of historical inaccuracies but the endearing heroine and hot love scenes made it worth reading. Review here. B-

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – My husband and I tried to read this historical fantasy novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. The book is deliberately written in the style of a regency era book, for example using “shewed” in place of “showed.” The writing style is lovely, and the narration filled with wry asides like “They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they never harmed any one by magic—nor ever done any one the slightest good.”

I was initially charmed and thought I was going to love this book, but the problem was that very little happened in the section we read. For a fantasy novel, there isn’t very much magic (not usually a complaint for me), and not much eventfulness of plot to make up for it. Nor is Norrell, the main character, sympathetic or likable. The book is over eight hundred kindle pages long, and since it takes more than 130 of these for Jonathan Strange, one of the two title characters, to appear, by that point I didn’t have the patience to wait for the much hinted at conflict between Strange and Norrell to materialize. 155 pages in, we quit. DNF.

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The Plumed Bonnet by Mary Balogh – I’ve been reading a lot of Balogh’s older traditional regencies and this is one of the better ones. It had a terrific beginning, a pretty good but less compelling middle and a wonderful ending. I loved the hero, and while I had a doubt or two about the heroine, I thought it was so interesting that her resentfulness stemmed from having been done a kindness she could not possibly repay. Review here. B+

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How the Marquess was Won by Julie Anne Long – I had high hopes for this one since I’ve loved some of Long’s books but the hero and heroine’s feelings deepened so much so soon after one meeting in which some repartee was exchanged and I couldn’t buy into that level of emotion. Before someone pipes up to say they fell in love at first sight, I will say I know that love at first sight exists, and I have bought intense, immediate feelings in books before. But I didn’t find it convincing here, and as a result I didn’t feel invested in the relationship and the couple. There were more minor flaws, too, as well as strengths like Long’s lovely writing style and amusing humor, but ultimately, I felt this was one of her weaker books. Review here. C/C+

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Ghost in the Machine by Barbara J. Hancock – This 88 page post apocalyptic romance novella was a wonderful surprise – different from most romances I read, eerie, haunting and romantic. I don’t have much negative to say about it aside from mentioning that it wasn’t always clear what was going on in the world, technology wise, and the ending was a touch too happy to match the story. Review here. High B+

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Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey – My husband and I read this together and we came close to quitting in the first third due to myriad issues detailed in my review. Good thing we didn’t, though, because the story improved considerably after the one third point. I can’t say I adored this book like so many readers but neither did I dislike it intensely like others. I am the rare reader who averages out the disappointing first third with the strong latter two thirds to come up with a C+/B- (I gave it a B- when I reviewed it, but in hindsight I think the grade should have been a touch lower).

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Graceling by Kristin Cashore — What a suspenseful, breathtaking, emotional read. This was another one I read with my husband. Jia reviewed this YA fantasy back in 2008. While I agree with her criticism of the villain’s one-dimensional nature and the resulting lack of complexity to the external conflict, I disagree with regard to the heroine. Where Jia felt that her killing Grace (power) was the only thing that made Katsa interesting, I was actually touched by the sense of isolation Katsa experienced as a result of being feared.

I also thought that Katsa began the book so out of touch with her own emotions as to almost be stunted (one reason she read younger than 18) and while this annoyed me at first, her growth in this area over the story’s course ultimately made me really root for her. Like Jia, I loved the romance between Katsa and Po, which hung on the issues of independence/interdependence/dependence. But in my case I also adored the survival story in the middle of the book which involves a secondary character. This was a wonderful book. B+/A-

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Not Wicked Enough by Carolyn Jewel– I recently reviewed this Regency set historical. My main criticism was that I didn’t feel there was much conflict to the story (either internal or external). The heroine’s protestations that she couldn’t fall in love again and the hero’s intention to eventually get engaged to someone else felt like mere lip service. The story was less than fully compelling, but whenever I picked up the book I enjoyed it because the characters were so endearing and the writing was beautiful. Review here. B-

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Angelfall by Susan Ee – What a disappointment this was, though on the bright side, I only paid 99 cents for it. This book has been selling well and earning raves so I thought it would be a good one to read with my husband. It started out quite promising but both of us were ultimately disappointed. Angelfall is certainly competently written, with a fair amount of action, so that even though we were tempted to quit reading partway, we kept reading to see what would happen next.

The biggest problem IMO is that the characters had such a limited emotional range. Raffe in particular was almost a one note character but even Penryn did not display a wide range of feelings. They both felt relatively flat to me as a result. You know it’s bad when a small secondary human character like Dee Dum is more intriguing than the supernatural hero of the story.

The worldbuilding was more interesting than the people, but as Jane notes in her review it didn’t always make sense. There were other things that didn’t make sense, for example, it was strongly implied that Penryn’s mentally ill mother had harmed Penryn’s little sister Paige, which is why Paige was wheelchair bound. If that was so, why wasn’t the mother ever arrested and locked up? These events took place before the angel attacks.

To make matters worse I also felt that Penryn lacked agency, since she spent much of the book following Raffe’s orders. I thought it was ironically symbolic when, in a crucial scene, she is literally paralyzed. Also the book, which starts out dark enough, turns into a full-fledged horror novel at the end, and the disturbing scenes late in the book left me in need of a palate cleanser.

I couldn’t help comparing this book to Ghost in the Machine which has a similar setup (both books have dystopian settings, heroines attempting a hopeless rescue her kidnapped younger sibling, and heroes who aid the rescue, have special powers and may be on the opposite side), but Ghost had a lot more heart. Despite the compelling plot, I can’t grade Angelfall higher than a C-.

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Have you guys read these books, and if so, what did you think of them? And do you ever find yourself more critical of books that many others love, as I did with Angelfall and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?