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REVIEW: The Danger of Desire by Elizabeth Essex

REVIEW: The Danger of Desire by Elizabeth Essex

Dear Ms. Essex:

The Danger of Desire opens in the POV of a young woman named Meggs. Meggs, a London street thief, and her younger brother Timmy, are preparing to steal near the Admiralty building. Meanwhile, Captain Hugh McAlden is in the same building, meeting with Admiral Middleton, who tells him the Admiralty Board has been infiltrated by a traitor who is passing secrets to the French.

The Danger of Desire Elizabeth EssexHugh is tasked with catching the traitor, and promised a knighthood if he succeeds (he is the son of a gentleman father and his mother is a viscountess through her second marriage). In the past, Hugh has used street kids to help him ferret out information, and he decides to do so now. On exiting the building, he sees Meggs execute her theft, and he pursues her and then makes her an offer.

A suspicious Meggs escapes Hugh, but injures her hand in the process. When the wound becomes infected, Meggs decides she has nothing to lose by finding out more about Hugh’s proposition. Eventually she agrees to help Hugh. A surgeon treats Meggs’ injury, and she and her brother Timmy move into Hugh’s house, where Meggs trains as a scullery maid in preparation for infiltrating the spy’s household once that spy has been identified.

Hugh and Meggs are attracted to one another from the beginning, but neither trusts the other fully. As they track the suspects down they begin to grow closer, though Meggs worries that Hugh will take Timmy away from her. Meggs was born in the country, and everything she has done has been to provide for her brother and to save enough money to escape their London street life.

Eventually Meggs and Hugh do identify the villain, and Meggs enters his house posing as a scullery maid. She faces great danger there, but sees her growing feelings for Hugh as equally dangerous, since the gap in their stations still threatens to separate them.

The Danger of Desire starts off at a leisurely pace and then ramps up midway through. For that reason, I enjoyed the second half more. Most of the romantic development in the first half consisted of Hugh and Meggs wanting each other but refraining from acting on these feelings, and with the exception of one or two scenes in which they shared something of their past, they didn’t get to know each other as well as I would have liked.

Once Meggs infiltrated the villain’s house though, the tension thickened and this was one of my favorite parts of the book. The emotions resulting from the risk to Meggs made for a deeper romantic connection between the characters in the second half.

Speaking of the characters, I preferred Meggs to Hugh. Hugh was mostly a good guy and I did like him, but for a good chunk of the book he was not only Meggs’ employer, but also in a position of power over her due to their disparate positions in society. For that reason, I had mixed feelings about his lusting after Meggs.

Meggs was a lovely character, outwardly hardened by her years on the street, but with a core of softness inside. She began the book almost feral in her reluctance to trust most people and her transformation felt believable to me. Her protective relationship with Timmy, her twelve year old brother, and her feelings for Hugh touched me and evoked my sympathies.

You have a gift for writing endearing heroines and hot love scenes. Even the lust leading up to the consummation wasn’t too bad. The reason I say “even the lust” is that like Jayne, I am not a fan of mental lusting. I think it can often feel repetitive and intrusive in a book. It has to be exceptionally well-written, used very sparingly, or played for humor (a la Loretta Chase or Jennifer Crusie) for me to enjoy it. The lusting did feel somewhat intrusive and repetitive in this book, but wasn’t as big an irritant to me here as it is in many books.

There were some inaccuracies in the book – for example, Meggs, Timmy, the butler and the housekeeper dine with Hugh at his supper table, although this is acknowledged to be unusual. Hugh is so egalitarian that it is difficult to believe he was brought up within a class structure. The navy was said to be the reason, but I still found it unlikely. Also, contemporary expressions like “Gotcha,” and “What are you gonna do” pepper the dialogue.

As I was reading The Danger of Desire, I was reminded just a tiny bit of the books of Julie Anne Long, another author whose books contain inaccuracies, and who uses well-trod tropes in ways that still manage to feel fresh. She is also another author whose heroines are frequently endearing and whose use of words is lovely.

I thought of Long because her writing can make me willing to overlook departures from historical fact. You have an appealing prose style that gets me over similar humps, and the heroines in A Sense of Sin and The Danger of Desire are also lovable in a way that felt real.

SPOILERS: [spoiler]There were some other improbabilities in the story as well. I felt that Meggs’ lack of sexual experience was unlikely given her life on the streets. Hugh’s virginity was also difficult for me to credit, in a twenty-eight year old sailor. Also highly improbable was the way Meggs and Timmy became separated from the family they were born to.[/spoiler]

When it comes to grading The Danger of Desire, I feel torn. It wasn’t a perfect book, but I did enjoy it. Robin/Janet once said that a book edges into the B range when it is written with flair, and despite its imperfections, I feel that The Danger of Desire has that quality. B-.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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REVIEW: Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

REVIEW: Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Dear Ms. Reeves,

Your debut YA novel, Bleeding Violet, was one of my favorite books of last year, so when you emailed me with an offer to review an ARC of your second book, Slice of Cherry, I jumped at the chance.

Slice & Cherry Slice of Cherry is written in third person omniscient narration, but the only character whose POV we are given is fifteen-year-old Fancy Cordelle. Fancy and her seventeen-year-old sister Kit live in Portero, Texas, a town where supernatural goings on are as commonplace as the gory Annas that sprout up wherever dead bodies are buried.

Kit and Fancy are descended from Cherry du Haven, a slave whose ghost makes each person's dearest wish come true – but not always in the way that person wants it to. As Cherry's descendants, the girls may have inherited some unusual powers. But Fancy and Kit are also the daughters of the infamous "Bonesaw Killer," and as such, they have inherited something even more unsettling- their father's thirst for blood. The story begins when a prowler's invasion of their bedroom triggers the teenage girls' penchant for violence:

Fancy only allowed three people in the whole world to get close to her: Daddy, who was on death row; Madda, who was working the graveyard shift; and Kit, who was dead to the world in the bed next to hers. And so when she awoke to find a prowler hanging over her, violating her personal space, her first instinct was to jab her dream-diary pencil into his eye.

But even in the dark of night with a stranger in her room, Fancy wasn't one to behave rashly. Daddy had been rash, and now he was going to be killed. No, Fancy would be calm and think of a nonlethal way to teach the prowler why it was important not to disturb a young girl in her bed late at night.

Kit wakes up soon after Fancy and she doesn't have the same compunctions. She wants to kill the prowler immediately. After knocking him unconscious and dragging him to the cellar, where their serial-killer father sawed his victims, the girls argue about what to do with the prowler.

Fancy is terrified of losing Kit the way she lost her father to death row, so she promises that if Kit refrains from killing the prowler, Fancy will try to use her power to see distant places to show Kit their father.

Fancy has the ability to see things in transparent surfaces, and she uses a kinetoscope for that purpose. But although the kinetoscope shows the sisters Fancy's imaginary world, the Happy Place, they cannot catch a glimpse of their father.

Meanwhile, Kit has been slashing the intruder's skin in her anger and frustration. Afterward, Fancy stitches him up, but refuses his pleas for release. She doesn't want Kit to be taken away from her the way their father was.

Soon visits to the cellar for cutting and stitching the prowler's skin become routine to the girls, who even nickname the prowler Franken. Their sweet-natured, hardworking mother, whose name is Lynne but whom they call Madda, has no idea what her daughters are getting up to, and the girls fear that if she learns that they have graduated from dissecting animals to cutting on a human being, she will hate them.

When an old man tries to rape Kit, Kit kills her would-be rapist in what starts out as self-defense. But her sadistic urges – ones Fancy secretly shares – come to the fore, and Fancy is more worried than ever that she will lose Kit.

There are also two brothers, Gabriel and Ilan, who show an interest in Kit and Fancy, despite the fact that Kit and Fancy's father killed the brothers' dad. But the girls are contemptuous of the boys at first, or indeed of anyone outside their family. Fancy even refuses to speak to outsiders and lets Kit do all her talking for her. What began as a defense mechanism when so many people rejected them for being the Bonesaw Killer's daughters has become unhealthy, but the girls don't see this.

When Madda insists that Kit and Fancy have become too close, and signs them up for separate art and music summer classes, Fancy and Kit are chagrined. Meanwhile, there is the problem of Franken, who is developing a Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to Kit. Fancy wants to get rid of him, but how can she do so without leaving evidence?

Fortunately, Juneteenth, a time when families go to Cherry Glade so teenagers can make a wish and ask the ghost of Cherry du Haven to grant it, is coming up. Fancy plans to ask never to be separated from Kit. But Fancy's visit to Cherry Glade has some unexpected consequences…

As mentioned before I loved Bleeding Violet and my expectations of Slice of Cherry were high. But while I admire a lot of the writing in Slice of Cherry, I feel much more ambivalent about this novel than I did about its predecessor.

The prose in Slice of Cherry is strong, as the two paragraphs I quoted above showed. You have a vivid way with descriptions. I loved metaphors like this one: "The sun floated just over the horizon, the sky streaked with red as though God had killed someone and hadn't bothered to clean it up."

The worldbuilding is unusual, and even though there is much less grounding in the mythology of Portero in this novel than there was in Bleeding Violet, I still enjoyed the wacky, disturbing goings on that popped up from the ground or in a reflective surface, sometimes when I least expected it.

My biggest reservation about this novel is the main characters. It's not that Kit and Fancy aren't well drawn, but rather that I didn't care for them very much, and as a result I didn't care about what happened to them that greatly, either.

I have a soft spot for flawed and morally ambiguous characters, so I don't think it was the girls' darkness per se that troubled me. Rather, I think it was their amorality. Their consciences seemed close to nonexistent at times. They didn't seem to have a strong sense of the value of a human life or much empathy, either. I think a character can be deeply flawed and still possess those qualities, and I kept hoping they would make an appearance in Kit and Fancy's emotional makeup.

The girls did grow into healthier (if not healthy) people – in fact, Slice of Cherry is the story of that growth process, of how Fancy and Kit learn to let other people into their lives, to contribute to society in their twisted way, and at the same time, to acknowledge who they are and discover that they can be accepted and even loved despite their flaws.

All of the above are themes I normally enjoy, but in this case, I just couldn't connect with Fancy and Kit. It wasn't until the last hundred pages that I started liking them. I understood that it was partly the rejection of the townspeople that had made Kit and Fancy so insular, but somehow I didn't feel their vulnerability the way I did Hanna's in Bleeding Violet. (Incidentally, Hanna and Wyatt's cameo appearance in this book was my favorite scene). Gabriel and Ilan appealed to me more, but I couldn't really understand Ilan's attraction to Fancy, who didn't even speak to him for over half the book.

Besides this, the book sometimes felt more like a series of vignettes stitched together (no pun intended!) when I would have preferrred more cohesiveness to the plot. I also wish there had been more dialogue tags because at times I had to reread to figure out which character a particular line belonged to.

It's tough to grade this book because although I couldn't warm to the characters, the writing itself was quite good, and I'm sure there are other readers the book would appeal to more than it did to me. Still, my own enjoyment was greatly hindered by my inability to sympathize with Kit and Fancy, and so, I think I'll give this one a C.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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