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REVIEW: I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long

REVIEW: I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long

I Kissed An Earl by Julie Ann LongDear Ms. Long,

Violet Redmond is young, beautiful, and bored. It seems that no matter what she does, her popularity with the ton will not fade. Suitors flock to her side, even though she once threatened to cast herself into a well when arguing with one of them.

In the next to last book in this series (the Pennyroyal Green series), Like No Other Lover, Violet, the spoiled daughter of the Redmond family, visited a gypsy fortune-teller who told her that she'd be taking a journey across the water. The gypsy also spoke the word "Lavay." So when Violet hears Lord Lavay's name mentioned at a ball one night, and learns that he sails on a ship called The Fortuna, she finagles an introduction to the man and to his captain, Asher Flint.

Flint, on whom the title Earl of Ardmay has just been bestowed, is illegitimate and part Native American. He is described in the book's opening line as looking "like a bored lion lounging among a flock of geese," and as the story begins, he has just been charged by the king with capturing Le Chat, a notorious pirate preying on English ships. The title of Earl of Ardmay has ostensibly been awarded Flint for a heroic deed, but in actuality it is a way for the King to apply pressure. If Flint succeeds in apprehending Le Chat, he will be given lands to go with the title. If he fails, well, unspoken threats hang in the air.

Flint resisted accepting the earldom, but then Le Chat attacked The Steadfast, a ship belonging to Captain Moreheart, who had been a father figure and mentor to the fatherless Flint when he was a child. Moreheart did not survive the sinking of his ship. Now Flint is out for revenge, and he intends to capture Le Chat either dead or alive long enough to be hanged.

While dancing with Violet, Flint realizes that she reminds him of himself. Both of them are filled with ennui and would much rather be somewhere other than the ballroom. Flint challenges Violet on several levels, but then he spots her brother Jonathan and freezes. It seems Jonathan is a dead ringer for Mr. Hardesty, a sea merchant Flint knows.

Violet doesn't think much of this until she dances with Lavay and tells him that his captain mistook her brother for Mr. Hardesty. She learns from Lavay that Hardesty is well-mannered, educated, and has sailed all over the Mediterranean, but Lavay and Flint believe him to be the pirate Le Chat.

Lavay also mentions that Hardesty's ship is called The Olivia, and it is at that point that Violet is stunned to realize that Le Chat may be her missing brother, Lyon, who once loved Olivia Eversea. Not only is Hardesty's ship named after the woman Lyon loved, not only does Mr. Hardesty resemble Violet's other brother Jonathan, but "Le Chat" means "the cat" in French, and that fits with the name Lyon.

Ever since Lyon disappeared from Pennyroyal Green following Olivia Eversea's rejection of him, there's been a hole in the Redmond family-’and in Violet's heart. Violet tries to convince Jonathan to follow the clues she has gleaned from Flint and Lavay, but Jonathan laughs at the idea that their brother may be a pirate. Undaunted, Violet stows away on Captain Flint's ship, The Fortuna.

When Flint discovers Violet's presence aboard his vessel, he's both furious and admiring. Having a woman on board ship is a very bad idea – yet he can't help but recognize Violet's resourcefulness. Still, he intends to leave her at the nearest port, until he realizes that she may be right about her brother Lyon being Le Chat.

As Violet and Flint gradually fall in love, almost against their wills and certainly against their better judgments, they come to respect one another more and more. But rending their hearts is the knowledge that they are at cross-purposes: Flint wants to apprehend Lyon, possibly even to kill him, and Violet wants to save her brother's life-

I Kissed an Earl is not without flaws. The first couple of chapters were slow to engage me, since Violet came across as spoiled and rude in the very beginning of the story. She even repeated others' use of the word "savage" in reference to the part Native American Flint, which really turned me off.

Also, later in the book, when Violet was aboard Flint’s ship, the sailors on his crew seemed a bit too gentlemanly in regard to her presence there. It's not that I want to see Violet mauled, but rather that it stretches my credulity to believe that no one would ever try to cop a feel, especially when Flint had warned Violet that her presence on the ship would be too great a temptation to his men, and when no explanation was given for their subsequent self-control.

I also caught a few historical inaccuracies, from small ones such as the use of the word "tectonic" in its geological sense, to larger ones like Flint's intention to live in America although he has been given an English title.

But although I Kissed an Earl is not without flaws, there's no question that it is one of my favorite books of the year thus far. That is at least partly because the conflict between Flint and Violet – he wants to kill her beloved brother; she wants to save her brother from the man she loves – is on a scale not often seen in today's romances, and that depth of conflict gives the book heartrending poignancy at times.

The characters, too, are as memorable as their relationship. Although Violet starts out spoiled and bored with life, her saving grace is her fierce love for her brother Lyon. As she journeys on the high seas in her quest to find him, Violet is forced to grow into a more mature and capable woman. Her horizons broaden, her determination grows, and her love for The Fortuna's captain deepens. Where once she casually repeated the word "savage," in reference to Flint, she now steps in to defend him from slurs and insults, as well as worse. Her bravery and her capacity for love show through as she leaves the girl she once was behind.

As for Flint, he too loses his bored, detached veneer. Beneath this exterior is a man who has acquired everything he has through struggle, and who has risked his life for his fellow sailors over and over. While every risk he has taken has paid off advantageously for him – something that is no coincidence — he is also a man who has retained his humanity even through great adversity.

Not ever having had a family, Flint is thrown by the feelings Violet evokes in him. His plan is to found a dynasty with his Moroccan mistress, who is as much an outcast as he is, but through witnessing Violet's devotion to her brother, he comes to understand what family and love truly mean.

The emotions in this book are so palpable that at times, I felt as though I was literally present in Flint's cabin with these two people, intruding on something intimate and precious. A lot of that is due to the beauty of the writing. Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite scenes:

The kissed raced like a lightning strike along his spine and seized his lungs with a simultaneous rush of panic and joy. As though he'd willingly flung himself backward from the mast to the deck and not only enjoyed the flight but survived the fall unscathed.

He inhaled sharply and tipped back into the space shaped like him and folded his hands beneath his head, hoping to appear insouciant but in reality trapping them. He was suddenly afraid of what they might do: Plunder. Caress. Explore. Dear God, take, take, take.

He held his body motionless. His heart took painful jabs at his breastbone. His blood was a thick, hot liqueur. His mind a useless scramble.

He could hear her breathing hard next to him. Was aware her fingers were at her lips. Touching them, as if to prove to herself she'd been kissed.

He listened to her breath, the ragged rhythm of it a counterpoint to the incessant sigh of the sea, but for some reason he didn't want to look at her. He closed his eyes instead and saw her hair, shadow-dark, pooled on the pillow, the shudder of her lashes against her cheeks; he conjured the shape and texture of her lips sinking, opening against his, her breath mingling with his.

That kind of gorgeous, evocative writing is the reason I Kissed an Earl is not just worth reading but also worth keeping, and my favorite of your Pennyroyal Green series. A- for this one.


Janine Ballard

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This is a trade paperback published by NAL but pre-Agency pricing.

REVIEW: Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

REVIEW: Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

PLEASE NOTE: The following review contains a few SPOILERS. If you prefer to avoid spoilers, you might not want to read this review until after you have read the book.

Mind Games by Carolyn CraneDear Ms. Crane,

You've been part of the romance community since at least 2007, and I occasionally lurk on and enjoy your reading blog The Trillionth Page. Your debut novel, an urban fantasy called Mind Games, came out in March to great acclaim, so in April I downloaded a copy from the Sony store in order to give it a whirl.

Unfortunately, it took me over three weeks to finish reading Mind Games (I am a slow reader in the normal course of things, but not that slow!) and then a while to review it. It is a tough, tough book to review because it is stellar in some ways, and yet I also had some big problems with it. Before I go into what I think are the book's weaknesses and strengths, here is a plot summary:

Mind Games is narrated in first person present tense (a choice I often love, and loved here) by Justine Jones, a young woman living in a fictional Midwestern city called Midcity (I loved that choice, too). Justine suffers from hypochondria, which manifests itself in frequent delusions that she has vein star syndrome, a vascular malady which she describes as “the proverbial ticking time bomb in the head.”

Justine's mother also suffered from this phobia, and then she developed a very real case of vein star syndrome which killed her, so no amount of reasoning can make Justine believe that she herself is physically healthy while she's having one of her anxiety attacks. Her fear is potent, and one day Justine meets a man who wants to harness it.

Justine is dining at a Mongolian restaurant with her boyfriend, Cubby, when she is spotted by Packard. Packard is a highcap, a man with extra-sensory abilities. The existence of highcaps is hotly debated: many of Midcity's denizens believe in them, while the authorities and a few others say they aren't real. But Packard exists, and is able to sense other people's psychological structures. He knows without being told that Justine is a hypochondriac who believes she suffers from vein star syndrome, and claims he can cure her if she'll come work for him.

At first Packard doesn't reveal the nature of the work he wants Justine to do, so Justine refuses. Later, Carter and Shelby, two of Packard's employees, pick up Justine and take her back to the Mongolian restaurant, where Packard reveals that he can teach Justine to transfer her anxiety attacks into other people. Packard's team is a kind of “psychological hit squad” made up of disillusionists, people with psychological disorders who channel their own problems into criminals and thereby “crash” them so that they can then be “rebooted” into better human beings.

Justine doesn't believe in vigilante justice and she wants no part of Packard's brand of it. But Packard gives her a demonstration, allowing her to “zing” her fear into him. Being free of fear feels wonderful, and eventually, when Justine's terror of vein star syndrome returns a few weeks later, as Packard told her it would, she decides to accept Packard's offer. She does not tell Packard or his team of disillusionists that she plans to leave the group when she's thought of a good alternative, and she does not tell her boyfriend, Cubby, the full truth about her new job.

Justine's life as a disillusionist is complicated by her conflicted feelings about the profession, and her reluctant attraction to Packard. Eventually she discovers that just as she kept her intention to leave the disillusionist squad from Packard, he too, kept something very important from her. She also learns that Packard has been trapped in the Mongolian restaurant by another powerful highcap and that he cannot leave. She resolves to find a way to free Packard from his prison and herself from both her hypochondria and her new role.

You have a terrific writing voice and a gift for surprising ideas and creative worldbuilding, all of which made Mind Games so unusual that I haven't encountered anything this fresh and quirky in fiction since reading literary fabulist Judy Budnitz' debut collection, Flying Leap, well over a decade ago.

Take, for example, the Brick Slinger, a telekinetic highcap serial killer who terrorizes the citizens of Midcity by sending bricks zigzagging into people's skulls. Here is Justine's description of the situation, an inventive bit of worldbuilding:

The crime wave makes me sad and angry, and every year it gets worse. Now, thanks to our new serial killer, the Brick Slinger, the playgrounds and ballparks are empty even though it's the height of summer, and people scurry from cars to houses to cars, many of them wearing helmets and hardhats, even when it's ninety degrees.

Later, when Justine goes to her job at a boutique, you use the Brick Slinger's presence in Midcity to create a bit of scene-setting that is odd in the best, most wonderful way:

I lean on the glass counters watching the upscale shoppers rifle through the racks of dresses. A few of them wear steel-reinforced safari hats in pink or beige, the latest in protective headwear.

There are also the ways you use fresh metaphors to put your finger on Justine's feelings. The paragraph below captures beautifully how haunted she is by her hypochondria:

I pull the covers over me, wondering what it would be like to be Cubby. Cubby has faith in life the way you might have faith in a five-star hotel: It's a world of sunny swimming pools, plush towels, and capable people at the front desk, and your happiness is their number one priority. I want more than anything to live in Cubby's safe hotel. To go through one day without health fears. One day.

I have quoted so much because I think your language is wonderfully crafted. For this reason, when I started this book I was sure it would be a keeper for me. Sadly, it isn't, for the following reasons.

First, Mind Games was scary in places – a sign of effective writing, but I don't enjoy being scared. Second, this is also the kind of book where for much of it, it's not clear who, if anyone besides the main character, is trustworthy – and I don't enjoy that type of story very much either. Readers who don't share these preferences of mine, though, will probably like this book better than I did.

Aside from that the biggest problem, if I had to name one, was that the main characters felt static. While my perceptions of some of them shifted a bit, beyond the paranormal change in Justine when she channeled away her hypochondria, the characters never seemed to grow or undergo a meaningful change. That may be realistic, but it also made the book feel monotonous after a while. I think it's mostly because of this, and because of the above reasons, that the book took me so long to finish.

Justine's wit is the most charming thing about her, and I also like her vulnerability and her loyalty to her loved ones, but she is so good-hearted and so concerned with right and wrong that at times she comes across as someone who has no moral blemish whatsoever. Nearly every morally ambiguous act she carries out is something she is essentially forced to do. While I think we should all strive to be free of moral flaws, I also think it is a goal we can only approach without fully reaching. In other words, I don't fully buy that anyone as flawless from a moral perspective as Justine could actually exist.

Another problem with Justine's characterization is that nearly all the men in the book were drawn to her in one fashion or another, and she was described by one of them as beautiful (though she thinks she is only "medium-pretty"), so at some point, it began to feel as though she was just one mental disorder shy of being a Mary Sue. The fact that I still liked Justine despite all this is a huge credit to her narration, which was almost seductively clever.

But for whatever reason (maybe because we didn't get access to his point of view?) I never cottoned to Packard, never really grew to like or trust him, so for all the purported romantic chemistry between he and Justine- well, to use a dreadful pun, there was just no zing there for me. When Justine was transported by his kiss, I remained detached.

If Mind Games had been a romance, that would have killed it for me, but since it was an urban fantasy, I tried to let its other charms win me over.

Have I mentioned that the prose is stupendous? And the world-building? And that I think the premise is very inventive? Ultimately, these kept me coming back to the book. Your descriptions were music to my inner word geek. I love the way you can startle me with one daring word. A penis is actually described as “cucumbery” in this book. And there is this terrific description of Shelby:

Ringlets stands and smiles, revealing a chipped front tooth, which gives her a strange, carnivorous beauty.

Characterization, worldbuilding, and description are woven together in an exhilarating way in paragraphs like this one:

I'm surprised when Carter merges onto “the tangle”-’a nightmarish curlicue of highways that's the fastest, most unpleasant, and most treacherous way to move between neighborhoods. Everybody sane avoids the tangle, which has been blamed for everything from Midcity's industrial decrepitude to, of course, the eight-year crime wave, in articles with titles like “A Dark Snarl at the Heart of Our Fair City.”

Mind Games is particularly difficult to grade because the premise, worldbuilding and language have tremendous flair, which would argue for at least a B- grade, but on the other hand, because of issues with the characterization, pacing and my personal preferences, my enjoyment level was ultimately no more than a C. And so, although I have no doubt that many readers will feel Mind Games deserves a higher grade, I go with the midpoint between these two ranges and give it a C+.


Janine Ballard

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