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REVIEW:  Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea Lawson

REVIEW: Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea Lawson

Dear Ms. Lawson,

I finished Sonata for Scoundrel just as Robin’s Reading What You Know post set off an epic discussion of book-trance-killing pet peeves. As I read through all the replies, I realized that my inner red flags were at the ready when I started your story of a Romantic-era female composer. I’ve been disappointed before.

Sonata for a Scoundrel by Anthea LawsonThe Muse…

Clara Becker is a supremely gifted composer–a talent of little to use to a woman in 1830s Europe. Her compositions only have worth when they are published under her brother’s name, yet this deception barely enables them to scrape out a living in the poorest quarter of London.

Meets the Master…

Darien Reynard, the most celebrated musician in Europe, pursues success with a single-minded intensity. When he comes across Becker’s compositions, he knows that this music will secure his place in history. Darien tracks the composer down and, with some difficulty, convinces the man to tour with him. Mr. Becker agrees, but with the most unusual condition that he bring along his sister…

None of those red flags were needed for the “glittering backdrop of 19th century celebrity.” The world-building made my inner geek very, very happy – so much so that I didn’t even flinch at the blatant name-dropping of Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt and even George Sand. I think that’s because this is very much Clara’s story, and we get to see that world from her shadowy place off-stage.

Clara is a bit heart-breaking because she’s never allowed to embrace her musical gift for herself. When we first met our heroine, she’s pulling an all-nighter to keep her father’s creditors at bay, only to be forced yet again to let go of her latest masterpiece:

Papa felt it best that Nicholas play the music as soon as she had finished the composition. It was a ritual now. Nicholas would play it, and the music would no longer be hers.

And later, on tour with the maestro, she must hide in hotel rooms or forgotten salons in empty palace corridors to keep up with Darien’s demands for new compositions at every stop on their tour. But like any artist, Clara finds inspiration even in the depths of her frustration:

Yes. Yes! At last she heard it—the quick staccato beat of the piano, rapping notes out while the violin played with the fury of a fallen angel. Fire and passion and wickedness all coiled together in a mad rush of melody.

She rushed back to the desk, grabbed a new sheet of paper, and began to write furiously.

***

From her vantage point in the hallway outside the half-open door to the music room, Clara could see Darien Reynard’s lifted brow as he accepted the pages from Nicholas. She rested her fingertips on the elaborate gilt doorframe and leaned closer, straining her ears to catch their conversation.

El Diavolo?” Darien asked. “Do I dare ask what inspired this piece?”

Nicholas tapped his fingers nervously against his trouser leg. “It’s a composite,” he finally said. “Drawn from a number of experiences.”

“I see.” Darien flipped to the second page and studied the notes scribed there. “This is a bit more… technically ambitious than your previous works. You plan to put me through my paces.”

Oh, yes. Wait until he attempted the cadenza. Clara swallowed back a sharp, bitter laugh. Her composition served him right enough; served them both. She might be invisible, but there was no denying her presence. Not when she was the one quite literally calling the tune.

It’s not until her brother Nicholas drinks himself into a stupor and Clara takes his place in a rehearsal that the self-obsessed virtuoso finally sees her as a true musician – and a woman. Clara’s life begins to open in ways she never imagined, and her compositions begin to take on more complex themes that push Darien’s star ever higher. However, as the muse/master relationship deepens artistically and romantically, Nicholas descends into a shame spiral that threatens the trio’s carefully constructed façade.

The remainder of the story plays out in a musical duel between Darien and his Italian Arch-Nemesis, who is truly the 19th-century equivalent of an epic douchebag. The final concert is totally Hollywood-esque, complete with the obligatory Royal Standing Ovation. By then I was all, “what the hell, bring it on,” because I am a huge sap for schmaltzy endings.

And, of course, I completely geeked out over the Author’s Note. I shall never reveal how many new mp3s were added to my playlists or how many hours I spent Googling the sex lives of Romantic-era composers (Lisztomania, indeed) or how guilty I felt when I remembered I had a novel about Clara Schumann mouldering at the bottom of the toppling stack of hardcovers beside my bed. I want to go back in time and give Fanny Mendelssohn a big ol’ “You GO, GIRL.”

For the most part, I really enjoyed Sonata for a Scoundrel. So many lovely telling details, like Clara’s nervous foot-tapping that unconsciously matches the unfamiliar rhythms of her first cross-country carriage ride, and the way she counts repetitions in the patterned carpet to keep from nodding off at the latest snobbish patron’s after-party, and Darien’s post-bar-brawl panic until he realizes it’s only his bowing hand that’s bruised.

But too often (this is where the inner red flags started unfurling), those revealing moments were overshadowed by increasingly purplish prose. At first, the metaphors are both clever and relevant, letting the reader know that we’re in the minds of professional musicians who think very differently from the rest of us mere mortals:

…The final movement burst like constellations through her, jubilant sprays of notes flung out over the audience.

… His hands ached with the need to play that brightness into being.

… Instead, he studied her as though she were an unexpected dissonance in the score of his life.

… The piece was full of shadows and silvery silences, the beginning a subtle interplay of long-held tones exchanged between the piano and violin. Her every sense was attuned to Darien as the music reached the first abyss—two beats of stillness they must hold for an identical interval before ascending again into the dark melodic waters.

That last one? THAT was glorious. It’s a bit all over the place, but it fits the scene perfectly, revealing the characters using their own vocabulary. Early in the story, I was so enamored I could even forgive sentences like this:

… Darien tossed long skeins of notes from his violin into the welcoming waves pouring beneath her fingers.

Tossing skeins of notes? All righty, then. I kinda like it.

However…. *~*sigh*~* The Mixing of the Metaphors eventually began to take center stage (sorry, I just COULD NOT resist):

…This kiss would be a bright, burning star for her to chart her life by, the only thing in a dark sea full of night. She would look up and navigate her future by its light, by the memory of Darien’s kiss.

… There were undercurrents here he did not understand; some family secret that lay like a sandbar, treacherously close to the surface. Was it going to wreck his plans on the shoals?

… Dare could not sip the liquor that was Miss Clara Becker—but that did not stop him from thirsting.

And whenever flowery metaphors invade the bedroom, it’s just a short, perilous journey into the realm of (brace yourselves) Simile Sex:

She teetered on the brink of a vast, thundering mystery. The boat of their bodies had come to an endless plunge of waterfall. She clung to his shoulders, eyes fixed on his, and fell over the edge. The current seized her, thrust her headlong into sensation, a glittering sheet of water and air and pure noise. It was like standing in the center of a cacophony of drums, the rhythm shaking her apart until she hardly knew where her body ended and Darien’s began.

Sometimes there’s a fine line between authorial voice and purple prose, and passages like that make me feel the author is simply trying too hard to impress the reader with every tool in her arsenal. It wasn’t quite Death by Thesaurus, but the book trance had vanished by that point, and I never did get it back.

While I loved Sonata’s focus on Clara, I did get frustrated with the unfulfilled bits of backstory about Darien’s similar impoverished childhood and Nicholas’s previous bouts of depression. There’s even hints that Nicholas might be gay, which would make a damn good sequel, especially if he gets his HEA while squashing the Italian Arch-Nemesis like a bug on the empty stage of La Scala. Or maybe dropping a piano on his head.

And the Big Reveal. Oy, the non-event of the Big Reveal. The blurb sets up the expectation there will be a Dark Moment; the story really could have used the build-up towards a confrontation – which sorta occurs when Clara deliberately seduces Darien to silence his questions – but then all that tension just kinda peters out as Darien gradually figures out the big secret (maybe because all those wave-crashing, bass-clef-reverberating orgasms made him smarter).

So. (I need a musical metaphor for “final analysis.”) I guess I’m more conflicted than I thought. I fully admit I geeked out a few times, but this story definitely isn’t for everyone. I’d recommend Sonata for a Scoundrel to any and every classical music lover, but all others must have a high tolerance for florid storytelling. Grade: B-

~ Kelly

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REVIEW: The Escort by Gina Robinson

REVIEW: The Escort by Gina Robinson

Dear Ms. Robinson,

It’s like there was a big neon sign on the blurb for this book that flashed “I wrote this just for Kelly.”

The Escort by Gina RobinsonYoung, beautiful Italian mail-order bride Angelina D’Alessandro is married by proxy to an older man she’s never met-her only chance to escape the poverty of Italy for the hope of a new life in America. But to join him in the wilderness of Idaho in 1899 she’s not allowed to travel alone. Now she’s torn between duty and desire as she fights her growing attraction to her handsome and enigmatic escort.

Mine owner and explosives expert Tonio Domani prefers to travel alone. In his line of work he can’t afford distractions. Against his better judgment he’s coerced into playing chaperone to a beautiful and tempting bride. The dangers he faces daily in his mine are real and the increasingly volatile powder keg of North Idaho’s mining country makes his return there even more dangerous. But what scares him most is the rising passion he feels for Angelina and the danger of losing his heart to her.

Or maybe it was subversive subliminal messaging. Either way, it worked, because The Escort scaled Mount TBR in record time.

Throughout the first half of the story, I was wallowing in the goodness: fantastic setting, compelling main characters and a bit of a twist on the mail-order bride trope. I was enjoying the ride, cruising along happily on the train ride west. But when Angelina and Tonio disembarked in Idaho, the story fell apart.

The good stuff first…. I am a sucker for immigrant stories, and both the hero and heroine have believable backstories that set up their prickly banter and relationship-building perfectly.

“You must have left Italy a long time ago. And my guess is that you’ve never been to the South. There are no men. The crop failures have sent them all away. Nearly all the able-bodied men have emigrated to find work. Or they’ve been killed in the wars. Southern women without dowries remain unmarried. And how can they get them when their fathers can’t work?”

“There is always the convent,” he said. “A wise and pristine choice.”

“Filled to capacity.”

Angelina’s transition from Sheltered Italian Virgin to a Confident American Woman in the early chapters was a highlight; I loved that she makes her choices deliberately. The freedom in America both frightens and thrills Angelina, and it’s fascinating to see her struggle with what kind of woman she wants to be. I had issues with some of those choices in the latter part of the story, but by that point, I had bought into her character enough to get annoyed. Which is a good thing. No, really.

The trope twist — Angelina is already married by proxy to a friend of her father’s — is a much-needed extra edge of conflict and angst. That impediment gives the relationship enough tension to prevent it from devolving into a predictable mail-order bride formula.

As a history geek, I’m all about the historical world-building, and the turn-of-the-century New York-to-Idaho journey was spot-on. Tonio and Angelina take advantage of the “Italian Immigrant Network” to make their way across the country, and their shared background and language provides a sense of intimacy even when they’re “chumming” with dozens of other passengers on the train.

And oh lordy, the Total Drama Moment, with rescue-by-explosion and the swoon-worthy aftermath:

He spoke. “I’m alive—”

She couldn’t hear the rest clearly. It muffled as he pressed his lips between her breasts. She thought he said, “For the first time in years.”

I was really looking forward to even more drama when the happy couple reached their destination in the mountainous mining communities of northern Idaho. Unfortunately, this is where the story started caving in on itself. [That was an attempt at a mining metaphor.]

Instead of relevant tidbits that advance the plot and build characters, we get info-dumping. A LOT of info-dumping. Long paragraphs and lengthy dialogues between rarely-seen secondary characters about the politics of violent unionizing. At the 85% mark, when the tension should be at the “omg holy sh*t” level, we get nearly four pages of post-strike details that add nothing to the story.

We also get several extended episodes of unnecessary and intrusive fashion porn, along with some random architectural detail (Hipped roof. Second story bay window above an inset porch. Gabled ells at front and side…) that I seriously doubt the daughter of an impoverished Italian peasant farmer would know.

And that segues into my biggest frustration with the downward slide of the second half.

Early in their journey, Angelina observes her first dice game as Tonio attempts to win enough money to upgrade to first-class accommodations. She instinctively calculates the odds of each throw, and winds up spiking the game by spotting and staring down the cheater sitting across the table. The next evening, she’s whispering betting instructions in Italian in Tonio’s ear. And I’m thinking, “oh, hell yes, I love this woman.”

But then…our strong and capable heroine steps off the train and suddenly becomes a simpering idiot.

“I’ll put on my Italian accent and smile just so. I’ll flirt but only in an innocent, friendly way. The men love that. We’ll sell all the more cookies.”

And later….

“She used her foreign accent on them to such effect that they were overwhelmed by her charm. After a few days, she suspected that they bought cookies almost more for her smiles and small flirtations than for her culinary talents. That fact didn’t bother her at all. She brought a small bit of sunshine to their day, she reasoned.”

I’m sorry, but – oh, BARF. It’s great that Angelina finds a way to use her experience as a cook to make her own way in a foreign land. But she decides, because she’s a “natural flirt,” to use her feminine wiles and her exoticness to tease the rough and dirty miners into buying her profiteroles (which are “…exactly like a woman’s bosom – soft, creamy and ever so inviting.”) Yes, she chooses that approach deliberately, but I really really really wanted to see more of her steel-trap brain and not her batting eyelashes.

And one final hissy fit: They let the bad guy go. They had him at gunpoint AND knifepoint, and instead of tying him up and clobbering him with a shovel, they LET HIM GO. And then they whined in the next chapter that he’s “on the loose.” Oy. Uff da. WTF.

At the risk of instigating yet another flail over self-publishing, I think The Escort is an example of both good and bad. It stood out above thousands of other historical romances, it kept me reading, the copyediting and ebook formatting were flawless, and I am definitely going to consider reading upcoming titles. However, it is in dire need of a hard-ass editor to (1) address the pacing and character arc problems, (2) kill clichés like “not a classic beauty” and purple prose like the fir tree that “emitted its life’s essence,” and (3) bring out the authorial “voice” that I sense is in there somewhere.

After dithering quite angstily over the letter grade, I settled on a C — I can’t really recommend this title, but going by the overuse of italics in this review, I obviously felt strongly about it.

~ Kelly

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