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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?

REVIEW: How the Marquess Was Won by Julie Anne Long

REVIEW: How the Marquess Was Won by Julie Anne Long

Dear Ms. Long,

I’ve been reading your books since I discovered Beauty and the Spy back in 2006. Beauty and the Spy is still on my keeper shelf, and three others of your books have since joined it: The Secret to Seduction, I Kissed an Earl, and What I Did for a Duke. What’s more, I’ve read every book you’ve published since then. Even those I haven’t kept I have generally enjoyed or appreciated, so I am sad to say that your latest entry in the Pennyroyal Green series, How the Marquess Was Won, did not live up to my hopes.

How the Marquess Was Won	Julie Anne LongHow the Marquess Was Won opens with a man stumbling into Pennyroyal Green’s pub, the Pig & Thistle. The man has been shot and when Chase and Colin Eversea rush to his aid, he identifies himself as the Marquess Dryden. Julian Spenser, the marquess, appears close to death, and although his reputation as a cool customer, “Lord Ice,” precedes him, he cannot stop talking about a woman who appears to have devastated him in some fashion. Chase sends for the vicar, an Eversea cousin, and the action then shifts six weeks back in time.

Phoebe Vale and “Jules,” as Dryden is called, first meet in Postlethwaite’s Emporium of Lady’s Goods. Phoebe, a schoolteacher, jokes with Mr. Postlethwaite, pretending to be wealthy. The two also gossip about Lord Ice, whose exploits are detailed in the London broadsheets, emulated by many young men and sought after by young women. Though Pheobe has never met the reckless Dryden, she believes she is an expert in that subject.

While at Postlethwaite’s, Phoebe picks up a letter from Lisbeth Redmond, a former pupil now being courted by Dryden. Apparently Lisbeth’s parents are in Italy and her mother wants Phoebe to act as “a suitable friend or chaperone” at a two day house party in the home of her aunt and uncle, Isaiah and Fanchette Redmond.

(I found this puzzling since surely Lisbeth’s aunt would have been a more appropriate chaperone than a twenty-two year old schoolteacher who, as we later learn, spent her early childhood in Seven Dials).

Phoebe is pondering the offer, inclined to accept, when who should arrive at Postlethwaite’s but none other than Dryden himself. He carefully selects a silk fan whose intended recipient is surely Lisbeth Redmond. Waterburn, a viscount with a penchant for wagering, enters the shop shortly afterward, and wagers Dryden that he cannot steal a kiss from the “unkissable” Phoebe.

A hurt Phoebe leaves Postlethwaite’s intending to turn down Lisbeth’s offer, but she runs into Dryden again when he arrives at her place of work, Miss Endicott’s academy for young ladies. Dryden is there on the behalf of a recalcitrant niece, and Miss Endicott asks Phoebe to give him a tour of the academy. There Jules and Phoebe make a connection – each manages to surprise the other – and Phoebe is well on her way to being in love with Jules, so much so that she not only reverses her decision about attending the house party, but also thinking—though she rejects the thought—that he is meant for her.

As for Jules (who is far from being reckless as his reputation suggests and has amassed the fortune his father lost only through very careful planning), he too is smitten, though it takes him a long, long time to recognize it. But he does realize that he wants to impress the startling Miss Vale, and once the house party gets underway, he spends an unseemly amount of time in Phoebe’s company, endangering his plans to marry Lisbeth.

Yet Jules is determined to marry Lisbeth. It so happens that Lisbeth’s dowry is the last piece of land that once belonged to Jules’ family. Because Jules cannot let go of that piece of land, and because there is no other way to obtain it than to marry Lisbeth, he believes that no matter how he feels about Phoebe, he can’t offer her a place in his life except as his mistress. But when Waterburn makes another wager, this one with the potential to damage Phoebe, things become complicated…

Several weaknesses kept me from loving this book. The foremost is the speed with which Phoebe and Jules fell in love (It happens within a day or two of their first meeting). It’s not that I don’t believe in love in first sight. I do. But to sell me on love at practically first sight in a book is exceptionally hard, and in this case I wasn’t sold.

As a consequence, the falling in love part of the book felt rushed, and the result was that the chemistry between Jules and Phoebe seemed forced. While I very much liked Phoebe and very much liked Jules, I just didn’t care all that much about the two of them as a couple. And since I felt detached from the fate of their relationship, I wasn’t all that engaged in the narrative.

Another problem was that despite Phoebe’s thoughts about how people are more complex than surface appearance would indicate, but for two or three exceptions, the side characters came across as flat. There’s not much depth to Lisbeth or such members of the ton as Waterburn, d’Andre, and the Silverton twins. Sophia Licari, who was such a memorable “other woman” in The Secret to Seduction, makes an encore appearance here but shows little of the facets that made her so interesting in the earlier book.

Jonathan Redmond does show a glimmer of depth, and Olivia Eversea is as intense as ever. The most interesting side character to me, even off stage, is Lyon Redmond, but I think that has a lot to do with his terrific portrayal in I Kissed an Earl and the fact that ever since I found out his reasons for staying away from Olivia, I’ve been dying to see more of him. Alas, he does not actually appear in How the Marquess Was Won, nor does his sister Violet.

I don’t recall reading about Lisbeth, a Redmond who is cousin to Lyon, Violet and Jonathan, before this book. It’s possible I did and I just don’t remember. In any case, I think I would have felt more invested in the triangle between Phoebe, Jules and Lisbeth if I had remembered Lisbeth from earlier books or if she’d been a Redmond sibling. It is hard to have much sympathy for her, and while that makes it easier to root for Pheobe and Jules, it also makes the central conflict feel less significant.

For example, a scene in which Jules and Phoebe are nearly caught kissing in the woods dragged instead of riveting me. In addition, Jules’ determination to marry Lisbeth at all costs did not seem in keeping with his perceptiveness. It was easy for me to see through Lisbeth so I felt he should have been able to do so sooner. I understand that Phoebe’s background was unsuitable for a marchioness but surely Jules could have found another well-born girl to engage himself to, one who was more tolerable than Lisbeth. Yes, Lisbeth had the land he wanted, but she was so clearly not a match for him.

Perhaps because I was less engaged in this book than in earlier ones in this series, I found the anachronisms more glaring. I was able to gloss over some of them, but one in particular stood out: a botched waltz between Jules and Lisbeth starts a fad reminiscent of disco. Some readers may find this cute, but I was pulled out of the story each time the fad was mentioned.

It may sound like I didn’t enjoy or appreciate anything about this book, but that would not be true. I appreciated that the prose was as usual, much above average, with many lovely turns of phrase. And I enjoyed, albeit mildly, getting to know Jules and Phoebe. Each was sympathetic and appealing, Jules careful and methodical in his focus on keeping his promise to restore his mother’s dowry to her family, Phoebe at once young and filled with wonder yet clever, crafty, and also careful, in her own way. Both guarded their hearts and had no one to whom to “surrender their cares” which made me want to see them find happiness.

I just wish I could have felt more invested in Phoebe and Jules’ romantic relationship. Because I didn’t, much as it pains me, I cannot grade How the Marquess Was Won higher than a C/C+.



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