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JOINT REVIEW:  An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW: An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

Dear Ms. Fraser:

Jennie: I requested your book from NetGalley more or less on a whim; the blurb described a couple who hastily engaged in a marriage of convenience finally coming together after having been separated by the hero’s military service, and the obstacles they face. I’ve recently read and enjoyed several similar stories, so I thought I’d give An Infamous Marriage a try.

Sunita: I had committed to reading this, and when I saw that Jennie was going to review it I thought a joint review would be fun.

An Infamous Marriage by Susanna FraserJennie: Jack Armstrong is on a brief leave home from service in Canada, visiting his mother, who suffers from dementia, in his home village of Selyhaugh. He stops in to see his good friend, the Reverend Giles Hamilton, and to meet the new wife Giles has been singing the praises of in letters. Jack finds Giles deathly ill with the chicken pox, and his wife understandably distraught. Giles, knowing that he is dying, extracts a promise from Jack and Elizabeth to wed after he passes; he knows Elizabeth is alone in the world and fear what will happen to her without Jack’s protection and name.

Neither is keen on the idea – Jack has no interest in marrying a woman he doesn’t even know, and further, Elizabeth does not impress him much. He finds it hard to believe that this pale, plain little woman is the beauty Giles raved about in his letters. Elizabeth, naturally, is even less enamored of the idea – she loves her husband, is full of grief for his impending death, and can’t imagine marrying again before his body is even cold (and the marriage needs to be immediate, since Jack has to return to his regiment in Canada).

Nevertheless, after Giles dies, both agree to honor their promise. Jack will get something out of it – a caretaker for his beloved mother (this didn’t make too much sense, since the family is wealthy enough to have servants and the mother already has a devoted nurse, but I guess Jack knows that Elizabeth is trustworthy and there’s something to be said for not leaving something so important to paid help). Elizabeth, who was orphaned as a teenager (her father was involved in an embezzlement scandal and committed suicide; her mother died shortly after) and had only her cold, hard uncle as kin after that, has the security that Giles wanted her to have. And honestly, though the set-up could seem high-concept, my understanding of the time and place leads me to believe that Elizabeth’s options were limited and her situation dire after her husband’s death.

So, Jack and Elizabeth marry. They spend one chaste night under the same roof, and then he returns to the wilds of Canada. Elizabeth settles into life in Selyhaugh pretty well, getting over some initial judgment from those who found her second marriage to be unseemly in its haste, and developing a good relationship with Jack’s mother and the workers on the family farm. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth have fallen into a regular and lively correspondence, and developed something of a friendship.

This friendship is interrupted when a local matron with a dislike for Jack’s family takes it upon herself to pass on gossip she’s heard about Jack’s extramarital exploits in Canada. In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, the matron just happens to have a cousin in Canada who lives in the same area where Jack is stationed, and that cousin just happens to feel the need to write her about Jack’s supposedly scandalous behavior. Elizabeth, humiliated and angry, abruptly withdraws from Selyhaugh society, and her letters to Jack turn cold and terse.

Sunita: I really liked this first part of the book. The setup was believable and the way the characters related to each other (or didn’t) was well portrayed. I enjoyed the way Elizabeth grew close to Jack’s mother and established her place in local society. I agree the letter relied on coincidence, but I was so happy to see Canada used as a setting (and authentically, too) that I forgave it, and the idea of a gossipy letter letting the cat out of the bag worked for me.

Jennie: While I will admit to being drawn to infidelity stories – well done, they can be very emotional and angsty, which I love – in this case, the drama over the infidelity never made a lot of sense. Elizabeth states that she hadn’t expected Jack to be faithful during his time in Canada – after all, their union was an unconsummated marriage of convenience, one that Jack was pretty much strong-armed into. But she’s angry because she feels like he should have been more discreet. Jack, for his part, didn’t really think his screwing around would make news so far away, and I don’t think he’s entirely unreasonable there. Furthermore, it’s unclear really how scandalous his behavior actually was – there were only a few women, actually (and in the one case that was really somewhat unseemly, it turns out Jack was more or less innocent of the wrongdoing he was suspected of). Elizabeth’s reaction thus seems out of proportion and really sort of unfair.

Though I wasn’t entirely in sympathy with Jack – one of the problems I had was that he felt somewhat inconsistently characterized for the first half of the book. The younger Jack who meets and marries Elizabeth out of duty seems rather stoic and honorable – perhaps even a bit uptight. Jack’s behavior in Canada, as explained by him later to Elizabeth, seems to be mostly driven by insecurity and immaturity, neither of which we really saw in him earlier. He apparently matured late physically and even when he went into the army was undersized and acne-prone. Supposedly even years after he had filled out and become attractive to the opposite sex, he was insecure enough that he wanted to flaunt his conquests a bit in a place where he felt safe to do so.

Which is okay, I guess, but again, it would’ve worked better if the groundwork had been laid earlier, so that he didn’t seem like so much an entirely different person. He changes again when he decides that he wants a real marriage, and the ultimate effect is that Jack feels like kind of a shallow character, thinking and behaving as the plot requires at any given time.

There were elements of the book that I struggled over because though they were realistic, they made me like the characters less. With Elizabeth, it’s her determination not to “give in” to Jack too easily; essentially, she wants to make him suffer for his behavior (she is also motivated by the fear that if she folds quickly this time, it will set a pattern for their marriage that won’t be to her advantage). Again, this is realistic but somehow the way it was written did not make me sympathetic to Elizabeth; she comes off as immature herself, and calculating. Okay, maybe “calculating” is a little harsh, but I was willing to be on Elizabeth’s side here; somehow her response lessened the impact of Jack’s wrongs against her and drained some of the tension out of the conflict. I didn’t get the feeling she was *really* hurt by the infidelity, and if that was the case I thought she should have a more mature and reasonable response to the situation.

Sunita: The middle part of the book was a real letdown for me after the strength of the first part. I agree that Jack’s characterization seemed inconsistent; he was honorable, but he had no sense of how his activities as a married man could affect his wife. He was angry at being married, but then he sees Elizabeth and suddenly changes his mind.

The other problem I had was that Elizabeth’s turnaround happened so quickly. She’s been nursing her anger for years, but it only takes Jack three or four days to break down her barriers? And then suddenly they’re building a life together? That was too quick a switch, and I think ending this area of conflict between them hurt the book in the end. Halfway through, they’re quite happy with each other, but the reader knows there are many pages left to go.

Jennie: Yeah, Elizabeth seemed to mostly be holding out for form’s sake, which wasn’t very satisfying, and it was clear that some other conflict was going to have to crop up to justify the length of the book.

Jack lost me a lot (not that I was overfond of him to begin with) with his continued enthusiasm, throughout the book (almost to the end) for war and fighting. He makes it clear early on that he’s not happy to be going back to Selyhaugh, and would rather stay with the army and engage in conflict – any conflict. Lip service is given to the need of men to test themselves in battle, and this has the ring of realism (even if I don’t personally understand it), but again it’s written in such a way that Jack is less sympathetic than he ought to be (or at least could be, in my eyes). A good job is done of showing him to be someone who feels constrained by village life and not terribly interested in the workings of his modest family estate. That’s fine. But rather than conveying that Jack feels at loose ends with no wars to fight, or that he is uncertain of his place in the world, the sense that I got was that he was an overgrown child who didn’t really understand the horrors of war.

Sunita: This part worked better for me than it did for you. I saw Jack as a career soldier who was happy in his chosen profession. The itch to get back into battle is one that other authors have explored, especially during this specific period (1814-15), so I accepted it. But I had trouble with the switch from the initial conflict between them, which was internal to the relationship, to the external conflict over Jack’s rejoining the army. I understand why the switch happened from the point of view of the plot, but it didn’t feel smoothly done.

Jennie: I guess I’m more used to romances (maybe because they are written largely by women?) emphasizing the awfulness of war rather than the gung-ho attitude Jack displayed. It would have bothered me less, I think, if Jack was more strongly characterized from the start.

One other minor complaint: there’s a conflict late in the book that I could see coming a mile away. While I know of the famous dictum about a gun introduced in the first act going off in the third, still I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a character muse so many times: “Gee, I told this big lie to my beloved but luckily it can’t come back to bite me, nosiree bob.” You might as well put giant blinking neon lights around the statement.

Sunita: Yes! I thought this was so unnecessary, and it actually made me angry. On thinking back over the book, the only reason I can see for having it there was as homage to the Heyer book that is recalled in the title. They are going to undergo enough trauma in the pages to follow without this conflict. Why not just let that provide the necessary angst? I also really didn’t like the letter. It may be historically accurate that men in his position wrote letters of that length and fervor (I don’t know), but it didn’t feel organic to those scenes.

I did appreciate the depiction of Brussels and the battle (although just once, I would like to read about characters who do NOT attend the Duchess of Richmond’s ball). If you’ve read a lot of books that feature the period, the scenes and set pieces will be familiar, but Fraser manages to put her own spin on them, which is no mean feat.

Jennie:I liked the Brussels setting as well; for some reason I have an affinity for romances that include Brussels on the eve of battle, maybe because I’ve read at least a few good ones. Though you’re right about the ball; I hadn’t thought of it but that must have been a very crowded ball, with all of those fictional characters in attendance!

Okay, I know, bitch, bitch, bitch. In spite of my complaints, the characters are still relatively pleasant, the writing is competent, and the book is readable enough. It just didn’t go much beyond that for me, which is why my grade is a straight C.

Sunita: I can’t disagree with your complaints, but I really liked the first third of the book and I am so happy these days to read about relatively adult people engaging (mostly) in relatively adult behavior, that I was grateful for that. And Canada! Please, authors, more Canada. My grade is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie and Sunita

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REVIEW:  The Marriage Mistake by Jennifer Probst

REVIEW: The Marriage Mistake by Jennifer Probst

Dear Ms. Probst:

As I read your book, I kept thinking about a phrase my mother uses: “There’s no accounting for taste.” The first two books in your Marriage to a Billionaire series–The Marriage Mistake is the third–have sold like hotcakes. Each book features a self-centered hero, a zero(ine) to heroine chick, a love spell, a meddlesome Italian family, and lots of screaming (literally) sex. I haven’t read the first one, The Marriage Bargain (Jane reviews it here), but have waded through the second two.

Your novels are not to my taste.

The Marriage Mistake by Jennifer ProbstThe Marriage Mistake features one of the oldest love stories in the book: the ugly duckling turned swan little sister who has forever been in love with her older brother’s hot as hell best friend.

Carina Conte is part of a large Italian family that’s become fabulously wealthy through their bakery business, La Dolce Famiglia. The company is run by her neanderthal older brother, Michael Conte, who is determined to keep his baby sis untouched by any man. Carina, who has recently gotten her MBA in Italy, has been brought to America by Michael to work as an assistant to Max Gray, Michael’s best friend and the CEO of the US branch of the business, La Dolce Maggie. Here’s the condescending conversation the two men have about Carina’s new job:

“I’ve hired a new associate. She’ll be under your direction, and you will be responsible for her training.”

Max cut his gaze to the man seated across the table. His nerve endings prickled at the announcement, but he remained silent. He stretched out his legs under the conference table, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and quirked a brow. He’d worked endless hours and sweat blood to get the family empire of La Dolce Maggie, the U.S. branch of Italian-based La Dolce Famiglia, off the ground, and damned if he’d step aside nicely.

….”So, who’s the hotshot coming in?”

“Carina.”

Max snapped his mouth shut. “Excuse me? Carina, your baby sister? You’ve got to be kidding me—isn’t she still in school?”

Michael poured himself some water from the cooler and took a sip. “She graduated last May with her MBA from SDA Bocconi, and she’s been training at Dolce di Notte.”

“Our competitor?”

Michael smiled. “Hardly. They are not looking to conquer the world like us, my friend. But I can trust them to teach her basic skills in the bakery business. I wanted her to train with Julietta but she refuses to lag in her older sister’s shadow. She’s been begging me to come to America and her internship is up. It is time she now join the family company. Capisce?”

Ah, hell. Yeah, he understood. Max was being reassigned to babysitting duty for the youngest sister of the clan. Sure, he loved her like a sibling, but her tendency to burst into tears over emotional scenes did not go well with business. Max shuddered. What if he hurt her feelings and she crumbled? This was a bad idea all around.

“Um, Michael, maybe you should put her in accounting. You always said she’s capable with figures, and I don’t think management is a good fit. I’ve got a crazy schedule and I’m in delicate negotiations. Please give her to someone else.”

His friend shook his head. “Eventually, I will move her to CFO. But for now I want her with you. She needs to learn proper management and how La Dolce Maggie works. You’re the only one I trust to make sure she doesn’t get in trouble. You’re family.”

The attitude of the two men would be even more obnoxious if it didn’t have a twinge of truth to it. Carina is immature, prone to impulsive decisions, and completely nuts where Max is concerned. She may have an MBA but it’s pretty clear she doesn’t really care about the family business; she’s just been unable to stand up to her heavy-handed family. (She likes to paint.) Carina came to New York determined to make her own way but, after one dinner with her brother and Max, she’s agreed to live with Michael and his wife–just for a week–rather than move directly into the loft she’s got waiting for her and to let Max “hone her skills.”

The one skill she really wants honed is how to have a hot no-strings affair. This makes very little sense–she’s been in love with Max forever, she comes from a conservative Catholic family, and, at age 26, is still a virgin. But, she felt oppressed by the limits placed on her while she lived in Italy and now that she’s in the big bad USA, she’s ready for a whole her.

Her entire life revolved around fighting for her place within the family among her gorgeous sisters and talented brother. It seemed everyone had a special niche, except her. Raw anticipation flowed through her blood at the thought of a fresh slate. Another country. A new job. A place to live on her own. The possibilities were endless, stretched before her like a gift, and she was tired of wasting those minutes on a man who’d never love her.

Marriage and settling down with one man was no longer her goal.

A hot-blooded, no-holds-barred affair definitely was.

Her skin tingled. Finally, she was freed from restrictions and intended to explore all of her sexuality. She’d find a man worthy of her and dive headfirst into a physical relationship with no hope of long-term commitment.

Bad girl.

Yeah. About time.

The first man Carina throws herself at backs off from her because Max told the guy to keep his hands to himself. This, understandably, pisses Carina off so she hies herself off to Max’s mansion–much is made in this book about how lavishly Max lives–late on a Saturday night and tells him to back off. The scene is so unbelievable, it’s silly.

“You don’t get to have a say in my life. No matter how far we go back!” She closed the distance between them. Fisting her hands in his T-shirt, she stood on tiptoes and snarled, “I deserve one night of great sex, Max. Would you deny me that? Would you deny what you give to yourself? I’m not a perfect china doll placed on a shelf to be played with in careful moments. I’m flesh and blood and I want messiness and passion and orgasms.”

Oh, yeah, he got it. His cock throbbed in time to her words. The scent of fresh rain, coconut and female swarmed his senses. Max fought the insanity of the moment but she battered him mercilessly.

“You scared the crap out of him, and he was afraid to touch me.”

“Then I was right. No man is worth your time if he can’t even stand up to someone who blocks what he wants.”

“Don’t you judge him, you arrogant ass. You’re his boss, and you made him believe I was some scared little virgin afraid of a little physical contact.”

She pushed at his chest. Temper wrapped around arousal and egged him on.“Isn’t that what you are? There’s nothing wrong with virginity. Do you want to give it away on the first man who tempts you?”

A low growl escaped her throat.“Yes! I’ve done plenty of things, Maximus Gray, things you wouldn’t believe. And I liked them, and I want more, and if I want to screw every cute man in the whole frikkin company you’re not going to stop me. You don’t have the right.”

The words hung thick and heavy in the air. A challenge. The alpha in him rose to the surface, where civility and politeness faded away. She vibrated with a fiery sexual tension that verged on explosive and damn her to hell and back, he was going to be the man to turn it.

He gave her one last chance as he clung to the edge of the cliff.

“Okay, so you’re a big girl who can make her own decisions. Fine. I’ll stay out of your life even if you are making a big mistake. Go home and grow up.”

He held his breath. Those dark eyes met his and some of his madness must have shown in his face. She eased back a precious inch and studied him.
Then smiled. “Go to hell, Max. I’m done with you.”

Satisfaction roared through him. He dropped from the edge and fell into the pit without a regret.

He grasped her around the waist and lifted her up high against his chest. Three steps and her back slammed against the door. His erection fit between the wet notch of her thighs and emitted a shocked gasp from those plump lips. Her pupils dilated.

“You asked for it, little girl. So you got it.”

He bent his head and took her mouth with his.

OK, so she stalks into his house, tells him to let her have great sex with someone else, he says he’ll leave her alone so she can make her own (bad) choices, he mauls her and she, of course, loves it. They are heading toward naked lust slaking when Michael calls and just his voice on the answering machine is enough to stop Max and Carina in their tracks.

One of the hilarious things in this book is that Max is an uber-alpha male who spends most of the book being bossed around professionally and personally by Michael. This is apparently justified by two things. One, Max thinks Michael has the right to direct Carina’s sex life and two, Max isn’t a Conte and comes from a mean dad. Given that Max has the emotional depth of a potato chip, I found his self-deprecation unsympathetic. He and Carina both needed to grow up and act like sane adults.

This, of course, does not happen.

Instead, Carina decides Max should be her one night stand–she’s (not really) convinced herself she’s over him and “the image of a naked Max thrusting her to orgasm made her clench her thighs together.” She throws herself at Max over and over–while working with him professionally with limited success–and he keeps saying no because Michael would kill him, fire him, and end their life-long friendship. Oh, and he’s also not good enough for her (those pesky childhood inadequacies.) Finally, after pages and pages of lust, confrontations, arguments, kisses, and descriptions of the expensive clothes they wear, the two are in Vegas and, apparently, it’s not the house that always wins in Vegas, it’s the “night.” In the nightclub of the famous (and oh so expensive Venetian) Max decides to take her.

….He eased himself over to her, grasped her hips, and pulled her hard against him.

Her eyes flew open, and she let out her breath in a sharp whoosh. His erection bulged in his pants and he drew her close so she got the full power of his arousal. His temptress didn’t welcome him into her arms and smile with invitation.

Instead, she sneered and jerked her chin. “I don’t think so. Go find yourself a nice cocktail waitress. Where’s Sawyer?”

He realized then this wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be fun. “Not here. Get over it.”

She snorted and didn’t give an inch. “I don’t need to get over it, Max. Since you’re not the man for the job, why don’t you step aside?”

He grinned. Dipped his head. And bit the sensitive curve of her neck.

A shudder wracked through her. His hand reached out and raked over the hard nub of her nipples poking through the fabric. Dear God, thank you. She wasn’t wearing a bra. “I screwed up. Sawyer made me see what an asshole I’ve been. Denying how much I want you. Denying what’s between us.” His thumb flicked the tip of her breast again. “I’m done running away.”

She refused to surrender. “Liar. You’re going to walk me to my room and tuck me into bed. Tell me I’ll feel better in the morning and pat yourself on the back for getting innocent Carina away from the big bad wolf. Fuck you, Maximus Gray. I’m finding Sawyer.”

She twisted in his arms but he spun her around and lifted her buttocks up hard against him. This time, he caught her tiny gasp as he crushed his mouth over hers.

The music pounded and his tongue dived deep, pushing into every corner and making sure she knew who mastered who. In seconds, her body melted in surrender, and her fingers thrust into his hair. He took his time until his intention was known, then slowly broke the kiss.

Her lower lip trembled. “Max?”

“I am the big bad wolf, sweetheart. Now get your ass up to your room.”

The rest of the book goes downhill from there. There’s a forced marriage, lots of sex with mentions of 50 Shades of Grey, marital woes, spurious drama, and a professional transformation so ludicrous it’s an insult to hard-working artists everywhere. Oh, and one of those irksome epilogues that reassures the reader Carina and Max are living happily ever after and lets devoted Probst followers know who will next work the love spell whammy.

I realize this is a snarky review. And it has recently been pointed out to me by a DA reader that romances like this are intended to be fantasies. (I was complaining about the sudden proliferation of billionaire heroes.) And it’s true that books chocked full of luxury brand name items tend to make me gag. (At one point, Carina is wearing “Ciccotti shoes” made with “real diamonds”; Max wears a “Vacheron Constantin” watch and an ever-changing array of custom-made suits.) I’m sure part of my distaste for this book is I dislike the idea a fantasy life has to be one of such extreme wealth–I miss the days when just being a millionaire made a hero hot. In the same way I think it’s unhealthy to have air-brushed perfect women setting a standard for beauty, I think it’s depressing having a massive bank account is now inherently super sexy. This is my bias and it’s not one readers have to share. I’m a big believer in readers having the right to enjoy whatever the hell they want to. I don’t like the billionaire parts of Probst’s books, but I can see that many do and that’s fine with me.

But, the big bucks thing is not the main problem with The Marriage Mistake. The main problem with this novel is that the characters act like children, their story is implausible to the point of irritation, and their happy ever after is achieved with careless ease. The plot and the prose are pedestrian and predictable. The jokes aren’t funny. It’s just not a very good book. I give it a C-.

Dabney

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