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REVIEW:  The Gentleman Jewel Thief by Jessica Peterson

REVIEW: The Gentleman Jewel Thief by Jessica Peterson

Dear Ms. Peterson,

When I saw the title of your new book, The Gentleman Jewel Thief, I was immediately intrigued. I have a love of caper stories and I immediately thought of the caper romances I enjoyed in my youth, including Nora Roberts’ Hot Ice, Honest Illusions and Sweet Revenge, Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night, and Anne Stuart’s Prince of Swords.

The-Gentleman-Jewel-ThiefThe Stuart is the only historical romance I could think of where the hero is a jewel thief, so when I spotted the title of your book, I imagined an Anne Stuart style hero, someone clever, sly, shady and sexy.

I should have remembered that few can pull off this type of hero for me as well as Anne Stuart, and even she doesn’t always succeed. William Townsend, the Earl of Harclay, may have been meant to come across as clever, sly, shady and sexy, but the execution fell short of my expectations.

The Gentleman Jewel Thief begins with Harclay, the gentleman to which the title refers, meeting with Mr. Thomas Hope, the owner of the investment bank that has doubled Harclay’s fortune. In the course of their conversation, Mr. Hope mentions that he has acquired a diamond once worn by King Louis XVI called the French Blue. Hope plans to show off the diamond at a ball he is throwing soon.

The action then switches to the arrival of Lady Violet Rutledge at Mr. Hope’s house for the ball in the company of her aunt and her cousin Sophia; the latter is attracted to Mr. Hope despite his being a commoner.

Violet’s excitement at the thought of dancing and flirting the night away multiplies when Hope asks her to wear the French Blue around her neck. Though Violet’s father is a duke, her family’s debts are considerable and their jewels have been sold off to cover those debts. Breathlessly, Violet agrees to wear the diamond.

Harclay arrives at the same ball and from his thoughts, it is apparent that he intends both to steal the French Blue and to eventually return it–mainly because he has been bored, and diamond-stealing makes his life more exciting. Although Harclay has seen Violet before, with the diamond around her neck she seems irresistible. Harclay, who hasn’t experienced a sexual spark in quite some time, feels a bonfire’s worth now.

He must focus on the theft, though, and therefore he flirts with Violet and plies her with alcohol, knowing Hope’s brandy is served disguised as claret, but beyond a scandalous waltz, he makes no further sexual advances. Instead, when bandits descend on the guests from the windows and darken the room by cutting the chandeliers loose, he steals the diamond.

On discovering that the French Blue is missing, Violet at first thinks the bandits took it, little realizing they are merely acrobats hired by Harclay. Mr. Hope asks Harclay to see that Violet is safe, and Harclay takes her to his own house and insists she spend the night there, despite Violet’s protestations that she must catch the thief.

Violet’s family fortune is invested with Mr. Hope, and if word of the theft reaches the papers, Hope’s enterprise could go down in flames, and Violet’s father’s estate with it. Violet must find out who stole the diamond and bring the thief to justice. Harclay, though, has other plans…

The first 130 or so pages of The Gentleman Jewel Thief were a frustrating experience for me, so much so that I quit around that point (40% of the way through, according to my kindle). On the one hand the book had lovely writing in places, like this bit:

Somewhere in the trees above, birds twittered and flitted about; the edge of the Serpentine lapped quietly at their feet. The springtime afternoon marched onward as if today were but one of a string of simple, idle days, each the same as the last.

But for Harclay and Lady Violet, today was not quite so simple, nor so idle. It was suddenly complicated, mined with explosive truths and well-played deceptions and a most thrilling episode of a physical encounter. It was impossible; it was improbable.

And great God above, it thrilled Harclay to no end. He hadn’t felt such excitement since he was a boy, allowed to accompany his father on the hunt for the first time. He would never forget the way the rifle had felt in his hands, the pounding of his heart as he took aim.

Much of the writing quoted above is quite good in my opinion, so when I came across this excerpt at the beginning of the book, I thought I was in great hands.

As it turned out, though, the truths weren’t as explosive and the deceptions not as well-played as I hoped. Although the physical encounter was very hot, I wouldn’t go as far as “most thrilling.”

There was some less-than-careful writing in the book too, such as this:

Violet’s blood jumped at the growl in his voice. She didn’t dare meet his eyes; rather, she glanced about the table and was pleased to note her fellow diners were far too involved in their own games of seduction to pay much heed to her own. Except Auntie George, of course, whose high, feathered headdress trembled with rage.

Never mind whether blood can jump, I don’t think a headdress is capable of rage.
Or this:

Harclay’s teeth flashed, revealing lips stained purple from wine.

Lips can reveal teeth, but I don’t think teeth can reveal lips. I understand that the intent is to say Harclay’s smile revealed the part of his lips stained purple from wine, but the word and phrasing choices stopped me in my tracks as I read this sentence.

In other places a profusion of adjectives is used in one sentence. For example, hero is described as looking “rather like an unkempt, intrepid pirate, sun kissed and hardened, unafraid to pursue that which he desired.”

In the introduction to this review, I said I was drawn to this book because I’ve enjoyed caper stories in the past. But part of what I love about them is their “how to” aspect. If a police procedural is a novel in which we follow a police officer step-by-step through piecing together how a crime took place and who committed it, then a caper is a story in which we follow a thief step-by-step through the execution of a great theft.

By that definition, The Gentleman Jewel Thief is not a caper. The theft is not very complicated, nor is there much suspense about whether it will be carried off or what might go wrong. There aren’t many steps to involved; it seems too easy.

I suspect there may be a reason for that given in the latter part of the book, but whether or not there is makes little difference to me, because I hoped to read a romance surrounding the planning and execution of a theft, and instead I feel I mostly got an exercise in mental lusting between an oversexed hero and a flaky heroine.

How oversexed is the hero?

1) Here’s a comment Harclay grins at overhearing:

“The earl of Harclay…they say he deflowered an entire village in Sicily. Yes, the nuns, too!”

2) Here’s the first thing Violet says to Harclay in the book (after he has commented on her wood nymph constume):

Grinning ever so slightly, she flitted her gaze to his breeches and raised a single eyebrow. “I daresay you’re the expert in wood, Lord Harclay.”

3) Another bit of repartee between them is this:

“But how many eligible daughters are left, really, that you haven’t already despoiled?”

I could go on (and on, and on) in this vein.

How flaky is the heroine?

Hardly knowing Harclay but well acquainted with his reputation, she wagers her virginity on a card game with him. She has no intention of sleeping with Harclay. Instead she means to cheat at the game, but she gives literally no thought to what might happen if Harclay catches her cheating at cards. And this despite the fact that Harclay is widely known to be an expert gambler.

Following a dinner party at Harclay’s house, as their carriage is about to take them home, Violet also decides that “With her chaperone knocked out cold, she had the rare opportunity to search the earl’s house without Auntie’s well-intentioned, but extremely irritating, interference.”

This decision is driven partly by attraction to Harclay and partly by her need to recover the diamond, but Violet’s social position as a duke’s unmarried daughter seems to play no role whatsoever in her decision making. And again, getting caught doesn’t figure in her thoughts.

As I was reading this novel, I thought of some of the recent online discussions (like this one and this one) of how ineffective unsubtle sex can be.

Foremost in my mind when I think about The Gentleman Jewel Thief is the realization that so much lust pours off its pages that it drowns out every other emotion I, or the characters might feel. There is therefore little attention given, at least in the section I read, to bringing the romance. And while sexual attraction between the characters might spark an interest that will get me to start reading a book, by itself, it can’t get me to finish it. DNF.

Sincerely,

Janine

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DUELING REVIEWS:  Untamed by Anna Cowan

DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan

Dear Ms.Cowan,

Your historical romance debut, Untamed, centers on Kit Sutherland, child of a fortune hunter and an earl’s daughter. Brought up in a shabby country manor, Kit lacks the manners of a well-born young lady.

UntamedBy contrast, Lydia, Kit’s younger sister, is poised, beautiful, and has made a successful entry into society thanks in large part to her marriage to the Earl of BenRuin. A marriage Lydia seems bent on throwing away. Lydia is rumored to be having an affair with the Duke of Darlington, a scandalous figure.

BenRuin has threatened to kill the Duke if this affair continues, and he is not the only one determined to put a stop to it. Kit too, has decided that if it’s the last thing she does, she will keep the Duke of Darlington away from her sister.

In the hopes of having a private word with the Duke, Kit attends Lady Marmotte’s ball. But when the Duke enters the room a crowd clusters around him. So before she approaches the Duke, Kit talks with a man she meets by the sidelines, a beautiful man dressed in black.

Their conversation is brief, but unsettling and memorable. And when the topic shifts to the Duke of Darlington, and neither the man in black nor Kit hide their contempt for him. Later, as she wanders the house, Kit observes the man in black playing the piano, and then seducing the hostess, Lady Marmotte. The sex is cold and clinical on his part, but his partner does not notice.

Kit is inexplicably devastated by the sight, and almost as upset to later learn that the man in black is in fact the Duke. One of his coterie of dandies, Crispin, passed for the Duke, while the Duke seduced Lady Marmotte under her husband’s nose.

The Duke’s purpose in doing so isn’t clear, but he has an elaborate scheme in the works, and seducing Lady Marmotte, and perhaps even seducing Kit’s sister Lydia, is part of it.

When Kit and the Duke meet again, at the park, it’s to state their demands. Kit’s is that the Duke leave her sister alone. She will offer him anything in return. But what the Duke asks of her takes her breath away: He wants her to return to the country, and to bring him there with her.

Despite a warning from BenRuin that if the Duke has approached Kit, it’s to get at BenRuin, his enemy, Kit gives in to the Duke’s demand. On the pretext of returning home to care for her mother, she leaves London. And when the Duke’s carriage comes to take her away, the duke is waiting within. But to her surprise, he is dressed as a woman.

Thus begins the Duke’s masquerade as Lady Rose, a “cousin” of his. In this disguise, he infiltrates Kit’s meager country home, where he learns that Kit’s mother is a frail recluse, that Kit’s brother is a vulnerable intellectual, and that Kit works alongside the one servant to provide for them.

If Kit, her family, and her home aren’t what the Duke imagined, than the Duke is not what Kit imagined either. As she guessed, he is scheming and destructive to others as well as to himself, but he too has weaknesses. When “Lady Rose” claims to be afraid of the dark and asks to sleep with Kit, Kit thinks the Duke has only ruining her in mind, as a chess move in his game with BenRuin. But that turns out not to be the case.

With the privacy sharing a room affords them, Kit and Jude (the Duke) peel away each other’s masks and grow closer, despite Kit’s reservations. In the guise of Lady Rose, the Duke charms Kit’s mother and brother, too. But what is the Duke’s plan for Kit? And what will happen when his true identity comes to light?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it truly is something different, and deserves credit for taking a great many risks. On the other, significant aspects of it did not work for me, even as I was very impressed by some strengths.

One of the most interesting aspects of Untamed is the way it turns prescribed gender roles on their head. First, we have the cross-dressing duke. Then we have Kit, the figurative wearer of pants in her household. Not only is he more elegant and fond of dresses than she, but she is in many ways stronger.

The flipping of gender roles goes beyond possessing positive attributes traditionally associated with the opposite sex. Kit and Jude (even the names are androgynous) also possess some negative qualities traditionally associated with the other gender.

For her part, Kit is not only strong and courageous enough to bear the load her brother would normally be expected to shoulder, she is also rough-mannered, brusque, and even coarse at times.

Jude, meanwhile, is not only elegant, refined, and far more beautifully dressed, whether in male garb or female, he is also fastidious, persnickety, and deeply fearful.

In a genre where much of the time, attention and focus are on making heroes alpha, alpha and more alpha, it’s refreshing to see these kinds of risks being taken.

The relationship Kit and Jude develop is one where it’s unclear who, in terms of the balance of power, is on top, and who is on the bottom. At first it seems Jude is going to have the upper hand – after all, he forces Kit to accept his presence in her home and even her bed. But when Jude’s reasons for doing so become evident, the power shifts toward Kit.

Family relationships are also important in this book. Both Kit and Jude are children of abusive fathers, and bear scars from childhood. Kit’s siblings and her mother, and the relationships within their family, are equally affected by the trauma of abuse.

The way the setting of the family manor is used fascinated me. The book reminded me very much of a theatrical play, partly because there were few location changes. So much of the story is set in the manor, and the manor seems almost sealed off from the outside world.

It’s like its own little world where it becomes possible to accept the off-kilter reality of this family, a reality where a duke wears ladies’ dresses, a pig wears gentlemen’s clothes, and the Sutherland family wears away as they pretend their pain and dysfunction doesn’t exist.

But there are problems with this book, too. So much of the book is improbable or impenetrable. For example, I still don’t understand why the Duke’s scheme came into being. Even once his reason is revealed, it is never clarified what made that cause personal; why it mattered to him passionately enough that he put himself at such risk for it.

I still don’t understand, too, why the Duke’s father added windowless rooms to every house in his estate in order to lock up little Jude inside them and deprive him of light. Yeah, reasons are given, but no sane person would do such a thing even so.

And I don’t understand, still, how Crispin passes for the Duke at Lady Marmotte’s ball in the eyes of the ton. I don’t honestly understand how Kit’s rough manners came to be, despite the explanation.

Many of these things, when I step away from the reading experience to think about them, begin to seem like conceits. But somehow, the claustrophobia of the setting makes it possible to go along with them.

Sometimes though, conceits are stretced so far that suspending disbelief becomes impossible. For example, I could buy Lydia and Kit both being attracted to the Duke, but when a third member of their family admits to feeling similarly, I felt the Duke was slipping into Marty Stu territory.

I noticed some glaring anachronisms, too. There is no explanation, despite the Regency setting, for why a woman who being publicly divorced would wield tremendous social clout nonetheless. There is no explanation for why a gay couple can show affection to each other in front of others without fear at a time when men were hanged for being homosexual.

The language is thought-provoking and often beautiful, but it too contains anachronistic words and expressions like “git,” “hungover,” and “infinite space had nothing on his eyes.”

While the characters remained in the manor, I found it easier to ignore these issues. The family dysfunction created its own logic, as family dysfunction frequently does. Absorbed by the imagery and the metaphors, by the characters’ interesting ruminations, I was able to view the book as a kind of experiment, almost a work of avant-garde art.

But when the characters returned to London and the conflicts started wrapping up, the seams became more and more evident. A ballroom scene near the end of the book, in which Kit confronts an antagonist, was impossible for me to buy. And I can’t even say that I’m persuaded that Jude can cease his self-destructive ways enough that his companionship will enhance Kit’s life.

Perhaps these are pedestrian concerns. The book’s ambition and innovation makes them seem so, at times. I’m reminded of not entirely accessible but nonetheless admirable art house movies. Rarely have I been so torn about how to assess a book. It is not even a matter of my head going against my heart: my head and my heart are both in two places.

I’ve been wrestling with what to grade this book during the writing of this review, and my failure to come to a firm conclusion has brought me to a split grade. As a daring experiment that shows strong prose and impressive willingness to test the boundaries of convention, Untamed rates at least a B. But as a cohesive, clear, and cogent whole, I can’t really give it more than a C-.

Sincerely,

Janine

###

Dear Ms. Cowan:

Before I began this book, I read a scathingly negative review by another reviewer. Here at Dear Author, Janine and I have different opinions about Untamed. The novel is a book many will either love or hate.

Untamed by Anna CowanI loved it. It’s one of the most mesmerizing books I’ve read this year. It’s not perfect and yet I won’t be surprised if, come January, it’s on many a list as 2013′s best debut.

The book begins with the hero, the Duke of Darlington, sipping coffee and perusing silk handkerchiefs in the box window at Whites. In barrels a mammoth of a man, the Earl of BenRuin, seething with rage. BenRuin’s wife, Lydia, is one of Darlington’s lovers. BenRuin is stopped from slitting Darlington’s throat–he breaks a chair instead–and he leaves after telling Darlington that if he touches Lydia again, BenRuin will indeed kill him.

Lydia is at home, taking tea with her sister Kit who has recently come to London to have a belated (she’s 28) season.

‘I do wish you would leave the servants alone,’ said Lydia, Countess of BenRuin, graciously accepting a cup of tea from the footman. She and Kit sat in the upstairs parlour, squares of sunlight fat and warm on the carpet. ‘It makes them so uncomfortable.’

And your house and your friends and this fine dress make me uncomfortable. ‘Yes, my lady.’

Lydia, of the white-blonde hair and perfect figure, looked at Kit like she was a rat who had crept in and sat down for tea. Not scared of rats, Lydia, just deeply disdainful. ‘You only need to call me that in public,’ she said. ‘Lydia will do in private. I grow tired of telling you.’

‘Of course. Lydia.’

‘I suppose “sister” would be too much to manage.’

Kit resisted the urge to throw her hands up at her – a dreadful, base gesture. ‘We’ve not had cause to call each other sister these thirteen years, but the habit could be learned, if you wish it.’

Something interrupted Lydia’s smooth expression, then was gone. ‘Just a passing fancy,’ she said, her vowels as round as a line of marbles. Bored marbles. ‘Is the tea not to your taste? Fetch a new pot,’ she said to the footman. ‘And be sure it is hot when it arrives.’

You wouldn’t know by listening to them, Kit thought, that she was older than Lydia by seven years. The instant you laid eyes on them you’d not be confused, though. The fresh, fair-skinned Countess and her dark hobgoblin sister. Although perhaps she was too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree.

BenRuin, a man deeply in love with a wife who seems not to care a whit for him, storms into the parlor.

The Earl fell to his knees before her sister, and though standing he was too large, too much for Kit, seeing him brought so low was awful.

‘I almost killed a man today,’ he said, his hands reaching for Lydia and finding no place they would be welcome. ‘I swear to you, I would have put my knife in his throat. Do not drive me further than this.’

Kit looked at her rough hands. Here was the part that was not so easy. She had given everything so that Lydia could marry well.

Lord BenRuin stood, as though he could no longer bear to be near his wife. ‘Do not see him again,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, do not see him again.’

That night, Kit goes to a ball and, as she always does in these social situations, slouches against a wall and thinks about her life at home, a place where she works hard–her family, the Sutherlands, are one step away from impoverished–but can be her true self. As she thinks about the pigs that need to be slaughtered, she listens to the way the ton talks about her sister and realizes Lydia’s affair with Darlington, the most scandalous man in town, is destroying Lydia’s reputation. Kit decides to make her business to end her sister’s liaison. When Darlington arrives at the ball, Kit sees him but before she can seek him out, the most beautiful man she’s ever seen strikes up a conversation with her. Their interchange is charged with the promise of emotional intimacy and, after he walks away from her, Kit feels that “something in her has been touched.” She goes and warns off Darlington who cheerfully tells her he and Lydia have “parted ways.” Darlington seems nothing like his reputation and Kit is bemused.

She wanders away from the social crush and follows the sound of a piano being played. As she stands on the edge of the room, she sees it’s the man she spoke with playing. Before she can speak to him, the hostess of the ball, the very married Lady Marmotte strolls in. As Kit watches the man, who Kit realizes is Darlington, begins to make love to Lady Marmotte. Kit is horrified to see the look on the Duke’s face.

…he was not engaged at all. He did not feel passion. His expression was calculated. His smiles, his voice, were deliberate. He used his body with as much dispassionate skill as the carpenter at Millcross used his lathe. He pushed her further back still, and then he leaned forward and licked her breasts, first one then the other. Methodical, contained.

The next day, Kit encounters Darlington while she is out with Lydia in the park. She asks him to leave Lydia alone. He agrees with the condition that Kit leave London, return home, and take him with her. She agrees despite being warned by BenRuin that if Darlington lays a finger on her, he’ll destroy the man. When the Duke’s carriage arrives to take Kit and Darlington back to the Manor (Kit’s name for her home), Darlington again shocks Kit.

…she was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile – the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck.

The woman turned away from the window and the Duke’s difficult blue eyes laughed out of her face.

What happens from here is complicated, routinely unexpected, and, depending on your perspective, either miraculous or mendacious. The Duke, whose name is Jude, settles into life at the Manor with Kit, her hazy mother, her beta brother, and their one servant Liza. Jude manipulates everyone–only Kit knows he’s a man–into living the lives he sees for them. In the time that the Duke takes over the Manor everyone changes, everything changes. Jude controls everyone but Kit. And it is that relationship with its every shifting power structure that makes this novel so extraordinary.

Let me say I don’t give a damn about this book’s sexual politics. Or rather I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s not that I don’t care about the cultural conundrums we ineptly struggle with as we try to define what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in 2013. But when I was reading this book, I was transported. It simply didn’t occur to me to analyze and parse. I just wanted to read.

The majority of this book details the time Jude and Kit spend living together at the Manor. Jude is a volatile chimera, shifting from entrancing to almost evil. Kit is, like so many of my favorite women in fiction, often unlikable. Their relationship is in every aspect–emotional, sexual, and social–constantly mutating. As I turned the pages, steadfastly ignoring the responsibilities of my life, I was, over and over again, surprised but never discomfited by their behavior. Together they are fascinating, sensual, and, in the way that great story-telling often is, fabulously unlikely.

The final chapters of Untamed don’t match the brilliance of the rest of the book. When Kit and Jude return to London–Jude is facing social and financial destruction, all of which has been engineered by a very pissed-off Lady Marmotte–the story falters. Kit and Jude become unlikely in ways that don’t work. The society they best is one that even I, who rarely cares about historical accuracy, found jarringly dubious. Had it not been for the deft and moving portrayal of Lydia’s and BenRuin’s relationship, I’d have felt bereft as I finished the novel.

Untamed is flawed. When, days later, I awoke from its spell, I became aware of its missteps. The novel is rather like an improved Icarus, that fabled dreamer whom Kit invokes near the end of the book’s, a literary “lunatic glory.”

Untamed falls short of its ambitions. But even as I contemplate its failings, I’m ready to read it again. It gets B+ from me.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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