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REVIEW:  Red Dirt Duchess by Louise Reynolds

REVIEW: Red Dirt Duchess by Louise Reynolds

Red Dirt Duchess cover - Calbre

Dear Ms. Reynolds:

I decided to read Red Dirt Duchess because it was set in part in outback Australia and because the heroine sounded interesting. The Australian setting was nice and Charlie was indeed an enjoyable heroine, but it wasn’t enough to overcome some weaknesses in the plot and characterization. Before I move on, I’d also like to note that there are no duchesses in the book and that Charlie has dark hair, so I’m at a loss as to how the title and cover were chosen.

Jonathan Hartley-Huntley is a travel writer – exclusive resorts and other expensive attractions – for Aristo magazine. He’s educated, polished and successful. His editor Caro sends him to middle-of-nowhere Bindundilly, an assignment that he believes to be her idea of a punishment when their supposedly no-strings affair does not lead to something more serious. If this were a historical romance, Jon would be the rakish aristocratic hero with a severe case of ennui who doesn’t get along with this family and doesn’t know what to do with his life. In a contemporary, he’s mainly lacking in direction and initiative: he’s mainly focused on holding off his mother, who wants him to marry and produce heirs (he’s the second son of an earl), and avoiding Caro, who is the sort of woman his mother would choose. That said, he’s more appealing than the description suggests.

At Bindundilly, Jonathan meets Charlie Hughes, who runs the local hotel/pub. Charlie is the daughter of an artist father and a mother who struggled on and off with drug addiction; she had an unconventional childhood, and she misses her parents, both now gone. She moved to Bindundilly with her father a few years before his death, and likes living there. Charlie and Jonathan hit off pretty quickly. She finds it entertaining to oversell the dangers of the Australian outback to Jon, and he enjoys playing along to see how far she’ll go with it. They end up kissing and consider doing more, but both know that there’s no real possibility of a relationship given their very different lives and they decide to leave it at that.

Charlie’s father painted a mural on one of the pub’s walls that reminds Jon of a painting at his family’s home, Hartley Hall; this painting is personally meaningful to him and is tied to a childhood trauma that remains unspecified for much of the book. Charlie knows very little about her father’s background, other than that he was British-born, and before Jon leaves, he suggests that she should travel to England to see the painting and try learn more about her father.

It’s not clear why they think that this is the best way for Charlie to look into her father’s past, but a few weeks later, she impulsively takes Jon up on his offer. Maybe Google wasn’t working that day. Once the action shifts to England, the book loses much of its charm. I was again reminded of historical romances, because anyone who’s read certain classics should be able to predict the rest of the plot: Jon’s family, especially his mother, doesn’t approve of Charlie; she makes friends with the sassy and ultra-competent butler; the older Lady Rushton, a friend of the family, immediately takes to her; Charlie saves the day when there’s an emergency at a glitzy wedding being hosted at Hartley Hall (the family rents it out for events as a source of income); surprise relatives pop up, and so on. Jon’s family is the most stereotypical cold upper-class family imaginable and Caro is a standard-issue bitchy ex (though not an outright evil one, at least). It was all just too cookie cutter to really be engaging.

The thing is, this could have been a really nice romance. Charlie and Jon have chemistry, especially in the early parts, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company and like one another. Charlie is confident in herself and mostly happy with her life, and while she feels out of place in England, she doesn’t view herself as unworthy or less than the people she meets. When she steps up to help at the wedding – of a reality TV star known mostly for taking her clothes off – she’s happy to help make the couple’s day special and is the one person who never condescends to them. She recognizes her parents’ faults but loves them nonetheless, and wants to be with Jon, but not if he can’t stand up for himself and make his own choices rather than his mother’s. Charlie, and to a lesser extent Jon, deserved a better and less generic story. C-/C

Best regards,
Rose

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REVIEW:  The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

REVIEW: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

Dear R. Lee Smith:

I can’t remember the last time a book had me so engaged emotionally and so utterly captivated by the storyline. Maybe not since Meljean Brook’s Iron Duke or Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. I’ve been telling everyone I know, from posting about it on Facebook, to tweeting about it, texting local friends, and emailing others.

Last Hour of Gann R Lee Smith
The world building blew me away as did the hero, Meoraq. The heroine, Amber, was also quite good although her character was a bit more problematic. Let me state up front that bad things happen to Amber in this book. Bad things happen to Meoraq too and in some ways more devastating than what happens to Amber but that might be debatable.

The short summary of this review is Amber and Meoraq go on a quest (only one of them really knows this), fall in love, bad things happen, and then the end.  I loved it even though the hero is a lizardman. Longer, spoiler-y review below.

I’m sharing some details because I want to try to convince people to read the book and I think a little background is not amiss. If a reader doesn’t like any kind of spoilers, stop now and just skip to the buy buttons at the bottom.

Ahem.

Amber is the daughter of a prostitue and in post apocalyptic Earth where there is population control due to dying resources, Amber and her sister, Nicci, are left with few options. Amber decides that she and Nicci will embark on Earth’s first colony-ship in hopes that they will obtain a better chance at life in another planet. Nicci does not want to go but Amber forces her too. This decision will haunt Amber forever.

Amber and Nicci’s ship crash lands on an unknown world and only about 50 of the several thousand humans aboard the ship survive. Out of the small group of survivors are two leaders – Amber and Scott.  Amber is a terrible people person and despite having a good head on her shoulders such as knowing not to camp in a valley during a rain, no one will listen to her.  Scott is the opposite. He has few survival skills but for his charisma.  Scott and Nicci (and most of the humans) are the most poorly drawn characters in the story. We never really get a sense of why anyone would follow Scott, but they do. I wished we had been shown instead of told that Scott was charismatic because I only saw him as a sniveling coward. Nonetheless, Scott recognizes that Amber is a threat to his leadership and does everything he can to marginalize her. The only thing that really saves her is that she is the one person whom Meoraq communicates with.

Meoraq. Holy cow. Best hero I’ve read all year. Meoraq is a Sword of Sheul, God’s Striding Foot. He is of the house of Uyane, son of the finest warrior Sheul has known. Meoraq himself is victor of hundreds of trials and known throughout the land.  As a Sheulek , Meoraq commands the respect of all men and all women because he is in a position closest to God.  The process of becoming a Sheulek is something akin to page – knight – baron or  cub scout -> scout -> eagle scout.  Essentially Sheulek is the highest position that can be held and in this religious run world, a warrior priest.

He gets to partake of whatever he desires, including the females.  As the eldest son Meoraq will eventually have to take up the stewardship of the House of Uyane and marry a woman and beget sons on her.  He looks forward to this task as one might look forward to licking a toilet clean. Meoraq will get to marrying and settling down in his own damned time.  He admits that humility is something he needs to work on.

Obviously. How many other Sheuleks do you have in your damned city tonight?

‘Forgive me, O my Father, and give me patience,’ Meoraq thought. He said, politely, “I am.”

“I am Exarch Ylsathoc Hirut.”

Meoraq waited.

The exarch frowned, clearly annoyed that he did not fall back cowering at the name. “Surely you were told that I wished to speak with you as soon as you arrived, as I was told the moment that you passed the gates of this city. But that was more than an hour ago. And here I have been. Waiting.”

I am a Sheulek and I go where I fucking well will.

One night as he gazes out into the sky, he sees a burning hand (Amber’s ship) and immediately believes that this is a sign from Sheul to seek on the holy temple of Xi’Matezh.  There he hopes to enter the inner sanctum that opens only for some and hear the voice of God tell him his future path. Meoraq does not lack confidence. Not only does he believe that he can make the trek but that the doors of the temple will open for him AND that he is important enough that God will speak to him about an unimportant of an issue as who shall be Meoraq’s wife. Even his cousin is amazed at Meoraq’s brazenness.

When Meoraq comes upon the humans, they all view him as an ignorant animal, all except Amber who recognizes that he understands her. Of course Meoraq is thinking the very same thing. At first they are disgusting features with no face but when they speak, he understands that these must be a different sort of creature made by God. Not only that but God must have put them in his path as part of his quest.

The longer he listened, the more certain Meoraq became that the strange chatter of the creatures who called themselves humans was indeed a true language, entirely separate from his own. This troubled him. The Prophet’s Word is the only Word. This was the first law of Sheul, repeated no less than twenty-three times throughout the book of His Word, and apart from the obvious, it had been interpreted to mean that there must be a single language so that all men might hear and understand the wisdoms of Sheul. Where once there had been countless tongues spoken over Gann, there was now only one: Dumaqi, the speech of men.

So. That the humans neither spoke nor even seemed to understand dumaqi was therefore an ominous sign of their true nature, but Meoraq had to admit that he had not emerged from his mother’s womb speaking it either. He would have to meditate on the matter.

The first third of the story is rather slow but filled with details about the world. We learn that Amber is a strong willed character, observant, smart and unfortunately devoted to her very weak sister.  We learn that Meoraq is a great warrior and that his religion has some unfortunate aspects that he believes in blindly. For instance, women are simply there to be seen and not heard. They are sniveling, whiny things good for only begetting sons and he was almost repelled by his own father’s devotion to the woman that spat him out.  Another unfortunate aspect is that all things are determined by combat. Disputes are decided between “champions” and the one that wins is determined to be right. I.e., if you throw a witch in water with her feet bound by concrete and she floats, then she isn’t a witch.  Meoraq always wins those disputes no matter how many men are thrown at him. Hence his status as Sheulek and his revered  reputation.

But Meoraq’s belief in the rightness of Sheul is compelling. He’s a fanatic but an incredibly thoughtful one. He’s the Sword of Sheul and he seeks to abide by the Word of Sheul at all times.  He does not give in to Gann (evil), or when he does, he seeks forgiveness and/or understanding.

He had been with many women in his twelve years of Striding (as Master Tsazr had said on that long-ago day, more than he could count), but what of that? He had also gone cheerfully without, not merely for days but for days by the brace. And while there were a few times that he could recall being aware of the lack, for the most part, he seldom thought of women at all if he were not exposed to them. He had felt Gann’s lusts on occasion when traveling but never, never suffered from them. Then again, he had never felt them this way before—dawn to dusk to dawn again, every hour almost unceasing. It was more than temptation; it was torture.

As he and Amber spend more time together, they move from antagonists to tentative friends to feeling unmoored without the other.  Ultimately Meoraq comes to believe that Amber is the gift from God. His feelings toward Amber become so strong that they rival his faith.  What makes their romance all the more incredible is that Meoraq is a biped lizard complete with scales, spines that move with his emotional state, and sex organs unlike humans.  Even more amazing is that when I was reading this book (and even after I was reading other books) Meoraq became the hottest thing around. He’s an amazing alpha hero who would walk through Gann (hell) to be with the one he loves. And he loves Amber despite her physical grotesqueness.

One of the amazing things about this book is making the reader fall in love with the lizardman. And part of the success in doing this is that we only see human features through the eyes of Meoraq and other lizard people. To those, humans are the disgusting ugly ones:

In the meantime, this left him struggling to make sense of a creature who thought all she had to do to talk was move her mouthparts around. And really, what else could they do? A human’s flat face had no snout, which meant no resonance chamber, and Sheul alone knew how hard it must be to make those wriggly little mouthparts shape the sounds those deformed tongues could not. Given their limitations, their absurdly simplistic language was no more than sounds strung together, entirely lacking the subtle nuance and precision of dumaqi.

Another character in the book when viewing Amber can only comment on her name because to the lizardlady (as Amber calls them) that’s the only compliment she can give “Nraqi leaned back, cupping Amber’s face gently between her hands and smiling. “Such a pretty name for…well…such a pretty name!””

As great as Meoraq is, we are shown exactly why he falls for Amber. She’s stubborn but loyal. She’s smart and quick witted.  She wants the best for her sister and feels tremendous guilt at having forced Nicci on the ship with her.  She never, ever gives up.  Never. And more than once saves herself and even Meoraq. I loved her grittiness and her determination.

Amber and Meoraq challenge each other. Amber is an atheist and she scoffs at Meoraq’s devotion to Sheul yet in his darkest hour it is Amber’s faith that carries him through. They both move from an extreme point toward a deeper understanding of the other’s viewpoint.

There are some horrific things that are done to Amber in this story (yes, sexual violence) but I never felt it was gratuitous because this is a story about faith.  There are small and huge tests of faith throughout the story and looking back, I felt what happened to Amber and what happens to Meoraq added heft to conclusions that they arrive at the end of the story.  Meoraq, in particular, is changed by his interaction with Amber and the strength of his feeling for her. It is his love for Amber that makes him question his past judgments and the future of his people.

And it is through Meoraq’s infinite understanding of Amber that we, the reader, are given justification for some of Amber’s most frustrating behaviors (none of which include running into a dark house full of serial killers but mostly relate to her dealings with the humans).

There are so many layers to this story and not all of them good.  Another person reading the story pointed out some problematic gender issues that I didn’t notice when I first read it.  The violence in the story could be too much for some readers and it was painful to read some sections.  But mostly I was blown away by the world in this book that was so full and real that I was there in Sheul with Meoraq and Amber. Their love is epic and there is no doubt at the end of the story that their love will endure because it survived so much how could it not?  Despite the slow beginning, despite the violence, despite even the problematic gender issues, this is an amazing story and one that I know I’ll not only re-read and continue to recommend but one that I’ll remember for years to come.

I texted someone and said in current book blog parlance, “My book boyfriend is a lizardman.” A-

Best regards,

Jane

This book will be our November book club pick.

 

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