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REVIEW:  The World is a Stage by Tamara Morgan

REVIEW: The World is a Stage by Tamara Morgan

Dear Ms. Morgan:

I was thrilled to request this book for review after Jayne wrote so lovingly about the first Highland games book which was another battle of the sexes. Many times those types of stories will deter me because often times the heroine is presented as a ball busting bitch that has to be softened by love but Jayne’s approval made me think this would be different.  I asked her whether she was interested and she demurred citing the something in the blurb making her a bit leery. I should have learned from Jayne’s discretion.

The World is a Stage by Tamara Morgan

This book made me so angry. Rachel Hewitt is an actress who performs in a burlesque Shakespeare productions.  Her sister, Molly, performs with her. It’s important to note the physical differences between the two. Molly is ethereally beautiful and small and delicate. Rachel is an Amazon. Tall, busty, and loud mouthed. Rachel plays the older, unattractive Gertrude to Molly’s innocent young Ophelia. Michael finds Molly restful, for example, just minutes after speaking with her.

Michael O’Leary’s best friend, Eric Peterson, is in love with Molly but her overbearing sister won’t let them be so Eric begs Michael to come to a show and an after party to take distract Rachel so that Molly and Eric can…romance each other, I guess.  This is obviously because Molly has no ability to stand up for herself.

Rachel has a long history of watching out for Molly because of the aforementioned lack of spine and Molly’s very poor decision making.  Molly’s poor decision making has led to Molly’s own injuries and damage to others around her. Rachel has had to step in time and again to clean up after Molly.  But Molly thinks that Eric is the one and won’t Rachel just give his friend a chance.

Let’s recap here. Molly is a shit for brains who has screwed up before such that Rachel has had to get Molly hospitalized.  Molly still can’t stand on her own two feet but claims she knows what she is doing.  Rachel is the bad girl for trying to look out for her sister.  Eric has a secret that could endanger him and his feckless brother.  Rachel is determined to ferret it out and Michael is there to thwart her.

Michael and Eric show up at the burlesque show and proceed to talk in loud voices making fun of the production and leering at the women.  That others in the theatre want them to shut the hell up is evidence of everyone else in the theatre being dumbasses and not Michael and Eric being boorish assholes.

Peterson, who split his time between being a concert security guard and a bouncer at a nightclub, swallowed a laugh. He could have booted this pair with a single glance. “We’ll keep it down, boys. We promise. No need to get rough.”

“It’s not that. We, uh, need to escort you out.”

Michael sat up and crossed his arms. “My friend here wants to see the show.”

“But we’ve had several complaints, sir. You’re disrupting the patrons.”

“If you want us out, you’re going to have to physically remove us.” Michael slapped on his biggest scowl. Between his face and the several hundred pounds of muscle he and Peterson shared, it should have been enough to scare away a whole fleet of knobby-kneed ushers.

And what position of strength do these guys stand upon?  After all, they dress up in frigging skirts to compete in tossing pine trees around.  To wit: who the hell are they to judge.

When Michael is caught hitting on an actress who is not Rachel only moments after trying to take lure Rachel away from Molly, he is taken aback by Rachel’s insults toward him.  “When one door slams in your face, another one spreads itself open?”  Michael thinks to himself “He might not know exactly what kind of sticks were up the asses of all these theater women but he could at least put a stop to things before they pulled them out and started beating one another.”

See what he did there? He insults the women and presumes that they are going to fight over him.  He’s exactly what Rachel describes – a cocky asshole.

And we aren’t even third chapter yet.  But the pattern is set.  Michael is a boor but his behavior is excused by every one in the book but Rachel; Rachel is the uptight bitch.  Does it really matter that Michael is just trying to pick up and nail a chick on his buddy’s behalf? That’s what a good friend does, for goodness sake.

“I’ll say this, Peterson. You’re one lucky bastard to have me for a friend. I’ve never been a man to back down from a challenge. In fact, my motto’s always been the bigger, the better.” He chuckled. “Let’s just hope she feels the same way.”

Even the theatre director complains to Michael about hiring Rachel and Michael smooths over the dispute and shows himself to have a fabulous speaking voice. Michael, you see, is so full of awesome. Not only is he built, rich, and handsome but he handles tempermental theatre folks with ease, is able to talk down Rachel and Molly’s drunken mother from her hysterical and delusional perch, and likely leads forest creatures in intricate highland reels although it wasn’t shown on the page.

When Molly shows up with bruises after going out with Eric, Rachel comes to a sane conclusion–that Molly’s boyfriend is beating her. Again.  But Rachel is shown as an intolerant biddy for jumping to those conclusions.

And as for Rachel caring about Molly? Well, Molly accuses Rachel of being self interested.

“That’s just it,” Molly said between sniffles, looking down at the grave with a kind of tenderness that made Rachel shift uncomfortably. “It’s not about you.”

“I know it’s not—”

Molly held up her hand. “See? You know. You try.”

… “For once, it would be nice if we could keep you entirely out of the conversation. Today.

Later in the book  when Rachel tries to explain why she was so protective toward Molly, Molly strikes back:

Rachel shrugged. “Yes and no. Maybe not him, but what he represents. Do you know how much it hurt me when you lost Lily? Do you know how hard it’s been for me watching you falling into the same patterns time and time again?”

“No.” Molly frowned. “How could I? You never said.”

What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck is that?

In the end, Rachel has to go on an apology tour.  She has to apologize to Molly, to Michael, to Eric, to Eric and Michael’s team. I’m not sure why she wasn’t made to lay prostrate while they all took turns whipping her. I wanted to cry with frustration at how uneven this story was written. How the “boys will be boys” mantra was reaffirmed throughout the story. How the strong female was constantly viewed as the villian for doing the EXACT SAME SHIT the men were doing (aka Eric protecting and looking after his sibling) and getting praised for it.

What makes this so tragic for me is that the voice is very good.  The middle of the story, when Rachel and Michael aren’t at loggerheads and are actually falling in love with each other presents the bones of a decent romance.

Yes the heroine was unlikeable because everything she did, viewed through the lens of the characters was deemed shrill and awful. Michael’s frat boy attitude wears off toward the middle of the book, but the anti bold, strong heroine was really evident here and it was not alleviated by the epilogue that shows her part of the team.  D

Best regards

Jane

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REVIEW: The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers

REVIEW: The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers

Dear Ms. Chambers:

It’s always exciting to read a debut book by a fellow blogger, although it can be a bit daunting, too. What if I don’t like it? Will that affect the way I read your blog? Fortunately, I enjoyed The Lady’s Secret, a book that mixes old and new genre conventions in interesting ways. In one sense it reads like a love letter to many older trad Regencies, but with a progressive streak that updates and adds new dimension to vintage tropes like the cross-dressing heroine and her brother who is trying to prove his legitimate claim to an earldom.

The Lady's Secret Joanna ChambersWhile her brother Harry travels the English countryside, looking for written evidence of their parents’ marriage, Georgiana Knight works at the Camelot Theatre in London, where she makes sets and costumes, her promising acting career cut short by crippling stage fright. Georgy and Harry inherited their actress mother’s share in the theatre, but Georgy still works hard, in part because Harry is using a good portion of their savings trying to confirm their parents’ marriage and, ultimately, his claim as the legitimate Earl of Dunsmore. Their parents married in secret after their father was told he’d be disinherited if he married an actress. After his death, their mother was paid off to keep quiet about the marriage, and her suspicious death has left Harry and Georgy financially stable but technically illegitimate. And while Harry is optimistic that he can find evidence of the marriage, Georgy has another plan: get into the current (i.e. illegitimate) Earl of Dunsmore’s house and search for evidence there.

Finding a way inside one of Dunsmore’s homes is easier said than done. However, a position becomes available in the Earl of Harland’s household, which would give Georgy the opportunity to visit Dunsmore’s house with Harland’s other servants for Dunsmore’s holiday house party. The problem is that it’s a position as valet to the earl himself, which would require Georgy to function in a state of daily intimacy with the man she is trying to fool into believing she is both a male and an experienced valet. Still, the temptation of being able to search Dunsmore’s house for evidence is immensely appealing.

It is a foregone conclusion that George Fellowes will get the job; the real challenge is in putting her considerable acting skills and somewhat androgynous appearance to use in close quarters with other servants and a “beautiful” man who makes her “ache.” Where Georgy is slight and almost boyish in appearance, Nathan has “lushly, extravagantly lashed” eyes and a mouth that “might have been thought almost feminine in its beauty, were it not for the firm, purely masculine line of the jaw beneath.” Where Georgy is spare in speech and manners, Nathan is elaborate and highly decorated, and elegant dandy who nonetheless thrives under Georgy’s unassuming but highly attentive maintenance.

For me, the first half of the book is the most interesting, because there seems to be no rush to reveal Georgy’s secret and let the sexxoring begin. Instead, Georgy spends the first part of the book watching and learning about Nathan and his household – how he prefers to be shaved and dressed; how his cravat should be tied, how his body looks and moved as he casually displays himself in Georgy’s presence. She is attracted and intrigued, but not tempted to reveal herself. And Nathan suspects nothing amiss, even after a facial massage Georgy gives him to relieve a headache physically arouses him:

 

Bloody hell. He had been aroused by Fellowes! No, he amended the thought quickly. He had not been aroused by Fellowes. Just by Fellowes’ hands on him. An anonymous pair of hands had brought him pleasure—that was all. Any pair of hands would have done the same.

 

These rationalisations did nothing to relieve his horror though. He felt embarrassed and awkward. And exploitative. Especially when he remembered what had brought Fellowes to his door—a master who had tried to take advantage of Fellowes’ youth and inexperience.

But still there is no unveiling, or even suspicion on Nathan’s part, that George is other than he seems. I appreciated this, because as difficult as it often is for me to suspend my disbelief that these young women make convincing young men, it is particularly frustrating to me when the cross-dressing device is used primarily as foreplay. In The Lady’s Secret, however, Nathan and Georgy move on from the massage incident, and it is not until some time later that Georgy’s secret is revealed. And even then the relationship between them does not change. I won’t spoil the secret of how Nathan finds out, because it’s quite a delicious scene, but I will say that his discovery is probably my favorite part of the book, because instead of calling Georgy out, he decides instead to observe her:

 

She was like that secret drawer in Lady Dunsmore’s tea chest. Now that he knew the secret, he wanted to know how it worked too. He wanted to see her with other people and watch how she did it.

 

Nathan, who has a scientific bent of mind, studies her like she initially studied him, although for different purposes. And what is wonderful about this part of the book is the way their relationship beyond master and servant, but not yet friends or lovers, begins to develop, with Nathan testing and teasing Georgy, trying to understand what she’s about and enjoying his secret knowledge of her:

 

He levered himself off the bed and stretched his long body with languid grace while Georgy, who was trying not to look, brought a straight backed chair forward for him to sit on while she shaved him. As soon as he sat down she began to dab lather over his face, noticing that his eyes were on her own face as she did so. It was disconcerting. Usually he was inattentive, his gaze elsewhere, but today he followed all her movements, and when she finally leaned over him, brandishing a razor, he tilted his chin to stare up at her. The silence between them seemed to take on weight and charge—it became a physical thing with uncomfortable edges.

 

It’s not just a sexual thing, although mutual attraction is part of it. There is a real intimacy in the relationship between a man and his valet, and the way Chambers plays with the budding sexual attraction in the context of this other intimacy is very well-done – you feel the tightness of desire between the two, the uncertainty, the slipping of the masks and yet at the same time the remoteness between two individuals of such apparently different social status. The writing throughout is also quite nice, not florid but not completely spare, either.  There is some over-description and explanation of things I wish had been trimmed a bit, but overall there is a real deftness to the construction of this part of the book.

Where things break down for me is when Georgy discovers that Nathan knows her secret, and the two begin what feels like a much more conventional relationship. The snapping tension loosens and for some reason the growing emotional intimacy did not feel as powerfully wrought. Georgy’s agenda – which she does not immediately share with Nathan – keeps some distance and tension in the relationship (can she trust him?; can he trust her?), as does the social inequity between the two and Georgy’s own resistance to leading the conventional life of an earl’s mistress. That Georgy does not give up on her quest to find evidence of her parents’ marriage at Dunsmore’s home adds a good deal of plot suspense, as well, and much of the second part of the novel is taken up with the complications that arise from Georgy’s determination and Nathan’s curiosity about what she is up to. In fact, I really love a curious and scientifically minded hero, although I even felt that part of Nathan’s character weakened over the course of the book, giving way to the equally clichéd and definitely not my favorite insensitively boorish aristocrat type.

There is also a secondary relationship between two male aristocrats that intersects in interesting ways with Georgy and Nathan’s relationship. I liked that the relationship was not included for titillation or novelty; Chambers constructs several clever scenes that make a substantial contribution to the central plot and romantic relationship, and for the most part she handles the relationship with a cognizance of its necessary secrecy. However, there is a point later on in the novel where a very unlikely (and dangerous) public scene seems to contravene the previous discretion shown (and while homosexual feelings themselves were not a capital offense, in 1810, arrest for sodomy was still very much a frightening possibility). This shift wasn’t a deal breaker for me, but it did seem a bit inconsistent, given the previous handling of this relationship.  I also think it is a difficulty inherent in wanting to give two men a happy romantic outcome during a period in history when their relationship was a crime.

Ultimately, it was the gradual slipping of Nathan and Georgy’s relationship into the conventional romantic mode, combined with the rather dramatic and somewhat clichéd resolution to the unfairly-denied noble inheritance subplot, that kept The Lady’s Secret from being a perfect read for me. Not that I did not enjoy the book as a whole – and I especially appreciated its generous length – but the promise of the first half or so was just so high, I wanted that wonderful engagement I had with the characters to last longer. Still, I would recommend The Lady’s Secret as a book that makes nice use of many genre conventions, making it both a familiar and a novel read and a substantially promising debut. B-

~Janet

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