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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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REVIEW:  All Through the Night by Connie Brockway

REVIEW: All Through the Night by Connie Brockway

ATTN

Dear Ms. Brockway:

I first bought All Through the Night due to a beautiful and dead-on review written by Mrs. Giggles, who is a famously tough reviewer. She gave your book a 99/100. That, combined with the review, which excerpts the book was enough to entice me to buy it. I remember reading it in one sitting, and literally reaching the last page, flipping the book over and starting it again. That happens very rarely for me. Since my first read of it, All Through the Night has been firmly ensconced in my Top 10 list, and Colonel Jack Seward is one of my favorite romance heroes of all time. This review is an attempt to convey why I think all romance readers should give the book a try.

Jack Seward is a guttersnipe, rescued by a powerful man, and honed into a perfect weapon for the Home Office’s Secret Committee. He is, for all intents and purposes, a fixer. He works the less savory issues, finding things, and bringing to justice those whose crimes might be considered a mark against the Prince Regent. His current duty to find a letter, that if made public could turn the tides of political relations with a number of England’s allies. The Home Office believes it’s been stolen by the Wrexhall Wraith. A thief who is also stealing jewels of the ladies of the ton. Each theft is bolder and more daring, and England’s most powerful are becoming uneasy with the frequency and success of the thief. Jack has been dispatched to bring the thief to justice and retrieve the letter.  He hides out and catches the thief in the act. But he is shocked during the encounter to find that thief is something unexpected.

“Right you are, Cap.” Nearly within arm’s reach. There would be no second opportunity to catch Seward off guard. “But I told you, I ain’t got no sticker. And we don’t want the lads in the hall there to get wind of any deal we might be conductin’, now do we? Pat me down if you don’t believe me. Go on, satisfy yerself before we begins negotiations.”

Seward’s eyes narrowed at the same time his crippled hand shot out, seizing the thief’s wrist. There was surprising strength in the twisted fingers. The Wraith jerked back, instinctively fighting the implacable hold until it became clear any struggle could end only with Seward the victor.

“I believe I will, at that,” Seward murmured, pulling the black wool-clad figure against his hard chest and securing both wrists. Quickly and efficiently he swept his free hand down over the thief’s shoulders and flanks, hips, thighs, and legs. He moved back up, his touch passing lightly over the thief’s chest.

He stopped, pale eyes gleaming with sudden intensity, and quickly jerked the slight body forward by the belt. His hand dipped down, clamping hard on the juncture between the legs in a touch both violently intimate and absolutely impersonal.

“My God,” Seward said, dropping his one hand as if burned, though the other still clenched the belt, “you’re a woman.”

The thief uses Seward’s shock to outwit him and escape, setting up Jack’s singleminded determination to find the thief and bring her to justice. He demands entree into the prince regent’s social circle. After pursuing the thief for six months, he believes that the entree will help him anticipate which member of the ton is to be victimized next.

It is after his entrance into society that he meets and is immediately besotted by the widow, Anne Wilder. Anne acts as chaperone to her young and silly niece, Sophia, but is also well known in the ton as a “saint”. She runs a shelter for military veterans and collects donations from the rich and silly to keep the shelter afloat.  Her husband was an extreme extrovert and very well liked in society and theirs was considered a true love story. Anne had been known as a hoyden prior to her marriage but had calmly settled into being married to Matthew Wilder. Matthew died while captaining a ship during the war. After that, Anne becomes the quiet, steadfast woman she is today. She spends her time soliciting donations for her charity, but only she knows that pledges and payments were two different things. The ton loves the appearance of largesse, but in reality, many renig on their pledges and the charity is barely staying afloat. Anne feels a great debt to the soldiers who served under her husband, as it was his negligence that killed or maimed many of them. But still, she keeps the ton’s secrets, never revealing who hasn’t paid.  She’s spoken of as a saint, but in truth, she’s a pariah.

Jack carried Anne Wilder’s gloved hand to his mouth and brushed his lips lightly over it.

“How very pleased I am to make your acquaintance, Colonel Seward,” she said, and shivered. He could feel the alarm vibrating through her. Alerted, he looked up and found himself caught in her gaze.

She held him with a regard nearly masculine in its directness. Seasoned. Knowing. A touch of valiance. A portion of pain and much resignation. Hardly the eyes of a Procuress, as Strand had suggested. Jack had procured much himself; he knew the look.

Rather, she gazed at him like a woman who sold her body might look at her buyer: with fatalism, submission, and a certain damning anticipation. It was an expression that said, “Do it and be done.” And it aroused him.

Jack begins a pursuit of Anne, frequently meeting up with her at social functions, where he continues to be charmed, aroused, fascinated by the reserved Widow Wilder. But his eye is also firmly fixed on the Wrexhall Wraith, who he continues to pursue, but cannot seem to catch. The thief plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Jack, using her wiles again to escape from him (in easily one of my very favorite scenes from the book).

Of course, the thief is Anne. This is not a spoiler, as it is revealed in the second chapter. The reader knows, and Anne knows that sooner or later, her dance with Jack will end. But he makes her feel alive — stimulated for the first time in ages. She’s felt a crushing guilt as Matthew Wilder’s widow. Guilt for his lackadaisical negligence and for his extreme jealousy of her while they were married. She knows that Matthew caused his men’s death, and she will do anything, including stealing from those who pledged but never paid, to keep the Shelter afloat. But what first began as a righting of wrongs, has become the only thing that makes her feel alive. Until Jack. Then, the cat and mouse game that they play stimulates her more than she’s ever been. She’s walking a line between the saucy thief who challenges and seduces Jack with her daring, and the repressed widow who seduces Jack with her propriety and hesitance. She knows that sooner or later Jack will discover her secret, and because of his honor, and his loyalty, he’ll bring her to justice. But until then, she is trying her best to experience every emotion he provides her in the fullest.

Jack pursues Anne cautiously. He knows that he is not an honorable man, and that he must behave with the utmost propriety with her. She is, after all, a member of the ton, and one who is held in high esteem. He is torn by his deep desire for the Wrexhall Wraith and his high regard and admiration for the Widow Wilder. And in a moment of passion, he kisses Anne. Anne reacts badly, appalled. He believe it is because he has put her in a compromising position. But of course, it is because he is getting closer and closer and her game will be ending soon. Fortunately, Jack takes Anne’s reaction as a prompt that he must end things with her. So he asks her to dance with him one final time:

The maestro proclaimed a waltz. She stepped close to him. He rested his hand just above her waist, on the fine-boned ribs. Warmth permeated his palm. He took her other hand high in his.

She averted her face, unwilling to meet his gaze, and after the first few strains of music, she made no attempt to keep her artificial smile on her lips. Indeed they trembled and lost all hint of pleasure, mirroring her distress far too clearly. They had been soft beneath his kiss, soft and tender and, for the space of a heartbeat, yielding.

He wanted her. He wanted her as much, no, more than he had wanted the thief. Which was impossible.

Pain washed through him, pricking him with the knowledge of his inconstancy. He pulled her nearer. Her gaze flickered to and from his face and she recoiled from his embrace.

He would not let her. He would never hold her again, never have her in his arms, never touch her, and he would not — not for manners’ sake, not for her sake, not for his own peace — let her rob him of even one short moment.

Lithe and supple as a willow, she moved in his arms and beneath his hand. Her body was unlike those of other gentlewomen; no softness padded her slender form. Indeed, her fragile appearance belied her tensile strength. He could feel smooth muscle beneath his palm, the strength in the fingers grasping his hand so tightly in her futile attempt to hold him distant.

It intoxicated him. It bewildered him. It set him on fire.

She speared him with a look of distress and anger. She did not want to be here. Too damned bad.

He closed his eyes and pulled her closer still and breathed deeply. She smelled warm and angry and clean, devoid of any masking properties of perfume or soap –

His eyes opened slowly, like a man who knows he will witness some horror. His breath grew shallow. Strength and passion, no betraying scent. Dear God, no.

She stumbled in the steps of the dance, falling against him. He caught her body against his. So intimate, so familiar. She pushed her hand flat against his chest, in the same place she had five nights before.

She jerked back.

Somewhere, Jack thought dully, Satan laughed.

Jack’s body shook. He had never been closer to losing every aspect of self-control. How fortunate for her that they were not alone. Because, just at this moment, he was not at all certain he wouldn’t have killed her.

He grasped her shoulders and stared down at her. She gazed up at him defiantly, with eyes lit up like a midnight pantheon of dying stars.

“My thief,” he said.

And there it begins, Jack’s honor battling with his desire. Anne’s need to do what is right for the men her husband betrayed with his negligence battling with her growing attraction and esteem for Jack, who will be her downfall. A love story both dark and beautiful. As you can see from the excerpts I chose, the writing is lovely. The story so beautifully conceived, and the characters fully drawn in their complexity and nuance. It is truly a remarkable story. One that stands up perfectly to the test of time. It is as wonderful to experience now as it was the first time I read it more than a decade ago. It showcases Connie Brockway’s prodigious talent, and is one of my all time favorite romances. I cannot recommend it enough. So much so, that I’m jealous of those of you who haven’t read it and are convinced to give it a try. Please trust me when I tell you, you will not regret a moment you spend watching Jack and Anne’s cat and mouse game turn to a fall into love. Final grade: A+

Sincerely,

Kati

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