Saturday, February 28, 2009

Secret Desires of a Gentleman: B+

Secret Desires of a Gentleman, by Laura Lee Guhrke:

Laura Lee Guhrke does it again! This wonderful entry in her "Girl-Bachelor" series tells the story of Maria, the daughter of the cook for the Marquess of Kayne. She grows up as a close friend of his two sons, the lighthearted Lawrence and the priggish Phillip. However at age 17 she and Lawrence fall in love and attempt to elope but are thwarted by Phillip, who then pays Maria 1,000 pounds to leave and never come back. Twelve years later, Maria, now a successful baker, opens a bakery right next to Phillip and Lawrence’s London residence—when Phillip finds out, he sets out to do everything he can to keep her away from Lawrence.

Maria is delightful and simple: self-sufficient, impulsive, witty, and a shameless flirt, she cares about her bakery more than anything else. Phillip is much more complicated. He values honor and chivalry and takes society’s rules very seriously, and he therefore considers Maria his inferior because of her class. Throughout the book he struggles with his strong reaction to Maria as well as his own cruel treatment of her. He considers himself a good person but he wants her gone.

Like most of Guhrke’s romances, this one develops slowly, with plenty of antagonism between the hero and heroine. Maria and Phillip are well-matched foes, and watching them battle it out was LOTS of fun. Even more fun was seeing them slowly, helplessly fall for each other, and having this process unfold framed by their childhood memories. They are a natural and beautiful couple, and their story is delightful and very sexy.

My only beef is the ending. Phillip’s inevitable change of heart felt very rushed and not entirely authentic, and Maria’s decision to give up her bakery was also glossed over quickly. It all came off a bit implausibly for a Guhrke novel—she usually handles character growth very well, and I was a bit disappointed.

Nevertheless, this is a fantastic read and I highly recommend it. B+!

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Marriage Bed

Review for The Marriage Bed by Laura Lee Guhrke:

The Marriage Bed is a strange novel; it’s well-written, but I didn’t like it. John, Lord Hammond, married 17-year-old Viola for her money. She’d fallen in love with him, and was heartbroken when she realized he was a fortune-hunter. Despite a short period of happiness together, the two turned away from each other when Viola learned this, and became totally estranged for 8 years. But then John’s cousin dies, leaving him to continue the line of the viscountcy. He tracks Viola down and lets her know he needs a legitimate heir. Though Viola hates him over the course of the novel John charms and woos and seduces her into falling in love once again.

I felt bad for Viola most of the time. She had been lied to and used, then rejected and publicly humiliated by John’s many affairs. Nevertheless, she can’t help but fall in love with him. She tries to be cold, but is too sweet and vulnerable to resist.

It’s hard to like John. He’s seriously charming, and funny, and as Viola says, he’s a “heartbreaker.” He attracts women with his humor and thoughtfulness, and they inevitably fall in love with him. But when he grows bored, he leaves them at the drop of a dime. He is, at his core, heartless—he refuses to recognize that these women (his wife and mistresses) are in love with him, and is incapable of love himself. Obviously, he changes by the end. But the change comes late in the book, which is part of what makes the novel so strange (and unsuccessful).

Being unable to love a woman is the worst crime a romance novel hero can commit. I say this with only a little bit of tongue-in-cheek. We’d rather have a kidnapping philanderer like Sebastian in Devil in Winter, or a former criminal, prostitute, grave-robber and blackmailer, like Derek of Dreaming of You. As long as they love their women, we’ll forgive them anything. But it’s hard to read a book where the hero isn’t in love until the very end, and it’s hard to watch Viola give in time and time again while getting nothing in return.

This romance novel is not a woman’s fantasy. So why the hell would you want to read it? Granted, it’s by Guhrke, who apparently couldn’t write poorly if she tried. But the story is unsatisfying and the characters unsuccessful, so even though I was interested while reading, I give this a C.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

She's No Princess

Review for She's No Princess, by Laura Lee Guhrke:

She's No Princess is set up as the inverse of And Then He Kissed Her; in this case, it's the man who's rigidly proper, and the woman who is wild and flirtatious and cares most for rules. Sir Ian Moore, a British diplomat, has been given the infuriating task of finding an English husband for Lucia Valenti, the daughter of an Italian prince. She's caused too many scandals, and her father wants her out of his country and out of his hair...within 6 weeks. Lucia and Ian, stuck with each other in London, try alternately to manipulate, bully, and on Lucia's part, seduce each other. Like And Then He Kissed Her, it's one long seduction, and it's truly enjoyable to watch Ian trying to resist Lucia's overtures.

Lucia is some sort of living aphrodisiac, and every man she encounters goes crazy for her. Granted, she's an enormous and shameless flirt, so this is more plausible and less annoying than it is in other romance novels. Plus Lucia is fun and mischeivous and a bit outrageous, so it's easy to see why people fall for her.

Ian is pure English, with strict notions of duty, honor, and propriety that he holds himself to. He works too hard and never lets his emotions show or relaxes. It's why Lucia can't help teasing him and working him up, and why it's so fun to see.

As in the last novel of Guhrke's I reviewed, she does a beautiful job of moving her characters from apathy/disdain to obsession. Unfortunately, she leaves a lot to be desired in this story. Neither of the characters seem to develop or grow. The ending is unsatisfying. And most problematic of all both Ian and Lucia do something really cruel to the other, and Guhrke never adequately resolves this.

Add to that the facat that I wasn't sure Ian truly loved Lucia, rather than being taken over by mad lust by a little sexpot, and I couldn't give this novel more than a B. Up to the last 70 pages, though, it's a superb read.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

General Fiction, Hugo Cabret

Review for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (kidslit):

The amazing...the beautiful...the's The Invention of Hugo Cabret! This is a kids' book that can only have come from an illustrator. Hugo Cabret is about equal parts words and pictures, but at over 500 pages long, it can hardly be called a picture book. I'd say it's a mix between your typical picture book and comic book.

The story is set in 1930's Paris, and the title character is a young orphan boy who lives in a train station and keeps the numerous clocks running. Thanks to his father and uncle, both horlogiers, Hugo knows all about the mechanisms behind clocks and gears of all sorts. That's why he dedicates all his free time to restoring a small, robotic man, whom he believes holds a message for him from beyond the grave.

I don't want to give too much away about the story, because the surprises and the twists are all so delightful. But I will say that Selznick brings in a bit of cinematic history that really brings the reader back to that decade. And the way he mixes different visual formats--photography, drawing, and more--is also stunning. The visual aspect of the book obviously dominates, perhaps because it is so unusual, but this word-lover loved every second of it. He tells a great story while illustrating it beautifully and innovatively, and mixes in some fascinating history, as well.

Go read this book. I recommend it absolutely, 100%, to anyone who has an appreciation of kidslit. The drawings will captivate you, the format will surprise and even expand you, and the story will endear itself to you. Go. Go on, now. What are you still doing here?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

And Then He Kissed Her

Review for And Then He Kissed Her, by Laura Lee Guhrke:

Oooh, this is one long, delicious seduction of a novel. And Then He Kissed Her is very sensual--alright, very sexual--but it's also beautiful, and even more than that. Emma Dove has been a secretary at Harry, Lord Marlowe's publishing house for five years. She is capable, compliant, humorless and boring; an all-around amazing secretary. Her only flaw is that she keeps asking Harry to publish her soporific book of etiquette. The 4th time he refuses her, Emma realizes that he's never read the manuscript, and begins to realize that she's wasted her 30 years of life denying herself. As Emma wakes up, Harry's world falls apart, and they begin to see each other in a new light.

Little happens in this book; it is all character development. I loved it. I came to understand Emma completely, and she was fully fleshed-out--proper and repressed, so lonely but in denial about it, and far too sensible for her own good. As the story progresses, her humor and independence emerge, and as Harry says, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

Harry's pretty wonderful himself: seriously charming and funny, very open and honest, and the perfect guy for Emma. He's a bit of a cynic and reprobate, having divorced his cheating wife and therefore been scorned by Society. He doesn't take women seriously and runs through them quickly. Emma helps him grow the same way he helps her, and he's endearing the whole way through (okay, most of the time).

Guhrke is a skilled writer. She moves Emma and Harry from thoroughly disinterested to irresistibly attracted in a process that is slow, enjoyable, and plausible at every step. Everything that happened needed to happen, and was done perfectly. She understands people and her characters, and develops the latter with real talent. This is romance at its best. A.

I Thee Wed

Review of I Thee Wed, by Amanda Quick:

Too much plot! is my main complaint with I Thee Wed. The romance takes a backseat to the mystery plot. Once again Quick force-feeds us the tale of an imaginary Atlantis-like isle known only to a select few. This time, a circle of Englishmen has studied and mastered the ancient practices of the isle of Vanzagara. The book is full of conversations like "I must use the Strategy of Deception to outsmart the Vanzagara Master of the Outer Circle." Always capitalized, of course.

But I'm being a tad over-critical. Though the dialogue reminded me of a farcical kung-fu movie, I enjoyed the read. A lot. The characters are adorable: Emma Greyson is a funny mix of rigidly innocent and snarky. She became a lady's maid after a bad investment left her broke, and in such a vulnerable position, is insistent that she never appear improper or be seen alone with a man. But she keeps getting fired because of her smart aleck mouth.

Edison Stokes is also cute, a would-be Vanzagara Master who quit because he found it all dumb (cheers!). He's the classic Quick adventurer, overly protective but sweetly adoring. He has no romantic history, strangely enough, but a moving family background. I liked his sense of humor, particularly regarding Emma's quirks and mouthiness.

Don't get me wrong, the book isn't funny. But the characters were fun together and the story engaging, even if there was too much of it. I'd give this book a solid B, but since it pisses me off when authors privilege story over character (or romance), I'm sticking it with a B-.

Friday, August 10, 2007

General Fiction, Black Jack

Review for Black Jack, by Leon Garfield:

Black Jack is a strange novel, in that it's both very good and somewhat bad. It's historical fiction that takes place in mid 18th-century London, and follows a young teenager named Bartholomew Dorking. Kidnapped by the villainous and enormous Black Jack, who survived his own hanging, Bartholomew (Tolly) finds himself dragged around the country and involved in all sorts of criminal schemes. He rescues a young escaped lunatic along the way, and they grow close, and together they must face a world of danger and malicious people.

The author certainly evokes the ordinariness of lower-class and illicit city life, and he does a great job with minor characters. Like Dickens, all of the secondary characters are exaggerated and one-dimensional, serving straightforward purposes. Garfield does not do so well with the characters of Tolly and Black Jack. I never understood them, and they did things that I never expected based on their characters. I was happy with their progression by the end of the novel, but I didn't get how they arrived there.

What Garfield does well is tell an engaging story, create atmospheres of danger, grim reality, and fast-paced excitement, and show people and society at their most basic and unpleasant. When the book is good, it's quite good, but it was boring in several places. The bright spots are so bright that I definitely recommend this book to others, but I caution you not to expect too much. You can't get terribly attached to the characters; at least, I couldn't.

It could just be me. The praise for Garfield in the front of the book, from authors like Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, and others is truly astounding. Garfield has a very distinct style, and it may be that his style just doesn't resonate with me.