Archive for September, 2012

SBR 2-for-1 Special: Sherry Thomas’s Latest Romances are Good, but not Great

Due to circumstances beyond my control, it’s been a few weeks since I last reviewed anything here at Shiny Book Review (SBR).  To make up for that lack, I thought tonight was as good a time as any to review Sherry Thomas’s two latest Victorian romances, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY and RAVISHING THE HEIRESS.

BEGUILING THE BEAUTY is the story of twice-wed, twice-widowed Venetia Easterbrook, and her unlikely romance with never-married Christian de Montfort, Duke of Lexington.  Venetia, you see, is a famed beauty, someone everyone knows but no one really knows, while Christian is a scientist and academic.  And, of course, the first thing that we see is the young Christian falling in love at first sight with Venetia; however, she’s already married, which means Christian doesn’t approach her and his love goes unrequited.

Then, Venetia’s first husband, Anthony Townsend, slanders Venetia’s character in a quick, private conversation with Christian; not long after that, Anthony takes his own life, but that’s covered up by Venetia’s brother, Fitzhugh, as is the fact that Anthony left Venetia penniless.

Next, Christian finds out that Venetia has cheated on her second husband, Arthur Easterbrook — but once again, Christian has heard falsehoods, and credited them wholeheartedly, which is nearly impossible to believe considering Christian is a man of science.

Finally, the oddest coincidence happens; Venetia, her sister-in-law Millie, and her younger sister Helena, are in New York at the same time Christian gives a scientific speech.  As Venetia herself is a scientist — a paleontologist — she insists on going.  But once she’s there, she hears her good name slandered as the woman Christian has lusted after for a good ten years, and vows revenge.

I say this is an odd coincidence, partly because most talks of this nature would not be so well-attended that Venetia, as a great beauty, would be able to blend in.  And considering the fact that Christian has been obsessed with Venetia for years, he should’ve focused in on her like a laser beam — oops, wrong century — rather than slander her to the point she’s recognizable even without the use of her first and last name.

So at this point, I was rather frustrated with the story, even though Ms. Thomas’s writing remains as clear and lucid as ever.  I had the sense that the writing was great, but the story was contrived — and it just grew more contrived the longer it went on.

Don’t believe me?  Well, how about this — Venetia ends up on an ocean liner with Christian, calling herself the Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg and speaking only German and French.  She wears a veil whenever she’s around Christian, one which obscures her features completely, and tells Christian she’s disfigured; however, the rest of her is on full display, and if Christian really has been obsessed with Venetia for years, he should recognize her body, or her voice, or something

But for whatever reason, he doesn’t.

Anyway, if you can get past all the plot contrivances — and there are many, as the ones I’ve listed are just the tip of the iceberg — this is an interesting and sometimes moving love story that’s extremely well-written.

However, as I can’t quite get past the plot contrivances (especially as I do not understand whatsoever how Christian doesn’t recognize Venetia, veiled or not), and especially because I know Ms. Thomas can do better than this (see this link for further details), this book struck me as an unsatisfying effort by a fantastic writer.  (And please, don’t get me started on the ending, because if anything, it’s even more contrived than the rest of it.)

Next up is RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, where we meet Millie Graves, an heiress, and Lord Fitzhugh (always called “Fitz”), a penniless Earl.  Millie’s father wants Millie to marry a title, so all of her education has gone toward that end, while Fitz would rather marry the love of his life, Isabelle Pelham, but has no choice as his ancestral seat is a moribund wreck.

Once married, Fitz falls into a deep depression on their honeymoon; Millie, being a quiet and selfless young woman, does everything she can to help him while keeping his secrets.  Eventually, she proposes an eight-year moratorium on procreation — partly because she’s desperately in love with Fitz and figures if she can’t win him in eight years, she doesn’t have a prayer anyway, and partly because she believes it’ll get him out of the dumps.

And so it goes; they rebuild Fitz’s house, they take over Millie’s father’s business (as the father dies young, and Millie’s mother is uninterested in running it), and they find out they’re more alike than not.

Sounds good, right?  But there’s a catch — Fitz has Millie’s OK to go outside the marriage, while Millie herself does not.  So Millie remains chaste, while Fitz sows whatever wild oats he wants . . . this is not palatable to modern readers, especially as Millie seems quite modern in many other ways (she figures out a way to run the business quietly with her husband being the “point man,” which, while manipulative, was probably one of the few ways a woman — married or not — had to actually run a business in the 1880s or 1890s).

Going on, Millie’s quiet suffering, while heart-wrenching, made me want to shake her.  She’s bright, accomplished, and has built a solid friendship with her husband despite the circumstances of their marriage, all good; that she can’t open her mouth to say, “I’m in love with you, Fitz, so why don’t you get your act together already and let’s get on?” just defies credulity.

Finally, when the widowed Isabelle shows back up, Millie not only accepts this, but welcomes Isabelle in public while seething in private.  Yet Millie’s seething is something her oblivious husband doesn’t pick up on, even though he seems to know her so well otherwise . . . what gives?

At any rate, RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, too, is a disappointment, considering it comes from the august pen of Sherry Thomas.  It’s well-written — better written than its subject matter deserves — and the story made a bit more sense than BEGUILING THE BEAUTY.  But despite the fine writing, the story just did not convince.

Overall, while these are better than average historical romances, they aren’t up to the standard of previous Thomas efforts like PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS and NOT QUITE A HUSBAND (reviewed elsewhere at SBR): they’re good, but not great.  And when an excellent writer like Ms. Thomas puts out two books like this, when you know she can do better, it’s extremely frustrating.

That being said, these are romances that will divert you for a few hours due to the high quality of Ms. Thomas’s writing.  And you may well want to re-read them, too; if you do, focus on the emotion rather than the plot contrivances, because the emotions are right even if much of the rest of it isn’t.




— reviewed by Barb


**Note: For whatever reason, right now I’m unable to add links to Ms. Thomas’s books.  My apologies.


Supervolcano: Eruption — A Not-So-Super Effort

Ever read a novel that you had high hopes for and were summarily let down when you realized that the events of the book does not seem to affect the characters within?

I had this feeling about midway through Harry Turtledove’s latest offering, Supervolcano: Eruption. The story begins with police detective Colin Ferguson waking up from a hangover near Yosemite National Park. Ferguson’s wife had just left him and he decided to simply drive somewhere to be away from it all (i.e., Southern California) before he stopped at Yosemite. While there, he meets an attractive scientist named Kelly Birnbaum who is studying the increased earthquakes and “dome activity” (lava pushing through the Earth’s crust) of the park. They get to talking, exchange numbers and promise to meet up again.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s oldest son is traveling with his band across the U.S. Life is good for the struggling musician, and the band seems to be doing well enough for what they want to do. Ferguson’s youngest son is in college still, and his daughter is in the process of moving from to L.A. area to Denver to follow her older lover. His ex-wife currently lives with her younger boyfriend/yoga instructor.

Character view points established, Turtledove then erupts the biggest active volcano in the world. And…

…nothing happens. A shock wave, refugees moving out to Kansas and beyond, some ash falling. Mostly all these characters seem to be struggling with is their cars and such. I literally pulled a Ned Stark and muttered “Winter is coming” as I was reading this. Minor characters get some screen time, surviving a plane crash (water landing with nobody hurt) and getting back to Los Angeles. Most of the story seems to revolve around the Ferguson family, who are separated and scattered across the US, doing absolutely nothing and carrying on as if nothing really happened.

I’m sorry, but what part of “volcano big enough to cause shock wave to stretch across the US” did we not grasp here? For the book being called “Supervolcano”, I’ve seen more reasonable (and feasible) society reaction on made-for-TV movies about the same thing. The title is misleading, but it is not the only part. No, that is just the beginning. The promo blurb, for example, must have been written when the author sold the rights to the trilogy (and it’s going to be a trilogy, just wait and see) because nowhere in the book is Ferguson “racing against time” to reunite his family. No, Ferguson is too busy marrying his scientist and chasing a serial killer (who it is becomes painfully obvious midway through the book… and the killer isn’t identified by the author in this book) instead of trying to get his daughter and eldest son home. His daughter is in a refugee camp somewhere in Kansas (or Oklahoma, not sure), which, if Yellowstone erupted, would be no safer than Colorado. Why refugee camps aren’t set up in New Mexico (outside of the wind stream effect that would carry all the soot and corrosive ash that kills people) are beyond me. Not my book. His eldest son is currently in Maine, preparing for one hell of a winter without fuel or much food with his band at a very strange hotel. But there’s not so much going on except for the possibility of the feeling of impending doom. In no way is there any looting, Army/National Guard involvement seems to be nil, and somehow Ferguson’s daughter manages to smuggle a loaded revolver into a refugee camp. They took security more seriously on Hogan’s Heroes than these troops seem to.

Seriously. Nothing feels urgent despite the fact that the last major volcanic eruption of this magnitude bottle-necked the human population. Look up the Toba theory.


Part of Turtledove’s style in previous books is to let the characters drive the story. Unfortunately for this one, because such a huge premise is the entire basis for the plot, it needed more than characters going about their every day lives while dealing with subtle aftereffects of a massive volcanic eruption. It needed drama, action, passion. Hell, it needed more Bruce Willis and less of people sitting around waiting for their Lord Darcy to magically appear.

I wouldn’t recommend this book. It’s not very good and, in the end, it leaves the reader unfulfilled and wondering why they plunked down that much money for so little.

Reviewed by Jason

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E.C. Myers’ “Quantum Coin:” Vivid, Appealing Sequel — with Physics

E.C. Myers’ forthcoming QUANTUM COIN is a science-fiction action/adventure story featuring teenager Ephraim Scott, his girlfriend, Jena Kim, his girlfriend’s alternate self from a different universe, Zoe Kim, and his best friend, Nathan Mackenzie.  This story is set in and on our present-day Earth, but parallel worlds, string theory, and various laws of physics come into play in this vivid, appealing sequel to FAIR COIN (reviewed here).

As you might expect, even though Ephraim had given up his “fair coin” — the coin that allowed him access to alternate universes — at the end of the previous book, the alternate universes aren’t quite done with him yet.  This is made evident when Zoe shows up; Zoe was in love with her world’s version of Ephraim, liked our Ephraim even better and nearly stayed with him in the last book, but had done the virtuous thing and stayed in her own universe.  So for her to show up again, much less at Ephraim’s Senior Prom, shows that something must be desperately wrong.

After a deft recap of the events of FAIR COIN, the plot thickens nicely as Ephraim, Zoe, and Jena end up in a universe that runs faster, time-wise, than our own.  This means their analogues are all older (when they’re not dead or elsewhere); we get a chance to see the fortysomething version of Jena Kim (beautiful, tired, and strained), the fortysomething version of Nathan (eccentric, tired and strained, but honorable), and hear their versions of what’s going on in the multiverse these days.

To be blunt, the situation is dire — worse even than Zoe knew when she went to get Ephraim and Jena in the first place.  (Nathan, pouting all the way, ended up having to stay in our universe.)  The universe seems to be folding in on itself; the math is there to support this belief, and it has something to do with all of the different possibilities that the universe has come up with.  Now, the universe is contracting; as physicists, scientists, and all-around smart people, the elder Jena, the elder Nathan, and the elder Ephraim (when he was still around) have decided to pick the few universes that should continue to exist.

Of course, who are they to decide?  (This is the first question Ephraim comes up with, and Zoe, too.)  And is the decision they’ve made really the best one available, or is it simply due to bare necessity?

But there are other problems; in order to do what they’re proposing, they need a genius of the adult-Ephraim’s level or better, and don’t have one.  That’s why they brought in younger Ephraim, as they thought he might be able to help them find one in the multiverse, before it contracts . . . while they find one (in a slow-time universe, where it’s still the early 1950s), that only leads to more and more problems for all concerned.

This is a very strong sequel that’s better written than Myers’s debut novel (which I criticized for its overuse of archetypes).  Ephraim is much better fleshed out; he’s now his own, albeit still young, man, and no one else need apply whether his alternate self’s name is Ephraim or not.  Nathan, too, is no longer an archetype; he’s flawed, sure, but funny, and definitely his own man.  And the difference between our universe’s Jena, and her analogue, Zoe, couldn’t be more stark . . . all the way around, the point is definitely made that it’s your experiences that help make you who you are, along with the people you know and the knowledge you amass.  And without all three of those things, you aren’t the same person as anyone else — not even a genetic twin such as Jena (our universe) and Zoe (alternate universe) are all that much alike if you see them as individuals, rather than imperfect copies of one another.

QUANTUM COIN is a novel that needs to be on your bookshelf, just as soon as it comes out in October; it has flair, drama, big ideas, excellent characters, and some believable, low-key romance.  I enjoyed this novel thoroughly — in fact, once I’d read QUANTUM COIN, I turned right back to the beginning to start it again (something I only rarely do) because I found it that interesting and involving.  And if you give it a chance — even if, like me, you weren’t a huge fan of FAIR COIN — you’ll be likely to get hooked, too.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Suzanne Enoch’s “A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior” — Decent Romance, Better Adventure Story

Suzanne Enoch’s A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is an interesting romance between Teresa “Tess” Weller, a London socialite and the (anonymous) author of a popular guide on decorum for Ladies of Quality, and Colonel Bartholomew “Tolly” James, late of India.  Something went badly wrong for Col. James in India, to the point that only he survived an attack by the Thuggee out of his entire company of men — yet the British East India Company refuses to admit an attack took place and has instead attempted to ruin Col. James’s reputation.

The latter part of the plot — exactly what happened to Col. James, and why is it that the British East India Company is behaving so badly? — is far more interesting than the romance, which despite its appealing characters often appears formulaic.  That said, the action-adventure part of the plot is so very good that it carried me past some of the lesser sections, and it definitely carried me through the romance between Col. James (only Tess calls him Tolly) and Tess.

What helped to redeem the romance and bring it to a level I consider acceptable-to-above (thus the appellation “decent” that you see in the title) was the fact that Tess does have a spine and a heart, as she refuses to believe  that Col. James is anything less than honorable no matter what the bigwigs at the British East India Company say.  That she’d have this strength of character was not apparent from the beginning, as Tess is definitely a character who grows and changes during the course of this novel . . . in some senses, this is more of a coming of age story for both parties than it is a romance, but I enjoyed the additional complications and felt Ms. Enoch did a good job with them.

The story improves markedly whenever Col. James is actively in the picture; his journey, from a scarred military veteran no one in authority wants to believe to finding his feet, finding his friends, proving what happened to him is the plain, flat truth and succumbing to love with the not-so-dull Tess is more than worth the price of admission.

And the fact that Tess does grow and change allows her to realize that sometimes it’s better to behave improperly by societal standards — better all the way around, as it’s more enjoyable, not to mention far more realistic (as no one can be saintly all the time) — than to insist on “proper behavior” at all times.  Because if Tess had behaved by “proper” standards, as soon as Col. James was accused of making up the attack by the Thuggee by the British East India Company bigwigs, she would’ve had to back off and leave him alone, no matter what her feelings were.  And that would’ve been the wrong answer, all the way around — (of course, had she taken that avenue, there wouldn’t have been much of a story there, and Ms. Enoch is much too gifted of a writer to do that).

Overall, A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is worth reading for the romance, the “coming of age” issues and the action-adventure parts of the plot, but I enjoyed the action-adventure and the “coming of age” plot-strands much more.  That being said, A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is a very good love story with some realistic complications, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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The Kingmakers — A Fitting Conclusion

The war against the vampires by the exiled British Empire has stalled and is threatening to peter out, which could lead to a complete loss of the British Empire’s ancestral lands in England. To reclaim that momentum, the rulers in Alexandria — specifically, Queen Adele — mount a desperate attack upon the vampires with the assistance of the legendary warrior Greyfriar in the besieged town of Grenoble. The Greyfriar knows that time is short, for though the humans have made strides, they are now losing the war.

Thus begins Clay and Susan Griffith’s finale of their Vampire Empire series, book three: The Kingmakers. Everything across Europe is in disarray for both the vampires and humans alike. Cesare, younger brother of Gareth (aka the Greyfriar), has ascended to the throne of England’s vampire clans after murdering his father. However, Cesare doesn’t understand just what hole he had dug himself into as he attempts to unify the clans to wipe out the human resistance once and for all. For getting vampire clans to work together is much akin to herding cats.

Using her new-found powers of geomancy, Adele has come to Grenoble to assist General Anhalt and the Greyfriar in retaking the town. A dangerous mission for the Empress, but her growing powers have to be used or else the entire army will be overrun. Sensing this, Greyfriar guides her into the vampire-held city — even though the geomancy is just as dangerous to him as it is to every other vampire. Even death, though, would not be able to keep the Greyfriar from protecting his love.

This book is a strong finish to the Vampire Empire series. Not a stunning conclusion, as there are little surprises to be had this late into the game. The reader, by this point, is intimately familiar with the main characters and know that there will be no deviation from their destinies. Any change of path by the characters at this stage of the game would be off-putting, and fortunately the authors stay true to their creations. The pacing is not nearly as fast this book as with the previous two, though the plotting and action are tighter wound this time. A few of the minor characters continue their progression to either the light or dark, with the key to it all being the love between Adele and Greyfriar. Can their combined powers defeat the mighty vampire clans? Can their love save one another from the ultimate betrayal?

The only quibble with the book is the absence of Senator Clark through the beginning half of the book. While his overtures for the Empress were shot down repeatedly (including Adele running off with Greyfriar at the moment before her wedding to the American Senator was to commence), his dogged nature would have been an added and welcome element to the beginning stages of the book. However, even Clark’s fate is interwoven with the Greyfriar and Adele, and the authors deftly handle the senator in perfect fashion. However, his absence doesn’t take anything away from the book, merely leaving the reader with the thought of “What happened to that one guy?” as the story moves along.

A splendid book, one that fittingly concludes the trilogy. It is sad to see this series come to an end, but as they say, all good things must. A must-buy for fans of steampunk, fantasy, or who need to read a great story.

Reviewed by Jason

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