Archive for December, 2012

SBR 2-for-1 Saturday Romance Special

As it’s nearly New Year — and as I have two romances I keep meaning to review here at Shiny Book Review — I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, which is why tonight’s 2-for-1 SBR special features the work of two highly distinct authors — Sherry Thomas and Marie Lu.  Both are romances in one way, shape or form, but are set in wildly disparate milieus.

The first romance to be reviewed tonight is Sherry Thomas’ TEMPTING THE BRIDE.  This is the third book in her Fitzhugh trilogy that’s set in England during the Victorian era; the previous books, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY and RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, were reviewed here.  (I also reviewed four previous Thomas romances here.)  BRIDE features Helena Fitzhugh, a London publisher in love with a married man, and David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, who’s loved Helena for a long time but hasn’t been able to show it appropriately (partly due to Helena’s love for the married guy).

The main reason David and Helena don’t have a romance at the start of this novel is because David, to be blunt, was a very bratty teenager when he first met Helena and said some really obnoxious things to her.  Over the years, that pattern of behavior has continued even though everyone else in Helena’s family (sister Venetia, featured in book 1, and brother Fitz the Earl, featured in book 2) has known for a long time just how deeply David’s feelings for Helena lie.

But, of course, Helena does not know this.  She just thinks David is an obnoxious ass.  (Which, of course, he is.  Among other things.)

And, as previously stated, Helena is in a doomed romance with the very married Andrew Martin, one of her writers at the publishing house.  Which means David can’t do much of anything other than snipe at her and wonder what could’ve been . . . until one day, when Helena is nearly discovered en flagrante delicto with Andrew.  Quickly, David steps in and hides Andrew, then says smoothly that he and Helena have eloped and she’s the new Lady Hastings.  (Helena, being no fool, doesn’t contradict him even though she has no idea why David would do such a thing.)

Then they have to go explain things to Helena’s brother and sister, which is awkward and upsets Helena.  She ends up running out into the middle of the street, takes a head injury, and gets amnesia.

(I can hear you all now.  “Oh, no!  The dreaded amnesia plot!”)

I’m sure, thus far, anyone who’s reading this review that doesn’t know about Ms. Thomas or her writing skill is wondering why I’d bother with this, considering the hackneyed plot device employed.  Yet TEMPTING THE BRIDE, far from being an irredeemable mess, is by far the best of the Fitzhugh trilogy because it focuses on David and his doomed love for Helena and shows just how good a man David really is when he’s not behaving like a jerk.

So the two get to know each other without any of Helena’s preconceived notions (as she’s lost all of her adult memories, plus most of them from her late teens), and they fall in love.

But what will happen when she regains her memory?

And what is she likely to do with that married man who’s kept her on the string all this time?

While I can’t go into any of that (or I’ll blow any of your potential reading pleasure out of the water), I can tell you that I found it to be not only plausible, but highly engaging.

Put simply, TEMPTING THE BRIDE is Ms. Thomas at the top of her game, which is a welcome thing to read indeed.  Which is why if you love romances and you haven’t read any of Sherry Thomas’s books yet, you’re really missing out.

Next up is Marie Lu’s LEGEND, a dystopian romance set in what could be the very near future.  The United States has broken up into disparate parts, one of them being the Republic of California (called simply “the Republic,” possibly to save steps).  The Republic is a cold, cruel place that’s based off one thing: military achievement.  Everyone takes a test at age ten to find out what he or she is going to be, and the top-rated thing you can possibly do is to go into the military or work in military research — nothing else need apply.

Our two characters here are June, born into an elite military family, and Day, who comes from the bottom end of the economic ladder.  Both are military prodigies, but only June has been encouraged — Day was basically left for dead by the cold, cruel, corrupt elders running the Republic.

Both are in their mid-teens.  Both are extremely bright.  And both have many military skills that manifested at a surprisingly early age — Day’s out of necessity, June’s because she’s been pushed to become the best.

Normally these two would never meet as Day’s a fugitive and June’s already in the Republic’s military (albeit as the equivalent of a cadet).  But then June’s brother Metias is murdered, and Day becomes the prime suspect.

But there are secrets within secrets, wheels within wheels.  Things are not as they seem, which is why Day and June must meet, take each other’s measure, and possibly form an alliance in order to succeed.  Yet everything June’s learned has told her that Day is automatically the enemy, while Day, in turn, has learned that no one from the Republic — not even someone as young as June  — can be trusted.

What will happen to these two distinct individuals, especially if June cannot shake off her early conditioning?

Overall, LEGEND is an enjoyable and quick read.  It has a surprising amount of emotional depth — rare for the dystopian teen romance genre — and makes some good points about romances overall in that the best and most realistic romances occur when both people can understand one another or have similar skills and gifts.  June likes how Day looks, sure, but unlike other teen dystopian romances such as Lauren Oliver’s DELIRIUM (reviewed here), June is far more concerned about what’s going on in Day’s mind than she is about his looks.

That’s not only refreshing for a teen romance, but it’s also extremely realistic.

Don’t get me wrong.  I felt LEGEND‘s plot, overall, was plausible.  The milieu was appropriately dystopian and Ms. Lu didn’t shy away from showing the worst aspects of this.

But Ms. Lu also showed that people can survive the worst things with their humanity intact — something that made Suzanne Collins’ original THE HUNGER GAMES (reviewed here by Jason) so good, but otherwise has been rarely imitated — and shows recognizable human emotions and drives throughout.  I appreciated this greatly and wish more writers would emulate her example.

Wrapping up tonight’s 2-for-1 Saturday romance special here at SBR, here are tonight’s grades:



— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Saturday Christmas Romance Special

As Shiny Book Review is well aware that we’re fast approaching the holidays, this seemed a logical time to review two Christmas-themed romances, one by Sabrina Jeffries and the other by Victoria Alexander.  Jeffries’ romance is ‘TWAS THE NIGHT AFTER CHRISTMAS, while Alexander’s is WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS.

First up is Jeffries’ effort, set during Regency England and featuring Pierce Waverly, the Earl of Devonmont, and Mrs. Camilla Stuart, a respectable widow with a young son.  Pierce has engaged Camilla to become a companion to Pierce’s own mother, whom he cares for but refuses to speak with for reasons that both he and his mother refuse to discuss.  However, Camilla is having none of that as it’s Christmas.  (She feels every mother deserves to have her son home for Christmas no matter how badly things have gone wrong in the past.)  Which is why she sends a brief note to Pierce saying that his mother is unwell and that if Pierce wishes to see her “before it’s too late,” he’d best come soon or not come at all.

Of course this is extremely upsetting to Pierce, who immediately goes to see his mother.  However, once he gets to his mother’s small house, Pierce gets extremely upset and feels both violated and manipulated.  But as he’s immediately attracted to Camilla despite what Camilla perceives as her lack of beauty, he decides to stick around for a few days to figure out what’s really going on with his mother.

And, of course, since Pierce wants things his own way, he also blackmails Camilla in the process.  Which means that he isn’t above a bit of manipulation of his own as he’s attracted to her, intends to get to the bottom of just why this is, and will figure out a way to make her his own if at all possible.

Over the course of this novel, many things are revealed, including why Pierce and his mother have been estranged, why Camilla’s so keen on keeping families together (hint, hint: it’s not just because she’s the widow of a vicar), and why these two are meant for one another.  Yet because Camilla is not a member of the nobility and Pierce obviously is, it seems for a time as if there’s no way these two can possibly marry and be together.

Of course, as this is a Christmas romance — and “happily ever afters” are a specialty of most romances the world over anyway — you can freely expect that there will be a way around this conundrum.  That way is well-written, involving, and interesting, yet felt a bit contrived beyond the normal levels expected of any given romance.

Still, it’s a nice read with two good main characters with many flaws (I do love flawed heroes and heroines), and I felt the romance between them was realistic and well done.

Moving on, Alexander’s farcical WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is one of the more amusing Christmas-themed romances I’ve ever read.  This Victorian-era English romance stars Camille, Lady Lydingham, and Grayson Elliot, the man who got away years ago.  Camille was in love with Gray when she was eighteen and he was around the same age, but she was about to marry another.  Gray declared himself, Camille was flummoxed, and both declared themselves brokenhearted forever when their abortive romance did not end in a “happily ever after.”

Now a widow (as Camille did marry the man she’d been engaged to), Camille is about to marry Prince Nikolai of the Kingdom of Greater Avalonia.  Camille doesn’t know where Avalonia is, much less much about Prince Nikolai, but as she’s always wanted to be a princess — and as she hasn’t seen Gray in many years — she’s willing to do just about anything to make Prince Nikolai happy.  So when the Prince wants a “proper English Christmas,” Camille is bound and determined to do anything she can to bring it off even though her mother and one of her sisters are in France and her father is presumed dead.

So what does the intrepid Camille do?  Why, hire a whole troupe of actors, of course!  They’ll play the parts of her devoted family plus all of the servants (who’ve been given holiday time off prior to the start of the book), and that will give the Prince the “proper English Christmas” he’s always wanted.

Of course, things go wrong nearly immediately when Gray comes back into the picture.  Now an extremely wealthy man after making a great deal of money in India, Gray believes he has the panache to offer for Camille.  Thus he goes to Camille’s house at the behest of his brother, the country squire, to renew his acquaintance.

But of course Gray has no idea that Camille hired a whole troupe of actors until he gets to her house.  Then, seizing on the opportunity presented, he proclaims himself her “third cousin” and takes up residence in Camille’s home alongside the other actors.

And of course it’s Gray who realizes that Prince Nikolai is not who he seems to be, especially as the Principality of Greater Avalonia no longer exists, but the only person he can discuss this with is Camille’s identical twin sister Beryl.  (Gray has always been able to tell the two apart.  So can Beryl’s husband, which is just as well.)  Beryl is not wholly unsympathetic to Gray’s pursuit of Camille, but she believes that Gray should have to earn Camille’s trust (a quite sensible attitude).  This leads to much spirited and witty by-play and a great deal of comedic intrigue.

And then . . . as this is, after all, a farce . . . things get even more convoluted when Camille’s real mother and her other sister, Delilah, show up and start interacting with the actors.  Because they still don’t want anyone to know what’s happening with all of these actors as the truth would ruin Camille socially, they end up taking false names right alongside Gray.

And if that wasn’t enough, another of Camille’s relatives shows up — someone completely unexpected — and he, too, must be accounted for in the whole farcical floating narrative.

Because WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is a flat-out farce, all of this plot description doesn’t begin to do it justice.  So let’s boil it down to brass tacks — Alexander’s book is extremely funny, and it’s well worth the read and the consequent re-reads because the humor is excellent, the characters make sense and the romance is incredibly realistic considering the farcical situations going on all around.

Bottom line: Both romances are better than average, but Alexander’s was funnier.  Still, both are well worth reading and will hold your interest.




— reviewed by Barb

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Dave Freer’s “The Steam Mole” — Thrilling Action-Adventure

Dave Freer’s THE STEAM MOLE is the sequel to CUTTLEFISH (reviewed here).  Many of the same characters are present, including Tim Barnabas, Clara Calland, and her mother Mary (a chemist with a doctorate who has a formula that will literally change the world), but the setting has changed; instead of them all being cooped up on the coal-powered Cuttlefish, they’re now in Western Australia (called “Westralia”).

At the end of CUTTLEFISH, Dr. Calland and her daughter were dropped off to make some sort of deal for Dr. Calland’s formula.  However, the Imperial English government still wants that formula for itself and will do anything — literally anything it possibly can — to stop Dr. Calland from giving that formula to Westralia.

This is the main reason Dr. Calland lies near death at the start of THE STEAM MOLE, originally diagnosed with a case of the flu.  Yet there’s something badly wrong here, something Clara knows even if no one else does, but of course no one’s willing to listen to her as she’s still a teenager.

This is why she goes looking for her buddy (and love interest) Tim,  thinking he’s stayed with the Cuttlefish as he is, after all, a crewman there.  But the Cuttlefish crew has split up, mostly because they need money in order to ply their trade as they used up all of their fuel and just about every other possible thing as well just getting Clara and her mother to Westralia.

Tim has gone off to work on a steam mole (used for excavation), as the way it’s powered is sensible to anyone who’s worked on a coal-powered submarine.  But the Westralians aren’t exactly friendly to anyone with a black skin, which Tim finds out in a big hurry; worse, the crew he’s with contains none of his friends and shipmates, which is why things escalate out of control in a hurry.

While Tim is able to escape from his racist temporary crewmates, it’s not without cost as he’s forced to endure the Westralian desert and cross during the day — a big no-no in Westralia due to how hot and humid the climate has become due to “the Big Melt.”  And because Tim’s without much in the way of supplies, most especially water, this quickly complicates things.

Clara, of course, doesn’t know any of this when she sets out to find Tim.  But she figures it out quickly (partly because she’s smart, partly because she has nowhere else to turn), and goes in search of Tim.

Meanwhile, Dr. Calland’s condition improves, but she’s still not in any shape to hand over the formula.  This is why the royal Duke who heads the British Imperial Empire’s secret service decides that there’s only one way left to get a handle on Dr. Calland and stopping her from giving her precious formula to Westralia– and that’s by bringing her ex-husband, Clara’s father, to Westralia as a bargaining chip.

So there’s a lot of stuff going on — first, Clara and Tim are both alone and must show initiative and fortitude if they’re ever to be together again, much less stay alive in the process.  Second, Dr. Calland has to figure out what to do with her formula, especially as she’s unwilling to deal with the Duke’s men (who are akin to terrorists in her view, though the word is never used).  Third, Clara and Tim must figure out what to do about Clara’s father, as Clara has absolutely no intention of leaving her father in the Duke’s hands once she finds out about it.

All involved must make alliances quickly.  This means they must depend on their wits, as well as their past association with the Cuttlefish and its crew, to make sure that the good guys win and the bad guys definitely lose.

In other words, THE STEAM MOLE, like CUTTLEFISH before it, is a very strong action-adventure novel with just a hint of realistic romance between Clara and Tim.  Both are strong-willed, energetic people who are self-reliant and smart.  They have just enough differences to prove intriguing and know how to work alone or together, which is a big plus for any couple — much less a couple of mid-teens like Tim and Clara.

But the best part of THE STEAM MOLE lies in the characterization of Dr. Calland, Clara’s mother.  Forced by circumstances to be apart from her daughter for a long period of time, Dr. Calland refuses to pine away despite her brush with death.  Instead, she more or less adopts one of the local young women, Linda Darlington, and encourages Linda to learn about math and science.  And because of Dr. Calland’s shining example (women really can do math and science), this young woman learns that it’s not only OK to be smart, it’s actually a wonderful thing — a life-affirming thing, to be exact.

This all goes to show that one person — one individual —  in the right time and place can make a huge difference, which is a variation on the same theme introduced in CUTTLEFISH.  This is an extremely empowering message amidst all of the action and adventure going on, yet it doesn’t slow the tale down whatsoever.

That’s a really difficult thing to do, but Freer pulls it off with aplomb.

Overall, the balance here is excellent.  The action and adventure click right along.  The prose reads well and easily.  The world is solidly built and makes perfect sense (as it should; Freer himself is a scientist, though his field is ichthyology), while the characters include many you can fully root for along with a few fully hissable villains . . . really, what’s not to like about THE STEAM MOLE?

In fact, the only bad thing about THE STEAM MOLE is that no sequels are planned as of this time, partly because Pyr only contracted with Freer for two novels.  My hope is that these two novels will sell well enough that Freer will wish to write another one, as there are obviously many more stories waiting to be told in this universe — most especially from the viewpoints of Clara, Tim, and Dr. Calland’s protegée, Linda.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Poetry as a Tesseract: “The New Arcana” by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris

John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris’s THE NEW ARCANA from NYQ Books is an unusual book.  It posits poetry as a tesseract — a four-dimensional look at a traditional cube — and is original in scope and execution.   THE NEW ARCANA uses as many forms as authors Amen and Harris could, including but not limited to: mock autobiographies, faux academic writing and journalism, and poetry of as many types and descriptions as possible.  All of this was intended to get at the poetic version of Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” — a different way to approach poetry than is normally the case.

Before we go any further, this might be a good time to ponder the definition of the word arcana.  According to the online version of  Macmillan’s Dictionary, arcana means “things that are mysterious and difficult to understand.”  This definition is absolutely essential to remember before you dive into the ocean of words Amen and Harris have provided, as otherwise you might not follow their reasoning.

Some of those words are quite meaningful, as this poem from p.12 shows — note that the line breaks are correct, but the way the poem looks on the page is different than what I’ve been able to render due to the WordPress interface:

I’ve grown weary

of my residual self, for whom change

is a game of mercy with a suspicious stranger.

La vérité en peinture — clamped, sifted, raked, rotted

down to inherited imagery

through which I am again deceived.

Wait, not mercy after all,

but a clashing of fists — mea culpa.

(poem quoted in its entirety — BC)

As this poem is in Part 1, which is all about a love affair gone bad and the very strange occurrences that follow from that, it’s especially appropriate.  And while it shows a postmodern sentiment, it’s still comprehensible to most lovers of poetry and is not so arcane that it can’t be understood in context or out of it.  (A neat trick, that.)

In Part II, there’s this poem about suburban life that rings true (from p. 35):

The patio party; I’m tired of these spoiled suburbanites.

I prefer back-river ingénues and trailer-park bullies

brimming with rage and remorse

(first three lines quoted — BC)

As this section is about an extremely unusual person, her quest for plastic surgery, and whether or not she’s a genius — a section that weaves poetry, faux journalism, and more into its eclectic mix — and she’s the suburbanite in question, this poem packs an extremely powerful punch.

The strength of THE NEW ARCANA is in its willingness to take risks.  Some of them do not come off; I especially did not understand the four lines of “Mistress, I’ve forgotten my safe word” at escalating volume (shown by the use of font-size and bolding) on p. 99.  But it’s good that Amen and Harris are willing to experiment, as they blend postmodern sentiment with more traditional forms of poetry, academic writing, and more.

And these risks mostly pay off, as THE NEW ARCANA is the most eclectic and innovative anthology I’ve ever read.  Bar none.

Now, is this an easy book to read?  Far from it.  There are sections that read like plays for a few pages, until the section abruptly ends or transmogrifies into something else.  There’s some material that’s obviously not meant seriously (such as faux biographies of people who exist only in the authors’ minds, complete with obviously bogus pictures), mixed in with some trenchant observations, then mixed further with some rather odd assessments regarding sex.

But is it a good book for poetry enthusiasts?

Upon reflection, I think it is.  So long as you know going in that this is a postmodern anthology of sorts — and that due to its experimental nature, some pages seem to have more resonance than others — you are likely to enjoy the unusual angle of view authors Amen and Harris have come up with.

And their subtle, yet biting wit and sly amounts of dry humor are well worth the price of admission.

Poets and poetry enthusiasts should get a great deal out of Amen and Harris’s work, especially if they give THE NEW ARCANA more than one chance to work its wiles and captivate their attention.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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