Sunday, June 22, 2014

three for the price of one!

How about a few mini-reviews to get caught up on things? In two cases because I don't have a huge amount to say, and in one it's because nymeth already said it all and better. Actually, it's kind of that way with two of them. I will get to that.

So, it's been a good month for romance over here, with two really enjoyable romance stories being ingested in an incredibly short space of time. One was a full-length novel and I ate it up the way one eats potato chips: delicious while the bag lasts and then you kind of feel a little ill because of the speed with which it disappeared. The other was a novella and I read it in two days and loved it. And the third book, unrelated to romance at all, was kind of a flop, but kind of not.

The Spymaster's Lady
by Joanna Bourne
Berkley Sensation, 2008
384 pages

This was one of those romance novels that's been on my radar for a long time; I read a number of great reviews back when I was doing a lot more blog reading than I am able to do right now. My library has it as an eBook, and I needed something fast and light, so away I went.

And it was fast and light, and a great deal of fun. This book is well-written, and the humour is funny, the danger is real, and the chemistry between the mains is palpable. Actually, in this case, I felt like the chemistry was actually more exciting than the inevitable payoff, but because some of the other stuff was so enjoyable I didn't mind so much.

This is a book with multiple perspectives - we get the heroine's version, the hero's, and the villain's (there may be others, I can't remember and I should have taken better notes, but those are the three main ones.) They're each likable or rabidly dislikable in the appropriate ways. Annique is a French spy, on the run after a task gone wrong has seen her run afoul of both her own countrymen and the English during the Napoleonic Wars. Grey is an English spy who helps her escape a predicament, but determines to capture her himself and bring her back to London for England's gain. Of course, the course of true love and serious spy games never did run smooth.

The villain POV stuff is always a tricky one for me and it rarely works; here it didn't either, and I felt it added nothing, nor moved the plot along. The villain is a bit overdone overall, but over the top doesn't feel out of place in a romp like this. There were a few things that stretched credulity for me for some reason, but there was also a nice couple of twists and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Governess Affair
by Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan, 2012
101 pages

It is possible that I didn't love The Spymaster's Lady quite as much as I might have because I chased it with this absolutely fantastic little nugget of romance writing. I am not sure this is the best romance story I've ever read - I am still very fond of some of Julia Quinn's books - but ... but it's really close. The writing sparkles and the story and characters - well, I'll point you at Ana's discussion of this piece, because even if she's coming at it from a very different angle from me, she's hit on why this is an excellent little piece.

It is a novella, so some of the character development seems a bit speedy - particularly the attraction between the two mains, Hugo and Serena. But within the conventions of the genre, Milan has written something that feels both plausible and sweet, working with the time period she has chosen (mid-1800s.) This story goes down really easily and yet makes one think, which is a lovely thing. Maybe it was just the length (I certainly don't think so) but I didn't end up feeling overstuffed at the end of this one despite the fact that I read it in less than 24 hours. In fact, I plan to dive right in to the first book in the Brothers Sinister series, to which The Governess Affair is a prequel. I'll be curious to see if Milan can pull off the full length as well as she's pulled off this novella. Really looking forward to it. Also, go read Ana's bit, serious. A feel-good story that made me feel happy after I'd read it.

by Katherine Rundell
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013
278 pages

Well, this was interesting. Again, I have Ana to thank for drawing this book to my attention, and while it didn't work out for me in the end, she kind of warned about that too. Interestingly, I think it maybe didn't work for me for different reasons. What happened to me was similar, though. Started with great promise, and then kind of lost steam. I loved the beginning, and the relationship that Sophie, our protagonist, has with her guardian, a scholar named Charles. It's charming and it's strangely believable, and if it's a bit over-the-top and a bit whimsical, I was on board.

Rundell has a proficiency with description and one-liners that is dynamite to read. Some of the language is beautiful and her writing is both funny and joyful, and that can usually carry a book for me. But. My problem is that Sophie is fixated, from the beginning, on something, to the point where nearly everything else is eclipsed. She recklessly endangers others she has grown to care about, and herself, in her quest, and this doesn't seem to have consequences. Maybe this is just a personal nitpick, but I don't find that sort of thing believable at all. In the end, it made me very lukewarm on a character I was otherwise disposed to adore. I'll read more Rundell because I think there's great potential here, and it is quite possible that middle-grade readers will enjoy this book more than I did.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

by Georgette Heyer (read by Richard Armitage)
Naxos AudioBooks, 2010 (originally published in 1958)
4 discs, abridged

Let us just be clear: I would far prefer to have read this unabridged than listen to it abridged, except that this Regency romance classic is narrated by King Thorin. So I let my standards slip a bit and chose to listen to the abridgement anyway.

And you know what? There were a few points where I think I missed out, and if I noticed I was missing out I'm sure there were more points where I missed out and didn't notice. That bugs me. But overall this abridgement works, and the narration, though weird to get used to at first (Richard Armitage does a good job with voices, but slightly less so with Venetia's voice) works really well, and the whole story is just a lot of fun.

I have never read Heyer. I would like to, but there is a lot I would like to read, and I can't remember when Venetia hit the top of the list as far as which Heyer I wanted to try first. Probably Aarti convinced me, because she made Venetia herself sound so fantastic. (Though it occurs to me too, re-reading Aarti's musings on this book, that perhaps I didn't miss so much in the abridgement, after all.)

Venetia Lanyon has led an incredibly sheltered life, by anyone's standards, for the first twenty-five years of her life. Her mother died when she was young, and her father closeted himself up and, by neglect, refused his children any emotional or practical support outside of feeding, sheltering, and clothing them. Venetia never went to London for a Season, and aside from being a bit wistful about the damage this has done to her prospects, she doesn't particularly feel the lack. Her elder brother is off in the army fighting Napoleon and her younger brother, whom she is close to, occupies himself with his studies, and Venetia manages the household, reads, walks, visits the neighbours, and generally enjoys herself. She has a couple of suitors - neither particularly suitable in her mind, but neither completely objectionable either - and some vague plans for the future, for it's fairly certain that her elder brother will eventually come home and marry, and she will be without a home.

Enter Lord Damerel, who is as worldly and rascally as Venetia is sheltered and good. Damerel isn't some rake-with-a-golden-heart, either, which is a trope I don't usually mind if done well but tends to be pretty stereotyped if not. He's thoroughly debauched, with the debts and the trail of women, and he's not terribly repentant, either. But when Venetia and Damerel meet, sparks fly, and something changes for both of them when they let themselves do the unwisest of things: they become friends.

There is a lot to like here, but I think what I liked best was how honest the leading couple is with each other. Damerel doesn't pretend to be something he's not (virtuous or wounded/damaged, being the two tropes that come to mind) and Venetia is pretty clear with him - and herself - as to her feelings and expectations on that front (she's mostly quite entertained by his stories). She might be sheltered but she's not stupid. And I loved that while everyone else is concerned about her reputation - that all-important currency for a woman in the period Heyer is writing about - Venetia really doesn't give a fig, as long as she gets what she wants. What she wants is Damerel. This particular character point, the carelessness of her own reputation and her willingness to court scandal, is supported by her sheltered upbringing and the fact that she's practically on the shelf without any serious prospects that she can stomach, not to mention that everyone in her life has worked very hard to keep her ignorant of some rather important bits of information. One can't really blame her for happily scheming to thwart all of them, especially since she's not thwarting them out of some sort of revenge or malicious impulse. It's just that their good opinion of her ceases to really matter.

What this comes out to is a light, highly entertaining Regency romance where the characters are all very believable (even the awful ones are believably awful) and the motives and means don't seem to be imposed from a different time, which is an achievement given how strong-willed and carefree Venetia is. The plot isn't terribly exciting or ground-shaking but it's solid and has enough turns to keep one's attention. The dialogue is funny, Venetia is fantastic, and the audio abridgement might have left me feeling like things were a tad rushed but overall still worked out really well. I think this was a great introduction to the Heyer canon for me and I'm absolutely looking forward to the next.