Series reading – to continue or not to continue?

When you read as much as I do, it’s probably inevitable that you find your auto-buys. (Unless you’re one of those strange creatures that actually deliberates every purchase.) Most of the book-happy people I know have a running (and evolving) list of auto-buy authors, and some of us also have auto-buy tropes or story types. (The really smart folk out there use their local library. Just saying. Note: I’m not one of those smart people…)

I have an auto-buy authors list and an auto-buy trope list, and I tend to get suckered into reading series books. I mean, you probably knew that, right? It’s not as though I’ve made much of a secret of my lamentable decision-making skills. The thing is, pain fades, and memory imperfectly recalls. (But I just have to interject for a second here… I was told that I’d forget about the pain of childbirth once I looked into my baby’s eyes. I didn’t. 4 and 5 years on, I still remember with stunning clarity the pains, twinges, humiliations, degradations, irritations and fear of childbirth. Maybe some women forget but not all.) Once I am no longer reading a book that I did not enjoy, I can tend to forget what I didn’t like about it, especially if it’s a book in a series. I can lose myself in the hope that the next book will be better. I rationalize: I’ve already taken the trouble of getting to know the secondary characters; wouldn’t it be nice to know where/how they end up? Don’t I want to see the overarching plot resolved? Enter The Disgraced Lords series by Bronwen Evans.

Independent and high-spirited, Lady Portia Flagstaff has never been afraid to take a risk, especially if it involves excitement and danger. But this time, being kidnapped and sold into an Arab harem is the outcome of one risk too many. Now, in order to regain her freedom, she has to rely on the deliciously packaged Grayson Devlin, Viscount Blackwood, a man who despises her reckless ways—and stirs in her a thirst for passion.
After losing his mother and two siblings in a carriage accident years ago, Grayson Devlin promised Portia’s dying brother that he’d always watch over his wayward sister. But having to travel to Egypt to rescue the foolhardy girl has made his blood boil. Grayson already has his hands full trying to clear his best friend and fellow Libertine Scholar of a crime he didn’t commit. Worse still, his dashing rescue has unleashed an unforeseen and undesired consequence: marriage. Now it’s more than Portia he has to protect . . . it’s his battered heart.

A Touch of Passion is book 3 in the series, and I ended up enjoying it (the first half was rough), although not unequivocally. But I probably should not ever have read it, because I didn’t much care for the first two books in the series. (I was particularly unimpressed by the second book.)

And now, of course, enough weeks have passed that I’m starting to forget the things I didn’t like about the book. So I thought I’d write it all down now, so I might stand a better chance at making a more informed decision when book 4 comes out. (Otherwise, I’ll almost certainly read it without any consideration at all. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still probably read it, but wouldn’t it be better if I did so after putting some actual thought into it? Maybe?)

A Touch of Passion reminded me (favorably, but still) of the second Black Cobra book by Stephanie Laurens. (It also reminded me a bit of The Pleasure of Your Kiss by Teresa Medeiros. It’s closer in plot, perhaps, to this book, but the chapters of boat travel brought back memories of the Laurens book). The hero is an asshole for most of the book. It’s episodic and jumpy, and I continue to have a difficult time with the notion of the heroine being sold to a convenient Arabian harem yet still maintaining her virginity for the hero through a way too well-timed rescue. (Conversely, I’m disturbed by the idea that I might prefer for the heroine to have been sexually exploited for the sake of reality. It’s more accurate to say that I feel manipulated by the story line no matter how it goes. The threat of violence against women is often just as bad as actual violence against women, especially when it’s unclear exactly what narrative is served by that threat.) Finally, the book doesn’t really move forward the overall plot of the series all that much.

These are heavy misfortunes for a book to bear, and the book’s nearly excellent second half does not quite tip the scales back into a positive balance. To be fair, though, I should mention that the denouement was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in an ending. I’m half convinced that Evans should undertake a public service project and take all the books that have shitty endings (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example, or Women in Love) and fit this ending in somehow. The world would be a better place.

So what do you think, friends? I have some good reasons to hope that book 4 will be spectacular (in either a good or a bad way; who knows). Where’s the line? When does hope cease to be rational? Have you ever continued a series even when all hope of its getting better was lost?

*Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from Loveswept via NetGalley.*

 

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Review – A Promise of More by Bronwen Evans

HI. It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been reading, but I have not had very much time lately for writing. I am hoping that over the next few weeks I can catch up a bit on my backlog of reviews. We’ll see how that goes.

I read A Promise of More in early April, and…well, I should let this tweet speak for me.

When Beatrice Hennessey sets out to confront Lord Coldhurst, the notorious rogue who killed her brother in a duel, her intent is to save her family from destitution. She’s determined to blackmail the man into a loveless marriage. She’ll make the wealthy Lord Coldhurst pay for the rest of his life. But while greeting his ship, Beatrice takes a tumble into the Thames—only to be fished out by a pair of strong masculine arms that tempt her to stay locked in their heated embrace forever. That is, until she realizes those arms belong to Sebastian Hawkestone, Lord Coldhurst himself.
 
The little drowned mermaid has an interesting proposition indeed; one that Sebastian is surprised to find quite agreeable. Although he’s had women more beautiful, she is pleasing to the eye, and besides, it’s time he fathered an heir. Beatrice promises to be the ideal wife; a woman who hates him with an all-consuming passion is far too sensible to expect romance. However, it isn’t long before Sebastian’s plan for a marriage of convenience unravels, and he’s caught up in the exhilarating undertow of seduction.

You may remember that I read (and was ambivalent about) the first book in this series, A Kiss of LiesI had fairly high expectations for A Promise of More based on the many things I enjoyed about the first book. I expected well-wrought characters, good writing, an interesting, fast-moving plot, and a compelling romance. I hoped that it wouldn’t contain any distressing social missteps. Maybe it’s my fault for expecting so much, but I was utterly confounded by A Promise of More. The characters made no sense, the writing was frequently weak, the plot was kinda crazy, and the romance was… well… not compelling.

In fact, I felt like I was reading my 32nd Stephanie Laurens book, if Laurens had fired all her editors and lost her mind a little bit.

Sebastian reminded me of the hero of All About PassionBoth heroes are convinced that love and passion are the source of all evil in a relationship and seek to marry women for whom they feel no passion; both heroes are thwarted in their goal and end up — through pure male stupidity — married to women for whom their loins BURN (but not in an STI way, thank goodness); both heroes spend an uncomfortable amount of time trying to deny the passion and love they feel, trying to convince the heroines that they will never, ever love them. Also, both heroes are total douche ponies.

Beatrice reminded me a little bit of all of Laurens’ heroines, because her entire character arc was focused — once she realized that Sebastian wasn’t a murderer — on getting Sebastian to say the magic words, “I love you.” I’m not exaggerating.

A Promise of More also has an intrigue plot (just like every Laurens book). The thing is, when the conflict between the characters is as lame as one character saying, “I will never love you, because I am opposed to love!” and the other character saying, “I am going to get you to admit that you love me, because… reasons!” you really need a solid intrigue plot to move things along and keep people reading. This book had a mystery — who killed Doogie?! — and an obvious and rapetastic villain who would have been improved by a sinister mustache. There is also an irritating she-villain. (Further, the intrigue plot is a bit problematic. It relies heavily on violence and the threat of violence against the heroine, and there is an actual ripped bodice.)

I might not have noticed the parallels between this book and Laurens’ canon — strangely enough — if the first sex scene in A Promise of More had not included a reference to flying and stars bursting and firestorms of desire. Laurens is famous for writing OTT sex scenes that are incredibly descriptive and employ strange, celestial references. Evans seems to be following in those footsteps. After that first star burst, the other similarities just stuck out to me.

I read an ARC, so it’s possible that some of the weird stuff in the book got cleaned up in a last-minute bit of editing. (I hope so.) There are plenty of conversations wherein the characters repeat themselves, and there was one hilarious moment where the heroine — who had been hanging onto the bed during some naked gymnastics — was suddenly clinging to the “bed head.” These things are minor and easily overlooked when the rest of the book is interesting; but when the rest of the book reminds you of a Stephanie Laurens book, it’s hard not to notice and be irritated by editing issues.

So where does this leave me? Except for one thing, I enjoyed the first book in the series, and I am inclined to hope that this book’s issues are a fluke. I’m not sure what it means about me that I could spend an entire post detailing all the things I disliked about a book and then conclude that I’ll happily pony up to read the next one… but it’s true.

A Promise of More was released on April 15, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. If you’re curious about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. To learn more about Bronwen Evans, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from the publisher via NetGalley.*

What I’ve been reading lately — a little historical romance fiction

I’m not really a goal-oriented person.  Goals — and I’m using a fairly broad definition that comprises resolutions of the New Year’s and less formal variety, vague life goals, reading goals, dreams I used to have when I was a kid, etc. — often seem like a waste of time and emotional energy.  The thing is, I’m terrible at goal setting.  Either I pick a goal so easy to achieve that attaining it means nothing or I pick a difficult goal and it becomes just another way for me to fail. That is such an Eeyore sentence, right?

This year when setting my arbitrary reading challenge ‘goal’ on Goodreads, I decided to try to be intentional about it rather than just guessing how many books I might read in 2014. I set a low goal — 100 books — because I want to slow down and think about all the books I read — even the ones that don’t seem to deserve it — and live out the purpose of this blog.  I want to analyze, and I can’t do that when I start a new book the instant I finish one. So far, I don’t think this is a goal I will achieve this year, but I have plenty of time left to surprise myself.

I shared all of this as an introduction to a series of mini-review posts and as a public declaration both of my goal to think more (and perhaps think better, but that’s less certain) and of my less-than-stellar track record with goals.  Because I know you care. Obviously.

First up on the mini-review train is A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen Evans.

Desperate to escape her abusive past, Sarah Cooper disguises herself as a governess in the employ of Christian Trent, Earl of Markham, the man who, long ago, she fantasized about marrying. Despite the battle scars that mar his face, Sarah finds being near Christian rekindles her infatuation. A governess, however, has no business in the arms of an earl, and as she accompanies Christian on his voyage home, Sarah must resist her intense desires—or risk revealing her dangerous secrets.

One of the renowned Libertine Scholars, Christian Trent once enjoyed the company of any woman he chose. But that was before the horrors of Waterloo, his wrongful conviction of a hideous crime, and his forcible removal from England. Far from home and the resources he once had, Christian believes the life he knew—and any chance of happiness—is over . . . until his ward’s governess sparks his heart back to life, and makes him remember the man he used to be. Now Christian is determined to return to England, regain his honor, and win the heart of the woman he has come to love.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and you’re enjoying it, but these niggling little thoughts keep intruding on your enjoyment, poking you and causing you to doubt whether you really should be enjoying yourself, all things considered?  Well, I felt that way when I read A Kiss of Lies. The story is sweeping, covers a lot of geography (York, Canada to Kingston, Jamaica, to London), uses some of my favorite tropes (injured/damaged hero, governess heroine, characters with issues, and secret childhood infatuation), and is well-paced and emotionally satisfying.  So what was the problem?

A Kiss of Lies is pretty damn bold (not a bad thing), and part of its story involves a plantation, an abusive slave owner, and the white woman who’s caught in the crossfire. And part of me wants to praise the book for not shying away from such a loaded topic. But another part of me wonders what is the point of bringing up slavery if the story is going to be told from the perspective of the white woman who’s harmed by it.  Maybe my reading approach was too nervous (or too American, maybe), but it felt like this giant, festering, definitely not resolved issue was used — was appropriated, perhaps — as a narrative crutch to demonstrate just how much the heroine suffered in her marriage. There are other ways to achieve that end without marginalizing people whose experiences were fifty thousand times worse than the heroine’s because she was, eventually, able to escape and hide because she’s white.  I dunno… I liked so many things about the book, but all the parts that related to Sarah’s back story made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

Then there is Portrait of a Scandal by Annie Burrows.

HE HAS TAKEN HER TO HEAVEN, HELL AND BACK AGAIN… 

Her heart and hope long since shattered, Amethyst Dalby is content with her life as an independent woman. With wealth of her own, and no one to answer to, she is free to live as she pleases.

Until a trip to Paris throws her into contact with the one man who still has a hold over her—the bitter but still devastatingly sensual Nathan Harcourt! Living as an artist, this highborn gentleman has been brought low by scandal—and he is determined to show Amethyst that life is much more fun if you walk on the dark side….

I read this book in January, and I just didn’t know what to say about it. There were quite a few things that I liked about it, particularly that the heroine (sort of) recovers from a difficult family situation and achieves a (sort of) independence and that the hero escapes from the stifling expectations of his family to live out his passions (art) on his own terms.  But there were also a lot of things I didn’t like, particularly that the heroine’s recovery from her difficult family situation involves an extreme pendulum swing from naively trusting young lady to hardened and crotchety pensioner in the body of a young woman.  Further, I wanted a lot more sucking up from the hero, who was the cause of all the heroine’s difficulties.  Portrait of a Scandal is pretty typical for its genre, which will be comforting to some readers and frustrating to others.  You know who you are.

Finally, I want to talk about Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill.  Nearly a year ago, I reviewed The Greatest of Sinsand anticipated the continuation of The Sinner and the Saint story line.

Honorable—and handsome to boot! — Michael Poole, Duke of St. Aldric, has earned his nickname “The Saint.” But the ton would shudder if they knew the truth. Because, thrust into a world of debauchery, this saint has turned sinner!

With the appearance of fallen governess Madeline Cranston—carrying his heir—St. Aldric looks for redemption through a marriage of convenience. But the intriguing Madeline is far from a dutiful duchess, and soon this saint is indulging in the most sinful of thoughts…while his new wife vows to make him pay for his past.

I cannot believe I liked this book, you guys. In fact, I think there might be something wrong with me. You see, it goes against one of my hardest of hard limits: it gives an HEA to a hero who raped the heroine. I know. I KNOW! But here’s the thing… it was interesting because it stayed resolutely mired in the gray area that is real life; it was believable because it allowed the hero and heroine each to feel a whole range of emotions, regrets, hopes, and fears; and it was subversive as hell because it took a number of tropes — the rapey hero, the victimized heroine, the marriage of convenience, the secret baby… — twisted them around, and hinted at a dialogue I just never expected to find in a Harlequin Historical.

There are some things about rape that you just know, right? (And if you don’t… well, I don’t want to hear about it.)  For example, in a scenario wherein an intoxicated man stumbles upon a sleeping woman and proceeds to have sex with her, is it rape? You probably answered, YES.  And you’re right, because the sleeping woman did not give consent.  Here’s a harder question, though: take that same intoxicated man and tell me if he’s an evil person, a person who deserves to be punished forever for what he did.  Tell me what that punishment looks like. These questions do not have simple answers. To get near the neighborhood of those answers, you have to answer a whole slew of other questions: what is good, and what is evil? what is right, and what is wrong? what is justice? what do we mean when we say “deserve,” and who could decide such a thing?

I am certain — indeed, there is proof in the Goodreads reviews — that not everyone will agree with me that the HEA in The Fall of a Saint is just. I liked it because it pushed the envelope and made me think beyond the failed logic of my oversimplified views vis-à-vis rape and rapists.  I know you want to see my diagram.

Diagram 032614

The truth is, it’s just not that simple, and I liked The Fall of a Saint because it didn’t try to keep things simple. Merrill allowed her hero to feel devastation and condemnation and hopelessness and self-hatred; she allowed him to act with contrition; but she also allowed him to develop hope and to find happiness.  If it were just about him, maybe that would be problematic, but she also allowed her heroine to feel anger and grief and shame and righteousness; she allowed her to act out her anger; but she also allowed her to develop strength and forgiveness. And together they found love, and I thought that was pretty cool, all things considered.

Kiss of Lies was released on January 14, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. Portrait of a Scandal was released on January 21, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical. The Fall of a Saint was released on February 18, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical.  For more information about any of these books, click on the cover images above to visit their page on Goodreads.  Check out the authors’ websites: Bronwen Evans, Annie Burrows, Christine Merrill.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all three books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*