Secrets of a Summer Night (Wallflowers #1) by Lisa Kleypas

[rating=2] Secrets of a Summer Night was my first Lisa Kleypas romance, and I was SO looking forward to it. Regency is my preferred era, but a good Victorian can tempt me, and I’d heard that Kleypas incorporated a lot of period detail into her writing. Add an alpha male hero, and all seemed promising.

Despite being a well-written, thoughtful romance with lots of forward momentum and action scenes (snakebites! stabbings! explosions!), I did not enjoy this story. I think the main culprit here is E.L. James.

Having recently inflicted the whole ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy on myself, I’m sensitive to echoes of dominance, violence and oppression: big turn-offs for me. I’m also not a fan of meek heroines, and Annabelle is presented as an easily affronted, blushing innocent. Despite her vigorous scheming to get a husband, she’s a total submissive in bed, letting the dude do all the work.

“Annabelle lay passive and still on the mattress.”

Come ON, girl. This is sex, not a gynecological exam. Shake that thang.

Before anyone jumps all over my Fifty Shades comparison, hear me out. I admit that Simon Hunt is not nearly as messed up as Christian Grey, nor is Annabelle as patently brainless as Anastasia. But there are parallels. Rich commanding guy, poor docile girl. She is often described as frightened, shocked and helpless. He’s jealous and has trust issues. They both murmur a lot. Kleypas concludes her story with the words “she murmured, and cheerfully obeyed”. My inner feminist wept.

While there’s no physical abuse of the heroine, there are threats and disturbingly obsessive passages.

“His eyes narrowed as he turned to pin her with a hostile stare. ‘I’d like to do more than look at you. I’d like to throttle you.'”

“If you ever risk your life again, for any reason, I’m going to strangle you.”

That shit is just not on. If my man told me he wanted to throttle or strangle me, I would call the damned police, not sigh with contentment because he loves me so much he wants to kill me.

At one point, Annabelle shares with the reader some of the things Simon says to her in place of the usual “flowery phrases”. The whole paragraph reads like Chicken Soup for the Stalker’s Soul. Seriously, am I imagining it, or are these not things Buffalo Bill might say to a girl in his pit, just before he turns her into a skin coat?

“I have no self-control where you’re concerned. Every minute that I’m not with you, all I can think about is being inside you. I hate everything that keeps you separate from me.”

“I need to touch you everywhere, inside and outside, as far as I can reach–”

Ewwww. Keep your fingers away from my innards, you psycho!

This passage haunted me, and not in a good way:

“My God, I can’t stand this! I can’t let you go out every day, fearing every minute that something might happen to you, knowing that every ounce of sanity I’ve got left is hinged on your well-being.”

Happy anniversary! I bought you a nice escape-proof cage. GET INSIDE.

The sex scenes were also peculiar. A mix of quite graphic depictions of missionary and oral (no blowjobs of course, wouldn’t want the heroine to exert herself), alternated with oblique and euphemistic mentions of activities too lascivious to be described in detail, involving… champagne?

Maybe for some people this would leave space in the text for a sort of *insert your fantasy here* moment, but as one of those people cursed with not just an overactive but frankly a morbid imagination, my brain always chooses the grossest possible scenario.

What’s that? He drank from somewhere on her body, but the author won’t say where? Kleypas can’t have been so coy as to omit him sipping from her belly button. Oh God, it must have been some OTHER, less hygienic orifice. Egad, Annabelle; I don’t care HOW rich he is, your vagina is NOT a champagne flute!

(I know, I know… I have problems.)

Speaking of how rich he is; there were too many unfunny jokes about marrying men for their money and having sex with them to say thank you for jewelry. The heroine baldly states: “I’m well aware of how horribly mercenary I must appear. Never mind, I am mercenary, and you may as well know it.”

That’s all very Becky Sharp of her, but this story goes way beyond gold-digging and right over the edge into prostitution. Again, I know I should leave my feminism at the door when reading a period piece, but sex-for-money really ruins the mood for me in a romance.

Kleypas clearly has a passion for detail when it comes to ensuring historical accuracies, and I am totally in support of her attempt to broaden the range of Victorian-era romance by exploring the rapidly changing world outside of the Upper Ten Thousand.

Contrasting the dwindling power of the Ton with the rising influence of industrialists and showcasing their mutual prejudice provides a fresh perspective that I applaud. Sometimes her passion for detail leads her astray, causing her to shoehorn exposition awkwardly into dialogue so she can educate her reader about steam-molded corsets, foundry terminology, and the evolution of baseball.

“My dressmaker told me that corsets used to be kirtles, which were worn as a mark of servitude.”

I am particularly aware of moments like these, because I *constantly* want to wedge interesting minutiae into my own writing, and have to continually remind myself that while I may be enthralled by the advances in canning and food storage that were happening in the early 1800s, most readers are here for romance, not a history lesson.

Sometimes the Vocabulary Fairy arrives on the scene, and sprinkles her magical polysyllabic dust all over the place. Instead of “He felt her loosen…” we get, “Perceiving the increased pliancy of her flesh…”. I like an author with a good lexicon, but sometimes big words make sexy talk sound like a lab report. Not enticing.

Sidenote: For readers who like to identify with the heroine, Annabelle is skinny. I would like her to eat a sandwich. There were mentions of the “shallow depressions between her ribs” and the “tender projection of her ribs” in two different make-out scenes. Bony torsos gross me out; they conjure up images of underfed babies on Unicef commercials.

All in all, not a personal favourite, but I recognize this as a charming romance for women who don’t have the same overwhelming desire for freedom & equality in a relationship that I do, and are happy to let a hero solve all their worries with muscles, manhood and money.

“I can overlook quite a lot, in return for this… impressive… well-endowed…”

“Bank account?”

May I recommend a jolly fine romance or four, milady?

1) Sarah MacLean’s ‘Nine Rules To Break When Romancing A Rake’

2) Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’

3) Julia Quinn’s ‘What Happens In London’

4) Lauren Willig’s ‘The Mischief of the Mistletoe’

2 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, romance, victorian, 375 pages, Publisher: Avon (2004)
Read from October 09 to 15, 2012

Eleven: A Novel by Mark Watson

[rating=3] It takes a certain kind of person to laugh at the world, professionally. I have never met a truly happy, or even upbeat comedian; they’re all clowns, crying on the inside. ‘Eleven’ is definitely a book that is crying on the inside, despite its cartoony, Dilbert-esque cover.

Ignore the back-cover précis that suggests you’ll be “humorously” exploring life. The plot touches on bullying, theft, obesity, stammering, halitosis, drugs, ill-temper, anger, infidelity, divorce… it’s a cornucopia of awkward situations and mortification of the flesh. It’s NOT funny. Or, perhaps it IS funny, since modern humour seems to have an insatiable thirst for casual cruelty.

As television sitcoms devolved from ‘Seinfeld‘s astonished disbelief at human folly to the gleeful exploitation of misery in ‘The Office‘, ‘Arrested Development‘ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm‘; so this book takes the admixture of joys and disappointments found in ‘Love, Actually‘ and decides that the moral of the story is NOT “love is all around”, but rather, “life’s a bitch and then you die”.

I did not love this, but it was a quick, smooth read. By the end I felt respect for the author’s ambition and technical proficiency. The emotions it provoked were not uplifting; mostly dread and embarrassment on behalf of the losers and loners populating the text. Still, it drew me in, and that speaks to skilled writing. Also, it contained Scrabble, which I love.

I suspect Watson is aiming at a sobering “Shakespeare’s Fool” angle: raw, caddish, exposing faults and proposing societal corrections. But who plays the fool? While Xavier doles out advice on his late-night radio talk show, he fails to embrace his own teachings, and is mocked and sorted out in turn by Pippa, who has problems of her own.

The third-person omniscient narrator takes omniscience seriously, delivering random Cassandra-like prognostications about the future of various minor players. Playing God, telling us that a man on the periphery of the plot will be dead in three years, or that a child will grow up to do something special decades from now, leeched away significance from their actions in the present. The loss of sequence lead me to feel a lack of consequence, left me unable to connect to characters whose fates had already been revealed / sealed by the author.

Tackling eleven story lines in 300 pages is also extremely ambitious; if you do the math, 11 divided by 300 works out to about 27 pages each, and actually it’s less than that, since the lion’s share focuses on Xavier.

(I never grasped the “significance” of the number eleven, as the author clearly hoped I would do, according to his self-penned reading group discussion questions. It’s a number, dude, not a “concept”.)

Following the threads of multiple characters with interweaving story lines is a harder sell in writing than in film. Without faces or other visual clues to help identify characters, it’s easy to get confused by the onslaught of names. I found myself flipping back and forth between chapters, struggling to keep track of “who’s who”, wishing I’d taken notes. I imagine reading this as an e-book would be a nightmare, unless you do it all in one sitting or have an exceptionally good memory.

Watson complicates things by tossing multiple nationalities and locales into the mix: the book takes place in London, England but the main narrator has flashbacks to life in Australia, and meets a girl with Geordie speech patterns. My brain had trouble switching accents.

I will conclude on a positive note: Mark Watson has a knack for writing good similes. He doesn’t overuse “like” or “as”, but when he provides comparisons, they are expressive and evocative.

Here’s a sample about a recently cleaned flat, with a string of similes that I enjoyed:

“The kitchen boasts an almost pained sheen as if it were a patient still weak from an operation: the surfaces look, superficially at least, like the untouched worktops seen on display in IKEA. The bathroom too is like a scruffy boy scrubbed up for a school photograph, grimacing sheepishly in new clothes. The overall atmosphere in the flat is healthy, glossy, but there is a sense of exhaustion, as if the inanimate objects are in a kind of shock at their treatment.” (p. 62)

Note: DO NOT read this if you are about to do any solo babysitting for a friend’s precious infant. (Which is what I’m about to do next weekend, naturally.)

3 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, 320 pages, Publisher: Scribner (2010)
Read from September 29 to October 04, 2012