Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Regencies experiment (Help, I'm browsing the romance section!), plus a review

"I don't do romance." For years, that statement has been one of my reading mantras.

But my newfound love f
or Georgette Heyer, and by extension, the Regency period, has led me (somewhat shamefacedly) to browse the romance section looking for more stories like hers.

My reasons are twofold. First, although I've only read four of her novels so far, I am acutely aware Heyer wrote only a limited number of Regency romances. I'm trying to pace myself on reading them so they last longer. Therefore, I'm looking for other authors to help satisfy my Regency obsession.

Second, as witty and delightful as they are, Heyer's books require mental alacrity. Her characters' words and actions convey multiple layers of meaning, requiring my full, focused attention. Sometimes, I just want an escapist read I can breeze through, without stopping to ponder the implications of a piece of dialogue or to look up some obscure Regency phrase. If Heyer's books are like slowly savoring a five-course meal at a renowned restaurant, perhaps other writers can supply the literary equivalent of chocolate-chip cookies.

What kept me away from the romance section of my local Barnes & Noble for so many years? After all, I've been known to occasionally wander to the romance shelves in used-book stores, looking for forgotten historical-fiction gems, ever since I learned many beloved writers were saddled with book covers like this:

(I certainly don’t remember THAT scene from my recent reading of this novel. In fact, I can’t picture Jean Plaidy writing a scene like that.)

I've also enjoyed many novels in which romance plays an important role, such as the Lady Julia Grey books by Deanna Raybourn.

I suppose I've assumed most romance novels were “porn for women.” I'm no prude, but when I pick up a book, I want to read a good story, not a flimsy plot on which to hang sex scene after sex scene after sex scene … Too much raunchiness in a novel makes me feel numb. Give me something to anticipate, something to imagine. Let's have some erotic tension, for God’s sake.

However, I am all for well-written sex scenes that advance the plot or contribute to character development. Just go easy on the purple prose, please. Don’t make me want to giggle in disbelief or vomit (or both).

I also may have been put off by a few romance novels I attempted to read in my younger years that had "heroes" who were slightly too alpha (i.e. psychotic). I have been reliably informed the 80s were a particularly dismal decade when it comes to weak, fawning heroines and cruel, brutal, narcissistic heroes.

Therefore, in my quest to find more authors of Regencies, I've done some review reading at Amazon, Paperback Swap and on blogs and have acquired a tidy little pile of books to try. For the next several months, I plan to read a few different writers and to report back here on how crossing over to the “Dark Side” of romances has worked for me.

Which leads me to my first review of a non-Heyer Regency: Compromised by Kate Noble.

I stumbled across this novel at a used-book store and bought it on a whim after reading the back-cover blurb. It took me just two days to read, and I am somewhat surprised to say I really enjoyed it. While it was no Heyer, it was briskly paced and amusing, with characters who grew more complex and interesting as the story progressed.

Seduced by spring moonlight, ethereally beautiful Evangeline Alton exchanges a kiss with the darkly handsome Maximillian (Viscount Fontaine) in the conservatory during her coming-out ball. Unfortunately, they are seen, and rumors quickly fly about the young couple caught in a compromising position. To head off disaster, Evangeline’s father Sir Geoffrey (an up-and-coming diplomat), and social-climbing stepmother Romilla decide the two must marry, after a month of courtship designed to give their relationship a respectable air.

Maximillian is dismayed when Romilla informs him either she or Gail, Evangeline’s irksome sister, will chaperon all his outings with his intended. Maximillian previously met Gail in Hyde Park, where his runway horse and her impetuous actions resulted in both of them being tossed into a lake. The tart-tongued, provoking Gail gets under Max's skin whenever they meet. Hoping to distract her so he may better court the lovely Evangeline, Maximillian asks his friend, Will Holt, to accompany him whenever he calls on the sisters.

I immediately saw where this was going, but Kate Noble gave me much to enjoy while getting there (although I sometimes just wanted the characters to get on with realizing who loved who). For the first quarter or so of the book, the plot was a little too contrived for my taste, but as the story moved from drawing room to ball to dinner party, I got caught up in it, as Noble revealed surprising depths to characters who could easily have turned into caricatures.

Gail – intellectually curious, adventurous and passionate, yet socially awkward – was a great character. I'll admit, I can't resist a bluestocking heroine, especially one as well drawn as Gail. She was smart, witty and even worldly in some ways, but still somehow vulnerable and innocent. And how could I not love Max – handsome, charming, a bit arrogant – yet with surprisingly deep feelings, a wonderful sense of humor and a thirst for new, challenging experiences? Noble's secondary characters also were well drawn, even those who made only brief appearances in the narrative. (I was particularly surprised – and delighted – by a plot twist featuring Romilla, the character I had been most disposed to dislike.)

The novel had some sex scenes, but they were tastefully and believably handled and showed different facets of the characters involved.

As for complaints, I ran across a few things that didn't seem quite historically accurate, but since these were minor points, I was willing to let them go. My one frustration with the novel was it really needed a good proofreader. I came across way too many typos, misplaced commas and mixed-up homonyms (aisle/isle, fair/fare).

So, my first non-Heyer Regency read turned out to be an enjoyable success. Compromised was not perfect, but it was a lot of fun. My grade: B


Misfit said...

I still need to try a Heyer Regency, my reading path keeps going on detours. Finding a well-written romance amongst all that crap is a most difficult challenge. I'm still trying. Haven't tried Quinn yet but tried one Mary Balogh (sp?) and I doubt there will be another.

If you see gushing reviews on Amazon by Harriet and one top 500 with the initials M.R. it's almost guaranteed to be a clunker :o

Felicia J. said...

I know what you mean about reading detours! I recommend "The Grand Sophy" as a first Heyer read. It moves quickly and has great characters.

I have high hopes for Julia Quinn -I hope I'm not disappointed.

Mimi said...

I often joke that I read a lot of books that fall into the "good books with bad covers" category - Jean Plaidy is particuarly noted for having it happen to her.

My most notable example was the one where not only was the dress historically inaccurate, but appeared to be made out of polyester. Which was better than the one I saw online where the heroine had three arms.

Anyway, I agree - I often get sidetracked into odd genres - historical mystery in my case.