Disenchanted, Robert Kroese

Disenchanted

Disenchanted

Robert Kroese’s Disenchanted falls under the well-known maxim “you get what you pay for”.  This book was originally published as a Kindle serial in six sections and recently came up on their daily deals page.  The amazon description invoked The Princess Bride, which I assure you, this book wishes it were that one…wishful thinking much?  In the end, it’s basically left me feeling

…wait for it…

disenchanted.

That’s not to say it’s awful or anything.  It really isn’t that bad.  But it has issues, which I’ll get to in a minute.

So basically, Disenchanted is the story of Boric the Implacable, a king with a reputation built on the slaying of an ogre who was really killed with the help of a few townspeople, but nonetheless, Boric did have a hand in it and he’s a royal, so he buys off his helpers and takes the credit.  He also had the help of an enchanted sword, which turns out to be crucial in building his reputation.  The sword is given to him by a stranger named Brand in a tavern, and it serves him well over his lifetime.  Until he gets himself assassinated.  Then he can’t get rid of the thing, literally.  It’s stuck to his hand, and he cannot ascend to the Hall of Avandoor with a weapon.  Turns out the sword is cursed, and Boric is thus stuck in the limbo of the walking dead until he can break the enchantment, which is no easy task.  Brand is marshaling dead kings behind him in an attempt to unite the six Kingdoms of Dis and claim absolute rule.  Turns out Boric isn’t the only one who’s implacable—Brand set him up by giving him the sword 20 years earlier, and Brand wants Boric to join his assemblage of walking dead kings.

Several things came to mind while I was reading.  First, Kroese borrows quite a bit from Gulliver’s Travels, intentional or not.  There’s a land called Bromdingdon.  There are the threfelings, people who are one third the size of an average human (and seem much more like Hobbits than Liliputians).  The episodes take Boric to various kingdoms, much as Gulliver’s travels did.  This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but the satire implicit in Swift’s novel is lacking here.  Second, this book is no Princess Bride.  It had many of the same traits—it’s a gentle spoof of the genre, it’s told in the same type of casual voice and employs humor to hold the reader, it makes use of epic fantasy tropes while making fun of them, and for good measure there’s even a seven-fingered man.  But it does not succeed on the same level because it’s a bit too ham-fisted in its execution—the guy’s trying way too hard here, and it shows.  Third, there’s nothing wrong with the story itself—reading the plot blurb lured me in, and I’m not exactly a huge fan of epic fantasy (among other things, it tends to be littered with elves, which skeeve me out)—but Boric is very two-dimensional and the way the book is structured doesn’t help that.

Kroese alternates between Boric’s current predicament (sword stuck to hand, no Hall of Avandoor, must break enchantment) and the saga of his killing of the ogre and his taking over his father’s kingdom.  So we get Boric-that-was and Boric-as-he-is character-wise, and there’s no merging of the two over the 20 year time gap.  It really is a problem, because the younger, alive Boric is far more brash and arrogant than the dead and suffering Boric, who comes across as much more humble.  The clash is glaring.  And I suspect this is partially the fault of the book being originally released as a serial as well—there’s a lack of cohesiveness that bugged me.

To be sure, there are some amusing bits—the narrative voice is chatty and casual, even a bit snarky.  There are also these sheep—they grow the warmest wool in the kingdom.  Alas, they also grow the itchiest wool in the kingdom.  It’s so itchy even the sheep are itchy—so itchy they try to commit suicide by running in front of arrows.  The threfelings are Hobbit rip-offs, but I like their idea of an entertaining evening: strong drink and amateur puppet shows.

I suspect that people who really like epic fantasy and don’t mind episodic stories will like this a lot more than I did, and they’d probably get more of the jokes that I’m sure I missed.  And I didn’t hate it by any means.  But it did get old after a while, and I found myself not caring whether Boric ever gets his sword disenchanted or not.  When I hit that point, I was just over halfway through the book and realized I had other things I wanted to read.

The Seduction of Elliot McBride, Jennifer Ashley

The Seduction of Elliot McBride, Jennifer Ashley

The Seduction of Elliot McBride, Jennifer Ashley

I wasn’t able to finish the latest book in Jennifer Ashley’s Highland Pleasures series, The Seduction of Elliot McBride.

I wanted to like it, I really did. I’ve loved other books in this series but this one, well, it felt like Ashley was trying to re-capture the lightning in a bottle that was The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie and not really succeeding.

Juliana St. John has been stood up at the altar by her fiance–luckily, Elliot McBride, her childhood crush, is there to rescue her. They get married and immediately travel to Elliot’s run-down estate with his servants–who are a family of Sikhs from India.

Once there, Juliana sets to putting the house to rights and dealing with Elliot’s raging case of PTSD (which is written about sensitively and, as far as I can tell, accurately–for all the issues I had with this book, the way Elliot’s mental illness was written about was not one of them). There’s also some ill-intentioned neighbors who also happen to be raging racists and possibly a man hiding in the woods in order to taunt Elliot.

Elliot is aggressively Scottish in a way that I’m not entirely sure is accurate–as are the two older Scottish men in this book. They wear kilts instead of pants (although Elliot sometimes wears Indian-style clothing, too) and they don’t wear underwear. Elliot is intensely protective of Juliana and whenever she asks him uncomfortable questions, he has sex with her in order to avoid answering. Once in a while he drops a crumb of information about his past, but not too often.

There’s a wacky cast of characters at the house–the Indian servants, the old laird still in residence, and a young Scottish servant. They’re all caricatures in their own way and while none of it’s mean-spirited it still didn’t work for me. It felt a little like a very strange sit-com at times.

I wanted to like this book but when it gets to the point where taking a nap is more appealing, well, I know that I’m not going to have a successful reading experience. I found Juliana to be too much a cipher and not enough of her own person; she was so focused on Elliot that I couldn’t figure out who she was. She didn’t seem to have any interests other than Elliot–even the whole putting the house to rights plot was done for his benefit, not hers. Elliot certainly didn’t see her as a real person, his fantasy of her is what kept him sane when he was imprisoned and tortured by random-tribe-of-Indians and his perception of her as his fantasy woman never seems to change when he interacts with the real Juliana.

There is also a weird obsession with bustles in this book that was just odd.

Thumbs Down, Thumbs Up

Dandy Gilver #5

Dandy Gilver #5

I have the best friends.  No, I do.  I recently got a giant box of books in the mail from a friend in Wisconsin filled with mystery novels.  Some I’ve read, but mostly they were new-to-me titles and in several cases they were new-to-me authors.  I picked through the box and fished out a couple that looked fun.  One of them was.  The other wasn’t.

The first book, which sported the unwieldy title Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, is by Catriona McPherson, and it looked just the ticket: set between the wars, in Scotland, upper class amateur sleuth masquerades as a lady’s maid in order to protect “her mistress”, who insists her husband is going to kill her.  I settled in, looking forward to a good time.

Except not.  In fact, it was so not a good time that I didn’t finish it.

I really think if you’re going to do the upper class amateur sleuth thing, you have a lot to live up to—namely Peter Wimsey.  That’s probably not fair, but Dorothy L. Sayers made Peter into a credible character, even at his most ridiculous undercover moments, and grew him into someone almost real.  That’s a pretty high bar to jump over, granted, and I don’t actually demand my aristocratic amateur sleuths jump it, but I’d like them to at least get somewhere in the vicinity.  At no point in the first 90 pages of that book, which was all I could stand, was Dandy Gilver a credible character or anywhere near an acceptable standard.

So if you’re not going to go that route, then you’d better give me a fun romp.  That didn’t happen either.  Because I found Dandy to be the Most. Annoying. Character. Ever.  All very pleased with herself for no real reason, a bit full of herself, and not at all intuitive in terms of the situation as it was presented to her.  Plus—if an aristocratic woman is going to pretend to be a lady’s maid, then she needs to actually know what the job entails and be able to do it if she’s going to pass muster with the rest of the household staff.  And to do something about her posh accent besides invent some lame excuse about having been “genteel” and “come down in the world”.  It’s also a bad idea to boss around the butler—he’s pretty much in charge of things, after all.  I mean please, we all watch Downton Abbey.  We know how the downstairs hierarchy works.  Either the mistress’ household staff was full of the biggest dolts ever who couldn’t see through a really bad disguise or the reader was being asked to swallow a lot of codswallop.  Either way, not a good foundation for a mystery.  Plus the writing was nothing to write home about, and there was little in the way of backstory presented—it took me ages to work out who the supporting characters are and figure out that one of them was a dog.  So, not good.

Her Royal Spyness

Her Royal Spyness

And hey, I had a whole box of books to choose from, so why stick with something that wasn’t interesting me, right?

Ironically, one of the other books I pulled out of the pile was also partially set in Scotland, also between the wars, and also involved an aristocratic young lady doing housework.  Rhys Bowen, however, gets it right in Her Royal Spyness.  The main character is Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, aka Georgie, half-sister to a Scottish Duke and 34th in line for the throne.  Times are tough in 1932, however, and the Duke’s household must economize, meaning Georgie must do without her allowance.  She’s hampered by her position in terms of working and has few options: she can go be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria’s last surviving daughter, she can allow herself to be married off to a blowhard Romanian Prince she calls Fish Face, or she can find a way to avoid that.  To elude those dreary fates, however, she needs money.  So she goes to London, gets sacked from a job at Harrods after a few hours, and has to learn to fend for herself with the help of her non-royal maternal grandfather, a retired bobby.  Eventually she hits upon the idea of taking up light domestic work—just the stuff she can cope with, like dusting and fluffing—but she has to do it on the sly because she knows Her Majesty won’t approve.

Now see, if you’re going to write a fun romp, this is how you do it.  And it was a fun book.  There’s a sexy Irish peer with questionable motives for her (and the reader, of course) to fall in love with, for example, as well as an undercover job for The Queen spying on Georgie’s cousin David, The Prince of Wales, who has taken up with a most unsuitable American woman, nudge nudge.  Oh, and a dead body in her bathtub.  Which her brother Binky may or may not have put there.

As a mystery, it takes a while to get going, and honestly, I’d have enjoyed this just as much if it hadn’t been a mystery because Georgie is just such an engaging character.  She’s spunky, she’s funny, and she’s not full of herself—she’s a typical young woman who just happens to be 34th in line for the throne.  Bowen gets Georgie’s narrative voice just right—formal when necessary, delightfully charming otherwise—and tells her story through excerpts from her diaries.  This is all frothy and lighthearted, and if the mystery elements tend to rely on coincidences, it’s hard to mind.  Georgie has a bit of a Nancy Drew thing going with all the accidents-that-aren’t-accidents that happen to her, but she carries on, determined to clear Binky of the crime and learn how to work the boiler in the house.

Read this one for the characters and the humorous situations and try not to think too hard about the mystery elements—the solution is acceptable, although again, maybe a bit too much coincidence.  But it was fun.  I intend to add the remaining series entries to my TBR pile as soon as I can.  I haven’t found something this outright enjoyable to read in ages.

Mixed Reviews

Two books to talk about today–one which was a DNF and another which I loved. I’m going to start with the DNF because, well, in some ways it’s easier for me to talk why I don’t like a book than why I do. When I like a book, I tend to get a bit flappy and exuberant.

Her Wicked Ways, Darcy Burke

Her Wicked Ways, Darcy Burke

So the book I wasn’t able to finish was Darcy Burke’s Her Wicked Ways. The premise of the book was definitely right up my alley–the female protagonist, Miranda, is a rebellious young woman sent to the country to rusticate with relatives and think about what she’s done. The male protagonist, Fox, is an impoverished member of the local gentry (I think he’s a baronet?) who has an orphanage to maintain and who has a secret identity as a highwayman in order to do things like repair the roof and buy clothing for the plot moppets. He also has a not-so-secret feud with the local MP who done stole the girl he loved back in the day (and then she DIED for PLOT REASONS possibly involving refrigerators).

So Miranda and Fox first meet when she’s en route to her relatives’ home and he stops their coach in order to rob them. Since she’s been a bad girl for unspecified reasons, she has nothing of value so they end up kissing for some reason. Then she ends up volunteering at the orphanage where she is initially put off by the plot urchins but they eventually win her over despite the lice. The only things Miranda is allowed to do is help out at the orphanage and go to church. Because forcing someone to do Good Deeds is totally how you reform their character.

And this is about when I stopped reading because I found that I didn’t care. And I was really bothered by how restrictive Miranda’s uncle was especially since we don’t know exactly what Miranda’s done to deserve such treatment. The way her relatives treat her is damn near abusive–she is isolated and told constantly that she doesn’t deserve better and it really bothered me. Especially as Miranda seems to become more tractable and amenable to being controlled. Also, her father (who is a duke) sends her a letter that pretty much proves that all the men in her family are giant dickbags.

As for Fox, he has a lot of manpain about the girl he lost to the wealthier neighbor–who is corrupt and so obviously the bad guy that there’s basically no narrative tension–he’s drooling over Miranda and taunting Fox and being mean to orphans. There are better ways to write a villain. Really. There are.

So I stopped reading it because I have way better things to do with my time.

Like reading Ruthie Knox.

Ride With Me, Ruthie Knox

Ride With Me, Ruthie Knox

I enjoyed About Last Night tremendously, so I’d added Ride with Me to the mental list of books to buy and it was one of the books I bought when I fell off the wagon last week and I’m so glad I did. This isn’t a long book, but there’s a lot of great stuff going on in it.

Tom and Lexie are brought together via a cross-country bike ride–grudgingly on Tom’s part, as he was unaware his sister was arranging for someone to ride with him. They both have histories–Tom is mostly estranged from his family and Lexie’s had a string of bad relationships that’s made her a bit apprehensive, especially since her parents met on this same bike route.

Anyhow, they’re both prickly and wrapped up in themselves and have very different riding styles–Tom is spontaneous and Lexie is not (which says some interesting things about how we compensate for our pasts in our present). At the same time, though, they’re intrigued by each other. Reading them slowly come together was just lovely–Knox has a way of really digging into the nitty gritty of their emotions that I found very satisfying to read.

This is a relationship of equals in every way and there are a lot of great moments. I think one of my favorite bits is the hot sauce scene (no, not in that way, pervert). And their arguments. And the scene where Lexie masturbates in a tent while thinking about Tom. And their frank desire for each other and the way they finally act on it–and the way, they both tried to make it a no-strings-attached fuck-buddy friendship and failed utterly. And then the way Tom figures out what it is Lexie wants/needs from him. And they each know that people aren’t perfect–the set-up of this book basically requires them to be really intimate with each other, even when they’re mad. As I think about this book, I keep coming back to the idea of grace–unearned and undeserved. There’s grace in this relationship–Tom and Lexie need to open their hearts to the possibility of happiness and it’s hard for them to do it, like their bike ride, but once they do the rewards are immeasurable.

And the ending, honestly, made me cry. I hardly ever cry at the end of romance novels because I am a cynical and hard-hearted woman. So anything that makes me sniffly has got to be pretty special and this book really is just that: special.

The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans

When I picked this book up on my recent trip to the library, my initial attraction to it was the cover picture of the solid lighthouse against a backdrop of stars.  And I did what anyone does when they’re browsing library books—I read the flap cover, skimmed a few pages, and then, liking what I saw, I tucked it under my arm and continued browsing.

So here’s what I liked.  I liked the premise of the story, which is about a man named Tom who returns from WWI to his native Australia and discovers that he needs silence more than anything to help him recover from his experiences, which have left him nervous and questioning his purpose in life.  He becomes a lighthouse keeper, first as someone who fills in for regular keepers who need a break from their lonely existence, and then finally as the permanent caretaker for Janus Rock Lighthouse, a bleak place where he finds comfort and healing in the quiet routine of caring for the light.  Eventually, he brings his young wife Isabel to live with him there, where they suffer a string of disappointments in their efforts to have a child.

So far, so good.  I liked how Stedman told Tom and Isabel’s story in a series of flashbacks, rocking like a boat on the waves between the past and the present.  I also liked the prose—it also rolled like waves, lapping quietly at me, filled with small details without overdoing it.  I liked Tom’s quiet perseverance, the fact that he was able to find a sense of peace and calm through the rituals of tending the light and filling out the log book.  I liked Isabel’s boisterous personality, but I also began to feel like nothing good was going to come of cooping up such a lively young woman in such a remote area.

So why didn’t I finish this book?

Because I didn’t.  I got about halfway through it and just put it aside, thinking “this is so not my thing”.  But you know, it actually IS my kind of thing.  I like books set after WWI.  I like compelling characters, prose that gives me a vivid image of the place they live, a setting that is someplace I’ve never physically been.

I wasn’t going to write up a review because I didn’t finish it, either, and then I thought, well, no, I should write a review because I did have a strong reaction to this book, even though I could not bring myself to finish it.  Talking about why I didn’t finish a book is legitimate.

So here’s why, after I thought about it, I realized I couldn’t finish what is, on the face of it, a well-written book:

1. I began to find it depressing.  The trapped feeling, the sameness of the days, all of Isabel’s miscarriages—it all started to weigh down on me.  I don’t normally mind depressing books (those who know me well, for example, know that one of my all time favorite books is, of all things, Moby-Dick, so no, depressing normally isn’t an issue…), but this one. Well.  I was afraid she’d drown herself in the ocean.  Hell, I was afraid I’d drive the ten miles I live from the ocean and drown myself in the ocean.

2. Because they find a dead body and live baby in a boat.  The dead body didn’t bother me all that much, but the live baby sure did.  It felt manipulative to me, and I don’t like being manipulated.  I knew what was coming.  She’d want to keep the baby.  It was going to be a “miracle” and a “sign from God” and all that stuff.  And I wasn’t going there, no I was not.

So I put it aside.  I don’t want to come out and say “don’t read this book” because you may in fact like this book very much.  My husband did, and it’s most definitely not the kind of thing he usually reads.  It has all the hallmarks of a really awesome read: it’s well-written, the characters are well-done.  It is, in many ways, a beautiful book to read—the descriptions of Janus Rock are marvelous, the prose is light and easy, quiet and almost etheral.  It’s a compelling story.

But I just couldn’t finish it.