Amazon discontinued the ability to create images using their SiteStripe feature and in their infinite wisdom broke all previously created images on 12/31/23. Many blogs used this feature, including this one. Expect my archives to be a hot mess of broken book cover images until I can slowly comb through 20 years of archives to make corrections.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Mini-Reviews: You Can't Go Home Again

It's too soon to tell just yet, but I might (just might) be starting to crawl out of the slump that claimed part of June and all of July for me. This, obviously, includes blogging since you may have noticed the dust bunnies starting to gather in the corners around here. To that end I thought I would talk about two reads that probably didn't help matters in the slump department, a reread from my teenage years (that I should have left there) and a new book from an author well represented in my keeper stash that fell utterly flat.

Fun fact, I first read The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt for a book report in my World Literature class my senior year of high school.  I didn't remember much about it other than it was Holt's French Revolution book and like any teenager who sat at her mother's knee watching The Young & The Restless, I got sucked into the Soap Opera Drama Llama plot.  I thought it would be fun to relisten to it on audiobook and boy howdy, that old adage that you can't go home again certainly applies here.

Minella is the 18-year-old daughter of a single mother school teacher living a somewhat comfortable life thanks to the generosity of the nearby lord of the manor. Into this scene waltzes Charles-Auguste, a wickedly handsome French aristocrat whose daughter befriends Minella.  The Count is soon putting on the full court press with Minella.  Never mind he's married (the wife naturally dies under mysterious circumstances over the course of the story). Never mind he once "accidentally" killed a young boy in a drunken riding accident (he "adopted" the boy's twin brother - so truly he's a prince! 🙄).  Never mind the more Minella tries to throw cold water on the proceedings, the more he pursues.  Soon the Count's daughter gets herself in a spot of trouble and having no better options - Minella finds herself relocating to France to bail the chit out while falling deeper under the spell of the Count.  Oh, and minor detail that tensions are starting to bubble over in France and revolution is afoot.

Holt had a way of painting a scene with words and Davina Porter is an always reliable audiobook narrator. I liked the idea of this story but it features all the hallmarks that made old school Gothics rather annoying - namely the hero is a sack of human garbage while the heroine continually wrings her hands and makes excuses for him.  Naturally by the end of it nothing truly was ever his fault even though a leopard doesn't change his spot and he's still amazingly insufferable. Oh, and the French Revolution?  Thinly drawn with zero nuance. Better historical fiction has been written against this backdrop - this isn't anywhere near on the list.  I should have left this one to the recesses of fond teen memories.

Final Grade = D

Laura Lee Guhrke has three books in my keeper stash (Breathless, Conor's Way and To Dream Again). She's reliable with the angst and does a great job writing adversarial, bantering romantic couples.  It's been a dog's age since she's had a new book out, so I was super pumped to score an ARC of Bookshop Cinderella

Evie Harlow runs a small London bookshop specializing in rare books, with a small loyal clientele. She's got limited prospects, but has set her cap on a childhood friend who is (of course) an idiot who doesn't deserve her devotion and (of course) takes advantage of her at every turn. But Evie hadn't clued into that yet when I decided to give up on this story.

Anyway, through a series of circumstances, she meets Maximillian Shaw, Duke of Westbourne. Blah, blah, blah, stuff happens, and he convinces Evie to help him with a wager. He's going to turn her into the diamond of the Season and help her find a husband. She turns down his offer flat, until (of course) disaster strikes her bookshop and she has no choice in the matter.

Max had previously married for love, to a commoner who was crushed under the boot of the ton - ergo Max has vowed his next marriage will be purely transactional with a woman "of his class."  Evie is most definitely a commoner, vulnerable and lacking in self-confidence thanks to her experiences at finishing school and a cousin who won't let her forget them.

This is the kind of story I normally could go for. Upright heroine with vulnerable core, hero who gets blindsided despite his best attentions, and a Pygmalion theme to boot!  Unfortunately it all reads so horribly flat and dull.  There's no life in this story, in these characters.  It feels very much paint-by-numbers, like the author was simply going through the motions.  What we have here is a failure to launch.  I'd read a few chapters, put my Kindle down, and it would stay down for days - then days turned into weeks.  Once I hit 40% I realized two things: 1) I didn't care one jot about any of it and 2) this book was likely going to end up being the very definition of a C / Meh It's OK, I Guess? read - if it was lucky.  I took that as a sign it was time for me to move on and try to get my reading mojo back with something else in my ginormous TBR pile.

Final Grade = DNF


azteclady said...

Re: the Hold, I recently tried re-reading a category from the late 80s by an author I love...and I couldn't get past the first chapter. I can see why I loved it and I know that in a different frame of mind I could enjoy it again, so it will stay in my keeper shelves, but I now know that I can't break a slump by going to these books.

Oh Well.

As for the Guhrke, I am so sorry; it's such a horrible letdown, and I hope it was just an unfortunate blip, so that when you get to those in your TBR mountain range, they are all three keepers.

Wendy said...

AL: Some stories I can go back to and keep my rose-colored glasses in place - this Holt most definitely wasn't one of those. I think a big factor at play here was that I first read it as a teenager, before I became firmly entrenched in romance genre conventions. I mean, I also read A Knight in Shining Armor during this period and it made my dewy teenage heart sigh contentedly. If I tried to reread that today I'd want to light everything on fire.

The Guhrke was so disappointing - namely because the only ho-hum review I've seen for it so far has been over at The Smut Report. Everyone else it's been 4 or 5 stars. And here's the thing, I don't think it's "bad," it's just so horribly flat. The proceedings, the characters, they all felt lifeless.

willaful said...

I felt the same about the last Mary Balogh I read. So flat, so dull, and it was rated so highly. I feel like people are just in the habit or something.

Jen Twimom said...

Yea to crawling out of the slump *fingers crossed* But I can see why you were slumping with reads like these. I hope August is better for you.

Wendy said...

Willaful: I think habit has a lot to do with it, also comfort. Then there's that segment of fanbase who thinks an author can do no wrong. But yeah, this felt very "going through the motions" to me. I'm hoping it's a blip.

Jen: Not great reads on top of a stressful time at work - it was an unholy cocktail.