Monday, December 14, 2009

Meditations on a Series of Series

Years ago, back before I started blogging, I read Jo Beverley's An Arranged Marriage. I didn't like it; it may even have been a DNF. In fact, I may have given it to charity last summer, when I boxed up 100 books that I was certain I would never need to reread. (Never say never, hunh?)


But, as these things turn out, An Arranged Marriage is the first of the Rogues series, and I recently read books 2 & 3 in that series . . . and loved them. LOVED them! So what's that all about? Well, I gather An Arranged Marriage was written first, more than 30 years ago, and the rest of the series is closer to 20 years old. I can have sympathy for the evolution and maturation of an author resulting in a better book written later. [What I do recall of An Arranged Marriage is a convoluted plot involving our old friend the French spy in the heart of the ton (or something) and that it was very dark and nasty. You know I'm going to have to reread it at some point when my "must complete the set" gene kicks in...]

Book 2 in the Rogues series (An Unwilling Bride) could have been terrible, as its premise seems weak on first reading: Because the hero (third-born son of a duke) is actually not the duke's biological child, when the older two sons are killed, the duke wants his now-heir (who isn't his son) to marry the duke's recently discovered illegitimate daughter so that their offspring will have the present duke's blood.  Hmmm.  Can I explain that better? The duke is forcing the hero to marry the heroine because she IS the biological child of the duke, and the hero isn't.  Wow, that is as clear as mud.  It makes you wonder how Beverley managed to explain it to her publisher.  Basically, though, it's the "forced to marry" trope.

Here's what I loved about An Unwilling Bride: she successfully conveyed to me the claustrophobia created by having one's choices reduced to only one, especially when that one's not great.  Beth, the instructor at a respectable academy for girls, is coerced into marrying Lucien, the product of an adulterous liaison between the duchess and her former French swain.  Beverley does a good job of getting the details of the backstory to a point where they seem plausible enough.  The duchess isn't a monster, the duke's actions are monstrous but his motivations are understandable enough, Lucien isn't happy, Beth is horrified and repulsed.  All in all, an ill-fated union.  But instead of making everyone behave in broad, over-wrought fashion, Beverley shows us what it must have been like to live in a ducal seat with scores of staff.  One is rarely alone.  There are many privileges to that degree of wealth and influence, but privacy is not among them.

[Beverley's skill in conveying that degree of claustrophobia is so good that now, when I read a historical romance that has a scene set in a comparable estate where the hero and heroine are behaving (often with a great deal of their clothing off) as though they are alone, I mentally fill in the dutiful footman outside the door.  Then I ask myself, would these two people being doing that if they knew -- as surely they must -- that Thomas the footman is listening?]

In the end, Beth and Lucien find a way to trust each other and make their unlikely union work; their inauspicious and unequal relationship finally balances out.  But the next heroine also had practically no choice but to marry.  In Christmas Angel, book 3 of the Rogues, Leander (an earl) wants to marry a woman for reasons of convenience. His choice is Judith Rossiter, a widow so poor she really can't turn him down.  Again, an absurd premise; why doesn't he pick a chit off the shelves at the Marriage Mart?  But again, Beverley gets the rationale right, or right enough to carry the plot.  And again, marriage to a peer isn't always easy.  There are times when the "weeping widow" (supposedly still mourning her dead poet husband when in reality she's just too poor to buy new, non-black clothing) misses her life in a tiny cottage.  Of course it's easy to see where this plot is going: the couple that agrees to NOT fall in love with each other must, perforce, fall in love.  But the details of how these two people get on with their lives is what makes the book sing.

Given that I didn't like Book 1 with its dark & twisty relationships, why am I not bothered by the implications in Books 2 & 3 of heroines so economically trapped that they have to marry men they barely know?  Well, apart from the fact that this is a trope more consistent with the social and cultural realities of 1815 than today, the reason has everything to do with Jo Beverley's wonderful plotting.  I'm impressed every time she sets up a scene and then doesn't take it where I'm half-expecting, half-dreading it will go.  Nothing wildly new & different, but a lot of great scenes that I picture easily and enjoy thoroughly.  Needless to say, Books 4 through whatever are in the queue.



Next up, a quick comment about Mary Balogh's A Precious Jewel, which I commented on here.  I gather that's actually book 2 of 3; it was preceded by The Ideal Wife, which was reprinted last year, and next year we'll see  (I assume) a reprint of A Christmas Bride.  Thus, a series.  Of sorts.  These were all originally Signet Regency Romances, and hard to find in used book stores (or expensive to purchase used through Amazon) but given that they're being reprinted, a newby to the Mary Balogh oeuvre can get caught up . . . eventually.

But here's the comment I wanted to make:  I'm actually glad I didn't read Book 1 first.  One of the things I loved about A Precious Jewel is that Gerald is such an unexpected hero.  Yes, as soon as the Earl of Severn shows up one knows he is the hero-type, but I really didn't mind the occasional mention of his romance in the background because it was refreshing to be reading Gerald & Priscilla's unconventional story instead of the more conventional "earl marries ordinary female, who then is revealed to be not so ordinary and actually quite unique and lovable" set-up.  Gerald & Priscilla's romance was like lemon sorbet after too much creme brulee.

Of course I'll read Book 1 next, and when the "must complete the set" gene kicks in, I'll read #3 -- but not until they reprint it.  And let's hope my "must complete the set" gene doesn't require me to buy all of Balogh's backlist!


Finally, Liz Carlyle.  Hers is one of the names I keep getting mixed up.  (I think I confuse her with Stephanie Laurens.  All fault here is mine; I've warned my husband that I'm getting Alzheimers...)  I really liked the Numbers Series (One Little Sin, Two Little Lies, Three Little Secrets) primarily because they dealt with music.  That made them stand out, for me, from some other Regency Era romances on the market at the time.

Now, it's a funny thing, but when I walk into a big box bookstore's romance section, I'm overwhelmed by the number of authors I know nothing about.  Nothing.  Name after name that I neither recognize from my own shelves nor from reviews I've read and discussions on various blogs and comment threads.  Who are all these people?  One of these days I'll take my laptop with me and type all the names I see and don't recognize.  It's one of the few moments when it seems even possible that 400 titles are published every month.

And, as it happens, I'll only buy books based on the author.  Cover art doesn't matter; back cover blurb doesn't matter; intriguing title doesn't matter.  If I like an author, I'll read another of her books without much further thought.  But if I don't know the author, there's little to no chance I'll buy that book.  So, when I was in a Border's and they didn't have the book I wanted to buy (Lauren Dane's Laid Bare), I bought Liz Carlyle's Wicked All Day.  It was okay.  I recall that I enjoyed reading it, even though ten days later I can't tell you a single thing about it.  No, wait -- that's not true.  It was a week ago, and I now recall the plot.  (Illegitimate daughter of marquess, raised as his daughter and denied nothing, is a bit of a scandal in the Marriage Mart. Her father's solution is to marry her off to an okay guy with a harridan mother who would make the heroine's life miserable.  She ends up in a compromising position with the hero's brother, so they must marry even though the brother is in love with the shabby genteel widow he's been "seeing" and the hero's this close to figuring out he actually loves the heroine.  A fortnight in the country sorts it all out.)  Like I say:  it was okay.

Wicked All Day is in a series.  I don't care.  That's it.  That's my comment.  Don't care about all the characters in all the other books.  And just like that, the series is reduced to a single title, which I bought because I had liked a different series by that author half-a-dozen years ago.  And the "must complete the set" gene can do its worst; I'm not going to read so-so books simply because they're part of a series.

4 comments:

  1. Yet another wonderful post!

    I am a stickler for reading series books in order - even when some are better than others. If I get a book and realize it is the second or third in a series, I feel compelled to put it aside until I've read its predecessors.

    I differentiate between connected books and series, though. If a book is loosely connected to a previous book by the same author, I would prefer to have read the first one before the second, but I'm not as fussed about it.

    I've only read one book by Liz Carlyle and I didn't care for it. If I remember correctly, it was called 'One Little Sin'.

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  2. I am really enjoying your blog! CHRISTMAS ANGEL is one of my favorite Beverleys (and I freely admit I am her fangirl, so I've reread a lot of hers).

    I liked the recent Carlyle series, but also really enjoyed her first books. NO TRUE GENTLEMAN is my favorite of hers.

    I'm glad to hear the early Baloghs are being reprinted. I desperately want LADY WITH A BLACK UMBRELLA.

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  3. Sarah -- I agree. There are sequential series (the Julia Spencer-Flemings come immediately to mind!) where reading them out of order would be very detrimental to the overall experience. And then there are interwoven books that share characters. Obviously, with the Baloghs, some of the action between Books 1 & 2 is in parallel, although the Earl of Severn is happily married by the end of A Precious Jewel.

    As for Liz Carlyle, I do like her books. I just don't like them enough.

    Victoria -- Thanks. If the old Signet Regency Romances are being reprinted one per year, this could take a while!

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  4. Go to marybalogh.com to see the order of her reprint schedule: it's a LOT faster than one Signet per year. Plus, she's answering questions at AAR today -- she's such a lovely, articulate interviewee (is that right?) plus they're giving away a copy of A Matter of Class.

    LOVE this blog because I'm nutso about the two Bs and like but not love Carlyle.

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