Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Ever since I read and greatly enjoyed Voices of the Night, I’ve always intended to review a Lydia Joyce. Unfortunately, following a strong start, Shadows of the Night became a rare DNF (major let down) and I didn’t want to write a bewildered negative review when there’s so much about Joyce’s style and content that I enjoy.

So I bought Wicked Intentions in the hope that what I loved so much about Voices would be recaptured and sustained.

Joyce writes a series of loosely connected Victorian romances, set in the mid-Victorian era and positively steeped in the dense, oppressive atmosphere of that time. Instant winner for me, as I absolutely love those repressed Victorians. What I enjoyed particularly in Voices was the way in which she mixed the grim realities of Victorian Britain with a romance that worked within that context – a sort of grim, desperate love story that suited the moody, heavily mannered world of her characters.

In Wicked Intentions, Joyce retains her dark and dreary London setting with a most excellent starting chapter, which set the tone for a really meaty, angst-ridden romance:
In Parliament’s new limestone palace, already damp and lichenous where it crouched beside the stinking Thames, debate raged. And so the season limped on, with the endless rotation of dinners, dances, operas and soirees, accompanied as always by the constant, grating murmur of politics and gossip, marriage and legislation, secret cabals and open scandals that took place in the myriad stifling rooms.

I love the visual of Parliament crouching besides the stinking Thames.

Our hero Thomas Hyde, Lord Varcourt is introduced in a parlour setting, amidst his fellow aristocrats, and notes:
The world was made and unmade in rooms like this, and already, Thomas could begin to read the threads that went into its making. Soon he would have enough gathered into his hands that he could pull them and watch men dance…

Yes. So Thomas fancies himself a puppet master of sorts, steeped in political intrigue, sniffing out secrets for the advantage of the Whigs. He is regarded with wariness by his peers following the suspicious death of his older brother some six years earlier.

In the same parlour sits the mysteriously veiled spiritualist, Esmeralda, without whom a fashionable parlour is incomplete:
Esmeralda heard the dead, she claimed, and saw visions – and collected like pearls the secrets of the noblewomen who confided in her.

She is nothing but a charlatan to Thomas, who watches her, infuriated and reluctantly fascinated. Esmeralda’s biggest patron happens to be his mother, whose fragile mental state he believes Esmeralda is manipulating to her own mercenary ends.

For a man like Thomas, who sees schemes and plotting everywhere, Esmeralda is an unknown quantity, a threat. So when she leads his mother to the ‘discovery’ of an expensive piece of jewellery, he is roused to action and pursues her for answers.

This is an excellent set up. In fact, the first chapter was a masterpiece of brooding repression and angst.

Unfortunately, every chapter thereafter saw my interest dwindle. Is there such a thing as too much melodrama? Despite the fact that both characters carry the sort of emotional baggage that makes a Thomas Hardy novel cheerful by comparison, there was something unrelenting about the dialogue, particularly between Thomas and Em who love to make grand and sweeping statements to each other.
“I could kill you,” she said, her words almost wistful. “I don’t mean that I have the power but that I have the will, a far more difficult thing. People sometimes wonder if they are capable of taking a life. I know that I am; I almost took my own. After that, life itself seems so insignificant.”

On it’s own, this is a little rich. But when every interaction between Thomas and Em carries the same level of hysterical intensity – well, intensity leaves the building. What’s left are two people who take themselves far too seriously.
Thomas saw an emotion behind the glassy clarity of her eyes: pain. It was as distant as a star, and yet he knew that if the distance could be bridged, the vastness of it would dwarf his being, the heat sear the flesh from his bones. It was turned not on him, but inward, and he wondered what stuff she was made of that she could survive it…

Puppet master Thomas, for all his brooding darkness and supposed political acumen, spends the entire novel acting on impulse; from kidnapping Em, which leads to their first brutal sexual encounter; then kidnapping her (again), drugging her, tying her up, and accosting her pretty much as the need arose… these were not the actions of a sophisticated thinker. There’s never any evidence of the operator we are supposed to believe him to be.

There are two mysteries in this story; the truth behind the death of Thomas’s brother, and the mystery of Esmeralda’s stolen birthright. Neither of them are precisely gripping, and the story is essentially a series of encounters – all turgid, overwrought and overwritten – between Thomas and Em in the lovingly created settings of Joyce’s Victorian London.

A disappointing C for this.

Two Caveats
1. For some reviewers the sex scenes were a too dark. These did not bother me; in fact, I thought the relationship between Thomas and Em was best expressed through their physical interactions, better by far than their ridiculous conversations.

2. I bought this book to read on my iphone. Big mistake. I really didn’t enjoy the experience and I wonder if part of my irritation stemmed from the dissatisfaction I felt with the format. iphone as reading device: FAIL.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


What a pleasure to read a book as beautiful as it is smart. Seriously, what resides between the covers of The Edge of Impropriety is a match for the cover itself; a gorgeous, sensual rendering that reflects the story without resorting to the garish, demeaning, lowest-common-denominator trashiness I so despise and despair of. Let’s hear it for Penguin, who Got It Right. (Anti-man-titty rant of the month over.)

In short, it was a pleasure to own this book and a pleasure to read it, for no more reason than its physical perfection. This is a very shallow way to start a - mostly serious – review but the very act of reading The Edge of Impropriety put me in a good mood. I was predisposed to love this book.

More so because I am a secret admirer of Ms Rosenthal, a smart and thoughtful writer and blogger. Her last book was one of my best reads of 2008.

Even the fact that I wasn’t immediately immersed in the story – indeed, it took me a week to get past the first chapter – didn’t unduly upset me. The writing was beautiful, the setting unusual, the premise intriguing. I can be patient. Particularly when the writing is so good, and the cover is so beautiful.

Jasper Hedges is a noted scholar and antiquarian, which is pretty much as exciting as it sounds. In order to compensate for some youthful indiscretions (his orphaned nephew, for example, is actually his son), Jasper has settled into a life of bucolic responsibility, a steady, perhaps even somewhat boring authority figure to his young wards. A rare trip to London brings him into contact with the beautiful and scandalous Marina Wyatt.

Marina writes scandalous stories about the ton and is savvy enough to encourage speculation that these stories are based on her own titillating experiences. To wit, she has recently rebuffed her latest lover, the young and obscenely handsome Anthony Hedges – Jasper’s ‘nephew.’

When their paths cross, Jasper and Marina are instantly attracted to one another, despite their many obvious differences. They embark on a passionate affair, purely for the length of the season, and struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep their feelings checked.

Jasper and Marina’s relationship develops from strong physical attraction, liking and mutual respect to love in a wonderfully natural way. The fact that they are older than the usual heroes and heroines of romance – 30s and 40s respectively – might partly explain their refreshing maturity, the freedom from angst over the silly things. They both take an uncomplicated pleasure in each other’s bodies, for example. A secondary romance involving Anthony is a pleasant and diverting contrast.

The real star of the story is the story-telling. Rosenthal steeps the reader into her early 19th century London. She is assured enough with her description of artefacts and classical references that I can’t easily find fault, and her seamless bringing together of cultural references and historical events, coupled with pretty authentic sounding ‘regency speak’ left me beaming. Rosenthal is particularly dazzling when she details the minutia of the London Season, that ‘rich tapestry of event and festivity.’

There is a particularly wonderful passage halfway through the novel - halfway through the Season - when Rosenthal takes the reader outside the lives of her characters and casts a sweeping gaze over London itself – the ladies maid ‘squinting by candlelight;’ ‘the kitchen slavey in Gunters;’ ‘ink-stained wretches in Grub Street.’
“Shopkeepers stayed open late; hackney drivers jostled for place in front of the opera. Bow Street Runners did their best to police a metropolis most people didn’t believe need policing. Parliament were still debating the possibility of an actual police force, though there were still some who thought the idea too foreign, too French a notion for London.”

The Edge of Impropriety is stuffed with sly nods and winks to historical figures, events, and literary references. Jasper’s past plundering of historical artefacts is examined, as are the politics of imperialism (too modern?); there is even meta-commentary in the form of a young would-be writer. And a delightful little passage that made me laugh out loud:
… “Well, yes,” she’d said one evening. “Absolutely, Empire is like theft. But then, I’m Irish.”
Which, as he’d been about to respond, wasn’t the same thing at all, Ireland simply being a part of Britain…

It’s always interesting when a writer creates a character who is also a writer. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Marina-the-writer came from Rosenthal herself: the growing boredom with the work she is doing (Rosenthal herself is moving away from straight romance), and even Marina’s introduction at the very start of the novel, when she laboriously correcting proofs.

I finished The Edge of Impropriety happily enough, but a nagging voice in my head wondered – did the excellent writing compensate for a tepid romance? Or did the quality of the writing draw attention to the paucity of the romantic plot, which did nothing wrong, except perhaps follow too closely the formula of all romances. For, despite everything, Rosenthal took no real risks with her story. With such tools to hand, such assured skill, I wish Rosenthal had strayed into less formulaic, more unchartered territory.

But the cover! The writing! The sly humour, the secret affairs; the clever in-jokes and the general feeling of having read a book that required my concentration to be fully enjoyed…

B+ from a hopelessly biased reader. I look forward to whatever Rosenthal has planned next.


The February Book Club is the brainchild of Tumperkin, who thought we might review and discuss select romances between us. Us being Jessica, Tumps, RfP and myself. Flattered to be counted amongst such illustrious bloggers (in all seriousness), I was quick to agree. However, our ambitious February launch date was thwarted by that fickle thing 'life' and we commenced many months later.

To read what the other members thought of this book click on the links below