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Am I the Only One Who Hates The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons?

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Paperback, 810 pages
Published September 8th 2009 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 2001)

The golden skies, the translucent twilight, the white nights, all hold the promise of youth, of love, of eternal renewal. The war has not yet touched this city of fallen grandeur, or the lives of two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha Metanova, who share a single room in a cramped apartment with their brother and parents. Their world is turned upside down when Hitler’s armies attack Russia and begin their unstoppable blitz to Leningrad.


Yet there is light in the darkness. Tatiana meets Alexander, a brave young officer in the Red Army. Strong and self-confident, yet guarding a mysterious and troubled past, he is drawn to Tatiana—and she to him. Starvation, desperation, and fear soon grip their city during the terrible winter of the merciless German siege. Tatiana and Alexander’s impossible love threatens to tear the Metanova family apart and expose the dangerous secret Alexander so carefully protects—a secret as devastating as the war itself—as the lovers are swept up in the brutal tides that will change the world and their lives forever.

I’m always saying that if everyone else raves about a book, I’m sure to be disappointed, but I didn’t think The Bronze Horseman could go wrong.

It’s a DIK on All About Romance, and is a fan favorite on the site’s message boards. It’s got a 4.3 rating on Goodreads, not that that is high praise at this point, but I digress. Plus, it’s so rare to find a romance set in WWII Russia that I thought the setting would offset the eventual letdown.

Alas.

Darlings, I’m sure I’ve read worse books than The Bronze Horseman. I’m certain I have. But The Bronze Horseman demoralized me.

So that you know just how low I’ve been brought, I’ll write this review in the style of The Bronze Horseman. 

POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD

At first we meet Tatiana. Tatiana is small, blonde, fragile, selfless, innocent, frail, a lover of poetry, tiny, a complete innocent who doesn’t know what she does to men, delicate. She often finds herself unable to stand up around Alexander because she has feelings, but she is resourceful enough to predict the Siege of Leningrad well ahead of time to buy extra bread and make croutons to sustain her family.

Tiny, small, fragile Tatiana! Those brutal tides just sweep and sweep her! During the course of the book she survives the following:

  • a train station suddenly bombed during which she buries herself under dead bodies;
  • the Siege of Leningrad, in which she nearly starves but for croutons and Alexander;
  • a terrifying evacuation to the country, during which she has to cross a frozen river at night with people dying all around her;
  • more starvation;
  • being stalked by a man with a “Russian face: broad, slightly washed out features, as if the colors had all run dry. His nose was wide and turned up, his lips extremely thin;”*
  • standing up for three days;
  • more walking in snow;
  • pneumonia;
  • TB. Yes. Tatiana had a slight case of tuberculosis.

Thank God there’s Alexander. Alexander of the ice cream and/or molasses eyes. He has all the medals for valor, and Tatiana wants him to rest, because he is so overworked. When he’s not bravely and single-handedly turning the Germans out of Russia, he’s also traveling great distances so that he can be on hand to save Tatiana from whatever late calamity has befallen her, be it a bombed train station or her abusive family.

But consummate lover that he is, Alexander pauses in his brave deeds long enough to take Tatiana’s virginity in a scene that includes such deathless dialogue as:

“Tania (Tatiana), you are too much for me. I can’t take you, not in small doses, not in large doses, not here, not on the street. Nowhere….”

“Shura (Alexander) I’m going to die.”

“No, Tatia (Tatiana).”

“Breathe on me…”

He breathed on her.

He’s a lover of such skill and passion that he brings Tatiana, who didn’t even know what intercourse was, really, to an earthshattering orgasm, possibly by caressing her nipples in circles. Her screams of joy are such that a nurse comes running to her aid. Because Alexander took her viriginity in the hospital bed where Tatiana’s laid up with broken ribs and a broken leg. 

Sometimes Tatiana resists Alexander’s herculean efforts to protect her from her own goodness and innocence, at which point he curses mildly, shouts loudly, punches a wall inches from her face, or screams things like “don’t make me more crazy!” before entreating her with sweet phrases like “this frantic wretch begs you, please leave!”

Like the war, The Bronze Horseman seems never-ending. Like the Energizer Bunny of awful books, it keeps going and going and going…

I didn’t think it was possible to write a boring book about the Siege of Leningrad and the Russian front, but I was wrong. I’ve ever read anything as mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. Dramatic scenes — many very true to history — are buried in melodrama. Then additional melodrama is piled onto history and/or melodrama. Unnecessary scenes last past any reasonable point. Pointless, often repetitive dialogue, dripping with so many adjectives and adverbs, fills page after page after page.

The Bronze Horseman gets zero croutons. Tatiana gets zero ice creams. Alexander gets zero stars for valor.

*One of the most puzzling aspects of The Bronze Horseman is the depiction of Russians in general. Russian men are almost always drunken, abusive thugs. Russian women — aside from Tatiana — are almost always sluttish or stupid. Characters are described using “Soviet” the way you’d use a racial slur. The quality of the book makes it difficult for me to tell whether is intentional or just lazy characterization, so I’ll not pass judgment.

Book Review: Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

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Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

Abbie knew that she was taking a risk, but it seemed to be a gamble that might pay off. Malachi Garrett, brilliant engineer-inventor, was so reclusive that hardly anything was known about him. Now here he was, in a bar in Oklahoma, looking for someone to drive his Shelby Cobra car in a race to Washington DC. As a freelance journalist, Abbie couldn’t pass up the chance.

Pretending to be a medical secretary urgently needing to read Washington, Abbie talked her way into being the driver. She found out too late that living a lie made her feel very uncomfortable and that she and Malachi Garrett made an explosive combination…

Rarely do we ever open a book with absolutely no preconceptions. We know a little about the story from a blurb, or have read a review, or picked the book up upon recommendation from someone whose taste we trust. It’s wonderful when the book aligns with those preconceptions, even better when it exceeds them. When neither happens, then you know how I felt after reading Impulsive Gamble.

Every review I’ve seen for this book is positively gushing. On Goodreads, the book gets slightly over four stars, which, though the book has few reviews, is still remarkable.

It’s possible that all this high-heavens praise created impossible-to-meet expectations, but although I enjoyed Impulsive Gamble, I was underwhelmed.

I loved Mal and enjoyed Abbie, and the cross-country endurance race plot is one I’d never seen in a romance. But there are holes in the plot big enough to throw a cat through, and problems with the characterizations that made even the book’s much-lauded sparkling dialogue between the two leads hard to swallow.

To wit:

  • Mal is an engineer and ex-racing driver who employs multiple mechanics, yet he can’t find anyone to drive the car? Please. The guy spends years and a chunk of change on this car, and trusts it to a complete stranger? Not in this lifetime — my baby is a lowly-but-sweet 1985 Chevy truck, and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve been allowed to move it.
  • also — you don’t go out on cross-country endurance race without a mechanical crew behind you. It just wouldn’t happen, and there was no logical reason for it to happen here.
  • we’re told over and over by Abbie that Mal is such a male chauvinist, and yes, he often acts like one, yet he cooks, he cleans, he lets a woman drive his masterwork car and readily admits to being a reckless driver and terrible navigator. Never once does Abbie notice that he’s saying one thing and doing another completely, but we’re supposed to believe she’s a brilliant newspaper reporter. Right.
  • the back-and-forth arguing between the two was supposed to seem like foreplay, but sometimes it just seemed like instant replay.
  • the book’s ending (I won’t spoil it) is supposed to tie everything up in a neat bow, but leaves as many questions as it provides answers.

If it sounds like I’m being a little rough on the book, maybe so. But I actually enjoyed reading it just for Mal — he’s one of the best-written male leads I’ve ever come across in a vintage Harlequin/Mills & Boon.

Oddly enough, I think part of my problem with Impulsive Gamble was that Emma Richmond’s Heart In Hiding was so fresh in my mind. Heart In Hiding is a similar story, but with a much more believable trajectory and, in my opinion at least, a more enjoyable capable-female-meets-curmudgeonly-male story line.

I give Impulsive Gamble 3 out of 5 intact fan belts, one for the quirky plot, one for the high points the dialogue hits, and another for Mal.  I give Mal 5 out of 5 bags of pretzels.

Impulsive Gamble

Lynn Turner

Harlequin, 1989


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Good Idea Wasted: Secondary Romances That Steal the Spotlight

Ooh-la-la!

I’m a list-keeper by nature, but one list I hate to have to add things to is the one called “Great Ideas, Terrible Execution.”

Nothing frustrates me more than a romance novel with a fascinating premise that just falls flat, unless it’s one with characters that have been sorely wasted on the story they’ve been given.

I’ve recently had reason to add a sub-list to this list: “Secondary Characters Who Deserved Better.” Or, in the case of two back-to-back reads, “Secondary Romances More Interesting Than the Primary Love Interests.”

Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of secondary romances, especially in Traditional Regencies, where page counts are stingy enough without depriving the romantic leads of more time together. But the secondary romance is tricky in any genre — it’s got to somehow further the plot of the book as a whole and be compelling enough that readers are not tempted to skip those pages just to get back to the primary couple.

The secondary romance should not, surely, make you wish you could do away with the two leads altogether, but I’ve just read two Traditional Regencies that featured secondary romances that were the only reasons I finished the books.

In the first, A Change of Heart by Candice Hern, the primary romance is between fortune hunter Jack Raeburn, Marquess of Pemerton, and Lady Mary Haviland, a wealthy heiress who’s decided on a life of spinsterhood after a terrible childhood at the hands of her father. It’s a fine story, but nothing to write home about.

I found the secondary romance between Lady Mary’s paid companion, Olivia, and Jack’s uncle Edward, a middle-aged rake, to be far more intriguing than Mary and Jack’s romance. Olivia is a widow who still thinks often — and fondly — about her husband, while Edward is the mold Jack cast himself in when embarking upon a life of whoring, gambling and gallivanting.

Unfortunately Olivia and Edward are given far too little page time for theirs to develop into an unforgettable story, but I found myself thinking about these two when I should have been paying more attention to Mary and Jack. Paid companions and rakes are both thick on the ground in Traditional Regencies, but rarely do we get a paid companion who’s not downtrodden nobility and/or quite new to the profession (i.e., she’s not forced to work long before she’s rescued by the hero). Nor do you often see a rake who hasn’t been reformed before or shortly after the age of thirty.

Now imagine the possibilities: a rake who is past his prime, perhaps tiring of his libertine existence, falling for an attractive lady’s companion of a certain age. This eliminates so many of the tropes we’ve come to associate with the reformed rake — needs to marry to secure the succession, is forced into marriage because he’s compromised some young debutante, or, my favorite (and one that appears with alarming frequency in Traditional Regencies), the Daddy Long-Legs scenario where the rake just this side of thirty ends up as guardian to a girl in her first season, and that somehow ends in marriage. And now we have a much more interesting character and scenario: a rake who chooses to reform to be worthy of someone of lower social status than he.

And what about our paid companion? Think of all the alternate histories she could have, when she no longer has to be either nobility or married off to the hero before she turns 25 or so. Maybe she’s the illegitimate child of a family member of the lady who employs her. Maybe she, like Olivia, is a widow, but followed the drum and lost her husband in the war. Or maybe she’s secretly writing witty observations about the activities of the ton from an outsider’s perspective that are selling like hotcakes — especially the things she writes about our hero, the rake — but has to keep her newfound fortune hidden if she wants to continue as a lady’s companion and therefore maintain access to the ton.

I had hardly recovered from all the adventures I was imagining for Olivia and Edward when I started Polly and the Prince by Carola Dunn. In this book, the primary romance is between the titular Polly, an absent-minded artist of gentle-though-not-noble birth and Kolya, a Russian prince who’s been exiled by the tsar.

All that’s worse than a book that leaves you thinking about “could haves” and “should haves” for two secondary characters is a book that totally destroys whatever goodwill you might have felt toward the two main characters by showing them so poorly next to the secondary characters. Thus is the case with Polly and the Prince. 

Polly and the Prince comes off as a comedy of errors — not for the plot, but for all the chances to make a great book that Dunn let pass her by. This might be the first book I’ve ever read that would mishandle a dozen plot lines that would have made much better stories. Dunn introduces wonderful ideas, like Kolya’s father risking the tsar’s wrath to get money to him, Kolya’s finding a place in the Prince’s household at Brighton and a plot to bomb Prinny’s pavilion in Brighton, but dismisses them in a few sentences or lets them fizzle. Instead we get Kolya bumming around the country speaking broken English and basically mooching off his friends, while Polly is doing well to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Kolya and Polly’s shortcomings only become that much more obvious when Dunn introduces the secondary romance between Polly’s brother, Will, a steward to a duke, and Lady Sylvia, a widow who commissions Polly to paint portraits of her daughters.

Reading Will and Sylvia’s story is almost like reading another book entirely. You expect the primary romance to be all angst and gravitas, while the secondary romance serves as a lighthearted diversion, but not so here — Will establishes himself early on as the long-suffering older brother who’s tasked with providing for his mother, sister and brother, while Sylvia has secluded herself and her two daughters far from her disapproving family. There are also hints that Sylvia’s husband was abusive.

The more you see of Will and Sylvia, the less you want to see of Kolya and Polly, and the worst part is, you begin to suspect that Dunn felt the same way. The scenes between Will and Sylvia — and even Sylvia’s almost plot-moppety daughters — are far more touching and believable than those between Polly and Kolya. Most of their page time comes toward the end of the book, where things should be heading toward a climax for Polly and Kolya. Instead, the action swings back to Will and Sylvia, breaking whatever (little) tension there was for Polly and Kolya.

As though it were not enough that the stakes somehow seem higher for Will and Sylvia already, Dunn lets both Kolya and Will save the day in key scenes, but Will’s scene — and its resolution — totally steals the thunder from Kolya’s, by virtue of being, again, more touching and believable.

But it gets worse! Turns out that Polly and the Prince is one of a series of books, which makes Dunn’s decision to tie up Will and Sylvia’s romance by the end of the book completely mystifying. As it stands, their romance was so rushed that without a few key scenes, it could have picked up seamlessly in the next book.

When I think of the opportunities Dunn missed to expand on all the themes that made Will and Sylvia’s relationship so intriguing, I want to throw my Kindle across the room. Dedicated family man meets woman estranged from family, noble, wealthy lady falls for land steward, Sylvia learning to trust again after her disastrous marriage, Will becoming a stepfather… I could go on and on.

All that considered, my opinion of secondary romances has not changed. If anything I’m more frustrated than before, but at least I have a page full of additions to my “great ideas that need to be addressed” list.

It may be time to write that Traditional Regency already.

A Change of Heart

by: Candice Hern

Traditional Regency

224 pages

Signet 1995/Self-Published Ebook/Paperback 2012

Polly and the Prince

by Carola Dunn

Traditional Regency

331 pages

Thorndike Press 2005/ Belgrave House-Regency Reads 2010

Want to read more Regency, less secondary romance drama? Check out:

Susanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott