As I said last week, this month I’m reading nothing but category romances, because I’ve never read that many in my romance reading habit, mostly because I read very quickly, and the categories are so slim I never considered them enough bang for my buck. When I embarked on the great category read-a-thon – and at this point I might have to go longer than a month because y’all have given me recommendations both good and bad that will last me a while – Jane from Dear Author was kind enough to lend me a copy of Sara Craven’s The Count’s Blackmail Bargain, which she enjoyed. I wish I’d enjoyed it as much.
In a nutshell, the Count in question, Alessio, has been blackmailed by his ridiculously venomous aunt into luring away his cousin’s presumed fiancÃ©e., Laura. Meanwhile, the equally ridiculous cousin has lured Laura to Italy to pose as said fiancÃ©e., because he doesn’t want to marry the malleable Beatrice (who we never meet but I feel sorry for), whom his aunt has intended him to marry. Ridiculous cousin thinks that once venomous aunt gets wind of his faux love for Laura’s pure British self, Auntie Vinegar will realize her promises to Beatrice’s family will come to nothing. Auntie Vinegar, who clearly has much to lose if her son doesn’t marry Beatrice, decides she’s going to put the kibosh on cousin’s nookie plans, and demands that Alessio seduce Laura, or else Auntie will reveal that Alessio has been slipping the little count into a married woman’s number, if you catch my meaning.
So yeah, double crossing, yadda yadda, hot Italian count who can get away with wearing white pants a LOT of the time, and a setting in the hot steamy countryside of Italy. I lost a bit of patience early when Alessio is in his closet (was R. Kelly there?) and suddenly he yearns for the “windswept crags where clouds drifted.” He’s in his closet in his villa in Rome, and he’s restless because his one night stand is pouting at him, so of course he longs “to breathe the dark earthy scents of the forests….” Ah yes. The shorthand where nature > city and the truth of love > hot sexxoring with a hot willing partner with no expectations of commitment on either side. The unnatural contrasted with the natural – got it. Thanks for the headache after beaning me with the Hammer of Romance Shorthand.
At least Laura doesn’t come complete with the Hammer of Romance Shorthand. She’s open and direct about the vessel of purity that she is: “But if and when I have sex with a man, I want it to be based on love and respect, and a shared future.” Pity I can’t imagine a single person I know saying anything remotely like that. Well, perhaps if I was personally acquainted with one of those wooden sketch figure dummies come to life, because that’s some wooden dialogue right there.
At times the blocking was odd, too:
‘And he tells me she strongly disapproves of open displays of affection, so all I really have to do is flutter my eyelashes occasionally.’
Laura gave a brisk nod. ‘No, this is basically a business arrangement, and that’s fine with me.’
Nods? Why would she nod and then say, “No”? I’m trying to do so now and I can’t make my head nod while I say something negative. The whole scene was a fragile attempt at revealing her motivations for going to Italy, and the shorthand and odd blocking irritated me to no end.
That’s a lot of what-the-fuck for the first few hundred words. And there’s other things I marked as “too over the top for reals,” such as when whiny ridiculous cousin, whose name is Paolo, “smote himself on the chest.” Seriously! He did! I read it three times! And then I tried it but I was on the bus and there wasn’t enough room for me to smote effectively without jostling the person next to me. And rule #56 of commuting in Manhattan: do not jostle an uncaffeinated fellow transit passenger.
But what really sent me over the edge was the degree to which Alessio threw himself into his new ardor for Laura, even though the book spends plenty of time setting him up as a rather callous playboy. He hasn’t had sex with her, and he’s spent all of a few days with her, and suddenly: “He longed, he realised, to fall asleep each night with her in his arms, and wake next to her each morning. He wanted her as unequivocally and completely as he needed food and clothing.” Whoa.
However, I loved the setting in a villa in a rural Italian valley, and I loved the scenes where they ate because, well, YUM. The escapist fantasy of being swept away to a sultry, delicious country while posing as someone you’re not, living in accommodations you wouldn’t otherwise experience, and meeting incredibly scrumptious
men, you wouldn’t otherwise meet – I can see the allure of experience that again and again in the Presents series. Oh, yes. Especially the part about the olives and the fish. No, that’s not a euphemism.
The rest of the story is neat in a madcap kind of way – though I don’t think the nasty parties really got as much of a comeuppance as the short fantasy of the novel warranted. I mean, if Laura’s life in London is neatly coming to a close in many respects, allowing room for Alessio to sweep her literally off her feet and take her to Italy with him, shouldn’t the Calgon-take-me-away fantasy also come with significant humiliation for the ridiculous villains?
But like I said, what do I know? I’m not used to reading these books, and their length and their tropes are a little startling to me. The secondary characters who exist solely to ask questions that advance the story or reveal the backstory – I presume they make appearances in just about all of them? The smooth, somewhat insanely schmaltzy dialogue on the part of the hero that reveals his inner squishy love for the heroine – I’m guessing that is standard operating procedure? I’m still getting used to it. But this was too doofy and wooden for me, and in the end I wasn’t reading it because I cared what happened; I was reading it because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity that it ended in the pattern I expected it would, and because I didn’t have another book to begin on the bus anyway.