Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Is It about Kilts, Anyway?

So the other day, I decided I needed to add a little more variety and spice here at The Book Pantry.  Mostly, this means avoiding urban fantasy for a little. Currently, I'm reading a cute cozy mystery to satisfy  this demand, but last week, I decided to pick up a (looks around furtively) Romance novel.  (Le gasp!) I find myself developing an increasing respect for the genre; there has to be something behind their popularity. It's kind of like a grown up version of a Disney princess movie: good triumphs and everyone is happily in love by the end.  I doubt I'll ever be able to enjoy the novels that are out and out smutty erotica, but throw in a decent amount of plot and I can get with it.

The Basics
Banks, Maya. In Bed with a Highlander. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. Print.

Maya Banks is a best-selling author of lots of romances, many of will hopefully be set in Scotland. She lives in Texas with her husband, three children, several cats (that's totally the important part of this bio), and a dog.

In Bed with a Highlander tells the story of Mairin Stuart and Ewan McCabe. Mairin is the illegitimate daughter of the former king of Scotland and is hounded by an unfortunately substantial and strategically valuable dowry.  This might be fine if she had any protection, but instead she's on her own.  To her good fortune, she encounters Ewan McCabe, who is out for more than her dowry.  Ewan is a warrior determined to provide security for his clan and seek revenge on his enemies, while Mairin is a spirited young woman raised by nuns. Predictably, antics ensue.

The Book
First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. Nevertheless, I have a few gripes.  I'll start with the title and cover.  I see a lot of romance titles come through the library, and I've noticed a trend.  A good number of romances go for titles that are quite literal. I find most romance novel titles giggle-worthy, but I'll take one called Big Bad Beast over a more literal title any day.  In Bed with a Highlander? Come on! Leave something to the imagination here! As for the cover of this particular novel: I like it when the cover matches a character's description. Also, that lingerie doesn't really seem period to me . . . (this bugged me way more than is reasonable).

Okay, so those are pretty minor gripes that made me giggle more than actually irritated me.  (And I'm sure you can tell by now that I secretly like anything that makes me laugh). But I have a major one that actually intertwines with one of my favorite parts of the novel: Mairin's characterization.  Having been raised by nuns in a, well, cloistered environment, Mairin is understandably naive. At times, this leads to some absolutely hilarious situations (like her puzzlement over why tongues are involved in kissing). However, there are times in the novel when this naivet√© crosses over into the realm of stereotypical stupidity, and this really irritates me. For the most part, Mairin strikes me as a strong-willed, intelligent woman, so these moments of stupidity are not just annoying, but out of character.  When the other characters seem a step away from saying "silly Mairin" and patting her on the head, I want to maim someone. Fortunately these moments are few and far between. Overall Mairin is a great character, who stands up both for herself and for what she believes to be right.  For me, this makes her easier to identify with, which is essential for this sort of novel. No shrinking violets here!

When reading a romance novel, it's very important that the romance be interspersed with plenty of plot. I just cannot stay interested in a book that is all fluff and smooching.  So, when I decided to do a romance novel for the blog, I went in search of one that looked like it had an interesting and involved story line.  Banks more than lives up to that expectation.  Much of the novel focuses on the everyday parts of Mairin's life as she adjusts to being married and the mistress of a clan.  This makes for an engaging and delightfully light bit of reading. Alongside this is a heavier and more serious plot of political intrigue.  This plot line provides a feasible explanation for Mairin's situation in life and a reason for where she winds up. It also adds an element of suspense to the novel and an overarching problem to be solved as Mairin seeks safety and stability.  I also enjoyed the amount of potential the plot of this novel leaves for the sequels (which I will be reading; a sure sign of a good plot is one that leaves you wanting to know more).

Banks clearly has a great sense of humor, which she shares with readers throughout the novel.  I often pick of romance novels only to hysterically laugh when that was clearly not the intended reaction. I loved that this novel only illicits that response deliberately.  Mairin is slightly clumsy (and can't we all identify) when it comes to learning how to manage her household.  The humor involved in these situations serves to make readers like Mairin even more and ultimately root for her and be pleased when she finally succeeds.  Mairin and Ewan both attempt to "manage" one another over the course of the novel, often to spectacularly failed results. Banks's use of humor makes this trope fun and enjoyable when it might otherwise have been tedious and hackneyed.

Lastly, I loved the setting of the novel.  Admittedly, my own heritage might have biased me a bit, but come on. Beautiful scenery, ruggedly handsome men, accents, tartans, and a delightfully historical setting, what's not to love! I also enjoyed the lack of kilts and overdone colloquial speech patterns. Instead, Banks imbues the novel with just the right amount of Scottish Highland flavor. She takes readers to the Highlands, without also taking them to the set of a really bad made-for-tv movie. So, we get all the enjoyment with out any gag-worthy bits.

Extras
  • Maya Banks has a lovely personal website, filled with additional information and easily navigable (I'm a sucker for a well-made website).
  • She has a specific section dedicated to the McCabe trilogy, of which In Bed with a Highlander is the first, that includes a delightfully dramatic series trailer.
  • Lastly, Banks keeps a well-maintained and frequently updated blog, named Southern Sin.

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