by Stella Cameron, historical/ghost (2001)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 1-55166-795-9

It must be a sure sign that you have made it big as an author when you can get away with a title like 7B without having Madame Editor change it to My Puckering Passions. 7B refers to the townhouse number of Sibyl Smiles. Remember her? She's one half of the two Sisters Weird, the elder Meg Smiles having married in All Smiles. 7B is the younger sister Sibyl's story.

Sibyl is desperate to have a baby. Her yearnings only become more acute after seeing her sister coo-cooing over baby Serena. However, immaculate conception is definitely out. It's 1822 and Sibyl, a modern woman, doesn't want to get married. However, as she is an intelligent woman, she also knows that she needs a man's sperm to conceive a baby. Ergo, she will ask Hunter Lloyd next door, whom she is always in love with, to make a donation. Ghost Septimus Spivey, who wants the humans out of his townhouse lot, does what little he can to matchmake them.

Meanwhile, murder and mayhem provide some obligatory action.

I don't know - is 7B a clever in-joke or a mess? For instance, when Sibyl lists the ways she can conceive a baby in 1822 England, her list to the befuddled Hunter includes (a) faking it as a prostitute in a brothel, (b) running to the countryside to bed a hunky stablehand, and (c) working as a hired help in a manor because we all know non-hero noblemen are lecherous pigs. At this point I can't help but to feel that Ms Cameron is happily poking fun at the genre's contrivances. Besides, you don't have a group of pregnancy-mad "modern women" (Sibyl and her friends) finding mad, even insane ways to get babies (see list above) in a serious romance.

Alas, soon I realize that Sibyl is serious. Oh my God. The joke of mad mommies-to-be throwing themselves at shocked noblemen, stablemen, and brothel patrons soon turned into a rather unfunny one, because women who take these notions seriously surely mustn't have been eating enough nutritious food.

In fact, 7B soon degenerates into a messy, incoherent tale too intent on being too clever for its own good, to the point of forsaking logic and common sense. Sticklers for historical accuracies and proprieties best stay away: the first encounter between Sibyl and Hunter ends with her bare-breasted and her skirts tossed up her waist. And yes, it's Hunter's hand you see clasped between her plump thighs. If I am in a cruel mood, I would write the word EASY in bright maroon ink and wave the sign outside the lovebirds' window.

Dialogues try to be funny and end up just weird. As much space is devoted to Hunter and Sibyl's courtship - if I can call it that, since those two have no chemistry yet ventured way past third base on their first scene together in this story - as is to Meg and her slimy husband Jean-Marc (of All Smiles) and the younger sister of Jean Marc, Desirée. I really scratch my head when Desirée mopes over an absent suitor and Jean-Marc tells her the AWOL guy is probably sowing his wild oats somewhere. Is this what you tell your sister...?

Then there's the bewildering characterizations. Latimer More from More And More is an idiot whose callous negligence of his sister borders on criminal. Here, I am told he has actually led a second life as a Playboy Extraordinaire on the side. The transformation from Goon to Loon is so abrupt that I know Latimer's story must be coming soon. Sibyl is another bewildering character. She is either acting all dumb dumb over Hunter or running off to do dumb dumb things on her own, while all the time I am being told that she's smart and intelligent. Really? If this is what a "modern, feminist woman" is like, hell-bent on scooping male semen for some mad, ill-planned plot to have baby regardless of common sense, all those burned bras must have gone to waste.

And the humor? Good grief. An example of comedic misfire is when Sibyl approaches Hunter for his precious sperm. Instead of telling him "I want a baby" like any woman would, she has to say "I'm going to have a baby" instead, thus letting Hunter believe that she is pregnant already. Ha ha. Very funny. Next! Unfortunately, next happens to be Septimus Spivey's italicized ramblings. This must be one of the rare stories where the ghost is practically redundant to the story. Even Spivey's matchmaking role is suspect, as those two dumbkins Sibyl and Hunter are already well on their way to spread the joy - and sperm - with or without his bumbling interferences. Spivey ends up just taking space. His ramblings, supposed to be funny, just recaps the last few scenes that take place before his cackling session, with an extra Ha ha ha! or See here for canned laughter. What a waste of scenery.

I haven't even started on the homoerotic overtones (at one point, Hunter's friend declares passionately that he will do anything to make Hunter happy - touching), which is hilarious because the guys involved have no idea how much better a couple they make than Hunter and Sibyl.

At the end of the day, 7B doesn't make much sense unless I perceive it as a work of extreme self-indulgence on the author's part. It tries too hard to be clever in its wordplay and semantics. But the end result is such that probably only the author and those with the luxury of knowing all the in-jokes she puts in her story will appreciate 7B. I can only play the canned laughter track and wish my $6.99 was better off spent elsewhere.

Rating: 45

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