Tag Archives: romance

The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, by Madeline Hunter

Title: The Conquest of Lady Cassandra (Fairbourne Quartet#2)ConquestLadyCassandra
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.75 stars

Someday I’m going to read one of Madeline Hunter’s series in the right order. I somehow managed to pick up #2 without having read #1, which I intend to rectify.

Cassandra Vernham is notorious but not quite ruined, thanks to a complicated bit of personal history. Six years ago, she was technically though not properly compromised by a man, and then refused to marry him. That man later got himself stupidly killed in a duel which everyone assumed was over her, further scandalizing her reputation. Estranged from her family thanks to all of this, she spends a few years in Europe with her aunt, then returns home to London and tries to get on with life as best she can. She’s not totally ostracized and still has some friends, but she’s not thoroughly accepted, either, and she tends to end up in vaguely-written items in the gossip columns. Years later, one of her rejected beau’s friends, Viscount Ambury (whose proper name is, tragically, Yates) has taken up private investigation as a bit of a hobby, and is looking into the possibility that some jewels Cassandra sold at auction were stolen — from his own family. Entanglements ensue. Cassandra needs the money because her brother is trying

This one rates just below average for me for a lot of reasons — and it isn’t even that it’s a bad book. It’s just that it left me unfulfilled. I initially gave it a solid 3 stars, but I keep thinking of more things I disliked about it, so I had to knock a bit more off.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t believe in this as a love story. It’s an interesting story, but not a believable romance. I believe that Yates and Cassandra feel attraction and friendship for each other. Once they get over a variety of trust issues, they seem to know how to communicate with each other. But I don’t believe that they feel abiding passion or deep love. The story just plain never gets us there. The heat is sexual but not emotional. Theirs will be a really good marriage of convenience — but it still feels like just that. Hunter never manages to elevate them beyond that point. The title is also misleading. There’s no conquest. Neither Cassandra’s physical nor emotional self is at any point overthrown. She makes a logical decision to preserve her aunt’s future, and she chooses Ambury as the lesser of two evils. It’s all very cerebral, very detached.

I also had issues with some unanswered questions, and while I freely admit some of that might be due to missing the first book in the series, I really doubt all of it is. Ambury’s motives throughout are somewhat vague and mutable. We never really get a good idea of what he does in his moonlighting as an investigator — how long he’s been doing it, how it makes him money, what other cases he’s taken — it’s just sort of a slapped-on detail, not a fully realized character point. The information about Cassandra’s past is sort of annoyingly withheld until very late in the book, and the last-minute turn just seems odd and out of place.

None of that is to say the book is without its advantages. I actually enjoyed the process of reading it, and got through it quickly. The story is compelling — it just isn’t what’s on the tin, you know? Watching Yates and Cassandra negotiate around each other, around their friends, around her brother, is all interesting. I like the slightly different setting (though the publishers need to know not to refer to something set in 1798 as Regency) and the sociopolitical spin that puts on things. And I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series, because I generally like Hunter’s writing, and I especially like how she interrogates what romance does to friendship. Not a lot of romance authors do that, even if they’re using the conceit to string together a series. Hunter’s romances, on the whole, seem more grounded in reality than others in the genre — which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. After all, this genre is generally a fantasy as much as anything involving dragons or magic.

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Twelfth Night Secrets, by Jane Feather

Title: Twelfth Night SecretsTwelfthNightSecrets
Author: Jane Feather
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 257 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.25 stars

After Harriet’s brother, an English spy, dies while on assignment in France, the government taps Harriet to find out if his former partner, Julius Forsythe, Earl of Marbury, was the double-agent who killed him. Harriet’s job is made easier since her grandfather invited Marbury to spend Christmas at their country home, along with a flock of relatives. It’s made harder when she starts falling for Julius, who is charming, clever, and good with children.

This book is largely inoffensive, but unfortunately, it’s also not particularly memorable. I also feel like it’s the wrong length. This either needed another hundred pages to be standard romance novel length, so that background information and character developments could have more explanation, or else it needed to be a hundred pages shorter and an entry in a collection rather than a stand-alone, because as-is, it feels like Feather spends a lot of time re-treading material. There’s a lot of reiteration in the middle that doesn’t actually further either the plot or the emotional story.

The book is also mis-sold by its jacket material. This isn’t “spy vs spy”. It’s “spy vs totally inept and inexperienced not-spy”. The back cover tries to sell Harriet as a suave, sophisticated agent of the crown, but she’s… really, really not. She passed on mail from her brother. That was the extent of her involvement. So it beggars belief that the British government would look to her to try and uncover a double agent, and then she pretty well bungles her supposed investigation.

The story is cute enough but the characters lack depth — something else that might’ve been fixed with a longer book and a better use of pages. There is a nice reversal at the end, but mostly, after dragging for a two hundred pages, when things finally do start happening, it all feels rushed. Overall — meh.

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The Care and Taming of a Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: The Care and Taming of a Rogue CareandTaming(Adventurers’ Club #1)
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Length: 371 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.25 stars

I don’t like monkeys.

I should just say that from the outset, because the monkey is, well, not an insubstantial part of this book. It’s meant to be endearing, but I find monkeys just inexpressibly creepy. (Now if it had been a lemur, we could’ve talked).

That said, I think I liked this book better on the second go than I remember liking it the first time I read it. That still isn’t a resounding acclamation, mind you, but I felt less distracted while reading than I did the first time. Enoch’s Adventurers’ Series explores the lives of men who have come back from Britain’s imperialist expeditions rather the worse for wear. It’s a fairly good inversion of the cheerful “Rule Britannia” trope. Of course, the focus is still on the effect these things have on the white British people rather than on the conquered, but, you can only expect so much multi-cultural awareness from Regency romance novels, really. Enoch takes a lot of inspiration from actual historical figures, and it does allow her to explore a different section of society than you see in a lot of typical books of this kind.

So. In Book One, Captain Bennett Wolfe returns from an African expedition where his second, David Langley, left him for dead. Langley stole Bennett’s journals and published them under his own name — but with a few revisions that made Bennett look like a bumbling idiot and Langley like a great hero. When Bennett returns from the Congo to find his reputation in tatters, he sets his sights on revenge — but his temper and disregard for polite society’s rules aren’t helping him win his case.

He has a few allies, and among them is Phillipa Eddison, called Flip, an determined bluestocking. Flip has read his previous books and is willing to believe that Langley is perpetrating a deceit upon the public. Unfortunately, Bennett keeps getting distracted by his growing lust and admiration for Flip, and since he’s spent most of his adult life outside of polite society, he takes actions that are decidedly too forward. Flip chastises him for overstepping boundaries, but then spends most of the book doing a really poor job of teaching him better manners. And he’s not helped by the fact that he brought home a monkey who gets into all sorts of screwball-comedy shenanigans.

The biggest problem with this book (apart from the monkey) is that neither of the main characters are tremendously likeable. Flip does do a little too much of the “I read books and think sensibly and therefore that makes me better than Other Girls” thing, a trope which I’m finding increasingly annoying in historical romances. Being a bluestocking doesn’t have to mean looking down your nose at girls who aren’t (I should know). It isn’t egregious, and Enoch does show that she has female friends and isn’t quite as much of an intellectual recluse as she seems to think herself, which mitigates it somewhat. Bennett, who is supposed to be barely civilised, mostly just comes off as unnecessarily aggressive and a bit of a boor. He makes half-hearted attempts at appropriate courtship, but considering that Flip never actually enforces her supposed ideals about propriety. Their romance is more a collision than anything else, which keeps the book clipping along, but which doesn’t make a lot of intrinsic sense, nor does it have the ring of emotional authenticity. Flip has to help Bennett restore his reputation, but the actual conflict between the two of them — his desire for adventure versus her homebody-ness — is never really addressed, but rather hand-waved so that they can get to the HEA.

So — I would call this a thoroughly middle-of-the-road romance novel, good brain candy, but not outstanding. Not Enoch’s best work, but not painful to read, either.

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A Gentleman Never Tells, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Gentleman Never TellsGentlemanNeverTells
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 310 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 3.25 stars

I didn’t like this one as much as the first in the series, which is a little strange, since I really did like both the hero and the heroine. The story is still strong, but I ended up feeling that there was just so much more that could’ve been done with it.

A Gentleman Never Tells works in concert with Gray’s debut novel, A Lady Never Lies, telling the same story of three gentlemen and three ladies inadvertently renting the same Italian villa for the summer. In this book, Gray brings us the story of Countess Somerton, formerly Elizabeth Harewood, “wife of one of England’s most brutal and depraved aristocrats.” Or so we’re told. She’s fled England with her five-year-old son, hoping to raise her boy far away from her husband’s influence, but she doesn’t want to divorce, because she knows her husband could claim custody of their son. She’s sort of too tense to be enjoying herself in any fashion, and that doesn’t get better when one of the three men turns out to be a long lost love.

Roland Penhallow, younger brother of the Duke of Wallingford, leads a double life as a secret agent for the crown. While he pretends to be a shallow playboy for London society, he really spends much of his time out of the country doing… secretive things. I wish I could be more specific, but the book isn’t. This is just one of several under-used elements in the story. Roland’s agreed to join the trip to Italy with his brother and Finn because his position has been jeopardized. Someone’s accusing him of double-dealing, and though his superior believes him, until they can prove who’s setting him up, Roland needs to make himself inconspicuous.

The romance between Elizabeth and Roland is compelling enough, but I could’ve done with more on their background. We get a brief version of the story, but not a lot of insight. They met, fell in love, but then Roland had to leave the country on state business, and in his absence Elizabeth lets herself get talked into marrying Somerton for his wealth and position. Despite her protestations of virtue and her desire not to do anything scandalous, it’s a matter of hours after she sees Roland again before they’re going at it in a stable. It’s a good scene, but it does make Elizabeth seem a little haphazardly written. Gray sets up an interesting scenario — a really interesting scenario, considering she’s making her heroine an actual adulteress, which isn’t something I think I’ve seen before. But I don’t feel like she really did enough with it, besides a little exploration of just what you had to do to get a divorce in the 1890s. The stakes never feel but so high.

The villain of the piece, Earl Somerton, also failed to feel all that villainous. The reader hears over and over again that he’s a dissolute wretch, utterly depraved, and yet we never see any real evidence of this. He has a series of mistresses, apparently, which while not exactly admirable, in 1890 did not automatically make a man an utter debaucher. We only ever hear about two of them in any detail, and they both seem to have been participating with enthusiasm. He also seems to enjoy a particular relationship with his male secretary, but, however the Victorians may have felt about it, that certainly shouldn’t paint a character as depraved in a modern novel. Even at the height of the novel’s supposed tension, he shies away from doing anything truly dastardly.

Ultimately, A Gentleman Never Tells didn’t feel as innovative as A Lady Never Lies, and the innovation was a lot of what I liked about that book. Without that spirit, the book is a perfectly serviceable but not particularly exciting historical romance. It could as easily be a standard Regency as a late-Victorian, but for a few quirks of window-dressing. Gray doesn’t seem to use the situation she’s built as effectively in this book as in the first. So, this book gets a just-slightly-higher-than-average rating. I’m still interested to read the third book in the series, but this one didn’t grip me as much as the first.

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The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Bridgertons: Happily Ever AfterBridgertonsEverAfter (Bridgertons #9)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

The Bridgertons are one of the best-loved families in historical romance, and for good reason. JQ did something extraordinary, creating a family that was close-knit and loving, but not cloying — always believable, full of rivalries and frustrations, rife with inside jokes, and ultimately, always there for each other. Even more incredible, she managed to sustain the charm across eight books — easily twice as long as most romance novel series. I always thought that the first half of the series was stronger than the second half (as you can see from my reviews), but they’re all solid and enjoyable.

Because this family is so cherished by her fans, JQ decided to do something special — a collection of Second Epilogues, showing just what happens in Happy Ever After. Some of these had been released before, but as I don’t have an e-reader, I hadn’t read any of them, so they were all new to me. And they’re pretty delightful. In so many ways, diving into this book was like revisiting old friends and discovering them, not unchanged, but just as dear and warm and lovely as ever they were.

I’m not going to review each one individually, because it’s really the collection as a whole that made the biggest impression on me. I just love the idea of it — of showing that the story doesn’t end at the altar. The stories in this collection span a wide range of time, some of them coming just weeks after the corresponding book ends, others stretching decades into the characters’ future. The ones I ended up liking the best were in that second category — showing our beloved heroes and heroines years and years on and still madly in love with each other. I appreciate the… I don’t know, the reassurance? So much conventional “wisdom” states that passion inevitably fades over time, that fires bank down to embers, and you’re lucky if you have warmth and comfort enough to sustain a relationship past that. But I have always wanted to believe that that doesn’t have to be true — not for everyone, anyway. And the Bridgertons show me that in fictional form — couples who still desire each other even after many children, even after their own children have children. Who still tease and laugh and flirt, decades into their relationships. Who continue to face challenges and continue to grow stronger from them. I love it.

The two Second Epilogues that stick out in my mind the most are Kate & Anthony’s and Francesca and Michael’s — unsurprising, since those are among my favourite books in the series, anyway. With Kate and Anthony, we get a glorious return to Pall Mall and the Mallet of Death. This Second Epilogue is as cheeky and tempestuous as I could’ve wished, really recapturing the spirit of the original. Francesca’s Second Epilogue, much like her own story, is told in a much different tone, slower and more introspective, but absolutely brimming with passionate emotion. Colin and Penelope’s was, sadly, one of the less sterling sections — sad because they vie for the top spot of my favourite Bridgerton novel. It’s a midquel, actually, for To Sir Philip, With Love, where we find out how Eloise learned Penelope’s great secret; unfortunately, the events aren’t that gripping, and the story sort of meanders.

I do sort of wish that at least one couple out of the eight had remained childless but content with that, even if it wouldn’t really be historically accurate, just because it’d be nice to see childfree families represented in the genre at all — but, I know that’s sort of an unreasonable request, given the market. I also wish that Violet’s novella had been longer — hell, I wish she’d get a whole book of her own, but JQ has always said that will never be the case. But I would’ve liked to have seen more of her and Edmund’s courtship — and of their marriage. The vignettes didn’t fully satisfy, as JQ moves on to the tragedy and its aftermath rather quickly. I see where she wanted to go with it, to show Violet’s entire arc, but I would’ve appreciated a little more

I very much can’t recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t previously read all of the Bridgerton novels — but, of course, I recommend those to all readers of romance, so this can just be the cherry on the sundae. And I do feel it fair to warn that there isn’t a lot of heat in any of these vignettes — JQ drops a few sizzling moments the readers’ way (in Anthony’s and Francesca’s stories, notably, which may also contribute to my favorable impression of those), but on the whole, these stories just aren’t long enough to sustain real sex scenes. By their very nature, they also don’t stand alone very well. Nostalgia definitely plays a large role in my enjoyment of them, but if you’ve missed the Bridgertons as I have, then I thoroughly recommend returning to their world with Happily Ever After.

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A Lady Never Lies, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Lady Never LiesLadyNeverLies
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 311
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a historical romance with a unique premise, all the more surprising since it is, in fact, loosely borrowed from Shakespeare. Gray transposes the improbable plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to 1890, and somehow, it works — largely because she doesn’t feel compelled to hold to it too strictly, allowing the “Little Academe” of Navarre to inspire her work without hemming it in. Phineas Burke, a successful scientist whose inventions have made him quite wealthy, convinces his friend the Duke of Wallingford and the Duke’s younger brother, Roland, to spend a year with him at a remote Italian villa, away from the torments of matchmaking mamas and the evils of over-indulgence. Finn wants to spend the year perfecting the engine for his electric automobile so that he can enter it in a race in Rome.

Enter the ladies. Thanks to a mix-up (or to deliberate interference on the part of the real estate broker?), the three gentlemen have rented the same estate as Lady Alexandra Morley, her sister Abigail, and her friend Lady Lilibet Somerton. Alexandra has fled England ahead of the creditors left to her by her late husband and a nephew with catastrophically poor investment strategies. Lilibet has fled an abusive husband,  with her five-year-old son in tow, and while her circumstances are not detailed yet, I’m sure they will be in her book. Stuck together for the foreseeable future, the two groups make a bet on which will crack and head back to England first. Or which will break their vows of chastity and isolation first? It’s a little blurry just what, exactly, constitutes losing the bet.

There are hijinks worthy of Shakespeare throughout the book, as Finn and Alexandra experience a powerful attraction to each other but have to hide it from the others in the house. Finn expects to hate socialite Alexandra, but finds himself charmed by her forthright nature and startling intelligence. They are both imperfect characters with shady pasts, but their ragged edges fit together nicely. There’s also a charming air of rustic mystery surrounding the story, as the housekeeper and groundskeeper interfere freely with everyone’s business, occasionally dropping hints about an old curse upon the villa that needs to be broken — I can only assume we’ll be hearing more about that later on.

There are a few things that don’t come together, and I honestly don’t know if they’ll get better treatment in the remaining two books or not. The whole concept of the bet is sort of flimsy, as is Alexandra’s decision to sort-of-kind-of-not-really engage in industrial espionage. Turns out some of her nephew’s investments were in an automobile company, and she half-heartedly tries to spy on Finn to get some ideas that might save the company… but you never get the feeling that she actually has strong intent there, and the story swerves away from it pretty quickly. The chemistry between Finn and Alexandra carries us along far better than that abortive attempt at intrigue.

Fortunately, Gray doesn’t pull Shakespeare’s ending stunt on us, so don’t worry that you’ll finish this book feeling as awkwardly interrupted as I always do at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. My biggest complaint is that I feel it could’ve been longer — the standard 370-380 pages rather than this slightly scant 311 would’ve given a little more room for character exploration. I totally believed in Alexandra’s and Finn’s attraction to and affection for each other, but the initial draw felt a little lacking. It also might have smoothed over some of the leaps in the timeline — the book hops along rapidly, but I could’ve done with a bit more idling, particularly at the beginning, to see them all settle into the house rather than jumping so soon to a month into their tenancy. But — I’m someone who likes world-building a lot, whether fantasy or historical, so I will always permit an author that indulgence. I know not everyone’s patience runs so long, and so many readers might appreciate the rapid pace of the novel.

I found the premise of this story refreshing, both in terms of the time period and the details behind the plotline. Gray does herself some great favours by breaking the mold in those ways, putting us in Italy rather than England (even with English characters) and moving to the opposite end of the century. It gives her more room to play, I think, and she clearly has had a lot of fun with it. She sprinkles the story with as much historical veracity as invention and artistic license, and sharp-eyed history buffs will enjoy the cameos.

I also appreciated that Gray didn’t give away everything with regards to the other couples. We sort of see them dash in and out as teasers, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of overlap in what scenes Gray chooses to show us in this book. I believe that will help this series escape some of the problems I had with Julia Quinn’s Dukes of Wyndham duologyA Lady Never Lies was a fun read, unusual for a historical romance but not in ways that were distracting or disturbing, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I Presume, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I PresumeLostDukeofWyndham
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 371 pages / 370 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars / 2.5 stars

Another double-header! These books are so closely interlinked that it just makes sense to review them as one — and, honestly, that’s the biggest problem with them. Julia Quinn chose to tell the same story twice, from different viewpoints — and while I admire the effort and like the idea, the execution was a little lackluster. The second book repeats far too much information and too many conversations. I think these stories better could’ve been combined into one slightly longer book, still exploring both couples, but unfortunately that’s not the way the romance novel publishing industry works.MrCavendish

So how do we end up with these two intertwined stories? Thanks to the heroes. Jack Audley is a highwayman who waylays the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham and her companion, Grace, on their way home one night — trouble is, the Dowager recognises him as the spitting image of her second son, who died traveling from Ireland to England years earlier. Her first son having also died without issue, the title is currently held by Thomas, the son of her third son. Thomas is engaged to marry Amelia, a neighboring daughter of an earl, but has sort of been dragging his feet on the matter. In order to figure out which of the two men is the real Duke of Wyndham, the Dowager insists on dragging everyone to Ireland to find out if John’s parents were legally married, which will settle the matter. So, there we are: two heroes, two heroines, one story.

I like Jack and Grace’s story better, though I don’t know if that’s because Thomas and Amelia’s story comes second, and thus it always feels like retread. Jack and Grace have a charming “love at first sight” dynamic. I think, for modern readers, that concept can often fall flat if not handled properly, but Quinn weaves them through it rather well. There’s a tenderness to them, along with the magnetic passion that you would expect from such a sudden attraction. Jack’s emotional journey is an interesting one, as we get to explore both the circumstances that led to him becoming a highwayman and his knee-jerk reaction to reject the life of entwined luxury and responsibility that the dukedom implies. Grace, too, has bounced up and down the social ladder in her life, and it’s one of the things that matches them nicely. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Grace deal with the decidedly unpleasant Dowager Duchess (such a contrast to JQ’s favourite dragon, Lady Danbury). The Lost Duke feels, on the whole, to be the stronger book.

The trap that JQ falls into with Mr Cavendish is in not spending enough time with Thomas, who does know what’s going on, and instead leaving the reader more often with Amelia, who is totally clueless for two thirds of the book. She’s assuming the reader knows what’s going on, as I imagine most do, but it’s still odd to be put into the head of someone so utterly out of the loop for the bulk of the story. What’s amazing there is that, rather than filling the gaps with new incidents, JQ still manages to repeat so much material — generally conversations with Grace or conversations Amelia overhears. The story between her and Thomas also just feels less genuine to me. I could believe their growing to attraction if, say, he’d been engaged to her yet never actually met her — but clearly he sees her all the time. So why does the spark not get set off till now? It doesn’t help that Thomas is a reserved, detached sort of person, and that doesn’t change much when we get inside his head. He isn’t a bad person, but he isn’t tremendously likable, either, and that makes his part of the story more difficult to enjoy.

So, ultimately, I don’t think this experiment in storytelling format worked as well as JQ intended it to. I’m not against the idea on principle, but the approach needs to be different, offering truly divergent perspectives on the same events. I agree with other reviews I’ve seen suggesting that the two books not be read back-to-back, as was probably my mistake with this re-read, because you really will feel the retread quite keenly. But, then again, I don’t know that they improve all that much with greater separation, either.

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What Happens in London, by Julia Quinn

Title: What Happens in LondonWhatHappensinLondon
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 372 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars. Ish.

I feel like I liked this book better when I first read it, although sometimes just the sheer excitement of having a new JQ novel can do that to me. On revisiting — well, I don’t hate it. I actually like half of the premise quite a bit. But the other half is odd and silly and never pans out properly, the whole thing takes quite a while to get going, and then when it does get going, the last act sort of comes out of nowhere.

I do like the characters, and they’re probably the reason this book gets even a middling rating. Sir Harry Valentine is a son from a troubled home who escaped his embarrassing drunk of a father and his emotionally deadened mother by going into the army. Thanks to a ferocious Russian grandmother, he’s quite proficient in languages besides his own, which made him valuable to King and Country. Even with the wars over, he continues to work for the War Office, mostly translating documents — and somehow these circumstances lead to rumours swirling around him possibly having murdered his fiance? It’s very odd, because nothing ever explains how those rumours came about, nor why Olivia becomes so fixated on them that she feels compelled to spy on him after he moves in next-door. The eventual confrontation over that is the part of it that comes to nothing — it just sort of feels like an odd plot device that belonged somewhere else. The better part of the story involves Harry feeling the need to protect Olivia from the attentions of a visiting Russian prince, Alexei, whom the War Office has asked him to keep an eye on. Except even there there’s a bit of a muddle, because the potentially dark and serious plotline gets totally derailed by ludicrous literature. Harry bizarrely ends up reading Mrs. Butterworth and the Mad Baron to the Prince, and then his cousin Sebastian and younger brother Edward start up a staged reading, and it all goes distinctly odd from there.

All of these details and plotlines and detours sort of get in the way of Harry and Olivia’s love story, though. Which is a shame, because they’re both pretty interesting characters. Olivia is forthright but charming; Harry is observant and snarky. Each is a lot of fun, individually. But they sort of go from outright disliking each other to serious involvement in rather a hurry, and while I’m perfectly willing to believe in love stories that move at lightning pace, I need to at least feel it happening — and I couldn’t, here, and I think it’s because of all the other clutter in the book. The story elements never quite fit together in the right way. It’s as though they’re all jostling for attention, and as a result, anything deeper gets totally lost.

In the last forty pages of the book, Olivia gets kidnapped by the Russian ambassador — a villain who I don’t think ever even gets a name, which should give you a good impression of his general importance to the plotline. This could have been better done. We needed some hints beforehand, beyond the vagueness of Harry’s instructions to watch the Prince. He’s not much of a convincing red herring, especially since there’s nothing really to red herring for. The ambassador just wants his cousin to fork over some cash. That’s it. That’s all. Despite having a hero in the War Office and introducing all sorts of exciting foreign elements, JQ doesn’t really do anything with them. There’s no espionage, no scheming, no sinister plots. Olivia just gets kidnapped out of the blue, and I found it quite odd and jarring.

So, on the whole, this was a pleasant enough read, but it never really came together in a way that I found satisfying. Not one of JQ’s worst, but not one of her best, either.

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Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Rules to Catch a Devilish DukeRulestoCatch
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 343 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars

Well, this is one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a long time. I really mean that. I tore through this in about 24 hours because I just couldn’t stand to be parted from it.

Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. Of course, the reason she can get away with being all of these things is because she lives a life outside the bounds of the good ton. Sophia White is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Hennessey, sired on his wife’s maid. Raised in obscurity, Sophia eventually finds a comfortable place at the Tantalus Club (a gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and staffed entirely by ladies, if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series or my reviews of them) — and she appears in both of the previous books in the series as a supporting character. This was going along well for her until her father randomly chose to care about her existence again — not to acknowledge her, but to threaten her. Tired of being ribbed by his peers about his by-blow’s occupation, he’s arranged for her to marry an alarmingly pious vicar in Cornwall; if Sophia doesn’t agree, he will use his power to destroy the Tantalus Club and everyone Sophia cares about.

Adam Baswich, Duke of Greaves, unwittingly provides Sophia with an opportunity for one last hurrah before her sentencing. He invites her to a Christmas house party at his estate in Yorkshire, ostensibly to keep Camille and Keating (see Taming an Impossible Rogue) company. But as Sophia is traveling to the estate, the bridge over the river collapses, dunking her in it. Adam rescues her, but that leaves them as the only people on the correct side of the river until the bridge is repaired, except for Adam’s unbelievably snotty elder sister. (And I do find this a bit of a plot stretch — I mean, really, no one could build a raft or a pontoon or something? I mean, this is the River Aire they’re talking about — not exactly a huge impediment — but I’m willing to forgive it because of what it leads to). Now, why was the Duke giving such a large house party? Apparently it’s his custom at Christmas, as he’s someone who clings to company so as not to be left alone with his own mind (I empathise, Adam); but this year, there’s something more pressing: he also invites a dozen eligible young ladies so that he can choose a bride from among them. His father’s will stipulates that he marry by age 30 and produce an heir by age 31, or else all the property and money goes to his sister’s son. (Side note: I know I’ve read another book in the past year with that exact same stipulation. I think it might’ve been one of Mary Balogh’s? I don’t appear to have reviewed it, if I did, but regardless — I find it very odd and improbable. The requirement to marry makes sense, but surely any English peer would know what a dicey thing getting an heir is, and would not set a time limit on that). But since none of the eligible ladies can get across the river until the bridge is repaired, Adam has to settle for Sophia’s company. And what company it turns out to be.

The most excellent thing about this book is that Adam and Sophia are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. But they can’t see it, bless ’em. They do build a real friendship, which is so important and honestly pretty rare in romance novels. Adam is astonished to discover that there’s a woman he actually enjoys spending time around and conversing with, and Sophia is pleased not to be treated like a leper or a whore. They are so gorgeous together. The friendship is there, but powerful attraction is as well, and it doesn’t take long for them to fall into bed together — but the way it happens is sort of fantastic. They’re playing cards and wagering kisses, until Sophia — Sophia! — suggests playing strip piquet instead. I thought it was brilliant. Enoch does a great job turning up the heat in that scene, too — not just giving in to the hormones immediately, but letting it simmer, then bubble, then broil over. I know that feeling, the long tease, knowing precisely where the night’s going to end but suspending gratification to make it all the better — and Enoch captures the tantalising delight of it so well. The sex scenes throughout this book are magnificent, not least because we don’t have to deal with any of that “teach the virgin to accept pleasure” nonsense. Nope, Sophia knows what she wants and grabs at it, quite literally in a few cases. It’s so refreshing.

But, the bridge gets repaired, and Adam and Sophia have to face the music. Adam sets to trying to pick a bride out from the herd he invited over, but though he tries to reconcile himself to the idea of Lady Caroline Emery, least offensive of the bunch, he of course can’t stay away from Sophia. Sophia, meanwhile, is having to fend off all kinds of gross behaviour from men and women alike. If she’s not getting sneered at and insulted, she’s being propositioned. The men all want to know if she’s Adam’s mistress — and I actually really enjoy the interplay around this. Because she isn’t. She doesn’t want to be, and she lets Adam know that right from the start. A lover, but not a mistress, not someone who’s kept and paid for. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances of their world, that also leaves her unprotected. And that creates quite a bit of drama for them both.

I knock half a point off because the end is a little unsatisfying — it all crashes together very quickly, with literally no denouement whatsoever. I want to know more, to be assured of their future happiness! How do they deal with the vicar? How do they handle life back in London? Does Adam manage to get the heir he needs in the fourteen months remaining to him? Enoch had better wrap those details up with a cameo in the next book, or I might have a bit of a hissy fit. And I also dock for an unflattering portrayal of Cornwall, which really is a lovely region with gorgeous landscapes and the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. On the whole, though, Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.

I’m excited for the next book in the series to come out in a few months. I’m curious who the next heroine will be (as Enoch’s website doesn’t say and I haven’t looked it up elsewhere yet) — my money is on Emily Portsmouth, because far too much has been made of her keeping her true identity a secret for her to just be a side mention, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Lady Caroline Emery get a story of her own. She seems a likely sort.

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Taming an Impossible Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Taming an Impossible Rogue (Scandalous Brides #2)TaminganImpossibleRogue
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I still enjoyed dipping into the world of the Tantalus Club, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I found the heroine lackluster and the hero hard to like, and that impeded my enjoyment.

The basic outline of the story isn’t bad: Camille Pryce ran away from her wedding a year ago on the sudden realisation that she did not want to spend her life with the groom. Not hard to believe, considering that the marriage was arranged when she was three days old, and yet the groom, the Marquis of Fenton, never saw fit to so much as introduce himself to her at any point in the past twenty-one years. Turned away by both friends and relatives, Camille eventually ended up at the Tantalus Club, a scandalous gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and exclusively staffed by women (see Scandalous Brides #1, A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes). It takes Fenton a year to decide he would still like to marry Camille after all — and his reasoning here is less-than-flawless. He’s tired of his peers poking fun at him for the runaway bride, but I can’t imagine that any Marquis with a stick up his rear as large as the one Fenton seems to have ramroding his spine would take a supposedly fallen woman back rather than dissolving the betrothal and finding someone else to marry. So the rationale is a little odd, but whatever his justification, he wants her back — but he can’t get into the Tantalus Club to see her, as Camille has had him barred. Fenton decides to send his cousin, Keating Blackwood, instead, for reasons that are equally unclear. You’d think Fenton could convince somebody to help him out who didn’t have such a thorough reputation for seduction, and probably for less than the ten thousand pounds he promises Keating. But Keating is charming and therefore that will lure Camille out or… something? Like I said, Fenton’s powers of decision-making are really far from flawless.

It doesn’t help matters that Keating, apart from being a notorious rake, is also a sot and a murderer. Yes, you read that right. Six years ago, he had an affair with a married woman, her husband found out, pursued him back to his house, and Keating shot him in self-defence — but definitely killed him, and has been skulking outside of polite society ever since, apparently at the bottom of a vodka bottle. It’s hugely unattractive. For the first few chapters, most of what we know about Keating is that he has an unpleasant attitude, is constantly either drunk or hungover, and doesn’t bathe or change his clothes often enough to mask the odor of alcohol. And this is our supposed hero. Now, don’t let anyone think I’m saying that alcoholics can’t change or aren’t deserving of love — but none of that is ever addressed, except that he just magically stops drinking once he starts falling in love with Camille. The entire problem — and at the beginning of the book, it’s a huge problem — is glossed over. It’s like Enoch wanted to give herself a huge challenge and set out to make as thoroughly unredeemable a hero as possible, but then instead of actually going through the effort to work through his manifold flaws, just sort of hand-waves them all with The Power of Love. It’s unconvincing and wildly unfulfilling.

Anyway. Keating needs the ten thousand pounds to pay off the woman whose husband he kills, not for herself but for the son she claims is Keating’s. He takes Fenton up on his offer and starts trying to reconcile the couple — but, of course, starts falling for Camille himself. Honestly, this book might’ve been better if Fenton was a little less of an overt jackass. If he hadn’t been totally unsuitable, Camille’s dilemma might’ve made more sense. As it was, I could really see no impetus whatsoever for her to go back to him. Clearly she had already gotten used to living outside the bounds of proper society, and clearly she did not really want to go back to a life where she would be continually punished for her supposed “error in judgment”. This book might’ve been more interesting if she’d had more of a spine and done something wonderfully shocking and unexpected, like proposing to Keating rather than waiting for him to come to his senses about her. She almost looked like she might’ve been headed on that road, when she decided to sleep with him because, hey, if everyone figures she’s ruined anyway, why not? But no. Instead, she endures all manner of insults, first from Fenton, then from her family and other ex-friends, about her “shameful” actions. It’s perfectly clear that no one in her life will ever let her live this down, even if the public scandal subsides, but she — for no good reason whatsoever — agrees to go back to Fenton and be downtodden forever.

The “twist” ending for Keating is something I saw coming two hundred pages away, and the climax is a hastily thrown together jumble. Overall, Taming an Impossible Rogue was a huge disappointment. The side characters were more interesting and more likeable than the main characters — Keating enlists his friend the Duke of Greaves as a support, and Camille clings to Sophia, a friend from the club. A lot of what propelled me through this book was the promise of getting on to the next in the series, where those secondaries become the main characters. On its own, Taming is skippable.

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