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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