Tag Archives: Buy Borrow or Bash

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Nine

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Nine

Hello, fellow romance novel junkies. In case you’ve wondered if I’ve totally forgotten my Buy, Borrow, or Bash review series, the answer is no. But it’s been complicated.

In the past year, I’ve read a ton of romance novels. I’ve plowed through the backlist of Anne Gracie and Miranda Neville. I’ve re-read everything by Cecilia Grant. I’ve enjoyed an old, adorable traditional series called “The Poor Relation” by Marion Chesney. I’ve even rekindled an old guilty pleasure, Highland romances, by reading some Tanya Anne Crosby!

Here’s my main problem: I just don’t have the time to patiently dissect everything I’ve read. Trying to write thoughtful critiques takes as much concentration as writing an original narrative. (Seriously. I’m not kidding.) Since I’m still in the middle of writing a novel—and being horribly bogged down by the process—well, sometimes my brain feels like it’s ready to explode. One day, a forensics crew is just going to scrape my remains off my laptop. “She died of spontaneous verbal combustion,” they will conclude. Death by too many words.

Anyway, enough of my excuses. Here are two reviews that previously appeared in The San Francisco Book Review. These versions are slightly longer and more detailed than the original versions.

 

Loretta Chase’s Vixen in Velvet (2014)

Vixen in Velvet is the third installment in Loretta Chase’s popular Dressmaker series. It features the youngest Noirot sister, the redheaded Leonie, who struggles to keep the family business afloat despite the absence of her siblings. While Marcelline wrestles with morning sickness and Sophie’s on an extended honeymoon, Leonie overextends herself with running Maison Noirot. She does everything from the juggling the accounts to promoting the shop. Leonie doesn’t have time for neither leisure nor casual flirtations.

Lord Lisbourne thinks Leonie should make time for him. Lisbourne’s only in London to look after his famous cousin, Lord Swanton, a sentimental poet with a rabid female following. As Swanton embarks on a round of public poetry readings, Lisbourne can’t help but pursue the beautiful businesswoman who ostensibly attends the events to attract new clientele. When a scandalmonger tries to destroy the reputations of Maison Noirot and Swanton, Leonie and Lisbourne are drawn together to fight the slander.

Aside from the main plot, there’s also an ugly duckling subplot and a bet about a Botticelli painting. Vixen in Velvet has classic Chase plotting, with many threads expertly woven into a shimmering whole.

Leonie’s an independent and sensible heroine while Lisbourne isn’t as dumb as some other Chase heroes. He’s devious and witty. He’s a real pleasure to follow as the action unfolds.

While I felt that the first two Dressmaker novels lacked the sparkle of Chase’s earlier novels, I keep reading because I’m interested in the development of Lady Clara Fairfax, a supporting character prominent in the series. While Vixen in Velvet originally felt like a detour from the story I wanted, it’s still an entertaining and amusing diversion, full of hilariously bad poetry and scintillating romance.

heat meter: four chilies          final rating: borrow

 

Hungry for More: Romantic Fantasies for Women (2014) 

Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Hungry for More: Romantic Fantasies for Women has a subtitle that will lure readers who are bored with traditional romances but feel too skittish for BDSM narratives. Yet the twenty-one short stories vary so much in quality and specific kink. While there’s definitely something for everyone, on the other hand, there’s probably something that makes a reader feel squeamish.

The anthology explores everything from bondage, ménage à trois, and bukake. It also tackles some gray-area fantasies, like voyeurism (Tiffany Reisz’s “Bringing the Heat”) and consensual sex with a high school boy (Valerie Alexander’s “Jailbait Torch Song”). In the hands of lesser writers, these topics can be problematic. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be erotica if it didn’t offend someone.

Greta Christina’s “Craig’s List” is the story that I found more terrifying than sexy. The main character seems hell-bent on self-destruction and I found the ending ominous. It made me wish the stories were classified by kink or labelled with trigger warnings, so I would know which ones to skip.

While it’s not as hardcore as Anne Rice’s “classic” Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, somehow I felt entirely too vanilla for this collection. For the curious and the adventurous though, Hungry for More is worth picking up, especially if you want to know what other women secretly think when they see an oversized kitchen whisk.

heat rating: five chilies          final rating: borrow

 

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Outside the Comfort Zone

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Outside the Comfort Zone

For the eighth round of Buy, Borrow, or Bash, I decided to read a couple of romances that are out of my comfort zone. On a whim, I picked up a Christian romance set in the Edwardian era and a holiday romance set in the Victorian era. To top this all off, I picked up a Mary Balogh novel because I’m incredibly biased against novels with the word “mistress” in the title.

(I’m not kidding. I think some words should never be part of a title, words like ho, sluttish, rapine, secret baby… you get the idea.)

So…did these romances manage to win me over to their sub-genres? Let’s take a look.

 

Carrie Turansky’s The Governess of Highland Hall (2013)

The Governess of Highland Hall is like Little Women amped up to eleven: the main character’s a saintly Beth and a maternal Meg rolled into one neat package.

Julia Foster is the plucky daughter of English missionaries, and she’s spent most of her young life in India. Now that her father is ill, her family’s returned home and Julia must take a post as a governess to help pay the bills.

A widower who came into his title recently, Sir William Ramsey hires Julia to care for his two children and his two debutante-aged cousins. He finds himself increasingly attracted to his new employee, but he tries to stifle the attraction. The estate he inherited is bogged down with debt, and a marriage of convenience is the easiest solution to all his problems.

Many obstacles are thrown into Julia’s path—territorial senior servants, Sir William’s douchey brother, an American heiress named Alice Drexel—but Julia always manages to pray and philosophize her way out of difficult situations.

Since the book is marketed as a Christian romance, there are lots of references to prayer and the Bible. Since I was raised a disgruntled Catholic, this bothered me less than I expected it would. After two hundred pages though, it got grating. I’m obviously not the target market of this work.

I also wonder if any readers of Indian descent will take offense at the historically accurate attitude taken by some of the book’s characters. While it’s almost refreshing that the book is brave enough not to be revisionist (in the sense that not all the characters are enlightened), I still question the wisdom of the portrayal. It’s treading on thin ground, really.

It bothers me, too, that Julia refers to India as a whole, and never talks about growing up in a particular region in the subcontinent.

While the book’s main conflict is resolved in the usual fashion, some of the subplots are left at loose ends. Does the housemaid reunite with her stable boy? Does the housekeeper, Mrs. Emmitt, ever accept that the former governess is now her new boss? Do I really care? Does it really matter?

I can imagine the nuns in my old high school stocking the library with this book, and other Christian romances just like it. There’s absolutely no sex, whether implied or explicit. Even a character’s unwanted advances amounted to nothing more than a drunken fumble. This romance is so clean you can serve hors d’oeuvres on it.

heat meter: one chili         final rating: borrow

 

Victoria Alexander’s His Mistress by Christmas (2012)

In His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Veronica Smithson attends a book lecture and makes the rash decision to seduce the charismatic speaker. The man she lusts for is the amateur explorer Sir Sebastian Hadley-Attwater, a well-known adventurer—in every sense of the word. He also happens to be a cousin of a good friend.

Portia, Lady Redwell, almost regrets making the introduction when she finds out what Lady Veronica’s secret intentions. For his part, Sir Sebastian is intrigued by Lady Veronica. He’s returned to England to settle down for good. He’s finally decided he wants to do all the grown-up things he’s expected to do—buy an estate and come into his inheritance—and he’s even willing to add a wife to the mix. So when Lady Veronica presents herself so willingly, it’s difficult for Sir Sebastian not to want her.

Except now, with the idea of marriage just stirring in his brain, Sir Sebastian wants something more than a conquest. He tells Lady Veronica, rather hypocritically, “One does not seduce the woman one intends to marry.”

So what does Sir Sebastian do to get his way? Of course the man decides to lie to everyone. He lies to Lady Veronica so that she visits his estate, thinking that she’s there for a liaison. He then lies to his extended family, saying that they got speedily and secretly married.

Then things happen…

This is one of those novels in which the central conceit runs out of steam way too fast. The heroine wants to be independent but she’s just going the entirely wrong way about it. She starts off as a merry widow with a coterie of female friends; I don’t understand why she feels the need to become a mistress of a particular guy, no matter how attractive. I mean, there are obviously other alternatives, like hiring a string of strapping young footmen. For a rich, smart woman, she has a rather limited imagination.

The scene where Lady Veronica tries her hand at seduction just made me go “eww.” (Really. That’s all I wrote down in my notes. “Eww.” If I can’t be bothered to make notes, it means I really want to forget the scene as quickly as possible.)

I reserve some ire for Sir Sebastian, too. For a gentleman explorer, he’s not quite perceptive. Sir Sebastian’s lack of foresight and his poor communication skills causes most of the shallow conflict in the first place.

Surely there are Christmas-themed romances that won’t make me feel like hurling the book against the wall. After His Mistress by Christmas, I almost wanted to boycott the holiday season. Maybe some other titles in this sub-genre will be more to my liking.

heat meter: three chilies          final rating: bash

 

Mary Balogh’s The Secret Mistress (2012)

This book’s title is incredibly misleading because the main plot has nothing to do with mistresses. Unlike His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Angeline Dudley’s main goal in life isn’t to be some guy’s kept woman.

Impulsive, good-hearted, and yet very sheltered, Lady Angeline is shocked when a strange gentleman mistakes her for a tart. Just because she’s in a posting inn waiting for her brother, it doesn’t mean she has to put up with the man’s lewd suggestions. So when yet another stranger leaps to her defense, Lady Angeline naturally develops a crush on this chivalrous gentleman.

Lady Angeline’s knight in shining armor is Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heyward. All the rakes think he’s dull and he’s okay with that. He’s eager to differentiate himself from his older brother, the previous earl, a man who died recklessly.

Edward’s determined to be responsible and dependable. One of Heyward’s new responsibilities is to get married and secure the lineage. His back-up plan is to propose to his friend, Eunice Goddard. Yet Eunice wants to marry for love.

As the London season begins, Heyward finds himself being pushed in Lady Angeline’s direction. As the most eligible bachelor and debutante on the market, everyone thinks they make a perfect match. But nothing is easy, especially with rakes on the prowl and a pretty bluestocking with a mind of her own…

Apart from the book’s awful title, The Secret Mistress is actually a charming romance. Both the hero and the heroine are developed equally, and they sort out their misconceptions about marriage while finding each other. There isn’t much sex in it, but since I’m a sucker for straight-laced heroes who keep their passions well hidden, I’m not going to pick on Heyward’s gentlemanly behavior. Quality trumps quantity, even with sex scenes.

heat meter: three chilies           final rating: buy

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Some days, I feel horrible that I write such honest reviews. If there was ever a trio of writers I’d want to throw roses at, it would be Julia Quinn, Anne Stuart, and Kate Perry. (Kate, especially, because I met her and she’s a lovely, bubbly woman; I hope she doesn’t crucify me for my opinions.)

Yet I would not be doing my (self-appointed) task and I would be ignoring all my training—in comparative literature and in copyediting—if I didn’t point out certain elements that bother me on a visceral level.

These things probably don’t disturb other readers. Then again, other readers may not see the same missed opportunities. And nothing makes me angrier, I think, than missed opportunities: they separate the decent texts from the glorious ones.

 

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

 

Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece (1984; reprinted 2012) 

I don’t know what to make Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece. It’s a pity because I liked one of her other novels. I like the concept of a romance set in the San Francisco art scene, too.

Molly McDonough is a buyer for the fictional San Francisco Museum of American Arts. She’s a dedicated professional who puts tons of effort into checking the provenance of the pieces she recommends. She grows outraged when another buyer starts snapping up all the good pieces, which drives the prices out of the museum’s reach.

Her competitor is James Eliot, a buyer who works for an extremely rich private collector. In a fit of pique, Molly drafts an insulting letter to her nemesis, accusing him of unethical buying tactics. She writes a polite version too, but in her irritated state, she accidentally sends James Eliot the wrong letter.

The letter gets James’s attention, and soon they start bumping heads more often. They argue over everything, from heirloom pieces to modern art. So far, so good. The book has many visual art references, and that’s great. What isn’t so great, however, is the romance itself.

I suppose I should call Museum Piece a contemporary romance. Yet it was written (and probably set) in 1984, and some of the details make the book oddly quaint by today’s sartorial standards. For instance, the heroine unironically uses a typewriter and wears sexy jumpsuits to dinner parties. Okay, so maybe to a reader in 2014, this might acceptable hipster behavior.

What isn’t acceptable, however, is the hero’s gross sexual behavior. When James first meets Molly, he pretty much forces his tongue down her throat. Later on, when she happens to fall asleep in his presence, he starts groping her even when she already made it clear she didn’t want to be touched.

Worst of all, at one point where Molly starts swearing at him, James actually turns her over in his lap and starts spanking her. His spanking is in earnest, mind you—it’s not play-spanking, and it’s not consensual. The heroine actually starts crying, and she promises never to curse again.

Eww.

I seriously wonder why the publishers reprinted this one.

I know fashions change fairly quickly. Yet some concepts—oh, like mutual consent—never goes out of style.

It makes me sad that the best character in Museum Piece is probably Sebastian Coddaire, Molly’s ex-boyfriend. Sebastian’s a fabulous caricature of a rising young artist. He’s so selfish, he thinks Molly exists to feed and house him so he can create his masterpieces. As a person, he’s almost as bad as the hero; as a character, at least he’s amusing.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I have to say that copies of Museum Piece belong in a private collector’s locked vault: not because it’s so precious, but so the novel goes unread by the unsuspecting masses.

heat meter: four chilis          final rating: bash

 

Kate Perry’s Say You Will (2013)

The first installment of the Summerhill series, Say You Will is a contemporary romance that features Rosalind Summerhill, a San Francisco-based fashion designer with major family issues.

Rosalind just flew back to London to be with her sisters (they’re all named after Shakespearean heroines), in time for the funeral of their father, Reginald Summerhill, the late Earl of Amberlin. The dearly departed was a jerk to most of his family, and he openly humiliated his wife Jacqueline with a longtime mistress, Tabitha Wells.

At the wake, Rosalind spots a good-looking man who turns out to be Nicholas “Nick” Long, a Formula One race car driver (and occasional endorser of designer underwear) in the crowd. Nick just happens to be Tabitha Wells’ step-son, and he was dragged to the wake incognito by Summer Wells. Summer is the earl’s illegitimate daughter, and she’s always been curious about all of her half-siblings she’s never met.

Nick’s immediately attracted to Rosalind but he goes along with Summer’s idea not to reveal their reason for attending the wake. So Nick pretends to be a lawyer (!) while Summer pretends to need a wedding dress (!!) and she asks Rosalind to design her one.

Aside from all these little white lies, the main conflict of Say You Will revolves around a missing will. Jacqueline Summerhill announces that she’s worried that Reginald left the bulk of the estate to Tabitha. Since Tabitha died in the same car crash as Reginald, her heirs might inherit everything.

Instead of doing the sensible thing in this situation, which would be to hire some lawyers and some private detectives, the Summerhill sisters decide to investigate for themselves. Rosalind takes charge, and the silliness reaches its pinnacle when the sisters break into the dead woman’s house. Instead of finding the will, Rosalind finds photos of her new boyfriend Nick and his step-sister all over the place.

If there ever was a moment meant for epic face palming, that would be it.

There’s a certain flatness about the escapades of Rosalind and Nick. For people with glamorous day jobs, both of them are bland people who only seem mildly acquainted with their work. It strains a reader’s credulity: if Rosalind is a top fashion designer, how come she’s never seen Nick before, who has underwear billboards plastered everywhere? Granted, she designs wedding gowns, but still.

Strangely enough, the most interesting section of Say You Will doesn’t involve a Summerhill sister, but a receptionist named Em Shepherd, who works at Summer Well’s law firm.

Em is convinced that she’s in love with Ben Cooke, a man who runs the local nursery. Even if she hates gardening, she volunteers all the time to be near Ben. Her horrible childhood left her scarred and Em thinks she needs a stable guy to complete her. The lady doth protests too much, though, because Em’s also attracted to Joe Winslow, a lawyer who has a big crush on her.

One character—Summer Wells—holds the two romances together, tenuously; yet the two stories aren’t counterpoints to each other in any way. It’s not like Couple A are hot and steamy while Couple B are sweet and tentative. (Do you know who mastered this trope? Iris Johansen. Read her old romances, like Midnight Warrior and Storm Winds, to see what I mean.) In the case of Say You Will, it’s almost as if they were two separate narratives crammed into the same space.

While many might find the concept of the Summerhill sisters charming, I’d have to say I enjoyed reading about Em more. Her sections of the novel felt more sincere and heartfelt, and I really wish more pages were spent on her story.

heat meter: three chilis          rating: borrow for Em

 

Julia Quinn’s Ten Things I Love about You (2010)

This reader’s confession: I’ve read more Julia Quinn than I’ve ever reviewed. Unfortunately, I made notes while reading a Quinn novel I feel ambivalent about. I feel like I have to apologize to the universe for this happenstance, this quirk of fate.

I digress.

Ten Things I Love about You focuses on a weird love triangle between a voluptuous but impoverished debutante, a gross old earl, and the earl’s heir presumptive.

The debutante in question is Annabel Winslow. She has the misfortune of being groomed to marry the earl of Newbury, a man old enough to be her grandfather. The earl is on the lookout for a nubile bride, since he’s determined to leave his estate to someone other than his much-hated nephew, Sebastian Grey.

Sebastian and Annabel meet under unusual circumstances, far away from a ballroom. After escaping her elderly suitor’s groping hands, Annabel stumbles upon a stranger who just finished a liaison with another woman. Loitering in the dark heath, Annabel and Sebastian don’t exchange names, they talk, and then they share a single kiss.

The next day, Annabel realizes her mistake once she finds out the identity of her handsome stranger. Like a dimwit, she tries to conceal her engagement to the earl when she’s formally introduced to Sebastian. And then things happen…

Ten Things I Love about You picks up What Happens in London ends. (It scares me that I actually know this without thinking too deeply about it.) Harry and Olivia Valentine show up and they’re happily married. Sarah Gorely’s gothic novels make a re-appearance too, since it’s revealed to be Sebastian Grey’s pen name. Yes, we have another secret writer on our hands, folks.

These elements usually make up a stellar Quinn novel, yet the novel itself feels lacking. The love triangle is unconvincing; it’s more like a tug of war between the two men. They have issues beyond both of them wanting Annabel. If I was in the heroine’s position, I’d dump them both. Nobody likes to be treated like the spoils of war…right?

Speaking of wars, Sebastian Grey is yet another Regency hero who suffers from bad nightmares, due to the number of people he shot during the Napoleonic wars. While this subplot is underdeveloped, one can reasonably expect that the heroine’s magic hoo ha will provide the ultimate cure.

Perhaps the cynicism of that last statement is misguided; perhaps I’m tired of the trope that love and sex can put an end to PTSD.

heat meter: three chilis           final rating: borrow (if you really like Julia Quinn) otherwise bash 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Six

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Six

Round Six of Buy, Borrow, or Bash features something unusual: two books that actually meet the five chili rating! Which book is the spiciest read for the month? Find out below.

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

Marion Chesney’s The Loves of Lord Granton (1997; Kindle edition, 2014) 

Not many readers know that romance writer Marion Chesney is also best-selling mystery author M.C. Beaton. With The Loves of Lord Granton now re-issued under Marion Chesney’s other name, I wonder if her mystery fans will cross over and discover this work.

Is there anything in this text that will endear itself to mystery readers? I’m not sure.

In a sleepy village called Barton Sub Edge, the genteel but poor Hadleys have to toady to the local baronet, Sir Giles Crowne, who can take away the family living in a moment’s notice. Sir Giles has a stuck-up daughter, Annabelle, who couldn’t attract a husband during her first season in London. Out of desperation, the baronet invites slight acquaintances to visit. Annabelle’s concerned, though, that the gentlemen will be distracted by the Hadley sisters.

When the novel’s Prince Charming shows up, he’s not the upright citizen he ought to be. Lord Rupert Granton’s a scandal-ridden aristocrat and he visits Sir Giles because he’s bored with London. He’s initially bored with Barton Sub Edge too, until he meets the youngest Hadley daughter, the pretty but wayward Frederica.

Lord Granton shouldn’t even take notice of Frederica. As a sixteen-year old, she’s not yet “out,” and she’s kept in hand-me-down gowns and wears her hair down. Everyone thinks she’s odd because she reads too much and enjoys the outdoors, which is where Lord Rupert finds her.

An innocent friendship blossoms between the rake and the girl, as they share the same feelings of ennui with their social spheres. Social strictures frown upon their secret meetings, however, because Men and Women Can’t Be Friends. Every chat they have is fraught with fear of discovery. Frederica begins to think she’s a fool to sacrifice her reputation for a friend, while Lord Granton refuses to look beyond the surface of his feelings.

The Loves of Lord Granton is a quiet book and a fast read. I think of it as When Harry Met Sally… set in the Regency era. In its own way, it tries to answer that old question, “Can Men and Women Truly be Friends?” The answer is yes. Sort of.

For me, the book has a minor flaw: after it’s repeatedly mentioned that Lord Granton is attracted to Frederica’s innocence, the reader doesn’t get to see any consummation.  The closed door scene we are given just doesn’t cut it. I know it’s a thoroughly traditional romance, I just feel that a passionate reversal of the beginning could have properly concluded the book.

heat meter: one chili          final rating: borrow

 

Sally MacKenzie’s The Naked Viscount (2010) 

Edmund Smyth, Visount Motton, enjoys a spot of amateur spying. He likes it so much that when his neighbor, an aristocratic artist named Clarence Widmore, dies under mysterious circumstances, Edmund breaks into the house to investigate. Was Clarence a French spy or was he involved in something more sinister?

Unfortunately for Edmund, Jane Parker-Roth catches him breaking in. They have a scuffle in the dark, share a passionate kiss, and break a plaster statue of Pan by accident. This leads to Jane finding a hidden clue and she’s excited to search for more.

Against his better judgment, Edmund allows Jane to tag along during his investigation. Their mad search all around London raises the eyebrows of high society, and rouses the attention of Clarence’s killers.

I read The Naked Viscount about a year ago. I thought it was hilarious so I gave its sequel, The Naked King, a try—I wish I hadn’t! Her other novels, too, have gotten spectacularly mixed reviews.

In any case, though, I still found The Naked Viscount funny. The language isn’t period perfect and the premise seems too raunchy to be historically possible. (Handcuffs, for instance, existed by mid-19th century, but probably not earlier than that. Rope bindings would have been more accurate for the time period.)

With a heavy suspension of disbelief, however, The Naked Viscount can be a fun romp. The heroine is spunky and the hero possesses both a graphic vocabulary and a graphic imagination. Where else can you find a historical romance where the hero and heroine bond over removable penises and pornography?

heat meter: five chilis (Why? For the orgies at the hellfire club, the handcuffs, and the indiscriminate use of aphrodisiacs)

final rating: buy (Especially If you want to pretend it’s a fanfiction sequel to Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect. Somehow I like the idea of Mrs. Parker-Roth Bathsheba Wingate painting a large nude of Mr. Parker-Roth Benedict Carsington that can be seen in a Harley Street gallery for Jane and Edmund Olivia and Peregrine to discover.)

 

Miranda Neville’s Confessions from an Arranged Marriage (2012) 

Minerva Montrose is a political-minded young miss who dreams of making her mark on the world through her future husband. She wants to marry someone she can help propel to the top of the English government. She thinks she’s found her perfect mark in an ambitious Member of Parliament, and she’s eager to talk to him at parties.

Unfortunately, during one of these events, the drunken Lord Blakeney mistakes Minerva for another woman in a dark library. Minerva finds her reputation threatened when half the haute ton sees (or thinks they see) him under her skirts.

The Duke of Hampton, displeased with his heir for causing a scandal, forces the arranged marriage between the two strangers. Minerva takes some time to adjust to Lord Blakeney, who’s the antithesis of everything she wanted. Instead of the bookish, politically-minded mate she hoped to marry, she finds herself shackled to a jock who never cracks open a book.

Lord Blakeney takes time to adjust to Minerva, too. Like the hero of Julia Quinn’s The Lost Duke of Wyndham, Lord Blakeney secretly suffers from dyslexia. Yes, we have another dyslexic ducal heir on our hands. He’s been hiding his affliction by paying off blackmailers and using his retentive memory to absorb knowledge orally. But now that he’s married to an intelligent woman whom he’s beginning to care for, Lord Blakeney is terrified that Minerva will reject him once she knows the truth.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage has the misfortune of reminding me of yet another book, Madeline Hunter’s The Charmer. If you happen to like that other novel’s preoccupation with Regency-era politics (rotten boroughs, patronage politics, and hunting out Napoleonic spies) then maybe this one will suit.

Even if this book reminds me of other romance novels, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage isn’t unoriginal or trite. It’s a perfectly decent book for a little light reading, and it tackles all its subplots with deftness.

heat meter: five chilis! (Why? For the multiple sex scenes, voyeurism, and that French duke that makes his royal mistress bark like a dog)

final rating: borrow

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Writers and Editors in Love

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Writers and Editors in Love

Round Five of Buy, Borrow, or Bash features two literary-minded Regency romances.

As a writer and an editor, I had to read both of these novels when I stumbled upon them. How do these books measure up to my expectations and my professional biases? Let’s examine the textual evidence!

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

 

Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgeton (2002)

During her first London season, Penelope Featherington was slightly overweight, acne-prone, and ill-dressed. That pathetic image of her stuck in the minds of the haute ton and Colin Bridgerton, the man Penelope’s secretly loved for years.

Now considered a spinster, Penelope’s often overlooked by everyone, which suits her just fine…somewhat. What people don’t know is that Penelope’s put her years as a wallflower to good use. She has a secret: she’s been writing an anonymous society column for a decade. Writing as the witty and outspoken Lady Whistledown, Penelope cuts everyone down to size…except for Colin, of course.  No one, not even her best friend, knows her alter ego.

Colin Bridgerton has his own secrets: he has a temper, he eats too much, and he’s secretly jealous of his brothers who have a purpose in life. When he comes home from yet another aimless trip abroad, he finds that everyone has moved on with their lives—including Penelope Featherington, who doesn’t seem to be the same person he used to know.

Will Penelope and Colin go back to having the casual friendship they once had or will they get to the bottom of each other’s mysteries?

It’s usually a challenge to summarize a Julia Quinn romance due to the delicate and slow-moving nature of her characters. Somewhat like Quinn’s Just Like Heaven (one of my personal favorites), Penelope and Colin spend a lot of time talking and thinking. They don’t jump out of speeding carriages, become pirates, or chase ghosts. If you’re looking for an action-packed historical romance, this isn’t it. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is: 1) an ode to the ugly duckling trope, and 2) a love letter to every reader who wants to become a writer, and doesn’t know where to start.

Penelope’s a great heroine while Colin is a sweet, memorable hero. It’s adorable when a male protagonist can admit to being jealous of their loved one’s superior talent. Everything is resolved nicely, and the novel ends with unicorns and rainbows. (Not literally, but you get the idea.)

heat meter: three          final rating: buy

 

Carola Dunn’s Crossed Quills (1998; Kindle Edition 2010)

Wynn Selworth can finally put his years of writing racy gothic romances behind him. He just inherited a distant relation’s title and estate, and now he has enough money to do whatever he wants. Wynn’s spending for his half-sister’s first London season, but he isn’t keen to conquer high society. Wynn’s real dreams involves taking his radical ideas to the House of Lords.

Unfortunately, his usual writing style is just wrong for political speeches! Desperate for a writing coach, Wynn decides to look for his favorite essayist. Prometheus was the pen name of Lisle, a Member of Parliament known for his fiery rhetoric. Since Lisle’s death, however, someone else close to him has taken up the nom de plume, and Lord Selworth’s determined to find out.

Since her father’s death, Philippa “Pippa” Lisle has become more than a secretary—now she’s writing in his stead. Only three people know Pippa’s secret, because her slightly seditious essays can ruin her reputation and land her in jail.

Naturally, Pippa isn’t amused when the handsome Lord Selworth arrives at her doorstep, pleading to know who the new Prometheus is. Pippa doesn’t care how much Wynn’s willing to pay for editorial guidance.

Pippa’s mother, however, thinks Wynn’s arrival is heaven-sent. The Lisles needs the money, especially now that Pippa’s younger sister needs a London season. Besides, Mrs. Lisle hasn’t given up hope that both her daughters will find good husbands…

Crossed Quills is an engaging romance: it takes an unabashed look at middle-class husband-hunting while raising the issues confronted by socially conscious writers. The combined themes surprised me, to be honest.

I never thought a romance novel could ever remind me of my left-leaning writing years, but Crossed Quills managed to do just that. Pippa’s fear of discovery is natural, and her horror of social injustices—and her calls to action—feels genuine. I love how Pippa and Wynn are both members of the vacillating intelligentsia, concerned about child labor and the price of luxury goods. And yet they scramble so hard to appear politically moderate to everyone they know! God, that’s adorable. They want to be subtle about affecting social change.     

Crossed Quills is plotted around an elegant conceit: the heroine must hide her political writings, lest she be censured for unladylike behavior, while the hero must hide his past as a successful romance novelist in order for Parliament to take him seriously. Maybe I’m over-reading, but Dunn might be commenting on gender roles, writing, and paratext. How can I not like this book?

Despite my enthusiasm, Crossed Quills has its issues. I felt that the ending was rushed, and I wished there were “excerpts” of Pippa and Wynn’s writings. It’s a missed opportunity to show and not tell: their writings could have come in the form of epigraphs. Oh, maybe I ask for too much. Still, Crossed Quills has more depth than the average historical romance.

heat meter: one          final rating: buy 

 

Some Final Thoughts

Is it unfair to compare the two books? Probably. Still, for those who care about these things, I think Crossed Quills does the secret writer concept best while Romancing Mr. Bridgerton better articulates why writers feel the need to write at all.

In a contest between our two fictional literary heroes, Colin’s diary is pitch-perfect for the era but Wynn’s gothic thought-processes is full of purple prose. It’s a pity there are only hints of Wynn’s writing style because I’m sure he falls into “so bad it’s good” territory. God, I’d love to read that.

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

 

The first Buy, Borrow or Bash for the year features three novels that have nothing in common with each other. In no time-space continuum should these three novels be lumped together in this graceless fashion. Unfortunately, I just happened to read them  in succession. Sometimes it just happens that way.

Since I did a ton of reading last month, I’ll try to post a second BBB next week. I read faster than I analyze and review.

I wish I could set a regular day for posting this feature, except I now have an erratic schedule that leaves me horribly muddled.

 

Carola Dunn’s Lord Iverbrook’s Heir (1986; Kindle edition 2010) 

Hugh Carrick, Viscount Iverbrook, returned from the West Indies to find that his brother and wife passed away, leaving his nephew Peter in the care of his in-laws, with the no-nonsense Selena Whitton in charge as legal guardian.

Since the child is his heir presumptive, Viscount Iverbrook is not keen on leaving Peter where he is. Hugh doesn’t have a high opinion of women, and having hung around ignorant ones most of his life. Hugh is determined to wrest Peter away—only to out that find the child thriving in an estate run wholly by women! The rich Whitton lands are run by Selena, who was brought up by her father to care for the farm. With Lady Whitton, who acts as the neighborhood apothecary with her herbal teas, and Delia, a younger sister addicted to gothic romances, Hugh finds the whole household charming. He finds it impossible to stay away, even as he butts heads with Selena over who has more claim to Peter.

Throw in a destitute Whitton cousin (Sir Aubrey) who wants to marry Selena to gain the estate, a scheming ex-mistress determined to stalk Hugh, a talkative best friend who always says the wrong thing, a couple of nosy solicitors, and ta-dah! You have all the ingredients for a romantic comedy.

Selena doesn’t trust Iverbrook easily. She always acts as if he’s about to kidnap the child, which might be grating to a modern audience. But during that era, men had the upper-hand in almost all legal disputes, so Selena’s paranoia is understandable.

Lord Iverbrook’s Heir was written after Angel, so this book doesn’t suffer from the flaws of that earlier novel. Lord Iverbrook’s Heir has tighter subplots without being simplistic.

Once again, there’s nothing more graphic than a few stolen kisses. At this point, however, I know I’m reading a Carola Dunn novel. I’m used to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Lily Everett’s Sanctuary Island (2013)

Ella and Merry Preston have been estranged from their mother since their parents’ divorce. Fifteen years later, however, with Merry pregnant and Ella having problems at work, the sisters finally agree to visit their mother Jo-Ellen, a recovering alcoholic who lives in a remote place called Sanctuary Island.

Ella’s a prickly, defensive heroine, the type who takes offense at practically anything. She immediately trades barbs with her mother’s handyman and friend, Grady Wilkes. Grady’s a decent man traumatized by a near fatal accident, and he only wants to help heal the rift between his friend and her grown daughters. For reasons known only to himself, Grady makes it his mission to show the beauty of Sanctuary Island to Ella.

Sanctuary Island revolves around themes of forgiveness and second chances. It’s a competent piece of contemporary romance. Unfortunately, its plot is somewhat cookie-cutter. Most the characters suffer from poor communication skills! One of the best parts of the book is when Ben, the local veterinarian, calls out the hero and points out, “this could have been resolved if you talked to each other, man.” (It’s not an exact quotation, but it’s a good estimate.) A Romance Novel Trope has been lampshaded.

Despite its predictability, Sanctuary Island has some good moments. Wild horses and horse-lore play a huge part in the novel, and this element brings freshness to the narrative. Horse therapy works for some people, and the author really knows this aspect of her story well. Readers who remember their childhood love of ponies should swoon. It’s worth noting that the first time Ella sees Grady, he’s riding a horse and looking manly. Of course he would be riding a horse…

While Sanctuary Island wasn’t the right romance novel for me, I’m definite other readers will just adore it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931; reprinted 2013) 

If you’re looking for a romp through the fringes of high society, look no further than Highland Fling. Reissued by Vintage with an introduction by Julian Fellowes, this volume presents Nancy Mitford’s world of dilettantes and workshy nobles to a new generation of readers.

Young Albert Gates decides to become an abstract painter on the day his best friend Walter Monteath proposes to Sally Dalloch. After two years in Paris, Albert returns to London only to be dragged off to a shooting party at a Scottish castle. There he meets Sally’s friend Jane Dacre, a woman ready to fall in love with anyone since she has nothing better to do. The guests assembled at Dalloch Castle are divided between the conservative ‘grown-ups’—an odd collection of peers and military men—and the younger set, who are only keen on poetry and partying.

It’s hard to sympathize with Sally and Walter Monteath’s money troubles or Jane Dacre’s indecisiveness. Only Albert has some sort of goal for himself, and even he’s haphazard and flighty. Overdrawn at the bank and yet coasting on allowances and their family connections, everyone in Highland Fling leads a charmed existence. Dorothy L. Sayers and Edward Gorey endlessly parodied these sorts of characters, in everything from Clouds of Witness to The Curious Sofa. 

Social comedy stems from the clash between the old and the young, the serious and the flippant, the moneyed and their dependents. There’s loads of 1930s pop culture references—everything from Jaeger pajamas to Laszlo—which will probably stump a reader unfamiliar with the time period. Maybe enterprising Downton Abbey fans should take footnotes for their fanfiction.

Highland Fling is like a well-made soufflé; it’s airy and insubstantial. It might leave you craving something with more meat to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow

 

This blog post incorporates ideas from earlier pieces written for the San Francisco Book Review

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

This month’s installment features two early novels from my favorite romance writers, and a new title from someone I haven’t read before.

There are some spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something. 

 

Loretta Chase’s Knaves’ Wager (1990; reprinted 2013)

Knaves’ Wager focuses on a seemingly intelligent man making a stupid bet.

Lord Robert’s embarrassing the family by living with Elise, his scheming French mistress. Everyone thinks she’s just out to con the family and Lord Julian, the Marquis of Brandon, is finally called in to control his younger brother.

In his attempt to separate the two lovers, Lord Julian makes a dumb wager with Elise: if Lord Julian can seduce the virtuous Mrs. Lilith Davenant in eight weeks, Elise will leave Lord Robert and return all of his blackmail-worthy love letters. If Lord Julian fails, Elise will get everything she wants: marriage, perhaps, but most definitely money.

Lilith, however, might be the last woman to succumb to Lord Julian’s charms. She’s a virtuous widow who blames Lord Julian for her husband’s early death by dissipation. It doesn’t help that her husband owes Lord Julian thousands of pounds, and Lilith feels obligated to re-pay the debts despite her dwindling finances. To top it off, Lilith just accepted her perennial suitor, Sir Thomas Bexley, a baronet with political ambitions.

Lord Julian, however, relishes the challenge that Lilith presents. As the London season gets underway, Lilith keeps bumping into Lord Julian—whether by accident or not—and despite her better judgment, she’s attracted to him.

All these encounters brings Lilith’s spunky niece, Cecily Glenwood, to Lord Robert’s attention. He begins to realize he may not want to marry his mistress after all!

Knaves’ Wager might be more complicated than the average romance novel: it has well-developed characters and two love triangles. It somewhat reminds me of Mansfield Park. I think the connection is a deliberate one, as Lord Julian gives Lilith a copy of the book with the inscription “may life with your ‘Edmund Betram’ be truly happily ever after.” (I’m not sure if that’s a dig at Edmund―I love Edmund!―Fanny Price really loved Edmund!) Perhaps the “evil” of not marrying for love is the whole point of the literary reference.

I digress, though.

Knaves’ Wager is a quaint artifact from Loretta Chase’s early career. Like The English Witch, I dug this book out from the bowels of the Oakland Public Library, and once again I was surprised by the lack of sex. There were ample opportunities to insert sexy scenes into the novel without wrecking the plot, but I get the feeling that Chase was being held back (by an editor or a publisher) regarding the amount of sensuality allowed. If anyone out there ever wants to write Loretta Chase fanfiction, Knave’s Wager would be the place to start.

heat meter: one           final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s Angel (1984; Kindle edition 2010) 

Angel might be Dunn’s homage to Jane Austen: the eponymous character has twice the schemes of Emma Woodhouse and half the brains of Katherine Morland. It’s a truly frightful combination.

Lady Evangelina Brenthaven’s gotten eighteen marriage proposals and yet she’s  rejected them all. Bored with polite society and eager to find out if anyone would like her if she wasn’t titled and rich, Angel disguises herself with drab clothes and an assumed name. With her indulgent parents’ permission, Angel passes herself off as plain Evelyn Brand while on a country holiday with her cousins.

Angel finds play-acting fun until she realizes her cousins expect her to stay in character—they want her to do house chores and defer to the social rank of their neighbors! Not much can keep Angel’s spirits down, however, as she starts making matches for her cousin Catherine and Lady Elizabeth Markham, the daughter of a local lord.

The neighborhood is abound with eligible gentlemen, so Angel has many candidates for her friends: there’s Sir Gregory, Lady Elizabeth’s cousin; Lord Welch; Gerald Leigh, the nice but poor vicar; and the mysterious limping Mr. Marshall.

With so many men introduced as potential love interests, Angel becomes an entangled mess. Not content with a simple love triangle, this novel has a love dodecahedron. Throw in a ton of Shakespearean references, a priest hole, an attempted murder, a missing heir and voilà! Subplot madness.

This is the first Carola Dunn romance that disappointed me. Perhaps I should have lowered my expectations, seeing that Angel was only her second novel and that I had read her more polished historical romances first. Angel lacks the passion of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, the fleshed-out characters of The Improper Governess or Lord Iverbrook’s Heir, or even the elegant conceits of The Frog Earl or Crossed Quills.

I still like Carola Dunn. I haven’t called off my hunt for her other romances. I probably just won’t purchase Angel if I find it in a bookstore.

heat meter: one          final rating: bash 

 

Anne Stuart’s Never Kiss a Rake (2013) 

The Russell family is in deep trouble. A shipping tycoon known for his honesty, Russell died in a suspicious accident and became the scapegoat for his company’s bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Bryony, suspects foul play after inspecting his papers. Bryony decides to send her two sisters away so she can infiltrate the households of her father’s old business partners. With her face lightly scarred with smallpox marks, Bryony thinks she’s ugly enough to pose as the perfect housekeeper while searching for the truth.

Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartryn, has secrets of his own that can land him in jail, so he’s immediately on the alert when his new housekeeper isn’t quite like the other servants. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a cruel beauty, Adrian thinks Bryony is fair game, especially if the government sent her to spy on him. What follows is a titillating cat-and-mouse game, sandwiched between bouts of domestic politics worthy of Remains of the Day or Gosford Park. 

If this book was set in contemporary times, Bryony could sue Adrian for sexual harassment and win a million-dollar settlement―he continually makes suggestive comments while Bryony’s working, and at one point he pins her against the bed. The guy’s a sexual predator, and I don’t think that’s a compliment. Since this is a romance novel, however, we’re supposed to find this all charming, especially since Byrony’s always making excuses to search her boss’s bedroom for incriminating evidence.

The mystery and intrigue bits of Never Kiss a Rake are handled well, although it’s frustrating that some elements are deliberately left at a loose end. I hope this doesn’t mean that Anne Stuart’s recycling her villain for the sequels starring Byrony’s sisters! I assume they will be investigating their father’s other shady business partners. Ah, well. Some days I miss the era of standalone novels.

This is the first Anne Stuart novel I’ve read. While I do have some quibbles, Never Kiss a Rake was an enjoyable read. I’m not sure if I’d actually want to buy a copy, but I liked it enough to consider reading the author’s other novels.

heat meter: three           final rating: borrow

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

This month’s Buy, Borrow, or Bash takes a look at three well-established authors: Loretta Chase, Carola Dunn, and Eloisa James.

There are some spoilers in these mini-reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Loretta Chase’s The English Witch (1988; Kindle edition 2011) 

For readers hooked on Loretta Chase and her Carsington novels, The English Witch will pose a conundrum. A Chase novel without sex scenes? How is that possible?! 

The lack of sex is no impediment to an amusing story, though. The English Witch reels with plots within plots, and a heroine with more fiancés than Ranma Saotome. 

Alexandra Ashmore spent the last six years rusticating in Albania, where the locals call her “the English Witch” due to her extraordinary beauty. Her father, an amateur archaeologist, dragged Alexandra all over the region and now expects her to marry Randolph Burnham, the son of the man funding his expedition.

Alexandra, however, doesn’t want Randolph, so she’s forced to write to her godmother for help. Her godmother promptly sends Basil Trevelyan to the rescue.

Basil’s a scheming man, the typical amateur gentleman spy that the Regency era loved so well. With Alexandra’s cooperation, Basil feeds a cock-and-bull story to her father about being a long-lost secret fiancé.

He contrives to bring everyone back to England, where Alexandra manages to snatch up more admirers. Finding himself growing attached to his fake fiancée, Basil must keep on scheming to drive away the competition and win Alexandra’s trust.

The novel suffers from too many minor characters (most of them made their first appearance in Isabella, which I haven’t read yet). It gets confusing. Fortunately, Basil’s an interesting take on the reformed rake trope, and Alexandra’s a tsundere. While it’s not Chase’s best work, I still find it rewarding to trace a writer’s development. If you keep these things in mind, The English Witch will be a good read.

heat meter: one chili           final rating: borrow 

 

Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey (1992; reprinted 2012) 

Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a great novel that transcends the limitations of the genre. It’s more a historical adventure with lots of character development than an empty will-they-do-it-doggy-style mess.

Right before a Jewish matchmaking ceremony, Miriam has doubts about getting married and becoming a wife. She feels pressured to accept the suitor that her mother likes, but all she really wants to do is to travel with her favorite uncle. At the crucial moment, Miriam rejects the quiet young scholar presented to her before he can utter a word.

Years later, her uncle’s death leaves Miriam stranded in France due to the war. She approaches the mysterious Jacob Rothchild for help and he makes her a deal: he’ll give her Swiss papers and help smuggle her back to England. In exchange for this, though, first she must travel with two agents and a secret cargo of gold destined for Wellington’s army near Spain.

Despite the recklessness of the plan and stern warnings from her maid, Miriam accepts before she meets her traveling companions: Felix Roworth, a snobbish aristocrat, and Isaac Cohen, the same man she cruelly rejected years ago.

Roworth and Cohen hate each other on sight and it takes all of Miriam’s diplomacy and quick thinking to keep the mission on track. Miriam’s the glue that keeps these reluctant companions together, and soon Roworth and Cohen find a real reason to hate each other.

If you’re looking for a ramshackle travelogue through Napoleonic war zones, Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a fascinating, well-researched novel. It’s exciting, with most of the danger and emotions coming across as natural. It delves into the plight of marginalized Jewish communities, and the casual discrimination they faced long before World War II.

Apart from these elements, the novel’s got an incredible, well-developed love triangle. At one point I didn’t know which guy I was rooting for: Lord Felix, who slowly sheds his anti-Semitism, or Isaac, who’s out to prove he’s become a better man since he was first rejected.  

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Eloisa James’s The Ugly Duchess (2012) 

There are loads of bad fathers in historical romances, but the Duke of Ashbrook is one nasty entitled ass. He embezzles his ward’s dowry and brings his duchy to the state of bankruptcy. To save himself from public exposure, he forces his heir, James Ryburn, to marry Theodora “Daisy” Saxby to cover up the crime.

Daisy’s been a part of the Duke’s household for years, so she and James grew up together. This makes the Duke’s demand seem natural and yet emotionally awkward for James. How does one transform affection for a best friend into romantic love? James doesn’t know.

Being young and weak-willed, however, James gives in to his father’s tantrums. James orchestrates a romantic proposal that Daisy innocently accepts. The shit hits the fan, though, when the marriage is consummated and Daisy finds out the awful truth.

The Ugly Duchess is a strange take on how trust can be lost and regained. The pacing of the novel is odd: it starts out fine with several time skips, but the second half of the novel speeds up until there’s no breathing space.

I find it weird that a couple that’s been estranged for seven years can resolve their differences in one long conversation that takes place over a single day. The conversation itself spans several chapters, in a variety of rooms in a house besieged by paparazzi. Perhaps a less attentive reader will say I’m nitpicking. Given the heroine’s character development, though, it just seems improbable. It’s even more improbable than the plot twist of James becoming a pirate after getting thrown out of his house.

Maybe other readers won’t have the same issues I have. (Some Amazon reviewers take issue that James had mistresses while they were separated. I didn’t have an issue with that. While cheating is morally reprehensible, it does make the character historically accurate.)

The Ugly Duchess is still a decent read, and I like that the author credits Dorothy L. Sayers for inspiring the House of Lords scene. I’m sure there’s an Eloisa James novel out there that I will totally agree with. This one, though, is not it.

heat meter: four chilies           final rating: bash

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

I can imagine your eyeballs rolling but please hear out this rationale. I learned from the late Dr. Luisa Mallari-Hall, my old thesis adviser, that I should approach all literary exercises with the same effort and analytical precision. (I loved her so much. She was equally enthusiastic over post-Marxist literary theory as she was about Filipino Harlequin-style romances.) 

When I decided to try my hand at writing a historical romance, I started with a survey of the genre. (Hey, a woman’s got to know her comp titles.) Since I consume so many of these novels nowadays, I thought it might be fun to post occasional reviews of the best and worst ones. 

At the end of each review, there’s a “heat meter” and my final assessment. Please take note that the heat meter refers solely to the amount of sex in the novel. That’s never any indication if the book is worth reading or not! Some of these books have lots of sex but suffer from shoddy writing, plotting, or editing. You have been warned!

So what do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. As I suffer from limited means right now that’s the highest praise I can give. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to check it out from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Mary Balogh’s A Matter of Class (2009)

The set-up is a genre cliché: Reginald Mason, the son of a prosperous tradesman, is threatened with disinheritance unless he marries a young woman with a title. His father already has a girl in mind: Lady Annebelle Ashton, the disgraced daughter of a spendthrift earl. Despite being long-time social rivals in the neighborhood, the earl and the former coal miner agree to marry off their troublesome children.

The first chapter didn’t really grab my attention. I’m glad I gave the book a chance, however, because it immediately got more interesting when the hero stopped acting like a silly ass. Once the flashbacks started, the narrative got even better.

As the title suggests, the book discusses the subtle class distinctions of the Regency period, and how a well-kept fortune can buy upward mobility for future generations. Not a lot of historical romances come with genuine twists, but this one does (or it would have, if I wasn’t also a keen mystery reader.) In hindsight, some of the earlier scenes (like the proposal) becomes clever and subtle. It’s a better read than the first Mary Balogh book I picked up.

heat meter: three chilies            final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s The Improper Governess (1998, reprinted 2010)

Lissa Findlay is the new chorus girl at the local theatre. Unlike the other performers who are dying to catch the attention of a rich patron, Lissa is uncomfortable when men try to wine and dine her. She may a chorus girl, but she’s unwilling to be anyone’s whore.

Rakish Lord Ashe originally wanted to make Lissa his mistress, but there’s just something about her that brings out his chivalrous streak. When he makes an outrageous offer to employ her as a governess instead, Lissa is naturally suspicious of his motives. Yet she is forced to accept.

Unknown to Lord Ashe, Lissa has a secret: she kidnapped her two step-brothers and is currently hiding them from her abusive stepfather. Only poverty forced her to “tread among the boards,” an occupation wholly suitable to a woman of genteel breeding. Will Lissa be able to keep up the charade when she finds herself falling in love with her employer?

The Improper Governess is the second Carola Dunn novel I’ve read. Her romances are a treat for readers who care more for plot than meaningless steaminess. This novel has elements reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (down to the sickly boy named Colin!) but rest assured this work is no rip-off. From the heroine down to the minor characters, everyone is slightly flawed and fleshed out. Overall, it’s a satisfying romance with mystery elements.

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Amanda Quick’s Dangerous (1993, reprinted 2008)

Prudence Merryweather isn’t your typical Regency debutante. She’s almost on the shelf, she wears eyeglasses (oh horrors!), and worst of all, she fancies herself a paranormal investigator. She captures the attention of Sebastian Fleetwood, the Earl of Angelstone, a blasé noble who similarly dabbles in amateur investigations on the side.

Prudence’s younger brother dislikes any libertines showing interest in his sister, so he keeps issuing Angelstone one silly challenge after another. Further misunderstandings along the way (the dumb type that can only happen in a romance novel), cause Angelstone to publicly announce that he is engaged to Prudence. While Prudence agrees to go along with the farce to protect her reputation, she isn’t so sure if Angelstone understands that it’s only make-believe…

This must be the first Amanda Quick novel I enjoyed. After reading Dangerous, I worked through half of her books available at the Berkeley Public Library (her hardcovers take up a lot of space in the general fiction section) but most of them made me go “meh.” Oh well.

Dangerous reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: disparate Sherlockian elements such as amateur detecting (good) and cheesy ghost-of-the-week vibe (frothy fun). While some sections feel uneven and I don’t particularly like the way the villain is unveiled, the hero’s obsession with picking locks is amusing. For that alone, I’d buy a copy.

heat meter: four chilies            final rating: buy