Tag Archives: Carola Dunn

A Few Lines from Regency Romances

A Few Lines from Regency Romances

A few lines I happened to highlight from various historical romances I’ve read in the past two months. I don’t usually highlight my books; I hate marks on bound copies. I blame my new Kindle for making this so easy.

 

 

Hypocrisy can never be agreeable to an elevated mind.

—from Loretta Chase’s Viscount Vagabond (1989)

 

…the ton would decide it was all her fault. For being pretty. For having a rich father. For sporting a low bodice. For breathing!

A convent in Italy was beginning to appeal.

—from Jo Beverly’s A Shocking Delight (2014)

 

Anger turned out to be an excellent antidote for lovesickness.

—from Carola Dunn’s Lavender Lady (1983)

 

But there weren’t enough orgasms in the world to give him relief from the want that coiled about him now.

—from Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War (2012)

 

source and original context of this public domain image

 

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