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