Tag Archives: Historical Romance

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