Tag Archives: Mary Balogh

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: 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