Review of “The Duke of Her Desire” (Diamonds in the Rough #2) by Sophie Barnes

Barnes, Sophie. The Duke of Her Desire. New York: Avon Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-256682-9. $7.99 USD. 

2.5 stars

While the first installment, A Most Unlikely Duke, was an unexpected surprise, and one of my best reads of 2017, I found that the second installment suffers from the typical “second installment syndrome.” And part of it is due to the fact that, while there is a great premise, working with the “best friend’s sister” trope, the execution is largely uninteresting. With clunky pacing and characters that seem bland for most of the book, I had a hard time getting into this one.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good points. While the reveal as to Thomas’s motivations with Jeremy is fairly predictable prior to the Big Reveal, it is easy to feel a sense of respect for him in that regard, even if in other respects, he seems like your standard duke, with no real defining traits that set him apart. And while much of what we see with Amelia we saw before with her brother in the first book, the added layer of her wanting to give back to the less fortunate makes her admirable, and a good match for Thomas.

But I felt the most interest in some of the secondary characters. I’m curious as to where things will go in the next book with Juliette and Doctor Florian. And I had an immediate soft spot for Jeremy. And for once, I love that we have a duke that doesn’t have mommy/daddy issues, with his mother being an absolute delight, along with Lady Everly of course.

 

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Review of “The Girl Who Came Home” by Hazel Gaynor

Gaynor, Hazel. The Girl Who Came Home. New York: William Morrow, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-231686-8. $14.99 USD.

5 stars

Despite this only being the second book I’ve read my Hazel Gaynor (and the first I’ve read that she wrote independently), I already have the sense that she has a gift for writing books that are well-paced and virtually unputdownable. She also has great sense for historical detail and authenticity, incorporating the formats of telegrams and letters (both real and fictional), as well as the amount of research she has done on the subject matter and the experiences of the survivors, which makes this a compelling read that brings a more intimate perspective to the tragedy of the Titanic.

And she gets to the real impact of the disaster, in a way some other forms of media covering it did not. We see Maggie wracked with guilt and unable to discuss her experiences with anyone for decades, as well as the fact that a beloved family member might not be coming home, having been lost in the sinking. As Maggie says at one point, “To me, Titanic was about real people, real lives, real hopes for the future. That’s what I saw disappearing into the ocean.” (206)

However, Gaynor also illustrates that happiness can come in the aftermath of loss, with both Maggie finding love and happiness with someone she can confide in, and decades later, after grappling with her own loss, her great-granddaughter, Grace, finding the courage to pursue her dreams again and reconnect with someone she loves.

 

Review of “Christmas at Thorncliff Manor” (Secrets at Thorncliff Manor #4) by Sophie Barnes

Barnes, Sophie. Christmas at Thorncliff Manor. [United States]: Sophie Barnes, 2017. ISBN-13: 9781974253029. $10.59 USD. 

4 stars

It was a massive disappointment that Avon had chosen to discontinue the Secrets at Thorncliff Manor due to poor sales, and as a result, we might never know if the stories of the four unmarried Heartly sisters could have led to a Bridgerton-length series, or perhaps just one more book to wrap up the mystery, as was the case here. And while, upon reading the blurb, I approached the concept of a 277-page novel covering four love stories with some skepticism, I felt it worked in this case, resolving at three of the more minor threads following Emily and Charles, Earl of Montsmouth, Laura and Milton, Duke of Lamont, and Rachel and Arthur, Viscount Belgrave, with just enough drama to be interesting, while focusing the story on the progress of the romance from friends to lovers between Fiona and the Edward, Earl of Chadwick.

As a result of all these pairings, this is not for a newcomer to the series, and I found that, even though I had read the prior books, I had to write it all down to keep track, as the four other sisters weren’t all that memorable. And in traditional Barnes style, this isn’t a steamy read either, with only one brief sex scene occurring almost at the end after Fiona and Edward are married. However, this means there is a greater focus on what I fell in love with historical romance for, like the old-fashioned concept of courtship.

Aside from the difficulty keeping track of the characters, the issue of age comes up constantly, way more than I felt it should have. It is something to consider in the case of Laura and Lamont, as they are almost twenty years apart in age, and within at least a decade, he could be facing health issues. But some of the other characters talking about the age difference between like twenty and thirty constantly got a little annoying, especially considering that it was common for men to marry a bit later in this time period, even if women were expected to marry a little younger, and most of the heroes within historical romance published today are at least pushing thirty.

Despite these flaws, if you are a lover of Sophie Barnes’ work, and the Thorncliff Manor series in particular, this is something I would still recommend.

Review of “The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger” (The Lady Travelers Guide #2) and “The Rise and Fall of Reginald Everheart” (The Lady Travelers Guide #1.5)

Alexander, Victoria. The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger. Don Mills, Ont.: HQN, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-373-80400-9. $7.99. 

The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger

5 stars

The second installment in Victoria Alexander’s Lady Travelers Guide series is just as entertaining as the first, if not more so. And while there are some minor flaws, I found it enjoyable.

One thing I loved was the way the hero and heroine feel like they have a real connection, despite the fact that on the outside they might appear to have nothing in common. And truly great pairings are ones where partners bring out the best in each other. Dante is described by his family as kind of boring, but being around Willie brings out his more charming, adventurous side. And, in turn, he brings out the witty, intelligent side of her, showing that despite her reputation, she is not just a down-on-her-luck, ostracized society widow. And the way their initial purposes for going on the trip across Europe leads to a test of their relationship, along with the most wonderful ending in which they both choose to make sacrifices for the other, makes the story work.

I admit, upon reading the blurb for this one, that I did experience some minor disappointment that this wasn’t Val, Lord Brookings’ book, and it appears, based on the announced title for book three, that he won’t be the hero for that one either. But I was thrilled that he did make a brief appearance, and can only hope that means he is here to stay, and will eventually find his match.

The Rise and Fall of Reginald Everheart

2.5 stars

I admit that I was perplexed at what purpose of this novella was going to be. The first novella fit so well with the first novel, that I was taken aback that this one did not also have to do with relations of the hero or heroine in the main novel. However, given that it appears Alexander is crafting stories where part of the plot revolves around the three matrons, Lady Blodgett, Mrs. Fitzhew-Wellmore, and Mrs. Higginhbotham, each having a major role as connections to the main couple in each installment, the author’s intent started to fall into place.

But ultimately, I felt that this either should have been a much longer book, or maybe a much shorter one. I’m not sure which, because there are things I liked, and I can’t be certain whether the things I disliked would be best served by being removed, or by being expanded on in greater detail.

To start with the good points: the three matrons are absolutely delightful. It is so much fun to watch them play their roles in bringing couples together, and their scheme is especially silly here, but in all the right ways. And some of the other supporting characters are fun, especially Preston Drummond, whose reminded me of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. And on the surface, both Michael and Dulcie seem like interesting characters, who I felt could have been explored more.

But I just did not find the romance that interesting. I didn’t feel like the chemistry was all that well-developed, and it just feels lacking in any depth that gets me attached to the characters, in the way the characters in the novels and the previous novella did. However, it is relatively enjoyable, as far as novellas go, and it establishes the connection to the rest of the Lady Travelers world, making it an okay addition to the series.

Review of “Jilting the Duke” (The Muses’ Salon #1) by Rachael Miles

Miles, Rachael. Jilting the Duke. New York: Zebra Books, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1-4201-4086-6. $4.99 USD. 

3.5 stars

Jilting the Duke is an adequate book and decent first in series. As this is her first book, it is flawed, but you can tell Miles does have talent, and she does capture the nuances of the Regency period very well, with only a few liberties taken for poetic license. And the plot she has developed, full of betrayal and conspiracies, and the setup for an ongoing arc with the same villain, is compelling, even if the conclusion does feel a bit anti-climactic.

But it is in terms of the characters that I feel a bit conflicted. There is a large cast of characters, and all of them seem to be related to one another, but there is little to no explanation as to how they all know each other, and felt that there must be a book missing that helps to set up these characters better. And as for the hero and heroine, it took a while for me to really care about them. Even understanding how hurt Aidan was by what transpired in the past, I found myself pigeonholing him as yet another rakish duke with chip on his shoulder, until he was fleshed out a little more. And despite the many attempts to make Sophia relatable to modern readers through her unconventionality, I felt she was much more interesting when her difficult relations with her family were delved into more, and the full extent of why she chose to marry Tom was revealed.

 

Review of “Last Christmas in Paris” by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Gaynor, Hazel and Heather Webb. Last Christmas in Paris. New York: William Morrow, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-256268-5. $14.99 USD. 

5 stars

This book was recommended through one of my book groups, so I decided to give it a chance. And I am happy I did. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be “unputdownable,” as the epistolary format means that you inevitably find yourself devouring letter after letter from these engaging characters.

Gaynor and Webb manage to capture what it is like for both the men at the front at those left at home during World War I, touching on subjects such as shell shock, the effects of war propaganda, and the loss of loved ones. The book is also very much an ode to the largely lost art form of letter writing in itself, as we see both the benefits and the disadvantages to the form play out within the story.

The latter truly comes into play at the end, culminating a climax which brought me to tears (if you pick this book up, I challenge you not to cry as you read the final pages). And it has a lot to do with the investment you feel for the characters, especially Tom and Evie. I did not expect to feel so attached to the characters, given that we are largely cut off from aspects the characters don’t choose to share, due to the format of the novel, but I actually was invested in the hope that they would end up together, even though I felt I shouldn’t expect it

Review of “The Bride Who Got Lucky” (The Cavensham Heiresses #2) by Janna MacGregor

MacGregor, Janna. The Bride Who Got Lucky. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-250-11614-7. $7.99. 

5 stars

I am ashamed to say that I ended up giving the first book in this series (and MacGregor’s debut), The Bad Luck Bride, a scathing review on Goodreads. The writing showed promise, and in retrospect, I probably rated it much lower than it deserved (I awarded it one star), due to the revenge plot gone wrong. But this was positively reviewed by a book club friend, and I did like the supporting cast, so I chose to give MacGregor another shot.

And I am glad I did. This book, while it does have angst, makes you sympathize with the two lead characters. Emma is the sort of historical heroine who is forward-thinking, but not in a way that it feels overly annoying or anachronistic. She even cites at various points her role models who have played a role in shaping her ideals, one of whom is Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham (who, according to MacGregor’s historical note, was an activist for women’s rights long before the feminist movements of the twentieth century). And while I have often talked about how unrealistic it is for women in historicals to be so resistant to marriage (even after being compromised), her character arc presents the other side of the argument, showing that she is aware of the fact that many husbands at the time weren’t the romantic heroes readers of historical romance envision.

But she is fortunate to find her perfect match in Nicholas, Lord Somerton. While he shares many of the traits of some of the angsty heroes I avoid, including a tragic backstory with an awful father, he is still a compelling hero, in that he is very much motivated by honor and doing the right thing, and he is flawed in a way that only helps to make him more sympathetic.

MacGregor also continues to delight in creating a great supporting cast who doesn’t overshadow the hero and heroine. Seeing Alex and Claire again makes me want to give their book another shot, despite my initial dissatisfaction with it, as things did turn out well in the end for them. And she also provides ample set-up for both announced and possible future books, with the great teaser at the end regarding McCalpin and March Lawson, the spirited debate on women’s rights between Emma and William (he needs a woman who can challenge him!), the announced reform of Lord Paul, and the introduction of a returning injured, brooding, but still principled war hero in Lord Sykeston.

 

Review of “Last Gentleman Standing” by Jane Ashford

Ashford, Jane. Last Gentleman Standing. 1980. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-4926-5527-5. $7.99 USD. 

3 stars

This is an early romance by Jane Ashford, published relatively early in her career and now reprinted. And while I have really liked, and in some cases loved, some of the reissues I’ve read in the past, this is definitely one of the less polished than some of the others I have read, although the promise is there.

Unlike much of what is published today, the book is focused almost entirely on the perspective of the heroine, Elisabeth, and she is a sympathetic and likable heroine. While her narrative as a rags-to-riches story is familiar, it is still a charming one, and she is easy to root for as she tries to navigate society.

However, I felt many of the other characters were flat and predictable. There is a lot of interaction between Elisabeth and her love interest, Derek Wincannon, but you never really get the sense they have chemistry, even if they do spend a lot of time in each other’s company. Even keeping in mind that this is a Traditional Regency, in the vein of Georgette Heyer, in Ashford’s other Traditionals, I at least felt a sense that the characters had affection for one another.

And despite the villain being meant to be a big reveal, with some foreshadowing, it was pretty obvious what the villain’s intentions were. Although there were a few surprises concerning the extent of his plan, and the lengths he went to achieve his ends, I still felt he was depicted as a stereotypical villain instead of a multi-faceted character.

However, one secondary character that I earnestly felt for by the end was Lord Darnell. True, he is a fortune hunter, but he is up-front about it, and it is clear that he did have some feelings for Elisabeth, beyond just for her money. I am hopeful that, given that Ashford recently concluded a series involving the family of the hero from another of her classic novels, The Bargain, that she is open to further exploring more spinoffs of characters from her classic stand-alone novels.

Review of “A Wallflower Christmas” (Wallflowers 4.5) by Lisa Kleypas

Kleypas, Lisa. A Wallflower Christmas. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-53378-6. $16.95 USD. 

3 stars

This is a book that I wonder if I would have enjoyed as much if I wasn’t a massive lover of the Wallflowers series. Because while there is a romantic plotline, with Lillian and Daisy’s brother, Rafe, choosing between the woman his exacting father wants him to marry, and the woman he truly wants, there wasn’t much in the way of magic there.

For one, the first “romantic” interaction between Rafe and Hannah had me glancing to check the publication date. Even though I knew it was published post-Wallflowers, it shocked me to see the 2008 publication date, as the scene is nothing short of predatory, with him forcefully kissing her. Add to that his statement soon after, and it cast a dark shadow over their subsequent fall into love: “This is how we court girls in America. We grab them and kiss them. And if they don’t like it, we do it again, harder and longer, until they surrender.” (35) But at the same time, while I did not find this scene or couple interesting, I can’t lay too much fault with Kleypas, given that, earlier this year, she gave an interview, in which she reflected on how the romance genre has evolved, and how it has affected the way she depicts consent in her books, especially in more recent years.

And despite the disappointment in terms of new romances, seeing the Wallflower couples again, and how much they love each other and complement each other, is the real treat of the book. Seeing that “happily ever after” doesn’t mean a couple’s marriage is without bumps in the road (as is the case with Lillian and Westcliff), as well as seeing the pure joy of Evie and St. Vincent becoming parents (an event that was elaborated on further in one of my favorite books this year, Devil in Spring), it is a joy to spend more time with these characters, and has me begging Ms. Kleypas for more.

Review of “Princess Charming” (Legendary Lovers #1) by Nicole Jordan

Jordan, Nicole. Princess Charming. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0-345-52527-7. $7.99 USD. 

3.5 stars

Nicole Jordan is a new-to-me author, and I chose to start with her Legendary Lovers series, as I am a sucker for retellings of classic tales. I was especially excited as this first installment is a new spin on Cinderella. And while there are some flaws, it is a charming and well-written book, and decent first installment in a series.

Ash is a wonderful hero. Despite the tagline of stating that the Wildes are “scandalous” (and by historical standards, they are) he is hardly a dissolute rake, although he does have some rakish tendencies. I love that he takes his role as the head of the family seriously, even extending that to Maura, as his sister’s friend, when he sees her in trouble. And even before his big declaration at the end of the book, it is obvious through his actions that he cares for, and perhaps even loves, Maura, though she doesn’t seem to see it.

And this is where I discuss the flaws, some of which lie with the heroine. Maura at first seems to be a great, independent heroine, but some of the modern notions she has about love and marriage ruined her for me. Despite the many ways Ash has shown his love, she doesn’t notice, and then proceeds to sleep with him anyway, with plans to end their betrothal once she has received what she wanted from their original arrangement. While I wasn’t massively turned off, as she at least took precautions, it is a pet peeve of mine. There were also other noticeable inaccuracies in terms of how some things were conducted, such as who gets to choose the weapons in a duel, and whatnot, but again, it’s not a deal-breaker.

I eagerly look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing how the rest of the Wildes find their legendary lovers. There is a lot of discussion of the concept here, that I hope is toned down slightly in subsequent books, but on the whole, it is a solid first book, that makes me eager to read the sequels.