Review of “The Lady Hellion” (Wicked Deceptions #3) by Joanna Shupe

Shupe, Joanna. The Lady Hellion. New York: Zebra Books/Kensington Publishing Corp., 2015.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1420135565 | 338 pages | Regency Romance

4 stars

Joanna Shupe is an author I admired for her choice to go in a different direction with her Gilded Age romances, but I waited a while to get into her first series set in the Regency for a couple reasons, the chief one being the way some reviewers described the heroes of books one and two made them seem less than flattering, so therefore, even this book, which sounded promising, ended up falling by the wayside due to my determination to rarely read out of order. However, in my search for exciting historicals to read, I finally picked up The Lady Hellion, and feel happy that I did so.

It definitely has a bit of an odd premise, even in the context of my limited understanding of the series pitch as a whole. But it’s one of those books that seems improbable, yet charming. I loved seeing Sophie’s dedication to helping the poor, with a special interest in the prostitutes in a brothel, especially as misfortune begins befalling them. It was fun to see a heroine wearing trousers who could shoot a gun, but also had insecurities and vulnerabilities from her past that get explored in the most beautiful and heartbreaking way.

However, Quint was the real draw for me, as he was pitched in some of the reviews I’ve read as dealing with some sort of anxiety disorder, which I always find fascinating to see translated into a historical context, before more correct medical terms were assigned to different psychological conditions. He’s a recluse often characterized as being insane, and I could identify with his fears regarding the possibility that he would go mad in a similar manner to his father, especially given that he was a witness to his father’s descent into madness.

And the relationship between the two is just beautiful, hitting all the elements I love in a romance, and more. I love that they had this history of friendship that turned to love, and that I truly felt there were obstacles in the way of their happiness that they had to work through together. And one of the things that I’ve really grown to appreciate recently was the sex positivity. It’s not something that is completely alien to the historical romance genre where a woman has been violated sexually or betrayed following the act itself (as was the case here), but I loved having Quint show Sophie that she is desirable to a man for more than her virtue, and that she is allowed to feel passion.

This book was a wonderful read that has a lot of heart, yet doesn’t feel overly intense, and has lovely characters at the forefront. It’s definitely a book that any historical romance fans should consider picking it up if they have not already.

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Review of “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” (The Rajes #1) by Sonali Dev

Dev, Sonali. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839053 | 487 pages | Contemporary Romnance

2.5-ish (light 3) stars

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors excited me, because while I had already come to like, and in some cases, even love Sonali Dev’s writing, I was also curious to see what she would do with this concept of a gender-swapped Pride and Prejudice.

And in that regard, she more or less made it work, stripping the story back to the bare-bones themes and some broader plot elements, as well as sticking in a reference or two. DJ (standing for Darcy James xD) makes a great homage to Elizabeth, having worked his way up from nothing to become a chef, while working to care for his sister, who has a brain tumor. Trisha Raje, a bit of a looser homage to Darcy, is the black sheep of a prominent Indian American family and a neurosurgeon working on Emma’s care.

I love how things progressed from the meet-disaster where they both (of course) make assumptions about each other, to coming to work together on Emma’s care, to things developing beyond that.

This story has much more going on that just the romance, however, and I had mixed feelings about the rest of it. While I did like some of Trisha’s family members, like her siblings and such, I wasn’t a big fan of the way her parents treated her, especially her father, and felt like it could have been addressed much better.

But one of my biggest complaints stems from the translation and execution of a big plot point in the latter half of P&P, and one of the few that really makes an appearance. The premise of the story begins with Yash, Trisha’s brother, beginning a campaign for political office in California, and this leads to some secrets from his past involving a former friend of Trisha’s to be delved into, and it turns out he was essentially sexually assaulted by said “friend.” I feel like it would have been fine if it deviated into hushing this girl up to prevent shame, due to perhaps not being believed, or due to the deepened stigma of being a male victim of sexual assault in general, especially one in his position. But instead, we got this delightful passage:

“Julia Wickham could destroy him and he knew it. No one would care that he’d been the victim, not in today’s climate. The worst part was that if he did get justice, if people did believe him, it could set the progress women were making back a hundred years. He would never want that.” (Dev, 377)

I first saw this passage pointed out in another review on Goodreads and couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, I soon found the passage for myself. And, no, that’s not how feminism or the #MeToo movement is meant to work (extremists aside)!. You literally have cases like the one between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, where evidence is coming out that proves the exact opposite of what is claimed in this abhorrent passage, and I would think truly compassionate women (and people in general) would both see that men can be victims and women perpetrators of both domestic and sexual violence, without it supposedly “setting women back.”

Unfortunately, this is a case of one misused ingredient ruining the entire formula to an extent for me (to use a food reference, because it’s a major part of this book). As I do like Dev’s writing, I may still check out the other books in the series as they come out, since she has stated her plans to loosely adapt other Austen novels.

Given my feelings about the way sexual assault was discussed, I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone, or if I did, it would be to fans of multicultural romance, with a caveat that there is an incredibly off-color moment which could shape your perceptions of the whole.

Review of “Markswoman” (Asiana #1) by Rati Mehrotra

Mehrotra, Rati. Markswoman. New York: Harper Voyager, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062564542 | 368 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Markswoman has a great premise and setup. I did feel like the pacing and plot did kind of waver here and there, and the conclusion did not feel that satisfying (something I hope will be rectified in book two), but there are still some great elements here, especially since it seems to be author’s first book.

I loved the Asian influences in the development of the world-building. And while I did feel like the magic system wasn’t that present in the book, it does have a lot of potential, and that’s something else I hope is built on more in book two.

What really stands out is the protagonist, Kyra. Fantasy is full of “strong female characters,” but the problem is that they often lack depth, especially in YA (or, in this case, YA-leaning,) stories. I like how, while she is the titular Markswoman of the book, she strikes the perfect balance of not being great at everything all the time while also not being the standard damsel in distress.

This is yet another great multicultural fantasy book, and one I would recommend to other fans of diverse fantasy.

Review of “Salvation in Death” (In Death #27) by J.D. Robb

Robb, J.D. Salvation in Death. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Hardcover | $25.95 | ISBN-13: 978-978-0399155222 | 353 pages | Romantic Suspense

4 stars

I was intrigued by the premise for the case of Salvation in Death, and wondered what turns the story would take, especially given the obvious connotations stories about the Catholic Church have had in the past decade or two. But I was pleased that the story did not take the expected turn in diving into some of the deeper internal controversies, and discussed spiritual issues in the most broad, yet delicate way possible that does not, from my perspective, alienate a non-Catholic reader.

The revelation about the reasoning behind the death of the priest that kicked off the book led to some great twists and turns that I did not see coming, and while it did end up being one of the books in the series with a larger cast and multiple deaths (including several occurring pre-book) and multiple perpetrators, it was one of the more interesting of this type.

If I had anything major to complain about, it was that it lacked some of the signature banter between characters. However, I did feel like there were some moments that still stood out. I feel like Mavis is one of those characters I rarely take seriously and almost never mention in connection to my favorite moments, but I did like the discussion of her own past when Eve’s trying to figure out whether victim in the case would have engaged in such a long con. And it was great how the Catholic connection also led to further discussions of Roarke’s past, culminating in a great discussion between Eve, Roarke, and another priest at the end.

This was another fairly solid entry in the series, and I’m excited to see where the series goes next.

Review of “The Key to Happily Ever After” by Tif Marcelo

Marcelo, Tif. The Key to Happily Ever After. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197581 | 314 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

2.5 stars

I really wanted to love The Key to Happily Ever After, since not only did it offer great rep for a population that is not often seen in romantic fiction, it also was a story about the relationship between sisters, which is something that really intrigued me.

And, in principle, the setup is great, The one flaw with it is not giving the middle sister, Jane, the spotlight, feeding into the “overlooked middle child” stereotype, but I did feel like there was an effort made to establish the bonds these sisters had with one another in this unique situation of running a wedding shop.

However, I wasn’t truly invested in the story or the characters where it mattered. It felt more like meandering through a sequence of events that I didn’t care about with characters that did not overly engage me. I didn’t care about these apparent romantic entanglements the sisters got involved in, or care when things went south, or feel like there was some kind of payoff to there being any kind of “happily ever after” (romantic or otherwise). I’m aware this could be more of a “me” thing than anything else, but I just didn’t feel like there was a ton going for it, aside from the brilliant cultural elements.

This is a book that I don’t think I would personally recommend to anyone, but that is just my opinion, and take it with a grain of salt. I do feel like the things it does well, as I said before, are the Filipino representation, and the basic setup for the family element, so if you are interested in those things, you may enjoy it more than I did.

Review of “Beautiful Player” (Beautiful Bastard #3) by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Beautiful Player. New York: Gallery Books, 2013.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1476751405 | 406 pages | Erotic Romance

3 stars

To this point, I have loved all of Christina Lauren’s stand-alone books, but largely resisted picking up their erotic series. However, I was looking to try another erotic romance with this series being one I was considerimg, and on the advice of book club friends regarding a mix of quality and my own preferences for more egalitarian power dynamics, I skipped to book 3.

And Beautiful Player is more or less a pretty solid, if rather flawed book. Older brother best friend/best friend’s little sister is one of my favorite tropes, being sort of friends-to-lovers-esque, and I felt like the relationship between Hanna and Will was some pretty well. It starts out with them hanging out due to her needing to get out more, and I loved that, along with the buildup to more.

I did feel a bit more mixed about the characters themselves, and it may be a bit more of a personal preference thing than anything else. Despite Hanna not being a virgin, she’s still naive to the point of annoyance about sex. While it’s possible she just never really found someone who gave her real pleasure up to this point, I found it grating that someone who has done it before would be so inexperienced. And coupled with that, I did have some minor quibbles going in about Will’s playboy past, and they were not assuaged. While it’s not a dealbreaker like the alphahole hero, the playboy/rake ruined for all others by the naive heroine is so overdone.

But it isn’t a bad book by any means, and it definitely kept me invested in the fate of the relationship, despite its casual nature for most of the book. And I think if you’re more of a fan of conventional romance tropes like the naive heroine and playboy hero, this one might work a bit better for you.

Review of “Strangers in Death” (In Death #26) by J.D. Robb

Robb, J.D. Strangers in Death. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Hardcover | $25.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399154706 | 356 pages | Romantic Suspense

4.5 stars

Strangers in Death falls more or less into the group of books in the series that I enjoyed. And of course, it all comes down to the mix of great characters all playing their role to crack a challenging case.

I admit I was pleased to get a life update on a couple I had almost forgotten about in this one: Charles Monroe the LC and Dr. Louise Dimatto, especially given how much I enjoyed their odd pairing that somehow works when they first got together. It was interesting how Charles’ work played into the case, as well as into a major life decision they make as a couple in this one.

And I continue to love the way Eve and Roarke continue to engage in hypotheticals when it comes to cases with a suspected motive related to love and sex. This one led to a particularly hilarious conversation around them talking about spicing things up in the bedroom that had be gasping in laughter.

As for the case itself, it was one of those where the mastermind of it all was predictable, but the motives as well as the true extent were not, so it was fun peeling back the layers along with Eve and Co., culminating in a satisfying Big Reveal.

In short, this is another fabulous entry in the In Death series, full of the series’ signature banter, along with an engaging murder case.

Review of “American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt” by Karen Harper

Harper, Karen. American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062748331 | 357 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I knew a bit about Consuelo Vanderbilt from having read another author’s book loosely inspired by her life as well as subsequently watching excerpts form the Smithsonian’s channel on YouTube and looking up bare facts online…not to mention reading Therese Fowler’s recent book about her mother Alva, with a coincidentally similar cover, due to usage of the same stock image. Therefore, I was definitely disposed to feel sympathy toward her.

But Harper brings to light the bigger picture that I missed from my surface-level research, stripping back the “poor little rich girl” narrative to unveil Consuelo’s true strength of character. Despite being more or less forced into a loveless union, she is well-suited to the duties that come with being a duchess beyond simply bearing the “heir and a spare,” like endearing herself to the people around her, especially the less fortunate, something she continued to do after the dissolution of her marriage to the duke. She also highlights the complexities of the relationship between Alva and Consuelo in a beautiful way: growing up, Alva was hard on her, but in the toughest of times, Alva was one of her biggest supporters.

And this is just one example of showing layered characters and complex relationships, in spite of it being told solely through Consuelo’s perspective. One of my favorites has to be the way the duke’s second wife, Gladys, was written, particularly at a point when she confronts Consuelo after their own marriage has failed and they’ve separated. Despite the fact that this woman had played a role in wronging Consuelo, I could not help but feel a bit of pity for her at her diminished mental state and found myself feeling even more contempt for the duke than I had previously.

I very much enjoyed this book, and how it highlights that Consuelo not only got her happy ending after all, but also the other great things she did throughout her life as well. I would recommend this to any fan of historical fiction.

Review of “The Bride Test” (The Kiss Quotient #2) by Helen Hoang

Hoang, Helen. The Bride Test. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451490827 | 300 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I started The Bride Test, feeling both excited and uncertain: the premise sounded awesome and I love Helen Hoang’s style, but I wasn’t sure anything could quite live up to the instantly relatable Stella and the surprisingly supportibe Michael in The Kiss Quotient. And while it did take a little longer to acquaint myself with these characters, I ended up loving them just as much, if not more, given the realness and depth to the story.

Esme as a character is one that breaks new ground for what we think of as a romance heroine in an romance novel published in the U.S. and this is something Hoang discusses to an extent in her author’s note. I love how she went from using Esme as a side character/rival to challenging the notions of what makes a believable heroine, which is at the center of so much discourse on diversity in romance today. She comes from less-than-perfect origins, but epitomizes the ideal of the American Dream of the immigrant coming over to America and finding a way to thrive. And the fact that Hoang was inspired by her mother’s experience made this all the more beautiful.

Khai as a character took a little longer to grow on me. I did admire that Hoang managed to navigate writing the experience of a male character with autism, given the differences in how it manifests depending on gender, but I did not immediately find him endearing. However, he grew on me over the course of the book, due to the fact that, in spite of him appearing somewhat closed-off and professing to be incapable of feeling, he does feel and express emotion in his own way, and that made me first appreciate him more, then fall in love with him along with Esme. Not to mention, his relationships with his family are adorable, especially in moments where Quan (and at one point Michael) help him navigate the world of love and sex.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone who loves a great diverse contemporary romance, although I would encourage even those who don’t typically read the genre to try it as well. Hoang once again crafts a wonderful story, full of humor heat, and heart, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Review of “A Well-Behaved Woman” by Therese Anne Fowler

Fowler, Therese Anne. A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250095473 | 392 pages | Historical Fiction

3 stars

I went into A Well-Behaved Woman excited to read more about Gilded Age from a more biographical fiction standpoint. And this ended up being one of those books I had a lot of mixed feelings about, in part due to the protagonist.

I will say one thing: Alva Vanderbilt is definitely misrepresented in history, especially given that one of her most notable moments is saying she forced her daughter into her aristocratic marriage. And she definitely has great moments that are highlighted through Fowler’s engaging prose: the way she persevered in a bad situation prior to and after her marriage to William K. Vanderbilt, and not to mention her contributions first as a society wife and later as a leader in the suffrage movement.

But I think by paying attention to both the less-than-auspicious way her marriage began and her actions upon the disintegration of her marriage, it puts into deeper clarity her flaws regarding her daughter. She may not have forced Consuelo to marry the Duke of Marlborough against her will, but she did forbid her to marry for love, after seeing how badly her own marriage for security turned out, and being all but ready to make another marriage for love herself. I know it was the done thing at the time, but it just all felt so hypocritical, especially when she was prophesying ruin when it came to Consuelo and the man she loved.

I also feel like the time jump at the end from shortly after both Consuelo’s marriage to Marlborough and her own marriage to Belmont to years later when Alva is a suffragist, Consuelo is separated, and the two are reunited after years of estrangement did not do any favors in this regard either.

I will praise Fowler for writing this book, which perfectly captured the era, but saw me feeling less and less endeared to a protagonist who I think Fowler wanted to redeem. But I do still recommend this to other fans of historical fiction, in the hopes that others enjoy it more than I did.