Review of “To the Duke, With Love” (The Rakes of St. James #2) by Amelia Grey

Grey, Amelia. To the Duke, With Love. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-250-10251-5. $7.99 USD. 

4.5 stars

I received an ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

While second installments of trilogies often have a tendency to be a bit “meh,” I actually found I enjoyed this one much more than its predecessor. And while it is still not without its flaws, the plot and cast are both much more engaging.

Like many dukes, Hawk is an acquired taste for me. Quite a bit of his behavior was annoying for me, like his expectation that he’d always get his own way, “because he’s a duke.” But throughout the book, there were moments that slowly won me over, like when he is the one to profess his love for and propose to Loretta, and he helps her both to recant the vow she made when she was eighteen which has been like a noose around her neck for years, and later helps to ensure that Farley is safe. And it is quite obvious that the two have chemistry, even when they are sparring over their differences.

Loretta is a great, layered character, and her flaws make her more interesting. I love that she is concerned that her brother will make the wrong choice, although at times she is blinded by her own experience, and doesn’t realize till later that not everyone reacts in the same way.

She also shows her flaws (and probably those of many of us as well) in her interactions with the homeless orphan, Farley. It is only natural to take pity on an orphan, and perhaps some of us would even give him second chances when he disappointed us. So while she may seem naive to some people, I feel she behaves as a truly compassionate human who wants to see the best in people.

And though they were only secondary characters, I came to love both Paxton and Adele. From early on in the novel, Paxton is portrayed as the anti-rake, as Hawk states that Paxton is “a fine gentleman who prefers books over swords, poetry over carousing, and tea over brandy.” (13) While this reputation may largely be due to his limited income, his mutual love for his sister further endeared him to me. And the same could be said for Adele, who joins in with Paxton in defending Loretta to Hawk at one point, making me wish we got to see much more of them and their courtship.

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Review of “A Christmas Promise” by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. A Christmas Promise. 1992. New York: Dell, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0-440-24634-3. $7.99 USD. 

2.5 stars

I didn’t hate this one. But unlike some of the other Baloghs I’ve read recently, this one lacked real magic in terms of the romance between the central couple, who seem to go from hate to love without much development. Plus, while there is a futile attempt made to mend their initial misunderstandings, it does not erase some of the cruelty that took place in the early days, including the wedding night, where Randolph gets pleasure out of humiliating Eleanor.

However, while the lines of consent are blurry at best, and she is hurt by the incident, I do not think it was as bad as some reviewers claim. Through my experience with Balogh’s work, I have noticed she has always taken historical accuracy seriously, and the way the events of the wedding night played out is definitely not out of the realm of possibility. Not to mention, it was explicitly stated by her father to Randolph that he wanted the marriage consummated immediately, and I assume that she was aware of it, so she likely viewed it much like women of the time did in her situation: as a “duty” to be done. It is still quite objectionable, given the trajectory of their relationship afterward. The other misjudgments are acknowledged, but the fact that he hurt her on their wedding night is never brought up again as something he must atone for.

One redeeming feature of the book was the presence of family, but for a stand-alone novel, it devoted way too much screen time to an extensive cast who were hard to keep straight at times. There are at least two or three other relationships forming over the course of the book, with one forming a prominent subplot with which both Randolph and Ellie get involved in. However, the other two relationships just kind of come out of nowhere. I question whether all these characters and their relationships to one another were truly necessary, even if their presence did stem from the true meaning of Christmas being about family and togetherness.

Review of “Indiscreet” (Horsemen Trilogy #1) by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. Indiscreet. 1997. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2016.  ISBN-13: 978-0-451-47789-7. $15.00 USD. 

5 stars

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING! PROCEED WITH CAUTION. 

******

With historical romance, it can often be a difficult balancing act trying to make stories feel relatable to modern readers while also not being too anachronistic. But when it comes to a heavier issue, like sexual assault, where our society has not fully progressed to the point where victims  are believed, or at least given the benefit of the doubt (case in point: all the negative reactions to the people coming out about sexual assault in Hollywood), Indiscreet is both historically accurate and relevant to modern times, despite the fact that it was written twenty years ago looking at the unfairness of society two hundred years ago.

Balogh conveys the narrative of the victim beautifully through Catherine, showing how her past has led her to this point, only to be put at risk of ruination and ostracism once again. And even though the full circumstances of what happened to her are not revealed, it is understandable without it being explicitly stated that she is not who she has led people to believe she is.

And in turn, despite Rex not doing anything overtly offensive without her consent, I viewed him as something of a “Gaston-esque” character initially, who does not grasp that the object of his affections is trying her best to avoid getting involved with him. But I did love his growth over the course of the book, as he comes to a greater understanding of Catherine’s past and the link it has with his own.

Review of “A Counterfeit Betrothal”/”The Notorious Rake” (Waite 2-3) by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. A Counterfeit Betrothal/The Notorious Rake. New York: Dell, 2013.

Overall rating: 4 stars

In many cases, when going through early titles by an author with an extensive backlist, while the promise is there, the books aren’t as good, for a variety of reasons, the chief ones being that the industry has evolved to the point where some of the popular trends don’t hold up (as is the case for many Old School titles) or they have since mastered their craft more than they did in their early days. But Balogh is one of the rare exceptions. While it is true these books aren’t of the same caliber as her present work, they still evoke emotion, and are stories of complex, yet sympathetic characters.

A Counterfeit Betrothal (1992)

4.5 stars

When writing two love stories within a single book, it can be hard to make them both feel complete. But Balogh accomplishes this for the most part, in a plot that feels a bit reminiscent of The Parent Trap. While I did feel the love story between Sophia and Francis felt a bit lacking, especially since the back-cover blurb focuses most on that particular facet, I found myself blown away by the way Balogh depicts the relationship between Sophie’s parents.

There are tons of books out there where a single conversation could solve the characters’ problems, but this one doesn’t feel like that, because the assumptions Marcus and Olivia have about each other are due to the difficulties that culminated in their separation to begin with. Balogh perfectly creates the tension between them, and it makes their final reunion much more rewarding at the end.

The Notorious Rake (1992)

3.5 stars

I admit I was a bit nervous about this one, as this book is yet another one of those books about a jaded rake with a tragic past. And the beginning is more than a little bit hokey, with an inexplicable chain of events which I will refrain from spoiling..but it is super weird considering Mary’s negative feelings toward him.

But I persevered, and continued on, determined to find out what made this story so intriguing, and Lord Edmond Waite such a “notorious rake.” But Edmond never truly strays from the pattern from any other rake in Romancelandia, despite having purportedly been the villain of a prior book (I did not read said book, The Trysting Place, so my knowledge of the events of that book are entirely from his perspective). And when the true extent of his past was revealed, I ended up finding it all a little ridiculous and it felt like he was blowing things a bit out of proportion, especially when his family, including his father, welcomed him back. But then again, I’ve always found the “people’s rejection made me the way I am” plot trope a bit dumb.

I did, however, like his relationship with Mary as the story progressed, and feel that this is one of those cases where they do make each other better people, despite being opposites. And after all is said and done, it is only when he decides to make something of his life that they can find happiness.

Review of “A Christmas to Remember”

Kleypas, Lisa, et. al. A Christmas to Remember. New York: Avon Books. 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-274723-5. Print List Price: $7.99.

When I heard about these stories being released in an omnibus anthology, I was thrilled, as the original methods of release for the most part have been through Avon’s digital-first  Impulse imprint, which are not always accessible to paperback readers (with the exception of “I Will,” Kleypas’ contribution, which had previously appeared in the Wish List anthology in 2001). But as is often the case with anthologies, it is a mixed bag in terms of quality.

I Will by Lisa Kleypas (2001) (Capital Theatre 2.5)

3 stars

This story predates most of what I have read from Kleypas up to this point, with my earliest reading experience with her being the Wallflower series. And while I did find this story charming, including the fact that the hero Andrew, Lord Drake, shows real evolution, as well as a vulnerability behind his rakish antics, it is by no means a perfect story. There were several bits that I felt would have had more gravitas if we were shown what happened instead of told, particularly in terms of Julianne. We get told what an awful person she is, but I can’t recall seeing much of her, and even the final confrontation that is meant to happen between her and Caroline towards the end.

Deck the Halls with Love by Lorraine Heath (2012) (The Lost Lords of Pembrook 2.5)

3 stars

This is a story I feel I would have enjoyed a lot more if I had invested in the series prior to reading this one. While you do get a sense of what happened between all of these people, there does seem to be a lot missing when they refer to Chetwyn’s betrothal to Lady Anne, who married in the previous book, and they draw comparisons, for which I have no frame of reference. But otherwise, both Chetwyn and Meredith are well-drawn characters, and their chemistry and their past is believable.

No Groom at the Inn by Megan Frampton (2015) (Dukes Behaving Badly #2.5)

5 stars

This was a novella I skipped in my initial reading of the series, due to no perceived connection with the other installments up to that point. But that seems to be a common thread with this series, with the later installments especially containing loose, at best, connections to the earlier books. As such, this is one book that you can definitely dive into without further thought for a fun holiday read.

And this book is an absolute riot. Like other books in the series, it contains epigraphs of a sort that relate in one way or another to the overall story, although in this case, the connection is not immediately obvious. However, the epigraphs are funny, as they are in some of the other books in the series, containing alternate definitions of complex English words (with a glossary at the end with the correct definitions).

As for the romance, it’s built on witty banter, which I love. Every time Jamie referred to Sophronia as “Sophycakes,” I could not stop laughing. And while the fake-betrothal-to-true-love trope has been done before, this was a unique enough take that breathes new life and humor into a familiar theme.

The Duke’s Christmas Wish by Vivienne Lorret (2015) (The Season’s Original # 0.5)

4 stars

Despite being a prequel novella, this one did feel a bit bogged down with many characters who do not mean anything as yet. While it is easy to predict, now that all the books have been released, who will become important, the names being thrown about was a little jarring.

The romance, while again a bit trope-y, does present its own spin on the trope. I like the idea that we see there is an element of science  in North’s plans, and the conflict comes from Ivy being in complete opposition to that, so we don’t just get the typical “she’s not good enough, so why can’t I stop thinking about her?” plot.

 

Review of “Someone to Wed” (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. Someone to Wed. New York: Berkley, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0-399-58606-4. Print List Price: $7.99.

5 stars

Mary Balogh is one of the authors I discovered last year, and while I have yet to truly dive into her backlist, I have enjoyed some of her recent titles, including the first two in the series, especially book two, Someone to Hold. As such, I had high expectations. But unlike some other books, this one did not disappoint.

Alexander, the new Earl of Riverdale was one of my favorite characters ever since the first book and I loved him even more as the hero of this one. I love that he isn’t your typical alpha hero, but he proves he is definitely hero material and worthy of the heroine a number of times in this book, including when he defends Wren against those who try to snub her.

Wren is one of those characters who can be hard to write in a way that is sympathetic and not overly tiresome. When a character is so self-conscious about their physical appearance, they feel they are unworthy of love, it takes a strong backstory to make them likable, and other authors I have read have failed in this regard. But Wren’s arc is so well done, giving you just enough that you root for her, and keeping you guessing until the big reveal towards the end.

And as Balogh extends her cast of characters even further to include Alexander’s family as well as Wren’s brother, that makes me curious as to the length of the series and the possibility of more books about them after the release of Viola’s book early next year. I most definitely want a book about Colin, who I loved before he even appeared on the page, as well as some of the other Westcotts and Radleys.

 

Review of “The Sea King” (Weathermages of Mystral #2) by C.L. Wilson

Wilson, C.L. The Sea King. New York: Avon Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-201898-4. Print List Price: $7.99.

5 stars

Apologies for not posting for almost a week. But between working on my novel for NanoWriMo and some of my school projects, as well as the fact that this book is a literal bug-cruncher, I fell behind on posting.

But this book was a page-turner, and well worth the wait (The Winter King was first published in 2014, I read it in 2016). And I daresay, this book is better than the first.

For one, there’s Dilys. I like that he proves he can be a strong hero, but also can wear his heart on his sleeve, something that I’m glad we’re seeing a bit more of in romance heroes. And while a lot of the story is serious, and even dark and somewhat disturbing in places, some aspects of his courtship with Gabriella, especially in the early days, when she rebuffs him are incredibly comical.

As for Gabriella, I can see why she might be hard to like for some, as she is prickly at first. But I found her arc very compelling, and I really enjoyed her journey to discovering who she really is, along with learning that she can have love in her life without fear of ending up like her father.

I would also like to commend Wilson for including diversity among prominent characters within her fantasy world. It is uncommon to see people of color in major roles in this genre, and while it’s easy to pass it off as being “pure fantasy,” or saying that because the story’s fictional realm is based on a European locale and time period, as has been the case with fantasy series like Game of ThronesWilson does something different by actually putting in the work to diversify her cast and the types of locales depicted.

“Once a Scoundrel” (The Secret Life of Scoundrels #4) by Anna Harrington

Harrington, Anna. Once a Scoundrel. New York: NYLA Publishing, 2016 [Print edition published in 2017 via CreateSpace]. ISBN-13: 9781542548083. Print List Price: $11.99.

4.5 stars

I tend to view many reformed rake plotlines with skepticism these days, and the idea of a son being acting out as a reaction to the expectations of his so-called perfect family is something of a cliche among all novels with rakes. But what kept this novella from being like those for me is that it actually focuses on a very real tragedy that  compels him to change his ways, as well as the difficulty others might have accepting that he has changed.

And as this is a sequel set a few decades in the future, following the children of characters in the first three books, this story was of course a lot of fun, as we see the older versions of those characters.  Knowing more about Stephen’s family definitely helped me to understand why he might have made the decisions that he did. And while I did not have a lot of strong feelings toward Faith, I did feel like it’s incredibly obvious she takes after her parents in wonderful ways.

Speaking of her parents, I’m glad we got to see Edward and Kate play major roles. I definitely pictured Edward being an overprotective father as he aged, and was not disappointed in that regard. And the part where Kate agrees to accompany Faith to visit the sick tenant on Stephen’s estate was definitely one of my favorite parts of the book.

 

Art and Poltics: A Response to “Romance as Resistance”

Note: This was written as an extended response to several commenters on a post to Julia Quinn’s Facebook page.

In our current political climate, it can be hard to escape the constant coverage, to the point where it has started to impact all facets of life. And while it is understandable to want an artist to focus primarily on their craft and not allow their political concerns to dominate their public persona, at the end of the day, they are people too, with concerns for our society.

While I find many of the celebrities throwing petty insults at a certain political figure tiresome, when an artist has something to say about an issue, I find that worthwhile to listen to. That is definitely the case with the writers featured in the recent article in Entertainment Weekly, “Romance as Resistance: How the happily-ever-after genre is taking on Trump.” Despite what the headline (and the art at the top of the article) suggest, this isn’t more entertainers disrespecting the President. The article instead highlights the fact that these books tackle social issues such as women’s rights, sexual agency, gay rights, and more. And while a reader might conceive these books as being somewhat escapist, they are only partially right: it is escapist in the sense that it imagines a more ideal world where good triumphs over evil, and the real world is not always so black-and-white. That in itself makes a very powerful statement, one of hope. Nowhere does it say that there will be no discussion of real-life issues, however.

And upon doing further reading into the history of romance, you will find that the genre itself is rooted in politics. Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls traces the genre back to the early days of women’s writing, and the measures society took to control what women read, out of fear. And if one wants to look at a political movement that directly impacted the romance industry, one should look no further than the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s, which were influenced by the sexual revolution and women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

And even Jane Austen is not the prim spinster aunt one might expect, writing solely about courtship and marriage. As scholars like Helena Kelly (Jane Austen: The Secret Radical) discuss, much of Austen’s work had political undertones. A well-known example includes the discussion of the slave trade in Mansfield Park. Not to mention, Austen was well-known for her disapproval (and that is putting it lightly) of the Prince Regent, the future George IV. She generally wrote very satirical portraits of the aristocracy within her novels, and even was openly critical of him in Emma,  so it is incredibly ironic that Prinny loved them, inviting her to dedicate that particular work to him.

And the truth of the matter is everything is political, although it is not always political in the partisan sense. As Olive Senior wrote: “Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children’s books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children’s books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?” Through this simple act of trying to diversify her own genre, she is making a political statement. And she makes a valid point about romance. Even while it may seem vapid at worst and pure escape at best, in writing a love story where people overcome their obstacles and find happiness.

Other suggested reading:

Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Rodale, Maya. Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. New York: Maya Rodale, 2015,

 

Review of “The Shadow Sister” (The Seven Sisters #3) by Lucinda Riley

Riley, Lucinda. The Shadow Sister. New York: Atria Books, 2017. ISSBN-13: 978-1476759944. Print List Price: $26.00.

5 stars

While I definitely enjoyed the first two books in the series, this is the one I absolutely loved. And part of it has to do with the way Star is written, and the evolution she goes through. I did relate to Maia and Ally and their journeys, but Star’s is the one that has felt most personal, especially as she is the one of the sisters who is most like me in terms of both her challenges and her strengths.

And once again, we are introduced to both present and past characters who are equally compelling, with a mix of illustrious historical figures appearing among the latter group. I was astonished at the way Riley manages to bring together the worlds of both Beatrix Potter and the Keppel family, as in my mind, they couldn’t be farther apart. But through the lens of a very unique historical heroine, Riley makes the connection feel believable.

And while family and the equal importance of one’s heritage and who one was raised by has been equally prevalent up to this point, I was shocked by how much this factored into the plot of this book, with both illegitmate child and and adoption curveballs constantly appearing, throughout both the historical and present arcs. With this much family drama, I don’t know how it can get more intense in CeCe’s book, but given CeCe’s state as we left her in this one, I do look forward to seeing where her journey takes her.