Review of “Brazen and the Beast” (Bareknuckle Bastards #2) by Sarah MacLean

MacLean, Sarah. Brazen and the Beast. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | 978-0062692078 | 382 pages | Victorian Romance

3-ish stars

Brazen and the Beast signals my breakup with (or at least my second extended break from) Sarah MacLean’s work. Because while I became reinvigorated with her with her fun and subversive Scandal and Scoundrel series, and thought she was moving beyond the standard broody alpha who either a) majorly screws up and has to grovel at the end, b) has a major case of self-loathing, or c) both, with The Day of the Duchess, both installments in this series have proved me wrong thus far, and both her hints about the forthcoming book about Grace and the antagonistic Ewan don’t inspire me to hysterics like everyone else.

Granted, given it took me two tries to get into Wicked and the Wallflower, I did like this one a tad bit more, even if the plot did feel a little stagnant at times. The “hero,” Whit/Beast, in spite of being full of self-loathing and concerns he’s not good enough for a woman who’s clearly interested in him, has slightly more appeal than Devil, in particular his refined reading tastes, with a peek at his “library” showing that a stack of books by women. However, I did not feel particularly moved by him in any emotional way, and his repetitive grunts may be the annoying thing that drove me insane in this book.

But the most talked-about part of the book in promotion is Hattie, and I found her a much more appealing heroine than Felicity (not just because I was spared the constant repetition of her full name, but that helped). I love her determination to take her life into her own hands with the Year of Hattie, and the promotion it’s inspired among readers with the “Year of You,” with some discussion about what we might do to take command of our own lives. While I may obviously not like a lot of things when it comes to the heroes MacLean’s writes, she (usually) creates great heroines, and I think Hattie is one of her best, so it’s a shame that she’s one of the sole consistently good parts of a somewhat lackluster story.

That being said, I will probably wait a while to read the next book when it does come out next year, given my concerns, and read a balance of reviews ahead of time before making my decision instead of buying into the hype again. But that said, with any book, to each their own. If you haven’t yet read Sarah MacLean and you’re a fan of a broody alpha hero and an independent heroine, this is the book and author for you.

Review of “Wicked and the Wallflower” (Bareknuckle Bastards #1) by Sarah MacLean

MacLean, Sarah. Wicked and the Wallflower. New York: Avon Books, 2018.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062692061 | 404 pages |
Regency Romance

3 stars

Wicked and the Wallflower was a DNF for me when it first came out, due to a combination of just not liking the tropes (revenge plot at the expense of the heroine, broody alpha hero) and feeling like it was a step back in comparison to some of MacLean’s other recent titles featuring books with more immediately empathetic heroes, like Haven in The Day of the Duchess. But completionist that I am, I fully intended to go back to it sometime between them and the next book’s release, as Beast as a secondary character was intriguing, and I’m kind of a series completionist, unless a book commits real offenses against my sensibilities.

And it turned out taking time away was good for me with this book, as it allowed me to not only gain some perspective that led to me to appreciate the book more, but to muster up the zest to finish the book in a matter of hours. However, I remain conflicted, as the problems I have with this book are still there. But they are not outweighed by the positives. While I did not feel a strong connection to either Devil (I still cringe every time a romance author decides to call her “dangerous” hero that) or Felicity, I did feel that they had believable chemistry, and the banter between them translated well into a romance. While I still find the overall premise of her being a pawn for him to gain his revenge problematic, I felt MacLean navigated a fine line between making him very flawed and showing that he has a stronger character than his brother, the Duke for the most part.

The secondary characters are also pretty good. I quite liked Beast, and look forward to seeing what goes down in his book. And Grace was great, and I hope beyond hope that the series does not go in the direction of pairing off Ewan and Grace, given the hints of their toxic dynamic, and his just awful personality in general.

The real negatives that I have are some areas where the book verges on the absurd. It’s remarked on several times that the name “Felicity Faircloth” has a “fairy-tale” quality to it, and that’s all well and good, but when reading Devil calling her by her full name over got repetitive and annoying. Not to mention the eye-roll-inducing title names given to Felicity’s parents and brother, Marquess and Marchioness of Bumble and Earl Grout. I know coming up with creative title names is hard without using a real one or one another author has already used, but surely the names could have been better than that?

I also felt a bit unsatisfied with the way the “duke competition” aspect was explained, especially in the context of inheritance law in relation to illegitimate children. I am hoping it gets elaborated on better in future books, as it was hinted at, but things did not fully make sense.

On the whole, I had very mixed feelings, but it is an improvement on what I felt upon first putting the book down last summer. I am aware that I am in the minority, and this is a well-loved book, and would recommend that fans of Sarah MacLean’s writing or similar books with broody alpha heroes give this a go if they haven’t.

Review of “How the Dukes Stole Christmas” by Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan, and Joanna Shupe

Dare, Tessa, et. al. How the Dukes Stole Christmas. [United States]: Rakes Rogues & Scoundrels LLC, 2018.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0999192337 | 409 pages | Historical Romance

I was excited by the prospect of four great authors teaming up to work on a holiday anthology together, but also a bit reticent due to the fact that it was yet another historical romance book adding to the endless duke train, especially since the blurbs applied the common adjectives like “surly” and “heartless,” which are catnip for many readers but instead lead me to roll my eyes. However, I was willing to give it a chance, especially since what I heard about it was generally good.

Meet Me in Mayfair by Tessa Dare

4.5 stars

Tessa’s contribution was definitely better than I expected, given that this is one that blatantly uses the word “heartless” to describe the hero. But to my relief, he’s not, that’s more an assumption on Louisa’s part, since he’s evicting her family from their home. In fact, I like that James does care for the less fortunate due to his background as a younger son and not expecting to gain the title, and being raised in the country, thus having more sympathy for his tenants there. I liked how neither of them being the bad guy gave Louisa and James an opportunity to see from each other’s point of view more quickly. While there were still misunderstandings (and groveling), I liked that story was sweet and fun, and stressed the message of togetherness with one’s family during the holidays.

The Duke of Christmas Present by Sarah MacLean

5 stars

People have been saying this story is the standout of the collection, and I have to agree. Novellas have a limited space to truly make the reader believe in love, and this is one of those that truly did it for me. Eben and Jacqueline have a believable love and good conflict, and it was beautiful watching them get their second chance to be together, given the things that stood in their way the first time.

Heiress Alone by Sophie Jordan

3 stars

This one was my least favorite in the collection, as while it had great ideas, the execution didn’t work well for me. Part of it may have to do with the fact that it’s “based” on Home Alone, one of my favorite holiday films, and it just didn’t live up to the spirit of that (I may be judging this one unfairly for that reason, since I didn’t see any of the other films that directly inspired the other novellas). I wasn’t expecting it to match up scene-for-scene, but I just felt like it was an odd fit, and I felt the humor of that film was missing in this story.

The characters were interesting enough. Calder was nice in that he cared for his servants and for the welfare of a young woman he just met. I also didn’t mind Annis, at least initially.  The story also felt like it relied a bit more on lust than love, and after a while it just felt a bit hard to engage with them, and I ended up skimming a bit towards the end.

Christmas in Central Park by Joanna Shupe

4 stars

This one seems to be the weak link for a lot people, and while it isn’t perfect, I don’t think it’s that bad. To be fair, part of it may be due to the fact that the hero is just called Duke, and he’s a New York newpaper tycoon in the Gilded Age, providing a nice change of pace after the first three. While he is kind of haughty, I like how Shupe explored why he was like this, due to his father being controlling and instilling that work ethic in him. And I love the comparison it evokes with Rose, who has few opportunities due to her class, but needs to work for her livelihood.

The romance itself is a bit rushed, as it progresses from them being employer and employee to a brief affair, then to him firing her, then to him groveling and proposing, and the plot is rife with deception and misunderstandings. That being said, the story was more or less believable in all other aspects. And given the way some in this group of authors have often been involved in speaking out about romance as a denigrated genre, I was glad to see an interaction highlighting how men and the public in general often undervalue women’s writing, and romance in particular.

***

I would recommend this anthology to fans of historical romances — especially those who love dukes. Even as someone who doesn’t like them, I found this collection enjoyable and would love to see these authors team up again to do another one.

Review of “Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover” (Rules of Scoundrels #4) by Sarah MacLean

MacLean, Sarah. Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. New York: Avon Books, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-206851-4. $7,99 USD. 

When I originally began reading Sarah MacLean, I stopped after the disappointment of the third installment in her Rules of Scoundrels series, and didn’t make it through that book again upon my reread of her backlist in the lead-up to The Day of the Duchess last year. However, curious about Chase’s story (and already having her identity spoiled for me by reading the blurb, piquing my curiosity), I finally took a chance and picked it up. And in this book, I found myself blown away in a way I wasn’t with much of her other pre-Scandal & Scoundrel work.

Georgiana is a wonderful heroine, and what I loved about her is her determination. MacLean realistically depicts the odds that would be stacked against her, in terms of her tarnished reputation in society, and shows a woman who tries to take command of her own life and destiny. She is a multifaceted character, with multiple distinct, but connected personas, and MacLean fleshes them out perfectly.

Duncan also stands out among the pack of MacLean heroes, being someone who rose up from nothing to wield tremendous influence as a newspaper publisher instead of being her standard duke or nobleman. He does have the trademark dark edges of a MacLean hero, but they only enhance his character. And while many romances where there are deceptions and secrets between the hero and heroine can be annoying, this one feels believable due to the stakes for each of them, and the way these secrets could threaten their relationship.

Another thing I really loved was reading about Caroline. While she did not feel like a typical nine year old, her character was developed in a charming “wise-beyond-her-years” way, and I do find it believable that she is observant enough to know what would make her mother happy. I do hope, that since MacLean’s books are all set in the same world, that we will get an update on her in future books.

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 “Day of the Duchess” (Scandal & Scoundrel #3) by Sarah MacLean

MacLean, Sarah. The Day of the Duchess. New York: Avon Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-237943-6. Print List Price: $7.99.

4.5 stars

In doing my recent reread of some of Sarah’s older titles, I began to notice some of the things I found lacking or just personally unappealing in her earlier work, and until recently, she was definitely more of a hit-or-miss with me.

But her charming Scandal & Scoundrel series led me to fall in love with her work again last year, and despite my misgivings regarding Haven’s behavior in The Rogue Not Taken, I picked it up on release day, and finished it within half a day.

And it is amazing.

In The Rogue Not Taken, the perception most readers likely got of Haven was that of a scoundrel without morals who didn’t care about his wife. But we see in this book that there’s a lot more that went on beneath the surface. His mother was a commoner who managed to snare a duke, and the circumstances that led to his own marriage to Sera were eerily similar. But he does truly love her, despite everything.

Another plus for this book is that we get to see more of Sera’s sisters, who were staples in the other books in the series. Sera’s relationship with her sisters is so wonderful, and it is also sweet to see how their relationship with Haven has evolved since the Incident in book one.

Fan favorite Sesily has a budding romance with American Caleb Calhoun that is a mini-subplot in this book, and possibly the setup for the upcoming Sesily novella? I found this quite funny because I used to watch the show Bates Motel, and there was a character on that show of the same name.

And for more in most likely unintentional pop culture references: Haven’s first name is Malcolm, but many times throughout the book, he is referred to as Mal, and I every time I saw that name on the page, an image of Dove Cameron in Disney’s Descendants popped in my head (the curse of having teenage sisters).

But while her craftsmanship of sympathetic characters has definitely improved,  I did notice a lapse into her old habit of over-using certain words, such as “ass,” and this time she uses for two different things, such as in reference to how Haven landed in the fishpond, as well as to his behavior, the former a bit too often for my liking. I understand that the Talbot sisters didn’t have a genteel upbringing, but surely Haven should have a bigger vocabulary than that? But this is not something that completely takes away from the story. and I would still recommend this to anyone who loves a good second-chance romance.

 

Review of “One Good Earl Deserves a Lover” (Rules of Scoundrels #2) by Sarah MacLean- (Throwback)-MacLean-a-Thon

MacLean, Sarah. One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. New York: Avon Books, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-206853-8. Print List Price: $7.99.

3 stars

In binge-reading Sarah MacLean’s novels, I have found that she loves to heroes that either describe themselves at one point or another, or have someone else refer to them as, “an ass.” While I have no issue with plain speaking once in a while, when you use it to describe the behavior of every hero five books in a row, it gets repetitive.

Cross is kind of an ass, and despite her attempts to redeem him, I did not find him as attracted on a new reading as I did initially. He does have a few good qualities, like he did penance for his profligate behavior which led to tragedy within the family by remaining celibate for six years until he meets and falls for Pippa. But I found, as the book went on, that I really didn’t care that much about him. Some heroes with tragic pasts have a way of grabbing you and not letting go, and he sadly was not one of them.

Pippa is, in her own words, an “odd” heroine, and that is endearing at first, especially when she is moved by her curiosity about marital intimacy to seek out Cross, as she has heard he is a legendary rake. But after a while, it started to get tedious.

And is it bad that I actually felt bad for her fiance? Sure, he’s not the brightest crayon in the box, but if he had a bit more brains, he would have been the perfect man, especially given that when she breaks it off with him, I saw that he really is a nice guy. I don’t know if I’m missing something, or if it’s just my preference for heroes that aren’t all broody macho-men, but a part of me actually wished she had left Cross and married her fiance and been happy with him.

Review of “A Rogue by Any Other Name” by Sarah MacLean -(Throwback)-MacLean-a-Thon

MacLean, Sarah. A Rogue by Any Other Name. New York: Avon Books, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-206852-1. Print List Price: $7.99.

5 stars

In an interview discussing this series, MacLean discussed how the tone of this series is much darker than that of her Love by Numbers series, in that this one focuses on four men with dark pasts who work at a gaming hell, while her previous series was very London- and society-focused. And while I am usually not a fan of the overly tortured heroes or very dark settings, I found I enjoyed the this book a lot more, although it may be nostalgia-based bias, as I think this was the first MacLean book I read. But sometimes it is nice to get out of the crowded London ballrooms and drawing-rooms and see a different side of the Regency world you never experienced before.

The hero and heroine are both compelling characters. Penelope is a character readers of the Love by Numbers series will have met before, as she was the Duke of Leighton’s perfect fiancee in Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart, and we see that the fallout of the end of their betrothal in this book has led to her being all but umarriageable, with almost eight years having passed with her still unwed, and two of her four sisters forced to make undesirable matches. The hero, Bourne, is a childhood friend, who lost everything years ago in a card game, and now is determined to at least gain some of his property back by marrying her, and get revenge on the man who fleeced him. While marriage-of-convenience plots aren’t always my favorite trope, and I tend to be iffy about revenge plots,  I do like how this one plays out, because of the fact that the two have this history together. Very often, marriages of convenience in historical novels (and what we think of as the typical historical marriage) was between two near-strangers, so it is great to see a story where, even if the two of them have grown and changed in some negative ways since they have last been in contact, they do have some knowledge of one another to build off.

While you see the relationship between them develop in the present, there are also letters from the past interspersed throughout, at the beginning of some chapters and sections of chapters, which illustrate what their relationship was like, and what happened to cause their relationship to change and become the way it is at the beginning when they meet again at the beginning of the novel. And even after the relationship between them crumbles in the past, you see that Penelope has not given up on trying to reach out to him, writing to him even when he’s stopped responding, and even when she doesn’t bother sending the letters anymore.

And just as with her previous series, MacLean presents us with a fun extended cast of characters, including the Cross, Temple, and Chase. And I feel like this is one series that it can be fun to reread, just because one of the future major characters has a major reveal in one of the later books, so it is fun to look into that character’s quotes in this book, and see if there are any hints of that hidden within them.

 

 

Review of “Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart” (Love by Numbers #3) by Sarah MacLean-(Throwback)-MacLean-a-Thon

MacLean, Sarah. Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart. New York: Avon Books, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-185207. Print List Price: #7.99.

4 stars

As I shared in the last review of a historical romance featuring a stuffy duke, I found it hard to get into, due to certain factors. But while this book also features a stuffy duke, I found him to be a much more sympathetic character.

This is a book where I truly felt I was reading a somewhat accurate historical romance, as Simon, the Duke of Leighton, has been conditioned to worry endlessly about reputation, to the point where some see him as an elitist, by his mother, but he is also tempted to follow his heart. While he does have some cringey moments, like constantly saying that he’s a duke when he feels like his status can get him something, he is at heart a great hero, who proves to be a great match for the feisty heroine, Juliana.

Juliana is a character I adored from the previous books, due to her funny turns of phrase (due to English being her second language) and literally being a walking scandal. And she does not disappoint in this book, punching scoundrels, colliding into ballroom decorations, and falling into the Serpentine. The only time I got upset with her was when she did not understand why Simon proposed to her after he compromised her.

Benedick is a character I quite liked, who was another suitor for Juliana’s hand in this one, but unfortunately has yet to get his own book. I do hope he gets one in the future.

Review of “Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord” (Love by Numbers #2) by Sarah MacLean (Throwback)-MacLean-a-Thon

MacLean, Sarah. Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord. New York: Avon Books, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-185206-0. Print List Price: $7.99.

4 stars

When reading Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, I found I was much more curious about Nick, Ralston’s less rakish, but no less attractive twin. And this book did not leave me disappointed in that regard. Nick not only went through the same abandonment by their mother as Ralston, but he dealt with a further romantic betrayal which soured him toward the idea of romance and marriage. I love that he isn’t overly cynical the way his brother was, and he is the one who actually confesses his feelings first, creating conflict between him and Isabel, as she grapples with trauma from her own past.

Isabel is a self-sufficient heroine, who cannot seem to acknowledge that sometimes she might benefit from the help of others. I admire her independence, and her interest in helping other women who found themselves in precarious situations, especially in such a patriarchal society. But I found her reluctance to trust Nick a bit annoying after a while, especially after he confesses his love.

While this book largely takes place in Yorkshire, so we don’t get a lot of the St. John/Fiori sibling banter that made the first book so much fun, this one does not lack for interesting family members, what with all the girls of the house, Nick’s Turkish friend Rock, and James, Isabel’s younger brother, who I hope gets his own book sometime in the future.