Tag Archives: historical romance

The Ravenels: Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

Is romance queen Lisa Kleypas’s current historical romance series old school, out-of-date, or both? She is four books into what looks to be a six book series and there hasn’t been a winner among them. I’m disappointed, but since her catalogue has so many great novels, and more than one classic, I will forge ahead and read the next one, too. Let’s review the Ravenels series so far, shall we?

Cold-Hearted Rake – I can’t remember anything about it. Wait! She has dark hair.
Marrying Winterbourne – Self-made man who intimidates his beloved.
Devil in Spring – Best to this point, but there’s a scene of questionable consent.

I want to begin by going back to Devil in Spring because it had an opening that I think encapsulates what Kleypas is missing for me these days. In the Prologue, Evie St. Vincent and her husband, Sebastian – the ultimate rake and wallflower pairing – engage in a flirtation after she bathes one of their grandchildren. Even as a joke with his wife, why is Sebastian making comments about taking advantage of servants working in his home? More importantly, the couple are are both still beautiful, youthful, and lithe, even after 30 years of marriage. Could they not have been touched by time in some way?  I don’t mind Sebastian’s preservation since romance trades in wish-fulfillment, but hers bothered me. I really wanted the narration to say that if Evie’s body had softened or changed, Sebastian had never noticed because that would be a sweet and romantic view of a long marriage. Instead, the reader is treated to the lissome and dashing, “everyone was beautiful forever” approach that I think of as old school romance that felt dated to me.

The kinds of heroes I remember from romance in the 1980s, 1990s, and, indeed, in earlier works by Lisa Kleypas, were always the best looking, the most skilled, insouciant in the face of pain or hardship,  perfectly in control paragons of taut masculinity. It’s what Hello Stranger has in Ethan and it kept making me cringe.  Strangely, conversely, Hello Stranger has a wonderfully modern gesture of a heroine, but I suppose at some point in this review I should provide a plot synopsis before I return to my regularly scheduled umbrage.

Garrett Gibson is the only Board Certified female doctor in England. In addition to her full-time job as an on-call physician for a large company, she volunteers her services in London’s slums. Trained in self-defense and armed with a walking stick, she has been successfully protecting herself, but, one night when things get rough, out of the darkness steps Ethan Ransom. Familiar to series readers as a likely Ravenel by-blow, he is a worthy man of somewhat ill repute working undercover for the government, and off the clock as Garrett’s watchdog. They bond over their shared love of hand-to-hand combat. He respects her strength, she falls for his everything.

To be more specific, Garrett simply swoons over Ethan’s “I was born and raised in North London, but my parents are from Ireland, so I have a brogue I try to hide” Irish accent. Kleypas messes up culturally a couple of times in this book, but his so-called accent consistently distracted and annoyed me. You know who else’s parents emigrated from Ireland? My husband’s. Does Mr. Julien have an Irish accent ? No, he does not because he GREW UP IN CONNECTICUT! More importantly, Kleypas’s “exotic accent” device reminded me of the aggravation of what I called the “Romany bullshit” in the Hathaways series. People who have not lived or spoken to other members of their cultural group since childhood recall its language, customs, and obscure medical knowledge. No. Ethan can be culturally Irish. He can’t be audibly so. I won’t even go into the esoteric sexual skills he learned from some sex guru in India. They tie into the outdated magnificent, stallion of a man, barely in control of his urges in presence of his beloved, and wise in the ways of pleasure character elements that also fall under the old school versus outdated question with which I began the review.

Given the level of frustration I’ve just described, I’m sure you can imagine that I do not recommend Hello Stranger. I will give Kleypas this: She finally has a book in which the hero does not give the heroine “the gentlest shake.” It’s about time.

A complete summary of Lisa Kleypas’s catalogue, with recommendations (two classics and one of my personal favourites), can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

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Westcott Novels: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

Mary Balogh writes reliable romance about sensible and somewhat damaged people finding each other. The first in her new Westcott series, Someone to Love, wasn’t as strong as it could be, but Someone to Hold featured excellent and interesting character development. I don’t pre-order Balogh’s books or run to the library to get a look at a new release, but I am rarely let down by her writing. It sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean to. When I buy a Balogh, I read a writer who knows her business.

The conceit of the Westcott Novels is a familiar one in romance. A family’s fortunes are changed by the death of a relative and the revelation of deceit.  The lives of everyone in the series are upended and quite suddenly someone who never anticipated possessing power or wealth is thrust into a new role and life. The series starts with the chief beneficiary of a gormless and absent father when Anna, in Someone to Love, finds herself lifted from the role of orphanage school teacher to duchess. Someone to Hold follows the no-longer-legitimate sister whose life is forever transformed by losing her birthright and fortune.

Virtually everything Camille thinks she knows about herself has been proven a lie, including her name, future, and sense of self. Lost and confused, she turns away from her family to create a new life and to try to understand who she truly is. That Camille is not always likeable is the main strength of Balogh’s latest romance and, with time, the reader comes to like and care for her. Moving into Anna’s old role as a teacher, she shields her insecurities and fear with a haughty manner learned from years of trying to be the perfect lady for her distant father.  What she discovers about herself allows her to move forward and, to steal a line from Douglas Adams, “She was mostly immensely relieved to think that virtually everything that anybody had ever told her was wrong.”

An unintended companion in Camille’s exile is the man who Anna Westcott left behind, Joel Cunningham. Raised in the orphanage, he is building a career for himself as a local portrait artist and still teaches art at the school a couple of afternoons each week. He doesn’t know what to make of the prickly and defensive Camille, but he is drawn to her nonetheless, and the two find often themselves having conversations and little adventures neither had planned. He’s a good man working towards success and financial independence. She’s an independent woman working towards her own goodness.

As I state in every Balogh book review, if her publishers set a lower price for her works, I would have snapped up a lot more of them by now. In the meantime, I get by on surprise sales, Someone to Hold was $1.99, library loans, and the occasional full price impulse purchase. That last item is what I am holding strong against for the next book in the series, Someone to Wed, but I have no doubt I will read it eventually.

A complete summary of Mary Balogh’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

Castles Ever After Series: Do You Want to Start a Scandal? by Tessa Dare

Tessa Dare’s latest Regency romance series is called The Duchess Deal and I would recommend its first book, Girl Meets Duke, over Do You Want to Start a Scandal? This crossover story between Dare’s Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After novels, features the youngest of the Highwood sisters and longtime troublemaker, Charlotte, who has both eldest sibling Diana’s desire for a loving home and intellectual Minerva‘s sense of adventure.

Piers Brandon, Lord Granville is an agent of the crown performing reconnaissance at a two-week house party in the English countryside. Devoted to his duty to King and country, he is caught off guard when Charlotte Highwood presents herself to him with a warning: Her mother will be trying to force a match between them and they must be careful to avoid it. Before you can say “in flagrante delicto”, Charlotte and Piers are caught alone together and giving the appearance of having crossed several lines. Their betrothal now imminent, they agree to the appearance of an understanding to get through the remainder of the estate. Kissing book plotting has other plans for them. After all,  it is a romance novel truth universally acknowledged that a peer must be in want of an heir.

Autocratic and closed off Piers is drawn to Charlotte’s intelligence and charm, while she soon learns that below the surface and behind his protective walls is a loving and passionate man. As they wend their way through plot machinations, they discover they are mad for each other and all that’s left is the genre’s forgone conclusion. I didn’t buy it for a second.

I tried reading Do You Want to Start a Scandal twice –  once in my original attempt and again for this review. It’s amazing how much of my time was taken up with wondering “How old is Piers exactly?” in the midst of skipping forward to find a more interesting part of the story. Charlotte is “not yet twenty-one” and while Piers’ age is never specifically stated, he must be at least 32. A twelve (or more) year age gap is not unheard of, but it didn’t work here. While I’d like an older heroine, the problem is not actually her age. I just don’t see what she has to offer Piers. What could they possibly find as common ground to build a relationship on? All of her youthful exuberance serves to remind me that he is a person of much greater experience in life and of the world and the writing failed to convince me that they were on the same page.

With the lack of well-matched characters overshadowing the story, I wasn’t especially worried about Dare’s usual requirement that I bludgeon and sequester my willing suspension of disbelief or that the revelation of the true goings on by the supporting characters was preposterous. I require somewhat more Regency and somewhat less modern farce in my historical romances.

Julie Anne Long’s classic historical romance What I Did for a Duke features a large age gap convincingly rendered. She’s twenty years old to his thirty-nine.

A complete summary of Tessa Dare’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

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A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

“I don’t think anything inspired me except the necessity of coming up with a story so that I could fulfill my obligation to a contract I had agreed to! I had to dream up a story, and this one popped into my head.” Mary Balogh in the interview following A Matter of Class. Nonetheless, as an experienced, and clearly honest, professional writer, she delivered a sincerely charming  historical romance novella.

Reggie and Annabelle are lifelong neighbours divided by a waterway as well as the barriers of class levels in so-called polite society. Their estates may be next to each other and they may go to the same church, but his self-made father and her top-lofty, though cash poor,  sire have been at odds for Reggie and Annabelle’s entire lives.

Told in present day and flashbacks, the reader learns that Reggie has become a dissolute spendthrift more interested in the tassels on his new Hoby boots than settling down. He’s a minor scandal compared to the fact that Annabelle has recently been recovered from an unsuccessful, but nonetheless scandalous, elopement with a family servant. Disgraced, impecunious, and in need of being advantageously foisted off on a man of means, the fathers make a plan for their children to marry. Reggie and Annabelle have plans of their own.

Light and quick, A Matter of Class moves entertainingly towards its resolution with some clever twists along the way. I recommend it as and strongly suspect I will be revisiting it when in need of a lift.

My favourite Balogh novels:
The Survivors’ Club:Only Enchanting – great book and wonderful hero
The Slightly Series: Slightly Dangerous – this one is a classic

For more Mary Balogh book reviews you can go here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

Girl Meets Duke Series: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

What was being a duke, if not arching a sardonic eyebrow?

[fires confetti cannon, then starts pointing and yelling, “YES!” at Tessa Dare]

Girl Meets Duke has all of Dare’s cleverness and less of her recent series’ tweeness. She’s back and I’m in! It’s not her best work, but it’s what I (and very possibly no one else as captious as I am) consider a return to form, and in some ways a step up. It’s like she unleashed her full wit and wordplay on this Regency romance.

Ash is a brooding, forbidding Duke. Manly, muscular, and scarred by cannon fire, he focuses on running his estates and wallowing in his despair. Aware of his responsibility to the duchy to provide an heir, he proposes to the first, well, second, acceptable young woman he meets. He threw over the first one when he discovered she was disgusted by his appearance which seems more than fair on his part. Emma arrives in his study to demand payment for that first fiancée’s wedding dress. Working as a seamstress, she left home when her father, a vicar no less, shamed her for a liaison with a local young man. Ash instantly proposes a marriage of convenience, Emma rightly declines, and then circumstances conspire to bring them together anyway.

The Duchess Deal continues with Dare’s tendency to make a kind of musical comedy of her romances while pulling in current cultural elements, in this case superheroes. The writing crackles and I found myself thinking this is what it might be like of P.G. Wodehouse wrote romance novels and worked blue. The book works to Dare’s strengths and I did not find myself as bothered by the overarching need to willing suspension my disbelief as I did with the Castles Ever After series. Yes, the servants love the above stairs folk, and it’s more of a family than an aristocratic household, and there were sundry other non-historical elements, but I will be buying the next Girl Meets Duke story and hope that Dare’s return to my autobuy list will be long-term.

Dare’s best works are A Week to Be Wicked , Any Duchess Will Do, and The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright . A complete summary of Tessa Dare’s catalogue, with more recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

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Fly Me to the Moon: Star Dust by Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner

Buy Star Dust and read it. Heck, it’s free on Amazon right now.

Genevieve Turner and Emma Barry have written a solid romance with great period detail and poignant moments that go with and beyond the love story Star Dust tells. The first of the Fly Me to the Moon series, each of the historical romances in the group feature an astronaut. It looks like they jump around in decades, so there are lots of period elements – the heroine os Star Dust smokes! – to enjoy. Set in Houston in 1962, I was able to picture the bungalows with their “space age” furniture as the ASD stood in for NASA and Star Dust got underway.

Moving into a brand new house in a neighbourhood still under construction, Anne-Marie’s life is in much the same state as her surroundings. Recently divorced and working to settle her two children into their new family home, she stabs herself while opening boxes and goes to the only available neighbour for help. Having seen him on the cover of Life magazine, she recognizes Commander Christopher “Kit” Campbell immediately. He bandages her hand and makes overtures for other parts of her, but she has no time for games.

Provided with a house by her parents, but taking a job outside her home to help pay her way, I very much liked that Anne-Marie is often stubborn and prickly, despite her social graces, and she does not change. Eager to prove to those around her that she was right to abandon her cheating husband, she gets her back up very easily and as a divorcee she is given a lot of opportunities to do so. Everyone is ready and willing with judgment or insinuations about her life. Even well-intended assistance is a cause for suspicion. Seeing the double-standards she is challenged with, I’m not surprised. Kit comes to understand her demeanor and the woman underneath it. It’s a nice twist on the hero being the difficult one in a romance and Kit is far from that. He’s a wonderful guy, honest, loyal, and respectful. He’s doing his best to cope with his own onslaught of attention, ambitions, and the fears he is not supposed to even acknowledge, never mind share with anyone.

One of the delights of Star Dust is that Anne-Marie is 30 and embarking on a new life with nine and seven year old children. Kit is 34 and getting ready to travel to space. Adults really were younger 50 years ago. At the age when people nowadays are often getting married for the first time, both of them are on to second stages in their lives.

I stumbled across Star Dust, and discovered that Amazon has an actual  book review site, because the magnificent Courtney Milan had provided a list of 9 Historical Romances for Those Who Want Something More Than a Little Different. I snapped up Star Dust and a couple of samples for my e-reader. I haven’t always enjoyed Courtney Milan’s recommendations, but they are always interesting and worth trying.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

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Whyborne and Griffin: Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk

This review required a little research from me on the genre distinction between paranormal and fantasy, so I could resolve that Widdershins is the former. The first in a series, which takes its name from the main characters, this paranormal romance features a couple interacting with occult forces and things that go bump in the night. I would recommend Widdershins, even though it was not my cup of tea. It was fun, but I like significantly less violence and prefer a dearth of imaginary creatures in my kissing books as a rule.

Set in the late 19th century, a linguist working away happily in the bowels of a museum, Percival Whyborne is approached by private investigator, Griffin Flaherty, to decode/translate an encrypted text left behind by a murder victim. As they work together freaky events happen around them and in turn reveal a cult trying to end the world. Racing against time, Percival and Griffin have a grand, but occasionally creepy, adventure and fall madly in love. I was very much in favour of that last part.

Given that I prefer my romances without the paranormal elements, I’m not sure how to judge the ones here. They were fine and well portrayed, I guess; however, Widdershins was suggested first and foremost as a fun M/M romance and it did deliver. Whyborne is closeted even beyond the requirements of the time, owing to a very bad experience, but he steps out enough to let Griffin into his life and his heart. That portion of the story did not disappoint and I appreciated the historical detail, not just of the complication of being gay in a world which tells you it’s wrong or a sin, but also of the time period itself. I won’t be continuing with the series, but I can see how it would be a delightful romp for people who are interested in nightmare creatures skulking around the workaday world.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list. I have a list of LGBTQ romances, too.

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