Tag Archives: Regency romance

So You Want to Read a (Historical, Contemporary, New Adult, Paranormal) Romance …

Alternatively: The Worst Romance Novels I Have Ever Read

This recommendations list is gleaned from at least 80 authors and over 500 books.

Ten Great Romance Novellas to Get You Started

Looking for something specific? Here’s a list of authors I’ve read enough to see thematic consistencies and it’s hard to go wrong with these writers:

Tessa Dare – FUN, bring your willing suspension of disbelief, on double-secret probation right now
Laura Florand – contemporary romances set in France, great intensity
Carla Kelly – lovely Regency romances, often military-themed
Lisa Kleypas  – the gold standard, also writes contemporaries
Julie Anne Long – extremely clever and funny
Courtney Milan – The very best currently publishing, one for the pantheon.
Julia Quinn – An excellent place to launch your reading. Start with The Bridgertons.

I lovehate Jennifer Ashley’s sincere romance mired in tortured heroes and overwrought plotting.

This list is an edited version of my Complete Reading List by Author. Reviewed books are linked.

Mallory, a frequent commenter, asked me to make a personal Top 5 list. I tried. I couldn’t do it.

CLASSICS

  1. Balogh, Mary Slightly Dangerous – historical
  2. Bowen, Sarina Blonde Date  – new adult novella
  3. Chase, Loretta Lord of Scoundrelshistorical
  4. Gabaldon, Diana Outlanderhistorical
  5. Heyer, Georgette Venetia (Dameral/Venetia) – historical
  6. Jenkins, Beverly Indigo  – historical
  7. Kinsale, Laura Flowers from the Storm old school, historical
  8. Kleypas, Lisa Dreaming of Youhistorical
  9. Kleypas, Lisa The Devil in Winter  – historical
  10. Long, Julie Anne What I Did for a Duke – historical
  11. Milan, Courtney A Kiss for Midwinter – historical novella
  12. Milan, Courtney The Suffragette Scandal  – historical
  13. Montgomery, L.M. The Blue Castle – historical now, but not when published
  14. Quinn, Julia Romancing Mr. Bridgerton  Bridgerton Book 4 – historical
  15. Thorne, Sally The Hating Game – contemporary

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The Westcott Series: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

This first book in Mary Balogh’s new Regency romance Westcott series got off to a good start with a great heroine, a play on a familiar romance plot, and a somewhat inscrutable hero. About halfway through, the story lost steam and fell prey to a trope that’s day has passed.

Once again, a toad of an aristocrat has had the temerity to die and leave his estate in disarray as he failed to disclose a rightful heir to his fortune and rendered his own children illegitimate and impecunious. The Earl of Riverdale took the trouble to make Avery, Duke of Netherby the ward of his underage son, but not to mention that he was married as a callow youth, had a daughter, and remarried to begin another family. Avery keeps an eye on the boy, but finds himself very intrigued by the buttoned up heiress who has landed on the family doorstep.

Anna Snow has lived in an orphanage for 21 years, from the age of four as a resident and as a teacher since reaching maturity. When she is summoned to London and informed that she is now a Lady, and an obscenely wealthy one at that, the most her mind can encompass is to ask if there is enough money to cover her return fare to Bath. Her father’s sisters and mother welcome Anna, his now superfluous wife and three children are much less friendly.

As heroine’s go, Anna is a good one. Magnificently self-possessed simply by virtue of not thinking anyone is better – or of less value – than her, her personality lends itself to poise and dignity as a defense mechanism. Avery is fascinated and takes an immediate interest in her. For his part, Avery is an unusual hero. Shorter than average and slight, his physical description is that he is beautiful, but not necessarily the kind of testosterone triumph of so many of the men in these books. His part of the story is the one that falls down when the plot loses its way. Much is made of his ability in a non-specified martial art and its attendant lifestyle which he learned after a chance encounter with an Asian gentleman. This convenient exoticism struck me as a dated trope. Avery met a sole individual from a foreign culture and that one person just happened to be a master of a form of combat perfectly suited to the hero and he took the time to make Avery an expert? Codswallop. He’s a duke. Couldn’t he at least have gone abroad for a couple of years to educate himself? Balogh already portrays him up with an interesting, effete steeliness and wouldn’t having been AWOL for a couple of years doing god-knows-what have added to his air of mystery?

Another element of the book and common trope that bothered me was the portrayal of the wedding night: Anna ends up stark naked in the middle of the bedroom during the afternoon while Avery is still fully dressed. She’s been kissed exactly twice in her life, has consciously repressed her sexual impulses, and she’s in a house without central heating. I don’t care how much willing suspension of disbelief I bring to my reading, Balogh is better than this. Why can’t people in these books ever start out under the covers and dressed for bed? I think it would be sweet to read about the participants’ increasing comfort with intimate activities and each other.

As the first book in the Westcott series, Someone to Love lays a lot of groundwork for heroes and heroines to come. I had a bit of trouble keeping everyone straight at first and couldn’t tell if it was partly intentional to mimic Anna’s experience or just the introduction of the cast. Having paid full price for the novel and being disappointed, I will go back to my “library first” policy for Balogh’s romances and only buy the ones I’m sure I like such as the following:

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

For more Mary Balogh 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.

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The Survivors’ Club: Only Beloved by Mary Balogh

The last book in Mary Balogh’s excellent seven book historical romance Survivors’ Club series features the kindest man in the world and a happy spinster. About a decade ago, George, Duke of Stanhope, turned his estate into a hospital and took wounded Napoleonic War veterans into his home. Six of the patients, a woman and five men, stayed behind when the others left and over three years of healing formed an intense bond. Each of them has now had a love story and embarked on a new life, so it is their host’s turn to find companionship and a fulfilling homelife. George lost his young son in the War and his wife, unable to bear her grief, took her own life. Opening his ancestral home allowed him to help others, heal himself, and deflect the world’s attempts to see beyond the comfort he gives others and into his own pain.

The Survivors’ Club holds annual reunions and during one of these George was introduced to and delighted by Miss Dora Debbins. She was flattered by the attention and enjoyed his company as well. The sister of the heroine of Only Enchanting, Dora is forty, to George’s forty-eight, and lives and works quite pleasantly as a musician and teacher in a country town. When George reappears out of the blue to ask for her hand in marriage, Dora is stunned, but her instincts tell her to say yes. She sees in his gesture her chance to seek out a new kind of life as a a wife and – who knows – maybe a mother as well. They may be older than usual characters, but George and Dora are both young enough and old enough to make the relationship work despite the difference in their stations.

George and Dora are strongly attracted to and hold great affection for each other, but agree that they are marrying for companionship rather than a grand passion. Life and romance novels being what they are, the gods laugh at their plans and they fall quietly and deeply in love. Romance novels and life being what they are, and Mary Balogh’s common theme of broken people fitting their pieces together, George and Dora find much more in their relationship than they had ever expected. It is not a Dramatic Relationship, Balogh characters are always too sensible and wonderfully grown up for such things, but the writing successfully conveys the profound bond and joy the two share. As with all strong romances, the team they are together is stronger than the separate individuals they are apart.

It’s hard to go wrong with a Mary Balogh novel. She’s such a reliable writer. Only Beloved is not the best entry in the Survivors’ Club series, Only Enchanting and Only a Promise share that honour, but as a wrap up to this very strong series it works well. As with her other larger series, Balogh needs to repeat a lot of identifying information and quickly encapsulate the previous stories when characters reappear. It both helps sort out my confusion and drags the story down a bit. As a reader, I enjoy visiting old friends, but I don’t want them to take over the current reading experience.

The Survivors’ Club:
The Proposal  (Hugo/Gwen) – pleasant
The Arrangement  (Vincent/Sophia) – very sweet, understated
The Escape (Benedict/Samantha) – meh
Only Enchanting (Flavian/Agnes) – Wonderful, read this one. Read it twice.
Only a Promise  (Ralph/Chloe) – very good
Only a Kiss (Percy/Imogen) – nothing special
Only Beloved – please see above

Balogh has another popular series, all titled with “Slightly”, and Slightly Dangerous is a classic of the genre.

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

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Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Venetia was my first Georgette Heyer novel which seems odd given my love of the genre and the author’s lauded status in it. I did try to read it once before, but didn’t get very far. This time, I kept going and was well rewarded for my determination. Venetia, as much as almost any romance I’ve read, is about the heroine’s effort and insistence on choosing her own life. Much of the tension in the novel comes from Venetia saying, “I want this,” repeatedly and dealing with virtually everyone else in her life, including the man she loves, trying to tell her no. She is determined to choose her own freedom.

 “So far from being content, she had never imagined that this could be her ultimate destiny. She wanted to see what the rest of the world as like: marriage only interested her as the sole means of escape for a gently born maiden.”

Published in 1958, I wondered if Heyer was writing as much about the women of her own generation who had been given unprecedented independence and responsibility during World War II while the men in their lives were away and then compressed back into their old roles when peacetime returned, as she was about Venetia herself. With deceased parents, an absent and completely disinterested older brother off on The Continent, and a younger brother at home, Venetia has been running her family estate successfully for years. Beautiful, practical, and very bright, she meets the neighbouring estate’s own prodigal son when Lord Dameral returns after many years abroad. Significantly older than her and of leaden reputation, Venetia and her brother become fast friends with Dameral and he is soon a fixture on their lives.

A rake with profligate tendencies, Dameral enjoys his neighbours and is, of course, drawn to the wry and clever Venetia, but feels her social standing could not survive a deeper association. He’s not made of stone. He’s madly in love with her, but they remain friends and settle into that relationship; however, when her absentee brother sends home a shy wife and her harridan of a mother, Venetia’s life is turned upside-down and she is forced to find her own way. The book is largely her story, but Dameral appears regularly to be kindred and delightful. He’s a charming rogue, but a thoughtful and polite one. In him, Venetia sees a future she can embrace even as she knows there may be financial and social challenges. This is her life and her choice to make and she is the one who will make it, damn it!

“Well, my usurper is not very young, and not handsome, and certainly not virtuous: quite the reverse in fact. On the other hand, he is not a bore.”

Precisely and deftly written, just like Venetia herself, the novel felt as though I was reading something that was actually written in 1820 instead of set there. I have a degree in English literature and I mention that at this juncture because I was chagrined to discover that I found the prose style, so witty, so elegant, so historically appropriate, a bit formal and challenging when I started reading; for example, there was one short passage alone contained five new-to-me idioms for intoxication. Clearly, I was able to sort them out and, to my tremendous relief, fall into the flow of the prose, though never quite completely. Since this issue can only be helped by exposure and practice, please let me know which Georgette Heyer novel I should try next. As is often the case, I suspect I have tried a new author starting with her greatest work, but I am certainly willing to give her other books a try.

Venetia has been added to my list of classic romances on my shortened recommendations list. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

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The Reluctant Bride Collection: To Catch a Spinster, To Tame a Dragon, To Wed the Widow, and To Tempt the Saint by Megan Bryce

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The four Reluctant Bride Collection novels,  jaunty in tone and virtually chaste, provided a great introduction to Megan Bryce’s work. Connected by theme, but not characters, each of the books in this Regency historical romance series tackles a female stereotype and features an unusual and fiercely independent heroine:

  1. To Catch a Spinster – The Frump
  2. To Tame a Dragon – The Virago
  3. To Wed the Widow – The Maneater
  4. To Tempt the Saint – The Manipulator

What I enjoyed most was that the women did not change over the course of their stories. They may grow emotionally, but their essential nature is not changed. Each one simply meets a man who is her ideal counterpart. Brava!

To Catch A Spinster

Olivia Blakesley is a self-proclaimed spinster and glad of it. Bookish,  disinterested in fashion, and plain, she has a large family, her passion for painting constellations, and leads a full life. She knows marriage would curtail her freedom and wants none of it; however, there is one aspect of that state she wants to experience and she has chosen Nathaniel Jenkins to perform the task. He is an older man, “Tall, but not too tall. Handsome, but not diabolically so,”,  suffering through his mother’s tedious parade of potential mates whose youth makes him uncomfortable. When Olivia proposes her own seduction, he refuses, agrees, and then finds himself desperately trying to convince her to marry him, despite promising her he would not when they planned their “transaction”. What can he offer that is worth her liberty?

To Tame a Dragon

“She swept from the room like a hurricane on a mission.”

This delightful entry was my favourite of the series, though I enjoyed all of them and when I revisited the To Catch A Spinster, I found myself pleased to be torn. Bryce’s writing is just such droll fun.

Jameson Pendrake, Earl of Nighting has, moments before the novel opens, jilted his fiancée. The reader meets him prostrate on a sofa nursing his recently assaulted wedding tackle. His best friend, Robin, is there making sympathetic noises; Robin’s sister, Amelia, is there also, but with  a no-nonsense approach and offering to defray the impending scandal. The trio have known each other virtually their entire lives with Robin and Jameson having been school friends and Amelia insisting on tagging along whenever the boys went on adventures.

Amelia is an emphatically capable woman, deliciously wry and practical in her approach to the world. Jameson is irreverent, fun, and naughty in that way that can be so tempting in a prospective suitor. Not that she has ever allowed herself to think of Jameson that way. He is too good-looking by half and his exuberance leads to a lot of scrapes. Winning and adorable, he’s also got a good head on his shoulders because he comes to the realisation that Amelia is the perfect woman for him, “He shook his head, imagining himself in the role of her husband and she of his wife. The rightness  of it filled him. The peace of it filled him. And what an adventure it would be. The fun of it.” Now all he has to do is convince her of that:

She sighed and took a small step away from him. “There are two problems, and you are both of them.”
“I usually am.”
“You usually are.”

Of course, she capitulates and they get married,  all that’s left is for them to stop quipping at each other long enough to admit their true feelings.

The next two Reluctant Bride books feature men named George Sinclair (sin) and George St. Clair (the saint) respectively. I appreciate this on two levels:

1. as a clever play on words
2. I think it highly likely that there were a lot more men named “George” and a lot fewer men named “Logan” in historical romance than authors like to admit to, so the realism of it pleases me.

To Wed the Widow

As is the way of things, I read these books out-of-order and To Wed the Widow was my first foray into Bryce’s catalogue. The so-called maneater of this collection is someone who has been widowed five times.  To misquote Oscar Wilde, “To lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose five looks like carelessness.” No one thinks she murdered the men, but their tendency to parish whilst married to her does give society pause; moreover, she has observed successively, shockingly shorter mourning periods after each husband even though she looks fabulous in black.

Lady Haywood is just too perfectly scandalous and tempting for George Sinclair. The younger brother of an Earl whose marriage has produced four daughters, George has just returned from many happy years in India to do his duty by the familial line of succession. The Earl’s wife, a lovely woman, nearly died when her last child was born and her husband has vowed never to chance a pregnancy again. The Countess is not on board with this plan and seeks Lady Haywood’s help in remedying the situation. Everyone skirmishes their way through the book towards a happy ending in spite of the Earl’s preferences and Lady Haywood’s awful brother who keeps showing up to throw a wrench into the works.

To Tempt the Saint

Bryce maintained the same clever voice as in the preceding books in the series, but To Tempt the Saint had a more serious tone and content overall. Relatively speaking, I found it the least enjoyable of the group, despite the excellent portrayal of complex characters and relationships. To Wed the Widow had a sinner, To Tempt the Saint has the opposite. George St. Clair wants to be left alone to pursue his business interests. His family considers this vulgar and wants him marry a decent woman and go into the Church. It’s what younger sons do, after all.

Precipitated by scandalous events in her youth and working with her aunt and uncle,  Honora makes her living through betrothals. She becomes engaged and then forces the man’s hand into breaking the marriage contract. Suing for damages, as was the way of the era, she then moves on to a new location and another man. Like the con in a heist movie going for one last job, the trio feel they need just one more big score before they can retire. Choosing independence, even through illegal activities, Honora is in a race between getting caught and collapsing under the emotional toll of her own subterfuge.

Attending a lecture on steam power as a potential investment – her ill-gotten gains aren’t going to languish in those famous Regency Five Percents – Honora meets and annoys George St. Clair thus gaining his attention. Falling apart emotionally as a result of her machinations, she remains resolute that if she can tempt George, the reward will set her little family up for life.  He is, naturally, the first man she has set her cap for who sees the real her and this complication propels the story.

As I got the first three Reluctant Bride novels free on Bookbub, I had no objection to paying full price for To Tempt the Saint. I felt that I owed Megan Bryce the money and probably a gratuity.

I have also read a contemporary Megan Bryce novel, Some Like It Charming,  that I will get around to reviewing eventually. It was light, fun, and required slightly more willing suspension of disbelief than I was able to provide.

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

 

The Survivors’ Club: Only a Kiss by Mary Balogh

The Survivors’ Club series has had a really good run and there is one more book to go that I will be reading when it becomes available, but Only a Kiss was a swing and a miss. I never really connected with it and, in particular, didn’t get a handle on the hero.

Before I start, let’s take a moment to enjoy the gorgeous and mostly accurate (!) cover.

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The Survivors’ Club series follows the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars for six men and one woman. They spent three years together recovering from their respective visible and invisible war wounds and now, several years out from their injuries, they are each moving on to the next phase of their life with relationships and families. Only a Kiss is book six and features the lone woman of the group, Imogen. She has been described repeatedly as seemingly made of “marble” and it’s an excellent characterization. She experienced profound loss and psychological trauma during the War and has coped with life by going through the motions, but placing strict limits on her participation in the world and on her emotions. Occupying a dower house in Cornwall, her life is turned upside-down when the Earl whose land she lives on has the temerity to move home.

Percival, called Percy, thank heavens, the Earl of Somesuch can tick off every single box on the “Fabulous Life of a Privileged Nineteenth Century Man” list:

√  rich as Croesus
√  titled
√  well-educated
√  beloved of his family
√  possessed of friends
√  charming
√  good with children
√  healthy
√  genuinely handsome and not just told so because of the preceding attributes

So why is he incapable of being polite to Imogen and why won’t that stray dog leave Percy alone? The answer to both questions is that they see him as he really is. Imogen’s view is self-protectively jaundiced, the canine’s is, as is the way of the species, pure, unadulterated love. He comes to terms with both over the course of the story. Percy has no horrible secret lingering in his psyche. He is a good man whose usefulness has yet to be discovered, happily floating along knowing he has everything in life and a little disappointed in himself to discover he is overwhelmingly bored. Imogen takes care of this issue as she inspires  bluntness in him and he asks questions no one else has dared about her wartime experiences.

Events in Only a Kiss proceed predictably apace as one would expect in a romance, but I didn’t feel particularly invested in either of the characters. I was pleased Imogen allowed herself to truly re-enter the world of the living, but didn’t necessarily see the excellent qualities in Percy I was supposed to. Weighed down by a non-glamourized smuggling subplot (Huzzah for repudiating organized crime!) the book was enjoyable by virtue of being written by Mary Balogh, but not up to the standard readers know her to be capable of, or of the two books immediately preceding Only a Kiss in the Survivors’ Club series.

When you get this far into a series, there are a lot of feet on the ground and, in this case, they all have titles in addition to their given names to keep track of. I can mostly manage to keep up, but if I were to start with Only a Kiss, I’m sure I would find it frustrating. On the other hand, Balogh has created overlapping social circles between her many books and it is always fun to get glimpses of favourite characters from this collection and her other works.

The Survivors’ Club:
The Proposal  (Hugo/Gwen) – pleasant
The Arrangement  (Vincent/Sophia) – very sweet, understated
The Escape (Benedict/Samantha) – meh
Only Enchanting (Flavian/Agnes) – Wonderful, read this one. Read it twice.
Only a Promise  (Ralph/Chloe) – very good
Only a Kiss (Percy/Imogen) – see above
Only Beloved – sweet

Balogh has another popular series, all titled with “Slightly”, and Slightly Dangerous is a classic of the genre.

I created a romance review template to amuse myself when discussing Balogh’s  Handful of Gold.

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

The Dressmakers Series: Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

Short Version: I adored the hero and heroine and can’t remember another time I liked both protagonists so much. The plot was very good, but not quite great, so read it for Clara and Oliver, their every moment together is a delight.

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Long Version: Looking forward to Clara’s book in Loretta Chase’s Dressmaker’s Series, I was not disappointed. You have to love it when it feels like a book was written with you in mind. Dukes Prefer Blondes featured a Nick and Nora Charles style courtship but, as it is a historical romance, in the Regency. Chase uses the narrative structure incredibly effectively to both maintain the brittle, consciously closed-off outward appearances of the main characters while still sharing their true feelings and the effect they have on one another. All books with an omniscient narrator can do this, but this genre really lends itself to it, and few novels have done it quite so well as Dukes Prefer Blondes.

Clara is beautiful and rich which is hard to feel sorry for, but she is also considered the top marital prize of her season and her time as a trophy is wearing on her. Men pursue and propose to her, but only for the potential notoriety of being the man who gains her acquiescence. They don’t really see her; they talk at Clara, not to her. She is “wrapped in cotton wool” and stifled in every attempt to assert, not even her independence, but her brainpower and energies in anything other than the most safe and stultifying activities. Her mother is very concerned about social status and any notion of womanhood which maintains it, so Clara is allowed to participate in charity work and her efforts bring her into contact with an impoverished young woman looking for her missing brother. When Clara needs someone to help her locate the boy, she is brought to barrister Oliver “Raven” Radford.

Having embraced a nickname originally intended as an insult, Raven is the cousin of a duke and the son of a younger son who made good practicing law. He’s not touched by scandal, but his family is, though they don’t care – at least not until he falls for Lady Clara. A man of searing intellect and deficient in tact, he is startled and fascinated by the goddess who has appeared before him and appears to have wits on par with her beauty, not that he will admit that out loud, although occasionally his powerful reaction to his magnificent equal overwhelms him long enough for some imprudent physical contact. Raven helps Clara out and she plagues him until he marries her. He knows they are a bad match on paper, as deeply as he may want her, but he cannot resist and she does not play fair. In the end, they find a surprising way forward and Clara gets the freedom she hoped for, but not in the form she expected.

The sub-plots about Raven’s contentious relationship with London’s underworld did not work as well for me as the love story, but as long as Raven and Clara were in the same room, I didn’t need anything else. Dukes Prefer Blondes had all the smart banter I love and managed to convey true depth of emotion without any flowery speeches and dramatic declarations which would make people trained not to express emotion uncomfortable.You want to read this book, you’ll want to re-read it, too. I have added Dukes Prefer Blondes to my streamlined recommendations list to make sure as many people know that as possible.

Also by Loretta Chase – I’ve read twelve of her books, but only reviewed two:
Lord of Scoundrels – CLASSIC!
Silk Is for Seduction

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