Tag Archives: Victorian 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 You  historical
  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 Ravenel Series: Marrying Winterbourne by Lisa Kleypas

Marrying Winterbourne is the second book in the current Lisa Kleypas historical romance Ravenel series, and, while it is better than its predecessor, Cold-Hearted Rake, it still not up to the standard of her classics or even her stronger books.  Spending insufficient time with the love story, though plenty with the smolder, it started with a wallflower and a rake, Kleypas’s forte, and swiftly landed in Big Misunderstanding territory – which experienced romance readers will tell you means the leads’ problems could be solved with one honest conversation.

Possessing several Kleypas aspects I adore, this is what Marrying Winterbourne has going for it: Rhys Winterbourne is a gorgeous, self-made man, a sardonic and magnificently self-possessed hero who calls the heroine sweetheart in that Kleypas way, and in Welsh no less, and is poleaxed by his adoration of his beloved. So far, so good. Lady Helen Ravenel is a profoundly shy, seemingly delicate woman with a backbone of steel and the willingness to step outside of herself to pursue what she wants. Excellent! Unfortunately, all of that is taken care of by Chapter Two when Rhys and Helen reach an understanding and then spend the rest of the novel trying to get to the altar. The challenge was that the stumbling blocks took precedence over the relationship building. The problem was that some elements Kleypas includes are, at best, dated and diminished the reading experience for me.

INDIGNATION FOLLOWS:

On more than one occasion, Rhys manhandles Helen.

“Rhys grasped her chin and compelled her to look at him.”

“She hated the way he guided her with his hand clasped on the back of her neck, as if she were a helpless kitten being carried by the scruff.”

“Rhys pushed from the desk and reached her with stunning quickness, caging her body with his and slamming the sides of his fists against the wall.”

Caging a woman with his body is something Rhys did to the heroine of Cold-Hearted Rake as well, though then he was also sexually aggressive. His character needed some rehabilitation and while he shows remorse, apologises to the woman he threatened, and Kleypas drops a building on him early-ish in the book, his aggressive behavior toward Helen made me uncomfortable. Is he abusing Helen? Perish the thought. Does it represent the heightened reality often found in books of this genre? I don’t care.  Is he asserting physical dominance potentially consistent with the Victorian era? Perhaps, but Marrying Winterbourne is a romance novel, not a historical document and I don’t appreciate these rough elements. Were I the woman involved, especially in the last example, I have every faith I would burst into terrified tears. In the justifiably beloved Kleypas classic The Devil in Winter, the hero is horrified when he moves too quickly and the heroine flinches. In Marrying Winterbourne, the hero takes advantage of his superior size to intimidate Helen and control her movements. If it were ever properly addressed, I could overlook it, but since I doubt Kleypas is going to drop another building on Rhys in the next book in the series, The Devil in Spring (which I will still buy), Marrying Winterbourne is going in my disappointment pile.

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.

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A Princess in Hiding Series: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match

Despite the wonderful writing and Juliana Gray’s consistent ability to create interesting characters and throw in some excitement, I couldn’t fully enjoy the Victorian romance novella The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match, but I didn’t mind. I paid a reasonable sum for the book, and since I borrowed all of her other novels from the library, I am happy to have contributed to Gray’s coffers. May she enjoy my shekels in good health and continue to devise the complex, dovetailed series plots and wonderful characterizations at which she excels.

From Amazon: Aboard the luxuriously appointed SS Majestic, the duke is on a mission to retrieve a most important portfolio of papers and thwart a known anarchist. As the ship steams across the Atlantic, the duke’s search for the notorious master of disguise forces him into close quarters with an American heiress and her widowed governess, Mrs. Penelope Schuyler. While Olympia has known his fair share of intriguing women, Mrs. Schuyler seems to have a way of challenging his expectations at every turn. But as their clandestine meetings lead them down an unexpected path, the duke must determine if Penelope is a woman to be trusted.

The Duke of Olympia appears in both of Gray’s published trilogies and I have described him previously as “a conniving old son of a bitch thoroughly experienced in shenanigans”. A compelling character, there is just one problem with giving him his own book and a love interest. He may be 6′ 5″ tall, hale and hearty, broad of chest and deep of voice, but he is seventy-four years old. It’s a perfectly reasonable age to fall in love in the real world, but for a romance novel he falls beyond the line for me. I could have lived with sixty. The heroine, Penelope, a delightful character, is just about fifty. Age differences, of course, grow less important in relationships the older we get, but Olympia is SEVENTY-FOUR years old and Penelope is young enough to be his daughter. I am a Woman of a Certain Age and The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match has the character equivalent of me becoming romantically involved with my father-in-law. I couldn’t get past it. If Penelope had been a decade older, or the Duke younger, I would have been delighted to read their story, but the combination of the vast age difference and his septuagenarian status became an insurmountable combination.

For a historical romance with large age difference that works, I recommend Julie Anne Long’s genre classic What I Did for a Duke. He’s pushing forty, she’s twenty and Long absolutely pulls it off.

Also by Juliana Gray:

The Affairs by Moonlight Trilogy
A Lady Never Lies
A Gentleman Never Tells
A Duke Never Yields – most recommended of the three

A Princess in Hiding Trilogy
How to Tame Your Duke
How to Master Your Marquis – most recommended of the three
How to School Your Scoundrel
The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match

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 Worth Saga: Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan
Iconoclast

… is what I assume Ms. Milan’s business cards say.

Could she please to stop almost bringing me to tears with her messages of empowerment and self-determination? Why almost? Because I am made of steel. Why tears? Because the truths she writes about touch me deeply.

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Her Every Wish is the first novella in Milan’s new Worth Saga Victorian romance series. In the long-term, it will contain eight books for us to devour, for now there is just one other novel, Once Upon a Marquess, which I don’t recommend. I do suggest you read this one though, most ardently. Do some stretches first. You’ll want to be limber for all the fist pumping you find yourself doing.

Sole supporter of herself and her invalid mother, Daisy Whitlaw “manages” financially with her job at a flower shop and her mother’s occasional tatting work. Even so, like everyone, she dreams of more, so she has entered a charity competition to try to secure 50 pounds and open Daisy’s Emporium, a shop that will cater to working class women by providing affordable clothing and small luxuries. She knows it is virtually impossible that she will win, but, goddamn it, she will try. Derided by most of those present, Daisy is still allowed to move along in the competition. Witnessing her first pitch to the judges is her former inamorato, Crash, and he hatches a plan to help Daisy and himself.

Crash seeks Daisy out to assist in preparing for the final presentation, and to help his odds on the bets he has taken on the outcome of the competition. They were devoted sweethearts in the past, but Daisy is determined not to fall back into Crash’s arms and he is equally sure he doesn’t want her to. Equally aggrieved of each other in their parting, this is to be a business arrangement. At least, that’s what they tell themselves. Crash begins with velocipede riding lessons as he teaches Daisy that the necessary response to (riding) challenges is to go faster.

Clash, no last name, is a bright, charming man with an intractable vision for his own future. Bisexual and of mixed race, he has used his verve and ironclad self-worth to create a life on his own terms in a world that not only doesn’t necessarily welcome him, but goes so far as to question “What are you?” in their quest to lower him. People may find him attractive, but being enticingly exotic is just another pigeon-hole the culture uses to limit him.

The strength and courage to be true to yourself and, more importantly, insist on it when the world tries to slap you down is a theme in all of Milan’s books. Never preachy, never saccharine,  and eliciting some barks of laughter, Her Every Wish has themes of personal strength, identity, and autonomy, reminding readers that the world may try to stand in our way, but that life’s smaller victories, such as those of Crash and Daisy, are what pave the way for those and them that follow (see also: The Suffragette Scandal).

Milan

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue and the books in the Worth Saga, 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.

The Mackenzie Series: A Mackenzie Clan Gathering by Jennifer Ashley

Lovehating Jennifer Ashley’s books continues to be my romance reading pleasurannoyance. This entry into her Victorian Mackenzie series (listed below) isn’t even a kissing book, A Mackenzie Clan Gathering is a story about her most popular hero as the writer cashes in on the success of her novels. I don’t begrudge her that, a woman’s got to eat. HOWEVER, however, right off the top, I am saying it: I don’t believe that Jennifer Ashley wrote this book. I think it was ghostwritten. There were telltale stylistic elements that didn’t ring true for my experience of her writing.

From Amazon (notes from me): The Mackenzie clan is about to gather for (loathsome douchecanoe) Hart’s birthday at the sprawling family estate in Scotland (Yay! Do we get to see Cameron and Mac? BOO! Only in passing). But before the festivities can start (the entirety of the book), the house is robbed, and thieves make off with an untold fortune in rare art (for a really stupid reason).

Ian and Beth Mackenzie, who are alone at the castle during the robbery (being perfect and perfectly in love and having perfect children who are each perfect in their own perfect way), must do what they (almost exclusively Ian) can to retrieve the family treasure and find out who is targeting the family (the Mackenzies are aristocratic jerkwads, so there is a Nixon Enemies List worth of suspects). But Ian is distracted by a family friend (Beth’s brother-in-law from her first marriage) who claims he might have the power to “cure” Ian of his madness forever (Ian’s madness is actually something along the lines of autism with social challenges and extensive, varied, and ridonkulous savant elements).

End Amazon. (I’m just getting started)

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is included on top 10 romance lists and it is everything bad and good about Ashley’s books all at once. The plotting is histrionic, the hero extreme, and the love story surprisingly sincere in a way that both irritates one for being too farfetched and sucks one in because “he loves her so,” and “that’s hot”.  One skips the silly elements on rereading and it helps with the experience considerably. A Mackenzie Clan Gathering takes place a full decade after Ian and Beth’s love story when they are happily domestic and have three children.

The Mackenzie family castle having been robbed, Ian sets out to solve the crime using all the Ian Is Amazing Skills at hhis disposal: He can track a falcon on a cloudy day; play any piece of music on the piano after hearing it once (which is sadly not relevant to the matter at hand); memorize treaties and treatises; build elaborate Rube Goldberg domino machines; remember any conversation he participated in, but not necessarily understand the subtleties of it; he’s a mathematical genius; a crack shot; can improve your odds when gambling; he can hear a noise anywhere in a 100,000 square foot castle and ascertain immediately a) where it came from and b) if it is a threat to his family; he has superior autobiographical memory, and, GOD DAMN, does he love his wife and please her in bed.

Who wouldn’t want to spend more that with that guy? Me. I wouldn’t. The book had no romance plot and all Ian’s cure consisted of was the already known healing power of Beth’s love (redemptive affection plots are Ashley’s bread and butter), getting to the bottom of a conspiracy against the family (also serving to encourage one to read The Stolen Mackenzie Bride) and  reaffirming that the aforementioned skill sets and adoring wife are enough for Ian and he doesn’t need to be fixed.

The Mackenzie Series:
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie – No, but sometimes yes, when I feel like it. He loves her so.
Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage – Occasionally.
The Many Sins of Lord Cameron – Guilty pleasure. I just really like it, okay?
The Duke’s Perfect Wife – No. I loathe the hero.
A Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift – Visits with the ones I like and the ones I don’t.
The Seduction of Elliott McBride – No, I’m proud of the review though.
The Untamed Mackenzie  – novella – NO. Don’t.
The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie – No, but very almost yes, so maybe, plus Lord Cameron.
Scandal and the Duchess – Quite fun, enjoyable novella.
Rules for a Proper Governess Nothing special.
A Mackenzie Clan Gathering – novella – Please see above
The Stolen Mackenzie Bride – Set in 1745, no thank you.

A summary of Jennifer Ashley’s catalogue can be found here. (Hint: That’s all of it right above this paragraph) 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 Worth Saga: Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan is the best, the very best, romance writer currently publishing, but she is not perfect and Once Upon a Marquess is a delightfully imperfect novel. Her trademark elements – eloquence, unexpected romantic moments, family politics, deciding for oneself who one will be – are here, they just don’t come together quite as successfully as they have in some of her previous efforts. The first book in her new Worth Saga, Milan is laying a lot of groundwork and she is mostly successful in establishing not only the main characters, but the necessary supporting relationships that leave the reader looking forward to the novels to come. I’d pre-order them now, if I could.

Lady Judith Worth is living in less than genteel poverty after a treasonous father and brother ruined the family name and fortune. At 26, she has held her remaining family together for eight long years through force of will and the kind of determination a general would marvel at. In her care, she has a fourteen year-old sister and a twelve year-old brother. The latter has just come home from a term at Eton, bloodied, bowed, and refusing to return. The former is somewhat spoiled and meant, I think, to come across as eccentric, but I found myself wanting either a fuller explanation for her behavior or some movement towards maturity. I assume both the reasons for her character and the growing up will be ongoing through the series.

Christian Trent, the Marquess of both Ashford and the novel’s title, comes back into Judith’s life when she requests his help. Once upon a time, they were young and in love. Once upon a time, he was asked to press the case against Judith’s brother and he did so successfully. Knowing he broke her heart – and she his – Christian wants nothing more than to do something, anything, to help the Worth family, even if it means keeping himself from Judith. He really does try, but Judith may be practical and managing quite well as head of the family, but she’s still unable to resist to the undeniable chemistry Milan has created for her leads. It handily separates itself from the “his eyes looked into her soul” fare of many genre works and, like real life couples, Judith and Christian have so much fun together and truly revel in each other’s company. Of course, their history stands in their way and Judith is determined to forge ahead on her own, but Christian is the world’s most adorable and charming tortured hero even when his quirkiness can be a bit much.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here. Since it’s the holiday season, I’ll specifically recommend A Kiss for Midwinter as both a classic of the genre and one of my top five (three? two?) romances of all time.

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

Rules for the Reckless Series: Lady Be Good and Luck Be a Lady by Meredith Duran

This is a previous review updated with the next book in the series…

Lady Be Good

Meredith Duran writes very strong, character driven historical romance, but Lady Be Good never quite grabbed me. It was as accomplished as readers have come to expect from Duran and involving at the time, but I didn’t really think about it once I was done. That said, I would really like to read the next novel in the Rules for the Reckless series, Luck Be a Lady, as it involves an up-from-the-the-gutter hero and a very proper heroine and those are almost always fun.

From Amazon: Born to a family of infamous criminals, Lilah Marshall has left behind her past and made herself into the perfect lady. Working as a hostess at Everleigh’s, London’s premier auction house, she leads a life full of art, culture, and virtue. All her dreams are within reach—until a gorgeous and enigmatic viscount catches her in the act of one last, very reluctant theft… Christian “Kit” Stratton, Viscount Palmer, is society’s most dashing war hero. But Kit’s easy smiles hide a dark secret: he is haunted by a madman’s vow to destroy anyone he loves. When his hunt for the enemy leads to Everleigh’s Auction Rooms, he compels Lilah to help him.

From Me: Hijinks ensue.

In addition to that whole “a crazy person wants to destroy Kit and all he holds dear” thing, Lady Be Good has some great fish-out-of-water elements and commentary on the place of women in the Victorian world. Hamstrung by convention, Lilah must steer herself very carefully in making her place, and her employer, Catherine, is fighting the same battles, but from within a different class. The romance worked well, too, but I found female characters more interesting and look forward to meeting them again. Not that Kit wasn’t charming and engaging, as was his interaction with Lilah, but he didn’t jump off the page the same way his heroine did.

Luck Be a Lady

From Amazon: THE WALLFLOWER – They call her the “Ice Queen.” Catherine Everleigh is London’s loveliest heiress, but a bitter lesson in heartbreak has taught her to keep to herself. All she wants is her birthright—the auction house that was stolen from her. To win this war, she’ll need a powerful ally. Who better than infamous and merciless crime lord Nicholas O’Shea? A marriage of convenience will no doubt serve them both. THE CRIME LORD – Having conquered the city’s underworld, Nick seeks a new challenge. Marrying Catherine will give him the appearance of legitimacy—and access to her world of the law-abiding elite. No one needs to know he’s coveted Catherine for a year now—their arrangement is strictly business, free from the troubling weaknesses of love.

To go all Accuracy Police on Amazon’s ass, Catherine is a Victim of Circumstance rather than a Wallflower and this character type combined with a crime lord is quite common in romance. Why, if I had a nickel for every one of those I’ve read, I’m guessing I would have maybe, conservatively, upwards of 60 cents. As a rule, the term “crime lord” simply means the hero climbed up out of the gutter and now owns a casino, or “gaming hell” in the genre parlance. It’s shorthand for rich and ruthless climbers. Nick is no exception having started out as a thief and worked his way up to a position of power and, most importantly, wealth through his gambling establishment. When we meet him, he’s become a kind of pater familias to the local rogues gallery. Catherine is resolute and pretty ambitious herself, so they make a potent combination against her brother and his willingness to be simultaneously gormless and uncompromising at every turn.

I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to or felt like I should like it. I enjoyed both main characters – Nick is romance catnip – but I felt the romance never quite held together or smoldered as much as I would have liked. I appreciate how independent and canny Duran’s heroines are, and the way they fight for themselves, or learn to do so, but more couple time would have been appreciated. I would suggest reading Fool Me Twice or the delightful novella Your Wicked Heart instead.

Also by Meredith Duran:

Rules for Reckless Series (not entirely interconnected, more of a theme)
That Scandalous Summer – very good
Your Wicked Heart – delightful novella
Fool Me Twice – excellent
Lady Be Good – nothing special
Luck Be a Lady – better than Lady Be Good, but still nothing special

Not Rules for the Reckless Series
Bound by Your Touch – excellent
Written on Your Skin – not my style, but very good

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