Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn (Lady Julia Grey #1)

6933131“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words are the last threat that Sir Edward Grey receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, he collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that her husband was murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers damning evidence for herself, and realizes the truth. Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

Review:

My part of Japan has been buffeted by tons of typhoons this season.  In anticipation of yet another worrying night I started Silent in the Grave and it was just the escapism I needed.

The good:

  • World building is here and in spades as Raybourn builds out a corner of Victorian London for us.  We don’t see a wide swath but we are shown is well crafted and interesting.
  • The writing grabbed me from the first line.

    To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

  • This combination of world building and just-my-style writing made this the perfect escapist read.  What, is that a typhoon howling outside?  Sorry, I can’t hear it, we’re on the hunt for a killer!
    Silent in the Grave
  • As you can see in the chart by my estimation it’s a setting-heavy novel, and they are so rare!
  • It’s a very feminist tale at heart.  Some people have gripped about it being unrealistic or too much for the times, but in our year of 2018 I will take whatever feminist escapism I can get, thank you.
  • There are topics I’ve rarely seen broached in lighter historical fiction, like (happy!) lgbtqia+ folx and flattering depictions of the Romani.
  • I didn’t have a firm idea who the killer was… but then again, I never do.

The not-so-good:

  • The espousing of feminist values will be too much for some.  Likewise, historical sticklers will be shocked that a Lady had a conversation about xyz with her brother/servant/whomever.
  • If you know a lot about the Victorian era some parts may feel over-explained.
  • The plot has a bunch of moving parts and there are many characters to keep straight.  It didn’t bother me but it may irk some.
  • If you’re looking for a straight up mystery with lots of investigating you’ll be disappointed.  This is a bit more holistic.  As I keep saying, it was fine by me but others may not care for it.
  • Lady Grey doesn’t always make the most logical decisions.  In fact, she makes a bunch of poor ones, things you can see are wrong off the bat.  A couple of them made me sigh but it was never enough to keep me away from the page.

If you’re interested in this book the best advice I can give is to hunt down a sample of the first chapter.  If you’re smitten rock on, but if it leaves you wanting you may want to look elsewhere.  Personally I can see the flaws but the world and escapism mixed with mystery made this the right book at the right time.  I’ll definitely be reading the next one on a long flight or during a period of exceptionally bad existential angst.

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Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #4)

34431673Dr. Garrett Gibson, the only female physician in England, is as daring and independent as any man—why not take her pleasures like one? Yet she has never been tempted to embark on an affair, until now. Ethan Ransom, a former detective for Scotland Yard, is as gallant as he is secretive, a rumored assassin whose true loyalties are a mystery. For one exhilarating night, they give in to their potent attraction before becoming strangers again.

Despite their vow to resist each other after that sublime night, she is soon drawn into his most dangerous assignment yet. When the mission goes wrong, it will take all of Garrett’s skill and courage to save him. As they face the menace of a treacherous government plot, Ethan is willing to take any risk for the love of the most extraordinary woman he’s ever known.

Review:

Kleypas is one of my comfort read authors.  Her historical romance is always solid, and now and then it’s really good.

This one is great.

The good:

  • This is a ‘historical not in a ballroom’.  A good chunk doesn’t even take part in a nice part of town, a change of pace from the usual.
  • Garrett knows what she wants and goes for it.  She wants to tend to poor people in a sketchy part of town so she takes self-defense lessons and is mean with a staff.  A couple of times Ethan is like, ‘You shouldn’t come’ and she’s all, ‘Nice of you to this so, I’m coming anyway’ while never falling into Too Stupid To Live territory.
  • The heroine is based on a real person that I totally have to research now.
  • Ethan says the right thing at the right time but it doesn’t feel forced or fake.

    “In case you weren’t aware, my good fellow, you are in the company of one of the most skilled and accomplished women in England.  In fact, I would say Dr. Gibson has a male brain in a woman’s body.”

    Garrett grinned wryly at his last comment, which she knew had been intended as a compliment.

    “Thank you, Doctor.”

    “Despite my short acquaintance with Dr. Gibson,” Ethan said, “her brain seems entirely female to me.”  The remark caused Garrett to stiffen slightly, as she expected a mocking comment to follow.  Something about how a woman’s mind was changeable, or shallow, the usual cliches.  But as Ethan continued, there was no hint of teasing in his tone. “Keen, subtle, and quick, with an intellect strengthened by compassion – yes, she has a woman’s mind.”

  • We get to see some characters develop over these four books in the Ravenel series and it’s done well, especially with West.  He has blossomed and is almost too awesome now, and to think the next book is his!  I can’t wait.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • This installment has a bit more suspense than other Kleypas novels in that there are happenings all the way through instead of a single, isolated event.  I’m not the biggest romantic suspense person but it still worked for me.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!  One event is rather unlikely but it’s addressed on the page so I’ll let it go.

My favorite Ravenel book so far.

Beast by Judith Ivory

1130878An exquisite American heiress, Louise Vandermeer is beautiful, brilliant…and bored—which is why she has agreed to a daring adventure: to travel across the ocean to marry an aristocrat abroad. Rumor has it her intended is a hideous cad—a grim prospect that propels her into a passionate, reckless affair with a compelling stranger she never sees in the light of day.

Though scarred by a childhood illness, Charles d’Harcourt has successfully wooed Europe’s most sophisticated beauties. For a lark, he contrived to travel incognito on his own fiancée’s ship—and seduce the young chit in utter darkness. But the rake’s prank backfired. It was he who was smitten—while the hot-tempered Lulu, now his wife, loves only her shipboard lover, unaware it was d’Harcourt all the time! And Charles will never have her heart—unless he can open her eyes to the prince who hides within.

Review:

I’ve been wanting to try some older romances so I went through NPR’s 100 Swoon-worthy Romances list and dug in.  This book caught my eye immediately – the “beauty and the beast” trope is a favorite – so I dug in.

The good:

  • I love flipped expectations and here the beast is temporarily turned upside down.  Louise first meets Charles in shadowy corridors and staterooms, where he plays up a fake exotic angle (more on this later) and seduces her by word and deed.  Only when they meet for “real” she’s put off by his not-so-great looks and the usual fairy tale storyline kicks in.
  • While set at the dawn of the Edwardian era Louise lives as big a life as she can.  Before the novel starts she slipped away from her parents to go gambling in Montreal, and later she pursues her interests even though they’re not the most “ladylike”. Rock on.
  • Louise learned French to a high level in the classroom and her ability, mistakes, and frustrations are superbly portrayed.  She misses words in conversation, she doesn’t know any slang, and her formal speech, while perfect for parties and introductions to society, drives Charles nuts.

    “Tu, tu. Use it”, he said, encouraging the intimate verb construction.  The language used between lovers and friends.

    “I don’t know those conjugations.  My instructor thought they were too intimate.”

    As someone who uses her second, learned language in everyday life it feels all too real and true.

  • I didn’t know a thing about ambergris going in and now my head is full of the stinky stuff.  It’s fascinating.

The questionable:

  • Like it says in the synopsis, Louise gets intimate with her husband thinking he’s someone else entirely.  If this affair-but-not-an-affair isn’t your thing stay away.
  • One of the ways Charles hides his identity is by pretending he’s a Muslim man from Northern Africa, as there are some people by that description on the ship.  It makes him Other and exotic and Louise gobbles it up, often daydreaming about “her pasha”.  On one hand it’s troublesome, and I would rather it wasn’t in the book at all, but Ivory tries to be fair.

    “You must hate the Arabs for that.”

    He shrugged. “Oh, Arabs, Moors, Frenchmen” – he laughed – “Americans. We’re all about the same, good ones, bad ones.”

    Exotic dark-skinned heroes are no stranger to romance (just search for sheikh on Goodreads) and this muddied my already complicated thoughts on the issue.

The not-so-good:

  • The story is split neatly in two with a hot, lusty shipboard part and a wary, hmmm-can-I-ever-like-this-guy part.  Things move quickly while crossing the Atlantic but on land our couple maintains a cautious holding pattern.  There’s also over description in the second half (including what kind of countertops are in a room they spend a few minutes in) and we spend a lot of time wallowing in their repetitive thoughts.
  • In one scene Charles acts completely out of character, flipping the table he and Louise are eating at.  It may have been meant that way – he was so frustrated he did something out of character – but it made me worry for her physical well being. Not cool.
  • Building Louise and Charles’ emotional connection the second time around takes a lot of time and is frustrating, making the ending less satisfying.

All in all Beast has aged well considering it was written twenty years ago.  While the questionable parts still bug me the flipped trope makes for an interesting read.

An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Loyal League Series #1 & #2)

I love historical romances, and while I’ll never turn down a good Regency I’m getting more and more interested in other places and periods.  The Civil War era is often ignored by Alyssa Cole has stepped in with two well researched and plain awesome books, the beginning of her Loyal League series.

30237404In An Extraordinary Union Elle is a former slave that is working as one again, but this time undercover, to spy for the Union Army.  Her path crosses with Malcolm who is also undercover but for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. They discover a Confederate plot and end up teaming up and doing all their sneaky spy stuff to save the day.

To be honest sneaky spy stuff is not my thing but I really like this book anyway.  I love that Elle is smart and has tons of agency and doesn’t let Malcolm’s charm get to her.  The interracial romance has lots of obstacles, as you can imagine, which makes getting over them all the sweeter.  So while An Extraordinary Union isn’t exactly my sort of thing it made me excited to pick up the next book.

34570037A Hope Divided follows Marlie, a free black woman that learned the art of making tisanes, poultices, and other medicines from her mother.  She’s a scientist type, always extending her knowledge and finding ways to hone her craft.  While she’s at it she attends to men at a Confederate prison, using the access to pass coded messages and aid those who are fleeing the South.  There she meets Ewan, who is working for the Union from the inside, and they end up saving each other in turns as they do their thing.

I liked this book even more than the first, mostly because the spying stuff wasn’t as nail-biting.  We get to follow another interracial couple navigate their relationship and this period of history in an unvarnished, unflinching way.  I learned a ton and eagerly await further installments.

Perfect for those who like historical romances that are not set in ye olde England and are true to their time without pulling any punches.

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #3)

93938August 1923. All is quiet in the Holmes household in Sussex as Mary Russell works on academic research while Sherlock Holmes conducts malodorous chemistry experiments. But the peace quickly disappears as out of the past comes Dorothy Ruskin, an amateur archeologist from the Holy Land, who brings the couple a lovely inlaid box with a tattered roll of stained papyrus inside. The evening following their meeting, Miss Ruskin dies in a traffic accident that Holmes and Mary soon prove was murder. But what was the motivation? Was it the little inlaid box holding the manuscript? Or the woman’s involvement in the volatile politics of the Holy Land? Or could it have been the scroll itself, a deeply troubling letter that seems to have been written by Mary Magdalene and that contains a biblical bombshell…

Review:

I love this series. It’s been two years since I’ve read the last book and everything came back quickly – the awesomeness of the characters, the interesting mysteries, the glimpses into human nature that are striking, quiet, and earned.

The mystery is good but it’s not the real reason I’m here. I mean, I enjoyed it, of course! The setup is interesting, and it’s always fun to see Holmes surprise Russell in some sort of disguise. But the whodunits aren’t why I keep coming back to the series. It’s the characters. They live and breathe, have faults and tics and ideals and tendencies. They’re people, damnit, and I want to spend more time with them.

At the end of the previous installment the relationship of Holmes and Russell goes through a major change… a change I was afraid would squick me out. I should have known King would have things well in hand, though. A gap of four years between the last book and this means that we miss any troubles our leads may have worked through, instead seeing them now as intellectual partners that have a deeper insight into each other than before.

Are they in love? You bet. But they don’t drool over each other. It’s an intellectual and emotional partnership first, with the physical aspects falling far behind. With both Holmes and Russell being analytical minds insights abound. For example, Russell notes:

An unread paper meant an unsettled mind, and to this day the sight of a fresh, folded newspaper on a polished surface brings a twinge of apprehension.

Some parts are just fun, like Holmes writing to Russell while on a train:

“I should prefer to have the patterns reflected either by your perception or Watson’s lack thereof; however, a stub of lead pencil and this unsavory length of butcher’s paper will have to suffice. (From the expressions on the faces of my compartment mates, none of them has ever before witnessed the miraculous generation of the written word. I shall attempt not to be distracted.)”

My e-library doesn’t have this book so I ended up buying a paper copy. I liked filling it with post its, but not being able to carry it around easily meant it took much longer to finish than I would like. I think it may have been a four star read if I were able to keep the momentum and get through it faster… guess I’ll have to reevaluate when I reread it. (‘Cause I’ll totally reread it!)

In Bed with a Stranger by Mary Wine (McJames #1)

Synopsis:

6025739Brodick McJames is an earl in name only. To secure his clan’s future he needs an English wife. Mary Stanford, daughter of the Earl of Warwickshire, will suit perfectly. He’s never met her, but what matter? She’ll grace his bed eventually, and once she bears his child he need see her no more.

Anne Copper looks just like her noble half-sister, but she was born illegitimate, and can never forget it. The best she can hope for is to stay a serving girl in her own father’s house. But when Lady Mary finds herself betrothed to a Scot, it seems there’s a use for Anne after all . . .

The woman who arrives in Alcaon is not what Brodick expects, and the passion that grows between them promises far more than a marriage of convenience. When fate draws two together, it may take more than a noblewoman’s plot to part them…

Review:

This book is so wrong for me.

First – you can’t tell from the description but it takes place during medieval times. Don’t let the talk of titles make you think it’s a Georgian/Regency/Victorian novel, like I did.

Second – it’s basically a Cinderella retelling complete with evil stepmom, evil stepsister, and a prince (er, Earl) that whisks her away. While of noble blood she keeps doing servant-level stuff. She even has to leave the castle before a certain time comes because… reasons. ~cough~

Third – instalust. Several times the heroine decides to say or do something next time she sees the Earl, but as soon as he walks in the room her mouth goes dry and hubba hubba music starts playing. (They had porntastic music back then, right?)

Third and a half – there were several scenes that went like this:

“Hey, your wife is hot.”
“I know! …you’re not getting any ideas, are you?”
“Nope. But she’s hot. Bet you’re looking forward to tonight.” ~winkwink~
“Am I!”~nudgenudge~

Say no more. -_-

Fourth – it takes someone the better part of a day to die from hemlock poisoning, when it should have taken hours at most. I mean, they didn’t give Socrates his tea, have dinner, sleep a bit, and then watch him die, you know? Even if the poison was weak it would have gone into effect fairly quickly.

Fifth – romances where the girl has zero agency are not my thing. She goes to the Earl in a proxy marriage, she’s pulled this way and that by others, but the only thing she gets to decide for herself is whether she’ll treat the blind girl nicely. (No brainer.)

While completely not a “me” book it somehow managed not to make me mad, so there you are.

Blame It on the Duke by Lenora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

23434074Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.

Review:

I discovered Bell shortly after her first book, How the Duke Was Won, and I’m so glad I did.  Her romances are low angst and solidly written, and while the historical detail can be iffy in places I have too much fun to care.  Each book feels like an improvement on the last, and while I’m not ready to award four stars yet I know she’s headed in that direction.

With that in mind, let’s get to the bullet points!

The good:

  • Alice’s reason to travel makes sense.  I love that she doesn’t give up her dream, even when her gender and, in a way, the romance, work against her.
  • The characters are well-drawn with realistic motivations and backgrounds, from the hero and heroine on down.  When a surly, rude butler was introduced I thought, oh no, there’s no explaining this.  But there is a reason and it works.
  • Nick doesn’t want children and Alice does a gut check and realizes that she doesn’t either, and that decision is respected and not used as a plot pawn.  There isn’t a pregnancy scare or an “oops, I’m pregnant and I’m so happy” epilogue.  This is so rare in romance, especially historical, and I really appreciate it.
  • We see how mental illness was handled during the Regency in a way that respects the the view of the times while also trying to make it better.
  • I can’t wait to see Lear get his own book.  A pirate hero with a heart, woo!  The doctor would make an interesting (and POC!) hero, too.

The not-so-good:

  • The historical detail feels off in places, and I had a lot of questions about the manuscript Alice is enamored with.
  • While the first two thirds of the book went fine I was not a fan of the big “fight” in the last third.  I found myself skimming just to get to the end.
  • And there at the end Nick says some stuff that could have gone very, very wrong.  I’m glad it all worked out but if I were Alice I would be so, so mad.

All in all a light, fun, slightly wallpaper-y Regency romance.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (Dear Lady Truelove #1)

30653952Henry, Duke of Torquil, wouldn’t be caught reading the wildly popular “Dear Lady Truelove” column, but when its advice causes his mother to embark on a scandalous elopement, an outraged Henry decides the author of this tripe must be stopped before she can ruin any more lives. Though Lady Truelove’s identity is a closely guarded secret, Henry has reason to suspect the publisher of the notorious column, beautiful and provoking Irene Deverill, is also its author.

For Irene, it’s easy to advise others to surrender to passion, but when she meets the Duke of Torquil, she soon learns that passion comes at a price. When one impulsive, spur-of-the-moment kiss pulls her into a scorching affair with Henry, it could destroy her beloved newspaper, her career, and her independence. But in the duke’s arms, surrender is so, so sweet . . .

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book – the good parts were good, but the parts that annoyed me really annoyed me.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

The good:

  • The internal conflict is thick and delicious.  There isn’t a lot of external, moving around plot, but the inner lives of our couple keeps the story moving nicely.
  • There are two instances where love crosses class lines, each different in their own way.
  • Guhrke obviously researched the 1890s and revels in the slang and phrasing of the period.  It’s a breath of fresh air for those of us who usually read in Regency-land.
  • Irene is a strong woman and is involved in issues of the day, first and foremost getting women the vote.

The not-so-good:

  • Irene’s views match our modern views almost perfectly, to the point that she feels like she’s parachuted in to re-legislate the Victorian era in long discussions with Henry.  Women should get able to go to university, become doctors, vote, run a newspaper, have sex outside of marriage… I’m sure I’m forgetting something.  Oh, and high society can go hang.  I’m for every single one of these things, but Irene talks of little else.  It grates.
  • Henry pushes back as well as he can, pointing out how this or that social norm exists for a reason.  Irene is uncompromising, though, and…
  • …the resolution boils down to Henry agreeing with Irene in every way and rearranging his entire mindset and worldview to match hers. I would have liked more of a compromise – “I guess I’ll learn how to be a dutchess” doesn’t count.
  • The way they finally get together for sex is more finagling than anything else.  I didn’t feel the love.

While I’m disappointed by the characters the writing is solid so I can see myself picking up another book by Guhrke.  This was my first – can you recommend a better place to start?

Untamed by Elizabeth Lowell (Medieval #1)

Synopsis:

10252717Returning home triumphant from the Crusades, Dominic le Sabre is determined to claim the bride promised to him by the king, but the high-born Celtic beauty is equally determined to resist him.

Review:

Many parts of this book made me cringe, but it was more for tropes I hate than anything else. In fact, the solid writing and (slightly plodding) story kept me from abandoning the book all together.

The good:

  • learning medieval tidbits about castles and falconry
  • how thoughtfully (and sexily) the hero seduced the heroine
  • Meg’s inner strength and belief in her convictions. She doesn’t let a stupid alpha male keep her from what she has to do.

The not-so-good:

  • heroine being held captive (sorta) for a good chunk of the book
  • all this talk of “I must have sons!” without any regard to whether Meg would, you know, actually want sons. Or kids in general.
  • Dominic never ever trusts Meg, even after she proves herself several times
  • the spy was mad easy to spot
  • the battle scenes seemed short for how important they are. But maybe that’s my urban fantasy roots showing

While this book wasn’t for me I would recommend it to someone whose taste in tropes run opposite to mine.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #3)

30179647Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught-by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

Review:

This book got a lot of buzz when it was announced because Gabriel is the son of Evie and Sebastian, the couple from Kleypas’ amazing Devil in Winter.  Is this one on the same level?  Not quite, but I still think it’s the best Ravenel book so far.

The good:

  • The first half of the story, our couple’s meet cute and courtship, is awesome.  I was getting ready to give the book four stars, I love it so much.
  • The whole ‘thou shalt have kids because we need an heir/it’s the thing to do/you’re a woman’ thing doesn’t even come up. Heck, Pandora doesn’t even want to get married, to start.

    She didn’t want to belong to anyone, and she especially didn’t want anyone to belong to her… she knew she would never be happy in a conventional life.

    Unconventional women for the win.

  • Prior characters are woven into the story in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the main storyline.  Evie and Sebastian are as wonderful as I remembered, and having a department story magnate in the family proves as helpful as one would imagine.
  • Related – some minor characters reappeared, and it looks like one may get her happily ever after in the next book.  Oo.
  • Overall the book is a fast, fun read, busting me out of a reading slump.  Woot.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Pandora is an ‘artsy’ imaginative type, not well suited to strict rules or remembering where she left things.  She strikes me as a (loose) Anne of Green Gables type – prone to flights of fancy with strong underpinnings of smarts.  It doesn’t bother me but if you don’t like that sort of thing you’re warned.
  • Hmmm, now to think of it Gabriel is kind of a Gilbert type in a roundabout way… time to reread Anne of Green Gables!

The not-so-good:

  • Kleypas does this thing in a lot of her books where the couple gets married or is otherwise together before the 70% mark of the book, so she puts one or the other in mortal danger.  Railway accidents, attacks, it could be anything, but someone is going to have a brush with death before the end.  I have to admit, after half a dozen books I’m sick of it.  Sometimes it’s worked into the story well but here it’s more random and annoying.  Gah.
  • The cameos and throwbacks mean that characterization is a bit thin for minor characters, and I’m not sure how the book would read as a stand-alone.
  • Drago(n), who I think is a new character for this book?, is grossly underdeveloped.  His relationship with Pandora could be amazingly nuanced and deep, but instead we watch his opinion of her change after a conversation and a half.  I wanted more.

After being somewhat disappointed with the first two books in this series Devil in Spring is a nice pick me up, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.