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.

Prisoner of Love by Beverly Jenkins

18898429Kansas, 1884
Abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Franklin is struggling to keep up with the chores on her 60-acre farm. Desperate to stay in the only home she ever loved, the resourceful Elizabeth agrees to marry a prisoner, Jordan Yancey – an arrangement that will set him free while affording her the farm help that she so urgently needs. But what Elizabeth never expects is that this former prisoner will arouse the kind of passion and desire she’s only heard about and capture her instead…

Jordan Yancey would do anything to get out of prison, and the arrangement with the pretty, but prim Elizabeth seems like a good bet – his freedom for a little farm work, and a wife on paper. He never imagines that his pretend bride will become the most magnificent woman he’s ever met…and that his sensuous little ‘jailer’ will be the one to free his heart…

Review:

I needed a quick hit of romance and stumbled upon this Jenkins novella at the library. A marriage of convenience historical set in the American West? Yes, please!

Jenkins usually writes novels in the 385-page range and it shows – there’s a lot of story considering the two digit page count. The conflicts are resolved quickly and easily with a single conversation. Elizabeth warms up to Jordan quickly, which is a bit hard to swallow because he was a convict when she married him.

In fact, the plot is so minimal that the story ventures into porn-without-plot territory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind – the love scenes are great! – it’s just not what I expected.

Her writing and historical chops are on fine display, so fans of Jenkins’ other historicals will enjoy this quick hit of romance. If you’re looking for an un-rushed story, though, you may want to try one of her longer titles like Breathless or Night Hawk.

Ecstasy by Nicole Jordan (Notorious #4)

2095417Having watched her mother languish away for a lost love, Raven Kendrick vows never to surrender her heart. But when her life erupts in scandal, she is forced to accept a marriage proposal from the wickedly sensuous owner of London’s most notorious gaming hell. Though fiercely drawn to her enigmatic rescuer, Raven battles to resist her husband, whose sensuous caresses promise ecstasy beyond her wildest fantasies.

To save the reputation of an innocent girl nearly ruined by his brother, Kell Lasseter sacrifices his freedom to wed the dazzling debutante. Long scorned for his Irish blood and dark past, Kell cannot deny that this enchanting spitfire is unlike other society misses . . . anymore than he can quell his smoldering desire for her. Torn between loyalty to his brother and his growing feelings for his rebellious bride, Kell must somehow free Raven’s reluctant heart before they can know the ecstasy of true love.

Review:

This book was decent all around, but there were a few things that bothered me.

The good:

  • The writing and characterization in general are solid. The plot also gets going right from the start, which was perfect because my brain was itching for some action.
  • I love me a marriage of convenience, and I don’t think I’ve seen a set up quite like this one before.
  • The hero and heroine’s emotional baggage is a matched set but it doesn’t grate or feel too contrived.
  • There’s more romantic suspense than I was expecting, but it doesn’t take over the whole storyline. The action is compartmentalized into certain sections and it worked well.
  • The steamy parts are indeed steamy. Ooo.

The not-so-good:

  • While there isn’t a Big Misunderstanding, as it were, the hero and heroine are awful at communicating. They just refuse to talk to each other, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. ‘I’m just doing what the other person wants’, they each think, which isn’t wrong… but isn’t right, either. It’s amazing what lengths they each self-sacrificed without being sure it was a fruitful thing to do.
  • Because they don’t talk we don’t get to watch the couple’s love grow very much.
  • The heroine gets kidnapped. Several times. And the way people cover for her first kidnapping makes no sense to me. Why would the family say ‘she’s taken ill’ instead of screaming, ‘she’s been kidnapped!’ and running to the police? I mean, what were they doing the whole time she was gone, just hoping she would turn up safe and sound? My brain does not compute.
  • While I can’t pin it on any one thing in particular, I never quite connected with the time period.

A somewhat enjoyable enh, and it did read fast, but an enh all the same.

I Love the Earl by Caroline Linden (The Truth About the Duke #0.5)

12025403Margaret de Lacey has accepted her unmarried state with dignity, if not delight. She had no suitors when she was young and starry-eyed, though regrettably poor, and it’s unlikely any man will court her now that she’s older, wiser, and still just as penniless. Until, that is, her brother unexpectedly inherits the dukedom of Durham and settles an enormous dowry on her, making her the most eligible heiress in town.

No gentleman in London is more in need of a wealthy bride than Rhys Corwen, Earl of Dowling. He contrives an introduction to Margaret because of her dowry, but she swiftly sets him right: no fortune hunter will win her heart or her hand. Far from put off, Rhys is intrigued. Interested. Entranced. And soon the only thing he needs more than Margaret’s fortune…is her love.

Review:

I’m not a huge novella person.  They often feel rushed, and if they’re any good I want more pages, darn it.

I Love the Earl somehow hits a sweet spot.  It’s the perfect length for the story it covers, and I didn’t find myself wishing for a subplot.  Would I enjoy it expanded out to a full-length novel?  You bet.  But it’s not necessary.

Let’s call that the first thing good.  Here’s the rest:

  • There’s no Big Misunderstanding, and all the characters respect each other.  The plot doesn’t hinge on someone being stupid or doing something rash.  It’s refreshing.
  • The hero and heroine have a couple of conversations that boil down to, “Hey, this is what it would mean to be married to me.  Are you okay with that?”  Positive relationship modeling, yea!
  • It’s a comfort read.  I read a good chunk while enjoying a lazy morning in bed – heaven.

The not-so-good:

  •  Being so short the character development is a little lacking, but it’s still a nice setup for the series.

I’m finding Linden to be a go-to author when I need a warm literary hug… with the way the world has been going lately I may be running back into her arms soon.  ~sweatdrop~

Breathless by Beverly Jenkins (Old West #2)

30166205As manager of one of the finest hotels in Arizona Territory, Portia Carmichael has respect and stability—qualities sorely missing from her harsh childhood. She refuses to jeopardize that by hitching herself to the wrong man. Suitors are plentiful, but none of them has ever looked quite as tempting as the family friend who just rode into town…and none has looked at her with such intensity and heat.

Duchess. That’s the nickname Kent Randolph gave Portia when she was a young girl. Now she’s a stunning, intelligent woman—and Kent has learned his share of hard lessons. After drifting through the West, he’s learned the value of a place to settle down, and in Portia’s arms he’s found that and more. But convincing her to trust him with her heart, not just her passion, will be the greatest challenge he’s known—and one he intends to win…

Review:

After reading five of her books I’m realizing that Beverly Jenkins is a hit or meh author for me.  I don’t think I’ve rated anything below three stars but some leave me disappointed.  Sadly, this is one of them.  But first,

The good:

  • Historical romance with protagonists of color (here African American) is always always a good thing.  Love.
  • Portia doesn’t need a man.  In fact, due to her rough childhood, she thinks she’d be better without.  Ken respects her past and proves that he’s the right person for her.
  • Jenkins is well known for her history chops and she’s true to form here.  And how many books set in the Arizona territory can you name?  It’s interesting stuff.

The not-so-good:

  • Like in Night Hawk there isn’t a big bad or an overarching plot.  Events happen but don’t feel exciting as they should – this book has a body count, for goodness sake!  There should be some kind of tension.  But…
  • Problems are wrapped up quickly so incidents feel self-contained.  Okay, that’s over, next.  Wow, that was a problem for five pages, but it’s fixed now.  Next.  There’s not much of a middle or building anything to the narrative.
  • The characters aren’t nuanced and many are typecast.  Oh hey, the guy that sounds and dresses like an arse?  Turns out he’s an arse!  And the perfect lady that keeps things running like clockwork?  Well she knows exactly what she’s doing and her only imperfection is being so perfect. ~sigh~
  • Checkered pasts are put forth as faults and character development but they’re not, not really.  ‘He had sex with a married woman!’ Yes, but we learn that her husband was cheating on her and she was actually better off after the affair.  ‘He’s had sex with lots of women, gasp!’  And now he has mad skillz to pleasure the heroine, my dear.  ‘She is way too forward!’  So she may get exactly what she wants, what a shock.
  • I feel like Jenkins doesn’t trust the reader to remember what happened a few chapters before so she retells it laboriously.

    Kent told him what he thought to be Parnell’s motive. “When Rhine introduced me as the new foreman, Parnell said Mr. Blanchard had promised him the job.  Rhine told him his mind was made up, so Parnell spit tobacco juice at Rhine’s boots.  I had to teach some manners, then made him pack up and leave.”

    All that hearsay for an event I remember as clear as day.  It makes for tedious reading.

  • Similarly,

    He kissed Eddy on her forehead, which Portia found endearing, and they left.

    I find it endearing too, even if it’s not pointed out to me. Gah.

  • Finally, I never really believed in the romance.  Kent is nice, Portia is nice, and they have a couple of nice times together.  Lust is there, for sure, but love?  I don’t buy it.

That’s a lot of griping, I know, but Breathless is still a decent read. I like the heroine for the next book of the series so I’ll be looking forward to that despite ~waves hand around~ this.

The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield

24444922Fiery young “Nell” Belden went to Thorndene Castle to escape a lover, not to find one. She was bound by the strict conventions of England’s Regency to a man she could never love, then bound by the ties of passion to a man she could never marry! For at Thorndene, she discovered a new and startling love, a love that was as intense as it was doomed…

“You must leave Thorndene!” said the ghost. Then he added, more gently, “I come to warn you, not to harm you. I may never touch you, any more than a shadow may..”

“What does that signify?” Nell asked. “Since you are dead, you can have no need or inclination to touch me anyway.”

“You can’t know much about men-or ghosts-or how delightful you look in that nightdress, if you believe that,” he said with disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes over her. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ghostly figure was gone…

Review:

After seeing the 1979 publication date I was afraid this book would be full of literal bodice ripping and alpha-holes and old skool awfulness.  But in fact it’s a lovely Regency romance with a feminist heroine and a good share of laughs.

The good:

  • Nell is a strong character that has her head on straight.  She calls people out on their bullshit and is determined to only marry for love.
  • The hero appearing as a “ghost” is fun device that is executed well.  There’s nothing domineering about Henry, a genuinely nice guy.
  • While there’s a ballroom scene most of the action takes place away from society, allowing for a comfortingly small cast of characters.  Everyone is fleshed out, from the housekeeper’s family to the suitor from hell.
  • The whole book is just silly in a good way.  Great aunt (or is it grandma?) Amelia is always good for a laugh and the action never gets too heavy or dour.  Escapist romance for the win!

The not-so-good:

  • The relationship between the hero and heroine’s families is a little convoluted and I’m still not sure I can explain it.
  • The ending is rushed and only half-earned.

All in all a welcome diversion that reads quickly and leaves you smiling.

The Viscount and the Vixen by Lorraine Heath (The Hellions of Havisham #3)

28523597Love begets madness. Viscount Locksley watched it happen to his father after his cherished wife’s death. But when his sire arranges to marry flame-haired fortune hunter Portia Gadstone, Locke is compelled to take drastic measures to stop the stunning beauty from taking advantage of the marquess. A marriage of mutual pleasure could be convenient, indeed… as long as inconvenient feelings don’t interfere.

Now the sedate—and, more importantly, secure—union Portia planned has been tossed in favor of one simmering with wicked temptation and potential heartbreak. Because as she begins to fall for her devilishly seductive husband, her dark secrets surface and threaten to ruin them both—unless Locke is willing to risk all and open his heart to love.

Review:

I love Lorraine Heath.  She is masterful at capturing period detail and keeping things historically accurate.  Her heroes and heroines fall in love on the page and follow believable emotional journeys.  While Heath’s last book, The Earl Takes All, had a daring plot device The Viscount and the Vixen sticks closer to Regency orthodoxy.

Huzzah marriages of convenience!  In real life it would suck but this is a romance.  Of course it works out.  The compatibility of our couple is obvious from the start – they have a magnets-attract-I-must-kiss-you-now thing going on.  Instalust isn’t my jam, but their love grows slowly and naturally over time so I can almost forgive it.

Heath is masterful at keeping your mind in the period.  Check out this scene where Locke takes out Portia’s wedding ring and she freezes up:

Locksley squeezed her hand. “Unfurl your fingers.”
“You can’t want to do this.”
“Neither did I wish to get married today, yet here I am.  Open your hand and let’s get this done.”
Reluctantly she did as he bade…

“Unfurl”, “bade” – no modern narration clunking around here!

Portia is strong and goes after the things she needs, the most important of which is security.  The reason she’s concerned about her welfare is…. a secret!  Grah.  We’re kept in the dark for a while, which is nice, but it’s still a secret.  The hero finds out, he storms like a normal person would, and they figure out a solution.  Ta-da!  Wrap it up with a nice epilogue (so rare) and we’re done.

All in all The Viscount and the Vixen is a solid and enjoyable read. Recommended for those who like strong heroes and heroines, a healthy dose of not-ballroom scenes, and have have a stronger stomach for secrets than me. ;)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

Synopsis:

28110868When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away? To what extremes can war and violence push a woman who is left to fend for herself?

Told through letters, court inquests, and journal entries, this saga, inspired by a true incident, unfolds with gripping intensity, conjuring the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel. As she comes to understand how her own history is linked to one runaway slave, her perspective on race and family are upended. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how this generation—and the next—began to see their world anew.

Review:

I haven’t read much Civil War fiction, not even Gone with the Wind (don’t judge!) but this book is an epistolary novel.  My ultimate catnip!  You could set one in a period I know little about (Civil War) or a time and place I usually try to avoid (World War II Europe) and I will still come running.  Letters!  Inquiries!  Diary entries, oh my!  It’s a voyeuristic look at history and I love it.

Rivers handles the epistolary element wonderfully, giving the letter writers different voices that fit their personalities, situations, and the era.  She did a massive amount of research and it shows.

From the beginning there’s an unreliable narrator – Placidia is tight lipped about the child she’s accused of bearing then burying, but rumors abound and neighbors swore they saw something odd.  What really happened?  Just when you think you have an idea the letters jump 30 years ahead in time – the South is very different now, and these letter writers are as curious as the reader about what transpired.  While the shift was jarring it was in a “ooo, who’s this!” way, not a “waitwaitwait what the heck happened” way.

It’s hard to talk about the rest of the story without giving things away but the second part of the book sucked me in more than the first.  More than the new characters the promise of an answer to the mystery kept me reading.  The ending brought closure to the main storyline and hints at the futures of many of the letter writers, but not all.  It didn’t bother me, as now I can think about those characters and where life may have taken the.

The language and attitudes fit the times so if you’re sensitive about how slaves were (mis)treated you may want to skip this book.  When I read about the South it’s usually scholarly works about the black experience so the jump into plantation owners’ heads rattled me.  The book isn’t “yay slavery!” by any means, but it’s a dose of a reality I don’t spend much time in.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a bit out of my wheelhouse but I still enjoyed the writing and where the story took me.  I also like knowing that the fiction is rooted in fact, right down to the timing of battles.  I can’t enthusiastically recommend it to everyone, but if you like reading epistolary novels or about the Civil War you’ll probably fall in head over heels.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

A Date at the Altar by Cathy Maxwell (Marrying the Duke #3)

Synopsis:

28819991A duke can’t marry just anyone. His wife must be of good family, be fertile, be young. Struggling playwright Sarah Pettijohn is absolutely the last woman Gavin Whitridge, Duke of Baynton, would ever fall in love with. She is an actress, born on the wrong side of the blanket, and always challenges his ducal authority. She never hesitates to tell him what she thinks.

However, there is something about her that stirs his blood… which makes her perfect for a bargain he has in mind: In exchange for backing her play, he wants Sarah to teach him about love.

And he, in turn, has a few things to teach her about men…

Review:

A fun read that did some things really, really well.

The good:

  • Our heroine Sarah is strong and confident and happy in her own skin. She’s doing what she wants with her life and it’s refreshing and wonderful to watch. Some people may doubt the likelihood of the plot so Maxwell shares some of her research in an afterward.
  • Many Regencies talk about mistresses, often in the context of “oh no you don’t” or “I can’t believe he/she did”. Here we get to see that experience from the other side and how the transaction often worked.
  • The plot moves at a nice clip with some effective external conflict. I like how it stayed just this side of romantic suspense, with realistic but not overly done angst.
  • Some prickly situations come up where I thought, there is only one way this can end well. If the character does one of these ten other things I would be so mad… but it always ended that one way, well. Phew.
  • Virgin hero, yea!
  • Not being able to have children, and what it would have meant at this time in history, is thoughtfully and compassionately considered. I was afraid it would be a “barren until you” storyline but the issue is handled realistically and well. Kudos to Maxwell.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book qualifies as a Regency-not-in-a-ballroom, which is kind of amazing considering nearly all of the action is set in London.

The not-so-good:

  • The first chapter is pure info dump, and even so I didn’t realize that I had already read the second book of this series. Oops. Partly because…
  • In book two of this series the Duke comes off as a boor, while here he seems like a totally different person. If you read this as a standalone you won’t notice, though.
  • The hero, who we are told has zero experience “knowing” a woman, still manages to give the heroine an orgasm effortlessly on the first try. Sigh.
  • The plot is telegraphed, sometimes chapters in advance. The suspense factor is low so it wasn’t a deal breaker, but I don’t think the twists had the effect the author intended.

Overall I enjoyed A Date at the Altar as a quick, satisfying read despite the nitpicks.