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Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennet Channels the 20s While Delivering Outstanding Romance (With a Dash of Paranormal)

29 Jan

Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties #1 – Winter and Aida) by Jenn Bennett (Berkley, January 7, 2014)

Holy WOW. I felt like I had been hit by the awesome reading truck after finishing Jenn Bennett‘s new addition to historical/paranormal romance. Bitter Spirits is probably one of the best historical romances I’ve read in the last couple of years and it has taken me a while to determine if this is due to her writing chops (which are prodigious), the unbelievable detail of a period often neglected in historicals, or because of her kick butt characterization.

The answer is d) all of the above.

It’s prohibition in San Francisco and Aida Palmer has enjoyed her time at the upscale Gris-Gris speakeasy where her medium act is a huge hit. This is assuredly because it’s totally real – Aida can summon, and dispel, the dead.

Since her employer is a voodoo practioner, Aida is surprised when she is summoned to help an important person get rid of a haunting, and even more shocked to discover that the person in question is the handsome, premier bootlegger of San Francisco, Winter Magnusson. This huge man oozing masculinity has been hexed and he needs help ASAP before he succumbs to both the poison and the ghost he can’t shake. Aida helps with the ghost and her boss with the poisoning, but not before it comes clear that Winter has made an enemy of someone in Chinatown.

Winter is utterly fascinated with the diminutive, freckled medium with the gorgeous figure and rich dark hair. She’s also the real deal, and he is intrigued that she has no reaction to the scar he retains from the car accident that killed his wife and parents. She’s also refreshingly honest, so when the opportunity presents itself to hire her to help him with a haunting in his mansion as well as his ongoing mystery enemy he does it. Proximity only makes their intense attraction more formidable, but obstacles – both paranormal and all too in the flesh – exist to keep these two apart despite the fact they are falling fast and hard for each other.

It's amazing to think of a time San Francisco's iconic landmarks were new. (Public Domain image via Pixabay)

It’s amazing to think of a time San Francisco’s iconic landmarks were new. (Public Domain image via Pixabay)

Before I get into the time period, let’s take a moment to discuss how utterly blown away I was by Bennett’s writing. A lot of historical romance writers are like Laurence Olivier, the famous film and stage actor who was known for his brilliance but who always declared he wanted the audience to see the effort it took to bring his characters to life. I’ve read excellent authors who seem to want you to appreciate all the work they put into their accurate underclothes research or the mind-numbing social constructs (which may or may not be necessary to understand their plot).

With Bennett, her plot moves effortlessly along, with an emotional intensity that makes me desperate to turn the page. The tone is alternately dark and sinister but with increasing flashes of hope for our couple, even as their time together draws to a close and things get more desperate. Bennett is, hands down, one of the best writers of sexual tension – a tension born of a realistic sexual attraction between two people who are falling in lust and in love at a real pace, albeit perhaps one propelled a little faster by the urgent circumstances of attempting to discover Winter’s enemy. The scene in the taxi? Holy cow!!

Jenn Bennett brings both Prohibition San Francisco and this era to life (take a look at her great RT Times article on the history of the speakeasy during this time), so much so that it’s jarring to return to modern life. Her attention to the very last detail – the clothing, the birth control, the tenuous racial coexistence between groups – demonstrates a familiarity that never, ever ventures into the world of the info dump. Bennett effortlessly transmits the tone, feeling and data we need to understand a world that is both familiar and yet totally foreign to us, and kudos to her for managing to do what so few historical writers can manage, even when we are loving their characters.

Grim Shadows (Roaring Twenties #2 – Lowe and Hadley) by Jenn Bennett (Berkley, June 3, 2014)

And you WILL love her characters, and there are so many to love!! Not only do we have Winter who is the best hunk of tortured hero I’ve seen in a while, but Aida is a modern spitfire who has carved a place in the world for herself that almost defies explanation. The secondary characters – Winter’s biracial sidekick who clearly is a possible love interest for Winter’s younger, impetuous sister, the family servants in the mansion, Aida’s landlady in Chinatown – are so well-drawn that you find yourself spinning possible backstories about them in your head. I’m sure I’ll see their reappearance in the next book of the series, starring Winter’s world-traveling archeologist brother, Lowe, and the curator who gets herself involved with an Egyptian artifact harboring some powerful effects. Their book, Grim Shadows, is due out on June 3rd, so happy birthday to me!

I had literally reached a point where I couldn’t bear one more “meh” Regency romance, but really wanted a historical that would satisfy me. What I got in Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits was a book that haunted me for weeks afterward, reaffirming my belief in this subgenre of romance and rejoicing in the fact that such a talented author exists on this planet. For anyone who loves historical romance and this time period, run out this second and go buy this book.

Happy reading!

Regency Doyenne Stephanie Laurens Moves to Medieval with Desire’s Prize

3 Jan

Desire’s Prize (Chronicles of Claerwhen #1 – Alaun and Eloise) by M. S. Laurens (Savdek Management, October 18, 2013)

Anyone who is a fan of Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster saga is familiar with her Regency heroes referring to their Norman heritage, usually in the sense of being conquerors both of land and of the ladies. Finally, this writer has gotten a chance to refresh her perspective and dive into the bold men and women of this particular time period with her offering, Desire’s Prize, released under a new pen name, M. S. Laurens.

Not only has Laurens developed the related pseudonym to distinguish this work from her popular Regency novels, but it appears that she also has self-published this particular story. I haven’t read if that decision was due to lack of publisher interest (hard to believe with a name as powerful as Laurens) or if she was interested in dabbling in being a hybrid author, but considering her pull and established audience self-pubbing this one is quite smart financially as I’m sure her usual publishing house (Avon) takes a much bigger piece of her pie when she releases a new book.

In Desire’s Prize, Alaun de Montisfryth is a powerful lord and the right hand of Edward III, a monarch who has used his knight’s prowess to subdue his enemies and secure the Welsh border. Now Alaun has been ordered by that same king to marry now that he can finally return home to his stronghold after three long years away. An undisputed warrior who avoids tournaments, when Alaun hears that Versallet Castle is hosting a grueling contest he detours his sizable retinue during their journey home to attend and to compete. The head of the de Versallet family bilked a young Alaun out of his father’s stallion nine years ago and getting a measure of revenge in his fully-grown adult form feels like an excellent coming home present. One look at the eldest de Versallet daughter and suddenly there is a larger prize beyond honor for Alaun at stake.

The details of a medieval knight of this period.

In actuality, Alaun’s fight with her father happened on the occasion of Eloise de Versallet’s marriage to Raoul de Cannar. Barely fifteen, the proud girl was shackled inadvertently to a sadist of the first order, a man who made her brief marriage a living hell until God came to her aid and killed him with a lightening strike. She fled to the Claerwhen convent which had educated her for the first four years of her widowhood until her mother’s death necessitated her moving back home to be chatelaine to her father and brother. Five years of running a castle have proven gratifying and while her beauty and substantial dowry attracts men, her frosty demeanor and widow’s status mean no one can force her to marry. She’s been under the thumb of one man and has no desire to ever place herself in such a position again.

But Eloise cannot deny that there is some kind of spark between her and Alaun, but it doesn’t mean she has no intention of fighting it. A clever wager with her father means that if Alaun wins the tournament, Eloise’s father will transfer her to Alaun’s protection. It’s not marriage, but it would necessitate her becoming this knight’s chatelaine and would be a natural precursor to an official union. For Alaun, he must use every minute with Eloise to undo the damage left in the wake of her first husband as well as bind her to him so she will consider marriage – his king’s edict hangs over him and suddenly no other woman will do. However, this fiery woman will not easily come to heel. Some type of partnership must be forged in order for the two of them to grasp a future neither one envisioned – but both want now that they’ve seen the possibility.

While the image isn’t English or Welsh, this castle fits my mental image of Alaun impressive stronghold.

My reaction to this particular book was mixed (the first two thirds of the book had me thinking four stars but the ending had me dragging that down to three), but definitely positive. The heat between Alaun and Eloise is palpable and well-expressed through all their naked sexy times, scenes which fortunately contained a minimum of Laurens’ tendency for purple prose (I think she only referenced “the furnace” once, thank heavens). She did a great job showing not only the progression of feeling between them, but the growing confidence that Eloise could be a full partner despite her rough first marriage. The language felt pitch perfect for the period and the level of historical detail was outstanding – accurate details reflected the summer course Laurens mentions she took on the medieval period yet are so skillfully delivered it never feels like an info dump. Alaun and Eloise are both strong, proud nobles of their period yet empathetic characters who you easily support.

Where Laurens falters is where her books usually fall apart – the driving external conflict. As the Cynster series progressed, the mystery or conspiracy around which the entire book’s ending revolves became incredibly simplistic and often two-dimensional. Similar to the last five or six of the Cynster books, the initial two-thirds of Desire’s Prize focusing on the two characters coming together and recognizing their feelings is outstanding, but the manufactured conflict for the final third weighs heavily on the reader. In this work, an unbalanced young woman with Eloise in her sights provides what I thought was the novel’s “black moment” only to be succeeded by an additional peril when Eloise is captured by a group of un-introduced knights who were only vaguely hinted at in two other places in the book. It’s a bit jarring and awkward and it didn’t have to be – it almost felt like something a strong editor would have caught and corrected. A great epilogue fortunately pulls up the end of the novel and re-establishes the connection between the characters that made the first part of the book so compelling.

Many medieval convents (not all) where places fostering female leadership and education, housing great wealth and often providing a formidable security to its inhabitants, as Claerwhen Convent does.

One point in the author’s note at the end which confused me was that Laurens makes a point of saying that this book comes between Captain Jack’s Woman and Devil’s Bride. She must mean this in terms of her personal writing chronology since these two books are still in the late 18th/early 19th century. I don’t know if this makes me feel better since I actually feel that the overall writing in Desire’s Prize feels more like the early Cynster works (which is a terrific thing) and I had hoped this had meant a return to that stronger writing and characterization, but it doesn’t if this book was actually written years ago during the author’s golden age.

Yet the fact that this book is listed as the first in a new series, Chronicles of Claerwhen, makes me hope that there will be other books based around women who attended this illustrious convent led by a strong mother superior (and perhaps starring heroes like Alaun’s sensual right hand knight, Roland). It’s an excellent device and one that could be quite effective for framing a series, particularly if a dip into the medieval period helps bolster Stephanie Laurens’ creative juices.

I feel tentatively hopeful at the start of this series, with my fingers crossed that Laurens continues to develop this time period into another wonderful group of books with characters I revisit again and again.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont Offers a Short Novella Ideal for Jane Eyre Fans

31 Dec
Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont (Entangled Flaunts, December 30, 2013)

Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont (Entangled Flaunts, December 30, 2013)

I’m going to admit that I reread Jane Eyre about twice a year (and usually disdain any media adaptation of Charlotte Bronte‘s novel – no Mr. Rochester can equal the one in my mind), so any romance involving a potential mesalliance between a governess and a highborn man has my immediate attention.

Alexander Hunt, the eighth Duke of Beresford, is trying to remain cold and distant while he informs his beautiful governess that she is about to be fired a few days before Christmas. He’s followed her and discovered that she is a novelist whose work clearly indicates she comes from humble beginnings,. In fact, Miss Adriana Grey is actually Miss Adriana Flint, a granddaughter of an earl whose mother ran away with the man she loved only to fall into ruin in the East End of London. Alexander is no stranger to scandal – the men in his family have a reputation for doing exactly what they feel like, Victorian society be damned. Just the fact that the beautiful Adriana is the governess to his ward, Georgiana (in fact, his illegitimate daughter) right in his home says this is a man who writes his own rules.

Adriana knows that she doesn’t yet make enough money as a novelist to support herself and not turn to the petticoat trade, a direction her life almost took. That she was discovered by her handsome employer is not only disastrous but it also reveals that he has been as fascinated with her as she has been with him, and both of them have attempted to ignore it. Boldly addressing that fact, Adriana challenges Alexander to take the twelve days of Christmas to seduce her – if he can – and see if he would like to keep her as his mistress. While she admits that her background makes her the worst possible person for little Georgiana, the fact remains she loves the little girl and feels a strong attraction to the man. while she’s had only one other intimate relationship, she’s just desperate (and curious) enough to take a chance.

All I Want For Christmas Is a Duke anthology with stories by Delilah Marvelle and Maire Claremont (Entangled: Scandalous, 2012)

All I Want For Christmas Is a Duke anthology with stories by Delilah Marvelle and Maire Claremont (Entangled: Scandalous, 2012)

Claremont is brilliant for gently framing this story with the understanding that Alexander is the head of his family (and therefore answers to no one) and already has indulged in some unconventional behavior, like keeping his by-blow in his own home as his ward. While Adriana is legitimate and descended from aristocracy, her father not being of that class clearly would render her unacceptable to the vast majority of Victorian nobility. There’s definite heat between the hero and heroine but only a few spicy interactions with Alexander being, for the most part, very respectful of Adriana as he wants to get to know her better. I was so impressed at how much backstory on both of them Maire Claremont managed to pack into a mere 76 pages while moving the plot along.

While this story on its own is only $.99, I should also point out that this story is also available in the duology, All I Want for Christmas Is a Duke, also only $.99 and with that purchase you get the additional novella, Merry Christmas, Mrs. Robinson by Delilah Marvelle, an extremely well-regarded romance author. Two stories sound even better than one as long as you get Maire Claremont’s as well.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: The Earl’s Christmas Colt by Rebecca Thomas Is a Delightful Holiday Historical Short

30 Dec

The Earl’s Christmas Colt by Rebecca Thomas (Entangled Flirt, December 30, 2013)

I have a thing for animals in romance, particularly in historicals and what animal is better for this genre than horses? In Rebecca Thomas‘ delightful holiday short from Entangled Flirts, The Earl’s Christmas Colt, both the hero and heroine would rather spend time with horses than find a spouse, but duty calls.

Lady Arabella Sutton is appalled when her otherwise loving older brother informs her that he’s signed the contracts for her to marry…at the end of the week right after Christmas! She knows that she wasn’t that interested in looking for a husband in her last season, but the fact is she’d rather spend her time with her horses, especially since her father recently passed away. But now her brother informs her she’s supposed to marry some horribly old Earl (he’s four and thirty!) who will be a duke one day, as if she cares about that. Feeling betrayed, she heads out for a long ride – sans groom, thank you.

Unfortunately her lovely mare picks up a bad stone, bruising her hoof and forcing Arabella to head through a driving rain to the nearest coaching inn to get her under a dry roof to recuperate. When a handsome stable master with a gorgeous stallion and fetching colt helps her care for her mare and says he’ll help her get a room and send her brother a message, she doesn’t have a name for the strange fluttering in her chest or the tingling skin a chance touch leaves in its wake.

Oliver Westwyck, the Earl of Marsdale, is astonished that the gorgeous, wet young woman who knows horses backwards and forwards is his intended. A stray comment that hints at her disdain for dukes has him giving his mother’s maiden name instead of his own, a decision that allows him to know her a bit better but has him cringing at his deception. He simply wanted a good marriage of convenience after a disastrous engagement years ago trying to have a marriage based on love, but the more time he spends with Arabella, the more he’s worried that this woman is going to be much, much more than he’s ever experienced before. But his lie – and the bigger one perpetuated by Arabella’s brother regarding the state of the family’s finances – could come between whatever common foundation they might have laid in this stable.

I don’t usually fall for short stories with no sexy times, but this one (probably because it was an historical) absolutely charmed me. Author Rebecca Thomas is a self-confessed horse enthusiast and her knowledge and love of this noble animal shines through in her writing. There was a terrific foundation for conflict which, when combined with the sudden attraction between Oliver and Arabella, had me rapidly turning the page. I liked that the brother is well-intentioned and actually quite loving in his decision to match his reluctant sister with a good man who also loves horses. No two-dimensional villains here!

I’m super excited to read some more Rebecca Thomas who appears to be a relatively new author. Please note that this story is also available in the Entangled Flirts bundle, Twelve Days of Christmas Past, which includes not just this story but also the wonderful time-travel romance Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser which I reviewed earlier this month, as well as an additional story by Thomas and another Entangled author. At only $2.99 for four stories, that could be a post-Christmas bargain, but you can get the single story for a mere $.99 if you’d like to start just sampling this particular short. With such a wonderful example, I’ll be eagerly looking forward to her other works, historical or otherwise (and I hope they feature horses prominently).

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: You’ll Be Courting Disaster If You Don’t Read The Scandal Before Christmas by Elizabeth Essex This Holiday Season

29 Dec

The Scandal Before Christmas (The Reckless Brides #3.5 – Ian and Anne) by Elizabeth Essex (St. Martin’s Press, October 8, 2013)

It’s always a joy to find a historical author whose depiction of their chosen time period is so accurate and detail-rich that you feel immersed in the setting. I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I finally succumbed to the charms of Grace Burrows with Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait. Then Nina Rowan’s ‘Twas the Night Before Mischief restored my faith in Victorian romance not written by Jennifer Ashley (who is a goddess with her Highland Pleasures series). Therefore, it was an additional and unexpected pleasure to discover Elizabeth Essex via her holiday novella, The Scandal Before Christmas.

I read some intriguing reviews online about this plain-duckling-turns-swan novella and, since it fit into my December Read-a-Thon format, I thought I’d give it a try. Oh my gosh!! This is a hot, sweet story that burrows under your skin and lives there for a while afterward, and it’s a lovely feeling.

The Scandal Before Christmas lands between the third and fourth full-length novels in Essex’s The Reckless Brides series. Fans of the naval angle of Horatio Hornblower are going to want to definitely check this author out as she has a strong historical background in naval detail and many of her characters have ties to the British navy. Set amid the Napoleonic Wars, this is a hard-core navy setting (no pirate fluff here) as well as with the books being linked loosely via certain characters.

Almost a Scandal (The Reckless Brides #1 – David and Sally) by Elizabeth Essex (St. Martin’s Press, July 31, 2012)

In fact, the hero of this novella served on the ship featured in the first book of the series, Almost a Scandal, where the heroine took her brother’s place to serve in the Navy and ends up falling for her superior officer. In The Scandal Before Christmas, Lieutenant Ian Worth is a victim of ill-fortune at the moment. His overbearing and heartless father Viscount Rainesford has always made his immediate heir tow the line, having dropped off second son Ian on the Navy’s doorstep when the boy was twelve and never looked back. Ian doesn’t exactly love the Navy, but it’s his career and he’s enjoyed the camaraderie of his shipmates while being able to indulge his licentious side when ashore. Unfortunately, he’s informed by his father that his older brother has had a horrible riding accident and appears to be paralyzed, negating any possibility of begetting heirs to inherit the title.

When his father tells him that Ian will have to honor his brother’s betrothal and marry the girl, the officer honed in over a decade of the Navy’s service balks, informing his father that he is already married. Not thrilled, his father nevertheless backs off and Ian is left with needing to get married in the next six days before shoving off for his next assignment. At least he’s got a plum channel dispatch job, which means he gets to return every couple of weeks to the home he loves, Gull Cottage, on the Isle of Wight. But where to find a wife when his experience is with opera singers and amenable barmaids?

Destiny provides an assisting hand when he’s joined in a tavern while drowning his sorrows by an old friend, Colonel Lesley. After hearing his predicament and asking Ian’s requirements – a quiet girl who won’t mind being left alone for long periods and who would shun the town amenities and social whirl – the good colonel informs him that his eldest daughter Anne would be perfect for him. Ian insists that Col. Lesley and his wife bring the girl to Gull Cottage so she can see what she would be getting and determine if she would like Ian enough to go through with the marriage. Ian just prays that he can be attracted to her enough to bed her.

A shot of the shoreline of the Isle of Wight – how lovely and remote is this? No wonder Anne thinks it’s the perfect place to escape her family. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The first glance isn’t promising. Anne Lesley is a plain, brown-haired, sober-gowned young woman who Ian mistook for her mother’s maid, but it’s possible she’s quiet because she can’t get a word in edgewise with such a garrulous mother. Her parents barely seem to notice she’s there and Ian can’t help but feel horribly disappointed at the thought of tying himself to such a plain mouse. Unfortunately, Anne overhears him saying so to his trusted manservant – and Ian realizes that he’s been overheard and feels horrible. In the process of apologizing to her, Ian makes a life-changing revelation, namely that Anne has a lot of impertinence and possibly passion bottled up inside of her, qualities which, when glimpsed in her eyes, suddenly bring her face to life. The chemistry that blazes up startles but pleases them both, but it’s uncertain if Ian can coax Anne to trust him amid all the lies to his father and his trampling over her feelings from the start. With the clock ticking, Ian must woo Anne to marry him to save his own hide while he also realizes that he must win her heart to save his own from breaking as he’s fallen for the woman who hides so much of herself from the world.

What I envision Gull Cottage looking like (this is an actual historic cottage you can actually rent on the Isle of Wight)…

Okay, I haven’t read the other books in this series (a condition I will soon remedy) but I can’t imagine that it’s possible to not love Ian. He is such a straight shooter, saying exactly what he’s thinking and feeling, but he’s also actually quite a gentleman who spoke in frustration at his situation when he accidentally hurt Anne’s feelings in commenting on her first impression. Ian is also a glorious, sensual beast and exactly the right person to appreciate Anne’s bottled up thoughts and emotions, making him the perfect coach to teach her all the rules of physical love. Anne’s anger understandably stems from knowing she has to leave her family before she goes officially insane (how she managed all these years with that mother is a mystery) but knowing that she would not be considered worthy of the handsome son of a Viscount. Once she understands Ian’s predicament she is all empathy, helped along by his sensual kisses and great library (which includes some racy erotic books he’s happy to share).

This novella is hot and tender with the barest hint at the holiday. I loved both the hero and heroine and thought the secondary characters were drawn with exactly the right level of depth to enhance the story but never take it over. Historical detail and language was pitch perfect with some of Ian’s less gentlemanly language and behavior easily explained by his lack of society contact and time in the Navy (and even he realizes he’s defying social mores). I liked that, while he was a bit of manwhore, he immediately recognizes that if he’s to ask a woman to be faithful to him he wants to give her the same in return (hence his desperate hope that they can be physically compatible). I was ready to move to Gull Cottage as it sounded wild, remote and beautiful, the perfect place for Anne to finally get the peace and quiet she deserved. In lieu of taking a vacation there right away (look at those pictures!), I’ll content myself with reading this wonderful novella. :-)

At a mere $1.99 for just under 150 pages, The Scandal Before Christmas is an excellent way to sample Elizabeth Essex’s writing and realize that you may have found another great historical romance author to add to your shelves.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: A Naughty Girl Gets a Happily Ever After in Twas the Night Before Mischief by Nina Rowan

26 Dec

‘Twas the Night Before Mischief (Daring Hearts #2.5 – Darius and Penelope) by Nina Rowan (Forever, December 10, 2013)

It’s always the mark of a good novella when the minute you finished it, you’ve hopped online and are ordering the other books in the series. That’s exactly what you get upon finishing Nina Rowan‘s third installment in her Daring Hearts series, focusing on the Hall siblings. Set during the Victorian period, this rather unusual aristocratic family has lived under the umbrella of their mother’s scandal in both St. Petersburg and in London, so naturally, as the siblings come of age, conventional relationships are not going to meet their needs.

Falling between the second and the third full-length book (which comes out in late May 2014), this novella focuses on the serious Hall twin, the spectacled Darius. His fascination with machinery has led him to have a multi-year professional relationship with Henry Darlington, an innovative confectioner, who has worked with Darius on various ways of separating out cocoa butter. This collaboration allows Darius to see the effect of Henry’s sudden remarriage on his twelve year old daughter, Penelope, and offer his own brand of rather (ineffective) cerebral comfort.

Flash forward and Darius is interested in seeing the now fully-grown Penelope again but is shocked at what he finds. Rather than the dutiful, quiet daughter he remembers, this young woman is stunning and vivacious, attracting male attention right and left. In particular, she’s garnered the focus of a Scottish fortune hunter who the Hall family recently ran off from Darius’ sister, Talia, but Darius’ warning to Penelope seems to fall on deaf ears. Yet even this changed Penelope still has the fire in her eyes that always attracted Darius and he steals a mind-blowing, stunning kiss under the mistletoe.

It doesn’t stop Penelope from running away with her Scottish suitor. She’s tired of being the dutiful daughter and getting no recognition from her father. While she likes her stepmother and siblings, she nevertheless feels like she’s on the outside looking in and the memory of her daring mother who would fill a room with the force of personality makes Penelope want more than the invisibility of a woman’s lot in life. She wants someone to truly see her, and so far no one has. When her elopement doesn’t work out and her father’s cool, intellectual colleague Darius Hall shows up in Scotland to rescue her, humiliation wars with relief…and something more. For Penelope finds that Darius is really more like his mistletoe kisses than the cool scientist he leads people to believe, and she might not be the only one with a fire inside. But will their short trip back to London be enough time to explore what’s between them before Penelope has to go back to being a good girl?

I cannot wait to read the rest of Nina Rowan’s Daring hearts series if this novella is any indication. It’s clear by both the author’s Ph.D. in Art History from McGill University, as well as her writing style, that she endows her characters with broad intellectual interests well-rooted in excellent research and solid theory – my favorite kind of historical writing! Both Penelope and Darius are extremely compelling, likable characters and it’s a joy to see them gain a greater understanding of each other. While it’s hard to imagine an aristocrat (even a much younger son) marrying a shopkeeper’s daughter, Rowan does make it clear even in this novella that the Halls are an unconventional lot who have lived through enough scandal that a little more doesn’t really faze them.

While there are a few mistletoe kisses (and a seriously naughty inn scene), there also isn’t a huge emphasis on Christmas, just the holiday season in general, so it’s a wonderful story to continue your holiday reading through the end of December. Many thanks to Ms. Rowan for writing such a terrific novella!

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Snowbound Wedding Wishes Anthology Gives Us a Holiday Dose of Harlequin Historical

24 Dec

Snowbound Wedding Wishes by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford, and Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, November 1, 2012)

I’m really picky about my historical romance authors – REALLY picky – so much so that I often don’t try new authors until I’ve read every review on Amazon and Goodreads of a given book. The slightest whiff of something off – using language not yet invented in the time period, extremely unconventional behavior for the era or excessive dickishness of the hero – and I won’t even pick it up. I guess my paranoia stems from the fact that with a history/biology double major in college, I know enough about historical periods that it’s easy to jar me out of the story with the result that I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

With this caveat, you can imagine that I actually do like anthologies (and anyone who reads this blog knows I love them as a method of finding new authors). When I saw that Harlequin Historical had produced an anthology last year entitled Snowbound Wedding Wishes, containing stories by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford and Joanna Fulford – all Harlequin authors I have seen receive good reviews – it occurred to me that this volume was an excellent opportunity for me to perhaps highlight a great book for the December Read-a-Thon while also dipping a toe and seeing if I would like these authors as much as everyone else.

Mission accomplished. I was impressed with not only the writing but particularly the historical detail provided in each of these stories, which all possessed accuracy in the historical representation of the Regency period, lovely heroes and heroines, and a distinct voice.

“An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe” by Louise Allen

Major Hugo Burnham can’t believe he survived the Penisular Wars to be caught on a freezing cold night a few days before Christmas so he can die of exposure in the English countryside. On his way home to his ancestral manor, circumstances detoured him from his original route until he is more than a little lost. Both he and his horse are thrilled to see a light in the distance and even more astonished when a lovely widow answers the door to the alehouse he finds tucked away in a small hamlet. Her twin boys are bright as copper pennies and the more time he spends with them, the more Hugo realizes that Emilia and the boys have him wanting – wanting a real family. Despite her having a cultured accent, it’s clear they are not nobility (if they were, they wouldn’t be in an alehouse) and any protectiveness he feels toward her must just be a result of empathy for her circumstances.

In addition to numerous historical romances, Louise Allen is also the author of the well-rated nonfiction book, Walking Jane Austen’s London, a guide I hope to one day take to heart while exploring that city with an eye to a favorite author!

Emilia Weston realizes that the handsome serious major is definitely above her station, at least her station now. Having eloped with a poor younger son from a good family earned her family’s disinheritance, leaving Emilia with few options. Now she exists in limbo in the village, politely tolerated by the villagers and given the occasional head nod from the local gentry but belonging to neither. She wants to make sure that the boys have everything they need to at least enter the law and have a chance at financial success and happiness. She’s made the best of her circumstances and she wouldn’t have given up the time with her loving husband for anything, even with her hardships – Giles was a wonderful husband who did his best for her. Some of the side benefits of that relationship are foremost in her mind as the honorable Hugo can’t seem to keep his hands and mouth off Emilia despite his best intentions and she’s frightened to discover she doesn’t want him to. As the snow deepens and this officer stays under her roof for Christmas, Emilia can’t imagine that any Christmas miracle can be forthcoming regarding her growing feelings for someone she’s sure is an aristocrat.

I adored this story! Emilia is plucky and yet real, with frustrations that make her a three-dimensional character and one easy for the reader to fall for, to say nothing of Hugo (the poor man didn’t stand a chance). Allen’s details about Emilia’s daily work with the ale were fabulous and yet never crossed into “info dump” territory – very skillful. Hugo’s character is totally understandable and coming home from the war, taking up his role as the Earl of Burnham, and then falling in love with an alewife had to equal not just a hell of week but a tough adjustment for him. Hearing about Hugo’s childhood gave further insight into his immediate understanding of Emilia’s unique and loving mothering style, and this helps him begin the mental trek to thinking about what he wants in a wife and family. The resolution was plausible and extremely emotionally satisfying, causing me to turn the final page with a huge grin on my face. I’ll be checking out other Louise Allen books for sure!

“Twelfth Night Proposal” by Lucy Ashford

Theo, Lord Dalbury has experienced a strange series of events. A former officer in Wellington’s army, he returned to England after Waterloo and was happy with his friends and a minor barony to his name. Then an elderly woman he had only met once left him a property in Derbyshire with some strange instructions and his life has taken a strange turn. His immediate goal is to simply take a look at the property while conveniently avoiding all the matchmaking mothers of the ton, but the vicious country roads and uncooperative weather is making what should be straightforward all too difficult. An odd encounter with a group of children, led by a blond beauty dressed as a lad, ends in a fall from his horse and unconsciousness – a rather ignominious introduction to Northcote Hall, his new property.

The Captain’s Courtesan by Lucy Ashford (Harlequin Historical, September 1, 2012)

What he finds is at once horrifying and mysterious. Northcote Hall is in shambles with only a flighty housekeeper and corrupt steward at the helm. After witnessing the steward sexually threatening the young blond woman he met at the scene of his accident, Theo fires him and attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. The blond, Miss Jenna Bruchs, is no peasant but neither is she gentry and she and her mother are fiercely attached to the Hall. In fact, she and many of the locals appear overly eager to see him take up residence, an attitude undoubtedly linked to the former steward’s vicious rein of terror. Theo guesses that Jenna is the natural daughter of an aristocrat stemming from when her mother worked as a housekeeper, and the more time he spends with her the more he wants her. But what kind of future can they have together, even during the twelve days of Christmas?

This was a wonderfully written story with a compelling hero and a feisty young woman trapped in almost impossible circumstances. The villain is horrible and yet more than just a two-dimensional vehicle to move the plot along. Terrific conflict and a very satisfying resolution from the unconventional Theo made me love the ending. My only criticism is how disappointed I am to find that Lucy Ashford does not appear to have any social media presence to speak of, with just a basic (if lovely) website for readers. I worry her talent is not being as showcased as it could without this way of reaching the many fans she must have. Reading hundreds of romance novels a year, I’ve seen the correlation that authors with no social media presence always have fewer reviews and, I imagine, fewer sales. My fingers are crossed that she overcomes her reticence and embraces more of a digital footprint!

“Christmas at Oakhurst Manor” by Joanna Fulford

This is a reunion romance (which normally I’m not a huge fan of) but Ms. Fulford made this quite realistic and lovely. Ten years ago Max Calderwood told the woman he loved that he was leaving her to go to India and make his fortune. Vivien was high-born and Max felt he could not give her what she deserved or even keep her in the style she was used to. Setting her free was the hardest thing he had ever done, especially after hearing her plea to take her with him while he sought his fortune, but he knew he was doing the right thing, even when he told her not to wait for him. Working hard in India, Max realized he made a huge mistake based on how he was devastated by the news of her marriage, but it was the bed he made and he resolved to lie in it.

A decade later, Max is incredibly rich and has finally made his way back to England to purchase a property and enjoy that for which he labored all those years. Startled to see Vivien at a house party for Christmas, he’s astonished not only with the realization that she is even more beautiful than he remembered, but the news that she has been a widow for 18 months and has two children. Her sadness and vulnerability call to him, but he’s unsure if she would be willing to take a chance on the man who hurt her all those years ago.

The Viking’s Defiant Bride by Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, 2009)

Vivien actually knew Max was going to be at the Christmas party but she couldn’t disappoint her friend or her children and back out at the last minute. It’s unfair that he’s even more handsome than ever – and clearly the target of other women’s matrimonial designs – to say nothing of the fact that he’s wonderful with her children, something their father never was. Vivien married a much older man, convinced respect would make for a good marriage and she’s regretted the decision so much that even his death was a guilty relief. She’s glad to have her children, but with her husband a poor money manager, their future is extremely uncertain. Yet Vivien is strong enough to stand her ground and not make the mistake again of accepting marriage where there is no love. When Max attempts to convince her that his feelings are still strong even after all this time, Vivien is forced to face her demons to see if she is the still the brave woman she once was.

I enjoyed this novella very much and want to sample Joanna Fulford‘s other writing after reading it. With my recent interest in the surge of Viking romances, I was interested that Fulford, mostly a Regency historical author, has dabbled in the Viking genre to good reviews. I’m going to have to look at those and at some of her other Regency tales since this one had a sweetness to it (it was the only story of the three with no sex, just kissing) that was period appropriate and endearing. Perhaps because of that, it felt very accurate to me, with both the hero and heroine taking a while to work up to anything beyond polite pleasantries. That undercurrent of the unsaid subtext felt very Austen, which I liked. The characters are still extremely honest about their feelings to themselves which keeps the story moving.

New UK cover for the anthology

Snowbound Wedding Wishes is an anthology I can heartily recommend to historical romance authors who enjoy the Regency period, particularly when the holiday season is the focus. While I had held onto this book since last year, I’d like to point out that it’s recently been reissued by Harlequin UK with a different cover for their British audience, who I’m sure will also greatly enjoy it.

At less than $5 for almost 300 pages, the cost of this anthology feels like a good bargain to me (although you might also want to check your local library since it has been out for a year). I’m pleased to have found three authors who have published enough that I have a nice body of their work to explore and to gain further confidence in Harlequin’s Historical line to know that their editing and author choice is rock solid.

Happy reading (and Merry Christmas)!

December Read-a-Thon: You’ll Want Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait by Grace Burrowes On Your Mantle This Holiday

6 Dec

Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait (Windhams #8 - Jenny and Elijah) by Grace Burrowes (Sourcebooks Casablanca, September 24, 2013)

Grace Burrowes has a quite a following as a historical romance writer and rightly so. Her attention to historical detail, highlight warm families and caring friendships, combined with a profound sensuality in her writing win over readers in all her books, but none more so than the stories of the Windhams series. Perhaps a rarity in the world of Regency romance, the Windhams series actually has as its focus an extremely happy Duke and Duchess who married for love, not convenience, and who wish to see their enormous brood of sons and daughters sharing the same type of marital bliss.

In Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait, the eighth book of this successful series, some challenges to this endgame become apparent. Genevieve (Jenny) is the final unmarried Windham and it’s obvious everyone is frustrated by the arrangement. Jenny is tired of being the maiden aunt passed off from one relative to another since propriety forbids her to simply stay at home in the ducal mansion surrounded by dozens of servants lest her virtue come into question. This is a shame considering that Jenny is an extremely talented artist mouldering after seven seasons and suffering the demands of a well-meaning but troublesome family. When famous portrait painter Elijah Harrison literally appears on her sibling’s doorstep in inclement weather Jenny’s elated to see him. Again.

You see, Jenny actually wanted instruction so badly that she posed as a young man and snuck into one of London’s premier art classes where Elijah was posing in the nude, so Jenny has seen him in the altogether…and Elijah knows it. Elijah is also more than a portrait painter on the rise. He’s also Lord Brentwood, the heir to a Marquisate who left his loving family over a decade ago after an argument with his father, swearing he wasn’t going to return until he was elected into the Royal Academy. He didn’t realize that the road to critical acclaim would be this long, nor necessitate so much time away from his boisterous siblings and loving parents, but pride will not let him accept less. With the commission to paint Jenny’s two nephews, Elijah can finally add the final piece in his portfolio, a portrait of children in order to showcase his range and hopefully gain admittance to this illustrious insitution.

The Royal Academy of the Arts, London. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

But there are a few problems. The first is that Jenny is the most beautiful creature Elijah has ever seen and he adores the way she casts propriety to the wind in order to seek information about their shared craft. Her desire to escape her life and go to Paris where they have far more liberal ideas of educating female artists is admirable even as Elijah worries for both her safety as well as feels a wrench at the thought of her leaving the country. The second, slightly more ominous obstacle, is that Elijah isn’t the slightest bit comfortable with painting children. Yikes.

There is a solution. Jenny for all her talent is one of those aunts everyone dreams of having, her love of her nieces and nephews apparent at a glance. In exchange for Elijah sitting at night for her and giving her critiques of her work, Jenny agrees to help him during the day with his two toddler subjects. What grows between them is a shared passion encompassing both art and one another, yet Elijah’s self-imposed exile from his family combined with Jenny’s ambitions and emotional reticence toward anything resembling marriage will provide a barrier their new feelings may very well not be able to surmount.

Okay. My mother (who I trust implicitly when it comes to romance recommendations) has told me for quite some time that I was going to enjoy Grace Burrowes and she was, as usual, completely right, a condition that must grow tiresome for her since she experiences it so often. I was most impressed by Burrowes absolutely correct voice – never does she have a character say or phrase something in tones or language that wouldn’t be appropriate for the Regency period. The frequent lack of attention to this area is something that annoys me tremendously with most historical romance writers (etymology is enough of an interest that I cringe when I see a character use a word that literally did not exist yet) but I usually let it go because to use the more formal language of the period can place a barrier between the modern reader in their enjoyment of the story. Not so with Grace Burrowes – her language choice not only placed me right in the period but also lent a glamour to the characters’ feeling for each other, since their burgeoning love and sexual fascination was rendered in such careful, period tones. I loved that juxtaposition!

I also appreciated that the main focus was on the issue that Jenny deserved a career as much as anyone else with talent, and that it took a little while for she and Elijah to iron out his manner toward her so that it didn’t smack of condescension (this felt period appropriate to me as well). For fans of the series, the frequent appearance of the numerous couples from the preceding seven books in the series is a delight but anyone who would like to begin with Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait (as I did) should have no difficulty keeping everyone straight. If anything, you’ll find yourself ordering copies of the preceding books (ahem) since you’ll want to know more about the well-drawn characters from this particular novel. When even the dogs and cats are well-written, you grab that author with both hands and don’t let go!

Needless to say, I got the best holiday present, namely a great Regency romance but also a wonderful new author to explore. Did I mention the paperback is a perfect size for a Christmas stocking? Think about asking Saint Nicholas for this wonderful novel for your Yule season this year.

Happy reading!

Dancer of the Nile Brings Romantic Suspense (Ancient Egyptian Style) to Veronica Scott’s Gods of Egypt Series

22 Oct

Dancer of the Nile (Gods of Egypt #3) by Veronica Scott (Jean D. Walker, October 5, 2013)

I was so taken with the world of ancient Egypt in Veronica Scott’s Warrior of the Nile, that I immediately went out and bought it’s predecessor Priestess of the Nile, which I also enjoyed. Naturally, being a completionist and feeling confidence in Veronica Scott‘s writing, I pre-ordered Dancer of the Nile (which came out on October 5th) and am now able to tell you that it definitely lives up to the overall excellent quality of the series.

Kamin is an Egyptian general, cousin to Pharaoh, undercover in Hyksos territory and captured as a spy (which he is). Amid the cruel Hyksos army, he notices a bedraggled but brave woman riding in the leader’s chariot, a woman quickly identified as a captured dancer. She’s clearly Egyptian but what can one woman do to help his situation? He wishes he could help her, but starved and bound while being walked through the desert doesn’t put him in a powerful position.

Nima actually does have some tricks up her sleeve. She’s a dancer who, up to yesterday, had dreams of leaving her sketchy dance troupe and forging a real life for herself, until the inn fire drove her into the arms of her Hyksos captors. Purportedly she’s being kept because the Hyksos general wants her to “dance” for him personally, but that’s not stopping the leader of the soldiers from periodically terrorizing her and making her wait on the soldiers. She’s angered at how the brave captured Egyptian is being treated and determines to use everything in her power to release him so they can both get away.

Priestess of the Nile (Gods of Egypt #1) by Veronica Scott (Carina Press, 2012)

And so begins Kamin and Nima’s adventure. I felt that while there has been excellent political or paranormal conflict propelling all the books in the series, Dancer of the Nile felt most like a romantic suspense novel as Kamin and Nima have obstacle after obstacle thrown at them as they race to inform Egypt of the Hyksos’ stronghold location. Along the way, these two characters – one noble born, one a peasant but both blessed with a pure and brave heart – are drawn together and fall in love. There is no way to not adore the hero and heroine, and Kamin particularly stole my heart with his indomitable will to let nothing stand in the way of his winning Nima, even under the worst possible circumstances.

As with the other books in the series, although to a slightly lesser degree, gods and goddesses are involved with saving Egypt and rescuing the protagonists from the worst situations. After the third book, I’m definitely feeling like I could begin picking Egyptian deities from a line up!

Can we talk for a minute about what an unbelievable value these books are? Both Priestess of the Nile and Warrior of the Nile were put out by Carina Press (the digital division of Harlequin) and are currently priced at only $1.99 each. Dancer of the Nile, which is not by Carina (kudos for continuing the flavor and quality of the cover art, Veronica), nevertheless is only $2.99, completely reasonable for a book just out (or any other time).

Historical romance writers (who don’t mind the occasional god or goddess interfering) looking to break away from yet another Regency and taste something different would do well to try the Gods of Egypt series. This series does not disappoint!

A Lady’s Secret Weapon by Tracey Devlyn Combines Old-Fashioned Spy Thrillers with Hot Historical Romance

16 Oct

A Lady’s Secret Weapon (Nexus #3 – Ethan and Sydney) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, October 1, 2013)

Back when I was cutting my teeth on historical romance in the 80s, there were many novels that heavily featured spies bent on foiling Napoleonic agents during the height of the Peninsular Wars. These books had complex spy plots and incorporated plenty of history in addition to the romance developing between the hero and heroine.

I loved them, but as Regency became modernized (and thank heavens it did) for some reason the spy piece seemed to suddenly take a back burner. Oh, it was still there, clearly, but not in the same smart way it existed before. The romance piece got better as well, and since I really did read them for the romance, that was a reasonable exchange, although I found myself still wistful for the well-written spies and villains.

Enter talented author Tracey Devlyn and I have no more reason to pine for the days of those page-turning plots. With her excellent Nexus series, readers manage three books in one: a pitch-perfect historical romance, a mystery as a new angle of the story arc is uncovered, and a thriller to heighten anticipation and keep those pages turning. Yum!

The Nexus is an elite group of British spies heavily involved with uncovering the next move of the Napoleonic network, either in France or right on England’s shores, and readers have already met several operatives in the first two books of the series. A Lady’s Secret Weapon in fact stars Ethan deBeau, the rogue Viscount renowned for charming one woman after another into his bed, only to ferret out their secrets for his cause. Less well-known are the many deaths for which he is responsible and the knowledge of the often innocent lives he’s compromised – as well as the dirty feeling he carries from his meaningless sexual encounters – have made him not just jaded, but someone who regularly takes refuge in alcohol and whores when frustrations arise.

Ethan made these sacrifices for his country so he can attain one goal, taking over the Nexus network and finally filling his dead father’s shoes in service to England. But when it seems that’s not going to happen, he’s not just thrown but resentful. A helpful distraction takes the form of one Sydney Hunt, a stunning young woman who Ethan feels he knows from somewhere although she’s not telling. Her focus on an orphanage that has come onto the Nexus’ radar is more than a coincidence and it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more to Miss Hunt than meets the eye.

A Lady’s Revenge (Nexus #1 – Cora and Guy) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, April 2012)

That’s the truth. Sydney hides her own painful past and while her work as the proprietress of an employment agency helping servants find safe positions in noble households is a priority, her secret work as “the Specter” has her using a network of underground spies to help the Nexus anonymously. Her time with Ethan has her rethinking her opinions about noblemen but she’s uncertain as to whether he won’t run just like other men in her past when he finds out the nature of her ghosts. For this man, Sydney realizes she might just be willing to take her stolen moments when she can, as his layers clearly hide more than just a talented rogue and spy.

It was a little hard for me to like Ethan initially as Devlyn shows him making the decision to pursue alcohol and visit a whorehouse after he’s met our heroine. Tsk, tsk. Granted, there’s nothing yet between them, but I always find myself having to overcome that mental hurdle (and sometimes, not managing it) when an author decides to show that side of the hero. Yet she manages to help him come back from it, with the incident simply illustrating just how damaged Ethan is that he needs this form of escape. He’s literally never let himself be in love and Sydney is really his first in many ways, despite all his experience of women.

Sydney was enormously easy to love, surrounded by people who care about her and with a deeply admirable mission, but she never strays into goody two-shoes territory. That she has channelled much of herself into both her day job and her secret spy work clearly is due to her being convinced that she will never have a romantic future due to her childhood. Ethan’s patient uncovering of each of her secrets breaches her walls one by one and his lack of judgement at each hurdle helps grow the trust between them. It’s actually quite lovely to witness, with their climatic love scene one of the most tender I’ve read in a while.

Checkmate, My Lord (Nexus #2 – Sebastian and Catherine) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, February 2013)

For readers who have enjoyed the first two books in the series, there is plenty of time to revel in those characters (when exactly are they all getting married, anyway?) since they make regular appearances. But for people who want to try this book out first before making the investment, fear not – Devlyn’s writing is so deft that you will lack no understanding or appreciation if you start with A Lady’s Secret Weapon. Playing catch up is effortless regarding both story arc and characters in the hands of this talented author.

The important thing to keep in mind when reading a Devlyn book is that the spy element drives the romance. I initially found myself very impatient as a good portion of the book progressed before my hero and heroine began inching toward one another even though there was a strong attraction. Partly this was their personalities and backgrounds coming into play but it was also because the various elements of the plot had to be well-established. The delay has the nice side effect of making the descent into a relationship more natural in terms of the timeframe (no insta-love here) and – once I realized the intent – I was able to relax and enjoy it.

Keep in mind also that Devlyn’s intelligence, immediately apparent after just a few pages, bleeds into other areas of her professional life. She’s got an excellent website and strong social media presence, and is also a founder of the Romance University website which I follow religiously. How cool is that? I love it when an author’s talent is matched by her professional savvy, so yay for me at finding another woman who is cleverly making an impact on the world of romance publishing.

Tracey Devlyn’s entire Nexus series, but A Lady’s Secret Weapon in particular, combines outstanding writing with cross-genre appeal. Mystery, thriller, and historical romance lovers fear not – you’ve just got another author to add to your end table. Enjoy!

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