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Check Out the Time-travel Novella Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser This Holiday Season

25 Nov

All right. Today is clearly Entangled Publishing day, but how can I help it when there are so many great books and novellas coming out? Their Ever After line “features paranormal, sci-fi, and horror novellas, all with the romance you’ve come to love from Entangled–just in a shorter format.” So while the Flirt line is more contemporary and thrillers (with historical shorts mixed in), Ever After is more the things that go bump in the night (or which science creates).

Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser (Entangled Ever After, November 25, 2013)

This particular story I would categorize as a short since it’s around 40 pages, yet it’s so deftly written that I found it particularly gripping. I had first read Susanna Fraser when I was fascinated with a historical author comfortable with tackling an interracial romance in A Dream Defiant (published by Carina Press). I was extremely impressed with the historical verisimilitude and research she utilized for that hot and emotional historical, so much so that I was eager to try this ARC when Entangled offered the opportunity.

While her latest work, Christmas Past, is also set during the Napoleonic Wars, that event is only a minor backdrop to the bigger, more fascinating story. Sydney Dahlquist is talented enough to be trained as a time-traveling scientist and her Ph.D. thesis requires her to head to Portugal during the time of the Peninsular War to gather blood samples from soldiers. Successfully masquerading as a British widow living in Lisbon who wants to nurse her countryman under the circumstances, she’s horrified by the realization on Christmas Eve that her time machine is well and truly broken.

Her training has made chillingly clear what she must do. Destroy the machine and its contents (her technology and samples included) and then take the fast-acting poison which will insure she does not disrupt the historical timeline. As she comes to terms with committing suicide, she looks at her family pictures on her iPad one last time… and hears a gasp – coming face to face with the handsome rifleman, Captain Miles Griffin who has flirted with her while she has been tending the sick. She knew she interacted more with him than she should have, but she’s flabbergasted when he not only believes her story but is adamant about convincing her to reject her Protocol.

Miles does believe Sydney – a portrait that changes and looks like actual people as well as the changed accent and mannerisms of this stunning woman all add up to her story being true. While he escorts her to the German company’s Christmas dinner he attempts to take away a little of her sadness and remind her of what she could have, particularly when she seduces him back in her rooms afterward. But will she listen to him or will her sense of duty – which he understands all too well as an officer – override the pleasure and future he can offer?

Not only did I love the voice in this fresh short which combined science fiction and Regency (and I confess to love time-travel romance), but it had the Fraser trademark of excellent historical research. As with the previous book I read, she focuses more on the average person rather than the proliferation of nobles which seem to populate other novels set in this time period, and I for one find that simultaneously fascinating and welcome. In mere pages, the reader finds herself sympathizing with Sydney’s plight and truly liking both the hero and heroine tremendously – while being torn apart by Sydney’s dilemma. It’s impossible to not imagine what you might do in a similar situation and the solution at the end of the story is a smart twist that brought a smile to my face.

Consider trying a taste of Susanna Fraser if a time-travel romance you can read while roasting your turkey (and my goodness, don’t you deserve a break?) appeals to you. She’s even hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway for a $50 gift card to the reader’s choice of online bookseller so you could find yourself with lots more books to read while chowing down on yummy leftovers!

Many thanks to Entangled Ever After for letting me enjoy such a terrific short prior to its publication and to Susanna Fraser for writing yet another story with her outstanding historical research and wonderful characters. Happy reading!

Stephanie Laurens Gets Closer to the Cynster Ideal and Foreshadows the Family’s Future in The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh

5 Jul

The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh (Cynster Sisters Duo #2; Cynster series #20) by Stephanie Laurens (Avon, June 25, 2013)

It’s no secret that I believe Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series to be one of, if not the best, Regency series on the market, but I’ve also been vocal in my criticism that this talented author does not play to her strengths in recent years. Her latest novel, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, demonstrating old school strengths of Laurens’ writing, while also still (unfortunately) highlighting some of the weaknesses we’ve seen in the last five novels of the series.

Whereas the first seven or eight books in the Cynster saga possessed strong male leads (rakes, every last one of them) meeting women who they MUST possess and marry, later books in the series, including the Cynster Sisters Trilogy and Cynster Sisters Duo, rely heavily on conflict provided by “mysteries” so obvious my cat could pick out the villain in the first 30 pages. Combined with Laurens’ purple prose tendencies in the bedroom (a propensity you would expect to fade with time as the romance readership has become much more comfortable with specific language and fewer euphemisms), you would expect even devoted readers to throw up their hands and just walk away from her.

But we don’t and it’s largely due – at least on my part – to the fact that her period construction is so tight and realistic that I will never worry about incorrect language spoken by characters living in this time period, or that social constructs will be flaunted without reference to the mores that are there to guide the characters, even if they choose to reject them. I am SO tired with historical romances with dialogue (“We need to talk this over” from a medieval warrior) or actions (Regency heroines having sex with no thought or worry about getting pregnant or the loss of their reputation) but Laurens never fails to make her characters attractive to modern readers yet always living fully within her world.

Devil’s Bride (Cynster series #1 – Devil and Honoria’s story) by Stephanie Laurens (Avon, 1998)

This particular book forms a full circle for the Cynster series, as virtually every character mentioned in the first book of the series has found their match. The heroine of this novel is none other than Mary Cynster, the baby sister who toddled through the wet grass saying a secret goodbye to her dead brother Tolly in Devil’s Bride, the first book that launched the series back in 1998. Now she’s a bossy young woman with a heart of gold who finally has possession of the necklace given to her cousins and sisters by Catriona (Scandal’s witchy Scottish wife) in honor of her “Lady”, a pagan goddess figure. The necklace is supposed to tell Mary who is her “hero” by heating up in his presence. But decisive Mary knows exactly who she should marry and she’d be moving things right along that is, if his pesky older brother, Ryder Cavanaugh, Marquess of Raventhorne, would stop interfering.

But Ryder has no intention of doing so. His half-brother is only in his mid-twenties and much too soft a man for the force of nature that is Mary Cynster. That she’s a stunning beauty and the last of the marriageable Cynsters of her generation makes her an incredible prize for any man wishing to ally himself with her powerful family. But Ryder wants her for another reason – he senses her fire and passion would bring much to a marriage but her sense of family, an inheritance any Cynster brings to a union, is exactly what he wishes to create in his damaged group of siblings. The Marquess of Raventhorne wants any children of his to grow up surrounded by unquestionable love and loyalty – in short, he wants what the Cynsters have.

Mary is no fool. Ryder is sensual, handsome and powerful so she appreciates what Ryder is offering even if she does acknowledge he will not be a man she can control. That he is willing to entertain a partnership has her agreeing to consider him as a suitor, but almost before she can put her mind to that puzzle, an incredible attack and her reputation being comprised forces them into marriage. As strong emotions take root between them, threats to both Ryder and Mary mean they might never have the chance to establish the family they both crave.

It’s not going to be as easy for Laurens to get her heroines undressed when she hits the Victorian period. Yikes!

I really thought that this would be the one to break the recent trend of Laurens’ books which have had great characters but highly manufactured and shallow “danger” propelling the plot forward. The first third of the book had me gripping my iPad in happiness – FINALLY here was a hero to fulfill the Cynster tradition of a rake who sets his eyes on a heroine and will not be swayed from winning her. But before he can hie her off to a conservatory for proper ravishment, some jackass “mystery” plot has to butt its fat head in and derail all that energy and sexual tension. Yes, their relationship is fantastic and continues to progress, but not with the same level of energy.

There is still a great deal to love in this book. Mary’s scene right before her wedding of bursting into Ryder’s bedroom (she has no plans on being the only Cynster female to go to her marriage bed a virgin!) is priceless and filled with the sexy humor Laurens does so well. Any fan of the series will love not only the look at all the past couples but the close up view of the all the children of those matches we’ve loved, with definite hints as to their characters. Seeing Devil and Honoria’s two teenage sons and their high-spirited daughter Louisa, as well as their cousins who followed right behind them in age, means that the next books need only be 10 to 15 years in the future to have these young men and women finding love.

I do worry about all those children and the future of the series. Will Laurens, who has said she intends to write their stories, master the Victorian age with the skill she has the Regency period? How can the Cynster passion hold against the much stricter and rigid Victorian mores (we might have to have virgins in their marriage bed)? With the invincibility of the first generation of Cynster men, the horror that was the Crimean War looms large and could create any amount of damage of this generation. Laurens has also been very, very careful to have each match be highly appropriate in terms of class – Lucifer and Phyllida’s match probably pushes the envelope the most since she’s minor landed gentry and he’s first cousin to a Duke. The Victorian age in England had so many aristrocrats marrying daughters with large fortunes and previously unacceptable backgrounds. Will this be impetus for Americans to break into the Cynster family? I think they’d be right at home.

Where the Heart Leads (The Casebook of Barnaby Adair #1 – Barnaby and Penelope’s story) by Stephanie Laurens (Avon, 2008)

Laurens has made clear that she plans on the next books not immediately jumping into the Cynsters of the future, but rather revisiting her character of Barnaby Adair by adding books to The Casebook of Barnaby Adair series. Right now the only book is the one which fully fleshed out his character (although he appears in other Cynster books as someone who helps solve the mystery), Where the Heart Leads. Here amid a backdrop of stolen orphans and Mayfair burglaries, Barnaby finds his perfect match in the unconventional Penelope Ashford, a Cynster connection several times over as her brother and her sister have both married into the family. The two of them with their inquisitive minds, stellar intelligence and aristocratic (as well as common man) connections team to unravel a mystery and save the day and they are a terrific couple.

Whether the new Adair books will bring in new characters or simply be mysteries featuring Barnaby and Penelope, I don’t know. The only thin hope I’m clinging to has to do with the fact that Laurens’ mysteries were in fact much better during these writing years for her, so my fingers are crossed that she recaptures that ability while showing us glimpses of the Cynsters at play. Stephanie Laurens has always shown her comfort level with jumping back and forth in years, so it’s highly possible these books could predate Mary and Ryder’s love story. Either way, even with her shortcomings, I’ve got enough Cynster fangirl in me to see this family through whatever Laurens throws their way. Bring it on, Stephanie!

Best Regency Romance Series EVER – The Cynster Series by Stephanie Laurens

21 Jul

Australian writer Stephanie Laurens

Some of the first books for “grownups” I read were romance novels.  My mother had a select group she enjoyed, collected during the 70s and 80s, kept on a special bookcase that hung over the back of her bedroom door. (I can still remember my very first, which I later hunted down in a used bookstore, Bride of the MacHugh, instilling a love of all things Scottish). Working hard at the beck and call of lawyers and executives as a secretary, her escape took the form of the costume dramas of Masterpiece Theatre and historical romance novels.

Devil’s Bride (#1 Cynster Series – Devil and Honoria’s story)(Avon, March 1998)

I loved these books once initiated – the dresses, the rakes and rogues, the political machinations keeping the lovers apart only to see them overcome all obstacles. Later I realized the ridiculous devices demanded by the industry – the women were more like girls because they were so young and naturally they were all virgins. The language describing the sex was, in retrospect, hilarious with “throbbing manhoods” and other euphemisms that more confused than enlightened – but like any good genre fiction, the basic formula was a good one.

Because all genre fiction is formulaic. Mysteries often have an interesting and complex protagonist, set in a time period or with a specialty, who has helpful sidekicks who assist him/her in ferreting out the “who dun it” effectively.  Historical romance, pardon me, good historical romance owes a lot of its appeal to its crossover tendencies. It’s hopefully well-researched historical fiction, so its references and social history are accurate. Usually there is a mystery or political intrigue to satisfy those tendencies, and there is, without question, two protagonists who we care enough about to want to root them to live happily ever after.

A Rake’s Vow (#2 Cynster Series – Vane and Patience’s story)(Avon, October 1998)

So why are people so stuck up about romance novels? I know men who read literally any Tom Clancy-esque political thriller (slap a hammer and sickle on it, a handsome but capable ex-Marine, and a love interest who admires herself naked in a mirror in the first 100 pages and they are on it) but have nothing but derision toward women who read romance.  Is it the ridiculous covers? The torrid prose on the back of the book jacket? Folks, those are all the publisher’s doing (and rapidly becoming less common, thank heavens) and no more indicator of what’s inside that book than the paper wrapper on your Big Mac means the sandwich inside is from a tree.

In my opinion, the best modern author who epitomizes the skillful historical romance series is Australian writer Stephanie Laurens, author of over 45 books, many of which have taken a turn on the New York Times Bestseller list.  Her best-loved series is the Cynster novels, a grouping of 19 books based on one family, the proud and tightly knit noble Cynsters led by the head of the family, the Duke of St. Ives, known as Devil to his family and friends.

Scandal’s Bride (#3 Cynster series – Scandal and Catriona’s story) (Avon, March 1999) – set in Scotland

Laurens makes no bones about the fact that her attraction to the Regency era comes from the fact that it was a time of social flux, with enough leeway for the behavior of men and women that interesting situations could occur which would not be possible in the later Victorian era.  Men of privilege were bold and demanding masters of their universe and women had not yet been beaten into submission by later Victorian mores that they couldn’t occasionally stand up for themselves, questioning the inevitability of marriage.  Laurens describes her style as,  “It’s very much in the vein of Errol Flynn meets Jane Austen—lots of dashing derring-do grounded by a healthy dose of feminine common sense.” Men and women in this society, especially well-born individuals, were expected to do their duty and get married to someone appropriate, whether or not the people in question actually wanted the union.

A Rogue’s Proposal (#4 Cynster series – Demon and Flick’s story) (Avon, October 1999) – my second favorite of all the books!

It’s this inevitability that her characters fight, both male and female. Laurens is a godsend in that she believes in older characters (the ladies are usually in their mid to late twenties) and isn’t unwilling to have the occasional female protagonist who isn’t a virgin. The women are strong and stubborn in their way, seeing no reason to be coaxed into a loveless marriage of convenience. Her men, as she states in informational interviews in some of the supplemental material for her books, fall “in lust” at first with the woman in question, their possessive instincts to help and protect stirred. The female protagonist, while attracted to the man, has no wish to surrender her independence, making her that much more of a challenge and prize to be won. In the course of trying to win her body, the male gets to know her and she him, with the result being they fall in love.

A Secret Love (#5 Cynster series – Gabriel and Alathea’s story)(Avon, July 2000)

Devil Cynster, Duke of St. Ives, has one brother and four cousins (each with equally as disconcerting nicknames) similar in age and temperament. All six of them served together in France fighting Napoleon where they earned the moniker of “invincible” since they each returned from the bloody battle of Waterloo without a scratch.  Close friends and with similar rakish tendencies towards the ladies, they are known by the ton as the “Bar Cynster.”

The Cynster family motto is “To Have and To Hold” (love that!) and it is interpreted by the author as the Cynsters possessing a passionate love of the land and of family. With so many romance novel heroes being cold and calculating, the humanity and warmth demonstrated by the Cynster family’s love and affection for one another – these men are friends as well as relatives – is one of the reasons this series stands out from the typical historical romance offering. Readers fall in love not just with the two protagonists, but with the whole family, caring deeply about what happens to the characters not just in the book focused on them, but in subsequent books as well.

All About Love (#6 Cynster series – Lucifer and Phyllida’s story) (Avon, February 2001) – this is the end of the Bar Cynsters part of the series although they crop up regularly in the other books

Laurens uses a deft hand interweaving the books and keeping continuity (check out her chronology placing all her books from this and other series, in order by year of event). One of the tried and true formulas of her books is that she establishes the two major protagonists and the reason they are drawn together (a conflict or mystery to be solved with the characters helping one another as they fall in love). About two-thirds through the book, the Cynster calvalry is called in, with previous characters and family members introduced to help solve the problem and offer backup. The object of Cynster affection then sees the love between family members and further knows that this is a family they can trust and be part of, further sealing the deal.

While there certainly is intrigue and occasionally crime to propel the plot, the obstacles to the future of the characters are largely emotional. The woman does not want to give up her independence; the man hesitates to admit to the weakness of “love.” A quality I adore about Laurens’ writing is that she uses her fiery sex scenes to reveal the emotional progress of her characters. She understands how the physical act of love can unlock emotions and reveal the truth of feelings long-buried.

All About Passion (#7 Cynster series – Earl of Chillingworth and Francesca’s story) (Avon, September 2001) – the Cynsters consider Chillingworth and honorary member of the Bar Cynster

It’s not just the main characters which are well-drawn. The minor characters in these novels are incredibly complex and three-dimensional, doing an excellent job furthering the plot and giving depth to the scene. Lady Osbaldstone, the blunt and all-seeing grand dame of the ton, is a recurring character in most of the books who is a personal favorite. The younger siblings of many of the love interests (or young Cynsters) are written so well that they are able to be easily fleshed out in later novels as they reach an age of falling in love, a happenstance which actually seems like great planning and writing to me.

In addition to well-drawn characters, it’s a profound pleasure to read Laurens’ books because of the level of historical accuracy she attains. Laurens admits that this was of necessity initially in her career as her original contract for Regency romances were published by a British firm that insisted on the utmost accuracy (I gather those British readers, surrounded by Regency settings, are real sticklers for historical details).

The Promise in a Kiss (#7.5 Cynster series – Sebastian and Helena’s story) (Avon, November 2002) – while this is labeled #7.5, it is a prequel focusing on the pre-Revolution romance of Devil’s father and mother, so it could easily be considered #0.5

Besides the obvious historical references (this is a great way for someone to be introduced to the controversy surrounding the Corn Laws in early 19th century history), the language (including colloquialisms and idiom) are correct. The horse references and ton etiquette are a fabulous bonus for someone interested in this period. Laurens admits the only area she takes license with in her desire to bump up the introduction of buttons, particularly for male shirts. It’s hard to get your male protagonist out of his clothes fast enough without those darn buttons!

Having seen video interviews with Stephanie Laurens, it was a jolt to discover that’s not her actual name. Theonne Anne De Kretser took her pseudonym from the names of her two daughters, Stephanie and Lauren when she decided to begin writing romance novels. Like other great romance novelists (like Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame), De Kretser comes from a strong scientific background, possessing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Running a laboratory during the day, she found her relaxation and escape in the form of romance novels. When she realized she had read all the regency romances currently in print, she decided she would write one for herself. When she finished, she realized it was good enough that she could approach a publisher, and the rest was history.

On a Wild Night (#8 Cynster series – Amanda and Dexter’s story) (Avon, April 2002)

The first ten books (all the covers in this post with links the amazon page for each one) deal with actual Cynsters, all of whom you meet or hear about in the first 50 pages of the first book.  By the time we get to books 8, 9, and 10 we are learning about characters who were lanky teens in the first book but are coming into their Cynster legacy with abandon in On a Wild Night and On a Wicked Dawn. The twins Amanda and Amelia are balls of fire (I can imagine the emergence of early gray hairs on the heads of their sexy Bar Cynster cousins) and hands down, #10 The Perfect Lover about Simon Cynster and Luke’s sister (and Amelia Cynster’s sister-in-law) Portia is my absolute favorite. I swear I reread this book about every six weeks on my iPad!

On a Wicked Dawn (#9 Cynster series – Amanda’s twin Amelia and Luke’s story) (Avon, April 2002)

Books 11 through 15 are the “in-laws”, the younger brothers of Cynster brides now searching for their own perfect mates.  These include The Ideal Bride (#11 – Honoria’s brother Michael), The Truth About Love (#12 – Patience’s artist brother Gerard is a hunky painter bent on love and solving a mystery), What Price Love? (#13 – Flick’s honorary brother Dillon is now working for the horse industry in Newmarket but there’s another scandal about to break loose), The Taste of Innocence (#14 – Alathea’s brother Charles’ story), and finally Temptation and Surrender (#15 – Phyllida’s brother Jonas’ story). Of these, The Truth About Love with Patience’s brother Gerrard is outstanding, as is Temptation and Surrender (I adore Jonas and we get a lot of Lucifer and Phyllida in it since they are all in the same town). Don’t worry if you need a visual aid to help figure everyone out. Laurens is nice enough to give us a genealogy chart to keep track of all the matches and their children, although it doesn’t include everyone.

The Perfect Lover (#10 Cynster series – Simon and Portia’s story) (Avon, February 2004)

Recently published books 16 through 19 focus on three sisters, Heather (Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue), Eliza (In Pursuit of Miss Eliza Cynster), and Angelica Cynster (The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae). All of these girls were mere babies in the first book of the series, so it’s exciting watching them find their destined mate while dealing with an enemy bent on revenge for a perceived wrong committed years ago by their parents. Since the bulk of all the books happen in Scotland, we get a nice dose of Scandal and Catriona with their bairns.

Here’s where Stephanie Laurens does something a little quirky (hey, whatever – as long as she writes Cynster books, I can put up with quirky). Remember my favorite book, The Perfect Lover and #10 in the series? From a chronological standpoint, it actually occurs AFTER all of the above books. Yes, you read that right, ALL of them. Since I do like sometimes reading the books in the order of year the match occured (it saves a lot of “wait, aren’t those two married already?”), I rely on the chronological order of the books (and these are all her books, not just her Cynster ones – Cynsters crop up and cameo in some of her other series). Obviously you can read them in the order published and be fine, but I thought I’d mention this in case someone got confused in the middle of reading the series.

Where the Heart Leads (#1 The Casebook of Barnaby Adair series – Barnaby and Penelope’s story) (William Morrow, 2008)

The only book that comes after The Perfect Lover is not technically a Cynster book, it’s Where the Heart Leads, an amazing novel and one of my favorites as it focuses on Barnaby Adair, a noble-born son who has actually helped solve mysteries in several of the Cynster books. This determined bachelor ends up falling for Portia’s sister, Penelope. I would encourage anyone to read The Perfect Lover followed by Where the Heart Leads for maximum effect. These two sisters are so intelligent and headstrong it’s a wonder they didn’t kill their brother before he had a chance to marry into the Cynster family.

If there is any criticism to offer regarding Stephanie Laurens, it certainly doesn’t pertain to her writing. Rather, it would be regarding her writer’s platform. With a formidable backlist of titles whose quality easily exceeds 95% of the current Regencies published, her website (which looks like it’s from the 1990s) and lack of social presence (she has a decent Facebook author page, but no Twitter account – she should consider linking the two for effortless tweeting) harm rather than support her sales. She’s too wonderful to hide her light under a bushel!

It’s certainly worth mentioning that the excellent Bastion Club series takes place during much of the Cynster saga, containing a certain amount of cross-over.  Both the Bastion and Cynster series have characters that crossover to Laurens other series, the Black Cobra Quartet, which involves a group of soldiers who have to foil a plan conceived in India but with a final impact in England.

So don’t dismiss historical romance, any more than you would any other genre.  If you decide to try it, pick up a Cynster novel by Stephanie Laurens and see what you think.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

**Take a look also at my review first book in the Cynster Sisters Duo, And Then She Fell, for more information on the literary evolution of the Cynster family.”

Breaking the Regency Romance Mold: A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol

24 May

A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol (January 31, 2012, Avon)

I adore Regency romances because the time period is so fascinating. The early nineteenth century shaped a country in a state of flux, one that was either experiencing the Napoleonic Wars or recovering from them, and the whole nation was poised on the brink of an industrial revolution which would change the world, to say nothing of Great Britain itself. From a writing standpoint, social strictures were still a little looser, a hold-over from the more licentious period of the late 18th century, which has fortunately given authors more wiggle room for creating interesting scenarios that allow romance to flourish in a compressed period of time for our hero/heroine.

But as much as I love Regencies, I’m really picky about the writers I love. Not like – I like plenty of Regency authors – but really love. You know, love, love. The majority of novels in this sub-genre are kind of, well, “meh” for me. It’s writers like Stephanie Laurens and Sarah MacLean that have me forking over full price for both the ebook AND the print version of their books. Most other authors just don’t get my steam engine running on all cylinders even though I still enjoy the immersion into the time period.

Months ago, I saw a contest on Facebook for Avon Books about proving how enthusiastic an Avon reader you were by filling out this long survey. I purchase Avon books constantly and had enormous fun writing the little responses and talking about my favorites. I didn’t hear anything more and totally forgot about it, until I got a package in the mail about 8 weeks ago that held two Avon books. *doing happy dance*

One of them was A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol, a book I was so interested in reading that I had already purchased it in ebook form. With other reading more pressing, it made its way to my back burner, until the other day when I had the need of a marathon bubble bath. iPads and baths don’t go well together, so I perused my paper to-reads and my Avon freebie leapt into my hand.

I was riveted, to the point of shooing my husband away when he wanted to catch up on the latest Mad Men episode (which is usually a solemn occasion in our house). Never have I read a Regency romance which manages to convey the customs of its time period yet paint such an evocative sense of place (in this case, the Ottoman Empire). There isn’t a ton of reliable information about this time period from a Western perspective, but Randol has some lovely historical information that is so seamlessly interwoven through the plot that you just swallow it and say “yum” afterward. I think this is the mark of great historical fiction.

I worry when my female protagonist is described by other reviewers as “empowered” or “non-traditional” simply because my disbelief can only be suspended so much. In a desperate bid for a new slant on the Regency heroine, we get authors making women into pirates or bohemian artists who have slept with a bunch of lovers yet miraculously never gotten pregnant (but they have no fertility problems after marrying the hero). Really, people?

The Topkapi Palace, which actually plays a key part in the conclusion of the book

In the case of A Secret in Her Kiss, our heroine is unique and strong for her time period, but the reader buys it, hook, line and sinker. Strikingly beautiful Mari Sinclair is the daughter of a damaged archeologist father, who has raised her in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, leaving her to her own devices. A talented artist, Mari has become a naturalist painter with has strong personal ties to the local Pasha, but she has been coerced by the British into using her drawing to spy on local fortifications. The reason for this is not her loyalty to the British Empire – she has none for the country that she feels rejected her and her mother – but rather due to her imperative to keep resources near the Greek rebels trying to throw off the yoke of the Ottomans. Mari, you see, is the daughter of a Greek slave, a beautiful and intelligent woman who her father fell for and freed prior to marriage.

Major Bennett Prestwood, son of an Earl, is fresh off the battlefield where over the years he has both won honors and witnessed atrocities all in the name of the King. While admired for his golden good looks and military prowess, Bennett has a total focus on duty – to King, country and family, in that order. When he hears that his sister has returned to her abusive husband, he buys a ticket for England immediately to save her, but his plans are derailed when he receives urgent orders to head to Turkey to guard a female spy for England. Bennett is stuck with the job because his cousin is the British ambassador, offering him unobtrusive cover for his assignment.

Bennett promised to keep his sister Sophia’s secret when she left her husband last time, so he doesn’t feel alerting the rest of the family to the gravity of her situation is within the boundaries of his oath to her. He resolves to finish this assignment as quickly as possible so he can get home and save his sister further abuse. Always a soldier and an excellent spy himself, he rapidly assesses the political landscape in which Mari is at the center. Fascinated by her despite his feelings of urgency, they both experience attraction and the usual misunderstandings as they grow to understand each other’s character. Bennett helps Mari be a better spy, even though he wars with the desire to protect her from everything, and Mari helps Bennett understand that a blind sense of duty which fulfills oaths while ignoring the larger good might not really support the honor that makes up his core sense of self.

While this book would only fall about midrange on the sensuality scale in terms of content, Randol does an excellent job at letting the reader feel the incredible sexual tension and attraction between the couple. Mari, surrounded by Turks, is more than cognizant of the intimacies between men and women and has even read the Kama Sutra (in the original Hindustani). Rather than be offended by Mari’s innate sensuality and knowledge, Bennett accepts it as part of her exotic upbringing. It simply makes him even more attracted to her while she finally gets to see what a reliable and honorable Englishman looks like, and it’s an compelling sight.

Randol is to be applauded for her outstanding writing. It’s hard to believe that a novel with such three-dimensional characters is a debut author’s effort! Bennett, who secretly writes poetry, is a true heart-breaker of a damaged hero and any reader will be moved reading about Mari’s neglected childhood. I feel that the location of the Ottoman Empire is so well drawn that it is another protagonist, moving the plot along and lending depth of understanding to the hero/heroine’s actions.

A Most Naked Solution by Anna Randol (Avon Impulse, June 26, 2012)

I cannot wait for more from this author, and luckily, I won’t have to be patient for too long. Although not yet in the Amazon database despite a June 26th release date, the enovella, A Most Naked Solution, Bennett’s sister Sophia’s story, is in the works (why can’t I order this anywhere?). I’ve already preordered Randol’s next novel, Sins of a Virgin, even though I have no idea what it is about, simply based off Randol’s writing and the kick-ass cover – seriously, who is she giving a supply of chocolate to at Avon to get these amazing covers????

Sins of a Virgin by Anna Randol (Avon Impulse, August 28, 2012)

People looking to get more from Anna Randol can keep up with her on Facebook or on Twitter as well as periodically check her website. I was interested to discover the collaborative blog on which she posts, The Dashing Duchesses, comprised of other historical romance writers and have added this little gem into my Google Reader.

It’s thrilling that in a field of standard Regency romance writers I can find an author who can put a fresh spin on a favorite time period. Anna Randol has shattered the Regency mold with her debut book and the whole genre is a little better for it.

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