Tag Archives: Historical Romance

The Duke of Snow and Apples by Elizabeth Vail Weaves a Magical Blend of Historical Romance and Fantasy

2 Sep

The Duke of Snow and Apples by Elizabeth Vail (Entangled: Select, August 26, 2014) – The only think I didn’t like about this book was the cover – what is up with her hair?

I honestly did not know what to expect when approaching The Duke of Snow and Apples by debut author Elizabeth Vail. The reviews I had read were overwhelmingly positive on Goodreads, but some readers voiced criticisms over the heroine’s entitled behavior at the start of the novel or the intricate but unexplained fantasy elements of the magic of the noble class.

What novel were these people reading?

This is one of the best fantasy romances I’ve read in years, blending many familiar elements of historical romance (strict social class boundaries, etiquette conventions that cannot be broken without dire repercussions and delicious historical costumes) with seamless layers of magic as part and parcel of this world. Vail pulls off her world building with aplomb, doling out place names, magical social strata and even different time conventions effortlessly, never once info-dumping on the reader or having a character launch into a tedious explanation of history. Thank you!

Charlotte Erlwood is grateful for the chance to not only visit her estranged aunt but to escape the humiliation and betrayal that awaits her at home. Her beautiful older sister became engaged to the man courting Charlotte and the world is obnoxiously cheerful despite how awful Charlotte feels. When her relative sends a ridiculously handsome and serene footman, Charlotte’s wicked side can’t help but bean him with the apple that was supposed to be her snack. His mischievous reaction is the first time her heart lightens in days and the perfect start to her friendship with Freddy, who her aunt assigns to wait upon her during her stay.

Charlotte's shot of an apple to Freddy's head is like the blooming of color in a life he covered with frost. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte’s shot of an apple to Freddy’s head is like the blooming of color in a life he covered with frost. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Frederick is content in his position of footman in this noble house, having honed his serenity and aloofness after a decade of brutal practice. He fled his home and title as a teen after wreaking havoc with his magical gifts which can not only sense but leech emotion. He’s astonished that the lovely and animated Charlotte, whose sadness and bravery he can see emanating from her in a rainbow of color, becomes a stifled and boring miss in the company of others. Determined to help her fulfill her potential, he manipulates circumstances into revealing the vibrant woman he sees during the day. Yet as time goes on, his friendship with her becomes something much more, awakening all the emotions he’s suppressed, her magic bringing his own to the fore. When his past not only smacks him in the face with the arrival of his stepfather, but he witnesses friends and acquaintances beginning to become “gray” (their inner selves leached of emotion), Frederick must decide whether to face his past or leave everyone, including Charlotte, behind once more.

Charlotte melts the ice encasing Frederick's heart and mind, allowing them both to reach their potential as individuals, both emotionally and magically. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte melts the ice encasing Frederick’s heart and mind, allowing them both to reach their potential as individuals, both emotionally and magically. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte easily could be seen as spoiled and entitled, but the fact that Frederick sees her emotions allows him to see past her mannerisms to the true person underneath, a device which fleshes her out immediately as a three-dimensional and empathetic character. Charlotte didn’t love her suitor, it’s the perceived betrayal by her older sister that has her dreadfully hurt and bent on winning a proposal from someone just as good if not better. That she still is capable of seeing Freddy as a man and a person – and indeed from the first her magic mirrors his, allowing her to see his loneliness and pain – demonstrates her good qualities, as does Frederick’s need to bring her out of her shell and gain confidence. The layers of conflict – Frederick’s very serious struggle with his magic, the evil villain (who inspired my only frustration as I yelled at the book, “Think, Frederick, THINK about the magic!”), the sister tension, and naturally how the romance would someone resolve itself – made this a masterwork I’m going to reread just to figure out how Vail managed to pull it off.

The emotional roller-coaster is on tilt-a-whirl in this story, as Frederick’s refusal to return to his title prevents any future with Charlotte, yet they can’t keep away from one another. When his secret is outed the danger increases rather decreases, culminating in a rip-snorting ending that had me turning the pages and refusing to make dinner (thank you, my Chinese takeout was delicious). Vail’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat reminded me a little of Kathryne Kennedy, but devoid of the bogged down detail Kennedy can descend into. Mary Robinette Kowal’s magical Glamourist Histories Regency novels or Patricia C. Wrede’s Cecilia & Kate books are probably close in tone although with less focus on the romance than The Duke of Snow and Apples. The best part is that this deliciously hefty volume is fantasy sized at 351 paged but priced currently at $.99 thanks to Entangled’s intro pricing.

Will there be other books set in this world? I cannot wait to read more of this author and encourage anyone who loves fantasy and romance to pick it up and enjoy the magic created by Elizabeth Vail.

Happy reading!

 

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, Week of February 16, 2014

16 Feb

Upcoming Books and New Releases

rushing amyFor fans of romance novels featuring football heroes, check out Avon’s upcoming release, Rushing Amy by Julie Brannagh which comes out on February 25th and it’s the second book in the author’s Love and Football series. An arrogant ex-NFL star meets a gorgeous florist at her sister’s wedding and is shocked when his patented moves prove he’s got no game with this particular woman. It’s always nice when the heroes have to step up their game, isn’t it? I don’t know if the price is permanent, but as of right now, the Kindle version is only $1.99 with the paperback at the usual release price of around $6, so I’ve taken advantage of the ebook discount.

Lori Wilde is well-known for her small-town Twilight, Texas series and recently the books she’s put out for that series have had some tie-in to a holiday, and since she does a great job bringing the spirit of a holiday into the plot, more power to her! The latest addition is The Valentine’s Day Disaster, book #4.5 in the series, and features an injured NASCAR driver looking to recuperate in his hometown who ends up face-to-face with his high school sweetheart during the town’s Valentine’s Day auction. Out already so go get it!

Lynsay Sands clearly deserves a yearly word count award as she keeps cranking out book after book for her Argeneau series (and vampire fiction fans appreciate all her hard work). The latest addition is the 20th book in the series (woohoo!), and Vampire Most Wanted has a renegade Argeneau hiding out in Southern California and the vampire sent to bring her back to Louisana for questioning. Put February 18th in your calendar or better yet, pre-order it.

With my adoration of all things steampunk/gaslight, I’m really not sure how author Lynn Viehl and her Disenchanted & Co series managed to sneak past me this year. Featuring a female private investigator living in an America which lost the Revolutionary War, this series looks terrific – it even has a love triangle with both an Inspector and a mage vying for the heroine’s affections! With the release of the second book in the series, A Clockwork Wolf, coming out on February 25th and having our heroine petitioned by the noblewoman responsible for ruining her, I’m going to be playing catch up this week and reading these novels.

Elle Kennedy has romance readers everywhere fanning themselves with her Out of Uniform series and the latest addition, As Hot As It Gets, is actually the tenth book in the series and centers on a sexy SEAL who, after watching all his teammates find their true love, discovers a sexy gardner who pushes all his buttons…and has so many obligations she’s not open to dating. Give a SEAL a challenge and expect all the stops to be pulled out.

Vivian Arend‘s most recent Thompson & Sons novel, Baby, Be Mine, will be on the shelves as of February 25th and I’ve had this one pre-ordered since December 15th as the initial buzz was so great. When a heroine has a car accident and loses her memory (and let’s just say that one particular memory of that night is pretty key), she’s more than baffled as to how she can be pregnant, but she’s further confused when a good friend comes back from a work assignment two months later acting like he has rights where she is concerned. What gives? Do yourself a favor and get the fantastic anthology Marked which has not only the first book in this new series but also two other amazing books by Kit Rocha and Lauren Dane while you are waiting for this one.

Contests and Giveaways

Historical romance fans love Elizabeth Hoyt for good reason, so if you enjoy her books or have simply wanted to try them, you may want to take a look at the Goodreads giveaway for the first book in her Legend of the Four Soldiers series, To Taste Temptation. When a self-made man wearing moccasins shows up among the ton with a reputation for fleeing a massacre in North America that many English gentlemen didn’t survive, society is scandalized but one young woman is nothing but fascinated with the forthright, sensual man who made it through the battle her brother did not. When that same gentleman begins to suspect her fiancee of culpability in the battle’s outcome, she must decide whether she can rely on her newly formed trust to tell help her ferret out the truth. Enter before the February 28th deadline for your chance to win.

Entangled Publishing recently released three fantastic military romances under the Brazen imprint – including Staking His Claim by Tessa Bailey, Tawna Fenske’s Marine for Hire and Temporarily Yours by Diane Alberts– and they are still celebrating with a terrific giveaway on the Fiction Vixen website. Prizes include a Kindle Paperwhite, signed copies of the books and 2 $25 Amazon gift cards, so unlock the Rafflecopter interface and get your entries before the February 26th deadline.

Since I’m a fan of Gina Maxwell‘s world of MMA Fighters in her Fighting for Love series, I was thrilled to see that her excellent Entangled ebooks have been picked up by St. Martin’s Press to be published in print. The second excellent book in the series, Rules of Entanglement, will be coming out in paperback on February 25th, and anyone interested in winning a copy should hustle over to the Goodreads giveaway immediately and enter the contest by February 17th (that’s tomorrow!). With this ridiculous cold weather, watching an uptight district attorney let her hair down with an MMA fighter while she plans her best friend’s (and his sister’s) wedding is exactly what the weatherman ordered!

Fun Stuff

Those clever editors at Avon Publishing have come up with a “choose your own adventure” type book, except this time it’s a naughty romantic adventure. A Girl Walks Into a Bar: Your Fantasy, Your Rules is written in the first person and offers periodic decisions (like wearing control top panties, naughty underwear or going commando) with the adventure directing you to the page of your next adventure. It’s tough to say from the Amazon preview as to weather the ebook as direct hyperlinks to the place in the text, but it’s an intriguing direction for romance fiction or erotica to venture. Author Helena S. Paige is purportedly doing more than one, so take a look and see if this could be something you’d like – I can picture it being a great present for a girls’ night out/bachelorette party!

My love for sports romance fiction is no secret, so I was pleased to see several wonderful authors like Cassandra Carr and Kelly Jamieson band together and form the Hockey Romance website to promote their upcoming work to fans. This is a great idea since if you enjoy one hockey romance, you might certainly enjoy another, so cross promoting like-minded authors leads to greater discoverability. I hope they start blogging about their favorite teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs and tricky concepts like icing to help readers appreciate the genre even more!

If you know someone who didn’t have the greatest Valentine’s Day, a terrific gift would be one that allows them to dwell on all their favorite Hollywood stars. As good as chocolate would be Color Me Swoon: The Beefcake Activity Guide for Good Color-Inners As Well As Beginners with it’s representations of Ryan Gosling, George Clooney and Brad Pitt just begging for your set of colored pencils and some “me” time. British artist Mel Eliott has given all of us a chance to reconnect with our inner (ahem) child, so thanks Mel!

The toughest part of choosing a calendar is always debating the cute animals approach versus the hot shirtless guys you’d like to also be looking at. Compromise no more! Hot Guys and Baby Animals 2014 combines two of your favorite things and tells you what day of the week it is. You’re welcome.

Great Deals

Harlequin Blaze’s Uniformly Hot series is one of my favorites and if you enjoy your category romance with a military hero, I suggest you take a look. A great way to dip a toe is to take advantage of the great Uniformly Hot! Volume 1 Bundle, featuring three books from Rhonda Nelson, Tawny Weber and Karen Foley – three writers with serious military chops. Harlequin books are always well priced, but $.99 for over 500 pages of hot heroes and feisty heroines is the ultimate bargain.

I love Kresley Cole‘s paranormal novels (she has an entire section of my Kindle app devoted to her) and her recent contemporary The Professional was amazing, so I’m eager to sample her historical novels. A great way to try one out is to take advantage of the ebook sale on If You Deceive, the third book in her Scottish McCarrick Brothers trilogy. A former Highland nobleman, beaten and scarred years ago for a crime he didn’t commit, finds the opportunity for the ultimate revenge when he realizes the man who caused him all this pain has a gorgeous daughter, one he can seduce with false promises and then cast aside. Naturally his plan goes awry, but can love survive the ultimate deception?

This great deal could have also been in the Upcoming Books section with a release date of March 3rd, but with seven books from seven really wonderful authors, the Lucky 7 Bad Boys Contemporary Romance Boxed Set should be on everyone’s pre-order list, particularly with the price of $.99. Readers ge 2000 pages by Charity Pinerio, Sophia Knightly, Tawny Weber, Nina Bruhns, Susan Hatler, Virna DePaul and Kristin Miller, so I think we end up being the lucky ones!

That’s it for this week. Happy reading!

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: 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: 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)!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, December 21, 2013

22 Dec

Upcoming Books and New Releases

Jacquelyn Frank‘s next book in the Nightwalkers series, Forsaken, will be debuting on January 7th and fans are chomping at the bit. Mercenary Leo Alvarez is dealing with his best friend now embodying an ancient pharaoh and he now needs to protect his friend from supernatural beings more dangerous than he could ever imagine. His unlikely ally is the Night Angel, a stunning creature who sets him aflame while also wielding power like he has never seen.

It’s now less than 10 days until the anthology Turn Up the Heat is published, and readers who snatch up books by Lori Foster, Christie Ridgway, and Victoria Dahl have already pre-ordered (and you should, too). Alpha males, beautiful woman and a love worth winning are a common theme of each hot, contemporary novella and I for one cannot wait. Pre-order it and have a great New Year with this book on your doorstep or delivered to your e-reader.

This past week gaslight fans all breathed a sigh of happiness as Kristen Callihan released the fourth book in her successful Darkest London series with Shadowdance. Mary Chase is happy in her work for the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals and when tasked with bringing down the vicious murderer labeled the Bishop of Charing Cross, she is determined to be successful. Her annoying rival Jack Talent also appears to be on the case and while it would make sense to work together, this lone wolf never does. Mary doesn’t realize that Jack would like to work closer…much closer…with her but the temptation she offers combined with the danger has him worried that if their killer doesn’t hurt her the ghosts from his past may.

Fun Stuff

‘Tis the season for finding awesome gifts for readers, and a truly unique gift can be found at Spineless Classics which offers the entire text of a book in a single poster with a unique design which manages to evoke the story. From children’s classics like the first Harry Potter book, James and the Giant Peach, among others, historical classics, nonfiction works like The Origin of the Species, to the New Testament, there is something for any kind of reader. At just under $70 these unframed posters are an investment but make a truly awesome gift.

I bet you have probably used the phrase “kick-ass” in reference to a strong woman (hopefully yourself!) but did you ever wonder when this phrase became part of our lexicon? The outstanding Romance Novels for Feminists blog has an outstanding analysis of when we started saying this (the late 1970s, a key time period for women) and has some great examples of which heroine it has been applied to in the post, “From Whence the Kick-Ass Heroine?”

Did you know Microsoft is working on a bra that will help read our body cues to alert us if we are going to begin eating emotionally? Prevention Magazine recently announced that the prototype, which measures heart rate, breathing rates, skin temperature and movement, still won’t be able to account for the holidays as a factor (what, they can’t add in a clock?) but should help people be more aware of their habits. So my immediate questions are 1) how to wash it and 2) what are men going to do?

Contests and Giveaways

From the Fresh Fiction blog, the author who actually invented the military romance, Lindsay McKenna, is the focus of a fantastic contest to win her entire Wyoming series, which appears to encompass both her Jackson Hole series as well as her Shadow Warriors series, in addition to others. Enter before Christmas to have a shot of getting most of this legend’s oeuvre.

Another holiday motherload of books contest can be found at The Rock Stars of Romance website which is hosting a contest to win a $100 gift card and a TON of ebooks and paperbacks from terrific authors. Hurry over there to enter, however, as this contest ends tomorrow.

The romance industry’s major publication, RT Book Reviews, is hosting a giveaway for all the books in the Baskerville Affair Trilogy, the series by Emma Jane Holloway which focuses on the niece of Sherlock Holmes and the steampunk world she inhabits as she attempts to live up to her family’s reputation for solving mysteries. The contest ends 12/27/2013, so use the Rafflecopter interface and enter to win!

Under the Covers Book Blog is giving away a copy of Jaci Burton’s Holiday Games, the wonderful holiday novella tied to her Play-by-Play series which stars the members of the incredibly talented Riley family. Enter by Christmas to see if you can win a copy of this terrific addition to the series.

Harlequin is celebrating the holidays by offering a unique bundle of historical romances (from all time periods and settings) as a giveaway and you become eligible to win by simply leaving a comment before December 29th. With authors like Nicola Cornick, Jeannie Lin, and Susan Wiggs, historical romance readers are bound to think that Harlequin headquarters is actually at the North Pole (well, they have to read something to keep warm, right?).

The blog Hesperia Loves Books is a having a wonderful giveaway for paranormal readers who love dragon shifters, offering the three current books in Jamie Rush‘s The Hidden series, but also ARCs for the next two books in the series, and a custom dog tag. Go over today and enter as the contest closes at midnight!

You’ll have to move fast but fans of Jeaniene Frost‘s Night Huntress series have a chance to win an ARC of the final Cat & Bones novel, Up From the Grave, if they send an email to Frost no later than midnight on the 23rd (tomorrow!). Details are up on her website, so get those fingers moving to let this wonderful author know you are interested in a leg up on reading this long-awaited novel.

Tawny Weber is having a great giveaway for her holiday book, Naughty Christmas Nights, and all you have to do is go use the Rafflecopter entry form by Christmas Eve to be considered. About two rival lingerie companies and the man and woman who are fighting for their future, the heat between them begins to mean more than getting the account.

Great Deals

Available for free right now is a collection of nine short stories, each from a different author, and encompassing a variety of romance genres and heat levels. Gratis: Midwinter Tales just came out on December 19th and clearly has a holiday theme, so give yourself a totally free present and see if you can find a new author to enjoy.

Also currently free is the steamy short from Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright, Bayou Noel, about a Louisiana woman who is tired of waiting for the man she’s loved from afar to notice her. After five years, it’s clearly not going to happen, but she couldn’t possibly anticipate what a simple letter informing him that she’s leaving would unleash. This story falls between the eighth and ninth books of this shapeshifter series and as always, it’s as hot and steamy as a Louisiana swamp, so enjoy!

Elisabeth Naughton‘s first Eternal Guardians book, Marked, is currently available for free on Amazon, so snap it up. About a woman marked to die and the 200-year-old descendent of Hercules whose job it is to bring her in order to save his people, this paranormal romance has tortured alpha males and beautiful women who have the power to bring them back from the brink, all set in a political world with its own agenda.

Jennifer Skully (aka Jasmine Haynes) has reissued her book, Sex and the Serial Killer under its new title She’s Gotta Be Mine, and it’s currently free! The first of her Cottonmouth series, fans of zany romance and eccentric characters will definitely want to take a look at this story which features a divorced woman who bounces back from her husband leaving her for his high school sweetheart by undergoing a massive makeover. Not content with simply changing her appearance, she also decides to take up with the town’s sexy bad boy who is rumored to be a serial killer. Exactly. Go get it, now!

Courtney Milan‘s first novel of her The Brothers Sinister series (really a prequel), The Governess Affair, is also free right now on Amazon, and it’s a book that’s gotten kudos from historical romance readers around the world. When a hero who started off as the son of a coal miner and rose to be the right-hand man of a duke and feared throughout the country can’t get rid of a governess, well, love is clearly in the air.

One of my favorite novellas of all time is on sale for only $.99 – Laura Kaye’s Hearts in Darkness! About two people trapped in an elevator who never got a good look at one another but who are drawn together as they talk and um…do other things…it’s truly characteristic of Kaye’s hot, sweet writing style. Similarly, her fascinating stand-alone vampire tale, Forever Freed, is also only $.99, so check them both out so Laura Kaye can make your holiday a little brighter.

Suzanne Brockmann‘s novel, The Unsung Hero, the first book in her Troubleshooters series, is on sale for $.99, a great price for 416 pages of romantic suspense with a Navy SEAL hero. Lt. Tom Paoletti spots a terrorist when at home recovering from a head injury but the powers that be dismiss it as the product of his concussion. He assembles an eclectic team of his friends and experts, including Dr. Kelly Ashton, the girl-next-door who has grown into a compelling and beautiful woman. But all of them may not be enough to take down this bad guy and Tom begins to realize that protecting Kelly might be even more important than taking down this particular tango. Can he manage both?

Lynsay Sands seems to have enough Argeneau novels that one of them is always on sale (lucky for us) and this week’s deal is Immortal Ever After about a woman captured by a psychopath who seems to have fangs and the vampire savior who claims she is his mate. Only $1.99 it’s a great deal for a full-length novel from this excellent paranormal author.

Cherry Adair‘s book Hush from her wonderful Lodestone trilogy is on sale for $1.99 and has two thrill-seeking brothers who experience a kidnapping and a woman who is kidnapped along with them. When Zak and the woman’s escape reveal a new ability for him, he needs to figure out how to use it to find his missing brother. Quite a…um…large machete he’s wielding on the cover, yes?

That’s it for this week. I’ve got a review of a terrific anthology coming up this afternoon, but I hope you have a great Christmas with lots of amazing books as your present.

Happy reading!!

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!

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!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending September 15th

15 Sep

Upcoming Books

Historical romance writer Anna Randol is coming out with the final book in her Sinners Trio, Sins of a Wicked Princess, on October 29th, and the print copy is currently discounted to only $4.79, so fans might want to leap on this while it stands. I love her writing (her Turkish set A Secret in Her Kiss blew my mind with its unique voice and setting) and this book, featuring a jaded spy ready to get out of the game and the feisty princess who may or may not be behind his final assignment looks like a terrific end to a great series.

Steampunk maven Bec McMaster has a new book coming out October 1st, My Lady Quicksilver, and Amazon has also been clever enough to lower the cost of this paperback to $4.79 for the pre-order period. This book, the third in her London Steampunk series, combines the elements that have made these books so popular – hot romance, a unique view of paranormal creatures, and an alternate history of the city that’s completely intriguing. I really need to review this series – you find yourself falling for these characters hard.

Contests and Giveaways

Erotic romance author Cari Quinn can always be counted on to provide a sensual and emotional story. Her Entangled novel, No Flowers Required, came out at the end of August to great reviews and if you haven’t had a chance to buy it yet, you may want to consider entering the Goodreads giveaway for a copy. This novel about a down on her luck florist and the sexy man whose family is about to foreclose on her shop is a page-turner, so enter for your chance to win prior to the September 21st deadline. Her even hotter book, Unveil Me, published by Ellora’s Cave and containing two novellas both set in a sex club, is also up for grabs, and you just might win it if you enter by September 16th.

Erotic romance writers Vivian Arend, Lauren Dane, Alyssa Day, HelenKay Dimon, Kit Rocha and Moira Rogers have banded together to for The Hot Spot Facebook page, a communal page definitely worth watching. To celebrate it’s grand opening, they are having a variety of giveaways, so check out that part of the page for more details.

Don’t you remember my telling you what a phenomenal author Laura Kaye is? Her latest, Hard As It Gets (OMG, the cover!), begins her Hard Ink series as of November 26th, but while you’re glancing at the clock, enter to win a copy before September 17th on the Goodreads giveaway. This story, featuring a former military man turned tattoo parlor owner and the daughter of his military commander who has always been off limits, is bound to have her usual blend of heat, great characters, and an emotional story that wins your heart.

For romance authors and bloggers, please note that the excellent blog Romance in Color is having a giveaway for a $25 Amazon gift card and free advertising space and teaser promotion if you add their badge to your website. You’ll notice I’ve already done that on my sidebar, not only because this is a great giveaway, but because this blog is dedicated to heightening awareness of diversity in romance, and that’s a damn important issue. Anyone whose agreed with my lamenting about the dearth of good Native American romance or who stood up and cheered when Meljean Brook gave her acceptance speech for Riveted, you want to be reading what this talented group of readers is putting out. Even if you are uninterested in the contest, do yourself a favor and add this blog to your RSS feed or sign up for their newsletter.

Falling under the “fabulous contest” category, the announcement from Laura Kaye that several romance authors were banding together to offer an incredible prize to the writer who produces a 1500 word fan fiction piece based on one of their novels. What do you get? A free trip to the 2014 RT Convention in New Orleans! This includes registration, hotel stay and a plane ticket (between a $2000 and $3000 value) and you can use as your inspiration the work of Laura Kaye, Sophie Jordan, Cora Cormack or Jennifer Armentrout, whose website has all the details of the contest. Even the runner up prizes of signed books are wonderful, so try your hand at writing using these authors wonderful books as a base.

Fun Stuff

A lot of romance readers enjoy a fairy tale wedding, but what about if you combined your love of romance novels and weddings into…a dress? Yep, Jennifer Pritchard Bridal Design’s blog is featuring a stunning wedding dress made entirely of pages from romance novels. I wonder which ones they chose to cannibalize? Does it crackle when you walk down the aisle in it? Needless to say, there won’t be candles at this wedding.

Do you ever wonder about the pressures on romance writers to produce multiple books a year? The ever-wonderful Popular Romance project has a video clip starring editor (and professor) Sarah Frantz discussing how authors used to put out a book every couple of years, but now they are considered slackers if they do less than two annually (and that’s not counting short stories and novellas). It’s worth watching, especially the next time you’re busy thinking “where is the next one?” for your favorite series.

Yes, aspiring romance authors, it’s that time of year again – Harlequin’s “So You Think You Can Write” mini-online conference and all-around inspiration is about to begin with the friendly editors at this publishing powerhouse coming online to coach you with each aspect of what it takes to be a Harlequin writer. Considering the amazing number of top-selling writers who got their start at Harlequin (many of whom continue to publish the occasional book with them), it’s bound to be educational and (knowing Harlequin) fun.

For your dose of science this week, the Kinsey Confidential blog is going over the literature surrounding “Why Women Orgasm: Do We Really Know?” Lots of ideas, but no definitive answers. Sadly, most men are in the same place as the scientists.

September is an amazing month for readers, particularly those within commuting distance of Maryland! This coming weekend, September 19th to the 21st, Lora Leigh and 18 other fantastic authors are having a Reader’s Appreciation Weekend (RAW) in Hagerstown, Maryland. For only $100, you can hang out with your favorite authors and pick their brains for the scoop on your favorite characters and series, particularly about their new books coming out this fall. With such fabulous authors as Dana Marie Bell, Stephanie Julian, Darynda Jones (!), Mari Carr, Sylvia Day, and Bianca D’Arc, you are guaranteed a great time.

In a related note, perhaps this time more for authors than even readers, Laura Kaye mentioned the fantastic sessions to be offered at the Baltimore Book Festival, at the Maryland Romance Writers’ stage. Taking place from September 27th to the 29th, this incredible festival (which is so much more than just romance, so bring the family) is located in the Mt. Vernon area of Baltimore where they actually shut down streets and let books take over for the weekend. Take a look at the official website for directions and more information.

Great Deals

Lisa Renee Jones’ first book in her Tall, Dark and Deadly series, Hot Secrets, is marked down to only $.99 on Amazon. Capitalizing on the always dependable romance trope of three brothers who start their own security business, this first book in the series stars Royce Walker going after the prim, beautiful ADA who always fascinated him. That she’s as hot underneath as he’s guessed is a bonus – look out villains who want to hurt her, you’ve met your match!

I know you are still sneaking looking at the People or Us magazine with all the royal baby pictures, but please know you can feed your addiction by taking advantage of Harlequin’s awesome “Royal Baby” three pack of Harlequin Desires books based around a happy royal addition. Packing 463 pages from such writing powerhouses as Caitlin Crews, Maisey Yates, and Sharon Kendrick, this $.99 bargain is a must have.

Winning the “Holy Cow Who Is Their Cover Designer!” award is Harlequin Blaze‘s three pack Uniformly Hot! Volume 1 which has three books in the Uniformly Hot! series (and this series is AWESOME) by Rhonda Nelson, Tawny Weber and Karen Foley, all writers who can be depended on for great characters and serious bedroom heat, particularly when former military heroes are involved. Only $.99 for 502 pages of rippling abs, ladies. The packaging does not lie!

You know what’s better than $.99? Free! Ellora’s Cave erotic historical Western, Five Card Stud (book 1 in the Eclipse Heat series) by Gem Sivad is now available for free for people who like a combination of corsets and guns with their sexy times. A bounty hunter and a lady gambler out for revenge provide serious heat in the wild West in this full-length novel, so take a look – it costs you nothing.

Fans of BDSM literature should pick up Love Letters 1: Obeying Desire at Amazon since that’s also available for free right now. I enjoyed the third volume of this short stories series, each of which is based on different trope or subgenre, and many of the same authors write in this volume as well.

For historical romance readers who want a little free present this week, Delilah Marvelle has a tale of a titled and independent forty year old widow who definitely doesn’t want a man in her life. Lady Cecilia Stone finds her opinion changing when she receives the help of a shadowy Russian gentlemen who offers to help her travel to Russia and stop her eldest son from marrying an actress. Pick up Romancing Lady Stone for free to find out how this intriguing tale plays out!

Whew! There’s a lot going on this week. Happy reading, everyone! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: