Posts Tagged ” English historical romance

Romantic Four-Play as Romance Saturday Returns

As it’s been a while since I’ve done a Romance Saturday post here at Shiny Book Review (SBR), I thought I’d serve up a special treat — four reviews of four different types of romances await the reader. And as Valentine’s Day was yesterday, I thought it might be interesting if I treated this more like a dinner — with an aperitif, an appetizer, an entrée (the main course), and a dessert.

Four romances. No waiting.

Let’s get started.

Our aperitif is by Sherry Thomas and is entitled THE BURNING SKY. It’s a young adult fantasy romance set in late 19th Century England, and features Iolanthe Seabourne, Elemental Mage, and Prince Titus of Elberon, who live in an alternate reality that intersects with England in such a way that magicians frequently cross from magical Elberon into non-magical England without too much distress. Titus is a Prince, but he does not rule as another realm has forced him into vassalage. He’s a teen on the verge of adulthood, doesn’t have any idea who his father was (his mother refused to say before she died years ago in an uprising) and his recently-deceased grandfather was such a bitter old man that Titus could barely stand the sight of him. And Iolanthe is a mage who commands all four Elements — Fire, Air, Earth and Water — even though she doesn’t exactly realize it at the start of the book.

More to the point, Iolanthe is the one foretold to kill the Bane — a man who’s lived more than one lifetime and cannot be permanently killed by a normal man or woman. And because mages who can command four elements are rare, Iolanthe was hidden for years and was not trained to the limit of her ability, either, in order to keep her from the Bane’s sight.

So when Iolanthe finally betrays herself, she’s a sixteen-year-old on the run. Prince Titus is her only ally, but she doesn’t fully trust him . . . more to the point, the only way to hide her is to bring her into 19th Century England, a place she doesn’t truly understand, and ensconce her at an all-male school, the famous Eton College. And to the Prince’s credit, he quickly does this, as Eton is both his prison and his refuge.

Quickly renamed “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe excels at most athletic pursuits, outdoes the boys in Greek and Latin, and in general enjoys herself thoroughly. But her feelings for the Prince cannot be denied . . . will they throw off the Bane, or won’t they? And will she ever be discovered as a female in disguise?

I enjoyed THE BURNING SKY in many ways, as it’s a quick read with a decent-to-better romance as Iolanthe and Prince Titus are fun characters with a nice dynamic between them. Ms. Thomas seemed to be enjoying herself thoroughly here, and her storytelling had wit and life as well as an understated, age-appropriate passion — all good.

However, it’s not a grade-A read. It’s closer to a grade-B read — well-executed, deft, pleasant, and completely forgettable once you’ve turned the pages.

Still, I’d read more of Ms. Thomas’s fantasy, no question.

Our appetizer is an English historical romance,  THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON, also by Ms. Thomas. It stars Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, and the woman who eventually becomes his bride, Louisa Cantwell. She’s a woman of gentle birth but little money, and feels she must marry well . . . this is a tried-but-true plotline, but there are a few interesting touches. Lord Felix is an appealing rake whose polish masks a ferocious intellect, while Louisa’s charm and light conversation mask the fact she’s his intellectual equal. And it’s because they’re both extremely smart that their sexual passion is so strong, a particularly appealing touch.

As usual with the romances of Ms. Thomas, the dialogue is crisp and for the most part well-executed, and the reasoning behind how these two got together makes sense.

However — and this is a big however — I found little life to this romance. Lord Felix was mistreated in childhood by both parents, and his pain is palpable, but I don’t see why Louisa would go for him as there’s nothing inside her that would seemingly respond to his pain. Yet she does so without complaint, partly because she wants his immense fortune (which, to be honest, she never hides from either the reader or Lord Felix), partly because he is her intellectual equal and she doesn’t expect she’ll ever find another man who is.

If you haven’t read any of Ms. Thomas’s work, THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON should divert you for a few hours. But ultimately, it is nowhere near as good as her two best romances — PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS or NOT QUITE A HUSBAND (both reviewed here) — which is why I recommend you read those instead.

Our entrée is by debut novelist Giselle Marks, whose pleasant Regency romance THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER is a nice addition to the genre. It stars Edward Charrington, the seventh Earl of Chalcombe, recently of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and Miss Madelaine Deschamps, the aforementioned fencing master’s daughter.

The novel starts off agreeably with Madelaine rescuing Lord Edward from a vicious streetfight. Three armed assailants had downed Edward due to an old war wound suffered during the fighting in France disallowing him to fight at his usual capacity, and he would no doubt have been killed if not for Madelaine and her man-at-arms Henri fighting them off. As one man was killed and another grievously wounded, Madelaine says to everyone that Edward did the deed — and because he’s an Earl, no one questions him any further.

Of course, Edward feels guilty that he wasn’t able to handle his own affairs. But as he’d been hit hard on the head and suffered a concussion, he truly couldn’t be faulted. He does his best to find Madelaine again, as he wants to reward her . . . and did she really have the face of an angel?

And why are people trying to kill Edward, anyway? He’s just another Lord . . . he doesn’t have immense wealth, doesn’t have any known enemies, and even Napoleon’s men shouldn’t care any longer because Edward is lame and is never going to return to the battlefield.

As the romance progresses, Madelaine finds herself falling for Edward, even though she’s vowed she’ll never marry (for reasons that must be read; I refuse to spoil them). So will he manage to convince her that he’s not like other men, most of whom have been roués at absolute best? Or won’t he?

All I’m going to say further about the plot is this — I enjoyed it, thought there was some life and energy there, and greatly appreciated the touches of wit Ms. Marks sprinkled throughout her novel.

There’s a lot to like in THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER. The fight scenes are well-executed and lively, the dialogue — what there was of it — was well-rendered, I liked both Edward and Madelaine as characters and wanted them to achieve their “happily ever after” ending, and the historicity was excellent.

But there are some weak spots here that puzzled me. For one, much of the plot seemed summarized. There wasn’t nearly enough dialogue in spots to suit me. There was hardly any internal monologue — what the characters are thinking has to be deduced from external events instead. I didn’t see any reason for this, either, because what Ms. Marks did is actually harder to render than giving readers a few quoted thoughts now and again.

Further, because the historicity is so good, Ms. Marks actually went a bit overboard in her use of description. It is a perfectly period Regency romance — I cannot find fault with it on that score — but for modern-day readers, the descriptions alone may be a bit too much to bear.

With a top-notch editor, Ms. Marks’ novel would’ve been a guaranteed hit, at least in this quarter — a solid A. But because Ms. Marks did not have that top-notch editor (whoever edited for her did a workmanlike job and was competent, but didn’t address the faults listed above), this is a B-level debut instead.

Still good. Still interesting. Definitely memorable. I’d gladly read it again.

But it should’ve been even better.

Finally, our dessert course has been prepared by the redoubtable Rosemary Edghill, whose time-travel romance MET BY MOONLIGHT is back in print and available at Amazon as an independent e-book. Diana Crossways is a modern-day Wiccan priestess from Salem who owns a bookshop. It’s a stormy Halloween night (Samhain, by any other name) and she just wants to get to her coven meeting, but a rare book has been dropped off that requires her attention.

As Diana takes charge of it and starts to turn the pages, a bolt of lightning knocks out power to her shop. Something compels her to go out into the storm rather than stay inside in safety, then another bolt of lightning sends her elsewhere . . . to a forest in England directly before the “Glorious Restoration.” (If you’re not up on your English history, we’re in 1647. Thomas Cromwell has taken charge of England.) A coven is there to receive her — dripping wet, shivering with cold — and while Diana does see an enigmatic presence as well (a young man, dark and handsome, but somehow alien), she cannot dwell upon it.

Diana’s taken in by Abigail Fortune, one of the coven members, and is passed off as Abigail’s niece, Anne Mallow, from London. Abigail doesn’t know what Diana is, but as it was Samhain and that’s a holy night to those of the traditional faith (not yet called Wiccans, but the forebears of same), Abigail doesn’t question Diana overmuch, either.

“Anne” finds herself trapped in time without the creature comforts she’s used to, amidst a rigid society made worse by Cromwell’s depredations, and cannot quite catch her bearings. But then she sees the young man again, this time dressed in severe plainness, and is told his name is “Upright-Before-the-Lord.” Of course, this young man’s name is nothing of the sort, but unlike Diana, when this young man was found in the forest, he was taken in by Puritans of a particularly obnoxious vintage.

How can these two lovers be united, considering the times they live in and all that stands against them? How much help can Diana expect from the coven, especially as they must be discreet as this definitely is “the Burning Times?” And will Diana ever manage to get home again?

All of these questions are answered in ways that are satisfying, realistic, and historically honest — a neat trick that very few writers are able to pull off.

MET BY MOONLIGHT is perhaps the best time-travel romance I’ve ever read. It has heart, style, wit, verve, historicity, realism, and emotional honesty — a phenomenal and poignant read, something every romance reader should enjoy if they have any sense or brains about them.

So your final grades are as follows for this day-after-Valentine’s Day Four-Play:





–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday — Fine and Funny, “The Lady Most Willing . . . ” Does Not Disappoint

It’s Saturday, so longtime readers of Shiny Book Review know what that means — what could be a better time for a romance?

Today’s selection is the three-part novel THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . (yes, complete with an ellipsis) by novelists Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway.  The novel starts off with four young women of marriageable age being kidnapped while at a ball by an overeager, drunken Scottish Laird named Taran Ferguson, who wants each of his two heirs — cousins Byron, the Earl of Oakley, and Robert “Robin” Parles, the Comte de Rocheforte — to pick one of these women and marry her.   Unfortunately, Ferguson’s men also carry off the Duke of Bretton by the simple expedient of stealing Bretton’s carriage while the Duke himself happened to be sleeping inside it, which means that there will be competition for at least one of the women once they all get to Taran’s deserted Scottish castle.

The four women who’ve been stolen are two Scottish heiresses, Marilla and Fiona Chisholm, an English heiress, Lady Cecily Tarleton (kidnapped at her own ball, no less), and one young lady without any fortune at all, Catriona Burns.  Marilla and Fiona are half-sisters who each have a sizable dowry, while Cecily and Catriona are only children.  Because each one of these women has either a fortune or very doting father behind her, it is a certainty that Taran’s heirs will only have a very short period of time in which to win their intended brides.

Obviously, the abduction is nothing but an author’s convenience.  Taran is a bumbling idiot, while his men mostly go along with him to shut him up so they can go back home and drowse for a few days by the fire as it is nearly Christmas.  And, of course, there’s a very convenient snowstorm that’s going to cut off the party from everyone else.  Which is why it’s clear from the get-go that this particular novel is a farce — and quite a good one, at that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the first third of THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is about the Duke of Bretton and Catriona Burns.  The Duke is lonely, restless, and really upset about being abducted while inside his own carriage, so he isn’t exactly in the mood for a romance.  Yet Catriona can’t help but charm him; she’s down to earth, friendly, a good sport about everything, and genuinely likes the Duke more and more as she gets to know him.  Catriona believes she’s the type of woman who no one will ever marry as there are younger and prettier women available — or at least women who have much more money than she does, as she has no dowry worth mentioning — which is why she’s able to form a friendship with the Duke nearly immediately.

Besides, the Duke decides very early on that he wants no truck with the sex-crazed Marilla, and needs to make common cause with someone.  Fiona is definitely out — even were she not Marilla’s own half-sister, the Duke would not be inclined to spend time with her because Fiona has a small blemish on her reputation (more on this in a bit).  And while the Duke obviously admires Lady Cecily, if the Duke had been interested in her in the first place, why would the Duke have been asleep in his own carriage while at Cecily’s ball?  So the romance will be with Catriona, whether Catriona knows it or not, and half the fun is figuring out just when Catriona is going to catch on.

The second part of the story is about Fiona and Byron, Earl of Oakley.  Fiona’s reputation took a beating when her then-fiancé fell off a trellis and died while trying to ascend to her bedroom window.  Everyone assumed that Fiona must’ve wanted her fiancé to do this rather remarkably stupid thing (perhaps because no one wants to think ill of the dead), which is why even though nothing whatsoever happened, Fiona is believed to be a “fallen woman.”  Fiona believes she will never marry because of all the stories being told about her, and tries to console herself with the fact that as she’s a woman of means, no one can turn her out into the street.

The reason she takes to Byron is because they both love books and can’t stand to be around Marilla, whose abiding passion mostly seems to be marrying a man with a title — any man will apparently do.  (After the Duke gave Marilla the right-about, Byron as an Earl was the next obvious target.)  And because they’re away from society, some things happen that make it clear to the Earl that Fiona’s reputation has been ruined for no reason whatsoever — so all the Earl has to do is convince Fiona that he really does, indeed, want to marry her.

Again, reading along to figure out just when Fiona’s going to realize that the Earl really does intend to marry her is half the fun.

The third romance — and the third part of the book — is about Lady Cecily’s romance with Robin, a gazetted rake who mostly seems to be known for how many women he’s slept with.  However, Robin’s reputation seems to be a bit overblown; as he says many times, he’s only slept with bored, married women or bored widows, and does not waste his time with innocent maidens like Cecily.  Yet there’s still something about Cecily that intrigues Robin to the point that they have several conversations, which leads them to a further understanding.  This despite the fact that Marilla, once again, tries to horn in on another woman’s happiness as Robin still has a title and she’s all about titles.

So you might be wondering — “Hey, Barb.  There’s four men, and four women.  You’ve told me about everyone save Marilla and Taran.  What’s going on with them?”

Well, in some ways, Marilla’s own story — seen only in fits and starts through the other characters’ eyes — is the most interesting of all.  The only man left to partner Marilla is the fortysomething Taran, whose only claim to fame is his deserted castle and the fact that his men are loyal enough to him that they’re willing to carry off four women on his say-so even when they all obviously find it completely asinine.  And while Taran has a few good points — love of his heirs and loyalty to his men being two — he’s not exactly the man every woman dreams about marrying.

So with the other three, it’s obvious that there’s some mutual regard going on along with sheer lust.  But Marilla seems to be all about lust — or at least, all about titles.  Taran Ferguson is the equivalent of gentry, sure, but she’s not exactly marrying up — in fact, it’s the reverse.

Because most of Marilla’s story is not told, directly or indirectly, it’s not entirely clear why Marilla doesn’t just wait out the snowstorm, pack her bags and go home to her father rather than marrying Taran alongside the other three couples.  While I’m sure that it would look really bad in 19th Century parlance to be abducted and held in a deserted castle for several days, reputation-wise, the fact is that Marilla still has a considerable fortune.  She certainly does not have to marry Taran.

Bottom line?  THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is an excellent comic romance with great laughs, charm, wit, and sensuality to spare despite the fact that two of the three main romances are all but chaste.

Grade: A-minus, mostly because I would’ve liked to see more of Marilla’s story.

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Romance Saturday Special: London’s “Hadley Green” Novels

Previously, I reviewed Julia London’s THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN.  As that novel interested me a great deal — and because I knew it was book two of a trilogy called “The Secrets of Hadley Green” — I decided to hunt up both the prequel, THE YEAR OF LIVING SCANDALOUSLY, and the sequel, THE SEDUCTION OF LADY X.  This review will cover the latter two books.

THE YEAR OF LIVING SCANDALOUSLY starts in 1808 Ireland.  The heroine, fun-loving and frivolous Keira Hannigan, well-born but not part of the nobility, is asked by her friend and cousin, Lily Boudine (the heroine of book two, THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN), to please go to England and take care of the Ashwood estate.  The reason Lily asks this is because she was about to take a trip to Italy, something she’d always wanted to do, yet Lily had just become the Countess of Ashwood in her own right.  This may not sound plausible, but there’s a reason why Lily doesn’t want to go back to Hadley Green (where Ashwood is located, roughly); it seems that when she was younger, she mistakenly sent a good man to his death.  Lily has always felt terrible about this, even though she was only eight years old when this happened, and just isn’t up to returning to the Ashwood estate because of this. 

Keira leaves Ireland, but doesn’t tell her parents where she’s actually going (as she, too, was supposed to be going to Italy along with Lily).  Instead, Keira goes to Ashwood, pretends to be the Countess because she looks like Lily and many things need to get done that require the Countess’s signature, and runs into two people who know full well that she, Keira, isn’t the Countess at all — Declan O’Connor, the Irish Earl of Donnelly, and Tobin Scott, the Danish Lord Eberlin.  But neither of them unmask her for reasons of their own, though Declan urges Keira to admit who she is — a caretaker.  But Keira won’t do it, of course, which is fortunate or we’d have no story.

Keira takes part in several cultural events, including a horse race for charity and a charity ball for the local orphanage, which shows that she’s not a lightweight.  And as she adds depth to her fun-loving exterior, Declan falls inextricably in love with her, which is good because Keira always carried a torch for him.  Yet Declan isn’t the marrying kind, to say the least . . . whatever will Keira do about this?  (Much less about the fact that she’s not the Countess?)  And what will happen once she realizes that she’s pregnant?

All of this is for you to read, but if you enjoy English historical romance, you will enjoy THE YEAR OF LIVING SCANDALOUSLY despite its quirks.

Now onto the third book of the “Secrets of Hadley Green” trilogy, THE SEDUCTION OF LADY X.  This novel is about steward Harrison Tolly, the latest heir to the Ashwood estate as he’s the illegitimate son of the late Earl of Ashwood.  (Lily Beaudine, who married Count Eberlin at the end of book two of the trilogy, has abdicated.)  Yet Harrison is in big trouble, as he’s in love with Lady Olivia Carey — the wife of his employer, the nasty Marquis of Carey — and he refuses to leave Everdon Court, the seat of the Carey family.

Yet that’s not all that’s going on in THE SEDUCTION OF LADY X, as Olivia’s sister, Alexa, is pregnant and won’t say by whom.  Harrison, being a decent sort at heart, has offered to marry Alexa even though he’s in love with Olivia (a well-guarded secret), which for the moment has kept the Marquis from sending Alexa to a convent.  This sets up many complications, some of them seeming insurmountable, until circumstances allow for Harrison to accept the Ashwood domain as his own.  Better yet — spoiler alert! — the Marquis of Carey meets his demise, which allows Harrison to finally court Olivia.  (Or does it?)

THE SEDUCTION OF LADY X is a diverting read about a cruel man, how awfully he treats his wife Olivia, Harrison the loyal steward who loves Olivia and does his best to protect her, and of course the added complication of Alexa and her unborn child.  As it’s a romance, a happy ending is all but assured, yet the trials and tribulations of Olivia, Alexa, and Harrison nearly eclipse that knowledge until about twenty-five pages from the end.

That being said, both books are good ones that held my interest until the very end, and had believable romances despite the unusual set-ups.  I enjoyed all three books of the “Secrets of Hadley Green” trilogy, and will look forward to whatever Julia London publishes next.




“Hadley Green” series — B-plus.

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Lynsay Sands “The Countess” — Funny, Irreverent Historical Romance

Lynsay Sands’ THE COUNTESS is an English historical romance starring Christiana, Countess of Radnor, and two men who both go by the name of Richard Fairgrove, Earl of Radnor.  This screwball comedy is set up by the man Christiana married, “Dicky,” dropping dead one morning despite seeming to be in the peak of health.  As Christiana’s marriage to Dicky was awful, she doesn’t exactly lament his death; instead, she does what she can to cover it up as her sisters, Suzette and Lisa, both need to make their debuts quickly due to her father’s gambling debts.

However, “Dicky” was actually George, the younger of two identical twins.  George took his brother Richard’s place after doing his best to kill Richard in a fire, but Richard didn’t die; instead, the criminals who set the fire sent him off to America.  (This romance is set in what seems to be the early 18th century, which was the American colonial period, but it’s never explicitly stated.)  The mistaken-identity plot is aided by the fact that George put it about that it was George who died instead, which is why Christiana never suspects a substitution has taken place, especially considering she never met the real Richard; she only met George (“Dicky”).

The evening after Dicky — er, George — has died, Christiana goes to a ball in order to get her sisters launched properly in society.  But to her complete surprise, “Dicky” shows up in the guise of the true Earl, Richard, who is back from America and extremely surprised that “he” is married.  Richard, of course, knows nothing about Christiana except that she’s beautiful and after one dance, he’s smitten with her, while Christiana believes that Richard is Dicky, who’s risen from the dead.

Obviously, plot alone is not why anyone would read THE COUNTESS.  Instead, it’s the humor behind it, the clarity of place and setting, and how well the true Richard and Christiana get along in and out of the bedroom.  That humor is often excellent, based as it is by the initial mistaken identity of Richard as “Dicky” and the fact that Christiana hates Dicky with a passion, but falls head over heels for Richard.

There’s also a nifty secondary plot between Suzette, the elder of the remaining sisters, and Daniel, Earl of Woodrow.  Suzette believes Daniel is penniless, and proposes to him on that basis; she, of course, is flat wrong, which adds to the comedic aspects.  (Suzette’s story is more properly told in book two of this trilogy, THE HEIRESS.)  Christiana and the real Richard obviously know this, but as both see the sparks between the couple — and because Daniel is Richard’s best friend — neither of them tell Suzette the truth.

So, how does Richard manage to convince Christiana to trust him, especially as she wasn’t sexually experienced prior to marriage and “Dicky” never truly bedded her despite a year of marriage?  How does Richard learn to trust his instincts, which tell him that Christiana truly is the Countess of his dreams?  And how will these two sanctify a proper marriage, especially considering the world believes they’re already married, while getting George decently buried when the world already thinks George has been laid to rest?  (And for that matter, who really killed George, and why?)  All of these questions will be answered in the way screwball comedies typically do things — in short, by a cursory wave of the hand followed by a detailed explanation at the end — but the explanations were enough to help satisfactorily end this novel.

Overall, THE COUNTESS, while not high art, is extremely funny in spots, especially when it’s being irreverent.  That’s why despite the flimsy nature of the mistaken-identity and substitution plots, I enjoyed this novel thoroughly.  And if you love English historical romance, the funnier, the better, you will, too.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Julia London’s “Eberlin:” Revenge, English-style

Julia London’s THE REVENGE OF COUNT EBERLIN is an English historical romance set in 1808, and is the second novel set in the “Secrets of Hadley Green” series.  The protagonists are the Danish Count Eberlin, born Tobin Scott of Hadley Green (his title was purchased), and Lily Beaudine of Hadley Green, now the Countess of Ashwood in her own right.  Years ago, Lily saw Tobin’s father leaving Ashwood Manor at a very late hour and didn’t understand the context; unfortunately for Tobin (and his father, Joseph Scott), that was the night the Ashwood jewelry went missing.  The elder Scott was quickly accused of theft and hanged even though he was innocent of that crime.  Even though Lily was only eight and Tobin thirteen when this happened, Tobin blames Lily for his father’s untimely death and is bent on revenge.

Lily’s feelings for Tobin are more complicated.  She remembers him as a childhood friend and companion, as Lily’s beloved Aunt Althea used to ask Tobin to watch over Lily due to her close companionship with Tobin’s father.  But since Tobin’s now bent on the complete ruination of the Ashwood estate — and because Tobin has a great deal of money due to being a self-made man (he made his money the old-fashioned way, as a privateer and gun-runner) — Lily feels she has no choice but to make some sort of deal with Tobin.

Of course, Tobin doesn’t want anything from Lily but her body (isn’t this always the way of things?), partly because Lily moves him but mostly because he wants to ruin her for a decent marriage to one of the Ton.  This is why Lily decides on a dangerous course; she will attempt to seduce Tobin (without giving up her virtue, or at least without giving it up too easily and to no purpose) while attempting to clear Joseph Scott’s name, as she figures one or the other things should lower Tobin’s defenses.

There’s a great deal of passion here between Tobin and Lily, so Lily’s stratagem quickly falls apart.  Yet the regret and guilt Lily feels about Tobin’s father (as now that she’s fully adult, she has a much better idea of what was probably going on between Aunt Althea and Joseph Scott that had nothing to do with the Ashwood jewels), much less the guilt Tobin feels later on (as he realizes Lily was only eight; why should he blame her for reporting what she saw under the circumstances?), can’t help but complicate this romance further.

So, do Lily and Tobin find out who carried off the Ashwood jewelry?  Will Tobin succeed in ruining Lily in every possible way?  And what will happen to this pair long-term?  All of these questions, and more, are answered in a thoroughly satisfying way.

As this is a romance, you can expect sparks to fly and the dialogue to sizzle, as it’s part of the genre.  But what’s particularly good about THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN is the strength of the characterization, as both Tobin and Lily could’ve easily become caricatures with less skillful treatment, yet are winningly brought to life by Ms. London.

The only minus here is the fact that Joseph Scott’s fate wasn’t ever in doubt.  From the beginning, I knew he was innocent and that Tobin’s anger over his father’s death was real.  The only real mystery about that is why Aunt Althea didn’t speak up to save Joseph from the gallows, but even there, Althea was married, albeit to a man who had many mistresses during the course of her marriage.  In that day and time, women didn’t admit to taking lovers unless they were independently wealthy widows, so it wasn’t at all surprising why Althea said nothing — and why Joseph, loving Althea, said nothing even though it meant his death. 

This one weakness is enough to keep this novel from getting the grade I’d wished to give, a solid A.  Still, THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN is a fine way to spend a few hours, and I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Grade: A-minus

–reviewed by Barb 

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Haymore’s “Bride”: Unexpected, Welcome Depth and Pathos Make for a Great Romance

 Jennifer Haymore’s CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is an English historical romance set in 1828 of unexpected emotional depth and complexity.   In it, we meet the oldest surviving Donovan sister, Serena, once an identical twin.  Six years ago, she was first wined, dined, and seduced by Lord Jonathan Dane, then cast off when Dane’s father, the Earl of Stratford, refused to let Jonathan marry Serena after Jonathan had compromised her (and himself) at a social function.

On the way home due to her disgrace, and accompanied by her twin sister, Margaret (called “Meg”), a terrible accident caused Meg to be lost at sea.  Because Meg was promised to another man, Captain William (“Will”) Langley, and because Serena’s formidable mother decided to hush up the scandal any way she could, the world was told that Serena had died — not Meg.

The problem was, Jonathan Dane didn’t know that Serena was still alive because he saw the same obituary as everyone else, and he really did have feelings for her — strong ones.  Being adjudged a wicked man for how he’d seduced Serena, then cut her in the street because of parental pressure, he went out and promptly did his best to live down to his reputation.

What the world at large, and Serena in particular, didn’t know is that he’d vowed privately to his father, and his elder brother Gervase as well, that he’d marry Serena — or he’d marry no one at all.  And since he believed Serena was dead, his new vow after he ascended to the Earldom was that he would die without issue as a way to spite his father and brother for refusing to let him marry Serena when he still could.

So the two principals here are stricken with guilt, remorse, and grief; that Serena has been told by her mother that she must be Meg and must marry Will Langley (a very good man in his narrow way), or her sisters will not be able to marry well due to Serena’s past disgrace, just complicates the issue.  Her heart and body still belong to Jonathan, though she wrongly believes he never cared about her; she also believes, wrongly, that Meg was far more innocent than Serena, which is yet another complication that can’t help but cause problems for all concerned. 

Serena believes she must take Meg’s place in every respect, and be more of a moral, virtuous woman (as that’s how she’s always viewed Meg) in order to save her family.  She also feels that as she was at fault for Meg’s death (as Meg wouldn’t have been on that ship with her if Serena hadn’t been sent home), Serena must marry Will and be as good a wife to him as her sister Meg would’ve been, even though she doesn’t love Will (she merely likes him) and never will. 

So how do these two lovers, separated by fate and chance, manage to get together after all?  That’s for you to read — but I can assure you, if you love romance, you’ll find a great deal to enjoy.

The best thing about CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is its unexpected (yet welcome) emotional depth and pathos on the part of both Serena/Meg and Jonathan.  They’ve both grown up in six years, are both still extremely attracted to one another, and when Serena lets herself, she can still communicate with Jonathan quite well.  The fact that Jonathan very quickly figures out Serena isn’t Meg (and is thus alive), but doesn’t tell anyone about it because he doesn’t want to shame Serena further, is believable in this context; that it’s “played straight” by Haymore helps, as this could’ve been a plot deal-breaker with less skillful treatment.

The secondary romance is that of Serena’s next-oldest sister Phoebe, who’s nineteen, and the twenty-one year old Lord Sebastian Harford, who’s more or less “hedge nobility” — that is, he has a title because his grandfather had one, but has no money nor an ancestral estate with which to back it up.  Harford is adjudged his generation’s “great rake” because he gambles and fights (he also seems to know more than his share of loose women, too), while Phoebe is an innocent who scans much as Serena must have six years ago.  Yet this romance does not run into the same troubles, partly because Serena had the experiences she did years ago, and partly because Jonathan, too, decides to help the younger couple rather than hinder them.

This secondary romance is sweet, earnest, and not based on carnality (though there does seem to be a strong undercurrent of passion there, it’s not the primary motivation for these two to be together).  Phoebe and Sebastian can talk with one another; they have long, in-depth conversations and hide nothing, much as real lovers in any time would do.  Phoebe doesn’t care that Sebastian is land-poor and that his prospects aren’t good (though he does have talent as an architect, then, as now, it can be tough to break into that particular field); her family is just as poor as Sebastian’s (might be worse off, in fact, as they’re another of the types that try to hold up appearances to outsiders but live in wretched poverty behind closed doors), and she sees no need for the type of hypocrisy it would take for her to say, “I must marry for money rather than love,” especially as her sister Serena is preparing to do that very thing at the start of this novel.

So the primary plot works, the secondary plot works and is an excellent contrast, the sensuality which Haymore is known for is shown to excellent effect (much better than Haymore’s A SEASON OF SEDUCTION, which I reviewed here) and the true things that drive any good romance to fruition — understanding, mutual respect, friendship, and caring — are also enumerated well.

This is a near-flawless romance, one I enjoyed in all particulars, and I recommend it without reservation.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Sabrina Jeffries’ “A Lady Never Surrenders” — Fun, Realistic Historical Romance

 Sabrina Jeffries’s newest romance novel is  A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS, the fifth and final volume in the “Hellions of Halstead Hall” series.  (The fourth story in the “Hellions” series, HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY, was reviewed here.)  These novels, while not technically “Regencies,” have many of the same elements — including house parties and high fashion — but a great deal more heart than most.

The plot for all five “Hellions” stories is roughly the same: Grandmother Hetty wants all five of the Sharpe children to marry, otherwise she’ll cut them out of her will.  As she’s quite wealthy due to the dint of her own efforts (she and her husband successfully ran a brewery; she’s kept it going since her husband’s passing), this is not an idle threat.  But Hetty made this threat for a good reason — she hates seeing all five Sharpe children believe they’re not worth anything merely because their parents died young, and in scandalous circumstances — which means her heart is in the right place.  All the Sharpe children know this, but they also deeply resent being forced to marry at Hetty’s whim.

It’s because of the Sharpe’s parents deaths being due to “scandalous circumstances” that Jackson Pinter, a Bow Street Runner, has come to know the Sharpes.  Oliver, the eldest Sharpe, has asked him to investigate the circumstances of the death of his parents; it was said at the time that it was a murder-suicide, but Oliver doesn’t believe it and neither do any of his siblings.  The youngest of the lot, Celia, especially doesn’t believe it, and has grown close enough to Jackson to ask his help in evaluating her three most-promising suitors (as she does have the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over her head due to her grandmother’s ultimatum).

But Jackson covets Celia for himself, something Hetty really doesn’t like; she’s afraid that Jackson is a fortune hunter, and almost immediately becomes a strong impediment to Celia and Jackson’s happiness.  Hetty doesn’t seem to realize that there is a very strong, very physical connection between Jackson and Celia, mostly because Celia is a chaste, all-but-untouched maiden of twenty-four at the start of this novel, and partly because Celia and Jackson try to conceal it due to Hetty’s past interference with the other four Sharpe siblings.

As Jackson gets closer and closer to solving the murder mystery (something I won’t reveal), he also gets closer to Celia.  The two have so much passion that it’s surprising that Hetty doesn’t see it; sparks seem to fly off them whenever they’re present in the same room, which other characters (including Hetty’s love interest, an elderly retired General) keep pointing out to Hetty’s annoyance.

Here’s a snippet from page 128 to give you an idea just how hot things are, even at the beginning of Jackson and Celia’s physical relationship:

“Now see here,” (Jackson) said, grabbing (Celia’s) shoulders.  “I didn’t kiss you ‘properly’ today because I was afraid if I did I might not stop.”

That seemed to draw her up short.  “Wh-what?”

Sweet God, he shouldn’t have said that, but he couldn’t let her go on thinking that she was some sort of pariah around men.  “I knew that if I got this close and put my mouth on yours . . . . ”

But now he was this close.  And she was staring up at him with that mix of bewilderment and hurt pride, and he couldn’t help himself.  Not anymore.

That, my friends, is really good writing.  It sets the scene; it explains what’s going on, and it shows more than it tells, which is a really neat trick when it comes to romance writing.  (Or any writing at all.)

But good writing wouldn’t be enough, not without good characters to go along with them.  And in Jackson Pinter, Bow Street Runner and possible future magistrate (think: policeman and future judge) and Celia Sharpe, we have two winning characters who love each other first in spite of their cultural differences, then learn to delight in their differences — which echoes the way a real relationship tends to go if you’re truly in love.  (Not to mention the minor characters, including Jackson’s tart-tongued Aunt Ada — excellently drawn, all.)

From top to bottom, Ms. Jeffries wrote another very good romance; it’s a fun, fast read that’s also realistic and humane.  There’s great romance, a good story, a long-unsolved murder mystery to resolve, and excellent characterization.  Add charm, wit, and sensuality — really, how can anyone who likes English historical romances dislike A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS?  Because this novel has it all, and in spades.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Sabrina Jeffries “How to Woo a Reluctant Lady” is a Fun, Quick Read

Sabrina Jeffries’s English historical romance HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY features heroine Lady Miranda Sharpe, who writes Gothic romance novels for fun and profit.  Miranda’s novels feature a character that’s based off the one man she’s ever loved, Giles Masters, because Giles kissed her and then made rude and cutting comments afterward when Miranda was only nineteen years old.

Miranda’s now twenty-eight, a successful writer, and an embarrassment to her family because she (gasp!  shudders!  horrors!) writes under her own name.   Her grandmother, Hetty, wants Miranda married ASAP, but Miranda would rather be left alone; considering the only man she’s ever loved doesn’t want her, why should she be bothered?  So she hatches what she believes is a clever scheme to get her grandma to back down — Miranda takes out a personal ad in a magazine, and hopes this latest scandal will get her grandma to write her off for good.

Instead, Hetty decides that Giles Masters should be given a chance, and summons him imperiously to talk with Miranda once he, too, shows up at the appointed time and place.  Giles tells Hetty the truth, but not all of it — he kissed Miranda years ago, never forgot her, but wasn’t in position to marry her then.  But now, he’s a successful barrister with a booming career; he can easily support a wife.  So Hetty gives him her blessing, and the engagement commences, with the wedding held in due course.

While all of what Giles said to Hetty was true, it wasn’t the whole truth; this is because Giles has been a secret agent for the British government for many years.  Now that he’s become such a high-profile person (about to be named as a “King’s Counsel,” which is an incredibly prestigious thing), his career as a spy has ended — yet Miranda, all unknowingly, has just the right knowledge to unwittingly expose him.

So will Miranda do this to gain her freedom, once she learns the whole truth?  Or will Miranda decide that this makes Giles even more fascinating than before, especially considering how Giles loves Miranda’s writing, loves her, and wants to be with her?  (Hint, hint: if you picked option #1, you haven’t read too many British historical romance novels.)

While the outcome of this novel was never in doubt, I enjoyed the “spy stuff,” I really liked the authenticity of the historical background, and I appreciated the fully believable plot.  The writing here was crisp and clean, the romance was deft and light, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY.  And if you enjoy historical romances as much as I do, you’ll probably enjoy this a great deal, too.

The only thing that annoyed me, and kept me from giving HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY an A, was some of the nature of Miranda’s personal story; she has some shady relatives, and I just didn’t see the point to them being in this novel at all except to perhaps throw her into a bit of danger and make Giles realize a bit quicker how much he truly loves Miranda.  Even there, that whole plot complication smacked of a deus ex machina and was completely unnecessary.

Grade: B-plus.

— Reviewed by Barb

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