I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for this installment. (Just a couple days ago I was reading a romance novel where the heroine’s breath was said to be bated, in quite a different context. Or maybe not so different. I don’t know your life!) I realized that I neglected to do content warnings for the previous May-October installments, but so many of the books were read so long ago, I couldn’t remember warn-worthy content if I tried. For this installment, I’ll just tell you that each of these books has sexual content of some kind, except for the Georgette Heyer, but I couldn’t tell you how graphic the sexual content gets because a) I don’t remember and b) half the time I skim that stuff anyway, so maybe I never knew. At any rate, on with the book club!

Romance

Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
A young widow and her even-younger sisters-in-law are at the mercy of the new earl, who wants these ladies married off ASAP so he can start selling his newly-acquired properties in order to pay off the bankrupted estate. He didn’t ask his cousin to die in a freak accident and leave him with all the debts. He certainly didn’t sign up to take care of three penniless females. (Four, technically, as there’s an aunt in there somewhere, but that’s beside the point.) It’s not his fault they’re penniless (and female)! It’s not like he’s got any money either (at least not enough to support four dependents)! SPOILER ALERT: He turns out not to be so cold-hearted after all.

Kleypas is one of my favorite romance writers, and I did like this book, but I had a couple of quibbles.  First, despite how engaging the writing is (as Kleypas’s writing almost always is), I found the hero’s change of heart (which happens early on) rather precipitous. Of course, it is a romance novel, and the heroine, while something of a PITA, is very attractive and Has Spirit, and one can never underestimate the effects of such a combination on a red-blooded 19th century Englishman. (I suppose technically he is a blue-blooded 19th century Englishman, but in any case, I decided to just go with it.) Second, am I really supposed to believe that the hero, blood color aside, would really take the heroine in a passionate embrace after just coming from a train wreck where he broke a few ribs and is also suffering from hypothermia? I suppose I am, and I suppose I do–but it was not a seamless process of disbelief-suspension. At any rate, this book, while genuinely diverting, seemed mostly like an elaborate set-up for the continuing series–but at that it excels thoroughly. In fact, it took all of my willpower, upon finishing our story at 11 pm, not to immediately purchase and begin reading Marrying Winterbourne. I hesitated only to savor the experience of being so expertly manipulated. Well played, Lisa Kleypas. Well played. 3.5/5 stars

Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare
Clio has been engaged to the Marquess of Granville for the last eight years, but the marquess has been too busy with his diplomatic work on the continent to come back and marry her. Frustrated (and frankly somewhat humiliated), Clio finally decides to break the engagement, but marriage contracts already being drawn up, it is not so simple to (free free) set them free. She appeals to the marquess’s brother, Rafe, who is serving as the marquess’s agent of affairs. Incidentally, Rafe happens to be a retired champion prize fighter who wants to come out of retirement, but first he has to make sure Clio marries his brother. Why? Because reasons.

Tessa Dare is another of my favorite romance writers, and this book did not fail to entertain. (Dare rarely fails at entertaining.) But I had quibbles here, too. I liked the characters in this book a lot, particularly the heroine. There was much to like in the hero as well–a gently-born pugilist? say no more!–but the dynamic between him and his brother was too much of a mystery for too much of the story. It made it difficult to understand the hero’s motivations. Plus, I felt a little bit cheated on the pugilism front. When there’s a gentleman pugilist at the center of your novel, it seems like having a Big Fight at some point would not be too much to ask. But whatever. It was still a good time, despite being light on the fisticuffs. 4/5 stars

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan
Let me try to explain this conspiracy as succinctly as possible: the countess is a secret geneticist, and she’s been using her BFF Sebastian as her scientific beard, i.e. she does the science and he pretends to be the scientist, since that’s the only way she can get people to take her theories seriously (and not end up a social outcast). The problem is that Sebastian is in love with Violet, and Violet is determined that she Must Not Love. (I don’t remember why not.) Milan is good at putting new twists on old tropes, and this was a pretty good story, but I got a little impatient with the heroine, whose absent-minded professor routine got old fairly quickly. Also, there was a lot going on, what with all the Deep Dark Secret of the present and the Deep Dark Secret of the past and the Family Scandal, plus the OTHER Family Scandal, plus the old familial resentments, plus a major scientific discovery that I’m pretty sure is not historically accurate, but that may be quibbling, all things considered. This book is part of the Brothers Sinister series, and while I have read the other books, it wasn’t recent enough for me to appreciate all the interwoven storylines. 3/5 stars.

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer
I probably don’t need to say this again, but I will: Georgette Heyer is pretty much the best. This is another story about a family who are forced to accept a complete stranger as the new heir to the estate. Major Hugo Darracott is the offspring of some black-sheep uncle or something, and everyone expects him to be a complete rube because he’s not of their class. Of course, he is a lot smarter (and better) than any of these snobs are, with the exception of the delightfully sensible Anthea, with whom he quickly falls in love. He spends the rest of the novel solving the family’s problems–the most pressing of which has to do with smugglers–and winning Anthea’s heart. This book became more and more hilarious as it went on. It’s only a little bit a romance and mostly a comedy, but it was delightful all the same. 5/5 stars

The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean
Lady Sophie has a humiliating experience in London, so she decides to escape by stowing away in the carriage of the Marquess of Eversley, who’s headed for the Scottish border. (She’s a bit impulsive.) When he discovers her, he (naturally) assumes she’s trying to trap him into marriage. But she wouldn’t marry that notorious rake if he were the last man on earth! Harumph! I found this book disappointing by MacLean standards. I give the writing four stars, the plot 2.5 stars (a fair amount of adventure, but everything revolves around people doing stupid things for indiscernible reasons), and the characters 2 stars. The heroine was…fine, but the hero was emotionally immature to the point of embarrassment. I was rather hoping the sexy-and-scientifically-ahead-of-his-time doctor they met in Act II was being set up for his own future story, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. (One can always hope). Also, I know how fond romance writers are of puns, but the title takes punny for pun’s sake to the HNL. It’s not as though the rogue isn’t, in very deed, taken. Taking the rogue is the whole point of this story. Other suggestions: “Rocky Rogue,” “On the Rogue Again,” “Hit the Rogue, Jack,” “Rogue Hog,” “Where the Rubber Meets the Rogue,” “The Rogue to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions.” 2.5/5 stars

Undressed by the Earl by Michelle Willingham
The Earl of Castledon is a very proper, reserved guy, still mourning the death of his late wife and trying to raise his ten-year-old daughter without a mother. Amelia Andrews is a vivacious young lady who thinks the earl is far too stuffy for her but would make a good husband for her prim older sister. But when Amelia is faced with ruin, the earl comes to her rescue by offering marriage. Don’t worry, that’s just the beginning! Despite what the title would suggest, this is actually a very sweet story, marred only by a surfeit of subplots–one of which is an obvious setup for the next book in the series (UbtE is “Secrets in Silk #3”) and therefore forgivable, but the others seemed gratuitous and therefore annoying. The main story, if you can tease it out of the many plot threads, is worth four stars. I enjoyed the characters, and Willingham writes good dialogue. There’s just entirely too much else going on. (None of which has to do with anyone getting undressed, by aristocracy or otherwise.) 3/5 stars

To Charm a Naughty Countess by Theresa Romain
Before anyone gets too excited, you should know that the countess isn’t all that naughty. She is the one giving charm lessons to a socially inept duke (he suffers from social anxiety, but he exhibits some autism spectrum behaviors as well) who needs to find a wealthy wife to save his estate from ruin. As luck would have it, the not-so-naughty countess is herself wealthy, and she is in love with the duke, but unfortunately she believes he is incapable of love and only wants her for her money. (That is unlucky, and the reason this book is a novel and not a short story.) I’ve read Romain in the past, and this was a step above what I’d read before, but the “I love her but she doesn’t love me”/”I love him but he doesn’t love me” got old at times. The characters are nicely drawn, though. 3/5 stars

Only a Kiss by Mary Balogh
I do love a good Mary Balogh story, and this is one. Book #6 in her Survivors series, it stands fine on its own, and it is probably my favorite. Imogen, Lady Barclay, was deeply traumatized when she witnessed her husband’s death in the war, and she lives mostly in seclusion in their Cornwall home. The new owner, who inherited the estate upon the death of Imogen’s father-in-law, finally shows up to check out his properties, and he is immediately attracted to the previous heir’s beautiful widow, but of course she is determined not to love again. She cannot love again because of her Deep Dark Secret, which she refuses to talk about. Can Percival (yes, his name is Percival) break down the walls Imogen has built around her heart? I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll just say that when Balogh gives a character a Deep Dark Secret, she doesn’t mess around, and she is very good at this angst and redemption crap. And at making dudes named Percival seem sexy. 4/5 stars

Undone by the Duke by Michelle Willingham
I enjoyed Undressed by the Earl enough that I decided to give the rest of the series a whirl, if only to make sense of all the plot threads that were woven therein. So UbtD is Secrets in Silk #1, and it’s about an agoraphobic heroine, Victoria Andrews, who secretly designs and sews scandalous lingerie in her Scotland home and sells them to a dress shop in London. (Her family needs the money because her dad inherited a bankrupted estate but has been too busy fighting in the wars on the continent to come home and pay the damn bills himself. Is this information really important? I dunno, but it’s the basis of the whole “Secrets in Silk” gimmick. Get it? Her name is VICTORIA, and she has a SECRET.)

Victoria’s mom decides to take Victoria’s younger sisters to London to find them some rich husbands, but Victoria stays home because that’s how agoraphobia works. Long story short, the Duke of Worthingstone shows up (in disguise) to check out a property he won in a card game, gets shot by someone who thinks he’s the wicked earl who just burned the crofters out of their homes, and he’s forced to convalesce in Victoria’s house, sans chaperone. You can probably tell where this is going. It’s not so simple, though. If they get married, she’ll be a duchess, but she’s agoraphobic. Duchesses can’t be agoraphobic! Naturally, there’s a crapton of subplots setting up the other books, but it’s not a bad beginning. 3/5 stars

Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly
James Trevenen was stranded alone on a deserted island for five years. Now he’s back in England and about to receive an award for the treatise he wrote on a new species of crab that he discovered on said island (well, he had to do something to occupy himself), but he is still haunted by his experiences from that time. Haunted figuratively AND literally–he has a ghost! But this isn’t a supernatural tale. It’s a tale of a broken man who finds love with a charming young widow who has a young son. The book deals with some serious issues, but there is also a fair amount of humor sprinkled throughout. Cannibalism aside, it’s a pretty delightful story. 4/5 stars

When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare
Madeline Gracechurch (what a delightful name, I wish I had a name like that) is a lovely young woman with a gift for drawing, but she also has hardcore social anxiety; being in a roomful of strangers gives her panic attacks. The prospect of a London season has her so terrified that she makes up an imaginary fiance (a soldier she supposedly met while staying with her aunt in Bath or something) so she won’t have to go on the marriage mart. I don’t remember how she convinces her family he’s real, but she writes letters to him and sends them as part of the ruse, and she does this for, I dunno, a few years, until finally the lying is too much of a burden and she has to pretend he’s died in battle and she’s too brokenhearted to ever love again. (Also, at 21 or whatever, much too old to marry.) Yes, it’s an incredibly far-fetched story, but wait ’til you hear the rest: Years later, she’s inherited a castle in Scotland, where she lives happily and supports herself as a freelance illustrator, BUT wouldn’t you know it, that imaginary soldier, Captain Logan Mackenzie, turns out to be a real dude. A real dude who got all her letters, and now he’s come to claim his bride AND her inheritance because he and his men were screwed over by the Brits after the war and by golly, this English miss who had the audacity to insert herself into his life only to KILL HIM OFF is going to make good on her government’s broken promises.

Yes, it’s a completely ridiculous premise for a story, but you just have to roll with it because it’s Tessa Dare and it’s hilarious. Plus, the hero wears a kilt and murmurs unpronounceable endearments. Irresistible. 4/5 stars

Marrying Winterbourne by Lisa Kleypas
I told you I wanted to read this book as soon as I finished Cold-Hearted Rake. Well, I held out a whole, I dunno, month. I was not disappointed. Lady Helen Ravenel is shy and sheltered. Rhys Winterbourne is a Welsh merchant who has become one of the richest men in England via his successful department store. She needed a wealthy husband; he was wealthy and wanted an aristocratic bride to raise his social status. So they’re engaged, but Helen has a Deep Dark Secret, and it involves Rhys’s sworn enemy, so CAN THEY EVER BE TOGETHER? I don’t think this book can be fully appreciated without having read Cold-Hearted Rake first because CHR provides so much backstory for this book’s couple and a fat helping of character development for Rhys in particular. But I would say both were totally worth it, if only for the sake of this book alone. I mean, if you like romantic stories with brash Welshmen who murmur unpronounceable endearments. (No kilts, but you can’t have everything.) 4/5 stars

Unraveled by the Rebel by Michelle Willingham
Secrets in Silk #2. The plotting is off in this one. We find out in the first couple chapters that Paul is the son of a poor crofter who is also the secret heir to a viscountcy. He has sworn revenge against the wicked earl responsible for Paul’s father’s death; he has also sworn he will marry Juliette, a baron’s daughter he has loved for years, even though she swears she will never marry any man. Juliette was raped by the aforementioned wicked earl and had a secret baby who is being raised by her aunt and uncle–all of this, oddly enough, she has been able to keep from her immediate family, who are apparently the most incurious people who ever lived. No matter–Juliette is so traumatized and shamed by her experience that she feels unworthy to be Paul’s wife, even though she loves him.

The next several chapters are just different versions of “I must have my revenge on that wicked earl and also marry Juliette” and “I love Paul but I cannot marry him, I cannot!” and nothing to move the plot forward. Stuff eventually happens, but by then the reader’s patience has worn thin. And by “reader,” I mean me. YMMV. Threads of other stories from the series show up here and there but come off as extraneous and annoying, even if you understand what they’re about. It’s not bad, but it’s like the writer tried to cram in too much backstory and not enough actual story. And I know from having read book 3 that there are HUGE gaps between this book and that one, which is kind of an odd choice for an author who is trying to weave an epic story through multiple books. 2/5 stars

Unlaced by the Outlaw by Michelle Willingham
Secrets in Silk #4: The Final Battle. Prim Margaret Andrews enlists the help of Cain Sinclair, the sinfully dangerous Highlander who has been the go-between for the Andrews sisters’ successful (and secret) lingerie line, in searching for her younger sister, who has been abducted by a wicked viscount (I think–I don’t recall exactly). They get lost in the moors, sans chaperone. What’s the problem here? Aside from Cain Sinclair being of a different, i.e. lower, class than Margaret and having a younger brother who gets in deep trouble involving the same wicked earl from the previous three books? Nothing, really. A rather disappointing conclusion to the Andrews sisters saga. The romantic storyline is more or less resolved 2/3 of the way in, and the business with Cain’s brother feels tacked on, like the book should have ended ages ago. 2/5 stars

Beauty and the Blacksmith by Tessa Dare
This is a novella in the Spindle Cove series, which I adore, but it marks the first time Tessa Dare has disappointed me. Our heroine, Diana Highwood (whom we know from previous SC books), is a gorgeous young lady who has been living in Spindle Cove (nicknamed “Spinster Cove” for reasons you can probably guess at) for the last few years because the sea air is good for her previously life-threatening asthma. (I don’t know if sea air is really good for asthma, but this is the story.) Her mother has been desperate for the last three or four books to marry her off to a wealthy man with a title, but Diana isn’t interested in a society marriage; she’s secretly in love with the local blacksmith, Aaron, who is conveniently secretly in love with her. I almost hate to say it because I love Tessa Dare so much and her writing is so good, but there just isn’t much of a story here. It’s basically, “So Diana ends up with the blacksmith. Oh, and here’s some sex.” For Spindle Cove completists only. 2/5 stars

Fortune Favors the Wicked by Theresa Romain
Remember how I said To Charm a Naughty Countess was the best Romain I’d read so far? That was before I read this book. The Royal Mint is offering a substantial reward for the return of a large cache of stolen gold. Our heroine, Charlotte, is a former courtesan who has left the fast life in London and returned to her family’s home in the country; she needs the reward money to build a new life for herself. Our hero, Benedict, is a former naval officer whose career was ended by an accident that blinded him; he needs the reward money to provide an inheritance for his orphaned sister. So they’re rivals at first, but then they decide to work together, and I bet you can guess what happens next. The problem is that Benedict can’t marry or he’ll lose his measly pension, which he wouldn’t be able to support a wife on anyway. The other problem is that Charlotte’s former lover/”protector” is a raging psycho and he’s after her. Two very substantial problems! This book had great characters and great dialogue, though the ending was just a tad Scooby-Doo for my tastes. (At least it was happy.) 4/5 stars

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And that, my friends, concludes the May-October edition of Mad’s Book Club. Tune in sometime in (hopefully) November to read the Here’s-the-Rest-of-October-I-Hadn’t-Gotten-To-Yet edition. Gentle readers, adieu.

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