And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, wherein I finish reviewing the books I read in 2016 before I start reviewing the books I’ve read so far in 2017.
This installment is devoted exclusively to romances. So sue me.
Do You Want to Start a Scandal? by Tessa Dare
Now that we’ve got that song from Frozen stuck in your mind for the rest of the day, let’s commence with the review. This book is technically part of two series–two of my favorite series, as it happens–Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After. But you don’t have to have read either series to appreciate this book, which features Charlotte Highwood, who was but a child in the Spindle Cove series, and Piers Brandon, Lord Granville, who only showed up for about five minutes in Say Yes to the Marquess (CEA #2). Piers has spent the last several years on the continent in service to the crown–ostensibly as a diplomat, BUT ACTUALLY as a spy. He doesn’t have time for love! Charlotte is a spirited girl with a penchant for getting in trouble, and all she really wants is to keep her nose clean long enough so her BFF’s parents will approve of her accompanying their daughter on a European tour. Unfortunately, Charlotte and Piers find themselves forced into an engagement when everyone at the Parkhurst ball assumes they were the couple who had a scandalous tryst in the library–but they weren’t! (It’s a long story.) So Charlotte has to find out who the real trysting culprits are so she can clear her name and not be forced to marry Lord Granville, who is decidedly sexy but also has major trust issues. (Which I can tell you is true of pretty much every nineteenth-century British peer who secretly works as a spy.)
As a confirmed Tessa Dare fan, I found this book delightful in the usual ways–the characters are likeable, the dialogue is witty, the story is fun, even if the whodunnit-in-the-library mystery is a bit thin. If I had a quibble, it is that at a crucial turning point in the story, the ostensibly-sane hero does something that only a crazy person would do. In fairness, I suppose that if I had spent the last decade living a secret life as a spy, I might have moments of crazy-person behavior in addition to the usual trust issues. So I let it go..THIS TIME. (And now that you have that other song from Frozen stuck in your brain, it’s time for the content warning: there is sex.) 4/5 stars
Luck Is No Lady by Amy Sandas
Isn’t it a shame when a gently-bred young lady is forced to use her mathematical talents to procure a paid position as a bookkeeper in a notorious gambling hell in order to pay off her late father’s debts? And yet it is such a common story. I wish I could remember more about this book. That I gave it three stars on Goodreads indicates a reasonable entertainment value. Yet this is what I wrote there: “I enjoyed this story initially, but something I don’t enjoy in romance is when women put themselves and their loved ones in peril for reasons that only make sense to heroines in romance novels. This is especially annoying when the women are supposed to be smart and sensible. Also, there are subplots that serve to set up the next two books in the series but don’t enhance this particular book at all. I’m not against authors setting up their next book(s), except when the events are extremely dramatic and treated as though they were incidental because they have nothing to do with the main plot of the current book. ‘Oh, so and so was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, but she’s okay now? Phew!’ Come on, people.” Indeed. Come on, people. For that I am retroactively downgrading you a half star. Content warning: I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure there was probably sex. 2.5/5 stars
A Bride in the Bargain by Deanne Gist
I remember this book a lot better. The hero is a logger in 1860s Seattle who has built a prosperous business by taking advantage of a government deal that offered 640 acres of free timberland to a married man. Joe (our lumberjack hero) was a married man, but his wife died before she could join him out west, and now a dastardly judge is threatening to take away his claim unless he can produce another bride. Given that time is of the essence, it seems he has no choice but to buy himself one (as one does–or did, back in the 1860s on the frontier). Unfortunately, Anna, the woman he’s paid for, was brought out west under false pretenses: she was told she’d be someone’s cook, not someone’s wife. It’s hard to imagine that a dude who makes his living selling women would employ such underhanded tactics, but anyway, that’s the sitch. Anna is much obliged to Joe for her passage out west, and she’s happy to work as his cook until his debt is paid off, but she does NOT want to marry him, even if he is a very nice man who also happens to be totally hot (as nice men who have to buy women so often are). So Joe is left with no choice but to make Anna fall in love with him before he runs out of time and loses everything.
Does this story sound silly? It is. It’s also kind of cute. (You know, in a mail-order bride sort of way.) I don’t often go for the American frontier romances, especially those featuring lumberjacks, but I found this one sweet and diverting, even if the heroine was at times kind of annoying. I mean, really, lady: it’s 1860-something, you’ve got no family and no money, and here’s a perfectly nice and wealthy and hot lumberjack ready to marry you. What else do you have going on? Well, it’s a good thing some ladies are stubborn, I guess, or otherwise there would be no romance novels. Content warning: no actual sex that I can recall, just sexual tension and descriptions of lumberjack hotness. Actually, there is a religious theme woven into the plot, but it isn’t heavy-handed or weird. I wouldn’t sort this under “inspirational” romance, but I guess inspiration is there if you like that sort of thing (with a side of hot lumberjack). (Actually, I just like saying “hot lumberjack.”) 3/5 stars
The Escape by Mary Balogh
This is book 3 in the Survivors series, which I have read all out of order, so I don’t think it matters much where you start. This story is about Sir Benedict Harper, who survived the Napoleonic Wars, but his body and spirit are both pretty messed up. (I can’t remember if he’s disabled or disfigured, but suffice it to say, he doesn’t think he has anything to offer to any woman. Oh, these silly, sexy war veterans.) Samantha McKay is a widow at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws; she decides to escape to a seaside cottage she’s inherited, and Sir Ben agrees to accompany her–for her safety, naturally. I’m sure you can see where this is going. I’m generally a fan of Mary Balogh and of the Survivors series particularly, but this one didn’t do much for me. I never got that invested in the characters’ fates. And frankly, I don’t remember much else besides that. Content warning: I’m sure there was sex in there somewhere, but it would have been tasteful, Balogh-style sex. (I wonder how Mary Balogh feels about me naming a style of sex after her.) 2.5/5 stars
Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare
As I said earlier, I’m a huge Tessa Dare fan, though I believe she did not come into her full powers until the Spindle Cove series. This book is pre-Spindle Cove and is #3 in the Stud Club Trilogy. Get your minds out of the gutter! We’re just talking about a group of dudes who like horses. Not in that way! Just breeding them and crap. You know what I mean! Anyway, this series should probably not be read out of order, as there’s a big mystery involving the Stud Club founder’s murder that spans the trilogy. The heroine of this book is Lily Chatwick, aforementioned murdered-founder’s sister. (Are you following this?) The hero is Julian Bellamy, who has loved Lily for years, but he considers himself beneath her because she is a lady and he is but the bastard son of a nobleman. Julian’s always been sort of a scoundrel but he is determined to get justice for Lily’s brother and also to protect Lily and see that she gets a suitable husband of her own class. You can probably see where this is going too. I wrote on Goodreads that the story starts a little slow but gets more interesting toward the middle/end, as the murder is finally solved and justice starts prevailing and crap. Content warning: I also wrote on Goodreads that “the sex scenes are RI.DI.CU.LOUS.” And by “RI.DI.CU.LOUS” I don’t mean that they are ridiculously hot or something; I mean that they are literally ridiculous. If you like to read ridiculous sex scenes, this is the book for you. Not one of Tessa Dare’s better offerings, but not the worst either. 3/5 stars
The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble
Apparently Kate Noble is the author of YouTube sensation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I’ve never watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but if you have and you like(d) it, maybe you would enjoy Noble’s historical romances. This is the first of hers that I’ve read, and I did so because it was on sale for Kindle. The blurb described it as Trading Places meets Pride and Prejudice. This book is the first in a trilogy about three men who became friends while serving in the army during wartime: “Lucky” Ned Ashby, an earl; John Turner, a miller who takes a position as the earl’s secretary after the war is over; Rhys Gray, a doctor. Ned is a happy-go-lucky type who is well liked by everyone; Turner, his secretary, is the moody type, and in a fit of pique he tells Ned that people only like him because he’s the earl, and if he had to be a secretary like Turner, he’d be in a crappy mood all the time too. So on a jaunt to the country to conduct some earl-ish business, they agree to trade places so each can prove the other wrong. Turner’s bet is that Ned-as-secretary won’t be able to get a gently-bred lady to fall in love with him; Ned bets this will be child’s play. I bet you can guess what happens next!
The heroine is a gently-bred lady who was forced to seek work as a governess for the usual financial reasons. I liked a lot of things about this book. The writing was good, the characters were good, but it sort of fell apart for me near the climax. As I said on Goodreads, “I’ve never been a fan of dramatic exits followed by waiting around for two weeks before someone decides they weren’t that mad after all.” Apparently that happened. But I enjoyed it enough that I would certainly read Kate Noble again. Content warning: I guess there is sex, as the blurb describes the book as “sexy,” so take that for what it’s worth. 3/5 stars
Three Weeks to Wed by Ella Quinn
Lady Grace Carpenter has guardianship of her seven younger siblings, which makes her virtually ineligible for marriage, as no sane gentleman would willingly take on such a burden. She figures, however, that if she’s not going to get married, she at least deserves to have one night of (anonymous) romance with the handsome Mattheus, Earl of Worthington. Make that “romance,” nudge nudge wink wink. It’s a long story; suffice it to say, the opportunity presents itself, she takes advantage of it, and then she bolts before Mattheus can propose. The rest of the story is Mattheus a) trying to figure out who this mysterious lady is so he can b) convince her to marry him. On Goodreads I described this book as “Cheaper by the Dozen imagined as a bodice-ripper,” which is not as much fun as it sounds. Grace is one of those ladies who can’t be persuaded to marry a man who can solve all of her problems because she’s convinced he’s only proposing out of a misguided sense of honor. AS IF THAT MATTERS WHEN YOU HAVE SEVEN KIDS TO LOOK AFTER. This is even more annoying than if he had been a lumberjack trying to save her from a lifetime of poverty. And to be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall instantly in love (even if one of them doesn’t believe it’s love, AS IF IT MATTERS). Where the “three weeks” comes into play, I don’t remember, but SPOILER ALERT, they meet the deadline. Content warning: one night of anonymous “romance” leads to more “romance.” 2/5 stars
And that brings us to the end of my 2016 books. Stay tuned for the next installment of Mad’s Book Club, in which I begin on 2017.