Smart Romance Unveiled

I am a huge fan of Courtney Milan’s historical romances, in large part because they are like their author — smart, original and interesting, with a wicked streak.  This third full-length book is a perfect example.

Unveiled has an intriguing premise. Ash Turner, a distant relative of the Duke of Parford, stands to inherit the duchy because there is no closer legitimate heir. But unlike most fictional history (paging Downton Abbey), in this case the heir apparent is the agent of his own good fortune; Ash set in motion the events that caused the duke’s children to be set aside. For that, the duke’s daughter Margaret is unlikely to forgive him.  Margaret’s brothers have petitioned Parliament to set Ash aside as unfit and reinstate them as their father’s heirs, and to help in that effort, Margaret is disguised as her father’s nurse and set to spy on Ash as he comes to see the estate he will inherit.

I don’t always enjoy revenge plots, but that’s usually either because a character gives up on revenge too easily (in light of how determined he or she was) or because in pursuit of the revenge, the character becomes unlikeable. Milan has avoided both of those pitfalls. She believably portrays how much reason these characters have to be enemies — Ash’s desire for vengeance is justified, but of course Margaret is not the one to blame, although she is paying the price by losing her home and her place in society.  It’s a great set-up, and Ash and Margaret’s journey towards acknowledging their feelings for each other and then working together to find a shared future is fascinating.

Ash, in particular, is a wonderful hero. He’s a self-made man; as in some of her previous work, Milan doesn’t confine herself to members of the gentry as her heroes and heroines.  Issues of class, inheritance, and gender equity are familiar and yet new here; fascinating as they are, those issues don’t overwhelm the story. I can’t say a lot more without spoilers, so let me just emphasize how much I enjoyed reading a book that engaged my brain while it touched my heart. WIN.

BELATED TBR Challenge Review: More Than You Wished, by Jo Goodman

Yes, I AM participating in the 2011 TBR Challenge. And it’s still Wednesday in my time zone. Barely.

This year the Challenge is hosted by Wendy, the Super Librarian. I’m glad she took it on, and hopefully I’ll do better posting, reading and responding to reviews when Challenge Day doesn’t fall on the first day of classes at my college.

I did finish my book, though.  And I really enjoyed it. Jo Goodman is the author of some of my favorite romances, most recently Marry Me, and I’m slowly making my way through her backlist. More Than You Wished is the second book about the Hamilton family, plantation owners near Charleston, a few years after the end of the Civil War.  It was originally published in 2001.

The Hamilton family lost ownership of their rice plantation after the war, and the only daughter Bria is determined to get it back.  Her mother married a Northerner wealthy enough to take it over (he renames it Concord); Bria manages it under her stepfather’s ownership, but he physically abuses her mother, verbally abuses Bria, and exploits the black freedmen and -women who work for him. Her father and brothers are dead, except for her brother Rand (hero of the other Hamilton book) who is away searching for lost family treasure.

Lucas Kincaid has his own reasons for being in Charleston and getting hired at Concord, but Bria becomes as important to him as anything or anyone else in his life. Bria is afraid of intimacy; Luke doesn’t challenge that in a conventional macho way, but instead allows her the time and distance she needs to learn to trust him. I love a hero who is secure enough in his masculinity that he doesn’t need to prove it.

The Reconstruction South is a tough place to set a romance; there are social problems after the war that really play against the romance.  Goodman doesn’t shy away from the issues of Yankee profiteering or of Southern reluctance to integrate freed slaves into the culture; the Klan makes an appearance, and there are several former slaves who help illustrate some of the complexities of this place and time.  The black characters have agency and transcend stereotypes (not without commenting on them), and I think Goodman’s treatment of the difficult race issues is as evenhanded and thorough as you can expect in a novel where they are essentially background.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that other readers had more problems with this than I did.

The plot took several twists that I didn’t expect but that were completely believable; this is a marriage of convenience plot (love those!), and there was a nice mix of internal and external elements keeping Bria and Luke from resolving their feelings and their situation.  As always, Goodman’s secondary characters are a rich and interesting community — I don’t want to return here quite as much as I do Reidsville, Colorado, but I was disappointed to find that there were no more books set among these people.  I don’t have More Than You Know in my TBR pile yet, but I will.  WIN

Wot I Read In December

This is the post that closes out 2010. I thought about doing a retrospective post, but it didn’t work. Honestly, 2010 goes down in my annals as “the year my Daddy died,” and looking back is really painful.  So this is it for the year.

December continued my shift into reading more e-books, particularly ARCs. Net Galley has had a big influence, obviously, along with having the iPad to read on.  This month I read 20 books and one novella; seven of those were re-reads, and three others were print books (one loaned, one bought several months ago, one a Christmas gift a year ago). The other 11 were digital books, of which I purchased four, had one as a free download from Tor, and got six as ARCs. I bought more books than that, print and digital, which will show up in 2011 reading, I hope! Otherwise I’m just adding material for the 2012 or 2013 TBR Challenge.   Best of all, I didn’t read a single book this month that I was sorry to have spent my time on, regardless of whether I also spent money on it.  Pretty good, huh?

Historical Romance

This category just keeps topping my list every month.  Love my historicals! I even got my sister reading them, and she didn’t read any romance until quite recently.

What I Did For a Duke, by Julie Anne Long, is an excellent example of something I find myself saying a lot — a good writer can make me like types characters and plot devices that I would normally avoid. In this case, it’s the revenge plot, a traditional staple of the genre that usually makes me crazy.This may be because the characters (usually heroines) who fall for such scams are often of the TSTL variety. But Genevieve is actually very smart, although not about everything, and Long uses this to write a twist on the revenge plot that I really enjoyed. This is a very character-driven novel; the characters don’t have many external obstacles separating them, there’s no big suspense plot, it’s just whether these two can admit and commit to their feelings for each other.  Their difficulty in doing that leads to some scenes that made me laugh and others that made me cry. WIN

Wedding of the Season and Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee Guhrke, are back-to-back releases that I’m very glad I read together.  The first book features a heroine, Beatrix, who is engaged for the second time — her previous engagement ended because her fiancé got the opportunity to join an important archeological expedition to Egypt, and she refused to join him.  Now he is back in England, raising money to continue his work, and of course their feelings for each other are still very strong.  I had some issues with this set-up and this couple, because it seemed to me that their real problem was the lack of honest communication and of the willingness/ability to find middle ground between their opposing views of the future, and I’m not sure either of those was solved by the end of the novel.  But I enjoyed reading the book, and it beautifully set up the sequel, which features Adrian, the duke Beatrix did not marry, and Julia, Beatrix’s scandalous best friend.  That romance took some risks, and both characters were unique and their relationship compelling.  I really felt that Adrian and Julia deserved happiness, and yet they had serious obstacles to overcome to reach it.  Scandal of the Year is unconventional in a number of ways, all of them good for me as a reader.  I also appreciate that these books are set in the early Edwardian period, which is a nice change of pace, giving the women a little more freedom to act while preserving the basic gender inequity necessary the basic conflict of historical romance.  WIN

Marrying the Royal Marine and The Admiral’s Penniless Bride by Carla Kelly: I accepted TAPB for review from NetGalley because I heard such great things about Kelly’s Marrying the Captain in last year’s DABWAHA tournament. MTRM was the only other book of hers readily available in digital format. I bought it and read it first, to get a feel for how Kelly writes, since she’s an established author, although new to me.  I enjoyed both books. MTRM has an epic feel, because the main characters travel together and endure a lot on the journey; Kelly’s writing really drew me into the story, even though the actual word count means that it isn’t as fleshed out as the historical epics I love to read.  Both books have a level of sensuality that I found very interesting; sex is important to the development of the romance, and the sex scenes are written well without any really graphic description or ridiculous/repetitive euphemism.  TAPB was another book where a good author makes me accept a device I normally don’t care for — in this case, a BIG SECRET THAT YOU KNOW IS GOING TO COME OUT AND RUIN EVERYTHING. (Some romance characters need to learn the same lesson I tried to teach my kids: not telling the truth is always worse than the truth itself.) But I was invested enough in the characters and their growing affection for each other (it’s a marriage of convenience book — love those) that it worked for me. Both main characters are older, which I like, and they have real pasts — she lost her husband and son, he is missing a hand, and I found their gradually developing feelings for each other really believable.  Kelly writes really interesting secondary characters as well.  WIN (While it’s no reflection on the author,  the cover for this book is FAIL. It pictures a man holding a woman, and you can clearly see his left hand — that’s right, the one that Charles lost. It’s a hook, and that’s important to the story.)

Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt, is a book I’ve been meaning to read since its release.  In fact, I read the opening chapter several times, but I kept putting the book aside as a little more depressing than what I wanted to read. The heroine operates a foundling home in a very poor part of London, and the hero is trying to solve the murder of a prostitute, so this book goes beyond the usual world of the nobility and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant aspects of life for the poorer classes.  The main characters face real difficulties on a variety of levels, and they have a lot to overcome to earn a future together. I thought all the characters were interesting, and I’m really looking forward to the next book in the Maiden Lane series. WIN (I must add that I love the cover of this book, and I’m disappointed that the publisher has gone with a more traditional romance “clinch” cover for the next one.)

What Angels Fear, by C. S. Harris, is mystery/detective fiction, but it’s in a historical setting and has a definite romance aspect.  I have been meaning to read this book for quite some time (it was a Christmas gift in 2009), and I read it right after Elizabeth Hoyt’s book because the similarities were very interesting to me.  Sebastian St Cyr, the hero, uses his powers of detection and deduction (honed doing espionage) to try to solve a murder in which he is the prime suspect.  To do so, he needs the help of his former lover, an actress named Kat Boleyn. The suspense plot has more focus here than the romance (the opposite of Hoyt’s book), but both are important and the combination is wonderful. I have the next book in the series waiting for me soon.  WIN

“Storming the Castle,” by Eloisa James, is a novella about a secondary character from her book A Kiss At Midnight. Wick is the prince’s illegitimate half-brother, and it seems fitting for him to get a fairy tale of his own. These pieces are James at her lightest, with a definite fairy-tale feel rather than any actual history. This was a fun read. WIN

Contemporary Romance

What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss, has been on my list to read for months. I’m glad I finally got around to it; the story of the librarian and the rock star was just as good as I hoped.  It’s a rather sweet story with a slightly naughty underside, very much like the main character, Rachel. WIN

Ain’t too Proud to Beg, by Susan Donovan, is the first book in a trilogy about disillusioned women in a dog-walking group finding love. I’ve never read anything by this author before, although reviews of the second book in this series caught my attention. It was Robin/Janet’s review of the third book over at Dear Author, and the comments that followed, that made me decide to give this book a try.  While I thought some of the wine country setting was inaccurate, and plausibility got stretched in a few places (as is usual for me in books where millionaires mingle with and fall for members of the middle class), it was a fun read.  I’ll be reading the rest of the series at some point, although not at full price for e-books (this was was discounted, I assume as a promotion for the one released last month). WIN


Soul Hunt, by Margaret Ronald, is the third book in a UF series about Evie Scanlan, known as the Hound. Her paranormal abilities manifest themselves through her sense of smell, and she has used those abilities in ways that bring her to the attention of a range of supernatural beings and practitioners of magic.  This book continues the series strongly, resolving an issue from the second book and developing the ongoing characters and relationships. Ronald uses a good combination of archetypal and original elements in her world building, her characters are flawed and believable, and she uses humor to good effect.  WIN

Four and Twenty Blackbirds, is Cherie Priest’s debut novel from 2005. It is the first of three Southern Gothic novels about Eden Moore, a young woman who sees ghosts and whose family has some mysterious supernatural roots.  Since I like Priest’s steampunk series so much, I finally gave this book a try — it was a free download from Tor books quite a while ago, one of the first e-books I ever got.  I liked it; not all books in this genre work for me, but Priest has a strong voice and Eden is an engaging narrator.  The horror elements made me put it aside a couple of times (I’m a wimp), but in the end it was an enjoyable reading experience. WIN

Night Betrayed is the fourth of Joss Ware’s paranormal romances where changes brought about by a powerful and power-hungry (and now immortal) group called the Elite have created a frightening and challenging post-apocalyptic world.  I have enjoyed this series from the beginning, and this installment brought back some of my favorite characters and introduced a few new ones, as well as progressing the overall plot arc of the series in a way I didn’t see coming. As with the earlier books, there’s a central romance, some ongoing relationships that will doubtless be featured in later books, and plenty of action.  WIN

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, were some of my favorite books growing up — along with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, I read them over and over, and they shaped me into a fantasy reader even before Dad decided I was ready for The Once and Future King and The Lord of the Rings. I also read them to and with my kids, shaping their taste in turn.  My sons, my daughter-in-law, my partner and I saw the film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader over the holidays, which prompted me to pick up the book for a couple of points of comparison.  This led, in turn, to a marathon re-read of the whole series, which was a fitting dose of nostalgia on which to end the year.