Review: ‘Fool Me Twice’ (Rules for the Reckless #2) by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice

I don’t know why I’ve been so bipolar when it comes to Meredith Duran’s books. I absolutely adored her novella Your Wicked Heart. And then I really didn’t like That Scandalous Summer. With Fool Me Twice, I am happily back in the “Love Her” camp. Probably because it has a tortured hero and a redheaded heroine, but moving on. For fans of Ms. Duran, the title makes it obvious that this story is about Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, who spectacularly lost the plot after news of his late wife’s betrayal hit him. Of course, he had to be paired with the mysterious Ms. Olivia ‘Mather’.

Olivia Holladay is the proverbial damsel in distress. A powerful man wants her dead and while she may not know why, she knows who he is (Cabinet Minister Baron Bertram), and how to make him pay for it. Sick of looking over her shoulder, Olivia decides to protect herself. To that end, she gains employment in the Duke of Marwick’s household, hoping to find something that she can use to blackmail the baron. The Duke’s reputation as a political mover and shaker is well-known, but, as only Olivia knows, he also has a good reason to hate Bertram.

While her plan may have been to deceive and steal from the man, Olivia is a punctilious person at heart and she is shocked at the state of disarray she finds in the duke’s house. Marwick hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so bad that a desperate butler hires her as the temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the insolent servants, but the master of the house too.

Alastair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him,  he’ll kill them. As he becomes more rational, it is also obvious that he is a self-involved asshole. Ironically, Marwick’s thwarted pride and legitimate pain combine to make him simultaneously both infuriating and sympathetic. It is dishonest to pretend that mental illness provokes only kindness and understanding in those who deal with its victims, so kudos to Ms. Duran for striking that delicate balance. Besides, butt-headedness makes a character seem more real than pathos does.

The interactions between Marwick and Olivia begin as hostile confrontations and evolve into convoluted negotiations often prefaced by him asking “Didn’t I sack you?”  Their relationship is complicated and subtly hilarious. Olivia’s campaign to roust Marwick consists of serial invasions of his space, each more entertaining than the last. Whether she is rescuing his books, critiquing his grooming, or admiring a nipple, Olivia is a hoot. Marwick’s responses range from rage to incredulity as he resists the change that Olivia impels.

Yet, change is inevitable. I love this trope and the way Ms. Duran employs it here. The give and take between Olivia and Marwick is pivotal to the plot and enables a slow reveal of their checkered pasts. But there is far more going on than lively banter and extended internal monologues. There is a point in the story when the action shifts from private to public in a way that almost draws a line through the middle of the narrative. Here is the point where Marwick evolves into Alastair for me. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily a flaw but it is very strongly defined. Edgy banter gives way to darker themes, and the emphasis shifts from Marwick’s emotional health to his moral choices just as Olivia’s situation is further imperiled. The danger to Olivia is real as is Marwick’s fear of disgrace, and there are a number of twists before the story winds to a close. However, emotional and intellectual sparring take center stage through most of the novel, and the usual quick shedding of clothes and inhibitions is replaced by welcome restraint. The only striptease is of the soul-baring sort that builds the very best kind of tension.

In spite of her cleverness and down-to-earth pragmatism, Olivia is an innocent, and the author conveys the normalcy of this state by making it something Olivia herself is indifferent to. After all, she is fighting for her life. Virginity is just the default position, so to speak, and we only become aware of it when Alastair does. When the Duke recognizes her innocence, it pleases him but it doesn’t really affect her value to him. Virginity is more an incidental attribute than virtue incarnate. Ultimately, it is Olivia’s utter isolation and her ability to maintain her self-respect in the face of real danger that moves and impresses Alastair. Although their attraction is undeniable, it is never separated from their emotions.

He grabbed her wrists and bowed his head to kiss each one, like a vassal paying tribute. She watched him do so and felt, for a dizzying moment, taller than him, a presence larger and grander than her flesh could contain. By his own account, he had seen her, recognized her, as brave, intelligent, resourceful. And he wanted her, against his will. Yes, let him bow his head; let him admit to being conquered.  

When Olivia and Alastair finally have sex, the act is deeply passionate and convincingly unique to them. In a relationship characterized by intermittent bullying and an often brutal frankness, they are honest when it counts the most. Ms. Duran writes a gorgeous sex scene that is beautifully integrated into the story, and then follows it up with some sparkling humour.

She felt a glimmer of mischief.

“You’re not feeling shy, are you?” To her amazement–and, yes, her delight–the color rose in his face.

“Shy, by God–”

“You’re avoiding my eyes,” she said. “You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much-”

He made a choking sound.

“Oh dear.” She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. “Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.”

  And that is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore Fool Me Twice. The preceding story in this series painted Alastair in a very negative light, so it was a bit weird to accept him as a hero in the next book. Olivia, however, runs completely true to form. While I suppose each of the three Meredith Duran novels I’ve read so far more than stands alone, Fool Me Twice is my absolute favourite of the lot.

I would recommend it to avid fans of historical romance who enjoy complicated relationships with a lot of edgy banter, who aren’t nit-picky about the level of historical detail in the story but still expect a sense of authenticity and good writing.

 

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Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.

 

Review: “Your Wicked Heart” (Rules for the Reckless #0.5) by Meredith Duran

Your Wicked Heart

All Amanda Thomas ever wanted in life was to travel. Taking up a secretarial job after the death of her parents, she didn’t expect to find herself stood up at the altar in Greece by a viscount. When she goes to confront him, she encounters a dangerously handsome man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton. While Amanda is still reeling from this shocking development, the man unceremoniously kidnaps her and locks her in a cabin on the next ship back to England.

Spence has been traveling all over Europe looking for his cousin Charles when he hears that a man has been using his name and letters of credit. Following the trail all the way to Greece, he encounters the impossibly pretty Amanda who claims to be affianced to the man who’s stolen his identity and sounds a lot like his missing cousin. Believing her to be a charlatan, he forcibly takes her with him on his search for Charles.

While aboard the ship and sharing a cramped cabin, Amanda realizes that the man she had agreed to marry to flee her cruel employer was an impostor. Spence still thinks of her as a fraud at best and a gold-digger at worst till she honestly tells him that all she intended to offer her husband in return was respect, affection, honesty and support. Ever since the death of his parents while he was young, Spence had grown cynical and world-weary living with his brutish uncles and a slew of wastrel cousins. The story is about how a jaded man falls in love with a steadfast woman who makes him see the world with fresh and hopeful eyes.

Even though the novella consists of a little over a hundred pages, Ms. Duran has done an admirable job of developing the plot, resulting in a well-fleshed out romance. The banter is witty, the character development is realistic and the sex scene was written in such a reverential tone that it became the highlight of the story for me. Despite the era, Spence was a man who believed in the importance of consent when it came to sexual relations, making him a better protagonist than about 90% of all romance heroes. Amanda managed to come across as a mature woman with a realistic outlook on life despite being a straitlaced virgin. And the story contained enough twists to make the HEA not seem inevitable.

I haven’t read many romance novellas but Your Wicked Heart was an outstanding example of the genre.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

Review: “Do You Want to Start A Scandal?” (Castles Ever After #4) (Spindle Cove #5) by Tessa Dare

do-you-want-to-start-a-scandal

Tessa Dare has a special place in my heart. Her book, Romancing The Duke, was the novel that got me back to reading historical romances. Its sequel, Say Yes to the Marquess, gave me one of my favourite couples. And When A Scot Ties the Knot, while not as good as the first two, was an enjoyable read I loved because it was right in the middle of my Outlander phase. Do You Want to Start A Scandal is a crossover between Ms Dare’s Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, bringing together Rafe’s brother, Piers Brandon, and Charlotte, the last unmarried Highwood sister.

andy-confetti

It starts with the best of intentions. Charlotte Highwood has been labeled the “Desperate Debutante” by the tabloids because of her Mrs Bennet-on-PCP mother who literally keeps flinging her at eligible suitors. At a house party to convince her friend Delia Parkhurst’s parents to permit them to go to Europe before they both become well-married, bored-out-of-their-brains ladies of the ton, Charlotte sneaks into the library to “save” Piers by warning him to stay out of her way. However, her plans go up in flames when she and Lord Granville have to hide behind a curtain in a ‘compromising position’ so as to not be discovered by another couple who enter the room to have a tryst on the desk. Outed by their hosts’ ghoulish son to her overeager mother, Charlotte ends up exactly where she didn’t want to be: forced into a betrothal with a man she doesn’t love.

“I can’t agree to a convenient arrangement, my lord. Your devotion to duty may be admirable, but ‘lie back and think of England’ simply isn’t for me.”

His voice became low and dark. “I cannot promise you everything you might wish, but I promise you this: When I take you to bed, you will not be thinking of England.”

Piers Brandon had hoped to keep a low profile at the house party. A well-traveled diplomat (read: spy, obviously), he did not expect to be distracted from his mission by an outspoken chit. Having spent his life controlling his surroundings to forget his family’s troubled past, the last thing he wanted was any emotional entanglement. And that is exactly what Miss Highwood will be. However, Piers cannot seem to stop himself from continually seeking out Charlotte or putting them in situations that could further ruin her reputation. The easiest thing to do would be to find out who started the whole fiasco and make them fess up. But Piers isn’t so sure he can walk away from the golden-haired beauty or imagine a life without her laughter and charming ways.

“What’s your plan…?” she whispered. “Do you mean to kiss me so long and so hard that I’ll forget your identity?”
“No.” His hand slid to the back of her head, tangling in her hair–so tightly she gasped. “I mean to kiss you so long and so hard that you’ll forget yours.”

Since the hero’s a spy, the story has the requisite lock-picking, dangling from windows, mysterious fires being set, poison, and even more mystery solving. Actually, most of that is done by Charlotte, not Piers, which drives him up a wall. Piers may be the worldly one, but Charlotte has so much more emotional maturity. She knows what she wants for her future. She doesn’t want to settle; not for a loveless marriage, even if it is with a man above her station. And as she grows to care for Piers, she wants more for him as well.

She unsettled him; he anchored her. Together, they could be more than they were apart.

Their romance is so lovely and sensual. I loved every single thing about it. It builds slowly and believably while they are embroiled in the search for the couple actually in the library having sex. The more time they spend together the more they want each other. The more they want each other, the deeper they fall in love. Piers is sigh-worthy, Charlotte is so fierce and kind and loving. Together they are sure to have fans of this genre squealing in excitement and swooning from the love overload.

For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story.  I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.

Although the book fits into two different series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.

Review: “When A Scot Ties the Knot” (Castles Ever After #3) by Tessa Dare

When A Scot Ties the Knot

Madeline Gracechurch has absolutely no desire to attend balls or find a husband. She would much rather stay home and spend time with her drawing pencils and letters while keeping her awkwardness around crowds under wraps. So in a moment of desperation, she invents a lovely romance with a charming, dedicated beau. To carry on with her deception, she sends letter after letter year after year to her beloved Captain MacKenzie. She writes to him about her life, her family, her thoughts, and fears. But all good things must come to an end, and after sending one last letter, she informs her family of his tragic death. Then she quietly retires to an inherited estate in the Scottish countryside to live a life of peace and quiet.

Little does she know, but her Captain Logan MacKenzie is a flesh and blood man, and he has received every single letter she’s ever written. Madeline is shocked when the handsome, virile, fictional man of her dreams suddenly shows up on her doorstep one afternoon. He’s not as honourable as she envisioned and is adamant that she owes him. He is also quite willing to use blackmail to get her to marry him so that he can gain the lands he needs to see his men settled and content.

By now, I’m sure my readers are aware that any book by Tessa Dare will get an adoring and mushy review from me. I love this author and every time I open one of her romances I find myself so entranced I just can not locate a place to stop. Which usually leads to all night reading binges where I end up bleary-eyed but content and in love with love the next morning.When a Scot Ties the Knot was no different. Swoon-worthy hero? Check. Intelligent, quirky heroine? Check. Well-developed secondary characters? Check. Sensual, steamy love scenes? Check, check, check.

I loved that there was both a sense of “history” and a getting to know you between this couple. Of course, Logan knows quite a bit about Madeline through her letters, but she has no idea how to reconcile the man before her with the hero of her fantasies. She gives him a hard time, and he gives it right back, although he never disrespects her. But they do slowly learn about each other. He figures out that she is an artist with a scientific mind and is interested in a career as an illustrator. She learns all about the hardships of the war and what led Logan to find her in the first place. He’s a reader with a need for companionship and family. She is shy and has extreme anxiety in crowds. He lends her strength, she gives him a home and together they worked beautifully.

I was sifting through my quotes trying to write this review and realised there were just so many beautiful moments in this romance I couldn’t possibly mention them all. So, this time, I’ll not put in any. But I’ll just talk about the one thing that had my heart all aflutter and left me sighing.  Logan and Madeline communicate with each other by setting up memories about things that they want to happen. While presented in the past tense, they are letting each other know their wants and desires in the present and for me, it was perfect.

My second favourite thing? That in the end, Logan urges Madeline to follow her dreams, even if that means that he must give her up.

I’m not sure that this is my absolute favourite Tessa Dare book, but it’s at the top of the list. A beautiful blend of humour, charm and sexiness that is sure to have fans of this author swooning with happiness.

Review: “Say Yes to the Marquess” (Castles Ever After #2) by Tessa Dare

Say Yes to the Marquess

A couple of things before I write another long and super-gushy review. First, that’s one of the sexiest covers I’ve seen in a Regency romance. Second, I have taken up a boatload of random assignments so I will not have any time to post new reviews for at least a month. I hope you guys are still around when I return. 🙂

In Say Yes to the Marquess, Clio Whitmore thought she got her Happily Ever After at the tender age of 17. Acting upon the wishes of their respective families, she became affianced to the heir of the Granville fortune, Lord Piers Brandon. Eight years later with no wedding in sight, however, Clio’s proposal is beginning to seem less like a dream and more like an interminable nightmare. In the ensuing years, Clio has become an object of public ridicule and dubbed ‘Miss Wait-More’ by her peers, who take delight in making wagers as to when, or more precisely if, her long-awaited nuptials will occur. Determined to salvage her good name and wait no longer, Clio seeks a dissolution of the engagement. There’s only one problem.

While the death of her uncle and the castle that was bequeathed to her provide Clio with the sense of purpose and independence she has always sought, she will need the support of Piers’ younger brother, Rafe, to dissolve the marriage. Known more simply as ‘The Devil’s Own’, Lord Rafe Brandon’s talent in the boxing ring is rivalled only by his sexual prowess in the bedroom. Scheduled for a re-match against his greatest opponent, Jack Dubose, upon which both his reputation and England’s largest purse are at stake, Rafe will need the proper rest, nourishment and focus in order to succeed. What he doesn’t need, however, are distractions and, for Rafe, there is no greater distraction than Miss Clio Whitmore herself. The perfect embodiment of sweetness, decorum, and gentility, Clio represents everything Rafe detests about the polite society he has always eschewed and has fought to dismantle since the age of twenty-one.

As usual, his thoughts were three paces ahead of his judgement. The image erupted in his mind’s eye, as unbidden as it was vivid. Clio, breathless. Naked. Under him. Stripped of all her good manners and inhibitions. Begging him to learn her every secret shade of pink.
Rafe blinked hard. Then he took that mental image and filed it away under Pleasant-Sounding Impossibilities. Right between ‘flying carriage’ and ‘beer fountain’.

So, when Clio arrives and informs Rafe that she intends to break off her engagement to his brother and requires his signature and permission to do so, Rafe is understandably shocked and upset. After all, without the marriage to entice him home, Piers will have no reason to return to England, and Rafe will be left to act as Marquess in his brother’s stead, a prospect he absolutely can’t abide. Rafe vows to salvage Clio and Piers’ relationship, even if it means planning the wedding himself, and will use everything at his disposal to do so, including exquisite displays of flowers, instrumentalists, (mounds of SEXY, SEXY) cake, and even an elderly bulldog, to do so. As their week together draws to a close, however, which two will be the ones saying “I do”?

Barely controlled anger radiated from him. “Not tonight. When I’m around, you don’t wait out dances. You don’t go hungry. And you sure as hell don’t come at the end of any line.

Good heavens. It was a struggle not to swoon all over again.

Here, I would like to slightly digress and say that I am ecstatic at having found a new favourite romance author. A month ago I reviewed Ms. Dare’s first book in the Castles Ever After series, Romancing the Duke, and I instantly became a fan. In Say Yes to the Marquess, I found a rare second book that is so much better than the first, a feat I didn’t think was possible. There’s something to be said for a book that simply makes you feel good. A book that will make you smile until your cheeks ache. A book that will make you laugh aloud unashamedly, even in the most crowded of rooms. A book that you seek out after a long day at work or when curled up in bed, nursing cramps that just won’t go away. No-one – and I mean absolutely n0-one – writes these sort of books better than Tessa Dare. With her now-trademark combination of wit, humour, sensuality and female empowerment, Ms Dare proves that you can, in fact, have your cake and eat it too in this new, irresistible friends-to-lovers romance that readers won’t be able to resist devouring in a single sitting.

He silenced her objection, rubbing his thumb up and down her arm. God, she was soft there. “He will. Make those wedding plans, Clio. Because when he sees you again for the first time it’s going to come as a blow to the ribs, that wanting. He’s going to want to see you in that grand, lacy gown, with little blossoms strewn in your hair. He’s going to want to watch you walk down that aisle, feeling his chest swell closer to bursting from pride with every step you take. And most of all, he’ll want to stand before God, your friends and family, and all of London society – just to tell them you’re his. His and no one else’s.”

As with Romancing the Duke, I was faced with an overwhelming abundance of choice when it came time to choose a few quotes to include in my review. Ms. Dare’s prose positively sparkles and never fails to delight with a bewitching combination of humour and eroticism that is all the author’s own. The dialogue is sharp and clever and moves the pace along at such a fast clip as to almost ensure that you will devour this novel in a single sitting. The secondary characters are equally delightful. From Piers’ portly, aged bulldog, Ellingworth, to Rafe’s enterprising friend and prizefight organizer, ‘Bruno Aberforth Montague Esquire’, aka Bruiser, Dare’s supporting cast are just as charming as ever and threaten to steal every scene they are in, no more so than Clio’s youngest sister, Phoebe. While it’s unclear whether or not the author intended for Phoebe’s behaviour to be indicative of her placement on the autism spectrum, Phoebe’s strict adherence to rationality, her genius, ingenuity and generosity of spirit made her a thoroughly loveable character and one whose own story I would love to delve more deeply into, given the opportunity. One can only hope that Ms. Dare intends to dedicate an entire novel to this character who is sure to steal the hearts and minds of many.

Then there’s my secret weapon.” With a glance in either direction, he pulled out a small brass object from his pocket. “Picked up this little beauty in a pawnbroker’s.
Rafe looked at it. “A quizzing glass. Really.
I’m telling you, these things scream upper crust. You should get one, Rafe. No, I mean it. Someone talks over your head? Quizzing glass. Someone asks a question you can’t answer? Quizzing glass.
“You honestly think a stupid monocle is all you need to blend in with the aristocracy?”
Bruiser raised the quizzing glass and peered at Rafe through the lens. Solemnly.
The idiot might be onto something.

I have this palpable, bittersweet ache knowing I won’t be reading or posting anything for a short while now. I am just thankful I am taking a break after reading a Tessa Dare novel. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the hero and heroine achieve their hard-won happily ever after but it’s immensely difficult to bid goodbye to the enchanting worlds Ms. Dare creates and the pure, unadulterated joy that she infuses into each and every word. With each new book, she reminds me why her novels are among my new favourites in this or any genre. Her effervescent wit, her searing sensuality, and her charming, three-dimensional characters never fail to nestle themselves firmly inside my heart and Say Yes To The Marquess is no exception. An irresistible combination of heart, heat, and hilarity, Ms. Dare’s latest is a solid second instalment in the Castles Ever After series and a must-read for those familiar with or entirely new to this genre and/or this series.

Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “Romancing the Duke” (Castles Ever After #1) by Tessa Dare

Romancing the Duke

[I KNOW THE REVIEW IS TOO LONG. SORRY NOT SORRY. I JUST LOVED THIS BOOK A LOT]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one is reading a historical romance, one must have a heroine to root for, a hero to swoon for, know this story may have a happy ending, and that’s the only predictability you’re going to have. Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke not only meets these expectations but exceeds them.

Let me begin by saying that I really did not plan on reading this book. Most of the books I’ve read in 2016 have been sappy romances and I had no intention of adding another to the list so soon. Except I was making my friend watch Mean Girls via Skype (On a Wednesday, wearing pink :P) and sorting my e-books to check if they were working on my new reader and as I read out the first paragraph as a joke, I had this overwhelming urge to find out what happened next. Moments later, with my movie paused and my friend summarily dismissed, I was hopelessly in love with this book.

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.

Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and…Heh.

Unfortunately, as a now plain, unmarried twenty-six-year-old woman who has never even been kissed, her life seems more akin to a comic tragedy than to the romantic fairytales she once dreamt about as a little girl. Penniless, parentless and now homeless following the sudden and untimely loss of her father to apoplexy (of all things), Izzy scarcely has two shillings to rub together and finds herself in a desperate situation. That is until she receives an unexpected letter informing her that she has been left a bequest by her father’s patron, the late Earl of Lynford. Her inheritance? Gostley Castle in the middle of ‘Nowhere, Northumberland’, once the seat of the Rothbury Dukedom.

When she arrives at her new home, however, where she once expected turrets and ramparts, parapets and parks, Izzy is instead greeted with something far more magnificent and unexpected: The imposing figure of Ransom William Dacre Vane, the eleventh Duke of Rothbury, whose dark beauty stops Izzy dead in her tracks, despite the scar that mars the right side of his face.

There were things in nature that took their beauty from delicate structure and intricate symmetry. Flowers. Seashells. Butterfly wings. And then there were things that were beautiful for their wild power and their refusal to be tamed. Snowcapped mountains. Churning thunderclouds. Shaggy, sharp-toothed lions.
The man silhouetted before her? He belonged, quite solidly, in the latter category.
So did the wolf sitting at his heel.
It couldn’t be a wolf, she told herself. It had to be some sort of dog. Wolves had long been hunted to extinction. The last one in England died ages ago.
But then…she would have thought they’d stopped making men like this, too.

But when Ransom refuses to give up possession of his ancestral home, the two find themselves in an untenable stalemate, neither willing to concede defeat or relinquish a property that means the world to them, despite a troubling abundance of bats and an absence of windows.

“Well,” Izzy ventured to remark, some minutes into the tense silence Lord Archer had left behind, “this is an awkward situation.”
“Awkward?” The duke paced the floor, swinging his arms at his sides. Then he stopped in his tracks and said it again. “Awkward.”
The word rang through the great hall, bouncing off the ceiling vaults.
Izzy just stood there. Awkwardly.
“Adolescence,” he said, “is awkward. Attending a past lover’s wedding is awkward. Making love on horseback is awkward.”
She was in agreement, so far as the first part. She’d have to take his word on it when it came to the second and third.

Ransom quickly becomes determined to figure out how they found themselves in their current predicament and enlists Izzy’s help by employing her as his secretary. Tasked with getting to the bottom of Ransom’s long-neglected mountain of correspondence, Izzy and Ransom form an unlikely partnership and, along with the help of the local vicar’s kind-hearted daughter and a band of merry Moranglians, embark on a mission to discover the truth, all while trying desperately not to fall in love with one another. After all, the course of true love never did run smooth.

The titular character in England’s nationally-recognized and beloved series of stories, The Goodnight Tales, Isolde ‘Izzy’ Ophelia Goodnight (I just love saying the name) is a woman who feels she owes as much to the public as she does to herself. In spite of the popularity of these tales of gallant knights and chivalrous love, however, Izzy and her father have spent the majority of their lives in relative poverty, often relying on bizarre gifts and the support of their eclectic group of fans in order to get by. Consequently, out of necessity Izzy was forced long ago to learn to temper her expectations and quickly adapt to almost any situation, no matter how challenging the circumstances. This tenacity and determination in the face of often unimaginable opposition were one of the (many) things that drew me to Ms Dare’s  protagonist.

I’ve always tried to make the best of what life gave me. When I was a girl, I longed for a kitten. Instead, I got a weasel. Not the pet I wanted but I’ve done my best to love Snowdrop just the same… Since my father died, I’ve been desperate for a place to call home. The humblest cottage would do. Instead, I’ve inherited a haunted, infested castle in Nowhere, Northumberland. Not the home I wanted, but I’m determined to make it a home.

Unfortunately, no amount of resolve will help Izzy conquer her greatest challenge of all: Her preoccupation with the public’s perception and the pressure to meet their expectations. Known more simply as ‘Little Izzy Goodnight’ to the adoring and dedicated fans of the series, Izzy is continually infantilized and feels pressured to subordinate her own desires so as not to shatter the carefully crafted illusion of the innocent child in these cherished stories. With Ransom, however, who has never read The Goodnight Tales and is wholly unfamiliar with the mythos surrounding Izzy’s fictional, childhood counterpart, Izzy is finally granted a freedom previously unknown to her.

Unencumbered by the preconceptions and expectations of others, Izzy is able, for the first time, to explore her true wants and desires without fear of reprisal or tarnishing her father’s legacy. These scenes in which Izzy was able to vocalize what she wanted most were both endearing and immensely empowering. Despite the social mores of the time period in which this novel is set, in Izzy, Ms Dare has crafted a feminist icon who makes the best of any situation and is unafraid to flout conventional wisdom and do what is best for her, regardless of the consequences.

“This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

Now, as much as I love reading about a feisty heroine, for a romance novel to really work for me, it’s the hero’s characterisation that makes or breaks the book. Right from the start, Ransom’s attracted to Izzy, to her honesty and spirit; and – not least – to the feel of her body and the scent of her skin. As we come to know more of him, we discover that Ransom had a loveless childhood (as so many heroes in historical romance seem to do!) and that, as an adult, he made a career of pushing people away and alienating them, so that even when he was in possession of all his physical senses, he was never well-liked or popular – despite his being inordinately handsome and very rich. And now he feels he has nothing to offer. He’s blind, scarred, even more of a grump than he was before, and the last thing he wants is to feel pitied.

Now all of that sounds completely normal, right? We’ve read and loved that story before — the poor penniless heroine who finally has caught a break, almost, but now has to deal with this big, handsome, intimidating man who frequently behaves as if he doesn’t know if he wants to break furniture or ravish her. But Ms. Dare is not satisfied with normal, and she’s really quite brilliant at adding “writer jokes” that translate wonderfully to the reader. I wasn’t able to stop actually laughing out loud as I met the Moranglian society, wondered who the real Izzy Goodnight really is, and gasp, as I realized I’d been Jedi’d in a 19th century England setting.

Romancing The Duke posed one of the best sort of challenges a book blogger can ever hope to encounter while reading and reviewing a book. Ms Dare’s writing is so enchanting, so lovely, and so profoundly funny, that I was faced with the almost impossible task of having to select only a handful of quotations to highlight in this review when in truth I would have loved nothing more than to compose a document made up of nothing but. The sheer abundance of choice was overwhelming, thanks in large part to the author’s ability to provide her readers with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quotable, memorable dialogue and prose. There’s an effervescent wit to the author’s writing that makes her work nothing short of an absolute joy to read.

It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain – the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.

Putting this aside for a moment, perhaps what I found most interesting (and inspiring) about Romancing The Duke was not the wonderful humour but rather the manner in which Ms Dare skillfully incorporates recognizable fairytale tropes throughout the course of the narrative that perfectly paralleled The Goodnight Tales around which Izzy’s life has always centered. There’s something both fanciful and familiar about the narrative arc of Romancing The Duke that allowed me to instantly respond to it. Yet for all the familiarity of Izzy and Ransom’s story, and the nostalgia it can’t help but evoke for those of us familiar with this sort of story from our own childhood, Ms Dare still manages to put a unique twist on what might otherwise have proven a familiar formula for the ‘beauty and the beast’ archetype.

Admittedly, there were a handful of historical anachronisms scattered throughout the text, which were evident in both the character’s dialogue as well as in their thoughts and action, but none so serious that they in any way detracted from my enjoyment of the story. Frankly, strict historical accuracy is not of great importance when it comes to my enjoyment of this particular genre. That said, I do understand that this can be a sticking point for some readers, and thought it bore mentioning.

Doubt not the beauty of this novel’s prose, the quickness of the author’s wit, or the romance and passion that blossoms between the two lead characters. Doubt not that you will be kept awake until 3:00am, desperate to find out what happens next and unable to put down the book until you do so. In short? Doubt not that Romancing The Duke will provide one of the best and most enjoyable reading experiences you’ll have all year. Now, I insist that you begin reading this novel post-haste, lest I be forced to ‘release the ermine’ on you! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Pick up Romancing The Duke today and you soon will. I promise that you won’t regret it!