Review: That Scandalous Summer (Rules for the Reckless #1) by Meredith Duran

That Scandalous Summer

A single indiscreet dalliance notwithstanding, Michael de Grey, the younger brother of the powerful Duke of Marwick, is a hard-working physician who runs a charitable hospital with one of the lowest mortality rates in the country. Living off his brother, Alastair, who has been his protector and confidant since they were children, Michael is stunned when Alastair threatens to cut him and his hospital off unless Michael marries a woman approved by him and carries on the Marwick line. In response, Michael decides to go into hiding in Cornwall. Why that doesn’t result in the immediate shutdown of his precious hospital is not explained. So, our hero is now masquerading as a simple country doctor in Bosbrea where he stumbles upon a beautiful woman passed out in his rose bushes.

Lady Elizabeth Chudderley, notorious society beauty and merry widow, is tired of keeping up appearances when, in fact, she is nearly broke and has just been dumped by her latest lover for a young heiress. Drowning her sorrows in whiskey and passing out in the handsome new doctor’s gardens was not part of the plan, of course. While the attraction between them is instant, they both have their reasons for not acting upon it.

Liza thinks Michael is a middle-class doctor at best, putting him one step above a peasant in terms of respectability.  She needs to find a rich husband fast. Michael, on the other hand, knows of Elizabeth’s reputation and doesn’t want to be distracted by his lame plan to make his brother come after him to Cornwall. Of course, they bond over country bazaars and long walks and when Liza assists Michael in delivering a baby. Things come to a head when Liza plans a house party filled with prospective suitors and spiritualists as entertainment.

And that is where I have my biggest problem with the book. The party floods the story with new characters who have appeared in Ms. Duran’s previous books. However, since this was my first full-length Meredith Duran novel, I had no idea who all these people were and I just kept feeling that I had been dropped in the middle of a conversation where I didn’t know any of the parties. Trying to make sense of those chapters in the middle messed with my head so much, that it just took away from Michael and Liza’s love story and whatever convoluted stunt they pulled with Alastair in the end to get their HEA.

As a rule, I am an avid fan of historical romances. After Your Wicked Heart, I was really excited to read the rest of the Rules for the Reckless series. Ms. Duran’s stories highlight issues like mental illness, grief, and alcoholism but never end up dealing with them satisfactorily. To me, the characters came across as mediocre and the story was an absolute drag. The writing was mostly okay, with flashes of wit getting drowned out by pages of bitter sarcasm. In the end, after having read one great and one horrible Meredith Duran novel apiece, I’m not sure if I will read any more of her work.

Guest Post Review: “Whispers Through A Megaphone” by Rachel Elliott

Whispers Through A Megaphone

Hey guys! I have swamped with a lot of work these days, so I decided to bring my oldest friend, partner-in-crime and fellow book nerd, Lubna Amir, to do a guest post. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I do!

When Aishwarya asked me to review a book for her, I was thrilled. Since childhood, she has been the source of new books for me. From contemporary romance to teenage fiction, thrillers to sci-fi, my book journey would be incomplete without her.

Coming to Whispers through a Megaphone. Nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 (which is a great way to discover books by the way), Ms. Eliot’s book is rich in both character and humor. A psychotherapist herself, her book showcases a depth and quirkiness that not many possess. Both Miriam and Ralph are battling their own issues, and Ms. Eliot takes what could be a dark and twisty book and makes it wonderfully humorous.

Miriam hasn’t left her house in 3 years, is immensely socially awkward, literally talks in whispers, and has suffered childhood trauma at the hands of a crazy and mostly absent mother (she was once found sweeping the corridors of Miriam’s school, naked). Being told to stay quiet all the time, Miriam has grown into an adult who whispers. She, however, does have some connection to the outside world through her friend, Fenella. The narrative truly begins when Miriam decides she wants to reenter the normal world and do things like shopping and Zumba.

Ralph is the father of 16-year-old twins and is unhappily married to Sadie, a closeted lesbian. When one day he opens the doors of the closet, literally, and discovers that his wife never loved him, that he cannot relate to his sons, and that his life is a mess, Ralph packs his bags and moves to a shack in the woods with a cat called Treacle. A chance meeting with Miriam leads to the start of an unlikely friendship, and the story of when Miriam met Ralph.

What I really loved about the book was the switch in perspectives – maintaining this shift without a narrational break is a difficult task, but Ms. Eliot manages it quite well. This is also where her background as a psychotherapist comes in play. Whispers through a Megaphone is written in a way which makes the reader delve into the psyche and the quirks of the human mind – and realize that at the end of the day, we all are a little dysfunctional.

It’s a great debut novel, and Ms. Eliot’s books (I’m hoping for more!) are going to be a regular feature on my bookshelf from now on. From the whimsical to the crazy, with a little bit of childhood abuse thrown in, Whispers through a Megaphone is a good read!

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.

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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: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

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!

Review: “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt

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The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?

In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life–Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following his death, she begins to realise that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer—blaming him for Finn’s illness and death—and who is ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl—or rather, every girl—growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.

Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

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The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.