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: “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!