When James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, is ordered to marry Theodora Saxby by his father, the Duke, he naturally recoils - but not because T...moreWhen James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, is ordered to marry Theodora Saxby by his father, the Duke, he naturally recoils - but not because Theo isn't beautiful or because women of the ton whisper that she looks like a man. It's because his father is heavily in debt due to unwise investments and, even worse, as Theo's guardian, he has embezzled some of her impressive inheritance in trying to make his money back.
Theo and her mother have lived with the duke's family since her father died when she was little. A wealthy man and the duke's best friend, Theo's father made the Duke of Ashbrook his daughter's guardian, and Theo and James have grown up together like brother and sister. Theo knows she's rather ugly, a state not helped by her mother's insistence she wear pale pink with lots of frills. Now seventeen, she yearns to marry so that she can be free to be the woman of fashion she wants to be, setting her own unique style - including cutting off her hair.
When the beautiful twenty-one year old earl suddenly woos Theo and gives her a kiss that changes everything - a kiss in a public place where a number of people, including the Prince Regent himself, catch them at it - Theo couldn't be happier. The first two days of her marriage to James are full of passion, and Theo couldn't be happier. All that is destroyed when she learns that James married her for her money - married her at the behest of her father, that he tricked her.
With both men, James and the Duke, at her mercy - or the mercy of her money - Theo lays down some ground rules. She banishes them from her sight, takes over the running of the estates, and lives life as an independent woman. James takes to the seas and, when his ship is overtaken by a pirate, joins piracy rather than see his men drown and his ship sink. The duke, after a couple of lonely years in the country, dies wishing he could see his son one last time.
As the years go by and there's no word of James' whereabouts, Theo is faced with the decision of having him declared dead so that his cousin, Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, can take over the duchy, something he really doesn't want to do. But some life-altering moments in James' life force him to reconsider the things he values most, and whether returning to win Theo, the woman he loves more than anything, back is a greater cause than obeying her command to go. For as James learns, there's more to Theo's reaction to her discovery than he would have guessed, and it will take some cunning on his part to convince her that she shouldn't be ashamed of her passion.
My second Eloisa James novel didn't have the wit and charm of the first one of hers I read, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, but it did have other things to merit it. James takes her characters on intense journeys and really makes them work hard at coming together, and I was never sure where she was going to take the plot. This made for some pleasant surprises along the way and a fairly strong novel for the most part, only to be let down by the ending.
Theo and James' youthful characters are established well at the beginning, and I liked both of them. James does have honour and integrity, and puts up a good fight against his father, but is left with little choice. On the one hand, he does genuinely care for Theo - whom he calls Daisy - and he thinks she's beautiful and comes to love her (or admit his love for her, after years of staring at her bosom across the dining table), but he knows that when she finds out (as she surely will) the reasons behind his sudden interest in marrying her, she'll flip. And she does.
Theo has no delusions about her looks, but knows she has the wit and intellect to make up for her lack of beauty. At first she has her sights set on another man, someone James went to school with (and who apparently likes to cross-dress, according to James, not that Theo believes him), but James' kiss obliterates any thought of anyone else. Her reaction to hearing the truth of her marriage was set up well and entirely believable; more than that, it was very empowering. James had made Theo his partner not just in marriage but in handling their money and the Ashbrook estate, something he insisted his father hand over to him upon his marriage lest he ruin it any further. And since the money is all hers, she had the power to made demands. As tragic a scene as it is, it's also hugely satisfying.
I didn't see the pirate part coming, and couldn't help thinking that it was all a bit unnecessary, though it was certainly more fun this way and more exciting (and dangerous) too. James changes so much while he's away, and is barely recognisable when he returns. But he's matured, and while he still feels for Theo the passion he always felt, he's learnt more than some new lovemaking techniques: he's learnt how to rein it in and be patient. Theo was spooked by the passionate demands the young James placed on her, but mostly she was deeply humiliated by the compromising position the Duke found them in, just before she learned the truth. As the lonely years have gone by, she's isolated herself even further by convincing herself she's not a passionate person, she has no interest in sex, and they should just get a divorce - something she's sure the Prince Regent will grant in the circumstances.
James knows otherwise, of course, and goes about planning how to convince Theo that he's exactly the man she wants, not some cold, asexual bore who's only interested in polite conversation and nothing else. Awakening Theo's passion is a task he takes seriously, but he's determined to fix his marriage and have her love him again. While I love a romance where part of the focus is on the woman ceasing to be ashamed of her own desires, it was this ending that somehow, I'm not entirely sure how, missed its mark with me. I think I was just disappointed that so much of their marriage, in the book, was spent apart, that when you add up the before and after parts there wasn't a whole lot to it. Lots of character development and plenty of chemistry, to be sure, but I wished for more scenes, more time with them together, as a couple, either in love or otherwise. I felt a bit cheated at the end, that it was over so quickly. It worked for the story, just didn't quite work for my own sense of satisfaction, if that makes any sense.
As a coming-of-age story, for both Theo and James, this is a great read. Entertaining, passionate and resonating with genuine human emotion, The Ugly Duchess is worth reading, despite my final feeling of deflation.(less)
Carissa Portland styles herself as a "lady of information" - and with good reason, for how else will she know as soon as the ton learns about the indi...moreCarissa Portland styles herself as a "lady of information" - and with good reason, for how else will she know as soon as the ton learns about the indiscretion in her past, and the real reason why she's living with her uncle and his family in London? That doesn't mean she can't be trusted with a secret, but Sebastian, Viscount Beauchamp, doesn't see things that way. Caught snooping in the Inferno Club, around which there is much conjecture (a den of debauchery is the common belief), Beau knows that the only way to ensure the orphaned busybody never speaks of what she learned there, is to marry her.
While they both understand that this is a marriage arranged between them - to protect her reputation, and his secrets - their mutual attraction and chemistry is undeniable. Beau has always been the lady's man, dallying with married women and fighting duels with their husbands, but now that he has a wife, he's finding monogamy to be no hard chore. The only trouble is, as a parliamentary investigation of the Inferno Club probes ever deeper into the group of men's activities with the intent to shut them down for good, or worse, Carissa is determined to help her new husband. How will he keep her out of harm's way, for her own good, when she won't listen or obey him? Wasn't that the point of marrying her in the first place? But as the stakes grow ever higher, Sebastian learns that his wife is more than a pretty decoration he needs to keep quiet.
This is the fifth book in the Inferno Club series, but the first that I've read - and the first book by Gaelen Foley that I've read, too. I always enjoy historical romance, but I mostly approach each one expecting an enjoyable story, fun characters, good banter, and non-cheesy sex scenes. I almost always get that, too - there's just something about historical romance: it follows a formula just like all romance books, but it's a good formula. The rest is up to the author, their style and voice and where they take the story, so really you never really know what you're going to get. I have to say this, though: I loved this story, it was refreshing and intelligent and had great characters you could really connect with without being annoyed, and an original plot that didn't commandeer the romance side of things. I loved it so much, I promptly ordered the previous four books so I could read those too. It was a fantastic introduction to Gaelen Foley's work.
The Inferno Club is a front for the Order, a group of aristocratic spies set up long before by the reigning monarch, to aid in war. These days, with the threat of Napoleon gone (for the moment), they work to eradicate (read: kill) the leaders of a group called the Prometheans. In My Scandalous Viscount, however, it is not the Prometheans they are up against, but government bureaucracy and a homegrown threat. Foley weaves in other layers of the Regency period, politics and unrest (like the Jacobites and others), the kind of background life that is glaringly absent from most historical romances, right back to Jane Austen.
"So this horrid little power-crazed bureaucrat that you have to answer to might still be harboring Radical sympathies that he's taking out on the Order?" [...] "It doesn't matter," [Beau] said rather vehemently. "He's not going to destroy the Order. Not while I'm there. He can try, but we've been around a hell of a lot longer than these 'modern men of progress' and their shiny new ideas." "What kinds of ideas?" "Dissolve the monarchy. Disband the aristocracy. Marriage is also outdated in their circles. Free love is all the mode." She gave him a sardonic look. "What?" "Sounds like what the ton espouses." "No, no, there is a big difference between the time-honored tradition of adultery in the aristocracy and the Radical notion of free love, my dear. One abuses the sanctity of marriage with idle gallantry; the other rejects it from the outset, along with any notion of chivalry." "They don't believe in chivalry?" she exclaimed. "I should think not. They see it as an insult." "How?" "In their world, women are the same as men, and neither want nor require any sort of male protection or deference." Carissa struggled to comprehend such a world. "But if there's no marriage ... and ladies are the same as gentlemen ... then what about the children? And who takes care of the old people? What becomes of the families?" "Oh, my dear, you are woefully provincial. Haven't you heard? The family is an artificial system of oppression," he replied. "They've got no more use for it than for the Church. Haven't you read the inimitable Godwins, or noticed how poets like Shelley and Blake are always making up their own religions?" "No one can simply invent right and wrong." "You can try, if you're arrogant enough. Up is down, right is wrong, women are men, and before you know it, no one needs anyone anymore. Forget civility - the human race will then be free to descend into 'the perpetual war of every man against his neighbor' that Hobbes described two hundred years ago." [pp.152-3]
I love that Foley made such an effort to put the historical back into historical romance. Things were happening at the time, not just balls and matchmaking. Ideas were being discussed, old ways of doings things questioned - you can start to see the roots of our own current society in the above discussion, can't you? And obviously they were unwelcome ideas, for many. It's the glimpse into another era, a different kind of society, that really makes this book satisfying to read. (Plus, I love the occasional dollop of irony, too.)
Carissa was no simpering miss or pig-headed, argumentative hussy. She was dignified, quietly strong, determined, loyal, aware of her strengths and weaknesses, level-headed, intelligent and resourceful. She wasn't without flaws, she didn't always make the best decisions - hampered by the period she's living in as much as anything else - but she had courage and wits. She sometimes got herself into situations that don't end well, or that backfire, and that made her more interesting. The indiscretion in her past holds her back, but once Beau learns all about it - and solves the problem, in a way that a woman of the period never could - she's no longer burdened by the weight of looming scandal, or her uncle's censure, or her own guilt. She gets a refreshing new start, and courage inspired in her by a woman, not a husband:
It was not the fact that [Angelique] had slept with Beau that chiefly bothered her. Many women had, she'd been forced to accept. But that was in the past: She was the one he had married. What she was jealous about was how he had talked to Angelique. He had treated her with the respect due an equal, as if she were a man. The contrast could not have been more marked as he assisted his little bride to the carriage and hovered over her every move with the utmost protectiveness. Lord, did he see her as helpless? Was she? If only she had but a small dose of that Frenchwoman's audacity... When she thought of how timid and secretive she had become ever since her fall from grace, how frightened of disapproval, she was angry at herself. Shame had made her sneaky. One thing she'd say for the brazen Angelique - she did not appear in the least ashamed of what she was. [p.221]
Beau I liked immediately, as well. He's quickly established as a rakehell, a scoundrel, a womaniser, but there's no particular angst behind it - or rather, he is trying to avoid a marriage like his parents', but he doesn't agonise over it - and he doesn't resist his attraction to Carissa. I especially liked how he handled his sudden knowledge that Carissa wasn't the inexperienced virgin he'd assumed her to be, even if later he believed he'd handled it wrong, wanting to give her time to learn to trust him, and come to him voluntarily with the truth. It effectively holds a mirror up to his own past behaviour:
Would his passionate redhead make a cuckold of him? Was he doomed to walk in his humiliated father's footsteps? Yet how could he, of all people, ever honestly complain, after his own past dalliances with other fellows' wives? He probably deserved it. [...] Beau closed his eyes, rubbed his brow, and after a long moment's fight with himself, decided by an act of will that he was not going to get angry about this. [...] Let her come to him and speak her piece when she was ready. [...] He knew it wouldn't be easy for her. She had already said herself that she didn't trust anybody. But forcing her to give him the details, humiliating her with the fact that he knew she was lying, or hurting her in any way was unacceptable. Sooner or later, he swore to himself, he'd win Carissa's trust. [pp.138-9]
One of the best things about this book was that, every time a situation arose where I felt I knew what would happen, based on all the historical romances I've read, and felt rising disappointment, it proved me wrong. The above situation is a case in point. As discovery neared, I was sure he'd find out immediately, throw a hissy fit and slam a door in her face without even waiting to hear her side of things. Or one of a few other outcomes that also seemed likely. Instead, Sebastian's quiet resolve was a refreshing change from the theatrics and moodiness that all too often permeate romance novels: here was a realistic person, one who didn't leap to conclusions but actually wanted to encourage trust and open communication in a relationship. If I hadn't respected Beau before then, I did after that. It's not as if he's perfect, of course, and their relationship goes through some big upheavals, with trust a growing problem between them. Hardly surprising, considering how they got married in the first place.
This is clearly not a series you have to read in order - or at least, starting it with book five didn't do any harm. Quite the opposite in fact, it was a wonderful introduction to the series, and I'm keen to go back to the beginning and play catch-up. If you're looking for a lively, engaging historical romance that doesn't follow the usual path, be sure to pick up Gaelen Foley's My Scandalous Viscount.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
Sarah Alice Kent - Sally to anyone who knows her - grew up the only daughter in a naval family. Her father is the well-known Captain Kent, and all thr...moreSarah Alice Kent - Sally to anyone who knows her - grew up the only daughter in a naval family. Her father is the well-known Captain Kent, and all three of her older brothers - Matthew, Dominic and Owen - are in the royal navy. Now it's her fifteen-year-old brother Richard's turn to join up as a midshipman, despite the fact that he's never had any interest and wants only to learn sermons. With everyone else at sea (and her mother long ago deceased), Sally goes with Richard to the dock, but when he slips away and disappears, Sally decides to take matters into her own hands in order to preserve the Kent family honour.
It's not the only reason why Sally decides to board the HMS Audacious in disguise: she's always loved the sea, having spent years on board her father's ship growing up, and having tested all her brothers in preparation for their own navigation exams, she knows far more than a midshipman is expected to know. But nothing could prepare her for the discovery that the first lieutenant on board is David Colyear - Col to his friends, which would include the entire Kent family. He never knew Richard well, but all her brothers have written to him to tell him what to expect from their sermonising brother.
Sally isn't discovered, not at first. At nineteen, she's able to pass for a lithe, slender but strong fifteen year old boy. It's when she sings a song on deck that Col recognises her, and remembers the girl he'd spent time with before at her family's home. With England at war with France's Emperor Napoleon, the British navy needs all the men she can get - that's the argument Col makes to himself anyway, though he's at war with himself: his needs to keep Sally close and to keep her from the possibility of injury or death during battle are deeply conflicting.
Sally quickly proves herself to be a quick-witted, observant, knowledgeable sailor and officer, winning over most of the crew - except Gamage, who has been midshipman for too many years to count; he bullies the other boys and steals their things, and Sally is determined to stand up to him. As the Audacious joins the blockade of French and Spanish ships under Captain McAlden in 1805, Sally gets her first taste of real battle - and Col gets his first real taste of what it could mean to lose her.
This was so much more than I was expecting. I was prepared for another generic historical romance, but there is nothing generic about Almost a Scandal. It reads more like historical fiction with a romantic focus, or aim, or just a really lovely blend of the two. Unlike so many romances, Essex doesn't bend the rules of historical accuracy or relegate her setting to a mere place-holder for the romantic action.
No, Sally-the-sailor is front and centre, and so is life at sea on a naval frigate in the middle of a war. The attention to detail is impressive - I'm not familiar with many of the terminology but I feel like I learnt a lot from reading this, and I don't get to say that often about romance! Sally herself is a real classic tomboy, the kind of heroine that always appealed to me - ever since reading The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle by Avi in grade seven; no, before that, in primary school when I read books featuring a spunky girl like Sally or Charlotte, though Charlotte comes to mind because she too became a sailor. Sally is never once annoying, or blindly stupid, or stubborn - none of the traits that typically infect romance heroines and bog a story down. She's brave, practical, intelligent yet also passionate, and her genuine love for the sea and life on board ship comes across strongly.
Col, too, was a strong character, a blend of romantic hero - strong, stalwart, handsome, in command - while also being true to himself, his own personality, and his circumstances. He's fairly rigid, and comes across as very "British" without being a stereotype. He's a figure that everyone on the ship looks up to, Sally too, but she never goes giddy over him. She actually does a better job at showing restraint than he does, but even so, the chemistry and sexual tension between them is present, if kept on the down-low - it simply wouldn't be possible to have a brazen affair on a ship at war, not with about two hundred men on board and zero privacy. They do have moments of quiet reflection, and Sally is not impervious to the struggle between what she wants to do with her life (but which society dictates she is not allowed to do), and what she could have as a lady:
Sally hung the small lantern on the peg beside the mirror and took a good, hard look. And to think she had thought herself cleaned up enough for the captain's cabin when she had run her fingers through her windblown hair and washed the sulfurous stink of gunpowder off her face. But it was still there, the rime of grime, ringing her face like a high tide mark.
But Mr Colyear had not seemed to mind. He had touched her anyway and told her she looked just fine. Clearly it had been a merciful lie.
The bruise around her eye made her look like a bailiff's mongrel dog. What could he have been thinking when he touched her face like that?
Sally laid her own finger across her lip to try and understand, to test if she could make the shivery feeling come back. But it wasn't the same. Nothing was the same. When he touched her everything changed.
She had thought that by coming aboard, by becoming Richard, she had finally slipped the leash of ladylike expectations. But when Col had touched her, she felt suddenly feminine beneath the surface of her skin. Under the obscuring cover of her clothes, she became aware of her physicality in an entirely different way than she had while reveling in the athletic glory of climbing the shrouds. [Location 2310]
What she might give for a proper bath, with a copper tub full of hot water and a bar of lemon soap like Mrs Jenkins made from the fruit grown in the potted trees at home. What might Col think of her if she were really clean, and dressed in something other than a worn-out blue coat? In something fine and pretty?
It was a useless thought. She'd never once in her life looked fine and pretty. She wasn't that kind of girl. Never had been. If Col admired her, at least she was sure he admire her for what she truly was. For understanding oranges and speaking Spanish for the Captain, not for useless accomplishments that meant nothing at all in the real world. [Location 2324]
At times, recreating life on board the ship overshadows the romance and slows the novel down a bit, but in general I didn't mind. It was refreshing, and that side of the story was very interesting. It's kept taut by the constant fear of discovery, Sally's worry and expectation that Col will turn her in to the Captain, and a distinct unpredictability. The story and the subplots never went the way I half-expected them to go. I could predict it at all, though as a romance, I knew Sally and Col would get their happy ending somehow.
And I loved that it didn't have one of those awful, corny scenes so common in American movies, any movie where the protagonist is pretending to be something they're not, or deceiving people in some way: they always have, towards the end, a big reveal, where the main character gives a public confession. I hate those scenes with a passion, and I was half-afraid this book would have one, some hideously public scene where Sally is unmasked and humiliated and has to apologise. Ugh, so tacky and moralising. What actually happened in Almost a Scandal (and see, the title is a clue right there!) was more dignified, more honest, more realistic, and more true to the characters. Big relief.
While this was a slower read than most romances and lighter on the romance side, it is refreshing in its approach and fascinating in its subject matter. I really enjoyed Almost a Scandal, and was so happy that Sally didn't have to sacrifice one dream for another, in the end. Looking forward to more instalments in the Reckless Brides series.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Althea Crawley is on a mission, a mission to marry money. It is the only thing that will save her family from ruin and save Crawley Castle - or "Crook...moreAlthea Crawley is on a mission, a mission to marry money. It is the only thing that will save her family from ruin and save Crawley Castle - or "Crooked Castle" as it's affectionately dubbed - from falling into its own kind of ruin. Whimsically and stupidly built at the edge of a cliff above the North Sea by Althea's great-grandfather, it is impractical, draughty, cold, leaky, uncomfortable and downright ridiculous; but it is her little brother's inheritance and the only thing left to the family aside from a few little tenanted farms.
And Althea has the looks to succeed at her plan, too. Noted as the most beautiful woman in Yorkshire, at seventeen years old she has no competition. The only trouble is that she has a tendency to say the wrong thing, and speak her thoughts out loud, which does tend to scare off the young men asking for her hand.
And time is running out for Crooked Castle. Mould grows on the damp walls, there are some serious leaks in the roof, and they have barely enough to eat. It doesn't help that, in an attempt to revive their fortunes after the death of Althea's father, her mother remarried a man of means who, already ill on their wedding day, died not long after and left everything to his two mature, unmarried daughters, Prudence and Charity: now Prudence and Charity live at Crooked Castle, adding to the burden but rarely ever contributing to the castle's upkeep or the food in the larder. On occasion, Althea resorts to clever subterfuge to get them to loosen their purse-strings, but considering how insufferable the sisters are about giving up any of their fortune, it's rarely worth the effort.
But there's a bright light on the horizon, in the form of a new neighbour. Lord Boring has recently inherited his title from his old uncle who lived alone at nearby Gudgeon Park, which had fallen into a state of unloved grubbiness, and moved in with his mother and his aunt, a woman who had married a tradesman out of love. He comes with a party of other well-to-do people, as well as his cousin, Mr Fredericks.
Althea sets out at once to win Lord Boring, but so does her cousin Charity - though surely Lord Boring is too refined in his taste to fall for her! Her goal is further confounded by the presence of Mr Fredericks, who between damaging parts of Crawley Castle as he inspected it with a disparaging eye, and being all too free with his often cynical opinions, Althea feels herself becoming quite vexed with the man. Add to that the arrival of a rich young woman, Miss Vincy, whose parents are determined to marry her to Lord Boring, and Althea feels the need to concoct a new plan: marry Miss Vincy to Mr Fredericks, and then the field will be clear for her and Lord Boring! If only Althea could see things as clearly as she speaks them!
This was a very fun, light-hearted quick little novel, very much inspired by both Pride and Prejudice and, perhaps even more so, Emma. In fact, Althea is quite the Emma. It's not really a "regency romance", not in the Harlequin sense at least; it is romance in the Jane Austen sense: two people, plus supporting cast, who should be together, readers can see that they'll end up together, but they take their time figuring that out and have plenty of misunderstandings along the way. It's worked before and it works here, although it has a by-the-numbers feel to it at times. I would have liked it even more if it had been set a bit later than the Regency period; at first I thought it was early Victorian, and with the dilapidated castle as a backdrop, perched precariously at the edge of a cliff, the added atmosphere would have gone down really well.
Althea was a lively, intelligent but strangely unperceptive heroine (all the "plot twists" are readily apparent to us readers; I doubt they're meant as real twists, with such hefty clues left lying around). She's very much like Emma. What quickly becomes apparent to us readers she doesn't figure out for ages. That made her a bit frustrating, though there's nothing inherently contradictory about an intelligent but unperceptive person. She's well meaning, and I've never liked well meaning people: they tend to do more harm than good, and their good intentions tend to have selfish origins, plus being well meaning is a non-excuse for meddling and upsetting others. I always hate it when, after someone is hurt by someone else, you are told "Yes but she means well." As if that should excuse it. All "well meaning" people need a Mr Knightley to come along and hold a mirror up now and again.
In Keeping the Castle, such a role should go to Mr Fredericks, but he's his own character and doesn't meddle in anything. I loved Mr Fredericks (I've forgotten his first name just now), he's so blunt and honest and outspoken, and gets away with it in that way men could when women couldn't. Watching him criticise the castle on his first tour, damaging everything he touches, was funny but I also felt for Althea, felt protective of the castle and in that instant wanted what she wanted: to save it.
Keeping the Castle is a comic, character-driven story, wherein the characters may be familiar and ones you've read before in some form, but are given fresh life here. Between the small adventures, misadventures, buffoon-like characters and lively banter between Althea and Mr Fredericks, it's highly entertaining. I would have loved it to be a bit longer, a bit more in-depth, and to spend a bit more time building tension and chemistry between Althea and Mr Fredericks, but that's not to say it doesn't have that: again, it's more Austen-esque, but even P&P had an incredible, slow-burning sexual anticipation that really made the story simmer with tension.
If you're looking for a quick, funny read, especially in the summer, definitely pick up Keeping the Castle. It might not have a deep, lasting impression on you, but like the best kind of cake, it's very enjoyable while it lasts. (less)