If you are looking for a review about why this book is good, I strongly urge you to check out Elyse's review at Smart Bitches, Trashy books. She covers all the reasons why someone might enjoy reading THE CURSE OF LORD STANSTEAD, and she does it quite persuasively (it certainly worked on me).
This review will not be an assessment of the books charms, however. I found THE CURSE OF LORD STANSTEAD to be an incredibly frustrating read, because it had a lot of potential but to me, this potential did not seem fully realized. The result is a mishmash of a classically bad romance novel and an X-Men/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hybrid that doesn't seem to know what it wants to do with itself. Should it focus unapologetically on the sex? Or should it make a token effort at world building and secret societies? WWKWD? (WWKWD = What Would Kathleen Woodiwiss do? And the answer is, focus unapologetically on the sex.)
THE CURSE OF LORD STANSTEAD is about Cassandra Darkin, a plain Jane who is suffering because she gave up her virginity to a man who is about to marry someone else. She is also a fire elemental, and is unaware of her awesome powers beginning to manifest themselves beyond a vague sort of awareness that lots of accidents seem to happen when she is around. Garret Sterling is a psychic and a member of The Order of M.U.S.E., a group of individuals who exhibit extrasensory abilities (rather like X-Men) & want to use these powers for the benefit of society as well as recruiting new members. Right now, they have their eye on Cassie, because they know that without intervention, she will go on a warpath of destruction that she will be powerless to stop.
The problem is that fire magic is apparently controlled through sex. Lots and lots of sex. And the group decides that the best candidate for the job is Garret. In case this pimping out of their members weren't icky enough, one of the female members of M.U.S.E., Vesta, who is also a fire mage and (I believe) one of Garret's ex-lovers, gets really involved in the process, giving Garret detailed instructions about what he should and shouldn't do when he and Cassandra bone. It also bothered me that Garret keeps trying to use his powers on Cassandra to influence her during sex. They have a Bella/Edward dynamic where she is the only one his powers do not work on (and does this mystify him and make her oh-so-fascinating? but of course), but the fact that he tries at all is creepy, as is the fact that he has sex with her while she is under the influence of a psychotropic aphrodisiac. Also, can we talk about how one of the male characters (not the hero) pretty much tried to kill her and the heroine just brushes it off. Strangling people for not wanting to have sex with you is not okay.
I was also a bit mystified by the world-building and not in a good way. The group's magic powers are described only in terms of what they do. How they manifest, the frequency, and the different kinds aren't really described at all. It also took me a long time to figure out how magic fits into the frame of the world that the author created. Is it commonplace? Or is it a secret? Is it regarded as good - or bad? These are things that would have upheld the structure of the story and also made it more interesting. Also, the villain isn't introduced until the very end of the story, and then everything is over with a scant few chapters later. A sense of conflict and urgency would have been nice.
The last 30% of this book is quite good - I actually began to enjoy the book in earnest, and I was tempted to give this book a two. But then I really thought about the book as a whole, and remembered the first 70% of the book that was so difficult for me to read that I found myself skimming pages at a time, and with regret, I came to the decision that a good end cannot salvage a bad beginning and middle; 30% is not, and never will be, a passing grade.
I will say that this book is being offered for free at the moment, and the writing quality is a major step-up from most freebies. There were passages in here that were downright lovely - it was just hard to appreciate them when I found myself despising Garret for his choices, and fretting about Cassie's for being so...unforgivably stupid. But hey - maybe you will enjoy the book. It is free, after all.
A GENTLEMAN'S POSITION is my second book by K.J. Charles. My first was, ironically, one of her few non-m/m titles, NON-STOP TIL TOKYO. I loved it - and some of my followers who have asked me for recommendations will recognize the title, because it's one of the first I bust out whenever someone asks me the question, "Nenia, have you ever read any good NA?"
I'm going to be honest: I don't really read much m/m. Unless the story line or the love story really stands out, I don't usually seek out m/m books. There's no nefarious reason behind this; it's just not something I'm particularly interested in. I'm mentioning this because I think it will have an impact on my rating. I enjoyed A GENTLEMAN'S POSITION, despite it not being a genre of preference. People who actually seek out this genre of books will probably enjoy it much more than I did. So take this rating with a grain of salt, as it is coming from someone who doesn't read m/m.
That said, I really loved the way Charles wrote out the love story between David and Richard. Richard is a lord, a total stuffed-shirt. His adherence to class mores and expectations has made him the go-to for delicate matters, but much of this is due to the services of his rather incredible valet, David. Unfortunately, David is starting to fall for his master, and Richard is reluctant to accept his advances because of the difference in their position. Richard's pride is another impediment, because David can't help but wonder whether Richard can really stoop to care for someone who isn't his equal.
In some ways, A GENTLEMAN'S POSITION reminded me of an m/m version of Courtney Milan's HER EVERY WISH. Both focus on social class and how it can serve as an impediment to love. Both authors also deal with this topic very well, showing that if love is to happen, both parties must accept one another, despite their faults and shortcomings and differences, as equals. No more. No less.
My favorite part of the book was probably the end, when the society + David concoct an elaborate scheme to get even with Lord Maltravers. This gets the book an extra .5 star because it was brilliantly done and had me cackling to myself as I imagined countless other bigots across the globe being hoisted by their own petard in a similar manner.
Would I read more from this author? I think so. This was a wonderful opportunity to be acquainted with the m/m works of an author I really like, and there is no question of the attention she pays to detail or her fondness for writing a compelling love story between two good men.
I thought I'd take a break from my usual romance line-up to read and review I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS by Iain Reid. The summary for this book sounded intriguing - love goes wrong is pretty much the total opposite of romance novel HEAs. I was hoping for a tale of obsession and murder. Instead, I got...
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what I just read. The first portion of the book is this girl named Steph riding in a car with her boyfriend Jake through miles of farmland in what is probably the most boring car ride ever. The whole time they're having this awkward conversation & Steph keeps having flashbacks to their relationship, and this creepy man who stalks her called The Caller, and all the while wondering whether she should end things. I could relate. I was thinking about ending things, too. My reading of this book.
To be fair, though, the Caller aspect of this book is super creepy & well done, and I actually had to stop reading last night and switch over to K.J. Charles's new book instead, because I was getting Babadook vibes. Like, I could almost feel a shadowy presence in my room, and the suffocating weight you get when you're being watched. It was terrifying - but in a good way (once you wake up the next morning, that is). I love those vague, atmospheric-driven horror stories, where part of the horror comes from wondering whether what's happening is real or all in the characters' mind.
But that's not really what this book is about. I think if the author had played up The Caller angle, and the creepy deja-vu sensations the heroine experienced, this would have been a much better book. But as it stands, I'm actually really confused by what I read. The ending didn't make sense, and it felt abrupt - especially since the author spent so much time building up the car ride in that first part of the book. By the time I realized there were only 30 pages in the book, I found myself wondering how the author planned to end this, since still nothing had really happened. I have a theory of what was really going on, and if I'm right - nothing actually did. It feels like a cop-out. Kind of like a less successful version of what Andrew Kaufman did in his super creepy, super amazing book, TWISTED.
This is a wonderful, redeeming love story for anyone who has ever felt like they were somehow less because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity - or any other factor that they couldn't control.
Daisy Whitlaw is poor. She lives alone with her sick mother, struggling to make ends meet for the two of them. Her current pipe dream is the idea of starting her own store, Daisy's Emporium. But when she enters a contest in the newspaper for a business proposal, she is ruthlessly shamed by all the men there when they realize a woman is in their midst. They treat her so badly that I almost cried because of how relevant some of those comments still are today.
Crash is also treated terribly by others. He's part black, part Indian, and possibly French/Portuguese/Chinese (his mother wasn't sure who his real father was). He's also bisexual and, like Daisy, poor. He has a dream of starting his own business as well, but nobody really respects him. Even the women who find him attractive keep trying to find ways to "fix" him, and Crash has absolutely zero interest in being fixed; he wants to be happy with who he is.
Daisy and Crash used to be in love years ago, but a falling out over a misunderstanding drove the two apart. Now their shared ambition puts them together again years later. I think I've said in another review that I don't normally like second-chance romances, but HER EVERY WISH was beautiful, because their relationship was based on shared experiences, mutual understanding, and wanting the other person to be happy. Their banter was excellent, and I highlighted every quote of theirs that made me want to cry tears of joy, this entire book would be bright, sunshine-yellow.
One of the things I love about Milan's books is the attention she pays to her side characters, as well - and it passes the Bechdel test. The female characters in this book worry about far greater things than who will escort them in their season. The friendship between Judith and Daisy was lovely. Crash's relationship with his aunt and her friends made me guffaw. I also liked how Milan showed that sometimes the people who care about us can hurt us the most, because their worries can be founded in biases that they could be blind to, and their obliviousness makes it all the more cutting.
I would definitely recommend Courtney Milan to anyone who likes their romances with feminism, diversity, banter, and wit. I'm already scheming to get my hands on the other books in this series.
There really aren't a lot of popular historical romance books that deal with people of color. The only two authors who come to mind who do this consistently are Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins. So finding a book set amidst the backdrop of the Revolutionary War from the perspective of two African Americans was a pleasant surprise.
Elijah is a slave working for his Colonist master, who says he will free him and give him land if he fights in his stead. Kate, on the other hand, works for the Red Coats, because the Crown has said it will give runaway slaves freedom if they fight against the Colonists in the Revolution. The two end up crossing paths over a murder, of all things, and when Elijah is taken prisoner by the men in Kate's regiment, both try to resist their feelings for one another.
BE NOT AFRAID is a very short book. The horrors of slavery and war are alluded to, instead of being spelled out in explicit detail. The upside is that people who are sensitive to such material could probably read this book without being triggered. The downside is that because it's mentioned in passing, it feels overly casual. Kate got over her trust issues very quickly! And while I get that this was a necessity given the length of the book, it did not do the story line any favors.
60 pages really isn't much time to set a stage and develop characters. Kate and Elijah's attraction comes across as insta-lust more than anything else. I could feel for Kate and why she didn't trust men, and I could appreciate Elijah's unwavering loyalty to the country that enslaved him because he wanted something better for his countrymen and his fellow slaves, but I was told these things, and it would have been cool to see their characters grow and develop over the course of a full length novel instead of this fleeting introduction, hastily wrapped up conclusion, and neat epilogue.
I would read a full length novel by this author, but I'm not sure that I would try another one of her short stories.
Gothic novels can be a mixed-bag. They were mass-produced in the 70s and 80s, and many of them were bad. You really have to pick and choose to find a good one. DARK MASQUERADE is written by Patricia Maxwell, the pen name of bodice-ripper author Jennifer Blake, and I got it during a promotion where most of her early books and some of her newer ones were free from the Kindle store. I forgot all about it until now, when I was combing through my Kindle to see what goodies were buried on there, and started reading on a whim.
DARK MASQUERADE ticks many of the usual boxes on the Gothic novel checklist. It has a young and resourceful heroine coming to a dark and unwelcoming mansion because of a tragedy. Nobody wants her there, and they aren't afraid to say so, either. The love interest may or may not be the villain. Someone tries to scare her away and, later on, kill her in order to accomplish some craven, dastardly purpose.
The novel is slow to start, beginning with Elizabeth coming to the Delacroix plantation in Louisiana, accompanied by her black servant, Callie, and her baby nephew, Joseph. We learn that the baby's mother, Elizabeth's sister, died in childbirth, and the father died in the Civil War. Before he did, though, he provided for his wife and child, and Elizabeth has decided to take on her sister's identity to ensure that the baby receives his inheritance.
The Delacroix make it clear that Elizabeth's presence as Ellen Marie is being tolerated solely because of the child, the late Felix Delacroix's sole heir. There's an additional black mark against Elizabeth because Felix ditched his childhood betrothed, Celestine, in order to elope with Ellen Marie. If you think that maybe Celestine isn't the kind of woman to hold a grudge, think again. The matriarch, Grand'mere, is slightly more welcoming, but she leaves most of the major household matters to her grandson, Bernard, who is clearly suspicious of Elizabeth, and reluctant to give up Joseph's money.
The atmosphere in this book is incredible. The descriptions of the mansion and the bayou are beautiful and I could easily picture the swamps, the gardens, and the furnishings. The family drama was exceptional, too. Far too often, the characters in Gothic novel are reduced to cardboard cut-outs. I read a book recently, also from the 70s as it happens, called MISTRESS OF THE MOOR, and the bad guy in that book attempts to scare the heroine by cutting up her childhood teddybear and spelling out her name with the fluff on her bedroom wall. In this book, the scare tactics are far more sinister, involving deadly spiders, poison, fire, and various attempts at assassination and subterfuge.
I also really liked Elizabeth. She was resourceful and clever, but also mostly kind. When she did lash out, I couldn't blame her, because it was usually in response to some Delacroix bullsh*t.
Also, Maxwell/Blake has an incredible vocabulary. Here are some of the words I learned in this book: epergne • cabriole • brocatelle • nankeen • demitasse • fainéant • tignon
Anyone looking for a good Gothic novel should pick up DARK MASQUERADE. As of my writing this, it's only 99-cents from the Kindle store!