Quickie Reviews

I’ve read a lot of books over the last week or so, but none of them really made me feel like writing a whole lot about any of them, so I thought I’d put them all in one post.

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas

First up are the first two books in Sherry Thomas’s Fitzhugh trilogy, Beguiling the Beauty and Ravishing the Heiress. I really enjoyed these both quite a lot–and I suspect that I may have enjoyed Tempting the Bride (review) even more if I’d had a better idea of the back story between all the characters. But water, bridge, yadda yadda.

These two books are Venetia and Millie’s books, respectively, and while they don’t have anything as ridiculous as “heroine gets amnesia from getting kicked in the head by a horse” in them, they also deal with some interesting tropes from the genre.

Venetia’s romance is one of secret identity and revenge with a small digression into fossils (which reminded me of Amanda Quick’s Ravished and Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked, both of which involve fossils as major plot points). It was an interesting read but I found myself increasingly tired of being told so often how beautiful Venetia was, although the way she used her beauty in a knowingly calculated way at times was a refreshing change from the usual.  I had a hard time feeling invested in the relationship between her and Lexington, though, and I’m not sure why.

On the other hand, I ate up Millie and Fitz’s story with the proverbial spoon and I think that was because there was SO MUCH ANGST. Theirs is a marriage of convenience–Fits has inherited an estate that is deeply in debt and Millie’s father has a lot of money and a need to marry her to someone with a title. They agree to not consummate their marriage for 8 years and to give each other their freedom in the interim. What this amounts to, of course, is Fitz being free to do as he wishes and Millie being chastely faithful to him because she’s fallen in love with him. Over the eight years, their marriage develops into a deep friendship and partnership and their unrequited longing for each other was deliciously unbearable until they finally–finally–come to each other and confess their true feelings. It was delightfully angsty and really satisfying to read.

About Last Night, Ruthie Knox

About Last Night, Ruthie Knox

Then I picked up a copy of Ruthie Knox’s About Last Night (digital only, alas) based on a recommendation from Rachael Herron because I am a sucker for pretty much anything involving knitting.

This one’s about Cath and Nev, two people who are familiar with each other because they live in the same neighborhood and take the same train (as someone who used to take the bus to work this really resonated with me–you do get to know the regulars). Cath is escaping her past and trying to make a new future and Nev is trying to make a life for himself that is somewhat independent from his family.

One thing I really liked about this book was the way Cath was so good at letting Nev know what her boundaries were and how he did his best to respect them–even when he didn’t want to. For large chunks of the book he doesn’t know where she works or lives or her phone number. She gets to be more or less in control and I really liked that. The conflict felt really natural, too–Nev’s family doesn’t understand him and have an idea of what his life should be like and he mostly goes along with that until he can’t anymore because he basically has to choose either Cath or going along with his family.  I really liked the crunchy complicatedness of both Cath and Nev and I’m definitely going to pick up some more of Knox’s books as they come out and as the budget allows (I have had a bit of a book buying binge this last week).

Bared to You, Sylvia Day

Bared to You, Sylvia Day

Next on the list is Sylvia Day’s first Crossfire novel, Bared to You. Loaned to me by a friend, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much–I’ve heard people at work talk about this title in much the same way they talk about Fifty Shades of Grey (which I’ve read and was sort of meh about), so my expectations were pretty low.

I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not a great piece of writing and I’ll probably never reread it (and may very well not read anything else in the series), but it wasn’t bad either. I really liked Eva and the slow reveal of her past and the way she was pretty good at communicating her desires and needs and boundaries to Gideon. Gideon wasn’t always good at listening, presumably because of some of his own issues that were hinted at in this book (there were a number of references to his first experiences with consensual sex which probably means that like Eva he has sexual abuse in his past) but he was willing to listen and try to do better.

I will admit that I have a hard time believing the “stupidly wealthy at the age of 28″ thing going on with Gideon because it is, frankly, unbelievable (Gideon reminded me a lot of J.D. Robb’s Roarke). I also have a hard time believing that Eva would develop such a strong rapport with her boss in such a short period of time and that she would be so amazing at her job in such a short period of time as well–not to mention the ethical problem of her becoming involved with a prospective client. I get that these books are, to a certain extent, wish fulfillment fantasies but come on. On the other hand, Eva’s roommate and best friend is a bisexual man who gets it on with both men and women in the book and there’s definitely something to be said about that (especially since the co-workers I heard talking about these books have also said a lot of really gross things about queer people that made me feel sad and uncomfortable and helpless, so one can hope that the non-judgemental way that Cary’s sexuality is portrayed in this book will eventually sink in).

Carrie's Story, Molly Weatherfield

Carrie’s Story, Molly Weatherfield

And finally, the last book I’ve read so far is Molly Weatherfield’s Carrie’s Story–a book I’ve wanted to read for a very long time and just never got around to it (when it initially came out a decade ago I was too broke to buy books on a whim).

If you’re looking for a BDSM-lite book, this isn’t the book for you. It’s not quite as extreme as what I remember from Anne Rice’s Beauty books or Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series, but it’s definitely more hardcore than Fifty Shades of Grey. A lot of the reviews of Carrie’s Story on Amazon are about how it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey. And no, it’s not–BDSM isn’t pathologized in it and the narrator (the titular Carrie) is smart, self-aware, and wonderfully analytical of what’s happening to her. She is a passive participant in her objectification and her internal journey was, to me, more interesting than what was happening to her body.

Carrie’s narrative voice is a big part of what makes this book so successful and it is her voice that allowed me to suspend my disbelief around a lot of the fantastical aspects of the setting. It’s hard for me to articulate why I liked this book so much–a lot of my liking has to do with the way that everyone is aware that they are acting in a system that has been explicitly designed to be fundamentally unfair and that it is, in many ways, a reflection of the way that the world we live in is also unfair–except that the power exchange isn’t consensual and the submission and subjugation isn’t chosen but imposed. There’s a lot more going on in this book than just a lot of explicitly kinky sex and I really wish that I’d gotten around to reading it sooner.

So that’s what I’ve been reading this past week–I am feeling a bit overloaded with romance right now and think I’ll be strategically retreating into SF/F for the next little while in order to cleanse my palate.

Tempting the Bride, Sherry Thomas

Tempting the Bride, Sherry Thomas

Tempting the Bride, Sherry Thomas

As I said on Twitter: OH MY GOD THIS BOOK. It is utterly awesome and completely insane in terms of all the crazy shit that goes down in it. It is, in some ways, like an old school romance but without all the icky gross lack of consent stuff that usually happens in old school romance.

The book in question is Sherry Thomas’s newest, Tempting the Bride. The third book in the Fitzhugh Trilogy (I have the other two but haven’t read them yet–I don’t feel as if I’ve been spoiled for them by reading this one first, either), it features Helena Fitzhugh and David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings.

Helena has loathed David since they first met when she was fourteen years old and David has been in love with her since then–and, of course, he shows his love by being completely awful to her. Normally, I hate this because 99.9% of the time in real life the boy (or man) isn’t teasing the girl (or woman) because he likes her, he’s doing it to put her into her proper place. But I decided to roll with it and see where it went and oh, it went to delightful places.

Helena is a handful–more than a bit of a bluestocking, she’s university-educated, owns her own publishing house, and has been carrying on with a married man–up to and including sneaking off to his room in the evenings during a house party. David discovers this–because he’s being kind of creepy and watching her room and he knows he’s being kind of creepy–and tells her family but does not reveal the identity of the man. They send her off to America for a period of time and when she returns, she is chaperoned at all times. The man she’s having an affair with is warned off her and for the six months after her return, there is no contact between them.

During this time as well, David sends her–for publication–a work of erotic fiction that is extremely graphic and explicit and is illustrated as well. Helena locks it in a drawer but can’t resist looking at it every so often.

Then Helena gets what she believes is a telegram from her lover and makes plans to duck her chaperone and meet him. David manages to figure out it’s a set-up and makes it appear as if she were meeting him–and announces that they have just eloped in order to save Helena’s reputation.

And this is when the story really starts to ramp up–shortly after the announcement of the elopement but before they can actually marry, Helena gets kicked in the head by a horse and develops amnesia. And has no idea who David is and she has no choice but to get to know him without all the years of bickering between them–and she finds that she rather likes him. David, of course, is delighted by this but also knows that she will eventually remember their shared history (she is slowly recovering her memory about other people) and when she does, there is a reckoning. It’s really wonderful–Thomas is so good at characterization that I found myself  rooting for both Helena and David and their relationship because it’s made clear that if they can manage to move past their history and see each other for who they truly are that the relationship will be one of equals and one that brings an equal measure of joy to both.

Another wonderful thing in this book is David’s daughter, Bea. She is David’s daughter by a prostitute and was taken in by him when she was but three months old, after her mother died of pneumonia. I would say that she is intended to be autistic and David’s care for her is just fantastic–she is more than just a plot device to make him sympathetic, she is her own person and an integral part of the story. She is never pitied by David or Helena and the text makes it clear that the reader isn’t to pity her either. David makes sure all her needs are met and that he is there for her when she expects him to be (she is very much wedded to her schedule). He paints astonishingly beautiful murals for her and accommodates her neurological differences in a way that I found really supportive of her as well as giving her a safe space to expand the boundaries of her world if she desires (David never forces her). Just lovely.

And finally, Thomas has self-published the erotic manuscript that David has submitted to Helena–it’s called The Bride of Larkspear and I found it both enjoyable and emotionally satisfying, if for no reason other than the insight it gives into David’s depth of feeling for Helena. He can’t seem to help saying awful things to her but through his actions he’s trying to tell her what he feels for her–it makes him vulnerable in a way that I think mitigates a lot of the terrible things that come out of his mouth. He knows he’s an idiot and can’t seem to get his foot out of his mouth long enough to stop being an idiot so this story is one of the ways he tries to let Helena know how he feels (there is a great scene in Tempting the Bride that deliberately and explicitly mirrors a scene from this novella).

Midnight Scandals (anthology)

Midnight Scandals (anthology)

Midnight Scandals (anthology)

Midnight Scandals is a self-published anthology of three novellas from Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan, and Sherry Thomas. I don’t know if they meet the precise definition of a novella, but they have chapters and are fairly short but are longer than a short story, so that’s what I’m going with.

I basically bought this because I love Courtney Milan’s novels and, at this point, would be more than happy to read her grocery list (I would also read Loretta Chase and Tessa Dare’s grocery lists).

I have also read one of Sherry Thomas’s novels and enjoyed it well enough, but was completely unfamiliar with Carolyn Jewel’s work. I admit, I was a bit concerned about that, because the last time I bought an anthology with a novella from an author whose work I wasn’t familiar with I was not very impressed and it was definitely the weakest story of the bunch.

So the deal with this anthology is that they’re all set at the same house in the north of England–and there is some interconnection between the first two, but not so much that they don’t stand alone. The third novella is a standalone story.

I do reveal key plot points below, so keep that in mind if you don’t want to be spoiled. Non-spoilery: wonderful and worth every penny.

***

First up is Carolyn Jewel’s “One Starlit Night”. Portia and Crispin grew up together–he as the scion of Northword Hill and she at a neighboring estate, Doyle’s Grange. Lovers in their teens, Crispin left for London a decade ago and only now, two years after his wife’s death (who has no name and that is really kind of annoying because she is referred to by several characters–always in the context of being Crispin’s wife which is…argh), has he returned to his childhood home. Portia, on the other hand, has never been more than 20 miles from home and is engaged to another man.

See, Portia’s brother Magnus is a newlywed and his wife, Eleanor, is Awful. I mean, she’s perfectly nice. If you like passive aggressive women who have to get their way all the time or else there might be disappointed sighs or crying. One can hardly blame Portia for wanting to get away. So Crispin and Portia have this history together and Eleanor is Awful and she gets Portia so upset that one of my least favorite romance cliches occurs: trapped by weather in a secluded location with no chaperone.

To Jewel’s credit, though, the aftermath of that scene is not what I–or Crispin or Portia!–expected to happen and for that I am grateful. The sex scenes in this novella are well-done and not too gynecological, if you know what I mean. And Crispin isn’t circumcised! Which would have been totally accurate for the time period! It’s the little details that make me happy. Also making me happy: the way the conflict that tore Portia and Crispin apart is slowly revealed and how they each blame themselves, the way that it’s made pretty clear that Portia was pregnant and then she wasn’t pregnant anymore and that it was on purpose and that it was a very dangerous thing for her to do, the way Crispin totally understands how Awful Eleanor is and finally, the way that Crispin finally realizes that if he doesn’t do something that Portia’s going to make her own future–and that future may not include him.

***

Courtney Milan’s novella is called “What Happened at Midnight” and, well, my initial reaction to it is an all caps flaily sort of OMG-ness which, well, is unbecoming in a reviewer. It really is that good, though

Mary Chartley is the daughter of an embezzler. She has fled to a position as a paid companion at Doyle’s Grange where she hopes she will be safe from John Mason, her former betrothed and who, as one of her father’s victims, has sworn he will find out what her father did with the money one way or another. Unfortunately for Mary, the man she is working for is an emotionally abusive man who is aces at gaslighting his wife and her paid companion, so it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for her.

This book revolves around Mary figuring out how to rescue herself and LadyPatsworth from Sir Walter while simultaneously coming clean with John about her father’s embezzlement and where the money he took went. Once John realizes that she doesn’t have the money and that she didn’t know until after her father’s suicide that it had been spent on her, he backs off on his whole revenge thing because he is–gasp!–a decent human being and can see that there’s a heck of a lot more going on.

Milan really seems to get what it would have meant to be a woman in the time and place she writes about (Victorian England) and her characters feel, to me, so firmly rooted in that time and place.  I’m going to indulge myself in a handful of quotations now because I feel like sharing the awesome.

From Chapter 3, when the reader first encounters Sir Walter:

Etiquette. Safety. Responsibility. They sounded like such admirable virtues, until Sir Walter got his hands on them.

He didn’t look like a monster. He didn’t act like one. Mary hadn’t even realized he was one for months. He’d taken away her money, her freedom, her friends, and it wasn’t until she was well and truly leashed, without a penny in her possession, that she’d realized what he’d done.

When she’d left Southampton eighteen months ago, she’d known her life had changed. Sir Walter had taught her what that meant. She’d lost all control over her future. She was dependent on the goodwill of the men around her.

From Chapter 6, when Mary starts sneaking out at night to have long conversations with John:

“Please,” she said, “please, don’t tell me that this is friendship if all you want is to hear my answers. I can bear a great many things, but not that. Don’t treat me like a real person if you don’t really believe it.”

And, I think, one more from Chapter 12, after Sir Walter has been publicly routed, Lady Patsworth safely escaped, and Mary complete in her self-knowledge:

She placed her fingers against his palm. “Not a lady,” she said. “A lady wouldn’t have gone to London and discovered the circumstances of the money. A lady doesn’t plot to help women get divorces. A lady doesn’t force her employer to pay wages by enlisting the help of a viscountess. I’ll never be a lady.” She smiled, and squeezed his hand. “I think…I rather think I’m something better.”

Milan’s stories are nothing if not intense–which is one of the things I love about them. Her characters aren’t always nobility or even gentry and the situations they’re in seem, to my rather inexpert eye, rather plausible. In this story, Mary’s the daughter of a businessman and John is a gentleman farmer who has a knack for drainage and you get the sense that hey, they’re more or less regular people. In some ways, the way Milan writes reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold, especially in A Civil Campaign and Memory. There’s always a great story happening in her books, but there are also discussions of women’s roles in society and the way that entire society was (and is still, in so many ways) structured to make sure that women stayed in the roles that were deemed best for them–from legal strictures to social constraints.

I do have one quibble. At the end, when Mary is making her escape and they get trapped by weather (SERIOUSLY?) and John has to get her out of her wet clothes, it becomes clear that one of her two dresses is one that buttons up the back and her corset laces up the back as well. Only a woman with access to a servant would have such a dress and I can’t imagine that a paid companion would have that kind of access–wouldn’t Mary have wanted to acquire clothing she could put on and take off without assistance? But really, if that’s the only quibble I have with a story, I’m doing pretty well.

***

 The final novella in this anthology is Sherry Thomas’s “A Dance By Moonlight”. I’ve only read one of her novels, His at Night, but she has long been on my “read more books by this writer” list.

This novella gets the “trapped by weather” thing our of the way on the first page. In this case, it’s the mechanism by which our hero, Ralston Fitzwilliam, first sees our heroine, Isabelle Englewood and is somehow intrigued by her, to the point where he feels he must call upon her in subsequent days.

What Ralston doesn’t know is that he bears a marked resemblance to Isabelle’s childhood sweetheart, Fitz. After the initial mistaken identity hijinks, Isabelle and Ralston develop a really sweet friendship–they’re both widowed and they both loved their deceased spouses very much. That was one of the things I really loved about this–that after the contrived meeting, they both stepped away and decided to get to know each other better and that they both had happy first marriages. So often in romances the first marriage is really and truly Awful, so I was really glad to see the opposite here. I also liked that Isabelle’s first husband, Lawrence, had a splendid mustache and that Ralston was really interested in him and that she was really interested in his first wife, Charlotte. The fact that they both had pasts with sorrow and happiness in them and that neither of those things would be erased by their new relationship was really just lovely.

I loved the way they were familiar with each other in their letters but still very respectful and I loved that Isabelle had children who weren’t plot devices but their own people. I also loved her relationship with her sister Louise and how supporting Louise was of her–even when what she wanted was deeply unconventional. I also really liked how invested in Isabelle’s happiness Fitz and his wife, Millie, were.

***

Overall, I really, really enjoyed this collection–each of the stories is substantial and well-told and I think any of them would serve as a great introduction to each author’s style and type of story, if you’re not familiar with any of them. For those of you worried about this being a self-published title, have no fears: the e-text is beautifully laid out and formatted and I didn’t spot any typos or other glaring mistakes. It’s also DRM-free.

Note: I bought this book with my own money.