Mini-Sort-of-Review: Courtney Milan, Once Upon A Marquess

I had so much fun reading Courtney Milan’s Once Upon A Marquess that I now want to go back and finish Trade Me and The Suffragate Scandal, and also The Countess Conspiracy which I suspect I will love!

I’m just going to list all the things that made me like this one:

  • That it’s Christian who’s obviously in love with Judith at the start of the story
  • That Christian’s Marquess-ness plays absolutely no part in the story!
  • That Christian is odd in a way that’s definitely odd rather than being cute
  • That Christian and Judith communicate with each other, openly and honestly, throughout the book
  • That Judith’s relationship with her brother and sister gets the same air time as her relationship with Christian which fleshes out her character and gives coherence to her choices
  • That Theresa and Benedict, the sister and brother, are also decidedly odd in a rather non plot-moppet way!
  • That the story unfolds against the aftermath of the Opium Wars—which makes me want to re-read Sea of Poppies and finish-up the rest of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy!
  • That Christian and Judith banter as two gay geese! And that this bantering reveals, like nothing else could have, how finely attuned they are to each other
  • That you can get really, really angry with your loved ones and wish them to Hades and still love them
  • That Christian’s accusations of treason against Anthony, Judith’s elder brother, did not turn out to be a namby-pamby decoy-ishy plot device

I can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

What about you? Have you read Once Upon A Marquess?

Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon

In the world of regency romance, a guy has to be a duke-in-waiting or at the very least a 19th-century-equivalent-of-a-self-made-millionaire to merit status as a hero. Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon turns this convention on its head by having a gentleman’s gentleman for its hero and a maid-of-all-work as its heroine.

John Toogood has been made redundant recently and Sukey Grimes is turned out without a job. The only position open requires a married couple and so the two enter a marriage of convenience that’s made easier by the fact that they’re obviously attracted to each other. The attraction however does nothing to alleviate the insecurities that they each suffer—Toogood about his age (this is a May-December romance) and Sukey about her unworthiness for someone as grand as Toogood. That the challenges in their relationship exist despite the attraction is something I really appreciated. It drives me bonkers when authors attempt to paper over the problems in a relationship with combustible attraction.

listen to the moon

Lerner draws a richly detailed world of the early 19th century serving class, laying bare the circumscribed nature of their existence. She shows that people are people no matter their class, and that this too is a world that brims with love and longing. While the class distinctions are clear and well-defined, there’s no romanticizing of one over the other. Everyone has a story, Lerner seems to be saying. Like the man and the mistress that they used to serve, Toogood and Sukey too harbor ambition, and cope with their fears as best as they can. Yet neither Sukey nor Toogood “reach above themselves.”

It’s not that they’re not cognizant of the lot that they have been dealt with. They are. “A servant’s home was her world,” Sukey thinks to herself at one point and “John wished, not for the first time, that employers felt obligated to be as tactful and carefully distant as servants did.” But not once does Lerner even hint at the world of title-dom for her characters. She knows that sowing seeds of such ambition would completely derail the story that she is telling.

Lerner’s decision to eschew the glitter of title-dom for a story with characters who face many more practical limitations about what they can and cannot do makes for a more interesting romance-reading experience. I loved that the following perspective. . .

She’d see him fussing with Mr. Summer’s nightshirt and banyan and slippers and nightcap: Were they warm? Were they hanging too near the fire? Were the coals in the warming pan still hot, and should it be moved to another part of the bed?

Hours of work for a half-second less of chill, and would Mr. Summers even notice the difference? And John had worn himself out, nothing left for his wife.

. . . is juxtaposed with this one:

He didn’t know how to explain that it mattered to him, that these skills he’d acquired for pride and coin could comfort her. It sanctified something temporal and mundane.

I had a lot of fun seeing Sukey and Toogood lay their demons to rest. However, I did think that the story dragged quite a lot. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been tighter and shorter. I am looking forward to Mrs. Khaleel’s story though! (And yes, Listen to the Moon has made me think about Jo Baker’s Longbourn—has anyone read it?).

Maybe generosity wasn’t about giving or receiving. Maybe it was just about the sharing. In joy and care, whichever happened to be in the offing.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant

There are things that I really liked about A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong and things that I really didn’t like.

Andrew Blackshear is a straitlaced young man with strong beliefs about propriety and honor. Lucy Sharp is his opposite, having been brought up in a manner atypical of the society and milieu she occupies. Their initial attraction to each other stems from the glimpses they have into each other’s hearts which seem to hint at something more than the personas they don. And yet, one of the reasons why I could not warm up to this story very much is right here—in their initial stages of attraction.

a christmas gone perfectly wrong cecilia grantThe opening scene of the story—Lucy is riding astride in the middle of a lane on a windswept, rainy afternoon when Andrew stops to offer assistance, catching his first glimpse of her—becomes a defining moment in their attraction for each other. He is arrested by her sight for reasons which my brain completely failed to latch on to. Maybe because the moment was a riff off of insta-love, a trope which is one of my least favorite? To be fair to Miss Grant, Andrew’s and Lucy’s relationship does not spring entirely from this one moment. But the moment does become a cornerstone in their attraction for each other and my lukewarm reaction to it meant that I was always going to be suspicious of the relationship that followed in its wake.

Andrew is a character to whom a “gentleman’s honor . . . is no frivolous indulgence. If he’s any sort of worthwhile man it’s his very backbone,” and one can see that the story moves the way it does in large parts because of this “backbone” that forms the core of Andrew’s character.

On the other hand, one of my main beefs with the story is the way Lucy’s character is written. Her manipulations of Andrew felt as if the author was manipulating me, the reader. Her actions felt like contrivance on the author’s part— attempts to orchestrate events in a certain way for the sake of moving the plot along, rather than organic everyday happenings in the life of the hero and the heroine. However, once Grant DOES manage to get her pair together, quite a few of their later conversations has that everyday feel of been-together-for-a-while which is quite lovely to read about.

Perhaps the biggest reason for my not really enjoying A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is that we see things more from Andrew’s point of view which in this case translated into me feeling as if I never really got to know Lucy’s character. Compared to Andrew, Lucy feels uni-dimensional. I could see the change in Andrew through the course of the story but Lucy’s trajectory felt flat to me. She just didn’t feel interesting the way Andrew did.

One of my favorite moments in the story again fell to Andrew’s share while Lucy simply benefits from his perspicacity. The two are quarrelling in the middle of a party when Andrew realizes that they were both talking past each other—addressing the idealized version each had in their head of the other rather than the person standing in front of them. I read the scene and lit up in recognition. Who hasn’t been the recipient, or the originator of this sort of “talking past” at some point or the other?

I’ll end with this bit:

You can’t really know whether a sentiment is abiding until it’s had a few years over which to abide, can you? Surely everyone who marries must let go the need for certainty, and proceed to some extent on hope and faith.

Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

sophie and the sybil50 pages into Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance I decided to DNF it. It was way too erudite for me, chock full of references to Greek (or was it Roman?) statesmen and philosophers and people of yore whom I’ve no clue about. (An aside: Greek/Roman mythology and history bores me. . . maybe because there’s only so much headspace that can be devoted to gods and kings and mine is already in the clutches of the Indian pantheon whom I was weaned on) Anyway, deciding that this was more a book for folks with a “classical Western education,” I kept the book aside.

That is till the next day—when I googled the Lucian in the book who held everyone in thrall. And found out that I had been had in a major way. Because, guess what? There exists no Latin Lucian and no Professor Heinrich Klausner and no A Fragment Concerning the Origins of Early Christianity whose lengthy ruminations are read with deep fervor by the characters in the novel!

And so, now properly intrigued, I plunged into the story.

Let’s start with the Sybil of Sophie and the Sybil. She is none other than George Eliot—yes, the one and only, the late great Victorian authoress. Duncker’s Eliot is an interesting creature—charismatic, wise, warm, with just a hint of something about her that puts you on the edge. The thing is Patricia Duncker’s George Eliot is not really that simple. “Nothing could be more morally uplifting and improving than [Eliot’s] books,” to quote the Sophie of the title. “They are proof of her nobility, and the greatness of her soul,” she declares. But are Eliot the author, and Eliot the person, the one and very same asks Sophie’s creator.

On the one hand we experience the full weight of the Sybil’s personality, and are made to see that:

It was not just the generous freedom in her manners, nor her lack of affectation and the clarity of her gestures that formed the basis of her charisma, it was the passion of her attention that made her beautiful still.

On the other hand, Duncker also throws in enough twists in the plots to make the reader question the Sybil’s motives and wonder if she isn’t just an aging, old woman with a “craving for admiration and praise.”

The Sophie of the title is an eighteen-year-old countess born to and brought up in wealth and privilege. She’s boundless with energy, and adores Eliot (at least to begin with). The twists and turns that I mention above have her questioning her idol’s sagacity, and it is through her eyes, that we see the side of Sybil which makes her appear like a “witch” intent on devouring those who step into her circle.

Sandwiched between Sophie and the Sybil is feckless Max Duncker, the younger half of the Sybil’s German publisher (no relation to the actual author of the book!) Though he proposes to one, and marries the other, he understands neither. It is through his eyes that we experience the Sybil’s charm, and Sophie’s untrammeled vigor and thirst for life.

I’ll be honest here and mention that Duncker’s Eliot is not exactly likeable. If anything she comes across as gently menacing. I don’t have the sort of knowledge necessary to gauge the veracity of Duncker’s characterization—but it kind of doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because despite the dichotomy, and despite the clearly ambiguous relationship that she has with George Eliot, Patricia Duncker is unflinching in giving Eliot her due.

And so while the Sybil receives a missive from her “devoted publisher,” Blackwood, saying—

If you have any lighter pieces, written before the sense of what a great author should do for mankind came so strongly upon you, I should like much to look at them.

—the narrator also acknowledges that

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live for ever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Even though Duncker succeeds in making me contemplate Eliot the person with a vague dislike, she has made me really look forward to experiencing Eliot the author.

Mary Balogh, An Unlikely Duchess & A Promise of Spring

I want to talk about Mary Balogh! I finished An Unlikely Duchess and ooh, I just loved it!

Before delving into An Unlikely Duchess though I quickly want to mention the three other Mary Baloghs that I’ve read and enjoyed in the recent past: A Christmas Bride, The Temporary Wife and A Promise of Spring.

Oh reader! I think I have found my new favorite regency romance author!

(I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of Miss Balogh’s recent works too (I think it might be from the Simply series) but either I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for them or they didn’t hit the sweet spot in the way that her earlier books seem to be doing. I want to go hunt up all her old books now!)

The number one thing that stands out for me across all these four stories is how different their protagonists are from each other! As a lover of historical romance who’s become weary of the sameness that pervades the genre, Balogh’s earlier books seem like a breath of fresh air. Her characters have a story that is uniquely theirs.

Mary Balogh A Promise of SpringI want to talk a little bit about A Promise of Spring which features a heroine who is ten years older than the hero. It’s a marriage of convenience trope and one that is excellently executed (and since this was the third marriage of convenience trope that I read from Balogh I suspect it’s a favorite of hers).

The hero was a friend of the heroine’s brother whose death has left our heroine destitute. Right in the beginning the hero, “who commanded respect entirely through the kindliness and integrity of his character,” realizes that here was a woman “whom, belatedly, he wished to know.” There’s something about that. . . lack of a martyr-ness and “goodliness” despite the offer he makes that made me warm up to him right away.

The heroine is really well rendered. We come to know that she is one who likes to keep herself emotionally aloof from those around her. She has reasons for being and doing so. The interactions that Balogh makes us privy to between the heroine and her family with whom she’s had a fractious past rang true.

That the trajectory of this marriage of convenience mirrors the path that the heroine takes as she comes to terms with who she was, and who she has become is one of my favorite parts about the book. I just love when stories show so clearly that while external circumstances play a role in the shaping of who we are, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are are equally important too.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story:

Marriage was a living, dynamic relationship that must keep growing if it was to survive. They would have to want to be happy if they were to be so.

. . .

There were no certainties when one was married. Because, however close one became to another person, one never became that person.

Ahhhh. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s such a good feeling to read a story from an author who not only understands this but also incorporates it into in her story.

Ok, onto An Unlikely Duchess which is a completely different beast from A Promise of Spring!

An Unlikely Duchess Mary BaloghIn An Unlikely Duchess we have a hero—a duke—of a middling face and physique. Mr. Paul Villiers, Duke of Mitford, is a paragon of propriety and decorum who “had ever been intimate” with only one woman and that too an affair “conducted so discreetly that it was doubtful many people even knew about it.” Like with marriage of convenience, Balogh does “beta” heroes really, really well too.

Villiers is on his way to offer for our heroine, Josephine Middleton, who is perhaps the most brainless heroine I have ever had the good fortune to read about. Normally I would be up in arms about a female being characterized and referred to as brainless again, and again. But in this case—I join the chorus of characters in calling out Jo as incapable of using her head! In my defense, our heroine’s displays of brainlessness lead to such hilarious capers that I couldn’t help being glad that she was who she was!

At the very start of the story she declares, “I can’t marry this duke . . . A duke! . . . A duke, Sukey. Can you honestly see me marrying a duke? . . . I can’t marry a duke.” The marriage has been arranged by the duke’s family who are laboring under the misapprehension that our heroine is an upstanding young lady who crosses all her t-s and dots all her i-s.

Our unsure hero intercepts our heroine on his way to her home while she’s in the middle of extricating herself from the clutches of an evil villain who was supposed to help her extricate herself from the clutches of the duke in the first place. Yes, dear reader, the story stars a villain too—one who  unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the reader, is brainless too! He doesn’t realize Josephine’s true mettle. Because while she may be lacking in sense, she’s full of sensibility! And spunk! And a joie de vivre which was surprisingly fun to read about.

The poor duke being the actual upstanding citizen in this farce offers to help our heroine recover the jewels that she discovers have been stolen by the villainous personage, and as you can imagine, hilarity and romance ensue! It’s a romance of the very unobtrusive variety, the kind where the fact that two people are falling in love is announced not by trumpets or choruses but by the kind of small observations that you know two people who only have eyes for each other would notice:

Mr. Villiers looked surprised. He also looked very nice indeed, with his curls all about his face and down over the collar of his coat. He had brushed them upstairs in their room, but really he was wasting his time doing so. His hair, thank goodness, did what it wanted to do.

Or when our hero realizes that despite all his notions of propriety he still hasn’t returned our heroine back to the safety of her family:

“I think,” the Duke of Mitford said mildly, “I am a very mad gentleman, ma’am.”

Oh there is no end to the scenes which set me laughing. I don’t want to list them here—I would rather you try getting hold of a copy of the book and read it for yourself! I can say with some confidence that this is most likely going to become one of my all time favorite regency romances! It is THAT good!

Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses and Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife

I’ve been dithering and dathering (why isn’t that a word?) about two historical romances that I read a while back and that I liked quite a lot. So instead of not writing anything about either I decided to do a short burst of my thoughts on both, together!

Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife is a charming read while Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is one of the more thoughtful romances that I’ve read in a while.

TruePretenses_220Both the stories feature unusual heroes who helped me enjoy the books more than I otherwise would have. Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses features a hero who isn’t rich or titled. In fact he’s the polar opposite: a swindler, who makes his living by thieving. In Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife the hero is neither titled nor particularly handsome or sophisticated. What then is the reason for the sway that these heroes come to hold over the heroine, and also over me? Wherein lies their power?

For TWTaW, it’s Mr. Brundy’s absolute confidence in himself. He is a self-made man who is “Beau Brumell’s worst nightmare,” and is held in contempt by his wife. He’s aware of the considerable difficulties he faces in winning his wife’s heart and yet his sense of humour remains unflappable. He seems impervious to the insults directed his way, amusement being his most frequent reaction to words that are intended to elicit embarrassment or hurt. In this he reminded of perhaps my favourite hero in the romance cannon: Hugh Daracott.

In True Pretenses Ash’s love for his younger brother is a defining characteristic of who he is. This love, far from being expressed as manly gruffness, is poignant, and heart-breaking at times. Add to this the fact that Ash is someone who makes his living by swindling with all its inherent risks and uncertainties and moral hazards and for the first time that I remember, I find myself reading about a hero who is truly vulnerable with no safety net in sight. Here’s a bit that made me fall in love with him some more:

[He’s talking to a boy who’s about to lose his job] It’s not enough to smile, he wanted to tell the boy. You have to find a way to feel cheerful.

Ash KNOWS that it isn’t enough to pretend. The pretending has to feel real, has to feel true in order to convince the person in front of you. (Can I just say that this exploration of lies, truths, and how the two intersect is one of my favourite things about True Pretenses?)

sheri cobb southBoth the stories (more so True Pretenses) have quotidian, minutiae of life details, which appeals to me. In True Pretenses this takes the form of the workings of a small village in the middle of nowhere with its lively community and markets and everyone-knowing-everyone-else’s business. In TWTaW one of my favourite scenes is the one in which the hero’s character is revealed in startling clarity to the heroine as she visits his place of work, which happens to be a factory.

I will leave you with bits from both the books that I particularly like.

From The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South:

Any one of Manchester’s dozens of cotton mills could produce calico and gingham, but this one had produced a man. He had been tempered in the fires of poverty and hard labor, forged into a man unlike any Town beau she had ever known. He was the gentlest of men, yet he had held his ground against the Duke of Reddington’s towering rage. He was an astute businessman, yet he treated his workers with consideration and fairness. He debated labor reform with members of Parliament, yet he took the trouble to buy peppermints for a child in his employ. In their three weeks of marriage, he had never responded in kind to her verbal barbs, but had shown her more kindness, perhaps, than she deserved.

And from Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses whose next story features a butler for a hero that I can’t wait to read about!

“I like winter,” she said. “I like. . . you can feel the world waiting, and not minding the wait. People say things die in winter, but it isn’t true, mostly. They just gather their strength.”

P.S. Why do contemporary romances have such boring covers? I found the cover of TWTaW sans bare bosoms and naked chests more attractive in comparison!

The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

I’ve been away.

But now I’m back!

In the between-while I have been reading romances. A glut of romances. Nothing else but romances! So many romances that I’ve started reading We, The Drowned to cleanse my reading palate.

Let me begin with Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah McLean which was a really nice time-filler of a book. It’s really. . . nice? With a big reveal. However—you knew there was going to be a however didn’t you—I can’t say that it’s a book which makes me squee or makes me want to particularly think about it.

With that out of the way let me talk about my new favourite author, Stella Riley. I discovered her through Dear Author (which has had its own very big kerfuffle just a couple of days ago btw if you’re interested). So anyway, I read Riley’s The Parfit Knight and The Mésalliance and while I enjoyed the latter I loved the former!

Here’s a description of The Parfit Knight from the author’s site:

The Marquis of Amberley is rich, assured and thirty-four years old, with the reputation of being a law unto himself and a degree of charm which even his friends consider disastrous.

When his coach is waylaid by highwaymen and his coachman shot, he is forced to take shelter at the first house he finds and is subsequently trapped there for a week by a severe snow storm.

Oakleigh Manor is the home of beautiful, twenty-two year-old Rosalind Vernon who lives alone but for her devoted servants and an ill-natured parrot, cut off from the outside world by the tragic result of a childhood accident. But Rosalind is brave and bright and totally devoid of self-pity – and it is these qualities which, as the days pass and the snow continues to fall, cause Amberley to fall in love.

On his return to London, the Marquis persuades Rosalind’s brother, Philip, to bring her to town for a taste of society – a move which, despite her handicap, Rosalind handles brilliantly.

But the course of Amberley’s courtship is far from smooth for, due to a misapprehension, Philip Vernon actively dislikes him and Rosalind appears to be falling under the spell of the suavely elegant Duke of Rockliffe. Worse still, Amberley is haunted by a dark and terrible secret that, if revealed, may cause him to lose Rosalind forever.

Miss Riley’s forte seems to be characterization. Oh, she’s good with the rest of the bits too—her language for one was quite lovely but also quite unobtrusive if you know what I mean. . . used in service of the story rather than as a standout feature all on its own, an aspect that I found myself appreciating—but I think the reason she’s my new favourite author is because she’s really really good at filling out her story with just the right characters.

Take Amberley and Rockliffe, the hero of The Mésalliance for instance. Amberley and Rockliffe are both very hero-like (handsome, commanding, and the other usual staples of a romance book hero) but are also quite different from each other. It struck me that one of the reasons why I’m not particularly moved to look up other books by an author I enjoyed, at least in genre romance, is because I could take the hero out of one book and put him in another by the same author without it making much difference to the story. On the other hand, a substitution would not work for Amberley’s and Rockliffe’s stories precisely because of the people they are—their romance unfolds the way it does because of who they are. I’ll concede that I’m coming to some rather hefty conclusions from a reading of just two books but I have a feeling that this is going to be true for all of Miss Riley’s works (hopefully!).

Amberley’s romancing of Rosalind is a delight to read. The tenderness that develops between our hero and heroine, to which they in time-honored tradition of the romance novel are quite oblivious (at least initially), is rather sweet. And yet perfect as they are I don’t think I would have sighed over The Parfit Knight the way I did if it was not also for the cast of its secondary characters without whom the story would not have been what it is.

And so there’s the villainous reprobate who is tiresome and selfish and remains faithful to villainy all the way till the end, causing havoc for our hero and heroine in the process (and yes, I couldn’t wait for him to receive his comeuppance!). Then there’s the supporting actress/faithful friend character who starts out as being an unknown quantity but proves her mettle rather quickly. The mutton-headed brother of the heroine, who’s also our supporting actress/friend’s love interest, is the obstructionist in the path of true love. Rockliffe stars as Amberley’s know-it-all best friend who has frighteningly omniscient powers and a prodigious love for snuff boxes. Our hero’s mother is poised, perfect and French. A rascally parrot with a penchant for curses and vilifications rounds up our motley crew.

Each character fits the bill perfectly. I can almost imagine Miss Riley having back stories for each of them which the reader is not privy to but which affects how he or she is portrayed in the story one is reading. The same holds true for The Mésalliance which has its own list of secondary characters and romances.

Unlike other authors, with Miss Riley, I find myself eager to read her other stories and see for myself what she does there. I’ll report how that excursion into her back list goes. Till then, I’d recommend you try out The Parfit Knight yourself!