The Governess Game (CBR10 #46)

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I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly. Dare writes what I fondly refer to as Historical Fantasy Romance. There is *some* historically accurate details running through her narrative but they are very thin and often bent to suit her plot needs. In the second outing in the Girl Meets Duke series we’re following Alex Mountbatten, introduced in The Duchess Deal, who makes her living by setting clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. Following a terrible, and hysterically inappropriate interview for a governess position she doesn’t realize she’s being interviewed for, Alex loses the chronometer that is her livelihood. With literally no way to make her living she returns to the home of Chase Reynaud and takes the governess position after all. Chase Reynaud is heir presumptive to his uncle’s Dukedom as well as the guardian of two little girls, and a renowned rake who wants none of the responsibility of any of it.

With that starting point we’re off on a classic Dare story. Readers who don’t enjoy her works usually either don’t like the anachronisms or find her structure too repetitive. I don’t have problems with either of those things, and in reality read her books for exactly those things. I like knowing what to expect and Dare’s writing breaks down into a pretty clear set of standards. We’ve already covered the first, Alex Mountbatten is absolutely an independent lady making her own way in the world, in fact, Dare sets her up to have had no other option since the age of 10.

While Dare tends to specialize in a Marriage of Convenience plot, this book plays on the motif by having the characters living under the same roof as employer and governess. Chase is the Wounded Hero to Alex’s Independent Lady, emotionally stunted by events in his past who is nevertheless smitten with the heroine. The being smitten leads to smolder and steamy sexy times, and because Dare is writing in a more and more feminist way Chase focuses on consent in his interactions with Alex. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. While Chase’s emotional withholding worked less well for me than Alex’s very realistic fears there was never a false note in their emotional interactions.

The other two common aspects of a Dare novel are interesting, but not overtaking, side characters and an infusion of comedy or whimsy in some regard. Dare is not afraid of humor and in The Governess Game it is the two characters of the little girls where this strength is used. Children can devolve to plot moppets very easily in Romance, but Dare manages to write believable children who are never twee and rooted in the emotional landscape of their experiences. They are also the stage for the laugh out loud moments in the story: the morning burials of Millicent the doll who dies each day (sometimes more than once per day) from some terrible disease and is buried in the toy box following a eulogy from Chase.

I read the book in one afternoon/evening taking only a few breaks. I did not want to leave these characters even while a headache was developing. There was perhaps one too many will they/won’t they back and forths, but the characters we are introduced to, the characters we see again, and the direction we’re headed for book three next year all worked for me in just the way I hoped they would when I purchased the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review them how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

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The Arrangement (CBR10 #43)

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I have stuff going on in my personal life right now (as do we all from time to time) so I found myself ready to check out of reality for a bit and sink into a safely fictional reality where things end happily. Off to Romancelandia I went to visit Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club and check off the Brain Candy square for bingo.

The Arrangement is the second book in the series, and I’ll admit that I was a bit put off by which characters were going to be our focus having enjoyed the romance of people in their thirties in the series opener. In The Proposal we’re introduced to the entire Survivors Club, including youngest member Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh who was blinded in the war at the tender age of 17. Now 23, he’s determined to reclaim his adulthood from the women in his family who have dedicated themselves to making his life easy. Their latest trick is setting up him up with a wife. Vincent is decidedly against anyone who understands and realizing the woman they’ve set him up with is as truly uninterested as he, takes off with his valet without word for his family.

As his travels bring him to his childhood home he runs across Sophia Fry who is living with relatives. When Sophia’s cousin attempts to trap Vincent in marriage Sophia steps in to stop it, costing Sophia her place in their home. Feeling responsible for her destitute state Vincent convinces Sophia to marry him – and agrees to a classic marriage of convenience arrangement – a year of proper marriage and then they can each be on their way to independent lives.

It’s a bit of a slow burn, even with the marriage of convenience bringing the characters together quickly. Balogh accounts for the relative youth of her characters (23 and 20) and the inherent inexperience they each bring to the table in all matters and achieves a sweet love story. The last third is plagued with the usual problems in this trope: communication issues and could have been trimmed by about forty pages without hurting the narrative structure in any way. I’ve landed at 3 stars, and remain interested in the rest of the series, even though I’m now nervous about book three, which features the only member of the Survivors Club who did not appear on page in this installment.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit, and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Her Every Wish (CBR10 #28)

Her Every Wish (The Worth Saga) by [Milan, Courtney]

For my next review and #CBR10Bingo square, let’s stay on brand, shall we? This morning I woke up unconscionably early and decided I had time for a novella before I had to deal with the day: so off to my bingo list and the award-winning novella by Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish.

Her Every Wish won the 2017 RITA for Romance Novella. The RITA awards are given by the Romance Writers of America, aims to promote excellence in the genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas (there is a separate award, The Golden Heart, for unpublished work). It is a wide field, up to 2,000 romance novels are entered in the competition into one of over a dozen categories (that number fluctuates year to year). There are two rounds of judging and the winners are announced each year at the RWA conference in July.

As beloved as she is, it is hard for me to believe that this was her first win and her second nomination, but Romancelandia is a wide and busy place and whether it affects things or not, Milan self-publishes. For those wondering, she was nominated a third time this year for her novella “The Pursuit of…” in Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection sitting on my digital shelf, and her first nomination was in 2014 for The Countess Conspiracy. I’ve not read the book which precedes this one, Once Upon a Marquess, as it was a bit of a disappointment to others and this series is still early in the writing stage, and set to be seven novels long. I had decided to wait it out until there was more of the series to read (although Emmalita’s review of After the Wedding got me to purchase that book and this one). In broad strokes Milan is endeavoring to continue her feminist romance mission but adding even more to the expected tropes of historic romances set in England. Milan is an author on a mission to stop the whitewashing of history and include people of color and a variety of sexual identities into her work.

This novella focuses on Daisy and Crash. Daisy is the daughter of a failed grocer, her mother is in ill health, and financial security is a memory. The local parish announces a Christmas charity bequest to help young people start a trade; she sees it as her last chance to get her wish of security for herself and her mother. Her only problem – the grants are intended for men, but it didn’t say so explicitly so she’s attempting to bluff her way into a future. It all goes as roughly a one might expect for 1860s London and her former beau, Crash, steps in the help her succeed as best he can. Crash comes with his own baggage – his family line is filled with slaves, whores, and sailors, he has no idea his true heritage, and the world would not let him forget it, but he has been raised to do his best to keep going. He is determined to help Daisy keep going for her own sake.

In its short 100 pages Milan packs her novella with plot and characters, but also with the robust themes of learning how to accept someone as they are, for who they are, and finding value in yourself, of being worthy of your own wishes. It was an uplifting, jam-packed Milan novella in the style of some of my favorites, without the drawbacks of some of her missteps in the past. I am not at all surprised, and a bit glad, to know that this won last year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Proposal (CBR10 #26)

The Proposal (The Survivors' Club, #1)

I have finally taken my first trip to a Mary Balogh romance. I’m still surprised when I manage to miss an author completely, but it usually means that there’s a well-liked series with good reviews which is complete that I can dive right into. In the case of Mary Balogh that series is the Survivors’ Club which tells the story of seven people who survived great tragedy (whether physical or mental) during the Napoleonic Wars and formed a tight friendship while they healed for three years away from Society. The first book in the series, The Proposal, held my attention so well and Balogh’s writing pleased me so much that I went ahead and requested the next few books from the library for the coming months and plan to blow through the series during the rest of the year.

The Proposal begins with Gwendoline, Lady Muir, who has seen her share of tragedy. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. Though, she isn’t the member of the Survivors’ Club: that would be Hugo, Lord Trentham, who scoops her up in his arms after a fall on the beach. He does not, however, view himself as a gentleman; he is a soldier whose bravery earned him his title. Born a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth he is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. In a very funny scene, a grumpy Hugh alerts his friends in the Survivors’ Club to his plan to find a wife to provide an heir and help with his sister. They tease he will obviously find one the next day down at the beach, and of course the very next day he is rescuing an injured Gwen and bringing her back to the house with him.

Embarrassed, Hugh doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have her interfere on the annual reunion of the Club. In a fine bit of plotting, this struggle where Hugo and Gwen are given time and space to get to know each other and become attracted but do not wish to be allows the reader to settle into the series. It is an infodump of sorts, but it worked well for me. In lesser hands the first half of the book would have been the end of the plot, but Balogh has more territory she wants to cover. Balogh builds a story around the mental wounds Gwen and Hugh both experienced, punching holes in the “happy” lives they have both created for themselves in the years since their respective tragedies, and analyzing the class differences of the social strata that Gwen and Hugh grew up and live in.

In the second half of the book their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. Mrs. Julien, one of my personal Romancelandia guides, is of the opinion the central theme of many Balogh historical romances is closed and broken people finding new lives and unexpected happiness. In The Proposal I would say that theme lines up exquisitely. Balogh creates a world and a story where over a respectable timeline; two mature adults in their thirties are given a second chance at happiness. And really, who better to be given these second chances than soldiers and those who have seemingly lost everything? I was warmed and won over by the sincere sweetness Balogh brought to her characters, and that while the characters have been through the proverbial wringer, the stories are not mawkish. Balogh shows a deft touch in how she layers and slowly reveals the sorrows of her characters without wallowing in them.

I feel Balogh earned a believable happily ever after for Hugh and Gwen. As they get to know each other, they recognize their first impressions were about expectations. Even at the books halfway point, when Hugh proposes to Gwen and she refuses, they are still functioning on expectations. But then Balogh builds out her narrative and Gwen invites Hugh to court her, if he wishes. I love that they continue to seek each other out, acknowledging they simply want to be with each other even if it is not a natural fit into either of their lives or worlds.  It is a novel that stays within its genre tropes, but nudges them with the ways in which the details and specific plot points are placed. The novel grows the universe of Balogh’s books, and I’m interested to see how that universe continues to grow and keep up with the characters we’ve met so far.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read – now in our tenth year! At Cannonball Read we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Making Up (CBR10 #23)

Making Up (London Celebrities, #3)

CBR10 is my seventh year participating in Cannonball Read, and in that time I feel comfortable saying that I’ve made a space for myself as a reviewer of romance books. I review all the romance I read because I believe firmly that everyone should read what they want, read what they like, and have someone pointing the way for them. We have our lead dogs of this pack (#BlameMalin) and we have the “hobbyists” (me). One of the greatest gifts of Cannonball Read is finding new authors whom you love, and whose work you find consistently enjoyable. For me those are absolutely Rainbow Rowell, Courtney Milan, and Lucy Parker (which doesn’t even begin to cover the backlog of other authors that have been sent my way – my love for all things Tessa Dare only grows).

It is hard to believe that it was only two years ago that Lucy Parker blasted onto the Cannonball scene with Act Like It which was universally well received and then followed up the next year with Pretty Face which secured that the first book was not an anomaly, Lucy Parker can write. Having avoided the sophomore slump, I was still worried – could she maintain the high quality contemporary romances set in London’s theatre scene to complete the trilogy? Mostly yes is the good news here.

Making Up is two parts second chance romance and one part enemies to lovers. As in her previous books Lucy Parker handles the circumstance with a deft touch, tweaking the tropes to suit a relatable and believable history (even if it’s a bit of a retcon from what we saw in Pretty Face). Our main couple of Trix and Leo are adults and are (blessedly) capable of having adult conversations of substance with one another even in the early part of the book where they are still in the enemies phase. Parker wisely sets Trix and Leo’s Great Misunderstanding with their teenaged selves, a decade in their past, where it feels appropriate. The pair overcomes the misunderstanding between them fairly early in the novel which leads to a lot of funky baseline, but also a good deal of time for the characters to unpack the actual emotional baggage still on the table. Trix is still dealing with the fallout from her emotionally abusive ex, and is experiencing anxiety attacks  about everything, but especially a new, intense relationship. While Trix is the main thrust, Leo is also dealing with putting his relationship with his sister back on an even footing and repairing his professional standing, which is how he ends up working on Trix’s show in the first place.

Parker uses her setting, the West End theater scene, to provide her a fruitful backdrop for her romances – theatre is geared up to offer drama in many forms. One of the best features of each of her books so far is the banter between the leads; Parker’s distinct skill in this arena seems to be that she knows the line for each character that cannot be crossed for the relationship she is portraying but also for her reader’s compassion for those characters. Parker is shedding light on various aspects of her characters, which layers our understanding of them, as well as the character’s understandings of each other.  Making Up has all of Parker’s trademark wit, plus empathy and incisiveness, so it automatically has a lot going for it.

Thematically Parker is working in the arena of abusive relationships. Trix is healing from an emotionally abusive relationship tht stripped her down and made her less sure of herself and less likely to pursue her dreams. The other component of the theme resides in the B plot with Leo’s sister who is a complete Pain in the Ass, to the point that I hope not to see her again in future Parker novels. It would be easy to say the book would be better without her, because the drama she brings isn’t necessary. That would be wrong.  Cat is another facet of Parker’s theme, that people can fuck up, be damaged by their relationships and their choices, not be healed, and still be worthy of love and happiness.

Once more for the people in the back: even with mistakes, even after we survive abuse, even while we struggle with our mental illnesses, or our terrible choices we are worthy and deserving of happiness, but it may not come easily and that is okay. That is what Parker is working with in this novel. She doesn’t always completely hit the nail on the head, and this book isn’t as spectacularly excellent as its predecessors, but it is quietly very, very good.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

A Week to be Wicked (CBR10 #16)

Another week, another Tessa Dare book review.

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As I mentioned last review of The Duchess Deal, I love Tessa Dare books so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I went ahead and picked up where I left off with A Week to be Wicked once I retrieved it. My quick review of this one is another five star Dare outing, these two back to back really highlight the parts of Dare’s craft that make these the fun, enjoyable, and downright witty reads I’ve come to hope for from her.

To me, Dare’s writing breaks down into a pretty clear set of standards:

  1. Independent lady making her way in the world
  2. More often than not a Marriage of Convenience plot
  3. Smolder and steamy sexy times
  4. Sincere emotion on display
  5. Wounded Hero, either physically or emotionally, who is smitten with the heroine.
  6. Interesting, but not overtaking, side characters
  7. Comedy/quirkiness/whimsy in some regard. Dare is not afraid of humor.

And with all of that we have a sincerely winning combination of components.

In this, the second book in the Spindle Cove series, Dare gives us one of my favorite of her leading ladies, Minerva Highwood. Minerva is the intelligent catch as an early geologist who is determined to make it to a Geological Symposium in Edinburgh to present her findings. Colin is the middling good at everything one, and obviously not as intelligent as Minerva (and the best part is that he knows it, and relishes in her brilliant mind). It’s energizing to read a romance where the man is not some infallible savior come into rescue the heroine- Colin gives it his best, but as he brings up time and again his best intentions go to hell and he doesn’t always manage to do what he says he will. As the reader, we watch a relationship grow, not just a physical attraction (not that it is lacking) and it feels much more realistic and emotionally satisfying than other romances often are.

I’m all about Tessa Dare lately, and for good reason. One word of caution though, Dare writes what I lovingly refer to as Historical Fantasy Romance. There is *some* historically accurate threads that Dare uses to weave her tapestry, but they are very thin and often bent to suit her wants.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Duchess Deal (CBR10 #15)

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I did some traveling over the Easter holiday weekend and left the Tessa Dare book I was reading the week before at Ale’s house post snow storm. Not a problem – I have a nook full of other books in need of reading so I went ahead and pulled up another Dare, The Duchess Deal.

I had this one lined up and ready to go for two reasons: 1. I really love Tessa Dare books, and 2. this was nearly universally claimed as one of the few highlights of the 2017 publishing year for Romance by our Cannonball Romance Readers. So of course I purchased it immediately. The only drawback? I have a few months to wait until the next in the series, this terrible waiting is why I normally don’t start a series until later in the publishing order.

So what makes this one so good? Dare’s cleverness in wordplay and character development without some of her worst over the top tropes (no strange pets, just a regular old cat named Britches), a truly sardonic wit, and a bit of poking at modern social commentary right down to the use of the “she was warned…” speech which has inspired so many of us to adopt “nevertheless, she persisted” as our own battle cry.

The elevator pitch of this book is right in line with classic Dare: a disfigured Duke (literally half of his body covered in terrible scars from an explosion) needs an heir so he proposes marriage to the first convenient woman to meet his requirements (which are quite low), and the seamstress who was to have sewn his former fiancé’s wedding gown and is demanding payment marches in and takes his money but refuses his proposal. We are off to the races for a marriage of convenience plot (with ridiculous rules!) with a truly forbidding hero and plucky heroine.

I know I haven’t said much, but if Dare has ever done it for you, this book will probably hit all the right notes for you. Only four more months until the next one is published…

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.