Do You Want to Start a Scandal (CBR14 #13)

Do You Want to Start a Scandal (Spindle Cove, #5; Castles Ever After, #4)

I had a good time with Do You Want to Start a Scandal, primarily because it does one of my favorite things by putting a good deal of emotional intelligence into a character who may not be expected to have it and then let them deduce the world around them. It is deployed to good use as Charlotte Highwood goes head-to-head with Diplomat turned Spy Piers Brandon, Lord Granville after they are caught together during the Parkhurst ball but are not in fact the couple who had a tryst in that very room.

Charlotte is determined to discover who really had the tryst in the library to avoid a loveless marriage to Piers as Charlotte is now supposed to call him, has done the honorable thing… but Charlotte doesn’t want that – it will only support the rumors following her time in London for the season and there is no way this would be a love match. In fact, Piers has assured her that he will never love anyone, including her. As the two weeks of the stay at the Parkhurst estate play out Charlotte chases her clues and while she strikes out on finding the lovers, she does discover there is more to Piers than one might expect of a stuffy diplomat. Charlotte unravels the mystery of Piers while he just unravels, unable to complete the task he was sent to the Parkhurst estate for in the first place because Charlotte throws off all his skills by becoming the primary focus of all his attentions. The quiet moments between the pair as she puts the pieces together and he cannot fathom how she has become the only person to get the truth out of him in years were great.

This is technically a Spindle Cove novel – Charlotte is the youngest Highwood, her sisters Minerva featured in the earlier Spindle Cove book A Week to Be Wicked and Diana (who features in Beauty and the Blacksmith which I haven’t read) but it is never there, instead all action takes place at Parkhurst estate. Its also tangentially a Castles Ever After book, as Piers is the Marquess whom Clio breaks off her engagement with and marries her brother instead in Say Yes to the Marquess (I loved, love, loved the scene between Rafe and Charlotte in this!). Do You Want to Start a Scandal does show some of Dare’s usual go to tropes and structures, a Marriage of Convenience plot, smolder and steamy sexy times, sincere emotion on display, an emotionally wounded Hero who is smitten with the heroine area all on display here but what made this one stand out to me was that it is essentially a romance novel with mystery plot at its heart, something that I think I’d really like to read more of.  Purportedly there’s also humor in this one, but the “MURDER!” plot moppet enraged me instead of making me laugh, so I’ll have to take others’ word for it. Tessa Dare has a lively way of telling romance stories that is uniquely her, and it continues to make me happy to settle in and read her books.  

A Lady by Midnight (CBR14 #4)

A Lady by Midnight (Spindle Cove, #3)

I can always trust Tessa Dare to bust a slump, and as exhaustion is one of my last remaining COVID symptoms, I’m not so much slumped as I am distractable. A Lady by Midnight took care of it either way, and I enjoyed my evening with it so much that I’m rating it five stars, and I know that I am one of the few around Cannonball Read to do so. I get it, but I’m also keeping my rating as is.

I am currently working my way through a large non-fiction tome where the author seems to be taking themselves a bit too seriously (Clement Knox’s Seduction review forthcoming eventually) and yesterday I just could not focus on it at all, and as it was a section on Casanova, I thought it best to just put it down and pick something else up. Lucky for present me, past me had ordered A Lady by Midnight before American Thanksgiving but the crush of books that needed reading in December in order to fulfill my reading challenges pushed it right off my to read pile for the month. But there it was calling to me from atop my bookcase.

It had been almost four years since my last time to Spindle Cove with A Week to be Wicked, but it mostly came back to me – certainly the town and its residents broadly if not the particulars of the books I had already read in the series (including A Night to Surrender and Any Duchess Will Do). I did remember though the two leads, who were introduced in the first novel and have been floating around in the periphery of the stories since. Kate Taylor is the town’s music instructor, she’s also an orphan who has been making her own way in the world since she was brought to a foundling school around age five. She’s managed to maintain an inner spark, and Spindle Cove as provided her with safety and friends, but she is still in search of family, and love. She’s certainly not expecting to find either of those things in Corporal Thorne, the militia commander in charge at Spindle Cove who arrived the year before and has seemingly made it his mission to ignore her at every turn. Thorne however has his own reasons for acting as he has, and with a family of aristocrats arriving claiming that Kate is their long-lost cousin he finds himself announcing that he is her fiancé, in order to keep her safe. It however complicates things tremendously.

Dare sticks with the things in her writing that I appreciate the most, this book has most of her standard features: in Kate we have an independent lady making her way in the world, the plot pretty closely aligns to a Marriage of Convenience, focusing on an engagement of convenience, the smolder and steamy sexy times are present (even if we’re about 2/3rds of the way through the book before Kate and Thorne get past kissing, there’s a lot happening in this story), sincere emotions are on display – specifically in actions, and Thorne might be her most wounded hero. These is a lot of heaviness to the plot of this one, but as its Tessa Dare it was also silly at time, funny, and sexy, which is what I am looking for when I pick up on of her books. Once all the pieces are on the board the narrative takes off and never really slows down, right through to the epilogue (and I really would have loved another chapter between the end and the epilogue). This one  is all about love, the shapes it takes, the ways we express it (or don’t), where we look for it… and it worked for me even when it shouldn’t have.

The Wallflower Wager (CBR12 #3)

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke, #3)

This was not the book I was going to read next, but after the bummer of Royal Holiday I knew I needed a sure thing and a Tessa Dare book will always be a book that I quite enjoy. I pulled up the one I’d been saving, book three in the Girl Meets Duke series, and spent the afternoon and evening absorbed in Dare’s kooky version of Regency England. I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly.

The Wallflower Wager is good. Its easily four stars possibly sneaking into four and a half star good (although I still think the first in the series The Duchess Deal is my favorite of these books, but only a reread would tell me for sure). The Wallflower Wager focuses on Lady Penelope Campion and Gabriel Duke, known around the ton as the Duke of Ruin for the way he has amassed his fortune. Penelope has spent the best part of ten years as a reclusive wallflower, but the impending arrival of her brother to return her to the family estate – a place she firmly does not want to return to – causes her to strike a deal (or a wager as Aunt Caroline puts it) that she will make a concerted effort to get out there into society in an attempt to get Aunt Caroline to side with her so she may remain living on her own in the city. Gabriel is renovating the house next door in order to resell it at a large profit but part of his profit margin requires the presence of a Lady as a neighbor. He decides to help Penny live up to her portion of the wager, for his own reasons, but their physical attraction to each other keeps rearing its ugly head into their plans.

Dare’s cleverness in wordplay and character development, and a bit of poking at modern social commentary are on full display. The interactions between Penny and Gabriel as they begin and continue their sexual relationship are focused on consent and equity. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. What I appreciated most about this pairing is that Gabriel was concerned with not letting Penny be ruined, not because he thought it mattered, but that he knew it mattered to the society she was a part of, he had made a rule for himself years before to never ruin a woman and this was a believable component of the way they negotiate their growing relationship, particularly as it grows from lust to love.

Blessedly there is no instalove, instead we follow along with two people in lust with one another who act on it. As they continue to spend time together both in and out of bed their deeper emotions build, and they grow to know each other for who they are at their core. Gabriel always sees Penny’s courage and strength, even when her friends who love her dearly infantilize and underestimate her. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life and puts his actions where his words are. Until he has an alpha meltdown in the final part of the book, but even as the reader you are with him as he takes on Penny’s abuser (this book does come with a content advisory for heroine with a history of child sexual abuse, confronting her abuser, and a hero with a history of abandonment and extreme poverty in childhood).

Even with the heaviness that the content advisory is covering, there’s still Dare’s patented humor and ridiculous pets here. One of which is goat whom Penny swears is not pregnant (she’s not that kind of girl) and Gabriel is proven right in a particularly amusing scene involving all three very manly heroes from the series trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labor.

This book also expertly weaves in the fourth and final installment’s introduction as Nicola spots her fiancé that none of her friends knew about at the ball at the end, and the epilogue refers to her married with children. Book four The Bride Bet is set to publish this summer and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

The Duchess Deal (CBR10 #15)

Image result for the duchess deal

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.

Three Nights with a Scoundrel (CBR9 #72)

Image result for three nights with a scoundrel

I usually set myself up with reading landmarks throughout the year, to keep things interesting for myself. It also helps to keep me on pace. The past three years I have ‘read with my ears’ Tessa Dare’s Stud Club series. It was a random choice, to pick this series to enjoy via audiobook, but I’ve stuck with it and it been for the good. The narrator, Rosalyn Landor, handles the text superbly and I’m fairly certain she improves upon Dare’s early, sometimes uneven, work.

Because that is in fact what we are dealing with: Three Nights with a Scoundrel is uneven. We are wrapping up a few storylines and they are not all as strong as they could be and the pacing suffers because of it. We learn the fate of that damned horse Ossiris as well as the circumstances of the death of Leo Chatwick, plus the resolution of who Julian Bellamy really is, or isn’t but it doesn’t come together in a completely satisfying whole.

There are things I truly and unabashedly loved – our heroine Lily who is deaf and the ways she functions in a society that isn’t built to accommodate her. The emotional landscape of her relationship with Julian is also expertly handled. I also enjoyed Morland’s pregnant ward Claudia and her various interactions as they were a hoot and not without consequence. It is all the other fluff and bits around the main story that detract from what Dare does very well. We have another strange pet, this time the parrot Tartuffe, who at least has plot significance, but he shouldn’t have had to, there should and could have been better communication between the leads. I know having a parrot around a romance novel should have been more amusing to me, it simply wasn’t.

We also receive visits from both previous couples in the series so the male leads can wrap up the murder investigation (ugh), but we were seriously shortshrifted where it came to Rhys and Meredith. They are bringing a crucial piece of the puzzle to London, but are merely treated as a conveyance. Urgh. And as to that piece of the puzzle… while I am always happy for more representation of lgbtq relationships in romance novels this one felt a bit shoehorned in and if it had been telegraphed I completely missed it. In a certain way it all came together a little too much deux ex machina for my personal tastes.

This one gets three stars for all it does right, but doesn’t get rounded up to four because to my mind it didn’t live up to the second in the series.

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. Registration for our tenth year is open now. 

Twice Tempted by a Rogue (CBR8 #79)

Image result for twice tempted by a rogue

At the tail end of 2015 I listened to my first Romance audio book. It was an interesting experience. Not my favorite, but also not bad. Since I started the Stud Club books that way, with Tessa Dare’s One Dance with a Duke I figured I would continue on that path for the series and picked up Twice Tempted by a Rogue.

Then I promptly forgot to read it as I worked through other books this year. When I finished We Should All Be Feminists and All the Single Ladies I needed a fluffy palate cleanser: audio book romance to the rescue!

First, I liked this one quite a bit more than its predecessor. It wasn’t burdened with world building. This is relatively early Dare, and she gets better at pacing those things out, but for now she only had one new location to introduce and a relatively small cast of characters straight out of central casting to introduce so things went more smoothly. The title is ludicrous, which is a problem with the genre as a whole, but c’mon, nothing here is remotely accurate.He’s not a rogue, she’s doing the tempting, and the temptations are nonstop.

We follow Rhys St. Maur and Meredith Maddox as they square off and fall in love. Easy. He’s the very definition of a tortured soul and she’s a by the bootstraps survivor. They have a shared history, and it is both a boon and a problem for their furthering relationship. I’ll say no more here because this is a very straightforward love story and to recount the play by plays just doesn’t serve it.

The MURDER subplot is back, but it is contained to the second half of the novel and only completely dominates a couple scenes. We are also in the “someone else is off looking for clues” portion where we as the reader can sit back and let that disaster of a story line wait for the third book. The final quarter of the book is a bit cheesy and overly dramatic (Cave Ins! Runaway Carriages!), which was probably exacerbated by there not being as many story lines cluttering up the narrative as there was in One Dance with a Duke. Dare may have felt the need to ramp of the DRAMA, when really, this book had great small scale romance elements, a la Lisa Kleypas.

But I really enjoyed my time with these characters, and while its tough sometimes to listen to narrators have to be in the voice of the opposite sex, the narration here was good, even at 1.25 speed. I’m an outlier, this book is the lowest rated of the series over on Goodreads, but I liked it quite a bit – for exactly what it is.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Registration is open through Friday January 13 for Cannonball Read 9.

One Dance with a Duke (CBR7 #102)

A while back narfna mentioned trying romance novels in audio book format and I thought it sounded like an interesting idea. Then Audible, those b@stards, had a sale (I may have overspent with them lately) and Tessa Dare’s One Dance with a Duke was there. I’m not sorry I spent that $5 – even though its far from my favorite romance I read this year.

The basic premise from Goodreads:

A handsome and reclusive horse breeder, Spencer Dumarque, the fourth Duke of Morland, is a member of the exclusive Stud Club, an organization so select it has only ten members — yet membership is attainable to anyone with luck. And Spencer has plenty of it, along with an obsession with a prize horse, a dark secret, and, now, a reputation as the dashing “Duke of Midnight.” Each evening he selects one lady for a breathtaking midnight waltz. But none of the women catch his interest, and nobody ever bests the duke — until Lady Amelia d’Orsay tries her luck.

In a moment of desperation, the unconventional beauty claims the duke’s dance and unwittingly steals his heart. When Amelia demands that Spencer forgive her scapegrace brother’s debts, she never imagines that her game of wits and words will lead to breathless passion and a steamy proposal. Still, Spencer is a man of mystery, perhaps connected to the shocking murder of the Stud Club’s founder. Will Amelia lose her heart in this reckless wager or win everlasting love?

So, the standard romance stuff. What this novel does well is give us two interesting protagonists in a marriage of convenience plot. I particularly enjoyed the frankness of Amelia in her time and place. It’s not to say that I don’t truly and really enjoy a book where the older, wallflower leading lady is discovered to be something more, (see Romancing Mr. Bridgerton for example) or pushing the social mores (any Courtney Milan book) but it was refreshing on this outing to see Amelia embrace her historically appropriate goals: to marry, a love match all the better, but mostly because she wants the job of wife. And in the 1810s, it was absolutely a job; in her marriage to the Duke Amelia will now manage a series of households and all social responsibilities. Amelia has been ready for just such a reality, and embraces it, even as she is unsure whether or not she can trust and truly embrace her new husband.

We also see in Spencer that while who Amelia is works for him (he likes his ladies curvy and with a brain, he sees her skills and talents as valuable and her embroidery as art) he does not fall prey to the idea that she is somehow a hidden gem that society has missed. She is simply the right one for him. While Spencer can seem dominant and indifferent and often finds himself saying exactly the wrong thing, Dare gives good, believable explanations as to the development of his character and his Duke of Midnight persona.  Dare also gets points for the gradual way in which Spencer and Amelia get to know each other and fall in love.

So what didn’t work for me, and has thus landed this book a 3 star rating? Here’s a handy list:

  1. Anytime anyone discusses horses, especially (but not limited to) that damn Ossiris and the formation of the Stud Club.
  2. Amelia’s savior complex as related to her younger brother Jack and his unrepentant ways.
  3. Also, Spencer’s inability to use his words when frustrated with Amelia’s savior complex.
  4. The MURDER subplot tenuously tying this novel to the next two in the series.
  5. The investigating of the MURDER subplot.
  6. The structural pacing of the MURDER subplot and Amelia’s savior complex completely disrupting the natural flow of the romance plot.

I will however be reading the rest of the series eventually, because what Dare gets right, she gets very right.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.