I haven’t read a Hedlund romance in a long time, not since 2013’s Rebellious Heart, a loose telling of Abigail and John Adams’s courtship and marriage (which I loved, btw). The Bride Ship, Book One, has a compelling historical context: a bride ship, in 1862, headed for Vancouver Island and British Columbia with poor women on board preparing to become the wives of the sparse-of-women British colony. One of them is heroine Mercy Wilkins, an angel of “mercy”, a gem, a flower, from the London slums. When we meet Mercy, she hurries towards the Shoreditch Dispensary with an ill child. Instead of the kindly, but getting-on Dr. Bates, a new, handsome doctor (more of him later) is ministering to the poorest of the poor, like Mercy, like the baby in her arms, like everyone in this wretched neighbourhood. When Mercy’s family has to eject yet another of her mother’s many children, Mercy, in hopes she can help her sister Patience leave the workhouse and at Patience’s urging, agrees to board the bride-ship. Continue reading
Death In Kew Gardens, number three in Ashley’s Kat Holloway Below Stairs mysteries and, at least in its first half, the best one yet (I’d still recommend you read the first two, I loved’em). As you know, I don’t read mysteries for the “puzzle-mystery-solution”, or for the criminal’s motive or psychology, but the detecting main character and, in Ashley’s series’ case, her marvelous detecting team of “below stairs” maids, butlers, housekeepers, and mysterious policeman/detective/government agent Daniel McAdam (man of many roles and disguises) and his friends. Of all the mystery series I read, I love Ashley’s for her protagonists and friends, who help Kat Holloway, an inspired cook by profession, solve crimes and bring justice. Kat is talented, smart, beautiful, and kind. In Death In Kew Gardens, Kat’s kindness sets off the novel’s mystery. As Kat shops with her mercurial, temperamental, and hilarious cook’s assistant, Tess (I loved her!), she accidentally knocks over a passerby, Mr. Li, whom she then helps up. That night, Mr. Li knocks on the Rankin house kitchen door, where Kat cooks for the Bywaters and their niece and her friend, Lady Cynthia, and gifts Kat with a box of aromatic tea. Continue reading
Lauren Willig’s “summer country” is early nineteenth and Victorian-Era-set Barbados. A young women arrives in Bridgetown in February 1854, Miss Emily Dawson, to claim her inheritance, the ruined sugar-producing estate of Peverills, only to discover a family history that alters everything she has known about who she is.
Since the *sniff* end to the Pink Carnation series and we can see vestiges of this theme there too, Willig’s novels centre around a heroine’s journey of unearthing familial and historical identity. Willig’s specializes in, to nay-say the Bard’s Hamlet, a “discovered country” that alters and then cements a new future for our heroine. The Summer Country‘s Emily Dawson is such a heroine, as she delves into the Barbadian history of slavery, white privilege and exploitation of others, and the personal tragedies and triumphs of parallel stories, one set in 1812-1816, and the heroine’s present, 1854, the 1812-16 narrative bearing on Emily’s present and future.
Though I consider myself a reader of inspirational romance, I do find it cloying at times. My rule is to keep my inspie romance reads on spare occasions … until I read Michelle Griep’s The Noble Guardian. What a refreshing voice and ethos! I want to read ALL the Grieps. (She is to historical inspie what Kara Isaac is to contemporary, breathing new life into the subgenre.) The religious element is present, but more in the characters’ personalities and actions, less in finger-wagging didacticism. In The Noble Guardian, Griep’s protagonists occasionally enjoy ale, travel together chaperoned only by a one-year-old adorable moppet, and share affection, passion, and desire that is more palpably sexy than many an explicit, pages-long love scene. There’s a shared horse ride that is sensually magnificent.
Moreover, Griep’s Regency setting, with its evil, violent highwaymen and the eponymous “noble guardian,” Samuel Thatcher, is beautifully developped. Our heroine, Abigail Gilbert, “Abby”, hires Samuel to act as protective escort on her journey to her fiancé, Sir Jonathan Aberley. They travel Regency England’s dangerous byways, sleeping in inns, deflecting dangerous criminals, braving stormy weather, and caring for a tyke named Emma, the daughter of one of Samuel’s fellow-veterans too grief-stricken over the death of his wife to care for her himself. On this at times joyful, at times sad, at times perilous journey, Abby and Samuel banter, converse, share their lives, and grow to love one another and their charge, Emma. Continue reading
Beverly Jenkins’s Rebel is first in her Women Who Dare series and Jenkins, a new-to-me author. I was keen to try a new historical romance author. In truth, though, I slogged through it, taking two weeks to reach the end. Though its opening was compelling, I never warmed to the protagonists and found the persistently declarative prose, flat.
It opens in 1867 New Orleans as New-Yorker Valinda Lacy teaches her recently freedmen, women, and their children. We get a sense of a society, barely out of war, trying to adjust to new historical realities, some well, and others, clinging to their place as the dominant class and race. They pose a threat to the characters and Jenkins does a excellent job of conveying what it feels like to live under a constant edge of what ought to be a safe, going-about-business existence. For example, Valinda’s school is soon destroyed. Her path then crosses with a powerful, wealthy family, the LeVeqs, who give her a home and protection and help her re-establish the school.
I have come ’round to being a Kelly Bowen fan-girl. I think her romances are among the best in the historical subgenre. They are elegantly executed; the characters are sympathetically idealized without being insipid. Her plots clip along at an excellent pace and, thematically, she is the nonpareil, with a feminist twist to her heroines, taking nothing away from the rich historical context. I’ve enjoyed two Bowen romances to date, with reservations, but I think this third in her Devils of Dover series is her best. I had been intrigued by glimpses of the hero in previous books: the mysterious Dr. Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, healer and comforter, ever on some mysterious, not-quite-legal coastal “operation.” (Sadly, the strangely somnambulistic figure on the cover doesn’t do him justice.) Everything comes home to roost for him in A Rogue By Night, when he finally meets his doctoring and smuggling match, “Dr” Katherine Wright, beauty, healer, veteran, and daughter and sister to two of Dover’s greatest smugglers, Paul and Matthew Wright. Though Katherine is of humble beginnings and Harland a noble, they have more in common than their social status suggests.
Though I’m suspicious of new-to-me authors, I was willing to give Janice Preston a try because: a) MOC is my favourite trope and b) the word “highland” in the title always evokes a frisson of excitement and anticipation. What I found was an enjoyable, uneven romance. But, first, to the plotty details!
Because His Convenient Highland Wedding is the first of a four-book, four-author series centring around a mystery, Preston’s novel opens with a silly scene of the heroine’s discovery of a creepy tower and mysterious brooch. Flash-forward seven years and heroine Lady Flora McCrieff, having refused the lecherous old goat her father had arranged for her to marry (important to saving the straitened family estate) is in disgrace with fortune and her family’s eyes. To make up for her refusal to save the family fortune and marry within her class, her father compels her to marry second-best, wealthy but from lowly beginnings whiskey-baron Lachlan McNeill. Lachlan is looking to make inroads to the aristocracy for his whiskey and hopes Flora will help him achieve his goal. Little does he know, Flora is in social purgatory …
Theresa Romain has the wonderful capacity to sustain a delightfully funny, rompish feel to her romances while underlying them with seriousness. Her latest, Lady Notorious, 4th in the Royal Rewards series and one of her strongest novels yet, exhibits this balance. It’s heartfelt romance, adorable hero, loveable heroine, compelling suspense plot, thematically underlined with the idea that love coupled with purpose make for contented lives. Romain brings together her cross-class heir-to-a-dukedom hero, George Godwin, Lord Northbrook, and Bow-Street-Runner heroine, Cassandra Benton, via the mystery surrounding George’s father’s, Lord Armore’s, involvement in a “tontine”, a monetary agreement whereby a set amount increases on interest and is “won” by the last person left living. But many of the tontine’s members are dying under mysterious circumstances. George fears for his father’s and godfather’s lives and sets Cassandra Benton the task of helping him both protect and discover who’s threatening them. Cassandra joins the Ardmore household disguised as a notorious cousin, hence, how the “notorious” made it to the eponymous “lady”. Continue reading
I requested an ARC of Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom for the most superficial of reasons: I couldn’t resist the hunk on the cover. I’m a sucker for an open-necked shirt, soulful brown eyes, and the man is holding a scroll and lantern … can it get any better? As for the contents, I was open to them, but didn’t go in with any great expectations. What I found was, finally, FINALLY, someone who can put the history back in historical romance. You can’t historically “wallpaper” a history so unjust and ugly: how Cole managed to make me hold my breath with excitement, stop my heart with fear for her characters, and root for a slow-burn romance is testament to her mad writing skills.
At the end of the novel, a seasoned revolutionary in the war against slavery advising the heroine on when to hold’em and when to show’em in this righteous war says: ” ‘First thing you learn about being a Daughter — sometimes you gotta be subtle, and sometimes you gotta burn it all down.’ ” As a Daughter of Romance, Cole sure knows how to be subtle and how to burn it all down, navigating American Civil War history with sureness and skill, steering her characters’ inner worlds with insight and sensitivity and though there are moments when she burns it all down with action, she brings the ship to moor with a light touch of love, commitment, hope, and joy. Her narrative is serious, historically fascinating, and in places, even horrific, but it is never sombre, dark, or hopeless. Its movement is ever towards the light of possibility, even though the journey darkens and the way wavers. Continue reading