REVIEW: Alyssa Cole’s AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM

An_Unconditional_FreedomI 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

REVIEW: Felicia Grossman’s APPETITES AND VICES

Appetites_VicesI kept Felicia Grossman’s Appetites and Vices close to my reader heart for weeks, patiently awaiting release day. I was excited about a new romance writer with an unusual premise. Sadly, work kept me at a panting pace and my reading was sporadic at best, a chapter here, a nodding over a page in bed there. My interest, maybe because of the pace at which I read, was equally uneven, enthralled at times, sluggish at others. More of that later.

For now, to the plot and premise! Which proved convoluted. In 1841 Delaware, 21-year-old Ursula Nunes, adored daughter of Judah, smart, eccentric, and Jewish, is insider and outsider to society. Outsider thanks to her religion, insider thanks to her family’s wealth. Whatever makes her an outsider to society by virtue of her birth is compounded by her eccentricities: beautiful, blonde, curvaceous, and blunt, blurting painful truths and creating awkward silences, gaps in sociable chitchat, and painful stretches without dancing partners, female friends stand at nil. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Elizabeth Camden’s A DESPERATE HOPE

Desperate_HopeIt’s been a while since I read a Camden sort-of historical romance. I’ve also drifted away from inspirational romance, thanks to the end Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical line, where many a favourite author resided. With A Desperate Hope, Camden has moved away from the inspirational (which was fairly “light” to begin with) and towards “Americana” à la Deeanne Gist. (I loved Gist’s Tiffany Girl, but haven’t seen anything from her since. This makes me sad.) But Camden is a solid stand-in and I enjoyed the 1908 upper-state-NY-set historical fiction with a mild romance running through it. Unlike standard inspirational fare, the hero and heroine, while they’ve believers, also have a youthful affair, the heroine had lost her virginity to the hero, and there’s a fair amount of ale-drinking. Hurrah for Americana: this felt more believable than the inspirational romance’s leached ethos. Continue reading

REVIEW: Clarissa Harwood’s BEAR NO MALICE

bear_no_maliceDisclosure: the author of Bear No Malice and I are friendly. Not bosom buddies because we don’t live in the same part of the country, but we’ve met and shared coffee, laughter and book talk. FYI, dear reader! Because review of Harwood’s second novel, Bear No Malice follows forthwith.

Bear No Malice shows a writer in better control of her material, assured and adept at navigating the intricacies of her narrative. Also, on a prosaic note, I loved the hero and heroine in a way I didn’t Impossible Saints. The saints proved difficult to like, but Bear No Malice‘s sinners are sympathetic, even when they’re difficult, overbearing, downright wrong, or blind to the truth of things. And Harwood manages to take melodramatic, Victorian clichés, the “fallen woman”, the do-gooder “vicar” and turn them quite nicely on their heads, surprising and delighting this reader. She even did so with secondary characters, the “cuckold,” the bored, society wife; everyone in Harwood’s Edwardian world has depth and nuance, is compelling and surprising. Continue reading

REVIEW BY JANET: Mary Balogh’s SOMEONE TO TRUST

someone_to_trustHappy Saturday, everyone! I’ve stocked the fridge and ensured a plenteous tea supply, getting ready for a winter storm chez MissB. I’m reading a wonderful book and will be posting a review soon. For today, I have a treat for you: Janet Webb’s review of Mary Balogh’s Someone To Trust (Westcott #5). Read Janet’s review below!

Mary Balogh writes books that once you start, sleep is optional until you utter a happy sigh at the end. I’m invested in the Westcotts, a close, intertwined family who invite readers into their charmed circle.

Balogh does widows who’ve had a crummy first marriage very well. Some causes are abuse, be it emotional and/or physical, or the consequences of dealing with a husband’s mental illness. Lizzie aka Elizabeth, Lady Overfield, is the latest widow-with-a-troubled-past. She shares characteristics that reoccur in Balogh’s depiction of widows, like a stiff upper lip, an almost preternatural serenity, and a tendency to be self-effacing.
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REVIEW: Elizabeth Hoyt’s NOT THE DUKE’S DARLING (Greycourt #1)

not_the_duke's_darlingAh, Hoyt, who’s written some of my favourite historical romances, The Leopard Prince and Duke Of Sin. Therefore, a new Hoyt series is always welcome and I happily plunged into Not the Duke’s Darling as my first 2019 romance-read. Though it didn’t reach the heights of my favourites, difficult to do given how much I love them, it was satisfying. In particular, the storylines and premise it sets up make me eager for the books-to-come.

Not the Duke’s Darling is Georgian-set, Hoyt’s time setting of choice, and centres around reunited childhood friends and former-best-friend’s-younger-sister hero and heroine, Christopher Renshaw, Duke of Harlowe and Freya Stewart de Moray. The opening scene was thrilling, funny, and compelling. Freya is a member of a ancient, secret society, the “Wise Women”, a group of proto-feminists sworn to help and protect women, persecuted as witches and now living in seclusion in an isolated part of Scotland. Freya, however, is one of their agents, living pseudonymously in society, aiding women, and keeping her ears and eyes alert to threats to the group. In the opening scene, Freya is helping a baby-lordling and his widowed mother escape the clutches of an evil uncle, intent on using the infant-lord to control his estates. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Kelly Bowen’s LAST NIGHT WITH THE EARL

Last_Night_W_the_EarlI’ve been thinking a lot lately about where romance fiction “fits” in the scheme of things literary. I’m tired of arguments either defending the genre or condemning it, discussing its relevance or irrelevance … blah blah blah. Not that these discussions aren’t relevant, they are to those who partake and more power to them. I do enjoy listening “in” to the Twitter debates, etc. But I have been asking why I persist in reading romance when the world around me makes the romance’s domestic world focus feel irrelevant. I think we read romance of any ilk, paranormal, historical, contemporary, conservative to radical in its perspective, because it’s utopian (minus the satire; there is nothing Thomas More would recognize in the genre). End of thought bubble. 

The latest “utopian” romance I read was Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl, depicting the love and closeness of Napoleonic War veteran, Eli Dawes, the eponymous “Earl” of Rivers, and artist Rose Hayward. Like many romance couples, Eli and Rose are “broken” and their relationship, as it plays out, works towards achieving their healing and wholeness. As a narrative, it succeeded and failed in depicting their story. Continue reading

REVIEW: Caroline Linden’s AN EARL LIKE YOU

An_Earl_Like_YouReaders familiar with MBRR will know I am interested in romance’s dark moment, which I define as a betrayal. The darker and more heinous the betrayal, the better executed the narrative tension, when it seems as if hero and heroine will never mend their rift. In Linden’s latest, An Earl Like You (second in the series The Wagers of Sin), this new-to-me author deftly creates a romance which sustains the coming betrayal from the first chapter to the final. I was coiled with tension from the get-go which I attribute to Linden’s premise. Upon his father’s death, Hugh Deveraux, 7th Earl of Hastings, learns that the 6th earl’s profligate ways left their family destitute: estates given to gardens and follies rather than tenants, debts galore, two sisters dowry-less and a mother grieving; the Deveraux women are ignorant of their new circumstances … and Hugh wants to keep it that way. What’s a peer to do but take to the gambling tables in a desperate attempt to ensure his mother’s well-being and sisters’ future? Until Hugh loses and is faced with a devil’s bargain from a wealthy speculator, Edward Cross, looking to ensure his daughter’s future. Cross asks Hugh to meet him at his palatial Greenwich home, tells him he now holds his debts and will call them in …  unless Hugh woos and wins Cross’s plain, spinster daughter, Eliza. 
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REVIEW: Louise Allen’s A LADY IN NEED OF AN HEIR

Lady_In_Need_Of_HeirWhen I read the title of Louise Allen’s A Lady In Need Of An Heir, I immediately thought of Cecilia Grant’s incomparable A Lady Awakened. And, of course, reading Allen’s effort, I couldn’t help but compare it to Grant’s. At first, I thought it would be too similar and prepared to be disappointed, harbored a certain peevishness at Allen for copying Grant’s idea. I was happy to discover that Grant’s Lady and Allen’s are two different animals. Allen wrote her own story; I just didn’t like it very much. It was smoothly written, researched, considered, an attempt was made at thematic richness, a feminist message was conveyed without betraying the historical realities. It was rich in stuff. It was a romance that Allen obviously worked carefully and hard on. Still. I was, at least initially, deceived into a false sense of reader-enthusiasm. Allen’s Lady had a promising opening: atmospheric, a compelling premise. In the fall of 1815, former Colonel Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, from hereon referrred to as “Gray,” arrives in Portugal’s Douro Valley at his godmother’s, Lady Orford’s, behest. As his barge moors at the port-producing estate of Quinta do Falcão, Gray is beset by memories of the Peninsular War. I thought, “oh, wounded warrior, this could be good … ” (Alas, this aspect of the novel wasn’t dropped. A romance red herring I do not like.) Continue reading

REVIEW: Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s FREE FALL

Free_FallEmma Barry and Genevieve Turner write one of my favourite historical romance series and Free Fall is their fifth story in it. I love that it’s set in the 1960s, a decade I was born into, but don’t remember much of … other than a vague black-and-white memory of MamaB, in bouffant hair, sitting on the coffee table, smoking, and weeping over Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flickering on our tiny, bunny-eared TV. Barry and Turner’s series avoids America’s many ’60s tragedies and focusses instead on the American race to space. Their novels are peopled with astronauts, space scientists and engineers, and Jello-mold-making wives. There is one marvelous female engineer heroine and her grumpy second, Parsons, the scowling engineer who makes an appearance in this present volume. To us, living in these bizarre times, and without the ’60s’ take-to-the-streets ethos, Barry and Turner give their novels a setting that feels like a more innocent, less fraught one. Yet, just around the corner are the women’s movement that will change the genre and us forever and the loss of whatever hope and possibility our American neighbours wrought in Camelot. What I really liked about Free Fall, by way of introduction, is how it’s a domestic novel and more focussed on the heroine’s growth. Vivian Grace “Vivy” Muller is loud, brash, colourful, big in every way, physically, in her laugh, walk, and taste for “bouffant hair” and “winged eyeliner”: “She laughed too loudly, and she did more than wink at boys, and she was always losing her gloves.”   Continue reading