Review: Romances. So many romances.

I don’t habitually read romances, but last year I read a lot of them. Instead of posting my reviews as I read each book, I saved them all up for a massive Romance Review post. Even if you don’t want to read any romances you might, I hope, enjoy the reviews: I had a lot of fun writing them.

Contained within are lady scientists; death by carnivorous crab; questions about buttons; and every denomination of raciness from completely chaste to very very explicit. Happy Valentine’s day!

Thumbs up for The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer.
I knew that if I kept reading books by Heyer I would finally find one I loved rather than merely liked! This one. It was this one. Sophy Stanton-Lacy has her way, marvelously and boldly, in all things. Luckily for her relations, she uses her powers for good instead of evil. An unbelievably delightful book.

‘[“Nothing to be done”],’ said Sophy severely, ‘is what people always say when they are too lazy, or perhaps too timorous, to make a push to be helpful! I have a great many faults, but I am not lazy, and I am not timorous–though that, I know, is not a virtue, for I was born without any nerves at all, my father tells me, and almost no sensibility. I don’t know that I shall, for I have not yet made up my mind just what I should do, but I may need your assistance in breaking this foolish engagement.’ She perceived, in a quick glance at his face, that he was looking extremely scared, and added reassuringly: ‘Very likely not, but one never knows, and it is always well to be prepared. Now I must put you down [from the carriage], for I see Cecilia awaiting me, and she has promised to let me drive her round the Park once she is assured I shan’t overturn the phaeton.”

Thumbs up for The Gentleman Physician by Sally Britton.
Second-chance love between a physician and a young lady who’s finally escaped from her domineering father. Kissing only–but on the other hand, the main subplot is about a beloved husband and father dying from tuberculosis, so I’m not sure if I’d call it “sweet.” Thoroughly enjoyable and I will try others from the series: not bad considering I bought it by accident without even reading the sample. Pros: According to the author, this was written with a nod to Persuasion, and Persuasion is my favorite Austen. Also, I’m a sucker for comic-relief matchmaker characters. Cons: Regency medicine was way, way, way worse than this. So suspension of disbelief is necessary.

Thumbs up for:
The Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly.
Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly.
Miss Milton Speaks her Mind by Carla Kelly.
I’ve found another favorite. In three out of the four Carla Kelly books I’ve read (Miss Milton was still good but it didn’t sing as much) I sat with a giant smile on my face, internally repeating to myself: This book is adorable. This book is ADORABLE. Which is not to say that the books are saccharine; Kelly also writes movingly about grief, guilt, anxiety, death, and the iniquities of old age and the lambing season. Her characters are three-dimensional, likable people, who interact with each other like human beings rather than just sex objects (though sex does exist in this universe, she doesn’t get detailed); her heroes, while not always “gentlemen” in the strict meaning of the term (a farm bailiff, a mill owner), act like gentleman far more than the obnoxious high-handed lords so common in romance. She is the kind of writer who gives names and personalities to the butlers.

Thumbs up for Spectred Isle by KJ Charles. Romance.
A disgraced archaeologist gets tangled up with an arcanist in post-WWI England. Pros: A typical Charles book, which is to say, a cracking plot which integrates history and magic in interesting ways; slightly but not oppressively angsty heroes; and very sexy M/M sex that adds to rather than detracts from the story. Cons: Unlike other Charles books I felt as if the characters were physically under-described so I couldn’t quite visualize them (or, in the case of the secondary characters, keep them quite straight. Er, maybe “straight” is not the right word here). A minor quibble.
Also recommended: Band Sinister, a fluffy Regency, exactly as if Georgette Heyer decided to write M/M and add sex.
Slightly less recommended: An Unsuitable Heir; still more enjoyable than most things, but it was the third book in a trilogy and not obviously labeled as such; I would have liked it more had I read it as the culmination of a labyrinthine plot rather than as a standalone.

“And we can spot a power grab when one is being attempted under our eyes,” Sam added. “Whitehall’s tried to bring occultists into line before. Last time, someone ended up being eaten by eels.”

Neutral rating for Where Dreams Begin by Lisa Kleypas. Romance.
A nouveau riche businessman decides he needs to learn the rules of the ton; as his tutor he hires a widow still obsessed with her deceased husband. Pros: I enjoyed it enough to finish it, unlike the other Kleypas I tried. Cons: If my experiences with the writer so far are representative, she and I just don’t click: too many “marauding mouths” and no witty dialogue. Also, I kept getting bugged by details. Why is this book set in 1830? The social mores feel as if they belong to a few decades later, and furthermore, if it were firmly Victorian rather than Georgian (albeit late Georgian; 1830 was the year George IV died), I wouldn’t have kept stopping to wonder things like: wait, did men’s shirts have buttons yet?

Thumbs up for The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian. Romance.
A straightforward M/M romance about an inventor with an anxiety disorder and a thief who’s working as his secretary for Reasons. Pros: Thoroughly enjoyable. Cons: None, really.

It wasn’t until they had been snowed in for two days that Lawrence realized he was, effectively, hosting a house party. A terrible, boring house party with guests who heartily disliked one another and with the painful absence of the one person Lawrence wished were present, but a house party nevertheless. The servants contrived to keep everyone fed, Lady Standish carried the conversation at mealtimes, Simon cavorted with the dog, and Lawrence played the part of the thoroughly drunk host.

Neutral rating for A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant. Romance.
A widow needs to get knocked up ASAP to keep her home. Luckily, a handsome gentleman has just moved in to the neighboring estate. Pros: I respect any author who has the skill, research chops, and chutzpah to write about land management. Cons: If a book is going to have a lot of sex in it, I prefer that it be actually sexy. I mean, there are logical reasons why it’s not; it’s part of the story. So that’s a comment on my feelings about the plot, not on the quality of the author’s writing.

Thumbs up for Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole. Romance.
A trio of novellas set within the connecting story of Elisabeth Hamilton collecting stories of the men (and women) who served under her husband when he was a General. A knowledge of Hamilton trivia is unnecessary. Pros: Two of my favorite authors, being reliable. Cons: The insta-love in Cole’s story was a hard sell for me, though her writing was fine and I’ll try her other work.

Thumbs up for Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly.
The survivor of a desert island shipwreck returns at last to England and falls in love with a sweet widow who’s been shunned by society. Pros: The most adorable book I’ve ever read involving [SPOILER REDACTED, though it’s not any of the everyday horrible things you’re thinking of; bear in mind that I’m giggling evilly as I type this]. Cons: Well, I like my heroes screwed-up and angsty so this is just my cuppa, but if you want a dashing duke who’s got everything under control, search elsewhere.

She laughed softly. “Certainly not.” She couldn’t resist adding, “Besides, Mr. Trevenen, I couldn’t possibly give my heart to a man who said what you said earlier in the corridor when you stubbed your toe on the table!”

Thumbs up for Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn.
Miriam Jacobson accepts an adventure, which means a long, long carriage ride across Europe with two handsome men. (We should all have these problems.) Too bad one of them’s an ass, and she has unfortunate history with the other…. Pros: a pleasing, easy-to-read mix of bickering, historical detail, derring-do, and realistic adventure (by realistic adventure I mean the problems involve “people not speaking the right languages” and “falling down hills inconveniently”). Cons: None, unless you want more sexiness, but I’m fine without.

Thumbs up for Your Wicked Ways by Eloisa James.
Countess long estranged from her husband wants a baby and is willing to go to lengths to get one…including contemplating an affair, and moving in with her husband and his (ex-ish)mistress. Pros, or cons depending on your taste: the people are realistic in ways that aren’t at all romantic. Personally I found this book absolutely delightful; the living situation of the characters was reminiscent of a French comedy. I’m thinking in particular of the scene in La règle du jeu in which a wife and a mistress start giggling together about their shared man’s bad habit of smoking in bed. That scene makes me snort with laughter – but if you demand perfect fidelity from your romantic leads you should stay well away from Your Wicked Ways.

Two thumbs way up for The Brother Sinister series by Courtney Milan.
The last time I binge-read a series was….almost a decade ago. So bear that in mind when I say that in the course of about sixteen days I read the entire Brothers Sinister series—four novels and three novellas—and the characters are now all permanent residents in my head. Why do I love thee? Let’s start with “the Duke is a socialist secretly writing political pamphlets” and pass through the generous range of “characters with realistic phobias they don’t overcome, characters of color, gay characters, I’m pretty sure Violet is neuroatypical, believably awkward but still hot sex scenes, science, brilliant women, men who love brilliant women, clever and astereotypical solutions to difficult problems, and did I mention they’re funny?” and ending with “alt-history plot twist involving women scientists and aniline dye, because of course.” Cons: clear your calendar.

If he were another person entirely, he might burst into flowery speech. If he did, she’d probably laugh at him. Besides, he didn’t believe in pretending to be anyone other than who he was. Even if she swooned at whatever poetic nonsense he managed to spout, she would only be disappointed once they grew comfortable with each other and he went back to making jokes about death and gonorrhea.

Thumbs up for Season for Temptation by Theresa Romain.
Engaged man falls in love with the charming sister of his less-than-enthusiastic fiancee. Pros: Delightful secondary characters (an eccentric older aunt and her knowing French maid). Cons: this isn’t my favorite plot, but that’s personal preference.

Thumbs up for the Lively St. Lemeston series by Rose Lerner.
I read the second book, True Pretenses, first. “This is the plot of The Brothers Bloom,” I said to myself. “This is still the plot of The Brothers Bloom. It is one of my favorite movies of all time, but I’m not sure how I feel about this. Still…oh there we go, now it’s diverging. Oh. I think I’ll read this in one sitting. Well, this is sexy. And now I’m crying. Is there another book with these characters? Aughhhh! Well, I guess I might need a paperback of this for my shelf.” Pros: con men with hearts of gold! interesting politics! characters who aren’t Church of England! a heroine who wants sex but not children! intense family drama! just read it already! Cons: raising the damn bar.
Also in this series and highly recommended: Sweet Disorder and Listen to the Moon.
Recommended with some caveat: All or Nothing, and A Lily Among Thorns; I love Lerner’s writing no matter what (and hooray for characters of varying religions!) but in both books I did not quite get why the main characters were attracted to each other (other than the basic reason of “s/he is hot.”)

He pushed her away, gently. He wondered if she could hear his heart pounding. Her brown eyes were coffee-dark with passion. “I do like you.” He sounded almost normal—unless he was jug-bitten with lust and could no longer judge what he sounded like. “You’re good company and you’re beautiful, and I’m a lonely man. But I’m a friendly man too; you mustn’t think it means more than it does. I could say the same about a dozen I’ve met this month. Rafe—it means something, when Rafe likes a person. He’ll be good to you.”

Neutral rating for More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh.
Woman on the run (for a stupid reason) becomes nursemaid and then mistress of your standard ill-tempered Duke. Pros: readable. Cons: tedious B plot. I was quite disappointed, frankly, as Balogh had been recommended to me by several people as one of the best. Maybe it was me and this book; I’ll try others.

Thumbs up for Delicious by Sherry Thomas.
A cook with a past seduces men with her food. Pros: older heroine with a past; a memorable couple you’ll root for. Sexy. Good B plot. Cons: if you can’t go along with magical realism, you’ll hate it. Slightly unclear in a few places.

He had not done anything wrong, but God did he want to, and the list of wrongs he wanted to commit with Madame Durant rivaled a Dickens novel in length. It didn’t seem to matter at all that she was a woman of questionable character and ill-considered judgment; he wanted her as a caught fish craved the sea.

Thumbs up for Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart.
Classic Gothic. Pros: excellent in almost every way; a page-turner. Cons: I think she ended up with the wrong guy.

Thumbs up for Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase.
Dastardly but sympathetic hero and exceptionally clever young lady mess with each other’s heads. Pros: absolutely brilliant. Cons: I’m sad I didn’t write it.

The boy was christened Sebastian Leslie Guy de Ath Ballister and, according to the custom, took his father’s second highest title, Earl of Blackmoor. The title was apt enough, the wags whispered behind the marquess’s back, for the child had inherited the olive complexion, obsidian eyes, and crow black hair of his mother’s family. He was also in full possession of the Usignuolo nose, a noble Florentine proboscis down which countless maternal ancestors had frowned upon their inferiors. The nose well became the average Usignuolo adult male, who was customarily built upon the monumental scale. Upon a very small, awkwardly proportioned little boy, it was a monstrous beak.

Neutral rating for Breathing Room by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Ruined self-help guru falls for movie star villain in Tuscany. Pros: witty writing; descriptions of Tuscany and Tuscan food will make you drool. Cons: too long and repetitive. The neuroses of the heroine make even the sexy scenes unsexy.

Thumbs up for Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin.
Young woman gifted with shapechange goes undercover as a young man to support herself as a secretary; falls in love with her boss. Pros: it’s fine. Cons: it’s fine.

Thumbs up for Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai.
A smart contemporary reworking of the Romeo & Juliet trope about a businessman controlled by his abusive dad and a tattoo artist struggling with depression. Pros: I stayed up until 5am because I had to finish it. Cons: Sometimes I felt like the writing wasn’t that great. But still I did, literally, stay up until 5am because I had to finish it.

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