Thursday, March 30, 2017

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess by Julia Justiss

I loved the first book of Julia Justiss's Hadley's Hellions series, Forbidden Nights with the Viscount, so I was eagerly looking forward to reading Stolen Encounters with the Duchess. Justiss has done the rare thing of following one good book with another.

Faith is the widowed duchess of the Duke of Ashedon. She has three children by him and now lives in London with his dragon of a mother and is being menaced by her brother-in-law. She was so cowed over the course of her marriage—her vibrancy and vitality so diminished—that she's still a timid thing at the start of the story. Her gradual growth and assertiveness in the book were very interesting to see.

David Tanner is a rising Member of Parliament—some think he might even become Prime Minister—and one of the architects of the Reform Bill that will give the common man some say in the government. The bill stands in good stead to pass the House of Commons; the House of Lords is an entirely different matter. So Davie is involved in a lot of politicking along with the four friends, who're known as the Hellions since their Oxford days. He's a loyal friend, a hard worker, a passionate believer in people's rights, and deeply honorable.

But this is also Davie: After having to restrain himself around buffoons all day, the prospect of being able to deliver a few good whacks raised his spirits immensely. Heh! He's trying to rescue an unknown woman from her molesters—a knight on a charger with a big heart.

Faith and Davie had met one summer when she was sixteen and he was twenty. She was visiting her sister, whose husband was his sponsor. They had developed a great friendship then discussing all kinds of things and sharing many laughs together. She grew very fond of him; he fell in love with her. She returned home and married her duke during her first season. He turned his attention to politics, while the embers of his love still burned in his heart.

They have met again now, completely coincidentally, and Davie finds himself as much in love with her as before and her widowed status makes her unbearably tempting. Faith, in turn, is delighted to be meeting her childhood friend and wants desperately to have him in her life as her friend. And so they begin a tender friendship.

In the meantime, Davie has acquired some land including a well-to-do farm (that was his childhood farm) and a regular income through some well-placed sinecures. He's certainly not wealthy, but comfortable, and well able to support a wife in some style. Yet, Faith's immense wealth as a duchess stands in the way of his thinking she could become his.

Even worse is the vast social gulf between them. He's the jumped-up farmer's orphan and she is a duchess. A marriage between them would be a great mésalliance for her resulting in immediate and total social ostracization. She would move down to his level of society; he would not move up to hers. Davie drowns in this gulf and his self-esteem is at a low ebb because of this. Justiss shows very well how he grows into his own sense of self-worth over the course of the book.

One consequence of the mésalliance is very real. The trustees of her three children—in particular, the eight-year-old now Duke of Ashedon—could very well assume that she's not of sound mind to even contemplate such a relationship and remove the children from her care. Faith would not survive that and he would never put her in a position to choose between him and her children.

I enjoyed seeing how Davie and Faith wrestle with real-life problems that felt historically true to their laws, society, and culture, and work to solve them.

At one point, Davie feels so beset by thwarted love and sexual frustration, hemmed in by the laws of the land and societal norms, and pulled in every direction by Faith's needs that he becomes short with Faith, and I thought: "Bravo!" Anger is as normal a human reaction as is desire or affection, but romance novels so rarely have the courage to have their characters behave in that fashion with each other once affection and an acknowledgment of interest have been established. Davie is trying so very hard to be honorable to Faith and to himself, and it is a huge struggle for him to fight his body and his heart, but his mind rules his passions, and I found that incredibly romantic of him. On the other hand, I found Faith more in thrall to her emotions and to the power she knows she has over him. I did not think badly of Faith for behaving in that fashion; she's just being true to her character and Davie doesn't think badly of her either. However, he does remonstrate with her when it becomes unbearable for him, and Faith does feel chastised enough to want to be better about it.

An aside: I really liked that once the villain was routed, he was not resurrected to add a clichéd black moment to the story.

My one quibble with the book was the falseness of the political interest that Faith pretends to have. It feels like a plot device to throw Davie and Faith together, rather than a well-developed interest on Faith's part. I didn't mind the setup: She used to discuss politics when they first met, but had to suppress her interest, like much else, under the dominance of her husband, and now she could let that interest flower again. But Faith actually does so little to develop that interest. Here, she had the perfect opportunity in the guise of a rising MP, who's devoted to her. I would've liked to have seen her do more with this interest or to develop some other passion, other than just being concerned over her sons. I felt that this aspect of Faith could've been developed more.

But this is a minor point in an otherwise stellar novel. Have you read a Julia Justiss novel? If so, do you have recommendations for me? If you haven't read one, do start with Forbidden Nights.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit
Author: Jaye Robin Brown
My Categories: Lesbian YA Fiction
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Comfort Read

This review is almost a week late, and I have written it very reluctantly. I detested the book. It was the antithesis of a comfort read. Given my strong negative reaction, I have been foundering about where I should begin with the story and what I should say.

The premise of the story is very interesting. Joanna Gordon is the daughter of a radio evangelist and is a person of faith and also gay. Her father, Anthony, accepts her fully, or so she thinks, and she's encouraged to offer a series on his radio channel for other gay teens who might be interested in God. To Joanna, it is not inconceivable to think that God loves her just as she is. She does not need to dress in a particular manner or behave a certain way or give up living life on her terms to be acceptable to Him. And she wants other gay teens to feel the same acceptance.

However, the summer before her senior year, in a whirlwind marriage, Joanna's dad marries a younger woman. Elizabeth's condition of marriage is that Anthony and Joanna move from Atlanta to her small religious town in northern Georgia. After they move (not before), Anthony tells Joanna to not be so gay in this new town, to not dress Goth, and in general to not behave in a manner to rile up Elizabeth's relatives and the townspeople. And she should do this for him. In other words, this father who purportedly accepted his daughter's sexuality was uprooting her in her senior year and putting her back in the closet. In order to please her dad, she complies and pretends to be a twinset-wearing straight girl.

At school, she slowly gets in with the popular crowd, but that is how she meets the gorgeous Mary Carlson. How is she supposed to keep her eyes and her hands to herself? How her heart yearns and her body burns. So what is Joanna going to do?

Like I said, this book had promise. But unfortunately, Joanna spoiled it all. She's so self-involved and takes everything that is happening around her so personally. And she's thoughtless, rude to people around her, and generally does not hold good thoughts of most of the people in the book. In general, I found that many of the characters, other than the fabulous BTB, are selfish and mean-spirited. I can read about unlikable characters but not about mean characters. And that is all I have to say about this book. If you've read this book, please do share your thoughts.

Monday, March 13, 2017

For WA State Indie & Self-Pub Writers from @kcls Public Library

The King County Public Library system provides an excellent service to the indie and self-published writers of Washington State.

You can submit your eBook to the KCLS collection with the Library Journal's SELF-e program by sending an EPUB2, EPUB3, or PDF file via this submission form.

You book will then be included in the SELF-e and Indie Washington collections of eBooks by local authors.

BiblioBoard is the platform that you will use to check out and read eBooks available via SELF-e and Indie WA.

Your book may be reviewed by Library Journal and may be included in the national SELF-e collection, thereby, being available across all participating libraries in the U.S. and Canada.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My February Reading

February is my All Romance month, and with a couple of notable exceptions, I succeeded with five romances.

The DNF romance I read leads me to protest that writing a romance is not an exercise in connecting the dots unweighted by lack of research and basic writing standards. The condescension and disdain with which that book was written, while assuming that of course it'll be well-received, made me gnash my teeth while soundly DNFing it.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas
Categories: Victorian Romance
Comments: With this book, rather than the two that preceded it, I feel that Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She's found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit is balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how she's such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero with her imperfections.

"She objects not only to me, but to the institution of marriage itself. The title, the fortune, the estate, the social her, they're all detractions. Somehow I have to convince her to marry me despite those things. And I'm damned if I even know who I am outside of them."

I enjoyed seeing how Pandora struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. I loved how Gabriel works to resolve this and workaround the day's existing laws.

One of the things that stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities. He wholeheartedly accepts every facet is her personality. This is a person who's allowed to be a person despite his exacting standards of himself. At the outset he saw her as a disaster and an antithesis to everything he had hoped for in a wife and future duchess. However, over time, he realizes that she is the perfect wife for him.

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran
Categories: Romance, Victorian
Comments: What a great book! Duran has yet to disappoint me and this is no exception. I consider her one of the finest historical romance writers writing today. This book is a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament and a woman raised in a political family and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. It is also a story of trust and an amnesia trope. But with Duran, a trope's never a tired execution, but something fresh and new. That is what I really like about her writing. My review is here.

My American Duchess by Eloisa James
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: I really enjoyed the book till the hero and heroine get married and then it went flat for me from there. But the first three-fifths were great with snappy dialogue, great characterization, and a good plot. Merry Pelford is an American heiress on the catch for a titled English gentleman. She has gained a reputation for being fickle because she has jilted two American men. So she's been brought to England, where she may have a clean slate and a wide selection to choose from. When the story begins, Merry has just been proposed to by Lord Cedric Allardyce, the twin brother of the Duke of Trent. Cedric is a virtual Pink of the Ton and very persnickety in his tastes. Merry has some idea that she's being courted for her money, but she's captivated by Cedric's good looks and fine address and believes him to be sincerely fond of her. So she accepts his proposal. However, the same night Merry has a run-in with the Duke of Trent. Neither knows the other out on the darkish terrace. And what ensues then in them revealing their true selves to each other in a refreshingly fresh, witty repartée. They find that they have instant chemistry. And so begins a triangle. My review is here.

A Lady Without a Lord by Bliss Bennet
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: I was very much taken with Bennet's assured writing, complex and unusual characterization, and verve for storytelling, all highlights of a much more experienced author. Harriot is the steward's daughter at the Saybrook estate, but in reality, she's keeping the account books in light of her father's increasingly poor grasp of reality. She's also taken up other steward duties, such as repairing tenant roofs, supervising the sheep shearing, negotiating the vehement opposition to the annual village fête, and so on. In the meantime, Theo, Viscount Saybrook, has discovered that he's been embezzled out of 12,000 pounds. He abandons his libertine ways in London to get down to the root of the problem despite his mathematical disorder. This book is a romance, a mystery, and a coming of age story for Theo. Bennet has done a superb job of showing the progression of Alzheimer's disease and the complexities of dyscalculia disorder in an era when their causes and diagnoses were unknown. If you've never read Bennet before, I recommend you read this book. My review is here.

The Viscount's Bride by Lindsay Downs
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: By God, this was a definite D.N.F.!!! The sheer arrogance with which the historical atrocities (i.e., factual mistakes) were made is breathtaking. He's a member of RWA. Surely, he could've attended a few of the workshops and perhaps signed up on the Beau Monde email loop to avoid some of the most egregious of mistakes. Heck, even picking up a single research book would've solved some of his basic issues. Then there's the writing. And the lack of editing. Here's the last paragraph of the book:

Kathleen, this has to have been the most interesting commission I've ever been given. I meet and marry my true love, help solve several murders, and catch the killers all the while designing pavilions for here and your parents'," Matthew declared wrapping an arm around Kathleen's waist. (punctuation his)

We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama Edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: I'm loving this collection of the most prominent and noteworthy of Obama's speeches throughout his eight years in the White House. This is an ongoing reading project, so it'll show up on these monthly reading round-ups for a while.

Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis & Janis Keyser
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: As with most parenting advice, this book's contents are not rocket science, nor are they at the epiphany level. But many times, things that you've read in the past and not connected with suddenly resonate with you when explained differently. Such is the case of this book. And while it claims to be only for small children, I think the book applies equally to older children.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: A Lady Without a Lord by Bliss Bennet

In keeping with my Valentine's Day tradition, my February reads were all romance and all wonderful! I had become jaded with romance off-late, so I was delighted to rediscover my love for romance. I read Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas, My American Duchess by Eloisa James, A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran, and A Lady Without a Lord by Bliss Bennet.

Bennet may be a fledgling author but her book stands stalwart with the others on that list. I was very much taken with her assured writing, complex and unusual characterization, and verve for storytelling, all highlights of a much more experienced author.

Harriot "Harry" Atherton is the steward's daughter at the Saybrook estate in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. In reality, she's keeping the account books in light of her father's increasingly poor grasp of reality. Her father refuses to acknowledge his growing disability and his growing reliance on Harry, and Harry struggles with respecting her father and his decisions while trying to circumvent and prevent disasters.

So she's had to deal with repairing tenant roofs, supervising the sheep shearing, negotiating the vehement opposition to the annual village fête by Reverend Strickland of Oldfield and Sir John Mather, and other such matters routinely overseen by a steward.

Enter one Theodosius "Theo" Pennington, the new Viscount Saybrook, a self-professed libertine and childhood playmate of Harry's. A stolen kiss from him in their teens and his rakish reputation has made her wary of him. She cannot afford to fall under his spell, lest he discover her father's true condition that she is at pains to disguise.

Theo's finally returned to Lincolnshire after discovering that he's been fleeced out of his sister's dowry. Something dodgy is going on at his estate and he is determined to get to the bottom of it and recover the money. However, this course of action is a torture for Theo for he has struggled with basic mathematics his whole life. Labeled lazy and useless since his childhood — "did he not always fail the people for whom he cared?" — he lived up to these slurs in his young adulthood by indulging in dissipation. Now, however, despite his disability, he has to solve the mystery of the missing money.

He is determined to recover the money not just to give what he owes to his sister, but also to prove to her and to himself that he can act responsibly, he can manage his estate and take care of his tenants, and he can behave in a "to the manor born" manner. So there's a lot riding on those twelve thousand pounds.

As Theo and Harry struggle to reconcile their past reputations and current roles, not to mention the suspicion of her father for the stolen money, neither can deny the growing attraction between them.

While the romance is perforce the central thrust of the story, the pacing and scattering of the clues of the mystery are also well done. I especially liked the historical details Bennet chooses: The heavy odor of a poorly drawing chimney hung upon Theo....

This book is also a coming of age story for Theo as he figures out how to leverage his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses in order to become an effective landowner and viscount.

Theo closed his eyes for a moment, taken aback by her unexpected praise. True, he might be a dunce when it came to anything concerning numbers, but he did have other skills, other strengths. If he called on the ones he had, instead of continually berating himself for the one he lacked, might he prove himself worthy of the responsibilities that had descended upon him after his father's death?

Bennet has done a superb job of showing the progression of Alzheimer's disease and the complexities of dyscalculia disorder in an era when their causes and diagnoses were unknown. Both Mr. Atherton and Theo present their difficulties in a manner that would be instantly recognizable today but is entirely historically appropriate in the context of the story.

If this is a new-to-you author, please do not hesitate to pick up A Lady Without a Lord.

Please note: I was given an ARC of this book by the author.