What I’ve been reading lately – books with wounded military heroes

I’ve been doing these “what I’ve been reading lately” posts lately because (1) I’m lazy and can’t seem to write more than one post in a given 10-day period; (2) I read waaaaayyyyyy too much, and if I tried to write about every book, you’d be like — Whoa. Stop it with all the posts about these books I’m never going to read. Just stop it, Kelly; and (3) I tend to get into reading moods, and sometimes it’s more interesting to discuss the themes that occur across multiple books. So, in June and July, I read a bunch of books that had military heroes, and I just realized (because I’m slow on the uptake sometimes), that all those heroes were wounded in combat. In some cases, the hero’s military status is a huge part of the book (i.e. it really does fall in the military romance subgenre), and in other cases the hero retired or was medically discharged, and his service is just part of his back story (and identity).

One theme that unites the books that I’ll be discussing in this post is that a large portion of each story focuses on the wounded hero’s search for identity and vocation in light of his injury. All three books are new releases, and (it seems to me) it’s yet another indication of how the romance genre responds to modern culture and current events and remains relevant. In the U.S., at least, war is everywhere. Do you know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it in some way? Do you know anyone who doesn’t mourn a classmate or friend, who hasn’t seen a loved one change and struggle after too many too-long deployments? Do you know anyone who isn’t heartsick to think of the welcome we offer the veterans who are lucky enough to return: poor health care, few career options, and the continuing stigma of mental health issues? I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that (more than) 3 new romance novels deal with this subject. (To be clear: I picked these three books to write about, but I could have expanded this post to talk about six books that I read in June/July that feature a wounded military hero, and I’m not really a reader of military romance novels. I’m guessing there are a lot more books out now that deal with the wounded hero trope.)

He’s in for the fight of his life . . .

Army captain Trent Davila loved his wife, Laura, and their two beautiful children. But when he almost lost his life in combat, something inside him died. He couldn’t explain the emptiness he felt or bridge the growing distance between him and his family—so he deployed again. And again. And again . . . until his marriage reached its breaking point. Now, with everything on the line, Trent has one last chance to prove to his wife that he can be the man she needs . . . if she’ll have him

. . . to win back his only love.

Laura is blindsided when Trent returns home. Time and again, he chose his men over his family, and she’s just beginning to put the pieces of her shattered heart back together. But when Trent faces a court martial on false charges, only Laura can save him. What begins as an act of kindness to protect his career inflames a desire she thought long buried—and a love that won’t be denied. But can she trust that this time he’s back to stay?

Back to You is definitely a military romance novel — and I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t read very many of those — but its story stays fairly focused on Trent, Laura, and their chance for reconciliation. I love reconciliation stories (mostly because I hate instalust), and this one was right up my alley. I loved quite a few things about this book.

  1. This book has fantastic primary characters who are very nicely fleshed out.
  2. The emotional narrative of Trent and Laura’s story is so well wrought. There is a weight to their encounters early in the book, and that weight lightens with each new bit of trust forged (and earned). I particularly enjoyed how Laura’s anger is supported and validated by the narrative, yet her forgiveness is allowed to grow naturally.
  3. The interactions between Trent and the kids — who are pretty much strangers to him — are beautifully done. My favorite of these interactions involved Trent getting super-duper overwhelmed by his kids’ madness and then feeling like a failure for not being emotionally prepared for it. I just might love Jessica Scott forever for having Laura reassure Trent by telling him about the time that she absolutely lost her shit with the children. Parenting isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying. I loved that this book showed how messy parenting can be and gave Laura the chance to act with compassion, to share the story of her own failures, and to validate — for every parent — that those failures are not the whole story, that it’s the successes, added up, that tell the real story of a childhood and a family. That was neat.
  4. The women soldiers in this book are soldiers.

And, of course, there were a few things that I didn’t like so much. The secondary characters (two couples who are friends of Laura and Trent) were distracting, possibly because I read Back to You as a stand-alone and was not invested in the secondary characters from having read their books. Another character seemed to be introduced in the narrative only so readers could feel sympathy for Trent later on (and so Trent could learn to confide in Laura), and that was unfortunate. There’s a lot of military jargon that I just didn’t get. “Down stream” seems to mean a lot of things, but I could not identify them from the context. Finally, I wanted a little more closure from the ending. I’m not much for epilogues, but — since so much of the story dealt with Trent’s adjustment to a new normal and his search for identity in the wake of his injuries and experiences — I wanted a clearer idea of where he and Laura ended up.

But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book and am very glad that I read it.

Fighting for his country gave Jake Taylor’s life shape and meaning. Now as an injured war hero he struggles to find purpose, until he runs into the gorgeous woman he dated briefly—and disastrously—before being deployed eight years ago. Turns out Jake doesn’t just need to figure out how to be a civilian . . . he also needs to learn how to be a dad.

Eighteen, pregnant, and totally lost, Mira Shipley couldn’t track down the soldier who fathered her child, so she put college on hold and focused on making a good life for her son. Now she’s determined to be something more than Sam’s mom, her parents’ daughter, or Jake’s girl—as hot as she finds her old flame’s take-charge attitude in and out of bed. Soon Mira and Jake realize that their passion didn’t disappear when Sam was conceived—and that instead of running away, sometimes it’s better to hold on tight.

Yep, it’s a secret baby book. It’s one of my favorite tropes because it is so rarely done well (and yet so often done… I mean, I’m just going to make up some titles, here, but I bet some of them exist as actual books: The Rancher’s Secret Baby; His Baby, Her Secret; Triplets for the SEAL; The Firefighter’s Surprise Family. Yeah… I just looked those titles up… they totally exist.). Anyway. I’ve read a few of Serena Bell’s stories before, so I was really stoked to hear that she’d written a secret baby story. And do you know what? I loved it. Some of my favorite things:

  1. Mira. She’s gutsy, principled, intelligent, and she recognizes the value of finding and maintaining an identity separate from “mom” and “daughter” and “girlfriend.” An equal amount of narrative time was spent on Mira’s journey of self-discovery as on Jake’s, and I loved how interesting her journey was. Mira gets the best dialogue in the book, lines of acerbic wit and frank humor. Finally, Mira’s sexuality and self-confidence are so refreshing.
  2. Computer science gets a shout-out, and it’s not the typical nerd locked in a room writing code about how to get chicks variety. Instead, Mira discovers in computer science a language she can relate to, a framework through which she can develop and express her other interests (in this book, shoes.). Since that’s what computer science actually is but is so rarely shown to be, I was thrilled. (And I’m not a computer scientist…. just a CS enthusiast, I guess.)
  3. I found all the interactions between Sam and Mira and Sam and Jake to be heartwarming, at times poignant, and often very amusing.
  4. Jake’s angst. I am actually a sucker for a wounded hero story (so, you know, grain of salt and all that), but Bell’s handling of Jake’s internalization of his injury and his resulting identity crisis was powerful and felt authentic. So, too, was his journey towards healing, self-acceptance, and love. Jake’s angst about sex was really interesting (because usually romance novel heroes exhibit unassailable sexual confidence) and endearing.

And, of course, there were some things I didn’t like so much. While Jake and Mira have a past relationship that helps to explain some of the strength of their physical attraction for one another, it *almost* bordered on the insane chemistry of instalust. Maybe it’s just me, but it pissed me off that Jake, after he had his Aha! (Aha! I’ve been an asshole. OOPS.) moment, waited three weeks to make things up to Mira, because it was so important that he get himself sorted. It further annoyed me that he orchestrated this big production to surprise her. Nope. Love doesn’t need everything to be just so, and love doesn’t leave someone in suspense just for the sake of one’s pride. (As for the big production… those just annoy me in general.)

But the bottom line is that Hold on Tight is still one of the best secret baby stories I’ve ever read.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
 
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Some of my favorite wounded hero romance novels are historical romances. (My favorite, in case you’re wondering, is England’s Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch.) I was poised to love this book — it’s about a widow who intends to go her own way, eschewing propriety, even, and a wounded hero — but, sadly, The Escape isn’t on my list of favorites.  It was still an enjoyable read…eventually.

It’s just that the beginning is so awkward. Part of that awkwardness may be attributed to the book’s position as the third in a series of six Survivor’s Club novels about the romantic antics of five wounded veterans and one lady quasi-spy. (I haven’t read the first two books in the series.) The Escape opens with all six Survivors gathered at the estate where they all convalesced some years before. That opening chapter reads like a strange prologue that sets up the stories of all the Survivors but otherwise does not pertain to this story. And the introduction of all those characters who don’t feature in this story is kind of awkward… so much name dropping, so little happening.

The story actually begins in chapter 2 (so it’s not a long, strange prologue), but the awkwardness continues in some truly odd lines of dialogue. Consider this line, delivered by Ben’s sister:

“…But — you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered — I do not possess any, not being the vaporish short, though you could easily make a convert of me.”

Who talks like that? The infodumping dialogue got to be distracting, and it was really a shame, because I liked Ben, Samantha, and their respective stories. Honestly, the only reason I continued reading the book after the fourth or fifth chapter was that it has amusing animal antics (a dog named Tramp). At about the halfway point, though, I started to enjoy myself, because the book shifted locales and became much more focused on the heroine’s story. (And either the writing got less awkward or I simply got used to it.) By the end, I was happy I’d read the book. I guess that’s the bottom line.

As in Back to You and Hold on Tight, the injured hero in The Escape must find a new identity (or, more accurately, uncover the identity that is enmeshed with his military vocation and apply it to a new vocation). The first half of the book (the half I didn’t like so much) spends a lot of time discussing Ben’s listlessness, and while some time is spent on introducing and developing Samantha, it’s accurate to say that Ben is the star of the narrative. But once Ben and Samantha arrive in Wales, Samantha becomes an active participant in the story — the second half of the story is about her just as much as it is about Ben. Overall, I would have liked the book much better if there were not an abrupt turning point where Samantha ceased to be a figure in Ben’s landscape and became her own individual, worthy of having her own story. (To be clear: Ben’s story was not diminished in the second half of the book: he still struggles to find himself, to work towards a healthy identity.)

By the way… this is the first Mary Balogh book I’ve ever read. I hear that her back list contains some amazing books… What should I read?

What do you think about the wounded hero trope? (Or about bananas… I just want to have a conversation, and I don’t care what it’s about.)

If you’re interested in any of these books, click on the cover images to visit their pages on Goodreads. Back to You was released on January 7 (e-book) and July 29 (paperback) by Forever. Hold on Tight was released on June 17 as an e-book by Loveswept. The Escape was released on July 1 as an e-book and paperback by Dell. For more information about the authors, check out their websites: Jessica Scott, Serena Bell, and Mary Balogh.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys via NetGalley from Forever (Back to You) and Dell (The Escape) for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Hold on Tight.*

What I’ve been reading lately – a little more historical romance fiction

It’s kind of fun to go back through a giant list of books read over a period of three months and identify some trends. I read a heck of a lot of historical romance fiction in January and February (and, as you know, a heck of a lot of erotica in March). So, here I am continuing the mini-review trend. I’ll catch up eventually…

Sinfully Yours (Hellions of High Street #2) by Cara Elliott

After an eventful Season, Anna Sloane longs for some peace and quiet to pursue her writing. Though her plots might be full of harrowing adventure and heated passion, she’d much prefer to leave such exploits on the page rather than experience them in real life. Or so she thinks until she encounters the darkly dissolute-and gorgeously charming-Marquess of Davenport.

Davenport has a reputation as a notorious rake whose only forte is wanton seduction. However the real reason he’s a guest at the same remote Scottish castle has nothing to do with Anna . . . until a series of mysterious threats leave him no choice but to turn to her for help in stopping a dangerous conspiracy. As desire erupts between them, Davenport soon learns he’s not the only one using a carefully crafted image to hide his true talents. And he’s more than ready to show Anna that sometimes reality can be even better than her wildest imaginings . . .

I got an email about these two books by Cara Elliott, and the name sounded familiar to me, so I did a search of my blog and turned up this post on Too Dangerous to Desire (Lords of Midnight #3). I decided to read the books — despite real fears of encountering more dog metaphors and strange laughter — because I am such a sucker for books whose characters are writers. (Tangent: it should not surprise you at all to learn that the only Julia Quinn books I still enjoy are the ones that reference the mad fiction of Sarah Gorley. /tangent)

Sinfully Yours is fun. It combines some of the best elements of lighthearted historical romance into a fast-paced romp that delivers laughs and feels in equal proportions.  For example, it has: a delightfully inept mother character who wants the best for her daughters (and interprets “best” as “a German prince who may or may not be pitching for another team”); a roguish hero who secretly designs and sells automata (OMG, he’s in trade!); a “perfect” heroine who secretly pens slightly risqué gothic adventure novels and doesn’t really know what happens after her hero and heroine kiss; an assassination plot that somehow requires the heroine’s help to foil; dastardly villains; good triumphing over evil; happily ever after ending.

It also has a few instances of “Ha ha ha” laughter (and, yes, I did think of Count von Count every time), and it seemed to me as though the characters moved from flirtatious to naked in a remarkably quick period of time.  I mean — it would have been a jarring sprint down the primrose path in a contemporary romance, but this is a historical romance. I expected the standard progression: longing glances, first kiss, kissing with passion, kissing with passion and groping, full on second base, etc. There are usually a lot of steps before the heroine has her hands shoved down the hero’s trousers (or under the placket of his breeches, as the case may be). I feel like such a pearl-clutcher writing all this, but there it is.

All told, though, I enjoyed Sinfully Yours because it’s fun and funny and because its heroine is a writer. If you like lighthearted historical romps and/or stories about fictional writers or tinker-type heroes, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Passionately Yours (Hellions of High Street #3) by Cara Elliott

The youngest of the Hellions of High Street, Caro Sloane has watched her two sisters have exhilarating encounters with dashing heroes, and now she is longing for some excitement of her own. After all, how can she write truly passionate poetry until she has experienced a Grand Adventure? But that seems unlikely to happen as she’ll be spending the next few weeks in the quiet spa town of Bath, where nothing grand or adventurous ever happens . . . until she and her new friend Isobel are nearly abducted while walking on a quiet country road—only to be rescued by Alec McClellan, the moody and mysterious Scottish lord she met at Dunbar Castle.

Alec has come to England to deal with a treacherous betrayal and fears that his half-sister Isobel is in peril from an old enemy. Does he dare share his secrets with Caro? The bold and brave beauty leaves him no choice, and together they are quickly caught up in a swirl of dangerous intrigue . . . where fiery desire between them may ignite into the greatest danger of all.

When I read these books last month, I liked Passionately Yours slightly better than Sinfully Yours, but now, four weeks later, I am finding that the latter was more memorable; however, I don’t find that its being memorable necessarily means that it is better. After all, the things that continue to resonate in my memory are (1) the things that I was always going to love about it (writer heroine, tinker hero, uptempo plot) and (2) the thing that I found incredibly strange (surprise peen).

The heroine in Passionately Yours is also a writer, albeit of the poetic variety, and so is the hero, though he’s much more secretive about it. Its story pretty well mirrors Pride and Prejudice, except with more intrigue, danger, and sedition. Caro and Alec meet and take immediate dislike to each other in the previous book, and that dislike continues in this one. But, of course, like Lizzy and Darcy (and Beatrice and Benedick) before them, their mutual dislike is actually just a disguise for mutual attraction — a reflex of these prickly and passionate characters. I thought both characters were interesting individually and together, and I enjoyed the romance of this story (which I thought was much more believable than the previous book).

The only problem with Passionately Yours, actually, is that it is so smooth a read — enjoyable but not particularly challenging — that it doesn’t stick around much once the last page is turned. Only you can know whether or not you would find that to be a point in its favor.

Improper Arrangements by Juliana Ross 

A reckless infatuation nearly ruined Lady Alice Cathcart-Ross in her youth, but from the moment she spies Elijah Philemon Keating scaling a rock face without a rope in sight, the man awakens her long-buried desire. Alice has come to the high Alps in search of a mountaineer, and in Elijah she finds the guide of her dreams.

Though Elijah is known as one of the greatest explorers of the age, a tragic accident has destroyed his taste for adventure and society. Elijah can’t deny his attraction to Alice, but he resolves to avoid the entanglement that could accompany it. He promises Alice one week in the Alps, and no more.

Alice agrees, valuing her independence above all else. But as the heights they climb by day are overshadowed by the summits of passion they reach at night, these vows become harder and harder to keep…

You read that blurb, right? OK, officially, I take exception to stories about women who have experienced some form of physical relationship in their past but — for whatever reason — have managed to live a celibate life until they meet the hero, when KAPOW, their lady areas light up in a conflagration of desire (I seriously read that line somewhere in about fifty different books. Wish I was kidding.) I know, I know — it’s vacation sex, and, anyway, it’s in a book and I should lighten up — but it’s just hard for me to imagine that Eli’s the first attractive man Alice has met in the years since she established an independent household for herself.

That said, I actually liked this story in spite of a few pet peeves.  It’s written in a first person narrative, and y’all know how I feel about that. There’s that instant attraction thing and the idea that the heroine has an independent life but feels the need to live it entirely alone until she meets a fine pair of forearms. But even with my starting bias against the book, I enjoyed it. It reads like a romance novel crossed with a travel diary, which worked strangely well. Both characters are distinct, interesting, and engaging. I loved the writing, which reminded me a little bit of E.M. Forster with a feminine twist. (It’s possible that my brain is just making that bit up because this story has English people wandering around the Alps.)

I liked Improper Arrangements, and I can’t wait to read the next book by Juliana Ross. Incidentally, I read (and loved) the first Improper book way back in the early days of this blog.

A Night with the Bride by Kate McKinley 

While at a lavish house party, Gabriella Weatherfield confidently bets her friends that she can convince the “unseducible” Duke of Somerset to kiss her. But Gabriella’s innocent wager turns wicked when faced with the duke’s intense blue eyes and talented hands.

Nicholas Montgomery usually strives to stay away from society, yet there’s no denying Gabriella’s wild beauty or the way she makes him want to lose control for once. Will the fire between them burn out when Gabriella uncovers the inner demons haunting Nicholas?

I really wanted to like this book. Here’s the thing… This story has a pretty good premise — Duke with issues overhears brassy, trade-wealthy heroine accept a dare to kiss him, hijinks ensue. That could have been really interesting, and for the first half of the book, I was impressed with the story. But then things got a little crazy.

I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but it is simply too staggering to suggest that a woman who has thus far been unimpressed with all the dudes she’s met would not just fall in love within the span of two days but fall so hard in love that she’s impervious to fears of madness though she lives in a society in which madness is feared, the mad locked away, the families shunned. I accepted the sudden attraction between the characters — even though it hinged on insta-lust and magic sex organs — but I could not believe the instant growth of love and loyalty, and without that belief, the second half of the book was strange, choppy, and unpleasant.

Sinfully Yours was released on February 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Passionately Yours was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Improper Arrangements was released on November 11, 2013 as an e-book by Carina Press. One Night with the Bride was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book by Forever Yours. For more information about the books, click on the cover images above to visit each book’s page on Goodreads. Check out the authors here: Cara Elliott, Juliana Ross, Kate McKinley.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all four books from their respective publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Giveaway results & Review – The Heiress’s Homecoming by Regina Scott

First up, I’m pleased to very belatedly report the giveaway results for Admission.

Admission-Random-giveawayresultsBeautyinbudgetblog is the big winner, and she will receive a movie-tie-in copy of the book in short order courtesy of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.  I send my thanks to the publisher for hosting the giveaway and to everyone who participated!  OK, now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

I’m quite behind schedule in my posting on this blog–I’ve been very busy in all areas of my life, and the amount of time available to putz around on the Internet has seriously decreased–and it’s starting to stress me out a little bit.  At any rate, I’m very pleased finally to be getting around to posting about this book, because I loved it.

Cover image, The Heiress’s Homecoming by Regina Scott

I have a bit of a soft spot for inspirational romances, but my appreciation for this book really has nothing to do with its wholesomeness.

As usual, I’ll start with the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

To keep her cherished childhood home, Samantha Everard must marry by her twenty-fifth birthday. Yet she refuses to marry on a whim, not even to save her fortune. When she returns to Dallsten Manor to say goodbye, the last person she expects to see is her handsome, disapproving neighbor William Wentworth, Earl of Kendrick.

Will is certain the scandalous Everard family is nothing but trouble. He shouldn’t care about Samantha’s predicament, but her feistiness and kindheartedness intrigue him—as does her refusal to wed. He wants to help, especially when he perceives the threat that surrounds her. Soon his greatest wish is to persuade Samantha that her true home is with him.

The publisher’s blurb doesn’t lie – the story is about a woman who has to make an awful choice: marry within a few weeks or lose her family home.  It’s about what happens when that woman meets her handsome, disapproving neighbor and the hijinks that ensue, including said neighbor persuading her to matrimony, but the whole is so much better than one would assume, considering a sum of the parts.

For starters, there is Samantha, a well-developed character whose motivations and actions always make sense.  She doesn’t want to marry without the right kind of love, so she chooses not to accept the well-meaning proposals that are thrown her way.  Her choice is not made out of petulance, it’s an honest conviction to which she sticks, no matter the personal cost.  Beyond that, Samantha is reasonably self-sufficient.  When danger rears its head, she neither cowers behind the males nor charges off half-cocked into danger.  Instead, she arms herself when possible, fights when she’s able, and runs for safety when there is no other choice.  Samantha is never a damsel in distress, even when a dude with a gun is chasing after her.

Then there is Will, whose development from disapproving neighbor to man in love is a delight to read.  For some added fun, readers also get to watch Will recover from his grief at losing his first love and learn how to relate to his nearly-adult son, Jamie.  The relationships between Samantha and Jamie, friends since childhood, Samantha and Will, and Will and Jamie are complex and, for me, were a bit of surprising gold hidden in an enjoyable story.

There were a few things about the story that didn’t entirely work for me.  I haven’t read any other books by this author, and some of the backstory elements that involved Samantha, Will’s brother, and Samantha’s relatives (all secondary characters here) didn’t quite make sense to me as a reader new to the story.  That said, the things I loved about this story (Samantha, Will, & Jamie, pretty much) far outweighed the occasional irritation of not knowing what was happening.

So there you go!  If you’re looking for a historical romance that is wholesome and not at all preachy, has interesting, well-developed characters and an intriguing  if occasionally confusing, plot, this is the book for you.

The Heiress’s Homecoming was released on March 5, 2013 as a mass-market and e-book by Love Inspired Historical (Harlequin).  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Regina Scott, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Love Inspired via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Kim and Kelly’s co-review of Tessa Dare’s Stud Club Trilogy

Over the past year, Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict and I discovered that we have similar taste in books and that it’s a lot more fun to read books together and glory in the ensuing discussions.  We were both already fans of Tessa Dare’s books, but neither of us had read the Stud Club Trilogy, so we decided to give those books a try and then co-review them over at Kim’s blog.  We liked the books a lot, which is not entirely surprising considering we started out with a soft spot for the author’s voice.  What is slightly surprising is the variety of topics we were able to kick around when discussing the three books.

To read our lengthy review of all three books, follow the link to be magically whisked along the interwebs.

Review – When She Was Wicked by Anne Barton

Last week was incredibly busy, and I fell behind in my posting (though not in my reading).  I really enjoy discovering new authors writing in my favorite genre and subgenre (that’s historical romance, in case you hadn’t noticed).  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read and review Anne Barton’s debut novel, When She Was Wicked.  Debut novels are often a bit tentative and/or derivative and may lack the polish that an author will develop over time, but, if you can get past the flaws of inexperience, such books are indications of an author’s raw talent.  Anne Barton is an author to watch, and I will definitely be picking up the next book in her Honeycote series.

Cover image, When She Was Wicked by Anne Barton

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Some rules simply beg to be broken…

A dressmaker in London’s busiest shop, Miss Anabelle Honeycote overhears the ton‘s steamiest secrets—and (occasionally) uses them to her advantage. It isn’t something she’s proud of, but the reluctant blackmailer needs the money to care for her gravely ill mother. To make up for her misdeeds, Anabelle keeps to a firm set of rules:

• Never request payment from someone who cannot afford it.
• Never reveal the secrets of a paying client.
• Never enter into any form of social interaction with a client.

Her list keeps her (somewhat) honest—until she encounters Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford. Not only does Owen nip Anabelle’s extortion plans in the bud, the devilishly handsome Duke soon has the sexy seamstress dreaming of more than silks and satins. With Owen, Anabelle enjoys pleasures she never imagined . . . until a scandal from the past resurfaces. Now her rules could mean his family’s ruin. Owen’s searing kisses carry the promise of passion, but how will he react when Anabelle’s most devastating secret is finally revealed?

My favorite thing about the book is its characters.  Anabelle is fantastic – nuanced, resourceful, moral (in her own way), fiercely loyal, deeply conflicted by the choices life has forced her to make.  I appreciated her self-reliance and moxie, and — come on! — she’s an extortionist!  Anabelle is the antithesis of the helpless heroine who needs the hero to swoop in and save her from her life.  Owen is also a well-drawn character, though not quite as nuanced as Anabelle, and there are excellent secondary characters in Owen’s sisters, Anabelle’s sister, and the delightfully awful Miss Starling.  I loved Owen’s uncertainty and vulnerability when dealing with his sisters, and it is lovely that Anabelle gets to do him a good turn by helping him navigate the sister-brother relationship.

There were a few things that struck me as being less than stellar.  The plot line takes a few strange turns — the house party provided an excellent opportunity for Owen and Anabelle to take their relationship to the next level, to be sure, but it felt like a lot of the action relating to the house party, to the skeevy Earl, etc. was a distraction from the main story line between Owen and Anabelle.  Owen’s ambivalence towards Anabelle seems to yo-yo around a bit too much:  She’s a damn, dirty extortionist!  She’s attractive.  She’s a sneak.  She’s a wonderful person.  She can’t be trusted, but Ima have sex with her anyway.  I totally can’t marry her.  Dude, Ima propose to her.  Finally, the ending was a little bit abrupt, and I really felt that more groveling (or any, really) from Owen would have been nice.

The bottom line, however, is that I am very excited to read the next book in the Honeycote series (Anabelle’s sister Daphne’s book), and I’m looking forward to seeing how Anne Barton’s voice develops over her next few books.  There is a cleverness in this book (especially evident in the chapter subtitles) that bodes well for the future.

When She Was Wicked was released on January 29, 2013 as a mass-market and e-book by Forever (an imprint of Grand Central Publishing).  To learn more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information on Anne Barton, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Forever via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

Review – Forever a Lord by Delilah Marvelle

First of all, Merry Christmas!  I figured I should get this post up sooner rather than later, and I’ve got little else to do during this lull of the day.  My kids are exhausted after all the drama and excitement of a Christmas morning.  All is quiet.  It is, quite frankly, a glorious moment, and I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts (not long).

Cover image, Forever a Lord by Delilah Marvelle

I’ve forgotten to include the publisher’s blurb on the last few reviews I’ve done (oops…), but this time, I remembered!  Courtesy of Goodreads:

He’s a fighter, not a lover.
But that’s about to change…

Lady Imogene Norwood lives a sheltered life of quiet respectability and routine…until she debuts at her first Season. There among London’s elite she meets the wild and broken Lord Atwood. And the very shy English rose suddenly realizes that a little chaos might just be what her heart desires.

Lord Nathaniel James Atwood doesn’t believe true love exists. Since scandal tore him away from his family at an early age, he has spent his life fighting for what he wants. That attitude has made him a rising star in bare-knuckle boxing, and now leads him back to London to reclaim the life that was stolen from him. But upon meeting the innocent Imogene, his beliefs are trounced…as guarding his heart against her proves to be the fight of his life.

The first half of this book is incredibly good.  From page one, it grabbed my attention and treated me to a fast-moving, emotionally compelling story.  The character development of the major characters (Nathaniel, Imogene, and her brother Weston, in particular) is strong.  I loved the idea that both Nathaniel and Imogene were victims of the terrible power of secrets, that power ever stronger when the secret is not one’s own.

A good portion of this story revolves around bare-knuckled boxing.  I’ll just come out and say it: I do not understand boxing.  I can’t fathom why anyone would want to step into a ring and beat the crap out of someone else (or get the crap beat out of oneself) for glory and cash prizes.  It seems a phenomenally stupid endeavor, to me.  I really thought I’d skim through the boxing sections, but I didn’t.  Marvelle brought her research to life in a fascinating way, particularly when she discussed the world through Imogene’s point of view.  I still think boxing is a stupid thing to do (and an even more stupid thing to watch on PPV), but I enjoyed all of the boxing elements of this story because they so closely tie to Nathaniel’s character.  Thanks to good writing, I happily read about jabs and hooks and spurts of blood spraying all over the ring.  Well done, Delilah Marvelle!

The second half of the book is not quite as strong as the first–it skips ahead a bit too abruptly, and there is not quite enough conflict to move the story along — but I was still a mostly-happy reader when I reached the end.  There were a few strange side-stories that might have been explained/explored in the previous two books of this series — but I wouldn’t know, because this is the first book I’ve read by this author — and seemed out-of-place and bewildering to me, reading this book as a stand-alone.  Nearly everything that related to Matthew, a secondary character and friend of Nathaniel, was just strange and did not fit in with this story (I just checked Goodreads: Matthew’s story is book #2 in the series).  If I had read this series from the beginning, I’m sure I would have loved the little mentions here and there of characters that I already knew and loved.  But I read this book expecting a stand-alone story, and instead, my enjoyment of this book’s story was continually interrupted by all these little WTF moments.  Those interruptions negatively impacted my overall experience of the book.

Aside from the somewhat jarring moments when the other stories intersected this one in abrupt ways, I had a great time reading this story, and I recommend it to anyone who (1) enjoys romance novels and (2) wants an intense, emotional story (rather than a romp).  I am adding Marvelle to my ever-growing list of authors to watch.

Forever a Lord was released on December 18, 2012 by Harlequin HQN as a mass-market paperback and e-book.  If you are interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Delilah Marvelle, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin HQN via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*