Wednesday 16 July 2014

#CBR6 Book 76: "The Suffragette Scandal" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 281 pages
Rating: 6 stars, yeah, you read that correctly

Disclaimer! I got an ARC of this through NetGalley, in return for a fair and unbiased review. I would also like to point out that I pre-ordered this book as soon as I could, so all the ARC did was save me another four interminable days of waiting to read the book. As for unbiased, I don't know if I can ever be unbiased where it comes to Courtney Milan, because I love her writing so much it occasionally actually hurts. With that in mind, here is my feeble attempt at capturing why you should drop everything you're doing, acquire this book and read it right this minute.

Frederica "Free" Marshall used the money she inherited from a reclusive aunt to put herself through college and establish a newspaper "by women, for women, about women". Her first story was an expose of the horrible conditions in a naval lock hospital, an asylum of sorts where they kept prostitutes suspected of venereal disease. She bravely and stubbornly continues to employ women and publish her paper, even though she receives offensive letters, abuse and death treats on a weekly basis. Recently, it's become clear that someone has access to the articles before they are published, and is making it look like the Women's Free Press is just copying from other male-run publications. Someone is determined to ruin Free's life's work.

Enter, Edward Clark, liar, forger, blackmailer and scoundrel extraordinaire. He offers to help Free, claiming he wants revenge on the man who's out to destroy her. What Free doesn't know is that the man who is behind the plot to discredit her and her newspaper is Edward's younger brother, and that Edward Clark was in fact born Edward Delacey, and now that his father is dead, he is actually Viscount Claridge. His brother is none to happy to see him return, as Edward's been gone for nearly seven years, just long enough to have him declared dead, so James can become the Viscount instead. Edward promises that his brother can have the title, he just wants to make sure that Stephen Shaughnessy, his childhood friend, isn't ruined along with Miss Marshall's newspaper. Of course, Edward's father and younger brother both left him for dead in a war-torn France nine years ago, so Edward feels absolutely no loyalty or connection to them. The Shaughnessy brothers, however, his oldest friends, and Miss Marshall, who is quickly worming her way into his affections, he is willing to use all his devious and underhanded ways to help.

As Edward and Free work together to foil James Delacey's plots against her, they naturally grow closer, and Free discovers that while Edward may lie, cheat, be an expert forger and blackmailer, he's also a genuinely good man deep down, but has been mistreated by the world for the longest time, and believes himself not only incapable of love but wholly undeserving of being loved or even trusted. Of course, Edward knows that if Free ever discovers who he really is, and who his brother is, she will no longer greet him with a beaming smile, but hate him forever.

I love Courtney Milan. This is no secret. I rate her book Unraveled among the best romances I've ever read. Well, that book has just been knocked off its top spot, because as far as I'm concerned, The Suffragette Scandal is her crowning achievement. As anyone who has been following my blog, or checked out my Goodreads ratings, I've never rated a Milan-book or novella lower than three stars. This book makes me want to break the ratings system, because it deserves six. All the other books of hers that I've rated five stars have little things that niggle and annoy me. This book is flawless. There is a secondary romance involving Free's best friend, Lady Amanda, the niece of Violet from The Countess Conspiracywhich is so subtly and cleverly done that I was honestly wondering if I was reading too much into things to begin with, and whether my mind was creating a romance where there was none. I don't want to spoil anything, but bits involving Lady Amanda had me sobbing on a public bus because I was so moved, and I cheered out loud when the story finally reached its very satisfying conclusion.

Frederica Marshall is Oliver Marshall's little sister and in previous books in the series, she struck me as rather abrasive and annoying. Of course, that Free was an opinionated teenager. This Free is twenty-seven, college educated and tempered by the massive challenges of being a progressive woman in a society that wants women to be seen as ornaments and help meets, not heard and given equal say or footing as men. All grown up, Free Marshall is a force to be reckoned with. I wish she'd be my friend, even though she'd be a bit too outspoken and keep frustratingly thrusting herself into danger for my tastes. She's not flawless, she knows that she's bossy and opinionated, and speaking rashly without thinking can hurt the people she loves dearly. She doesn't publish her newspaper solely to convince men that they are wrong about women, she's doing it to inform and empower women.

Love is too small a word for what I feel for Edward. I'm not sure there are words in any of the languages I speak (English, Swedish, Norwegian and a smattering of German, if anyone was interested) to describe how I feel about Edward. He's so guarded, and cynical and has been beaten down so much by the world and the cruelty of men that he has trouble believing in anyone or anything. He sees the world in terms of how he can take advantage of it, and gain as much as possible for himself. Free sees the world in terms of how she can improve it for the most people and make it a better place in future. They are so different, yet both so sharp and clever and lonely. Their banter is absolutely divine. Their second meeting involves Edward trying to blackmail Free, only to have her turn around and blackmail him more successfully. Their romance is seemingly impossible, but of course they find a happy ending, and the romantic gesture from Edward at the end had me in tears, again.

This book made me laugh, and cry, and swoon, and ruined me so much for other books that instead of being able to read anything else, I just had to start re-reading this book again, only more slowly, so I could properly savour the plot, characters and writing. I don't think there's a single chapter where I haven't highlighted at least one section or quote or small dialogue exchange. I was lucky enough to get an ARC, so I could read the book four days early. That means I've now been fortunate enough to read the book twice, only a day after it's released. Courtney Milan self-publishes, so consider buying her book if you can. Otherwise, find it at your local library or just read it in a book store, and rate it honestly on all forms of social media. Get the word out if you like it. If I haven't convinced you by now that you want to read this book, you are clearly a person who doesn't like good writing. Courtney Milan is not a romance writer, she is an excellent writer who just happens to be writing in the romance genre. Please give this book a try!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 75: "Grave Mercy" by Robin LaFevers

Page count: 549 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ismae's mother went to a herb witch to expel her from the womb, but Ismae survived. The poison marked her with red all the way down her side, and proved to the community that she is one of Death's daughters. When her abusive father marries her to the local pig farmer, she is convinced he's going to beat her to death once he discovers her dark secret. But the itinerant priest who performed the service spirits her away with the help of the local herb witch and she ends up at the convent of St. Mortain, who used to be worshipped as the God of Death himself. At the convent, she learns that she has a number of gifts, including a complete immunity to poison and an advanced healing ability. She's offered sanctuary at the convent, if she agrees to be a handmaiden of Death - an assassin working for the old gods of Brittany.

Ismae, who has never known a kind word or touch from anyone in her life, doesn't take long to agree. She is trained in all manner of deadly arts, and by the time she is seventeen, she is ready to complete her training. She isn't too happy with her graduating assignment, though, having to pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval, half-brother to the Duchess of Brittany and her most trusted advisor. The Abbess of St. Mortain and the Duchess' Grand Chancellor know that there is at least one traitor at court, trying to deliver Brittany and its young Duchess to the French, and they'd like nothing more than for Ismae to prove that Duval is said traitor.

To begin with, Duval and Ismae can barely stand each other. He feels that she trusts too blindly in the orders she receives, she thinks that he is arrogant and conceited and has no wish to be dependent on any man, even as a ruse. Of course the two grow closer, and it becomes readily apparent that Ismae is going to have to learn to trust her instincts and intuition, not just the orders her convent sends her.

A young adult book set in Medieval Brittany, about assassin nuns, with romantic elements, seemed to be right up my alley. I do, after all, have a degree in European Medieaval history, and I love all things YA and romantic. And who doesn't like a good assassin story? There's a lot of potential in this book, but it's too long, and far too much time is spent on things that weren't all that interesting. The story could absolutely have been tighter and more action-packed.

Pretty much all of the training Ismae goes through at the convent is conveniently skipped, and then far too many chapters are spent on her getting settled at court. I have to agree with Duval that she is far too innocent and trusting in her superiors, but that's not really surprising in a farm girl elevated to assassin nun. I doubt any convent is big on training their acolytes in independent thought, critical thinking and questioning their elders. Young women who are sent out to assassinate on behalf of the old gods are not the sort of people you want branching out on their own and going independent. Certainly not if they're immune to poison, like Ismae is. Still, she was a bit dense at times, and it got on my nerves.

The romance springs a bit out of nowhere. Ismae is falling in love with Duval before she's really even spent all that much time with him. As it turns out, he's a pretty great guy, loyal to his young sister and willing to risk his life to make sure she finds happiness in a good marriage and doesn't have her duchy invaded by the French. But Ismae is already madly in love with him by the time we find out all these things.

It was pretty obvious to me who the traitor was long before it was revealed, and the deus ex ending that means Ismae might be looking at her HEA was a bit too convenient for my tastes. Too much of this book was boring day to day court life, and too little of it was assassination, romance and intrigue. Still, I have heard that the sequel is better, so I will probably keep going. After all, medieaval assassin nuns, right?

#CBR6 Book 74: "Rumor Has It" by Jill Shalvis

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 304 pages

Summary from Goodreads, cause I'm lazy: 

He’ll help unleash the new woman in her...

Special Ops soldier Griffin Reid doesn’t exactly have happy memories of growing up in Sunshine, Idaho. He’s only come back to recover from a war injury, and while he refuses to admit he’s in a weakened state, he finds comfort in the last person he’d expect.

Kate Evans teaches fourth grade science in Sunshine, the place she’s always called home. Dreaming of graduate school and a happily-ever-after, she’s desperate to break out of the monotony of Sunshine. Luckily, a certain sexy man has just come back into her life.

To Griffin, Kate has always been his little sister’s best friend, but now he’s finding her to be so much more. As both attempt to forge their paths, they must decide if their passionate connection can turn into something lasting…

This is my first ever Jill Shalvis contemporary, and I signed up for the RITA Reader Challenge specifically because I’d been curious about her writing. I generally read a LOT more historicals than contemporaries, Julie James and Jennifer Crusie, as well as Lisa Kleypas’ Travis-trilogy being the only notable exceptions. Still, I like to diversify my reading, and have read so many complimentary things about Shalvis on various review sites, that this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I did enjoy the book a lot. I figured out from checking out the blurbs of the previous books in the series that Holly and Adam, who are about to get married in this book, as well as some of the other couples who are mentioned repeatedly, find their HEAs in the earlier books. Holly is Griffin’s little sister and Adam is his best friend. He returns to Sunshine only a few days before the wedding, not really telling anyone about the reason he’s been discharged permanently from the military.

An engineer working with bomb disposal, he only barely survived a close encounter with an explosion, having managed to get the rest of his troop safe before the explosion went off. Now he’s suffering from crippling migraines, sudden bouts of nausea, light sensitivity, horrible nightmares and is generally not in a good state. Of course, being a big, tough soldier guy, he’s reluctant to admit weakness or vulnerability to anyone, and keeps his scar hidden under a baseball cap most of the time.

The first person Griffin runs into upon his return is Kate, Holly’s best friend, who’s had a crush on him pretty much forever. She’s fallen on her ass in the snow in front of him, and is naturally quite mortified. He helps her up, and notices just how attractive she is. Even though he is warned off her in the strongest possible terms by his sister – Griff has a reputation for loving and leaving women, Kate is inexperienced and vulnerable – Griffin can’t forget about her.

Kate is bending over backwards to help everyone around her. As well as being the ideal teacher for each and every fourth grader she teaches, she spends much of every day taking care of her widowed, slightly hapless father, bratty teenage drama queen sister and geeky, off-beat little brother. She feeds the homeless guy in the park and brings her ex-boyfriend coffee every morning when they drive to work together (her ex is the school principal). For three years in a row, Kate has been offered a prestigious graduate position at UCSD, with a full scholarship, but every year, she’s turned it down to take care of those around her. Now the deadline to accept is less than two weeks away, and she desperately wants to send in her acceptance e-mail, but is worried her family will fall apart without her.

She decides that she’s sick of always being the good girl, and wants some fun, crazy adventure in her life. She sets out to seduce Griffin at the wedding, and though he tries his best to heed his little sister’s warnings and be a gentleman, he can only resist Kate’s increasingly determined efforts to throw herself at him for so long. He’s also surprised to discover that Kate seems perfectly fine with them having a one-night-stand, while he wants to spend more time with her.

Kate is one of the first people in Sunshine to discover his injuries, and insists on taking care of him when she finds him having an especially bad migraine attack. Having only been back in Sunshine for a short while, Griffin has nonetheless discovered how much time Kate spends caring for others, without anyone really ever being there one hundred per cent for her.

As I said, I really liked this book, but it was by no means perfect, and there were a few things that annoyed me about it. There’s a minor subplot about someone possibly stalking Kate when she’s out running, which felt out of place in an otherwise quite light-hearted book.

There’s also the fact that Kate is so gosh-darned perfect! Really, barring the “doesn’t realize how attractive she is even after several different guys hit on her at a party” and the fact that she appears to be completely unable to actually ASK her family whether they’ll be ok if she goes away to graduate school for a year, just assuming that everything will fall apart if she’s not there mothering them. She’s so perfect, I almost expected to discover that birds ate out of her hand and small rodents and forest creatures braided her hair as if she was a Disney princess. I would have liked her to have some flaws, she felt unrealistically flawless, good-hearted and kind.

I also didn’t really care about Griffin’s conflict with his father. I understand why it was there, and that it was an important reason as to why he never felt at home in Sunshine, where pretty much everyone else obviously thrives, but I just didn’t engage me.

I enjoyed the various family relationships in the book, though; even though Kate’s younger siblings occasionally veered a bit too far into stereotypical bratty teenage girl and geeky weird kid plot moppet territory. I will absolutely be checking out more of the Animal Magnetism series, as well as Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor books, which I’ve also heard many good things about. I just hope the protagonists in her other books are more fully rounded as humans, not Mary Sues.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 73: "Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I don't actually have the words to properly summarise the plot for this book, because I have so many feelings about it. Formulating them is going to be difficult enough. So I'm going to take the easy way out, and rely on the blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it's been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply - but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always besides the point. 

Two days before they're supposed to visit Neal's family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can't go. She's a TV-writer, and something's come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her - Neal is always a little upset with Georgie - but she doesn't expect him to pack up the kids and go home without her. 

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she's finally done it. If she's ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It's not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she's been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts...

Is that what she's supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

It's not secret to anyone who reads my reviews that I love Rainbow Rowell's writing. So to say that my expectations for this book were high, is a gross understatement. There are certain authors where I clear my entire schedule for their new books. I was lucky enough that this book came out during the summer holidays, the best time of the year to be a teacher. No lesson planning, no grading, no endless essay correction - just long days of indulgent reading. So I was able to devote myself properly to reading the book. I was a bit wary, because having read the blurb as soon as it was available, it was clear that this was going to be a more serious book, with a fairly painful subject. Eleanor & Park nearly broke my heart because I felt so strongly for the characters. A novel about a marriage in real trouble didn't exactly sound like a fun read.

Let's just say that I'm so glad I didn't read this book about three and a bit years ago, when my own marriage was going through a serious rough patch. This book would have destroyed me utterly. In this book, we get to see Georgie's present, but also how she and Neal met, and little glimpses into their married life together. As Rowell does so brilliantly, she shows us how they gradually fall in love, and how they ended up married, despite being vastly different people, with different goals and aspirations. Because Rowell writes such achingly realistic characters, we share her concerns and worries. We are given a chance to understand why she so desperately wants her new television show, and is willing to possibly risk her marriage to stay in Los Angeles to write scripts to show the network exec. We see how her writing partner and best friend is hugely important to her life, but that Neal is clearly the cornerstone who grounds and fuels her.

Being fully aware of your own flaws, and feeling like you are constantly disappointing and possibly even hurting the person you love most in your life is a terrible thing. Thinking that that person may, in fact, be better off without you, that their hopes and dreams and aspirations might be better fulfilled if you hadn't dragged them into the life they share with you now. It's all there in this book, Georgie is nothing if not honest with herself. She can rarely make herself go back to her big empty house after working on her show, so stays with her mother and stepfather instead. In her old room, on a old-fashioned, bright yellow rotary phone, she appears to be able to call a different Neal in Omaha, one who is home for Christmas after a brief break-up they had in college. At the end of a week apart way back then, Neal showed up on Georgie's doorstep and proposed. Now Georgie is wondering if she should try to convince Neal that he's better off without her instead.

I met my own husband when I was at University in Scotland. He was 19, I was 21. In November of this year, we'll have been together for fourteen years. We recently celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. I've spent more than a third of my life with this man, and while I am clearly much more the Neal in our relationship, the one that takes care of the practical, everyday matters, who is the less creative, pragmatic and grounded one - I so understood and recognised Georgie's doubts, guilt, fear and pain. When we were having trouble, because moving in with and then marrying your first boyfriend/girlfriend doesn't come without it's fair share of complications as well, so much of what goes through Georgie's head, went through my own.

In Attachments, the e-mails that Beth and Jennifer constantly send each other at work reminded me so strongly of my friendship with my best friend Lydia, who I got to know through letters. In Fangirl, I recognised so much of my own social anxiety, fear and difficulty to adjust during my first year away at University, being far away from home for the first time, in my case, in a foreign country, suddenly having to re-shape myself to fit into a vastly different education system from what I was used to. In this, I can see so much of what my husband and I went through before we came through our troubles stronger, better and much better at communicating and respecting each other. I suspect one of the reasons I adore Rowell's writing so much is that it seems to speak directly to me. I'm clearly not alone in loving her. I don't think a single Cannonball reviewer who has read her books rates any of them under 4 stars, and we're a wildly diverse bunch with extremely differing tastes. So she seems to have a fairly universal appeal, which fills me with joy. I gift her books to all my friends, hoping to share the awesome.

I haven't even said anything about the amazing way Rowell has with words, and the many quotes I highlighted and wanted to read out loud to myself. The way the book, as with all her others, sucked me in and made me feel as I was actually living and breathing with the characters. It made me feel all the feels, from giddy joy to heart-wrenching anguish. I was angry with Georgie, but also deeply sympathetic to her. I felt her frustration when she couldn't get Neal on his mobile, instead talking to her little girls who didn't seem all that bothered that their Mum was far away, full of doubt and guilt and insecurities. I loved Georgie's little sister, who has her own romantic dilemmas, and Georgie's Mum and stepfather are wonderfully realised supporting characters, as are Seth and Scotty, Georgie's colleagues. Really, I don't have the words to fully express how much I loved the book. Immediately upon finishing the book, I wasn't sure if I could rate it a full five stars, because I have some doubts about the ending and as she frequently does, Rowell leaves a LOT open to interpretation, which frustrates me every time. Yet I chose to remain hopeful for Neal and Georgie, and having thought so much about the book and discussed it with others, I can't give it any less than top marks.
If you haven't read any Rainbow Rowell yet, what are you waiting for?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 72: "The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet" by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

On the 30th of April 2012, internet geek goddess Felicia Day recommended a new YouTube series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on her YouTube-series The Flog. As a huge fan of most things Austen (I just can't with Mansfield Park, it's so boring), and as someone very interested in modern adaptations of classical works, not to mention willing to trust Felicia Day as I monthly tune in to her Vaginal Fantasy book club, I decided to check this thing out. I didn't really have a lot of experience with vlogs as a medium. With the exception of Ms. Day's own Flog, I hadn't really watched any. But I do know my Pride and Prejudice, and the concept intrigued me.

Having now pinpointed the date when Ms. Day first recommended the series, I can conclude that I started watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries with episode 8: Charlotte's Back! I got hooked really early on. At first, there were two episodes a week, and I quickly grew to wait with bated breath for each one. Then I discovered that the creators weren't just doing videos, there were fictional accounts for most of the major characters on Twitter and Tumblr, Pinterest and other social media sites. Vivacious youngest sister Lydia Bennet started making her own video blog, so I got more content. Occasionally, there would be a Q & A video. If I was really lucky, I'd get up to FOUR videos in one week. Mondays and Tuesdays were seriously the best days of my week, because I'd get a new short video showing me the further adventures of Lizzie, Jane and Lydia Bennet, as well as Charlotte Lu. It didn't matter that I knew the source material. The creators, Hank Green and Bernie Su, twisted and adapted the story in such creative ways, turning Mary Bennet into the Bennet's Goth cousin, and Kitty became Lydia's cat. All of the parental characters and non-core cast were portrayed through costume theatre. This made it even more exciting every time a new actor actually appeared in the videos.

By the time they actually showed Darcy in person, with video 60(!), I would probably have given up a limb or at least a digit if that was what was required to keep watching the videos. The show lasted for more than a year, and I watched faithfully for most of it, so delightful with almost all the changes they made to the story. Giving Charlotte a much more prominent role, the way the story arc developed for Lydia - SO much better than in Austen's original. I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and am now the proud owner of the full DVD box set. There was no way I wasn't going to buy this book, and because I loved all the characters, I was unlikely to dislike it.

With The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, Bernie Su, the creator of the show, and Kate Rorick, one of the main writers of the YouTube-series, who also writes romance novels as Kate Noble, are able to adapt and modernise the bits of Pride and Prejudice that they just weren't able to fit into the videos. They can show the Bennet parents' reactions to Lizzie turning down Mr. Collins' lucrative job offer, they can relate the awkward first meeting between Lizzie and Darcy at the Gibson wedding. Fans are able to read Darcy's letter to Lizzie after he declares his feelings for her, and she furiously rejects him. As a companion to the YouTube series, this book really gives rabid Austen-fans the full modernisation.

If you're not at least a fan of the YouTube-series already, or you're not all that happy about all sorts of fan ficcy interpretations of Jane Austen's works, then this book is not for you. The main reason I'm not rating the book a full five stars is that some of the scenes I'd sort of hoped to get Lizzie's more in-depth take on (as this is her personal diary, after all), namely episode 60 (where Darcy first appears and declares his love for her) and episode 98. In the story, it's also perfectly understandable that Lizzie may not actually have been able to write down her full feelings about the two events. And the videos are there for all to see. If I were Lizzie, I certainly wouldn't have prioritised writing in my diary after the events of episode 98 - but I'm not her. I'm a rabid fangirl, and I want details! Still, these are minor nitpicks, and I really did enjoy the book. If this whole thing was a bit to TL, DR for you, in conclusion, I would highly recommend The Lizzie Bennet Diaries with all the spin-off videos (all available for free on YouTube) and if you like those, this book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

#CBR6 Book 71: "Indigo" by Beverly Jenkins

Page count: 372 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Hester Wyatt was born as a slave, because her father, originally a free man, sold himself into slavery to be with her mother. When she was born, her mother severed part of her finger to make her more easy to identify, and Hester was found and taken in by her aunt Katherine, who taught her to read and write and raised her as her own. Now she lives in her dead aunt's house, a valuable member of Michigan's Underground Railroad. One night, she's asked to hide a badly injured man. She discovers that he is "the Black Daniel", one of the most wanted members of the Underground Railroad. To hide him could put her in danger, and yet she doesn't hesitate.

"The Black Daniel" is actually Galen Vachon, a member of one of the free black families in New Orleans. He doesn't deal well with being hurt and having to stay hidden during his convalescence, and Hester finds him rude and deeply disagreeable at first. She also refuses to believe him when he claims to have been betrayed by someone in her little town. As Vachon recovers, his mood improves, not to mention his behaviour towards Hester. He's amused by her primness and innocence and her steadfast faithfulness to her fiancee, even though she admits their relationship is purely platonic. When he leaves, having recovered enough, Hester doesn't think she'll ever see him again.

She's wrong, of course. Galen, unable to forget the formidable little woman who tended him at his lowest, buys a big house in Whittaker, the town Hester lives in, and proceeds to try to win her heart. His quest is made easier by the fact that her platonic fiancee returns from England already married and seemingly madly in love with his young bride. He keeps lavishing Hester with gifts and attention, while trying to root out who the traitor in the area is.

I'd never read any Beverly Jenkins, but had heard the name when one of her books was selected as the monthly book club read at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and then this book came highly recommended from my online romance partner, Mrs. Julien. I can see why she rated it so highly, it's an amazing book.

Hester is a lovely character, independent and opinionated, yet not anachronistically so. She tries to always do the appropriate thing, and Vachon has so much fun tempting her into accepting more and more of his gifts, and luring her further into sensuality and giving into her desires. She's clearly an important member of the Whittaker community and has many valued friends. Her hands and feet are permanently stained with the indigo dyes she was forced to work with as a slave, and she's convinced they render her deeply unattractive. She's perfectly content to settle for a marriage of convenience with a man whose intellectual interests she shares, and is completely unprepared for the passion that Vachon awakens in her.

Vachon is a rake and a scoundrel of the first order, and has rejected his family to help as many slaves from the South gain their freedom as possible. His vicious old grandmother is clearly a nasty piece of business, manipulating everyone around her, and treated Vachon horribly until he came of age and into the money his parents left him. He turned his inheritance into a vast fortune, and uses his resources to help others, but clearly also loves a life of luxury. Once they're married, Hester keeps being uncomfortable being waited on, though Vachon's servants are clearly extremely well treated, and seem to love their jobs. She's shocked at the dressing rooms full of clothes he's gotten her, and the jewelry he gives her.  I'm also deeply grateful that while he is Creole, the number of French/Cajun endearments used in the book are at a minimum. I hate that sort of thing.

Not everything is smooth sailing in the book. There's a vicious slave catcher in the area, who sets his mind on proving that Hester is an escaped slave. The missions that Vachon go on are clearly dangerous. There's a nice blend of quiet moments and action in the book.

I enjoyed the book a lot. The main reason I can't give the book a full five stars is the subplot involving Hester's former fiancee's new wife, and the way they both treat Hester, and the development of that whole story line plays out. I can see why Jenkins needed to find a way to free Hester from her former commitment, but I really didn't like the way that all played out. I don't want to spoil things, and will therefore not go into detail. This is mostly a very excellent romance, though, and I've already bought a few more Beverly Jenkins books that I am looking forward to reading.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

#CBR6 Book 70: "Somewhere I'll Find You" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 1.5 stars

WARNING! This review WILL contain fairly specific plot spoilers, but it's an awful book, so you don't want to read it anyway, and should thank me for explaining in detail why you should avoid it.

Jessica Wentworth is probably the most successful actress in London, but she's hiding a deep dark secret. Her real name is Julia Hargate and she's been married to the Marquess of Savage since they were both children. Julia ran away from home and has been disowned, she only wants her independence and to become famous on the stage. Her husband, Damon, Lord Savage (yeah, I can't even begin about that name) has been searching for her for years, eager to obtain an annulment. With the dowry his family got from the arrangement, the sensible and super-serious Lord Savage has restored the family fortunes that his wastrel father gambled away, fixed up the family estate and in general, he's the responsible brother, whilst his younger brother takes after dear ol' dad.

By happy coincidence, because this is clearly that sort of book, Damon and Julia have actually met once, in passing at a country fair, but didn't know each other's true identities. After invading Julia's personal space, Damon kisses her, then they part ways again, until they meet again at a party, three years later. Damon, ever the arrogant alpha douchebag, recognizes the girl he kissed and promises Julia's employer, the theatre owner, 5000 pounds if she'll come to dinner with him - all platonic like. He already has a very demanding mistress, but wants to woo the famous Mrs. Wentworth. It doesn't take many days before he discovers that the most celebrated actress on the London stage is his long lost wife, and suddenly, Damon's no longer all that keen on an annulment. Julia, on the other hand, seems to have a terrible time figuring out what she really wants, pushing him away one second and falling into his arms the next, asking him to ravish her.

She doesn't want to give up her career, and he acts like a possessive bastard and tries to control her every move. He wants her to take her rightful place as his soon to be duchess. They both seem to fall in love after three short encounters, but still act absolutely appallingly to one another. There's a whole bunch of not really complications thrown in their way.

This book was so dumb, you guys. It's without a shadow of a doubt the worst romance I've read since Edenbrooke, which is the worst book I read in 2012 and among the worst romances I've ever had the misfortunes of reading. Still, this book fit into my Monthly Keyword Challenge and allowed me to cross another Lisa Kleypas book off my TBR list. I kept hoping that it was going to get better, because Lisa Kleypas is after all, one of the grand masters of romance, and it baffled me that something this boring and dumb was written by the same woman who wrote Tempt Me at TwilightDevil in Winter and Dreaming of You. The info-dumping in the first few chapters is extremely heavy-handed, the characterisation of EVERY single person in the book is so lazy - most of the principal cast have only one or two significant character traits, if that.

I'm not sure on what basis Julia and Damon fall in love, except that they are both described as very physically attractive, and they were forced into a probably extremely illegal marriage alliance by their unscrupulous fathers while they were still children. This is apparently enough that they love each other after a few meetings, and Julia goes from telling Damon to leave her alone forever to throwing herself into his arms and asking him to deflower her because she "doesn't want to be alone anymore" the next. Like in the same scene, I swear. She changes her mind completely from one second to the next.

When Damon discovers that Julia has reconciled with her father and got the means to have their marriage annulled, and decided that she's going to marry her boss in a platonic marriage of convenience to further both their careers (don't ask, it's just one of the myriad oh so dumb things in this book), his way of winning her back is to get thugs to kidnap her from back stage, bind and gag her and bring her to his carriage. Because nothing says "I love you, don't marry that other guy" like forced abduction and coercion. They're both such wretched characters that I couldn't even care.

The only reason this book is getting half a star more than Edenbrooke is that at least the writing was vaguely competent in certain parts, and at no point did characters start to fight a duel inside a crowded inn! Not even rabid Kleypas-completeists should read this book. It'll only make you sad. It's a bad, dumb book and it is a waste of your time. Trust me here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 69: "Emma" by Jane Austen

Page count: 496 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 39 mins
Rating: 4 stars

So does anyone actually need me to recap the plot of Emma, a nearly two hundred year old classic which has been adapted any number of times, currently as a successful YouTube webseries in Emma Approved? To be fair, I'm not sure even half of my actual real life friends have read this book, so I'll be nice to you.

Emma Woodhouse is twenty-one, the youngest daughter of a prosperous country gentleman and her governess, Miss Taylor, who more or less raised her from she was very little, has just married Mr. Weston. Emma, happily full of herself and far too prone to take credit for anything fortuitous that happens near her, claims that she made the match between the two, and wants to continue her occupation as the neighbourhood matchmaker by finding a wife for Mr. Elton, the local parson. Mr. George Knightley, the Woodhouses' closest neighbour, whose brother John is married to Emma's sister Isabella, believes this to be a terrible idea and is the only one who's not afraid to tell her so.

Emma also needs a new companion, as her erstwhile friend is off sorting out a household of her own. She takes the young Harriet Smith, one of the boarders of the local girls' school under her wing, and intends to improve her social standing enough that she will make a suitable spouse for Mr. Elton. She certainly doesn't want Harriet to marry the well-to-do farmer, Mr. Martin, who seems very smitten with her. Emma herself doesn't intend to ever marry, although most of her friends and acquaintances seem to believe she and Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son from his previous marriage, would make a very handsome and suitable couple.

Jane Austen famously described Emma Woodhouse as "a heroine no one but myself will much like", and Emma really is an obnoxious brat, especially in the first third of the book. Her mother died when she was only a few years old, and it's quite clear that neither her father nor Miss Taylor ever really managed to curb her impetuousness and stubbornness. Mr. Knightley, sixteen years her senior, seems to be the only one in her life who is willing to risk her displeasure by telling her the harsh truths that she clearly doesn't want. She claims that he loves to find fault in her, but in reality, he's the only one who's not afraid to acknowledge that she's spoiled, with very poor self-insight and that she's too young to really know what's best for those around her.

The good thing about Emma is that she does learn from her mistakes, eventually. Plus, because she is such an insufferable know-it-all in the first half of the novel, the reader actually delights in her being wrong and making poor decisions. It's clear that she's in no way malicious, she's just always been able to boss everyone else around her into agreeing with her, either because of her position in society or the force of her personality. She's young and has lived a fairly sheltered and extremely privileged life, but her fairly spectacular failures in match-making force her to mature and grow as a person. I still think she has a ways to go by the end of the novel, but she's no longer someone I want to slap. And even at her worst, Emma Woodhouse is at least not Fanny Price, the dullest and wettest of all the Austen heroines, hands down.

I decided to re-read Emma, which I last read at University, when taking English lit courses, because I'm enjoying Emma Approved so much at the moment. I was curious to remind myself how the original story really goes and wanted to mentally prepare myself on what's to come. Bonnie and The Chancellor's recent Cannonball reviews didn't hurt either. I'm glad I did revisit it, as I responded to it quite differently now, twelve years later. I had completely forgotten the bit towards the end where Knightley confesses that he may have actually been in love with Emma since she was thirteen years old (when he will have been 29 - not cool, George). I'm pretty sure I don't remember that from my previous reading of the book, and I'm not ok with that bit. Emma is not my favourite of Austen's works, first place will always belong to Pride and Prejudice, but it's a great book and I'm so glad I revisited it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 68: "Ten Things I Love About You" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Sebastian Grey is handsome, charming and welcome everywhere in polite society because he is the sole male heir of his uncle, the Earl of Newbury, and if said uncle dies before he's able to father more male offspring, Sebastian will be the new earl. Of course, Lord Newbury hates his nephew and is doing all he can to find a nice, fertile young woman to bear him more children to prevent just this from happening. So Sebastian could be the best catch a young lady could snag herself, or a match-making mama's worst nightmare. He also harbours a secret, something he can't even tell his best friends about. Sebastian is the author of a series of ridiculously popular, rather lurid Gothic novels. No one knows that the reclusive Sarah Gorely is in fact Sebastian Grey, even his cousin Sir Harry, who's translating the novels into Russian.

Annabell Winslow is the eldest of eight children and she's been taken to London by her grandparents, Lord and Lady Vickers, because Lord Newbury, their close friend, has determined that Annabel's lush curves (scurrilous rumours say she's so fertile, birds sing when she comes near) means she's perfect to be his new bride. That both her mother and grandmother had a huge amount of children doesn't hurt. Since Annabel's mother is now a widow, and money is rather tight in their family, Annabel really does need to marry someone well off to provide for her family. She just really doesn't want to marry the gross, old lech Newbury, who's literally old enough to be her grandfather. After having been accosted by him at a party, she flees into the gardens to get away, and stumbles over Sebastian (recovering from an assignation, because he's a rake, don't you know). The two start to form a friendship, without realising the identity of the other, or their relative relationship to Lord Newbury.

When Sebastian finally discovers that the lovely Miss Winslow is in fact, the woman his uncle is intending to marry, he decides to stay far away from her. But since Annabel's reputation could be completely destroyed if both Sebastian and Lord Winslow shun her, he decides that he will pretend to court her, just so that she won't become a complete social pariah. Of course, the more time the two spend together, the less likely it is that Annabel is going to want to accept the uncle rather than the nephew. But will marrying Sebastian Grey mean that Annabel won't have the money she needs to support her family?

Sebastian Grey first appears in Julia Quinn's What Happens in London, where he pretty much steals every scene that he's in. The most memorable scene is probably the one where he reads aloud from one of his own works, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, with such enthusiasm and drama that he makes three housemaids cry, and falls off a table and dislocates his shoulder. The Gothic novel in question is read by Harry and Olivia in that book and certainly helps their courtship along. I don't actually know if Julia Quinn intended all along for Sebastian to be revealed as the author of these novels (which I so desperately wish existed in real life - I would read ALL of them!), or whether that was a later development when she wrote this book. Normally when romance heroes have deep, dark secrets, it's not that they are the best-selling authors of Gothic melodramas.

Sebastian may seem happy-go-lucky, but the reason he started writing in the first place is because he suffers from insomnia, and still suffers after-effects from being a sniper during the Napoleonic wars. He tends to freeze if there are unexpected loud noises near him and he very successfully hides his inner demons from those around him. Even those very close to him believe him to be entirely carefree and a bit blithely irresponsible, and it's quite clear that this public image really hurts Sebastian, although he very rarely lets his true feeling show. That he's able to show more of his real self to Annabel is clearly one of the reason why he's so drawn to her.

Annabel is dutiful and responsible and knows that she should be pragmatic rather than romantic, but no reader can fault her for not wanting to marry a creepy old lech who sees her only as a brood mare. Normally Quinn's books are all froth and light-heartedness, but this one features Lord Newbury actually full on assaulting Annabel early in the book, it's quite clear we're not supposed to be sympathetic to him in any way. The fact that he is such an outright, almost mustachio-twirling villain in this book is one of the reasons I can't give this book five full stars. There is no good reason given for his intense dislike of his nephew, he just plain hates Sebastian, and will do pretty much anything in his power to prevent the young man from inheriting. I would have preferred it if Quinn could have supplied an explanation for this vehement hate, and maybe nuanced the characterisation of him just a little bit. But no, he's just an unpleasant, overbearing old creep.

Most of this book is full of Quinn's trademark wit and sparkly dialogue. Both Annabel and Sebastian are tremendously fond of making mental lists, making the title actually plot-relevant, not just a play on a popular movie title. Because Sebastian is a writer, there's a whole lot of meta humour about what makes for a good and entertaining book throughout, which makes for a delightful change from your standard "man meets woman, they fall in love, there are complications, they solve things and live happily ever after". As always, there is a great cast of supporting characters, from Annabel's timid cousin Louisa (who I'm sad has not gotten a romance of her own), Sir Harry and Lady Olivia from What Happens in London and Lady Vickers, Annabel's drunken grandmother. I suspect most people would not rate this romance as highly as I do, but what can I say, I'm a sucker for a handsome man who writes Gothic romance.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 67: "Vixen in Velvet" by Loretta Chase

Page count. 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Leonie Noirot is the youngest of the three Noirot sisters, and the only one still unmarried and able to spend all her energies on running Maison Noirot, the sisters' successful dressmaking shop in St. James. The eldest sister, Marcelline (from Silk is for Seduction) is currently pregnant and rather indisposed and the middle sister Sophy (from Scandal Wears Satin) is off on an extended wedding trip in Scotland until the scandal surrounding her nuptials dies down. Each sister has their own strengths, in Leonie's case, it's finance. She's a mathematical prodigy, but because she's also the most practical and level-headed of the three sisters, she knows how important it is that the shop keeps bringing in new customers and stays popular among the fashionable ladies.

While out advertising one of the shop's many elegant outfits, Leonie is struck mute by the Botticelli painting of Mars and Venus and then by its owner, the insanely handsome Simon Blair, Marquess of Lisburne. He, is in return very taken with Leonie, and decides that his stay in London might not be as boring as he had previously feared. Lisburne is in London to make sure his cousin, the sensitive Lord Swanton, who currently can't go anywhere without being mobbed by adoring young ladies, doesn't get into trouble. Swanton published a volume of poetry that became unexpectedly best-selling, and he wants to use his new-found celebrity to do some good, speaking at various charity benefits to great acclaim. Lisburne is worried that someone will take advantage of his cousin, so guards him carefully.

Leonie decides that to really show off the skills of the dressmakers at Maison Noirot is to transform Lisburne's cousin, the rude, insecure and extremely gawky Lady Gladys Fairfax, into an elegant and sought after swan. Lisburne would rather Leonie focus on him than on dresses, spread sheets and his cousin Gladys, so Leonie proposes a wager. If she can make Lady Gladys so popular the woman receives a marriage proposal in a mere two weeks, Lisburne has to give her his Botticelli painting. If Leonie fails, which Lisburne is convinced she must, Leonie has to become Lisburne's mistress, and give him two full weeks of her undivided attention.

It's been two years since Scandal Wears Satin came out, and as I found that book one of the most disappointing Loretta Chase had ever written, I was very much hoping that the postponed publication date for this book meant that it would be of a higher quality. While it's not going to join my all time favourite romances, or even the top five of Chase's works, it is a much better book than her last two and a return to form for one of the masters of the romance genre.

Leonie is so focused on her work and making sure her family business is running smoothly. She has clearly never taken the time to relax and enjoy herself, being the pragmatic, sensible and most level-headed of her sisters. So when Lisburne comes along and pretty literally sweeps her off her feet, insisting on distracting her, taking her to the circus, for drives in the park and forcing her to forget about finances and have a little fun on occasion. The Noirots come from a long line of charmers, schemers and scoundrels and are usually far too easily swayed by their emotions. Leonie has up until now never been in love, or met anyone who could even vaguely inspire her to be, but the stunning and dangerously charming Lisburne, who she keeps comparing to a Roman or Greek god, completely discombobulates her.

Lisburne knows that he's ridiculously attractive, so it's a change of pace for him when Leonie acknowledges this, but still goes about her daily life almost forcefully ignoring him. Up until recently, when every woman in the room started swooning around his cousin, Lisburne's clearly never really had to work to woo a woman, and Leonie provides an interesting challenge. He's obviously not looking for any long term commitment, but the more time he spends with Leonie, the more fascinated he is with her.

If you've read any of Loretta Chase's books from before her Dressmaker-series, I'm happy to recommend this as another book of hers that will entertain you and while away a few hours. I was engrossed enough that I stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish it (thank God for summer vacation!). The secondary romance in the book, involving Lady Gladys is also very enjoyable, if not exactly surprising or ground-breaking. As far as I can tell, the next Loretta Chase book will be about the Noirots' sister-in-law, Lady Clara, and because this was so much fun, I'm now very much looking forward to it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 66: "Skies of Gold" by Zoë Archer

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Summary from Goodreads:

Two Lonely Hearts…
Kalindi MacNeil survived the devastating enemy airship attack that obliterated Liverpool, but even her engineering skills can’t seem to repair her broken heart. Seeking to put her life back together, Kali retreats to a desolate, deserted island – only to discover that she’s not alone. Captain Fletcher Adams, an elite man/machine hybrid, a Man O’War, crashed his battle-damaged airship into this deserted island after Liverpool, never expecting to survive the wreck. But survive he did.
One Desire…
Believing he is nothing but a living weapon, Fletcher is wary of his new-found companion – a pretty, damaged, but determined young woman. Together they are stranded on the deserted island, and it is only a matter of time until desire gets the best of both of them. Soon Kali and Fletcher find they may just be what the other needed. But danger from beyond the island puts them to the test. Will it rip them apart or bond their hearts forever?

I liked Kali a lot. She’s clearly been through a horrible trauma, making her retreat to the remote island where generations of her family once used to live. Now no one has lived there for more than thirty years, leaving only a ruined cottage for shelter. Everyone she cared for in Liverpool died in the airship attack, she herself barely survived, trapped under ruins for days. She lost her leg, but has used her remarkable engineering skills to fashion herself a prosthetic. Not wanting to be a burden to her parents, who live in India, while she’s physically recovering further, she’s taken what she was able to salvage of her many clever prototypes to settle on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides.

She discovers quickly that she’s not as alone as she planned. On her first night there, she hears a strange hum in the distance, and when she goes to investigate, she discovers that there is a man living on the north side of the island. He is huge, and his hair and beard suggests he’s been there for some time. They slowly get to know one another, and develop a friendship while walking and exploring the island, both discovering that complete solitude was perhaps not what they wanted.

Fletcher is a Man O’War, a Steampunk sort of cyborg, who I suspect I would have known more about if I’d read any of the previous books in the Ether Chronicles. As far as I could tell, the various powerful nations of the world have airship fleets, and the most promising captains/pilots, if they have a high enough vitality rating of some sort, can be converted into Man O’Wars, who thanks to the machine parts and wiring operated into their bodies actually work as a sort of battery for their airship. The operation also makes them huge, imposing and very powerful, think Captain America in The First Avenger.

Kali discovers that Fletcher captained one of the British airships that drove the enemies out of Liverpool, but that the ship sustained so much damage that he crashed it in as remote a spot as he could (but not before making sure that as many of the crew members as possible survived. Now he’s pretty sure everyone believes him to be dead, as no one from the Navy has come looking for him or the ship. The girl he once courted reacted with disgust and fear once he returned to her after his “conversion”. He doesn’t trust that anyone else can see him as anything but close to a monster now, and is also far too aware that if it was revealed that he was alive, they’d only want him to continue powering warships. He’s sick of being a human weapon, used only for destruction.

Kali makes him realize that his actions in Liverpool were unbelievably heroic; she actually saw his ship from where she was lying trapped under most of a ruined building. Slowly, as they become closer and the trust between them grows, they reveal their back stories to one another and fight their mutual attraction, not wanting to complicate their friendship. The romance in Skies of Gold takes time to develop, which is always the way I prefer it. While their attraction to one another is pretty instantaneous, it’s certainly not surprising from Fletcher’s side. He’s been alone on the island for three months and wasn’t expecting to run into a beautiful and exotic woman. He finds it difficult to believe that Kali could return the attraction because of the rejection he’s suffered in the past.

Much of the novel is just the two of them alone on the island, and while I thought that might get weird or boring, it didn’t. Unfortunately, then “the danger from beyond the island” shows up, and is a bit preposterous. The world-building crafted, with Ether-powered machinery, clearly some sort of complicated war going on and Man O’Wars as these government-sponsored cyborgs was interesting to me, but the villain who showed up in the final third of the book, and the break neck chase to stop him from carrying out his diabolical plan got a bit too silly for me. Having now read the blurbs of the previous books in the series, I can see that there are also call-backs to previous romantic couples from earlier books, which I’m sure is nice for long time readers. I liked this enough that I’m going to be checking out more of the Ether Chronicles, hoping that the others have more convincing antagonists and final acts.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

#CBR6 Book 65: "I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star" by Judy Greer

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 3 stars

As a fan of romantic comedies, in many of which she has played a supporting character, not to mention my love of Arrested Development and Archer, I know exactly what I know Judy Greer from. I did have to look up her complete filmography on Wikipedia, though (not IMDB, no matter how many times they get shout-outs in Greer's book) and was surprised at how prolific she really is. I'm not at all surprised that she's been comfortably working since she finished college, she's delightful in a whole load of things.

In this book, separated into three sections: Early Life, Hollywood Life and Real Life, Judy Greer tells us about herself in a series of essays. We find out about her childhood, her school days, her family, the bright pink car her parents gave her when she graduated. She tells entertaining stories about going to the wrong bar during the Oscars and being panicked because she doesn't recognise anyone, choosing her acting name, being a bearded lady on My Name is Earl, the time Ashton Kutcher bought her dad a Harley. She explains how she met her husband and how she experiences being a step-mother, balancing work life and home life. I found the book entertaining and I came away with it liking Judy Greer even more, but this book wasn't really laugh out loud funny in the same way Bossypants by Tina Fey or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling. As biographies go, for belly laughs or generally making me feel the feels, nothing beats Jenny Lawson, of course.

Still, this was a fun book and I do like how down to Earth Judy Greer seems to be. I doubt people portray themselves as horrible people in their own autobiographies, though, but I choose to trust that Judy Greer is a nice person, who I'd probably like to hang out with. She could tell me more about all the celebrities she's peed next to, or which words she's successfully managed to slip into her answers at press junkets, or tell me what she really feels about Cheryl Tunt on Archer and whether she'd like to own an Ocelot in real life. I wouldn't even ask her about what she thinks the chances of more Arrested Development are, because I can understand how annoying that might be for an actor.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 64: "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" by Lauren Willig

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fourth book in the series, and as such, not the best place to start reading. This review will also contain some spoilers for book 3, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, so skip this review if you're not up to date.

Despite being one of the acclaimed beauties of the ton, Miss Mary Alsworthy is facing her third season. The only actual marriage proposals she's received were from unsuitable candidates, and her attempt to secure a rich husband failed spectacularly when her intended accidentally compromised her younger sister instead and had to marry her. So now her former suitor is her brother-in-law and disgustingly happy with her little sister. Mary refuses to show them how much their domestic felicity bothers her, and she's certainly not happy with the idea that her next season will have to be sponsored by her new brother-in-law.

So when the cynical and wealthy Lord Sebastian Vaughn approaches her with an alternative, she doesn't hesitate for long. Lord Vaughn is working with the Pink Carnation (although Mary doesn't know that part) and trying to locate the elusive French spy, the Black Tulip. As the spy seems to only recruit tall, pale-skinned, dark-haired beauties as his agents, Lord Vaughn suggests that Mary help him tempt the Black Tulip out of hiding. Yup, Mary is described with raven locks and ivory skin, so I have NO idea who the lady on the cover of this book is. I keep wondering if the marketing department have any idea what's actually in the books when they design the covers? The woman on this cover doesn't fit the description of anyone in the book. Sigh. Anyway, back to the plot. In return for Mary basically acting as bait, Lord Vaughn will fund her new season and she won't have to take charity from her former admirer. As the two start working closely together, they are surprised to discover that they may have found a perfect match in each other. But there are a number of obstacles in their way, including the deadly Black Tulip.

In the present, Eloise is finally going on a date with Colin Selwick and can barely contain her happiness. When researching the Vaughn archives, she also makes the acquaintance of another history buff who seems very interested in the identity of the Pink Carnation. Possibly because she's not quite so whiny in this book, the cuts back to Eloise's story line felt a lot less intrusive than in the previous two books and I didn't actually mind reading about her all that much.

Looking at various review sites, Goodreads in particular, it's clear that not all the fans of the series were too fond of this book because both the protagonists are much more unpleasant than the heroes and heroines in the previous three instalments. Mary's thoughts about the characters in previous books are none too pleasant, she's cynical, ambitious and all her plans came to nothing when her elopement plot failed. Now she's an object of either spiteful gossip or pity, and she doesn't like it. So of course, a lot of her thoughts are filled with bitterness and spite. Frankly, the couples in the previous three books were all such good, worthy and noble people. They do risk their lives to save England from the French, after all. Having a heroine who's bitter, cynical, quite mean on occasion and maybe a bit too conceited because she's been told about her great beauty and her good prospects all her life was actually rather refreshing.

Besides, the hero of the novel is Lord Vaughn, who in the previous two books stole pretty much every scene he was in. He's tall, dark, extremely wealthy, has an impeccable dress sense and doesn't suffer fools, even a little bit. There are all manner of rumours surrounding him, with suspicions that he may have murdered his wife. Some suspect he may be a French agent, and Mary certainly wonders if he himself might be the Black Tulip when he enlists her aid in finding the spy. Vaughn has experienced most things there are to experience, and he's frankly bored and jaded. He's entirely unconcerned about his reputation and the rumours that exist about him. He's not really swayed by Mary's beauty, but cannot help but be impressed with her ruthless ambition, her candidness and her determination to secure the best possible future for herself. He understands her bitterness and her cynicism and finds a kindred spirit in her.

I think the reason I like Vaughn so much is because he reminds me of one of my favourite romance heroes, the Duke of Falconbridge from Julie Anne Long's What I Did for a Duke. As this book came out several years before Julie Anne Long's romance, I would be very surprised if Falconbridge wasn't at a little bit inspired by Lord Vaughn. And he's a Sebastian! So many awesome romance heroes out there share that name, but I laughed out loud when his first name was revealed in this book.

Because the main couple were a lot more ruthless and cynical than those in the previous three books, which I found amusing, and the Eloise bits were actually rather sweet, instead of making me want to reach into the pages of the book and slap her silly, this is by far my favourite of the Pink Carnation books. Noble heroes are all well and good, but I understand why Mary and Vaughn might find them a bit exasperating too. The fact that Mary and Vaughn continue to be cynical and scathing, even after they succumb to their mutual attraction and admit their feelings for one another is one of the things I appreciate. It would have been awful if they suddenly went all gooey and sweet.

The reason I can't rate this a full five stars or even 4.5 is because of the way the story develops in the last half. Issues and individuals from Vaughn's dark past come back and complicate the plot in a way that had me rolling my eyes, and the true identity of the Black Tulip and resolution of that plot was frankly preposterous. I can only suspend my disbelief so much. I do hope Willig will allow me the occasional jaded rake as a hero in future books too, because this was such a fun book.