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Archive for the ‘Historical Romance’ Category

PalaceOfSpiesThis lively young adult historical adventure is set in 1716, at the English court of George I, which is a refreshing change from the Tudors and Elizabethans I am usually reading about.

In the course of one spectacularly bad week, Margaret “Peggy” Fitzroy is forcibly engaged to a man she’s never met, assaulted in a greenhouse by the same young lout, and rescued by an enigmatic figure who claims that her late, lamented mother was not just another pretty face in the English court, but also actively supplying intelligence to he and his associates. When Peggy refuses to marry as told, she’s thrown out on the streets, and therefore throws herself upon the mercy of this man who knew her mother. Peggy agrees to be made over as his ward and placed as a maid of honor to Caroline, Princess of Wales, where she can report back on the doings of the court. To this end, she’s given a new identity and trained in the skills she’ll need as a lady in waiting: flattery, witticisms, cheating at cards, and sizing up someone’s wealth by the quality of the cloth and lace in their outfit.

Peggy has somehow forgotten to ask one important question: Hanover or Stuart?

Are her mysterious employers loyal to King George I and the House of Hanover, or are they among the rebellious supporters of exiled James II, “king over the water”? Between unexpected suitors and unexpected enemies among the royal household, it’s pretty likely that Peggy will be found out, and while being unmasked will certainly mean disgrace, being unmasked as a spy for Jacobite conspirators will get her beheaded for treason.

Peggy Fitzroy is a vivacious narrator, particularly when skewering ladies’ fashion. Being imprisoned in a mantua plus a ton of ribbons and furbelows makes it difficult to break into houses and run for her life! Fortunately Peggy is a great improviser with whatever weapon comes to hand, be it a ladies’ fan or a fireplace poker. Her adventures would be a good bet for readers of Y. S. Lee’s Agency series or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.

Check the WRL catalog for Palace of Spies.

The series continues with Dangerous Deceptions

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Tarnish Spoilers for the 1500s: there’s no happy ending to this romance. But it has drawing power anyway.

This young adult historical romance is set in 1523-24, embroidering on what little is known about young Anne Boleyn, before she ever caught the eye of Henry, King of England. Recently returned to the English court after years abroad, she is an outsider with the wrong looks and clothes, standing out for her French manners and fashion just in time for war with France, oops. Her tyrannical father is pushing her marriage to a boorish Irishman (actually, historically nicknamed James the Lame), and Anne is desperate for another choice.

Thomas Wyatt, playboy poet and professional flirt, offers to take on the project—for a wager—of elevating Anne’s social profile. With his savvy advice and very public attention, he can remake her into a centerpiece of the court. Only young Anne is never quite sure whether they are playacting. And even with her newfound status, nothing is simpler. Everyone who’s enamored is already married, or out of her social league… or the King of England. Who is, of course, sleeping with Anne’s sister.

Longshore writes a determined but vulnerable Anne who doesn’t have many options and hasn’t yet settled on a path of action. Her ambitions, her desire to be heard, her dysfunctional family, and, yes, her schoolgirl crushes are all very relatable, which is probably why her story has been retold so many times.

Tarnish is the middle book of three that are set in the Tudor court, but they don’t have to be read in order. Gilt tells the story of Catherine Howard, number five among Henry’s queens, and Brazen centers around Mary Howard, who married Henry’s illegitimate son.

Check the WRL catalog for Tarnish.

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HuzzahSuffragettes“Suffragette,” she said, “is pronounced with an exclamation point at the end. Like this: ‘Huzzah! Suffragettes!'”

Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall is a suffragette, which, as she points out, is pronounced with an exclamation point. An investigative reporter for her own Women’s Free Press, she campaigns for the vote while fighting accusations of plagiarism, threats of arrest, and attempts to burn her home and business.

Edward Clark doesn’t really do exclamation points. After a harrowing experience abroad during the Franco-Prussian war, he’s a realist with a particularly dark view of reality. While he doesn’t have any problem with Free’s lady-empowering views, he doesn’t understand why she devotes time and passion to a cause so unwinnable, so much like “emptying the Thames with a thimble.”

Also, Clark is secretly Edward Delacey, Viscount Claridge, whom everyone knows to be missing in the Siege of Strasbourg and believes to be dead. (Yes, it’s a “Surprise! A lord!” romance!) Being a viscount is something else Edward doesn’t have any patience with, so he’s reinvented himself as a metalsmith, a forger, and an all-around scoundrel. Sharing a mutual enemy, Edward and Free engage in bouts of flirtation via blackmail and reverse blackmail.

This is a surprisingly lighthearted and joyful book, skating very lightly over the history of struggle and suffering that inspires it—wartime firebombings and the investigative exploits of women like Nellie Bly and Josephine Butler. Milan, in her author’s note, actually calls it “as much an alternate history as it is a historical romance.” Great women characters have been true of every one of Courtney Milan’s books I’ve read, but with a suffragette main character, this is unsurprisingly the most overtly feminist of her romances. The “huzzah” moment in this book isn’t even to do with the romance, it’s Free’s rousing explanation of just what she’s trying to do with her thimble and the Thames.

Check the WRL catalog for the ebook of The Suffragette Scandal

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Duke Duke DukeFirst of all, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight is a fantastic name for a romantic heroine, even if it doesn’t lead you to expect a happy ending.

Izzy Goodnight’s father was the author of a beloved series of children’s stories set in a fictional medieval kingdom. But since her father died, leaving nothing but debts, Izzy’s real life is no fairy tale. Her purse is empty when she receives notice of a surprising bequest: her godfather appears to have left her a castle. And when she arrives to take stock of the new real estate, uneasily situated in the middle of nowhere, her ownership of the castle comes as a surprise to the duke who is already living there.

A scarred, snarling misanthrope with his own problems, Ransom William Dacre Vane doesn’t remember selling the castle at any point, and he’s unwilling to move out, as he needs a cold, bat-infested castle for brooding purposes. You can’t properly hate mankind in a rose cottage, can you? Not one to back down, Izzy strikes a deal with the duke: he will pay her to act as his clerk; she will sort through his piles of unopened correspondence in hopes of settling the legal status of the castle. Her duke-infested castle.

This lighthearted romance is roughly based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” That’s never been one of my favorite fairy tales, as it requires the hero to waste so much time insisting he’s a monster— so I was actually pretty relieved when the LARPers showed up. Yes, I picked this title out of a stack of historical romances because it contains 19th-century cosplay, a band of fannish role players who are starstruck to meet the Izzy Goodnight of the Goodnight Tales and who spend their spare time re-enacting medieval romances.

Written in a breezy, conversational style, this is a romance for pure escapism. All the gothic elements, the isolated castle, the bats, and the apparently brutish lead— so brooding!— are played for laughs and to surprisingly sweet effect. There’s a sneaky undercurrent of modern references, too (“The threat is coming from inside the castle”), that let you know this story is all in good fun.

Check the WRL catalog for Romancing the Duke.

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Heiress“She imagined the conversation as a prime coach-and-four. She imagined it racing along a road at top speed, the wheels glinting in the sunlight. And then she imagined driving it straight into a hedge.”

Jane Fairfield has the opposite problem of many romantic heroines: she has too much money (a hundred thousand a year!) and too many suitors (who are after her money), and it’s very important to her that she not get married. Marriage would take her away from her sister, who suffers doubly from seizures and from the torturous attempts at a “cure” forced upon her by their uncle.

To further the goal of remaining single at all costs, Jane pretends to look for a husband but presents herself as a tactless nitwit, a social bull in a china shop, and she tops off the performance with the most tasteless, over-the-top gowns she can get away with in a ballroom (“nothing says lace like…. more lace”).

Oliver Marshall, the illegitimate son of a duke, has parliamentary ambitions. Moving between his working-class background and the upper crust set he’s hoping to impress, Marshall is doing his best to blend in with society, while Jane is flying in the face of it. Of course they are meant to be together. Unfortunately, Marshall’s mentor wants a favor in exchange for delivering a bloc of votes in Parliament: publicly humiliate that appalling woman, Jane Fairfield.

Part of a series of loosely-connected novels, this historical romance features not just a duo but an ensemble of strong characters— an aspiring suffragette, an Indian law student, an agoraphobic aunt, lady geneticists!— each with a compelling subplot. Jane, with her tasteless wardrobe and outrageous opinions, is a refreshing and entertaining heroine. The 1860s setting provides all manner of external conflicts in society: class issues, the debate over natural selection, and the vote for women, to name a few. The interpersonal conflicts are handled not just with empathy, but sensibly, with characters having rational conversations with one another and helping one another towards their goals. Nobody gets rescued; instead, with help, everyone rescues themselves. Full of quotable lines, this is a fun, redemptive romance that will have you cheering for, well, everybody.

The Brothers Sinister series can certainly be read out of order, as I’ve been doing, but if you like to take things in order, start with The Duchess War

Check the WRL catalog for The Heiress Effect

WRL also owns the ebook.

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americanheiress

I have to send a thank you to the library user who recommended this book to me.  I don’t know her name, but we had a nice chat about romance books — and she came back to the Reference desk to make sure I had the title correct.  She said she thoroughly enjoyed it.  I did, too!

The story takes place in the late 1800s.  Cora Cash is one of those rich, eligible, young women whose father makes more money than they can spend.  Her mother aspires to have the status of the Vanderbilts or Astors, and has set her sights on a titled husband for her daughter.

While riding in an English fox hunt, Cora breaks away from the pack and falls from her horse.  The handsome man who finds her and brings her to his drafty ancestral home is none other than the Ninth Duke of Wareham. Cora’s mother could not possibly object when the Duke declares his love for Cora and asks for her hand.

The marriage is less of a fairy tale.

Ivo, as the Duke is called by friends, seems to care for Cora.  But his emotions get tied up in knots over how things look.  It is not just the social customs that must be maintained, but he is also struggling to make sure that Cora is nothing like his own mother.

For her part, Cora loves the Duke.  She tries to please him by fixing up his family home, but in doing so she only fuels rumors that the Duke married the rich heiress for her money.  In addition to walking a fine line with his pride, Cora has to adjust to living in a foreign country and learning to cope with her domineering mother-in-law.  Her troubles seem especially poignant at the Duke’s home, where the servants are civil to her face, but unlikely to follow any requests that aren’t deemed “proper” (like removing the many pictures of Ivo’s mother and her former lover, the Prince of Wales, from the bedrooms).

Instead of talking to one another, the couple struggle with misconceptions that might break them apart.

While the story has opportunities to go gothic, it doesn’t.  The old home is certainly drafty, but Goodwin resisted the tired “dark and stormy night” scenarios.  Cora is surprisingly sympathetic as well.  She easily could have turned out to be spoiled and heartless, but she isn’t.  Spoiled, for sure, but she doesn’t turn out to be the shrew.  Snappy dialogue and interesting secondary characters also kept me turning the pages.  I especially liked Bertha, Cora’s maid from South Carolina.  It is through Bertha’s eyes that the book shows the “downstairs” portion of the social classes.

Goodwin’s book provides lots of details of the Gilded Age: the extravagant parties, the fashionable clothing, the social expectations.  She notes in the Acknowledgements that “When it comes to the Gilded Age, the more fantastical the circumstance, the more likely it is to be true.”

I would recommend this as a good read-alike for fans of Downton Abbey or even The Great Gatsby.

Check the WRL catalog for The American Heiress

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imageKate Westbrook is deeply in love… with a house. She can’t stop looking at the broad sweep of its double staircase, or keep her hands off the banisters. Sadly, the elegant home of her Mayfair relatives is not for the likes of her: Kate’s father has been ostracized by his wealthy family ever since he married (shudder) an actress. But Kate is not going to let family disgrace stand between her and her rightful place in “that glittering world of champagne and consequence.” She has ambition, studied manners, and stunningly good looks. Maybe a wealthy suitor will marry her before he notices how embarrassing her family is.

Nicholas Blackshear, longtime friend of the Westbrook family, is carrying a torch for Kate, but he knows it’s hopeless. She’s aiming for earls and above, and he’s just a barrister saddled with his own family secrets. Nick has deliberately reshaped his romantic aspirations into brotherly affection. When Kate has a brief opportunity to make her impression on London society, Nick intends to help her land the suitor of her dreams. But that lingering admiration just makes him the world’s least suitable matchmaker… or chaperone.

Language, for me, is what makes Regency novels such a pleasure to read, and Grant’s style hits just the right notes, never forced or artificial. Her sentences flow easily, whether in sharp dialogue or self-mocking interior monologues. The surrounding characters, especially Kate’s bluestocking sister Viola, add life and color to the story, rounded out with conversations about women’s rights and courtroom tactics and fannish discussions of Miss Austen’s commendable novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Grant’s A Lady Awakened was my first read of the new year; I’d meant to blog about its hilariously incompatible sex scenes, the trapped heroine who just wants to make a difference in her ridiculously circumscribed world, and lovers who warm towards one another not from any of their antics in the bedroom, but when they start discussing land management—but, it turns out Christine beat me to it. What she said!

Check the WRL catalog for A Woman Entangled.

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