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GUEST REVIEW:  How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray

GUEST REVIEW: How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray

Elaina started reading romances in high school, but only started telling people she read romances within the last few years. Historicals will always remain her favorite, although she finds herself reading other genres depending on her mood. Favorite authors include Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas, Tessa Dare and Meredith Duran. She’s always on the hunt for innovative historical romances—especially non-Regency historicals—so drop her a line if you have a recommendation.

How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray

Dear Ms. Gray:

I wanted to dislike this book. I really did. The premise, the asshole hero, all of it. But I was also intrigued that you decided to write about the Earl of Somerton, the villain of your previous novels. He’s the dissolute husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Somerton (heroine in A Gentleman Never Tells), and is controlling, heartless and, seemingly, without scruples. I wanted to see if you could pull something like that off, although I assumed it wouldn’t work. I was wrong, though: mea culpa, indeed. I also have to say that I’ve never read a romance novel with the hero still married, the wife of the hero committing adultery during the novel, and a divorce midway through. That, in and of itself, is certainly a different take on things.

How to School Your Scoundrel is the third book in the Princess in Hiding series, and the sixth book surrounding many of the same characters in 1890s England. Princess Luisa of the fictional German principality Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof has fled her country along with her two sisters after revolutionaries stage a coup and take the throne. With the help of her English uncle the Duke of Olympia, Luisa and her sisters hide in various homes in England, disguised as men.

Setting aside the premise of three princesses hiding as men in 19th century England (we’ll get to that later), Luisa becomes Somerton’s secretary, calling herself Lewis Markham, whilst biding her time until she can return home. Luisa is practical and confident: the heir to the throne of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof, she refuses to cow, for the most part, to Somerton’s outrageous demands, and in return, she intrigues him. Recently widowed and having lost her father, Luisa fights quietly to find her way back to her birthright while attracted to Somerton despite herself.

Somerton, though, eclipses Luisa as a character tenfold, although not always in the best of ways. At the start of the novel, he is still married to Elizabeth, living with her and his young son whilst Luisa is in his employ as his supposedly male secretary. He is obsessed with finding evidence that Elizabeth is cheating on him with her true love, Lord Roland Penhallow, and takes every opportunity to discover her perfidy. He is ruthless in this pursuit, unwilling to admit his gross hypocrisy since he has slept with countless women during his marriage.

His marriage, of course, has crumbled—although it never really existed, he eventually admits—and you do a marvelous job showing how desperately he wanted the marriage to work while, ironically, showing how Somerton never tried to mend his philandering ways. He also works as an English spy, dispatching traitors and whatnot, although that side of his life was never perfectly clear to me.

Although Somerton is difficult to like, I appreciated that you didn’t defang him as a means to garner sympathy. Often in romances, the rakish villain of a previous book is rendered lifeless in his own book, with a backstory revealing he’s unhappy because his father never hugged him and he’s slept with two or three women along the way. Somerton, quite honestly, doesn’t really change, per se; even by the middle of the novel, he is still pursuing his errant wife and child, in order to enact his revenge on his wife’s lover who has gone with the pair to Italy. It’s only after he fails in his revenge that he gives up the course, instead of deciding that revenge isn’t worthwhile after all.

After Somerton fails and comes to grips with the fact that he’s lost Elizabeth, he and Elizabeth divorce. I’ll admit I know nothing about divorce in England in the 1890s, so I shall continue to assume it was possible. Luisa—no longer Mr. Markham—proposes that she and Somerton marry in an effort to return her to her throne. She believes bringing home a powerful English lord for a husband and perhaps returning pregnant with the next heir will give her the leverage to roust the revolutionaries.

The relationship between Luisa and Somerton simmers from the beginning, even when Somerton believed she was a man. Somerton finds her fascinating and frustrating, and becomes protective of this young woman placed in his care. When they marry and consummate their marriage, the scene is both scorching and poignant, showing how each desires human companionship but not knowing how to go about it. Somerton calls Luisa Markham as a sign of affection, a lovely touch to their relationship. Their idyll in Italy after their marriage is, I would argue, the highlight of the novel, shown especially here:

His new wife remained still before his eyes. Waiting. Humming. A delicate gift wrapped in linen. 

He lifted his hand. Hesitated. Wrapped it tentatively around her middle.

She let out a gentle sigh and leaned against his chest.

He closed his eyes and pressed his lips into her hair, and they stayed that way, fitted together, separated only by the whisper-thin linen of Luisa’s shift, until the teakettle began a soft, high whistle.

So what didn’t work in this book? The premise. Oh, the premise: three young princesses sent to England, to hide as men within the homes of various lords. It was so ridiculous that I had to keep reading despite the initial, “oh, for the love of God,” reaction it engendered. Add to that, Somerton—ruthless spy, wily lord—does not have any suspicions of Luisa’s gender, despite the numerous and obvious clues right in front of him. His shock at the revelation made me roll my eyes. Really, you had no idea?

There is also a very clunky (as these things go) deus ex machina by the end, which caused the story to end on an anti-climactic note. Again, I was rolling my eyes.

But, despite the premise and the absurdly tidy ending, How to School Your Scoundrel shines with your attention to period detail (well, not including the hiding as a man bit), gorgeous prose and introduced me to one of the most intriguing male characters I’ve read in a while. The romance between Somerton and Luisa is slow-burning and intense, ending perhaps on an overly sweet note in the Babylogue—yes, that’s what it’s called—but seeing their journey to happiness made me enjoy that bit nonetheless.

With all of that in mind, I have to give this one a B.

Sincerely,

Elaina

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CLASSIC REVIEW:  The Man Outside by Jane Donnelly

CLASSIC REVIEW: The Man Outside by Jane Donnelly

The Man Outside ~ Jane Donnelly

Dear Ms Donnelly:

Polly was delighted when the man she loved invited her to accompany him on an archaeological expedition in Scotland.

But when she joined the party she discovered a fly in the ointment in the shape of Piers Hargreaves, one of the most disagreeable and exasperating men that she had ever met. Perhaps, if she tried, she could turn him into a reasonable human being?

Dear Ms Donnelly:

The very first romance I ever read came in a large grocery sack of secondhand Harlequin/M&B that my grandmother bought the summer of my eleventh year, in a desperate effort to appease the boredom of two sulky adolescent girls. Both my older sister and I were hardcore “geek girls” long before the concept had been dreamt up; we read Tolkien and Asimov, not dumb books for dumb girls about dumb girls (and Dukes and Tycoons and Kissing and Stuff) but hey, there was nothing else to read; so we decided to give them a try for the sake of mockery.

And mock them I did, but guiltily. The truth is that most of those books were pretty silly… but I loved them. I freaking LOVED them. And none did I love more than THE MAN OUTSIDE.

This story didn’t seem dumb to me. The heroine was admirable, engaged in an interesting profession–one that was important to the plot. The hero wasn’t an aristocrat or a millionaire, but a brilliant antisocial nerd—and his brains and lack of social skills were central to the plot. The rest of the characters were likable, smart people, with skills and personalities of their own—and their likability and intelligence and variety and how all those things interacted… that WAS the plot.

I must have (secretly) read this book three times over that week. And when we left my grandparents’, I (covertly) smuggled it home. For a month I read it over and over, until one day at the public library, I screwed up my courage and pulled an armful of grownup books with heart stickers on the spines. And the checkout librarian didn’t say anything, didn’t raise an eyebrow, didn’t hit the red button under her desk that would set off the ALERT ALERT INNOCENT FEMALE ABOUT TO BE BRAINWASHED BY THE PATRIARCHY alarm.

I was hooked.

I never gave up my beloved spaceships and dragons, mind you; and later I learned about suspense and and true crime and history and all sorts of other genres, and I even found myself picking up a classic or work of literary fiction on purpose, but romance (especially Gothics and Heyer derivatives) always remained my go-to comfort reads. I became a librarian and the Internet crept out of the science labs into my workspace, and there were other readers LIKE ME and they introduced me to sexy contemporaries and chick lit and paranormals and m/m and shojo / josei manga… and that tattered Harlequin paperback was long lost somewhere in a dozen moves, and I didn’t give a thought for [redacted] decades until a thread over at SBTB asked “what trope is a sure-fire guarantee for you?” and I thought “Intelligent heroines doing interesting things. Brilliant, socially inept heroes. A quiet, character-driven plot that sneaks up on you and WHUPS YOU UPSIDE THE FEELS.”

And I remembered A MAN OUTSIDE.

Well, to be honest I remembered “That Harlequin I read that summer at Grandma’s, what was it called?” I remembered the cover; I remembered so many plot elements and scenes and passages word-for-word; I remembered how it made me smile and sigh and elicited Good Book Noise ™. But I couldn’t remember the title (I kept thinking it was A MAN APART, which turns out to be another of your books, along with MAN IN THE NEXT ROOM, A MAN CALLED MALLORY, and A MAN TO WATCH – I guess you like “men”?) or your name, and even with all my mad leet librarian skillz it took one of the Bitchery pointing me to the omniscient Fiction Database to finally track it down.

I ordered a used copy and held my breath. Would it hold up to my memories? Or would it, like so many books I remember with nostalgic affection, have been tarnished by the Suck Fairy?

Reader, I freaking LOVED it.

So that’s hundreds of words about me; when am I finally going to talk about your book?

Polly Blair is a lucky girl. Lucky because she is pretty and smart and kind; lucky that she could pursue a career in archeology; lucky that she loves and is loved by Clive Rounsley, celebrity archeologist, with his Viking good looks and charisma to burn. Lucky above all that she is always aware of how lucky she is, grateful for it, and eager to share affection, acceptance, and happiness with everyone who lacked it, from injured animals to lost souls.

If Polly at this point sounds rather saccharine and soppy, that’s because she is. She’s redeemed, though, by her self-awareness, and her ability to laugh at herself; as a result, she comes across as one of those rare but memorable people who is authentically nice; and I can’t help liking her.

It doesn’t hurt that you give her something interesting to do. Clive invites her as pottery specialist for his excavation of potential Viking ruins on a remote Scottish island, and most of the story involves the day-to-day operations on the dig. I don’t know how many readers would be enthralled by the gritty (and muddy) details, the tidbits of history, science, and folklore you include; but I was fascinated as a nerdy kid, and after participating in real-life fieldwork, it’s both realistic and entertaining. The gender balance on the excavation team, both specialists and students, is gratifying, and I enjoyed both their camaraderie and the tensions between two scientists with very different styles.

Because, even though Clive is director and star, funding depends on renowned geologist Piers Hargreaves.

Piers is no standard issue Alpha romance hero. He isn’t ripped or handsome (in fact, he’s repeatedly described as “skinny” and “ugly”), he’s anything but charming or magnetic. Okay, he’s rich, but nobody seems to care. What is emphasized over and over is his brains; and bless you, Ms Donnelly, you don’t just tell us that, you show Piers being brilliant: effortlessly calling up rarified information, exploring offbeat possibilities, making obscure connections, and achieving amazing results. Not to mention his eidetic memory, which inspires this cute banter when Piers admits to Polly that he can’t cook:

So there is something you’re not an expert on,” she smiled.

“Any number of things,” he said.

“Although you could always read a cookery book. You’d never forget a recipe.”

“I could read a book on the bicycle, but I’d still fall off a bike, and I doubt if a book on Casanova would turn me into a great lover.” [84]

If it isn’t obvious, Piers is the eponymous “man outside”. For all his academic prowess, Piers is socially… not even withdrawn, but entirely disconnected. If this had been written today, he probably would be described as somewhere on the autism spectrum; but forty years ago it had to be explained with an Angsty Background. Whatever the result, he doesn’t interact socially with other people; he doesn’t know how, and he hasn’t the slightest interest in learning.

Polly, with her instinctive affinity for strays and outcasts, is determined to befriend him. Clive makes a joking bet that she’ll have no luck at it; and thus the plot is set in motion.

Most of that plot is delightfully quotidian: Polly works on the site, cuddles with Clive, hangs out with her colleagues, gets to know the (stereotypically eccentric) islanders. By sheer persistence she gradually wears Piers into accepting her company; and as the two slowly get to know each other, they start to become friends.

Friendship, for Piers, is an earth-shattering revelation. He finds himself telling Polly things he’d told no one else. He concerns himself with her happiness. And, through caring about Polly, he starts to care about other people.

When he arranges for Polly to go home for a quick visit, he exerts himself to be agreeable:

Clive would have been flabbergasted to know that Doreen was impressed, but then Piers Hargreaves had never tried to impress anyone before. That day people were impressed. They were Polly’s friends he met, and because of that they were not cardboard cut-outs; he wanted their approval. He made himself pay attention to them, and he found the exercise rewarding. [120]

It’s at this point that a sweet friendship story turns into a romance; and things, predictably, get Complicated. But when I came back to this book after so many years of romance reading, I was impressed at how many predictable “complications” are subtly subverted.

Yes, there is a beautiful Other Woman who tries to make mischief—but everyone sees through her games and pities her; the person who actually sows discord does so out of love and misplaced concern. Yes, as designated Romantic Rivals, Piers has to triumph over Clive—but this victory is quite literally academic; and while Clive is revealed to be shallow and vain, he is never the villain, and the reader ends up feeling sorrier for him than he does for himself.

And yes, there is classic Big Misunderstanding at the root of the conflict—but it isn’t really a misunderstanding; Polly absolutely did exactly what she is accused of, for the motives ascribed. It isn’t a mistake, or an injustice, or a failure to communicate. The real issue is whether Piers (and Polly!) can come to terms with what she did … and with her being the kind of person who would do it again.

That, ultimately, is why THE MAN OUTSIDE has a permanent place on my keeper shelf. Piers’ character arc is certainly more dramatic and traditionally “romantic”. But it’s Polly’s emotional growth that brings me back. She begins as a sweet uncomplicated girl, joyful and kind because she is “lucky” in all that she does. Then her luck turns sour; acting on her deepest, most generous instincts, she hurts—hurts horribly—someone who matters to her. Through her actions, because of her very nature, she seems to lose what she loves most.

Yet Polly never crumbles. She suffers, and she grieves. She fights for what she wants: not by demands nor by manipulation, but by taking responsibility and returning honesty. She offers her self, all of her self, but ONLY her self; she doesn’t try to become someone else in hopes of “winning” anyone’s love. She remains a daughter, a friend, a professional; she accepts a pain that feels like it will kill her and lives. She grows beyond a “lucky girl”, and becomes a woman of grace.

I must admit that anyone who decides to hunt down a used copy of this book may well decide I’ve pulled too many ponderous implications from the shallow well of simple formulaic “escapist” fare. I don’t want to make out your story to be more awesome than it is. It is a category romance, with many of the faults of the genre: the prose can be flat, far too often telling rather than showing, with a dreadful weakness for head-hopping and confusing flashbacks. The brevity imposed by the format dramatically shortchanges the ending: the impact of astonishing archaeological discoveries are summarized in a few paragraphs, and the final romantic reconciliation happens with startling abruptness (if with a completely satisfactory thoroughness).

Nonetheless, like a baby duckling mistakenly hatched by a chicken, I’ve completely imprinted on THE MAN OUTSIDE. When reading romance, I want to identify with heroines as honest, as intelligent, as unself-consciously generous as Polly. I yearn for a hero as geeky, as self-deprecating, as completely uninterested in alpha games as Piers. I am bored by romantic conflicts driven by external dangers, by stupid errors, by childish self-pity. I am thrilled by narratives that develop naturally from the personalities of the protagonists and those around them.

More than anything, I want to watch a love that grows not from lust, but from genuine liking. While I have nothing against sexual acrobatics, even the hottest encounters do nothing for me if they don’t express the intimacy of the emotional connection. I’ve never read an erotic scene that, for me, has anything like the charge of this chaste exchange:

”You’d better stay by me, I need your eyes to see Mr. Quinton as he probably is.”

She turned smiling eyes with their fringe of dark lashes on him. “My eyes?” she said.

“You,” he said. “I need you.”[121]

Sigh…

And now I want to read it again.

Grade: How can I be fair? A- for the characters and the emotional intensity; probably a C for mechanics and craft; average it out to a respectable B-.

Sincerely,

hapax

 

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