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Caroline Linden

REVIEW:  Once Upon a Ballroom by Caroline Linden, Katharine Ashe, Maya Rodale and Miranda Neville

REVIEW: Once Upon a Ballroom by Caroline Linden, Katharine Ashe,...

Dear Readers,

Recently I purchased the self-published anthology, Once Upon a Ballroom: Original Short Stories and Exclusive Excerpts. I was drawn to this anthology by my interest in Miranda Neville’s story, “The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.” I’ve enjoyed everything I have read by Neville, by which I mean the four books in her Burgundy Club series.

Once-Upon-a-Ballroom To a lesser degree, I’ve also enjoyed a couple of Caroline Linden’s books, and she too has a story in this anthology. Rounding out the anthology are stories by Katharine Ashe and Maya Rodale, neither of whom I had read before, but I was game to try them. The anthology was priced at only 99 cents so I figured I had little to lose.

Each story is followed by an excerpt from a novel by the same author, but I will not be reviewing these, since I consider excerpts I don’t seek out akin to advertisements. I have a bit more to say on that topic at the end of the review, but first, reviews of the four stories.

“The Truth About Love” by Caroline Linden

Bookish Miranda married the glamorous, sought after Damien, Earl of Roxbury, and has been happy with him ever since. Damien has been devoted and attentive to her, so Miranda’s faith in her husband remains unshaken when her gossipy sister in law informs her that Damien has “taken up with” another woman, Helen Morton.

Damien was more or less ordered by the Prince Regent to come to Brighton and give his advice on the building of the pavilion there. He has written to Miranda regularly, charming letters that assure her of his love. But as more and more people hear of his affair and tell Miranda that she should not have married Damien, and as the letter stop arriving, it becomes harder for Miranda to keep the faith.

Miranda was a very sympathetic figure in this story and I could completely understand her reasons for believing in her husband even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I was glad when her faith was rewarded, but this story, like the others in the anthology, felt short to me. I was expecting something novella length, but it was more of a short story or perhaps a novelette on the short side. More on the length of content issue later.

A bigger problem with “The Truth About Love” is that while there was quite a bit about Damien in Miranda’s thoughts, he only showed up in person, so to speak, for a couple of pages at the end of the story. After all the doubts that were cast on him, that really wasn’t enough for me, especially since it was basically his word against everyone else’s.

I wanted more evidence of Damien’s faithfulness, but even more, I wanted the opportunity to know him better so that I could be sure he and Miranda were a good match. This felt more like a story about Miranda than a story about the two of them, and the ending felt abrupt, although the author has a nice voice. For these reasons, “The Truth About Love” gets a C-/C from me.

“Ask Me To Dance” by Katharine Ashe

In this story, Lady Fiona attends a ball in honor of the debut her friend Cecily, a girl “of low born gentility with two maiden aunts and no status to bring her out.” This ball is described in the French Count of Vaucoeur’s point of view as “a miserably unfashionable fete in a dilapidated townhouse.” But Vaucoeur does not care, since he is there to watch Fiona from the shadows.

Vaucoeur served in the military with Fiona’s brother James and read Fiona’s loving letters to the man. He fell for the girl in those letters, and since he carries a secret which he believes would keep Fiona from returning his feelings, he just watches her from the shadows for ball after ball.

Little does he know that Fiona is aware of his gaze and of his identity, and that she hungers for him almost as much as he does for her. When the ballroom ceiling topples, Fiona and Vaucoeur are separated from the other dancers and have a chance to open up to each other.

This story had a lot of potential, but it was weighed down by the heightened, rather purple language. For example:

But did she know all? For if she did not, and they finally spoke, he could not withhold from her the truth.

Other examples: “her insides pirouetted” (I pictured a miniature ballerina in Fiona’s belly) and “Her throat caught upon a swell of awe.”

Another problem with the story is that Vaucoeur’s baggage was heavy, and involved Fiona’s brother, yet these serious issues were cleared up in the blink of an eye.

Despite the language and the heavy baggage, or perhaps partly because of them, Ashe conjures an atmosphere filled with tension, both sexual and romantic. There is good chemistry between the characters. I give this one a C-.

Ashe mentions in a note after the story that these characters have appeared in a couple of her books, so I wasn’t sure if their romance is followed in those other books as well, or not. This left me with mixed feelings, because of my response to the Maya Rodale story.

“Once Upon a Dream” by Maya Rodale

Annabelle, a newspaper columnist, is desperately in love with her boss, Derek Knightly. Since Derek seems oblivious, Annabelle asked her readers for advice on how to attract a man’s attention. One of them, “Marriage-Minded Mama from Mayfair,” has suggested arranging to be caught in a compromising position with the man she loves.

Annabelle dresses to a ball in something referred to as The Dress, designed to catch a man’s eye. She gets Knightly’s attention. Soon they are in a private alcove, kissing and going further, until she snaps awake from the daydream. Like the others, this is not a long story and the daydream takes up a full third of it. When I realized Annabelle had been dreaming everything, I felt thwarted.

Unfortunately, the latter two thirds of the story aren’t any more satisfying. Another dream takes up another third of the story. And in the final third, everything is resolved in a rushed, unsatisfying way.

A second huge issue I had with this story was that it lacked conflict, either external or internal. Yes, we were told that Annabelle couldn’t get Derek’s attention, but everything we were shown indicated otherwise.

Almost as soon as Derek appears in this story, it’s clear he is attracted to Annabelle and a page or two later, he gets very serious about her. His commitment to her comes out of nowhere, at least to this reader who has not read the books that are linked to this story.

Further, since I didn’t know Annabelle or Derek from the previous books, I needed a reason to connect with them. I wasn’t given one here. In a story this short, the characters need to quickly become sympathetic or fascinating or at least, a little compelling. None of that happened here, so I was left feeling indifferent to whether or not Derek an Annabelle ended up together.

I was further frustrated when I reached the end of the story and read that Derek and Annabelle have their own book, Seducing Mr. Knightly. That being the case, I wasn’t sure if any of the scenes in “Once Upon a Dream” were excerpted from Seducing Mr. Knightly. Whether or not they were, I ended up feeling I had been advertised to rather than entertained. D.

“The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors” by Miranda Neville

This story was the reason I purchased Once Upon a Ballroom. After the Rodale story, I was half afraid to read it. I wondered if it too, would feel like a marketing gimmick rather than a work designed to entertain. I should have trusted the author more. Miranda Neville’s Burgundy Club works have all been charming, touching, and funny, and this little story was no exception.

Belinda Lawrence has recently lost her father, and wonders what to do with his book collection. James, Lord Corton, a childhood friend whom it was always assumed she’d marry, is the one she turns to for advice.

Belinda has always loved James but he seems to see her as a sister. He calls her Binny and doesn’t look beyond her spectacles. When she broaches the topic of the book collection, she hopes that James will propose at last. If they marry, her books will have a loving home, and so, she hopes, will she.

James has actually at last noticed Belinda, but he does not know if she wants to marry him or if she’d prefer the freedom to choose another husband. He almost works up the nerve to ask her to marry him, but at the last minute, trepidation gets the better of him.

When he confides this to Tarquin Compton, a fellow member of the Burgundy Club, a society of book collectors, Tarquin suggests that James needs “the Tarquin Compton School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.”

Tarquin advises James to discard his plan to dress as Henry VIII to an upcoming masquerade and wear a highwayman costume instead. Behind his highwayman’s mask, Tarquin promises, James will find it easier to woo Belinda.

Of course, Tarquin’s stratagem doesn’t go off without a few hitches. The humorous and emotional situations resulting from the change of costume are half the fun, but the endearing characters were even more central to my enjoyment. James and Belinda both felt kind and sympathetic, but never ingratiating or cloying.

I sometimes think that half the reason I prefer flawed characters is that so many times, with sympathetic characters, I can see the author’s hand manipulating me to like them. The thing I so appreciate about Neville’s writing is that I never get this feeling with her books. Her characters are likable and even sweet, but in a way that feels fresh and real.

In this way they resemble the execution of the storyline in “The School of Wooing for Inept Book Collectors.” There is nothing new in a storyline about a heroine who has always loved the hero from afar and a hero who hasn’t noticed her until now. It’s the same premise used in Rodale’s “Once Upon a Dream,” but whereas in the latter, I didn’t care, in “The School of Wooing” the same familiar premise sang to me.

Small touches such as Belinda’s reminiscence of her father reading Robinson Crusoe to her when she was young, and James cradling the same book “as carefully as he would an infant,” wit sprinkled here and there, and most of all, a certain tenderness in the characters, make this plot feel as fresh as the Belinda and James do.

What keeps this one from an A range grade is that even here, the story feels a touch too short. I wish I had the chance to know these two people better.

There are also times when I want just a little more emotion. There’s a moment near the end of the story when James does something boneheaded that hurts Belinda. He apologizes quickly and it’s resolved very fast – a bit too fast for my taste. I wanted the chance to feel Belinda’s hurt and anger a little longer, since that would have made James’s apology that much sweeter. So this story gets a B.

Before I close this review, I want to say a bit more about the length of the stories. Again, these are not novella-length stories, but shorter works. I was expecting novellas, and that led me to disappointment.

Once Upon a Ballroom was 1757 locations long on my Kindle. According to this post a location translates to roughly 22 or 23 words. If true, this means that the anthology is somewhere around 40,000 words in length. The four stories are each, according to my calculations, between 7000 (28 pages) and 9000 (36 pages) words in length. Together they make up about 79% of the anthology, while around 16% of the rest is comprised of excerpts from the authors’ upcoming novels, and roughly another 5% is “About the Authors” content.

I was inspired to get out my calculator and figure all this out because he brevity of the stories and my feeling that three of the four ranged from so-so to downright frustrating caused me to feel cheated before I read the Neville story, despite the low 99 cent price. And even after I read that story, I didn’t feel that anthology was the bargain it had seemed to be at first.

Considering that I can spend the same 99 cents on the occasional good full length novel that’s on sale, or something like Milan’s The Governess Affair, I feel that with this anthology I got less for my dollar, and more importantly, less for the time I put in.

Once Upon a Ballroom is also often available free of charge (currently Amazon and Smashwords). At such low/no cost, some readers may find it worth checking out, but expectations should be adjusted according to the length of the content and the proportion of excerpts to complete stories.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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REVIEW:  The Way to a Duke’s Heart by Caroline Linden

REVIEW: The Way to a Duke’s Heart by Caroline Linden

Dear Ms. Linden,

I’ve read all three books in your The Truth about the Duke trilogy and never much cared about what happened to said peer, the (unchallenged) Duke of Durham. The guy seems like a heel. On his deathbed–and estranged from his eldest son, Charlie, the hero of The Way to a Duke’s Heart–he confesses he (the dying dad) is a possible bigamist. Prior to tying the knot with his Duchess, the long dead mother of his three sons, he’d married and pretty much lost first interest in and then contact with another woman. The Duke shares his big secret because, in the months prior to leaving this mortal coil, he was being blackmailed by an unknown person threatening to expose this earlier union. His middle son, Edward (the hero of One Night in London, reviewed here by Jane), tells the wrong woman about their family troubles–dubbed the Durham Dilemma by the press–and Charlie and his brothers may be, depending on the truth about the Duke, branded as illegitimate and left without a titles, fortunes, and properties.

The Way to a Duke's Heart by Caroline LindenI was looking forward to this book; in both the first and second books in the series (the second, and my favorite, Blame it on Bath, is reviewed here by Janet) Charlie is the man. He’s sexy, selfish, and clearly waiting for destiny to smack him upside the head. Charlie, like so many Regency-type rakes, suffers from evil dad/eldest son syndrome; he did not get enough love as a small child. His dad bullied him and was unreasonable; by the time Charlie became old enough to draw from the family’s coffers, he tossed aside his father’s expectations, ignored the call of his birthrate, and began bedding widows and wantons nightly. When his legacy is first challenged, Charlie, who refused to come to his father’s deathbed, tells his brothers the Durham dilemma is NOT MY PROBLEM. However, after Edward and Gerard (bro #2) find connubial bliss they tell Charlie to step up to the plate: they’re, um, busy. Even if his brothers weren’t in shag heaven, they’d have a point. Charlie is the putative Duke and it is his title, now at risk, that most defines the family. Charlie, somewhat ambivalently, agrees at the end of Blame it on Bath to leave his hedonistic life in London and head off to discover their father’s blackmailer.

As The Way to a Duke’s Heart begins, Charlie has come to Bath in search of one Hiram Scott whom Gerard has identified as the man who sent their father the loathsome letters. Charlie doesn’t want to be there and the job he faces overwhelms him. His leg hurts from a drunken fall down the stairs and, to top it off, on his way into procuring the best suite in the best hotel in town, some chit muttered, loudly enough for all to hear, that he, the (hopefully) Duke of Durham, looked “indolent.” Charlie checks into his suite, finally waves off the officious inn-keeper, and assesses the task before him.

He caught sight of the leather satchel on the writing desk across the room. In it were all the documents and correspondence from the investigators and the solicitors relating to that damned Durham Dilemma, as well as his father’s confessional letter. He turned his head away, not wanting to look at it. He’d forced himself to bring it all to Bath, but just thinking about it left him angry at his father, irked at his brothers, and deeply, privately, alarmed that his entire life now hung by a thread. If rumors in London—and Edward’s expensive solicitor—could be believed, Durham’s distant cousin Augustus was about to file a competing claim to the dukedom, alleging that Charlie could not prove he was the sole legitimate heir. If the House of Lords upheld that claim, the title and all its trappings would be lost—at best, held in abeyance until proof was found, or at worst, irrevocably awarded to Augustus. Either outcome would effectively ruin him.

Charlie hoped to high heaven the answer to all their troubles could be found in Bath. And even more, he hoped he was capable of finding it before the House of Lords heard his petition.

He let his head drop back against the chair and closed his eyes. How ironic that the first time anyone expected great things of him, the stakes were so high. Right now he didn’t want to think of anything beyond his dinner and the glass of wine in his hand. If the lady from downstairs could see him now, she would surely think him the most indolent, useless fellow on earth.

A smile touched his lips, picturing her defiant expression when she realized he’d heard her disdainful remark. She was sorry he’d overheard, but not sorry at all for saying it. What a prudish bit of skirt. No doubt she had a collection of prayer books and doted on her brood of small dogs.

Charlie is, naturally, wrong about the woman who dismissed him. She’s neither a prude nor does she dote on much of anything. Tessa Neville had her heart broken years ago by a lout and now is focused on managing her brother, Viscount Marchmont’s, business affairs. She’s a whiz with investments–numerical columns being so much more trustworthy than those of men–and has come to Somerset to investigate a possible investment: a canal partially owned and being aggressively marketed to her family by Hiram Scott. Tessa has a bad attitude and a chip on her shoulder–she just can’t believe how closed-minded men are and don’t get her started on the inability of women to vote! Frankly, she’s pretty cranky and, for me, not in a good way. I wouldn’t call her a bitch–she’s no Scarlett O’Hara–but she lacks the ability, most of the time, to sit back and smell the sulfur. Just seeing the rakish Duke of Durham with his wicked smile, his lordly–but charming–manner, and his bodacious bod puts her in a bad mood.

I liked him but not her. Tessa is, for her era, a thoroughly modern woman. That’s cool. What’s not so cool is that her asserted skill set–brilliant, able to discern waste from genuine want, savvy about where to park a pound or thousand–isn’t displayed in her actions. She’s bamboozled by Scott–he’s trying to lure investors to a canal with a problem–and her people skills are poor. When the men–those who run the canal she’s interested in–are forced to invite her to a “let us tell you what a deal we have for you while getting you drunk” dinner, Tessa is useless and is, in fact, rescued by Charlie who doesn’t give a strut about the canal. Additionally, halfway through the tale, she–who has thus far lusted for Charlie within the constraints of her time–suddenly finds her inner-bad girl and behaves in ways that don’t ring true for her.

[spoiler] (I have a hard time believing Tessa’s first response, when faced with adversity, would be “Do me.”)[/spoiler]

 

Tessa is nice to her traveling companion, the always worried Eugenie, and she clearly cares for her brother and her bossy older sister. But this kindness in her didn’t balance out her impatience with virtually everyone around her. I’m sure I’d be constantly pissed off if everyone treated me as lesser because I was female–I’m not saying she’s not believable. She’s just not very pleasant a lot of the time. And when she is pleasant, it’s because she’s lusting after Charlie or lustfully rolling around with Charlie. I’d have enjoyed her far more if she, on her own, was more engaging and less carping.

Charlie, on the other hand, is a fetching hero. He, in the start of the series, is portrayed as a lazy, selfish cad. And, not only is that initially true, it’s how he sees himself. But once his brothers force him to act and he heads to Bath to investigate Hiram Scott, Charlie changes. He begins to push himself to think, to work, and to sit around reading really dull parish registers. He initially checks out Tessa because he thinks she may be in cahoots with Hiram Scott, but once he realizes she’s not, he puts a lovely sort of effort into figuring her out. He finds her intelligence and direct manner incomprehensibly alluring; the scenes where he works to help her are sexy and sweet. Here, he’s just put bluebells Tessa picked into a vase for her. She’s startled he’d do such a thing.

She looked up at him in wonder. Dark hair tumbled forward over his brow after his jaunt into the brook. Up close she could see the faint shadow of stubble beginning on his jaw, and smell the crisp scent of his shirtsleeves. That signet ring on his right hand flashed as he pushed the stems deeper into the glass. Her hand felt warm, remembering the clasp of his fingers around hers. “That’s quite a lot of effort for wildflowers,” she said before her brain could rein in her tongue.

He looked up from the flowers. “Not if they are dear to you.”

She forced her gaze back to the bluebells. “They are just wildflowers,” she said softly. “Small and insignificant and common.”

He was quiet, and she stole a glance at his face. He had that probing look again, as if he were trying to make out something essential about her. She was accustomed to seeing that sort of look on people’s faces, but Lord Gresham’s expression was . . . different. He didn’t seem confounded or alarmed or even dismayed by what he saw in her, but curious. Surprised. Almost . . . intrigued.

“No bit of beauty is small or insignificant,” he murmured. “And as for common . . . I’ve never seen the like.” He touched one dainty flower head, less wilted than the rest, and turned it up toward her. “Don’t belittle it. Marvel, instead, that such a creation sprang up out of a common field, with no one around to appreciate it until you walked by.”

“And now I have pulled it out by the roots,” she said.

He grinned, and the air between them lightened noticeably. “Only to share it with others. The bluebells would have wilted anyway, in a day or two. Now they will have brought joy and beauty to others before they do.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “A lovely way of putting it.” She tipped her face up to him again. “Thank you for the lemonade.”

“It was my pleasure.”

Charlie enlivens Tessa and it’s lovely to watch him do so. The better he gets to know her, the more he falls for her, prickles and all. I was happy for him because she made him happy. Tessa does become more pleasant with Charlie’s support: she’s thrilled to be with a man who not only doesn’t belittle her brain and her focus on finances, but who celebrates both. Tessa doesn’t instantly become compliant and doe-eyed once she becomes romantically involved with Charlie. She’s sure she’s not the girl for him–bluestockings apparently, in Tessa’s world, can’t manage being Duchesses. Charlie pursues her–despite her brains, this is yet another area in which he is smarter than she. This tension is resolved easily and prosaically.

The same could be said about the overarching question of Charlie’s legitimacy. In order for Charlie and his brothers to be the legal sons of the Duke of Durham, Charlie must find proof the first woman his father married was dead before he married his second. Charlie also wants to find out, because he’s so peeved, who the hell sent his father the blackmail letters. Charlie’s pursuit of the first issue–dead or not–is completed with little excitement. Consequently, the last third of The Way to a Duke’s Heart is spent with Charlie working doggedly to unmask the source of the letters. When he does so, he is shocked. I, not so much so. That story line is flat and freighted with “casual sex (with married women) is wrong” morality.

Ultimately the truth about the Duke dissatisfied me in this book and those that preceded it. There just wasn’t enough there there around which to build three books and 1150 pages!

If you are looking for an exciting, diverting, interesting historical, I can’t recommend The Way to a Duke’s Heart. It’s well-written and has a winning hero, yes. However, its strident heroine and mundane plot make for ho hum reading. I give it a C+.

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