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REVIEW:  Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

REVIEW: Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

never desireDear Ms. Dalton:

I believe I’ve mentioned that this year has been rough for me, historical-romance-wise. Historicals remain my first romance love, though, so I return to the sub-genre like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano (or possibly like lemmings to a cliff). Anyway, someone somewhere mentioned that Never Desire a Duke had positive buzz prior to its release, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The story opens on a marriage breaking apart: Vane Barwick, the Duke of Claxton (is it just me or is that name a mouthful? historical romance names and titles are starting to read more and more like Madlibs to me) arrives home to find his young wife Sophia miscarrying. As if that weren’t distressing enough, he quickly discovers that she wants nothing to do with him; her miscarriage was apparently brought on by a fall she suffered fleeing the house after uncovering a salacious note from an ex-mistress of his. They are both heartbroken about the loss of the baby, Vane feels guilty and Sophia is angry.

Cut to about a year later – it’s almost Christmas time and Sophia is nestled in the bosom of her loving family. She and Vane have been estranged ever since the miscarriage, and he has in fact been traveling on diplomatic missions for the better part of that time. Sophia has somewhat gotten over her initial shock and hurt about the dirty letter – it was from an EX-mistress, after all. But now she is freshly devastated by the fact that her husband has ignored her for months and essentially run away to the continent rather than deal with their issues (note, though, that there’s no evidence Sophia made any overtures to talk, either). Also, she’s heard rumblings and rumors about the female company he’s keeping these days, and she is not happy about it.

At a party in honor of her beloved grandfather, Sophia first runs into a very presumptuous noblewoman, Lady Meltenbourne, who inquires about the duke’s whereabouts in a most impertinent manner, informing Sophia of something that she is apparently the last to know: Vane is back in London. Just like that, he shows up at the party. The two have an aborted confrontation, and Sophia flees to Camellia House, Vane’s childhood home located in a village near London. She’s had the house prepared expecting that she might go there after Christmas, to contemplate the next steps in her marriage and perhaps write Vane a letter suggesting that they reunite for the purposes of having a child and then separate.

The conceit of the isolated house felt like just that – a conceit. All the more so when a major snowstorm hits and Sophia (and of course, Vane, who has followed her to Camellia House) are stranded there alone. Or more or less alone – Vane’s scapegrace brother shows up with Lady Meltenbourne, and then Lord Meltenbourne shows up, out for Vane’s blood (a circumstance that doesn’t improve Sophia’s opinion of her husband’s fidelity).

The others are packed off to the village and the relative isolation does what it’s supposed to do – bring Vane and Sophia together so they can fight, almost have sex, and then fight some more, and Sophia can learn all about why Vane’s so tortured.

As it turns out, Vane is tortured for the usual reasons; what it pretty much boils down to is, he had a crappy father. I felt for him, I guess, but somehow maybe less than I was supposed to.

Vane and Sophia also go on a quest of sorts, a kind of scavenger hunt of the kind his mother used to devise for Vane and his brother when they were children. Vane participates reluctantly, mostly because Sophia wants to. As it turns out, this quest is a very special one designed by his mother to reveal some truths that Vane needs to hear. How his long-dead mother knew that Vane would grow up to need just these lessons and why she picked such a complicated, unlikely-to-succeed method to teach them were both mysteries to me.

If I haven’t made it clear, I didn’t like Never Desire a Duke all that much. I didn’t really dislike it, either. The plot had potential but the characters and writing were blah for me. I know I’m supposed to care about Vane and his inability to be open about his feelings and about Sophia and the pain she’s suffered, but I just wasn’t that interested. I’ve read it all before and this book didn’t really bring anything new to the table in terms of characterization.

Writing this review has crystallized for me that one of my problems with the book was Sophia: I found her pretty annoying. She’s led this charmed life, marries someone whom she thinks is a great guy, and at the first adversity she pretty much loses it. At times it felt like she just kept finding new things to be mad at Vane about. First it’s “causing” the miscarriage and then it’s the way he ran away. When they’re reunited at the party she flees from him but then blames him for not pursuing her; obviously he doesn’t care enough to do so, and he’s probably off with some other woman, she thinks. This makes Sophia appear to be fairly immature and her suffering shallow.

Also, early on, Sophia nags Vane into writing a list of all the women he’s slept with that she might know or encounter in society. Now, clearly this is a terrible idea, but she insists on it and Vane capitulates. She then spends most of the rest of the book carrying around the list against her heart, seemingly believing that this will protect her from getting hurt again. It’s like she wants to have a reason to be angry at him.

It didn’t help that I felt like Sophia’s “goodness” was oversold at times. We get it: she helps widows and orphans and she just loves everyone and is the nicest nice who ever niced. Even when being told about Vane’s horrible father and how horrible he was, she is just aghast to find that he was sent to sea as a child, even though she acknowledges that it was fairly common at the time.

I didn’t love Vane but at least I felt he was trying; there were times when I thought he could bend a little more but he did have a background that explained his limitations.

The prose was serviceable but there were a few rough patches; I sometimes had POV confusion because it would switch in the middle of the scene with no break or other indication that we were now getting, say, Vane’s POV as opposed to Sophia’s. I noted a few anachronisms, as when Vane replies testily to something Sophia says with a careless “Whatever.” Also, Sophia’s reaction to orgasm surely belongs in the Pantheon of Purple Prose:

Her heart stopped beating – certainly it did – and she glimpsed a paradise created of violet and velvet and stars.

I don’t know if they had neurologists in 19th century England, but if I was her, I’d get that checked out. I think she may have had a minor stroke.

Sophia has a real TSTL moment near the end when she decides that Vane can’t forgive her for something and she runs away. I was out of patience with her at that point. To quote Vane, “Whatever.” My grade for Never Desire a Duke is a C.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Merry Gentlemen by Josephine Myles

REVIEW: Merry Gentlemen by Josephine Myles

MerryGentlemen72lg

’Tis the season of goodwill to all men…even the one who dumped you.

Riley MacDermott’s ambitions are simple. Managing the annual Bath Christmas Market—which involves long hours in the cold and a whole lot of hassle—will secure the promotion he needs to afford to move out of his noisy, top-floor flat. Where not even his balcony is safe from an aggressive herring gull.

The last stallholder he expects to see is his ex. Riley never recovered from their break up, and five years on the old chemistry still sparkles. So does their habitual head butting.

Stan never wanted to leave the love of his life, but the pull of the woods was too strong—and Riley was firmly planted in the city. Reconnecting is painful, but Stan still jumps at the chance to stay with his old flame during the Market. And damn the consequences.

As the weeks pass, the two grow closer than ever. But despite scorching sex and cozy intimacy, they both know they face a cold and lonely future. Unless one of them can compromise.
Warning: Contains sex in a shed, a seagull with a grudge, glamping, awful Secret Santa underwear, misuse of an Abba song, and as many wood-related puns as the author thought she could get away with.

Dear Josephine Myles:

As blurb indicates, Riley and Stan meet each other again at the market. Stan left Riley five years ago. Basically Stan likes to live closer to nature and Riley needs crowds, civilization, needs to be among people in order to thrive. But Riley clearly was not able to forget Stan and when he’s drunk, he constantly talks about him to his best friend, he keeps the pictures, etc. In other words Riley is not over his ex. It is also apparent that Stan is not over Riley – very soon after they meet again they have a passionate sexual encounter.
And while they stay together while the market is taking place, but they know that it is going to be over soon unless they can compromise.

I liked Riley – I liked his ambition and his drive, and I adored his fights with the seagull (you’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean). Later in the story I decided that his fights with the seagull, while very funny were supposed to be a metaphor for nature winning over civilization, and that annoyed me in light of other issues I had. I felt bad for him not being able to forget his ex, but at the same time I was wishing that he would get his groove back and moved on.

And although I have to say that while I rolled my eyes a little over both men staying away from each other for five years with neither of them taking the first step (it was just such a tiresome m/m cliché for me), I liked that believable reasons were given for them to stay away from each other. I am not sure if I buy it completely, because Stan could have come to the market a year after he left, or even a few months after he left instead of waiting until five years had passed and all the same events could have taken place. But at least credible reasons were given for the separation and at least they were apart for five years and not fifteen. I read a story a while ago where the guys were apart for fifteen years and of course they were only thinking about each other, but meeting again was out of the question for some weird reasons.

So, I appreciated that in this case the narrative gave me some help to suspend my disbelief. I also liked that while Riley could not forget his ex, he tried to form other relationships and was not sitting around crying and falling apart. Riley concentrated on his professional career after he and Stan split up and when the story begins as blurb states he is managing the market in hopes of obtaining a promotion.

After a somewhat terse meeting sparks fly between Stan and Riley, but nothing has really changed – Riley is a people person who needs crowds and civilization, and Stan needs wilderness to carve things from the trees. Well, Stan really lives two hours away from where Riley lives (yes, two hours, five years apart) and they have cinema and Internet as he says at some point, but there certainly does not seem to be many people in the town where he lives and it is much closer to nature.

I thought the reason for their breakup and the main conflict between them was very natural, very well done – I mean how often do we see this in life, when two people love each other a lot, but want different things from life. Sometimes they compromise in order to be together and sometimes love is just not enough.

I cannot say that I liked Stan much – not because he was some horrible person and not because he left Riley (surely it was better than the alternative at that point). [spoiler] No, I really disliked that he rejected even a possibility that in order to stay with Riley he would need to compromise as well. Riley wanted them to try visiting each other, perhaps make an attempt at some sort of long distance relationship, but Stan decided that it would be too painful for him. I hated that Riley ended up sacrificing it all in order to be with Stan and Stan just took it without giving anything back. I admired Riley’s creativity and his ability to find ways to attract people to them in their new life together, but that was all Riley’s doing without help from Stan. Riley spent time thinking about how to make their relationship work. What did Stan do? He did not even apologize properly for his role in the breakup after Riley apologized. Because saying “if that’s what you need to hear I am sorry” is not a proper apology in my book. There is a conversation near the end of the story in which they agreed that they would take holidays together and go to civilization, but for me it was just not enough: when they tried taking nature holidays back when they were together Stan was not happy, but he expects that it will be enough for Riley this time. I also have to admit that I really disliked the message that what Riley did and have was not important just because Stan was living closer to nature. I like nature and love holidays like that, but being a child of big city I would not want to give up civilization for more than a month or two. So I guess I felt like my feathers were ruffled a little bit too ?. [/spoiler]

This story has a very small cast of characters, so besides Riley and Stan the only two secondary characters which were relatively well developed were Riley’s best friend Janine and his boss Rita. But I really cannot even say much about them – they were mostly serving the story. I wish Janine especially would have more agency – while she is portrayed as a competent worker, I still felt that she was mostly there cheerleading for Riley.

Grade C.

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