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REVIEW:  Whisper of Scandal by Nicola Cornick

REVIEW: Whisper of Scandal by Nicola Cornick

Dear Nicola Cornick:

Jane’s resolution to read one historical romance a month resonated with me, because I’ve been reading fewer and fewer but I know I miss out on good ones as a result. A chance conversation with a friend reminded me that I had a couple of your historicals in my TBR and I chose Whisper of Scandal for my first month, partly because it was the beginning of a series but even more because of its unusual setting: it’s in part a road romance which is set above the Arctic circle. I couldn’t resist, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Reading this novel reminded me not just how much I like “unusual” historicals, but also how familiar tropes can be refreshed in the hands of the right author.

Nicola Cornick Whisper of ScandalWhisper of Scandal starts in a relatively conventional way. Arctic explorer Alex Grant comes back to London deliver a letter to Lady Joanna Ware, the widow of his fallen comrade and friend, David Ware. Alex doesn’t want anything to do with her, so when Joanna pretends they are lovers in order to stave off the advances of her cousin and kisses him warmly, he recoils inside rather than choosing to enjoy the opportunity.

This first scene reminded me of what I don’t much enjoy in Historical Romance of the standard, UK-set, Regency-era variety. The description of Joanna is right out of the HR toolkit: her hair is chestnut, her face is oval, her eyes are violet, and yet she is not “conventionally beautiful in any way.”

That normally would send me running for the hills, but I was determined to keep reading, and I discovered that Joanna was a lot more interesting than that initial impression led me to believe. And the way she was interesting was even better. Joanna is not a bluestocking, or a campaigner for women’s rights, or a selfless provider of charitable works. She’s a pretty conventional person of average intelligence who wants a comfortable life and openly admits it.

So what makes her interesting? For me, what made her work and what made me keep reading was that she was strong and focused, and she and Alex actually talked to each other. At first they argue a lot, but they are definitely attracted to each other (another unsurprising development). But instead of bicker-kiss-bicker-kiss, they communicate, and they learn from their conversations.

“You see—we always disagree.” She tilted her face up to meet the intensity of his gaze. “I don’t deny that I want you,” she said honestly. “I do not like it, nor do I understand it, but—” She broke off. His hand was on her wrist again, his touch warm, compulsive, drawing her closer. She stepped away, swept by fragile, turbulent emotion. She did not for a moment believe that this man was like her late husband. Alex might be direct and even harsh, but he was never untrustworthy or dishonest. She felt it. She knew it instinctively. He would never physically hurt her. Yet indulging in an affaire with him would be madness. Once their desire burned out there would be nothing left but reproach and dislike.

“I will not do it,” she said. “You think me shallow, and as light with my reputation as many other ladies of the ton, but I am not, and even if I were, you are the very last man I would take as a lover. I would never give myself to a man who has no respect for me.”

Alex’s dark gaze was hooded. “You damn near did.”

“Which is why I do not intend to see you ever again,” Joanna said.

The temperature in the room fell as swiftly as though a door had opened to allow in the coldest winter night.

“You will see plenty of me,” Alex said. “I fully intend to be on that ship.”

“I don’t want you there,” Joanna said, holding fast to her temper.

“Your wishes count for nothing in this,” Alex said. “I cannot in all conscience as Nina’s guardian allow you to wander into danger through your own stupidity.”

Joanna gritted her teeth. “How arrogant you are! I do not need a hero to protect me. I can think of nothing worse.”

Alex realizes (and the reader does too) that Joanna may be conventional but she’s not boring, and that she undervalues herself. His recognition of these qualities makes his inevitable realization (that his friend David was a cad) less of a total transformation and more of a logical outcome of paying attention to what Joanna is saying. For her part, Joanna realizes that Alex’s dislike of her is tied to his need to remember David as a decent person, and although she is understandably angry that he misjudges her, she doesn’t hold it against him when he finally comes around to the truth. By the time the plot contrives to force them into a hasty wedding, both are halfway reconciled to spending their futures together, so it’s not just a marriage of convenience.

The road-romance part of the story takes off after their marriage when they travel to the Arctic village island of Spitsbergen to collect David’s legacy to Joanna, which happens to be his illegitimate child. The cast of characters has become quite large by this point; apparently a lot of them show up in the books that follow Whisper of Scandal, but they seemed to fit in pretty well here. I don’t expect an 1811 voyage to the Arctic to consist of two people, and Cornick does a good job of placing Alex and Joanna within a larger social context.

The journey on the ship and the scenes set in the Arctic are very well done. While there are some liberties taken with the events and locations of the time, most of the storyline and context is well within what we know from the historical record, and it is really fun to see polar exploration depicted in a historical romance novel. Alex’s character is part of this depiction, and he is quite believable as a committed explorer. The journey emphasizes the opposites-attract aspect of their relationship, since Joanna is completely a city girl and Alex loves the outdoors, but it’s not done by demeaning or denigrating either, and Joanna’s appreciation of the beauty around her helps bridge the divide.

I didn’t like the Big Secret that provides the final conflict of the book. I had a feeling something was going to happen, since Alex and Joanna were getting along fairly well by the last third of the book. And as Big Secrets go, it’s one we’ve seen before and it’s handled in a way that didn’t drive me around the bend (I can’t say more without totally spoiling the last part of the book). I think it stood out to me in part because the rest of the book felt so intelligent and un-stereotypical.

In the end, what stuck with me about this novel is that it treated me as an intelligent reader and gave me a smart, thoughtful story. And it did so in a way I really appreciated: rather than writing brilliant characters and making the story smart through them, it took an unusual hero and gave him ordinary flaws, and it paired him with a “normal” heroine who had depths to her character. I was impressed enough that I immediately downloaded the first book in the author’s current series, which is set in Scotland. For me to unhesitatingly download a book with “Laird” in the title is about the highest compliment I can offer as a reader. Grade: B+

~ Sunita


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REVIEW:  Reaper’s Legacy by Joanna Wylde

REVIEW: Reaper’s Legacy by Joanna Wylde

Dear Ms. Wylde,

I read Reaper’s Property  (reviewed here by Jane) last year and, somewhat to my surprise, I liked it very much.  I say somewhat to my surprise, because I wasn’t sure I could buy into the “hero” of a romance novel being a) in a Motorcycle Gang Club and b) being a criminal and c) whether the apparent misogyny would be too much for me.  In the end, I felt it was a kind of “urban fantasy romance”  or fantasy to the “hyper-extreme” -  so far removed from my reality that it may as well have had magic and werewolves and vampires in it.  And, while in real life I don’t find bikies terribly heroic or attractive  or admirable, in some kinds of romance fiction, in this “fantasy” setting, I found them vastly entertaining.   (I read Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley sometime after Reaper’s Property and that really sealed the deal.)  Reaper’s Legacy has therefore been a much anticipated book and I was very happy to read an advance copy of it.

Reaper's Legacy Joanna WyldeI do think Reaper’s Legacy stands alone well and it is not necessary to have read Reaper’s Property to understand it.   I found the latest book to be more tightly written, with the (to my mind) best elements of your writing and your “voice” preserved.  I think this is down to your natural talent, a bit more experience and being blessed by the editing gods.

Reaper’s Legacy opens when 16 year old Sophie Williams is losing her virginity to Zach Barrett in the apartment of his stepbrother (no blood relation), Jesse “Ruger” Gray.  It is not a romantic scene and the sex is only “successful” in so far as Zach gets off and also (because the condom broke), gets Sophie pregnant.  When Ruger comes home unexpectedly, he is angry with Zach for breaking into his apartment and throws them out, but not before copping an eyeful of Sophie’s nether regions.  Fast forward 8 months and Sophie is in labour, Zach is drunk and Ruger rides to the rescue and ends up delivering baby Noah on the side of the road.  Ruger falls in love with Noah from the very first moment and the experience creates a special bond between he and Sophie.

The main part of the story picks up when Noah is 7.  Sophie has got shot of Zach (in circumstances which aren’t made explicitly clear until near the end of the book) and she’s struggling to make ends meet. She lives in a shitty apartment with crappy security and both of her regular babysitters are down with the flu.  Knowing she will lose her waitressing job if she doesn’t go to work, she agrees to let her neighbour look after Noah.  When Noah calls her later that night, terrified of the bad man in the neighbour’s apartment who has had Noah sit on his lap and scared by the movie with naked people on the television.  Sophie leaves work (and her employment) to get to Noah and finds him clinging to the fire escape outside the 4th storey apartment, with her neighbour and her male guest, stoned and drunk and completely oblivious to Noah’s well being.

Noah is a smart little boy and after he tried and was unable to reach Sophie (he left her a voicemail message because Sophie couldn’t hear her phone ringing in the bar and only got the message when she was on a toilet break), he also rang Uncle Ruger.  Uncle Ruger gave him some advice about how to keep safe and then got into his SUV and drove from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho to Seattle, where Noah is.  It is quickly apparent that Ruger is a devoted uncle to Noah and they share a close bond.  It is also apparent there is some history between Sophie and Ruger (and in particular, something which happened 4 years earlier but which we don’t know about for quite a while) which means there is ultra-URST and a level of mistrust and dislike between them.

Ruger brings Horse (the hero from Reaper’s Property) with him and together they go next door to teach the neighbour and her boyfriend a lesson they won’t soon forget.  While Sophie has the urge to kill the neighbour herself for what they did (and didn’t do) to her little boy, she is worried about Ruger’s methods.   He’s fairly unsympathetic.

“Really? You don’t like it? Personally, I don’t like the idea of the next kid getting raped just because he isn’t smart enough to hide on the fire escape,” Ruger said, stepping slowly into her space and backing her toward the wall.

“How ’bout this? You go ahead and feel guilty about being an accomplice, and I’ll go ahead and keep doing your dirty work so you don’t break a fuckin’ nail or something. Then tonight we’ll open a bottle of wine and talk about how today made us feel. Maybe eat some chocolate while we’re at it, then watch The Notebook together. That work for you?”

She hit the wall and he leaned forward, slapping his hands flat on either side of her head. Ruger dropped his face into hers, eyes blazing.

“Shit, Sophie—I think I’m showin’ extreme patience, all things considered. This is not a fuckin’ joke. Noah made it through last night because he stayed awake and alert on that fire escape, not because either of these fucks lifted a finger to help him. They terrorized a little boy and laughed about it. Now it’s their turn. Don’t expect me to feel bad about that. Go. Home.”

Ruger’s methods are… unorthodox but it was difficult to feel too sorry for the couple, in the circumstances.  I think it’s clever the way you show extreme behaviour but in such a way that it becomes more “acceptable” and thus kept this reader on side.

Ruger decides that Noah (and therefore Sophie too) will move back to his place in Coeur D’Alene because it is safer and better and it will give Sophie a chance to get on her feet again.  He is very angry to find that his stepbrother Zach has not been paying child support.  Of course, with Sophie living in Ruger’s house, it doesn’t take long for the unresolved sexual tension to become… resolved.  There are a few “near misses” until the deed is done but they are all smoking hot and a clear demonstration of the chemistry and connection this couple has.

Ruger doesn’t regard himself as a one-woman-man and he’s not looking to settle down.  Sophie is willing to try a relationship but only if Ruger will agree to be faithful.  He says he won’t make promises he’s not sure he can keep – stalemate.  To their credit, they do prioritise Noah at all times and think of what is best for him.

Sophie stands in the place of the reader in some respects in the novel.  She is wary of the Reapers.  She is worried they are dangerous and will be a risk for Noah and herself.  She does not like – at all – that Reaper’s “old ladies” are “property”.  She is no-one’s property but her own.  It is clear that Zach was abusive to Sophie and she has a number of hot buttons around controlling males who think they own her. (Fair enough too.  Even if Zach hadn’t been abusive, many real life women wouldn’t go for this type of guy.  In real life I definitely do not).  And so, Sophie goes on somewhat of a journey through Reaper culture and learns that (in her opinion at least) things aren’t as bad as they initially appear.

I have to say, when Sophie does talk to Ruger about the abuse she suffered at Zach’s hands and how she managed it, I thought she was very brave.  I liked Ruger’s responses too.

There is very little reference to organised criminal activity on the part of the Reapers in this book.  There is some reference to money laundering and stealing – but being as this is from Zach and is to get Sophie her child support, it wasn’t too difficult to turn a blind eye to it.  There was also reference to keeping gangs out of the area and I suspect the Reapers’ methods are less than lawful, but it wasn’t detailed. Again, I think this is clever – because the reader isn’t confronted with overt criminal activity which would ruin the “fantasy”.

There were plenty of references to legitimate businesses and the close bond of brotherhood the Reapers share, that they are willing to die for their brothers and their brothers’ families (and “old ladies” are family).  That they stand for one another. No matter what.  That an old lady wearing a leather vest which says “property of ____” is a badge of honour as well as protection and is akin to the bonds of marriage.  In fact, Ruger at one point explains to Sophie that an old lady wearing her man’s patch is no different (in his eyes) to the common practice of a ‘civilian’ woman taking her husband’s name after marriage.

Like the best of Kristen Ashley’s books, Reaper’s Legacy also has strong female friendships in it.  Sophie’s friend Kimber and old ladies, Dancer, Marie, Maggs and, Picnic’s daughter, Em, all become close and the reader sees what Sophie gets from being a part of their group.  They are fun, loyal and, with the possible exception of Em (who is struggling to identify herself apart from her President-of-the-Idaho-Reapers-father), they don’t take crap from their men.  The men have their secret “Club business” but all the women make it clear that they rule the roost at home.  And, just like in the Kristen Ashley books, the strong female friendships were another huge plus for me.

Sophie struggles with being involved with the Reapers.

“Oh, I’m definitely moving out,” I told him. “Not even you can think this is healthy, Ruger.”

He smiled at me with the eyes of a predator.

“I don’t care if it’s healthy,” he whispered. “Whole damned world’s unhealthy. You think all those people living in giant houses on the lake have happy, pretty, perfect lives? You think those bitches aren’t backstabbing each otherwhile their husbands fuck interns on their lunch breaks?”

I shook my head.

“My friend Kimber’s not like that. Her life’s nice and normal and not crazy at all.”

“Then she’s one in a thousand,” he replied. “Because I swear to you, sometimes the nastiest shit happens behind the prettiest doors, while everyone laughs and smiles and pretends everything’s okay. Here’s the thing about my world. We’re fucked up. We own it. We take care of business and move on. In twenty years those ‘healthy’ people you’re so jealous of will still be backstabbing each other, and their kids will, too.”

Things become dangerous for her when there is trouble between a rival club, the Devil’s Jacks and the Reapers and it is everything Sophie feared.  But, when it counts, they are there for Sophie.

I don’t think it’s spoilerish to say that Ruger realises he IS in fact a one-woman-man, but he has to convince Sophie that being his old lady isn’t a bad thing, that he will be faithful and that the Reapers will look after them both.

I so enjoyed reading this book.  I felt like I was on a wild rollercoaster ride. The build of tension in the story, between the Devils’ Jacks and the Reapers and between Ruger and Sophie, was superb.  The story had moments of laugh-out-loud funny for me and the things which may have made me shy away were either absent, veiled or, presented in such a way as to make them seem not so bad.  (That’s not an endorsement, but I could still see Ruger and Sophie as heroic and root for their HEA is all I’m saying).

Ruger is pushy and controlling but Sophie does stand up for herself.  She draws a line in the sand and will not cross it.  If Ruger can’t be faithful, well that’s a deal breaker.  And for all Ruger’s pushiness and controlling behaviours, he did respect her line in the sand (well, he had a plan to change her mind of course, but in the end, guess who won?).  Ruger is completely loyal to Noah and Sophie and that kind of devotion is attractive to me to read about.  Even though it includes extreme and borderline (and sometimes not-so-borderline) stalker behaviour.

Yes there are problematic things.  It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.  The fact is, the Reapers don’t acknowledge the authority of the ‘civilian’ law. They are criminals.  Their culture is very misogynistic.  Club business is only for the male club members.  Ruger isn’t shy about using physical intimidation to get Sophie to do what he wants her to do.   I acknowledge all those things as being problematic.  I liked Reaper’s Legacy anyway.

Those readers who, like me, enjoyed Reaper’s Property will undoubtedly enjoy Reaper’s Legacy.  It’s a better book, in my opinion but very much in the same vein.  And the next book promises to be another cracker.  I loved the way Sophie pushed back against Ruger and held firm until she got what she wanted.  Even though Ruger was definitely an uber-Alpha, Sophie was no doormat.  And, hidden amongst all the Alpha stuff, Ruger sometimes managed to be very sweet.

“Can I borrow something to wear?” I asked, trying not to yawn. “I’m too tired to go get dry stuff.”

“I’d rather you sleep naked.”

“I’d rather you go fuck yourself, but seeing as that’s not an option, can I borrow something to wear?”

He smiled at me.

“Knock yourself out. Shirts are in the top drawer, underwear in the second one down.”

I left the bathroom and looked around to find his dresser. Sure enough, the top drawer held a variety of T-shirts. I found one with a Reapers symbol on it and pulled it out. Then I moved down to the next drawer. Most of his stuff was black or gray, but a fl ash of pink in the back caught my eye.

What the hell?

I pulled out a pair of silky, pink panties.

“Jesus, Ruger,” I said. “Is there anywhere in this house women don’t leave their lingerie? It’s like a damned Victoria’s Secret in here!”

I turned to him, holding the panties out with two fingers, disgusted. He cocked his head and gave me a strange smile.

“Those are yours, actually,” he said slowly. “You left them behind.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That first night,” he said. “With Zach. You left them in my apartment. Had ’em ever since.”

I froze, and studied at them more closely. It’d been a long time, but they did look familiar. I’d been so sad to lose them, because I’d bought them special . . .

“I can’t decide if that’s just a little bit creepy or really, super creepy,” I said fi nally, glancing over at him. He shrugged, eyes holding mine steady.

“You asked me the other night if wanting you was a new thing,” he said, his face free of mockery for once. “It’s not a new thing, babe. Not a new thing at all.”

Grade: B+



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