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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:  Into the Storm (Signal Bend #3) by Susan Fanetti

REVIEW: Into the Storm (Signal Bend #3) by Susan Fanetti

ITS

Dear Ms. Fanetti:

I read and really enjoyed the first in the Signal Bend series, Move the Sun. The second entry, Behold the Stars, which Jane reviewed, I could barely finish, it was so violent. So I bought this book with some trepidation, but with the hope that your voice, which worked so well for me in Move the Sun, would work again for me. I was pleased to find that for the most part, this was the case.

Signal Bend, IN is in recovery from a war. The Night Horde MC, which runs the town, took on a drug kingpin in the last book and won, but not without horrifying collateral damage to the town and even more, to the townsfolk. Showdown Ryan suffered some of the worst losses. His oldest daughter, Daisy, was killed and his wife packed up their two younger girls and took off. Showdown takes all of the blame for the losses. He knows that as the #2 in the Night Horde, his family was a target and they paid the ultimate price for it. He is empty, he is barely putting one foot in front of the other and more than once has considered ending it all. He can’t bear to go back to the home where his family was attacked, and has been existing at the Night Horde’s keep.

Shannon Bannerman has been hired to run the Keller Bed and Breakfast, a new venture owned by the President of the Night Horde’s wife (and protagonist in books 1 & 2), Lilli. Shannon came to Signal Bend from the big city, which makes her a curiosity for the people of Signal Bend. She is extremely over qualified for the job, but also wants it desperately. It seems clear to the reader from the start that she is running from something. Shannon is very attracted to Showdown, but knows his story. She knows that it’s incredibly unlikely that he’d ever have any interest in here. Despite that, when the opportunity presents itself, Shannon lets Showdown know she’s attracted.

“What is your problem?”

At Shannon’s sharp question he turned to see her standing there, holding her arms across her body against the chill. The stance made her cleavage even more distracting.

“What?” He tossed his butt to the ground.

She took a couple of steps closer. He could reach out and touch her if he wanted, run his finger down the cleft between her breasts. He clenched his fists.

“You have to know I’m interested. You act like you have some kind of claim or responsibility or I don’t know what. But then you ignore me – or you don’t, and you say what you said in there. What the hell is your problem?”

“No problem. Just not interested.”

Her brow creased at that, and her eyes narrowed. Then she surprised the shit out of him by taking the last step between them and grabbing his face in her hands. She leaned in and kissed him, her lips silky on his, her mouth open. She tasted of tequila. He felt her tongue tracing his lower lip. He hadn’t had a woman’s mouth – her tongue!- on his mouth in…Christ, five years? Since Holly would even let him kiss her like this? His cock turned to cast iron, heavy and hard, and it was all he could do not to grab her. But he didn’t. He didn’t grab her, or kiss her back. He sat there feeling shocked and tormented.

When she pulled away, she searched his eyes for a moment. Then, with a sad little twitch of her lip, she nodded. “Okay. Sorry.” She turned and went back into the clubhouse. – Kindle location 1222

Of course, he’s interested. And soon after, he makes a move. Showdown and Shannon’s love story develops at a very slow pace. He thinks he’s emotionally dead, but she offers herself to him, and the more he knows of her, the more not just his libido, but his emotional self awakens. He begins to see that he has things to live for.

There are things that I really enjoyed about this story. I thought that Showdown’s emotional growth, from angry, emotionally unavailable man to one who is able to love was credible. Given that I’d gotten to know him in the previous two books and certainly, read the horror of the last book, I was glad to see him find some happiness. Shannon was a bit harder for me to get a bead on. She has a secret, and is technically running, although you never made me invest in what she was running from. I think because you delayed too long in delivering the backstory on her. Her conflict seemed manufactured because it arrived so late in the story and you’d built little to no foundation for it. So I wasn’t invested at all in that aspect of the story’s resolution.

That being said, I read the book in one sitting, and enjoyed getting to see the characters in a situation that was much less horrifying than book 2. As in the previous books, the sex scenes are plentiful and hot. And in the end, I was glad for having spent time reading the book. My hope in reviewing this book is that those who were put off by the extremity of the last book will give your work another chance. Because I felt like this story had potential and delivered on a good portion of it. I’d definitely read more from you. Final grade: B-/C+

Kind regards,

Kati

 

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