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REVIEW:  An American Duchess by Sharon Page

REVIEW: An American Duchess by Sharon Page

An-American-Duchess

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, New York heiress Zoe Gifford longs for the freedoms promised by the Jazz Age. Headstrong and brazen, but bound by her father’s will to marry before she can access his fortune, Zoe arranges for a brief marriage to Sebastian Hazelton, whose aristocratic British family sorely needs a benefactor.

Once in England, her foolproof plan to wed, inherit and divorce proves more complicated than Zoe had anticipated. Nigel Hazelton, Duke of Langford and Sebastian’s austere older brother, is disgraced by the arrangement and looks down upon the raucous young American who has taken up residence at crumbling Brideswell Abbey. Still reeling from the Great War, Nigel is now staging a one-man battle against a rapidly changing world—and the outspoken Zoe represents everything he’s fighting against. When circumstances compel Zoe to marry Nigel rather than Sebastian, she does so for love, he for honor. But with Nigel unwilling to change with the times, Zoe may be forced to choose between her husband and her dreams.

Spoiler (Possible Trigger Warning): Show

Zoe suffers miscarriages and attendant depression

Dear Ms. Page,

Oh, how I wanted to like this book. It’s got the hot setting of the British aristocracy in the 1920s, it’s American heroine meets British hero, it’s duty and love but it turned out to be – for me – guilt, grief and gaiety with a heavy helping of the first two elements.

From opening page, I can see that Zoe is a woman of determination and practicality. She’s all modern and fully aware that it’s only her money that has opened doors for her. But she’s going to get her money from her trust fund and then see to it herself, investing and managing it as she wants. She’s embraced the changes sweeping the world in the post-war era and won’t apologize for it.

Nigel is appalled at her and her American ways. He is old fashioned and is proud to cling to social norms, manners and gentility that seems to have got blown away by the four years of war that have scarred him mentally as well as physically. He’s not some romantic clinging to ideals of married love but he finds the arrangement made between this brash American and his younger brother to be vulgar and in the height of bad manners.

It’s modern vs old world, full speed forward against trying to maintain the standards of a lifetime. Yet even though these two look at the world in very different ways, they’re more alike than they initially think. Both are fiercely devoted to family, determined to see to the welfare of those dependent on them and grudgingly admit to finally seeing the good in the other’s way of thinking. Each also sees below the surface mannerisms the other uses to shield feelings – Nigel pretends to be icy and in control while Zoe rushes into wild society and either shocks or – in the case of Nigel’s older relations – lives down to their horrified expectations of her.

Zoe discovers in Nigel a man who has been raised on not only the word duty but the meaning. He sees to the needs of not only his immediate family and the family stately pile but also the tenants who live there and who would lose their livelihood if he’s forced to sell off estate land. In Zoe Nigel finds a woman who revels in the modern technologies that he saw at work during the war and which he sees the world racing to embrace. She shows him that fast cars and aeroplanes aren’t just things he must endure but things that can set you free and make you feel alive again.

So far, so good.

When I read the blurb, I wondered what event would precipitate the marriage. Well, these two certainly did flirt with propriety enough along the way and participate in so many possible public scandals that it was a wonder they didn’t get caught earlier than they did – tonsil tonguing outside a popular London nightclub, skinny dipping in the estate pond during a massive party attended by all society, public sex on the estate grounds… they all but stripped naked, dyed themselves orange and did backflips through the portrait gallery.

Unfortunately, once the engagement/marriage starts, my problems with the characters and story really began.

Zoe supposed to be so “in charge” and “not to be messed with” yet making her bold rebel statements, she keeps yielding to everyone about almost everything. True she’s doing it from the heart and to help people but in the end, her backbone is a touch bendy for how strong a woman she was initially presented as being. The section wherein engagements are broken and marriage proposals are made is draggy. Zzzzzzz. This is also the point at which the soap opera starts.

Zoe and Nigel just keep racing around the same closed track of their issues and not really getting anywhere for a long, dank, mournful time. This is not happy, light reading here – be forewarned.

Grief and woe abounds. Lots of grief and lots of woe. This is where the trigger warning applies and if it applies to readers, then I would strongly suggest they heed it. OMG – this is a never ending soap opera of angst and woe. Every chapter does a two step forward of slight healing followed by one and a half step back of horrible event. Zoe sinks to the depths of depression over their loss then Nigel goes all “woe is me it’s all my fault” about the war affecting the families of his dead men and how he ought to have saved them all.

Then Zoe treats us to another attempt at defying the restrictions placed on her – though they are really not many – followed by a reason why she must give up her dreams/plans which ends in still more grief. This time though, I totally agree with Nigel. What the hell was she thinking? I wanted to grab a chamber pot and bash her over the head.

By this time I was anticipating some new awfullness that was going to befall Zoe or Nigel, or both of them, in each chapter. It was morbidly fascinating to guess what new disaster would be heaped on them. Instead of continuing to read in hopefulness of them finally starting to get past the PTSD haunting Nigel and the grief felling them both, I frankly just wanted the whole book to be over.

Even when they’re attempting to reconcile they fight and flail at each other. Plus guilt – mustn’t ever forget that. Nigel has finally decided to break out of his shell – and BTW there’s no mention of if he continues to have his PTSD nightmares on the ocean voyage or rail trip – and go to American and get his wife back but he still argues and orders and they’re back to the same old, same old with few pages of the book left. Finally he tells Zoe, “maybe I should do the decent thing and let you go” and I thought – hell yes and put us all out of our misery.

Then we wind things up with some good old Southern California therapy wherein Nigel finally bears his inner scars to Zoe, does some cathartic crying while Zoe holds him close and soothes him followed by very public sex on the hood of a car on a street at night – yep that’s all that’s needed to overcome five years of PTSD. No wait, the guilt is still there even after hours of hawtness. Finally Zoe saves the day in a subplot of Nigel’s duty and guilt and responsibility.

Looking for an angsty historical with hawtness? Look no further. Want to watch two characters torture themselves with angst even up until the very end? It’s right here. Want the confessions to drag until the final page? This is your story. After a beginning that had me hopeful, came the second half that I just wanted to end. B- for the first half and D for the second.

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

REVIEW: The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

B00GEEB578.01.LZZZZZZZ

Dear Ms. Noble,

An egotistical hero doesn’t usually spark my interest. I didn’t need another narcissistic Prince Charming. Seen it all a million times, and my immediate reaction is: Meh. However, the success of an overused archetype is due to an author’s treatment of it. The way you painted Ned in words, you made him vulnerable in his egotism, and that is why it worked.

His friends harbored a veiled resentment for him, believing he was only well-received because of his title. His exasperation at that thought was tangible. He wasn’t naive enough to think that everyone would like him to the same degree if he were lower class, but he was genuinely confident of his appeal as a good friend and person.

“And by the by, I resent the implication that I am nothing more than my title.”

“Now, Ashby, he didn’t say that,” Rhys began, but Turner strangely kept silent.

“Yes he did. He said that life is different for an earl than it is for a secretary. And while that is true, it im­plies that any good thing, any bit of luck I may have had in my life, is incumbent upon the fact that I inherited an earldom. And any lack of happiness Turner suffers from is incumbent upon his recent bad luck. Whereas the reverse is true. He is serious and unsmiling, thus he has bad luck. With his mill, with women, with life. I am in general of a good nature and I have good luck. It has very little to do with my title. It has to do with who I am.”

I could tell he was in for a kick in the pants when he proposed the swap with his secretary. I admit: I am a huge fan of the nobleman-in-disguise trope. From my first favorite, Man of My Dreams by Johanna Lindsey (not a great novel, but cherished in my memories), I have been an absolute sucker for this concept. It gets me almost every time, and it got me here.

Ned is privileged, and knows he is, but he’s not fake. He is a real person (insofar as a fictional man can be called real) who’s very aware he’s afforded attention and luxuries by virtue of his title, and he has the audacity to think he’d do well even without that title.

When his role is reversed with his secretary, people do not treat him well, and the marvelous thing is that he doesn’t get upset with them. He forgives them immediately and shrugs and tries again. He’s so amiable that I found myself charmed by him, very suddenly and surprisingly. Of course, he got his comeuppance on a number of occasions, and acted with blindingly foolish assurance of his own appeal, and he was immediately and repeatedly called out on it. Until then, he never truly comprehended the liberties he could take as a nobleman that no one would dare take as an untitled secretary. It was a rude awakening but he managed it well after admitting how stupid and disrespectful he’d been. The appeal for me was in the fact he was willing to apologize and admit fault. We need more heroes who accept defeat with grace.

I also enjoyed his backstory. Ned didn’t join the world of the nobility until he was nearly a teenager, when his uncle’s heir died. He and his mother lived in neither comfort nor privilege. He hauled water from the well like any normal citizen. It wasn’t something he talked about, really ever, but I think his formative years made a huge impact on his personality. This is why, although he’s admittedly egotistical, he was never insufferable. He was grounded in the reality of his former upbringing. I loved him.

And I loved Phoebe, our heroine, as well. In her youth, she wrote the earl a furious letter, saying in no uncertain terms that he was to blame for her father’s death. It’s an impassioned, pained letter with zero subtlety. A genteel lady with the nerve to damn a nobleman to hell in a personal letter? I’m so there.

But even better, we see her years later, when she’s rid herself of that anger. I could see how she matured and I liked the result. She just wanted to disappear and be unnoticed by the earl. She hadn’t forgiven him, but she no longer wanted to make him suffer for the pride he maintained that inadvertently ruined her father. Thank goodness for heroines who reflect on their actions and who do what’s right for their own mental health from the get-go. The tension of their history is still palpable without any need for a silly vendetta.

At first, she didn’t give this jumped-up secretary a moment’s notice, but he kept coming back. He obviously liked her from the start, and the inevitable happened: she started to like him back, just as I liked him. They fell in love so naturally.

No matter what, his life would have led to this moment. If he had stayed in the village and never been made the old earl’s heir, they would have met here. He would have owned his mother’s cottage, had some sort of profession, and he would have known Phoebe Baker as the governess of the Widcoate children. They would have danced here.

Or, if he had still been the earl, but a better one–one who had caught Mr. Sharp and prevented him from ever meeting her father, they would have met in London, during her season. He and the light-haired girl with dimples and laughing eyes would have danced at Almack’s, or in some other elegant ballroom.

The main antagonist was Mr. Turner. If I met him in real life, I would slap his face. He started as Ned’s best friend and destroyed their friendship because he needed to win the bet, because his entire family’s livelihood was riding on it. Okay, so your whole fictional family depends on the mill, but does that mean you become a complete bastard? Why not just be honest and let Ned know the great significance of the mill in your life, rather than play this silly game and betray the friend who has helped you for years?

Ned’s fatal flaw was that he did not understand how much the mill meant to Mr. Turner. He trusted in him as his friend and faithful secretary, never imagining how far Mr. Turner was willing to go in order to save his family’s mill; how malicious and unethical he would turn. One action of his near the end of the novel upset me so much that I could barely enjoy the lovely subsequent scene with our hero and heroine. I was angry at both you as an author and at Mr. Turner, that swine. But then I reminded myself that it would be okay, that they would love each other sincerely and that there would be a happy ending, and I was able to focus.

There were a number of things that frustrated me about the book: the whodunit villain in the end with flimsy reasons, the ruthless actions of an unlikable antagonist (but then, I suppose he’s supposed to antagonize), and the general way things seemed rushed near the climax. The timing could have been better for many things, with a more paced redemption and reconciliation.

But I really, truly enjoyed this book. I would give it a B except for the fact that I read it all in one go, in a few hours’ time, and that makes it a B+ for me. I couldn’t put it down. I had a lot of fun reading it. I loved the hero and heroine both, especially the hero, who had a lot of room to improve and was just so relentlessly optimistic the whole way through that I couldn’t help but appreciate who he was as a character and person. I’d fall in love with him, too, and he wouldn’t have to be an earl.

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