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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:  Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

REVIEW: Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

Night-of-a-Thousand-Stars

On the verge of a stilted life as an aristocrat’s wife, Poppy Hammond does the only sensible thing—she flees the chapel in her wedding gown. Assisted by the handsome curate who calls himself Sebastian Cantrip, she spirits away to her estranged father’s quiet country village, pursued by the family she left in uproar. But when the dust of her broken engagement settles and Sebastian disappears under mysterious circumstances, Poppy discovers there is more to her hero than it seems.

With only her feisty lady’s maid for company, Poppy secures employment and travels incognita—east across the seas, chasing a hunch and the whisper of clues. Danger abounds beneath the canopies of the silken city, and Poppy finds herself in the perilous sights of those who will stop at nothing to recover a fabled ancient treasure. Torn between allegiance to her kindly employer and a dashing, shadowy figure, Poppy will risk it all as she attempts to unravel a much larger plan—one that stretches to the very heart of the British government, and one that could endanger everything, and everyone, that she holds dear.

Dear Ms. Raybourn,

I seem to have a “thing” for brides on the run. Perhaps it’s a leftover from one of my guilty pleasure movies “Smokey and the Bandit,” but regardless it seems to be like ringing a dinner bell for me. The blurb might make one think Poppy is a scatterbrained nitwit but it’s soon obvious that family pressure pushed her into the engagement while her common sense that the marriage would never work out got her out. After all, in this age of “divorce is possible but still scandalous in upper class society” pulling the escape ripcord before the vows makes more sense. And since her own parents went through a divorce, I can see where she’d be skittish.

Who is Masterman? There’s obviously more than meets the eye with Poppy’s masterful lady’s maid. But then it’s pretty obvious that there’s more than meets the eye about a lot of these characters. Some surprised me while others didn’t at all given the clues and vibes about them. That was part of the fun of the story – getting to see if I guessed correctly.

Fans of the Lady Julia series will be happy about Poppy’s family connections though it is a bit sad to see how her father’s marriage turned out. The book is also slightly tied in with “Spear” as well though I think – I hope – that this will be expanded on in a future book. There are enough “deliberately left loose” ends for quite a few more stories in this world.

Poppy is definitely an upper-class Englishwoman and she acts as I would expect one to. The East is mysterious and unknown to her so she buys into some of the stereotypes but at least she’s aware she’s doing it. Is she showing her privilege? Yes but again, with no previous exposure to the countries, customs or people it would seem strange to me if she didn’t. Some of the people around her are more experienced and it’s obvious that many of them love the place and people. Poppy is more than open to learning the beauty that is to be found here as well as seeing the reality of the political turmoil that is roiling just under the surface.

I have meant to read the previous book to this, “City of Jasmine” though after a certain character gets introduced and explains his relationship to Sebastian, I already know the details of that story. It’s right about this time that the book shifts into gear for me. Up til then, it was a lot of setting up the characters, the place, the reasons why Poppy heads out on a lark to find Sebastian. I was also unsure exactly who would be the hero as there’s a plethora of men who enter Poppy’s life.

Once Our Hero arrives back in the story, it’s clear who Poppy will end up with even without the murder. I love the way that the alpha/beta thing gets played with a little. Just which is Sebastian? He can shift depending on what he’s up to being both a quoter of poetry and a man of action when the situation demands. He’s got a realistic grasp on the situation there and what you must be ready to do if you wish to survive.

The opening scene of the book is straight out of a screwball comedy. I love the way he and Poppy can snark at and tease each other. They both just sound so British in how they can enjoy taking the piss out of each other. However the comedy can become a mystery and then a thriller at the drop of a hat before twisting back to comedy again. One minute I’m on the edge of my seat as guns are leveled and shots taken then I’m laughing again as Sebastian deadpans his way through the tight spot.

With the page count dwindling, I did wonder how they’d escape from their captors and if they’d find the you-know-what. It all happened so neatly that I didn’t see it coming until Poppy had proved herself in the field – I loved that she took an active part in saving them – and the cavalry had arrived. But then, things sort of slipped into a lower gear and a lot of explanation occurred that slowed things down to a crawl. I was on an emotional high and giddy at the way Sebastian and Poppy survived only to get bogged down in a Human Resources meeting. It does make sense to me that Poppy needs to think through what she’s just been through but this part got draggy and she seemed to lose some of her agency.

The book does end on a higher note. You’ve left some pieces to be picked up and loose ends to knit into another story. While I don’t doubt that Poppy and Sebastian might pop up at a later time, their story here is complete. I also adore how Poppy turns the tables on Sebastian and regains a bit of control that I’d felt she lost. I had a blast dipping into a 1920s time frame that didn’t involve the usual Downton Abbey plot and that took advantage of the fascinating political situation in the Middle East. I only hope that future books will return here and mine it and the characters even more. B

~Jayne

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