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Karen Ranney

REVIEW:  A Scandalous Scot by Karen Ranney

REVIEW: A Scandalous Scot by Karen Ranney

Dear Ms. Ranney,

They were a pair, weren’t they? The earl who’d divorced his wife, and the maid who hid her past. Perhaps they deserved each other.

I enjoyed your latest book A Scandalous Scot. It’s a straightforward love story–a Cinderella story, really–between a smart, competent woman and a compassionate, passionate man. The plot made sense, the historical background was interesting, and the supplementary characters were well-fleshed out and added depth to your story. I’ve recently read a spate of books where something–the denouement, the circumstances, and/or the lovers–seemed forced and annoying. Your novel was a pleasant change.

a scandalous scot by karen ranneyIt’s the summer of 1860 in rural Scotland, and the Earl of Denbleigh, after a long unhappy absence, has returned to his childhood home, Ballindair Castle. The Earl, Morgan MacCraig, has been run out of London on a rail of scandal. He, rather than stay married to a woman so unfaithful a friend calls her a “true slut” who “before she’s finished, she’ll have bedded most of London,” divorced his wife, was forced to relinquish his seat in Parliament, and has come home to escape being a “social and political pariah.” Morgan, though he feels his choice was justified, is deeply ashamed to have brought scandal to his family name.

On his first night home, he literally runs into Jean MacDonald, one of the castle’s many maids. She is lurking in the dark, in the Master Suite, hoping to see one of the castle’s famous ghosts. Morgan is irked she’s disrupted his return–he’s tired and cranky–and Jean is mortified to have been caught loitering someplace she’s not supposed to be. She also thinks Morgan’s a bit of an ass–he embarrasses her in front of her aunt, the castle’s housekeeper, as well as the other staff.

Just as Morgan has come to Ballindair to escape a scandal, so has Jean. She and her sister, the gorgeous and slightly evil Catriona, aren’t really MacDonalds. They were born into a relatively privileged life, but then a horrific act on the part of their father plunged them into poverty. Their aunt took them in and put them to work as lowly maids. Catriona loathes their life–she’d rather be a wealthy man’s mistress–but Jean is a make-do sort and finds ways to challenge herself. She tries to be the best maid she can be, to learn something new every day, and to be appreciative of the world around her.

When Catriona decides to seduce the Earl, Jean, trying to save Catriona from disgrace, intercedes, and ends up compromised herself. Morgan, after some thought and encouragement from Jean’s aunt, offers to marry Jean, an offer Jean tries to turn down. Not only does Jean feel she’s not the stuff of countesses, she knows if she marries under a false name, the marriage will be a legal sham. Morgan, though, is drawn to Jean for her quick mind and honest conversation. He insists they marry and, less than a month after she collided with the Earl in the dark, Jean is the Countess of Denbleigh.

I liked Jean. She’s always been considered plain–especially when compared to her gorgeous sister–and she values herself for her honor and her mind. She does whatever she thinks needs to be done–taking care of Ballindair’s dying steward, making sure a wrongly accused maid is treated justly, pushing Morgan to become a better caretaker of his estate–even when doing so is awkward or puts her at risk. She’s a good person in a real way–there is nothing cloying or falsely perfect about her. I enjoyed watching her become more sure of herself as she settled into her role as Countess.

Morgan’s a winner too. When he first comes home, he pays scant attention to his staff or his land. As he tells Jean, when she asks if he sees the people who serve him, he says,

“I try not to…. Sometimes, all those people, set to obey your slightest whim, are oppressive.”

However, as he stays in Scotland, and as he watches how Jean deals with her responsibilities, he begins to shoulder more of his own. In doing so, he  learns  the joys of  a purposeful life. One of my favorite things about this book is the pleasure Jean and Morgan take in working and in tangible accomplishments.

As much as I like Jean and Morgan separately, I liked them even more as a couple. The two spend as much time talking as they do making love (the love scenes in this book are excellent and plentiful) and their conversations are fun to read. Jean is willing to debate almost anything–she’s endearingly (slightly) self-righteous. Their exchanges are well done and often funny. Here, the two, the first time they formally dine together, are arguing over marrying.

“Forgive my tardiness,” he said.

“You can’t marry me,” she said, blurting out the worlds.

……”Good evening to you, too, Jean,” he said, sitting at the head of the table and unfolding his napkin.

“You’re an earl. I’m a maid.”

“Thank you for explaining that,” he said.

….“Have you heard the tale of Cinderella?” he asked.

She shook her head.

Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre,” he said. “’Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,’ written by Charles Perrault nearly two hundred years ago.”

“I don’t speak French,” she said.

“Pity. It’s the tale of a girl who was forced into being a maid by circumstance. She ends up attracting the attention of a prince.”

“Did he marry her?”

“I believe he did, and they lived happily ever after.”

“What rot.”

When Morgan explains the glass slipper part to her, Jean thinks it sounds crazy.

“Didn’t he recognize her? Wouldn’t he have noticed her face? Or was he always staring at her feet?”…. “I doubt they lived happily ever after,” she said. “If he couldn’t remember what she looked like.”

Not much happens in this story–this is not a book full of plot twists, big misunderstandings, or histrionics. Morgan and Jean take care of the castle, its staff and land. Jean must figure out how to tell Morgan the truth about her past. The two slowly fall in love. Catriona and Morgan’s slimy friend Andrew try to derail that process but they do so in petty and fairly unimportant ways. A Scandalous Scot is a low-key story–I liked that about it, but, at the same time, it makes the novel, once finished, fairly forgettable.

It’s tough to grade historicals. So many of them suck–mistorical and otherwise. At the same time, there are stellar writers out there–Cecilia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, to name a few–whose works often take my breath away. This book, while pleasant and well-done, isn’t a knock-out. So, despite my enjoyment of its straight-forward, nicely told love story, I’m giving it a B-.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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REVIEW:  A Highland Duchess by Karen Ranney

REVIEW: A Highland Duchess by Karen Ranney

Dear Ms. Ranney:

Sometimes good prose can transcend a bad plot or trite circumstances but not always and not in the case of A Highland Duchess.   While I’ve enjoyed Ranney writing in the past and have spent my wallet silly on the recently released backlist titles, the strained plot contrivances and the heavy handedness in character portrayal rendered the reading of this book a frustration

A Highland Duchess by Karen RanneyThe Duchess of Herridge suffered a terrible, degrading marriage to Anthony, Duke of Herridge, for four years. She’s been widowed for 18 months and working hard to act with propriety believing that a life of certitude will be her entree back into society.   She’s known as the Ice Queen, a epithet whose full meaning isn’t explained until over half of the book is over.

Ian, Earl of Buchane, Laird of Trelawny, a scientist, sneaks into Emma’s room one night and demands the return of the Tulloch mirror.   This mirror is almost a MacGuffin in the story as the mirror’s importances waxes and wanes with the need for conflict and tension. (and in reading the wikipedia article, it is a MacGuffin because it is important in the very beginning and wanes in importance as the story proceeds, to be nearly forgotten in the end).

In the opening of the book, the mirror must be wildly important that an EARL! an SCIENTIST! breaks into the Duchess’ home to steal it.   When she refuses to give it to him, he abducts her.   Later, it is of no import when Emma is to be returned to her home.   Quote from the book:

“It’s time for you to go home,” he said.

“And the mirror?”

“It no longer matters, Emma.”

I never knew that one of the core competencies of a scientist was breaking and entering.   Yes, granted he abducted Emma because he was on the verge of being discovered in her bedroom but it’s obviously just a contrivance to get them to his home in London where they will be isolated and ready for the sexy times.

All we know of Emma, initially, is that she was sorely used by her husband, probably in some horrible degrading acts, that she feared and loathed him. Yet, despite her only intimate contact with a man being one of horror and pain and degradation, when she is abducted from her home by a man demanding a certain mirror, she feels possible attraction.   Then, once a prisoner in his home, she is spilling some of the most intimate details of her marriage to this stranger and  ends up having wild, passionate sex with him.

This is a technique used over and over again and I don’t really understand it.   Being abducted by another man somehow stirs the passions of a sexually abused woman?   How am I supposed to believe this?

There are more unbelievable things I am expected to just swallow.   At one point, Emma thinks to herself that a character did something that she couldn’t believe, thinking that the action was “one of those facts she could not quite grasp” and all I could think of was, me neither sister.

I also couldn’t really grasp the concept of Ian as an honorable man.   In the beginning, Ian admits he is betrothed yet he has no problem seducing Emma and Emma, who has lived with the most licentious beings of all time and seen the most base activities and who is trying to be a pattern of rectitude gives no thought to sexy times with someone else’s betrothed.   She even has the gall to refer to his honor and how different he was from her dead, dastardly husband.

AND! God, there were what seemed to be five thousand explicit contrasts drawn between Ian and Anthony.   Ian was good, Anthony was bad. I figured that out from the very beginning, I didn’t need the map drawn in red ink with exclamation points at every tiny curve in the map.   Ian was springtime and Anthony was moldy undergrowth.   Ian was warm puppies.   Anthony was a diseased roach.   Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.   But Ian wasn’t really that honorable of a character.   First, he cheats on his betrothed.   Then when he is free to love Emma but Emma isn’t free to love him, he keeps pressing her and pressing her in spite of her desire to be respectable.

Then there were the inevitable and unfortunate plays on the Ice Queen appellation.

  • Except now, here, in this place, in this darkened garden, with this man standing too close, she suspected that the Ice Queen might be melting inside.
  • The Ice Queen was not feeling appreciably frosty.
  • The Ice Queen was melting.
  • The Ice Queen had frozen solid.

I really, really hated the Ice Queen bit.   I didn’t like how it was revealed so late.   I didn’t like what it actually represented.   I didn’t really understand why Emma worried so much about acceptance when she had seen so many people in society engage in embarrassing activities that they would not want made public.   She held a lot of power over these people, yet was written as if she had no power, as if she were the supplicant.   It was strange and felt very unauthentic.

The last third of the book gripped me as I tried to set aside the silliness that preceded it.   Taken at face value, the forbidden love between Ian and Emma was moving, especially toward the end.   But most of the book was either awkwardly constructed or done with such a heavy hand that I could not lose myself in the book.   D

Best regards,

Jane