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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:  Wild Ones by Kristine Wyllys

REVIEW: Wild Ones by Kristine Wyllys

Wild Ones Kristine Wyllys

Dear Ms. Wyllys:

When MinnChica from The Bookpushers recommended this book to me, I admit a lot of reluctance. She said it was dark and gritty. Most of the dark and gritty books I’ve read lately have featured heroes who are criminals and into humiliating the heroine and I just was not up for that. Fortunately this book was none of those things but it was dark, gritty, and different.

Bri Martin runs away from home during her senior year when her alcoholic father mistakes Bri for her prostitute mother and makes a pass. Maybe if Bri’s older brother had stuck around, but Bri had been left alone to defend herself–something she simultaneously resents and understands. Five years later, Bri is serving drinks in a basement bar called Duke’s, a fake speakeasy that is described as a “lighthouse in the middle of the darkness.”

“The bar was a lighthouse in the middle of the darkness, shining like a beacon of hope and sweet promises. The lights stayed on above the bartenders for practical purposes—no one would appreciate a watered-down Long Island—but the effect was still a little romantic, in a drunken, broken kind of way. It was fitting, symbolic even. Because that was the kind of people that tended to frequent Duke’s. Broken drunks”

Into Duke comes Luke Turner whom Bri mentally names “Dark and Brooding”. There’s a connection between the two of them that she’s unsure about but later when Bri is mugged and Turner saves her, she recognizes the connection as lust. Initially Bri tries to keep it to lust only particularly when Luke’s profession is revealed. He’s a boxer training for the legit circuit but paying off debts by fighting illegally and providing muscle for a local criminal person, Bri’s boss and owner of Duke’s. Bri’s abusive father was the same–a boxer and when she goes to Luke’s first fight, she’s assailed with the memory of what it felt like when she sat in chairs like this squished between her mother and Christian, her feet never quite touching the ground. She’s full of conflicting emotions–caught up in the adrenaline of the fight but hating it as well.

There’s a certain twenties gangster feel to the story, particularly with the owner of Duke’s and Bri’s all smart mouth, high heels, and low simmering anger. She’s got a lot to be angry about given her upbringing and she’s challenging Luke at every juncture. He doesn’t hesitate in giving back in terms of verbal assaults either. Neither of them are probably g0ing to win partner of the year, but it’s easy to see how crazy they are for each other.

Brie is afraid of becoming her mother which is what she’s sure will happen if she allows Luke to be a permanent part of her life. Many of the intimate encounters between Brie and Luke stem from an angry passion. They fight (almost part of their foreplay) and then crash into each other. (This was actually a description used three times and that was probably two times too many) The energy of the story was crackling and I was engaged on every page. Even the love scenes had a certain grittiness to them, the language used different than others in some way even though the words were similar.

“He slammed me down hard and I was soaring, bowing back into an almost unnatural shape, free-falling and unable to breathe. He was still pounding into me, or maybe pounding me onto him, but it was blurry through the flames licking me, burrowing into my skin and igniting my bones. When I started to come down, he angled his hips, hitting a spot deep inside me that had me hissing and spitting like a savage cat.”

The story is told through Brie’s point of view but you get plenty of Luke. He’s incredibly possessive but Brie’s such a strong character that it is well balanced. The descriptions were so rich that I felt like I could visualize the story, as if it were a movie.

Now for the triggers. In the book, Brie is the subject of physical (not sexual) violence more than once. That might be problematic for readers. She hits Luke (which is about as successful as hitting a brick wall) and the action probably turns Luke on more than anything.

Originally I was going to give this book a B because I felt that it was short and could have used another chapter but in the end I didn’t know if that was fair. What I read was B+ worthy.

Best regards,


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