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REVIEW:  Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney

REVIEW: Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney

Dear Ms. Putney,

I was a big fan of your books in the 1990s. They came along at a time when I had not read anything like them. If the characters made mistakes or committed wrongs, your books actually examined the of the characters’ motives for doing so in some depth. And your characters actually had spiritual lives, often in conflict with a troubled conscience. Concepts like honor mattered to them. Your side characters could be Jewish, gypsy, or gay, yet never the villains in the story. And sometimes even your main characters belonged to minority groups.

Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo PutneyUnderstand, I came to historical romance in the 1980s via the American single title blockbuster books, at a time when they were quite different from today’s romances. The heroes of many of those 1980s books just took what they wanted, and didn’t spend much time agonizing about wrong and right. The heroines embodied feisty. While those books were filled with adventures in exciting locales, and had some qualities I still miss, your books, when I discovered them, were so different from the pack that they were a breath of fresh air.

The Fallen Angels series, while perhaps not the very first series about a group of men who went to Eton together and earned a nickname for their closeness there, was certainly one of the first, and without a doubt the first I read. I remember the books being prominently displayed in bookstores at a time when most historical were still standalone, so I’d venture to guess that for good or ill, the Fallen Angels’ success played a part in setting the series trend.

I was an avid reader of your books at the time and eagerly awaited each release (This changed for me somewhere around the time you switched to writing contemporaries). I remember reading Thunder and Roses, the first Fallen Angels book, when it was released, and while it wasn’t among my most favorite of your books, I think I would have graded it a B or B+ at that time.

When I heard that the series was being reissued in electronic editions, I dug out my old paperback (yes, I still have it – I hate to separate related books from one another) and decided it might be fun to revisit this book in a review. I wanted to see how the book held up. Unhappily, the answer (for me at least) is not well.

Thunder and Roses begins with a prologue in which a gypsy woman delivers her son to his grandfather, the Earl of Aberdare. Marta’s motives for handing her son over to the earl aren’t revealed until late in the book, but Nikki, Marta’s son, is devastated and anguished by his mother’s abandonment, and it is clear the earl is perturbed by his grandson’s dark skin. Marta was legally married to Kenrick, the earl’s son, so the earl is forced to accept a gypsy as his heir.

Flash forward twenty-three years, and Nicholas Davies is now the Earl of Aberdare. Rumors have it that “the Demon Earl” seduced his grandfather’s much younger wife, bringing about the previous earl’s death, and then capped off the crimes by murdering his own wife. But Clare Morgan still goes to confront Nicholas about failing in his responsibilities to the villagers on his Welsh estate.

Clare is a schoolteacher as well as the daughter of the deceased Methodist Reverend Morgan, and is therefore respected in the local village of Penreith. Nicholas has just returned from four years abroad. He is drunk and wants nothing more than to be rid of Clare when she shows up at his home and insists that the dearth of jobs and the dangerous conditions at the coal mine in Penreith are forcing the villagers to risk their lives and that since Nicholas owns both a slate quarry and the land on which the mine is located, he must do something about it.

To get rid of Clare, Nicholas proposes a trade –he’ll help the villagers only if she’ll sacrifice her reputation to the cause.

To be clear, Nicholas is not asking Clare for sex. He merely wants her to move in with him so that everyone will think they are having sex. If Clare, Reverend Morgan’s daughter, is willing to destroy her precious reputation to save the same villagers who will condemn her, she will enlist his help. Otherwise, it’s a no go.

Oh, and there’s also the matter of a little side bet about whether Nicholas can actually succeed in seducing Clare during the time she’s in residence at his home. To that end, Clare must allow him a kiss a day. He will not go beyond that without her consent.

This being a romance novel, Clare agrees rather than telling Nicholas to go to hell. Nicholas, who mostly wanted her to go away, is instead obliged to check out the quarry and visit the mine. Clare takes on the redecorating of his house and discovers that a portrait of his late wife infuriates Nicholas.

Eventually the two travel to London where Clare gets a new wardrobe and Nicholas introduces her to his other “Fallen Angel” friends, Lucien and Rafe. A fourth friend, Michael, owns the mine on Nicholas’s Land, but Lucien warns Nicholas that while he was traveling, Michael conceived a hatred for him for unknown reasons.

While Clare and Nicholas await an opportunity to approach Michael about the mine, their daily kisses grow more passionate. But though Nicholas thinks that being “ruined” could only be a good thing for Clare, Clare vehemently disagrees. Since she’s never felt a deep spiritual connection to God, she feels she’s a fraud both as a Methodist and as the reverend’s daughter. Nicholas’s kisses amplify that feeling and therefore Clare both looks forward to them and dreads them.

I had a number of problems with Thunder and Roses this time around, but I’ll start with the nature of Clare’s conflict. I have no problem, at least in principle, with a heroine whose religious beliefs prevent her from sleeping with the hero. That was the case with the heroine of your medieval romance, Uncommon Vows, and it worked for me in that novel. But in that book, Meriel was deeply devout and had almost become a nun as a teen. She was also held captive by the hero who wanted her to agree to become his mistress. So she had very strong reasons to refuse.

With Clare, the religion vs. premarital sex conflict did not work nearly as well for me, and here’s why: Clare’s fears focused on her reputation and what others thought of her and it was in this context that she seemed to find sex sinful. But she couched her objections in terms of religion and spirituality.

As events in the book later proved, her experience of spirituality was in no way harmed by sex; the real issue was what others thought of her. I think I would have had more sympathy for Clare if she had called a spade a spade and just admitted that it was her reputation and her standing in the community that mattered to her most, not the state of her soul.

Moving on to Nicholas. I think I was supposed to find Nicholas a charming rogue, but I found him pretty off-putting. First, there was his hypocrisy. He goes on about how he doesn’t force women, but he insists on the daily kiss a number of times when Clare is reluctant. He also touches her in casual ways early on in their relationship when he knows she’s not entirely comfortable with it.

Second, Nicholas also insists that losing her reputation would be the best thing in the world for Clare. Dude, if she cares about her reputation, and you really want the best thing in the world for her, then get a clue: destroying her reputation isn’t it.

Third, there’s the fact that even after Nicholas realizes conditions at the Penreith mine are horrendously dangerous, he threatens to withdraw his support from that cause when Clare tries to leave him. That’s right – he doesn’t force women, but a bunch of villagers will have to die unless Clare stays at his side and puts up with his kisses.

Okay, yeah, Clare is turned on by these kisses, and obviously so is Nicholas. Maybe he’s even falling for her. But threatening to endanger the lives of the miners, which include children, in order to have this chick is not cool.

But here’s my most important point: I think I might have been fine with all of the above had Nicholas been portrayed as a morally ambiguous character. If he’d owned up to his dark side, the way the hero of Uncommon Vows does. Sadly, that doesn’t happen here. A couple of people chide Nicholas for what he’s doing to Clare but Nicholas himself doesn’t seem to realize what a jerk he’s being.

Moreover, Nicholas is continuously referred to as charming. He has peacocks and penguins and a sad life story about all the people who betrayed him, and all that is somehow supposed to make him a nice guy even when he’s being selfish, childish, and obnoxious.

The book does have some good points – interesting details about mining conditions, a sexy game of strip billiards, and a nice suspense sequence involving fire. I appreciated that Nicholas was frequently described as dark skinned (even now the historical romance genre is too white), and liked side characters like Clare’s friends Owen and Marged. And when the conflict between Nicholas and Clare came to a head, it finally got compelling.

Other aspects I felt less keen on. The pacing of the story felt slow, though that may be partly because I’d read the book before and knew where the story was going. The language was occasionally pleasing but occasionally anachronistic. The gypsy side characters were portrayed stereotypically, but at least that they were also portrayed as a safe harbor for Nicholas. I mildly liked the resolution of Michael and Nicholas’s relationship, but hated what came between them in the first place.

[spoiler](Nicholas’ dead wife, Caroline read like a stock villainess and in that regard, the book reminded me of those 1980s books in which so the heroes despised all girls because of one bad experience with love. Thankfully, Nicholas wasn’t a misogynist, but I still found the absence of all redeeming qualities in Caroline deeply problematic.)[/spoiler]

On the whole, a good part of Thunder and Roses frustrated me, and I was a little surprised that I managed to finish it. I feel like I am slaughtering a sacred cow here, since I know how beloved the books in this series were for many readers, myself included. It feels churlish to write this after the many, many hours of reading pleasure I have received through your books in my years of reading, but as a reviewer, I have to be honest, and the truth is that while my 1993 self enjoyed this book, my 2012 self found it dissatisfying. D

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Blame it on Bath by Caroline  Linden

REVIEW: Blame it on Bath by Caroline Linden

Dear Ms. Linden:

Before I get too far into this review, I want to say right up front that I found Blame it on Bath quite likeable. I do so because the series that includes this book – The Truth about the Duke – is based on a legal issue that, even to my limited knowledge, seems kind of squirrely. That did not ruin my enjoyment of the book, but for those who require scrupulous historical realism, this series might be a challenge.

Blame it on Bath by Caroline  LindenCaptain Gerard De Lacey, the youngest of the Duke of Durham’s three sons, has always respected his father and the care with which he raised his sons after his wife’s death left him with three small boys and a guilty conscience. The source of the guilt was not revealed until the duke lingered near death, at which point he confesses that he was married as a very young man – before he took his title – and separated from this woman without divorcing before he married the duchess. And while this secret has remained unearthed for more than 60 years, in the months before the duke died he was receiving letters from a supposed blackmailer, who, strangely, demanded money to keep quiet but never actually tried to collect it.

Thanks to middle son Edward’s insistence that they confide in his then-fiancée, who promptly broke off the engagement and feed the gossip papers her story, the “Durham Dilemma” has imperiled the inheritance and the passing of the title to the eldest son, Charles (apparently there is a vile distant cousin who would inherit should the sons be declared illegitimate). And since Gerard does not have the patience to wait on the work of the solicitors (I’m not even going to explain this bit, but my understanding after asking a gazillion questions of people much more educated about the historical context of the novel is that there are numerous problems with this whole set up), he decides to pursue the alleged blackmailer himself in the hopes of disproving whatever claim this person might have. He also decides to find a rich woman to marry, in the event that he has to survive on a thousand pounds a year for the foreseeable future.

Katherine Howe has spent nearly a year in mourning for her husband, although it’s less out of love and more out of a desperate attempt to postpone what seems an inevitable marriage to his younger, handsomer, but humorlessly devout nephew, Lucien Howe. A relatively plain woman of thirty, Katherine does have one substantial asset: an inheritance of more than a hundred thousand pounds that her father left to her outright. Katherine’s late husband borrowed a large portion of money from her father, with the Howe estate as collateral, and because he died before Katherine’s father, which means that Lucien, who has inherited the estate, must repay the loan soon or lose the estate. His own lack of financial plentitude means that marriage to Katherine would bring him the greatest profit.

Katherine is no romantic when it comes to marriage, but the thought of marrying the dour and dominating Lucien is more than she can stand. Her mother, a great beauty who is thrilled at the idea of marrying her daughter off to such a handsome young man, is pushing hard for the marriage, as well. But neither knows of the youthful crush Katherine has carried for a young army captain who once showed her a relatively small kindness that represented a level of solicitous concern Katherine had never really known in her life. And years later, when she finds out that the very same captain is now in danger of losing everything he has been raised to expect and work toward, she sees her only chance of escaping the life her family is planning for her.

Gerard has no memory of Katherine, but when she covertly approaches him in the middle of the night at an inn outside of London, he is both surprised and intrigued by her proposition: a marriage of convenience that would, Katherine insists, solve both of their dilemmas. Gerard does not mind that Katherine is not a great beauty, hoping that perhaps she will be a good wife in other ways, and the same chivalrous concern that made him do that kindness for her all those years ago impels him toward seriously considering her proposal, not just for his own sake, but for hers, as well.

So here’s the thing: even as I’m typing that I can see how crazy it sounds. Why would a handsome young man (two years younger than his bride!) who has not yet lost anything marry a relatively plain woman he doesn’t even know? And the book does not, at least for me, manage to make his choice particularly rational, although I was glad to see that Gerard investigates Katherine’s family history to make sure she’s not trying to bamboozle him. I had to take a relatively big leap of faith here, especially since Gerard’s notion of marriage is that it’s for life and that fidelity is a reasonable expectation for both of them unless they truly don’t suit. So why was I willing to take this leap, especially on the heels of the squirrely legitimacy scandal? I think it’s because – in addition to marriage of convenience being one of my favorite devices — I sensed that both characters were honorable and likeable, and I was curious to see how their relationship would play out.

And, as I said at the very beginning of the review, I liked this part of the book quite a bit. First of all, both Gerard and Katherine are responsible adults who believe in personal accountability and understand consequences. Katherine, whose mother is incredibly shallow and vain and whose husband was an irresponsible, inattentive spendthrift, is quiet and serious, and uncertain of Gerard, who reacts to Katherine’s restraint with the fervent hope that still waters run deep, so to speak. When he surprises her with a kiss to seal their bargain, he senses that she’s not very sexually experienced and yet she seems open to the experience. Whatever Katherine’s expectations may be (and she fools herself a little on this point), Gerard is basically hoping for a woman who will be a good mother to his children and an enthusiastic companion in bed. However, Gerard also has his investigative mission to attend to, and as soon as he and Katherine are married, he needs to break the news to her family and get both of them out of London and on their way to Bath.

You would think, given the dramatic context of the marriage and the Durham Dilemma, that Katherine and Gerard’s relationship would be fueled by a relatively high level of drama. That it’s not is probably one of the reasons I liked it so much. What plagues these two is primarily a function of their lack of acquaintance. Katherine, despite the fact that she has been married before, has not had the chance to be sexually expressive — or expressive in any way, really, and therefore she is unsure of what Gerard expects of her. Gerard, who is not used to women being wary of him, sees Katherine as afraid, which makes him hang back a little, as he tries to puzzle her out.

He twisted in his chair to regard her with mild surprise. That rumpled wave of hair fell over his brow again. “We shall have to get to know each other, Kate. You’re always so nervous when I look at you.”

“I’m sorry.” Unconsciously she straightened, smoothing her expression.

He sighed. “There’s no need for that. Don’t shy away from me.”

Katherine didn’t know what to do. “I’m not afraid of you,” she insisted. “Do you think I would have proposed what I did if I feared you? No, I told you I esteem you very highly—”

“There’s a vast gulf between esteem and affection.”

Then, when she sees him arm-in-arm in town with the sister of a friend and fellow army officer, she naturally assumes he has a mistress, as her first husband did. And when Gerard doesn’t automatically open up to her about his investigative mission in Bath, Katherine gets frustrated, which in turn baffles and frustrates Gerard:

Katherine glanced at him. He looked tired but on edge. “Perhaps I can help,” she offered.

“Oh?” One corner of his mouth still curled. “I’m sure you can. Come here, m’lady.”

“No, truly.” She stayed in her chair even when he put out one hand to her. “If you tell me what you’re trying to do, I might be able to help in some small way.”

He dropped his hand. “I don’t think you can.”

She bit her lower lip in frustration. He was growing annoyed, when she was only trying to understand and help. “I don’t want to pry. Different people see things different ways. I feel unable to offer even sympathy and support since I don’t know what you’re trying to do.” “Does it matter?” He cocked his head. “Does one need to know all before offering sympathy and support?”

“It would be nice if you talked to me!” she exclaimed. “You have my sympathy, you have my support, and I have nothing from you!”

His eyebrows shot up at this outburst. Katherine felt her face flush deep, burning red as she realized how much she’d lost her temper. “Nothing?” he asked in a dangerous voice.

She looked at his expression, and the flush spread across the rest of her body. “Well, not—not nothing,” she stammered. “But . . . we don’t talk of anything.

. . .

He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Kate, I haven’t the patience for puzzles now. What do you want?”

I want you to take an interest in me, she thought.

How could one ask for that? “I want to be a good wife,” she said softly.

“Excellent. Come upstairs and show me.”

What a grand joke on her. She had hoped he would warm to her physically once they were acquainted and familiar with each other. Instead he took her to bed and made sweet, wicked love to her without appearing to care to be acquainted at all. She didn’t know how to respond to that. On one level she was deliriously happy with her marriage, but on another, she felt more and more distressed.

For me there was a real sense of relief in reading about two people who wanted to do right by each other but did not completely know how. Katherine soon understands that what she really wants from Gerard is something she might never get, while Gerard is so happy to get what he does from Katherine that he does not think more deeply about his own feelings, or hers, for that matter. She needs to learn how to communicate her emotions more directly, while Gerard needs to get more in touch with his, and that interdependent process creates some friction between them, not all of which kindles desire. The more deeply Katherine falls for Gerard the more embarrassed she becomes by her feelings, while Gerard, who has always enjoyed a kind of popularity and social ease that Katherine has not, becomes more comfortable with Katherine than she does with herself. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that — while not incredibly deep — has a nice resonance in a relationship that has to grow from the ground up. That Kate does not get a magic makeover and Gerard is a good man but not a perfect husband make the romantic progression of their relationship believable, and it made me want to root for their happiness as equals. It also allowed me to appreciate and enjoy the relationship as a separate entity from the whole Durham Dilemma stuff.

Which brings me back to the historicity of the novel. While I suspected a Regency setting, there was no date that I could find in the book, nor anything substantial locating the novel within a specific year. Linden does have a page online that allows the reader to discern the year in which the novel is set (1810), but this is not a book that I’d describe as historically rich. Still, because the romance itself (outside of the whacky circumstances under which the couple meet and wed) was kind of timeless in its focus on the very real and yet mundanely realistic issues that likely exist in every time period, for the most part Blame it on Bath worked pretty well for me. B

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