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Regency England

REVIEW: Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville

REVIEW: Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville

Dear Ms. Neville,

I should probably preface this review by saying that I’ve chatted with you on Twitter and what I know of you, I really like.

Ever since they met in The Dangerous Viscount, book two of your Burgundy Book Club series, I’ve wanted to see Minerva Montrose and the Marquis of Blakeney (known to his acquaintances as Blake) hook up. Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, Blake and Minerva’s story, opens with a London ball in Minerva’s honor.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda NevilleAs a favor to their nephew, Minerva’s brother-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Hampton have agreed to hold the ball. Their son, Blake, is to open it with Minerva. But Blake is enjoying his mistress’s company, and arrives too late. By the time he dances with Minerva, she is greatly irritated. She and Blake snipe at each other and are both glad when the waltz ends.

Minerva has already picked out a husband – a Member of Parliament named Mr. Parkes whom she believes she can groom into the next Prime Minister. Very much in favor of political reform, Minerva believes she can help bring it about by steering the sober, responsible Mr. Parkes through the waters of politics and diplomacy. But Minerva’s hopes to encourage this courtship are thwarted by a migraine. She takes headache powders and goes to lie down in the library.

Meanwhile, Blake is having an even worse evening. Though handsome, athletic, and heir to a dukedom, he carries a shameful secret. Blake suffers from what contemporary readers will recognize as dyslexia, although back in 1822, its existence was unknown. Consequently Blake believes his inability to read is due to pure and simple stupidity.

Blake does tries to cover up this flaw by pretending to be arrogant, lazy, and disinterested in anything intellectual. To Blake’s misfortune, his family has a long history of being in the thick of politics, and Blake is expected to follow in the same tradition. Relations between Blake and his cool, standoffish parents are therefore strained.

Even more unfortunate, Blake has confided his secret in an Eton friend, Mr. Huntley, and Huntley has used the secret to blackmail Blake. Now, just when Blake’s resulting debt has finally been paid, Huntley corners him. Blake manages to extricate himself from the conversation before Huntley can launch into his next demand, but he feels flooded with shame.

Escaping into an unoccupied room, Blake gets drunk on champagne overhears his friend Lamb planning a tryst with the amorous Duchess of Lethbridge, with whom Blake has slept in the past. As Lamb and the duchess plan to meet in the library in an hour’s time, the drunken Blake has a brainstorm. He and Lamb have a tradition of playing pranks on one another. Wouldn’t it be hilarious to arrive at the library first and take Lamb’s place with the duchess?

In the library, Blake discovers a tall woman lying on the couch, her hand covering her eyes. Believing her to be the duchess, Blake feels certain she is feigning sleep, playing at a naughty scenario. Blake has his head under her petticoats when the woman wakes up and shrieks “What are you doing?” Only a moment after her realizes she is the irritating Minerva Montrose, Blake turns and sees a group of people in the doorway.

Thus Blake and Minerva reluctantly become engaged. But when Blake realizes what his father wants most from him and Minerva is a grandson, an heir more worthy of the dukedom than his son, Blake indulges his hurt and anger with a petty decision: he will refrain from consummating the marriage so as not to give his father his heart’s desire.

Blake also believes all Minerva cares about is whether or not he can satisfy her political ambitions, and at first, he’s not entirely wrong. Minerva is so upset that her hopes of marrying Mr. Parkes were dashed that she is terribly disappointed that her husband will be Blake. Never having seen him read or discuss books or even events in the newspapers, she is not at all convinced that he is intelligent.

Since Blake believes himself lacking in intellect, Minerva’s initial lack of respect for him, and later her desire to mold him into a political figure, something he knows he can never be, hurt him enough that even after they are engaged, he does not dismiss his mistress.

Minerva’s is disappointed and unhappy to learn that Blake was seen with his paramour at the theater. When the two marry and travel to Paris for their honeymoon, there is a great deal of tension between them. Although Minerva is dreading her wedding night, she is also hurt and upset when Blake doesn’t come to her room.

But Blake was tasked by his politically inclined brother in law Gideon with finding which of the French are loyal to the crown and which to Napoleon’s son, and when he finally shares this objective with Minerva, they turn it into a friendly contest. The hunt for political intelligence brings the couple together, and Blake realizes what a fool he was not to touch his smart, confident and appealing wife.

Minerva for her part begins to see that Blake is intelligent as well as handsome, but wonders why he doesn’t apply himself more. She feels certain he could be so much more than he is, and if only he would allow her to persuade him to enter the political arena, they could be a couple to contend with.

Standing in the way of both Minerva’s ambitions and the romantic relationship is Blake’s secret. How can he trust a woman as bright as Minerva with the knowledge that he is stupider than he appears?

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage engaged me only partly in the beginning, because Blake and Minerva were so preoccupied with their personal needs and desires that neither looked beyond the surface of the other at first. While there is something refreshing about a pair of lovers who start out disinterested in one another, I would have liked for a few more hints of attraction to pierce that disinterest a little sooner.

Additionally, though this is a minor concern, the presence of most of the characters from the earlier books in the series during the ballroom scene felt like prequel baiting. While I realize there were natural reasons for them to be there, even so it can still feel artificial when several characters from earlier books appear in the same scene.

(As long as I’m on the subject of characters from earlier books, I’ll add that I felt a little sorry for poor Diana, in her third pregnancy in roughly as many years. I wondered how many children she and Sebastian would have by the end of the 1820s!)

Once Minerva and Blake began their honeymoon trip, though, their interest in each other as people sparked, and I started really caring about them as a couple. The more they started understanding and caring about each other, the more invested in them I became.

Blake starts out self-focused, but he grows up a lot over the course of the book. I didn’t always like him, since his decisions not to dismiss his mistress right away and not to consummate his marriage struck me as insensitive to Minerva. But even at his most immature, I felt for him over the dyslexia issue.

As the story progressed and Blake showed greater and greater maturity and love for Minerva while still fearing to disclose his secret, I understood more and more what a source of fear and shame his belief that he was stupid was, and how sensitive he had always been under his indifferent exterior.

Minerva, though more concerned with the greater good and England’s fate than Blake, and outwardly much more mature, had a different flaw. Her self-confidence was such that she started out certain that she knew what she wanted in a husband and that Blake was about as far from what she needed as a man could get.

But the more Minerva realized that Blake was not an idiot, the more I came to care about her. One of the pleasures of this book was her growth into a woman capable of seeing that intelligence comes in many stripes and therefore, one capable of not just accepting, but also respecting and admiring the man Blake grew into being.

By the middle of the book I was totally rooting for this couple, though their trials were far from over. I smiled at their witty repartee, found their love scenes hot, and one scene between Blake and his father even made me tear up a little for Blake.

Having now read all four books in the Burgundy Book Club series, I can say that your characters’ vulnerabilities, insecurities and quirks are consistently well conveyed. There is a warmth to the writing that comes from acceptance of the idiosyncrasies that make human beings imperfect and human.

I have just one more issue with the book, which is that sometimes I feel that the style of narration has an effect that is slightly distancing. At times I feel I’m being told about the characters rather than experiencing their emotions from the inside.

Even so, I ultimately had great sympathy and affection for Blake and Minerva, and was so glad to see them triumph over all the obstacles their relationship faced. I closed the book smiling and satisfied. B+.



REVIEW: A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh

REVIEW: A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh

The following review contains SPOILERS. The spoilers from late in the book are hidden, but others are visible. If you have never read A Promise of Spring and prefer to avoid spoilers, read this review at your own risk.

Dear Ms. Balogh,

A Promise of Spring, now being reprinted in a 2-in-1 volume with The Temporary Wife, has a gripping opening. The residents of Abbotsford, a village in Hampshire, are trying to decide what is to be done about Grace Howard. Grace is the spinster older sister of their rector, Reverend Paul Howard, who recently died saving a small child from being gored by an enraged bull.

Temporary Wife A Promise of Spring	Mary BaloghGrace had been living in the rectory with Paul and doing her brother’s housekeeping. The people of Abbotsford believe her to be destitute and without family, and since she is respected there and they feel deeply indebted to her deceased brother, none of them can bear to see her without means. While several of the Abbotsford residents try to figure out what should be done, Sir Peregrine Lampman visits Miss Howard and asks her to marry him.

Sir Peregrine – Perry to friends – is a sunny natured and gregarious man in his mid-twenties with whom ladies, young and old, love to flirt. He was a close friend of the intellectual rector with whom he shared interests in wide ranging subjects. Although he doesn’t know Grace well, Perry admires her dignity, her self-containment and the beautiful environment she created for Paul with her embroidery and gardening.

While paying his respects to the grieving sister of his friend, Perry realizes that he wishes that he knew Grace better. Rather than letting her disappear from his life, Perry impulsively proposes marriage. Grace refuses Perry on the basis that she is ten years older than he, but he asks her to reconsider.

They go back and forth a bit and finally she gives him a stronger reason not to marry her. Grace grew up with Gareth, a neighbor and playmate whom she loved. When Gareth decided to fight in the war, she gave herself to him. Gareth died, she tells Perry, and left her with her son, Jeremy.

Because Jeremy was a bastard, he was considered inferior to his legitimate cousins and did not receive enough attention from the governess who watched the children swim. Jeremy drowned, and Grace was told that since he was a bastard, it was for the best. Paul, she tells Perry, was the only one to show her sympathy and compassion after her son’s death, even quarreling with their father, taking Grace with him and cutting off the family.

After hearing the whole story, Perry again asks Grace to marry him. Feeling too vulnerable to do the right thing and refuse once more, Grace accepts.

Perry and Grace marry. The residents of Abbotsford think theirs is a mismatch and will not work out well, but against the odds, their marriage thrives. Grace is surprised by her enjoyment of the marriage bed, and Perry learns that there is pleasure to be had in gardening. They find they enjoy each other’s company even when he is reading and she is embroidering silently beside him.

But Grace is afraid that happiness will not last. Eventually Peregrine will tire of his much older wife and realize that he made a mistake. Even though she has begun to come alive again, she resolves to keep a part of herself dead, so as not to suffer more when Perry realizes he should not have married her.

This state of affairs is disrupted when Grace receives a letter from her estranged sister-in-law, Ethel. Grace had written her family to inform them of Paul’s death and Ethel’s reply is a subdued invitation to come home for a visit and bring her new husband.

Grace is torn – she realizes that her younger, proud and willful self also played a role in her estrangement from her family, but it is difficult for her to forgive them their treatment of Jeremy. Yet she also wants to visit her son’s grave, and to see her aging father again before he dies. In the end, she and Perry decide in favor of going.

Grace and Perry arrive at her father’s home, Pangam Manor, and are greeted with politeness by Ethel and by Grace’s brother Martin. Grace’s niece, Priscilla, is glad to see Grace again, while Grace’s father, Lord Pawley, is stiff in his manner. Still, if the family is surprised by Perry’s youth, they don’t show it, and they don’t make Grace feel unwelcome.

The family relationships begin to thaw and just when Grace’s wounds start to heal, an invitation to a dinner party from Viscount Sandersford arrives. Grace remembers how Gareth’s father ignored her and the illegitimate grandson she had given him. Ethel suggests that they refuse the invitation, but Grace feels it is time to make peace, so the family attends.

At the dinner, Grace is shocked to realize that Gareth’s father isn’t Viscount Sandersford any longer. Gareth’s father passed away, and the new viscount is Gareth, the father of her child — the same Gareth she had told Perry was dead. Gareth, very much alive, is now intent on pursuing Grace. He tells her that he realizes that he made a huge mistake and insists that she cannot ignore the passion that has always been between them.

And he goes further than that: after Grace and Perry depart Pagnam Manor, Gareth follows them to London. He refuses to take no for an answer and will not stop pursuing Grace until she admits that her love for him has never died.

There were many reasons I wanted to love this novel. First, the beginning was so wonderful that I spent the first fifth or so convinced that I was reading a gem. Perry’s total acceptance of Grace, his lack of condemnation of her past, and his eagerness to marry her even after learning about it, as well as given that she was thirty-five to his twenty-five, made me love him.

Grace’s vulnerability, the loss and suffering in her past, and the way she kept her emotions bottled up really got to me. I was rooting for her and for Perry from the beginning and I couldn’t wait to see their marriage blossom.

And blossom it did. I loved the way they slowly and quietly came to love each other, without fanfare or fireworks. As much as I enjoy more combustible pairings, I also love a subtle, unexpected, quiet romance. Also, the older woman-younger man is a trope I’m fond of and I enjoyed that aspect of the story. I did wish that Grace was a little less insecure about her age but I suppose that was natural in her circumstances.

I also loved the contrast between the soft-spoken, non-threatening Perry and the dashing, older, handsomer and better titled Gareth. In another book Gareth would have been the hero and Perry the second fiddle whose love for Grace went unrequited so I *loved* that here this dynamic was reversed.

Unfortunately, the strengths I loved were offset by weaknesses. A Promise of Spring suffers from kitchen sink plotting as well as multiple contrivances. I’ll start with the former.

There is Perry and Grace’s age difference and the ways it affects their confidence in their marriage, Grace’s estrangement from her family over her son’s birth and death, the lie Grace tells Perry about the very-much-alive Gareth being dead, Gareth’s dogged pursuit of the married Grace, and finally… [spoiler]Grace’s difficult and risky pregnancy in her late thirties.[/spoiler]

A couple of these conflicts would have been enough to fill a short book like this, and because there are so many, most of them get short shrift and are resolved in ways that feel unconvincing.

The conflict between Grace and her family dissolves away very quickly. We never learn which of them it was who said that it was fortunate Jeremy died because he was a bastard, but that issue, a major one to my thinking, isn’t explicitly hashed out between Grace and her relatives. Instead everyone turns out to have admired or loved Grace all along, feelings of competition or rebellion are admitted, and the cruelty to Jeremy and even the possible responsibility for his neglect at the time of his death are glossed over.

Other conflicts also resolve too easily. Perry realizes on his own that Grace didn’t intend to lie about Gareth and never confronts her about it. Gareth goes away after it’s been implied that he is dangerous and after, as Grace prepares to give him the final brush-off, Ethel warns her of him:

“Oh, be careful.” Ethel looked troubled. “Do be careful, Grace. That man frightens me.”

Because of that buildup I was expecting Gareth to either try to rape Grace or to run off with Priscilla, Grace’s niece, in retaliation, but instead he just abruptly accepts his loss with good grace and slinks off into the sunset.

Then there are the contrivances. First, Grace tells Perry that Gareth is dead. This is explained as something that didn’t seem like a lie to Grace at the time because Gareth was dead to her after his refusal to marry her. I was fine with that until she did it again: when Perry asks if Gareth was a friend of her lover’s, she inadvertently confirms Perry’s statement. It no longer felt like a one off to me after that, but the deception was still portrayed as unintentional on Grace’s part. By the second time she bungles communicating the truth, this feels contrived to keep Perry in ignorance of just exactly who Gareth was.

Second, Grace and Perry don’t discuss their problems with Gareth much even when they both know Gareth is pursuing her. And this goes on and on. And on. They also each fear the other doesn’t love them and may come to regret the marriage or even take up with someone else, but neither confronts the other with their fear. Even when Grace attempts to include Perry in her concerns about their relationship by showing him a letter Gareth sent her in secret, Perry doesn’t destroy it or read it with her and his actions and words encourage her to read it alone.

I can believe that insecurities would keep them from communicating to some degree, but this went on so long that it started to feel like a contrivance rather than a natural pattern of behavior for the characters.

Third, Perry doesn’t interfere in Gareth’s pursuit of Grace. This is said to be because he wants Grace to resolve her feelings for Gareth and make a free choice between them, but it starts to feel like a convenient device after a while because even when Gareth pulls Grace for a moonlit walk Perry allows it despite the fact that Grace’s refusal to fall into Gareth’s arms angers Gareth.

I would say that it doesn’t seem to occur to Perry that Gareth could harm Grace, except that’s evidently not true because immediately after the walk, Perry tells Gareth that he won’t ever call him out unless Gareth forces himself on Grace. If Perry feels Gareth is capable of rape, why permit him to take walk with Grace alone in a dark garden where they can argue out of hearshot? The contrivance here makes the otherwise loving and intelligent Perry seem either borderline TSTL or an inconsistently drawn character.

Fourth, Grace’s backstory also seems doubtful. She had Jeremy at age twenty-one and never had a London season. Why did her family never try to take her to London before then? Why did they not insist Gareth marry her? Why didn’t they try to marry her to someone else when Gareth refused? Why didn’t they try to get her to give Jeremy up for adoption or else send her away when she gave birth and then maintained her pride in her son? I could accept one or two of these unanswered questions about Grace’s past, but this many makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.

Fifth, I thought it was passing strange that no one outside of Grace’s family and Gareth seemed to know that Grace had borne Gareth a child. Jeremy lived for four years and his existence doesn’t seem to have been hidden, so one would expect there would be rumors about Grace, a baron’s daughter who had a child out of wedlock. But instead only her family seems to have noticed this event. No one gossips about her in London, Leicestershire or Hampshire. [spoiler]And in Abbotsford, even two years after their marriage, when Grace and Perry expect a child, everyone but the doctor believes it is Grace’s first pregnancy.

Finally, there is the turnabout in Grace where Gareth is concerned. For the longest time, Gareth has this pull over Grace, and even though she fears him, she doesn’t seem to know how to resist him completely. Toward the end of the book, she does a complete about face and becomes indifferent to him. She explains that she hadn’t forgiven herself for sleeping with Gareth and bearing Jeremy out of wedlock and had been punishing herself with Gareth because she thought she deserved no better. She also explains that she has now finally forgiven herself and this is what freed her from Gareth’s power.

But why? If she had spent well over a decade, including two years of her marriage to Perry punishing herself, what was it that prompted her to forgive herself in the end? There doesn’t seem to be any event that catalyzes this change in a behavior / thought process that would surely be ingrained after more than ten years.[/spoiler]

To its credit, A Promise of Spring absorbed me while I was reading it, and I really wanted to love it. When I finished it, I felt dissatisfied despite the fact that the book sucked me in. I knew my dissatisfaction had to do with the kitchen sink plotting but as I thought about the reasons more, I also started seeing contrivances, plot holes and slapdash conflict resolutions. I have enjoyed many of your trad regencies, but (to make what I know is a horrible pun) this is one that did not deliver on its promise. C-.