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road-romance

REVIEW:  The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly

REVIEW: The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly

wedding-ring-quest

“Searching for a ring…finding a family!

Penniless Mary Rennie knows she’s lucky to have a home with relatives in Edinburgh, but she does crave more excitement in her life. So when her cousin’s ring is lost in one of several fruitcakes heading around the country as gifts, Mary seizes the chance for adventure.

When widowed captain Ross Rennie and his son meet Mary in a coaching inn, they take her under their wing. After years of battling Napoleon, Ross’s soul is war weary, but Mary’s warmth and humor touch him deep inside. Soon, he’s in the most heart-stopping situation of his life—considering a wedding-ring quest of his own!”

Dear Ms. Kelly,

I totally agree with you about this cover. Instead of winter travel in a post chaise, we have a young buck (with both legs) who looks as he and a giddy heroine are about to set off on a London to Brighton wagered race. And where’s Nathan? Ah, Harlequin covers, you gotta love them.

When I saw the (incorrect) cover and read the blurb, I was excited that the book was a Regency. I do love your American frontier westerns but your Regencies are what I started with and reading one feels like coming home. In a way, the book has a lot of similarities with past Kelly books. It’s a Regency road romance featuring likeable if slightly downtrodden characters one of whom is a military man. There is a degree of instant attraction between Ross and Mary though neither is going to act on it for various reasons. The reason for the “Quest” is slightly silly, TBH, but one about which I can shrug and say, “why not” and “I’ve read more contrived plot premises than this before.” In the end, it gets our couple together, on the road and with time to start their romance.

The trip itself is fun to watch though a journey from the Scottish border through York and back through a Regency winter was probably no picnic. Bad inns, cold weather and a vindictive slacker from Ross’s past bog them down slightly but through it all, they manage to maintain their good cheer if not dry handkerchiefs. Yes, tears abound as the trip turns into far more than tracking down a lost ring.

Mary and Ross are both at a crossroads in life though neither actually realizes it. Mary has lived her adult life with relatives who care for her and treat her fairly well but in all honesty, she now begins to see her future spooling out in front of her with little variation or chance for change. Ross has danced to Boney’s tune as have most British military men for the past twenty years and though he loves the Navy and life at sea, the things and relationships he missed on land are adding up. An unintended side trip Mary engineers serves to show Ross both the cost of the life he’s lead and how much he can bring comfort to the people the butcher’s bill have left behind.

The people they meet along the way help Mary and Ross make decisions about themselves and spur the actions they take. I did think the Rennies’ initial easy camaraderie and exchange of information was fast but even more so is when they spill the whole story to complete strangers – my that York one was record time even for today’s “tell everyone your life story the 15th second that you know them.” I had thought this more an American thing than something that – even today – is common in the UK.

Things were going along well, feelings were being felt – though Ross needed a good knock upside his head for the sometimes thoughtless comments he’d make to Mary about his “perfect woman” – until a point when Ross loses it after he decides Mary is bamming them about her trip. Why? It seemed out of character for him even as a post captain who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s instantly repentant but thank goodness the postilions and Nathan give him quiet hell and Mary Rennie proves her bona fides and lack of pettiness when she doesn’t backhand him. Though he deserved it.

The next section of the book is quietly wonderful. I felt much more comfortable with the extra months at end of fruitcake journey that allowed for the resolution of everyone’s business. After returning to Edinburgh, Mary stands her ground with her family and manages to get her way. Her adventure shows her that she’s not going to be content with her lot of sitting in Wapping Street for the rest of her life. Ross’s questions to her about what she could do with her future has given her the courage to think about changing it for what she wants and she discovers she enjoys making her own decisions.

Meanwhile Ross thinks long and hard about his own future and his relationship with his son before having to finish up what his “employer” restarted after escaping from Elba. He also starts to face what the past twenty years have done to him as a person and if he can find his way to a future. His “almost” action seemed a bit melodramatic for the way his character had been shown up til then but on second thought, this seems to be an issue for a lot of military men.

When Ross finally makes his move and goes after what he wants, I was pleased that Mary stuck to her guns about earning her own money, emigrating and making up her mind about marrying Ross even though she loved him. Her hesitation to “say yes” is with good cause and not just because he’s not said the three magic words. She’s convinced that he’s the kind of man who lives for danger and the thrills of combat and command. She thinks she has nothing to offer him that would take the place of this and it’s not until all this is settled that they’re ready for their HEA and it’s not until Ross has convinced her about how much she adds to his life that she changes her mind.

At first glance, this might sound like just another light and frothy Regency. But upon closer inspection, it’s much deeper and delves into the issues facing an older, unmarried woman of the day and an almost retired lifelong military man of any era. It does get a little sappy at times but smartens back up and allows a sufficient amount of time, thought and effort to go into this relationship to convince me that it will last. B-

~Jayne

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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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