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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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Dear Author

Dear Author Intro Interview: Julie Rowe, Author of IceBound

The courageous true story of Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald, the doctor who had to operate on and treat herself for breast cancer while serving at a research facility at the South Pole, stuck with me for years after I first heard it.  It’s why Julie Rowe’s debut IceBound, set in that same extreme environment, caught my attention.  Emilie Saunderson is a doctor, too, a new arrival to the South Pole station, which is under the perfectly capable supervision of Tom Wolinski.  Carrying her own griefs, Emilie is the one who sees that beneath Tom’s drive to be the perfect leader is the fear of being close to anyone.

Opening line:  “I must be crazy.”  Dr. Emilie Saunderson stared out the porthole window of the cramped Twin Otter airplane at the frozen landscape of Antarctica.

A six word memoir for your protagonists:   Tom: Tough times leave you bleeding…forever.

Emilie: Grief’s hold is hard to break.

The original inspiration or trigger points for the story:  The inspiration for this story came at a conference workshop. An editor mentioned how she liked exotic settings, so I thought what more exotic location is there but Antarctica. I spent time working in the North West Territories of Canada when I was younger, so I know about cold weather living, the dark nights of winter and the crazy things people have to do to cope with isolation.

Your favorite line, scene, or moment from IceBound:    I think my favorite line is this one: “Antarctica, and the people who come here, aren’t like the rest of the planet. Gravity still works, but that’s about it.”

An unexpected detour you took while researching the book:  You mean I can only pick one? Researching this book was so much fun because there are so many unusual and insane things about Antarctica. I write medical romance, so the fact that the incidence of appendicitis in Antarctica is so much higher than anywhere else led me on a merry chase to discover why. But no one knows why. There’s a research project in there somewhere.

How did the unusual setting for IceBound influence your characters’ traits and arcs?  The setting greatly influenced the characters. The setting is, in some ways, a character of its own. I used the extreme conditions to amplify each character’s conflicts, personality traits and journey. The isolation makes it impossible for these two damaged people to run from each other or their problems, and facing their individual demons is something they’ve both been running from for a long time.

Your next release takes place in Alaska.  Are you on a mission to make parkas sexy, or is there something else that draws you to this kind of setting?  There is definitely inherent adventure in it.  

Parkas are sexy…when they come off! I love taking people to places they might not otherwise go – the polar regions are some of the harshest, yet beautiful places on earth. I’m thinking about a new story set in Iceland…all those glaciers and hot springs have so much potential.

I love the “Crazy Cold Facts” page on your website.  Would you share a favorite fact here?  One of my favourite facts is this one: “There are at least two active volcanoes in Antarctica, Mount Erebus (3794 m/12,448 ft) is the highest and has a permanent molten lava lake.” It’s amazing to me that both extremes in climate (hot and cold) can exist in the same place.

IceBound is your first published novel, but is it also your first novel?  No, I wrote for over ten years before I sold IceBound to Carina Press. I’ve now sold them a second manuscript (which finaled in the 2006 Golden Heart contest) and I’m working on revisions on another manuscript I wrote two years ago. Unfortunately most of the manuscripts under my bed aren’t worthy of publication (they suck!).

What would you like to tell readers about Carina Press?  What should writers know?

Readers, Carina Press is the place to find a story that’s different; good story telling, but set in an unusual place (like Antarctica!) or with non-conventional characters. I read a lot of the other Carina Press authors’ books and always find something fun, exciting and different.

Writers, if you’ve been told by agents that they don’t know how to sell your book, or by editors that they don’t know how to market your book, Carina Press is the publisher to submit to. They want those stories that don’t fit inside your typical romance novel box.

Your oddest or most reliable writing habit:   Okay, I’m about to out myself as a weirdo, but…lots of writers like to have music playing in the background to help set the mood, right? Me, I prefer to put M*A*S*H episodes on as background noise while I’m writing.

 Your favorite book when you were 10 years old:  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

 What other authors would you recommend for medical romance?  Harlequin Mills & Boon in London England has had a medical romance line for over 60 years. We don’t see them often on this side of the pond, but I know several of the authors who write for them. I recommend anything Dianne Drake, Lynn Marshall, Laura Iding, Wendy S. Marcus and Jessica Mathews.

 

You can find more about Julie and her books at www.julieroweauthor.comIceBound is available now, and her next release, North of Heartbreak, comes out in the spring.