Review: The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

I read The Governess Game by Tessa Dare to fulfill the “romance about a single parent” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This is the second book in the Girl Meets Duke series, I reviewed book one, “The Duchess Deal” last year and really enjoyed it. This book continues that trend and also furthers my love of Tessa Dare.

The premise: Chase Reynard is a rake who has been tasked with two young wards – 10 year old Rosamund and 7 year old Daisy – after he jumps from being fourth in line to the heir apparent. Desperate to find a nanny until he can send the girls to a boarding school he turns to Alexandra Mountbatten, a woman he literally ran into months ago at a bookshop who has shown up to set his clocks (not a euphemism). After she gives him a scathing takedown for his poor taste in creating a Cave of Carnality (complete with mirrors and nude portraits) he insists she is the right one for the job. She accepts the position for the money but quickly learns that there are depths to this scoundrel and that his posturing and attempts to but distance between himself and those around him speaks to a depth of feeling that he fears after past heartbreak.

One thing that I loved about this novel was that both characters have clear, well-paced growth. Chase doesn’t just fall in love and suddenly lose all of his fears surrounding attachment and Alexandra doesn’t magically get over her terror of being on boats just because he’s there. Love is not treated like a magic cure all, it just shows how choosing to accept the love you feel for others can help give you support to face down your fears and grow through them. Dare also does an excellent job showing how children can react to trauma and grief, one growing rigidly practical and the other falling into the continued roleplaying of funerals. The girls also grow in the novel and the reader is left knowing that they will be ok and this will mostly be because they will be allowed to grieve and be loved unconditionally instead of them just suddenly being “happy” or “ok.”

Despite its take on many painful issues, the novel made me laugh repeatedly and balanced its poignant and humorous moments well. In my opinion, Chase is the quintessential rake. He has a healthy sexual appetite and makes no bones (lol) about feeding it. He is a generous lover and a conscientious one as well. He is talented through practice and just the right amount of cocky. And, most importantly, he has that wonderful quality of being roguishly unaffected on the outside with a soft, creamy, marshmallowy inside of affection. Alexandra is also a great heroine and they make an excellent match. While (spoiler alert) their epilogue does include a reveal of the fact that she is pregnant, I didn’t get the sense that this baby is what would make them a family. Chase, Alexandra, Rosamund, and Daisy are already a complete and happy family and the baby would only grow what is already there. That’s not common in romance, particularly historical romance, and as the daughter of two people who were adopted into their families, I really appreciated this respect given to the legitimacy of a family created through nontraditional means.

I will be reading book three, The Wallflower Wager, coming up sometime but in the meantime I am going to be reading Darkfever and A Kiss for Solstice so keep an eye out for those reviews.

Review: More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

Continuing with the Reading Embrace I read More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh for the “Dueling, Bring It Back” category. This might be a bit of a meander-y post because honestly you guys I’m still not sure how I feel about this book.

This is my second Balogh read. Before this I read Someone To Love which I also felt confused about. Like that one, I really liked the heroine and I thought the side characters were compelling and endearing, but I hated the hero. In both books the hero was a haughty, arrogant dick who intimidates everyone with a squint through his quizzing glass.

Please go with me on this quizzing glass journey because guys, I’m lost.

This is a quizzing glass:

quizzing-glass-closeup

I always called it a monocle but here we are. Maybe if I did more research I would understand why a man looking through his quizzing glass at you could be intimidating but reader, I do not understand. If a man raised his quizzing glass and peered at me like a grumpy owl I would simply laugh. And be a little embarassed for him. But this is the second time Balogh has used The Quizzing Glass as a tool of intimidation so it clearly is A Thing for someone or the period or etc.

Let’s get the plot out of the way though and I am going to use the synopsis on Goodreads because I tried explaining it to my boyfriend last night and there was so much I kept forgetting.

“An arrogant duke does the unthinkable-he falls in love with his mistress.
She raced onto the green, desperate to stop a duel. In the melee, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, was shot. To his astonishment, Tresham found himself hiring the servant as his nurse. Jane Ingleby was far too bold for her own good. Her blue eyes were the sort a man could drown in-were it not for her impudence. She questioned his every move, breached his secrets, touched his soul. When he offered to set her up in his London town house, love was the last thing on his mind….
Jane tried to pretend it was strictly business, an arrangement she was forced to accept in order to conceal a dangerous secret. Surely there was nothing more perilous than being the lover of such a man. Yet as she got past his devilish facade and saw the noble heart within, she knew the greatest jeopardy of all, a passion that drove her to risk everything on one perfect month with the improper gentleman who thought love was for fools.”

I liked that the heroine refused to be cowed and was doing what she needed to be safe. I liked some of the banter between the main characters. I loved Tresham’s sister and brother, both very lively and funny characters that I would happily read more about. I liked the loyalty his friends showed even if they were kinda gross when they talked about women. I like that the hero does genuinely apologize at one point. I like that this book was chock-o-block full of dueling to more than hit the requirement for this category. That might be where what I like ends.

I did not like the hero who was an emotionally stunted prick with a Tragic Backstory that is supposed to excuse his behavior. I did not like the relationship as a whole. The author didn’t seem to know how she felt about it either based on how between “I’m pregnant so I’m forced to marry you” and “we’re married guys surprise and also we are in love” there is absolutely nothing to segue the parts. The characters bounce between being angry with each other (and having people say that’s proof of their love, which – ugh DON’T) and confessing their deep love and back to the fighting. I didn’t see growth from either character. He learns how to express emotions which is good but he was still by and large an ass. Also, the dueling is genuinely stupid and I know Jane is there to be that voice going “hey maybe don’t almost die or murder a person because of Honor” but it’s never taken seriously and he sure seems down to duel still at the end.

I struggle because I want to like Balogh’s work. There’s always some stuff in them that I like that keeps me wanting to return and try something else. But so far (and admittedly, only two books out of her catalogue isn’t a huge sample) the heroes seem very similar and very obnoxious. Also the descriptions and language around sex is ludicrously flowery. There was a lot of talk about Becoming One and Mounting and Making Love when I mostly wanted to know where was what and what impact was that having on people beyond a metaphysical sense of Bonding and Togetherness.

I don’t know, you guys. Maybe I will try another Balogh next year but I think one a year is a good rate of sampling for me unless one of you has a rec for one you think I’ll enjoy.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

I jumped back to the HB Reading Embrace to read Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick to fulfill the Competency Boner category of the embrace. Amanda Quick was actually the first romance novelist I read. I snagged my mom’s copy of I Thee Wed as a young teen. I don’t remember how I felt about it. I know I didn’t read romance again for years but that certainly wasn’t a reaction to the book. In any case, I was excited to give this author another read as an adult who has a bit more romance experience under her belt.

Slater Roxton has a reputation that precedes him, most of it lies, some of it truth. He’s been rumored to be mad since he spent a year on an island after a cave-in during his expedition and now leads a quiet but much storeyed life retrieving artifacts and cataloguing them. Helping him with this is Ursula Kern, widow and owner of the Kern Secretarial Agency. When an employee and friend turns up dead and is shrugged off as a suicide, Ursula takes it upon herself to pursue what she knows has been murder. Slater helps her and along the way they find the truth and fall in love in Victorian England.

I enjoyed reading this book, but there were definitely some things that got in the way of my enjoyment. Slater apparently loved Ursula at first sight and is very protective and a little bit possessive of her in ways that are totally inappropriate, especially because he doesn’t actually relay his feelings until well into the book. Ursula’s past is hinted at as very shocking and maybe I’ve just grown snobbish about my Secret Past backstories but the reveal was kind of anticlimactic in my opinion. Also the sex is written in a very hyperbolical, every-touch-sets-someone-on-fire way that felt almost satirical with how elaborately it was described. But I recognize that is in part just a hallmark of the time and there definitely weren’t any descriptions that thoroughly turned me off (see “hot honey” from Once Burned). However, there were some delightful side characters. The pacing and the writing were both good and I was happy for the characters. It also definitely qualified for the Competency Boner category because both characters are smart and talented and good at their jobs.

Review: Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

Trigger Warning: Discussion of child abuse, body image and weight talk that could be triggering for people who have a history of eating disorders

Guys this book blew my tits off it was so good. I am not even sure where to begin.

A basic premise: Hattie is a 29 year old spinster (because Victorian England) who has decided she will take charge of her future by getting control of her father’s company over her good for nothing brother and the first step towards that is ensuring she cannot marry. She goes to a brothel for ladies to be Ruined.

(Side Note: This book made me look at Ruination in a new light. I reject the sexist concept of a woman’s worth being tied to her virginity but also if a man I was attracted to told me he would gladly Ruin me I would perhaps die.)

Her plans are interrupted by finding a Tom Hardy type hero (aka Beast aka Whit aka Saviour aka bae) tied up in her carriage. Guys, if anyone is trying to get me a belated Christmas present, consider this wishlisted. It turns out he was tied up by her brother because her brother has been stealing from him and there’s a whole hullabaloo about revenge and fairness and reputation and Bareknuckle Bastards and yadda yadda yadda but what I care about is the tension between Hattie and Beast.

These characters are presented as clear equals from the jump. Hattie’s sexual inexperience is never used to infantilize her or give him the upper hand. They’re both smart, stubborn, and determined. They both have similar values and the conflict between them was understandable and I never felt like one of them was clearly right and the other wrong. The tension between them was so excellently written that it takes literally 70% of the book to pass before they have full, penetrative sex and I did not feel cheated or annoyed because the whole process getting there was still incredibly hot.

I didn’t yadda yadda past the plot because I was bored by it, I was actually able to read the whole thing on my trip home for Christmas. I just yadda’d because the heat between the characters hit me like a ton of bricks. I also all caps messaged a friend of mine to yell at her for not warning me that there is a scene where the hero asks the heroine to tie him to the mast of a ship and have her way with him.

Please read this book.

Review: Quest of Honor by Ellie St. Clair

I’ve been on a quest for a real good pirate romance for a long time so I was excited to have the Reading Embrace finally push me to do pursue one. I ended up reading Quest of Honor by Ellie St. Clair and while it isn’t my dream pirate romance, I really enjoyed it.

Eleanor Adams is the daughter of a pirate who is more Robin Hood than Redbeard. Captain Adams is being doggedly pursued by Naval Captain Thomas Harrington who has become the laughingstock of the navy for his inability to bring in this one pirate and dreams that perhaps if he catches this one he can find a new path for himself. Eleanor goes to do recon on the man pursuing her father and ends up in his bed, having been mistaken for a sex worker and caught up in her own desire for the handsome Captain. When the truth comes out and roles shift, will these two find a way to be together despite being on opposite sides of the law?

Yes. Yes they will. Because this is romance and that’s what we can count on damnit.

This was a brief read because I am running out of time but it was still well paced and I enjoyed it a lot. The romance felt a bit rushed but I understand that St. Clair only had so much space to work in and things had to keep moving at a pretty brisk pace to ensure the HEA happened. I don’t feel especially compelled to keep reading the series, not because of anything lacking in the book, but because there are just so many books I want to read that if I don’t feel strongly about continuing a series I just don’t have time to bother. It has definitely rekindled my need to find my One True Pirate Romance. Or maybe write my OTPR?

Who can say.

What I can say is you should pick up this novella if you enjoy lady pirates and boat sex.

Highland Dream by Tess Mallory

Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence

You know when you bite into something, like a greasy junk food, and there’s a part of you that’s like “ugh this is conceptually gross and I don’t even totally enjoy it” but you can’t stop eating it? That was me and this book.

Highland Dream is a time travel romance featuring possibly my least favorite heroine I’ve ever read. Jessica Isobel Xavier (who goes by Jix) is known for a couple of things: her tragic past with tone-joltingly rough domestic violence and lying. About everything. For fun. Just for kicks. Cuz she’s Just That Quirky. She is meant to instill a consistent vein of humor throughout the novel but most of the time it just read like slapstick which is a medium best presented visually. Oh, also Jix gets prophetic dreams, so that also adds to her Quirk factor.

The basic premise is that Jix has a dream where she sees her best friend Sam in a wedding dress next to a gorgeous Scotsman. The trouble is that her friend is currently engaged to a guy who’s a jerk and Sam’s father enlists Jix’s help breaking up the relationship because apparently Jix is the only person allowed to make her own choices and grow through mistakes and everyone else must have their autonomy violated. So quirk, so fun. She pulls this off not by having a serious talk with her friend about her concerns but by getting her friend drunk on the plane and transferring them to a plane headed to Scotland where they are going to stay at an airbnb. If a man did what Jix did this would be the plot of a Lifetime movie but Jix is Quirky so it’s all just in good fun.

Fast forwarding past Sam’s very valid anger and bewilderment at being brought to Scotland, ruining her wedding and taking her to another country against her knowledge or will, and Jix demanding it’s fine because after all Sam tried to talk Jix out of her marriage before and this is the same thing. Probably. Sure.

They get to Scotland and who opens the door to the old Scottish manor house they’ll be staying at but the very gorgeous Scot that Jix saw in her dream? Jamie MacGregor has a backstory about how he’s in the CIA or some equivalent but honestly it hardly comes into play so just know that he’s gorgeous, he’s trained to Fight, and he’s there. He and Jix immediately hit it off and Jix keeps trying to force Sam to be around the guy when the woman just wants to go to bed. This turns into a clumsy scene where they are all touching the man’s sword (not a euphemism) and Jamie speaks his family’s motto in gaelic and the sword glows and poof they are transported to Highland times Scotland.

In this interpretation of time travel your hair and clothes automatically also change so when they get to Highland times Jix’s hair has grown long and flowing and his is also longer. No clue how Sam’s hair looks because she isn’t there. They are captured and brought to a castle where their identities are mistaken for the contemporary MacGregor clan and an agreement is struck that Jamie will help them with a heist and marry his “sister” Jix to the clan leader and they will get the sword back. Jix keeps insisting that he fall in love with Sam, he has no idea why she’s so determined and even though they are literally back in time she doesn’t think he’ll believe her if she tells him that the reason she’s so insistent is because she has prophetic dreams. They fall into a pattern of arguing, boning, her being distant for no reason and lying to him consistently about why, her being mad when he lies about things, wash, rinse, repeat. They eventually find Sam and that’s a whole complicated thing about Romani people that was a bit cringey.

One of the reasons I think I kept reading was that Mallory isn’t a poor writer. The pacing was good, it was crafted well, and I loved a side character in the novel who became a friend of Jix’s and I bought and read the second because it featured him getting an HEA.

In the end of course it’s all happy and fine but it takes 75% of the book before Jix tells Jamie the truth. I just can’t with consistent lying you guys. That’s probably one of the reasons I really struggled with Jix. Still, as I said, I did buy and read the second book because there was just this strange pull to Mallory’s work. Most reviews talk about how hilarious they found the book so I might just be a snob or it may have just hit me wrong for some reason. I’d say give it a shot but be aware that if you don’t like when the major conflict is people not just talking to each other, this is going to be a hard one for you.

Review: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

Tessa Dare was an author I approached cautiously. Not because I had heard bad things, the opposite in fact. I had heard her praises sung so loudly for so long that I didn’t know where to begin in her catalog and had that tiny fear that for some reason her work wouldn’t resonate for me and I would be the odd one out. I can’t speak for everyone who will read her, but this did not turn out to be the case for me.

The Duchess Deal is the first of her Girl Meets Duke series. A quick snapshot of the synopsis is a Duke (Ash, short for Ashbury) comes back from war horribly scarred and self-conscious and he has to marry to secure an heir. He has been recently spurned by his former fiancee so time is of the essence. Enter Emma Gladstone, wearing the wedding dress she crafted for his fiancee, demanding payment. He offers her a marriage instead and, spurred by her own financial need and the desire to help protect her unmarried pregnant friend, she accepts.

The story is some parts Beauty and the Beast, some parts the Phantom of the Opera, all parts good. Dare has a talent for creating interesting side characters, in this novel this not only includes the staff at the manor who are desperately trying to make the two fall in love, but also the small group of ladies who take Emma into their fold. Each of them have quirks and talents that are charming and I would read books based on each of their lives, romantic or not.

Ash is a broodier hero than I tend to enjoy but Dare wrote him in a way that it worked for me, especially when he goes to lengths such as blindfolds to keep his wife from seeing his scars which he is sure will make her fall out of love with him. I think part of what works for Dare is she presents common conflicts but gives them enough background and development that they’re understandable. In another book if a character’s sole hangup was that their spouse would hate their scars I would be a little annoyed because at a certain point you have to just face that. Dare provides Ash with some background that makes that fear very reasonable.

Also, neither of the protagonists are virgins, which I appreciated. I have no problem with a virgin hero (see my review of The Duchess War), but I find it a little easy and played out when a heroine is automatically a virgin in a romance. People have been having sex in or out of marriage since the dawn of time and I just like that being recognized.

I haven’t read the other two in the series yet but I think I will add them to my 2020 reading goal next to Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel.

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The book that launched my love of romance is finally here!

I originally read this book last year after the episode from Heaving Bosoms. I had been listening to the podcast as an amused observer without actually reading romance, not out of a sense of superiority but mostly because I felt intimidated. Romance is such a big genre with so many possible ways to start and I didn’t feel like I could navigate it on my own so I just enjoyed their recaps until this episode where I thought the book sounded good enough that I had to read it for myself.

The Duchess War is set in Victorian England and the first in the Brothers Sinister series. Robert Blaisdell is a handsome Duke who runs into Minnie Lane, a faux wallflower, while hiding out from a social event. Robert has been anonymously spreading seditious handbills encouraging workers to unionize because he is desperately trying to clean up the horrible mess his father left. Minnie is trying to escape her past with a new identity and stands accused of passing out the handbills. The two face off and as secrets are revealed and motives come out, the characters fall in love.

One of the things that I appreciate about Milan’s work is her brilliant use of banter between characters. Robert and Minnie sass each other in ways that are amusing but never mean-spirited. The respect the characters feel for each other are evident throughout. They both accept each other where they are but also encourage and help each other to grow. Neither character is perfect but even as mistakes are made you root for them instead of just getting aggravated at them. Also, top notch sex scenes and *drumroll* A VIRGIN DUKE!

After years of rapscallion, wanton dukes we get a virgin duke! And a believable (and not comedically cringy) first time! Followed by communication and improvement!

*chef’s kiss*

When I said that Milan is the author I recommend without reservations, this is the specific book because it is the start of the series and a genuinely good story on its own.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

This is another third book in a series and another series that I collect!

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan is a beautiful story of a rake and a scientist and growing beyond the facades you build to protect yourself.

Sebastian Malheur is a rakish playboy and, more scandalously, a scientist who specializes in genetics. In the Victorian era this is considered especially brazen because it references reproduction. If there’s one thing worse than a male scientist it is a female scientist which is why Sebastian actually a front for his childhood friend Violet’s research. In truth she is the scientist and he is just the way for her to communicate her findings. It’s an intriguing twist on a nom de plume and offers an interesting conflict for the characters when Sebastian announces that he will no longer play along with her charade. His reasons are understandable, as is her anger and fear over his choice. I always feel that the best conflicts are ones where there’s no one clear right or wrong person but rather a situation where both people are responding reasonably based on their experience and circumstances and finding a way through it will require growth and courage on both people’s parts.

Another conflict is that Sebastian, for all of his philandering and raking about, has been in love with Violet for years. Meanwhile Violet, believing herself undesirable and also just plain too busy with her work, has survived a horrible marriage and has sworn off romantic relationships with people both for her heart and her body’s safety.

Quick note – If you may be triggered by discussions of domestic violence and miscarriage, please skip past this book or make sure you’re in a good place mentally before reading. It isn’t gratuitous by any means but Violet’s experiences are treated with the correct amount of solemnity and her grief may be especially hard for people who can relate to her circumstance.

The challenges these characters have faced, in their personal lives and with each other, makes their Happily Ever After all the more satisfying. I also appreciated that the HEA for Violet includes recognition and professional happiness just as much as romantic happiness. Milan does a brilliant job of ensuring that each of her characters have lives outside of their relationships while still making the romance a driving force of the plot. Every book in this series would be interesting enough to read without the romance just based on the characters and their challenges, but the romance doesn’t feel unnecessary or forced. Courtney Milan is an author whose books have yet to disappoint and is one of the few authors I automatically and without reservations recommend when people are dipping into the Romance genre.

I will be writing a review for two more of the books in this series (including the first one) coming up so look for more Milan gushing then!