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: A Wreath of Snow by Liz Curtis Higgs

I read A Wreath of Snow to fulfill the Sherlock Holmes Times (aka Victorian era) requirement for the Reading Embrace. It was a novella, a trend you may be picking up on at this point. Basically I hit a certain month (I want to say November) and realized I was roughly 19 books behind schedule so I started just binging novellas. It isn’t cheating because it is still books!

The synopsis for this novella was a little darker than I expected. The heroine, Margaret Campbell, is heading back to her home instead of spending Christmas with her family because her brother is an utter shit. He’s rude, demanding, and critical and no one feels they can criticize him because he’s been this way since he was paralyzed from the waist down when a drunken curler yeeted a stone at his back by accident when he was 10. Margaret has always blamed herself because she was there and his big sister but couldn’t protect him or make it better. Now she feels guilty because she can’t bring herself to stay and deal with her brother’s assholery and to that I say brava. There need to be more stories with characters who don’t let family treat them like crap just because they share blood and it’s the holidays. Unfortunately for Margaret her plans are halted when their train hits too much snow and she and the rest of the passengers are forced to walk back to town.

Also on this train is Mr. Gordon, an attractive newspaperman who keeps glancing at Margaret as if he knows her but won’t introduce himself. They finally get to know each other as they walk back though it takes him awhile to share an important truth with her – He isn’t “Mr. Gordon” as he’s been letting her call him, he is Gordon Shaw, the man who drunkenly maimed her brother in a Christmas curling accident years before. He fled town after that horrible accident when he was not allowed to apologize or try and make amends and his family left as well which he always felt was because of his reputation.

The two get back safely where Margaret is met by her parents who are not critical as she would anticipate but instead very grateful she is safe and eager to invite her, and the handsome stranger who walked with her, to their home for Christmas. Margaret begs Gordon not to ruin her family’s Christmas by sharing the truth with them but all comes out, including a family secret no one could have anticipated.

I don’t read many stories where redemption is a primary theme. It was also a very chaste romance and felt almost like an Inspirational Romance but I can’t say for sure it was because I haven’t read any of those. It was a fairly quick read and it didn’t make much of an impression on me but it was pleasant and fit the season well.

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.