stuff I read

Daring and the Duke by Sarah MacLean (The Bareknuckle Bastards #3)

35855655

Summary from Goodreads:
New York Times bestselling author Sarah MacLean returns with the much-anticipated final book in her Bareknuckle Bastards series, featuring a scoundrel duke and the powerful woman who brings him to his knees.

Grace Condry has spent a lifetime running from her past. Betrayed as a child by her only love and raised on the streets, she now hides in plain sight as queen of London’s darkest corners. Grace has a sharp mind and a powerful right hook and has never met an enemy she could not best…until the man she once loved returns.

Single-minded and ruthless, Ewan, Duke of Marwick, has spent a decade searching for the woman he never stopped loving. A long-ago gamble may have lost her forever, but Ewan will go to any lengths to win Grace back…and make her his duchess.

Reconciliation is the last thing Grace desires. Unable to forgive the past, she vows to take her revenge. But revenge requires keeping Ewan close, and soon her enemy seems to be something else altogether—something she can’t resist, even as he threatens the world she’s built, the life she’s claimed…and the heart she swore he’d never steal again.

Not gonna lie, I almost peed myself when the galley for Daring and the Duke went up on Edelweiss. (It took me a week or so to get to because work and other things like finishing up a shawl I’d been knitting for over six years, but I digress.)

Here’s the deal. You can certainly read Daring and the Duke without having read the two previous books, Wicked and the Wallflower and Brazen and the Beast, but I think this is a series that brings greater rewards if you read all the books in order. Each book brings another layer to the backstory of three brothers brought together to compete for a dukedom and the girl who loves them, one brother in particular. Over the course of Wicked and Brazen we are given Devil’s and Whit’s version of the night that Ewan won the dukedom and tried to kill them – and Grace – as children but Sarah withheld Grace’s perspective, as well as Ewan’s, until this book. And it is one that is a gamechanger.

At the end of Brazen, a grief-crazed Ewan blew up part of the London docks and seriously injured Hattie (he previously locked Devil in the ice hold in Wicked). Ewan, having been told that Grace is dead, has nothing left. And this is how Grace’s team catches him and secretes him in an upper floor of her women’s pleasure club. Grace, against her better judgement, isn’t done with Ewan.

This is where Daring and the Duke starts, during Dominion at Grace’s club with Ewan upstairs in the aftermath of Brazen. She’s been watching over him – secretly – while he sleeps but when Ewan wakes just as she’s leaving…he knows Grace is alive and tears through the door to try and find her. While he’s quickly subdued, Grace needs to mete out vengeance.

In the boxing ring.

Grace supported herself and her brothers on the streets of Covent Garden as a bare-knuckle boxer and she can still pack a mean punch. So she puts Ewan in the ring and proceeds to beat the hell out of him (and I got the feeling that a part of him lets her do it). And better Grace to do this than Whit who would prefer to carve Ewan up with his knives for harming Hattie. At the end of this beating, Grace sends Ewan away. Are they finished?

Not hardly. A year later – with Hattie healed and Devil and Felicity welcoming their first baby – Ewan returns a very different man. This man has hope. He has a future again. He wants Grace in it. And he’s prepared to do anything she asks and any amount of grovelling to make good on the promises he made as a child.

And I can’t say anything else without spoiling it! Daring and the Duke is far too good to spoil even a tiny bit. I tore through this book in one sitting. It’s sexy, so very sexy (one word: throne). Even among the lineup of Sarah’s incredibly strong and proactive heroines Grace stands out both with her strength and her vulnerability. To be a woman on those Covent Garden streets, even one as strong as Grace, risks being destroyed by showing any weak spots. I think it goes without saying that Ewan is Grace’s weak spot, as Ewan has already demonstrated that his weak link is Grace. Daring is a dark book, possibly darker than the first two, but lightness is added through Grace’s relationships with her employees – who enjoy calling her on her bullshit – and her brothers – who like all brothers everywhere tease their sister.

Now, I’ve mentioned grovelling. This is a Grovel Novel. Ewan has a lot to answer for, even with explanation of why he has been the villainous antagonist in the two previous book, and Grace putting him in the ring then in Cold Storage (that Sarah MacLean Special gets used on the page, loved it) is only the beginning. In my opinion as a reader, I think enough grovelling occurred for Ewan to deserve Grace (although, as with Sera’s and Haven’s book, he probably still needed punched more, maybe in the balls a couple times) so Sarah delivered on her Hero Rehab. But this is a very Your Mileage May Vary opinion. Some people don’t go in for rehabbing a villain, some really love it. If you were into Devil in Winter or Lothaire you’ll probably like Ewan and Grace. My opinion: PLEASE TO HAVE MORE, but only if Sarah writes it.

Daring and the Duke is out today, June 30! Your wait is over! Go buy it (safely) from your bookstore, order it, ask your library to stock on their shelves and their electronic lending system.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but you bet your sweet bippy I also have a copy preordered on my Nook.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Duke Darcy’s Castle by Syrie James (Dare to Defy #3) – a blog tour review with Austenprose!

Duke Darcy Castle by Syrie James 2020

Lance Granville, the Tenth Duke of Darcy, was none too happy to give up his career in the Royal Navy to inherit the family title, complete with an ancient castle he needs to renovate. When an architect arrives on his doorstep, Darcy is astonished to discover that she’s a woman.

Kathryn Atherton has one goal: to become the first woman architect in Britain. Marriage doesn’t figure in her plans. Despite the odds, her schooling is behind her. Now she needs experience. When she’s sent to a small tidal island in Cornwall to remodel a castle, the last thing Kathryn wants is to be attracted to its roguishly handsome owner.

Kathryn is determined to keep things professional, but the sizzling attraction between her and the duke quickly blazes out of control. When Darcy learns that Kathryn is an heiress whose fortune would save St. Gabriel’s Mount, he wages the most important battle of his life: to woo and win the woman who’s captured his heart. But (in an homage to Austen), the Duke’s first proposal is so Darcyesque, he is refused. In any case, duchesses can’t be architects. And Kathryn has worked too long and too hard to give up her career for anyone….

Kathryn Atherton, architect, is sent in her boss’s stead to a tidal island off Cornwall to consult on the renovation of…a castle! She’s almost a licensed architect, almost, the first in Britain, and this will certainly be a boost in her career. She arrives at St. Gabriel’s Mount to meet the Duke of Darcy, who not only answers his own front door but also mistakes her for the new schoolteacher in the village.

Lance Granville has been the Duke of Darcy for only a few weeks after the sudden death of his elder brother. The duchy is drowning in debt, the estate drastically reduced and mortgaged, and Lance really doesn’t have the time (or money) for an architect to renovate the castle. Especially if said architect is a woman. He would much rather escape back to his Navy command. But Miss Atherton is talented and persuasive so Lance agrees to let her remain for the agreed three weeks to develop the renovation plans (although he really has no intention of putted the scheme in to action).

Soon enough, Lance learns that Kathryn is a richer-than-rich American heiress, with a proposed dowry to the tune of seven figures in American dollars. If he marries her, her dowry will not only save the duchy but put the village to rights. So Lance proposes – badly. Kathryn a) does not intend to give up her career to swan around as a duchess and b) she will only marry for love. Lance is chastened – his grandmother puts it in perspective for me – but determined not to give up. Although he isn’t exactly forthcoming about the duchy’s financial woes, an omission that will come back to haunt him later.

Duke Darcy’s Castle is a very sweet romance between an architect and Modern Woman and a brand-new duke (he used to be in the Navy). The romance is medium-steamy, with a lot of good, feminist sentiment about working women and women’s roles (I did love Lance’s grandmother quite a lot who is in Kathryn’s corner from the get-go). The plot trips along very neatly – with a couple of fun interludes where the couple gets to interact with each other – and ties up nicely, but the tension between hero and heroine didn’t quite pay off to my satisfaction. It felt unbalanced in a way – he had to prove he wasn’t a twerp or out for her money (which, lets be honest, would this love story have happened had he not learned she was worth seven figures?) while she had to decide that adding a ranking title to her fortune would unlock many doors for her as an architect who also happened to be woman. Lance’s first “Darcy-esque” proposal was excellent. The setting of a castle on a tidal island – based on the real-life St. Michael’s Mout – was quite unique.

Duke Darcy’s Castle is the third book in the Dare to Defy series, which follows three unconventional American heiress sisters. I haven’t read the first two books, Runaway Heiress and Summer of Scandal, but I was able to get the gist of the connections easily enough so don’t worry about getting caught up before reading this one. The sisters do make an appearance in Duke Darcy’s Castle but the plot doesn’t spoil any of the particulars of their books.

Dare to Defy series James

AUTHOR BIO:

Syrie JamesAuthorPhoto2012SYRIE JAMES is the USA TODAY and Amazon bestselling author of thirteen novels of historical, contemporary, and young adult fiction and romance. Her books have hit many Best of the Year lists, been designated as Library Journal Editor’s Picks, and won numerous accolades and awards, including Best New Fiction by Regency World Magazine (the international bestseller “The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen”), and the national Audiobook Audie for Romance (“The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte”, also named a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association). Los Angeles Magazine dubbed Syrie the “queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings,” and her books have been published in twenty languages. A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, Syrie is also an established screenwriter and playwright who makes her home in Los Angeles. An admitted Anglophile, Syrie has addressed audiences across the U.S., Canada, and the British Isles.

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB

Duke Darcy’s Castle was released on ebook from Avon Impulse on February 25 – the mass market paperback will be released March 24, 2020.

I’m participating in a blog tour with Laurel Ann at Austenprose! See the Austenprose review and a schedule for other features and reviews.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss

mini-review · stuff I read

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

32075861._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Sarah Perry’s award-winning novel, set at the end of the nineteenth century and inspired by true events.

Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne’s spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.

The Essex Serpent is a book that I had a galley for, didn’t get to it, bought it when it came out, didn’t read it, ran across the audiobook on the library Overdrive site, gave it two tries to get through it, and finally polished off the last 50 pages by aforementioned hardcover.

On premise, and a lot of the individual writing, the story in The Essex Serpent ought to be so far up my wheelhouse its not funny.

Victorian? Check. Mysterious monster? Check. Ladies being awesome? Check. Absolutely gorgeous cover? Check, check, and check.

But it just wouldn’t READ. It plods along back and forth from London to Aldwinter, letters sent and letters received. I found it very hard to care about the motivations of the characters and I could definitely have done without the surgeon plot line. Eliminating him would have taken out at least one of the dudes who seem placed in this book solely to want into Cora Seabourne’s knickers 🙄

Dear FTC: You saw it above.

mini-review · stuff I read

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London by Claire Harman

40909430Summary from Goodreads:
From the acclaimed biographer–the fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London’s highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell’s valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales–Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William’s murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

I enjoyed Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë so I was tickled to see Murder by the Book come up in the catalogs. It is a delightful mashup of true crime and my favorite genre, books about books. Harman gets at the class worries of upper class early-Victorian London with the grisly murder of a harmless old man (in the ways of British aristocracy, Lord William Russell was pretty innocuous) by his valet (GASP). In among the description of the crime and investigation is a discussion of the unbelievably popular Newgate novels romanticizing criminals’ exploits, particularly that of Jack Sheppard, which has many echoes today in the fraught discussion of the effect of violent and/or radicalized media on consumers. Harman perhaps should have left off the “I shall try to suss out what really happened” epilogue since it’s pretty thin and doesn’t add much to the book.

Murder by the Book is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Reading Women · stuff I read

Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

33894921Summary from Goodreads:
From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.

I picked up a galley of Victoria the Queen at BEA in 2016 and it, unfortunately, has been in a pile of to-read books ever since. But I recently found it on the library’s Libby site, so I decided to give it a read. Baird has done a remarkable job reconstructing the inner life of a woman whose family and official biographers tried to mold into the myth she had become. Victoria was remarkably contradictory in her views, believing that she had the right to tell her ministers what to do and shape foreign policy yet felt inferior to her husband and didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, etc. (which I was surprised to learn).

(The audiobook narrator was dreadfully slow – I had the speed kicked up to 2.25x by the end – and had terrible German pronunciation.)

Dear FTC: I had a galley of this book from BEA but wound up borrowing the audiobook from the library.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens

36950013Summary from Goodreads:
History meets memoir in two irresistible true-life romances–one set in 19th century Rome, one in present-day Paris and London–linked by a bond between women writers a hundred years apart

In 1857, English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell completed her most famous work: the biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte. As publication loomed, Mrs. Gaskell was keen to escape the reviews. So, leaving her dull minister husband and dreary provincial city behind, she set off with her daughters to Rome. There she met a dazzling group of artists and writers, among them the American critic Charles Eliot Norton. Seventeen years her junior, Norton was her one true love. They could not be together–it would be an unthinkable breach of convention–but by his side and amidst that splendid circle, Mrs. Gaskell knew she had reached the “tip-top point of [her] life.”
In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD–about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-19th century–and falling head over heels for a soulful American screenwriter in another city. As her long-distance romance founders and her passion for academia never quite materializes, she is drawn to Mrs. Gaskell. Could this indomitable Victorian author rescue Nell’s pursuit of love, family and a writing career?
Lively, witty, and impossible to put down, The Victorian and the Romantic is a moving chronicle of two women each charting a way of life beyond the rules of her time.

I was interested in The Victorian and the Romantic because I liked Stevens’s previous work Bleaker House, a memoir of her summer in the Falklands while writing her thesis, and also the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (CranfordNorth and SouthWives and Daughters). Well, this is a fine book. The construction is probably more of an acquired taste. Stevens chose to use a combination of memoir and imaginative biography (biographical novella) combining Stevens’s work for her PhD about 19th century artists, her love for Gaskell’s work, and the unfulfilled love affair (?) between Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton. The result is a strange hodge-podge of styles. The choice to use 2nd person narration for the Gaskell bio sections took a while to get used to and in the end I’m not sure it worked that well.

The Victorian and the Romantic is out August 7.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.