A Quickie: The Guilty Pleasures of Amanda Quick

Amanda Quick’s romances are a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. Like a Lauren Willig novel, Quick writes romances with just enough action and mystery in the plot to make them an overall fun read. Her heroines are independent women for their time (usually Regency or Victorian eras) and the men often have some flaws to keep them from being too perfect. Also, unlike so many romances, the conflict always comes from an outside force, not frustrating miscommunication between the main characters. For a little break from reading for work, I recently read two Quick romances. One was good, the other not so much.

The first Quick novel I read was The Mystery Woman and I slugged through it. What was supposed to be a quick read (see what I did there), took months because I put it down- something I have never done with any of her books. The mystery plot was weak and relied too much on one character’s “psychical talent”. I was also really disappointed in the lack of chemistry between the main characters. I made myself finish out of principle, but do yourself a favor and skip it. For the record though, I would recommend Crystal Gardens, the first of the Ladies of Lantern Street series if you like supernatural romances.

engaged
Onto Otherwise Engaged! I didn’t realize it, but it’s been YEARS since Quick has written a non-supernatural romance. I kind of missed ones like this.

Amity Doncaster is an independent, world traveling woman of the world (well, by Victorian standards). On a boat trip through the Caribbean, she happens on a wounded man in an alley. Benedict Stanbridge hands her a letter and tells her to make sure it makes it off the island as he believes he has been fatally wounded. Amity, the daughter of a doctor, does not give up on Benedict so easily and safely transports both the letter and him to the ship. Over the next couple weeks while sailing to New York, Amity nurses him back to health and they grow closer. Once they reach port, Benedict leaves for California with a promise to find her again in London- her final destination.

Weeks go by and Amity still has no word from Benedict, but those who move in polite society have a lot to say about them. Somehow word of the time they spent alone together on the ship is making the rounds among the town gossips. Though not bothered by her slightly tarnished reputation, Amity is worried about Benedict. Her fears for him are only put aside when she is attacked in a carriage. Benedict arrives in London just after the attempt on her life and wonders if it is connected to what happened in the Caribbean. They decide to investigate together under the guise of an engaged couple to excuse all the time they will spend together. Of course, Amity and Benedict have great chemistry so maybe it isn’t just pretend. Before they can really explore their feelings though, they need to figure out who wants them dead.

Otherwise Engaged was a fun way to burn a couple hours. If you enjoy romances or even light thrillers (think creepy killers, but maybe not the most literary fare) check this one out.

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Endless Love: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

I listened to this a little while ago and when time passed, I figured I would skip reviewing it. Facing Valentine’s Day and because it really is a good read, I changed my mind.

My former roommate recommended Susanna Kearsley to me a couple years ago. Through an award I was judging, I had the opportunity to listen to The Winter Sea. While I have previously confessed on this blog my fondness for historical romances featuring heroines with more modern sensibilities, I do have to say straight-up romances sometimes leave me annoyed. In The Winter Sea Kearsley presented romance in both our time and in 1708, jumping between time periods as she often does in her books I have been told. Though hesitant, I pressed on in large part due to Rosalyn Landor’s wonderful narration.

The Winter Sea begins when Carrie McClelland, a writer in our time, decides to abandon France as the setting for her next book and instead travels to Scotland to research the attempted Jacobite uprising of 1708. Once there, she finds herself mysteriously drawn to the ruins of Slains Castle. The pull goes beyond historical interest as Carrie’s vivid dreams of past events in the area seem to actually be memories of another person- Sophie Paterson, a distant relative.

In 1708, Sophie Paterson is a young woman living with family in Slains Castle. Though not a part of it, she is aware her family members and their peers are plotting to bring Prince James, “The Pretender”, to England to challenge Queen Anne for the throne. James has been recognized by the French and the Catholic Church as King James III of England and King James the VIII of Scotland. In the swirl of intrigue and deception surrounding her, Sophie meets John Murray.

Sophie and John’s relationship grows into a deep love even as the political plotting becomes more dangerous. Kearsley gives readers a nice blend of romance, rich historical detail, and real characters but never “dumbs it down”. I stayed awake too late more than a few nights because I was so caught up in Sophie and John’s tale in particular.

In the present, handsome history professor Graham provides Carrie with a romance all her own. The relationship is a nice side story to Sophie and John’s without being a wasted story arc or too distracting. Kearsley handles the balance well by not creating unnecessary drama in this relationship allowing Carrie, and the reader, to focus on Sophie, John, and the planned rebellion. Lauren Willig should take notes for her series.

A couple twists along the way made me unsure what I thought of the story, but, ultimately, I have to say this was finely crafted historical romance. If you have a chance to listen to Rosalyn Landor read it, I recommend her highly. Her narration lent to the pace and feel of the scenes and her ability to give each character, including the men, distinctive voices was outstanding.

The Lovely and Mysterious Garden of Lauren Willig

The last week has been BUSY here in the land of books and festivals… and Book Festivals. My last post was a huge hint as to what I have been reading for something frothy and stress free-smut. Over the last week I escaped a bit with The Orchid Affair, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and The Temptation of the Night Jasmine in that order- the wrong order as it turned out.

The general premise of Willig’s series is Eloise, a young woman in contemporary times, is researching espionage of the Napoleonic Wars in a world where the exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel were real. As her research unfolds, she discovers more spies with a nom de fleur (as it were). Each entry in the series tells the tale of another plot and the resulting unintended love match with patches of Eloise and her own love life interspersed.

Willig’s degree in History takes these from typical “historical romance” fare to something a little more engaging. As I said, I was not paying attention and read these three in reverse order but I will present them in the proper sequence.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine
The romantic stage is set for Charlotte Lansdowne and Robert, Duke of Dovedale in the fifth entry into the series. Charlotte fell in love with Robert, her cousin (distant, we are assured), while she was not yet a teen before he abruptly left the family estate for India. Years passed without much word of her knight errant until he unexpectedly reappears on Christmas Eve. There is a prolonged make-out session before Robert splits to pursue vengeance unbeknownst to Charlotte, who is left to wonder where her hero has gone.

The intrigue in this one revolves around the betrayal of Robert’s mentor and father-figure in India. His killer, the Night Jasmine, is a flowery spy for the French who is plotting against the English monarchy by kidnapping “mad” King George. Aiding the French traitor is the Hellfire Club, a secret society of noble men who could hardly be called such.

This was my least favorite of the three and does not rank high in the series as a whole for me. Still, the characters are likeable and the plot is cleverly based on historical record, so I had no trouble finishing it. The return of some familiar characters was a fun addition that was well executed. The romance was so-so. A childhood crush and some kissing with a lot of misunderstandings might work for many romances, but I have always liked Willig for making the drama more about the rich historical plots not over-emotional characters.

The Betrayal of the Blood Lily
Penelope, who is actually introduced in Night Jasmine, has ruined her reputation and finds herself Lady Fredrick Staines. As the story opens she has just arrived in India with her foolish, idle, and debauched husband Freddy. In Freddy, Willig has created a truly detestable character- which is great because she also introduces his perfect foil, Captain Alex Reid. The romance between Alex and Penelope builds slowly and is very well written. I really enjoyed this plot. The love triangle (maybe entanglement?), the non-traditional locale, and the very tricky emotions involved were deftly handled by Willig.

Penelope, due to Freddy’s position, finds herself embroiled in the messy politics of Colonial India. With native and British factions fighting to different ends, Pen quickly sees what her thick, spoiled husband does not. She reluctantly learns from Captain Reid, who was born and raised in India, the English vision of India isn’t quite reality. Unfortunately, the stakes are high and men will fall before the traitor is outed.

Props to Willig for creating a complicated relationship and placing it in any other part of the British Empire than the British Isles- especially for choosing India. If it was not for the appearance of Charlotte and Robert stopping in for a visit near the end, it could almost be forgotten this was part of a very English series. I also appreciate the way Pen’s character develops from a hard but lost young lady to a tough, mature, and independent woman.

The Orchid Affair
Laura Grey, former governess, is a recent graduate of the Selwick Spy School. Her first assignment? Governess to the children of Andre Jaouen, aide to Gaston Delaroche, Bonaparte’s minister of police, to uncover whether factions in France are attempting to restore the monarchy. Though positioned behind enemy lines, at first the most she has to fear is losing her patience with the children. As factors lead her to suspect Jaouen, Laura also finds herself struggling to believe the man she sees at home he is an enemy. As events unfold, Laura and Jaouen must escape from the ruthless Delaroche and warn the royalists and the English.

The romance and espionage combine wonderfully in this entry. I found Andre’s character especially well thought-out. Neither historical nor modern lit often look at disillusioned revolutionaries, of which there must have been many. Andre, a lawyer who believed in “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, fought for the revolution only to watch as his republican ideals were laid to waste by cruel and power crazed men like Robespierre. I found the “ever after” in this one particularly happy and fitting.

In regards to the series as a whole, there is one aspect that bothers me. The Eloise plot lines have become an unwelcome interruption. Willig’s historical characters are usually interesting enough and well placed in exciting situations. She then douses the reader periodically with cold water in the form of Eloise, who is constantly worrying about her boyfriend, who is actually perfect except for his spoiled family. At this point, I skim these pages to have a general idea of whether she and her boyfriend are still together and get an idea of what his family is plotting this time around.

Complaint aside, Willig is one of my favorite romance writers publishing today. Who are some of your favorite romance writers?

In Praise of Smut…

**This post originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Review Direct**

“Novels that pander/To my taste for candor/Give me a pleasure sublime.” –Tom Lehrer, Smut

This week marks a great day in literature, for me at least. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition was released with the author’s preferred text! (Read my review here)Being one of the few books to actually stay in my ever shifting Top Five book list, the excitement for an expanded edition has me all a twitter.

I suppose at this point I should back up and explain that I do not in any way consider American Gods “smut”. Please, give me a bit of leeway. I will get there.

As much as I love to support my local, independent bookstore when I purchase books, I had a pesky Amazon gift certificate that needed to be used. So, I decided to put it to use with a preorder of American Gods.

My karmic penance was swift. The book was not delivered on the release date. But, I had cleared my reading schedule and was ready to go! Now what? Starting something too engaging did not seem like a good idea given the eminent arrival of this new edition and the workload I had returned to after a conference in DC last week. A good story at the end of the day was essential, though.

There was one clear choice: get a smutty book from the library. That’s right, I read smut. I have degrees in History and International Relations and a minor in Russian/Eastern European Studies, but sometimes I really like a good, ol’ romance. This is my first public declaration of my fondness for the genre.

For the sake of this discussion I think Urban Dictionary has the most adept definition:

“Smut: Highly developed stories with love lines and other things that appeal to women that also include a lot of sexually explicit scenes…”

Voracious even in my youth, I read whatever I could get my hands on and sometimes my hands landed on my mom’s historical romances. In one summer night I could often read, cover to cover, the thrilling tale of a woman in an unfortunate circumstance who overcame obstacles, was thrown into the arms of her great love (sometimes literally), and got her happy ending. They weren’t penny dreadfuls, but they were as close as this modern girl could get.

These days I prefer the likes of Amanda Quick, Lauren Willig, and a handful of others whose historical romances primarily feature slightly older wonks (imagine that) who find their not so mainstream heroes in ways that allow them to be part of the adventure, not just a bystander waiting to be saved. There is just something so inviting about occasionally losing yourself in these tales. The historical detail varies from just enough to be believable to plots that revolve around very real historical events with the fictional characters dropped in (these are mostly found with Willig, who has a graduate degree from Harvard). The romances are not overwrought with obstacles stemming from misunderstandings, but with intrigue and mystery. When I finished War and Peace, I followed it with an Amanda Quick novel. It is like a RomCom movie after a long, trying day.

I live and work in books. Some of my closest friends are wonderful, bright, and clever people. Great books are my life and I am lucky enough to have intelligent discourse in abundance, but sometimes I just need a mental break. I want a story I can simply enjoy, but with characters who are not insipid. I find that in a certain smut.

Am I the only bibliophile to find secret pleasure in a little romp through the romance section?