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Alexis Hall, A Lady for a Duke

This historical was truly amazing—and I think it will become a classic in the genre. It was wonderful to read a historical romance with a trans heroine and I hope that, after Viola, we see more books in the genre with trans main characters.

As I often proclaim, I am trash for childhood friends-to-lovers and so, going into this read, I was super excited that this book was going to feature one of my favorite tropes. And this trope worked so well for Viola and Gracewood’s story; childhood friends to lovers always involves the two main characters reuniting but having to rediscover each other and that aspect of the trope melded perfectly with their story.

The set-up of the book is that, two years before, Viola and Gracewood fought in the battle of Waterloo. Viola is wounded in battle and, by the time that she recovers, she is presumed dead—and she seizes this opportunity to finally live as herself. She gives up her title, her wealth, and her relationship with her best friend, Gracewood, to live as the person she has always truly been: Viola Carroll. She returns to live at her ancestral estate not as its heir, but as the paid companion to her sister-in-law, Lady Marleigh. Therefore, when she does encounter Gracewood again, he has to relearn who Viola is and how she is a different person (now and in the past) from the friend that he loved so much and thought he knew so well.

Gracewood also returns to Viola changed—he has been traumatized psychologically and physically by fighting in Waterloo and has been marked deeply by his grief over losing her in that battle. When they reencounter each other, he is still in the depths of that sorrow and struggling to find his footing in pretty much every way. As Gracewood and Viola come back to one another and build a relationship based on their new and true selves, A Lady for a Duke totally soars. There isn’t unnecessary angst or suffering (and Viola being trans thankfully—and very intentionally according to Hall’s author’s note—is not the central conflict in the narrative), but that doesn’t mean that this book doesn’t have high stakes. For these two characters, the stakes feel so high. Their relationship is so special and, as a reader, the idea that they wouldn’t work out is unbearable. Even though I knew that there was an HEA coming (of course!!), I was so invested in Viola and Gracewood finding happiness.

Overall, Hall creates a gorgeous, affecting love story here. A Lady for a Duke is, in my opinion, required reading for anyone devoted to historical romance as a genre and was, start to finish, an absorbing, incredible read. Also, the epilogue was one of the best I have ever read. Highly recommend!

Adriana Herrera, A Caribbean Heiress in Paris

I LOVED this book. First, I just need to highlight the historical research that went into this work—in some historicals, careful research is palpable and A Caribbean Heiress in Paris is one of those books. From the handling of European colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean to the rendering of the rum and whiskey businesses, Herrera just gives us such a strong sense of history, this particular time period, and the stakes inherent to her characters' lives. It was a real pleasure to read for this reason and I would recommend this book for the handling of history alone.

That said, this vivid historical setting unfolds alongside a searing hot, hot, hot love connection between Evan and Luz Alana!! They have smoldering chemistry and this book was SO steamy—they even have sex at the Eiffel Tower....YES. I loved how they were both distillers—Luz Alana makes rum and is beginning a cordials business based on her grandmother’s recipes and Evan is devoted to making whiskey. They just really seemed like a perfect match from the beginning.

Herrera also delves into the inherent political tension in their relationship with subtlety and grace. She shows Evan having to confront and acknowledge how much more privilege and power he is afforded as a white Scottish man than Luz Alana is as an Afro-Latina woman from the Dominican Republic. He also learns to listen to Luz Alana in scenarios where she is experiencing racism and sexism and how to follow her lead instead of trying to assert control. I really appreciated the depth and nuance in their conversations about race, gender, and colonialism and how it effects their identities and personal histories. I also thought the depiction of Luz’s entrance into Scotland as a kind of complicated homecoming was really compelling and well done—her father was Scottish, so Luz has a very personal connection to this country that she has never seen before. The scene where she visits the beach on Evan's estate and holds the Scottish and Hispaniola coastlines in her mind at once was really powerful.

The marriage between Luz and Evan begins as one of convenience (although they agree from the start that they will be intimate during their time together) and that aspect of the book was just delicious. Also, if you don’t like third act breakups, then I very much suggest this romance. I was bracing myself for the break up in the third act and I was so glad when it never came. I am not against third act breakups by any means, and I think certain relationships really need it, but these two didn’t—it just would have been too painful and not in a good way. To me, the lack of a third act break up showed how well Herrera knows her characters. I loved that, instead, Luz and Evan have conflict in the third act but that it isn’t a big tumultuous separation. The third act felt very true to their dynamic and, for this reason, this third was actually my favorite part of the book.

I really recommend this book, especially if you love 19th century historicals but yearn for a more global cast of characters, don’t like third-act break ups, or love steamy connections. If all three of these descriptors apply to you as they do to me, then you are sure to love A Caribbean Heiress in Paris!!!

Joanna Shupe, The Bride Goes Rogue

The Bride Goes Rogue was my first Joanna Shupe and I was not disappointed! This book was REALLY sexy and I very much enjoyed the scenes between Preston and Katherine. I also really liked the clever set-up here: Katherine and Preston’s fathers betrothed them as children and, for the past year, Katherine has presumed that they would be married (it doesn’t hurt that she has seen Preston from afar and finds him very attractive). When her father encourages her to visit Preston’s office to discuss wedding dates, Katherine decides to do just that—but Preston quickly tells her in no uncertain terms that they will never get married. He hates her father for abandoning his father when his business began to fail and so he wants nothing to do with Katherine or her family.

In amazing Romance novel fashion, however, Preston and Katherine soon meet again. Angry about Preston rejecting her, Katherine decides to go to a masked ball at Madison Square Garden and have a steamy liaison with whoever strikes her fancy. When she sees a handsome man in a mask, they go to his private rooms and have a very heated encounter, keeping their identities anonymous. When they decide to meet up for a second tryst the next day (sans masks!), Katherine quickly discovers that, of course, the handsome gentleman is Preston—and he is just as shocked as she is. The rest of the book features these two trying to reconcile their deep attraction for one another with the history between their fathers.

All in all, it is a really juicy premise and I enjoyed it immensely. I also loved the old New York setting. At one point, Katherine and Preston go up to the Hudson Valley to their vacation homes there and I adored this novel setting as well.

My only quibble with this book concerned certain aspects of the emotional dynamic between Katherine and Preston. I thought Preston held out a bit too long in his resolution not to marry Katherine when he was clearly obsessed with her. I almost wanted them to get married sooner and I felt that would have been more satisfying and exciting to me from a historical and narrative tension perspective--they are living in this restrictive society, etc., and I would have liked if Preston had freaked out more about having compromised Katherine, who is very much a debutante type. That said, I mostly read 18th century, Regency, and Victorian romances set in Great Britain/Europe, and so that might have been a difference between the historicals I am used to and the time period of The Bride Goes Rogue. Most of my context for the Gilded Age is Edith Wharton novels, so it is definitely a period I know less about. Generally, I think these characters skewed super modern in their sensibilities (but, again, maybe I just think that because of what I am used to reading--the Gilded Age is a lot closer to the present than, say, a Regency) and so I would definitely recommend this book to readers who like historicals that have a more contemporary feel.

The Bride Goes Rogue was a great historical romance with A+ steam and I think it will please readers (like myself!!!) who want a historical that won't skimp in any way on heat.

Updated: May 21

[CW: fatphobia; imperialist/colonialist thinking; generally misogynistic characterization; nonconsensual kissing]

The inspiration to read The Husband Hunters by Barbara Cartland for my #historicalhistorical series struck quite organically. I am at my grandmother’s house this week and she has a collection of vintage historicals, including a bunch of Cartlands (the house is near the beach, so most of these books weren't actually bought by my grandmother, but are titles that others have left behind over the years and that her own mother, a voracious romance reader in the 80s and 90s, used to devour). I had seen Barbara Cartland books in used bookstores before and I was always struck by their sheer number—and I know that Cartland is famous for being prolific. When I found these Cartland books on the shelves here this week, I decided it was time to read one of them for this series. It also helped that most of them are about 160 pages and I knew I’d be able to slip in this read even though I am busy this week with family.

I had six Cartlands to choose from (see picture above!!) and I decided on The Husband Hunters because of the title. I liked that it was so straightforward and, for that reason, it seemed like the most approachable of the six options to me. The premise is similarly uncomplicated. Andrina and her two younger sisters, Cheryl and Sharon, have been orphaned and have little money, although they come from a genteel family with distant aristocratic roots; Andrina decides that she and her sisters will go to London and throw themselves on the kindness of her absentee godfather, the Duke of Broxbourne, in order to enter London society and find husbands. Andrina imagines this mission as being expressly for her younger sisters, who she classifies as more beautiful than herself (although Andrina acknowledges that she is pretty, too—it is just that she sees her sisters as extraordinarily gorgeous whereas she possess [allegedly] only a normal level of beauty). Of course, Andrina ends up falling in love with the Duke (who, in fact, is not the same Duke as her godfather, but his young and handsome son) and they find their HEA.

So, what did I think of Barbara Cartland? Well, it probably doesn't surprise you that I found a lot not to like here. (Selection for my #historicalhistorical series itself is always an indication that I expect to find at least some problematic elements. Additionally, this book was published in 1976; I knew better than to expect any spice and I was correct in that assumption. And I fully admit that if you added sex scenes to this plot, I’d be 50% more interested). In addition to fatphobic elements and discussion of a necklace made in India as “barbaric-looking,” the dynamic between the hero and heroine is, in many ways, very typical of an old school historical at its least reflective—hero and heroine meet, he kisses her without her consent, she thinks he is arrogant and entitled, he calls her an idiot a thousand times, she realizes she loves him, they get married, the end.

The characterization of Andrina’s sisters is one of the most bonkers elements of this novel. The way the narrator describes Cheryl, the blond beauty, verges on misogynistic; Andrina talks about how sensitive Cheryl is and how much she loves her, but then Cartland will also have her think things such as the following: “[Cheryl] looked so lovely that it was hard for people, once they had met her, to realise she made little contribution to the conversation, or that nothing she said, if she did speak, was worth remembering.” Poor Cheryl! She is described as dumb, incompetent, weak, shallow, and too sensitive for the world. After Cheryl becomes engaged to the man she has loved since childhood, the narrator writes (again, from Andrina’s point of view): “Yet, looking at [Cheryl] now, her fear and unhappiness swept away as if by magic, it was impossible not to know that it was Hugo she loved, if she was capable of loving anyone very deeply” (emphasis mine)(133). Why are we treating Cheryl this way?!?! Are we really questioning her ability to love deeply? What did she ever do to suggest she is incapable of deep love?? It just seems unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the youngest sister, Sharon, is vaguely Orientalized throughout the novel—seemingly to contrast her with the “English rose” beauty and vacant appeal of Cheryl. The narrator talks about how Sharon resembles a long-lost “Spanish” ancestor and how she appears “exotic” after she has primped for a ball—on her wedding day, Cartland describes Sharon as looking like a “Persian Princess.” She also falls in love with and marries a Russian diplomat/nobleman, furthering confirming her "foreign" persona within the narrative. Ultimately, the sisters are rife with this kind of lazy and at times offensive characterization.

The main couple doesn't fair much better, however. Cartland doesn’t rely on the same easy shorthands for them…but they don’t jump off the page either. Neither Andrina or the Duke of Broxbourne have very distinctive or deeply rendered qualities. Lastly, hero and heroine spend almost no time together throughout the novel to an extent that would never fly for contemporary readers—these two barely get to know each other.

That said, I have to admit that I found this problematic, formulaic old school historical rather absorbing, despite all of these issues. Much like Cheryl’s fiancé, I was drawn in by the pairing of an insipid core and a pretty exterior. I knew Barbara Cartland had to have something going on that allowed her to publish so many novels so successfully and, indeed, this aspect of my reading experience confirmed this suspicion. I debated with myself about what made this novel so readable despite all the defects above. Ultimately, for me, I decided that it came down to pacing. The Husband Hunters had many defects, but it never dragged—it never lingered on much of anything, for that matter. (There were, for instance, a lot of real historical figures on page, such as the Duke of Wellington and the famous Regency hostesses of Almack’s, but, rather than dwell on those moments, Cartland almost seems to be using these historical figures to reduce having to explain and introduce tertiary characters). But that fast pace keeps you reading and wondering what will happen next—I’d suggest reading Cartland if you are a historical romance writer who wants to work on quickening your pace. This novel is screenplay-like in its lack of characterlogical interiority—and honestly, with these characters, I was fine with that. The novel has the energy and pace of a 1930s screwball comedy. It very much reminded me of an old film such as My Girl Friday and I didn’t hate it.

The ending, however, was interesting and sort of broke from this pattern (is it a Cartland signature? I’ll probably never know). For the entire novel, the Duke of Broxbourne does kind things for Andrina and her sisters, but he is quite personally brusque with Andrina. Besides that one non-consensual kiss at the beginning, he pretty much leaves her alone, only popping up occasionally to give her something that she needs while admonishing her for being foolish. In terms of repressed alpha heroes, he isn’t even that mean---he is just sort of absent and cold. Then, at the end, when she confesses her love for him, he reveals that he wanted to marry her all along, but he seemed to want to let her scheme with her sisters to play out first (and maybe win her love?? that part is unclear). Then, this guy pretty much reveals himself to be a big old cinnamon roll! With no prodding or major dramatics, he says to Andrina after they have married: “I am frightened, Andrina! You have said you love me. But if I frighten you or shock you, you may hate me again, and that I could not bear!” (Also, everything this guy says is followed by an exclamation point, it is crazy—and when she talks to him, these weird ellipses pop up, so she is often saying things like “I….love….you…too….much…to…marry….you.” It is punctuation as personality and it is crude but sort of effective?) Then, he cries on her! Because he is afraid of losing her love! And that’s pretty much the end of the novel—she reassures him and then it ends with a fade-to-black sex scene. I kind of liked this part? It was only the last ten pages. This book had no hero’s perspective and it made me realize that it would have been a lot better with his POV—instead we just have a lot of Andrina’s mean inner monologue about poor beautiful vacant Cheryl.

In the end, will I read another Barbara Cartland? Almost certainly not. But am I glad that I now know what these books contain when I see them in used bookstores? Definitely.

After my post on Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You, I became aware of an on-going debate between historical romance readers over the following question: who is the better hero, Derek Craven or St. Vincent from Devil in Winter? I had read Devil in Winter a long time ago and I decided to reread it so that I could truly weigh in on this question—this is exactly the kind of literary debate I adore and so I was eager to form an opinion!!

And, so, I’ll just say up front that, in the end, it wasn’t even close for me. Any day of the week, for me, Derek Craven is a better hero than St. Vincent.

That said, I fully acknowledge that the reasons for this preference are almost completely personal/subjective. And I will add that, ultimately, I think that St. Vincent is probably a more influential/iconic hero in the genre—he felt more recognizable to me as a hero prototype than Derek Craven, who feels like more of an outlier or, perhaps more accurately, a hero that has sparked a more minor vein of imitation in the genre. Furthermore, I think it is worth noting that the two heroes share many core similarities (as does another favorite Kleypas hero of mine—Jack Delvin). These heroes are almost instantly besotted with their heroines and never really deviate from that devoted state throughout the novel—and Kleypas does really great work dramatizing their devotion from the jump.

So, then, why Derek Craven for me? I think, ultimately, while I very much enjoyed St. Vincent as a hero, I found Derek Craven’s rags-to-riches trajectory and genuinely traumatic backstory more compelling. St. Vincent has your typical rake backstory and, while his relationship with Evie is super sweet and hot, it is hard to beat how deeply Derek Craven needs Sara Fielding. The stakes feel so high for Derek Craven; I felt like, if he couldn’t find a way to let himself be with Sara, that he would never find peace. I also think the fact that Derek and Sara come from such different worlds makes it feel very believable that he would meet her and feel like she isn’t like anyone he has ever met before. Whereas with St. Vincent and Evie, they have met before and he overlooked her…later, of course, he decides that she is unlike anyone else, etc., but it does give their love story a bit more of a pedestrian touch in my opinion because they are already known quantities to each other, not just personally but in terms of their social types (rake/wallflower). Now, I love rake/wallflower, and you could categorize Sara and Derek along similar lines, but I felt like they really transcended that trope, whereas St. Vincent and Evie were nestled firmly within it.

Along the same lines, St. Vincent and Evie have a very compelling partnership and love story, but it felt more conventional to me, which made it a bit less thrilling. St. Vincent was the villain in the previous book of this series; coming into his own book, he desperately needs funds and a purpose in life. Evie brings him not only money, but an occupation as a gaming hell owner. Because he was so aimless previously, St. Vincent did feel a bit more blank to me as a hero, even though he is very charming and has amazing chemistry with Evie. It is very interesting to me that St. Vincent doesn’t really quite have a solid identity at the beginning of his book and then gains it through the gaming hell by the end—whereas Derek Craven has a very solid identity as a gaming hell owner at the beginning of Dreaming of You which he then loses by the end of that book. When Derek Craven loses that identity, he really seems to shed the pain and trauma of his past and he can start a new life. I don’t have a problem with St. Vincent running the gaming hell as his newfound identity, but, again, it just felt more run-of-the-mill to me.

I do think that the plotting in Devil in Winter is more controlled and shows Kleypas’s maturation as a writer—you can tell that she has been writing for ten more years in Devil in Winter. While I really liked the wild plot of Dreaming of You, it is definitely much more bonkers and half-baked than Devil in Winter. Furthermore, as someone who loves heat/steam/spice, Devil in Winter has sex between the hero and heroine much earlier than Dreaming of You, which is a serious point in favor of the former. Derek Craven and Sara take longer to get off the ground in that way and I don’t think they actually have sex until 70% of the way through—I wouldn’t classify it as a slow burn because they have at least one very steamy encounter before that, but, nevertheless, it is not as sex-forward as Devil in Winter. And that extra heat is all to the credit of Devil in Winter.

That said, I did have one major issue with Devil in Winter that does not have to do directly with St. Vincent. I was uncomfortable with Kleypas’s depiction of Cam Rohan, who is a half-Romani, half-Irish character, and who I know later gets his own book (which I haven’t read) at the beginning of the Hathaways series. I love the idea of Romani representation in a Victorian historical because of the strong Romani presence in England during this period, but at times the description of Cam felt, uh, a bit too authentically nineteenth century. In many instances, Cam seemed to be very exoticized/Orientalized in a way that felt outdated and took me out of the story (for instance, the narration repeatedly referred to him as “the Rom,” which just felt obviously otherizing and unnecessary and hence quite a strange choice). Obviously, any Romani character written by a non-Romani author runs the risk of being inauthentic/inaccurate, but there were aspects of Cam’s characterization that felt clearly insensitive and easily avoidable, so I was confused as to why they were there. In the end, this depiction of Cam ended up functioning as I thought the Joyce character in Dreaming of You would for me. I had heard that the depiction of Joyce was misogynistic, but her character didn’t really end up bothering me very much—I ended up being way more uncomfortable with this depiction of Cam. Now, of course, this depiction of Cam does not directly affect my perception of St. Vincent, but this issue obviously informed my general experience of this book, so I thought that it was worth mentioning.

Overall, both of these Kleypas heroes are amazing. I really enjoyed reading both Dreaming of You and Devil in Winter—I just love Derek Craven more! I can't help it.

Which hero do you prefer?

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