Hot Stuff: March romance novels bring the heat to historical settings
The old aphorism goes that March comes in like a lion, and this month’s crop of new romance releases is no different, sparking our interest from the first pages with their vividly imagined heroines, crackling chemistry, and swoon-worthy settings. This month we focus on three new historical titles, plus a return to a long-running contemporary series.
What a Difference a Duke Makes
By Lenora Bell
If you absolutely cannot wait for the Mary Poppins sequel Disney is bringing to theaters this December, then go pick up a copy of What a Difference a Duke Makes. It might seem odd, initially, to base a romance novel off a beloved children’s story that contains very little love story in its original format, but Bell has crafted a book with ingenuity and charm that is practically perfect in every way. Mari is an orphan, a Victorian woman of Jane Eyre’s ilk who grew up unaware of her parentage in a harsh, unfeeling school (Bell has also drawn from Charlotte Brontë, transposing Lowood to Underwood, Jane’s friend Helen to Mari’s friend Helene, and naming one of Mari’s charges Adele). Mari comes to London to find the truth of her past and plans to support herself as a governess in the meanwhile. Through a series of unfortunate events and her own quick thinking, Mari ends up acting as governess to the two illegitimate children of Edgar Rochester (again, more Jane Eyre), Duke of Banksford. The only trouble is, she can’t resist the undeniable allure of the Duke while she’s also falling for his unruly, adorable children. A significant portion of the novel’s delights come in the form of Bell’s inventive use of Mary Poppins, from her callbacks to everything from the surname Banks to bedtime stories to sidewalk chalk drawings and descriptions of Mari’s clothing. What’s truly remarkable though is how effortlessly she blends the heartwarming tale of Mari’s love for the children and her ability to strengthen their familial bonds with their father with the overarching love story. As Edgar learns to express his love for his children, so too, does he master how to open his heart to romance. Mari and Edgar are both headstrong, lusty delights as characters – real, big-hearted individuals who burst off the page with an infectious vibrancy. Bell also stacks the supporting cast with a band of equally as warm and compelling figures, most particularly Edgar’s archaeologist (!) sister India whom we will see more fully in the next book in the School for Dukes series. Bell delivers a compulsively readable enchantment – no spoonfuls of sugar necessary for this to go down like the supercalifragilistic read it is.
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The Secret of Flirting
By Sabrina Jeffries
Sabrina Jeffries continues her Sinful Suitors series with the story of spymaster Gregory Fulkham and actress Monique Servais. When Monique arrives in London masquerading as Princess Aurore of Chanay making a play for the throne of Belgium, Gregory wants to know what the irresistible actress is up to – but his digging leads him to uncover a suspected assassination attempt and he falls head over heels for Monique. The book is full of the best Sabrina Jeffries signatures – crackling dialogue; wit, independent heroines; and truly toe-curling love scenes. But somehow it just doesn’t quite measure up to the usual delights of her work. Gregory and Monique are both extremely stubborn and prone to insulting each other, which can sometimes make their pairing feel less than ideal. The novel really crackles in its moments of intrigue when Monique is caught up in assassination attempts. Gregory throws caution to the wind to get the bottom of the political drama swirling around them, and it makes him far more of a dashing hero than some of his more frustrating attempts to play the gallante. The novel is based on actual British politics and the London Conference of 1830, which makes for a captivating backdrop. Even if it’s slightly less satisfying than her usual work, The Secret of Flirting is a fun, sexy read with a titillating dollop of political backroom dealings and shadowy assassination attempts. Sabrina Jeffries is a master of the genre and even whispers of a new work from her have me running to the bookstore.
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Best Laid Plans
By Brenda Jackson
Brenda Jackson returns to her beloved Madaris Family series, which began in the mid-1990s and now spans over 20 books. In Best Laid Plans, Nolan Madaris and tech whiz Ivy Chapman are determined to resist their grandmothers’ matchmaking. In an attempt to beat their grandmas at their own game, Nolan and Ivy pretend to be a couple with a promise to break up after a few months and end the meddling once and for all – only this is a romance novel and they have some very real chemistry. Jackson delivers a sizzling romance between the two, and the novel particularly finds its legs in the middle sections as Ivy and Nolan come to fall for each other while stowed away at a beach cottage. However, if you’ve never read a Madaris family novel, the sheer amount of names and family members can be a bit dizzying to take in – the best tactic is to give up on figuring out who is who and go along for the ride, even if it can be distracting at times. It’s understandable given this series has been going since the ’90s but some of the tropes and gender roles feel a bit dated – Ivy’s gaslighting by a gross ex feels a bit over-the-top and the novel veers into a fair bit of soap opera near the end, which feels out of place with the realism and intense intimacy found earlier in the novel. Still, Jackson knows how to write crackling love scenes and those burst off the page even if the plotting around them occasionally leaves something to be desired.
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Counting on a Countess
By Eva Leigh
With her second historical series, The London Underground, her follow-up to The Wicked Quills of London, Eva Leigh is proving herself as vital a voice in the genre as those with slightly lengthier book lists to their credit. Leigh consistently crafts whip-smart heroines and irresistible heroes delivered in packages bursting with wicked wit, feminist leanings, and sex positivity. In Counting on a Countess, Christopher “Kit” Ellingsworth is a reprobate rake who finds himself in need of a wife to meet the stipulations of his inheritance. Enter Tamsyn Pearce – a Cornish redhead who also happens to be a secret smuggler with the aim of keeping her small seaside town financially above water. The two enter into a marriage of convenience with Tamsyn hoping the funds will help save her village (all the while determined to keep her illicit trade activities a secret from her rule-abiding husband). As so often is the case, the two find their marriage of convenience rather inconveniently leads to love, and their attraction flames with as much intensity as Tamsyn’s red tresses (Leigh’s love scenes are not for the faint of heart — this sounds like an oxymoron, but the book contains an extremely tasteful orgy scene). Leigh delivers two compelling characters, each hardened by the traumas of their past, who must learn to trust each other in order to find the love they both so deserve. Kit is an empathetic hero – a veteran of the Napoleonic wars who drowns his PTSD with gambling, women, and the promise of building a pleasure garden – until Tamsyn convinces him a more long-term solution to the ghosts that haunt him might lay elsewhere. Tamsyn is a scintillating heroine, who refuses to be bowled over by her husband and puts her concerns for her village even above her own needs. Her smuggling activities are exciting, though if the book draws any minor quibbles, it’s merely that I wish there was a bit more swashbuckling involved on her part. For any who question whether historical romance is outdated or can be feminist, look no further than Eva Leigh’s work – while maintaining assiduous historical accuracy, she delivers intoxicating yarns that bulldoze tropes and flip gender expectations on their head. Counting on the Countess delivers yet another sexy, smart novel full of characters who are utterly of their time, yet pulse with a vibrant pertinence to our modern world.
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