Wild & Steamy anthology, by Meljean Brook, Jill Myles and Carolyn Crane

>> Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TITLE: Wild & Steamy anthology
AUTHORS: Meljean Brook, Jill Myles and Carolyn Crane

PUBLISHER: Self-published

One of my favourite reads last year was Meljean Brook's Here There Be Monsters, the short story that kicked off the Iron Seas series. I adored it. I never wanted it to end and felt it was the perfect short story. When I found out Brook had self-published another story in the series, in an anthology with two other authors, it took me about half a second to power up my Kindle and click buy.

The Blushing Bounder, by Meljean Brook

A Tale of the Iron Seas - While the search for a killer puts Constable Newberry's life in danger, he faces a danger of another kind: to his heart, by the woman forced to marry him. What will it take for this prudish bounder to convince his wife to stay?
The Blushing Bounder is a prequel to The Iron Duke, and features Mina's Constable, Edward Newberry. Constable Newberry and his newlywed wife are both recently come from America, where many Brits escaped to when the Horde invaded. America remained free from the Horde's invasion and developed into a place with mores akin to those in a Trad Regency, whereas the Horde's domination radically changed the social structures in England.

Back in America, Constable Newberry and Temperance became friends, even though she was much more highly-born than he. Temperance became sick with consumption, and decided to use her inheritance to pay for a sanatorium where to spend her last years. But before she could do this, her supposed friend forced her into a compromising situation and she ended up married to the horrid man and living in London, condemned to spend the last years of her life in a grimy place where people don't blink at having gruesome appliances grafted onto themselves.

But obviously, not all is as it seems...

It pains me to say so, loving this series so much, but The Blushing Bounder wasn't as great at it could...no, should have been. In fact, I finished it feeling slightly disappointed.

It was a setup I really liked, ripe from some fantastic emotional development and the sort of tingling chemistry I've becomed used to with Meljean Brook. What I got was quite a short story (about 50 pages, if we assume some 250 words per page) with really intriguing world-building, but with a plot which felt like it hadn't been properly fleshed out. It all felt very sketchy, and things just happened, without us being actually shown the character's change in attitude.

A couple of examples: first, Temperance's feelings for her husband. She goes from thinking of him as horrid to realising she loves him. I do get it that she always did love him, and just resented his actions, but it all felt too abrupt, it would have been much more satisfying if things had been slightly more gradual.

Second, the resolution to Temperance's health issues. This might be a bit of a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you don't want to know. In the end, the momentous decision to finally get Temperance infected with the bugs felt a bit too easy. Yes, she and Edward had been under a mistaken impression about the consequences of doing so (that was quite funny, actually) and now knew the truth, but in this and previous books, I got the feeling there's a lot more to the Bounders' distaste for Horde technology. Witness Temperance instinctive revulsion when she notices the sewing enhancements grafted to Miss Locksmith's limbs. But that lifelong prejudice is abandoned in a second. It's "oh, you don't turn into a zombie? Brilliant, let's do this!"

As for Edward, there's just too little of his point of view. His feelings would have been even more interesting than Temperance's. He's done something unethical out of desperation to save his beloved's life, and he feels guilty, even though he'd do it again in a flash. Sounds fantastic, but we see almost nothing of it. What we see is really well done, especially the bits we see from the POV of Temperance, who is not seeing what's right under her nose, but I needed more. Also, why the crypticness and the lack of communication with his wife? In Here There Be Monsters there also was a misunderstanding about the hero's intentions, but it felt natural then. I could find absolutely no reason why Edward could not explain to Temperance why he'd done what he'd done.

All this sketchiness made me not really feel the romance. I liked the characters more than fine, but I just didn't know them very well. That's the most disappointing thing of all: what I like most about Meljean Brook's work is that she really goes deep with her characterisation. Her characters are complex and subtle and you get to know them inside out. Edward and Temperance.... weren't and we didn't.

I would love to have seen what the author could have done if she'd made the story a bit longer and (much as I liked seeing Mina again) if she'd cut the pointless detective bit, which added nothing to the story and just took up space that should have been devoted to the main characters.


Vixen, by Jill Myles

Miko's denied her were-fox nature for far too long and turned her back on her vixen heritage. But when she meets two very sexy cat-shifters, she has to decide if she truly wants to give up on her frisky side, or embrace it. Because the were-fox in her doesn't want to choose between both men... it wants them both.
No additional summary needed from me, this describes the story well enough.

This was my first time reading Jill Myles, and there were enough good things here that I might give her another try in a longer format. I liked the idea of the struggle Miko's facing between her animal nature and what she wants as a human (although really, given the sexual freedom she was exposed to as she was growing up, how come she never even thought of the possibility of polyamory?). The writing flows well, Myles does nice sexual tension and the two heroes were suitably sexy and completely smitten by Miko.

That said, the story didn't really work all that well, and felt underdeveloped. It's only slightly longer than The Blushing Bounder and although the worldbuilding is simpler and there's less stuff going on, I still would have needed a bit more before I could believe these people were really as into each other as they're supposed to be. The men might know each other really well, but Miko doesn't really know them and they don't know her. Thankfully, Myles doesn't have them declaring undying love for each other, but I didn't feel they were ready to commit to a proper relationship, either.

Also, Miko jumps with both feet into TSTL territory, and she does so TWICE in this very short story. That annoyed me.


Kitten-Tiger and the Monk, by Carolyn Crane

A Disillusionists Novella - Sophia Sidway, Midcity's most dangerous memory revisionist, seeks out the mysterious Monk in the wasteland beneath the Tangle turnpike, hoping for redemption…but it turns out that the Monk is not all that pious, and the turnpike is no turnpike at all.
Urban fantasy is not really my thing, but the concept of this series is one that piqued my interest anyway with the previous, full-length books. It was good to read this as a sample.

Sophia has the power of messing with people's minds, removing recent memories and replacing them with something else. This makes extremely dangerous. She's made use of her power often in the last few years, and she's sick of herself. That's why she's in search of the Monk, a man who has a power just as scary as her own. He can "reset" people, and Sophia wants him to do exactly that to her.

To contact The Monk, however, Sophia is sent to Robert, the last man she wants to see. Years earlier they were in love and she betrayed him in order to protect her family. But she wants rid of her power bad enough to face the guilt and the fact that she still has feelings for Robert.

I find myself in the same place as the previous times I've read urban fantasy. I admired quite a few things about the story: the worldbuilding is intrincate (but not bewildering, even though I haven't read Crane before) and the setting atmospheric, the characters are well-drawn (it helps that this story is quite a bit longer than the previous two), the romance was believable and angsty. It still didn't really draw me in. I finished this story having liked it well enough, but not particularly tempted to read the series, and I don't really know why.



Round Ireland With a Fridge, by Tony Hawks

>> Friday, August 26, 2011

TITLE: Round Ireland With a Fridge
AUTHOR: Tony Hawks

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary Ireland
TYPE: Non Fiction

Whilst in Ireland for an International Song Competition, Tony Hawks was amazed to see a hitch-hiker, trying to thumb a lift, but with a fridge. This seemed amazingly optimistic - his Irish friends, however, thought nothing of it at all. "I had clearly arrived in a country", writes Tony, "where the qualification for ‘eccentric’ involved a great deal more than that to which I had become used". Years pass... but the fridge incident haunts our author.

Until one night, heavy with drink, he finds himself arguing about Ireland with a friend. It is, he insists, a "magical place", so magical in fact, that a man could even get a lift with a fridge. The next morning there is a note by the bed. "I hereby bet Tony Hawks the sum of One Hundred Pounds that he cannot hitch hike around the circumference of Ireland with a fridge within one calendar month." The document was signed. The bet was made. This book is the story of Tony’s adventures through that incredible month. The people he meets, the difficulties, the triumphs. The fridge.
Very short summary if you don't fancy reading the summary: the author is a comedian who makes a drunken bet with a friend that he can hitchhike round Ireland with a fridge.

The result was, at least to me, meh. It was ok enough, but I think if I hadn't been reading it for my book club, I might not have kept reading. It's not bad, it just didn't click with me, especially the humour. It's not that the humour is offensive or anything like that, it's just a bit childish. YMMV, though, as a fair few of my fellow book clubbers thought it was hilarious. The perfect example of what didn't appeal to me was Hawks' "witty" comment when the owner of a B&B he's staying at tells him her dream is to get a Michelin star. He comes back with the supremely clever (paraphrasing here) 'I've never understood the need to get your establishment endorsed by Michelin. After all, no one cares if your food takes corners well.' *groan* But if you smiled, go get this book.

All this said, I did think the book improved as it went along. After a while the places, people and situation he stumbles into get more interesting. The people are quirkier and you start getting a feel of what Ireland is like (or was like at the time, anyway, before all the Celtic Tiger stuff happened). The last half or so I actually read quite quickly.

As an aside, I know it's pedantic of me, but couldn't help feeling he was cheating by making sure his quest was covered in a popular, national radio show. Pretty much every morning he'd telephone in to something called "The Gerry Ryan show", where the host would interview him and then tell his listeners to be on the lookout for a man with a fridge on the road between X and Y. Yes, he did a couple of times get a lift from people who hadn't heard of him and just happened to stop for a hitchhiker with a fridge, but most people who stopped (and offered free meals and accomodation) had heard of what he was doing. I think if I was his friend I would have felt a bit sore about paying that bet!



A Lot Like Love, by Julie James

>> Wednesday, August 24, 2011

TITLE: A Lot Like Love
AUTHOR: Julie James

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Berkley Sensation

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There'll be a sequel in April 2012: About That Night

Jordan Rhodes is invited to all of Chicago's best parties, but there's only one the FBI wants to crash. To get her brother out of jail, she agrees to take Agent McCall as her date. But when the mission gets botched, requiring their "relationship" to continue, it starts to feel less like an investigation-and a lot like something else.
Trying to get evidence of money laundering that will convict a local crime boss, the FBI need access to a very exclusive wine tasting evening in order to plant the bugs they need in the right place. Fortunately, one of the guests is heiress Jordan Rhodes.

Jordan's beloved brother has been in jail for a few months, after the prosecutor decided to make an example out of him for some relatively harmless bad behaviour, and she's worried about him. He puts on a brave face whenever she visits, but she knows he's had a few run-ins with other inmates. So when the cops offer to let him out if she cooperates with their plans and takes one of them along to the wine tasting as her guest, she goes along with the plan.

But things don't go exactly as expected. The harmless-looking agent who was supposed to pose as her new guy comes down with a bug at the last minute, and the only one who can jump in is the very aggressively good-looking and macho Nick McCall, who just rubs her wrong. And then it turns out that the target of the investigation has a bit of a crush on Jordan (yep, even crime bosses crush on girls), and has decided to dig some dirt of her new boyfriend. Nick is now being followed, and it wouldn't look right if he had no more contact with Jordan, right?

Julie James is fast becoming an autobuy author, with her smart, competent heroines and the men who adore that about them. A Lot Like Love has that in spades. Just as in James' previous book, we have a hero who's quite macho, but who relishes the fact that the woman he loves is independent and strong in her own right. Both Nick and Jack, from Something About You (to be reviewed soon), are well aware that some people might see the women they are with (a heiress to billions and a high-powered prosecutor) as out of their league, but they're self-assured enough that they don't care. I loved that about them.

And it was not just the abstract dynamics of the relationship that I loved about ALLL. Jordan and Nick were great together, with fantastic banter and chemistry. The writing flowed beautifully. The secondary characters were well-done and made me want to read more about them (Jordan's brother), without it feeling like James was sequel-baiting. There were some very funny scenes, which balanced out the more serious tone of the suspense plot. And that suspense plot was actually quite good. The villain was very believable: he wasn't doing what he was doing because he was evil and wanted to do evil things, as we often get in romantic suspense. In fact, this wasn't really romantic suspense. The suspense was just there to force these two together and to provide a bit of tension at the end, but it was never the focus.

My only complaint is that the book felt a bit short. It was almost as if it was wrapping up before it had completely got going, and this meant that I didn't feel like I saw Nick falling in love, it was more like one minute he was scoffing at the very idea of him falling in love with anyone, and the next, he was admitting to himself, and without much struggle, that he had done just that. Still, a very enjoyable read.



A loo book, an unsympathetic detective and predicting the future

>> Saturday, August 20, 2011

TITLE: Answer Me This!
AUTHOR: Helen Zaltzman & Olly Mann

Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann present a weekly podcast that's fast become one my absolute favourites. The idea sounds a bit dull: people send them questions and they answer them. But nope, it's the farthest thing from dull you could possibly imagine. Helen and Olly (and Martin the Soundman, musn't forget him) are hilarious, and the most unpromising questions have a way of turning into comedy gold.

The book is basically a spinoff of the show, questions and answers divided by theme. It's not as fantastic as the podcast, but then again, I didn't expect it to be. To be honest, the main reason I bought it was because this free podcast has given me many hours of fun and I thought the people responsible for it deserved some of my money. Still, it was pretty good fun. I expected to dip in and out, reading one or two at a time, but ended up going "oh, just one more" again and again. And yes, I did read most of it on the loo -I felt I had to!


TITLE: Moonlight Mile
AUTHOR: Dennis Lehane

The writing was fine and the plot that was being set up sounded interesting. The problem was I was being asked to sympathise and root for a narrator whose last couple of cases as an investigator had involved: a) helping a rich family make sure that their asshole son got away with paralysing a young woman, b) helping a company continue to fake pollution tests, by completely ruining the life of an employee who was gathering evidence to turn whistleblower. Sure, the narrator hadn't liked doing this, even felt guilty about it, but he'd still done it, because he needed the money. Call me moralistic, call me an unsophisticated reader, but I'm out of there. I've no interest in spending any more time with him.


TITLE: Future Babble
AUTHOR: Dan Gardner

No description needed, Future Babble's subtitle says it all: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway. This is another slightly work-related read for me, as although I'm not usually involved in doing much forecasting myself, I do often need to make use of predictions and have always felt a bit queasy about it.

Like Gardner's previous book (Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear), Future Babble provided much food for thought. Most of it wasn't particularly surprising, like the characterisation of experts as foxes and hedgehogs, and how we tend to prefer the more confident hedgehogs, who are more often wrong. There was one thing, however, that I'm really going to have to look into a bit more. That's Gardner's discussion of scenario analysis. We tend to use that quite a lot in my work, and I have always assumed it to be a good way of dealing with the difficulty of predicting certain things, but Gardner makes some excellent points regarding the problems it might also bring in.

It's a very readable book, entertaining as well as interesting, packed full of examples illustrating the different points. My only issue in this area was the repetition of one particular example pretty much in every chapter. By the end of the book, I felt that if I heard about Paul Ehrlich one more time I would scream.



Surrender of a Siren, by Tessa Dare

>> Thursday, August 18, 2011

TITLE: Surrender of a Siren
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare

PAGES: Ballantine

SETTING: England, the high seas and Caribbean island
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows Goddess of the Hunt

Desperate to escape a loveless marriage and society’s constraints, pampered heiress Sophia Hathaway jilts her groom, packs up her paints and sketchbook, and assumes a new identity, posing as a governess to secure passage on the Aphrodite. She wants a life of her own: unsheltered, unconventional, uninhibited. But it’s one thing to sketch her most wanton fantasies, and quite another to face the dangerously handsome libertine who would steal both her virtue and her gold.

To any well-bred lady, Benedict “Gray” Grayson is trouble in snug-fitting boots. A conscienceless scoundrel who sails the seas for pleasure and profit, Gray lives for conquest–until Sophia’s perception and artistry stir his heart. Suddenly he’ll brave sharks, fire, storm, and sea just to keep her at his side. She’s beautiful, refined, and ripe for seduction. Could this counterfeit governess be a rogue’s redemption? Or will the runaway heiress’s secrets destroy their only chance at love?
Sophia Hathaway was first introduced in Goddess of the Hunt, the perfect society beauty Lucy's beloved Toby was determined to marry. If you've read Goddess, you know how that all turned out (and if you don't, go read it, it's a fantastic book!).

But Sophia is not as prim, proper and perfect as everyone seems to want to believe. In fact, she'd like nothing better than to be completely improper, and to do this, she decides to escape the strictures of her life in London society and run away to the West Indies (at least until she turns 21 and gets her inheritance free and clear). Disguised as an impoverished governess she manages to get herself on board the Aphrodite, in spite of misgivings of the ship's owners.

Benedict "Gray" Grayson is a former privateer determined to go straight and become absolutely and completely respectable. He owns the Aphrodite with his half-brother, who's the captain, and although he knows it's not a particularly good idea to let the very tempting "Jane" on his ship, but can't resist saying yes. Surely his promise to his brother that he won't touch her will be enough.

What we've got here is a heroine trying as hard as she can to shed all respectability, and a hero trying just as hard to do the opposite. I'm not particularly well-disposed to this sort of heroine, as they often feel just a wee bit too modern. With Sophia, though, I bought the whole thing: the dissatisfaction with being placed on a pedestal by men, the frustration at the bafflement and incomprehension elicited by any abortive attempt to climb down off that pedestal, and the conviction that she will just explode if she can't let even a little bit of the real Sophia out.

And the real Sophia is as obsessed with the idea of sex as your average spotty teenager. It's not that she's this innocent who's magically turned into the perfect virginal sex kitty by meeting the right man. She's just generally horny. She's technically a virgin, but only because of the time and place in which she was born. Now she is on a ship with a handsome man she really fancies, and who has no idea she's a virginal, gently-reared young lady (and therefore untouchable), so Sophia sees this as the perfect opportunity to gain a bit of practical experience. Gray might be determined to resist, but Sophia is just as determined that he won't be able to.

What results is scorching sexual tension, and a couple who have tonnes of chemistry, sexual and otherwise. Both these two are characters who feel fresh and real, and more self-aware than most (Sophia, for instance, knows perfectly well that her actions have been a bit silly and melodramatic, but she's human, and she did what felt necessary at the time).

I also really liked the piratey, adventures-on-the-high-seas feel of the story. I'm not one who's been missing old-school pirate romances (I avoided them like the plague even back when they were common), but this is nothing like that, and it was loads of fun.

The only reason this wasn't an A is because things kind of derail at the end (and even that wasn't that bad).



Sex Drive, by Susan Lyons

>> Monday, August 15, 2011

TITLE: Sex Drive
AUTHOR: Susan Lyons

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Aphrodisia

SETTING: Onboard a flight, Hawaii and Canada
TYPE: Contemporary romance
SERIES: First in a series

Prof. Theresa Fallon’s ex-husband gave her good reason to swear off men. But when, on the flight from Sydney to Vancouver, she’s seated beside one of Australia’s ten sexiest bachelors, she has reason to question that decision. It’s a long flight, but thriller writer Damien Black has ways of making the hours fly by! From there, it’s not all that big a step to enjoying a stopover together in romantic Honolulu. For the cynical Theresa and the far-too-experienced Damien, this journey is a special one. To their mutual surprise, they’re on a wild ride to love!
I started this series with the second book, Love, Unexpectedly, and I loved it so much that I immediately bought the other two that are now out. The concept of the series is "Planes, trains, automobiles and a cruise ship", each of the books involving a journey.

Just as her sister in Love, Unexpectedly, Theresa Fallon is making her way to her baby sister's wedding in Vancouver. Theresa is a university professor in Australia, though, so in her case, the journey involves a flight. But because this is a romance novel, that flight is not the sardine-in-a-tin experience most of us will have experienced (and which made me doubt whether the "planes" entry in the series could actually be romantic!). Oh, no, frequent flier Theresa is upgraded to business class, and her seatmate is sexy author Damien Black. And even though Theresa is supposed to be the boring, serious one amongst her sisters, but with Damian, she very definitely is not!

I really, really like Susan Fox/Lyons brand of 100% character-driven romance. Her characters actually talk and get to know each other. So much so that even though this is one of those normally ridiculous plots where characters fall in love after knowing each other for a day, it didn't feel ridiculous at all. That was simply because of the quality of the conversation. They talk about themselves and their history, but they also talk about their worldviews and what's important to them, their aspirations and dreams. Which is probably why I was never bored for a moment in a book that's basically just talking and sex.

And speaking of the sex: Sex Drive is supposed to be erotic romance, but to me it felt like plain, "normal" romance, albeit with quite a few sex scenes (which is why I've categorised it as such above). It's obviously hard to draw the line, but both using my personal definition (erotic romance is when the relationship is developed mainly through the sex) and the one I see used pretty much all over (that to qualify as erotic romance you need to have something "kinky"), this fell square on the "just romance" side. The heat level was sort of like a vintage Linda Howard!

Now, I am NOT complaining about this. In fact, if anything, I thought there was a bit too much sex here. The first few scenes did serve to develop the relationship, but after a while, there didn't really seem to be all that much at stake in them, so, well-written as they were, after a while I found them a slight bit tedious and hoped they'd soon get back to the talking.

I also thought that the almost immediate sexy developments didn't really square with the person Theresa was supposed to be. But then again, I suppose that was the whole point: that with Damien, the previously stuffy and conservative professor wasn't quite as stuffy or conservative. Hmmm, looks like I'm making up my mind as I write this! Yeah, I'm fine with this.

So, interesting characters, a fun plot and a very believable romance = another winner!



The Shining Skull, by Kate Ellis

>> Saturday, August 13, 2011

TITLE: The Shining Skull
AUTHOR: Kate Ellis

PAGES: 274

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 11th in the Wesley Peterson series

Little Marcus Fallbrook was kidnapped in 1976 and when he never returned home, his grieving family assumed the worst. Then, thirty years later, teenage singing star Leah Wakefield disappears and DI Wesley Peterson has reason to suspect that the same kidnapper is responsible. And another abductor is at work in the area - a man who tricks blonde women into a bogus taxi and cuts off their hair. Has Leah fallen prey to the man the newspapers call 'The Barber' or has she suffered a more sinister fate?

But then Marcus Fallbrook returns from the dead. And when DNA evidence confirms his identity, the investigation takes a new twist. Meanwhile, archaeologist, Neil Watson's gruesome task of exhuming the dead from a local churchyard yields a mystery of its own when a coffin is found to contain one corpse too many - a corpse that may be linked to a strange religious sect dating back to Regency times. Wesley has his hands full elsewhere - slowly, Marcus Fallbrook begins to recover memories that Wesley hopes will lead him to cunning and dangerous murderer. But he is about to discover that the past can be a very dangerous place indeed.
I came across Kate Ellis' books in my last rummage through my library's shelves. They sounded great, kind of cozy, and depending on the series, with either an archeological or supernatural element as well.

The one I chose first, for the simple reason that it was the earliest available in one of the series, was The Shining Skull. A little boy who was kidnapped in the 70s suddenly turns up again, all grown up, claiming a recent knock on the head sparked off memories of his pre-kidnapping life. Within days, a young popstar is kidnapped, in a way that suggests it might have been done by the person behind the 1970s case. Policeman Wesley Peterson feels a bit out of his depth and it doesn't help that he's also busy trying to catch a weirdo who impersonates taxi drivers to drive women to an isolated location and cut off their hair.

While this is going on, archeologist Neil Watson is working at a local church, helping move the graveyard. His interest is engaged when one of the coffins accidentally opens, and they find two bodies inside, in case that seems to have connections to a mysterious 18th century sect.

Good stuff, I thought, and started reading. Unfortunately, this was a case of great premise and ideas, so-so execution. The book read quickly enough, but the characterisation... oh, dear. Cartoonish characters, no subtlety, all telling instead of showing, and to cap it all, a viciousness when describing some women characters (especially the young woman who's kidnapped) that made me feel quite queasy.

As for the plot, I love mysteries where there are all sorts of seemingly completely unrelated elements that are then brought together in the conclusion. When done well, that can be really, really satisfying. Here it wasn't a complete disaster, but it wasn't great, either. A few threads were cleverly tied together, but with others, I just went "really?". The 18th century sect bit was interesting enough, and it was clever how the big revelation about what had happened to a particular person reflected what had happened in the present-day case, but much more could have been done with it.

Oh, well, at least I tried a new author. Now to decide whether to bother reading the other book I got out as well, the first in the other series.



First Comes Marriage, by Mary Balogh

>> Monday, August 01, 2011

TITLE: First Comes Marriage
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in Huxtable quintet

Against the scandal and seduction of Regency England, New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh introduces an extraordinary family—the fiery, sensual Huxtables. Vanessa is the second daughter, proud and daring, a young widow who has her own reason for pursuing the most eligible bachelor in London. One that has nothing to do with love. Or does it?

The arrival of Elliott Wallace, the irresistibly eligible Viscount Lyngate, has thrown the country village of Throckbridge into a tizzy. Desperate to rescue her eldest sister from a loveless union, Vanessa Huxtable Dew offers herself instead. In need of a wife, Elliott takes the audacious widow up on her unconventional proposal while he pursues an urgent mission of his own. But a strange thing happens on the way to the wedding night. Two strangers with absolutely nothing in common can’t keep their hands off each other. Now, as intrigue swirls around a past secret—one with a stunning connection to the Huxtables—Elliott and Vanessa are uncovering the glorious pleasures of the marriage bed…and discovering that when it comes to wedded bliss, love can’t be far behind.
First Come Marriage begins the Huxtable series, in which a young man from an impoverished but genteel country family unexpectedly inherits an earldom. I've already reviewed the second in the series, but the first one slipped through the cracks. Great excuse for a reread!

Vanessa, a young widow, lives in the tiny village of Throckbridge, as do her two sisters, Margaret and Katherine, and her 17-year-old brother, Stephen. Nothing much happens in Throckbridge, so when a handsome nobleman arrives, speculation about what he might be doing there sweeps the village.

The nobleman is Elliott, Viscount Lyngate, and he's some big news for the Huxtables. A distant cousin of theirs has just died, and this means Stephen has inherited the man's title. He's now the Earl of Merton, and Elliott, due to his connections to the previous Earl's family, is now Stephen's guardian. His task now is to take the unsophisticated country boy and train him to take over his duties. This will require taking Stephen with him to London, but when his sisters make it very clear that he's not going on his own, Elliott sees no choice but to bring the entire family with him.

The easiest way to do this without any improprieties would be for Elliott to marry to one of the sisters, and since he needs a wife anyway, and is a cold, love-doesn't-exist type, that's exactly what he decides to do. The natural choice is the eldest, Margaret. However, Vanessa is NOT going to have that. You see, Elliott didn't make the best of first impressions in the village. The night he arrived, before he revealed what he was there to do, Elliott attended the local assembly. In a scene that owes much to Pride and Prejudice, he came across as disdainful and supercilious. Vanessa doesn't want to condemn her sister to a marriage to someone that cold and horrible, and since she already has had a love match herself, even if it did end quite tragically, she decides to (very forcefully) volunteer for the role.

First Come Marriage is, then, a story about two people falling in love while in a marriage of convenience. It's about Vanessa seeing beyond Elliott's cold facade to the vulnerable man he really is. The way their relation develops is fantastic, as Vanessa doesn't let herself be cowed bye Elliott, but neither is she petulant or aggressive about what she sees as his shortcomings. In the end, Elliott doesn't magically turn into a sunny, charming sort of guy, but there's no doubt at all that he loves Vanessa deeply.

Vanessa does take some convincing, though. It takes quite a lot of work for her to believe that Elliott can love her even though she's (to her own eyes) not pretty. And this is not one of those stupid "oh, no, my breasts are too big and my lips are too full, how could any man love me?" things. I found Vanessa's insecurity about her looks believable and it didn't annoy me at all. After all, she had parents who, with all the good intentions in the world, kept harping on it, and I had no trouble at all seeing how that would have happened. And the fact of the matter is that Vanessa isn't as beautiful as her sisters. Elliot isn't attracted to her at the beginning, it takes a while for him to develop an attraction to her (a very strong one, too), and that is based on who she is, rather on how she looks, which I found even more romantic.

An excellent start to a most excellent series.



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