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April TBR Challenge – Kickin’ it Old-Skool

This month for the TBR Challenge, we were challenged to read a book at least 10 years ago.  We both went further than that, with each of us choosing a Harlequin Historical from the 1990s. Our picks had different settings and tones to them, but we each enjoyed our reading, with Caz reading a Regency from a popular author for the line and Lynn picking a somewhat unusual historical set in the early Georgian period.

The Vicar’s Daughter by Deborah Simmons

For my ‘old-skool’ read, I chose a Harlequin Historical from 1995, the first in Deborah Simmons’ Regency QuartetThe Vicar’s Daughter is one of those ‘stuffed-shirt meets wild-child’ romances (although the heroine isn’t really a wild-child as such), and while it’s fairly predictable, it’s a light-hearted, fun read and the two central characters are well-drawn and endearing.  Maximillian Fortescue, Earl of Wycliffe has just inherited Casterleigh, near the village of Upper Bidwell in Sussex,  and is about to pay a half-hour (a suitable length of time for this sort of thing) courtesy  call on the local vicar.  Arrived at the vicarage, Wycliffe – a tightly controlled and rather staid young man – is confronted by a passel of noisy, boisterous children, and, when ushered into the parlour, is arrested by the sight of the lush backside of a young woman who is peering under the sofa.  Wycliffe’s impressions of her lusciousness are bolstered when she finally gets up clutching a pair of kittens; the vicar’s daughter is stunningly beautiful and Wycliffe – who isn’t normally one to languish over a woman’s charms – is pretty much smitten from the get go.  In fact, he’s so smitten that he fails to adhere to his self-imposed schedule and ends up staying for the family dinner, which is full of chatter and laughter and like nothing he’s ever experienced.  He can hardly take his eyes off the lovely Charlotte, yes, but he’s also amazed at the ease with which father and siblings interact with each other and with the way he’s been so quickly and easily accepted by them.

During the visit, Wycliffe learns that Charlotte is soon to depart for London where she is to take part in the Season under the auspices of an elderly cousin, with the intention of finding a husband.  Wycliffe is surprised to find he doesn’t like this idea at all – but tells himself not to be ridiculous and offers to look in on her in London so that he can reassure her father that all is going well.

Naturally, Wycliffe’s role as self-appointed guardian and defender of Charlotte’s honour sees him running off all her potential suitors, even as he is stubbornly denying his own attraction to her and reminding himself that a man of his station cannot possibly marry the daughter of a mere country vicar.

Charlotte might be fresh out of the schoolroom, but she’s no simpering miss; she’s unaffected, intelligent and good-natured, with a good sense of humour and is well aware that making an advantageous marriage is important for her entire family (she has seven brothers and sisters) and not just herself.  The trouble is that she’s also aware that most men are attracted only to her looks and aren’t likely to offer the sort of affection and companionship she longs for in her marriage.  Even though she knows that a man of Wycliffe’s station can’t possibly marry her, she can’t help wishing, and she can’t help loving him and wanting to show him the sort of love and affection she’s come to realise he’s never had in his life.

One of the best things about this type of story is watching the starchy, strictly disciplined hero gradually abandon all his routines as he falls for the heroine, usually without realising it. Wycliffe is widely known for being cold, unemotional and the sort of man you could set your watch by; even his visits to his (former) mistress were on a regular, pre-arranged schedule.  Yet from the moment he sets eyes on Charlotte, he starts to deviate from his routine, to the horror of his secretary and the amusement of Raleigh, Wycliffe’s best friend and hero of The Last Rogue, the fourth (and best) book in this series.

For all the story’s predictability, the romance is well-done, the chemistry between Wycliffe and Charlotte crackles nicely, and there are a few steamy love scenes along the way.  But a real bum note is struck near the end when a seemingly harmless suitor of Charlotte’s turns out to be a drug-crazed madman and attempts to carry her off – twice – in the last chapter or two.  I could have forgiven a bit of tacked-on drama once, but twice was taking it too far and it was incredibly jarring.

Overall though, The Vicar’s Daughter proved to be an enjoyable, low-angst read, and while it’s not going onto my keeper shelf, it was nonetheless entertaining. If you’re looking for an undemanding, upbeat historical that radiates warmth and gentle humour, you might consider checking it out.

Grade: B-               Sensuality: Warm

by Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

Suspicious Hearts by Julie Tetel Andresen

Since I love to comb the shelves at used bookstores and pick up older romances, I always love it when we have Old School month at TBR Challenge.  This time around, I chose a 1992 Harlequin Historical that turned out to be something of a gem. The author got her rights back for the book, so the novel I know as Sweet Suspicions by Julie Tetel is available nowadays under the title Suspicious Hearts by Julie Tetel Andresen. Considering what goes on in this unusual story, I think that latter title may fit better.

The novel is a Georgian historical mystery/romance, and unlike most other Georgians I have read, this one is set in the very early days of King George I’s reign. The story takes place among the polished ranks of the aristocracy, but the leads are both outsiders of a sort and that lends the story a subtle edge I found attractive.

We meet our hero first. Colonel Richard Worth has sold his commission and being both gently born and in possession of a fortune, he intends to spend his days in society. We learn early on that re-entering society will not necessarily be easy for Richard. Even his status as a war hero who fought alongside Marlborough will not entirely smooth over the fact that he initially left England under a cloud as a young man. To help his cause, Richard appeals to his military friend Jonathan Wyndham, now Duke of Desford. He hopes that Jonathan can help him, among other things, find a bride who might help him become established. His strategy is to find a respectable, aristocratic woman in dire financial straits whose need for funds may help her overlook the gossip about his past.

This series of inquiries leads to Richard’s introduction to Caroline Hutton, an orphaned young woman of good family whose father’s gambling habit has now left her destitute upon his death. To Caroline’s surprise her aunt Esther has invited to visit and offered to take her out into society. Caroline isn’t terribly fond of Esther, but she’s a little short on options, so she agrees – and there the reader meets her at the London Assembly.

Of the women Richard meets, the intelligent and direct Caroline is the one who interests him most. Things kick into high gear one night at a gathering when Caroline and Richard both happen to be present when a young man is found dead in an alley. Recently arrived in London, the victim was related to the Duke of Desford so his killing instantly sparks an investigation. This novel predates the days of the Bow Street Runners, but we do encounter the local constables making inquiries and the investigation takes up a good portion of the book.

Not long after the murder, Caroline and Richard become engaged. The romance from there is actually quite a gentle one. Initially, each has pragmatic reasons for the match. Caroline is penniless and miserable in the home of her manipulative aunt. Jonathan thinks that only someone as desperate as Caroline could possibly look past gossip of the “infamous Richard Worth” and provide him the society marriage he needs. Though not romantic at the outset, Caroline and Richard come together as a friendly team and though this story does not run deep with angst, readers will still be rooting for these two to fall in love.

It’s not an easy journey for them. Given the nature of their marriage, each has reason to feel suspicious of the other.  And then there’s the fact that each of them were among the first to discover the murder victim. For protagonists uncertain of whether to trust one another emotionally, it’s not a difficult leap to start wondering “what if?” about each other’s connections to the crime as well. All of this adds much-needed tension to the story. Books of this sort tend to be classified as “gentle romance” when they’re good and “bland and boring” when they’re not. This book generally stays on the more positive side of that classification, though I did get a bit lost in the twists and turns of mystery from time to time.

Readers used to historicals that focus very deeply on the main couple and their relationship will find this book quite a surprise. For starters, there’s quite an ensemble cast and the intrigues between the various members of Caroline and Richard’s circle are almost as interesting to read as the romance. The love story itself is more subtle than most historicals published today and even by 1990s standards, this one comes close to “novel with strong romantic elements” territory, given the amount of focus given to the murder mystery and other societal intrigues.

It’s been a while since I read (or reread) any 1990s historicals, so I was happy to find this unusual treat lurking on my shelves. I know I have 1 or 2 more Harlequins by Tetel, and I’m curious to read those as well now.

Grade: B                                       Sensuality level: Subtle

by Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

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