Some months the TBR Challenge leaves us scratching our heads and digging deep into our overflowing TBR piles to find a book that fits the prompt. However, this month is historical romance month, and both of us found ourselves with an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. While we both ended up with European historicals, Lynn picked an oldie-but-goodie from the 1990s while Caz went with an entry from a beloved series of more recent vintage.

Miranda by Susan Wiggs

Do you remember when every Regency historical had to have a spy, adorable urchins or both? Published in 1996, this novel predates the years where readers could find a spy skulking in every ballroom and it does avoid many of the clichés in which spy romances of the early 2000s abound. I wasn’t sure whether to expect a romp or high adventure and as it turns out, I got neither. There is some adventure to be had in this novel, but it’s a more deeply emotional love story of the sort I lapped up as a high school and college student in the 90s.

Set during Napoleon’s temporary exile to Elba, the story opens as Ian MacVane rescues a young woman from a mysterious warehouse fire. The stunned woman remembers nothing about herself or her past, and the only clue to her identity is a locket around her neck bearing the name “Miranda.”  In the confusion of the fire, Miranda falls into the hands of the night watch and since she cannot identify herself, she ends up in Bedlam.

Ian eventually finds Miranda and is able to get her out of the asylum by proclaiming himself to be her fiancé. Convinced Miranda is in danger, Ian decides to marry her. Along the way, another man claiming to be Miranda’s fiancé appears -and of course intrigue ensues.

The intrigue in this story definitely captured my attention. The spy plot is well constructed, and the historical details woven into the story made the plot and the characters’ motives feel very believable. Ian’s past has made him something of an outsider and one can easily see why he would have fallen in with the company he has. The mystery of Miranda’s past and how that fit into the treachery swirling around her kept me hooked as well.

The romance is good, though a little less solid than the spy plot. Miranda suffers from amnesia, so for a large portion of the book, she is at least somewhat dependent on those around her. She is cared for first by Ian and then pursued by her other supposed fiancé, Lucas Chesney, and because of her condition, their interactions sometimes tend to tell readers more about the men than they do about Miranda. This made it a little harder to get drawn into the romance.

On a more positive note, while I don’t usually like love triangles, the one featured in Miranda was unusually effective. While most will likely figure it out early on, readers are kept guessing to a certain extent as to which man will be Miranda’s hero. Even better, neither contender ends up being eeevil; they both have their likable moments.

While the first half or two-thirds of the book is definitely stronger than the latter portion, I did enjoy this novel overall. Readers sensitive to these issues will want to be aware that there are several mentions of sexual assault in this book, but the violence is primarily offscreen, so to speak. While not this author’s strongest book, it’s still quite entertaining. It made me wish that Wiggs still wrote historical novels, and also made me nostalgic for more of those angsty, emotional 90s historicals.

Grade:    B-                      Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

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

What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long

Incredible as it may seem (and it still does – to me!) the Pennyroyal Green series is one that I haven’t yet completed.  I’ve read the last three or four books but not the earlier ones, so I decided to pick up one of them for September’s TBR prompt to read an historical romance.  What I Did for a Duke is the fifth in the series and was originally published in 2011 – and I’m rather partial to the formidable but misunderstood hero trope, which is what decided me on this particular installment.

Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, is not a man to be crossed.  A certain aloofness combined with a reputation for ruthlessness and the rumours he killed his wife for her money makes him an object of fear and fascination among the ton, although of course, his immense wealth and title mean that he is welcomed everywhere.  Sardonic, charismatic and darkly attractive, women want him and men want to be him; and recognising the futility of attempting to change society’s opinion, Alex does nothing to dispel the rumours and actually, rather enjoys the reputation conferred upon him and is only too willing to play up to it on occasion.

When he finds Ian Eversea in bed with his fiancée, he is (naturally) furious, but instead of challenging Ian to a duel he decides to make him sweat and keep him wondering as to when he will exact his revenge or what form it will take.  He decides that poetic justice will best suit his purposes and gets himself invited to the house party being held by the Eversea family at their country estate in Pennyroyal Green; there he intends to seduce and then abandon Ian’s younger sister, Genevieve.

Genevieve has been in love with Harry Osborne for years, and is sure that at any moment he will declare his love and propose.  He’s handsome, funny and charming (if a little oblivious at times) and they have a lot in common, such as their love of Italian art.  So she is devastated when, during a tête-á- tête, he confesses his plan to propose to their mutual friend, Millicent and, heartbroken, attempts to hide herself away as much as possible. When the formidable – and fascinating – Duke of Falconbridge singles her out for his attentions and seeks her company, Genevieve tries to avoid him – but is intrigued in spite of herself.  Soon, she discovers a man rather different to the one she’d expected; he’s authoritative and very ‘ducal’ of course, but Genevieve sees through the highly polished veneer to discover a man capable of charm, humour and considerable perspicacity, at the same time as the duke encourages her to discover and admit to certain truths about herself.

This is one of those books where not very much happens – no kidnappings, pirates, spies, missing heirs or murders – but in which the pages just fly by and the reader becomes completely and utterly invested in the central characters, their interactions and their gradually developing romance.  Neither Genevieve nor Alex is exactly what they seem, which becomes a point of commonality between them; Alex’s reputation as a cold, sometimes cruel man is not undeserved, but he’s also clever, intuitive and witty, while Genevieve is widely believed to be sensible, quiet and shy whereas she’s nothing of the sort. Her demeanour is the result of careful consideration rather than natural reticence, and she is often impatient with the mistaken impression society has of her.  I loved the way Ms. Long used flowers to point up the impressions held by others of Genevieve and her sister; Olivia is routinely sent bouquets of vibrant, colourful flowers by her numerous admirers, while Genevieve, when she gets flowers at all, gets daisies and narcissi and pale, insipid arrangements, until one morning a huge display of roses that is – magnificently intimidating and almost indecently sensual – arrives for her.  Of course, it’s from Alex, and it’s a wonderful way of showing that he really sees Genevieve for the remarkable woman she truly is.  In spite of his plan to debauch and ruin her (which is soon abandoned in an unexpected and fitting way), we see that he is coming to genuinely care for and understand her while she is doing the same thing as regards him.

Julie Anne Long’s writing is superb; deft, witty, warm and perceptive, she has a knack for dialogue and vivid description, and for creating multifaceted, flawed and yet thoroughly engaging characters.  (Although I really wish someone had corrected all the errors with titles – a duke is never addressed as “Lord” anybody). Alex is a formidable man but he’s also a very lonely one who is tired of playing society’s games and wants some peace in his life.  Genevieve is misunderstood and undervalued, a young woman who doesn’t yet really know who she is, but who learns, through her association with Alex, how to be the passionate, vibrant, pleasure-loving woman she really is.  They really do bring out the best in each other, and I loved the fact that Alex wanted so badly for Genevieve to become her best self; even if he couldn’t have her for himself, he wanted her to have that and to be properly appreciated.

What I Did for a Duke is a captivating character-driven story that has no need for flashy plotlines and over-wrought drama to propel it forward.  What begins as a May/December romance between an underestimated young woman and a world-weary rake slowly morphs into something more complex and nuanced, a story about two people able to see past the distorted lens with which they are each generally viewed to the real person inside – and to love that person unreservedly.  When AAR reviewed the book on its release, it was awarded it DIK status, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Grade: A-                                Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.