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September 2020 TBR Challenge – Dress for Success

“Dress for Success” can mean all kinds of things. In Lynn’s case, she went for fashion designer lead characters. Or, one can do as Caz did, and pull out a Pygmalion-esque story. And then there are masquerade balls, heroes and heroines in disguise…all kinds of possibilities.  What would be your favorite “dress for success” book?

His Convenient New York Bride by Andrea Bolter

Sometimes I’m shallow when I pick out my books. I’ll admit that I ordered His Convenient New York Bride based 100% on the cover.  When I got to this month’s prompt and saw that it was “dressed for success”, current me was thanking January 2020 me for getting a book that would actually fit the prompt.  Sadly, while the book fit the prompt, it was a fairly ‘meh’ read for me.

Forced marriage and its near cousin, fake marriage, can be tough sells in a contemporary. However, Jin Zhang has a compelling reason for letting himself be prodded into marriage. Zhang has always loved LilyZ, the fashion line developed by his grandfather. The line survives despite his father’s mismanagement and generally dissolute ways, and Zhang inherits the business outright – if he marries.

Zhang’s parents’ bitter divorce and Jin’s own recent divorce haven’t exactly recommended the married state to him. However, he has an idea. His best friend’s younger sister, Mimi Stewart, is a talented young designer. If Jin marries her, he can bring her in as new head designer for LIlyZ. For Mimi, whose career has floundered in the wake of a whisper campaign by her ex-boyfriend, this would be the chance of a lifetime.  And then there’s the fact that she has had a huge crush on Jin Zhang since they were teenagers together.

Jin draws clear boundary lines at the beginning, but as is the case in these types of stories, the lines blur. Each is attracted to the other and cannot help getting closer and closer. Friendship starts turning into something more.

On the one hand, I liked the chemistry between Jin and Mimi. They have great energy working together as designers and their romantic chemistry is flirty and fun as well. However, both of them are coming from a place of having been very deeply hurt. This comes up from time to time in the story, but I felt like it didn’t get dealt with in a very satisfying fashion. The two just go from hurt to wild about each other. If there had been more exploration of the emotions there, I think the story would have captured me more

This book also me think about the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, the author made some plot choices that felt uncomfortably on the wrong side of that divide for me. On the one hand, Mimi clearly has a history with her husband’s family and that has long included sharing Chinese New Year and other holiday traditions with them, at their invitation. The story takes place partly during the New Year, and that is woven pretty naturally into the story.

However, there are other instances where Mimi(who is white) goes to an event wearing a cheongsam or when she plans (apparently without much input from Zhang) an event for LilyZ that is almost stereotypically Chinese, with tea, lanterns, a lion dancer and other similar touches. And then there was the moment when Mimi realizes her feelings for Jin and that is described as, “A gong echoed through her.” Reading it made me uncomfortable, and I wondered how a reader who is Chinese would view it. The author does not appear to be an own voices author, so that may have played into my reaction to these scenes as well.

I liked the cover of His Convenient New York Bride, and the premise definitely caught my eye. However, the blah romance and some of the ways in which the author showed the heroine basically appropriating the hero’s culture just did not work for me. The fashion details in this story are pretty cool, but it’s not a romance I can recommend.

Grade:       C-              Sensuality: Subtle

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

The Love Knot by Elisabeth Fairchild

Sometimes I look at a TBR Challenge prompt, and the perfect book comes to mind, sometimes I look at it and … it doesn’t.  “Dress for Success” was one of those times.  I was all set to give up and just read a random book from the TBR when I found I had Elisabeth Fairchild’s The Love Knot on my Kindle.  I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, and when I read the synopsis – an elegant gentleman agrees to help a gauche young woman learn to attract the object of her affections – I realised I’d found this month’s read.

It’s a fairly simple story that uses a familiar trope, but what bumps it up into the recommendation bracket is the way the central relationship is developed and the strong characterisation of the two leads.  It opens with a prologue set the night before the hero, Miles Fletcher, is due to leave London to stay with his friend Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall in Norfolk to observe the annual sheep shearing (Miles is an art dealer and knows little about farming; he’s interested and wants to learn for when he inherits his uncle’s property).  He’s settled for a quiet night at his club when he’s summoned to attend his uncle Lester who has just won a fortune at the gaming table.  Lester isn’t in good health and doesn’t expect to live for much longer, and before Miles leaves for Norfolk, Lester makes a cryptic request – to make sure a certain young lady doesn’t find that she’s been ‘fleeced’.

The subject of that request appears unexpectedly as Miles and his sister Grace approach Holkham in their carriage.  Stopping briefly to observe a group of ladies at archery practice, Miles is immediately struck by the skill and poise of a tall, red-haired young woman whose confidence calls to him as much as her looks do.  Aurora Ramsey is breathtaking, and Miles is smitten – he had not expected to find such beauty in fulfilling his promise to his uncle.

The Ramsey name is dogged by scandal, from the eldest brother’s gambling addiction to another’s drunkenness to another’s womanising, and Aurora- the only Ramsey female –  has been doing her best to run the family estate pretty much single-handedly.  But with the means to do so ever dwindling, it’s time for her to find a wealthy husband whose money will give her the chance to save the home and land she loves so much – and she’s settled on Lord Walsh, a young, handsome and wealthy peer who is also present at the house party.  The problem is that Aurora has absolutely no idea how to go about attracting a man, and no social graces to speak of.  She can ride and hunt and talk about sheep shearing and land management, but she can’t dance or play or paint or flirt… she has never learned any of the so-called accomplishments expected of society ladies.

This Pygmalion-esque story proceeds as one would expect; Miles offers to help Aurora to learn the sorts of things she’ll need to be able to catch a husband – what clothes to wear, how to flirt, how to converse appropriately and all the things society dictates a well-born young woman should know.  Naturally, during the course of these lessons Aurora finds it increasingly difficult to remember that she’s learning how to attract Lord Walsh.  Miles Fletcher may not be the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but he’s certainly the kindest, most honourable one – not to mention the best dressed!  – and for the first time in her life she understands what genuine attraction and desire feel like… if only she wasn’t feeling them for the wrong man!

Miles is a terrific beta hero.  He’s considerate and empathetic and just wants Aurora to be happy.  He does know something she doesn’t for most of the book – that her brother Jack lost the Ramsey estate to Miles’ uncle Lester and that Miles stands to inherit it when his uncle dies – but he doesn’t lie to her about it; or rather he doesn’t withhold the information because he deliberately sets out to deceive, he does it because he wants her to be able to make her own choices.  He’s smitten with Aurora from the first, and their subsequent interactions – in which their differences are plain to see, but in a way that shows how right they are for each other – only reinforce his initial impression that she’s the woman for him.  But if she decides she wants Lord Walsh, then Miles is determined to help her get what she wants, even if it breaks his heart in the process.

There were a couple of times I felt Aurora was being overly stubborn, but I liked her for the most part.  She’s in a really awkward situation; her brothers (with one exception) are wastrels and care for nothing except their own pleasure, so she’s been the one to manage their estate and through no fault of her own stands to lose the land she loves and the only home she’s ever known.  I mostly forgave her sometimes blinkered view of things because of that – upper class women of her time had so few options – and once her deep seated insecurities were revealed, I warmed to her.

I really enjoyed the setting of this story.  Sure, it’s at a Regency house-party, but instead of an emphasis on grand balls or musical evenings, there are outdoor scenes of the estate at work, which was a refreshing change of focus.

The chemistry between Miles and Aurora sparks from the outset, and even though the author doesn’t go beyond kisses on the page, the sexual tension is always present in the air between them, and in certain scenes (such as the one in the attic where they’re looking at a portrait) it’s so thick as to be almost palpable.  The dénouement is perhaps a little rushed, but overall, I enjoyed The Love Knot and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good Traditional Regency, or who simply wants to read an historical romance in which the characters aren’t twenty-first century people in period costume.

Grade: B                       Sensuality: Kisses

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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