dukesholiday For my “Recommended Read” in this month’s TBR Challenge, I chose The Duke’s Holiday by Maggie Fenton, a book which a number of my friends on Goodreads enjoyed and which was recommended to me by one of them.

It’s a fairly simple story – a very proper, highly fastidious duke with what the synopsis indicates is Obsessive (or is it Obsessional?) Compulsive Disorder meets his match in the form of a feisty, flame-haired mess of a women who thrives on chaos. I normally like the “opposites attract” trope, I like comedic romances, and the person who recommended it and I normally have very similar tastes, so it seemed like a good bet for a fun read.

Unfortunately, however, I seem to be in the minority of people who aren’t wild about this book. It’s not terrible by any means, but there are a number of things in the execution that just don’t work for me and to be honest, I didn’t find it all that funny.

The Duke of Montford – handsome, powerful and wealthy – has to travel to one of his properties in Yorkshire after he receives news that all is not as it should be. Travelling makes him ill – but circumstances conspire to force him to go himself, and when he arrives, his worst fears are confirmed. The house is in a poor state of repair, the staff seem to be laws unto themselves and the person “in charge” – Miss Astrid Honeywell – is a nightmare of a woman with mismatched eyes, wild red hair, and opinions of her own who strides around the estate wearing breeches. Her immediate reaction to the duke’s arrival (after a bit of ogling at how gorgeous he is, naturally!) is to want to get rid of him by any means necessary – which involves rudeness, humiliation and general unpleasantness. While she’s going to these great lengths to get rid of him, she can’t help but become aware that the duke is far more intelligent and canny than she’d given him credit for, because he thwarts her at every turn. And through it all, the pair fights a reluctant attraction to each other, which, to her credit, the author handles well, because there’s a nice sizzle of sexual tension between Montford and Astrid.

My big problem with the book, however, is with the characterisation and actions of the heroine. She’s not very likeable and is difficult to warm to, for all she’s supposed to be endearingly eccentric and loveable. There’s some sort of centuries old feud running between the Honeywells and the Montfords which I didn’t quite understand, but whatever it is, Astrid is adamant that as the Honeywells have lived at Rylestone for the last two hundred years, that they have a right to remain there regardless of the fact that it’s owned by someone else. The Duke of Montford, in fact. Astrid is frequently described as being very intelligent – but I never saw her behaving in any way as to make me believe it. She is disturbingly oblivious to the fact that the duke has the law completely on his side and no matter of moral right or obligation gives her the right to behave in the way she does.

If she’d been as intelligent as the author claims, Astrid would have tried to charm Montford and work out a compromise – which is when she would have discovered that he actually has no intention of throwing her and her family out of their home. After all, he’s got 27 (or is it 37?) houses in England alone, so he is perfectly able to continue to let this one out; but he quite naturally wants to make sure that it is being properly run and cared for. And clearly, it isn’t.

Even when others try to tell Astrid that her behavior isn’t doing them any good, and is probably having the opposite effect, she acts instead like a petulant child who refuses to listen or to allow that anyone else could be right and she could be wrong.

Montford is a little easier to like, although he’s never fully rounded out as a character. Most of the time, I was sympathising with him and rooting for him to get one over on Astrid. I get that the idea was to take the most proper and aloof aristocrat in the history of historical romance and take swipes at him so that bit by bit, he becomes human like the rest of us, but the method of doing so just doesn’t work for me. Astrid treats him as a pariah from the get-go, and while he certainly is a bit of a stuffed shirt who needs to loosen up a bit, being unreasonably hostile and downright unpleasant isn’t the way to go about it. And if Montford really does have a form of OCD, flinging him into constant contact with someone as chaotic as Astrid doesn’t seem to me to be the way to devise useful coping mechanisms!

This is Ms Fenton’s first foray into historical romance (although she writes another genre under another name). The Duke’s Holiday would have benefited from some judicious editing and proof-reading. There is a lot of repetition within scenes which disrupts the pacing and delays the story progression, so there is a lot of pruning and tightening up needed. There are a number of typos and errors, the most obvious of which is the mention of a character wearing a crinoline in the Regency period. Also, Ms Fenton’s grasp of the conventions of the period is a little tenuous, the language and overall style is rather too modern and the love scenes are rather disappointing. D+

– Caz Owens
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shattered For my recommended romance read, I went in a somewhat different direction than Caz and dove into a romantic suspense novel. Keishon and several other Twitter folks had recommended various romantic suspense novels by Olga Bicos to me in the past. As it turns out, I only had 1 in my TBR, so Shattered, a 2003 release, ended up being my pick.

Even though it’s marketed as regular romantic suspense, this novel has more than a touch of the gothic about it. There’s even a deceased former lover of the hero who weaves in and out of the story, giving it a Rebecca-ish feel at times.

Improbable though her story is, I found myself liking the heroine. Architect Holly Fairfield desperately needs a shot at redemption. Once upon a time, her fabulous designs graced magazine features and her star was definitely on the rise. However, a bad marriage and even messier divorce left her bankrupt and unemployed. A mysterious offer to come to San Francisco and renovate the posh Cutty House restaurant could get her back on track.

Once in San Francisco, Holly finds herself in one heck of a fix. For starters, anyone observing the situation can tell that her employer, Daniel East, might just be too good to be true. He alternately fawns over and bosses around Holly, placing her in all kinds of uncomfortable situations and making crazy, impossible demands. And then there’s the way in which he showed up out of the blue to get her to work on Cutty House. It’s all more than a little weird, though Holly is probably the last to admit this to herself.

And Cutty family politics just complicate the situation. Daniel is the heir apparent to the Cutty family holdings. However, the Cuttys’ only son, Ryan, isn’t 100% out of the picture. In fact, Ryan shows up at the reception designed to introduce Holly to San Francisco society and the confrontations between Ryan and Holly feel fraught with tension of all different kinds. I suppose it was a bit of overkill, but I have to admit that I found myself lapping up all that drama. Ryan has some dark secrets (think dark as in possible murder) in his past, and there are a few points at the beginning where one could wonder whether Ryan’s secrets or Daniel’s secrets pose the bigger threat to Holly.

Some of the manipulation of Holly and her refusal to see what she’s being pulled into can be a bit much, but if you like gothics, Bicos’ writing style is such that she keeps building tension and sucking the reader further and further in. Throughout the book, she drops some pretty big revelations into the story and I couldn’t help wondering what might come next. Toward the end, things start to get a little sloppy and the melodrama ramps up past the realm of creepy and straight into ridiculous. However, I did mostly enjoy the book and I’d definitely give some of Bicos’ other suspense novels a try. B-

– Lynn Spencer
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andrew_burrowes also chalked up another read in the Back to School Challenge by reading Andrew by Grace Burrowes, which is the seventh book in her Lonely Lords series.

During the events of the previous book (Gareth , who is Andrew’s older brother), Andrew fell in love with Astrid Worthington, but for reasons known only to himself felt that he had to separate himself from her and left the country.

Four years later, Andrew returns to England only to discover that Astrid, married two years previously to Herbert Allen, Viscount Amery, has recently been widowed and is very likely pregnant. Andrew’s feelings for her haven’t changed, and neither have hers for him – but believing himself to be unworthy of the love of any decent woman, and even less worthy of being entrusted with the care of a child, Andrew instead determines to stand her friend, and nothing more.

But as the couple begins to get to know each other again, and Astrid reveals the truth of her marriage to a man who spent more time and money on his horses and his mistress than his wife, and whose physical intimacies were limited to a quick lift of her nightgown once a week, Andrew finds himself unable to remain aloof, and they embark upon a passionate affair, although he makes it clear that he can offer nothing but a physical relationship. Astrid, however, is a strong woman, and is as equally determined to discover the reasons behind Andrew’s insistence on denying the emotional attachment between them.

When it becomes clear that someone is trying to harm Astrid and her unborn child, there is only one way that Gareth, Andrew and her brother David, Viscount Fairly, can think of to protect her both physically and legally – which is for her to marry Andrew. The story that unfolds is both a tender and rather tragic love-story as well as a fairly well-handled mystery. The identity of the villain is never in doubt, but the plot twists are deftly executed, and the mystery storyline works well.

I find that every book of Ms Burrowes’ I read invariably requires a handful of tissues, but the final chapters of Andrew are so emotionally charged, that I could have done with a whole box full! A series of utterly heart-rending circumstances conspire to have Andrew finally admit the reasons behind the depth of his self-hatred to Gareth, who is also going through his own personal version of hell. I said in my review of Gareth that the relationship between the brothers was one of the highlights of the book, and that continues to be the case here, as they talk and take comfort from each other at a truly dark time.

Andrew is a very strong addition to the Lonely Lords series; one of the more emotionally charged and angst-ridden, but if, like me, you enjoy being put though the emotional mangle, that won’t put you off. B+

– Caz Owens