perfectrake This is my second year taking part in Super Wendy’s Multi-Blog TBR Challenge, and even though I don’t read the various romance sub-genres widely, I’ve nonetheless managed to find something in my TBR pile to fit the prompts each month. But I’m afraid I’m going to wuss out for the first time. The prompt is “It’s all about the hype” – and I don’t have anything that fits the bill. For one thing, historical romances don’t attract that sort of attention any more and for another, as an ex-PR professional, one whiff of hype is enough to make me head for the hills and almost guarantee I’m NOT going to read the book in question!

So instead, I decided to pick up a book from my TBR pile that has been recommended to me various times and is regarded as one of those that every self-respecting historical romance reader should have read. I don’t have too many of those on my TBR these days, and Anne Gracie’s The Perfect Rake is no Lord of Scoundrels or Flowers from the Storm. But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story which, while mostly light-hearted and humorous, is nonetheless peppered with some darker themes and incidents which add weight to the overall texture and provide a necessary counterpoint to a book which could otherwise have turned into a farce.

It’s unusual to open an historical romance on a shocking scene, but The Perfect Rake does just that, as our heroine, Prudence Merridew has to rescue her youngest sister, Grace, from the severe beating being inflicted upon her by their vicious, maniacal grandfather. The girls were left to his guardianship following the death of their parents, and he frequently beats and abuses them all, accusing Prudence and Grace of being the devil’s spawn because of their red hair. When the old man falls and breaks his leg chasing Prudence down the stairs, she decides, once and for all, that they must get away before one of them is killed. With their grandfather confined to bed, and with the help of the local doctor, Prudence concocts a scheme which sees them away to London to stay with their great-uncle Oswald. In a few weeks, Prue will be twenty-one, and the guardianship of her sisters will revert to her; and if one of them can marry quickly, the fortune left them by their parents will become available to them. With her sisters being such beauties, Prudence is utterly convinced that they will attract the right sort of male attention, and so she has high hopes of their being able to escape their grandfather for good.

Great-uncle Oswald, a fashionable and very kind older gentlemen, is delighted to see his five nieces, and is not only keen to have them stay with him, but also kits them out with new wardrobes and agrees to sponsor their débuts in society. There is, however, an unforeseen snag when Oswald, believing that anyone who sees Prudence’s younger sisters will not look twice at her, decides that he will “fire her off” alone, and not allow her sisters to appear in public until Prudence has attracted a suitor. She is dismayed – this was not part of her plan at all, and besides, she regards herself as betrothed to Philip Otterbury, a young man employed in one of her grandfather’s businesses out in India, so cannot possibly contract another engagement.

Desperate to find a way to change her great-uncle’s mind, Prudence tells him she is betrothed to the reclusive Duke of Dinstable, knowing that the duke lives far away in Scotland and never leaves his estate. Unfortunately, however, the duke has decided it’s time to find himself a wife and has just arrived in London. Frantic, Prudence goes to his town house early the next morning to pre-empt Uncle Oswald’s call, and finds herself face-to-face with the handsomest – and most annoying – man she’s ever met.

Lord Gideon Caradice is actually the duke’s cousin, and has a reputation as a rake of the first order. Beneath the façade, however, is a truly good, kind-hearted man with a protective streak a mile wide. He’s gorgeous, funny and charming and even though his flippancy annoys Prudence, she can’t help but be amused by him and struck by his good-looks.

Their conversation here sets the tone for most of their interchanges throughout the book, which are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, often insightful and sometimes beautifully tender. Prudence has become used to thinking of herself as the ugly-duckling of the family, yet she is not envious of her sisters or bitter, wanting only the best for them. So it comes as a major surprise to her to realise that to Gideon, SHE is the beautiful one and he hasn’t even noticed her sisters.

“Plain? Why the devil does everyone keep saying she is plain?” declared Gideon in exasperation. “Do you all need spectacles?”

Where Prudence has looked at herself and seen a small, freckled, unfashionably red-haired young woman, Gideon sees a feisty, spirited, curvaceous beauty who trades him quip for quip and heats his blood. I do love the “rake felled by love” trope, and there’s no doubt that Gideon falls fast and hard for Prudence. She is equally smitten, but holds herself back; at first, she thinks his compliments are just the offhand flirtations of a hardened rake, and also feels bound by her betrothal to Philip. Prudence doesn’t take her promises lightly, and her loyalty is another of the things Gideon loves about her, even though, in this instance, it works against him.

Both principals are beautifully drawn characters and the reader is left in no doubt that they are perfect for each other. Given his background as the child of an unhappy marriage, Gideon could easily have been one of those stereotypical brooding heroes who swears off love, but he isn’t. There is a hint of darkness there, but he covers it with a lovely self-deprecating charm and his quick wit, often concealing his keen intelligence behind a buffoonish mask. The depth of his affection for Prudence is wonderful to see, and she truly blossoms under his care. She’s been holding her family together for so long, shoring up her sisters’ spirits by telling them stories of their young lives in Italy – and of their loving parents, vowing that she will get them away from their nightmarish life; and I loved that she at last found someone who could relieve her of some of that burden.

As is obvious, I really enjoyed The Perfect Rake, although I do have a couple of minor niggles. I’ve already mentioned that the opening is shocking, and while I don’t have a problem with that, I found the sudden change from dark to light once the girls have arrived in London to be a little jarring. I had the same feeling towards the end of the book when the mood again changes abruptly – this time in the opposite direction, and takes a turn for the overly melodramatic. What worked better were the hints dropped throughout the story about Prudence’s past and the truly disgusting treatment she received at the hands of the men who were supposed to care for her. It’s that which makes her story all the more uplifting; she suffered mistreatment and a terrible tragedy and yet she is still able to find it within herself to face the world and to fall in love.

Ms Gracie’s writing flows beautifully, and the humour in the book never feels artificial or forced. There is a strong cast of secondary characters including Prudence’s sisters and their formidable Aunt Agatha, the wonderfully unconventional widow of a South American nobleman. In spite of my small reservations, I’d definitely recommend The Perfect Rake to anyone looking for a light-hearted read with a bit of substance to it.

Grade: B +

– Caz Owens

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higginsbook This month’s entry in TBR Challenge fell right into one of the hazards of the longtime book reviewer. After all, if a book is getting tons of buzz online and it sounds remotely interesting, it’s not going to stay in the TBR pile very long. So, I started thinking a little bit more broadly.

There are some authors out there who get lots of buzz, but perhaps not for one specific book. As I looked at my giant stack(s) of TBR, Kristan Higgins immediately came to mind. I had a few of her books that I’d picked up at RWA over the years, but I’d never actually read them. However, I have heard everyone and their dog praise her to the skies. So I pulled out her 2009 release, Too Good To Be True, and made a very happy discovery. I haven’t had a book make me laugh so much in ages!

I’ll admit that I initially had a hard time with the set-up. Grace Emerson, a passionate high school history teacher who is waaay too nice for her own good, lives alone in the house that she and her fiance were to have owned as newlyweds. So, how did this come about? Well, the feckless fiance broke up with Grace after falling head over heels in love with her younger sister.

Grace’s reaction to all this is interesting. On the one hand, she adores her younger sister completely even though she’s very hurt by what happened. However, she’s also lonely and the horrified pity she endures from extended family seems to bother her almost as much as the actual breakup. So, she does what any normal person would do (or maybe not.)

She invents a perfect, imaginary boyfriend who happens to be a handsome pediatric surgeon. It seems Grace has a track record of inventing these imaginary guys in her life and in this case, the discussions of the imaginary boyfriend really are funny. So, what’s the problem? Well, after a disastrous first meeting, Grace and her new neighbor Callahan O’Shea start to develop some very interesting chemistry between them.

So, what is wonderful in this book? Plenty of things. First of all, I loved the dialogue. The author does a good job of conveying emotion in ways that make her characters very relatable – and also very funny. Some of Grace and Callahan’s conversations had me chuckling as I read, and they were great fun. I also liked that Grace and Callahan both seemed like real people rather than placeholders. Callahan has some secrets in his past that are different from the usual, and which pose a real challenge for him and Grace. He’s also a genuinely decent guy, but thankfully far from bland. I enjoyed Grace’s love of history and teaching, and I thought it was fun that Higgins made her a Civil War reenactor.

Higgins writes in the first person from Grace’s perspective, so even though this book is strongly romantic, it also has a bit of a chick lit feel. I found this particularly true when we deal with Grace’s family life. In addition to her time with Callahan, we also get to explore Grace’s relationships with her parents, her acid-tongued grandmother, and her sisters. The relationship between the sisters captured my interest the most, though I did find it uncomfortable as a reader. Grace is a middle child, and she’s so close to her younger sister that the two seem to exist almost in their own private realm – to the exclusion of her older sister Margaret. Since the characters are obviously aware of this dynamic, I found myself feeling quite sorry for Margaret and sometimes a bit angry at Grace for treating her sister so poorly. And even though we do get a plausible explanation for why Grace is so forgiving of the fiance-stealing sister, it came a little late for me.

Even so, this book is laugh out loud funny, and I mostly enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. I’d give it a strong B.

– Lynn Spencer