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Maria's Picks

Book Cover for The Harlow Hoyden Messina, Lynn
The Harlow Hoyden

Jane Austen’s arguable masterpiece, Emma, featured a heroine who danced to her own tune, managed other people’s lives, and thought very highly of herself indeed. Many readers find Emma Woodhouse conceited, bossy, and rude, but I have always found her amusing. She lives life on her own terms and that is always admirable to me. Lynn Messina, a new-to-me author, has created another vexing Emma in her charming historical romance novel of manners, The Harlow Hoyden.
Emma Harlow also reminds me of other independent-minded literary heroines: Sophy Stanton-Lacy from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Flora Poste in Stella GibbonsCold Comfort Farm. Both of those stories are very amusing and feature a pushy, managing, yet thoroughly enchanting heroine who only sees things her way and fixes bad situations.
This is a pleasant and refreshing story. From the very first scene, when Emma steals a unique and beautiful orchid from the Duke of Trent’s conservatory for her horticulturalist twin sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her wit, impetuousness, and open and direct manner capture the attention of Alex, the Duke of Trent. She also vexes him to no end.
Emma disapproves of her sister Lavinia’s betrothed, Sir Waldo Windbourne – "Sir Windbag" to Emma – a gentleman Emma neither likes or respects. So she plans a wild scheme to break up the engagement.
Somehow, amazingly and hilariously, Emma manages to engage the services of Alex, when she persuades him to woo her sister away from Windbourne.
If you enjoy an unconventional, carefree, and very spirited heroine who takes responsibility for her own life and actions, then you will enjoy this engaging story.

Recommended September 2014

Book Cover for A Man Above Reproach Pryce, Evelyn
A Man Above Reproach

Evelyn Pryce is a Pittsburgher who won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for romance for this wonderful Regency-era debut novel. “She couldn’t be serious, because he knew it would be a lie. She didn’t think him above reproach. In fact, he thought she wanted to reproach him over and over. Repeatedly and personally.” (p58) Elias Addison is a wary duke who distrusts any lady's interest in him for fear she only wants his title and wealth. He’s not a ladies’ man, but he’s no virgin either. He simply values a woman for more than her body and desires an equal who can match his intellect. Josephine Grant—not her real name—is an almost destitute bookstore owner trying to make ends meet by moonlighting on the piano at a brothel. She’s also a rabble rouser, but in secret, writing books and helping prostitutes find a better life. She despises the laziness of the aristocracy, so she’s distrustful of Elias. Her mysteriousness intrigues him even though he knows that their relationship is forbidden. “Josephine sighed the fat sigh, the one she reserved for dire situations, the one that expanded to fill entire rooms. This room, for certain, and perhaps the whole block.” (p33) Elegantly written with humor, likable characters, and lovely period detail, this is a very enjoyable read.
Recommended July 2014

Book Cover for The Wicked Wallflower Rodale, Maya
The Wicked Wallflower

This is a charming, sparkling, and very funny story, the first in Maya Rodale’s newest concurrent historical and contemporary romance series, "Bad Boys and Wallflowers". Lady Emma Avery, known as "London’s Least Likely to Misbehave", is a wallflower. She’s "not quite." She also has a wry sense of humor and faces her fears despite many challenges. Emma and her best friends, Olivia and Prudence, graduates of Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, are facing their fourth season on the London marriage mart and have yet to make a match. Emma has been mildly courted by Benedict, an impoverished second son who won’t commit (he reminded me of Edmund Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). Basically, he seemed to be waiting to see if another - better - match would come along. Against Emma’s wishes, Olivia and Prudence concoct a scheme to send a letter to The London Weekly, a local scandal sheet, announcing Emma’s engagement to the dreamy and unattainable Duke of Ashbrooke, "London’s Most Eligible Bachelor of All Time Ever." A fire diverts their plans, much to Emma’s relief; but imagine her surprise when the announcement appears in the paper the very next day, much to her mother’s delight and the gossips’ hateful envy. But Ashbrooke (Blake) isn’t all that he seems. He is a clever inventor trying to raise funds to finance his ingenious Difference Engine (a more precise calculating device based on Charles Babbage’s future computer), but his wild reputation as a womanizer, drinker, and gambler have worked against him. Blake’s beloved aunt, the eccentric and rich Agatha, holds a crazy annual "Fortune Games" contest in which her heirs compete to inherit her wealth. Blake figures that he and Emma, with their fake betrothal, can win the money. If they do, they’ll split the cash and he’ll have the money for his Difference Engine while she will then have money to marry Benedict. But things don’t quite work out that way. This was a very funny book that made me laugh and smile. The scene where they made up their first meeting was hilarious, and the letter-writing scene describing their made-up courtship was sweet. I enjoyed the little details of bits of gossip, quotes from scandal sheets, and the horrid novels that Emma reads preceding each chapter. In fact, Rodale polled her fans on Facebook to come up with wildly creative book titles such as Miss Darling and the Dreadful Duke and The Mad Baron. Maya Rodale’s path to writing romances is an interesting one and she’s a huge champion of the genre. She wrote a concise and readable master’s thesis, called Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, which fascinated me and was a big influence on my own preconceived attitudes about romance. It just might change your mind about what you think romance is. I highly recommend this book for a fun and witty read. I look forward to reading more in this series.
Recommended May 2014

Book Cover for When the Marquess Met His Match Guhrke, Laura Lee
When the Marquess Met His Match

Lady Belinda Featherstone is an American living in Victorian London. Married at the age of seventeen to a handsome but impoverished British earl, she was swept away by romance and promises. Her youthful expectations and illusions were soon shattered, however, when her husband continued to dally with his mistresses and cavort around England, leaving her behind. Throwing herself into London society, she becomes a respectable (and secretly wealthy) widow helping wealthy Americans navigate London society and find successful matches to titled British aristocrats. When Nicholas Stirling, the dissolute Marquess of Trubridge, asks for her assistance in finding him a wife after his father cuts him off, she instantly resists because his unabashed fortune-hunting motives and rakish reputation painfully remind her of her late husband and her once broken heart. But as Belinda gets to know Nicholas, she finds there’s much more behind his façade, and that the rumors surrounding him just might not be true. For his part, Nicholas has spent his entire life defying his father at every turn, turning his own life upside down in the process. Belinda confronts his reputation and actions, shaming him into changing his life. When Nicholas confesses an attraction to her, Belinda is forced to reexamine her assumptions and wonder, might she be the perfect wife for him after all? Beautifully and elegantly written, poignant, and witty, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. This is the first book in a new series by Guhrke, who writes elegant historical romances set in Victorian and Edwardian England. Charming, funny, and entertaining, this would be a good pick for fans of Downton Abbey.
Recommended February 2014