Not-so-incredibly, it’s TBR Challenge time again. The older I get, the quicker the third Wednesday of each month arrives.¹
The theme for this month is a holiday book. While our fearless leader, the lovely SuperLibrarian Wendy, doesn’t restrict the theme to end of the year holidays, I m weak and tend to buy way too many Christmas-themed books.
Also, this is my year for cheating on the TBR Challenge—I’ve only had this book a couple of weeks. Ah well, at least it got read, instead of languishing forever more in the infamous TBR that can be seen from space. And hey, I think this is also the year of the anthologies—I missed four months, and three of the eight I managed to write and post are for anthologies.
(Note to self: do better next year!)
With that out of the way, here’s the review.
Christmas in the Duke’s Arms, by Grace Burrowes, Carolyn Jewel, Miranda Neville and Shana Galen
The Duke’s Arms is an undistinguished little inn in the tiny village of Hopewell-on-Lyft. But one Christmas season sees both inn and village seething with adventure, intrigue, rabbits, and, above all, love as four couples find Yuletide happiness.
The title is a play on a certain country inn, and it provides both some background and secondary characters that tie the stories somewhat loosely. One of the characters, to no one’s surprise, is an actual duke. I’m reviewing the stories in the order you’d read them in the book, but some of you may notice I write most about the one I liked least. For some reason, unless I’m gushing uncontrollably, it’s a lot easier to rant about what irks me than about what I simply enjoy. Also, ignore the blurbs, they are misleading as usual.
“A Knight Before Christmas” by Grace Burrowes
With her year of mourning at an end, Penelope Carrington must remarry in haste, or her portion of her late husband’s estate won’t be enough to dower her younger sisters. Shy, handsome man of business Sir Leviticus Sparrow longs to give Penelope a marriage proposal for Christmas—and his heart—but Sir Levi must first foil the other bachelors scheming to meet Penelope under the mistletoe in his place.
Our heroine is the much, much younger widow of a wealthy landowner. Her marriage was one of love, and so upon his death, her late husband made sure Penelope would be taken care of regardless of what she decides to do with her life. And so, in his will, the late Mr Carrington provide that, should she marry within a year of her bereavement, she inherits the whole lot—though I get the impression that her new husband would gain control of the bulk of the fortune. Should she wait longer than that to marry, she still gets a respectable portion, enough to live comfortably for the rest of her life. Of course, because reasons (her father a spendthrift, unmarried sisters, blah blah), Pen soon concludes that marrying again would suit her best—particularly is she manages to snare her late husband’s man of business, the still young and rather attractive Sir Leviticus Sparrow.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: upon writing the above plot summary, it strikes me as just slightly weird that she’s aiming for her man of business. I don’t much like it when the billionaire takes aim at the secretary, because of the power imbalance, and I really dislike when the grabby gold digger of either sex makes a play for the pot. This setup? It could easily have devolved into either.
Thankfully, from the first scene on, Ms Burrowes establishes the easy dynamic of long standing friendship between these characters, as well as Sir Levi’s financial security, so I didn’t even wonder about it until now.
I liked both characters, in large part because they have both lived some. (I don’t believe it’s stated anywhere, but I see Pen as a very sensible 25 year old, and Levi as a man in his prime, mid- to late thirties perhaps.) They have both lived through the loss of a spouse they loved, and at this point in their lives both know themselves reasonably well. There’s a bit of the virgin widow trope (what with the late Mr Carrington being much, much older than Pen), but mostly as she slyly tries to tempt Levi into a relationship first, and marriage later. And while this as I write it sounds terrible, it actually works very well in the story, because they both like each other and care for each other, and both know it.
I also liked that the obstacle to the courtship centers on a quasi-indiscretion on the hero’s part many years prior to the events of the story, when as a newly widowed man he almost falls in the clutches of a grasping not-so-young miss. After all, a man cannot announce his engagement to a lovely widow when there’s a semi-respectable single woman who can produce some rather compromising correspondence—never mind how innocently written or how distraught the writer at the time.
I would have preferred a different means to eliminating said obstacle, but still, this is a nice enough friends to lovers story, with very likeable main characters and just enough background to make it not-completely-wallpaper historical. Not a mean feat for a story barely 70 pages long.
“A Knight Before Chritsmas” gets 6.00 out of 10
“In The Duke’s Arms” by Carolyn Jewel
What’s a Duke to do when he’s made an awful impression on the love of his life?
The Duke of Oxthorpe lost his intensely guarded heart to Miss Edith Clay when Edith’s rich cousin sought to attach the duke’s marital interest. So smitten is Oxthorpe with the former poor relation that he’s gone through intermediaries to sell Edith a property adjoining the ducal seat.
Edith doesn’t much care for the haughty duke, but as Christmas approaches, Oxthorpe reveals himself to be reserved rather than arrogant, considerate, and—blame the mistletoe!—an accomplished kisser. Will Edith hold Oxthorpe’s earlier behavior against him, or will she learn that the best holiday gifts can be the most unexpected?
This is my favorite story in the anthology. It’s also a very quiet, intimate story. While it’s told from both main characters third person point of view, I came away with the feeling that I spent most of the time with His Grace, the oh so proper and apparently top-lofty, Duke of Oxthorpe.
As a Regency Duke, Oxthorpe is aware he should be marrying either an incomparable beauty, the daughter of a peer as close as possible to his own rank, a great heiress, or–if at all possible–all three. Instead, in the course of courting a pretty miss he discovers that personality, intelligence and self-possession are much more desirable traits, and that despite what polite society and the lady in question may think, an impoverished, not-so-young lady would make him a much better wife.
It’s not often that I read a hero who, from the beginning of the story, is completely in love with the heroine, who knows—and accepts—this fact, and who feels helpless, because of his very personality (he’s so unsure of his appeal as a person, he makes me ache!), let alone his social standing, to approach her. In Ms Jewel’s deft hands, this hero comes to life so beautifully that I fell in love with him on the spot.
For her part, the heroine is no young flower or ignorant delicate spinster, but a self assured almost thirty year old single woman who has taken charge of her own life well before the story starts.
Edith, the poor relation to Oxthorpe’s original matrimonial candidate, is not the helpless whipping gal her family thinks her. Knowing her chances of marrying at all, let alone well, are pretty much nil, she has had a lover already and is not adverse to entering such a relationship again at some point in the future.
She also has bought a lottery ticket and won–much to the chagrin of her overbearing asshat head of the family cousin. An independently well-t0-do spinster, Edith is now free to actually live her life. A heady prospect, even when one is a level headed, sensible, intrinsically happy person to begin with. Add a very eligible yet shy single Duke, and life just got that much more interesting.
Watching Edith explore her new circumstances as Oxthorpe does his blundering best to court her, all the while she thinks he’s still interested in her young cousin, is just wonderful.
The only quibble I have with the story is Edith’s reluctance to accept Oxthorpe’s interest in her, instead of her younger, prettier, wealthier cousin Louisa, until very late in the story–and even this fits with Edith’s personality and previous position in life.
“In The Duke’s Arms” is delightful. 8.75 out of 10.
“Licensed to Wed” by Miranda Neville
If Lord Carbury could learn to take no for an answer, his marriage proposal might earn him a yes!
Wyatt, Viscount Carbury is much too busy to court a bride, but when his childhood neighbor, Robina Weston, is left orphaned and penniless, Wyatt dutifully adds marrying Robina to his list of responsibilities. Wyatt is dismayed to learn that for Robina, poverty and pride are preferable to sharing life with an arrogant, infuriating man who always thinks he knows best.
When Wyatt and Robina must endure Christmas in the country together, antipathy turns to interest, and then to unexpected attraction. Will they fight their feelings, or yield to the surprising gifts the holidays offer?
The story begins with our ever efficient hero, having resolved to marry the now orphaned and nigh-penniless heroine, going through his monthly to-do list. To his chagrin, months go by and still he can’t seem to pop the question. Even worse, when he finally does, our heroine decides that she’d rather find a position as a companion to supplement her meager portion, and at least get paid for putting up with arrogance and high-handedness.
So far, I like both characters. Yes, he’s a little out of touch with, you know, life and the people in his life. And yes, it’s rather short-sighted of a twenty-five year old spinster in Regency England to choose a life of drudgery over, say, negotiating a period of time to actually relate to each other as people considering marriage to each other rather than family friends, before actually deciding whether or not to marry.
Then, because reasons, they find themselves spending the week before Christmas as guest of a family connection of Carbury, and the story devolves into cliché central. Carbury’s connection is a cousin’s widow, still in half-mourning, but determined to snare our future Earl into matrimony before the season is over, let alone her mourning. The stereotypical other woman, she’s a simpering, catty, superficially bland but essentially a self-serving and manipulative bitch, and if not an outright bad parent, at least a pretty neglectful one.
Further, Robina, who at the beginning seemed like a rational enough person, becomes this shallow, adolescent…thing, and Carbury, who once upon a time coldly decided to marry her because a) he needs a wife, b) he’s known Robina all her life, and c) she’s now poor and needing protection, suddenly decides that he loves her beyond reason.
As if these character switcheroos weren’t enough, then he calls her a whore because she dances with a duke at a town assembly and then said duke kisses her under the mistletoe—in view of the entire assembly. Not much later, he decides to compromise Robina as a way to force her to marry him—because that’s true love for you.
I’m sorry, but…What. The. Fuck, man?
(And no, I don’t care that Robina wants to marry him at that point, the simple fact that he thinks it’s a good idea to force her hand that way is enough.)
I could rant for a while longer, but I’m sure you guys get where I stand with this one.
“Licensed to Wed” gets 3.00 out of 10, and Ms Neville becomes another author I’m not inclined to seek out again.
“The Spy Beneath the Mistletoe” by Shana Galen
Fledgling spy Pierce Moneypence seeks a highwayman and the key to Eliza’s heart.
When weapons designer Eliza Qwillen (Q) and clerk to the mysterious M, Pierce Moneypence, arrive in the English countryside, they’re unprepared for the dangers that await. The operatives are intent upon capturing the highwayman styling himself as the New Sheriff of Nottingham. Secret rendezvous, mistaken identities, and cat-and-mouse games challenge these fledgling agents, but rediscovering their passion for each other is the most rewarding mission of all.
If memory serves, this is my first story by Ms Galen. Sadly, the best I can say about the story is that the heroine has a career, is competent in her chosen field, and is the one who saves the day in the end.
By this I mean, I didn’t much care for the James Bond tie-in, I found the premise of the story and the resolution of the suspense thread running through the three previous stories weak and unconvincing, and while I didn’t dislike the main characters, I wasn’t particularly rooting for them either.
I know I’m not the only one who feels how very hard it is to give a grade to a story when I feel so completely meh about it)
So I’m going to split the difference, as it were, and give “The Spy Beneath The Mistletoe” a 5.50 out of 10.
¹ And clearly, I am suffering from CRS² syndrome too–not only did I post this two days late, it was an older version of the review.
² Can’t Remember Shit.