A Fine Passion (Stephanie Laurens)

Overall Response

My memory of this book was only that it was fine--and my original Goodreads rating of three stars supports that. However, upon re-reading this time and thinking about my trio of rating criteria more closely, I actually like this book a lot. It's probably the best in the series thus far (though The Lady Chosen remains a very close second).

The romance here is the best in the series, and the characters are probably the most interesting and defined. I may not totally love the subplot with Clarice's family (and we'll talk about it more detail), but it's richly written and only plays a small role in the overall larger story.

We're still tracking Dalziel's final traitor, and he shows up again--we even start getting pieces of his background. I'm relieved to say that four books into this series proper, I'm not remotely annoyed by Dalziel yet, and I'll be interested to see how closely his portrayal as a supporting character reflects his main character in the last book.

The Bastion Club members, other than Jack Warnefleet, are Paignton and Dearne (Jocelyn and Christian) whose books are both 5 & 7 respectively. Neither of them stand out yet -- they're Laurens heroes, so they won't. They play a good role, however, and their presence doesn't distract me enough to think I won't like their books.  Clarice's brothers, however, are actually irritating and I'm glad they don't show up more than sparingly.

The plot is good, the romance is good, the characters are good -- there are only a few things that keep this story from being a five-star and we'll get into it in the spoilers.

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A Lady of His Own (Stephanie Laurens)

Overall Response

So I feel like this book easily could have been four stars, maybe even five if Stephanie Laurens had just pushed the romance a different way. Unlike any of the other couples thus far, Penny and Charles have a history that layers over their present, and I found it more interesting than the typical strangers falling in love. That being said, their past was ambiguous and I don't think it was as strong as it could have been. I'll get into specifics in the spoilers, but it was just a bit disappointing.

Character wise, this is probably the weakest of the three books thus far (we're not speaking of Captain Jack) because Penny and Charles feel like the thinnest of the characters. I don't feel like anything really sets them apart, and the supporting cast doesn't really come up to snuff. Dalziel shows up, and he's fine. He doesn't do anything to annoy me which just as important. But Nicholas and his father aren't really that interesting either. Everyone is just very one dimensional. I know I said I wouldn't hold the fact that Laurens uses the same archetypes for all her character, but so far I've been able to pull out nuances that give the characters some depth. It doesn't feel that way for Penny and Charles.

The plot is, as always, the strongest element of the novel, though even this one is a bit weaker than the last two. Just a little bit. We're searching out for traitors (ultimately hunting Dalziel's final traitor) and the action has moved to Cornwall and to smuggling. Penny is concerned that her brother and father were secretly French spies, so she's sufficiently motivated to find the foes, and Charles has been asked by Dalziel to investigate rumors in the area. Their paths cross, and they work together to find the truth. I think the plot dragged ever so slightly, and Nicholas doesn't do enough to hold it together. The ultimate villain is interesting but he's not around long enough to make an impression.

Overall, this book is just fine. It's an enjoyable read.

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A Gentleman’s Honor (Stephanie Laurens)

Overall Response

In my review of The Lady Chosen, I said that A Gentleman's Honor was my first Stephanie Laurens book, and that I had liked it enough to go to my local library and get a few more books. I think it was actually The Promise in a Kiss, the prequel to the Cynster series that convinced me to invest more heavily in her backlist.

With the passage of maybe fourteen years, do I still like this book enough? If I had read it today, would I see more books by this author? When I went to Goodreads to add a review, I saw that I had rated it as five stars. I've reduced that by two now.

I do still like this book. The strength of the mystery carries it past some of the issues I have with the romance. As always, reviewing and critiquing the leads in a Laurens book is fraught with issues. Anthony Blake is very nearly interchangeable with Tristan Wemyss from The Lady Chosen, though I think I like Tristan a bit more. Though both were reluctant to discuss emotions, Tristan did it more easily and more quickly. And I don't know that Leonora would have put up with nearly as much nonsense as Alicia did. So in that case, I do think there's enough of a difference.

The romance is...fine. I liked it at first because Tony doesn't really ever balk about keeping Alicia in the loop or working with her which is always nice. But Tony does things and takes for granted that Alicia will follow his lead--that she understands where they're going, and I don't ever blame Alicia for not knowing the endgame. I do kind of hold her responsible for not speaking up sooner. I'll go into detail in the spoiler section, but suffice to say -- the romantic conflict after a certain point becomes artificial and once an issue can be solved if your leads just talk about it--then it's really not a conflict.

The plot is good and it gives us the hint of the final traitor we'll be chasing until the last book in the series. Dalziel shows up here more as a stronger lead, though I'm never sure how I feel about him until we get to his book. I like him thus far, and I'm interested in tracking how that goes and how his continual presence affects his book which is the conclusion of the series.

As always, Laurens uses the rest of the Bastion Club sparingly, and this is one of the reasons why I like her work. I've never noticed her putting in characters for the hell of it, even if they're useful. Jack and Kit from Captain Jack's Woman show up, and I notice they're still pissing me off, but they play a good role and I understand why they're there. That's the mark of a good author. Laurens knows how to plot a series and connect it without making the reader kind of want to smack herself repeatedly. (See Mackenzies and McBrides).

This is a good entry into the series for the most part, though the romance is less satisfying than I like, the other elements carry it enough for me to like it.

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The Lady Chosen (Stephanie Laurens)

Note

Stephanie Laurens is one of the earliest romance authors I got into when I started reading romance in 2003. The second book in this series, A Gentleman of Honor, was in CVS, so I guess this might have been 2004 or 2005, and I liked it enough to start investing in the backlist.

The Bastion Club is probably my favorite series from Stephanie Laurens, though the Cynsters Sisters trilogy is a close second. I love stories set in and around the Napoleonic Wars, and I liked that her heroines are active participants in the mysteries (even if the hero is less than thrilled about it.)

Stephanie Laurens has a very particular writing style and she adheres to specific tropes, kind of like Catherine Anderson. When you pick up a book from her, there are going to be things that you can either let go or bother you enough to stop reading. Both are reasonable responses. I will remark on these tropes, but I'm very rarely going to make it a criticism.  I know what her books are and what they aren't, and I'm mostly okay with it.

Overall

Okay, so we have our usual romantic set up. A Laurens Hero is an alpha male who takes charge, is completely competent, and the biggest flaw they have is their overprotective nature. A Laurens Heroine is a headstrong, independent woman who usually needs to be convinced to get married, but she's almost always up to have an affair of some kind. Their romantic conflict is always the hero convincing the heroine to marry him.

There are couple reasons why I've decided not to let this trope in her writing annoy me enough to stop reading. Yes, her characters are interchangeable. For the most part, you can pick up Tristan and Leonora, plop them down in any other Laurens book, and the outcomes would be the same. So there's that.

But what I like about it is that it is different from what was being published twenty years ago. It was usually the women who wanted to marry and the men who had to convince themselves to get a leg shackle. The fact that Laurens' heroes are almost always refreshingly open to matrimony is nice, because you get tired of the other type of hero pretty fast. And we can't have enough independent and capable women. I very much like the trope most of the time.

Do I wish she'd do more with characterization so the characters were less the same? Sure. But I also wish I had a million dollars. I'm realistic.

Here, the romantic conflict is a bit less strong than I like. We always have to find a reason why the heroine won't get married, and I think that while I do believe the reason Leonora eventually offers is valid, it takes too long for her to even admit it. And it takes Tristan longer than I'd like to tell her marriage is his plan.

That being said, what Stephanie Laurens does well and the reason I go back to her over and over again is her plots. I love her mysteries. I love that I can't always figure them out before she tells us the bad guy, that her stories are set all over England and she writes of the settings with such lushness I can picture myself there.

The plot here is pretty good. Laurens deals with the set up in the prologue and this book serves well to launch the rest of the series.

Tristan and the other Bastion Club members have begun to outfit a house for their own private gentleman's club. They've all left the service having served as spies during the Napoleonic Wars. They didn't serve together, but they worked for the same spymaster and have general awareness of one another. They're all also members of the nobility with titles they either expected or fell on them, and they all are very eligible on the marriage market. The club is supposed to be their safe haven.

Tristan is overseeing the refitting of the house, and Leonora Carling is his neighbor. Someone tried to buy the home she lives in with her younger brother and uncle, and they've been very forceful about it. Tristan and Leonora team up to get to the bottom of it.

I like the characters. Filled with tropes they might be, Tristan and Leonora are still fun to read. I wish that her uncle had been better fleshed out, but Jeremy gets more to do later in his own book (which is hands down one of my favorite Laurens books).

What I also like is that the entire Bastion club does not show up. A few members here and there lend a hand, but I'm not dealing with seven alpha males and their spymaster in every book. Laurens uses the characters sparingly which helps me get to know them in advance of their own book.

The plot is pretty good, even if the ending is a bit foggy, and overall -- it's a really good start to the series. (Because I mostly ignore Captain Jack's Woman, and you should, too.)

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Captain Jack’s Woman (Stephanie Laurens)

Overall Response

So part of me really hesitated to put the Bastion Club on my list of series for my rereading project because I knew Captain Jack's Woman was technically the prequel to the series and therefore, under my own rules, I'd have to read it.

I have read this book exactly once. I had just discovered Stephanie Laurens' Cynster novels and liked them enough to start seeking out her backlist. I ordered this book, I read it, and then put it on my shelf. For an idea of what kind of book this is, I show you the cover on my physical copy: I don't think that's Fabio, but that's definitely who they were trying to mimic.

1997 Edition

The cover I'm using for this review comes from a rebranding of the entire series -- all the Bastion Club novels have this style. Goodreads tells me it's from a reissue by Avon in 2014, so I guess I'll take their word for it.

2009 Edition

But that original cover and its follow up tells you everything you need to know about why this is one of my least favorite books of all time.

But since I plan to spend most of this review ranting, I want to start with what I liked, because I did give it 2 stars and not 1.

George Smeaton is a supporting character and I want to cuddle him. His relationship with Amy, Kit's best friend, has very little time on the page, and may seem old-fashioned, restrictive, and less wild, but it's very clear they respect and love one another, and that their relationship works for them. He is the only male in this entire book I don't want to set on fire. I want to read a book just about George Smeaton. He is the highlight of any scene and when he has a conversation with the hero late in the book, you are active cheering for him because he is the only man with any sense in the whole damn thing.

I also like that Kit never, ever, hides that she is completely insane and impulsive. She is a woman who makes no sense and never attempts to. She's a wild hoyden who is also completely accepted by local society. There's a weird subplot in which she's been lied to and manipulated away by aunts and uncles wanting to use her for their own ends, but it's just to explain why she hasn't been in Norfolk for the last six years. None of it ever remotely relevant or interesting, and is actually...mostly stupid. She falls in with smugglers her first week back and is apparently so good that Jack wants her help in uniting his gang with hers. (We'll...get to that.)

My point is that Kit never hid that she is completely insane and impulsive, and literally, there's nothing about her that Jack actually seems to like. Except her looks. He's a fan of the bosom and the hair. And the eyes. (Kit's got violet eyes, y'all).

So, I like that Kit is crazy AF and that George is a great guy.

Um...that's actually it. That's really all that I like.

There are couple of tropes and issues that I'm not going to criticize. This is a book published in 1997, and without much exception, most of my favorite historical novels from this period and earlier have the same issues. I'm not also not going to judge the strength of the characters. When I do the whole Bastion Club review, I'll remark on it, but it's not something I hold against the books. When you pick up a Stephanie Laurens book, you know exactly what you're getting and shame on you if you keep reading her, expecting something different.

What I am going to criticize is the way this book doesn't hang together. I like smuggling as a trope because it gives you ready-made conflict and possibilities for danger. This plot doesn't make a lot of sense, and by the time I did understand what was happening, I didn't care anymore. Also, even then -- it doesn't make sense. I don't believe Kit would be adopted by a small smuggling ring this way, I don't understand the Captain Jack reference as a backstory and the way it's tossed around like I'm supposed to think it's impressive.

There is no romance in this book worth paying attention to. Jack has the makings of a typical Laurens hero, but he's worse. He's actively a misogynist in a way that Cynsters and later male leads just aren't. He constantly berates Kit and underestimates her because she's a woman. There are more specifics here, but basically Jack knows EXACTLY who Kit is (INSANE AF) and then criticizes her for all those reasons. We'll get into the details in the spoiler section.

So, yeah, Kit is insane and kind of entertaining in her complete lack of maturity and DGAF attitude towards everything, including her own life. She gets neutered by the end, but there's that. And George is lovely. I don't want him for Kit, I wanted a better characterization of Amy. But George loves her, so yay, for George and Amy!

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Alec Mackenzie’s Art of Seduction (Jennifer Ashley)

First, A Rant

Soooo in my review of The Stolen Mackenzie Bride, I wrote that I was happy because I knew for two more books in this Georgian-era trilogy, Daniel and Ian wouldn't show up. And then the framing device of this book was Ian and Beth.

Just...why. Why. Why. Why. There is literally no point to this. In fact, it's actually a break in the trilogy because Stolen Mackenzie Bride did not have this framing device, so it's completely unneeded here.

No, this framing device is here because Jennifer Ashley is obviously tickled pink with Ian Mackenzie and thinks we all want to read him in every book. I don't know, maybe that's true for others. I loved Ian once. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was my first Jennifer Ashley book and I loved him. I loved Ian and Beth. But now, every time they show up, I'm reminded that Beth basically doesn't exist now except to prop up Ian, and Ian just shows up because Ashley likes him so very much. There is no narrative purpose to Ian in this book and I am incredibly distracted.

I hate framing devices like this, so unfortunately, Ashley was already rubbing against one of my least favorite tropes. In Summer Breeze, Catherine Anderson gives the story a framing device of Tucker Coulter reading Rachel Keegan's diary. Why Rachel's children would have sent such a beloved and important document to Joseph's sister rather than keeping it for THEIR OWN FAMILY is beyond me, but I was completely irritated by it. And then at the end, Tucker decides to go to Colorado to meet these relatives. I was interested and thought, okay, then this device works. Then we get to his book, and nope, it's not that story. He's been there, it was weird. He comes back and meets a woman with four brothers. I REPEAT:

Overall Response To the Actual Story

Anyway. If you ignore the beginning and ending with Ian and Beth (THAT IS USELESS AND SHOULD NOT EXIST), this is a reallly good book. So just skip the framing. You don't need it. Don't irritate yourself unless you love when Ian shows up for no freaking reason every time you turn a page.

Alec was a character I struggled with in the first book because I didn't understand why he'd left his wife behind. I get it a little bit more now because the anarchy and chaos surrounding the Stuart rebellion in 1743 is a lot more extensive that most books usually show. With the added jackass element of Alec's father, it makes sense he held off on introducing Genevieve. And here, we learn a bit more about their marriage that helps me come to term with it.

Celia is a very sweet character that I wished we'd gotten just a little bit more of. She's amazingly resilient, but I'm not sure how much I'm truly convinced that her father would have allowed her mother to do some of the things done here. I wish we'd gotten more there.

But here's what makes me happy: the romance. There's not a super ton of romantic conflict, which is usually a red flag for me. But what is here is one of my other catnip tropes: telling the truth. While some secrets are initially kept, the two of them work together for most of the book and that is one of my favorite things ever. I would have forgotten many things and put the prologue completely out of my mind, except we ended this book with Ian and Beth instead of Alec and Celia.

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The Stolen Mackenzie Bride (Jennifer Ashley)

Overall

For some reason, I bought this book in 2015 when it was released, read the first chapter, and then just...I don't know...stopped? I bought the second book when it came out, last year, I think, but I never got around to reading that either. That's not usually something I do--I'm a read on the day I buy 'em kind of girl. One the reasons I chose this series was to force myself to finally read the final two books.

And then I started rereading that first chapter, and I remembered why I put it down. I wasn't, and I'm still not, a huge fan of insta-love connections, so I think I got interrupted reading and then never got back to it.

I'm annoyed with myself now because this is a fantastic book, one of the best since the original Mackenzie brothers. There are some tiny details that keep it from being the full five stars, but overall, I really enjoyed it. Books set near or around Culloden have a special place in my heart, but this is one of the few that really go into the divided loyalties of the families themselves.

I will say that perhaps the romance wasn't all that interesting until Mal took Mary to Kilmorgan and they had to work together--Mary also disappeared for a bit while Mal took center stage. I liked the supporting cast, and I guess part of me is happy because I know, at least for two more books, that Daniel and Ian Mackenzie aren't going to show up. Unless Daniel Mackenzie figures out time travel, and then I guess he'll be around to annoy me forever. (I'm sorry, I love Ian, but Daniel drives me crazy and the fact that Jennifer Ashley is head over heels for both of them is evident every time they show up with no narrative purpose).

I'm irritated that it took me almost three years to read this, but hey, I've got Alec's story now which makes me happy and Will's is getting released in a few months, so probably good timing.

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The Lass Initiated the Laird (Lisa Torquay)

Note: I received this novella from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Overall

So I actually hate reading things out of order. When I find a series, I try to never start in the middle, and I really don't do it when it's my first book by an author. So this novella is set after the third book in aseries called Explosive Highlanders, and it really convinced me that I was right to avoid novellas in the middle of series by authors I've never read before.

That's not to say I didn't like it, but I just kind of think it suffers from me not knowing anything about the world that Lisa Torquay has created if that makes sense. For example, I'm pretty sure Aileen and Taran, Sam's father and stepmother, are in Book 1 or 2 -- but now I don't want to read their story because Taran's a jackass.  This novella does not stand on its own.

Another drawback is the pacing. It's a short novella--about 90 pages--and most of the book is building up the seduction between Sam and Harriet. That part is mostly fine. There are some tropes and purple prose, but whatever. And then the book gallops over weeks and months, and there's a trip to Scotland that makes little narrative sense except we want to to see Aileen and Taran--the pacing is all over the place.

Sam and Harriet don't really stand alone as interesting characters either, though I imagine I'd feel differently having read the first two books. If you're looking for a short story with a lot of sex, then this is probably a good book for you. If you're looking for a little bit more development in your romance and a more traditional narrative, I wouldn't recommend it.

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A MacKenzie Clan Gathering (Jennifer Ashley)

Note

So my initial instinct was to read this before reading The Stolen Mackenzie Bride because this was the order in which I had bought the books back in 2015 (and now I feel really guilty because I've had The Stolen Mackenzie since September 2015 and I still haven't read it.) So I know they're out of order, but this book is the last of the Victorian Mackenzies before Jennifer Ashley published a trilogy about the  Culloden Mackenzies from the 1740s. I'm going to leave my master list order the way it is.

Overall Response

So I recently purchased The Mackenzie Chronicles, which serves as an overview of the series. Each book has some information about the characters and plot, and also a note from Jennifer Ashley about writing the book. it turns out the title was decided upon before she wrote the story, so I'm glad I know that because I was gonna kind read her for not really doing a clan gathering. I'll set it aside because I get how publishing works and sometimes writing goes in a different direction.

This is relatively good. It's mostly Ian and Beth--and when I say that, it's Ian. Beth has kind of stopped being her own character which is kind of sad since I adored her in the The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. Here, she's a supporting character whose primary and defining characteristic is being the center of Ian's world. That's fine, but now the character is just less interesting.

The story here is a dual one -- Ian is at Kilmorgan Castle when Hart's art collection is stolen, and Beth's brother-in-law (from her first marriage) arrives, wanting to help Ian with his madness. Both stories are good, even though I think the latter is probably better. The mystery is entertaining, but I felt like the ending was rushed.

The supporting cast is a little easier to take since the Mackenzies don't show up en masse until the very end of the book, and Daniel's appearance is at a minimum. I'm probably never going to recover from how much I did not like him in Wicked Deeds, which is a shame since he's all over this series. This is what happens when you read things with a critical eye. Lloyd is back and I'm happy to see him! I love him getting to deal with his half-brothers and approaching the mystery.

This is a solid book, but it's not spectacular, and the fact that Ian is really the only character makes it a little less fun for me since I come to romance novels for both sides of the romance. There's actually...no romance here. We're not even really revisiting characters--we're just spending more time with Ian. That's fine, but it's not what I'm here for.

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