To Distraction (Stephanie Laurens)

Overall

I don't even know where to start with this one, y'all. It was so bad. So unbelievably bad. I've read it twice before and literally had no memory of the story I was about to read--and I really think my brain was trying to protect me. I can usually polish these books off in one two hour sitting, maybe over two 90 minute sessions--generally it doesn't take more than a day or two to read this. This one--I've been reading since Sunday. That's FOUR DAYS.

And it's because I kept putting it down. I kept avoiding reading it. I didn't want to finish it. This is bad. This is bad in a way that Captain Jack's Woman was not. That book had George Smeaton and Kit to save it. This...even the bright spot disappears halfway through.

So what's bad? The so-called hero, Deverell, never ever recovers from the first 100 pages. He is awful, he's pushy, and he just never listens to the heroine, Phoebe. She makes it clear beyond a doubt for the first half of the book she has no interest in marriage. She's attracted to him, but she still doesn't want to marry him. And...we'll get into it in the spoilers, but she literally gives him no encouragement. Responding to a kiss he starts is not necessarily the same thing.

Second, the plot? I don't know. I guess it could have been good but it doesn't even really start until page 247 when we meet the villain. This book was only 351 pages long (in my ebook). I don't know percentages, but I should know what's going on long before that. Like A Fine Passion, the romance takes center stage for the first half of the book--but it doesn't work here because these people are not in love. Phoebe is basically a hostage who succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome. By the time there's an actual villain, I'm just...pfft. Not interested.

The characters? Phoebe starts off interesting. She's--at first--not a typical Laurens heroine, and there are aspects to her character that I like. But Deverell is worse than Jack Hendon (Captain Jack). I did not think that was possible because I hate Jack so much I've set him on fire in two reviews. He makes me see red so much that his name was mentioned in this book and I got all irritated. But Deverell is worse. Because he's basically a stalker who thinks he's charming and he gets away with it.

Skip this book. It doesn't add to the overall series -- Dalziel's last traitor is not featured here, and Dalziel is probably the one person who shows up that I like.

I don't really comment on sex scenes because some people like a lot of them, some people don't. I've never really cared much for the steam level--it doesn't make or break my reading if that makes sense. But the story basically stops for a good 50 pages so Deverell can seduce Phoebe repeatedly. Even in other books when that was happening, stuff was still happening in the story. The middle of this book drags in such a way that you will want to set yourself on fire.

There is nothing interesting about this book, and there's no point in reading. Run away. As fast and as far as you can.

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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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Surrender to the Highlander (Lynsay Sands)

Overall Response

I liked this book a lot better than the last few entries--the romance is a lot more interesting and I finally felt like Niels was different enough to get invested in his part of the story. The murder mystery was average--not the best in the series, but certainly not the worst. I thought it got a little convoluted in the middle because Lynsay Sands was trying very hard to put a bunch of red herrings out there. I liked the supporting cast, and the Buchanan brothers are dwindling into smaller numbers so that I actually can keep better track of them. It's an average read with a better than expected romance.

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Falling for the Highlander (Lynsay Sands)

Overall Response

So this reread was a little less satisfying than I remember. I liked this book a lot the first time I read it, but this probably the second or third time, and I wasn't as charmed by the things I liked the first time. I was looking forward to Murine's book because she was a bit of an atypical character. She had a penchant for fainting when we met her in To Marry a Scottish Laird, so I wanted to see how Lynsay Sands would write her HEA. I still really like Murine, even though I think her fainting spells were a bit oddly handled. Did she faint too much because she didn't eat? Or didn't have the tincture? I don't know. I just don't feel like it was that clear.

And Dougall doesn't really do anything to make himself separate from his other brothers or give me a reason I should want him for Murine above anyone else. That's kind of my problem with some of the heroes in this series -- apart from Ross in An English Bride and Aulay in The Highlander's Promise, the heroes are kind of the same. The plot is fine -- it doesn't drag nearly as much as the last book, but I thought the book ended a little abruptly.

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The Highlander’s Promise (Lynsay Sands)

Overall Response

This one is being reviewed out of order because it was only just released on Tuesday, June 26, and I didn't wait to wait to read it. I've been hoping for a good story for Aulay since we met him in The Highlander Takes a Bride and he showed up in subsequent books.

I was happy with this story for the most part. There were some...secrets being kept that I think bordered on problematic with the hero not telling the heroine the truth. Had Jetta known from the start what the deal was, things would have been different. Still, points for it never being Aulay's idea to lie to her, and for having a relatively decent reason for continuing it. (Better than most books).

I think this probably the last book in the series only because we're out of the women from To Marry a Scottish Laird and the Buchanan brothers didn't strike me as romantic leads, but I guess we'll find out. A solid entry in the series.

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To Marry a Scottish Laird (Lynsay Sands)

Overall Response

This book is fine. It's an average read. That's not to knock it -- it's like any other book Lynsay Sands writes. A reliable author who may not blow your mind but will always entertain you is worth its weight in gold. I know my money is always well spent. The characters are fun to read about, the murder mystery is engaging, and this book works well to set up the next four in the series with a series of female characters who didn't blur together. I was especially looking forward to Saidh and Murine's stories. What did distract me is a few typos--Cam refers to Joan as Annabel later in the book (that's her aunt) and there's also a mistake earlier in the book (Cam says the name MacKay before Joan reveals that's where she's going). I imagine that only gets noticed once you've read a few times.

That being said, it's a good book. It serves more as the introduction to the series than An English Bride in Scotland as Joan is the niece of Annabel and Ross rather than a contemporary, and the rest of the series takes place with Joan and Cam's generation.

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