It’s only gotten hotter in the tearoom since my last post! Now we’re serving up cool sweet tea and handing out fans because you’re going to need them for Part II of my historical romance recommendations. You can read Part I here.
Today, I’m talking about historical romances with a heavier dose of angst than my earlier recommendations. From London’s drawing rooms to the countryside to the St. Giles rookeries, these British-centered historicals turn established stereotypes around.
1. Bound by Your Touch, Meredith Duran
Meredith Duran is the queen of the dark, emotionally poignant romance. Duran’s prose packs such a punch that it as if every sentence redefines how you will view the world in her novels. I had such a visceral reaction to this book that it almost took my breath away–I felt so strongly for the plight of the heroine and hero that it was as if I fought their battles as well, running off instinct alone.
Lydia Boyle and James Sanburne are two deeply flawed people. Duran has created two of the most complex characters I’ve seen in a long time, fleshing them out to the point that I felt as though they were my friends. Lydia is a bluestocking obsessed with Egyptology, while James Sanburne is an idle viscount who turns to drugs and pugilism to take away the pain of his sister’s institutionalization. Apart, neither is a particularly brave individual, and they’ve lived their lives unsure of who they are. Together, they force each other to face their fears and become something more.
What made this book work for me so well is that there is a clear emotional arc. Duran is a master at the little details: I still remember the passage about a yellow sheet while Lydia is in the rookeries. It is a little thing that in the hands of any author would’ve just been thrown away as a minute observation, but with Duran nothing is everything inconsequential. She is so skilled at putting together the pieces that the book feels flawless. Every sigh, every thought, every kiss rips at your heartstrings.
Bound by Your Touch profoundly affected the way I write and plot, so I hope you love it too. The second book of this set is called Written on Your Skin, and it is written so that events are concurrent with Bound by Your Touch. While I have Written on Your Skin, I have yet to read it.
There are writers, and then there is Cecilia Grant. For me, Grant redefines what it is to be a writer–her books are the equivalent of a hot cup of tea when my throat is sore. When I read them, I know that I’m going to feel like maybe I can do this whole dark historical romance thing, because her words are guiding me to that point. I blogged before about what Grant’s A Gentleman Undone meant to me.
When Lisa went to RWA last summer, she brought me back a copy of A Lady Awakened. At first I was a little scared to read it, as A Gentleman Undone had really changed my writing and I worried that Grant’s debut novel wouldn’t live up to my expectations. (My relationship with my favorite books is a complex, odd thing. You know how you love something so much you don’t ever want it to change in your mind?) A Lady Awakened is a very, very different book from her second novel, but it is no less wonderful.
This is the story of the first Blackshear sibling, Martha Russell, a widow of a loveless marriage. To save her estate, she must have a male heir. Martha, in her infinite pragmatism, presents her rogueish neighbor Theo Mirkwood with a proposition: he’ll visit her bed for a month, and she’ll pay him for his services. But as the month goes on, Theo and Martha find themselves drawn together in ways they cannot explain or even want to recognize.
Grant’s done interviews where she talks about being a feminist and being a romance writer. I think that’s one of the reasons her books appeal to me so much: she takes historical social issues and she turns them on their ears. To say that this book defies most romance conventions is to put it mildly–this is a book of some of the most awkward sex scenes you will ever possibly read. This is a book with a heroine who is known for her reserve and her frigidity, who won’t let our hero in because that would make him something more than a business equation. But most importantly, this is a book that is so honestly real in places that it left me thinking long after I finished it. Theo and Martha’s relationship never felt forced, for Grant allows it to continue in an organic fashion. I felt so deeply for them, for Martha’s struggle against her own heart and Theo’s attempts at breaking through her emotional barriers.
With characters so vivid, the eventual realization of their love for each other is so strong and so passionate that I will forever consider this to be a sizzling book, indeed.
3. Thief of Shadows, Maiden Lane #4, Elizabeth Holt
I am a sucker for anything having to do with the London rookeries, as is obvious with my upcoming series, The Rookery Rogues. Elizabeth Hoyt’s Georgian-set Maiden Lane series fascinates me, for not only is Hoyt a highly skilled writer, but like Darcy Burke she combines the rough and tumble of the London underworld with the posh ton. Hoyt’s rookery interactions are perfect. In my own writing, I aspire to be as fluent as she is with dialect, and to give each of my secondary characters as complex of personalities as she does. Her environs feel very real, and her plots are excellently executed.
Thief of Shadowswas the first Maiden Lane book I’d read, so I can attest that her books can be read out of order; however, you miss the earlier storyline that Hoyt starts with the ghost of St. Giles. Our hero, Winter Makepeace, runs a foundling home by day, and patrols the streets as the masked Ghost of St. Giles at night. In a story that reminded me a lot of the Phantom of the Opera (and that’s a good thing), Hoyt brings our Ghost together with Isabel Breckenridge, who sits on the foundling hospital’s benefactor board. When the board wants to choose another manager for the foundling home, one that will be more refined and civilized, Isabel steps up and offers to teach Winter some societal manners. She understands that the foundling hospital is the Makepeace family’s life, and she’s willing to help him keep it. I loved the interaction between Winter and Isabel. She, a society woman who often doesn’t let her feel things, manages to bring out a more passionate side to Winter–who keeps all of his emotions under the cuff, for fear that he’ll let out the rage that makes him take to the street and avenge those who don’t have a voice. Isabel helps Winter to reconcile his two halves, just as Winter helps her to realize that she can have the family she always wanted.
I’ve read reviews that state Hoyt’s sensuality level is high, and I agree with that. This is one hot book, with scorching chemistry between Winter and Isabel. Their journey together is sumptuously sexual, but it’s also very rife with emotional insecurity. Hoyt handles each level of their emotions with a deft hand, and the novel never feels cartoonish, despite the fact that it has a masked crusader running around the city. Instead, this is a passionate, at times dark, richly written romance.
I’ve done my usual flip-through-and-read-out-of-order of Notorious Pleasures and Scandalous Desires (books 2 and 3) and I enjoyed those as well.
Have you read any good books lately? Share your recommendations with me!