First up is Duchess in Love by Eloisa James. I think I've read three James books before. A couple of the Essex sisters ones and then, more recently Duchess by Night. They were all 'ok'. Competently put together but lacking in some sort of sensibility that left me feeling non-plussed by the HEAs. I'd pretty much given up James as an author when Laura Vivanco offered me this one. And being someone who reviews the offer of free stuff as the intervening hand of Fate, I decided to give it a go. It was - a bit more than ok. The book of hers I've liked best so far.
So what worked in this one? I think maybe the fact that it was something of a chamber piece helped. It's not uncommon - in my limited experience - for James to have a lot of secondary characters. However, in this one, there is a full secondary romance, and another story running through the action (one that apparently carries on through all four books in the series).
There are four female friends in this book, one of whom (Gina) is the eponymous duchess and two of whom (Esme and Helene) appear in future books (Esme's story is the one that runs through them all). The fourth friend (Carola) gets a secondary romance HEA in this book.
In actual fact, I wasn't particularly wild about the central couple of this book, but I liked Carola and Esme's stories quite a bit. In Esme's case, this was despite developing a grudge against her love interest, Sebastian, whom Esme, in their final bust-up calls **mild spoiler** a "stodgy - boring - virgin". I cheered at that point. Strangely, however, the story I liked best was Carola and Tuppy's story. This surprised me because they are classic secondary characters. Tuppy isn't hero-like at all. He's just a nice man. (I'm thinking Freddy from Heyer's Cotillion). And Carola is annoying and silly.
I think it's safe to say I'm unlikely to ever be a big James fan but I might give her another go. Anyone else read the other three in this quartet? Is Esme's story worth persisting with?
Laura also gave me an Edith Layton (new to me author) to try. How to Seduce a Bride. Again, whilst this didn't blow me away, it was all very competently done. Layton strikes me as the sort of writer you could trust to deliver at least a satisfactory read and maybe more. The hero has an atypical look (tall and slender) and despite the heroine having one of my least favourite characteristics (indomitability - don't get me started) I quite liked her. I would love to know if anyone has any strong Layton reccs. I have a feeling there may be a Layton out there that might really ring my bell.
A degree or two better than either of the two above, was First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh, the first in the Huxtable quartet. It's taken me a while to get round to this one.
Balogh is one of my favourite authors. Even her weakest books I tend to enjoy. Her prose is simple, direct and effective and she manages to create strongly romantic storylines with characters who behave generally rationally. It's all very understated but skilled. When I read a Balogh I know I'm in a safe pair of hands. Her books are very 'pure' romance. And yet they're not samey. In fact of all the historical writers I can think of, she tackles the greatest range of heroes and heroines: young, mature, rich, poor, respectable, scandalous, disabled, kindly, brittle, cold, warm etc.
First Comes Marriage is the story of Vanessa and Elliot and is the setting-up book for the whole series. As such, it lays a fair bit of groundwork. We don't just get Vanessa and Elliott, we also get character fixes on the other three Huxtables and on Elliot's cousin Con, all of whom are going to feature later in the series. It's all very neatly done though. I didn't hugely mind the sequel baiting. As for Vanessa and Elliot, their story featured one of my favourite tropes: the husband and wife who fall in love.
Elliot bears the Huxtables off to their new life and decides that, since it's time he got married, he may as well ask the eldest Miss Huxtable, Meg. What he doesn' t know is that Meg is in love with another. The second sister, Vanessa, therefore propositions Elliot before he can propose to Meg. Vanessa is the plain Jane of a beautiful family but she has a strongly charismatic personality that others respond to (another Balogh stand-by that I really like). And, having been married before briefly, to a young man who died of consumption, she assures Elliot that she 'knows how to please a man'. Elliot agrees and the rest of the novel is taken up with their falling into love.
It's by no means the best Balogh I've ever read and probably not a keeper, but I enjoyed it and I will, inevitably, pick up all of the books in this series at my leisure.
So quite a positive little batch, all in all! And I have many treats awaiting me in my TBR pile still thanks to a variety of reccs and interesting reviews by a number of other bloggers. *happy sigh*