TBR Challenge: The Mad Countess (Gothic Brides #1) by Erica Monroe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Lady Claire Deering’s mother enters an insane asylum, society is quick to scorn her, dubbing her the Mad Daughter. But Claire’s tattered reputation is the least of her worries, as those rumors hold a horrible, terrifying truth: the Deering women are victims of a dark witch’s curse. If Claire marries her true love, she’ll spend the rest of her life under the thrall of madness.To save herself, she remains isolated…until a will reading at a mysterious castle on All Hallows Eve places her in close confines with her dearest friend and secret love.

Bashful, scholarly Teddy Lockwood has never met a rule he didn’t rejoice in following. When he unexpectedly inherits the Ashbrooke earldom, he’s determined to turn over a new, more courageous leaf–starting with telling Claire that he’s loved her since they were children. The will reading presents the perfect opportunity to win her heart, even if he’s vastly out of his element at this enigmatic, shadowy Cornwall castle. Soon, the simmering passion between them becomes unstoppable. Now, to save the love of his life, Teddy will do whatever it takes to break the dark magic’s hold on Claire. Will Claire spend her life within the grips of strange delirium, or will love prove the strongest of all?

Rating: D

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

Beauty and the Rake (Rookery Rogues #3) by Erica Monroe

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Once, she was beautiful…
Abigail Vautille dreamed of escaping the Whitechapel rookery and starting a new life, until one tragic night left her scarred and penniless. To save her family from debtor’s prison, she strikes a deal with the rogue who owns her father’s gambling vowels–if he excuses the debt, for two weeks, she’ll give him her body, but not her heart.

Once he was charming…
Inspector Michael Strickland of the Metropolitan Police has always had a way with women. Success comes easily to him, and he glides through life on his good looks and family name. But Abigail lights a passion within him he never knew existed. He sees the beauty within her, not the beast she believes herself to be.

Together, their love is beyond a fairy tale.
After a dangerous figure from Abigail’s past resurfaces vowing vengeance, things take a sinister turn. But Michael will stop at nothing to keep the woman he loves safe. When the stakes are high and the scars are more than skin deep, passion might be the key to a happily ever after.

Rating: B

Beauty and the Rake is the third book in Erica Monroe’s Rookery Rogues series, and although I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have read the other two, events from the previous book have a strong bearing on the story in this one. However, the author has given enough information during the course of this book to make it easy for the new reader to catch up, and I certainly didn’t feel at a disadvantage because I hadn’t read Secrets in Scarlet.

Having earned a meagre living as a factory worker, the injury Abigail Vautille sustained at the hands of one of London’s most notorious criminals means she is no longer able to work and cannot support her irresponsible father and younger sister. All she has left is her lovely face and has resigned herself to the fact that any money she makes from now on will be made on her back. She hopes that perhaps she will be able to find herself a protector rather than have to work as a common whore, but beggars can’t be choosers, and at least the money will enable her to keep her father out of debtor’s prison and save her sister from a similar fate.

Michael Strickland, a police inspector, has been haunted by Abigail’s beauty ever since he first saw her, and holds himself responsible for her injuries, having had information that might have prevented her capture and subsequent torture. So when she arrives to haul her father from the gaming tables one evening, only to discover that Michael has won two hundred pounds from him that he cannot pay, Michael is stunned when the woman of his dreams offers herself as payment of the debt.

Abigail offers to spend two weeks with him at his home, and after that, she hopes she will have gained enough experience to be able to become another man’s mistress. Michael reasons that he’ll be doing her a favour by making her first sexual experiences pleasant ones and treating her kindly, and plans, once their fortnight is over, to put in a good word for her with some of the more decent local madams.

The initial attraction between the couple soon blossoms into something stronger, and Ms Monroe writes a tender, sensual romance. Michael quickly finds he doesn’t want Abigail in his bed because he’s paid her to be there, which means they have time to get to know each other better before they finally become lovers. What works really well is the way in which they help one another to come to terms with their feelings of guilt and resentment: Abigail, robbed of choices and saddled with a profligate father, has become very bitter; and Michael, whose daily life among the poor and destitute of the slums has numbed him inside and inured him to the hardships they face. There is sub-plot in which Abigail’s torturer, now escaped from prison, is hunting for her which adds a touch of tension to the later part of the book, but the bulk of it is devoted to the relationship developing between Abigail and Michael.

Ms Monroe has set her story far away from the glittering ballrooms of the ton, and her descriptions of the lives and conditions experienced by the poor and downtrodden are detailed and evocative. I did have one or two niggles with it though, which are to do with Abigail’s over-reaction upon discovering the truth about Michael and that he could perhaps have prevented her injury, and the fact that she reads Swift and Voltaire and speaks like an educated woman. If she’s had an education, it’s never mentioned in the book.

Those things aside, however, Beauty and the Rake is an engaging and satisfying read, and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone looking for an historical romance that dispenses with the usual round of Dukes and Duchesses.

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Beauty and the Rake (Rookery Rogues #3) by Erica Monroe

beauty and the rake

ONCE SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL…

Abigail Vautille grew up in the heart of the London rookeries, toiling as a factory worker until one tragic night leaves her disfigured and unable to weave. Faced with starvation or prostitution, she strikes a deal with the rogue who owns her father’s gambling debts—if he excuses the debt, for two weeks, she’ll give him her body, but not her heart.

ONCE HE WAS CHARMING…

Inspector Michael Strickland of the Metropolitan Police has always had a way with women. Success comes easily to him, and he glides through life on his good looks and family name. But Abigail lights a passion within him he never knew existed. As he gets to know her, he realizes two weeks with her won’t be enough. He sees the beauty within her, not the beast she believes herself to be.

TOGETHER, THEIR LOVE IS BEYOND A FAIRY TALE.

Yet Abigail’s scars run more than skin deep. With the end of their agreement so close, can Michael convince Abigail she’s exactly who he wants?

Rating: B

Unusually for historical romances set in 19th Century England, the books in Erica Monroe’s Rookery Rogues series take place principally in the slums and backstreets of London, and their protagonists are people from the working or middle classes. In Beauty and the Rake, the third of the series, the heroine is Abigail Vautille, a young factory worker who is no longer able to earn her living as a weaver owing to an injury to her left hand.

The sole support of her broken-down, gambling-addict father and much younger sister, Abigail worked at the factory run by the Larkers, who, in the previous book, were exposed as the heads of a wide-reaching criminal syndicate. When Abigail agreed to help her friend Poppy to expose the Larkers and bring them to justice, Abigail was captured and cruelly tortured by their hired muscle, Frank Clowes, her mangled hand now a constant reminder of her past and of the betrayal by the woman she had once regarded as her closest friend.

With no other means of earning a living and keeping her father out of debtor’s prison, Abigail has only one option open to her. All she has left to sell is herself, and while being a rich man’s mistress would be preferable to becoming a streetwalker, she is under no illusions about the step she is about to take. Heading to her father’s favourite gambling den in order to retrieve him one evening, she is aghast to discover that he owes two hundred pounds to his latest opponent. They have no money, so Abigail offers herself to her father’s opponent, a strikingly handsome man she does not know. She will spend the next two weeks in his bed in full payment of the debt, and after that, she hopes she will have learned enough of the courtesan’s arts to be able to attract a protector.

Inspector Michael Strickland knows he shouldn’t be in a gaming den but he’s tired of following the rules and of trying to live up to expectations he knows he can never fulfil. He can’t believe his eyes or his luck when Abigail makes her offer; her lovely face has haunted his dreams, and now here she is, offering herself to him. What Abigail can’t know is that Michael is weighed down by guilt over the fact that his carelessness led to her capture and torture; he had information about Clowes that he delayed acting upon which gave the villain the time to find and maim Abigail. Michael wants her badly – and also reasons that he’ll be doing her a favour by being her first ‘client’. He’ll treat her well and then have a word with some of the madams he knows to see if he can find her a place in one of the nicer whorehouses where she can command a higher going rate.

Not long after the bargain is struck, Strickland receives a note from Clowes, who has escaped custody, threatening Abigail’s life. He decides not to tell her – after all, she will be living in his house for the next two weeks and he will be able to protect her in person while also working to bring about the criminal’s recapture.

The story that follows is principally devoted to the slowly developing romance between Abigail and Michael. Although she is prepared to become his mistress immediately, Michael finds he doesn’t want her to come to him simply because of their bargain; he wants her to want him and the delay gives them time to get to know each other before they finally become lovers. The mystery element doesn’t really come into play until quite late on in the book, and I found Abigail’s reaction upon discovering that Michael’s actions – or lack of them – could possibly have contributed to her injuries to be rather over the top and contrived. On the positive side, however, the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the rookeries, and of the harsh lives led by their inhabitants are very evocative, and she makes very clear that these people are as far removed from the glittering world of the ton as it’s possible to be. I have to say, though, that Abigail does not at all sound like a young woman who has grown up in the worst areas of London and who has had little to no education. I can’t imagine such a woman uttering things like: ”We are creatures of malcontent, pressed further and further back into these dark corners until eventually we shall all smother each other.” And it’s unlikely she would have been able to read or write, yet she enjoys reading essays by Swift and Voltaire’s Candide.

In her author’s note, Ms Monroe speaks of her love for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and how both Michael and Abigail possess elements of both those characters (for eagle eyed readers, there are several references in the text to certain elements of the movie version). Both are lovely to look at, yet Abigail is a bitter woman on the inside, one who has been robbed of all her choices, first by an irresponsible parent and then because her injured hand means she can no longer find honest work. And Michael, who has spent most of his life among the people of the slums, is indifferent to the hardships they face, preoccupied with his own sins and the guilt he carries for them. Gradually, they help each other to face their demons and emerge stronger as a result of their mutual love and trust.

In spite the reservations I’ve mentioned, and of the occurrence of a few modern turns of phrase and Americanisms, Beauty and the Rake is a well-written and developed romance between a pair of engaging protagonists. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever Ms Monroe writes next.