The Rogue of Fifth Avenue (Uptown Girls #1) by Joanna Shupe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Silver-tongued lawyer.
Keeper of secrets.
Breaker of hearts.

He can solve any problem . . .

In serving the wealthy power brokers of New York society, Frank Tripp has finally gained the respectability and security his own upbringing lacked. There’s no issue he cannot fix . . . except for one: the beautiful and reckless daughter of an important client who doesn’t seem to understand the word danger.

She’s not looking for a hero . . .

Excitement lies just below Forty-Second Street and Mamie Greene is determined to explore all of it—while playing a modern-day Robin Hood along the way. What she doesn’t need is her father’s lawyer dogging her every step and threatening her efforts to help struggling families in the tenements.

However, she doesn’t count on Frank’s persistence . . . or the sparks that fly between them. When fate upends all her plans, Mamie must decide if she’s willing to risk it all on a rogue . . .

Rating: B

I was really pleased when I learned that Frank Tripp, high-flying lawyer to the rich and famous of Gilded Age New York, would be getting his own story in The Rogue of Fifth Avenue the first book in Joanna Shupe’s new Uptown Girls series. Handsome, charming and urbane, Frank made for an attractive, somewhat enigmatic supporting character in the recent Four Hundred series, and I was more than eager to read his story.  Frank is a great character who undergoes significant growth throughout the course of this novel, and once the main plotline gets going – a legal thriller which will pit Frank against the society he’s worked so hard to fit into – I was fairly gripped by it.  But I wasn’t as drawn to the romance, mostly because I didn’t care for the heroine all that much.  Up until now, I’ve enjoyed Ms. Shupe’s female leads; they’ve been spirited and intelligent women who are determined to do more than be simply ornamental. Marion – Mamie – Greene is very much in that mould, but while she displays an admirable social conscience, she’s also naïve and reckless.  It’s hard to root for a couple when you believe one of them – in this case the hero – deserves better.

For the third or fourth time in as many months, Frank Tripp finds himself ‘escorting’ the daughter of one of his biggest clients away from a gambling hall. He tries (unsuccessfully) to extract a promise from her never to go there again, but Mamie, not content with the role life has allotted her as a woman destined merely to marry well and spend her life going to parties, isn’t going to give in, especially given the altruistic motives for which she gambles and picks pockets:

She gave the money either to a charity or directly to a tenement family herself. There were too many needy families in the city, and the charities were oftentimes more concerned with temperance and religious conversion than distributing aid. Mamie would rather not see any restrictions placed on relief, which was why she traveled downtown herself a few times a month.

Which makes stealing perfectly okay, apparently.  Yes, I understand why she’s doing it, and yes the idea that charities would make religious conversion a condition of giving aid to someone in need is utterly disgusting.  But instead of doing something that would benefit even more people than she can help alone, like establishing an aid society or charity of her own, Mamie gambles and steals.

Okay.  So, moving on.  Mamie and Frank argue about her illicit activities, but there’s also a strong attraction there that pops and fizzes, even though they both know nothing can come of it. Mamie has been promised to the eldest son of her father’s closest friend since birth and the betrothal is about to be finalised, and Frank has no intention of settling down, ever.

Not long after this, we find Mamie visiting one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the city in order to dispense her ill-gotten largesse.  She’s carrying a large sum of money, and is completely alone, but has done this several times and has somehow never been accosted.  In fact, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might be.  Making her way into the dingy room occupied by the Porter family, Mamie is dismayed to find the dead body of Mr. Porter lying on the floor surrounded by policemen, who immediately arrest Mrs. Porter for the murder.  The police won’t listen to Mamie when she tells them that Mr. Porter beat his wife and that she must have been defending herself – after all, what does a Fifth Avenue princess know of such things? – and tell her she should go home and not bother her pretty little head about it.  But Mamie isn’t about to stand by and allow such a terrible injustice to be done, so she summons Frank and asks him to defend Mrs. Porter.  Naturally, he’s not keen on the idea and tries to explain that he’s not a criminal lawyer, and how damaging taking on the case could prove for both of them.  But Mamie isn’t interested in any of that; an innocent woman’s life is at stake, and that’s far more important that her reputation.  Frank does eventually agree to do what he can, partly because Mamie has asked, but also because he’s not unsympathetic to Mrs. Porter’s plight, having himself been raised in a household where violence was common.  Because Frank Tripp, scion of a wealthy Chigaco family and Yale graduate is no such thing; he was born Frank Murphy in the New York tenements and he, his mother and siblings were regularly beaten by his drunken father.  Frank escaped when offered the chance to go to school and has never looked back; his law degree is genuine although not from Yale, and he’s worked hard to make a name for himself, rising to be the most respected – and, by some, feared – lawyer in New York.  He knows all too well the importance of fitting in, how the highest in society stick together and would turn their backs on him were the truth of his origins to become known.  He knows that by agreeing to help Mamie – and Mrs. Porter – he’ll be walking a tightrope.  But he also knows it’s the right thing to do.

This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, watching Frank build his case with the help of Pinkerton Detective Otto Rosen (who is Jewish and therefore not allowed to join the police force) while his colleagues express their displeasure and whiffs of police corruption swirl around the case he’s building.  I liked the way Frank takes a long look at himself and realises that he doesn’t much like the man he’s become, one as heartless and money-focused as the men he associates with, and how he decides it’s time to change that and put something other than money first.

At the same time, he and Mamie are becoming closer, and finally act on the mutual attraction neither of them can ignore or deny any longer.  By this point, I was starting to come around to Mamie a bit; if Frank had finally woken up to the need to make personal changes, so was she benefitting by her association with him – until near the end, she draws a conclusion (about Frank) that made no sense and then proceeds to act in a way that made me want to tell her not to be so stupid.  Fortunately for my sanity, a number of other characters pointed out that she was being unfair; it’s just a shame Mamie wasn’t mature enough to work that out for herself.

While I liked the way things ended up for Frank and Mamie, I wasn’t completely convinced by her father’s sudden volte-face towards the end of the book.  I can’t deny that it was nice, for once, for a heroine to have a supportive father than a ruthless, dictatorial one, but given his intractability early on, I found it a little hard to swallow.

Ultimately, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue was a bit of a mixed bag.  I liked the plot and I loved Frank – I just wish he’d been paired with a heroine with intelligence, wit and an actual personality. The book would have been a DIK had that been the case; as it stands, the B grade was earned by Frank and the legal plot alone.

A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3) by Joanna Shupe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

With the fate of her disgraced family resting on her shoulders, Lady Christina Barclay has arrived in New York City from London to quickly secure a wealthy husband. But when her parents settle on an intolerable suitor, Christina turns to her reclusive neighbor, a darkly handsome and utterly compelling inventor, for help.

Oliver Hawkes reluctantly agrees to a platonic marriage . . . with his own condition: The marriage must end after one year. Not only does Oliver face challenges that are certain to make life as his wife difficult, but more importantly, he refuses to be distracted from his life’s work–the development of a revolutionary device that could transform thousands of lives, including his own.

Much to his surprise, his bride is more beguiling than he imagined. When temptation burns hot between them, they realize they must overcome their own secrets and doubts, and every effort to undermine their marriage, because one year can never be enough.

Rating: B+

A Notorious Vow is the third book in Joanna Shupe’s The Four Hundred series, and quite possibly my favourite of the three.  In it, the daughter of a debt-ridden peer falls for a reclusive inventor who lost his hearing due to illness at the age of thirteen; it’s a bit trope-y, but the central love story is sensual and romantic as we witness the hero trying to talk himself out of love while the heroine tries to escape the self-doubt and insecurities that plague her as a result of her mother’s continual bullying and criticism.  I don’t think I’ve read a romance that features a deaf hero before; I can’t speak from experience as I’m not hearing impaired and don’t know anyone who is, but the author’s treatment of Oliver’s deafness and his reactions to the things he experienced as a result feel completely plausible and she pulls no punches when it comes to showing how misunderstood the condition was and the prejudice the deaf had to endure at the time the novel is set.

Lady Christina Barclay is viewed as nothing more than a means to an end by her parents, the Earl and Countess of Pennington.  Beautiful, well-mannered and demure, she has been brought up to obey her parents in all things and has been browbeaten by her mother for practically her entire life.  The family has fled to New York amid great scandal, and Christina knows her parents are planning to solve their financial worries by selling her off to the highest bidder. To escape her oppressive thoughts and her mother’s bullying, she spends a few hours every morning walking in the large, empty garden of the house next door, enjoying the peace and quiet for a few hours. She is aware she’s trespassing, but nobody has seen hide nor hair of the house’s owner in years, so it stands to reason she’s unlikely to do so.  Although she’s reckoned without the large dog, who, on this particular morning, bounds up to her and knocks her down, smacking her head against a bench and knocking her out.

Oliver Hawkes lost his hearing at thirteen and although he tried hard to assimilate into the hearing world, he was so often rejected and ridiculed that he eventually stopped trying.

He’d tried to carry on with what gentlemen considered a “normal” life after school. It had resulted in being called “dumb” and “broken” at every turn. Why should he try to fit into a society that so readily dismissed him?

Now aged twenty-nine, he keeps himself to himself, and is working on a device of his own invention that he hopes will eventually help those with hearing difficulties – not the completely deaf, like him – to hear more clearly.  He is very close to applying for a patent, but before he does that, wants to find a way of making certain parts of the device cheaper so its availability will not be limited to the wealthy.  He no longer leaves the house and interacts only with his friend – the doctor, who taught him to sign – and his butler, Gill, who has been with Oliver since childhood. But when he finds an unconscious young woman lying in his garden, he has no alternative but to carry her to the house and send for the doctor.

There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between Christina and Oliver despite the awkwardness of their first meeting.  And although Oliver tells her he doesn’t want her to visit his gardens again, he finds it impossible to be angry with her when, a few days later, he sees that she’s returned. He starts thinking over some of the things she’d said and realises that perhaps she’s unhappy… and discovers, to his surprise, that he wants to make her smile.

Oliver and Christina start spending a few hours together each day; she watches as he tinkers with his invention, he teaches her some basic sign language, and their mutual attraction deepens.  But then the thing Christina has dreaded happens –  she’s told she must marry a man old enough to be her grandfather who makes no bones about the fact that he wants a nubile, biddable young wife to hear him children.  Miserable, she tells Oliver what her parents have planned for her; he is appalled but tells himself he can’t get involved and merely suggests she should show her prospective bridegroom that she’s not as meek and biddable as he’s been led to suppose.  But when, a day or so later, Christina arrives in tears, clearly in acute distress, Oliver is forced to admit to himself that wants to protect her from anyone who would hurt her – and when her parents burst in on them,  they accuse him of compromising her and insist he marries her, having (of course) learned he’s incredibly wealthy beforehand.

Oliver resents the idea of being forced into anything.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about Christina or want to help her – he does, very much – but to be insulted in his own home and then forced to upend his life in a way that will undoubtedly distract him from his experiments … it’s not what he wants or had planned for himself.  But he can’t stand seeing Christina so upset, and he is eventually persuaded (by Christina’s cousin) to agree to the marriage.

The ceremony takes place that very night on the understanding that Christina’s parents are not to contact her afterwards and that as soon as the settlements are drawn up and paid, they will return to England.  Christina is almost unable to believe her sudden change in fortune – instead of marriage to an unpleasant, lecherous old man, she’s married to Oliver, a man she likes and is attracted to.  But Oliver, adamant he doesn’t want to be distracted from his work or to have his life change in any way decides that they should live separate lives, remain married for a year and then divorce (sigh – the let’s-get-married-and-then-get-it-annulled/divorced plotline has been done to death.).

Christina is disappointed and hurt when Oliver explains this to her, but she tries not to show it and determines to show her gratitude by doing exactly as her new husband wants.  Their romance is well-developed, growing out of a friendship that sprang up quickly but which is no less genuine for that.  They talk and laugh about many things, and discover that they’re both rather inclined to a quiet life and aren’t all that interested in the social whirl.  But after they’re married, Oliver spends a lot of time saying one thing and doing another, confusing Christina by giving off mixed-signals.  He tells her they needn’t interact, but then invites her to dine with him.  He sends her off to have dinner with a friend and then changes his mind and turns up at the restaurant – and soon he can’t help but admit to himself that wants Christina, as more than a friend.  Their romance isn’t all hearts and flowers though, and Oliver and Christina have some adjustments to make as they navigate their fledgling marriage.  Christina’s frustration at having her life dictated to her by others is starting to bubble over, and Oliver has to learn to step back and allow her to know what is best for her.  But most importantly, they are holding themselves back – not necessarily from each other, but from truly living their lives; they’ve become accustomed to playing it safe, and it takes an unexpected (and shocking) development to shake both of them out of their somewhat complacent attitudes.

One criticism I’ve made about other novels by this author is that she tends to throw in an eleventh hour suspense plot that is resolved rather too quickly and can feel a bit contrived.  There’s a similar final act drama enacted here, but because of the way it’s foreshadowed throughout the book, it feels more integral to the story, even though it’s resolved quickly and somewhat improbably.  In the grand scheme of things however, it was a minor issue and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel.  A Notorious Vow is a gorgeously romantic, character driven love story featuring a pair of quietly appealing protagonists whose HEA is more than well-deserved.

A Scandalous Deal (The Four Hundred #2) by Joanna Shupe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

They call her Lady Unlucky…

With three dead fiancés, Lady Eva Hyde has positively no luck when it comes to love. She sets sail for New York City, determined that nothing will deter her dream of becoming an architect, certainly not an unexpected passionate shipboard encounter with a mysterious stranger. But Eva’s misfortune strikes once more when she discovers the stranger who swept her off her feet is none other than her new employer.

Or is it Lady Irresistible?

Phillip Mansfield reluctantly agrees to let the fiery Lady Eva oversee his luxury hotel project while vowing to keep their relationship strictly professional. Yet Eva is more capable – and more alluring – than Phillip first thought, and he cannot keep from drawing up a plan of his own to seduce her.

When a series of onsite “accidents” make it clear someone wants Lady Unlucky to earn her nickname, Phillip discovers he’s willing to do anything to protect her – even if it requires a scandalous deal…

Rating: B

This second book in Joanna Shupe’s The Four Hundred series introduces readers to Lady Eva Hyde, an intelligent and ambitious young woman who longs to make a career designing buildings. Her father, the world’s most famous architect, Lord Cassell (otherwise known as E.M. Hyde) has tutored her since she was a teenager, and she has studied and worked hard to hone her craft, but this is 1890, and she is barred from properly entering the profession because she is female. E.M. Hyde has recently been commissioned to design what is going to be America’s biggest, most modern and most luxurious hotel, the Mansfield, to be named after its owner, hotelier and millionaire, Philip Mansfield – but what the world at large does not know is that for the past two years, Eva’s father has been seriously ill, and in order to preserve his legacy and keep them afloat financially, his most recent designs – including those of the Mansfield Hotel – have been Eva’s work.

A Scandalous Deal opens as Eva is travelling to New York to meet with Mr. Mansfield and to oversee the project’s initial stages. Her plan is to explain that her father has been taken ill and is unable to make the trip to America and that she is fully versed on her his work and will act in his stead. The ship is not far from land when a bad storm blows up, leaving Eva and only one other passenger – a gentleman she’d met briefly a day or so earlier – prepared to brave the conditions and find themselves something to eat and drink for dinner. By the end of the evening, Eva is a little tipsy, but is still well able to appreciate the man’s handsome face and impressive physique – plus, the way he speaks to her, like an actual, intelligent person rather than as a delicate flower with nothing between the ears, makes her feel valued in a way no other man ever has. Deciding to throw caution to the wind – her marriage prospects in England are zero anyway, given she’s been nicknamed ‘Lady Unlucky’ due to the fact that she has been engaged three times and all her fiancés died – Eva has her first taste of real passion that night, although in the cold light of morning she realises she has perhaps been rather incautious.

It’s not going to come as a surprise (especially if you’ve read the book synopsis!) that the handsome stranger Eva met on the voyage turns out to be none other than Philip Mansfield himself. The mutual attraction that flared between them on the ship has not gone away, but given the circumstances – Eva is Philip’s employee and he’s not happy about the fact that she’s there and her father isn’t – both of them agree to put it behind them and to maintain a professional distance. Even so, Eva is somewhat dismayed when she learns that Philip is a very ‘hands on’ owner and manager, who spends most of his time at his sites; in her previous experiences, she, as her father’s representative, has been more or less left to oversee the work being undertaken, and she is unnerved at the prospect of having to maintain her deception on a day to day basis… as well as of seeing Philip every day and having to ignore the way he makes her feel. And Philip looks forward to the day that E.M Hyde is well enough to travel so that he will no longer need to see the infuriatingly desirable Eva every day.

 

But not seeing Eva and not thinking about her very soon becomes impossible and Philip finds it difficult to concentrate on anything else.  It’s clear to him from her reactions that the desire he feels for Eva is reciprocated, so from then on there is only one solution.  His proposal that they become the sort of friends who “on occasion, might not go home separately” is both scandalous and tantalising to Eva, who longs to experience again the passion she’d felt in Philip’s arms, but is also aware that she has a lot to lose should anyone find out.

There’s a lot to like about A Scandalous Deal.  Eva and Philip are strongly drawn, attractive characters, the setting and the architectural details are lovingly described and have clearly been well researched and I really enjoyed the subplots concerning the corruption rife in the city at the time, the difficulties with the unions and Eva’s wonderfully inventive solution to the problems that arise as a result.  The problem, though, is that there are too many subplots in the story – there’s one concerning the young woman Philip’s parents want him to marry and her father’s revenge when Philip makes it clear it’s not going to happen; another concerning a number of ‘accidents’ at the hotel site which threaten Eva’s safety and another about a commission from Philip’s formidable mother – that there’s not all that much room left over for the development of the central romance or for the principals to interact outside of the bedroom.  The author establishes the attraction between Eva and Philip very well and there’s no question they have great chemistry; the love scenes are sensual and well-done, and I liked the way Eva wasn’t prepared to settle for anything less than a man who loved her for what she was and who would support her ambitions.  I did, however, get annoyed with her when she jumped to conclusions about what Philip must be thinking simply because he looked or sighed the wrong way after they’d been intimate.  It’s so transparently a plot device in a book that doesn’t need any more plot and makes Eva seem judgmental and unreasonable.

I did like the way that Philip is suddenly brought to realise that he had been applying one set of standards to one of his female friends and another to Eva, that he had ignored the importance she placed on retaining her independence and individuality. When he finally realises that he’s gone about things the wrong way, he’s big enough to admit his mistake and go all out – in a rather unusual but contextually appropriate Grand Gesture – to correct it and prove to Eva that he wants to support her in whatever she chooses to do.

A Scandalous Deal is an engaging and entertaining read, and Joanna Shupe continues to be one of the strongest writers of historical romance around.  While there’s a lot of plot in the book, it’s all handled very well and there are no loose ends, but I can’t deny that I’d have liked the romance to have been more strongly developed in a more organic way.  Nonetheless, it’s a solid addition to her current series, and I’ll definitely be looking out for book three later this year.

A Daring Arrangement (The Four Hundred #1) by Joanna Shupe (audiobook) – Narrated by Roxy Isles

Lady Honora Parker must get engaged as soon as possible, and only a particular type of man will do. Nora seeks a mate so abhorrent, so completely unacceptable, that her father will reject the match – leaving her free to marry the artist she desires. Who then is the most appalling man in Manhattan? The wealthy, devilishly handsome financier Julius Hatcher, of course!

Julius is intrigued by Nora’s ruse and decides to play along. But, to Nora’s horror, Julius transforms himself into the perfect fiancé, charming the very people she hoped he would offend. It seems Julius has a secret plan of his own – one that will solve a dark mystery from his past and perhaps turn him into the kind of man Nora could truly love.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

I enjoyed reading Joanna Shupe’s recent Knickerbocker Club series, named for the group of wealthy, powerful men determined to make their mark on late nineteenth century New York. The author did a terrific job in those books with her descriptions of the city’s Gilded Age – which hasn’t been used very often as a setting for historical romance – so I was pleased to discover that her new series – The Four Hundred – is set in the same place and time period. A Daring Arrangement, the first book, sees the daughter of an English earl, who has been sent to America in disgrace, entering into a false betrothal with a self-made New York businessman whose name is a byword for scandal.

Lady Honora – Nora – Parker was caught by her father, the Earl of Stratton, in the arms of the young man she hopes to marry, a penniless artist. Believing the man to be a fortune hunter, the earl immediately sent Nora to stay with her aunt and uncle in New York in the hope that she will forget her swain and find a suitable husband there. But Nora has other ideas. If word gets back to her father that she has made a most inappropriate alliance, he is sure to summon her home immediately – and Nora thinks she has found just the man in Julius Hatcher, a man as famous for his business acumen as he is infamous for the reputation for fast living which regularly earns him column inches in the gossip sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Daring Arrangement (The Four Hundred #1) by Joanna Shupe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Honora Parker must get engaged as soon as possible, and only a particular type of man will do. Nora seeks a mate so abhorrent, so completely unacceptable, that her father will reject the match–leaving her free to marry the artist she loves. Who then is the most appalling man in Manhattan? The wealthy, devilishly handsome financier, Julius Hatcher, of course…

Julius is intrigued by Nora’s ruse and decides to play along. But to Nora’s horror, Julius transforms himself into the perfect fiancé, charming the very people she hoped he would offend. It seems Julius has a secret plan all his own – one that will solve a dark mystery from his past, and perhaps turn him into the kind of man Nora could truly love.

Rating: B+

I’ve read all of Joanna Shupe’s novels (I believe) and have enjoyed them to differing degrees.  Looking back at my review of her début novel, The Courtesan Duchess, I said that while flawed, it was an engrossing read and that I was looking forward to reading more of her work.  Several books later, I’m still reading her and while we’ve had our ups and downs, she’s firmly on my radar and is pretty much a ‘must read’ author for me these days.  A Daring Arrangement, the first in her new Four Hundred series, tells the story of the fake-engagement between an English Lady and an American scoundrel and is quite possibly her best novel yet.

Lady Honoria (Nora) Parker, the daughter of the Earl of Stratton was sent to New York in order to avoid scandal after she was caught in a clinch with the man she loves, Robert Landon, an aspiring – and penniless – artist.  Nora is currently staying with her aunt and uncle, James and  Beatrice Cortland, a thoroughly amiable couple who are only too delighted to have her with them, and Nora is enjoying the chance to get to know her aunt, but unhappy at being separated from Robert, to whom she writes almost daily.  She is determined to get back to England as quickly as possible, and to that end has come up with a plan; she will find the most disreputable man in New York and enter into a false betrothal with him.  Once news of it reaches her father’s ears, he will summon her home immediately and she hopes she will be able to persuade the earl to permit her to marry Robert.

First of all, however, she has to surmount the major problem of not knowing any suitably debauched men; she can hardly ask her aunt to introduce her to some, after all.  But one night at dinner at an exclusive restaurant, she learns that the raucous party taking place on the floor above is being hosted by the well-known financier, Julius Hatcher and it seems as though she’s found the answer to her prayers.  She has been in New York for only one month, but is already familiar with Hatcher’s name because it is rarely absent from the gossip columns.

A handsome, brash swell with more money than sense, he threw elaborate parties and associated with a string of high-profile actresses… he’d even built a replica of a sixteenth-century French castle on Upper Fifth Avenue – complete with a moat.

Naturally, while high society looks down its collective nose at Hatcher’s exploits, its members are only too happy to be entertained by them while simultaneously denying him entrée to their sacred halls, so Nora hasn’t actually met the man.  But she can’t let this chance slip by, so makes an excuse to her party and immediately hurries upstairs – to discover the ballroom full of men on horseback!  When Nora finally manages to locate her quarry, he is more than three sheets to the wind, but she is undeterred.  He’s also utterly gorgeous, but she refuses to let that worry her, either.  She quickly outlines her proposal –  if he will agree to pose as her fiancé long enough to garner her father’s ire, in exchange, she will gain him entry to all the society events from which he has so far been barred – and is relieved when he accepts.  Just before he passes out.

Julius Hatcher is a mathematical genius with a real talent for reading the markets and making shrewd investments.  He’s a self-made man who has worked hard for his success and has, for the past thirteen years been trying to uncover the identities of the three society gentlemen who screwed over his father in an investment deal.  With the entrée to the higher echelons of society provided by his new not-fiancée, Julius hopes to find those men and somehow punish them for what they did to his father.  Unfortunately, his desire to gain society’s acceptance is diametrically opposed to Nora’s desire to cause a ruckus; her plan hinges on the fact that Julius is a walking scandal, but obviously she forgot the old adage that one shouldn’t believe everything one reads in the papers, because it very quickly becomes apparent that there’s much more to Julius Hatcher than she’s read in the gossip rags and that he’s far from being as black as he is painted.

I’m always up for a good fake-relationship story, and this is a very good one that came quite close to being a DIK.  The writing is excellent, the chemistry between the leads is fabulous and Ms. Shupe develops their slow-burn romance beautifully.  Her descriptions of New York’s Gilded Age are evocative and vivid, putting the reader firmly in the midst of glittering society ballrooms and the seedier venues down in the Tenderloin district.  Julius is a swoonworthy hero; handsome, sexy as hell and highly intelligent, he is quick to work out Nora’s reasons for wanting a fake-engagement and is determined to save her from herself by protecting her reputation even though she is equally determined to throw it away if it will get her what she wants.  But he’s yet another marriage-shy bachelor who avoids anything long term because he doesn’t want that sort of responsibility and believes it will only lead to disappointment.  (Although to be fair, once we meet his mother his position becomes more understandable.)  Nora is a spirited, intelligent young woman, and for the most part, I liked her; yet she puts herself and others in danger because of her desire to marry a man the reader knows from page one is not worthy of her.  Fortunately, she does learn from her mistakes and exhibits character growth as the story progresses; I ended up admiring her for her honesty and the fact that by the end, she is unwilling to settle for anything less than a man who loves her for herself.

The sub-plot relating to Julius’ search for the men who destroyed his father is nicely done, too, but my biggest issue with the story overall is with the final section, which risks over-egging the dramatic pudding by adding on a hero/heroine-in-peril type of plotline.  The tacking-on of a mystery or melodramatic dénouement is something that seems to be almost de rigueur in historical romance these days, but rarely do such things feel integral to the story, and often they smack of contrivance. Whereas up until this point the characters have been driving the story, here, the plot takes over, and it’s a noticeable shift in gear which I found somewhat jarring.

Overall though, A Daring Arrangement is a great read, packed with wonderful dialogue, strongly-drawn secondary characters, a well-developed romance and sensual love scenes.  I’m more than happy to recommend it to others and am eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

Mogul (Knickerbocker Club #3) by Joanna Shupe

mogul

I don’t know what planet the designer was on when he/she came up with the cover for this book, but the female model looks NOTHING like Lily, who described as being blonde and curvy.

This title may be purchased from Amazon

As owner of a well-respected national newspaper, Calvin Cabot has the means to indulge his capricious taste for excess–and the power to bring the upper crust of society to its knees. So when a desperate heiress from his past begs for his help, Calvin agrees . . . as long as she promises to stay out of his way. Except, like the newsman, this willful beauty always gets what she wants . . .

Lillian Davies lives a life brimming with boundless parties, impressive yachts, and exotic getaways. But when her brother disappears, Lily knows that blood runs thicker than champagne and she’ll spare nothing to bring him back alive. Unfortunately, the only man who can help her is the one she never wanted to see again. Can Lily keep Calvin at arm’s length long enough to save her brother and protect her name . . . even when the tenacious powerbroker turns out to be absolutely irresistible?

Rating: B-

I’ve read and enjoyed all the books in Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series, so I was eagerly looking forward to Mogul, the last book in the set. I like second-chance romances and the pairing of the self-made media mogul and the society beauty who were married but quickly separated intrigued me, so I settled in to read with reasonably high expectations.

Unfortunately however, they were not met. While there’s certainly an intriguing storyline that is linked with hero Calvin Cabot’s past and an inviolable promise he made some years earlier, and there’s no question that he and our heroine, Lillian Davies, are still deeply in lust with one another, plot holes, uneven pacing and unclear motivations lead to a less than cohesive whole.

Four years ago, and following a whirlwind romance, hard-working, dedicated reporter Calvin Cabot eloped with and married Lillian Davies, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They’re confident they’ll be able to talk Warren Davies around, but he threatens to cut Lily off without a penny and also to expose Calvin as a bigamist, because he’s already married to a woman he met while he lived in China. Believing that staying married to Lily will do her a massive disservice – she’s been brought up in the lap of luxury and Calvin certainly won’t be able to keep her in expensive dresses and jewellery – and because of a promise given to his closest friend, Calvin gives into her father’s blackmail, leaves and the marriage is annulled.

Lily has picked up the pieces and got on with her life, now believing that Calvin was nothing but a fortune hunter. Her father has since died, and she has taken over as president of Davies Mining, something she hopes is an interim measure until her younger brother, Tom, can take over. But Tom is missing, and the only clue she has to his whereabouts is a note written in Chinese, which has both Tom’s and Calvin’s names written in it. Lily has no alternative but to approach Calvin, who by now, owns three newspapers and is one of the most influential men in the country. He spent several years living and working in China and knows the language; and while it galls her to have to ask him for help, Lily puts aside her personal feelings and concentrates on trying to help her brother.

At first, Calvin wants nothing to do with Lily or Tom, but he translates the note for her, which says that Tom has taken something of value belonging to Wah Lee, the man who pretty much controls the whole of New York’s Chinatown.  Calvin reluctantly agrees to do a bit of digging to see what he can find out, but in reality he knows more or less exactly what is going on.

Calvin’s Chinese wife isn’t his wife at all, but is actually married to his friend Hugo, a freed slave who saved Calvin’s life more than once when they were both working in China.  The plan had been for Shin-yee to join Hugo in the US, but the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed before she could do so and with no legal way of getting her into the country, Calvin asked Lee for help, telling him that Shin-yee was his wife.  After almost five years and no sign of her being able to come to the US, Calvin has begun to get impatient and has started to do a bit of sabre-rattling in his newspapers, running a series of articles about the extent of the corruption in Chinatown.  And to make a bad situation worse, it seems that the “something of value” that Lily’s brother has taken is Lee’s daughter, Ming Zhu.

The stage is set for a gripping story of move and countermove as Calvin tries to protect Lily and Tom from the danger presented by Lee while also fulfilling his promise to reunite Hugo with his wife. This plotline is fast-paced and well-executed, with plenty of twists and turns and moments of danger and peril; but Calvin’s almost pathological need to keep secrets from Lily is frustrating, and the many misunderstandings between them seem to be thrown in simply to add complications to a story that already has quite a lot going on.

The sexual chemistry between Calvin and Lily is undeniably strong, but I never felt these were two people who have changed very much or grown over their four years apart; their relationship seems still to be built on the all-consuming lust that drove them together in the first place. Calvin agreed to walk away from Lily in part because he felt she wouldn’t be happy without her high-society lifestyle; yet I had to ask myself why on earth he didn’t think of that before?  The other reason was because of his promise to Hugo; if it got out that Shin-yee was married to a former slave, it would make it even harder to bring her to the US, so Calvin allowed Lily’s father to believe him a bigamist rather than tell the truth or ask for help.

The thing is that I can’t quite buy either of those things, and given they’re the reasons behind the break-up that provides the impetus for the story, it leaves the whole thing on shaky ground.  While the thriller plotline is very well executed – it’s the best thing in the book – and Ms. Shupe has clearly researched the situation regarding the Chinese immigrant community and the restrictive immigration laws very extensively, the other elements to the story aren’t as strong.  The explanations for Mr. Davies’ interference, and how Calvin acquired his first newspaper are overly convenient, and towards the end, Ms. Shupe lobs in a last-minute threat to Lily’s position as president of Davies Mining and a sordid, kinky secret kept by her boring would-be fiancé which Calvin, naturally, digs up in order to run him outta town; both of which make the ending feel rushed and the reader feel that the bow tying everything up is just a bit too neat.  And I am not a fan of romances where it’s left to other people to point out to one or both of the protagonists just how much in love they are, or how much in love the other person is with them.  It’s not uncommon in a romance for one character to need a little push, but this is no little push – it’s several very forceful and completely unsubtle shoves.

It’s common practice these days for ebooks to contain taster chapters and teasers for other books by the author, but in the case of Mogul, the final quarter is actually given over to Tycoon, the prequel novella to the series.   This meant that the story actually ended at around the 76% mark on my Kindle, so this is not the 352 page novel it’s billed as.  I was not aware of this when I picked up the book, although there’s a flash on the front cover claiming “free bonus novella!”  If you’ve already bought Tycoon, you may feel it’s a bit of a cheek to use it to pad out the pagination of another book and ask you to pay for it again; potential readers, be aware that Mogul is considerably shorter than advertised.

It pains me to say that Mogul – which I’d anticipated being the best of the series – is actually the weakest.  I’d give a strong B/B+ to the thriller, but a C to everything else, so I’m compromising with a B-  as a final grade.  It’s a bit of a whimper to the end of what’s been a thoroughly enjoyable and well-written series set in a time and place that doesn’t often feature in historical romances.  For that, if nothing else, Ms. Shupe deserves praise, and even though Mogul didn’t live up to my expectations, I will definitely be picking up whatever she comes up with next.

 

Baron (Knickerbocker Club #2) by Joanna Shupe

baron_cover

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Born into one of New York’s most respected families, William Sloane is a railroad baron who has all the right friends in all the right places. But no matter how much success he achieves, he always wants more. Having secured his place atop the city’s highest echelons of society, he’s now setting his sights on a political run. Nothing can distract him from his next pursuit—except, perhaps, the enchanting con artist he never saw coming . . .

Ava Jones has eked out a living the only way she knows how. As “Madame Zolikoff,” she hoodwinks gullible audiences into believing she can communicate with the spirit world. But her carefully crafted persona is nearly destroyed when Will Sloane walks into her life—and lays bare her latest scheme. The charlatan is certain she can seduce the handsome millionaire into keeping her secret and using her skills for his campaign—unless he’s the one who’s already put a spell on her . . .

Rating: B+

The heroes in Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series are all rich, influential businessmen, some of them self-made, like Emmett Cavanaugh (hero of the first book, Magnate) and some, like Will Sloane in Baron, born into a wealthy family of New York blue-bloods whose standing in society is not all that different to that of the members of the English nobility on the other side of the Pond.

Will has spent most of his life spitting in the eye – metaphorically, of course – of his late father, a man who constantly belittled his son and believed he would never amount to much. Becoming the man of the family in his late teens, those taunts have driven Will, who has not only ably managed Northeast Railroad, the company built by his father, but greatly expanded it, adding considerably to his own and the family’s wealth and standing in doing so.

Now in his early thirties, Will continues to push himself incredibly hard, working all the hours God sends and then some; even though he knows he needs to slack off a bit. But he has started to feel that perhaps it’s time for him to make a change, and that change looks set to come quite soon, as he has been invited to join the ticket for the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New York, as lieutenant governor for former senator John Bennett.

There’s no question that Will’s desire for political office is partly influenced by the fact that his father had always wanted to wield political influence, but had never accomplished it. Will’s success will be yet another nose-thumbing to his sire, but before he can achieve it, a potential scandal in the form of a Russian spiritualist by the name Madame Zolikoff, needs to be dealt with, and quickly, before her association with Bennett – who sees her regularly for readings and advice – becomes known and makes the candidate into a laughing stock.

Attending one of her performances at a run-down theatre in one of New York’s less than salubrious districts, Will is surprised to find he rather likes what he sees. Zolikoff is a seductively attractive woman, and in spite of the fact that she’s a complete fake and he is determined to expose her as one, Will is strongly attracted to her. He confronts her backstage, equally surprised to discover that his physical size, obvious disapproval and, later, outright threats, don’t intimidate her in the least. She is forthright and defiant, telling him in no uncertain terms that she will not be scared away from her best client.

Ava Jones is not a woman to be intimidated easily – or at all – and certainly not by a pompous, snobbish, high-society railroad baron who has never known a day’s hardship in his life. The fact that’s he’s obscenely handsome is an unwanted distraction perhaps, but Ava has to keep her focus. She has to take care of her younger brothers and sister, aged twelve to fifteen, and her performances and private readings as Madame Zolikoff should mean that she will soon have enough money to be able to get them all out of their cramped lodgings in the city and away into the fresh air of the countryside.

The sparks fly between these two from the get go, and in spite of their obvious differences, there are a lot of similarities between them, too. Both have brought up younger siblings (Will’s younger sister, Lizzie, was the heroine of Magnate), and have suffered painful pasts; they work incredibly hard and are determined to succeed at what they do. Theirs is certainly never going to be one of those peacefully settled relationships because they are too much alike in many ways, but their mutual stubbornness is one of the factors that puts them on more of an equal footing than their respective situations might suggest. Will may be incredibly wealthy, but Ava isn’t interested in his money or what it can do for her; she sees a man in need and deserving of love and affection who needs someone to stand up to him occasionally, and for Will, Ava is the perfect combination of intelligence and determination, a woman who will challenge him and love him in equal measure.

Both Will and Ava are attractive, engaging characters and their romance is well-written, with plenty of sexual tension and nicely steamy love scenes. The strength of the attraction between them is intense, and the author balances that with the other plot elements extremely well, so that the whole story fairly races by, but in a good way; the way that has the reader so eager to find out what happens next that they continue reading until well into the early hours!

With all that said, a couple of bumpy patches towards the end of the book caused me to lower my final grade a little. Firstly Ava, who has been painted as a strong, self-reliant woman who is able to manage her family and her problems herself, is suddenly thrust into situations from which she needs rescuing, not just once, but twice. And while part of the appeal of the story has been in watching Will gradually unbend and shed some of his hauteur to become a man rather than a block of ice, the Big Romantic Gesture he makes feels completely out of character for the man we have come to know over the course of the book.

Otherwise, though, Baron is an engrossing, well-written tale. Ms. Shupe evokes the world and atmosphere of New York’s Gilded Age extremely well, there’s a great cast of secondary characters and I especially liked the passages which gave a glimpse into Ava’s tricks of the trade. The writing is confident and laced with humour and snappy dialogue. All in all, I’m definitely recommending Baron to fans of historical romance, especially those who are looking for something a little bit different.