How to Impress a Marquess (Wicked Little Secrets #3) by Susanna Ives


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

TAKE ONE MARQUESS: Proper, put-upon, dependable, but concealing a sensitive artist’s soul.

ADD ONE BOHEMIAN LADY: Creative, boisterous, unruly, but secretly yearning for a steadfast love, home, and family.

STIR in a sensational serialized story that has society ravenous for each installment.

COMBINE with ambitious guests at an ill-fated house party hosted by a treacherous dowager possessing a poison tongue.

SHAKE until a stuffy marquess and rebellious lady make a shocking discovery: the contents of their hearts are just alike.Take a sip. You’ll laugh, you’ll swoon, you’ll never want this moving Victorian love story to end.

Rating: C

One of the things I’ve appreciated most about the books I’ve read by Susanna Ives has been her ability to create relatable, multi-layered characters and storylines which are just a little different to those normally found in an historical romance. In her latest book, How to Impress a Marquess, however, she has opted to follow a fairly well-trod-path; the stuffy-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine one – and while the central characters are reasonably engaging and are eventually shown to have more depth than it at first seems, I couldn’t rid myself of that “been here, done that” feeling. Added to this, the heroine drove me bonkers for a large chunk of the first half of the book, and the hero, while supposedly very upstanding and mindful of propriety, does and says a number of things (such as uttering the word “fuck” within the heroine’s hearing) that are not only anachronistic, but which completely contradict the personality the author has given him. The second half of the book is much stronger than the first, as that’s where we are given insight into what is driving these two people and why they are the way they are, but had I not been reading it for review, I’m not sure I’d have been able to put up with the heroine’s antics for long enough to get to the good stuff.

Lilith Dahlgren has been pushed from pillar to post for almost her entire life. When her widowed mother remarried into the wealthy and influential Maryle family, Lilith was not welcome at the family home and was sent away to school. Her feelings of abandonment manifested in her becoming increasingly rebellious, leading to her having to change schools frequently. When her education was finished, and after the death of her mother, Lilith was taken in by a couple of distant cousins, who encouraged her unconventionality and her interest in the arts. Now aged twenty-three and enjoying her Bohemian lifestyle, she chafes under the guardianship of George, Marquess of Marylewick, who controls her purse-strings until she comes of age, and who is determined to find her a suitable husband. Lilith and George are chalk and cheese; at thirty-one, he is the head of his family, responsible for overseeing their numerous estates, looking out for his siblings and tenants, carrying out his Parliamentary duties and a million-and-one other things that take up almost all of his time. His one self-indulgence is found within the pages of McAllister’s Magazine, which is currently serialising a story entitled Colette and the Sultan, in which the virtuous heroine has been kidnapped by – you guessed it – an evil Sultan. It’s not a salacious story, but George is rather smitten with the loving, true and compassionate Colette and has no idea whatsoever that his rebellious ward is the author and has used him as the inspiration for the evil Sultan.

[On a side note, the ‘heroine-as-secret-author’ trope seems to be flavour of the month in historicals at the moment; I’ve read a lot of them lately.]

Their opposing natures naturally mean that George and Lilith butt-heads often, yet even as everything about George drives Lilith to distraction, she also enjoys baiting him and can’t help noticing that he’s gorgeous.  And while George wants to be rid of the millstone around his neck that is Lilith, he can’t quash his inconvenient  physical attraction to her, making it even more imperative that he find her a husband as soon as possible.

The author does a good job of mixing the light and darker elements of the story, and once she started to show exactly why Lilith behaves as she does, I found the character easier to warm to.  She is unconventional, kind and insightful, yet while there’s no denying she has good reason to feel the way she does, I was irritated by her inability to put herself in someone else’s place and her continual need to push a situation to its very limits.

George is an attractive enough hero, but he’s a bit of a stereotype – the heir with an artistic soul whose father thought his interests weren’t masculine enough and beat them out of him.  The scene in which Lilith shows him his youthful drawings is quite moving and I enjoyed seeing him finally achieve a balance in his life; but he’s a little bland overall.

I’ve already mentioned that I had problems with the heroine in the story, but that’s not the only thing preventing me from rating the book more highly.  For one thing, the central relationship is built on what is quite possibly the most “insta” case of insta-lust I’ve ever read in an historical, and the romance isn’t particularly well developed.  I also didn’t like that Lilith used her writing to vent her frustration over what she perceives as George’s poor treatment of her.  Her conversations with her Muse are sometimes amusing, but mostly this element seems present so that Lilith can daydream about George, and then provide some conflict late in the story, because of course, these secret-identity-things never turn out well. I can’t say much without spoilers, but what happens after it becomes known that the evil Sultan is based upon George is quite ridiculous.

Ultimately, How to Impress a Marquess is a bit of a mixed bag.  On the positive side, the writing is generally good and the secondary characters are well drawn – although the monstrous Lady Marylewick is more of a caricature than a character; and the author makes some very good points about the need to be true to oneself and about the lasting effects of bullying and social pressure.  Even given my reservations about Lilith’s character, I did appreciate her for her desire to belong, to love and be loved for who and what she was; and I enjoyed George’s gradual rediscovery of his true self and his big romantic gesture towards the end. But there are too many negatives – the serial-as-plot-device, the absence of a strong sense of time and place, Lilith’s unrealistic and often selfish behaviour, the lack of chemistry between the leads, and too many anachronisms, Americanisms and downright odd uses of language (no British person would talk about the need to “get quids”, for example) – for me to feel able to give the book a recommendation.


A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.

(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

TBR Challenge: Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives

rakesand radishes

When Henrietta Watson learns that the man she loves plans to marry London’s most beautiful and fashionable debutante, she plots to win him back. She’ll give him some competition by transforming her boring bumpkin neighbor, the Earl of Kesseley, into a rakish gothic hero worthy of this Season’s Diamond.

After years of unrequited love for Henrietta, Kesseley is resigned to go along with her plan and woo himself a willing bride. But once in London, everything changes. Kesseley–long more concerned with his land than his title–discovers that he’s interested in sowing wild oats as well as radishes. And Henrietta realizes that gothic heroes don’t make ideal husbands. Despite an explosive kiss that opens her eyes to the love that’s been in front of her all along, Henrietta must face the possibility that Kesseley is no longer looking to marry at all…

Rating: B+

This, Susanna Ives’ début novel was published by Carina in 2010, and is one of the most unusual historical romances I’ve read. In fact, it sometimes doesn’t feel like a romance at all; what it actually is is the story of a conflicted young man who has struggled all his life not to allow himself to be defined by his past, and who faces some very difficult – and perhaps even insurmountable – challenges in his attempt to find his true self.

That said, there is a love story running throughout the book, and it’s definitely a romance in the sense that there is eventually a happy resolution for the central couple. But it doesn’t come easily and both hero and heroine have to go through the wringer in order to get there, which makes for some uncomfortable reading. Both characters act in ways which could render them irredeemably unlikeable, but fortunately, Ms Ives is a strong enough writer to be able to turn that around in a believable manner and to show that both principals have grown as a result of their experiences. They aren’t ready to be together at the beginning of the story, but they come through all the trials, tribulations and heartbreak that ensues as more enlightened and self-aware people who are ready to make a life together.

The author has very successfully turned one of the most commonly-used tropes in the genre upside-down and inside-out. The story of the hardened rake who eventually settles down with the love of his life to become a doting husband and responsible member of the community is reversed, as the hero – the Earl of Kesseley – travels in the opposite direction. He begins the book as a loveable and kindly gentleman farmer – and later plunges into a life of dissipation when his anger and frustration at both himself and the heroine become too much for him to bear.
In fact, Rakes and Radishes could easily have been subtitled Be Careful What You Wish For, as most of the conflict in the story stems from the heroine’s desire to turn her oldest friend into a fashionable man-about-town – and all because of something she wants rather than for his own benefit.

Thomas, the Earl of Kesseley has been in love with Henrietta Watson for as long as he can remember. They more or less grew up together, and he would frequently take refuge at the Watson’s home to get away from the miserable atmosphere at his own. His father was a hardened libertine who abused his mother and the young Thomas grew up seeing things no child should ever have to see. Even before he inherited his title, Kesseley was determined never to become a man like his father, and, at the age of twenty-five, he has succeeded. He has devoted his life to the management of his land and estates, and has finally managed to reverse the damage done by his father’s neglect.
Henrietta knows how Kesseley feels about her, but although he’s her dearest friend and has always been there for her, she isn’t interested in him romantically. In fact, she imagines for herself a glamorous London life at the side of her cousin Edward, a handsome poet. Edward has recently travelled to London in order to further his literary ambitions and believing herself in love, Henrietta is on tenterhooks awaiting a letter from him. He has been in London for six weeks, and hasn’t written once – and when Henrietta reads of his betrothal to the beautiful Lady Sara, she is in despair. She’s fully aware of what she’s doing when she uses Kesseley as a shoulder to cry on – but she can’t help herself. She is so completely self-obsessed that she doesn’t even try not to hurt him, even as she recognises what she’s doing and feels bad about it. But all she cares about is winning Edward back from Lady Sara, and suggests to Kesseley that he should make Lady Sara fall in love with him instead and steal her from Edward! Kesseley is aghast at such an idea – but Henrietta is insistent. He’s so much more handsome than Edward anyway, and if he just cut his hair and dressed like an earl instead of a farm-hand, he’d have the debutantes swooning at his feet!

She manoeuvres him into taking her to London as his mother’s companion – something about which Lady Kesseley is not at all happy, not liking the way Henrietta takes her son for granted. But Henrietta is too focused on her goal of getting Edward back to care very much about that and blithely continues to insist that if Kesseley would just smarten himself up, and perhaps act like the darkly brooding Lord Blackraven, the hero of her favourite novel, that perhaps he’ll have a better chance of finding himself a wife, regardless of whether he helps Henrietta with Edward or not.

By this point, Kesseley is disgusted with Henrietta but even more disgusted and angry with himself for the way he lets her walk all over him. Having suffered humiliation at various social events, he eventually snaps. He’s had enough of Henrietta’s machinations and needs to get her out from under his skin. In doing so, he does all the things she’s been urging him to – going to a good tailor, getting himself a decent valet and a good haircut – and even emulating the ennui and mystery embodied by the fictional Lord Blackraven. Kesseley isn’t stupid –he realises that what attracts young women to this romantic hero in droves is the air of mystery he exudes – and decides that that’s the way to play the game.

No one is more stunned than Henrietta at Kesseley’s transformation; she’s always thought him handsome but now he’s devastatingly so – and he immediately sets about wooing Lady Sara and every other young woman in sight. But this isn’t Kesseley – overnight he’s become a stranger to Henrietta, and the truth hits her like a ton of bricks. This isn’t the man he should be – and it certainly isn’t the man she now realises she loves.

Sometimes this is a hard book to read. Henrietta is blinkered and selfish and is an easy heroine to dislike at the start of the book. Granted, that’s the way the reader is supposed to respond to her, and Ms Ives has done a good job in showing her to be an immature young woman who can’t tell the difference between infatuation and love. The reader can see quite clearly that what Henrietta feels for Kesseley is more than friendship. She’s deeply attracted to him (there’s a point at which she finds herself thinking about him in the bath – all wet, naked, bulging muscle!) and has responded enthusiastically to the odd kiss they’ve shared. But her familiarity and easy relationship with him blinds her to the true nature of her feelings for him – and when she does realise them, it’s too late.

Kesseley begins the book as a very sympathetic character, even though one can’t help but agree with his own assessment of his relationship with Henrietta – namely that he lets her take him for granted and is spineless for doing so. The author does an excellent job of showing and building his frustrations and conveying his desperation to stop himself from enduring further hurt at her hands. She then proceeds to turn him into a rake of the first order – and one of the things I appreciated about that section of the book as a whole is that Kesseley really does become a rake. There’s a line of Henrietta’s where she admits she’d had no idea what being a rake truly meant , having only a fictional character to go by – which is a surely a comment on the genre as a whole. There are so many books around with the words “rake”, “rogue”, “devil”, or “wicked” in the title in which the hero is actually no such thing. So while it’s perhaps not his most shining hour, it’s important to the story that Kesseley really does plumb the depths – drinking, gambling, whoring, even attempting to drunkenly seduce a friend’s wife – as I think he needs to go there, to the edge of self-destruction, in order to be able to appreciate the honesty and openness of the life he’d led before. And I think Henrietta needs to see him like that in order to realise the depth of the damage her thoughtlessness has wrought – how asking Kesseley to act the part of a rake, she’d opened up all the old wounds inflicted on him by his father.

Rakes and Radishes is a very strong début novel, and kudos to Ms Ives for daring to challenge and upend some of the most beloved tropes in the genre. The writing has a few rough edges to it here and there, and there is the usual (and unfortunate) smattering of Americanisms, but the author’s handling of difficult subject matter and the emotional complexity of the story more than make up for those deficiencies.