The Hunter (Victorian Rebels #2) By Kerrigan Byrne

The Hunter is the second in Kerrigan Byrne’s “Victorian Rebels” series (I really enjoyed Book 1, The Highwayman, which was previously reviewed here.) This book is emotionally complicated, so my review is long. But fair warning: this book will definitely not be to everyone’s taste. The violence in the prologue alone will turn off anyone who is looking for a light, fluffy romantic story.

The Hunter Front Cover (XX)

The Hunter Front Cover (St. Martin’s Paperback)

THE PLOT: Christopher Argent was born in his mother’s jail cell. As a child, he watches his mother trade sexual favors to the prison guards in exchange for better food. After he witnesses her gang-rape and murder, Christopher turns to a life of violence. Fast-forward to years later, where he is a cold, ruthless assassin in the criminal underworld run by Dorian Blackwell. He’s hired to kill actress Millie LeCour, but something about her prevents him from finishing the job. After two failed attempts, he instead promises to protect Millie and her young son from whoever is after them if Millie will spend one night with him.

Millie first spots Christopher in the audience of the play in which she’s performing. When she dances with him at the after-party, she’s immediately smitten. When she realizes he intended to kill her, she’s rightfully terrified for herself and her son, yet still oddly fascinated by him. When he promises to protect them from the danger, she agrees to his bargain. Millie is hiding a few secrets of her own, and those may be more dangerous to her than her would-be assassin.

MY TWO CENTS: I thought quite a bit about what to say in this review. I first considered who the character of Christopher reminded me of, and I came up with comparisons to Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer played by Ralph Fiennes in “The Red Dragon;” Edward Nygma on “Gotham;” and to a lesser extent, Dr. Horrible. What do these three have in common? They’re all villains who, for a short time, start enjoying a romantic relationship with their dream girl (or almost, in Horrible’s case); then, through some sort of emotional breakdown, end up killing or attempting to kill the woman.

I’m not saying Christopher ends up killing Millie. I’m saying it would have made more sense if he had. Each of the characters mentioned previously have some sort of deep-seated psychosis (okay, Dr. Horrible was just a bullied nerd, but that was enough to push him over the edge). And in each case, romance was not enough to heal that mental illness. Which is absolutely a fact, and let me repeat it: finding true love does not, in and of itself, cure mental illness.

Kerrigan Byrne does a fantastic job of getting the reader into Christopher’s head. He has been significantly damaged by the trauma of his formative years. He is a cold-blooded murderer whose only code is to not rape women and not kill children. He can’t sleep in a real bed. He’s got a huge mansion with absolutely no furnishings in it, isn’t interested in personal items, and has one person he kinda/sorta counts as a friend. There are many, many signs here that Christopher is a full-blown psychotic. Maybe the problem is that Byrne does TOO good of a job painting the profile of a serial killer. Admittedly, she provides an even more evil assassin to serve as a comparison to Christopher. This person enjoys physically torturing his victims, mutilating them, leaving “trophies,” and having sex with corpses. (So maybe HE is closer to the character of Francis Dolarhyde.) But just because the other killer is worse doesn’t mean Christopher isn’t bad. The other may just be beyond help. Which leads to:

Can a person with psychotic tendencies overcome them? Can a killer repent? Can a villain redeem himself? Sure, but it takes more than a pretty face to inspire it. To truly heal, Christopher would need years of therapy and possibly some medication, as well as a strong support system. One friend, one lover, and a legitimate job are NOT going to fix everything that’s wrong with him.

Now, I’m fully aware that Argent wouldn’t have benefited from what passed for mental health care in the Victorian era, but there might have been ways around that. For example, consider another fictional character from a similar time period: Kenshin Himura of Rurouni Kenshin. He was traumatized and abandoned as a child, trained as a samurai, became a notorious assassin in the Bakumatsu, and was eventually responsible for the death of his own wife. But Kenshin’s redemption begins at the end of the war, when he vows never to kill again. As a wanderer, he focuses on protecting people, makes many friends, and eventually marries again. But his redemption doesn’t happen because of Karou; Kenshin is able to love her because he has already worked so hard to change. He lets go of enough guilt to believe he’s deserving of happiness.

For me, one of two options could have made this book better. The first is that, like Kenshin, Christopher was already working on turning over a new leaf before he met Millie. He might have been portrayed as a repenting former assassin who found out Millie was a target, felt compelled to step in to protect her, and eventually fell in love.

The other option would require this book to be a psychological thriller and not held to the unwritten rules of romances. If it weren’t limited to approximately 400 pages, required to have a happy ending, and of course focused on romance, it could be called a well-written exploration of someone striving to escape his past and become something better.

At least the book doesn’t leave Christopher as a fully rehabilitated individual. He may be on his way, but the reader is left to believe it will be an ongoing process. I just wish more than love had been the catalyst for his eventual redemption.

BOTTOM LINE: Definitely not for everyone. If violence and foul language are not your thing, skip it. If you’re drawn to very dark anti-heroes and tend to dismiss harsh reality when reading, then The Hunter may appeal to you. I wish the well-written title character had been featured in a psychological thriller instead of a romance. I will still read the next book in the series, The Highlander, coming in October.

TEACUP RATING: Out of five teacups: two-and-a-half to three.

ON SALE DATE: Available February 2, 2016, in paperback and e-formats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Unforgettable Hero (Playful Brides 4.5) by Valerie Bowman

If you’ve the other books in the “Playful Brides” series (Book 3, The Unlikely Lady, was reviewed here, and Book 4, The Irresistible Rogue, was reviewed here), you’ll want to read this novella.

The Unforgettable Hero Front Cover (St. Martin's Press)

The Unforgettable Hero Front Cover (St. Martin’s Press)

THE PLOT: Cecilia Harcourt is in a tight spot. After her parents’ deaths, she and her sickly little sister Mary are under the guardianship of her tight-fisted aunt and uncle. They want Cece to marry their nasty son Percy so they get Cece’s dowry. Cece has written a romantic novel that she’s hoping to get published, thereby paying for Mary’s much-needed medicine and saving Cece from a horrible marriage. After being rejected by a publisher, a distraught Cece is on her way home when she’s hit by a carriage. But when Cece wakes up, she thinks she’s the main character from her book…and her rescuer is the character’s betrothed.

Adam Hunt, younger brother of the Duke of Claringdon, takes the unconscious young woman back to his brother’s home. When she wakes up, she proclaims that she is Lady Magnolia and Adam is her fiancé, the Duke of Loveridge, but she has no other real memories. The doctor recommends that Adam, his brother Derek, and sister-in-law Lucy play along with “Lady Magnolia’s” delusion until they can figure out who she is, or until the she regains her memory on her own. But Adam doesn’t count on developing feelings for their guest.

MY TWO CENTS: The setup of this is absolutely adorable. The amnesia plot gets a twist with Cece believing she’s her own fictitious character, and that Adam is the perfect duke she’s dreamed up. Adding Lucy (of Book 1, The Unexpected Duchess) to meddle is a perfect touch. The reader has to overlook the whole ludicrous “taking an amnesiac to a ball” part and just go with the story.

I’m just sorry Adam tripped the finish line. After being kind and caring for most of the story, he suddenly freaks out three-quarters of the way through and decides Cece has just been putting on an act. I guess that’s partially the author’s way of dealing with “they can’t possibly be in love after three days,” but I would have liked it better if he’d stayed her support system throughout. The story just didn’t need that added conflict.

BOTTOM LINE: Cute novella; a definite read if you’ve read all the other “Playful Brides.” But it would have been better if the hero hadn’t suddenly acted like a jerk.

TEACUP RATING: Three-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available February 2, 2016, in eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

I requested this book because the author, Melanie Benjamin, is one of my favorites. I knew almost nothing about Truman Capote except that he was in “Murder by Death,” and of course I’ve seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I had never heard of Babe Paley or any of the other “swans” that made up high society in 1965 New York.

Swans of Fifth Avenue Front Cover ( Delacorte Press/Random House)

Swans of Fifth Avenue Front Cover ( Delacorte Press/Random House)

THE PLOT: Truman Capote is the darling of New York society, riding high on his recent success. He becomes the dearest, most beloved friend of Babe Paley, the wife of Bill Paley, who built CBS into a network. Truman attends exclusive parties with very rich people, but none of them are really friends the way he and Babe are. Truman’s demons, though, propel him to keep pushing the envelope and behave more and more scandalously. From the throwing the famous Black-and-White Ball to writing the tell-all book revealing the deepest secrets of his “swans,” Truman goes on a downward spiral that ends with him alienating all his friends, even Babe.

MY TWO CENTS: As far as historical fiction goes, the 1960s are definitely not my usual comfort zone! But I was immediately sucked into this world that was completely foreign to me. The descriptions made me feel as if I were there, living this dream life that only a very privileged few ever experience. Of course, the flip side is that it isn’t a dream life at all. There is no love, no family; only appearances, false friends, cheating husbands, and children cared for by nannies.

Babe Paley and Truman Capote seem to have a real, true friendship amidst all this falseness. On Babe’s side, it’s a platonic romance with the love her life; on his side, a replacement for his mother’s indifference. But Truman has a self-destructive streak that won’t allow him to be happy. After finding great success and real love, Truman seems to intentionally and aggressively wreck his life.

Babe is written almost as Melanie Hamilton. As the world of graciousness she knows decays around her, she will stay a true lady to the end.

BOTTOM LINE: Not my usual choice for historical fiction setting, but I was completely captivated. Readers will probably come away from this book thoughtful and sad, but not depressed. That’s an important distinction to me.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: The book will be available in hardcover, eformats, and audio on January 26, 2016.

BONUS: Reckless Hearts, a short story prequel about the relationship between Slim Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, is also now available in eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley and Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.


The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir

I can never wait to get my hands on new Alison Weir nonfiction! And look, a Tudor who hasn’t already been done to death. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor (Queen of Scotland); granddaughter of Henry VII; niece of Henry VIII; cousin to Elizabeth I; mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots; and grandmother of James I. And despite all that, she managed to avoid execution!

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins before Margaret’s birth. It covers how Margaret Tudor was widowed, then remarried Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus (although that seems to be somewhat disputed).

At various times throughout her life, Margaret is endorsed as possible heir to the English throne, which surprisingly doesn’t cost her life. She’s in high favor with her Uncle Henry VIII until a love affair with Thomas Howard—just as Howards are falling from favor (i.e., Anne Boleyn)—lands her in the Tower. During this period, Margaret wrote a great deal of poetry that survives today. After another romance with a different Howard at another bad time (thanks, Katherine Howard), Margaret finally makes a happy, approved match with the Scottish Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, but only two of their eight children survive. The Catholic Margaret and Lennox are in high favor During Mary I’s reign, but that changes under Elizabeth I. Margaret campaigns heavily for the older surviving son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to marry the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth I is not thrilled by this prospect. Catholics are already calling for Mary to dethrone her, and allowing another Catholic with a claim to the throne to marry her is risky. The risk pays off for Elizabeth when the marriage is a failure. Margaret is devastated when Darnley is murdered at age 20. The marriage does produce a royal grandson for Margaret….the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England. After Mary is forced to abdicate, Lennox serves as regent for his grandson until he, too, is murdered.

MY TWO CENTS: Alison Weir’s nonfiction is always excellent, and this is no exception. Even though Margaret Douglas may be a lesser-known Tudor, there are MANY primary sources about her life. All that research provides great validity to the story presented here, which is pretty wild. It’s actually shocking that Margaret wasn’t imprisoned for life or executed at almost any point during her life, since royal cousins did not tend to fair well, dating back…well, forever. And since she displeased Henry VIII, was strongly Catholic, and actively campaigned for her son to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, she was always in danger of royal wrath.

While the book covers many events of Margaret’s life, it doesn’t go into great depth on Darnley’s possible involvement in the murder of Mary’s secretary Rizzio, or the details of Darnley’s murder. It focuses on Margaret’s reaction to these events and the consequences that affected her. Also note that this is definitely not a book about Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. The repercussions of their actions on Margaret are discussed, but they are supporting characters here.

BOTTOM LINE:  The story of a woman who lived through royal favor and disfavor, imprisonment, poverty, and murder. Enjoyable nonfiction based on many, many primary sources. Now I really want to read Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, one of the only Weir books I haven’t yet read.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Once Upon a Marquess (Worth Saga #1) by Courtney Milan

Happy 2016! I hope all my readers enjoyed lovely holidays. I’m finally ready to return from my vacation. (Well, okay, I’m not ready, but it’s time anyway.)

At last, we have the first book in Courtney Milan’s new historical series. And even though the series is presented as a historical romance series, remember that Courtney Milan is never what you could call “traditional” (and I for one am glad of it).

Once Upon a Marquess Front Cover

Once Upon a Marquess Front Cover

THE PLOT: Once upon a time, Judith Worth was the pampered daughter of an earl, innocently flirting with her brother’s best friend, Christian, Marquess of Ashford. Then her life changed drastically. Her father killed himself after being convicted of treason, and her oldest brother, Anthony, disappeared while being transported for the same crime…all based on Christian’s testimony. Poor Judith was left alone to care for her younger brother and sisters. She did her best, but the family can barely afford to eat; her young brother is being bullied at Eton; her sister Camilla hasn’t spoken to her for eight years; and her youngest sister Theresa is “difficult.”

Then Christian returns to her life. Judith doesn’t even want to see him, but she needs help with a legal/financial matter, and her solicitor is feeding her a line. She needs the backing of a male to get some answers, and a marquess would be particularly helpful.

Christian is haunted by what he did to the Worths, but still believes he was in the right. He wants Judith to loan him Anthony’s journals so he can get to the bottom of the treason.

As the two reluctantly spend time together, their natural personalities begin to overcome anger and awkwardness and rekindle their friendship. But it’s going to take a whole lot of openness to really reach an understanding. Judith’s pride and Christian’s secret demons throw up some serious barriers.

MY TWO CENTS: This is not a “traditional” romance. It’s the story of a family struggling to survive after heartbreak and scandal. Judith has taken a huge burden on her shoulders: she wants her siblings to have “normal” lives despite whatever happens to her. Her very selflessness is a burden and she doesn’t even realize it. Her only outlet (and secret source of income) is working with clockwork items, a fact Christian recognizes and encourages even in young Judith.

I don’t know enough about Autism Spectrum Disorder to absolutely diagnose Theresa, but I’m fairly sure that’s what explains some of her behavior. Theresa is both darling and exasperating, and Judith’s refusal to abandon her to save herself strengthens her character.  The situation also giving us hints of Camilla’s character.

Which leads to…what on earth is Camilla’s story? I’m so glad her book is next. Judith has been writing to her for years, assuming that Camilla just won’t speak to her. When Judith discovers the truth, she is helpless, shocked, and appalled.

Back to the romance: Christian has some quirks himself, such as an obsessive compulsion to put items in order. He also has a somewhat Pythonian sense of humor, which Judith matches (see the hilarious conversation between “Fred” and “Bill,” complete with many puns). It’s not that they can’t be romantic; it’s just that Milan understands that to build that bridge, they must be friends first. And their friendship is beautiful, realistic, and relatable.

BOTTOM LINE: “The Worth Saga” is off to a promising start. I’m looking forward to Her Every Wish, the novella about Judith’s friend Daisy, and I wish Camilla’s book, After the Wedding, was out RIGHT NOW.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback and e-formats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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