19 July 2014

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla (Pink Carnation #11) by Lauren Willig

Summary from Goodreads:
In the latest Pink Carnation novel from national bestselling author Lauren Willig, rumors spreading among the ton turn deadly as a young couple unites to solve a mystery....

In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.

Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.

The Pink Carnation series is one of those book series where you didn't even know you wanted the novels in the twisting path it takes to the end (i.e. the novel where our beloved Pink Carnation finds her match) but you do. I certainly do. And none more so than the newest installment, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, because the heroine is the high-energy little sister of our favorite Regency vegetable.

That's right: Sally Fitzhugh, sister of Turnip, has elbowed her way to the head of the Pink Carnation heroine queue and claimed this book for her own.  (Sally would say she hasn't elbowed anyone, just been very, very determined.)

Sally, having made her debut on the marriage market, is finding herself a little bored with it all.  She has grown a little apart from her two best friends, Lizzy Reid and Agnes Wooliston, whom we met in Turnip's book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, and subsequently had their own road-tripping adventure complete with crazed French spy in Miss Gwen's book, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria (and I should really start calling Miss Gwen "Mrs. Reid" before she comes after me with her parasol).  At a ball held at the Vaughns' Lizzy dares Sally to walk through the garden into that of the Duke of Belliston (who is rumored to be a vampire, of all things, aside from a recluse). Sally being Sally takes her up on it, determined to reclaim some of the "recklessness" the trio once prided themselves on.

And there is a presence in the mysterious garden, Lucien, the Duke of Belliston, who is amused to find a young lady who, though startled, is feisty and full of words and completely not at all the sort to faint dead away when catching sight of him.  Lucien is a much different sort of gentleman than Sally is used to finding in the ton's drawing rooms. He is reserved, severely understated in his personal attire (particularly when compared to Turnip), has a delicious accent from spending the last however-many years in Louisiana with his decidedly un-tonnish Martinque-descended mother's family, and is in possession of a true family scandal: his parents were killed by poison from the manzanilla tree, attributed to his mother who was acknowledged to be a skilled botanist and not at all liked among Society's matrons.

For his part, Lucien has no time for tonnish young ladies, no matter how pretty or matter-of-fact or unafraid.  He has returned to London to revenge himself on his parents' murderer.  However, when Sally saves him from a situation that would have easily landed him in the hangman's noose - Duke or no Duke - their fates become entwined.  And the outcome is predictably delicious (but don't eat those manzanilla apples, those aren't for eating).

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is adorable, as I expected Sally Fitzhugh's book to be, but it also feels a teensy bit unsatisfying.  It is disconnected from the Pink Carnation/spy plot that developed in Purple Plumeria even though "spies" are introduced into this novel and Mrs. Reid loans our couple the use of her extensive spy-finding experience. It was hugely satisfying to see Turnip as a doting daddy (the scene with Parsnip, Arabella, and jam was so adorable) but I wasn't happy with only name-dropping for my favorite couples - Geoff and Letty, Miles and Hen, Vaughn and Mary - without any actual interaction with the characters since this is rumored to be our last novel to feature any of them (although the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale does get in a fabulous line).  Readers of Gothic literature will be absolutely delighted with all the bits Lauren has dropped in from Mrs. Reid's The Convent of Orsino.  

On the Colin-Eloise front, Eloise is back in the US, teaching at Harvard, with Colin visiting for Halloween (in the timeline of the books, we're still in 2004-2005 in these sections so the Twilight craze is just beginning).  I was really delighted to see Lauren working in the very harsh realities/baises of academia - particularly the possibility that Eloise's work will be side-lined because it doesn't read as interesting as her very stuck-in-the-mud, male adviser.

Excellent addition to the Pink Carnation series!  (If you've not yet encountered any of the Pink books, start with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation).

PS: there is a great shout-out to The Princess Bride - you'll have to be looking for it. My copy also had a sneak peek of The Lure of the Moonflower, the last in the Pink Carnation series (for now, although Lauren hasn't ruled out revisiting side characters in novellas or specials) and, augh, must wait 'till next summer!

Dear FTC: I won an ARC of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

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