27 February 2012

Jillian Hunter: the Boscastles

Having read through Eloisa Jamse's Desperate Duchesses I decided to follow up with Jillian Hunter's Boscastle series.  Well, the first six anyway (after the initial set of brothers and sisters I couldn't muster up the energy for the cousins).

The Seduction of an English Scoundrel opens with a bride left at the altar.  Lady Jane Welsham, eldest daughter of the Earl of Belshire, was to have married Sir Nigel Boscastle - only Nigel fails to appear.  Unbeknownst to the guests Nigel has run off to marry his true love (and wait until you get a load of her) with Jane's blessing (because now she and her sisters will be free to make their own love-matches).  Everything would have gone off swimmingly except for one Grayson Boscastle, Marquess of Sedgecroft, who gets in the way.  As head of the Boscastle family Grayson decides that Jane should not suffer the social ostracism of a broken engagement. The notorious rake is determined to squire Jane about Society until the appropriate gentlemen take an interest in her.

Except this is a romance novel and the minute Grayson is described as "lion-like" with his golden mane of hair and Boscastle Blue eyes you know right where this is going.  Although he has the rake reputation for good reason, he hasn't been doing much "rake"-ing of late.  He interited the marquessate after the sudden death of his father, brought on by the mysterious death of his youngest brother, Brandon, in India.  Now he's the head of a rambunctious, grieving family and the determined playboy has reluctantly started thinking he just might need a wife.  Jane (and her heart-shaped bottom, which Grayson had been ogling during the botched wedding) is able to tie Grayson into knots; likewise Jane is having trouble dealing with her physical reaction to Grayson's close attentions.  When Grayson finds out about Jane's role in the wedding debacle - and the two start taking "revenge" on each other - the road to the altar is both sexy and funny (Congreve rockets, who knew?).

Chloe, the youngest sister, takes up the series in the second book, The Love Affair of an English Lord.  The title is a bit of a misnomer - this isn't so much a love affair as a murder mystery.  Chloe has got herself banished to the country for misbehaving with Baron Brentford in the previous book (the baron makes himself a nuisance in several Boscastle books).  One night she finds Dominic, Viscount Stratfield, in her closet.  Aside from total social ruin if Dominic is found in her closet (and he's really hot, truth be told), he is also supposed to be dead and buried (he is still recovering from the stab wounds).  Chloe keeps his secret, they have insta-lust, then fall in love, and you can guess the rest.  I didn't like this as much as the first book - I missed the light touch - and the book feels like it has a few plotholes.

But I kept on reading the series because I wanted to get to The Wedding Night of an English Rogue.  This is Heath's book (and he's really not a rogue - that sobriquet would belong to Devon or Drake).  Heath is probably the most respectable of the Boscastle males - a decorated soldier and respected intelligence officer.  Heath agrees to play bodyguard to his commander's fiancee.  Lady Julia Hepworth Whitby, a rich widow, once captured Heath's heart when they were young - by accidentally shooting him at a house party.  They are now older and wiser but no less attracted to each other.  Through a series of incidents and revelations (and a naked sketch) Heath and Julia rekindle their old romance, taking it to the logical conclusion.

I liked this installment slightly better than Grayson and Jane's book.  The past history between hero and heroine makes for a good backbone to the story and the mystery/thriller aspect of the tale is tight and well-plotted.  Just one plothole: years-old scars do not disappear and reappear when convenient for the narrative (Heath's shirt is off in one scene and Julia doesn't mention his scars yet in a later scene Julia gets his shirt off and the scars are a topic of conversation).

The rakish Drake is next up for romance in The Wicked Games of a Gentleman.  Whilst angling to catch - I'm not sure what the correct word is when gentlemen compete for the exclusive attentions of a mistress, "hire" doesn't seem appropriate - the fascinating courtesan Maribella, Drake gets caught up in helping governess-cum-companion Eloise Goodwin track down her charge. Eloise is tasked with keeping the spoiled Thalia out of the arms of unsuitable men and down the aisle for her wedding in several weeks' time (note: Thalia's brother is a spineless spendthrift) meaning Drake's assistance is needed on a few occasions.  But Eloise has problems of her own - a weaselly piece of turd from her past is threatening her with blackmail - and Drake happily gives up the charms of the courtesan for those of the governess.  While not quite as good as the previous book, Hunter's light touch kept the book going even when the mystery plot became convoluted (I will never think of "bobbing for apples" in the same way again).

The last unmarried Boscastle male, Devon, is determined to stay that way.  Until a house party guest in The Sinful Nights of a Nobleman tricks him into a compromising situation with Miss Jocelyn Lydbury.  Hedonist that he is, Devon is a well-bred gentleman to the core and he proposes to Jocelyn on the spot, marrying her a few weeks later in London.  Trouble follows them, however.  Someone with a grudge is trying to drive a wedge between husband and wife, with most efforts meant to dishonor or injure Devon in some way.  Devon and Jocelyn also learn to live with one another and rearrange their lives to make the marriage work.  I really liked how Hunter changed up the marriage plot in this novel to keep it from feeling too much like the previous books.  It also brings up some plot threads laid in Chloe's books (those plotholes I mentioned are partially filled here).

This leaves the final book in the original Boscastle six for Emma, the Dainty Dictator.  I have an issue with Emma - as a stickler for what is "proper" in the ton and Society, why the hell is she running a finishing school for young ladies?  That smacks a bit of governessing and trade.  Anyhoo, proper Emma, who is getting lonely now that she's finished mourning her husband, receives an unwelcome advance from a suitor.  Adrian Ruxley, the disgraced Viscount Wolverton, comes to her rescue but is accidentally coshed by a housemaid.  Oops.  Adrian recouperates from his injury under Emma's roof (which is really Heath's and Julia's house) and begins to drive Emma distracted.  Much as he tries to court her, the Boscastle brothers get in the way of any sort of "seduction" forcing Adrian to break into Emma's bedchamber to propose (the Boscastle women get him safely out of the house once he's finished).

After the excitement of Heath/Drake/Devon's books, Emma's book is a bit anticlimactic.  The drama is all family drama on Adrian's side (and most of it due to jealous and irrational fathers).  Incidentally, Adrian is only the heir to a dukedom, not a duke as yet, so the title The Devilish Pleasures of a Duke is very much a misnomer.  This final volume is nice conclusion to the original six Boscastle siblings but I really don't have the energy to follow up with Gabriel's and the books belonging to other cousins/hangers-on.

17 February 2012

Garden Intrigue

Lauren Willig has taken us to Paris, back to London, to Ireland, back to London, the English countryside at Christmas, to India, back to Girdings for a parallel story, and back to Paris with her Pink Carnation series.  Dizzy yet?

We stay in Paris for Garden Intrigue and follow terrible-poet-and-sometime-spy Augustus Whittlesby as he carries out the Pink Carnation's directives.

Namely: Napoleon has a craft that can travel underwater.

Say what??  Yes, it is rumored that Napoleon has a submarine.

Augustus is tasked with obtaining much needed information about a device that could be devastating to the security of England.  Enter one Emma Morris Delgardie.  The widowed American ex-pat (oh, that infant nation bothering the mother country) regularly criticises his poetry and is best friends with Hortense Bonaparte nee de Beauharnais.  Emma is writing a masque for the entertainment at Malmaison where the device is to be unveiled.  Augustus offers his help with the masque and sparks fly...but not in the direction we, the readers, assume they will (the romance finally comes along as expected after taking an extended walk through self-examination).

(view spoiler)One thing that I really quite liked about this book is that Jane pretty much pissed me off (as oxymoronic as that statement sounds). Jane, in her cool, nothing-touches-my-heart persona of the Pink Carnation, squashed poor Whittlesby flat after his sincere declaration of love and then acted like she was doing everyone a favor. It's the first time she's depicted as other than a sweet, proper cousin or master spy.  Jane has developed an ego and it gives her more depth, even though it isn't flattering. I hope this is a lead up to knock her off-kilter in a future book.

I also, for the first time, enjoyed Colin and Eloise's framing story this time out. They've always been background for me, the relationship echoing what goes on in the spy story, and never seemed to move forward on their own (over nine books, well, eight since they didn't feature in The Mischief of the Mistletoe, their story has progressed from October 2003 to May 2004). Eloise's dilemma over staying for the boy vs leaving for her career is a very real one and it pulled the relationship forward.

While I liked Emma, she didn't top Letty and Arabella in the heroine rankings (she's probably duking it out with Mary or Laura - after Caroline Murat, Lady Vaughn won't scare her). Augustus, on the other hand, doesn't fare so well in the hero ranking. After Geoff, Miles, Turnip, Vaughn, Richard and Andre (tied), and Alex, the only hero he tops is Robert the Duke of Dovedale (who still strikes me as a wet blanket, sorry). Augustus is probably tied with Alex. He has very tough competition.

13 February 2012

The World of Downton Abbey: a mini-review

So, are you a Downton Abbey fan?  The best, soapy, frustating, World War I-era television miniseries around?

Then pick up The World of Downton AbbeyIt's so fun! A great explanation of the whys and wheretofores of the TV series. Julian Fellowes occasionally contributes insights from his own family which are endearing. The list of references in the back has added to my TBR!

Filled with photographs from the series (both in front of and behind the camera) and period photos.  An excellent companion for fans of the show.

12 February 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Hmm, another Jane Eyre retelling.  But this one is by Margot Livesey, a writer I've heard of but never read.

In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, the setting is updated to 1960s Britain.  Since the death of her widowed father young Gemma, born on Iceland, has been raised by her Scottish maternal uncle, a loving man, and his snobbish, resentful wife. When her uncle dies, her aunt treats her as an unwanted burden.  Gemma is a smart, resourceful child and wins a scholarship to Claypoole, a girls' school she thinks will be her path to University and a better life.  However, at Claypoole, she is treated little better than a scullery maid due to her status as a charity pupil. 

Claypoole slowly goes bankrupt.  Trying to keep her dreams of University alive, Gemma gains the position of nanny on a remote Orkeny Islands estate.  Mr. Hugh Sinclair is a London businessman with a mysterious past.  Gemma and Mr. Sinclair start spending more time with one another and, like her pattern-card, Gemma falls in love with her employer.  There is an interrupted wedding, a trek across England, a revelation, and a trip to Iceland.

I very much liked Livesey's writing style, so I will definitely check out her other novels.  At times the novel seemed to lock-step with Jane Eyre - the timeline was very precise so I found myself anticipating certain events.  But the update to the 1960s was quite good, capturing the last gasp of the era of charity pupils treated as servants in a rapidly evolving post-war Britain. 

Compared to a previous Jane Eyre retelling (Jane by April Lindner) that I read last year, I have to give Livesey many extra points for deviating from the original narrative at the point of the wedding.  She dispenses with the madwoman-in-the-attic/Rochester-is-already-married-plot - good, because that's the major element that doesn't translate to realistic modern fiction.  I didn't quite understand Sinclair's "secret" but I think it had more to do with the fact that he wasn't very truthful with Gemma or the world in general.  And Gemma, being conditioned to run from that distrust, flees.

There are characters who stand-in for the Rivers family but I appreciated how they weren't Gemma's real family.  In another deviation from the original, Gemma is helped to return to Iceland to find the remaining bits of her father's family that still live there.

I may have had too high a set of expectations from this novel, but I did like what Livesey did with it in the end.

11 February 2012

The Duke is Mine

Conveniently for me, I wrapped up the Desperate Duchesses series just in time for the new book in Eloisa's Fairy Tales series to appear.

The Princess and the Pea has been transformed into The Duke is Mine.  Tarquin, the Duke of Sconce, lives for logic, order, and mathmatical problems.  His mother is famous for having written a treatise on how to be the perfect duchess.  Note: Tarquin isn't married.

Olivia Lytton has been raised to be the perfect duchess.  Well, her parents tried - Olivia is less inclined to be sweet, attentive, and proper and more inclined to tell bawdy jokes.  The "duchification" system, as Olivia and her twin sister Georgiana have dubbed it, has served to gain Olivia a betrothal to the heir to the duchy of Canterwick.  The only problem is that Rupert will never grow into his full faculties - he was deprived of oxygen at birth and while sweet and energetic he will always remain a child in many ways.  When Rupert goes off to fight Napoleon (his father has arranged a "safe" commission), Olivia accompanies Georgiana to Sconce where there is a chance that Georgie could impress the Dowager Duchess with her absorption of the duchification guide.

Nothing goes according to plan.  While Georgie can pull off a superficial "perfect duchess" she'd really rather attend a lecture at Oxford.  Quin, master of logic that he is, is inexplicably drawn to Olivia's outspoken, goofy personality.  Olivia would rather not marry Rupert but she feels she really doesn't have much choice - particularly since Olivia and Rupert had been sent to her parents' library to engage in some improper behavior (a truly nails-on-chalkboard scene but written for that purpose) in the hopes that Olivia might conceive a child (which she didn't, and couldn't the way the scene played out).  When Rupert is injured, Quin and Olivia undertake a daring rescue to bring him home from France.

The Duke is Mine isn't quite as magical as A Kiss at Midnight but less "realistic" than When Beauty Tamed the Beast (read: the heroine doesn't almost die from scarlet fever and aspergillosis which she ought to have contracted after spending several days in a chicken coop).  This is a much funnier book, too, with the "duchification" system, the Mirror, and Olivia's dirty jokes.  The Princess and the Pea tie-ins are really well done, from the downpour on the night Olivia and Georgie arrive at Sconce and the "perfect duchess" competition to the "pea" that appears under a mattress near the end.  It does make for a Regency fairy tale.

09 February 2012

Eloisa James: Desperate Duchesses

Next up on my Eloisa James binge was a sextet of duchesses.  Desperate ones.

The Desperate Duchesses series is set in Georgian England - fantastical fashions, slightly looser morals, and a mania for chess.  Think Kiera Knightly as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in The Duchess or the whole cast of Dangerous Liaisons.

The series opens with Desperate Duchesses.  Roberta, the long-suffering daughter of an eccentric marquess, is in pursuit of a duke.  Not just any duke, but the dark, mysterious Duke of Villiers with whom she has a chance encounter at a party.  Roberta is determined to meet him again so she travels to London to take advantage of her relationship to a cousin, Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont.  Jemma has recently returned to London from Paris at the behest of her estranged husband, Elijah.  Jemma agrees to guide Roberta through society.  Her brother Damon, the scandalous Earl of Gryffyn, also lives at the Beaumonts' London residence with his illegitimate son.

Jemma, aside from her outrageous fashion sense, has a passion for chess.  She is a master, as is her husband....and the Duke of Villiers.  She is soon playing chess matches with each of them, in her bedroom, one move per day, a best of three series each.  Ton gossip quickly gives the matches the tone of a sexual overture. 

Roberta seems to be making headway with Villiers and he seems to like her.  He even proposes marraige.  Damon, however, has also taken a liking to Roberta.  With a little help from his son, and a surprise visit from Roberta's oddity of a father, Damon and Roberta fall in love.  The novel ends with a spectacular duel between Damon and Villiers - another parallel to chess.

With Villiers recovering from his dueling injury, the action shifts to John and Poppy, the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher, in An Affair Before Christmas.  Theirs was a whirlwind lovematch, an oddity in the ton, but now the couple are estranged.  Poppy doesn't believe they have anything in common any more, they are no longer affectionate with each other, and so she makes the scandalous decision to leave her husband.  She moves in with Jemma.  John, on the other hand, isn't quite sure what to make of his wife.  He still loves her, and wants her to be happy, but he doesn't know what she wants.

Poppy and John and How They Overcome The Dreaded Hair Powder (its a really good scene and incorporates a great deal of research about the Georgian period) is the primary plot and it ends in a nice reconciliation.  However, the side-plots involving Elijah's political devotee, Miss Charlotte Tatlock, and Villiers's infected dueling wound are actually a bit more interesting and provide the glue that holds this series together.

At the Twelfth Night masquerade that ends An Affair Before Christmas, Harriet, the widowed Duchess of Berrow, and Isidore, technically the Duchess of Cosway, dream up a plan for the dutiful and responsible Harriet to do something outrageous.  The convalescent Villiers, reluctantly (and mostly due to a physician-imposed ban on playing chess), escorts Isidore (desperately trying to make her globe-trotting husband come home) and Harriet (cross-dressing as Villiers's young protege) to the never-ending house party at Lord Justinian Strange's estate.  Everything there is decadent and amoral, just what the duchesses are looking for.  Strange, though, is attracted to Villiers's ward and soon starts teaching the effeminate young man to ride, fence, and be more of a manly man.  All the while, Harriet is falling in love with Lord Strange.  After the previous book, where I started questioning whether to keep reading the series, the love story of Harriet - who blames herself for her husband's death - and Strange - who uses the house party to keep the world at bay - kept me reading.

Isidore's husband does indeed come to claim her.  They were married by proxy as children and Simeon decamped to wander the globe before Isidore matured enough to consummate the marriage.  When the Duke Returns is the story of how a passionate, intelligent woman and a man who has spent years learning the wisdom of yogis and gurus come to trust and understand one another.  In a departure from the traditional hero type, Simeon is still a virgin.  As a student of "the Middle Way" he strives always to be in control and the frenzy that is strong emotion (i.e. lust) works against that.

Although the romantic plotline is the central plot in the novel, the secondary plots involving the bedside chess matches, Jemma and Elijah's progression toward reconciliation and Villiers's new-found desire to raise his illegitimate children - six altogether - under his roof are more eye-catching.  The novel ends with a spectacular set-piece - a prison break involving the Royal yacht, the rabble, and prison hulks (like those described in Great Expectations) - and the spectacular rescue of the Duchess of Cosway by her husband, the Duke.

Elijah also rescues Jemma from the yacht in dramatic fashion which opens their own book This Duchess of Mine.  As revealed in the side-plots of the previous books Elijah has a heart condition, what we would consider an arrhythmia in this day and age.  Because his father died an early death from what was likely the same disease (and in a shockingly scandalous location) Elijah feels he is running on borrowed time.  While he accepts that one day he may never wake up, Jemma continues to look for a way to keep Elijah with her.  They lost enough time.

This is easily my favorite novel of the six.  Because James was able to work out the majority of Elijah and Jemma's past issues through the side-plots of the first four books (slowly moving from anger and hurt to understanding and forgiveness) the main plot doesn't bog down in setting up the backstory.  It really concentrates on the final details necessary to bring together two characters who have overcome much personal hurt and grief to achieve their Happily Ever After.  There is a lot of honesty in this novel - the scenes where Jemma really struggles with accepting the possibility that Elijah may die soon are beautifully rendered and the scenes in the Roman baths and the blindfolded, sensual chess match take on a sweet, yearning quality (aside from being very, very arousing, which they are).

Meanwhile, Villiers has been going about trying to track down his children.  He finds one by the end of This Duchess of Mine - Tobias, who is stubborn, crafty, supercilious, lordly...oh, wait, it's a miniature Villiers, only covered in muck since the lawyer Villiers engaged to make sure the children were cared for decamped with their fees leaving the children God-knows-where.  All of which leads Villiers to the conclusion he needs a wife - pronto.  Considering that he needs a wife of proper social rank his choices are limited to two: Eleanor, daughter of the Duke of Montague, who is said to be a dreadful snob, and Lisette, daughter of the Duke of Gilner, who is supposed to be quite mad.

And so Villiers, the desperate Duke, gets the final book in the series, A Duke of Her Own.  He ends up at the Gilner's country residence which, fortuitously, is near the orphanage where his twin girls have been stashed by the deceitful lawyer and where, coincidentally, Eleanor is visiting Lisette.  So which should he choose as a wife?  Eleanor has gained her snobbish reputation rather by accident - she is in love with the Duke of Astley, they were childhood friends, she gave him her viriginity (which no one knows about except maybe her sister), the idiot went off and married another woman (who is sickly), and lovesick Eleanor really can't countenance marrying anyone else.  Lisette has a different problem - she has what we would recognize as untreated bipolar disorder...she is mad. 

Complications ensue.  Although Villiers would rather have Eleanor (and they do have quite a bit of fun on the riverbank), that cad Astley shows up, fresh from his wife's funeral, and immediately tries to claim Eleanor's hand.  Leaving batty Lisette to announce to everyone that she and Villiers are engaged.  Villiers thinks this might not be a bad thing - Lisette has no use for society or anyone's opinion of her, which is good for Villiers' half dozen illegitimate children - but Lisette deteriorates rapidly and in spectacular fashion.  Eleanor gives Astley the boot but he challenges Villiers to a duel for Eleanor's honor.

There are no side-plots in this final novel, no distractions by returning to Jemma and Elijah.  It's all on Villiers and he does close up the series quite well.  I just think - and this is my opinion here - that I would rather have had the series close with Jemma and Elijah since their longstanding problems and Elijah's heart condition make a really nice series arc.  That said, the final novel in the series was excellent.  I do wish that James had brought back her first four hero/heroine couples more often.  Roberta and Damon get a mention in book 4 (and a paragraph in book 5) but Poppy/Fletcher and Harriet/Strange get even less than that.  It was almost like they stopped being friends with Jemma even though enough time passes between and through the series that Jemma could have read some correspondence from Harriet (or attended her wedding, perhaps?) or Elijah could have met Fletcher for whatever reason in London.  It was a bit out of sight, out of mind.

03 February 2012

Eloisa James: the Essex sisters quartet

So, it's February.  And gray.  And blah.  And I have an unoccupied weekend.

So it's time for more Eloisa James novels.  I picked the Essex sisters quartet because I liked the titles.  Shakespeare, anyone?
The Duke of Holbrook - Rafe, who has a bit of a drinking problem - is informed that he is now guardian to the four orphaned daughters of a penniless Scottish viscount.  What's a duke to do except hire four nursemaids and buy nursery items times four...only to find out that his wards are lovely young women who possess a unique dowry - they each have title to a thoroughbred horse, some of the most coveted on the British Isles.  The eldest daughter, Tess, has determined that she must marry well.  And quickly - to help bring Annabel, Imogen, and Josie "out" in a proper manner.  Thus begins the courtship drama in Much Ado About You.  Rafe's friends - Lucius Felton, richest man in England, and Garrett Langham, the Earl of Mayne - decide which of them will get Tess...Mayne is the one to propose to Tess.  Meanwhile, the move from Scotland to England brings Imogen into contact with Lord Maitland whom she has had a crush on for years - only he has a fiancee (who, come to find out, can't stand the horse-mad young man).  When Imogen elopes with Maitland, Lucius (I swear, if this is ever made into a movie he must be played by Jason Isaacs in his Lucius Malfoy wig - it's a perfect description) tries to intercept them; failing that, he makes it possibly for them to marry immediately.  And when Mayne precipitately absconds on the morning of his wedding, it is Lucius who steps in to marry Tess.

This is a romance novel with a lot of "story" and a lot of "plot" - many characters to get through, many backstories to set up for the next three novels.  I felt like the evolution of Tess's and Lucius's relationship from convenience to love once married got a bit lost but provided a great contrast to Imogen and Maitland's marriage.

Annabel, seeing Tess's success, is determined to marry a rich, English, titled man.  No more penny pinching, account magicking, budgeting - no more Scotland.  Enter one Ewan Poley, the Earl of Ardmore.  He's Scottish, handsome as can be, and is staying in a London hotel because he (apparently) doesn't have the scratch to rent a proper London house.  Annabel isn't interested in an impoverished Scottish peer, no matter how handsome, but a quirk of fate caused by Imogen lands Annabel in a carriage with Ardmore on the way to his Scottish castle.  Alone.  Under the assumed guise of husband and wife. 

I laughed a bit with Kiss Me, Annabel.  Annabel's assumption that Ewan was as poor as her feckless father led to a prize comeuppance (and the treacle-and-feathers bit was really funny when you got right down to it, as well as Josie's matchmaking attempt).  I also wanted to strangle Imogen at nearly every point in this book.  To make a long story short, she's having some serious guilt regarding her failure to keep Maitland from breaking his neck (sorry, spoiler alert) and isn't dealing with it well at all.  She needs a spanking.

And, unfortunately for me, her book was up next - The Taming of the Duke.  Even though widowed, Imogen is still under Rafe's guardianship and she has no intention of heeding a drunk.  Rafe is dealing with issues of his own, namely a new-found half-brother who needs to stage a play at Holbrook Court to keep a bargain with the mother of his child.  Imogen, who is still having trouble dealing with Maitland's death, gets it into her head that Gabe would make an excellent lover - divinity scholar or no - but Rafe is having no part of it.  He decides to clean up - alcohol withdrawal is not pretty - and begins to woo Imogen in disguise.

Despite my loathing for Imogen, this is a really fun book to read.  And I like Imogen better for having read it.  Both she and Rafe are on self-destructive paths over guilt - Imogen for her husband, Rafe for his elder brother, Peter, who ought to have been the duke - and they each understand one another on that level.  They also fight like cats throughout most of the series so you know they have to get together by the end of this book.   On a literary level, James includes two fantastic bits of English theatre.  First, Rafe and Imogen go in disguise to a pantomime, something I wasn't familiar with (being an American) and had a fantastic time looking up.  Second, James has her characters present the Restoration comedy, The Man of Mode, which I have read as part of a course in Restoration literature.  It's a fantastic play which essentially skewers the "rake" men aspire to be.

Rafe and Imogen's engagement leads us to the final book in the series, Pleasure for Pleasure, and that is Josie's story.  She comes "out" just as Rafe and Imogen marry and her come-out isn't all it's cracked up to be.  For starters, Josie takes too much to heart the Regency ideal of thinness and straps herself into a hideous corset.  A wounded suitor manages to confer on her the sobriquet of "the Scottish Sausage" (not helped by stuffing herself into the dreaded corset).  The Earl of Mayne, freshly affianced himself, provides Josie with the courage to visit a new modiste - one who works magic with lush figures - and to flirt at a masquerade.  At a horse race Josie is lured behind the stables and assaulted (sort-of, she defends herself well).  To protect Josie, Mayne - recently dumped by his fiancee for a reason you have to read the book to understand - marries her immediately.

Tied in with Josie's story is that of her chaperone's.  Griselda has been with the girls since Much Ado About You, when Mayne suggests his respectable, widowed sister as the girls' chaperone (and to help bring them out properly).  Lady Willoughby is a funny side-character, practical and silly at the same time (it got to the point that I couldn't decide which was the real Griselda and which was the facade put on for benefit of society).  In a bid to get revenge for Josie's nickname, Griselda finds herself drawn into an affair...and a love-story of her own.

As you can see, the plots of all four books are intricately drawn.  They make wonderful reading for cold, dreary days when snuggling under blankets with hot, fragrant tea is the only activity you feel like doing.  It also makes them fiendishly hard to summarize without giving too much away.  Being romance novels, you know where the hero and heroine will end up - with the Essex sisters getting there is all fun.