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Archive for the ‘Historical Romance’ Category

unmasking-miss-appleby

(Baleful Godmother, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Late Georgian, 1805)

Cover Blurb:

She’s not who she seems…

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I was a little nervous when I saw the synopsis for this book as I’m not a big lover of historical romance with paranormal elements. However, having read a number of excellent reviews from trusted friends, I decided to take the plunge and I wasn’t disappointed. I loved this imaginative, intelligently written and delightful romance.


The Story

It’s the day of Charlotte Appleby’s 25th birthday, but her life is not the one she had dreamed of. Orphaned when her father died, she has lived with her uncle and aunt for the past 8 years. Treated as little more than a servant, Charlotte longs to be independent and earn her way in life, but her uncle has made it clear that if she leaves, she can never return. Charlotte appreciates that at least she has a home, safety and security and has resigned herself to a life of drudgery. However, her life changes that evening when a strange and slightly scary woman appears, claiming to be a faerie and offers her the choice of one magical gift. After considering the various gifts offered, Charlotte chooses the ability to transform herself into any human or animal but still retaining her own mind. Now, as Christopher Albin, she secures the position of secretary to Marcus Langford, the Earl of Cosgrove.

Someone is waging a hate campaign against the Earl of Cosgrove – his windows have been repeatedly broken and night soil left on his doorstep. Now he has suffered a physical attack in which his secretary, Lionel, has been badly injured and is recuperating in the country. Marcus knows  it could be politically or personally motivated and there are plenty of potential suspects. As an active supporter of the abolition of the slave trade, Marcus has political enemies among the Anti-abolitionists. In his private life, his beautiful wife was known to be an adulteress and there are rumours that Marcus’s ill-treatment of her may have driven her to commit suicide or he may even have murdered her. His brother-in-law makes no bones about the fact that he hates Marcus, blaming him for his sister’s death.  Then there’s his spineless, drunken heir who expects Marcus to pay his debts and fund his profligate lifestyle. Marcus needs a new secretary to help him uncover who is responsible and, although Christopher Albin isn’t the ideal candidate, he is the only one who doesn’t balk when warned of the potential danger.


My Thoughts

I have read books where the heroine dresses as a man but I have never read a book where the heroine actually becomes a man. I feel Charlotte’s reactions to adjusting to the physical aspects of being a man are realistically portrayed by Ms. Larkin. I could imagine having difficulty tying a cravat properly like Christopher or finding it strange to write with overlarge hands.

She watched her fingers wield the quill—large, blunt-tipped, male—and the dizzying sense of wrongness came again: her hand was too large, the quill too small. The letters came out lopsided and awkward, like a child learning to write.

As would be the case for most unmarried ladies of that era, Charlotte knows virtually nothing about men and her ignorance of how a man’s body works and her naivety about sexual matters provide for some humorous moments, especially in relation to one particular appendage or “pego” as Charlotte calls it, and in the brothel scene.

In her role as a man, Charlotte has independence and the freedom to do things and go to places that would have been forbidden to her as a woman. I like it when authors make subtle social comments within a story.

She could do things she’d never been able to do, go places that had been forbidden, grab opportunities no one would ever offer a woman.

A genuine friendship develops between Marcus and Christopher and I love how Marcus feels a genuine sense of responsibility and protectiveness towards Christopher whom he sees as ‘green as an unbreeched babe’.  As Christopher, Charlotte gets a real insight into Marcus’s character. He seems to have everything – looks, wealth and a title – but his life is far from a happy one. I admire Marcus for his stance against the slave trade, not only in words but also in deeds.

I was glad that Charlotte only uses her gift to aid Marcus in his search or when they are threatened with violence.  I also like the fact that when she changes, it takes time for her to adapt and it isn’t all plain sailing or flying in this case.

Charlotte veered away in a wild swoop, losing height. The floor lunged up at her. She cheeped in terror, clawed at the air with her wings, found herself plunging upwards.
    It took two lurching circuits of the bedchamber before she found her balance in the air. Dip of wing, flap of wing, became natural and effortless.

The ability to become any animal she wishes enables Charlotte to search for evidence in circumstances which would prove impossible for humans, and is therefore an important element in the plot. I thought Marcus’s response to discovering Christopher’s magic ability was realistic given the circumstances. He couldn’t deny what he had seen with his own eyes.

Faerie magic. It was ludicrous. Preposterous. Impossible. And yet I see it with my own eyes.

I like how Ms. Larkin explores Charlotte’s growing attraction for Marcus (which causes some problems when a certain part of her anatomy insists on standing to attention) and how she creates a believable way for Marcus to meet Charlotte as herself. Their romance develops during a series of meetings, awkward at first, but gradually with a growing sense of warmth, tenderness and intimacy.

I understood Marcus’s initial angry reaction when he discovers Charlotte’s deception, because he sees it as yet another betrayal by someone he trusted. It takes a life-threatening situation, a letter and a journey to bring him to his senses and make him realise that he loves Charlotte.

I found the plot kept my interest throughout and the denouement was quite shocking, not at all what I expected. 


MY VERDICT: A charming romance with a touch of
magic and an intriguing mystery. Highly recommended and I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Baleful Godmother series (click on the book covers for more details):

Prequel – The Fey Quartet by Emily Larkin Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother, #1) by Emily Larkin Resisting Miss Merryweather (Baleful Godmother, #2) by Emily Larkin Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother, #3) by Emily Larkin Claiming Mister Kemp (Baleful Godmother, #4) by Emily Larkin Ruining Miss Wrotham (Baleful Godmother, #5) by Emily Larkin

 

 

 

 

 

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the-harlot-and-the-sheikh

(Hot Arabian Nights, #3)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

A defiant woman in a desert king’s world!

After inheriting a broken kingdom, Prince Rafiq made a vow to restore its pride by winning a prestigious horse race. To ensure success, he hires an English expert. But even notoriously controlled Rafiq is shocked when his new employee is introduced as Miss Stephanie Darvill!

Stephanie is determined to leave her shameful past and broken dreams behind she will prove to Rafiq she deserves his trust! But this hard-hearted desert sheikh calls to Stephanie in the most primal of ways Dare she give in to her wildest desires?

(Released on January 17th 2017 in the USA)

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Once again, Ms. Kaye transported me to the exotic setting of Arabia for this third book in her Hot Arabian Nights series.

Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince of Bharym
blog-post-rafiq-al-antarah-prince-of-bharym

The sixteen-year-old Rafiq watched his father make a reckless wager on the prestigious Sabr endurance horse race, losing not only his legendary Arabian thoroughbreds, but also the honour of the family name and the national pride of his people. The next six years saw his father’s gradual terminal decline mirrored by a decline in the kingdom’s fortunes and, on inheriting the throne, Rafiq vowed to restore the family name and Bharym’s pride and honour. However, despite all the changes, improvements and renovations he introduced…

Nothing mattered save the restoration of the Sabr, the tangible symbol of Bharym’s pride and honour.

Determined to make good on his vow, Rafiq entered a bargain which was to have a tragic consequence, one which ultimately strengthened his resolve to win the Sabr race. However, when he starts losing his precious Arabian racehorses to a mysterious illness, Rafiq is desperate to find a cure and sends for Robert Darvill, renowned veterinary surgeon attached to the Seventh Hussars. What Rafiq is not expecting is a ‘petite female glowering up at him, her big brown eyes defiantly challenging’ who says she is Robert Darvill’s daughter, Stephanie.


Stephanie Darvill
blog-post-stephanie-darvill

Stephanie worked with her father from an early age, learning all about horses, their ailments and treatments. For the past year, she has been working at one of England’s largest stud farms near Newmarket racecourse, but a disastrous affair with an army officer causes a scandal destroying her reputation. With the army expected to go into battle against Napoleon, her father cannot leave his regiment and suggests that Stephanie go to Arabia in his place. Knowing how much pain she has caused her parents, Stephanie sees it as an opportunity of putting the past behind her and taking charge of her own life and a sceptical Prince Rafiq is not going to deter her.

“I am not my father, but I am here with his blessing, I am an excellent veterinarian, and I promise you I will do my utmost to help you. So why don’t you forget that I’m a woman and permit me to attend to your sick horses?”

I enjoyed the steady development of the romance. There is a definite spark of attraction and, as they talk and work together, their relationship soon develops into a physical one and I like that Stephanie is willing to explore the passion between them despite her previous unsatisfactory experience. I find Ms. Kaye’s love scenes are so well-written – full of emotion, tenderness and passion.

His mouth slanted over hers, shaping hers, and he kissed her again. She had never been kissed in this way, with such gentleness generating such blazing heat inside her, with tongue and lips, lips and tongue, so she could not tell what was one kiss and what was another.

I like Stephanie’s boldness and it this very quality that first impresses Rafiq. Women usually fawn over him and he is not used to being questioned and challenged as Stephanie does. Surrounded by people who only tell him what he wants to hear rather than the truth, he also finds Stephanie’s honesty refreshing.

‘Every day you surprise me.’ ‘By being insubordinate and disrespectful and…’ ‘With your refreshing honesty. And your novel slant on the world. 

Rafiq is a man of integrity and I love how he respects Stephanie and values her abilities and is not judgemental when she tells him about her past and, in fact, he does not blame her at all; his anger is reserved for the man who seduced her.

“The man lied and cheated to steal your innocence. He deserves to be whipped. There can be no excuses for what he did, Stephanie. You are not at fault.”

I like how Stephanie forces Rafiq to confront his past and realise he was not wholly responsible for what happened. It allows him to put the past to rest and realise that he has emerged a stronger, better man – honourable and caring. Similarly, because of the scandal, Stephanie gained the freedom to travel to Bharym and prove to herself that her father’s faith in her was not misplaced.

I love Ms Kaye’s evocative writing which appeals to all the senses and brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of the exotic Arabian setting. Reading the Historical Note at the end of the book made me appreciate the depth of Ms. Kaye’s research.

Although this is part of a series, the books are only vaguely connected and can easily be read as standalones.

MY VERDICT:  An emotive, romantic and sensual love story with the appeal of an exotic setting. Highly recommended.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

Hot Arabian Nights series to date (click on the book covers for details)

The Widow and the Sheikh (Hot Arabian Nights #1) by Marguerite Kaye Sheikh's Mail-Order Bride (Hot Arabian Nights #2) by Marguerite Kaye The Harlot and the Sheikh (Hot Arabian Nights #3) by Marguerite Kaye Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye


**I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review**

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a-gentleman-undone
(Blackshear Family, #2)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

A seductive beauty turns the tables on a gentleman gaming for the guiltiest of pleasures in this rich and sensual Regency romance from beloved newcomer Cecilia Grant.
 
Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.

A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind and a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

After reading A Lady Awakened, I knew I had found an author who wasn’t afraid to push the recognised boundaries of Historical Romance with her daring, unique stories and unconventional, flawed characters. I found A Gentleman Undone just as original and engrossing.

I admire Ms. Grant for her unflinching and gritty characterisation of Lydia, whose very flaws make her such a complex, unconventional and fascinating heroine. I admit that it is difficult to like the bold, ruthless, cold-hearted, sexually aggressive woman we see at the beginning of the book; a woman who has no time for tenderness or emotion.

Tenderness was a rat whose neck she wrung with her own hands before hurling it over the hedge to rot with feelings.

I love how Ms. Grant shows the subtle changes in Lydia, as fractures begin to appear in the walls she has built around herself, and I saw a softer Lydia emerging. For me, one moment in particular illustrates the change in Lydia more than any other. It is when she gives Mrs Talbot the money which will secure not only that lady’s financial security but also a place of her own. In doing this, Lydia is willing to relinquish her own chance of financial security and her response to Mrs Talbot’s reaction is a far cry from the woman devoid of all feelings.

It was wonderful, one of the most wonderful things Lydia had ever seen. Her foolish heart felt like a teacup into which someone had forgot to stop pouring.

The key to understanding Lydia lies in her past and, as her darkest secrets are revealed, I saw a vulnerable woman desperate to expunge the guilt she feels over her parents’ death. She had tried to destroy herself layer by layer but when that failed, she found the will, the strength and the ruthlessness to survive.

Out of the ashes of catastrophic misfortune she’d reinvented herself as something formidable, honed and tempered by each disaster she weathered.

Will has his own demons, having returned from the Napoleonic Wars burdened with a deep sense guilt over the death of Talbot, one of his men. Plagued by black moods, he sometimes feels that he has lost the ability to enjoy himself.

Let them come, the sorrow and anger and bleakness and oh, the tireless self-recrimination that swirled up from the pit of his stomach like plumes of coal dust. He was nothing if not accustomed to their company.

He resists his sister’s attempts to draw him back into the family circle, in the hope of restoring him to the carefree brother she once knew.

Although he believes otherwise, Will is essentially a good and honourable man as shown in his determination to ensure that Talbot’s wife and child are financially secure and independent of the relations she currently lives with. He is patient and understanding and protective of those he cares for, even though his willingness to be Lydia’s knight in shining armour does not exactly provoke the right response!

“I’m not some bedraggled kitten for you to rescue from a ditch.”

I love how Will comforts Lydia when she has nightmares and wants to discover the real Lydia behind the belligerent stranger he has come to care for. I love how he defends Lydia and the choices she was forced to make and is willing to suffer estrangement from his family rather than abandon her.  I also like his reference to the double standards of society.

“I cannot seem to find my place any longer in a society where to keep a woman in sin is a more respectable path than to give her my hand and my name.”

Ms Grant took me on an emotional roller-coaster of a journey. Their romance is passionate with lots of sizzling sexual tension. At times, the sex scenes are raw, earthy and explicit but reflect Lydia’s belief that she is unworthy of tenderness and that rough, impersonal sex is a way of making her forget the guilt she feels over the death of her parents…a way of punishing herself.

The fact that Lydia continues to consort with Edward, her protector, at the same time as her relationship with Will is developing might be unacceptable to some readers. However, I saw it as realistic because Will could not afford to keep Lydia as his mistress and, if she was no longer under Edward’s protection with no way to support herself, she would most likely find herself back in a brothel.

Will and Lydia have to fight every step of the way for their Happy Ever After but I felt that their love would endure.

Happiness still felt, at odd moments, like something with which she oughtn’t to be trusted. A delicate and costly music box put into the hands of a maladroit child. Yet happiness felt, too, like a prize she and Will had fought for and seized. An edifice they’d built with their own bare hands out of the scrap heap of mistake and misadventure.

I like how Martha, Will’s sister, and her husband, Mirkwood, (A Lady Awakened) are sympathetic towards Lydia and Will because Martha knows from her own experience that people in desperate circumstances do what they must and she also married a “black sheep” whom her family disapproved of.

I was quite fascinated by the card-playing aspects of the book, probably because I played vingt et un (or twenty one as we called it) in my much younger days.

Once again, I loved Ms. Grant’s beautiful, evocative writing.

She would lay waste to him tonight. To herself as well. She would hurl herself against him like a wave breaking over a rock. She would claw her way to oblivion as many times as she must, until no fragment of human feeling remained.

♥♥♥

Here after all was their condition, perched on their separate wind-whipped summits, in view of each other, but too distant to reach.

♥♥♥

He was a man, for Heaven’s sake. Men liked bedsport wherever they could get it. Why the devil should his plain statement of the fact make her insides race and wheel about like a frantic flock of swallows? 


MY VERDICT: Another outstanding book from Cecilia Grant. Highly recommended.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: HOT

 

Blackshear Family series (click on the book covers for more details):

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong (Blackshear Family, #0.5) by Cecilia Grant A Lady Awakened (Blackshear Family, #1) by Cecilia Grant A Gentleman Undone (Blackshear Family, #2) by Cecilia Grant A Woman Entangled (Blackshear Family, #3) by Cecilia Grant

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the-arrangement
(The Survivors Club, #2)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

Desperate to escape his mother’s matchmaking, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, flees to a remote country village. But even there, another marital trap is sprung. So when Miss Sophia Fry’s intervention on his behalf finds her unceremoniously booted from her guardian’s home, Vincent is compelled to act. He may have been blinded in battle, but he can see a solution to both their problems: marriage.

At first, quiet, unassuming Sophia rejects Vincent’s proposal. But when such a gloriously handsome man persuades her that he needs a wife of his own choosing as much as she needs protection from destitution, she agrees. Her alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. But how can an all-consuming fire burn from such a cold arrangement? As friendship and camaraderie lead to sweet seduction and erotic pleasure, dare they believe a bargain born of desperation might lead them both to a love destined to be?

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I loved this sweet, poignant, character-driven, marriage-of-convenience story which is written with warmth, depth and emotion.

This is the second book in the series about a group of survivors of the Napoleonic Wars, all left scarred (emotionally, physically or both) by their experiences, who form a close bond while convalescing. The Arrangement is Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh’s story.

At 23, Vincent is the youngest member of the Survivors’ Club and, as a result of an act of recklessness, he lost his sight in battle six years earlier. After returning home, he unexpectedly inherits the viscountcy, following the death of both his uncle and his uncle’s son. Being the only male member of his family, he is constantly protected and cosseted and worried over and planned for by all his well-meaning female relatives, but Vincent longs to live a more independent life. When the aforementioned females decide to select a bride for him – one who professes not to mind marrying a blind man but obviously does – it’s one step too far for Vincent and he flees with his valet and friend, Martin Frisk. After three weeks in the Lake District, he decides to go home to the more modest Covington House in Barton Combes where he grew up.

Orphaned Sophia Fry lives under sufferance with her aunt and uncle in Barton Coombes. Treated as little more than a servant, she has learnt that it is better to blend into the background rather than draw attention to herself…to become the mouse in the corner.

She was known by her relatives, when she was known as anything at all, and perhaps by their servants too, as the mouse.

However, she is not prepared to watch her scheming cousin trap Vincent into marriage, but her intervention results in Sophia being turned out of her uncle’s house. Feeling responsible for Sophia’s predicament, Vincent proposes a marriage of convenience with an arrangement that will suit them both.

“You could eventually have your cottage in the country,” he said, “with your flowers and your chickens and cats. I could eventually prove to myself that I can be master of Middlebury and of my life alone. We could have a marriage now, when we both need it, and freedom and independence and a dream come true in the future.

Having to live with his blindness and suffering from panic attacks, Vincent could so easily have been your typical tortured hero. Instead, he never wallows in self-pity, determined to live his life to the full and I love that he is kind, caring and sensitive to others’ feelings. Sophia has led a lonely life and a brief, soul-shattering romance destroyed her self-esteem but, like Vincent, she does not indulge in self-pity and secretly finds an outlet in drawing satirical caricatures of her relatives and those around them.

I love how the story focuses on the growing relationship between Vincent and Sophia. There is no great drama or big misunderstanding (a small hiccup maybe), just two people getting to know and like each other and falling in love. From their very first meeting, when Sophia saves Vincent from her cousin’s scheming, Ms. Balogh creates a real sense of rapport between them.

“…you are trapped in a life not entirely to your liking by the fact of your parents’ death, just as I am trapped in a life that is not always entirely to my liking by the fact that I lost my sight six years ago.”

I love how they help and support each other as shown in Vincent’s determination to restore Sophia’s self-esteem and Sophia’s practical efforts to help Vincent achieve the independence he seeks. I enjoyed seeing Sophia having the confidence to assert herself to win over Vincent’s family and Vincent taking an active role in running his estate and making an effort to meet his neighbours.

There are so many lovely moments in this book, but the one that really tugged at my heartstrings is the scene where Sophia and Vincent waltz together.

Candlelight was wheeling overhead. Colored gowns were a kaleidoscope of pastels about the perimeter of the ballroom. Mirrors multiplied the candlelight and the twinkling of jewels to infinity.
“Such sounds and smells,” he said. “I will never forget this moment. Sophie. I am actually waltzing.”

I enjoyed seeing the other members of the Survivors’ Club and their interactions with Vincent clearly reveal the close bond that exists between the group.

MY VERDICT: A gentle, heart-warming and beautifully written romance. Highly recommended.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

The Survivors’ Club series (click on the book covers for more details):

The Proposal (The Survivors' Club #1) by Mary Balogh The Arrangement (The Survivors' Club #2) by Mary Balogh The Escape (The Survivors' Club #3) by Mary Balogh Only Enchanting (The Survivors' Club, #4) by Mary Balogh Only a Promise (The Survivors' Club, #5) by Mary Balogh Only a Kiss (The Survivors' Club, #6) by Mary Balogh Only Beloved (The Survivors' Club #7) by Mary Balogh

 

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Wendy and I have discussed how we should go about producing our ‘best of’ list for 2016 and settled on ten but we have each bent the rules a little by including some series. Not all the books selected were actually published during 2016.


CAROL’S SELECTION (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

Rockliffe series by Stella Riley

I was introduced to Stella Riley’s books by my friend and guest reviewer, Wendy Loveridge, and Stella has fast become one of my top favourite authors. I read the first three books in the Georgian set Rockliffe series (a fourth is a work in progress) during 2016 but it was impossible to choose just one book in the series for my list because I loved them all.

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1)
the-parfit-knight-list
This is a captivating romance between an honourable, kind-hearted rake, the Marquis of Amberley and a lovely, courageous, blind young woman, Rosalind

The romance between Rosalind and Amberley is so beautifully written and I could see how perfect they are for each other and watching Rosalind blossom under Amberley’s influence was one of the highlights of the book for me. I defy you not to fall in love with Amberley just as Rosalind does. One of my favourite scenes is where Amberley teaches Rosalind to dance and realises he has fallen in love with her. Inevitably, the course of true love does not run smoothly as past secrets, misconceptions, a malicious schemer and Rosalind’s implacable brother threaten their happiness. I feel that Ms. Riley resolved the conflict in a most satisfactory way and it was so refreshing to see a heroine willing to love the hero regardless of past tragic events. I am really impressed with Ms. Riley’s writing whether it is her wonderful descriptive flair, her ability to convey real emotion or the moments of humour.

This is the book that set me on the road to being a huge Stella Riley fan.

The Mésalliance (Rockliffe, #2) – Audiobook
the-mesalliance-audio
This lovely and deeply emotional romance tells the story of a marriage of convenience between the handsome, elegant, sophisticated Duke of Rockliffe (Rock) and the totally unsuitable, acid-tongued Adeline Kendrick.

Rock’s desire to win Adeline’s love, his protectiveness, patience and consideration, all make him such a gorgeous hero. These two are perfect for each other which makes it all the more heart-breaking to see their marriage slowly deteriorate beneath the weight of Adeline’s secrets and her unwillingness to trust and confide in Rock. The scenes between Rock and Adeline are so powerfully written and Ms. Riley captures all the raw emotions of anger, fear, hurt and frustration. The scene where everything finally comes to a head was a real tour-de-force and seeing the normally unflappable Rock completely lose his control is definitely the highlight of the book for me.

Narration: I felt as if I was listening to a radio play performed by several actors instead of just one person because Alex Wyndham gives each character such a distinctive and easily identifiable voice and listening to his superb performance definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Ms Riley weaves an intricate and compelling story which Alex Wyndham brings superbly to life.

The Player (Rockliffe, #3) – Audiobook
the-player-audio
After reading The Mésalliance, I was especially intrigued by the actor known as ‘L’Inconnu’, whom Rockliffe recognises at the Comédie Française. Ms. Riley subtly hints that a nasty scandal forced this man to flee England eight years earlier and I knew then that this mystery man was destined to have his own book. In The Player, the identity of ‘L’Inconnu’ is revealed as Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre.

Ms. Riley excels in writing the most gorgeous heroes and Adrian is no exception. I also love the fact that he is such a wonderfully complex character. I understood his feelings of anger and hurt towards the family who basically disowned him, and over the years, he has played so many different roles that he no longer knows who he really is. The romance is sweet and heart-warming and their gradual falling in love seems so natural. They complement each other perfectly; Caroline helps Adrian discover the man he was meant to be, while Adrian sees Caroline’s inner strength and beauty. Their declarations of love are positively heart-melting.

Narration: Just reading this book is an absolute pleasure, but listening to the audiobook narrated by the sublimely talented Alex Wyndham takes that enjoyment to another level entirely. He brings Ms. Riley’s wonderful story vividly to life and captures all the details and personalities of each individual character perfectly.

Stella Riley’s brilliant storytelling combined with Alex Wyndham’s superb narration is sheer magic!

The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie
the-perfect-rake
This is my first book by Anne Gracie and I will certainly be dipping into more of her books, based on how much I loved it. It’s romantic, funny and full of characters who totally captured my heart. There are some darker moments, but they never overshadow the lovely, heart-warming feeling I had after finishing it.

Oh, Gideon is such a wonderful hero. Wickedly charming, amiable and flirtatious, he hides a vulnerable heart beneath his frivolous rakishness and it was refreshing to see Gideon falling hopelessly in love first and being open and honest about his feelings for Prudence. Reading about the abuse Prudence and her four sisters suffered at the hands of their grandfather, a bitter, hate-filled old man, is chilling and discovering the extent of his cruelty towards Prudence is truly heart-rending. I love the humour which runs throughout the story and acts as a counterpoint to the darker moments.

A lovely gem of a book!

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
a-lady-awakened
This was Cecilia’s Grant’s debut novel in 2011 and, while the premise bears similarities to other books I have read, it is Ms Grant’s unique voice and wonderfully flawed and interesting characters that make this book exceptional.

What I love about this book is the understated way in which Ms. Grant builds the relationship between these two complete opposites. Theo is charming, funny and good-natured while Martha is serious, stubborn, and highly principled. Their ‘afternoon appointments’ are awkward and totally unsexy but, as an unlikely friendship slowly turns into affection, admiration and finally love, Ms. Grant cleverly shows their evolving relationship through subtle changes in their sexual encounters. I also like how the secondary characters add depth to the story and highlight the ways in which Theo and Martha grow and change during of the story.

I’m currently reading, A Gentleman Undone, the second book in this series, and it is just as original and engrossing.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne
the-hunter
I love an author who is willing to push the established boundaries of historical romance and Kerrigan Bryne does this in her Victorian Rebels series with her dark, gritty, compelling stories and dangerous, tormented anti-heroes. Although I read both The Highwayman and The Hunter during the year and loved both books, there is just something that drew me to Christopher Argent, the cold, ruthless assassin in The Hunter.

I started this book with doubts that Ms. Byrne could make me sympathetic towards a stone-hearted killer like Christopher but, from the moment I finished reading the powerful and gut-wrenching Prologue, my heart ached for the young Christopher. No-one could endure everything he did and retain any shred of humanity. Meeting Millie has him confused and unable to understand what is happening to him because, until now, he has cut himself off from all human emotions. Watching him struggle with his newly discovered feelings was so compelling.  I like how Ms. Byrne doesn’t try to redeem Christopher, because nothing could ever erase his past deeds, but rather offers him a chance to be a better man and use his skills as a force for good.

If you enjoy reading something compelling and intense with a suspenseful plot, fascinating characters and a darkly emotional romance, then I can highly recommend The Hunter.

The Earl Takes All by Lorraine Heath
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I have been a huge Lorraine Heath for many years and she never disappoints and once again, she enchanted me with this beautifully written and deeply emotional love story. It takes an exceptional writer to make such a challenging and potentially unpopular plot line work and, although I know some readers might disagree, I think she does it brilliantly. For me, the success of this book hinged on Ms Heath’s ability to make me see Edward as a worthy hero and Julia’s words to her daughter seemed to echo my thoughts precisely.

“Do you know what I think, Allie? I think the weasel— who is supposed to be the villain of our tale— may just turn out to be the hero.”  (the weasel reference makes sense when you read the book)

Slowly but surely, Ms. Heath reveals Edward to be an honourable, responsible, compassionate and caring man. Seeing him so gentle and tender with his little niece just melted my heart. The moment Julia discovers Edward’s deception is all the more heart-breaking because the changes Julia has seen in her ‘husband’ since his return makes her falling more deeply in love with him. Ms. Heath writes with such emotional intensity that I felt her pain and, at this point, I couldn’t see any way that their relationship could ever be salvaged but Ms. Heath gradually brings them back together again. There is still one apparently insurmountable obstacle to overcome, but I found that Ms. Heath’s note at the end of the book, in which she highlights her research into this aspect, not only provided some interesting historical background but also a believable path to Edward and Julia’s Happy Ever After.

A complex, captivating and beautiful love story that I can highly recommend.

Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas
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After being somewhat disappointed by Cold-Hearted Rake, I loved this book! It reminds me in so many ways of Lisa Kleypas’ wonderful Wallflowers and Hathaways series.

Helen is so much like Evie in The Devil in Winter. At first, she appears sweet and shy but soon reveals an inner strength and I love how she is more than a match for Rhys in her own quiet, determined way.  Ms. Kleypas writes some of the dreamiest self-made heroes in Historical Romance and I’m adding Rhys Winterborne to that illustrious list. I love how, from the moment he meets Helen, this big, arrogant, ruthless Welshman is totally crazy about her and complete putty in her hands. He is surprisingly romantic and I love the way he treats Helen with total adoration, woos her and shows such tenderness and caring. I enjoyed all the smaller details we discover, like Helen’s love of orchids and Rhys’s love of peppermint creams and, living in Wales, I adore the Welsh endearments Rhys uses like “Cariad” and “Bychan” and, being English, I appreciated the glossary provided in the Author’s Note. There is a wonderful cast of secondary characters who enrich the story and are all deserving of their own stories.

Ms Kleypas seems to have recaptured her old magic with this captivating, romantic and passionate love story.

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas
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My first book by Sherry Thomas, this is beautifully written with layered, complex characters and real emotional pull.

The passion between these two fairly leaps off the page and I love the witty and often risqué banter which only serves to heighten the sexual tension and Ms. Thomas is brilliant at creating the most erotic moments without sex ever taking place.  The emotional journey Felix and Louisa travel and the difficulties they overcome kept me turning the pages but Felix is the one who undergoes the most significant changes. His fear of emotional involvement and losing control lead him to act like a complete jackass towards Louisa, understandably earning her distrust. Knowing he loves her, Felix is desperate to win her back and I love the epiphany moment when he realises that the entire aim of his adult life has been about getting what he wants, exactly the way he wants it, but now he must put Louisa’s needs before his own. But of all the things Felix does, it is an unselfish act of kindness that reveals the true Felix both to Louisa and the reader.

I will certainly be reading more books by Sherry Thomas.

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean
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I’m not sure why I waited so long to read Sarah MacLean’s debut novel because friends have constantly recommended it to me. Well, I’ve finally read it and I absolutely loved it! Ms. MacLean brings something refreshing to the much used “rake falls for wallflower” trope and I was impressed by her writing and the way she brought her characters to life and made me really care about them.

I adore Lady Calpurnia “Callie” Hartwell because she is someone I could relate to. Instead of drop dead gorgeous like so many heroines, she is a plain, slightly plump, lace-cap-wearing, 28-year-old spinster with a pristine reputation and the same insecurities I’m sure many of us share. She is also such a lovable person…intelligent, kind-hearted and funny. Gabriel is charming, devastatingly handsome and one of the most notorious rakes in London, but he also has a strong sense of family. Gabriel and Callie are such a wonderful couple with great chemistry and I loved every moment spent with them. They are both on a journey of self-discovery. Gabriel believes himself incapable of love but Callie slowly but surely steals his heart while Callie has always believed herself to be plain but Gabriel shows her that she is beautiful in all the ways that count.

This is an utterly delightful novel and the rest of the series is firmly on my reading list for 2017.

My Lady, My Lord by Katharine Ashe
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I love this first book in Katharine Ashe’s Twist series. What a charming, creative, funny and entertaining story!

It may not appeal to Historical Romance purists but I love the unusual “Freaky Friday” twist because the scenes where Ian and Corinna are having to live in each other’s bodies are so well written and often funny. It also allows them to truly see each other for the first time without their judgement being coloured by mutual animosity. Once they return to their own bodies, they are consumed with all sorts of emotions they have never felt before and Ms. Ashe captures all their emotions so well that I could feel their confusion, doubts, anguish and passion. I was really rooting for them to confess their love for each other.

A thoroughly entertaining and refreshingly different story.

Roxton Series by Lucinda Brant

Lucinda Brant is another author recommended by Wendy and has since joined the ranks of my top favourite authors. Once again, it was impossible to choose just one book, but I have not included the second book, Midnight Marriage, because I read that during 2015.

Noble Satyr (Roxton Series, #1) Audiobook
Noble Satyr
Noble Satyr is a charming, passionate and compelling May/December love story.

I love the Georgian setting with all its elegance, opulence and decadence and I felt just as if I was stepping back in time to a world of powdered wigs, panniers, quizzing glasses, and sedan chairs. I thought the romance between Roxton and Antonia was so well-written because the pairing of the dissolute Roxton with the much younger, innocent Antonia could have been the recipe for disaster but Ms Brant pulls it off brilliantly. Antonia may be young and virginal but, having lived in the licentious court of Louis XV, she is certainly not naïve in the ways of the world and has no illusions about Roxton. Bored with the world of excess around him, it is easy to see why Roxton would be enchanted by Antonia’s intelligence, openness and spirited nature.

Narration: Alex Wyndham is superb in his narration of the story with each character instantly recognizable – male or female, old or young, noble or servant. He portrays Roxton perfectly from his quietly spoken air of authority to the subtle softer tones as he falls in love with Antonia. Alex also conveys Antonia’s naïve exuberance for life so well and her French accent is delightful.

Autumn Duchess (Roxton Series, #3) – Audiobook
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The third book in this series is a lovely, poignant second chance love story.

I was totally captivated by Antonia and Jonathan’s love story and enjoyed the older woman/younger man aspect. I absolutely love Jonathon who, having lost his beloved wife in childbirth many years before, understands Antonia’s grief better than anyone and is the perfect person to reawaken her to the joys of living. I love his dogged pursuit of her regardless of the consequences and his acceptance that “Monseigneur” will always have a place in Antonia’s heart.  The inner conversations he has between his Business Brain, Heart, Stomach and Vital Organ are so funny! I felt for Antonia’s son, Julian, who wants so desperately to help his mother overcome her grief but doesn’t know how and his actions often seem cruel, unfeeling and misguided.

Narration: Once again, Alex Wynham’s narration was superb and his rich, smooth voice was perfect for the deliciously gorgeous Jonathon and his narration of the passionate, romantic scenes made my toes curl.

A beautiful and deeply emotional love story superbly narrated by Alex Wyndham – it doesn’t get any better than this!

Dair Devil (Roxton  Series, #4) – Audiobook
Dair Devil
Dair Devil is another beautifully crafted, deliciously romantic love story.

I totally fell in love with Dair and Rory and watching their romance gradually unfold was a delight… unashamedly romantic but with just enough hurdles confronting the couple to maintain an element of tension. Rory sees through Dair’s devil-may-care façade to the vulnerable man beneath, whose childhood experiences, especially the reason for his fear of water, are truly heart-breaking. Dair sees past Rory’s disability to the wonderful woman she is and realises how much she has changed his view on life.

Narration:  It is impossible to think of superlatives to describe Alex Wyndham’s performance that have not already been said. He literally breathes life into Ms. Brant’s characters making listening to her books such a wonderful experience.

Another winner from the magical team of Lucinda Brant and Alex Wyndham.


WENDY’S SELECTION (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

So here goes – my creme de la creme list of 2016.


Rockliffe series by Stella Riley

I have had an absolute binge on Stella Riley’s books and audio books last year. Having only discovered this hugely talented British author within the past two years, I cannot get enough of her writing. Ms. Riley had an extremely prolific year, with the eagerly anticipated addition to her Civil War series being published in May, plus no less than four audio books being recorded and released too. Sheer bliss – especially as the audio books are performed by the supremely talented, Alex Wyndham. So, I’ll kick off my list with Stella’s series/books:

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) – Audiobook
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All Stella Riley’s main characters are out of the ordinary and her unique talent for developing believable friendships and camaraderie between her male protagonists is one of her great strengths. In The Parfit Knight, we meet the first of the ‘friends’, Dominic, the Marquis of Amberley. He is an honourable and likeable man with a propensity for levity which is captured perfectly by Alex Wyndham, who has the knack of injecting a smile into his voice.  Rosalind Vernon was tragically blinded in childhood but is completely devoid of self-pity; she is also utterly beautiful and without guile, attributes which completely captivate Dominic. The two meet having been thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and the attraction between them is instant. Ms. Riley has clearly shown her own empathy in the way she has developed Rosalind’s character, demonstrating an understanding of the dilemmas experienced by someone living with blindness. And then there’s the parrot – Broody! Hilarious! I’ll say no more on that subject except that I defy anyone not to be amused. In this story, we also meet the incomparable Duke of Rockliffe, for whom the series is named, and who makes regular appearances. It’s no secret that I love his character!

The Mésalliance (Rockliffe, #2) – Audiobook
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The Duke of Rockliffe’s story, a super duper angsty tale where the gorgeous ‘Rock’ meets his lady and because of her, completely loses his legendary cool in an eventual public confrontation that had me on the edge of my seat. Here I must add that Alex Wyndham gives an amazing performance as he deals with Rock’s increasing agitation and loss of control   in what is an intensely moving scene, and all of this in a myriad of different characters’ voices.

The Player (Rockliffe,#3) – Audiobook
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My favourite of this tremendous series so far – but only by a whisker. My reason – it’s such a clever and original story with the intriguingly secretive and complex character of Frances Adrian Sinclair Devereux at its centre. The story is so well crafted and developed that I wondered where such a uniquely brilliant idea came from. And, of course, the gorgeous Rock is back in his usual cool, debonair, omniscient guise after his brief departure from it in the previous book. I must admit to a conflict over which of these two characters I love the most. It mostly depends on which book I’m listening to at the time – but probably Rock as he figures prominently in all three.


Civil War Series by Stella Riley


The Black Madonna (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #1)
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I read and loved this terrific first book in the series. which ha at its centre the most intriguing and unusual male character I think I’ve ever met in a book. I read it to get some background information on the characters before I read and reviewed:

Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #4)
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Stella Riley’s long awaited and highly anticipated fourth book in the same series. It has a brooding, disillusioned hero, questioning his own actions and the war he has been involved in for so long. Colonel Eden Maxwell has sworn never to love again (in book one he is badly hurt) but he reckons without determined, independent widow, Lydia Neville. I adored it from start to finish.

This series has everything I love – thoroughly and accurately researched historical content (which the layman has no problem understanding), subtly developed, spine tingling romance and flawed but likeable/loveable characters. What I particularly like about this author’s telling of the Civil War, which divided our country, is that she sets out both sides of the conflict in a completely unbiased manner. Her heroes and heroines come from both sides of the divide, showing us how families became splintered because of their beliefs and loyalties and, more importantly, how they resolved those differences.

And finally, just before the year closed, we got a gorgeous extra Christmas present from Stella Riley – the stand-alone:

A Splendid Defiance
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This was released in audio, and all I can say is – WOW! It tells the story of the holding of the Royalist Banbury castle during the English Civil War against almost impossible odds. The fictitious characters are blended so expertly with actual historic characters that one cannot see the seams. I shall listen again before I review but already know that this is off the scale as far as grading goes for both content and narration. A Splendid Defiance is quite possibly my favourite ‘listen’ of 2016 and, if not, it’s certainly on a par with one other listed below for the sheer listening pleasure that it brought me.


Salt Hendon Collection: A Georgian Historical Romance Boxed Set and audio
by Lucinda Brant
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Lucinda Brant has also had a tremendous year, with three new publications. I’m going to cheat here so that I can squeeze another favourite in (the boxed set and boxed audio set will count as one). Ms. Brant also employs the talents of the incomparable Mr. Wyndham so, whereas I have always loved her writing since discovering her, I now love her writing and figuratively speaking, her chosen narrator too!

I read the Salt Hendon Boxed Set when Ms. Brant re-published it in June 2016 with the addition of the prologue and novella and loved it all over again after previously reading Salt Bride and Salt Redux individually. Then, when later in the year, Alex Wyndham recorded it at the request of the author and her fans, we had the pleasure of almost 24 hours of listening bliss as he lead us through the machinations of the evil Diana versus the beautifully portrayed love story of Salt and Jane. With all  this, and Lucinda Brant’s exquisitely researched and detailed descriptions of life in Georgian England, we were truly spoilt. The Salt Hendon boxed set is one of my two top reads/listens of the year and I was hard put to take my ear-buds out.

Dair Devil (Roxton Series #4) by Lucinda Brant
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This series is just superb. Each book gives us a surprise. one area in which Lucinda Brant excels. I did not see this jaw-dropper coming and its delivery by the tiny tornado, Antonia, whom we have all come to love, is perfection. And, of course, Alex Wyndham’s performance is so powerful that we forget we are actually listening to a man rather than a very female, pocket sized French firebrand!  This story has a redeemed ‘bad boy’ who was never really bad in the first place, but that’s what Ms. Brant does so expertly; she leads us up the garden path and leaves us with our mouths gaping and wondering why we hadn’t picked up on it. The burgeoning and apparently impossible romance between Dair and physically disabled, Rory, is touchingly beautiful. There’s more of this fascinating Georgian family to come with Dair’s sister, Mary, hopefully in the spring of this year.

I had the pleasure of meeting the iconic, Lorraine Heath in the autumn of last year at HRR and, as she is one of my favourite Historical Romance authors, it was a huge fan-girl moment. I quickly realised, on getting to know her better, how it is that she unerringly writes such empathetic and poignant tear-jerkers each and every time; it’s because she is, quite simply, a warm and caring person and it shines through in her writing. Having had the benefit of spending time with her, I decided to read her entire latest series again – my two favourites of that series follow:

The Earl Takes All (The Hellions of Havisham, #2) by Lorraine Heath
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This was a very tricky premise and I wondered how Lorraine Heath would handle it in a way that her readers would believe in it – obviously she does, hence my 5* grading. It is an absorbing story with loads of angst and emotion. I loved it and think that Ms. Heath pulled off a real coup with her very original storyline and outcome. Her stories are never boring which is one of the reasons her books are so popular but she always integrates issues (health and otherwise) which we experience in the present day.

The Viscount and the Vixen (The Hellions of Havisham, #3) by Lorraine Heath
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What a terrific ending to the series and I just had to include it in my favourites, especially when I read where the inspiration came from. Suddenly everything made sense – a real penny-dropping moment! The Marquess of Marsden was based on Miss Havisham of Great Expectations fame. But the ‘mad marquess’ wasn’t really mad at all, it was just how he wanted to be seen. When lucidity was called for he was amazingly sane, as readers of this novel will have seen from his devious machinations! Fabulous, Ms. Heath! I just loved your series – every tender, tear jerking moment of it.


A Gentleman’s Position
(Society of Gentleman #3) by K.J. Charles
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K.J. Charles was a new-to-me author in 2016 and a departure from my normal comfort reads. Still historical romance, but this time m/m, not something I’ve ever considered reading and, until recently, didn’t even know existed. But I’m so glad I found this author because I loved her entire Society of Gentlemen series and, in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever, cunning story and it takes place in a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But it’s about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory, shocking and plausible conclusion is skilful indeed. The romance between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content, in-depth, accurate and fascinating.

Another author I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with at the HRR in Spokane last Autumn was the superstar of Historical Romance, Mary Balogh. She is a lovely, quite fascinating lady and spending time with her and discussing her books and characters was a real eye opener into the way she thinks – a wonderful experience for me. Ms. Balogh doesn’t rely on complicated plots to sell her books, rather her strengths are subtler and lie in her many years of writing and obvious life experience, which always comes across in her writing and character development.  I am never disappointed and look forward with eager anticipation to everything she writes.

Someone to Love (Westcott, #1) by Mary Balogh
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In her usual understated manner, Ms. Balogh had me hooked from the first paragraph of her new series which begins with the story of Anna Snow, an orphaned girl who is traced by the lawyer of the family she did not know existed. She arrives at her late father’s will reading to discover that she is his ONLY legitimate child and her discovery has disinherited her three half siblings and their mother, whom he married bigamously. I loved this premise and the way the story is told is entirely believable. The love story between Anna and Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby is gentle and moving, with hidden depths to the hero which we discover as the story unfolds. We learn that Avery is no pushover and I found his very unusual, out of the ordinary character, to be quite captivating.


Simply Love
(Simply Quartet #2) – Audiobook – by Mary Balogh
slmply-love
Every time I read a Mary Balogh novel, new or old, I am struck anew by how much I love her work. She has covered every conceivable subject/ scenario in her long and highly successful career with empathy and a deeply insightful understanding of human nature. In Simply Love, she highlights the issues and prejudices surrounding a single mother and her illegitimate child in Regency England. With great understanding, Ms. Balogh immerses us in the life of Anne Jewell, her nine- year- old son, David, and that of Sydenham Butler, a horrifically scarred veteran of the peninsula wars. Mary Balogh tells their love story in an entirely plausible and empathetic manner not making an easy read of it or skirting over the problems they face and we see them experiencing.

Just recently some of Ms. Balogh’s books have been released on the UK audible market and most of them have been recorded by the supremely talented, Rosalyn Landor. I can’t praise her performance highly enough in the telling of this beautiful story which always, no matter how many times I read or listen, brings a catch to my throat and a tingling down my spine. As I said, I love everything this author writes but, if I must choose an absolute favourite, then Simply Love is the one.

The Autumn Throne (Eleanor of Aquitaine #3) by Elizabeth Chadwick
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One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and, in particular, books about the Plantagenets, my favourite historic family. There are no historical fiction writers that I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series, is quite simply superb. Ms. Chadwick’s knowledge and scholarship of the period is mind-boggling. All her books are eloquently written with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn even more about this fascinating character, if indeed, there is anything left to learn after Ms. Chadwick’s extensive research.
 

What were your own personal favourites for 2016?

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the-player-audio

(Rockliffe, #3)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Tragedy drove him into unwilling exile. Death demands his reluctant return.

In the decade between, he has answered to many names and amassed a variety of secrets.

Now the actor known to Paris as L’Inconnu must resume his real identity and become Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre … a man he no longer knows how to be and whose name, thanks to the malice of a friend turned enemy, remains tarnished by an old scandal.

Revenge, so long avoided, slithers temptingly from the shadows. Grand-daughter of a wealthy wool-merchant, Caroline Maitland is not finding her Society debut either easy or enjoyable … but, to Marcus Sheringham, she is the perfect solution to his crushing mountain of debt.

Knowing she will be married for her money, Caroline never believed she would find love; but neither did she bargain for a certain charming French highwayman … and a surprising turn of events.

The stage is set, the cast assembled and the Duke of Rockliffe waits for the curtain to rise.

In the wings, Lord Sarre prepares to make his entrance.

He doesn’t expect to be greeted with applause.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

After reading The Mésalliance, I was especially intrigued by the actor known as ‘L’Inconnu’, whom Rockliffe recognises at the Comédie Française. Ms Riley subtly hints that a nasty scandal forced this man to flee England eight years earlier and I knew then that this mystery man was destined to have his own book.

The Player is the third book in Stella Riley’s fabulous Rockliffe series and we discover that ‘L’Inconnu’ is, in fact, Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre. Ms Riley excels in writing the most gorgeous heroes and Adrian is no exception. I also love the fact that he is such a complex character.

The 21-year-old Adrian, then Viscount Eastry, is about to marry Evie Mortimer, the woman he is head over heels in love with. Life seems perfect but suddenly everything changes; his fiancée is dead and there are accusations that Adrian murdered her. Though he professes his innocence and wants to clear his name, his father refuses to allow the family to be besmirched by such a scandal and eventually Adrian is forced to flee the country.

Angry and hurt over his family’s rejection, Adrian is determined to make a new life for himself in Paris. Discovering his aptitude for acting, he soon builds a career as a successful and renowned actor in the Comédie Française. His unique ability to ‘count cards’ and adopt various guises to cover his real identity ensure success at the gaming tables. For the past two years, he has also been a partner in Sinclair’s, an exclusive London gaming-club, with his friend Aristide Delacroix .

However, after an absence of 10 years, circumstances force him to return to England to assume his responsibilities as the Earl of Sarre, knowing that society will not be welcoming and all the old rumours and accusations will resurface.

He wasn’t going back because he wanted to.   He was going because his presence had suddenly become an unavoidable duty.
He doubted if anyone would welcome him.

As the granddaughter of a wealthy cloth merchant with no great beauty and an appalling wardrobe, Caroline Maitland is realistic enough to know that her large dowry is the only reason any titled gentleman would be interested in marrying her. At the age of twenty-two, she sees her life as…

…a humdrum existence of Duty and Making the Best of Things; years and years of being sensible and responsible and never, even briefly, knowing what romance felt like.

Despite everything, she secretly dreams of being swept off her feet by a dashingly handsome fellow.

Adrian wants revenge on his onetime best friend, Marcus, Lord Sheringham, the man who betrayed him and destroyed his reputation all those years ago. He has been keeping tabs on Sheringham over the years and knows that he is deeply in debt, with creditors nipping at his heels. Discovering that his nemesis has Caroline and her dowry in his sights, Adrian sees it as the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge by ruining Sheringham’s plans. But first he wants to discover Caroline’s true character and if she is worth saving from Marcus’s clutches. So, he dons one of his disguises and becomes the dashing highwayman, Claude Duvall, not knowing that the tangled web he is about to weave could cost him the one thing he wants most in the world.

Adrian is such a wonderfully complex character. I could understand his sense of hurt towards the family who basically disowned him, and I could feel the anger and bitter resentment boiling beneath the surface during the fraught meeting with his unfeeling mother.

Over the years, he has played so many different roles that he no longer knows who he really is.

“I’d become a rag-bag of all of them; a collection of miscellaneous bits and pieces –so many that, somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten who I really was.”

In so many romances, there is an instant spark of attraction when the hero and heroine first meet and it was refreshing to see a very different scenario in this story. Adrian’s initial opinion of Caroline is that she is garishly dressed and socially inept while Caroline sees Adrian as cold, unsmiling and emotionless. It is only when Adrian is in his guise as Claude Duvall that he glimpses a very different Caroline…a woman of character, intelligence, quick-witted and stubborn. In fact, as he is in search of a wife, he could do worse than marry Caroline. However, without giving too much of the plot away, there are complications in the shape of a very determined Marcus Sheringham and it seems that Adrian might just have burnt all his bridges when Caroline discovers his deception.

I could sympathise with Caroline’s anger and disappointment at discovering Adrian’s duplicity, particularly as Claude Duvall had been the handsome, dashing hero she had always dreamed of. But she is not one of those heroines who refuses to see the reality of the situation, accepting that Adrian had never intended for matters to go this far or for her to be hurt. I also like her logic in reasoning that, if she enjoyed Claude’s kisses, and he and Adrian are the same person, there was no reason to suppose she wouldn’t enjoy Adrian’s kisses too!

Caroline also begins to see that there may be a very different Adrian lurking beneath that cloak of icy reserve.

He’s different, somehow. Is this what Bertrand meant? Am I being allowed a tiny glimpse of the man behind Lord Sarre? If so, it’s interesting. But though I’d like to push it further, I’d better stop before he realises what he’s doing and crawls back into his igloo.

When he reinstates two formerly dismissed servants, she realises that it is not just an act of responsibility, but he truly cares about them…that he has kind and loving heart which he doesn’t want anyone to see.

The romance is sweet and heart-warming and their gradual falling in love seems so natural. They complement each other perfectly; Caroline helps Adrian discover the man he was meant to be while Adrian sees Caroline’s inner strength and beauty. Their declarations of love are positively heart-melting.

“…there’s been a … a sort of void inside me for years.   A dark empty place that I’d become so used to, I no longer noticed it was there.   And then you came along and, in some way I can’t explain, you made me whole again. So I don’t just care for you, my darling.   I need you and want you and … love you.’

‘I love you. I love your honesty, your unfailing kindness and the fact that –though you’ve had precious little of it yourself or perhaps because of that –you have a passion for justice. I think you are the most remarkable man I’ve ever met and utterly beautiful, both in body and spirit. And your smile doesn’t just make me sigh, Adrian. It steals my breath and lights the world.’

The Marquis of Amberley (The Parfit Knight), the Duke of Rockliffe (The Mésalliance) and Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, Rockliffe’s younger brother, all prove welcome allies for Adrian and I love their scenes together because, beneath their banter, there is always a sense of the close bond between them. I love Rockliffe…so unflappable even under the most extreme of circumstances.

I adored Adrian’s factotum, Bertrand, who is more friend than servant. Knowing Adrian better than anyone, he is the one who provides the impetus for Caroline to think that there might be more to Adrian than appears on the surface. Bertrand also provides some humorous moments with his broken English and questioning of Adrian’s actions.

I was certainly intrigued by the exchanges between Nicholas and Aristide’s sister, Madeline, and I do hope they get their own book.

Just reading this book is an absolute pleasure, but listening to the audiobook narrated by the sublimely talented Alex Wyndham takes the enjoyment to another level entirely. He brings Ms Riley’s wonderful story vividly to life and captures all the details and personalities of each individual character perfectly. He particularly excels in voicing authentic sounding women’s voices.

MY VERDICT:  Stella Riley’s brilliant storytelling combined with Alex Wyndham’s superb narration is sheer magic! VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Rockliffe Series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance Volume 2 (Rockliffe) by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley

**I received a free download of this audiobook from the author in return for an honest review**

 

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pride-and-prejudice-audiobook

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

♥♥♥♥♥♥

 Most Jane Austen fans will have read all her work and probably have their favourite amongst them. Almost certainly, one of the greatest favourites will be Pride and Prejudice and one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is the popularity of the 1995 BBC adaptation. There is no doubt that Colin Firth fixed a delicious wet and brooding Mr. Darcy in our minds (although Andrew Davies certainly took some liberties here because Mr. Darcy did NOT come face to face with Lizzie dripping wet!). Then there’s Adrian Lukis, aka Mr. Wickham, the naughty but loveable rogue with a twinkle in his eye, whose character most of us have a secret bad-boy soft spot for.

It’s years since I read Pride and Prejudice but I recently watched the BBC adaptation again (for about the tenth time in the past twenty years). Soon afterwards, I was lucky enough to receive the audio version performed by Alison Larkin, and all I can say is WOW! This one-woman show is simply outstanding and I’m so glad I was able to watch and listen within a short period of time, enabling me to make a fair comparison. For pure spine tingling romance (with no important bits missed out), humour, wit, satyr and astute dialogue, the Alison Larkin audio version wins hands down.

There is no point in reviewing the book in detail… a) because of the above and… b) because it’s the most well-known of this author’s work and has already been reviewed hundreds of times. I will, however, mention some of the characters, but that’s mainly in relation to the narrator’s performance of them.

For instance, Alison Larkin’s execution of the oily, obsequious Mr Collins is sheer genius. Hilariously funny but excruciatingly cringeworthy, it had me chuckling like a loon! He actually has a much larger part in the book but much of the brilliant mordacious dialogue was lost in the screen adaptation.

The venom, jealousy and downright meanness of Mr. Bingley’s sister, Caroline, is so well executed that I clearly felt her antipathy towards Lizzie and her hypocritical, lets-be-friends attitude to Jane.

The difference between the two elder Bennet sisters is well done too; Jane, gullible and believing the best of everyone – even the vitriolic Caroline – and all the while keeping her own emotions well hidden. It was clear to me why Mr. Darcy thought her feelings were not engaged in respect to his great friend, Bingley, which, of course, was the beginning of the big misunderstanding.

Then there’s bright, vivacious Lizzie whose character I have always loved. She sees people and their actions with eyes wide open, and is brought to sparkling life by this talented performer.

Even after reading/listening /watching Pride & Prejudice on numerous occasions and knowing what the contents of the letter contained, I still felt the deep emotion as Alison Larkin movingly reads – in her Darcy voice – that man’s explanation of his actions regarding Jane and Bingley, and his very justified (as it turns out) treatment of Wickham.

There is a fair amount of inner dialogue throughout, which is clearly and concisely conveyed. A good example is Lizzie’s crumbling prejudices and her changing attitude to Darcy, mostly conveyed through her inner musings. Her interest in him grows by degrees as she sees and learns more about the man and her feelings change, first to reluctant liking, then admiration and finally to bone-melting love. It takes an extraordinary performing talent to differentiate between verbal dialogue and inner dialogue without a need for explanation and Alison Larkin has that talent in spades.

When the five sisters are together and in conversation, she conveys with subtle nuances and tone exactly who we are listening to. Amusing and witty, we could be sitting at the dining table with them, listening to their gossip and being asked to “pass the potatoes”. Finally, with regard to individual characters, one of the stars of the show is, in my opinion, the outrageously silly, Mrs Bennett. She has lost the love and respect of her indolent husband in the early years of their marriage and consoles herself with one-upmanship over her female neighbours, especially in her quest to see her five daughters well married. There is a certain bitter sweetness to her character because, although she means well, she goes about it in such a ridiculous manner that she only earns her husband’s further derision and embarrasses her two eldest daughters. This is one of the areas where Alison Larkin’s outstanding talent shines because she artfully conveys the sadness beneath the silliness in a way that it’s possible for the listener to feel sorry for Mrs Bennett whilst still wishing she would just shut-up!

It’s hard to believe that Jane Austen wrote her books two hundred years ago, and therefore we are seeing Regency life through the eyes of someone who actually lived it. She was a satirist and an extremely tongue-in-cheek observer of people and her funny, witty and insightful outlook on life is only really captured in the complete unabridged version of the book. Add into the mix the extraordinary voice and talent of Alison Larkin and we have a recipe for success. If she’d been here to choose, I reckon that Ms. Austen would have selected Ms. Larkin to perform her wonderful stories. For anyone out there who has only ever watched the (even shorter) films or the abridged BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, read the book or even listened to another audio version, I urge you to experience this superior rendition. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

The three Regency songs added to the end give us a taste of what it would have been like to be actually in attendance and listening in the drawing room while genteel young ladies entertained us and their regency audiences. Alison Larkin has a pleasing singing voice to add to her many talents and I very much enjoyed this addition and we are also treated to her comedic talents as she cheekily propositions Mr. Darcy in between songs. I must say – as it always strikes me when listening to this narrator – that she has a ‘smiley’ voice and always sounds as though she is enjoying herself immensely, which is quite infectious and always makes me smile.

MY VERDICT: There is a reason why Alison Larkin has been selected for the ambassadorship of Jane Austen’s work and, after you have listened to her, it will become abundantly clear why. Highly recommended.  


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: KISSES

 

**I received a free copy of this audio book in return for an honest review. ** 

 

 

 

 

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