A Good Rogue is Hard to Find by Kelly Bowen

Bowen_A Good Rogue is Hard to Find_MM

HE THOUGHT HE’D SEEN IT ALL . . .

The rogue’s life has been good to William Somerhall: He has his fortune, his racehorses, and his freedom. Then he moves in with his mother. It seems the eccentric Dowager Duchess of Worth has been barely skirting social disaster-assisted by one Miss Jenna Hughes, who is far too bright and beautiful to be wasting her youth as a paid companion. Now home to keep his mother from ruin, William intends to learn what’s afoot by keeping his friends close-and the tempting Miss Hughes closer still.

. . . UNTIL HE MEETS HER

He’s tall, dark, and damnably intelligent – unfortunately for Jenna. She and the duchess are in the “redistribution business,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and it’s going great – until he shows up. But even as William plots to make an honest woman out of her, Jenna will use all her wiles to reveal just how bad a rogue he can be . . .

Rating: B+

I was only a few pages into A Good Rogue is Hard to Find when it became clear that in Kelly Bowen, I’d found a new author worth watching. Most of the débuts and follow-ups I’ve read over the past couple of years have been average at best, but this, Ms Bowen’s second book, is a very accomplished piece of work. It’s full of warmth, humour and intelligence, the characters are likeable and well-rounded and the author has managed to find an unusual plotline that, while it does require rather a sizeable suspension of disbelief, is handled so well as to make it possible for the reader to accept it and just go with the flow.

William Sommerhall, Duke of Worth, is handsome, charming and wealthy, and lives a carefree life among his many friends and acquaintances in London. He inherited his title some years previously, but the responsibilities and trappings accompanying it don’t interest him and he relies on his various secretaries and stewards to run his estates, thus leaving him more time to devote to his passion for breeding racehorses. But the recent escalation of the gossip about his mother’s eccentricities has become too much for him to bear and he decides he must go home in order to try to curb her excesses.

Will arrives at the Dower House on his Breckenridge estate to find it in uproar following the unexpected appearance of a number of Her Grace’s raucous “pet” chickens and a snake named Philip at one of her regular dinner parties. Not only that, but he finds himself face to face with the young woman who has haunted his dreams following their brief meeting at a ball a few months earlier and for whom he’s been searching ever since – (I assume this happened in the previous book, I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm, which I haven’t read). He is even more stunned to discover that she’s his mother’s companion.

Having experienced the complete chaos of his mother’s household first hand, there’s only one thing for Will to do – move in, straighten out the finances, make sure her rather rag-tag bunch of servants are doing right by her, and try to get her to see that she’s just a step away from social ostracism.

For Eleanor, the Dowager Duchess of Worth and her companion, Miss Jenna Hughes, the duke’s sudden interest in his mother’s affairs couldn’t have come at a worse time. This is where that required suspension of disbelief I mentioned earlier comes in, because the ladies are in fact in the process of organising a massive scam, which is due to come to fruition in a matter of weeks and which they must keep hidden from Will at all costs.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

What a Wallflower Wants by Maya Rodale (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

what a wallflower wants audio

Miss Prudence Merryweather Payton has a secret.

Everyone knows that she’s the only graduate from her finishing school to remain unwed on her fourth season – but no one knows why. With her romantic illusions shattered after being compromised against her will, Prudence accepts a proposal even though her betrothed is not exactly a knight in shining armor. When he cowardly pushes her out of their stagecoach to divert a highwayman, she vows never to trust another man again.

John Roark, Viscount Castleton, is nobody’s hero.

He’s a blue-eyed charmer with a mysterious past and ambitious plans for his future – that do not include a wife. When he finds himself stranded at a country inn with a captivating young woman, a delicate dance of seduction ensues. He knows he should keep his distance. And he definitely shouldn’t start falling in love with her.

When Prudence’s dark past comes back to haunt her, John must protect her – even though he risks revealing his own secrets that could destroy his future.

Rating: Narration A-; Content B+

This is the final book in Maya Rodale’s Wallflower trilogy, and is the best of the lot. I enjoyed the first one (The Wicked Wallflower), which was full of humour and light-hearted banter, even though it did require rather a large suspension of disbelief at times; the second (Wallflower Gone Wild) was a bit of a disappointment, but Ms Rodale clearly saved the best till last, because What a Wallflower Wants is a much more deeply felt story, telling of a young woman’s path towards reclaiming her life following a horrific event.

Prudence Merryweather Peyton, known throughout the ton as “London’s Least Likely to be Caught in a Compromising Position” has seen both her dearest friends find love with two handsome, charming men who are devoted to them. While she is delighted for them, Prudence can’t help but be just a little sad for herself, as she has no such happy prospect before her. Four years previously when in her very first season, she was violently assaulted, something she has revealed to no-one, not even her closest friends. Ashamed, scared and no longer desirous of attracting the attention of any man, Prudence retreated to the wallflower corner at balls and parties. Having learned never to expect help from any quarter, Prudence now has to save herself from the ridicule that will ensue if she is still unmarried by the time of the annual ball held by the graduates of the famous Lady Penelope’s Finishing School. In desperation, she accepts a proposal of marriage from a young man she knows will be satisfied with a marriage in name only, and elopes with him – only to discover that her intended has feet of clay when their coach is held up and robbed.

Having managed to escape, Prudence encounters a young man driving a smart equipage who offers his assistance. Unable to conquer her fear of being alone with a man, she refuses his help and continues on foot, only to discover that the same man – who had introduced himself as John Roark, Viscount Castleton – has thoughtfully arranged a room, food and a hot bath for her at the nearest inn.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

TBR Challenge: To Have and To Hold (Wyckerley Trilogy #2) by Patricia Gaffney

to have and to hold

Suave, cynical, and too handsome for his own good, Sebastian Verlaine never expects to become a magistrate judging the petty crimes of his tenants and neighbors. Nor can the new Viscount D’Aubrey foresee that, when a fallen woman appears before him, he’ll find himself beguiled against all reason to alter her terrible fate….

Rachel Wade has served time in prison for her husband’s violent death, but she soon discovers that freedom has its own price. For no one will offer her a second chance but a jaded viscount who needs a housekeeper. Scorned by the townspeople of Wyckerley as D’Aubrey’s mistress, tempted beyond her will by the devilish lord, Rachel risks all she had to claim a life of her own…and a love that will last for all time.

Rating: A-

This month’s prompt was “Kickin’ it Old School”, which meant reading a book that was at least ten years old. I chose this one because I’ve had it around for a while, but also because I know from reading reviews that it’s a “marmite” book (you either love it or you hate it!) and I felt like reading something that seemed like it would give me something to get my teeth into.

Originally published in 1995, To Have and to Hold is a book that has divided – and continues to divide – opinion because of the actions of its hero, Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D’Aubrey. There’s absolutely no doubt that at the beginning of the story, he’s a pretty despicable character and it’s easy to see why some readers have hated the book, or just not bothered to finish it. There’s also no doubt that this is an extremely well-written, compelling and often quite dark story in which the central characters are fully-rounded, three dimensional individuals and the emotions are often so raw they’re hard to read.

Sebastian Verlaine is young, rich, handsome –and totally and utterly debauched. He’s a rake in the truest sense, not in the way that’s so often found in every other historical romance these days – he does everything to excess, is frequently given to acts of cruelty simply because he has no conscience and nobody to stop him and, at the grand old age of twenty-nine, has reached a stage where he’s so jaded he has to keep pushing the boundaries in order to feel anything.

”But the older he got, the less fun he was having. It took more every day to divert him, and lately he’d begun moving gradually, with misgivings, into excess.”

He takes up his duties as magistrate in the village of Wyckerley mostly because he agreed to it while drunk, but also because he thinks he might find something salacious going on that will alleviate his boredom. When Rachel Wade – a woman recently released from ten years of imprisonment following her conviction for the murder of her husband – is bought before him on a charge of vagrancy, he thinks he may have found a new plaything. There is something about her that intrigues him immediately; she’s not beautiful, she’s too thin and her clothes are dreadful, but there’s an “otherness” about her that makes him want her:

”What was it about a woman – a certain kind of woman – standing at the mercy of men – righteous, civic-minded men, with the moral force of public outrage on their side – that could sometimes be secretly, shamefacedly titillating? He thought of the hypocritical justices from England’s less than glorious past, men who had taken a lewd pleasure in sending women to the stake for witchcraft.

He proceeds to offer Rachel a position as his housekeeper – although she knows right away that that’s not the only “position” she will be expected to adopt. But it’s working for the viscount or a return to prison for indigence – and she has no other choice but to accept.

Just as Ms Gaffney pulls no punches in her characterisation of Sebastian as a cruel, heartless bastard, so she doesn’t sugar-coat Rachel’s situation. Brutalised by her husband – even though only married for a week before his death – she learned to cope with the incredibly harsh prison regime by withdrawing into herself and walling off her emotions, her soul, even. As she says later in the book, she killed herself without dying. It’s this emotional distance that so attracts Sebastian, and makes him want to “test her, push her, see how far he could go before she broke.”

The thing is, although this is an absolutely horrible beginning to what eventually turns into an enthralling love story, the connection between these two emotionally damaged people is immediate. Each has an intuitive understanding of the other on a basic level, even though they still have much to learn – about themselves and each other – but that’s one of the things that makes the story so compelling.

The first sexual encounter between the pair is a deal breaker for many, because Sebastian won’t take “no” for an answer. He forces Rachel to have sex with him by threatening her with a return to prison, and even though she tells him she doesn’t want it, he goes ahead anyway. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but then it’s supposed to. This is rape at worst, dubious consent at best; even though Sebastian isn’t violent, what he does is nonetheless despicable. Yet the scenes are tastefully done – not meant to titillate, but to show the reader in no uncertain terms that Sebastian isn’t some kind of loveable rogue who just needs the right woman to tame him. Ms Gaffney doesn’t shy away from making Sebastian a truly unpleasant man, thus making his eventual redemption all the more remarkable.

The writing in these scenes is powerful and filled with raw emotion. They are written completely from Sebastian’s PoV, yet the reader is left in no doubt of what is going on in Rachel’s head which, in terms of sheer technical ability, is masterful. Sebastian wants Rachel to respond to him, to climax, and sets about rousing her in such a calculating manner that it’s like train-wreck reading; repulsive, but impossible to stop reading. In the end, he realises that Rachel isn’t going to give him what he wants, and actually worries about hurting her – which doesn’t make it any better, but does, I suppose at least show that there might just be a grain or two of him that’s worth saving.

Unfortunately, Sebastian’s cruelties don’t end there. The time he’s spent away from London has begun to change him, he realises. He finds himself enjoying the quiet beauty of the countryside around Lynton, interested in farming methods and estate management – and is appalled by it.

”The pastoral charms of Devon had begun to seduce him, incredible as it seemed, and he deemed that [his friends] were just the antidote he needed for all this cloying rusticity.”

Still bent on provoking some sort of reaction from Rachel, who is still very much “walled-off”, and almost desperate to repudiate the changes in himself and prove he still belongs among the debauched and dissolute, Sebastian invites a group of his most venal “friends” to visit his home and insists that Rachel serve as his hostess. She knows and they know that she’s to be their entertainment (not in a sexual way – but so they can pick her to pieces and taunt her about her experiences in prison and her late husband’s “unnatural” proclivities), and sure enough, over dinner, and then later, their questions become more and more personal and probing, culminating in a game of “Truth”. All the while Sebastian is watching from the fringes, gradually becoming more and more uncomfortable with the way things are progressing, but almost paralysed and unable to do anything about it, because of his desperation not to admit that he’s changing.

The fact that he’d lost the stomach for it himself didn’t signify; on the contrary, it pointed to a new and dangerous weakness in himself he didn’t like and was determined to snuff out. Sully and the rest could be his proxies while he regrouped, reminded himself of who he was and of what his purpose in life had always been – the pursuit of selfish pleasure.”

I actually found that scene harder to read than the rape scene, because in the latter, Rachel does at least have a coping mechanism – she separates her body from herself, and maintains her distance from events that way. In the card-game, however, she doesn’t maintain those emotional walls beneath the verbal assault of the intrusive questions, and her lack of adequate defences makes the scene incredibly powerful, but incredibly uncomfortable. And Sebastian’s reactions are of the type you can only bear to see from behind your hands, peeking out through your fingers. He watches from the sidelines and does nothing; even when one of his guests makes clear his intention to rape Rachel, he does nothing, because that’s how the Sebastian of old would react. But at the last possible moment he intervenes, admitting finally that he is sickened to hear “his own, mocking tone in Sully’s despicable cadence.” – and thus, his choice is made. This is the pivotal moment in the book – after this, he cuts himself off from Rachel and almost everyone around him, spending several days in a drunken stupor, until finally emerging as… not quite a different man, but one who has decided he wants to live a different life.

From this point on, both Sebastian and Rachel begin to change; she evolves from the shell of a woman she is at the beginning of the story, gradually throwing off the marks of her decade-long incarceration to reclaim her emotions and learn to live again. Sebastian finds purpose in caring for his estates and tenants, and in caring for Rachel, to whom he is tender, charming and affectionate. The change in him is vast – yet he’s the same man. It’s a skilful author who can redeem such a terrible character without making it seem as though he’s had a total personality transplant, but Ms Gaffney does it admirably.

The one false note struck in the book comes near the end. I don’t want to go into details, but the events of the final chapter or so were a little jarring and overly simplistic when contrasted with the complexities of the rest of the story.

But that’s a minor complaint – and is why I knocked off half a grade, because otherwise To Have and To Hold is a tremendous read. Because of the contentious nature of some of the material, I completely understand that it isn’t going to be a book for everyone. But the writing is superb and Ms Gaffney gets absolutely and completely into the heads of her protagonists in a way many other authors just… don’t.

Sebastian and Rachel’s HEA is undoubtedly one of the hardest-worked-for I’ve ever read, but that makes it all the more satisfying. I will admit that I did think once or twice that he should have grovelled a bit more, but actually, I’m not sure that would have worked or was necessary. What’s important is that these two people have been through hell and come to accept each other – emotional baggage, damaged pasts and all – and are going to move forward together, into a better life.

TBR Challenge #2: Married to a Rogue (aka Lady Delafont’s Dilemma) by Donna Lea Simpson

married to a rogue

Lady Emily Sedgely, separated from her husband and bored to distraction after years of solitude in the wilds of Yorkshire, is stirred by a sudden thirst for life and eagerly returns to London for the Season. Back in the swirl of society, she quickly warms to the attentions of an ardent young Frenchman—until a chance encounter with Baxter, her estranged husband, leaves her as confused as ever about her heart’s true longings.

Baxter, the Marquess of Sedgely, was given to dark moods and an uncertain temper that doomed his marriage. Finding relief in travel, he spent five years gallivanting the Continent and has now returned to London with a comely young mistress—and a dangerous secret. Cavalier about his safety, he discovers a far greater concern—for just one look at Emily stirs a realization that while his life may be in danger, it is his heart that faces a more immediate peril.

When Emily’s young French suitor arouses suspicions that he may not be all that he appears and a unknown assailant makes several attempts on Baxter’s life, the two are driven to protect each other and surrender to a passionate reawakening—and neither will rest until they are safely in the arms of the only person they’ve ever loved.

Rating: B-

I got a bit carried away with this month’s prompt of “Kickin’ it Old School”, and actually read three books which could qualify – To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney, Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase and this, a traditional Regency I’ve had kicking around in paperback format for a while, but which was digitally re-issued last year.

Originally published in 2000 as Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, this is the story of an older couple – she’s thirty-six, he’s forty-two – whose marriage fell apart and who have been living separately for five years. For the last two of those years, they have been legally separated which is just about as close to divorce as it was possible to get back then, unless you were incredibly wealthy and influential.

There are aspects of the book that are probably going to be unpalatable to some readers (the husband has a mistress young enough to be his daughter, for example, and there are continual references to the fact that the heroine has put on a bit of weight) but if you can get past that, you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of what caused the breakdown of the couple’s marriage and the way in which they both come to realise that neither of them really fought for it as they should have done.

The story opens as Emily, the Marchoiness of Sedgely has just returned to London following a lengthy sojourn at the family estate in Yorkshire, where she has been, in effect, in mourning for the death of her marriage. Now, she’s ready to re-join the land of the living, and is determined to make a life for herself in London society. She may be past the first blush of youth, but she’s an attractive woman and not without admirers, the principal among which is a young Frenchman, Etienne Marchant.

Her estranged husband Baxter, who has also recently returned to London (but from the Continent) is surprised to see Emily at the theatre one evening, still pretty, vivacious and, he notes, rather plumper than he remembers. (In fact, there are numerous references to the fact that Emily has put on weight – her mother in law constantly harps at her to lose it so that Baxter will find her sufficiently attractive to want to return to her bed to get his heir – and although her weight-gain is often presented as a positive thing, it gets old very quickly.) Their eventual meeting is naturally strained, and Emily is shocked to discover that, while older and perhaps a little greyer, Baxter is as handsome as ever and that she is as physically attracted to him as she ever was.

Baxter is similarly affected by the sight of Emily. His friends may pat him on the back for having a lovely young mistress, but in truth, Baxter has been trying to find a way to break it off with her for some time and longs for the comfort and understanding to be found in the arms of a woman closer to his own age. More specifically, for the comfort and understanding he found with his wife. Belle Gallant is beautiful, but she’s also young and self-centred, and Baxter is well aware that she became his mistress because she felt she owed it to him following a kindness he did her that she couldn’t otherwise repay. He does come off as rather spineless here, actually – he didn’t want a mistress in the first place, but couldn’t find it in him to tell her “no”; and now he wants to end things and doesn’t have the balls to do it!

As a second-chance romance, Married to a Rogue works really well. This isn’t one of those stories of a marriage of convenience where the husband disappears after the wedding; no, Baxter and Emily were very much in love when they married. They had a lot in common, the sex was great – but after a few years when there were no children forthcoming, the rot started to set in. Emily began to withdraw, feeling that Baxter must be blaming her for her inability to conceive. He has no idea she’s blaming herself, but his poisonous mother’s constant needling over his lack of an heir and his unwillingness to tell the woman to take herself off to the dower house, plus the way Emily is gradually becoming a shadow of her former self – something Baxter finds difficult to watch and has no idea how to deal with – begin an insidious erosion of their relationship until, at its lowest point, Baxter more or less orders Emily to go to Yorkshire and stay there.

This aspect of the story is very well handled, and I thought was a splendid exploration of the way in which a relationship can break down for no one, big reason – like one partner having an affair – but through a series of smaller things and misunderstandings that are allowed to fester until eventually, they turn into wounds that are far too big to heal.

The couple’s reconciliation is just as well handled. I won’t say that they never fell out of love with each other, because I think it’s possible they did – but rather that their time apart has allowed them to gain a new appreciation for each other, without the strain of living together and the outside interference, and to prepare the ground for them to fall in love with each other again.

Where the book falls down is in its attempt to be too many things. As well as the central romance, there’s a secondary plotline in which Baxter’s work as a courier and part-time spy leads to several attempts on his life; Emily is considering a dalliance with the dashing young Etienne, who may not be exactly what he seems; and she’s also trying to protect a young woman from being forced into a distasteful marriage by her mercenary mother. This isn’t an overly long book, and while most of these points are satisfactorily resolved, they make it feel somewhat cluttered, and I’d have preferred to spend a little more time with Emily and Baxter.

Emily is terrific character, a warm, loving woman who saw her happy future fade away but who has now determined to pick up her life and get on with it. And even though Belle is the hero’s mistress, she’s surprisingly likeable and her intentions are good, even if she is a bit dim. Baxter, however is more problematic. He’s dark, brooding and rather aloof, the epitome of the very masculine romantic hero – yet he fails to see that his utterly obnoxious mother is making his wife’s life a misery and thus doesn’t stand up to her, AND when Belle first offers herself to him and he turns her down, he finds it too difficult to keep saying no, so she ends up as his mistress. He’s not an unattractive character, but his weakness in standing up to those two women – no matter the reason (he doesn’t want to hurt either of them, even his dreadful mother!) is difficult to get past.

If I were rating the book based solely on the romantic elements, then it would be a very strong B, because I thought the portrayal of deterioration of the Sedgely’s marriage was realistic and heartbreaking, and the author has written them in such a way that it’s easy to root for their reconciliation, which is also very convincing. But taken as a whole, what with all the other plot elements and the fact that the story is told from about six different viewpoints, I’m going to have to lower that a bit. I’d still recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good, second-chance romance, but the other elements do detract a little from the main storyline.

The Miss Mirren Mission (Regency Reformers #1) by Jenny Holiday

miss mirren mission

Loving her would be his downfall…

To society, the Earl of Blackstone cuts a mysterious figure. He is eligible, withdrawn, and endlessly fascinating. Yet as an integral part of London’s underground spy ring intent on defeating Napoleon, Blackstone has no mistress but the cause.

Miss Emily Mirren is considered “unbiddable” by the ton. She wields a fierce intellect, which she channels into her own secret cause—writing an abolitionist newspaper column under a male pseudonym.

When Emily’s aims clash with Blackstone’s, they stray into a dangerous game of attraction and subterfuge, and secrets are the going currency. And in order to complete the most important mission of his career, Blackstone must thwart Emily, even if it breaks both their hearts.

Rating: C+

The Miss Mirren Mission is a fast-paced, entertaining story that pairs an intelligent, determined social reformer with a reclusive, somewhat grouchy earl – who also happens to be a crack spy. It’s this author’s first foray into historical romance, and while it does have a number of flaws and inconsistencies, I enjoyed it because her two main characters are engaging and there is a warmth and authenticity to their interactions that lends real depth to their romance.

Eric Woodley, Earl of Blackstone, is a second son who never wanted to inherit a title. Desperate to get away from parents who never held him in much affection and to escape the shadow cast over his home by his mothers’ mental illness, he joined the army and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. Haunted by the death of his commanding officer, and invalided out of the army after losing a hand, Blackstone was recruited by the British government and now undertakes covert work for them in their continuing efforts to defeat the French.

In order to retain focus and to keep himself aloof from the sorts of emotional entanglements that could distract him from his purpose, Blackstone has cultivated a reputation as something of a bad-tempered recluse. So when he decides to throw a small house-party, there’s only one possible conclusion to be drawn by the marriage-minded young ladies of the ton (and their mamas) – the earl is in the market for a wife. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The gathering has been convened as a way of engaging one Mr Manning – a trader known also to be a smuggler – who Blackstone believes has connections to Le Cafard (the cockroach), the French agent he has been trying to apprehend for years.

Blackstone is more than a little put out when he discovers that one of his guests – Manning’s daughter – has arrived a day early with her cousin, who is also her companion. And he is further unsettled when he discovers this companion to be none other than Miss Emily Mirren, the daughter of his former commanding officer. Still haunted by the manner of Captain Mirren’s death, the earl has taken pains to avoid Emily over the years, running from the guilt he feels at having left the man to die alone.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Bedding Proposal by Tracy Anne Warren

the bedding proposal

Lord Leo Byron is bored with the aristocratic company he keeps; he needs a distraction, preferably in the form of a beautiful new female companion. So when he sets eyes on fascinating and scandalous divorcée Lady Thalia Lennox, he’s determined to make her intimate acquaintance. But the spirited woman seems to have no intention of accepting his advances no matter how much he chases—or how hard he falls….

Once a darling of Society, Thalia Lennox now lives on its fringes. The cruel lies that gave her a notoriously wild reputation have also left her with a broken heart and led to a solemn vow to swear off men. Still, Leo Byron’s bold overtures are deliciously tempting, and, for the first time, she finds herself wondering whether it just might be worth the risk to let the attractive rake into her life—and her bed….

Rating: A-

There are a couple of things about The Bedding Proposal which immediately mark it as something “a bit different” in terms of an historical romance. Firstly, the heroine is seven years older than the hero (he’s twenty-five, she’s thirty-two) and secondly – and most importantly – the heroine is a divorcée, something very rarely found within the genre.

Divorce wasn’t impossible at the time the book is set, although it was very close to being so. It was expensive, incredibly difficult and required a lot of influence in the right circles; and once accomplished, the fact of being divorced had a deleterious effect on both parties involved. Given this is the nineteenth century, a time when the slightest rumour of impropriety could ruin a woman’s reputation, it was the divorced woman – naturally – who suffered most.

Tracy Anne Warren really brings this inequality home during the course of her story. Lady Thalia Lennox was ignominiously divorced by her husband, Lord Kemp, six years earlier and was thrown out of their home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Had it not been for the house bequeathed her by her grandmother and the kindness of some of her former servants who managed to smuggle a few of her clothes and possessions from the house, she would have been utterly destitute.

Now she lives on the very fringes of society, shunned by almost everyone. Even her two closest friends cannot have much contact with her because their husbands dislike their wives associating with a woman of Thalia’s tattered reputation, and she lives quietly, rarely going out and barely managing to make ends meet.

As a young debutante, Thalia had everything to look forward to in life, but the actions of a selfish, vindictive man took away all those early prospects of comfort and happiness. Her life was destroyed along with her reputation, and although society gossip continues to paint her as a woman of loose morals with a string of lovers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Lord Leo Byron, on the other hand, has everything. Good looks, wealth, a loving family and a sharp intelligence he prefers to hide behind an outward show of rakish bonhomie. Catching a glimpse of Lady Thalia at one of the very rare gatherings she attends, he is struck by her beauty and knowing of her scandalous reputation immediately determines to seduce her. His twin brother, Lawrence, warns him not to be too sure of success, but Leo laughs off his concern, confident that his physical attractions and charm will get him what he wants.

Lawrence’s warning proves to be an astute one, as Thalia rebuffs Leo’s advances in no uncertain terms – but he’s a determined young man and refuses to take “no” for an answer. He continues to pursue her in spite of her repeated requests that he not do so, until the scheme she devises in order to rid herself of him once and for all backfires and leads to his being injured.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Leo uses Thalia’s guilt over his situation to get her to agree to spend a couple of weeks getting to know him. If, at the end of that time, she still wants nothing to do with him, he will leave her alone, but if not… well, he hopes that by the end of their two weeks she will have succumbed to his charms and they will be enjoying many a romp between the sheets so there will be no “if not” for him to worry about.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

REVISED REVIEW: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley (audiobook) – narrated by Angela Dawe

mad

It was whispered all through London society that he was a murderer, that he’d spent his youth in an asylum and was not to be trusted-especially with a lady. Any woman caught in his presence was immediately ruined. Yet Beth found herself inexorably drawn to the Scottish lord whose hint of a brogue wrapped around her like silk and whose touch could draw her into a world of ecstasy. Despite his decadence and intimidating intelligence, she could see he needed help. Her help. Because suddenly the only thing that made sense to her was the madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie

Rating: B

Review revised, 16 May 2015.

I don’t often revise reviews, but felt compelled to come back to this one because my opinion of the narration has changed so drastically in the two years since I originally wrote the review. The revisions are all to be found in the portion of the review that concerns the narration, and are marked **.

Rating: C for narration; B+ for content

This is one of those books that’s been on my TBR mountain for ages, and for which I’ve seen so many enthusiastic and glowing reviews that made me determined to get round to reading it sooner rather than later. But things never work out the way you want and it’s still languishing on the mountain. So instead, I got hold of the unabridged audiobook narrated by Angela Dawe.

I thought the story was terrific and the characterisation was excellent. I can see why so many readers have fallen in love with Ian – he’s all the things you’d expect from a traditional romantic hero; rich, titled and handsome – but so much more. He suffers from what I imagine is a mild form of autism. He’s got practically a photographic memory, is a mathematical genius and can play any piece of music from memory once he’s heard it (being a musician myself, I always like a musical hero!). But he finds it hard to really connect with people – he takes everything literally and doesn’t understand the concept of jokes or irony; he is apt to disappear off into his own world when he is intrigued by something (such as the patterns of light through a cut crystal glass) and he is unable to look directly into anyone’s eyes.

Although ASD is a clearly recognised condition these days, back at the time in which the book is set, Ian’s behaviour was classified as at best “eccentric” and at worst “madness”. He was shut up in an asylum at a young age and subjected to all manner of “treatments” – ice-baths, beatings, electric shocks – until his eldest brother Hart inherited to the dukedom on the death of their father, and had Ian brought home.

His brothers are incredibly protective of him, although Hart is not above using Ian’s talents in his political dealings by having him commit entire and complex documents to memory.

One of the things that is so refreshing about Ian is his directness. He doesn’t understand the concept of lying or see the necessity for it; if he sees something he wants, he doesn’t vacillate, he just goes after it, and that’s one of the things I enjoyed so much about his relationship with Beth. The romance between them is well done – tender and very sexy – as Ian, having believed himself incapable of love, gradually discovers feelings for Beth which both confuse and scare him.

Beth Ackerley is the widow of an East End vicar who, for the past seven or eight years acted as companion to a wealthy woman who has recently died and left Beth her considerable fortune. At the beginning of the book, Beth is engaged to a man Ian doesn’t think is good enough for her, and he immediately sets about getting Beth to break the engagement. He is completely truthful with her, telling her some sordid details about her fiancé and also making no bones about the fact that he wants to sleep with her.

Beth is a terrific heroine. She’s not missish or easily shocked; she doesn’t shy away from her physical desire for Ian, and is not at all embarrassed by her enjoyment of the sexual act and Ian’s “bawdy talk”. She’s got the balls to stand up to Hart, she refuses to be cowed into dropping her inquiries into the events long ago which resulted in the suspicion of murder hanging over Ian; but more importantly than that, she loves and understands him.

“I do not think of him as Lord Ian Mackenzie, aristocratic brother of a duke and well beyond my reach; not as the Mad Mackenzie, an eccentric people stare at and whisper about.
To me, he is simply Ian.”

This is the first of four books about the Mackenzie family, and in it we meet Ian’s older brothers and his sister-in-law and the author skilfully plants the seeds of the plotlines for each family member and their subsequent stories.

Running alongside the romance between Ian and Beth is the story of two murders – one recent, one years ago – and the fanatical detective who is convinced of Ian’s guilt and his determination to have him imprisoned or returned to the asylum.

This is probably the weaker element of the book, although it does serve to give us a good look at the relationship between Ian and Hart, as it seems that each brother has sought to cover up for the other, unnecessarily as it turns out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story – the pacing and writing were good, the characterisation excellent, and I can tell I’m going to enjoy spending more time with the Mackenzie family in the rest of the series.

*In terms of the narration, I’ve not heard Angela Dawe before, and it took me a while to get used to her. Her English and Scottish accents are very hit and miss, although I did like the soft quality she brought to Ian’s speech; he’s often described as being hard – hard body, hard eyes – and the softness to his voice was a nice counterpoint to that. Her interpretation of Beth (apart from the inconsistency of the accent) is good – she captures her quick intelligence and sense of humour. There were certain of Ms Dawe’s vocal inflections that I found repetitive and somewhat irritating, but I suspect those are more to do with the fact that she isn’t British, and she clearly has problems sustaining the accent. One obvious giveaway is the fact that the cockney servants sound more as though they are from the Southern Hemisphere than from the East End! (This can be a common issue with American narrators trying to sustain an English accent – they go too far East and end up in Australia.)

At the time I first wrote this review (in March 2013), I hadn’t been listening to audiobooks all that long, and found Ms Dawe’s performance to be satisfactory overall. I tried listening to another book in the series more recently which has led to my revising this review, because the narration made me wince and I ended up switching it off – and don’t plan to return to it. I know that Ms Dawe has many fans when it comes to her narration of this particular series, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them and I’ll be sticking to the print versions from now on.*