Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

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The Duke of Jervaulx was brilliant – and dangerous. Considered dissolute, reckless, and extravagant, he was transparently referred to as the “D of J” in scandal sheets. But sometimes the most womanizing rakehell can be irresistible, and even his most causal attentions fascinated the sheltered Maddy Timms.

Then one fateful day she receives the shocking news – the duke is lost to the world. And Maddy knows it is her destiny to help him and her only chance to find the true man behind the wicked facade.

But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love.

Rating: A

I’ve put off writing this review for a couple of weeks. Partly because I’ve been a bit busy and wanted to take the time to do it justice, and partly because it’s such an emotionally complex story that I felt a bit drained after listening to it and needed to have all my braincell (!) in gear in order to be able to think straight!
Even now, I’m not sure that’s the case, but here goes.

As with my reviews for Prince of Midnight and Midsummer Moon, the short version of this review is “It’s absolutely fantastic, so go and buy it immediately!”

As for the the longer version. Well. It’s long.

The story opens with Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx in the bed of his current lover, Eydie, Lady Sutherland. It’s immediately clear that he’s rather a dissolute young man who has no scruples about taking his pleasure where he finds it. But there’s more to him than the face of the rakehell he presents to the world. He is a mathematical genius who runs his estates with an iron hand and who has done much to increase his wealth by a somewhat unorthodox approach to his business ventures and investments, all of which are dependent on his skill and incredible mind as he manipulates and pulls the necessary strings, often on a knife-edge between success and disaster.

His mathematical bent also led him to strike up a correspondence with Mr John Timms, a renowned mathematician with whom Christian eventually collaborates on a treatise. Timms and his daughter Archimedia (Maddy) are members of the Society of Friends and Maddy cannot but disapprove of Christian’s dissolute lifestyle.

Shortly after the presentation of the mathematical paper, Christian – although only thirty-two – suffers what we would recognise today as a kind of stroke. He is left partially disabled on his right side and completely unable to communicate; and his family – resentful of the fact that they are being kept on a tight financial rein and eager to gain control of the Langland purse-strings –are all too ready to believe him to have been reduced to a state of idiocy. They have him committed to an asylum in Buckinghamshire which is run by one Edward Timms, a cousin of Maddy’s and her father’s.

Some months later, Maddy and her father arrive at the asylum in order to assist Edward in his undertaking, and it is there that Maddy is horrified to see Christian again, chained, almost wild and considered extremely dangerous. He cannot speak and it appears he cannot understand what is said to him; and the overwhelming feeling transmitted to the listener is one of Christian’s utter and hopeless frustration – with himself as much as with the inability of his ‘keepers’ to see that there is still a man inside the patient.

Even though the Quaker-run asylum seems to be rather more enlightened than other, similar establishments of the time in terms of the way the inmates were cared for, some of the so-called treatments were nonetheless quite horrific. The scene that describes Christian’s ice-bath makes for really uncomfortable listening, as do those in which his “minder” beats him when Christian’s desperation over his inability to express himself boils over into physical outbursts. And Edward Timms’ insistence that Christian not be “over stimulated” by the use of writing implements, while good-intentioned, appears cruel given that written communication seems to be the one way in which Christian might be able show that his sanity is not in question.

When Maddy arrives, Christian risks a punishment in order to try to communicate with her. I’m no expert, but I believe it happens sometimes with a brain injury that victims are able to retain certain functions while losing others. In Christian’s case, he can think and speak perfectly well in mathematical terms and by using mathematical equations. His mind has retained that particular skill, and he manages to convince Maddy that he is not mad by drawing an arithmetical symbol.

All the years of working alongside her father enable Maddy to recognise Christian’s scrawl for what it is – even though she can’t identify it herself – and she realises –

“He isn’t mad. He is maddened.”

Believing she has had an “opening”, a truth given to her by God, Maddy requests she be entrusted with his care, and with her help and support, Christian embarks upon the slow road to recovery.

There are many obstacles to overcome along the way. Not only is Christian deeply frustrated by his own inadequacies, his family wants him declared non compos mentis, labelled insane and shut away forever. Then there is Maddy’s anguish at her inability to reconcile her conscience with the feelings Christian – this wildly “improper” man – evokes in her. His terror at the thought of being re-committed, his desperation to thwart his family’s intent and Maddy’s heart-felt struggles – all of those things and so many more come vividly, brilliantly to life in Ms Kinsale’s gorgeous, economical prose, and now, even more splendidly in Nicholas Boulton’s awe-inspiring narration.

The romance at the heart of the book is beautiful. The protagonists are both misfits in different ways – Maddy because her stubborn streak is not looked upon as an asset by her peers and Christian because of his incredible mind – and yet the dissolute duke and his drab Quakeress are a perfect fit. I adore the way Christian teases Maddy, his wit and risqué sense of humour; and although sometimes the jokes go over her head, I love how she takes her cue from him and allows herself to laugh and even to go so far as to tease him in return. There are times when you could cut the romantic tension with a knife, and the love scenes are gloriously sensual.

I especially like the way Ms Kinsale writes Christian’s disjointed, stream-of-consciousness thoughts in such a thoroughly convincing and completely understandable manner. Not only has the stroke left him unable to speak, it has caused aphasia, which is a condition in which it is difficult (or impossible) for the sufferer to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language. So it’s not as though Christian is trapped in a world where his brain is functioning normally, but he cannot express himself. It’s far more than that – he simply can’t find the words he wants half the time, and the way she has the words firing around his brain as he searches feels realistic and is often quite amusing. For example, when he’s trying to think of the word to describe Edward Timms (which I assume is “doctor”) his thought processes go like this:

The other, medical blood master bone… blood—the other—only stood there, looking learned and paternal.

Or when he’s trying to think of the word for what Maddy wears on her head:

he’d never seen anything as beautiful as Maddy in her starched— thing— white—head— sugar?—than Maddy in this prison cell.

(It’s a sugar-scoop bonnet.)

Christian’s recovery is by depicted in the text through Ms Kinsale’s skilful manipulation of the language; she makes changes to Christian’s understanding and his articulation by such slow degrees that it’s almost unnoticeable until suddenly, he’s speaking in almost complete sentences and you start to wonder when that happened.

As a piece of writing it’s beautiful in its subtlety. But actually hearing it brings an entirely new dimension to Christian’s situation and his struggles.

I’ve already banged on and on in other reviews about how bloody good a narrator/performer Nicholas Boulton is, but – incredibly – in this, he has somehow taken things up a gear because his performance as Christian is even better than I’d hoped for. I imagine that voicing this particular character presented numerous challenges – which I hope were also enjoyable ones – yet Mr Boulton keeps his performance from becoming A Performance (I’m thinking Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man here!). Christian’s struggles in thought and speech are delivered in a completely naturalistic manner, and there was never a point at which I felt that anything was exaggerated or unrealistic.

Christian is – deservedly – a hero beloved in the genre, and that, I think, partly accounts for the dislike of the heroine I’ve come across in so many of the book reviews I’ve read and, to be completely honest, must be a factor in the problems I have with Maddy, too. Despite a past as a louche womaniser, the Christian we come to know throughout the course of the story is a changed man. He does still have some less than laudable impulses, it’s true – like his determination to make Maddy love him and then abandon her – but that one is short-lived and more a product of Christian’s bitterness and frustration than of any real dislike for Maddy herself.

But she can be a very difficult heroine to like or empathise with. She has been brought up a Quaker and that way of life is incredibly important to her. She frequently comes across as overly prim, but I have no problem with that; indeed, it would be odd if she were not, given her background. It is quite clear however, that Maddy is not perhaps completely suited to life as a Quaker. She is a little too independent of mind and spirit, things she knows she should squash in order to fulfil her commitment to God and to the Society, and yet she cannot find it in herself to submit completely. As a result she is neither fish nor fowl, and is continually fighting to reconcile her personal desires with her conscience.

Maddy does have her own demons to face – her growing desire for Christian, her belief that her feelings for him make her wanton and unworthy of the Society – and she certainly goes through the emotional wringer throughout the course of the story. But her trials don’t serve to make her as sympathetic a character as Christian, and certainly it’s difficult for the modern reader to sympathise with her struggles. The biggest problem for me, and I imagine, for many readers, is what Maddy does to Christian in the latter stages of the book. He is making a last-ditch, all-or-nothing attempt to save his fortune, his name and his freedom by that age-old trick of acting as if nothing is wrong, spending money like water and preserving his appearance as an incredibly wealthy member of the aristocracy while he waits for his plans to reach fruition. But Maddy sees only that their finances are in a poor state and nags him at every opportunity about his excessive spending. She has done so much for him – she was the only one who could see the truth about him when he was incarcerated, she saved him from a life of painful treatments, helped to protect him from his grasping family, helped him to learn to speak, write and understand… loved him – and yet at the time he needs her the most, she begins to withdraw from him.

I can understand why she did it. She had just discovered that her marriage to Christian had been contrived by his friends; she could have just miscarried a baby and then discovers that Christian has an illegitimate daughter; she is bemused and somewhat intimidated by a lifestyle so completely contrary to the one she is used to; she is beginning to think that she did a terrible thing in consenting to marry without the consent of the Elders or her father and outside her faith. She is beginning to think she does not know Christian at a time when she is also being threatened with repudiation by the Society and she does not know which way to turn. Christian starts to believe that she is turning from him because she has a fondness for the young Quaker Richard Gill – but he cannot afford to take the time out in order to attend to the state of his marriage, because so much is riding on the massive gamble he is taking in order to restore his finances and secure his – and Maddy’s – future.

But although I can understand the reasons behind Maddy’s actions, I still wanted to slap her into the middle of next week. For one who has been so perceptive, especially where Christian is concerned, to deny her support at time of great need seems self-centred and cruel. It’s true that Maddy suffers greatly as a result of her actions – she loves him deeply and is so torn between what she is beginning to see as an unholy love and the teachings she has ahered to for her entire life, that it’s tearing her apart. But instead of turning to him, she gives him the cold shoulder.

It’s almost unforgiveable in print. And despite the fact that you can hear Maddy’s heartache and sheer exhaustion in Nicholas Boulton’s amazing performance, and can really feel for her dilemma – it’s still unforgiveable.

Part of me thinks that it’s because he has brought Christian so wonderfully to life and made him so real, that my reaction to anyone trying to hurt him would be to look for the nearest blunt instrument. But another part tells me it’s because Laura Kinsale is trying to be true to Maddy as well as to Christian. She’s not an author to shy away from the challenges presented by her characters; and having them react in a way that is true to the character rather than in a way that will make the story more palatable might make for a less comfortable read/listen – but at the same time, it imparts a grittiness and a greater sense of reality overall.

I’ll end by saying that if you like the book, you certainly won’t be disappointed in the audio version. I can’t, in all honesty, say that Maddy is completely redeemed in my eyes by what is a truly articulate and perceptive performance – but that is nobody’s fault but mine.

In short, as I said at the beginning. Flowers from the Stormin audio is fantastic. Go and listen to it immediately.

Never Too Late by Amara Royce

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Expect the unexpected, especially in a room filled with books…

Honoria Duchamp is well aware that men often consider widows easy prey for the role of mistress. What else could explain the attentions of handsome Lord Devin, and his visits to her bookshop? Nearly half Nora’s age, the Viscount has even shown interest in the printing press with which she creates pamphlets on London’s basest injustices. Yet his chief interest appears to be in her…

Coerced to investigate Nora’s controversial pamphlets, Devin expected to find a bookish matron. Instead, he is taken with Nora’s womanly beauty, sharp intellect, and quick wit. Soon, what begins as an unwelcome task becomes a pleasure, and Devin’s job becomes more dangerous—for them both. For Nora has no idea of the vicious element she’s crossed. Now Devin will risk his reputation to protect her—and much more to win her love…

Rating: D

Never Too Late was one of those books where what could have been a decent premise was ruined by poor execution.

I was initially intrigued by the fact that the more usual gender/age roles were reversed, with the heroine being forty and the hero twenty-six. Even now, a couple in which the woman is considerably older than the man still raises eyebrows. I thought there was potential in the idea of setting an older woman/younger man romance in 1851, to explore the obstacles and prejudices such a couple would have had to overcome.

Running alongside the romance is the secondary plot about the heroine, widowed bookseller Mrs. Honoria Duchamp, stumbling across a child prostitution and pornography racket, and her efforts to expose it and stop more children being abducted and abused.But there are powerful people involved in these horrible activities, people who want to protect their identities and who will go to extreme lengths to do so. When the men in charge realize that Honoria has discovered the house in which the children are kept, one Mr. Withersby instructs Alex, Lord Devin, to spy on her and do whatever is needed to disrupt her business. Devin is told that Honoria is printing seditious pamphlets as a sideline to her business as a bookseller, and as Withersby is blackmailing him (he has incriminating photographs of Devin’s brother with another man) Alex has little choice but to make Honoria’s acquaintance and start snooping around.

Alex is immediately intrigued by Honoria, as is she by him, but he’s too young and too handsome for her and she is suspicious when he begins to pay her compliments and even mores o when he kisses her mere hours after meeting her.

So far, so good – in terms of the plot, at least. The author has seized upon two less common issues encountered in historical romantic fiction, so as I’ve said, the premise was promising.

But the book falls down badly in terms of the writing and tone. The author frequently uses anachronistic language (”Get over yourself”), incorrect terminology (Bach didn’t write any Cello concerti) and poor word choices.

For example, Honoria tells Alex:

”Of course, then we may maintain our acquaintance. You may visit me at the shop as you choose. But I have provisions.”

And then later she says:

“My grandfather held a baronet.”

There is a conversation between Honoria and her three friends who comprise the Needlework for the Needy society, in which one of them says that her “gut” feels unsettled about something. I really can’t imagine a proper Victorian lady using such a term.

There are also situations which stretch plausibility so much that, if it were a piece of elastic, it would never regain its original shape. Alex’s mother, the Dowager Viscountess, is presented as rather a free-thinker, although she is still accepted in society and invitations to her dinners and parties are highly sought after. I imagine the author is trying to account for the fact that Lady Devin invites a woman about whom she knows absolutely nothing to a dinner party which will be attended by (among others) Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning ,and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and seems to have no concern whatsoever about Alex’s relationship with a woman fourteen years his senior. Not only does she invite this unknown tradeswoman to a prestigious event at her home, but within minutes of making her acquaintance, she offers to lend Honoria a dress suitable for dinner. She doesn’t make an outright offer, instead coming up with a ridiculous story of how she and her now deceased sister used to like playing “dress-up,” so she would deem it a kindness if Honoria were to borrow one of her sister’s dresses. True, she doesn’t say, “That dress you have on is horrible, for God’s sake go and find something else,” but Honoria falls for it anyway.

Then, while Honoria is dressing, her ladyship tells her all about her late husband, how much she loved him, how he met his death etc. All this to a woman she had never met until a few minutes before.

There are so many other implausibilities or things that stretched my credulity past breaking point that it would take too long to list them. Withersby’s incriminating photographs of Alex’s brother are worthless because Andrew is not gay and can provide the names of various courtesans who have obliged him in order to prove it. Alex is desperate to get into Honoria’s knickers – but when she eventually asks him to, he turns her down because he doesn’t want to take advantage. When he finally does get that far, he’s astonished to discover that she’s a virgin (turns out she was never actually married) – and then doesn’t finish what they’ve started.

The sex scenes are fairly tame, but I admit I had to suppress laughter on several occasions. There’s a difficult line to walk between “hot” and “funny” when it comes to writing sex, and sadly too often in this book we’re on the “funny” side of it.

There were also a lot of issues introduced that were never fully explored. Alex is bitter about the fact that his late father seemed to prefer his life as an explorer to being at home with his family; he’s afraid of horses; he’s an accomplished cellist but hasn’t played in years (and despite that is still able to perform some of Bach’s Cello Suites perfectly). I felt I was being bombarded with Alex’s issues as a way of making him a more interesting character, but I’m afraid it didn’t work.

And that brings me to the biggest of my many problems with the book. I had absolutely no idea what Alex and Honoria saw in each other, or, indeed, who they were as people. Alex insists that he loves Honoria for who she is – but neither of them ever felt real to me, and because of that, I was never drawn into the story or brought to care about what actually happened to them.

For me, that’s the greatest deficit I could find in any story. I read romance for the emotional connection between the protagonists and between the characters and the reader, and if that doesn’t happen, then I am unlikely to enjoy the book. But in addition to that, there were numerous failings in terms of the structure and writing – typographical and grammatical errors, as well as many instances of what I can only describe as poor writing. By that I mean that the sentence construction is either tortuous or too simplistic (most often the latter), word choice is awkward, and it just generally feels unpolished.

While it’s the author’s name on the cover, I’m not putting the entirety of the blame for that at her feet, however, because errors in spelling and grammar should be picked up by a good proofreader, and errors in terminology, word-choice, and sentence structure should, surely, be highlighted by the editor and options discussed with the writer. However, none of this was addressed in the editing process, and the result is that a promising plot turned into a dismal read.


As an aside, I remain stunned about the fact that the author teaches English and has a PhD in 19th century English Literature because if a teacher of English is unable to make correct word-choices then I don’t hold out much hope for the rest of us.

I also included a couple more quotes in the review I submitted – but because I tend to go on a bit, sometimes, they need editing down! – which I included in order to illustrate how difficult it is to write successful love scenes. Here are two “crossed-the-line-from-hawt-to-hilarious” moments:

”Damn it, man. I said kiss me.”

Or

”I need you now,” he exclaimed against her lips. “Take me, damn it. Take me into you now!”

*snigger*

A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

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Kate Westbrook has dreams far bigger than romance. Love won’t get her into London’s most consequential parties, nor prevent her sisters from being snubbed and looked down upon—all because their besotted father unadvisedly married an actress. But a noble husband for Kate would deliver a future most suited to the granddaughter of an earl. Armed with ingenuity, breathtaking beauty, and the help of an idle aunt with connections, Kate is poised to make her dreams come true. Unfortunately, a familiar face—albeit a maddeningly handsome one—appears bent on upsetting her scheme.

Implored by Kate’s worried father to fend off the rogues eager to exploit his daughter’s charms, Nick Blackshear has set aside the torch he’s carried for Kate in order to do right by his friend. Anyway, she made quite clear that his feelings were not returned—though policing her won’t abate Nick’s desire. Reckless passion leads to love’s awakening, but time is running out. Kate must see for herself that the charms of high society are nothing compared to the infinite sweet pleasures demanded by the heart.

Rating: A-

This latest installment in Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear series is as different from the two titles that preceded it (A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone) as those two books are different from each other, but is every bit as good.

Nicholas is the middle Blackshear brother and has been making his living as a barrister in London. But owing to his brother Will’s marriage to a woman of poor reputation (as told in A Gentleman Undone), Nick’s practice has begun to suffer and he is receiving fewer briefs. At a time when reputation was all-important, even the merest whiff of lack of respectability or scandal in one’s family – regardless of who is actually responsible – was enough to tar all family members with the same brush.

Kate Westbrook is struggling with similar problems. Although her father is the son of an earl, her mother used to be an actress, and as at the time the word “actress” was pretty much synonymous with “whore,” Kate’s family is also struggling under the weight of society’s disapprobation.

It is Kate, however, who feels this disapprobation the most strongly and who is determined to do something to restore her family to its proper place in society. In the beginning, she comes across as a terrible snob, shallow and concerned only with propriety and appearances. She is resolutely trying to gain the attention of her father’s family in the hopes that their eventual recognition will result in a rise in social standing for her parents and siblings. She is so determined that she is willing to bear insult and to abase herself in the eyes of others in order to obtain her goal.

Kate is also well aware of the fact that she is quite stunningly beautiful – although she is not vain. She knows men look at her and are drawn to her and deep down, is rather tired of it; but she is determined to use her beauty as a way to make a good marriage and advance her family.

Nick Blackshear was a protégé of Kate’s father, and at the start of the book, has known her for about three years. Like all the young lawyers and students who regularly visit her father’s house, Nick found himself enthralled by her beauty and was very quickly infatuated – to the point of making a proposal which Kate, having had much experience of such things, cleverly deflected, sparing his feelings as best she could.

Even though Nick still finds himself drawn to Kate, he tells himself it’s simply a normal, male reaction towards such a beautiful girl, and for the most part, they have settled into a sincere friendship. He is the one man she feels comfortable actually talking to, one she feels has no expectations for her to live up to, and Nick rather likes the fact that she feels able to be herself around him, even though he doesn’t relish the thought that she might think of him in a brotherly way.

As the story progresses it becomes clear that the feelings between Nick and Kate are anything but brotherly/sisterly, but she is determined to make a marriage to help elevate her family’s standing, and he is convinced (or rather, has convinced himself) that Kate would not be the sort of wife he needs – one who shares his interests and would support him through thick and thin.

Nick is fully aware of Kate’s intentions and while he can’t completely approve them, he does recognize her true motivation. Kate is not anxious to marry well simply to secure her own future comfort. She wants to make things easier for her sisters (the youngest of whom is being picked on at school simply because of her parentage) and to try to effect a reconciliation between her father and his brother, the current Lord Harringdon.

On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking that the basic premise of the book – the heroine’s determination to overlook the man who loves her in favor of landing herself a rich and titled husband – is a flimsy basis for a novel. Despite his protestations that his feelings towards Kate are now ones of friendship, it’s clear that Nick is very much in love with her, and that trying to support her in her quest is tearing him apart. So all she needs to do to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion is own up to her feelings, et voilà! – The End.

And I suppose, in a roundabout way, that’s what finally happens. But despite the outward simplicity of the story, it’s filled with very real emotion and longing, which is what drew me in so completely. The familial relationships in the Westbrook household are well written and there’s a terrific sense of warmth and affection in their interactions. The minor characters –Mr. Westbrook, Kate’s sister Viola, Lord Barclay, Miss Smith – are all very clearly drawn characters, and the author expertly draws the contrast between Mrs. Westbrook, the “disreputable” ex-actress, and Lady Harringdon and the others of her ilk – leaving the reader in no doubt as to which is the more estimable.

When I started reading, my immediate thought was that there were bound to be readers who were less than happy with the characterization of the heroine. I have since read a few reviews and discovered that I was correct in my assumption – but I have to disagree. I found both Nick and Kate to be engaging, but imperfect characters who had made inappropriate and difficult decisions in their lives, but who were nonetheless mature enough to be able to own their mistakes by the end of the book, and to try to make amends. I can understand why many readers disliked Kate, but she comes a long way throughout the course of the story, from thinking she is doing the right thing for herself and her family (regardless of the fact they are content with things the way they are) to realizing that there are other ways in which she could help them, and – more importantly – be happy herself. Nick is a more static character, although he does make the first move towards a reconciliation with Will, having accepted that refusing to have anything to do with his brother was a stupid, wasteful thing to do. Not only did it not make any difference to Nick’s employment situation, it cost him a companion he truly valued.

The writing and characterization is every bit as good as I’ve come to expect, and Ms. Grant’s economic, restrained style works beautifully to allow the depth of emotion that bubbles under the surface throughout the story to speak for itself. There is no verbiage for the sake of it; this author pays her readers the huge compliment of trusting us with her material and letting us work things out for ourselves.

I suppose one could say that the moral of A Woman Entangled is “to thine own self be true.” Both Nick and Kate come to realize by the end that they have allowed themselves to be blinded to what was under each of their noses because of their own ambitions and preconceptions.

While I think A Woman Entangled was less “weighty” than the other two books in the series, there is much to enjoy and there is no question that it is just as well crafted. The hero and heroine were likeable – if at times misguided – and despite their assertions that they “did not suit,” their mutual respect, understanding, and (eventually) love really shone through. Also – the “friends to lovers” trope is a favorite of mine, and I think it was handled beautifully.

The Spinster’s Secret by Emily Larkin

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Penniless spinster, Matilda Chapple, lives at isolated Creed Hall, dependent on the austere charity of unloving relatives and under pressure to marry a man twice her age. In an attempt to earn enough money to escape this miserable existence, she writes a series of titillating ‘confessions’. Her secret is safe — until battle-scarred Waterloo veteran, Edward Kane, reluctantly accepts the commission to uncover the anonymous author’s identity.

While staying at bleak Creed Hall, Edward finds himself unaccountably drawn to his host’s lonely niece. Can Matilda conceal the secret of her scandalous writings, or will Edward discover that the spinster and the risqué authoress are one and the same person? And when Matilda feels the need to experience sex as her fictional courtesan does–will she lose her heart to Edward, along with her virginity?

Rating: B

I confess that I enjoyed this novel much more than I thought I would, given that I’m not a big fan of this sort of premise – one that a quick read of the synopsis seems to suggest is merely an excuse to string together a series of sex scenes.

But as soon as I began to read The Spinster’s Secret I realised that this is one of those occasions where it really isn’t possible to judge a book by its synopsis.

Matilda Chapple (Mattie) is grateful to her miserly uncle for giving her a home when she was orphaned, but Mr Strickland is a man who could rival Ebeneezer Scrooge when it comes to parsimony and she longs to escape her dour existence at Creed Hall where life is repetitive, dull and dutiful; rooms are constantly cold because Strickland stints on coal, meals are unappetizing because he won’t countenance a sauce or have food cooked any way other than boiled and the only books allowed are religious tomes or classics.

But Mattie is determined not to spend her entire life in shabby grey dresses or in a dry, colourless existence. Her ambition is to be able to save enough money to enable her to purchase and run a small boarding house at the seaside so that she will be able to live independently. But she has no money of her own and thus hits upon the idea of secretly writing an erotic novel in order to earn the money she needs.

And yes, I rolled my eyes at the idea. But I imagine it is entirely plausible that such material would have been written by women as well as men, even in the nineteenth century – and so I decided that perhaps the premise wasn’t so ridiculous after all.

The story is straightforward and well told. Although set in the Regency period (shortly after Waterloo), the setting is different from many of the other historical romances set in the same period. This one is set away from London and the protagonists are not titled, rich or good-looking. The atmosphere at Creed Hall is oppressive and grim and there are no glittering balls or parties or rides in the park.

There are, of course, many novels in which one of the protagonists – usually the heroine – is initially seen by the hero (and society) as being plain or awkward, but along the way some sort of transformation takes place. Here, however, that is not the case. Mattie is almost six-feet tall with a Junoesque figure; and while certainly not ugly, is not immediately prepossessing. Edward Kane is a giant of a man – six-feet-six – is missing half an ear, a couple of fingers and sports some dreadful scarring gained at Waterloo. He is also burdened with a large dose of survivor’s guilt and continues to suffer flashbacks and nightmares as the result of his experiences.

Despite their outward appearances, both Edward and Mattie are very attractive, likeable characters. They are able to laugh together and share an interest in literature –even though that is something Mattie does not have many chances to exercise, given her uncle’s injunction on novel reading. Mattie is not one to rail against her fate or rebel against her uncle’s strictures –she knows how much she owes him and in fact feels guilty about the fact that she is deceiving him by writing her stories. It is only when he tries to marry her off to one of his acquaintances that she rebels by refusing to do so that Strickland becomes really unpleasant toward her, continually berating her for her lack of beauty and obedience.

Ever more determined to gain her independence, Mattie continues to write her salacious stories, the ‘confessions’ of Chérie a fictitious courtesan (much of which is cribbed from either Fanny Hill or from the diary of a former countess that Mattie discovered, hidden in a secret cupboard). Having no sexual experience herself, she relies heavily on her sources and they have so far provided enough inspiration. However, in order for the publication of the ‘confessions’ as a book, Mattie’s publisher needs one more thing. An account of the young Chérie’s wedding night and the “plucking of her virgin flower”.

Mattie is at a loss. Neither the novel nor the diary give her much of an idea as to what it is like to lose one’s virginity, and carefully asking her widowed friend (companion to Mattie’s aunt) does not yield much information either.

So she does the one thing she can think of and asks Edward to take her to bed. He is stunned by her request, but not at all unwilling and – unable to talk himself out of it – agrees.

To be fair to Mattie, she is not just asking for the sake of her writing; she likes Edward very much – in fact, she is probably half-way in love with him – and finds him physically attractive. But she feels guilty at the fact that she is using him in order to gain the experience she needs in order to finish her book.

This was another of the parts of the story that I thought I would find it hard to accept, but strangely enough, by the time it happened (about three-quarters of the way through), Ms Larkin had done such a good job of making me care about what happened to Mattie and Edward that I was rooting for them to get together. I did think that perhaps Edward overcame his scruples about bedding a well brought-up virgin rather quickly, but the author had developed the relationship between them so well that it wasn’t a major problem.

For me, that’s a really important point. There were some elements to this story that might have made me wince had the writing been poor, or if I hadn’t felt such a strong emotional connection between the characters. To my mind, a really good writer is one whose work I can enjoy even though I am aware of inconsistencies or improbabilities in their stories. And in spite of the weaknesses I have highlighted, I did enjoy this book and would certainly recommend it to anyone who is looking to read a slightly unusual regency-era love story.

This title was provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith

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From the author of A Rose for the Crown and Daughter of York comes another engrossing historical novel of the York family in the Wars of the Roses, telling the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the final and favourite mistress of Edward IV.

Jane Lambert, the quick-witted and alluring daughter of a silk merchant, is twenty-two and still unmarried. When Jane’s father finally finds her a match, she’s married off to the dull, older silk merchant William Shore—but her heart belongs to another. Marriage doesn’t stop Jane Shore from flirtation, however, and when the king’s chamberlain and friend, Will Hastings, comes to her husband’s shop, Will knows his King will find her irresistible.

Edward IV has everything: power, majestic bearing, superior military leadership, a sensual nature, and charisma. And with Jane as his mistress, he also finds true happiness. But when his hedonistic tendencies get in the way of being the strong leader England needs, his life, as well as that of Jane Shore and Will Hastings, hang in the balance.

This dramatic tale has been an inspiration to poets and playwrights for 500 years, and told through the unique perspective of a woman plucked from obscurity and thrust into a life of notoriety, Royal Mistress is sure to enthrall today’s historical fiction lovers as well.

Rating: C+

Despite the fact that few details of the private life of Jane Shore are actually known, she has nonetheless been the subject of a number of plays and historical novels, including The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy, and now this, the latest novel from Anne Easter Smith.

Born Elizabeth Lambert, Jane was born into a reasonably well-to-do merchant’s family, and was married to William Shore, who was – like her father – a mercer by trade (and not a goldsmith as had been believed until fairly recently). She is reputed to have been very beautiful and both her father and her husband were not above exploiting this fact in order to gain custom; she was also intelligent, witty and well-mannered, her daily life in the running of her father’s business having brought her regularly into contact with well-born ladies whose behaviour and deportment she was able to observe.

Royal Mistress tells Jane’s story from just before the time of her marriage until almost the end of her life, taking as its final event, the true story of a chance meeting between Jane – now in her sixties – and Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII.

Jane is an attractive character and her story is told in a very straightforward manner. She is vivacious, generous and down-to-earth and does not take the decision to become King Edward IV’s mistress at all lightly. During her time with him, Jane earned herself the name of The Rose of London for her kindness and generosity towards those who asked for her help and the fact that she never forgot her origins or used her status as the King’s mistress to enrich herself or to ride roughshod over the people of her own class.

If there was one thing about this fictionalised version of Jane that didn’t ring true however, it was her nine-year infatuation with Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son from her first marriage, Tom Grey, Marquis of Dorset. The author has him and Jane literally bumping into each other in the street at the beginning of the book; having then arranged a secret assignation in order to seduce Jane, Tom realises she is expecting declarations of love and a proposal – and he confesses that he is already married. They see each other only a very few times over the course of the book and yet Jane – even when she is happily sharing Edward’s bed – is still fixated on Tom. It’s true that Jane did become Tom Grey’s mistress after Edward’s death; and although I imagine the torch Jane carries for Grey is the author’s invention, I did find that Jane’s constant hankering for him became annoying very quickly.

Jane’s relationship with Edward seems to have been one of mutual affection. She appears to have conducted herself modestly and gained the respect of much of the court for her common sense, wit and good manners. But although Jane has always known her position to be a somewhat precarious one, it is only when Edward becomes ill suddenly and dies – aged only forty – that she realises just how precarious it is. For me, this was when the book really started to come to life as Jane’s life is turned upside down and she becomes unwittingly involved in a Woodville plot to wrest the Protectorate from Edward’s brother Richard.

It was at this point – around half-way through the book – that I thought things moved up a gear and I began to feel a greater engagement with the story than I had up until then. The pacing picks up as Jane is swept up in events she does not fully understand, and I thought the scenes in which she and Hastings say farewell for what will turn out to be the last time, were truly heartfelt.

On a personal level, I was pleased to discover that the narrative is written in the third person omniscient rather than the first person as seems to be the favoured viewpoint for so much of the historical fiction being written today. This means that the author is able to include scenes depicting events of which Jane could have no knowledge without having to resort to too much of the “as you know, Bob”, style of dialogue in having someone later recount to her in order to keep the reader informed. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen in the book – it does. But it’s not as frequent or intrusive at it might otherwise have been.

I imagine that authors of historical fiction have a difficult line to tread when it comes to deciding on the level of detail to include. Is your audience likely to have a reasonable background knowledge of the period about which you are writing, or do you assume it knows next to nothing? I venture to suggest that if you fall into the latter category, you will find Royal Mistress to be engaging and informative; but if, like me, you are in the former group, you might find it to be somewhat simplistic in tone with a little too much repetition as to who everyone is, what is their position at court, to whom they are related and so on.

That said, I think the book does have plenty to recommend it. I found it enjoyable overall; the story is well-told, Jane is an attractive and sympathetic protagonist and some of the secondary characters – such as William Hastings and Thomas Lyneham – are very nicely drawn indeed. The historical detail has been well-researched, and even when I didn’t completely agree with the author’s interpretation of some of the historical figures (Richard of Gloucester was frequently presented as a po-faced killjoy, for example) I could understand why she had made those decisions.

I’m not sure that Royal Mistress is a book I will re-read in the near future, but I would certainly say that it is worth reading if you are interested in the tumultuous events of the latter part of the fifteenth century and in the lives of the last two Plantagenet monarchs. Ultimately, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on how much you already know about the period and how annoyed you get when being repeatedly told things you already know.

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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She will not give up…

Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she’s demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it’s not the duke she fears. It’s his merciless man of business—the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke’s dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn’t stand a chance. But she can’t stop trying—not with her entire future at stake.

He cannot give in…

Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition—a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner’s son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it’s just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don’t work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can’t bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He’ll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love…

Rating: A

For me, this is one of those times when it’s like Christmas came early – one of my favorite authors, stories, and couples are realized in audiobook form by one of my favourite narrators.

When I wrote a review of the book at the beginning of January, I said I thought The Governess Affair was just short of perfect. As a novella, it’s a supreme example of how to craft a compelling story with a limited word-count without sacrificing anything in terms of characterization or plot; and how to create a deeply satisfying and sensual romance that evolves organically and doesn’t feel at all rushed.

Hugo Marshall solves problems. He’s ruthlessly efficient, ambitious, and without scruple – and at the beginning of the story is presented with a challenge. He is currently engaged in running the business affairs of the Duke of Clermont, a cash-strapped aristocrat who married for money and needs to keep his wife happy if he is to continue to receive regular payments from her funds. Hugo is shrewd, clever, has a good head for business, and has no intention of being at the Duke’s beck and call forever, having determined to build his own business empire as soon as he has enough capital.

At the beginning of the story, Clermont gives Hugo a problem to solve. In the square outside his London home sits a young woman – Miss Serena Barton – whom Clermont claims is accusing him of reneging on an agreement to employ her. The Duchess is currently away from home following a marital dispute, and time is of the essence. Her Grace cannot be allowed to encounter Miss Barton as this would undoubtedly lead to more marital discord.

Read the rest of this review over at AudioGals.

The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

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He was once a legendary highwayman. Now he’s a recluse in a ruined French castle, with only a half-wild wolf for a companion. When Lady Leigh Strachan comes looking for a man to aid in her revenge, she’s disillusioned to find that the famed Prince of Midnight couldn’t help even if he cared to – which he doesn’t. S. T. Maitland wants nothing to do with his legend, or with this fierce, beautiful, broken woman… until the old thrill of living on the cutting edge of danger begins to rise in his blood again.

Rating: A

This was the first of Laura Kinsale’s novels to appear in audiobook form, and I’m warning you now – the review is LONG and there may even be some fangirling involved . If you want the short version, however – the audiobook of The Prince of Midnight is fantastic, so go and listen to it immediately!

As for the longer version…

I’ve been following Laura Kinsale’s blog pieces over at AudioGals in which she talks about bringing her books to audio; about how she spent a long time listening to narrators because she knew how important it was to get it right… and since I heard the first clip posted of Prince I’ve been chomping at the bit. Not only because she’s produced some fantastic books and I’m looking forward to listening to them, but because Nicholas Boulton is quite possibly the best audiobook performer (I can’t call him a ‘narrator’ because the word doesn’t even begin to do him justice) I’ve ever heard. It certainly helps that he has a beautiful, mellifluous voice that’s soothing and sexy as sin at the same time, but it’s about so much more than that. He doesn’t just narrate – he inhabits the characters, from the principals right down to the bit-players, and gives each one a distinct voice. He juggles all manner of regional and foreign accents effortlessly (I’m very picky when it comes to accents) and if he had any problems with pronouncing the French and Italian dialogue, then I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

And most importantly – and impressively – he can convincingly voice female characters without using falsetto or making them sound screechy. In fact for Leigh, he uses a register and tone that seems to be not all that far removed from his natural speaking voice – yet there’s no doubt she’s female.

I confess that I haven’t read the book, although I did a bit of reading around – read synopses and reviews so that I was familiar with the storyline and characters (I didn’t want to have to break up the flow because I didn’t know who was who) and it’s clear this is another title of Ms Kinsale’s that really divides opinions. It seems as though the majority of reviews are either five stars or two – and that most of those love or hate stances are based on the readers’ feelings about the heroine.

She’s difficult to like, no doubt about it. Lady Leigh Strachan has travelled to the South of France to seek out the legendary highwayman known as Le Seigneur de Minuit, who had been regarded as a Robin Hood-like figure in the part of England they both come from. She wants him to teach her how to fight; to shoot, fence and ride, so that she can return home to exact revenge on the man who killed her family.

For his part, the legendary Seigneur – otherwise known as S.T Maitland – is now retired. For three years, he has buried himself in obscurity living in a run-down castle in Provence, painting and growing vegetables, with Nemo, a half-tame wolf as his only companion.

His reaction to meeting Leigh, a very beautiful young woman, is pretty much what you’d expect of a man who hasn’t had a woman in three years; and hers on meeting him is the crashing disappointment of discovering that her hero is no longer the man he once was. Although only in his thirties and ridiculously handsome, S.T is deaf in one ear and has problems keeping his balance, so he can’t ride, can’t fence or do anything which involves sudden and precise movement.

Leigh doesn’t even try to hide her disappointment and scorn. And doesn’t try for most of the book, which is why so many have found her to be unlikeable. S.T is infatuated with her from the start and wastes no time in letting her know he’s interested, but Leigh doesn’t want any of it. She’s downright nasty to him many times, and it’s mostly undeserved, but it’s clear to me that she’s deeply traumatised and is trying to protect herself – not just from feeling anything for S.T, but from feeling anything at all. Her parents and sisters weren’t killed in an accident, which would have been bad enough; they died brutally and calculatedly at the hands of the Reverend James Chilton, the leader of what we would today call a religious cult who has all but brainwashed the local population. In fact, it appears that what Leigh really wants is to die herself, but she keeps going because otherwise there will be no-one left to avenge her family.

S.T eventually agrees to help her and they travel to England. His vertigo affects him very badly during the sea voyage, although miraculously, the pitching and rolling of the ship seems somehow to have helped him, and his balance problems suddenly disappear.

Once that happens, he is suddenly transformed into the Seigneur de Minuit once again, full of braggadaccio and self-confidence – and to be fair his confidence in his own abilities is, for the most part, justified. Leigh, however, still maintains her distance emotionally, if not physically, even though now, her determination to maintain barriers between herself and S.T is more to do with her fears for his safety than any disappointment or dislike.

The more confident S.T becomes that he can handle Chilton, the more desperate Leigh becomes to stop him. But he can’t believe it – they’ve come this far, he’s back to his old self and now she doesn’t want revenge. Being S.T, he decides she’s bloody well going to have her revenge whether she likes it or not; he thinks that her wish to leave Chilton alone is because she lacks faith in him and doesn’t think S.T can carry out his plan to destroy him, whereas the truth is that Leigh, unable to tell S.T that she loves him and knowing exactly what Chilton is capable of, is terrified of losing him. She’s suffered so much and despite her desperate fight against it, has opened herself up once more to the risk of pain. The problem is that she doesn’t tell S.T any of this or contradict his assertions about her lack of faith in him.

Another issue for some readers is the fact that despite Leigh’s disdain for S.T and his awareness of it, they nonetheless embark upon a sexual relationship fairly early on in the book. Leigh offers herself initially as payment for his help, which he refuses. But he’s not a monk, and finds it impossible to maintain his refusal when she tempts him deliberately. He’s infatuated and horny and she feels that by letting him bed her, she’s in some way excising a debt – but even though it’s not pretty or at all romantic, the way Ms Kinsale handles it feels right somehow.

The story is quite complex and I’m barely scratching the surface. There’s the added complication of S.T’s still being a wanted criminal in England; a cameo appearance by the notorious Marquis de Sade; S.T’s capture by and escape from the cult and so much more going on that to try to write a complete synopsis would take up too much space 🙂

I’ve already said just how damn good this is in audio, but I wanted to pick out one or two points specifically to illustrate that. Even though I haven’t (yet) read the book I’ve been told by people who have and who have listened to the audio that the big thing for them was that they found Leigh to be a much more palatable character in the audio. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that that’s true; Nicholas Boulton’s interpretation almost strips her bare, as it were, and he really brings out the pain and vulnerability she struggles so hard to keep hidden. I didn’t dislike her as much as some readers seem to have done, but I would defy anybody to maintain that opinion after listening to the scene in which S.T makes Leigh train the horse he names Mistral. I had tears running down my face when she finally breaks down and finds she can’t help but feel for this beautiful, mistreated animal.

As for his performance of S.T himself… this is only the first of (I think) eleven of Ms Kinsale’s books that are coming out on audio, and I’m already running out of superlatives to describe just how good Nick Boulton is. God help me when I get to book ten – these reviews are going to be really short if I’m to avoid repeating myself over and over again! But it truly is a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a complex and multi-faceted character. You can hear his insecurities, his frustrations, his passion; you feel his triumphs and share in his joys – and if you can keep a straight face in the scene where S.T pretends to be totally plastered, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Without wishing to do any disservice to Ms Kinsale’s splendid story, I’m going to end by saying that if you read the book and found it hard going because you couldn’t like Leigh – listen to this, and you might find it changes your mind. And if, like me, you haven’t read it before, then listen to this and you’ll wonder how the hell you managed NOT to have read it. And if you’ve read it and loved it – listen to this and you’ll find you love it even more than you did before.

Yes. It’s that good.