2013 Reading Challenges – How did I do?

69899_girl-read_smI entered three reading challenges in 2013 – the yearly one at Goodreads, one over at Historical Tapestry and the Mount TBR one, also at Goodreads. I’m pleased to say I exceeded my number of target books at Goodreads. I initially set myself a target of 100, but when it became apparent I was going to pass that number by the summer, I increased the limit to 150. And then, around September (I think), when I was closing in on the 150, I upped the total again, to 175. As it stands now, I’ve passed that as well, and am closing the year on 186 books. I should point out however, that a fair number of those are audiobooks. If I’ve counted right, there are 57 audiobooks in with that 186, but the majority of those are of different titles to the books I’ve actually read, so I think most of them still count! You can see my 2013 challenge results here:

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Caz has completed her goal of reading 175 books in 2013!
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I wasn’t so successful in the other Goodreads challenge I entered, namely the Mount TBR. That challenge is specifically designed to get you reading books you already own but haven’t got around to yet, and each year, you have to select the books from ones you owned PRIOR to that year, so in 2013, I had to read books I had bought before Jan 1st 2013. I undertook to read 36 books, but because of my reviewing commitments – I joined the reviewing teams for both All About Romance and AudioGals in 2013, I didn’t manage it. I did read and listen to 33 books, so didn’t fail too spectacularly, although I think I probably listened to more than I read for this challenge. I find it’s easier to stick on an audiobook while I’m doing something else – ironing, cooking etc. – and I have a fairly extensive collection. Each audio I listened to was of a book I also possessed in print or ebook format and had purchased before Jan 1st 2013.

Mount TBR Challenge 2013 (Goodreads)

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Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2013

I was very cautious when I selected a number of books to aim for in the reading challenge over at Historical Tapestry, because I imposed a sort of restriction on myself. Because I read historical novels almost exclusively, it would have been too easy to add in every single book I read.The challenge does say that as long as the book is a historical novel, any genre is acceptable, but I decided to include only books that included a good dollop of history along with the romance OR books in which the romance was only one element of the story. So, for instance, Stella Riley’s The Black Madonna was in, but a “wallpaper” historical romance like Maya Rodale’s The Wicked Wallflower didn’t make it. I know there were one or two times I forgot my self-imposed rule, but I think I kept to it for the most part. In any case, I signed up to post ten titles over the year, and I linked to 23, so I exceeded my expectation there, too. The books I entered there were:

When I was preparing my lists, I came across a couple of other titles that I could have included, but for some reason, left out –

As for 2014… I’ve already signed up to the multi-blog TBR challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian, and will probably do a couple more. For anyone looking for a challenge for 2014, there’s an awesome list of ideas over at the AAR message boards.

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A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh

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A wealthy man makes a promise to his aging father that he will wed a titled and proper young lady by Christmas, but it is a beautiful widow who ends up capturing his undivided attention. Caught up in an irresistible passion and scandalous liaison, the two believe they are destined to remain apart. This is the season, however, when miracles do occur.

Rating: A-

It’s stories like this one, in which the author takes a big risk with one of her principal characters, which serves to remind me just why it is that Mary Balogh became such a renowned author of historical romances and has remained at the top of the tree for so many years.

Because she’s been writing for so long, it’s sometimes easy to forget that her stories often feature characters and plotlines that were – and are still – unusual in the genre. A Christmas Bride, looks, from the old Signet cover, as though it will be a nice, comfortable story about, well, a Christmas Bride! – when in reality it’s anything but.

At the age of thirty-six, wealthy self-made man Mr Edgar Downes has decided that it’s probably about time he got married and so goes to London to see if he can find a suitable young woman to wed. Handsome, somewhat imposing of figure and definitely imposing of character, he finds most of the young ladies he meets with too insipid for his taste. But at the first ball he attends, he catches sight of a very striking, more mature woman in an eye-catching scarlet dress and finds himself very drawn to her.

The reverse is also true – and it’s not long before Edgar and the mysterious woman are hot-footing it away from the ball and into the lady’s bed for a passionate one-night-stand, with neither having any clue as to the identity of the other.

Being a gentleman – if not by birth, then most definitely by inclination – Edgar is rather ashamed of himself after the fact, and worries that he may have been too rough; the lady has no such concerns and doesn’t want to see him again. But Edgar is no green boy. He’s a determined and resourceful man in his prime who is used to getting his own way and making things happen, and when he discovers the identity of his mystery lady, he pays her a call, determined to apologise for his behaviour – only to find the lady completely unrepentant and undesirous of accepting any apology.

Helena, Lady Stapleton has been a widow for around fifteen years, having been married at the age of nineteen to a man in his fifties. She is fiercely independent to the point of rudeness and is absolutely adamant that she will never let a man control her life, so adamant in fact that it’s almost an obsession with her. The reader, like Edgar, begins to suspect that she must have suffered from some kind of abuse during her marriage, but in reality that is not the case.

(I realise from reading other reviews that this book is a sequel to A Precious Jewel and that there is more to be learned about Helena in that book (her stepson, Sir Gerald Stapleton is the hero, with Helena cast in the role of the villain). I haven’t read Jewel yet, but will certainly do so in the near future. I didn’t think that I missed out by not having read it before this book because the story is full and complete, so I think it’s safe to say A Christmas Bride can stand alone.)

As the story progresses, Helena becomes more and more determined to have nothing to do with Edgar, even though she is still very much attracted to him; and Edgar is more and more determined to find out what makes Helena tick, because he is coming to realise that perhaps she is just the woman for him. He needs someone who can hold their own with him – not a much younger woman who will be overawed by his physical size and personality and who will almost certainly become a doormat very quickly. One of the most engaging things about Edgar – who is a very attractive hero by any standards – is his self-awareness. He knows he’s a dominant personality who is apt to use whatever means necessary to achieve his ends, and he’s honest enough with himself to recognise that getting his own way all the time is not always in his own best interest.

Helena is not only older than the norm for heroines in historical romance (she’s the same age as Edgar) she’s also abrasive, obstinate, rude and often downright unpleasant. She doesn’t want anyone to get close to her, even as she is able to admit to herself that she’s lonely; but she continues to present herself to society as a “merry widow” who is happy in her solitary state. She is thought to have had numerous lovers, and does nothing to correct society’s belief on that point – but because nobody knows anything for certain, she maintains her social position.

In reality, Helena’s unpleasant manner is a way of keeping people at arms’ length, and her façade of mockery and superciliousness covers a well of intense self-loathing and the belief that she is liable to destroy the life of anyone to whom she gets close. So she allows no-one to get close to her and maintains the belief that something she did in her past was so unforgiveable that she does not deserve happiness or love.

I loved the way that Edgar so carefully and cleverly persevered with Helena. It would have been so easy for him to have given up on her or just accepted the little she was prepared to give him, but he doesn’t, instead offering her kindness, comfort and affection in exchange for her harsh words and dismissiveness. Even more impressive was the way in which he did all this without compromising his masculinity or becoming Helena’s whipping boy.

Because I haven’t yet read the previous book, I don’t quite know the full extent of the horrible thing Helena did that has led her to believe she is worthless and undeserving. But I think the point is not whether what she did was really that terrible, but rather that she believes it was – and this is something which Edgar also understands intuitively when he decides that Helena has spent long enough in a hell of her own making, and takes steps towards setting things straight.

Alongside the tempestuous central relationship, there are a couple of sweet secondary romances, and we also become reacquainted with a number of characters from some of the other books in this series, most notably the Marquess and Marchioness of Carew from Lord Carew’s Bride. As with A Christmas Promise, which I read recently, Christmas works its own kind of magic in the story, and there are some wonderful familial relationships and friendships in the book, especially the one between Edgar and his father. It makes a nice change to read a father/son relationship where the two actually love and respect each other rather than being at each others’ throats!

I enjoyed A Christmas Bride very much, and was especially impressed with the way Ms Balogh redeemed her thoroughly unlikeable heroine throughout the course of the story. Edgar is a wonderful hero – formidable in many ways, he’s also intelligent and highly intuitive; he and Helena are certainly going to be leading each other a merry dance in the coming years, but they are, in the end, a very well-matched couple.

This title has recently been re-issued with another of Mary Balogh’s Christmas-themed books, A Christmas Beau as a “two-in-one”, in print format only.

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter

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She’s braved battlefields. She’s stolen dispatches from under the noses of heads of state. She’s played the worldly courtesan, the naïve virgin, the refined British lady, even a Gypsy boy. But Annique Villiers, the elusive spy known as the Fox Cub, has finally met the one man she can’t outwit…

British spymaster Robert Grey must enter France and bring back the brilliant, beautiful-and dangerous-Fox Cub. His duty is to capture her and her secrets for England. When the two natural enemies are thrown into prison, they forge an uneasy alliance to break free. But their pact is temporary and betrayal seems inevitable as the fates of nations hang in the balance.

Rating: A- for both story and narration

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of this story, which was excellently narrated by Kirsten Potter. I’m not really a fan of American narrators being used to narrate stories which are set at least partly in Britain and in which the majority of the characters are British, but Ms Potter did superb job on the characterisations and accents, although she opted to read in her native accent.

I’m also not normally someone who seeks out spy plots in historical romances. I don’t actively avoid them either, and it has to be a pretty good storyline to attract me – but I’ve heard and read such good things about this particular book that I’ve had it on my TBR pile for quite a while.

Annique Villiers was put to work as a French spy when she was just a child, and over the years has acquired a reputation for efficiency and cunning which has earned her the nickname “fox cub”. At the beginning of the story, she has been captured and imprisoned along with a couple of English spies whom she later identifies as Robert Grey and Adrian Hawker. Grey is, in fact, a Head of Section for British Intelligence, a man whose ruthlessness and brilliant mind have made him a man to be feared among Britain’s enemies. Adrian’s life is in danger – he has been shot – and the three form an uneasy and reluctant alliance in order to make their escape.

This reluctance and uneasiness continues throughout the book, as Grey and Annique continually butt heads; she feels honour bound to try to escape at every opportunity, while he knows he can’t let her go because she is the key to the discovery of the Albion Plans, plans which detail the arrangements for the projected invasion of England by Napoleonic forces.

There is also the added complication of the incredibly potent sexual attraction they feel for each other which, no matter how often they tell themselves how stupid it is, just won’t go away.

The plot is intricate with lots of twists and turns, and there is a supporting cast of French and English agents, and a big twist towards the end which I didn’t see coming (but then I’m never very good at seeing things like that!)

The romance between Grey and Annique is sensual and earthy, yet Ms Bourne perfectly captures Annique’s inner conflict. She also brilliantly conveys the uncertainty of the nineteen-year-old girl who has never been in love or felt such overwhelming attraction while continuing to project the world-weary outer shell and sang-froid she has assumed as part of her defence mechanism.

Grey is delicious – a highly intelligent man of action who nonetheless finds himself utterly seduced by Annique’s cleverness and independent spirit. I particularly liked the fact that while they both admitted to the complete impropriety of their desire for each other, neither of them tried to deny it or played hard-to-get. What’s between them feels very honest and there are some truly beautiful moments between them. One that particularly stands out is something Annique tells Grey when she escapes from him at the monastery:

“Plato says that lovers are like two parts of an egg that fit together perfectly. Each half is made for the other, the single match to it. We are incomplete alone. Together, we are whole. All men are seeking that other half of themselves. Do you remember?”

“This isn’t the goddamned time to talk about Plato.”

That made her smile.

“I think you are the other half of me. It was a great mix-up in heaven. A scandal. For you there was meant to be a pretty English schoolgirl in the city of Bath and for me some fine Italian pastry cook in Palermo. But the cradles were switched somehow, and it all ended up like this … of an impossibility beyond words.”

Kirsten Potter is a narrator I’ve been aware of for some time, but this is the first of her audiobooks I’ve listened to. I already knew that she uses her own American accent to read the story, and I enjoyed her reading very much. Her voice is mellifluous and soothing and her natural accent isn’t especially pronounced, which meant I didn’t find it intrusive or out of place.

She provided all the characters with clearly defined and appropriate voices and I was especially impressed with the way she maintained the slight French accent she chose to give Annique. Her interpretations of Grey and Adrian were also very successful, although in each case, there were some mispronunciations – of both English and French words – which did stick out a bit. Her characterisation of Doyle was less successful, as was her interpretation of Grey when he was being “Robert”, the simple, West Country fisherman. In both cases, Ms Potter opted to use something less “upper-class” sounding and attempted something close to a Cockney accent, but unfortunately, the changes she made to the vowel sounds made them sound more Australian than Cockney. (I remember saying the same thing of Angela Dawe’s interpretation of Ian’s valet, Curry in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie), although in that audio, the accent is much more pronounced and is pretty much 100% Antipodean to my ear). On the positive side, Ms Potter slips into the Aussie twang infrequently, (and avoids what I like to call the “Dick van Dyke syndrome”!) but being I’m somewhat anal about accents, once I’ve heard it, I can’t unhear it, and subsequent occurrences are all the more noticeable. But that is probably just a quirk of my ears.

I was both surprised and … not surprised that Ms Potter didn’t attempt to provide the fisherman Robert with the West Country accent that Ms Bourne mentions more than once in the text. It would be difficult enough for a British narrator to pull off while not making Robert sound too much the “country yokel”, so I can understand the narrator’s decision to leave it alone. But given it’s one of the main reasons given for the fact that Annique fails to recognise him when she reaches England, I think there should have been more of an attempt to follow the author’s instructions.

But even allowing for those negative points, this was a highly accomplished performance, and one I definitely intend to listen to again. It seems that this is the only audiobook so far produced of this series of novels by Joanna Bourne, which is a great shame, because I enjoyed the story very much and reviews indicate that the other books are of a similar quality. I thought that the relationship between Grey, Adrian and Doyle was very well written and I’d certainly like to see and hear more of them. I really hope that the other titles are given the audio treatment in the not too distant future, and that if at all possible, Ms Potter is chosen to narrate them.

Oh, and one last thing. Whoever decided to stick that Goddawful guitar power-ballad thing under the last 30 seconds or so of dialogue should be taken outside and shot. It utterly ruined the final part of the story, which wasn’t inconsequential and completely pricked my emotional balloon! Sometimes I really wonder whether the people who produce audiobooks actually LISTEN to them.

Secrets of a Gentleman Escort by Bronwyn Scott

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He’s the talk of the ton for all the wrong reasons!

Society’s most outrageous and popular escort Nicholas D’Arcy is renowned for his utmost discretion. So when he suddenly finds himself named and shamed by a jealous husband, he reluctantly accepts a summons to the countryside a fate worse than death!

Annorah Price-Ellis isn’t what Nick is used to innocent, feisty and decidedly uncomfortable with the spontaneous heat between them! Suddenly, London’s most audacious lover is out of his depth, and in danger of revealing the real man behind the polished façade.

Rating: B

I seem to have read a number of books over the last year in which the hero has been a man who is paid for sexual services, either as a way of making his living, or for some other reason, such as getting the heroine pregnant, as in Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

In Secrets of a Gentleman Escort, Nicholas D’Arcy is the former, a man who, for the past few years, has made his living as a high-class, highly paid prostitute. For the most part, he enjoys his life in the hurly-burly of London, although it seems that his job isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was, even though he’s extremely good at it.

Along with a number of other men – some of whom are down-on-their-luck gentlemen of good birth, some of whom are in it for the kicks – Nicholas is a member of the League of Discreet Gentlemen, an agency which provides male companionship mostly to bored wives and widows, for a fat fee. The existence of the League is a rumour in society and nothing more. The husbands of the straying wives may suspect that such a thing exists, but there is no proof and the League’s founder, Channing Deveril, wants to keep it that way. After all, their clientele come to them because they want to have a little fun on the side without being found out; the men involved want to preserve a degree of anonymity – mutual discretion is ensured.

Nicholas is one of the agency’s most sought-after escorts. He’s gorgeous, charming and witty, and – naturally – knows what women want and how to provide it. The trouble is, he provides it too well, and one night is almost caught on the job by a client’s husband. He manages to evade exposure by the skin of his teeth. A jealous husband on the warpath is a threat not only to Nicholas, but to the League’s very existence, so Deveril sends Nicholas on a five-day assignment out of London to give things time to cool off.

But Nick is dismayed. For one thing, he grew up in the country and has too many unhappy memories for him to feel comfortable at spending time away from the city; and for another he feels like he’s being punished for a situation over which he had no control. But he has little alternative other than to accept the job and head off into Sussex post haste.

His client, Miss Annorah Price-Ellis is incredibly wealthy, but will not remain so if she remains unmarried. The terms of her father’s will state that if she is unwed on her thirty-third birthday, the bulk of the fortune she inherited will be given to charitable organizations, allowing Annorah a small property in the north of England and just enough money to live on. Having been relentlessly pursued for her fortune and suffered the humiliation of discovering that the men who expressed an interest in her were just after her money, she eventually withdrew from society, unwilling to risk that sort of hurt and mortification again. Her avaricious aunt repeatedly throws suitors at her, obviously expecting to reap some of the financial rewards should Annorah marry one of them; and time has slipped by, leaving Annorah with Hobson’s Choice. She can marry a man she does not love who just wants her money, or she can eke out a meagre existence far from the home she has lived in all her life.

But before she does either of those things, she has decided it’s time to live a little. Reasoning that, if she’s to give herself to a man she doesn’t know or love, it should be a man of her choosing who will at the very least ensure she finds pleasure in the experience, she writes to the League of Discreet Gentlemen requesting a companion for five nights.

I thought the way the relationship between Annorah and Nicholas developed was very well done, even though they spend only a few days together. The romance is tender and very sensual – there are a number of love scenes, none of which is especially graphic – and I really felt that here was a relationship that was about much more than the lust which had been its impetus. While Annorah had thought all she wanted was a few days of sex-without-strings, Nicholas is perceptive enough to realize that what she really wants (as well as the sex) is romance. He’s good at both things – when women want to enact out a Prince Charming fantasy, he’s the one they send for – but it’s immediately clear to him that his “usual routine” isn’t going to be enough to provide what Annorah wants. Doing that, however, is going to cost him the detachment he holds dear – because in his line of work, emotional involvement is something he can’t afford.

Annorah too is very torn. She knows that when Nick flirts with her, she’s getting what she’s paid for. But she’s spent a lifetime avoiding the superficial compliments of fortune hunters and soon realizes that she doesn’t want empty words and meaningless sex from this man, despite his reasons for being with her. On the other hand, she’s tempted to surrender to the fiction he’s offering her – a fiction which Nick is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain, because he’s finding something with Annorah that he’s never before experienced with a woman; friendship and possibly something more.

Annorah has hidden from society for years in an attempt at self-protection while Nicholas lives in the social whirl of London and keeps his true self well hidden, preferring instead to inhabit his persona of “every woman’s dream man”. I really liked the way Ms Scott had both characters gradually emerge from their respective shells under the tutelage of the other. Nick, especially, begins to reveal more and more of himself, and what we see is a decent and honorable man who, for reasons of his own, has embarked upon this particular way of life because there were few alternatives. And while Annorah helps Nick to “find” himself again, he helps her to rediscover many of the simple joys of life that, in her isolation, she had forgotten.

I enjoyed the book very much, but there was one thing about the plotline that bothered me somewhat. Almost from the outset, it’s clear that Nick harbors a sense of worthlessness and guilt over an event which devastated his family, and that the reason he embarked on his current course of employment is because he needs to be able both to support them, and to stay as far away from them as possible. When Nick’s reasons for running away and staying away were made clear, I couldn’t help thinking they were somewhat anti-climactic.

But that aside, Secrets of A Gentleman Escort is well-written and the two leads are very engaging and well-matched. It’s also one of the most sensually romantic stories I’ve read in a while, and one I’d certainly recommend for one of those dull winter afternoons which could do with a bit of warming up!

Also – I think this is one of the loveliest covers I’ve seen recently. Someone over at the We Love Stepback Covers group (I think it was) on GoodReads posted the cover photo a few days back, so I hope they’ll forgive me for stealing it to post here.

Plaid Tidings by Mia Marlowe

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Christmas in the Highlands…

Not any dashing English lord’s idea of a good time. But now that Lord Alexander Mallory has won a Scottish estate in a hand of cards, he is the unlikely laird of the wild, snowy Bonniebroch. Worse yet, the ancient pile of stones comes with a betrothal. To a fiery red-headed virgin. And a curse.

Alex will have his hands full honoring the first, seducing the second and breaking the third…all by Twelfth Night.

Rating: B+

I don’t mind admitting that when I saw the cover of this book, my heart sank. It looked just like so many of those other “highlander romances” out there (you know the sort of thing – bare-chested men in kilts!) that made me think I was in for one of those battle-filled, warring-clans, boy-meets-girl-from-wrong-family type stories which really aren’t my cup of tea.

Then I looked at the back cover and read the synopsis… and read chapter one… and kept reading. What actually lies between the covers of this book is a charming, whimsical tale featuring an age-old curse, a haunted castle and a young man coming to terms with his past and finally finding his place in the grand scheme of things.

I suppose one could argue that in future, I must remember the old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

But I would argue that perhaps publishers might want to consider putting something on the cover which is more in keeping with the spirit of the content and tone of the actual story. Had I not been reading this book for review, I would almost certainly not have given it a second glance if I’d seen it on Amazon or in a bookshop.

Lord Alexander Mallory is an ambitious young man whose exceptional military record brought him to the notice of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. Since leaving the army, Alex has worked as a government spy, and at the beginning of the story is en route by ship to the Scottish Highlands with his long-time friend and colleague, Sir Bertram Clarindon, in order to seek out the remnants of a group of radicals who could threaten to disrupt a planned visit by the king the following summer.

In order to gain acceptance among the highlanders, Alex has decided he needs a Scottish estate, and, a few days before Christmas, he wins the castle and lands of Bonniebroch from another man on the voyage, Sir Darren MacMartin. As Scottish baronies don’t depend on bloodlines, Alex is able to take the title of Lord Bonniebroch along with the estates.

There are things he doesn’t know, however, things which, when he discovers them, make him suspect that perhaps Sir Darren hadn’t been too disappointed to lose their card game. Firstly, the title comes with a fiancée, and secondly, the castle comes with a curse.

Alex has no wish to be married – indeed, his reputation among the London ballrooms is that he is an eminently desirable catch who has absolutely no wish to be caught – partly because of the sad example of his parents’ unhappy marriage, and partly because he doesn’t feel it fair for a man in his line of work to take a wife.

But whether he likes it or not, Alex is betrothed to Lucinda MacOwen, and despite his best attempts to wriggle out of it, the contract is binding and completely watertight. An added complication is that Alex falls in lust with Lucinda almost immediately and can’t keep his hands off her, or hers off him. In fact, for a man desperate to escape the parson’s mousetrap, he takes every opportunity to kiss and fondle her (and encourage her to do the same to him!) at a time when the merest hint of impropriety between a man and a woman will send them to the altar in less time than it takes to say “I don’t want to marry you but I’d love to get into your knickers!”

Having worried that her betrothed could turn out to be decrepit, toothless, hairless and countless other “lesses”, Lucinda is not only relieved to discover that her intended is young, virile and gorgeous, she’s eager to get married and to get up to all those naughty things that she’s sure married people get up to and enjoy. She’s upset when she discovers that Alex doesn’t want her, but she doesn’t let that cast her into despair. That’s one of the things that makes her such an attractive heroine – she’s pragmatic, not at all missish, and doesn’t let things get her down. That’s not to say she’s annoyingly perky – she isn’t. She’s down-to-earth and, if something isn’t going her way, she tries to do something about it rather than moping and having fits of the vapors.

So she decides to try to change Alex’s mind with a little teasing and flirtation; and in fact, she changes his mind so thoroughly that they are whisked off to church a few days later and married before the Christmas Eve deadline!

Following their arrival at Bonniebroch, Alex finally discovers the existence of the curse, something about which he’d previously been in ignorance. He also discovers something rather unusual about his bride – namely that since the age of six, she’s been ‘haunted’ by the spirit of Brodie MacIver, her very own ‘friendly ghost’, whom only she can see and hear. Fortunately for her, Alex is able to accept this because he, too, has met a friendly spirit, that of Callum Farquar, steward of the castle since 1521. Callum tells Alex and Lucinda how the curse came about and how it has affected the inhabitants of the castle, but the one thing he can’ttell them is how to break the curse, only that it must be broken by Twelfth Night, if tragic consequences are to be avoided.

The book did seem to fall into two parts – the first dealing with the progression of the relationship between Alex and Lucinda, and the second with Alex’s efforts to break the curse. But because the storylines are so engaging and the romance so well-written, I didn’t feel that the book was unbalanced.

Plaid Tidings is a thoroughly enjoyable seasonal read which is laced with humor and warmth. Alex and Lucinda are very attractive and strongly characterized protagonists, the pacing is good, with nary a dull moment, and I found that the addition of the supernatural elements made for a quirky and very engaging story.

Song for Sophia by Moriah Densley

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To win a man’s heart, a woman must have the mind of a diplomat, a general, and Cleopatra, all in one.

Desperation has led Anne-Sophia Duncombe to a life of exile. Still, she is always just one mistake away from capture and a marriage she would rather die than endure. As a last resort to remain hidden from her former life, Sophia attempts a radical scheme; a life of humility and disguise.

Rumor has it Wilhelm Montegue, the Earl of Devon, is insane. A tormented war hero haunted by scandal, he is only tolerated because of his brilliant mind and swarthy good looks. His unmentionable “condition” which keeps him confined to his country home is also the source of his talent for composing music.

When a new housemaid is hired at Rougemont, Lord Devon is perplexed to find himself fascinated by her. He knows the exquisite beauty is keeping secrets but her siren’s voice draws him ever closer, and he can’t resist the intoxicating scent of danger surrounding her.

Rating: B

Song for Sophia is a thoroughly entertaining and generally well-written romance which features a pair of engaging and unusual protagonists and a well- crafted “heroine-in-peril” plot.

Lady Anne-Soprhonia Dunscombe is on the run from her violent and abusive father (there do seem to be rather a lot of those in historical romances these days!) and has disguised herself as a housemaid in the home of the eccentric and rumored-insane Wilhelm Montegue, Earl of Devon. He is immediately aware that his newest member of staff is no housemaid and is both intrigued by and attracted to her, determined to find out what could possibly have happened to a young woman of good breeding to have made her enter domestic service.

Historical Romances in which the lord of the manor becomes involved with a servant (even when the servant in question is actually an aristocrat in disguise) always require a certain stretching of one’s credulity, as in reality, the paths of those at the top of the social strata and those at the very bottom would hardly have crossed. But by the time the enigmatic earl and his new housemaid begin to interact, I was already so intrigued by them and drawn in by the mystery surrounding Sophia that I was prepared to accept the premise and keep reading.

Sophia literally stumbles across her new employer one evening while on a late walk in the garden, but has no idea of his identity. A few days and another accident-prone meeting serve to apprise both of them of the other’s position in the household, and master and servant very quickly fall into an irreverent banter and game of one-upmanship. That Sophia, supposedly trying to hide away incognito, should so quickly respond to Devon’s teasing does require rather a large suspension of disbelief, but the dialogue is witty, the sparks are flying and I’ve never before come across a flirtation conducted in quite the same manner, which made the whole thing so delightful that I was able to suspend my disbelief quite happily.

In fact, it quickly became clear that this was going to be one of those books which was going to require a number of similar suspensions, but which was captivating nonetheless because of the depth to the characterization, the way the romance developed and the quality of the story overall.

Another factor that contributes to the book’s success is the sense – which leaps off the page – of Wilhelm’s larger-than-life personality, his almost overwhelming self-confidence and the fact that he doesn’t give a damn what anybody things of him. In the first few chapters, Ms Densley draws a portrait of a truly fascinating man who, despite massive flaws, is incredibly attractive and utterly compelling.

Wilhelm is a tortured soul whose particular “gifts” were pounced upon and heavily used during the recent war in the Crimea, where he served as a spy and assassin. He’s a savant – a mathematical and musical genius with a photographic memory, which obviously made him an excellent choice as a courier and spymaster. In addition, he appears to suffer from OCD and PTSD, and he is prone to sudden “trances”, when he withdraws into himself and his world of music and numbers. He is widely rumored to be both insane and homosexual, but is utterly and genuinely dismissive of society’s opinion. His war-time occupations and the horrors he suffered are revealed slowly, which works well to increase the reader’s curiosity and to perpetuate the sense that there is much more to this man than meets the eye.

Sophia is also surrounded by a mystery which is only gradually revealed. Right at the beginning of the book, it’s made clear that she’s suffered physical violence and has been deeply affected by it. As her attraction to Wilhelm deepens, she finds it harder and harder to confess the truth to him because she does not want to place him in any danger. Her father is up to his neck in debt, but his lands are entailed and he is unable to liquidate them in order to pay off his creditors. He tries to force Sophia to marry one of his cronies, the plan being to get her pregnant as fast as possible and then claim the entailed lands through her son, although I’m not completely sure how this would have worked in terms of the legalities.

The romance between these two damaged individuals unfolds slowly and naturally as they come to know and gain a sincere appreciation of each other. Sophia, intelligent, tough, and compassionate, is completely accepting of Wilhelm’s eccentricities and comes to esteem him and value him as a person. For his part, Wilhelm has been so used to being regarded as a social pariah, that he is somewhat taken aback to discover that Sophia sees past the rumors and his oddness. But realizing that she sees beyond the gossip and what he terms his “illness” gives him the impetus to aspire towards making himself a better man for her. And he, in turn, shows Sophia tenderness and affection, offering her a happiness and freedom she’d never thought to have. In that way, theirs is very much a relationship of equals, and I thought it was very well-written; tender, sensual, and laced with humor.

The road to happiness is not travelled without a few bumps along the way, most of which are supplied by the machinations of Sophia’s father to force her to return to him and submit to his demands. He does not appear in person in the book until almost the end of it, but that works well, as his malevolence pervades the story, almost always in the background, but always there. This element of the story is well-executed at an almost breathless pace as Wilhelm hatches a plan to free Sophia once and for all, his Machiavellian dealings and maneuverings stretching far and wide as his scheme takes shape.

I said at the outset that this was one of those books where it was no hardship to embark on a slightly greater suspension of disbelief than one might normally find necessary in a romance novel. The storyline was very well conceived, the characterization excellent, and there was plenty of humour and sexual tension between the leads. But there were a couple of things I just couldn’t ignore which caused me to lower my overall grade.

Firstly, the book ‘proper’ ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. That’s not to say that Sophia and Wilhelm don’t get their HEA – of course they do, but we only learn that to be the case in the epilogue. I’ve always thought that a book should come to a satisfactory conclusion regardless of whether there is an epilogue or not, and because the final chapter ends with such a big question mark, I did feel rather let down and found the epilogue to be an anti-climax.

Then there was an odd quirk in Ms Densley’s writing style which I tried very hard not to notice, but which happened so often that in the end, it was impossible to ignore. Frequently, if felt as though she was starting a sentence part-way through; for example

“Years since he’d allowed himself the weakness of…” instead of “It had been years since he’d allowed himself the weakness of …” Or “Lovely, how he seemed content…” Instead of “It was lovely, how he seemed content…”

I know that starting a sentence without the first couple of words is not uncommon when one is speaking, but in print it looks rather odd and after a while, I found it quite intrusive. There was one page when it seemed like every sentence started in this way, and it was incredibly annoying!

There were a few Americanisms littered around (we don’t have faucets, we have taps, for example); and at times the author used completely the wrong word choice. For example:

”Today she’d been clearly outshined” when the correct useage is outshone.

And – in one of the love scenes, we’re told that Sophia “braised her teeth” over Wilhelm’s shoulder. As far as I know, braising is a way of cooking meat, which I’m sure isn’t want the author intended to convey!

Despite those things, however, I thoroughly enjoyed Song for Sophia. Ms Densley is clearly a very talented author and she has crafted a compelling, entertaining and emotionally satisfying story featuring a couple of very well drawn and engaging protagonists. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of her work although I strongly hope that her next endeavor might receive a more thorough proof-reading before its release.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

christmas-banner… or so the song tells us, and it’s certainly a wonderful time for the romance reader as there are always a slew of new books and novellas published which are set around Christmastime, plus lots of wonderful older titles that it’s fun to revisit at this time of year.

I admit that I’m not normally someone prone to seeing out seasonal reads. If I want to read a book set around Christmas and it happens to be December, then I’ll read it – but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t read it in June if I wanted to!

I have a few seasonal titles in my sights, though, books I’d like to read in the next couple of weeks. They’re all older titles – Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Bride is one, as is Grace Burrowes’ Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish (amazingly, a Grace Burrowes title I haven’t read yet!). I’ve also got an anthology of stories by Carla Kelly I’d like to get to… we’ll see.

But before I get to those, I thought I’d put together a list of the reviews I’ve written for the Christmassy books I have read, just to give you some ideas if you’re looking for something seasonal to read and can’t make up your mind.

csThe Christmas Spirit by Elisabeth Fairchild. Hands down this is one of the most beautiful romances I’ve ever read, even though it’s not a conventional “boy-meets-girl” type of romance. If you haven’t read it, then nab a copy NOW – you’re missing out on a real treat.

ACPA Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh. I absolutely adored this wonderful story of an arranged marriage which seems doomed to disaster – but in which love and the spirit of Christmas and family are ultimately triumphant.

mcwMarian’s Christmas Wish by Carla Kelly. I’m not normally a fan of very young heroines, but Ms Kelly makes it work so beautifully here.

Lady-Jennys-Christmas-Wish-CoverA title published this year, Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait is the final book in Grace Burrowes’ Windham series. It’s a beautifully written character-driven romance in which most of the Windham’s make an appearance for the festive season.

cmChristmas Mischief is a set of three regency novellas by Mary Jo Putney that I read and enjoyed last year. I think the first story The Christmas Cuckoo is the strongest of the three – I believe it’s now available singly for well under £1 at Amazon – a real bargain! – although all the stories are well worth reading.

whcWhat Happens at Christmas by Victoria Alexander is warm and full of humour, even though the story could probably have been set at any time of the year. Still, I suppose the Christmas setting does provide a very good reason for the heroine’s ruse.

I know there are loads more out there – these are just those I’ve read and enjoyed. If you’ve got a favourite and think I’m missing out, please let me know in the comments.