The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – Narrated by Ruth Sillers

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After participating in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Robin and Prudence, brother and sister, become engaged in a swashbuckling, romantic adventure. Our hero and heroine must cross-dress and switch genders if they are to escape prosecution – a humorous move that allows Heyer to explore the manners and language affectations of the period as the two romp through the elite saloons and clubs of London. But what the two don’t foresee is that they might fall in love along the way: Prudence with the elegant and dashing Sir Anthony Fanshawe, and Robin with the charming Letitia Grayson. Can the two unmask themselves without losing their lives?

Rating: Narration: B+, Content: B+

The Masqueraders is one of Georgette Heyer’s early works, originally published in 1928 and now available in audio format for the first time. It’s a thoroughly engaging Georgian romp, set shortly after the unsuccessful Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It rattles along at a good pace and is full of fun, sparkling dialogue and Ms Heyer’s trademark wit and carefully studied social observation.

At the beginning of the story we meet the two principal protagonists – a brother and sister called Kate and Peter Merriot who, within minutes, are coming to the aid of a damsel in distress and disposing of her unwanted suitor. At the end of that scene, we also meet Sir Anthony Fanshawe, who is destined to be the heroine’s love-interest, a very large man with a seemingly indolent manner, who is actually one of Ms Heyer’s typically nonchalant but very shrewd heroes; a man who sees a lot more than he lets on, whom the siblings affectionately nickname “The Mountain”.

So far, so straightforward, until the third chapter when we learn that Kate is not, in fact, Kate, but Robin, and Peter is not, in fact, Peter, but Prudence, and the pair (who really ARE brother and sister) are travelling in disguise because of Robin’s participation on the wrong side in the failed rebellion.

Thus the narrator is presented with rather a difficult task. Not only does she have to find suitable voices for and be able to differentiate between a fairly large cast of characters, but she has to find a way to portray Robin/Kate and Prudence/Peter as both themselves and their respective alter-egos while enabling the listener to keep track of who is who and who’s wearing the trousers! It’s a quirk of the story which is probably that bit harder to convey successfully in audio, but on the whole Ms Sillers manages well. She pitches ‘Kate’ higher than either Robin or Prue, and gives ‘her’ a rather exaggerated feminine drawl; and keeps Prue’s ‘Peter’ voice fairly close to Prue’s in pitch, just adding a lighter edge which works well to help the listener keep track. Even though I knew what to expect in the story, I had to rewind a few times at the beginning of that chapter in order to keep things straight in my head, but once I’d done that, it was easy to work out who was speaking and in which persona.

The pair are adventurers who have lived most of their lives pretending to be other people, alongside their father, to whom they refer as “The Old Gentleman”. Following Robin’s escape from the authorities, they have donned these disguises in order to keep him safely hidden while they await their father’s arrival in town, but had not expected to have to wait as long as they do.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Highwayman’s Daughter by Henriette Gyland

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Is it a crime to steal a heart?

Hounslow, 1768. Jack Blythe, heir to the Earl of Lampton, is a man with great expectations.

So when his stagecoach is held up by a masked woman, brandishing a pistol and dressed as a gentleman of the road, he wholly expects to have his purse stolen. And when he senses something strangely familiar about the lovely little bandit, Jack also expects to win his cousin Rupert s wager by tracking her down first.

But as Jack and the highwaywoman enter into a swashbuckling game of cat and mouse, uncovering an intricate web of fiercely guarded family secrets, the last thing Jack expects to have stolen is his heart.

Rating: C

By the looks of it, The Highwayman’s Daughter has all the ingredients one would need to make an exciting romantic romp – a resourceful highwaywoman heroine, a handsome, noble hero, a dastardly villain and a well-drawn cast of supporting characters to contribute colour to the story. But somehow, the novel taken as a whole turns out to be somewhat less than its constituent parts, and never really delivers in terms of either excitement or romance.

Cora Mardell lives with her father, Ned, a former gentleman of the road himself. Ned is ill, and the only way Cora can find the money to purchase the medicine he needs is to take to her father’s old profession and rob the rich travellers who pass through Hounslow Heath. One night, she gets a little more than she bargained for when she holds up the carriage containing Jack Blythe, Viscount Halliford and his wastrel cousin, Rupert. She gets away with the robbery, but only just, and leaves behind two very disgruntled men who are determined to hunt down their attacker, whom they have both realised is a woman and not a boy.

Jack and his cousin are on the way to his father’s home at Lampton. While Jack is the earl’s son and heir, the earl shows a decided preference for Rupert who, along with the latter’s sister, was left orphaned in childhood and is under the earl’s guardianship. Rupert idles most of his life away in London engaging in the dissolute pursuits favoured by the young men of the time, and Jack, who is becoming increasingly worried that Rupert’s debts will eventually bankrupt the estate, stays in town to keep an eye on him and tries to curb his worst excesses.

After the robbery, they make a wager as to who will find their mysterious highwaywoman and bring her to justice first.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to find her, and before she escapes him, he is struck once again by her unusual eyes, which he is now sure he’s seen somewhere before. His investigations lead him to suppose that Cora is in fact the illegitimate child of a relative of his, and he decides that it is only right that she be restored to her rightful station. It’s arrogant of him, of course, and he later comes to see the error of his ways in trying to force Cora into an unwelcome and unfamiliar situation.

While Jack and Cora are playing their game of cat-and-mouse, Rupert is making plans of his own. He has long been resentful of Jack’s position as Lampton’s heir, and that resentment is now boiling over into a full-blown hatred.

Add in the twenty-year old mystery surrounding the death of a well-born lady and her child, Rupert’s search for Cora among the dregs of society and his spiteful allegations as to Cora’s parentage, the strained relationship between Jack’s parents… and the story started to get bogged down in too much plot.

That being the case, the author does tie all the strands together at the end in a satisfactory – if somewhat confusing – manner. But the multiple plot strands have a negative impact on the pacing, which is uneven, and the romance, which isn’t very well developed. Jack and Cora are physically attracted to each other from the outset, but because Cora seems to be forever running away from Jack, they spend quite a lot of time apart and we never get to see them actually getting to know each other and falling in love. The characterisation of the leads is lacklustre, and the action is frequently slowed down by large chunks of internal dialogue or descriptions.

Ms Gyland’s writing style is enjoyable and easy to read without being overly simplistic, her research into the period and the area in which she has set the story is evident (sadly, that area of west London is now pretty much buried under Heathrow Airport), and she makes good use of historical detail and background.

Overall, The Highwayman’s Daughter is a decent read, but the problems I experienced with the pacing, the overly complex plot and under-developed romance prevent me from rating it more highly.

Lady Wild by Máire Claremont

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Lady Ophelia longs to be independent, daring and bold, but her mother’s illness has stolen the last of her creative fire. Condemned to an isolated country cottage after the death of her idealistic father, she and her mother are forsaken by family and all of society. Disappointed by those she once trusted, Lady Ophelia lovingly nurses her dying mother knowing that her own dreams of being an artist will never be realized. That is until she meets a devilish aristocrat who reawakens her desire to be wild.

Viscount Stark has never known love. Reputed to be a rebel and a rake by all, at heart he is anything but. When he meets Lady Ophelia, he is struck by her haunting presence, dignity, and honor. Will he continue to play his wicked games and risk ruining the last of Lady Ophelia’s wounded heart? Or will he dare to be the gentleman he always wanted to be and unveil a love he never thought possible?

Rating: B-

I can probably count on one hand the number of novellas I’ve read from which I’ve come away feeling as satisfied as if I’d read a full length novel. Lady Wild is, sadly, not among them, although it came pretty close. The opening meeting between the two principals is very strong and the ending packs a real emotional punch, but the story seemed to lose its way in the middle, which may be due to the fact that the author has perhaps attempted to pack in too many elements.

Lady Ophelia Darlington is a talented artist who longs to study with the great Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, and to fulfil her dreams of a life lived in vibrant colour. But she and her mother were cast out by their aristocratic family following the sudden death of her father, and they now live in abject poverty. Not only have Ophelia’s dreams of becoming an artist been shattered, her beloved mother is dying, and she is bearing the crushing weight of caring for her and is trying to steel herself against the grief which will follow her loss, having decided that the only way she will be able cope is not to feel anything at all.

Andrew, Viscount Stark, is handsome, dissolute and deeply troubled. He has travelled into the country in order to visit his friend, the Marquess of Vane (who is clearly being set up as the principal character in a future story), and stumbles across Ophelia, who immediately intrigues and attracts him.

Lady Darlington is physically weak, but mentally unimpaired, and from the moment we – and Andrew – meet her, we’re charmed. She was clearly a leader of society in her day, and wants her daughter to live a little rather than remaining cooped up in the country just waiting for her to die. It’s an unusual and rather outrageous request, but she asks Andrew to take Ophelia to London for the season. Andrew is surprised, but understands the reasons for the request, and can’t resist the idea of spending more time with Ophelia, as would be the case were he to be her escort. But he insists on taking Lady Darlington along, too, thinking that she deserves to enjoy the remainder of her days in comfort.

Ms Claremont’s characters often find themselves in dark places mentally – and sometimes physically – and their journeys towards happiness are difficult and fraught with emotion. Here, we have Ophelia, who doesn’t WANT to feel and Andrew who doesn’ t know how to feel – but in order to fully explore those issues and develop a rounded and satisfactory relationship between them, they needed a longer page count than afforded by the novella format. I struggled with the idea that Andrew would so easily take two complete strangers into his home, and I felt the romance was somewhat under-developed. Andrew is a fairly nebulous character; we’re told he’s a bit of a rake, but a somewhat stereotypically affectionless childhood doesn’t really go far enough to fully explain his inability to feel emotion. His transformation from gin-imbibing-empty-shell happened rather quickly, too, although I did enjoy the level of understanding that developed between him and Lady Darlington.

Those reservations aside, I enjoyed reading Lady Wild and am certainly intrigued enough by the character of the Marquess of Vane to want to pick up the next book in the series. The author is donating profits from this novella to the hospice movement, which helped to care for both her parents. She says:

My mother died just a little under two years ago. She fought the battle with cancer and ultimately lost. Her last months were spent on Hospice. My father, too, died of cancer and spent his last 3 months on Hospice. It’s such an incredible organization and I don’t know how my mom or dad and I would have made it without the support of the staff.

Ms Claremont’s writing is lyrical, and she perfectly captures all the different and difficult emotions associated with the prospect of such a terrible loss. The final chapters which deal with Lady Darlington’s passing are beautifully done and highly emotional, reminding the characters and the reader of the importance of living life to the fullest, even when our loved ones are no longer with us.

Vixen in Velvet (The Dressmakers #3) by Loretta Chase

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From the Diary of Leonie Noirot: The perfect corset should invite its undoing . . .

Lethally charming Simon Blair, Marquess of Lisburne, has reluctantly returned to London for one reason only: a family obligation. Still, he might make time for the seduction of a certain redheaded dressmaker—but Leonie Noirot hasn’t time for him. She’s obsessed with transforming his cousin, the dowdy Lady Gladys, into a swan.

Leonie’s skills can coax curves—and profits—from thin air, but his criminally handsome lordship is too busy trying to seduce her to appreciate her genius. He badly needs to learn a lesson, and the wager she provokes ought to teach him, once and for all.

A great plan, in theory—but Lisburne’s become a serious distraction, and Leonie’s usual logic is in danger of slipping away as easily as a silk chemise. Could the Season’s greatest transformation be her own?

Rating: A

I’ve enjoyed the previous two novels in this series (which I’ve listened to rather than read), but I think this might be my favourite of the series so far. It’s one of those books I found hard to put down and couldn’t help gobbling up, no matter how much I wanted to read it slowly so it didn’t come to an end!

Leonie is the youngest of the three Noirot sisters, and in the absence of Marcelline (who is unwell due to her being in a delicate condition) and Sophy (who is on an extended wedding trip) is currently single-handedly managing not only Maison Noirot, but also the charity for girls and young women they founded some years previously. She feels her sisters’ absence keenly, but, being the sensible, level-headed and most business-minded of the trio, is determined to keep everything running smoothly.

She has a plan to further enhance the shop’s reputation. The young ladies of the ton have recently become entranced by the rather overly-sentimental poetry penned by the dreamily handsome Viscount Swanton. Having become aware that Swanton has plans to visit the British Institution, and knowing that wherever he goes, a large crowd of young ladies is sure to follow, Leonie attends the exhibition wearing one of Maison Noirot’s latest creations, intending to “… make the shop’s work known to those unfamiliar with it” and hopes to drum up some custom.

Also fortuitously present is Lady Gladys Fairfax, cousin of Lady Clara, the shop’s best customer. The lady has a reputation for being ill-mannered, ungainly and badly dressed, but Leonie sees in her a golden opportunity. If she can help Lady Gladys to attract the right sort of attention, it will bring even more prestige to Maison Noirot.

While waiting for the appearance of the poet and his entourage of damsels, Leonie finds herself entranced by one particular painting – Venus and Mars by Botticelli. She spends some considerable time taking it in until she’s brought back to earth by an unfamiliar voice belonging to the handsomest man she’s ever seen. He is Simon Blair, Marquess of Lisburne, cousin to Lady Gladys, owner of the Botticelli – and an immediate danger to Leonie’s peace of mind.

Lisburne has lived on the continent for the past five or six years, and has only returned to England in order to see to some family business. Swanton is his cousin, and the two men are as close as brothers. Swanton’s fame, good-looks, and poetic sensibilities have already made him the catch of the season, and Lisburne is determined to protect him from the match-making mamas and the ladies who are already throwing themselves at him and swooning at his feet.

He doesn’t intend to stay for more than a couple of weeks – but his meeting with Leonie changes that. He is fascinated by Miss Noirot’s directness and the way she responds to his gentle flirtation, and when he discerns her scheme to turn Gladys from an antidote into the most popular young lady of the ton, he hits upon a way to further his own cause and offers a wager. If Leonie succeeds in making Gladys the toast of the ton, she wins the Botticelli painting. If she loses, she will spend a fortnight with him and give him her complete and undivided attention. It’s a big gamble for him as the painting is one of his most treasured possessions, but he’s convinced that he knows Gladys well enough to feel fairly secure that his prize is all but in the bag.

As the couple spends more time together, they begin to develop a deeper understanding of each other, with Simon, especially, coming to realise how important the business is to Leonie and to see that her life has not been an easy one. So when a completely unexpected accusation levelled at Swanton threatens not only his own standing, but that of Maison Noirot by association, it’s only natural that Simon would want to help Leonie to protect her life’s work.

In case it’s not already obvious, I loved Vixen in Velvet. The plot itself might be slight in terms of ‘action’, but when the dialogue is this good, and the characters are this engaging and wonderfully rounded out, too much of anything else would be superfluous.

Leonie is a genius with numbers, logical, practical, well-organised, and single-minded in her pursuit of success; but being the only sister left at Maison Noirot, there’s the sense that she’s in danger of being consumed by it. She frequently says things like – “I’ve been busy”, or “I didn’t have time” – when questioned as to what else she has in her life besides the shop, but when Simon whisks her off to spend a couple of hours at the circus, or gives her an unexpected driving lesson, Ms. Chase brilliantly shows us a glimpse of the gleeful, child-woman beneath the tough exterior she has to maintain in her daily life. She’s never been in love, or been seriously attracted to a man – she can’t afford that type of distraction. Yet Lisburne makes her knees weak and turns her brain to mush, no matter how often she tries to tell herself that she has no room in her life for emotional entanglements. Lisburne is the perfect match for Leonie – and in more ways than one, as we discover at the end of the book. He’s devastatingly handsome of course, and in possession of enough charisma to power a small principality. But he’s a bit of an enigma and tries hard to keep it that way, wary of giving away too much of and about himself. His shrewdness is a perfect fit with Leonie’s, and while he sometimes presents himself as just another stupid member of the over-privileged upper-class, he’s more than up to Leonie’s weight intellectually, keeping up with – and even, on occasion, getting one step ahead of – her.

It’s also clear that he’s a man for whom family is very important, which is definitely an advantage when it comes to his understanding of Leonie. There are a few references to his relationship with his late father – which was obviously a close and loving one, in contrast to so many romantic heroes whose fathers either detest or ignore them – and his concern for his cousin, while perhaps being a little over-protective, is nonetheless rooted in genuine affection.

Among the things I most like about Lisburne are his capacity for both self-deprecation:

”Maybe you’re so used to girls falling in love with you that you don’t even notice anymore.”“Well, actually, I forgot what it was like, because they all stated falling in love with Swanton.”

And flirtatious immodesty:

”Am I seducing you?… I hadn’t realised I’d got to that part yet. How amazingly clever I am.”

I believe Vixen in Velvet was originally going to be the final book in this series, but it seems that Ms. Chase is now working on a fourth book, which will feature Lady Clara as the heroine. I have to say that I’m delighted, as I’ve loved spending time with the Noirot sisters and their beaux, and becoming immersed in their world. Ms. Chase’s descriptions of the dresses and fabrics are meticulous and quite fascinating, and she so cleverly writes them differently from the womens’ and men’s points of view. There is also a rather sweet secondary romance, and the author does an excellent job in getting under Gladys’ skin and exploring just why she’s so snippy and stand-offish. Leonie’s insight and sensitivity are very impressive; she never sugar coats her words, telling Gladys the truth and helping her to make the best of herself physically, which in turn helps Gladys to make the best of herself as a person. As Leonie tells Simon: “I’ve dressed her … The rest she’s done for herself.”

But above all, it’s the interactions between the hero and heroine that make this book such a delight. I was utterly captivated by the brilliance of the dialogue, which is witty and frequently displays a depth of feeling and insight that is rarely found in the genre.

As one would expect of such an experienced author, the writing is elegant and intelligent and the pacing of the story is perfect. The romance is beautifully developed, proceeding at a natural pace, and the love scenes are sensual and imbued with warmth and tenderness. All the different elements of the story are pulled skilfully together to reach a highly satisfying conclusion, making this one of the most wonderfully entertaining books I’ve read this year.

To Charm a Naughty Countess by Theresa Romain

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Caroline, the popular widowed Countess of Stratton, has no wish to remarry. But when the brilliant, reclusive Duke of Wyverne—her counterpart in an old scandal—returns to town after a long absence, she finds herself as enthralled as ever.

Michael must save his family fortunes by wedding an heiress, but Caroline vowed that she would never sell herself in marriage again. The only way she can keep him near is to help him find the wealthy bride he requires.

As she guides him through society, Caroline realizes that she’s lost her heart again. But if she pursues the only man she’s ever loved, she’ll lose the life that she holds dear. And if Michael, who has everything to lose, ever hopes to win her hand, he must open his long-shuttered heart.

Rating: A-

Theresa Romain has followed up her wonderful It Takes Two to Tangle with another, equally well-written and strongly characterised romance which pairs Caroline, the widowed Countess of Stratton, (a secondary character from the earlier book), with a rather unusual ducal hero.

Caroline is beautiful, wealthy, and is – even nearing thirty – one of the foremost beauties of the ton. As we saw in the previous book, she is never without a coterie of admirers surrounding her, and quite happily plays them off against each other, knowing that most of the men who pay court to her are after her money. She has no pressing need or desire to remarry, takes the occasional lover, and is content with her life as a rich, independent woman.

Until one night, she is confronted with a piece of her past in the form of Michael Layward, Duke of Wyverne. Eleven years ago, Caroline had been a debutante of nineteen, a beauty but without fortune, and had become fascinated with the mysteriously handsome and intense Layward. At a ball one evening the pair were caught in a passionate embrace, but instead of the expected marriage proposal, Michael left London almost immediately for his Lancashire estates, citing the imminent death of his father as the reason for his precipitate departure. His father’s death shortly afterwards left Michael in possession of a depleted estate and fortune and he never returned to London.

Caroline’s reputation was left in tatters and it was only the proposal of the elderly Earl of Stratton that restored her to the bosom of society.

The book is set in 1816, often referred to as “the year without a summer” and the dreadful weather has severely affected the plans Michael has made to further his attempts to pull himself out of debt. He’s a progressive, interested in new scientific advances and keen to employ new methods when it comes to the management and use of his land and assets. But crops are failing, land is flooded and all his avenues for obtaining credit are exhausted. If he is not to go bankrupt and destroy the livelihoods of all those who depend on him, he has but one option – to find himself a rich wife without delay.

Michael is a refreshingly different sort of romantic hero, a brilliant, intense, and very direct eccentric whose preference for tinkering with gadgets rather than schmoozing among the ton led to his being labelled “Mad Michael” all those years ago. He suffers from extreme social anxiety which can lead to panic attacks and headaches, and his dislike of social situations and, above all, situations over which he cannot exert a measure of control, is what caused him to flee London and not return for eleven years. But Michael is nothing if not conscientious. His concern for his land, property and tenants is uppermost in his mind and he knows what he must do if he is to ensure their futures.

Even a gap of eleven years cannot silence the gossipmongers. He’s a duke, so bound to be accepted in ballrooms and drawing rooms across London, but he is still “Mad Michael” to many. Yet to Caroline, he’s still Michael – handsome, endearing , fascinating, socially inept and frustrating in equal measure.

When Michael apprises her of his situation and his need to marry, Caroline – having already turned down his proposal of marriage –takes it upon herself to smooth his path through society and help him to find a bride.

While the direction the novel will ultimately take is no surprise, the journey on which Ms Romain takes her characters and the reader is full of subtlety and rich in emotional depth. Both protagonists change and develop throughout the story, having to face up to some unpleasant truths along the way which ultimately strengthen them and their relationship.

On the surface, Caroline has everything she wants – financial independence, the greater personal freedom that comes with widowhood and the ability, as she remarks several times, to do exactly as she likes. But it’s clear to the reader that she isn’t as happy as she makes out. She wants to be needed, which is partly why she is so keen to help Michael to further his marriage plans. She believes that his proposal to her was motivated purely by the need for her money rather than any need for her as a woman; Michael appears so self-contained and self-sufficient that she fears marriage to him would mean as lonely an existence as the one she lives now, and she is not prepared to settle for that. Especially given the fact that it doesn’t take long for Michael to worm his way back into her heart – not that he’d ever really left it since that fateful night a decade or so before.

Michael is a gorgeous hero, charmingly vulnerable yet implacable at the same time. He finds society completely baffling; people don’t say what they mean or mean what they say and –

The every day tasks that came easily to others – talking about the weather, dancing, laughing, flirting, lovemaking – were a struggle to him.

He is tightly buttoned emotionally most of the time, fearing the loss of control that comes with strong feelings, the sort of feelings that Caroline evokes in him. He doesn’t understand why she lives the way she does, putting up with fops and fools fawning over her when it doesn’t make her happy; and she tells him in no uncertain terms that his way of life – being completely devoted to work and duty – doesn’t appear to be making him happy either. Michael has to learn to make room in his life for happiness, love and affection, emotions with which he doesn’t have a great deal of experience.

To Charm a Naughty Countess is beautifully and intelligently written, with excellent characterisations across the board, and especially of the two principals. Michael and Caro at first seem to be complete opposites – she a social butterfly, he a recluse – but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that they are rather like two sides of the same coin as they seek to truly understand each other. I did think that perhaps Caro should have given Michael a couple of pointers as to her own wants occasionally – knowing him so well, she should have realised that perhaps he wasn’t able to discern her need to be desired for herself rather than for her money – although I can understand her need for him to work it out for himself.

The story is well-developed and displays a maturity in terms of the writing and the outlook of the characters that isn’t often found in historical romance nowadays. Ms Romain has found herself another place on my keeper shelf, and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.

Seducing Mr Knightly by Maya Rodale (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

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For ages, it seems, advice columnist Annabelle Swift has loved Derek Knightly, editor-owner of the London Weekly, from a distance. Determined to finally attract her boss’s attention, she seeks advice from her loyal readers, who offer Annabelle myriad suggestions, from lower-cut bodices (success!) and sultry gazes (disaster!) to a surprise midnight rendezvous (wicked!).

Derek never really took note of his shy, wallflower lady writer. But suddenly she’s exquisite, and he can’t get Annabelle out of his mind! She must be pursuing someone, but who? For some inexplicable reason, the thought of her with another man makes Knightly insanely jealous.

Rating: B for narration, B- for content

Seducing Mr. Knightly is the fourth and final book in Ms Rodale’s Writing Girls series, in which each of the four heroines are columnists for one of London’s foremost newspapers, The London Weekly.

Heroines 1-3 are now happily settled, so it’s the turn of number four, Miss Annabelle Swift, who pens the weekly advice column for the paper. She’s quiet and unassuming, wears ill-fitting, drab clothes, and resides with her brother and sour-mannered sister-in-law, who treats her as an unpaid servant.

While all the other Writing Girls certainly faced difficulties on their paths to true love, Annabelle’s is seemingly unnavigable. For the past three years, six months, three weeks, and two days, she has been hopelessly in love with Derek Knightly, the dashing, wickedly handsome owner and editor of the Weekly, a man who barely knows she exists.

After a bout of illness which laid her very low, she decides that perhaps it’s time to take control of her life and find a way to make Knightly notice her – but what should she do? So, instead of writing her usual column in which she answers questions and offers advice to readers, she asks a question of her own. How can she attract the attention of the man she’s loved from afar for years?

“Dear Annabelle’s search for love” suddenly becomes the talk of the town, much to Knightly’s astonishment. Even his regular coffee-house cronies, seasoned political hacks and critics are talking about little else – but he’s certainly not going to complain about something that’s increasing his readership, even if he finds the whole thing faintly ridiculous.

He carries on as usual, oblivious both to Annabelle and the identity of her beloved – until she starts taking some of the advice she receives, when he can no longer remain oblivious to the fact that there’s something worth looking at under those horribly shapeless, dull gowns.

While the story of “wallflower suffers unrequited love for gorgeous man she’s known for years” isn’t new, it’s rather refreshing to encounter an initially dowdy and unprepossessing character who determines to get out there and change her life rather than just submitting to fate and sitting in the shadows. And while it’s true that for the hero to suddenly notice the better dresses and nicer hairstyles when he’s never really noticed the person underneath doesn’t speak particularly well of him, Annabelle is savvy enough to know she’s got to start somewhere. And as Knightly – and others, including a handsome, young aristocrat – begin to take notice of her, Annabelle’s confidence grows, and she emerges from her shell. It’s that which ultimately captures Knightly’s attention – which is why I can live with the initial shallowness of his suddenly noticing she’s nice to look at.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Smuggler’s Moon by Cynthia Wright (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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A marriage begun in deception…

Feisty Julia Faircloth is used to managing the lives of her eccentric relatives, so when darkly dangerous Lord Sebastian Trevarre arrives in Bath and proposes to her shy sister Sarah, she switches places with the bride to save her from a shockingly carnal wedding night.

Against his better judgment, Sebastian consummates a marriage to the most provoking, appealing woman he’s ever known, and then is forced to live with her in his neglected yet enchanting estate on the coast of Cornwall. Life there is turbulent, not least because Sebastian keeps many secrets. Will his reckless pursuits succeed in restoring his fortune…or cost him the lady who holds his heart?

Step back in time to magical 1798 Cornwall, England, with Julia and Sebastian – and reunite with André and Devon Raveneau, as André discovers that his life and Sebastian’s are inextricably linked.

Rating: A for narration, B for content

Smuggler’s Moon is the first new book from Cynthia Wright in around twenty years, and is the first in a new series called The Raveneaus in Cornwall, set at the very end of the 18th century. Brother to a marquess, Lord Sebastian Trevarre has recently resigned his navy commission and returned to England with the intention of managing the horse-breeding business in Hampshire that he had helped his late mother to set up some years previously. But his brother has lost the bulk of the family fortune at the gaming tables, and Sebastian can think of only one way of amassing a suitably large amount of money quickly enough to enable him to achieve his goal. He repairs to Bath with the intention of gambling his way to solvency and meets with considerable success.

Not long after his arrival, he is unexpectedly confronted by Miss Julia Faircloth, who has discovered that her father owes Sebastian a great deal of money. Julia is one of life’s organisers and has spent most of her life managing the household because her parents were never able to deal with the practicalities of family life. There is a strong undercurrent of attraction between the pair from the moment they meet, but Sebastian recognises immediately that Julia is not the sort of woman who would make for an easy life. Which is why, following the sudden death of Mr Faircloth after he has lost his home and what little money he had left to Sebastian, the latter proposes marriage not to Julia, but to her timid sister, Sarah, believing she will make him a comfortable, docile wife who will allow him to do exactly as he pleases without challenge or interference.

Sarah is in love with someone else, and Julia, knowing her sister could never cope with a man like Sebastian, decides it’s down to her to find a way to keep a roof over her family’s head and to prevent Sarah’s marriage to a man who will make her miserable.

I admit, when I read in the synopsis that Julia tricks Sebastian into marrying her instead, I rolled my eyes at the idea. But Ms Wright actually manages to make it work fairly well, by setting up the scene in such a way as to make the possibility that Sebastian could mistake one sister for the other just vaguely plausible.

It’s only when the newlyweds arrive at Trevarre House in London that Sebastian learns the full extent of his brother’s recklessness. Not only has he gambled away the family fortune, he has sold off almost all his property and decamped to Italy.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals