Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – Narrated by Laura Paton

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Fiery, strong-willed Deb Grantham, who presides over a gaming house with her aunt, is hardly the perfect wife for the young and naive Lord Mablethorpe. His lordship’s family is scandalized that he proposes to marry one of “faro’s daughters”, and his cousin the proud, wealthy Max Ravenscar – decides to take the matter in hand. Ravenscar always gets his way, but as he and Miss Grantham lock horns, they become increasingly drawn to each other. Amidst all the misunderstandings and entanglements, has Ravenscar finally met his match?

Rating: B+ for narration, B for content

It’s been quite some time since I read Faro’s Daughter, and given my memories of it are rather hazy, listening to this was almost like listening to something completely new. It’s a little different to many of the author’s other romances in that the heroine, while certainly well-born, is not “respectable” because she runs the genteel gaming establishment that is owned by her aunt, Lady Bellingham. It also contains one of the most highly antagonistic central relationships that I can remember reading in her books – the hero and heroine’s barbed banter is often cutting to the point of unpleasantness and in fact, some of the epithets the hero flings at the heroine’s head are downright offensive.

Deborah Grantham and her younger brother were taken in by their aunt upon the death of their father, a man with a large appetite for gaming and very little luck. Lady Bellingham opens her home to “select gaming parties” as a way of making ends meet; preserving the illusion that people attend by invitation only allows her to maintain a façade of respectability.

Deborah is quick-witted, intelligent and practical, although at twenty-six years of age, she is pretty much on the shelf, and the fact that she presides over her aunt’s gaming salon renders her ineligible as a wife for any man of good breeding. Yet the young Viscount Maplethorpe professes himself in love with her and makes clear his desire to marry her – which throws his mother into a panic. She cannot possibly countenance Adrian’s marrying a common hussy – and while he is not yet of age, his birthday in two months’ time will see him finally independent and able to bestow his person and his considerable fortune anywhere he pleases.

In her desperation to prevent such an imprudent marriage, Lady Maplethorpe turns to her nephew, Max Ravenscar for help. Ravenscar is Adrian’s other guardian and is very shrewd, incredibly wealthy, doesn’t care much for society and cares even less for society’s opinion of him. He’s used to getting his own way, and is sure that he can avert disaster by offering the wench money to leave Adrian alone. He attends Lady Bellingham’s that evening to see “this cyprian of Adrian’s” – and is surprised to discover that she is not at all what he had expected. Far from looking, sounding or behaving like a trollop, Miss Grantham is rather lovely

“built on queenly lines, [she] carried her head well, and possessed a pretty wrist, and a neatly turned ankle. She looked to have a good deal of humour, and her voice, when she spoke, was low-pitched and pleasing.”

and he finds himself able to completely understand the reasons for his young cousin’s infatuation.

What Max has no way of knowing is that Deborah has not the slightest intention of marrying Adrian. She is well aware that the young man is merely suffering from a severe case of calf-love and has never given him the slightest encouragement or occasion to believe that she will accept his suit. She is sure he will soon grow out of his attachment to her and is quite happy to let things run their course, in spite of the fact that her aunt keeps dropping massive hints to the effect that Adrian’s fortune would obliterate their financial worries.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee

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In a Mayfair ballroom, beautiful Emma Northcote stands in amazement. For gazing at her, with eyes she’d know anywhere, is Ned Stratham—a man whose roguish charm once held her captivated.

But that was another life in another part of London.

With their past mired in secrets and betrayal, and their true identities now at last revealed, Ned realizes they can never rekindle their affair. For only he knows that they share a deeper connection—one that could make Emma hate him if she ever discovered the truth….

Rating: B-

Margaret McPhee packs a surprising emotional punch into the pages of The Gentleman Rogue, the story of a young, well-born woman whose fortunes have taken a downward turn and a self-made man who, despite his wealth is still relegated to the outskirts of the society to which the heroine once belonged.

Emma Northcote was brought up a lady but after her brother Kit staked – and lost – the family fortune in a game of chance, she and her father have been forced to move to a much less salubrious area of London and take employment in order to keep body and soul together. (How realistic it is for two ex-Mayfair residents who probably never worked a day in their lives to be able to do such a thing is something I question, but they’ve been working for some time when the book opens.)

One of the more recently arrived regulars at the Whitechapel chop house in which Emma works is a young, shabbily dressed man who exudes an aura of quiet strength and keeps himself very much to himself. Emma can’t help noticing that despite his worn trousers and jacket, his shirts are fine – and that he’s possessed of a very striking pair of blue eyes and a roguish scar through one eyebrow. He’s called Ned Stratham –and that’s all anybody knows about him.

Their interactions are limited – until one night, he saves Emma from the unwanted advances of a lascivious sailor, and shows himself to be a very dangerous man indeed when he single-handedly despatches not only the lothario himself but several of his gang.

After that, Emma and Ned strike up an acquaintance, but with a strong pull of attraction between them, it’s not long before this friendship leads to their exchanging passionate kisses each night when Ned walks Emma home to the shabby boarding house she inhabits with her father. Ms. McPhee sets up the central relationship really well in this early part of the book. Even through the prose is fairly sparse, it thoroughly conveys the intensity of the sexual attraction between Ned and Emma, and communicates that combination of nerves and wonder that accompanies the first flush of infatuation and attraction very well.

One of the things I liked immediately about the story is that Ned is as much caught up in the sudden rush of feeling as Emma is. There’s none of the desperation to avoid entanglements or attempt to conceal his feelings so often shown by heroes in historical romances – he’s found the woman for him and he can admit it to himself and is prepared to do so to her. But he’s not the man she thinks he is – he may have been born and bred in the City, but he’s worked hard to amass a fortune, owns many businesses and owns a residence in one of the most highly sought-after locations in Mayfair. Despite his almost indecent wealth, Ned is well aware that the people who are keen to know him in order to do business with him merely tolerate him and that were they not desperate to gain something from their association, they would cut him dead.

When Emma receives an offer of alternative employment as companion to the dowager Lady Lamerton, she is reluctant to take it up. She wants to obtain information as to her brother’s whereabouts and knows that her best chance of doing that is to mingle amongst her former circle – but her eagerness to return to that world has diminished since she met Ned. Yet her father’s anxiety – and her own – on Kit’s behalf are too great to ignore and she takes the position while Ned is out of town.

Ned is devastated when he discovers that Emma has left her job and that she and her father have removed from the boarding house – but as he has so often had to do before, he locks his feelings away and returns his focus to his current business deal, which he regards as the most important of his life. Marrying for love had never been his intention anyway – up until he met Emma, Ned had been angling to find himself a titled wife to smooth his way into society in order to pursue his business interests.

High Society being a relatively small group of people, it’s not long before Emma, accompanying her employer to an event, spies a well-dressed, well-built man with striking blue eyes in the company of a viscount’s daughter. But Ned isn’t the only one who has been keeping secrets – and while Emma’s is more of a sin of omission, it’s still something guaranteed to drive a wedge between them.

Yes, it’s a well-worn plot and yes, the reasons behind Ned’s actions are perhaps a little too idealistically altruistic, but what kept me reading this book was the depth of emotion on display. I can forgive much in the plotting department when an author tugs at my heartstrings, and Ms. McPhee certainly does that towards the end of the story. There are a small number of instances when the prose tends toward the purplish, usually in the moments of heightened emotions, but the principals are likeable and taken as a whole, The Gentleman Rogue is a well-written, enjoyable read.

The Baron Next Door by Erin Knightley

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After an exhausting Season, Bath’s first annual music festival offers Charity the perfect escape. Between her newly formed trio and her music-loving grandmother, Charity is free to play the pianoforte to her heart’s content. That is, until their insufferably rude, though undeniably handsome, neighbor tells her to keep the “infernal racket” to a minimum.

Hugh Danby, Baron Cadgwith, may think he’s put an end to the noise, but he has no idea what he’s begun. Though the waters of Bath provide relief from the suffering of his war injuries, he finds his new neighbor bothersome, vexing, and… inexplicably enchanting. Before long, Hugh suspects that even if his body heals, it’s his heart that might end up broken.

Rating: C+

This is the first in a new trilogy of books by Ms Knightley, in which the heroines are musicians. It’s a pleasantly light-hearted read, although I found it lacking in substance overall, and the romance is somewhat underdeveloped.

Miss Charity Effington has gone to Bath to stay with her grandmother following the scandal caused by her broken engagement (which happened in A Taste for Scandal). A very talented pianist and musician, she plans to enter the inaugural “Summer Serenade in Somerset” festival, and spends most of her time practicing for her recital.

Her next door neighbour, Hugh Danby, Baron Cadgwith, is not at all enamoured either of Charity’s playing or music in general. Having suffered a serious neck and upper spinal injury in the war, he has been left with a chronic condition (compression of the spinal cord) which can see him debilitated, in great pain and confined to bed for days on end. As this is a condition which can be brought on by loud noise, listening to music is one of the things he is no longer able to do, so being forced to listen to his neighbour practicing at all hours of the day for hours on end through the thin walls is a form of torture for him.

At their first meeting, Hugh is disparaging and sarcastic, making very clear his objections to Charity’s playing. Unfortunately for him, his words have the opposite effect to the one he had intended; Charity is not at all cowed by his comments about her music and instead plays even more instead of less. I can’t help but think that if he’d been reasonable enough to explain a bit and request a change to her routine rather than try to ride roughshod over her, the effect would have been more beneficial, but had he done that, this would be a much shorter book!

Charity is, of course, infuriated by her neighbour’s high-handedness, but that doesn’t prevent her from noticing he’s a hottie. Subsequent encounters reveal to her that there is something lurking in the depths of Hugh’s eyes showing that perhaps he isn’t everything he seemed at their first meeting. She also notices the signs of strain and fatigue that seem ever-present in his face, and starts to wonder what may have put them there in such a young and seemingly vital gentleman.

For his part, Hugh can’t help being intrigued by Charity, and the strange mixture of reticence and boldness he has seen her exhibit. He knows he shouldn’t allow himself to be charmed by her – he has long since determined that he can’t ask any woman to share the life of a broken-down invalid – but he can’t help himself.

The story is thus one in which our two protagonists are presented with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Music is an integral part of Charity’s life, while for Hugh, it’s something he actively avoids.

I appreciate the fact that Ms Knightley doesn’t trivialise Hugh’s condition by suddenly affecting a miracle cure for him. He is in Bath to ‘take the waters’, and discovers that his bathing sessions do actually help him somewhat. He ends the book still afflicted, yet with a new determination to live his life and to try to find a way to move forward.

As a musician, I always like reading books in which one or more of the principals is musical, and that’s what initially drew me to this title. Charity is a composer as well as a pianist, and there are a couple of very poignant moments in the story in which she pours heart and soul into improvising a piece of music that encompasses her feelings for Hugh. The problem with stories about musicians is that it’s an art that isn’t easy to translate into words, and to my mind, there is too much rhapsodising about “tinkling notes” and “dancing fingers”. And while I can understand the author’s need to at least attempt to convey the effects and sounds of the music, sentences like: ”The shapes elongated and narrowed, rounded out and stretched thin.”and ”She allowed each note to stand, to rise from the steel strings from which it was born, and roll out like ribbons from a maypole, caught in a night wind.” are rather too much waffle for my taste.

Something I found a little confusing in the book was in the naming of one of the secondary characters (who I imagine will be the hero of his own book at some point) – Lord Derington. He is introduced as such, but then someone called Dering appears and it took me a minute to realise they are the same person. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or a typographical error, but if it’s a shortening, it isn’t made clear.

Overall, The Baron Next Door is a quick, and enjoyable read. Ms. Knightley’s writing is deft and flows well, with Hugh’s character being the more rounded of the two protagonists. Charity is less well-drawn, and being almost wholly defined through her music makes her seem one-dimensional. The things we discover about her – such as her dislike of confrontation – are things we’re told rather than shown, and I’m not completely convinced that she would have been quite so forthcoming in making her interest in him known to Hugh.

But with those reservations in mind, if you’re looking for a light-hearted, clean romance as a pleasant way to spend a spare afternoon, this might be just the thing.

The Boleyn King (Boleyn Trilogy #1) by Laura Andersen (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Vance

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Just seventeen years old, Henry IX, known as William, is a king bound by the restraints of the regency yet anxious to prove himself. With the French threatening battle and the Catholics sowing the seeds of rebellion at home, William trusts only three people: his older sister Elizabeth; his best friend and loyal counselor, Dominic; and Minuette, a young orphan raised as a royal ward by William’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

Against a tide of secrets, betrayal, and murder, William finds himself fighting for the very soul of his kingdom. Then, when he and Dominic both fall in love with Minuette, romantic obsession looms over a new generation of Tudors. One among them will pay the price for a king’s desire, as a shocking twist of fate changes England’s fortunes forever.

Rating: B+ for narration, B+ for content

The Boleyn King is the first book in a trilogy set in an “alternative” Tudor time-line, and having thoroughly enjoyed the books in print, I was really pleased to see that they’ve been made into audiobooks with the extremely talented Simon Vance on board as narrator.

The trilogy is founded upon an intriguing premise – what if Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who had lived to succeed his father?

In The Boleyn King, William Tudor (who will be crowned as Henry IX) is in the final year of his minority. Since the death of his father, Henry VIII, England has been governed by a protectorate under the control of the clever, powerful and wily George Boleyn (brother of Anne), the Duke of Rochford. Being the first book in a trilogy, it takes time in setting up the relationships that are central to all three books – namely those between the characters of William, his sister Elizabeth, William’s closest friend, Dominic Courtenay and Elizabeth’s attendant, Genevieve Wyatt (known as “Minuette”). The friendship dynamic between these four is crucial to the story as it develops – Will, the young king-in-waiting is clever, but impulsive; Dominic, five years older and a soldier of renown, is the restraining hand, the one man Will knows will always tell him the truth, no matter how unpalatable. Elizabeth is highly intelligent, more considered than William and loves her brother dearly, and Minuette is the life-and-soul, a vivacious and generous spirit who is ever the peacemaker – with a backbone as steely as the most practiced courtier.

It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving too much away. Anyone familiar with historical fiction set in this period will have a good idea of what to expect – plenty of court intrigue and political manoeuvring, with lives often lived on the knife-edge of royal approval. The story is certainly full of all those ingredients, right from the start when Minuette and Dominic discover the body of a young woman – also one of Elizabeth’s attendants – lying at the bottom of a staircase. Did she fall, or was she pushed? The plot thickens the following morning when Minuette receives a letter from the dead woman containing a seemingly meaningless message, which, once Dom has decoded it, seems to point to the fact that the woman had been involved in a potentially treasonous plot to question William’s parentage and thus, his right to the throne.

In addition to this, there is the ever-present threat to the throne embodied by William’s half-sister Mary who, although living quietly away from court, is nonetheless the focus for the nation’s disgruntled Catholics. The treaty with France that Rochford is attempting to negotiate is foundering, meaning England is faced with the prospect of war with France once again, and at home, Minuette and Elizabeth become embroiled in the search for a document which purports to prove William’s illegitimacy and which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could incite civil war.

The story is well-paced and quite complex, so this isn’t the sort of audiobook that’s easy to keep up with without giving it one’s full attention – although fortunately, it’s so interesting that’s not difficult to do.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Duke’s Obsession by Frances Fowlkes

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London 1818

An American Heiress Who Must Swallow Her Pride

Miss Daphne Farrington despises three things: England’s dreary weather, the grimy streets of London, and most especially the English aristocracy. Despite her misgivings, she must persuade the very English Duke of Waverly to save her family shipping business. If only she could ignore the way he makes her pulse race whenever she’s near him.

A Duke Who Must Overcome Her Prejudice

Edward Lacey, the Duke of Waverly, is convinced that the lovely Miss Farrington, with her penchant for numbers, is the woman he’d like to make his Duchess. But unless he can convince her that not all English lords are callous, calculating rakes, a dark secret will ruin his chance at happiness.

Rating: D

I picked up this category-length novel because I was intrigued by the idea of the heroine’s character having a “penchant for numbers”. I’ve come across quite a few books lately where the hero is some sort of mathematical or scientific whizz-kid, but it’s less common to find a heroine where that is the case.

Unfortunately, however, I was destined to be disappointed, as it seems that the heroine’s mathematical superpowers are pretty much limited to adding, subtracting and balancing the books.

Daphne Farrington has come to London from Boston with her brother, Thomas, who is visiting to check on their father’s shipping business. Daphne and her numerical superpowers are looking over the paperwork relating to a business deal they are about to conclude when she discovers that the documents are inaccurate and that the terms of the agreement have been surreptitiously altered.

So she does what any stereotypical, brash, American female would do and barges into her brother’s office steaming mad to share her discovery with her brother and his guests, Edward, the Duke of Waverly and the duke’s man of business, Mr Burnham. Needless to say, Burnham attempts to mask his guilt with indignation and by pointing out that Daphne is a mere woman and thus incapable of understanding the intricacies of such things.

Once Daphne is proved correct, Burnham leaves, but not before shaking his fist at her screaming “I’ll get you my pretty!” Well, no, he doesn’t – I just made that up, but he might as well have done, as he then proceeds to encourage Farrington’s investors to remove their cargos from their ships.

Thomas is naturally pretty pissed off at this turn of events, and tells Daphne she has to fix it by making the Duke aware of what’s happening and asking for his help. But the thing is, Daphne absolutely hates Englishmen and especially hates titled Englishmen, because she blames them for the death of their brother after he’d been impressed into service on an English ship several years previously. And not only that, but all titled Englishmen are arrogant, pompous, selfish bastards who should all go the way of Louis XVI.

But Daphne does as her brother asks and speaks to the very handsome Duke of Waverly who, in spite of his being a duke, is neither pompous nor a bastard, and whose touch makes her tingle. He agrees to help by investing in their shipping firm – on one condition. Daphne must give him the chance to prove to her that he’s not like all the other English nobility and see him as a man rather than as a duke.

To this end, he invites the Farringtons to a house party at his country estate – and while there Daphne’s mathematical superpowers and her ability to subtract one from five and get four instead of three shows that Burnham has been cheating his employer for years and that the estate books aren’t merely cooked, they’ve been served up au gratinée avec un soupçon de sauce Roquefort.

As for the “dark secret” that may “ruin his chance at happiness” – pfft! It’s pretty obvious from the outset what this is, and it’s also obvious that because Edward is keen to put Daphne in the picture before anyone else does, he’s going to leave it too late, thus ensuring their eternal separation. (Woe!)

Not only does it turn out to be a dumb secret, but rather than having Daphne come to terms with the knowledge, the author wimps out and instead has it turn out to be someone else’s fault all along.

The story, such as it is, isn’t really enough to fill even a category-length book. It’s slow-moving, and even the old cliché of “we must seek shelter from this terrible storm in this little cottage!” is wasted as there is no ensuing rumpy-pumpy to pass the time. Besides being one of those stereotypical breath-of-fresh-air, free-thinking, outspoken Americans that so often appear in the pages of Historical Romance, Daphne is a completely unsympathetic heroine. Edward quite rightly calls her – more than once – on the fact that she refuses to see past her prejudices. Her reaction to the “secret” when it’s revealed towards the end is ridiculously over the top, although Edward’s isn’t particularly helpful either. He’s much easier to like, but I couldn’t get my head around the fact that a thirty-five year old man would have put up with such a repellent and interfering mother for so long. Oh, he tells her where to get off, but I got the impression that up to this point, he’d been one of those men who just switched off when she started talking and agreed with her for a quiet life. Which isn’t an especially attractive quality in a romantic hero.

The writing is workmanlike at best, and the characterisation barely manages to be two-dimensional. There’s no depth or sophistication to the story and there are a number of typos, words used incorrectly and other simple errors – for example, crumpets are not made using sugar and a “deduction” is not an arithmetical term meaning “subtraction”.

If you want a quick, entertaining read for a wet afternoon – or even one in the sun – I suggest you look elsewhere for it.

Dancing in the Wind by Mary Jo Putney (Audiobook) – Narrated by William Kirby

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Like his nickname, Lucifer, Lord Strathmore is know for unearthly beauty and diabolical cleverness. A tragic past has driven Lucien to use his formidable talents to protect his country from hidden enemies. It’s a job he does superbly well—until he meets a mysterious woman whose skill at deception is the equal of his own. By turns glamorous and subdued, his enchanting adversary baffles his mind even as she dazzles his senses.

A perilous mission has forced Kit Travers into a deadly gave of shifting identities and needful lies, where a single misstep might cost Kit her life. But her disguises are easily penetrated by the Earl of Strathmore, who may be a vital ally—or a lethal enemy.

Unwilling to trust, yet unable to part, Kit and Lucien join forces to search the dangerous underside of London society. Yet even two master deceivers cannot escape passion’s sensual web—or from an impossible love more precious than life itself.

Rating: Narration D- Content B-

Some of Mary Jo Putney’s books have been available in audio format for a number of years, but the author has recently begun self-publishing some of her back catalogue in audio format.

So far, she has released books one and two (or three, depending on which listing you read!) in her Fallen Angels series – Thunder and Roses and Dancing on the Wind, and the standalone book, The Bargain, which is a personal favourite in print. Each title has used a different, unknown narrator, and although I haven’t listened to Thunder and Roses, I have listened to the other two and find myself sadly unable to recommend either of them because the performances are very disappointing.

The story of Dancing on the Wind is an intriguing mix of espionage, romance and mystery, laced with a bit of the (IMO, rather silly) paranormal. The hero, Lucien Fairchild, Earl of Strathmore has, for a number of years, worked for British intelligence, and at the beginning of the story is attempting to infiltrate a group of men known as the “Hellions Club”, a society dedicated to the pursuit of debauchery of all kinds – because he believes that one member of their inner circle is a French spy.

While he is engaged in proving to the Hellions that he’s worthy of initiation into the group, Lucien comes into contact on several occasions with a mysterious young woman masquerading as, variously, a servant, a buxom barmaid, an actress and a courtesan. Not a man to be easily swayed by female charms, Lucien is nonetheless intrigued by the woman, and becomes more and more determined to find out who she is and what she’s up to. After several encounters, she realises that Lucien is nothing if not persistent, and eventually discloses something of the truth; that she is in fact the radical journalist L.J. Knight who has penned a number of reformist articles for London newspapers. She is also writing an exposé of the Hellions Club, following claims that they are far more depraved than the original Hellfire Club, and that they are involved in kidnap, torture and murder.

That, however, is not the whole story. Lady Katherine (Kit) Travers is an extremely determined young woman, who, for the last few months, been living a double life. Her identical twin sister, Kira (Kristine) – who is a celebrated comic actress – has disappeared, and Kit is desperate to find her. Reasoning that the best way to learn about Kira’s life is to actually live it, Kit spends her time either pretending to be Kira on stage, or in disguise, investigating her sister’s disappearance. She suspects that one of the members of the Hellion Club is responsible, and being unable to find anyone to take her concerns seriously, has taken the investigation into her own hands.

The story is quite complex, especially in the first half, when Lucien isn’t quite sure which of the two sisters he is pursuing or falling for; and there are some rather odd “interludes” which have a definite S&M bent – that seem at first to be dreams or memories of Kit’s – although as the story develops, it emerges that is not the case.

I wasn’t convinced by the slightly supernatural nature of the connection between the sisters. I know people often say that twins have more than a sixth sense when it comes to their sibling, but the psychic connection between Kat and Kira and their ability to experience each other’s dreams was a little too far-fetched for my taste.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Mrs McVinnie’s London Season by Carla Kelly

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Widowed at 24 by war, Jeannie McVinnie wishes to free her father-in-law to join his old regiment for a Highlands fishing trip. She practices a small deception by accepting an invitation issued to another Jeannie McVinnie: a plea for help from Captain William Summers to his former nursemaid to oversee the London Season of his spoiled ward. Their chaotic household also includes the captain’s snobbish sister, a boy eager for adventure, and a desolate child. The task is daunting, but Mrs. McVinnie finds herself aided by her Scottish brogue, country-bred beauty, plain-speaking, and Beau Brummell himself, that supremely influential dandy of all dandies. Tempting as the Beau might be, Jeannie is drawn to gruff, quixotic Captain Summers. But what kind of future can a man so shackled to life at sea offer a woman who yearns for her own Scottish hearth? And how can she explain the secret she is hiding from those dear to her?

Rating: B-

Originally published in 1990, Mrs McVinnie’s London Season tells the story of a young, Scottish war widow who, rather like a Regency Mary Poppins, joins the household of a troubled family and, with her very individual blend of kindness, practicality and backbone, improves the lot of each of its members.

Widowed little more than a year previously, twenty-four-year-old Jeannie McVinnie lives quietly in Kircudbright with her late husband’s father. When she receives a letter imploring her to come to London to become the companion of a young lady she has never heard of, Jeannie is mystified. It is signed by a Captain William Summers – whom she doesn’t know either – but Mr. McVinnie explains that his late sister had also been named Jean, and that she had been nanny to a family of that name, so the missive must have been meant for her. The letter tells of a spoiled young débutante, a petulant sister and a sickly nephew – and, reading between the lines, of Captain Summers’ frustration and annoyance at the situation in which he has been placed.

Even though she knows she is not the McVinnie for whom the letter was intended, Jeannie makes up her mind to go to London to see what can be done – partly to assuage her own restlessness and partly so that Mr. McVinnie can leave town for a few weeks in order to attend a gathering of his former military comrades.

Arriving at the Summers residence at a hectic moment, Jeannie is mistaken for a seamstress and bundled upstairs immediately in order to make alterations to young Larinda’s dress. Repaid by insult and ill-manners from both the young woman and her aunt, Jeannie decides straightaway that this is not the place for her and that she will head back to Scotland as soon as she can. Before she can turn tail, however, she is summoned to attend Captain Summers and a loose button.

She is immediately struck by the Captain’s air of stern authority, but decides he is too forbidding a man for comfort. He is short with Jeannie, but not rude, although she can sense he’s having trouble holding himself in check given the disruption to his routine and household caused by his niece’s upcoming début.

Summers’ anger is not merely due to disruption and his sister’s continual fits of the vapours. He is furious because, in time of war, he has been ordered back to shore by Lord Charles Smeath – his superior at the Admiralty and Larinda’s other uncle – simply because Smeath does not want to act as the girl’s escort during the Season.

When Jeannie owns the truth of her identity, the captain’s reaction is unexpected. Instead of anger or annoyance that she is not his elderly former nanny, he all but commands her to remain. Larinda must have a chaperone and companion, and Jeannie’s no-nonsense attitude is just what is needed.

Reluctantly agreeing to stay for a short time, Jeannie quickly makes her presence felt. She alerts Summers to the poor treatment being meted out to his four-year-old ward, befriends his nephew, Edward, and accompanies him on an outing to the Tower of London where a visit to the menagerie brings her to the attention of no less august a personage than Beau Brummell himself. Larinda’s determination to have nothing to do with this “nobody” lasts rather longer, but she eventually comes to realise the value of the friendship that has been offered to her and is grateful for Jeannie’s companionship and advice.

And the captain, a lonely man in an even lonelier profession finds himself, for the very first time, not as delighted at the prospect of returning to the sea as he has been in the past.

Carla Kelly fashions a charming romance between two ‘ordinary’ people, and also displays her customary eye for historical detail, especially in those scenes which detail the circumstances faced by the common sailor. She makes no bones about the precarious nature of naval life, often referring to it as the most dangerous of the armed services. Summers makes jokes about the smell and taste of four-month-old drinking water, and of his fondness for hard ship’s biscuits and simple food, but underpinning the humour are both his acknowledgement of the hardships of his chosen life as well as his abiding love for it.

Jeannie is clever and possessed of a healthy dose of common sense, things which attract Summers in no small degree, as does her affectionate, loving nature. She discovers an innate kindness behind the captain’s austere exterior, and, despite her avowed intention never to marry another military man, finds herself falling for him. While he cuts a dash, certainly in Jeannie’s eyes, Summers is neither young nor strikingly handsome, but he’s an attractive hero, possessed of considerable perception and a ready, dry wit. While their relationship does progress rather quickly, there is a depth to the connection between them that makes it believable, although a future together is not assured given Summers’ love for life at sea and Jeannie’s disinclination to marry another man who will spend months at a time away from home. There are some highly moving moments of acuity into the nature of loneliness and loss, and the secret in Jeannie’s past which is alluded to, while not dark or shameful, is tragic and pulls at the heartstrings.

Mrs McVinnie’s London Season is a quick, enjoyable read which possesses considerable insight and substance, despite its relative brevity. I do have a couple of reservations, however, one of which is that Jeannie is a bit too good to be true. I likened her to Mary Poppins at the beginning of this review, and she really is practically perfect in every way; befriending the younger children and getting through Larinda’s frostiness; winning the captain’s heart (perhaps I should be comparing her to Maria von Trapp!) and towards the end, putting others before herself, even when she receives a terrible blow.

The other is that there is a lot of disregard for convention when Jeannie and Summers are together. She might be a widow, and thus allowed a little more lassitude in her dealings with the opposite sex, but there is a lot of hand-holding and squeezing, and they have several conversations while alone together in her bedroom. This is a clean romance, so there is no hanky-panky taking place, but it still wasn’t the done thing for a man to visit a woman’s room unless they were blood relations.

At the end of the book, while Jeannie and Summers have decided they want to be together, they clearly have much to work out between them in terms of what they want from life and each other. And that’s why I’m saying that the ending is more of an HFN than an HEA. Jeannie knows Summers will not give up the sea, and he knows she wants a permanent home and children. Yet the relationship we have seen evolve is honest and open enough to leave the reader with a sense of optimism about their future. And this reader is certainly content to believe that they love each other enough to be able to make it work.