A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong (novella) by Cecilia Grant

xmas-perfectly-wrong-225

It should have been simple…

With one more errand to go—the purchase of a hunting falcon—Andrew Blackshear has Christmas completely under control. As his sister’s impending marriage signals the inevitable drifting-apart of the Blackshear family, it’s his last chance to give his siblings the sort of memorable, well-planned holiday their parents could never seem to provide.

He has no time to dawdle, no time for nonsense, and certainly no time to drive the falconer’s vexing, impulsive, lush-lipped, midnight-haired daughter to a house party before heading home. So why the devil did he agree to do just that?

It couldn’t be more deliciously mixed-up…

Lucy Sharp has been waiting all her too-quiet life for an adventure, and she means to make the most of this one. She’s going to enjoy the house party as no one has ever enjoyed a house party before, and in the meanwhile she’s going to enjoy every minute in the company of amusingly stern, formidably proper, outrageously handsome Mr. Blackshear. Let him disapprove of her all he likes—it’s not as though they’ll see each other again after today.

…or will they? When a carriage mishap and a snowstorm strand the pair miles short of their destination, threatening them with scandal and jeopardizing all their Christmas plans, they’ll have to work together to save the holiday from disaster. And along the way they just might learn that the best adventures are the ones you never would have thought to plan.

Rating: A-

It’s been some time since Ms Grant published her last full-length novel, so I was delighted when I read that she would be putting out a novella for Christmas.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is a prequel to her Blackshear family novels, and features the eldest brother, Andrew, who is also a kind of substitute father to his younger siblings (who include Martha, Will and Nick, who we have met in the novels.) He comes across as rather a stuffy young man – intent on maintaining propriety and doing the right thing all the time – even when perhaps what is “proper” may not be “right”, such as when he encounters a very bedraggled young woman traipsing along a muddy lane and propriety dictates she should ignore her because they don’t know each other.

The young woman turns out – of course – to be the daughter of the man he is going to visit. Feeling rather off balance, Andrew is rendered further so by the dinner conversation, which he finds completely unsuitable and far too unconventional in tone. Lucy Sharp is vivacious, and as free-thinking as her father, and Andrew can’t wait to be on his way home. With one of his sisters about to marry, this is the last Christmas they will spend together, and he is determined to make it their best Christmas ever. But one thing leads to another, and he finds himself escorting Lucy to a house-party which is not far out of his way. Their carriage is damaged in a snowstorm and they have no alternative but to pose as a married couple in order to protect Lucy’s reputation when they are rescued and offered shelter by an older couple who are spending their first Christmas without the company of their recently married daughter. Having to maintain the pretence causes some awkwardness (especially at night!) but leads also to some truly charming moments, such as when Andrew asks Lucy to dance at a party. So while their Christmases don’t turn out as planned, they nonetheless turn out to be better than either could ever have believed possible.

At its most basic, this story is one those in which an overly starchy hero is loosened up by a lively young woman – but this is Cecilia Grant, and it turns out to be so much more than that. Lucy has been brought up to believe that actually doing good is more important than the appearance of it, whereas Andrew is adamant on maintaining appearances as well as doing the right thing. But the thing is that while he seems like a stuffed shirt, he’s actually very considerate of others, which is where he and Lucy eventually find much common ground.

This is a beautifully written, beautifully observed story, featuring two well-rounded characters who aren’t always easy to like, but who are very engaging nonetheless. Yes, there were times I wanted to smack Andrew and tell him to loosen up a little, or yell at Lucy to stop and think about what she was doing or saying, but that’s one of the joys of Cecilia Grant’s writing – her characters feel like real people precisely because they’re not perfect.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is a terrific read and one I’d not hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a well-written seasonal story.

Advertisements

Her Christmas Earl (novella) by Anna Campbell

her christmas earl

No good deed goes unpunished…

To save her hen-witted sister from scandal, Philippa Sanders ventures into a rake’s bedroom—and into his power. Now her reputation hangs by a thread and only a hurried marriage can rescue her. Is the Earl of Erskine the heartless libertine the world believes? Or will Philippa discover unexpected honor in a man notorious for his wild ways?

Blair Hume, the dissolute Earl of Erskine, has had his eye on the intriguing Miss Sanders since he arrived at this deadly dull house party. Now a reckless act delivers this beguiling woman into his hands as a delightful Christmas gift. Is fate offering him a fleeting Yuletide diversion? Or will this Christmas Eve encounter spark a passion that lasts a lifetime?

Rating: B

If the set-up of this Christmas novella seems familiar, it’s because Anna Campbell originally wrote the opening pages of this story back in 2012 in response to a prompt by a blogger, which was – “A Wardrobe Malfunction on Christmas Eve”. She says she “immediately fell in love with the characters and their dilemma” and Her Christmas Earl is the resulting story.

Philippa Sanders has lived her life in the background, eclipsed by her elder sister’s golden beauty and relegated to a position of unimportance by her domineering mother. It’s Christmas Eve, and the ladies are guests at the annual house-party held by Philippa’s uncle, where her sister is about to announce her betrothal to a worthy young man. But Amelia is not content with this arrangement, and has determined instead on attracting the notice of the young, handsome and rakish Earl of Erskine. To this effect, she pens him a rather explicit letter which she realises too late could have serious repercussions should its contents be made public.

Amelia sends Philippa to retrieve the letter. Not happy about it but seeing no alternative, Philippa sneaks into Erskine’s room but her search is interrupted when the gentleman himself returns unexpectedly. She hides in the dressing-room, only to be confronted by a shirtless and rather annoyed earl who decides she needs to be taught a lesson on the subject of the dangers of breaking into a gentleman’s room. Unfortunately, the lesson backfires when the lock on the door jams and the pair wind up locked inside a dark, confined space.

Erskine is immediately impressed with Philippa’s calm acceptance of their situation. Where another young lady might have screamed blue murder, Philippa very sensibly hands him a coat for warmth and then settles in with him to wait for someone to open the door. During the course of their conversation, he reveals that he has noticed her far more than it appears she has noticed him – something which wounds his manly pride just a bit – and Philippa is astonished to think that such a gorgeous specimen of manhood could possibly have taken an interest in her rather than her lovely sister.

Of course, disaster eventually strikes when the door is opened, and things progress from there as one might expect. There is a big brouhaha which ends with Erskine’s asking Philippa’s uncle for her hand, and preparations begin for a hasty wedding. Philippa is miserable, hating the idea that she has trapped a man into marriage, and comes up with a plan to get them out of it. But to her amazement, Erskine won’t be dissuaded!

I confess, I’m rather a fan of the compromised-into-marriage trope, and this one pushed all my buttons. And not only that, we have a rakish hero who is getting a bit tired of life as a Jack-the-Lad and a heroine who is constantly overlooked because she’s not as obvious a beauty as her spoiled sister. Icing on the Christmas cake as far as I’m concerned!

But what, in the hands of a lesser author, could have been a trite little non-story is turned into something considerably more than that by Ms. Campbell, who manages to give a surprising depth to her protagonists in a very short space of time. In fact, almost the last third of the novella is devoted to Erskine and Philippa’s wedding night, but it’s much more than just an extended sex-scene. It contributes to the development of the relationship between the newly-married pair and serves to shed more light on their emotions and characters.

Erskine is utterly charming, a man who is coming to realise that it’s time to grow up and assume his responsibilities as both an earl and as a man. He’s intrigued by and attracted to Philippa’s intelligence and strength of character, and wishes very much to show her the best of himself. Philippa’s conditioning and insecurities lead her to believe their marriage is not something Erskine would have wished for himself, but fortunately – and possibly because of the constraints of a limited page-count – she doesn’t spend too much time wallowing in self-pity, but rather allows herself to see the good man that her new husband undoubtedly is, and to give him her love and trust.

Her Christmas Earl is very well-written and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s funny, tender and warm, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good story that can be read in under an hour or so.

[One small caveat – on my Kindle, the novella itself ends at around the 75% mark with the rest of the space devoted to excerpts from two of Ms Campbell’s other titles.]

Blame it on Bath (The Truth About the Duke #2) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Gildart Jackson

blameonbath

A marriage of convenience – or of destiny? Gerard de Lacey is determined to find the man who is blackmailing his family, but with his inheritance and status at risk, a hasty marriage to a wealthy bride also seems in order – just in case things take a turn for the worse. Charismatic and capable, Gerard knows he can win the hand of any lady he chooses. Still, he’s not expecting a rich widow to find him and propose the very thing he wants: a marriage of convenience.

Katherine Howe’s first marriage was one of dreary duty. Now that she’s being pressured to marry her late husband’s heir, she’s desperate for a better option. Gerard de Lacey, with his sinful good looks, charming manner, and looming scandal, fits her needs perfectly. The fact that she’s nursed a secret affection for him only makes it better – and worse. Because Gerard will likely marry her for her fortune – but can he love her for herself, as she loves him?

Rating: Narration B+; Content: A-

Blame It on Bath is the second book in Ms Linden’s The Truth About the Duke series, which features the three sons of the late Duke of Durham. On his deathbed, the duke tells his two youngest sons – Edward and Gerard – that he had been blackmailed because someone had discovered a marriage that predated his marriage to their mother, and that there is a chance that they are all illegitimate.

Each book in the series follows one of the brothers as he makes the attempt, in his own way, to discover the truth. The first book, One Night in London, follows Edward, the middle brother, and in this one Gerard (the youngest) – more of a man of action than his brother and perhaps rather more impatient – formulates his own plan to track down the blackmailer.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Under the Mistletoe (anthology) by Mary Balogh

undermistletoe

In this beautifully written “Christmas gift to her readers” (Booklist) New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh draws on the warmth of the holiday season to heal the wounds of the human heart in five cherished novellas of family, friends, lovers, and strangers….

Rating: C+

This is a collection of five short stories/novellas, most of which I believe have been available in other collections except for A Family Christmas which was a new story at time of publication, and is my favourite of the set.

There’s something about the way Mary Balogh writes Christmas-themed stories which puts her in a class of her own. She’s said herself that she always thinks of Christmas itself as the third major character in her festive novels and stories – these aren’t books that could be set at any other time of year as is the case with so many others – and that’s certainly strongly displayed by the messages espoused of love, reconciliation and hope that are woven into them. There are no heavy-handed religious messages in the stories, although given that at the time period in which they are set, the religious aspect of the festival – and people’s lives in general – was much more prominent than perhaps it is today, Ms Balogh quite rightly does make references to the Christian aspects of this particular holiday.

While I enjoyed the collection overall, I have one particular issue with the execution which applies to almost all of these vignettes, which is that the short-story or novella format doesn’t allow for much in the way of character or relationship development. In two or three of them, the principals fall in love at warp speed, which does stretch one’s credulity somewhat. But perhaps I’m more tolerant at this time of year – I was still able to enjoy what I read in spite of the massive contrivances needed to get the principals where they needed to be at the end of each story.

In A Family Christmas an estranged husband and wife make an unexpected connection—and an illuminating discovery—during the holiday season.

This novella reminded me a bit of the fabulous A Christmas Promise, which I read for the first time last year, and which is now a Christmas staple. A young couple who have been married for less than a year have spent most of that year apart, thanks to the efforts of the wife’s horribly snobbish Mama. She never ceases to remind her daughter of the fact that her new husband, while inordinately wealthy and who has in fact rescued them from the brink of impecuniosity, is a mere cit who will never be worthy of her. She even treats him like dirt on his rare visits home – and he, seeing his wife meekly allowing it, decides he’s better off in London. Returning home for Christmas to the wife he regards as cold and the baby son he has hardly seen, Edwin Chambers wants to see if there is any hope for the marriage, or if his wife is still living in her mother’s pocket. I’m a sucker for an arranged-marriage / poor-aristo-weds-money storyline, so this one pushed all my buttons.

The Star of Bethlehem is a lost diamond ring causing a riff in an already troubled marriage until a servant solves not one mystery but three surrounding its disappearance.

This story sees another unhappily married couple rediscovering their feelings for each other, this time with a little help from a missing ring and a mop-headed chimney sweep called Nicky. (Geddit? A bit on the anvilicious side, that one!) The second-chance romance is another big favourite of mine, so I was disposed to enjoy the story, although I felt the “let’s rescue a poor kid and make the world a better place” side-plot was a little heavy-handed.

The Best Gift can come at the most unexpected moments, especially for a lonesome teacher enlisted over the holidays to chaperone the niece of a notorious rake.

This is one of those stories in which the romance didn’t so much develop as leap onto the page fully formed.

Viscount Buckley suddenly finds himself lumbered with his fifteen year-old niece for the festive season, as her parents have buggered off on a trip to Italy. Having no idea what to do with the girl, he impulsively invites her teacher, Jane Craggs to accompany her as her companion and chaperone. Jane was orphaned young and has never had a real Christmas, so she grabs the chance to make merry for the first and possibly only time in her life. Arrived at the viscount’s country seat, he’s further astonished to discover that a “package” has been delivered unexpectedly, in the shape of his four-year-old illegitimate daughter.

The author skilfully draws the parallels between young Veronica and Jane, who believes herself to be the product of a liaison similar to the one which produced Veronica – and evokes sympathy for Jane’s situation as one of those friendless, “grey” young women who hover on the fringes of society caring for its young and never really fitting in anywhere.

Buckley’s interest in and affection for Jane pretty much comes out of nowhere, but then I suppose a romance between the drab governess and handsome nobleman is what one is expecting. I just wish it had been given a little more time to develop.

Playing House finds an impoverished young woman longing to celebrate just one last, joyous Christmas before she and her orphaned siblings are separated forever.

Playing House sees another nobleman – the Marquess of Bedford – with a young daughter (a legitimate one, this time) finding love at Christmas time, this time with a young woman he’d known many years ago and with whom he had shared a youthful infatuation. Her family on the verge of being split up, Lilias AngRove goes to see him to beg the repayment of a favour once done him by her father. All she wants is to give her brother and sister a Christmas to remember before they are forced to part, and so asks him for a goose and the gifts she wants for her siblings.

She is surprised by his reception of her, which is full of thinly veiled hostility. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that she is spinning him a yarn and setting her cap at him – after all, he’s young and wealthy with a child to raise, and it wouldn’t be the first time a gold-digger has tried to get her claws into him.

His daughter, having no other children of anywhere near her own age to play with, becomes attached to Lilias’ younger siblings, which, naturally, brings the grumpy viscount and his former love back together. It’s a sweet story, although I did think the hero came across as a bit vicious to start with, his assumptions about Lilias are completely unfounded, and he holds onto those assumptions for rather too long.

And in No Room at the Inn, a winter storm on Christmas Eve brings a young couple in from the cold, desperately in need of warmth and shelter for their unborn child.

A group of travellers are unfortunately stranded at a nondescript inn in Wiltshire on Christmas Eve. There’s a rakish Marquess with his roving eye on a young governess, an unhappily married couple, a gruff soldier and his wife, a pair of maiden aunts, and a quiet, mysterious stranger who seems content just to observe.

The arrival of a young couple – unmarried but with parenthood imminent nonetheless – sees this group of strangers banding together to help the young woman deliver her baby… and it’s not until afterwards that anyone mentions the obvious parallels.

I rather like stories that begin like this – a group of people who may never have given each other the time of day under other circumstances who are forced into company and then to re-evaluate their thoughts about each other, but the problem with doing that in the novella format is that it doesn’t allow enough time for character development. I could just about buy the unhappy couple making a fresh start, but the rakish marquess does a volte face of such astonishing speed that it’s not at all believable. But the story itself is sweet and I enjoyed the idea of friendship formed under the unlikeliest of circumstances, and people united by the birth of a child at Christmas.

Overall, Under the Mistletoe is an enjoyable seasonal collection, if you’re prepared to overlook the deficiencies occasioned by the shorter format applied to each of the tales in the set.

Season for Desire by Theresa Romain

season for desire

Like her four sisters, Lady Audrina Bradleigh is expected to marry a duke, lead fashion, and behave with propriety. Consequently, Audrina pursues mischief with gusto, attending scandalous parties and indulging in illicit affairs. But when an erstwhile lover threatens to ruin her reputation, Audrina has no choice but to find a respectable husband at once.

Who would guess that her search would lead her to Giles Rutherford, a blunt-spoken American on a treasure hunt of his own? When a Christmas snowstorm strands the pair at a country inn, more secrets are traded than gifts—along with kisses that require no mistletoe—and Audrina discovers even proper gentlemen have their wicked side…

Rating: B

In this, the final book in her Holiday Pleasures series, Theresa Romain has skilfully melded together a tender and insightful romance and an intriguing mystery which takes her hero and heroine on a journey across a England at Christmastide – and on a journey of personal discovery.

Lady Audrina Bradleigh, the fifth and youngest daughter of the Earl of Alleyneham, has, since her début, cultivated a slightly scandalous reputation as an act of rebellion against her autocratic and uncaring father. Unfortunately for her, what has hitherto been little more than a series of excursions into dark, secluded corners with her dance partners has turned into something far more dangerous. One of her suitors has decided his debts won’t wait any longer, and has drugged and kidnapped her with a view to marrying her in order to get his hands on her dowry.

Giles Rutherford and his father, Richard, have left their home in Philadelphia in order to search for a set of valuable jewels that belonged to his late mother, the daughter of a marquess. When she fell in love with an American jeweller’s apprentice, her family took away everything of value that she owned – with the exception of this set, which she hid before running away with her lover. Giles has travelled to England with Richard in order to fulfil his mother’s dying request – that her jewellery be found and used to the benefit of her family.
Father and son have been travelling around the country and have recently arrived at The Goat and Gauntlet inn in York when they receive an unexpected – and odd – message from the Earl of Alleyneham, more or less ordering them to put a stop to his youngest daughter’s flight and to detain the couple until he arrives.

Giles takes umbrage at the earl’s high-handedness and is reluctant to get involved, but Richard, never one to pass on “an adventure” is only too pleased to be offer their assistance.

When the earl arrives, he is absolutely furious – but with Audrina rather than her unscrupulous abductor. She is to remain with the Rutherfords and Lady Ingram (an old friend of the family) until after her sister’s wedding, in case the scandal that threatens to surround her causes the prospective bridegroom – a duke – to call off the nuptuals.
Once her father has left, Audrina has no alternative but to join the Rutherfords’ quest for the missing jewels – and to embark upon an adventure that will change her life.

Season for Desire is a thoroughly enjoyable story which brings the traditions of a Regency Christmastide vividly to life. Of course, the path of true love is never without its pot-holes, and there are a few bumps along the way for Giles and Audrina. She is perhaps a little too quick to act first and think later, but as the story progresses and she begins to rediscover her sense of self-esteem, she realises that she no longer needs to fulfil anyone’s low expectations. Giles is a lovely hero – kind, perceptive and reliable – but he fails to see that he’s living his life for everyone except himself. He’s taken on the responsibility of looking after his younger siblings while he also tries to make sure his father’s flights of fancy don’t get too out of hand. This – coupled with the fact that he has eschewed his desire to become an architect so as not to disappoint Richard, who dreams of setting up shop as a maker and designer of jewellery, and his concern that he has inherited an arthritic condition from his mother which renders him unsuitable for marriage to anyone – weighs very heavily on Giles’ admittedly broad shoulders. He can’t abandon the family that needs him in order to remain in England with Audrina, and he certainly can’t ask an earl’s daughter to cross an ocean to an uncertain future.

The relationship between the two principals is tender, passionate and written with a great deal of warmth and humour. It’s clear they belong together, but before that can happen they have to confront the fact that they have been living with false perceptions of themselves which they have to adjust before they can become the person they are meant to be, and be with the person they are meant to be with. I enjoyed the way Giles and Audrina are able to help each other with that adjustment, but ultimately, these are decisions and choices they have to make for themselves, and I was particularly impressed with the way Ms Romain dealt with that aspect of their respective journeys.

There is a strong and quite large cast of secondary characters in the book, many of whom get to narrate the story at certain points, which I admit, I did find a little jarring. It’s usual in a romance to have the story told from both the hero and heroine’s point of view, but in this book, the POV jumps around a bit, which did detract a little at times from the principal story. That said, the characters themselves are all very well rounded out, especially the waspish, be-turbanned Lady Irving, who is one of those terrific, sharp-tongued mature ladies one often finds in the pages of historical romances – a lady with an opinion on everything who isn’t afraid to voice it but who is, underneath, a little lonely and not at all as dragon-like as she seems.

Theresa Romain has become a favourite author of mine over the past couple of years. Her stories are intelligently written, strongly characterised and show her to be a talented storyteller, all traits exhibited in Season for Desire. I enjoyed the slow-burn romance and was thoroughly drawn in by the mystery surrounding the puzzle boxes. If I have a criticism, it’s that the book is perhaps a little “busy” – the large number of secondary characters and secondary storylines did distract me sometimes – but overall, I was captivated by the mystery and by the two central characters and their story.

Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt (Maiden Lane #7) (audiobook) – Narrated by Ashford MacNab

darling beast audio#

A man condemned…

Falsely accused of murder and mute from a near-fatal beating, Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne has escaped from Bedlam. With the Crown’s soldiers at his heels, he finds refuge in the ruins of a pleasure garden, toiling as a simple gardener. But when a vivacious young woman moves in, he’s quickly driven to distraction…

A desperate woman…

London’s premier actress, Lily Stump, is down on her luck when she’s forced to move into a scorched theatre with her maid and small son. But she and her tiny family aren’t the only inhabitants – a silent, hulking beast of a man also calls the charred ruins home. Yet when she catches him reading her plays, Lily realizes there’s more to this man than meets the eye.

Out of ash, desire flares

Though scorching passion draws them together, Apollo knows that Lily is keeping secrets. When his past catches up with him, he’s forced to make a choice: his love for Lily… or the explosive truth that will set him free.

Rating: B for narration; B+ for content

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series is, I think, her only one where I’ve not read any of the books, but have listened to all in audio format instead. Normally with long-running series, I find I do a bit of each – read some, listen to some (and in some cases read and listen, but somehow this has been an audio-only collection for me.

The first four books in the series were most ably narrated by Ashford MacNab, so when, for some unknown reason, the publisher decided to change narrators after Thief of Shadows, I was both puzzled and disappointed; and I know I wasn’t the only Maiden Lane devotee to feel that the quality of the performances in the following outings had taken a nosedive.

So I was delighted to see Ms MacNab returning to the series for Book 7, Darling Beast. She understands the characters, their world and the nature of these stories very well indeed, and she’s brought back a key element that I felt was missing from the last two audiobooks – the romance. Of course it’s there on the page, but a narrator has to be able to translate those emotions successfully without over – or under-doing them (as was certainly the case with the audio of Duke of Midnight) and I don’t just mean in the actual love scenes. It’s about allowing the characters’ feelings to shine through the words and giving them the right emotional emphasis, and those things were most definitely lacking in the previous two Maiden Lane audios.

Much of Darling Beast takes place in and around Harte’s Folly, the pleasure garden owned by Asa Makepeace which was burned down at the end of Duke of Midnight. In that book, the heroine, Artemis Greaves, was desperate to secure the release of her brother Apollo from Bedlam, where he’d been incarcerated after having been falsely accused of the murder of three friends four years earlier.

Rescued from the asylum by Artemis’ husband, the Duke of Wakefield, Apollo – Viscount Kilbourne – is now hiding out in the ruins of the pleasure garden while simultaneously working on its restoration. An aristocrat he may be, but his passion is for landscaping and he’s certainly not afraid of getting his hands dirty.

Lily Stump is one of London’s most celebrated actresses, known principally for performing breeches roles. Because she had an exclusive contract to perform only in Harte’s theatre, its destruction means that she has no means of earning a living, especially as a rival impresario has made it impossible for her to find work anywhere else. To help her out, Asa – who is known at large as Mr Harte – allows her to move into a couple of the undamaged rooms with her maid/companion, her seven-year-old son, Indio, and his dog. When Indio announces one day that there’s a monster living in the garden, Lily is naturally dismissive, until she stumbles across him, massive, shaggy-haired, most definitely NOT handsome, and sadly mute. Because this huge beast of a man cannot talk, she immediately assumes he is mentally deficient – something which Apollo, completely in command of his faculties but left unable to speak after a savage beating, finds rather amusing.

Because he’s in hiding, and has no idea if Lily is to be trusted, Apollo allows her to continue to think he’s simple-minded and nothing more than one of the labourers engaged to work upon the garden. But after Apollo saves Indio’s dog from drowning, Lily begins to see that there’s much more to him and to realise that she’d been wrong in her assumptions. From then on, Apollo starts communicating in writing, and as he gradually begins to regain the use of his voice, is able to tell Lily his story – although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s the heir to an earldom.

He is determined to prove his innocence and track down the real culprit, but when his hiding place is discovered and he is forced to run, Lily despairs of seeing him again. Weeks later, she is shocked when Apollo appears, well-groomed, well-dressed, and every inch the man of substance, at a house-party where she and her small acting troupe have been engaged to perform.

She struggles at first to accept that Viscount Kilbourne is the same man she’s been falling in love with but Apollo is completely unconcerned with their difference in station. He’s the same man underneath the clothes, and he’s the man who loves her, and that’s all that matters to him. But Lily has a secret of her own, one which will eventually lead to her having to make a devastating choice.

Darling Beast has a gentler feel than some of the other books in the series, and I think that’s because while there is a mystery to be solved, it’s not an action-packed yarn in the way that, for example, the books that featured the Ghost of St. Giles were. And that’s not a criticism – I actually enjoyed the fact that it was a little less busy with more time to concentrate on illuminating the characters and developing the romance.

Apollo is the epitome of the gentle giant, a hulking great man with an artistic soul, whose essential kindness shines through in his interactions with both Lily and her son. I admit that I’m not a great fan of the use of the “moppet” (children and/or animals) as a shorthand method of showing that a character is a good person, but Ms Hoyt makes it work. Lily is a successful woman, both independent and clever, and the attraction between the two of them is palpable and just leaps off the page.

Ashford MacNab’s narration is a vast improvement on the performances of the narrators used for Books 5 and 6. She differentiates characters through the use of a variety of different timbres and accents rather than through pitch, although she does adopt a slightly lowered pitch for most of the male characters. The narrative is performed with intelligence and sensitivity and her characterizations are, for the most part appropriate and successful.

Narrating an audiobook in which the hero is mute for around half the story probably presents a unique challenge, and Ms MacNab has opted to perform Apollo’s written-down speeches using a similar tone to the one she eventually adopts once he regains his voice. I felt that this was perhaps a little too nasally at times, but it wasn’t something that bothered me to a great extent. I did, however, notice a few other things that bothered me more. For instance, Lily’s companion and maid, Maude, appears in the first chapter, speaking in a broad West Country accent – yet the text specifically states that she’s from the North. The next time Maude appears, she has a Northern accent and I can’t help wondering why that error wasn’t corrected.

With a long-running series in which many characters pop up in several books, it must be difficult to find different ways of voicing all of them, but even bearing this in mind, I have to take issue with Ms MacNab’s portrayal of Phoebe Batten, who has appeared in previous books and who will be the heroine of the next one. Phoebe has acquired a lisp, which I don’t believe is indicated in the text, and sounds as though she is a child rather than a young woman. If Ms MacNab is engaged to narrate Dearest Rogue, I’m sure she’ll make an adjustment accordingly, but given that it’s very clear in this book that her hero – Captain Trevillion – is already rather smitten, it makes for slightly uncomfortable listening when Phoebe sounds like an eight-year-old!

But that’s for the future. For now, Darling Beast is a terrific addition to this series, and in spite of the reservations expressed above, I thoroughly enjoyed Ashford MacNab’s performance and hope she’s back to stay.

Arabella by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – narrated by Phyllida Nash

arabella audio

To Arabella Tallant, the eldest daughter of a penniless country clergyman, the invitation to stay with her London godmother was like the key to heaven, for in addition to living in the glamorous city, Arabella might even find a suitable husband there. Armed with beauty, virtue and a benevolent godmother, the impetuous but impoverished Arabella embarked on her first London season with her mother’s wish in mind: snare a rich husband.

Impetuosity is Arabella’s only fault. When fate cast her in the path of arrogant, socially prominent Robert Beaumaris, who accused her of being another petty female after his wealth, the proud, headstrong ingenue made a most startling claim — she was an heiress! Suddenly Arabella found herself the talk of the ton and pursued by every amorous fortune hunter in London and some of the most eligible young men of the day.

But only one caught Arabella’s fancy: Mr Beaumaris, the handsome and dedicated bachelor. She should know better than to allow herself to be provoked by nonpareil Beau. That gentleman, however, although a most artful matrimonial dodger, badly underestimated his seemingly naive adversary… But would her deceitful charade destroy her one chance for true love…?

Rating: A for narration; A- for content

Arabella is one of my favourite Heyer Regencies, so I was delighted when I learned that Naxos was bringing out a new audio version with Phyllida Nash narrating. Ms Nash earned an A from me for her superb narration of Venetia, so I had high expectations. I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.

Arabella Tallant is the eldest daughter of the large family of a country vicar. When her Godmother offers to bring her out and give her a London season, Arabella’s mother is delighted, and hopeful that Arabella’s beauty will attract a wealthy suitor. The young lady in question is naturally excited at the prospect, and determined to fulfil her mother’s wishes by finding a husband of means who will be able to offer financial assistance to her family.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.