Loving Rose (The Redemption of Malcolm Sinclair) by Stephanie Laurens

loving rose

Miraculously spared from death, Malcolm Sinclair erases the notorious man he once was. Reinventing himself as Thomas Glendower, he strives to make amends for his past, yet he never imagines penance might come via a secretive lady he discovers living in his secluded manor.

Rose has a plausible explanation for why she and her children are residing in Thomas’s house, but she quickly realizes he’s far too intelligent to fool. Revealing the truth is impossibly dangerous, yet day by day he wins her trust, and then her heart.

But then her enemy closes in, and Rose turns to Thomas as the only man who can protect her and the children. And when she asks for his help, Thomas finally understands his true purpose, and with unwavering commitment, he seeks his redemption the only way he can—through living the reality of loving Rose.

Rating: C

I’m going to admit right off the bat that I’ve only read a couple of books by Ms Laurens, and that the last one I read was such a disappointment that I’ve not read her since. Her writing style is too flowery and repetitive for my taste, and I found the characterisation severely lacking. That said, she’s an incredibly popular author and there is obviously a reason for that, so just because those books didn’t work for me doesn’t mean they won’t work for others. Having heard that her series of Barnaby Adair mysteries were a little different from her usual fayre, when this book came up for review, I thought I’d give her another chance.

The story revolves around a character who appeared as a villain in some of the author’s other books, one Malcolm Sinclair, a man with no moral compass whose selfish actions have either directly or indirectly caused much misery and hardship to others. I haven’t read any of those books, but sufficient information is given at the outset to set the scene. At the beginning of this book, a severely injured man is washed up on the seashore close to a monastery, and gives his name as Thomas Glendower before the monks convey him to their infirmary. He spends five years there altogether – the first couple recovering from his injuries and convalescing, the remaining three because he wants to be there, and because he’s trying to work out exactly what he’s going to do with his second chance at life. During his time at the monastery, he takes over the management of their funds, and because of his talent for knowing which investments will be the most profitable, he increases their income significantly while setting up and endowing numerous charitable organisations. He wants desperately to atone for his murky past, and – in financial terms, anyway – does so admirably.

But he is still without a purpose in life, and eventually realises that he needs to go out to seek it, rather than to wait for it to find him, and heads off to Breage Manor in Cornwall, a property he purchased some time ago, and which his solicitor has ensured has been maintained over the years.

Upon arrival, he is surprised to find that the elderly couple he had previously employed as housekeepers are no longer there, and in their place is a much younger (and attractive) woman with two children. She explains that she had originally been taken on in order to help the previous incumbents, and when the task of looking after the house had become too onerous for them, they had retired and left her to run it. (Which she does surprisingly well, considering there is no other staff for such a large house!)

Thomas and Rose are attracted to each other, and while he senses that she is not what she seems – for one thing, she’s obviously from a well-to-do family – he doesn’t push her to tell him more than she is comfortable with. As their relationship develops, they form a strong bond of trust which allows both of them to divulge the information about their pasts – and Thomas determines to keep Rose and the children safe, no matter what.

As this is a mystery, I’m not going to say any more about the plot. It’s well-done, there’s a nice twist towards the end; most importantly, the writing doesn’t suffer so badly from the same problems as I found in the more romantic aspects of the story. The opening chapters which deal with Thomas’ life with the monks and his initial meetings with Rose are very readable and kept me turning the pages, but the romance – such as it is – is poorly developed and the characterisation fairly thin.

Not having read any of the books which featured Malcolm/Thomas before, I couldn’t make any judgments as to the nature of his past deeds and personality. If you have read those books, then you may well feel rather less at sea than I did. I understand that he had expected to die (in fact, had arranged his own death) and now wants to grasp his second chance with both hands and do something good with it – but he still seems too saintly, and more as though he’s had a complete personality transplant rather than being someone who’s reformed and is perhaps struggling with some aspects of that reformation.

Unfortunately, Rose is bland and uninteresting. She’s supposed to be resourceful, but her being able to keep the children hidden for the past five years has been more due to luck than any resourcefulness on her part. And the romance… well, to be honest, the book would have worked better without it. I liked the trust that built up between Thomas and Rose, but the sex scenes are just unreadable. In fact, once I’d reminded myself of why I hadn’t liked them in the last book I read by this author, I skim-read them. Half the time I had no idea what the characters were doing – one of my Goodreads updates says:

“Spiralling… sweeping… fracturing … fusing… Either the H/h just had sex or a day out at the local metalworks. I’m not completely sure.”

It’s not that I want “put tab B into slot A” sex scenes, but the language here is ridiculously overblown and so full of unnecessary imagery that I just couldn’t bear it. What I did want (and didn’t get) was a well-developed romance – I’d have been happy with no bedroom scenes at all if I’d felt any spark between the protagonists.

Another language-based issue is Ms Laurens’ habit of repetition; she makes a point and then proceeds to re-inforce it using a sledgehammer:

”Living the rest of his life with her, growing old with her – having children with her – was not his most yearned-for dream.

A dream he was certain he would not live to make real. Would not, one way or another, be allowed to commit to.”

I marked up a number of similar instances on my Kindle, but that was where my finger stopped in the list!

When it comes down to it, my first thoughts on finishing the book were that it worked much better as a mystery than a romance. I’m sure Ms Laurens’ many fans will read and enjoy this, but she’s clearly not for me. I’m giving this a C based on the fact that the mystery worked quite well; had it been “just” a romance, I’d have given it a much lower grade.

The Devil Takes a Bride by Julia London

devil takes a bride

A plan born of desperation…

Once the toast of society, Grace Cabot and her sisters now await the shame of losing high status and fine luxuries upon the death of the Earl of Beckington. The dire circumstances are inevitable unless, of course, Grace’s wicked plot to seduce a wealthy viscount into marriage goes off without a single hitch. But once a stolen embrace with the wrong man leads her to be discovered in the arms of Geoffrey, the Earl of Merryton, her plan takes a most unexpected—and scorching—twist.

…and altered by passion.

Governed by routine and ruled by duty, Geoffrey had no desire for a wife before he succumbed to Grace’s temptation. Though his golden-haired, in-name-only bride is the definition of disorder, he can’t resist wanting her in every way. But once her secrets meet his, society might consider their lives to be ruined beyond repair…while Geoffrey might just see it as a new beginning.

Rating: B-

Readers were introduced to the Cabot sisters in the first in this four-book series, The Trouble with Honor. The two eldest sisters – Honor and Grace – are only a year or so apart in age, and have both had a couple of seasons. Although beautiful, witty, and much sought-after, neither has accepted a proposal of marriage, having found the chase to be much more fun than settling on one particular suitor.

But now their stepfather is terminally ill, and their mother is showing the first signs of madness (we would recognise this today as Alzheimer’s Disease) – and Honor and Grace are brought down to earth with a bump. When Lord Beckington dies, they will have nowhere to live and very little money – and once word gets out about their mother’s illness, their chances of marrying well will be practically nil. After all – what man is going to want to saddle himself with the expense of his wife’s sisters and insane mother?

Believing Honor’s marital prospects to be poor, Grace decides it’s down to her to make a match with a man wealthy enough to be able to support them all, and she has just such a one in her sights.

Lord Amherst is young, handsome, the brother of an earl and a man who has often singled Grace out as the recipient of his flirtations. He has recently removed to Bath, so Grace follows him there, her desperation to secure a home for her family leading her to plan a truly despicable act; she is going to trap him into marriage.

Grace’s plan works to a T – except that she entraps the wrong man and ends up having to marry Amherst’s older brother, the austere Earl of Merryton instead.

The story then follows these two very different people as they attempt to find a way to live together, an attempt that is hampered not only by Merryton’s knowledge of what Grace had intended and her guilt, but also by the fact that he is a very troubled man.

The wedding is hastily arranged, and afterwards, the earl takes Grace to his country estate near Bath. Deciding there is nothing to be gained by moping or cowering away from the rather saturnine stranger with whom she is to share her life, Grace sets out to try to make something of their marriage, regardless of its inauspicious beginning.  In spite of that contemptible act, Grace turns out to be a strong and engaging heroine who genuinely wants to understand her husband and to be a good wife to him.

Jeffrey Donovan has lived rather a solitary life. Brought up by a cruel and authoritarian father to believe he had to be perfect, he suffers from a compulsive disorder and finds it very difficult to cope with the inconsistencies and the unpredictability of everyday life. He is also plagued by images of what he believes to be sexual deprativies; and he has found that the only way he can banish both them and his fear of losing control is by counting and doing mathematical calculations. To be honest, he’s not all that depraved (this is an historical romance, after all, not an erotic novel) – but I suppose it’s plausible that a young man who was brought up as Jeffrey was, and who has no close male friends with whom to get drunk and talk about girls could have come to see the idea of getting turned on by thoughts of girl-on-girl action or a bit of light bondage as abnormal and perverted (!)

While Jeffrey is at first rather starchy and stand-offish, he tries, in his own way, to understand what Grace wants, and his gradual unbending is rather sweet. Like Grace, his one driving principle has been to protect his family – and when he realises, towards the end of the book, that he is in danger of repeating his father’s mistakes, it’s very much to his credit that he decides to do something about it even though it is incredibly difficult for him.

The chemistry between Jeffrey and Grace is strong and their relationship is well-written. Jeffrey’s fear of losing control and Grace’s inexperience make their first sexual encounters awkward and a little uncomfortable to read, which, given their situation, makes perfect sense. Thankfully, this isn’t a story that relies on misunderstandings to create tension – it’s there because of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves and because of the fact that they both have much to learn about each other and big adjustments to make.

The book contains some elements that are perhaps a little darker than are commonly found in historical romance, and it tackles a difficult subject in what seems to me to be a fairly realistic manner. Lady Beckington’s dementia is presented sensitively, and the scene in which the entire family gathers for a meal is very touching, showing the normal chaos of family life as well as providing a bit of an epiphany for Jeffrey, who sees his wife’s family accepting their mother for who she is and treating her as part of the family, even as her illness progresses.

Jeffrey’s mental issues are also handled sympathetically, and I did appreciate that Grace didn’t turn out to be some sort of miracle cure for him. It’s clear that he is always going to have problems, although we see him begin to take steps to learn to live with them more positively towards the end of the book. I did think that perhaps there were a couple of things which fell into place a little too easily for him, but I’m not an expert on these things, so I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that he could learn to adapt.

I enjoyed reading The Devil Takes a Bride (although Jeffrey is not a devil – bedevilled perhaps, but certainly not a bad person), and while it may help to have read the first book, it’s not absolutely necessary as this works perfectly well as a standalone. While I can’t say I noticed any serious flaws, I did, however come away from it feeling as though it was a little insubstantial, even given the somewhat difficult subject matter. This is one of those times when I’m grading based on a gut instinct as to where this book sits in comparison to others I’ve read recently, hence the B-. Above average, but perhaps not a book I’ll be re-reading in the very near future, although I will probably continue to follow the series.

Darius, Lord of Pleasure by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by Roger Hampton

darius audio

The elderly and ill fourth Viscount Longstreet summons Darius Lindsey to a discreet meeting, where he proposes the means for Darius to extricate himself from a life of shame and repay his family’s debts. William offers him a chance at redemption: Spend a month with his wife, Lady Vivian; get her with child; and he can retire from his life of degradation.

As weeks pass, Darius makes love to Vivian but also teaches her how to deal with the world after William has died. Vivian cannot comprehend what Darius has done to safeguard his family or why he protects her from those who would cause her harm.

When the time comes, will he be able to prove the depth of his love for her and their child?

Rating: B+ for narration, A for content

I reviewed this title at both All About Romance and Romantic Historical Reviews when it first appeared – so the content portion of this review is somewhat truncated. It’s one of the earliest books by this author that I read, and is still one of my favourites, so having an audio version at last is the icing on top of the cake as far as I’m concerned.

Darius Lindsey is the impoverished younger son of an earl who, in order to make ends meet, provides services of an intimate nature to bored, aristocratic women in exchange for money. He is approached by Lord William Longstreet, who offers Darius enough money to make him financially secure if, in return, Darius will spend one month with Longstreet’s young wife and do his very best to get her pregnant. Darius is reluctant – he doesn’t have intercourse with the women he consorts with, so accepting this particular “commission” will break his carefully preserved rules.

Vivian Longstreet is much younger than her husband, and cares for him deeply. She had been his late wife’s companion, and in order to protect Vivian from being married off for profit by her greedy step-father, Longstreet married her. His plan for her to conceive an heir has been mostly put into play in order to ensure her safety and security after his approaching death. Naturally, Vivian is not too happy about the situation, but agrees to it, knowing it will ease William’s mind.

Unbeknownst to her, however, he has not just selected a father for her child – in Darius Lindsey, he has selected his replacement.

Not surprisingly, things begin awkwardly and Darius does his best to put Vivian at ease using a mixture of charm and gentle humour. He’s gentle and attentive, and Vivian begins to blossom in his company, seeing herself for the first time as an attractive woman; and through her, Darius begins to re-acquire some sense of his own self-worth.

At the end of the month, they have fallen deeply in love, though of course they can’t say it, and Vivian returns home, fairly sure that she is expecting a baby. Darius attempts to return to his former life, but he can’t stomach it any more and tries to sever ties with the two women who have been employing him most recently. Unfortunately however, they are less than amenable to this, and make threats against Darius’ sister, who has already been the subject of one scandal and whose reputation can not bear another.

Also rearing his unwelcome head is Vivian’s step-father, who is hoping that once Vivian is widowed, he will be able to marry her to a man of his choice in order to gain control of her fortune.

But they’ve all reckoned without Darius ruthlessness when it comes to protecting his loved ones, because he doesn’t scruple to fight just as dirty as they when he has to.

One of the many things I love about Ms Burrowes’ work is the fact that while she cranks up the angst-o-meter to an excruciating pitch, I always know that things are going to work out in the end. There are parts of this story that had me in tears when reading – and did again when listening – but I know I can wallow safely in the angst. Darius and Vivian know that they will have to live as strangers once their month is over for the sake of her reputation and the child, but it’s heart-breaking for both of them. Darius can never be a part of his child’s life, and the part when Vivian, in late pregnancy, talks of their having been cheated out of all the little things that an expectant couple might do, is incredibly poignant (and one of those tear-jerking moments that Ms Burrowes does so very well).

I loved this book just as much in audio as I did in print. In Roger Hampton, Grace Burrowes has found a narrator whose voice, delivery and emotional engagement are an excellent match for her words. She has a very distinctive writing style and her characters’ speech patterns are quite unlike those found in the works of any other author – so finding someone who can utter them without mangling them or sounding self-conscious is incredibly important. Mr Hampton has done such excellent work on Ms Burrowes’ (inexplicably) small number of available audiobooks, that his is now the voice I hear in my head whenever I’m reading one of her books!

His performance in Darius is very good indeed, although not completely without flaws. Happily, however, those flaws are generally small and in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the audiobook. He differentiates well between all the principal and secondary characters, and absolutely nails the emotional heart of the story. His interpretation of Darius is spot on – this is a man living on the edge, having to support himself in a manner he hates so much that it has warped his view of himself and brought him to rock-bottom when it comes to a sense of self-esteem. One can hear Darius’ world-weariness and his physical tiredness in Mr Hampton’s voice, and he makes a clear distinction between the different sides of Darius’ character that the heroine is allowed to see – the real one; kind, tender and funny, and the worldy one; flirtatious, brittle and with an underlying bitterness that he barely manages to contain.

I liked the gentle northern accent he gives to Nicholas Haddonfield, and his portrayal of the elderly William Longstreet is very good indeed. I’ve had occasion to cricitise some of his female characterisations in the past, but for the most part, they’re all very good, and feel appropriate to the situations and ages of the ladies he is portraying. The one flaw I found is with his performance of Vivian, who begins the story with fairly low-pitched tones (as specified in the text) but which get a little higher as the book progresses. To be honest, it’s not something that bothered me excessively, because I was enjoying the story so much – but it’s something I noticed and wanted to mention.

Overall, however, Mr Hampton’s performance is very good indeed and one I’ll certainly be listening to again.

Captured by a Laird by Margaret Mallory (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

captured laird

THE DOUGLAS LEGACY

The Douglas sisters, beauties all, are valuable pawns in their family’s bitter struggle to control the Scottish Crown. But when powerful enemies threaten, each Douglas lass will find she must face them alone.

CAPTURED BY A LAIRD

Haunted by his father’s violent death, David Hume, the new laird of Wedderburn, sets out to make his name so feared that no one will dare harm his family again. The treacherous ally who played on his father’s weakness is dead and beyond David’s vengeance, but his castle and young widow are ripe for the taking. The moment David lays eyes on the dark-haired beauty defending her wee daughters, however, he knows this frail-looking lass is the one person who could bring him to his knees.

Wed at thirteen to a man who tried daily to break her spirit, Lady Alison Douglas is looking forward to a long widowhood. But when the fearsome warrior known as the Beast of Wedderburn storms her gates, she finds herself, once again, forced to wed a stranger. Alison is only a pawn to serve his vengeance, so why does this dark warrior arouse such fiery passion and an unwelcome longing in her heart?

With death and danger looming, these two wounded souls must learn to trust each other…for only love can save them.

Rating: B- for narration, C for content

Albert Einstein defined insanity as being the act of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well, I’ve said several times that “Highlander” stories aren’t really my cup of tea, yet I still read and/or listen to the odd one or two and end up saying the same things, which, in the light of the above quote, probably says more about me than anything else.

Or perhaps I’m just an eternal optimist and hope to find one that works well for me.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Reading Challenges – 2015

booksOnce again, I’m participating in Wendy the Super Librarian’s TBR Challenge. I really enjoyed joining last year – one book a month isn’t a heavy commitment for someone like me who reads and reviews loads of new stuff but doesn’t get around to a lot of older books. The themes this year are similar to last years, with a few swaps and substitutions – which is all good!

January – We Love Short Shorts! (Category romance, novellas, short stories)
My Choice: The Earl and the Governess by Sarah Elliott

February – Recommended Read (A book recommended to you by another reader/blogger etc.)
My Choice: Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives

March – Series Catch-Up (A book in a series you are behind on)
My Choice:Moonglow by Kristen Callihan

April – Contemporary
My Choice: A Kiss for Luck by Grace Burrowes

May – Kickin’ It Old School (Copyright date is 10 years or older)
My Choices: 1. To Have and To Hold – by Patricia Gaffney
2. Married to a Rogue – by Donna Lea Simpson

June – More Than One (An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile)
My Choice: Waking Up With the Duke by Lorraine Heath

July – Lovely RITA (past RWA RITA winner and/or nominees)
My Choice: Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand – by Carla Kelly

August – Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!)
My Choice: Kissing a Stranger by Margaret Evans Porter

September – Historical
My Choice: A Brilliant Mismatch – by Elizabeth Mansfield

October – Paranormal or romantic suspense
My Choice: The Dark Tower by Josephine Edgar

November – It’s All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking)
My Choice: The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie

December – Holiday Themes (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, any holiday!)
My Choice: The Holly and the Ivy by Elizabeth Fairchild

I’ve got a rough idea of which books and authors I’m going to pick, and I’ll be keeping a tally here as the year progresses.

For the third year in a row, I’m also taking part in the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads. I find that the books I choose for this overlap with those I use for other challenges, but it does encourage me to choose my challenge books from the Big Pile of Paperbacks Sitting by the Bed, as this challenge requires me to read books I bought prior to 1st Jan 2015, and means I can’t count any ARCs.

I managed 24 last year (which included a couple of audiobooks of books I’ve had on my TBR pile for several years), and am going for the same number this year.

I’ve signed up for the Historical Romance Challenge at Herding Cats and Burning Soup which, let’s face it isn’t going to be too much of a challenge, given I read the genre about 95% of the time, but still, it’s a good one for me to join in with.

I’ll be dropping back to this post every so often to keep a tally of how I’m doing.

A Code of Love by Jacki Delecki (audiobook) – Narrated by Pearl Hewitt

code of love

Threatened by French spies, assassins, and calculating suitors, can Lady Henrietta Harcourt trust the infamous rake, Lord Cordelier Rathbourne, with her carefully guarded family secrets?

In his new, undisclosed position as Director of English Intelligence, Cord faces more peril keeping the brilliant, Harcourt family of code breakers safe than he did as undercover spy in Napoleonic France.

Cord’s passionate attraction for the indomitable Henrietta hasn’t diminished in his four years abroad, but neither has Henrietta’s memory of his libertine past.

In pursuit of the missing brother, Henrietta and Cord become entangled in a web of international intrigue, danger, and white hot passion.

Rating: B- for narration, C for content

A Code of Love is the first in Ms Delecki’s Code Breakers series, set in the early years of the nineteenth century at a time of great political unrest in Europe. The story begins in Paris, just after the theft – by an English agent – of an important book of codes used by the French. Michael Harcourt, whose uncle is the principal code-breaker for the British Intelligence service, needs to dispose of the book urgently, and dispatches it to his sister in England.

The story then shifts to London, where Lady Henrietta Harcourt is becoming increasingly concerned about Michael’s safety. Since her mother’s death some years before, Henrietta has taken on the responsibility of looking out for her family – her two brothers and her increasingly doddering uncle, a man whose brilliant mind is gradually and very sadly failing him. Henrietta has been helping Lord Harcourt with his government work for years, but as her uncle’s mind has become less focused she has taken on the full responsibility for breaking the codes contained within the messages which are sent and intercepted by British agents.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts (audiobook) – Narrated by Penelope Freeman

spice merchants wife

1666. Newly married to a wealthy spice merchant, Kate Finche believes all her dreams of a happy family life are just around the corner until the Great Fire rages through London.

She watches in horror as their livelihood goes up in flames, filling the air with the heady scents of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. As the city is devastated, Kate’s husband, Robert is forced to seek employment to ensure their survival, but when he is found drowned, Kate refuses to believe that he has taken his own life.

Widowed and penniless, she seeks refuge in The House of Perfume, the home of blind perfumer Gabriel Harte, who awakens Kate’s senses to a whole new world. But as she flees from this forbidden love, her husband’s murderer comes looking for her…

Rating: B+ for narration, B+ for content

I bought this audiobook on impulse a while back. I’d heard of the author, but hadn’t read any of her books, and I knew of the narrator, having seen her name attached to several titles at Audible – but other than that, didn’t have much to go on apart from the synopsis. And that’s fairly unusual for me, as I’m someone who usually looks at the narrator’s name first and the storyline and author second and third.

Fortunately, this turned out to be one of those times when my purchase proved to have been a good idea, because I listened to The Spice Merchant’s Wife in two or three sittings over one weekend; I didn’t want to stop listening to go to sleep even though I kept dozing off at 2 am on the Sunday morning!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.