2014 Challenge Round-Up

The beginning of the year is a time for looking forward, but I also like to look back over what I managed to read and listen to over the year. I’ll get a “best of” post up at some point, although I’ve already got such things appearing at All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals, so by the time I get around to writing one here, it’ll be a bit repetitive – but what the hell!

This isn’t that post however, it’s my look back at the reading challenges I did last year, and this time, I’m pleased to say I managed to finish all of them. I entered three challenges last year (not counting the general Goodreads one, which shows that I managed to read and listen to 230 books and audiobooks in 2014) – The Multi-Blog TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Superlibrarian, the Mount TBR one at Goodreads and the Back to School/Days of the Week one at All About Romance.

I put up a Challenges post at the beginning of 2014 which I’ve kept more or less up-to-date, but here, for completeness is my final round-up.

Multi-Blog TBR Challenge

Days of the Week Challenge at AAR

Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads

(Most of these counted towards one of the other challenges as well).

Considering the number of review commitments I have, I don’t think I did too badly. I’m working out which challenges to do for 2015 right now and will put up a post when I’ve decided. These things are sadly addictive!

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TBR Challenge: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers

provoked

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lowborn David Lauriston lacks the family connections needed to rise in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. Worse, his latest case—defending weavers accused of treason—has brought him under suspicion of harbouring radical sympathies.

Troubled by his sexuality, tormented by memories of a man he once platonically loved, David lives a largely celibate life—until a rare sexual encounter with a compelling stranger turns his world on its head.

Cynical and worldly, Lord Murdo Balfour is more at home in hedonistic London than dingy, repressed Edinburgh. Unlike David, he intends to eventually marry while continuing to enjoy the company of men whenever he pleases. Yet sex with David is different. It’s personal, intimate, and instead of extinguishing his desire, it only leaves him hungry for more.

As David’s search for the man who betrayed the weavers deepens, he begins to suspect that his mysterious lover has more sinister reasons for his presence in Edinburgh. The truth could leave his heart broken…and more necks stretching on the gallows.

Rating: B+

November’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read an historical romance. Given I read historicals almost exclusively, this wasn’t much of a challenge so I decided to look for something a bit different, and came up with Provoked, the first in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy, and an M/M romance, which is a genre I’ve read only once or twice before.

Reviews of this series have been overwhelmingly positive, and a search through my Kindle books revealed that I actually owned a copy of Provoked – obviously that positivity made an impression on me – so now seemed like the perfect time to finally get around to reading it. (I should point out that I knew going in that this is book one of a trilogy in which the story (and the romance) in on-going, so I wasn’t expecting there to be an HEA at this stage.)

The book is set in Regency Scotland, at a time of much political and social unrest. The author immediately evokes a strong sense of time and place with the opening of the story in which two young men – weavers wrongly convicted of treason – are publicly executed. Present in the crowd is David Lauriston, a twenty-four year-old advocate who had defended the men in court, even though their fate was a foregone conclusion.

David is the son of a tenant farmer who, with his father’s help, has managed to put himself through University and is now forging himself a career in the law. He’s incredibly hard-working and diligent, but the fact that his sympathies lie with the oppressed and downtrodden are perhaps at odds with his aspirations to a profession typically practiced by the upper classes.

On his way back to Edinburgh, David meets and dines with a tall, handsome man who introduces himself as Murdo Balfour. David instantly feels a spark of interest – interest he doesn’t want to feel but is unable to dispel. Surprised to discover that the attraction he’s feeling appears to be mutual, and after carefully dancing around the subject to gauge interest, the two men act on that attraction, not expecting to see each other again – which suits David. He’s always full of self-loathing after he “lapses”, and prefers to keep his rare sexual encounters with other men as brief and impersonal as possible.

But sex with Murdo is something out of David’s range of limited experience; for the first time he experienced more than just sexual gratification, and as much as he’d like to forget it and move on, he can’t stop thinking about it – and about Murdo.

A few months later, both men are surprised when they stumble across each other again at an assembly – and with Murdo now fixed in Edinburgh for a short time, it’s impossible for either of them to deny that want more from each other than fumbling encounters in dark alleys.

When Euan MacLennan, the brother of one of the executed men approaches David for help in tracking down the agent provocateur who betrayed him, David is at first unwilling to become involved, believing the young man to be blinded by his grief. Quickly realising that Euan will proceed, with or without his help (and that without it, he is likely to end up at the end of a rope as well), David reluctantly agrees to see what he can find out, not really expecting to have any success.

But a purely incidental comment at a dinner party leads him to suspect that perhaps there is something to Euan’s tale – and also furthers his association with Murdo, as it appears that the reasons he has given for his presence in the city may not be entirely truthful.

The story then focuses on David and Euan’s search for the Englishman who betrayed the weavers, while at the same time furthering the relationship between the two protagonists. While David is a sympathetic character, he sometimes comes across as somewhat sanctimonious. It’s not that he hates himself for being gay, that he tries to deny his homosexuality, or that he tries to fool himself into thinking he can fight it. He knows what he is, but because he’s uncomfortable with the way he needs to express himself sexually, he seems to wallow in self-denial, which is a continual source of conflict with Murdo, who is his opposite in practically every way. Titled, rich and comfortable with his sexuality, Murdo believes he’s perfectly entitled to take his pleasure as he wishes while following the pattern laid out for him as a member of the nobility and taking a wife and fathering children, something which David, with his clearly defined sense of honour could never contemplate.

The burgeoning romance between David and Murdo is both sweet and hot, although their struggle to understand the other’s point of view means they are often at odds, which adds a real dollop of realism to their personalities and their story. David is the more well-defined character of the two, a good-hearted man with a backbone of steel and very highly defined sense of honour. Murdo, at this stage, comes across as not much more than a privileged man with a strong sense of self-entitlement, but there’s the sense that, as he and David become closer, he’s starting to allow David to see the man he truly is underneath the aristocratic veneer. I’m sure that as the trilogy progresses, we’ll get to know the true Murdo Balfour.

Provoked is an enjoyable, well-written story in which the author has strongly established the central relationship and in which there are clearly some interesting plotlines laid out for future development. The immediate conflict in the story – the search for the government spy – is resolved, but the book ends with David and Murdo parting, possibly permanently. Yet there is clearly much more to be said between them, and I’ll certainly be seeking out the other books in the trilogy.

The Burning Sky (The Elemental Trilogy #1) by Sherry Thomas

burning sky

It all began with a ruined elixir and a bolt of lightning.

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s been told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a reluctant sixteen-year-old girl with no training.

Guided by his mother’s visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission—and her life.

The Burning Sky—the first book in the Elemental Trilogy—is an electrifying and unforgettable novel of intrigue and adventure.

Rating: A-

My reading of YA books has been pretty much confined to Harry Potter (if that even counts!) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Being an old codger, back when I was eleven there was no such thing as YA – you had kid’s books and you had adult books, and once you’d outgrown the one, you read the other, so the whole YA genre just wasn’t on my radar until I had kids of my own.

But Sherry Thomas writing YA? Given I’d read whatever this woman writes, even if it was the stuff on the back of cereal packets… yep, time to make a foray into this unfamiliar genre.

I had high expectations. Ms Thomas is one of my favourite HR authors and she hasn’t disappointed me yet. Her stories are always well told and beautifully written, and most importantly of all, she creates characters who aren’t perfect, but who are nonetheless compelling and easy to invest in.

She does exactly the same thing in The Burning Sky, telling an engaging story in a vivid way, and creating two protagonists who are as strongly and deeply characterised as any of the characters who have appeared in her other books. And she proves once again that she’s an absolute master of the art of creating romantic tension, because the romance that develops between the teenaged principals is utterly delightful and full of those little things – a look, a glancing touch, a simple avowal – that set the sparks flying, regardless of age or situation.

Set in the fantasy kingdom of The Domain and at Eton College in Victorian England, The Burning Sky is the first in a trilogy in which a handsome prince and a powerful mage must work together in order to free their homeland – the Domain – from the tyrannical yoke of the powerful realm of Atlantis.

For centuries, the Domain has been subject to the harsh, dictatorial rule of the Lord High Commander of the Realm of New Atlantis, otherwise known as The Bane, a powerful and seemingly indestructible mage; and the royal family of the house of Elberon have been no more than puppets on a hollow throne.

There have periodically been attempts at revolt, most recently the January Uprisings a decade or so earlier, but Atlantis’ control over the Domain is absolute and getting stronger. Spies are everywhere and everyone lives in fear of betrayal and punishment by the Inquisitor, a mind-mage capable of destroying the mind of anyone who resists interrogation.

Iolanthe Seabourne is only sixteen, yet is a powerful elemental mage, able to command three of the elements – fire, water and earth. There are no longer mages who can command all four, but even without the ability to control air, Iolanthe is still powerful enough to present a possible threat to Atlantis. Her guardian, a formerly renowned and well-respected academic who has been “hitting the bottle” more and more of late, insists on keeping her hidden away and in living continually on the move as he scrapes together a meagre existence by working as a tutor. Inwardly chafing at the dullness of life and dismayed at Haywood’s descent into addiction, Iolanthe jumps at the chance to participate in an upcoming wedding ceremony as the fire bearer. Pleased to have been invited, and, truth be told, excited at the opportunity to show off a little, Iolanthe has been carefully preparing a special batch of light elixir for the event. But Haywood finds out and forbids her from taking part, raving about agents of Atlantis and how they must not be allowed to find and capture her.

Iolanthe doesn’t believe a word of it, putting it all down to drug/alcohol induced mania – but Haywood destroys the elixir, thinking that will put an end to her plans.

Astonished and hurt, Iolanthe is determined to take part in the wedding, and seeks a way to repair the elixir – which she discovers can be done only if it is struck by lightning. Figuring that as she can create fire, she should be able to manage a lightning bolt, Iolanthe sets to work.

Many miles away, this particular bolt of lightning is seen by one for whom it signals the beginning of the mission for which he has been preparing almost his whole life. Prince Titus of the House of Elberon may hold the title “Master of the Domain”, but as he is not yet of age, his ineffectual uncle is currently the regent. Titus’ mother was a seer, and one of her visions told of this lightning bolt and how it would lead Titus to a powerful mage, one who can defeat the Bane.

Titus must find this mage, protect him at all costs and mentor him in his quest to slay the Bane and release the Domain from oppression. But this cannot happen without sacrifice – the vision also foretold Titus’ death, which is unavoidable and now only a year or two away.

That’s the set up. Not an especially original one – most fantasy stories seem to be about evil empires and freeing the oppressed, but what lifts this story above the run-of-the-mill is the superb characterisation and the relationship between Titus and Iolanthe.

Getting the negative things out of the way, they are both rather too good at everything. Titus has spent almost all of his life preparing for this task, it’s true, but still… he’s got a spell and an answer for everything! Part of that is down to the public persona he dons, as an insufferable smart-arse, but he does seem just a tad wise beyond his years. Yet even with that reservation, he’s an incredibly well-written character, whose actions are not always honourable (such as when he tricks Iolanthe into helping him, and in the way he continues to manipulate her to get her to do what he wants) but whose determination and focus are undeniable and at times, almost frightening in their intensity. He has a task to perform, and perform it he will, no matter that it will lead him to his own death.

Iolanthe is a similarly engaging character who really doesn’t want to be the saviour of her kingdom, or to be a hero. She’s brave and clever, yes, but she’s also confused and scared and, quite frankly, would much rather keep breathing than save the world, TYVM. Initially a bit bowled over by Titus’ good-looks and his insistence that he’ll look after her, she soon becomes aware that there’s a devious ruthlessness behind the pretty face. This leads to an estrangement between them, so there’s a large section of the book devoted to the development of their working relationship and showing Iolanthe’s gradually developing awareness of exactly what Titus is up against, and her own realisation that perhaps her own wants aren’t too important in the grand scheme of things.

Another little bug-bear for me is that I’m not a fan of “chicks-in-strides” stories, as I find it requires too strong a suspension of disbelief that a woman could possibly be thought to be a man simply by cutting her hair and wearing a suit. A lot of the story is set at Eton College in 1883, which as anyone familiar with historicals will know, was (and still is) one of the premier boys’ schools in Britain. Knowing he would need to be able to hide the mage from Atlantis’ spies, Titus invented a friend called Archer Fairfax who would also attend Eton. The problem is he’d not expected Archer to be a girl, so Iolanthe has to cut her hair and wear a suit (!). I can just about accept this with a sixteen year old girl, who might still be a bit “coltish” and not as er… womanly as someone a few years older.

What does work very well about the school setting is the sense that Titus has lived a very lonely existence, and that even among his Eton chums, there’s something about him that doesn’t quite fit in. His creation of Archer suggests that Titus has actually been looking forward to having someone he can talk to and share things with, things he can’t share with anyone else. The fact that “he” turns out to be a “she” throws him somewhat – and not just because Archer is supposed to be a whizz at cricket and he has no idea whether Iolanthe can play!

The attraction between the young couple is palpable right from the start. They don’t go beyond a few kisses (and quite right too!) but the little (and not so little) tell-tale signs of their growing feelings for each other are beautifully done, with a lot of insight and humour along the way. (The slightly naughty conversation about “wands” brought a smile to my face!) What comes across really strongly is that here are two people who need each other a great deal, and who will do whatever it takes to keep the other safe. Even though Titus tells Iolanthe early in the book, that she must never, ever put her own safety at risk to pull him out of danger, it’s clear that is one thing she’ll never do.

One last niggle about the book overall, is that I wasn’t completely convinced by the world-building. Sherry Thomas has written several books set in the Victorian era, and as expected, the parts of the story set in 1883 have a strong sense of time and place. But in the parts set elsewhere, I couldn’t quite get a handle on what I was supposed to be seeing in my mind’s eye. It’s a very minor criticism though, as my focus was on Iolanthe and Titus – I tend to be a character-oriented reader rather than a plot or setting oriented one – although I can see that the lack of full explanations for “how?”, “why?” and “where?” may be frustrating for some.

Taken as a whole, The Burning Sky is a terrific book, and one I’d certainly recommend if you’re not averse to YA or fantasy stories, and are in the mood for some light reading (!) The reservations I’ve expressed are really very minor ones, as I was thoroughly captivated from the first page to the last. The protagonists are engaging and fully-rounded characters, the verbal sparring between Titus and Iolanthe is sharp and funny, the romance is sweet (but not without a little warmth) and, as one would expect of Sherry Thomas, the writing is superb.

Firelight (Darkest London #1) by Kristen Callihan (audiobook) – Narrated by Moira Quirk

firelightaudio

Once the flames are ignited…

Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family’s fortune decimated and forced her to wed London’s most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity…

Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it’s selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can’t help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn’t felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.

Rating: A- for narration; B+ for content

I’ve had this audio kicking around for a while, but haven’t got around to listening to it for some reason. It’s somewhat of a departure from my usual reading/audio fare, but I’ve read and heard many good things about it, and was in the mood for something different.

The story is set in London in the late Victorian era, and one of the things that I appreciated immediately is that this is very much the Victorian London with which I’m already familiar. Ms Callihan evokes the dark, seedy, dirty side of the city extremely well, and the story is firmly focused on the central relationship and romance, with the other elements skilfully woven in alongside. I can now understand why so many reviews describe the book as being hard to categorise; it’s not steampunk and it’s not hard-core paranormal, although elements of the latter are obviously key factors in the story.

Lord Benjamin Archer, Baron Archer of Umberslade, is cursed. His search for a cure has taken him all over the world, and his last hope lies in an artefact discovered in Egypt by his loyal manservant, Douad. Unfortunately, Douad is murdered before he can return to England, but knowing his life is in danger as a result of his discovery, he dispatches it to England aboard one of Archer’s ships. But it never reaches its destination, because the ship is set upon by pirates working for Hector Ellis. Bent on revenge, Archer makes his way to Ellis’ London home with murderous intent – but before he can carry out his intention, he is distracted by a nearby scuffle and intervenes to save a young lad from being beaten, only to discover that the lad is a young woman – Ellis’ daughter, Miranda.

Struck by her beauty and her spirit, he decides to let Ellis live and find another way of getting back his property.

Three years later, Miranda and her father are living in considerably reduced circumstances, and Miranda has been forced to resort to stealing in order to provide for them. Returning home one day, her father informs her that he has arranged a marriage for her with none other than Lord Benjamin Archer, a man she has never met (she believes) and who is reputed to be as black-hearted as he is insanely wealthy.

Miranda is appalled – but faced with the prospect of marriage or being turned out on the streets, has no alternative but to agree.

Both characters are hiding the truth about themselves – from the world and from each other. Miranda was born with a strange and unusual “gift”, the ability to create fires by the power of thought. Having burned down her father’s warehouse when she was just ten years old, she has learned to control her ability, although it’s always lurking somewhere at the back of her consciousness, and she lives with the constant fear of hurting those she cares for. But she’s tough and brave, although her determination that she can look after herself, and knowledge that she can turn any enemy into “cheese on toast” leads Archer to believe she is careless of her personal safety, which in turn leads him to conceal things from her in order to protect her.

Unlike Miranda, Archer’s curse is not something he was born with, but rather something that happened to him as the result of a quest for knowledge. In the best gothic tradition, we’re warned of the terrible consequences that can befall anyone who tries to play God – and those consequences for Archer have been severe indeed. He tells Miranda that he is deformed, which is why he always wears an immobile, black mask through which only his unusual, silver-grey eyes are visible. He’s quite the tortured hero – feeling a constant pull towards the darkness that threatens to envelop and eventually destroy him, he nonetheless fights to retain his humanity, even as his hope of a cure has faded out of existence.

Miranda finds herself unexpectedly attracted to her new husband, in spite of the fact that she’s never seen his face. His deep voice and the masculine lines of his powerful body set her pulse racing, and she yearns to know more of him and to help him if she can. For his part, Archer fell for Miranda the moment they met three years previously, and although he knows he shouldn’t want her so badly, and that his desire for her makes him vulnerable to those who would do him harm, he is unable to resist the craving to make her his.

The sexual tension between the couple in this book is off the charts. The word I keep coming back to when attempting to describe their relationship is “intense”, because it’s really the only word that fits. It’s incredibly powerful and very passionate; here are two people who share an extraordinarily deep connection from the outset, and the fact that Archer is – or appears to be – doomed, only adds to the sense that here’s a truly tragic romance in the making.

The romance burns hot (!) – although looking at it with a critical eye, it does rather spring almost fully formed onto the page. Archer meets Miranda, falls in love at first sight (which I can accept) and spends three years manouevering her father into a position whereby he’ll have no alternative but to accept his offer for her hand. It’s not until a while after their marriage that Miranda realises who Archer is and that he’d been the one to offer his assistance to her that night – and at first, she seems more overcome by lust for him than anything else. Fortunately, however, because of the aforementioned intensity, and the way that Ms Callihan develops Archer as a man of great honour and strength while giving him a very attractive vulnerability, it’s easy to believe that Miranda falls just as deeply in love with him as he is with her.

While the mystery surrounding Archer and the nature of his “deformity” is at the centre of the story, there’s a strong secondary plotline in the shape of a murder mystery: his friends are being slowly picked off in a gruesome manner, and whoever is responsible is making it look as though Archer is the culprit. Time is running out – both for him to prove his innocence of the murders and in his battle against the evil which threatens to consume him.

There are some truly wonderful moments in the story which have stuck in my mind: one is the scene in which Miranda finally discovers the truth about Archer, which is powerful and beautiful, and the other is the climactic ending – which I’m not going to spoil! But it’s brilliant. If I have a criticism, it’s that Ms Callihan’s prose frequently teeters on the edge of the purple – but that brings me again to the intensity of the central relationship, because I think that’s what enables her to get away with it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and plan to either listen to or read more in this series. Moira Quirk does a terrific job with the narration; she differentiates between all the characters very well, and although she doesn’t drop the pitch of her voice a great deal to perform the male characters, she is nonetheless very effective in her portrayals. Her interpretation of Archer is particularly good; she gives him a slight huskiness which is very sexy and there were times during the love scenes that I a) forgot I was listening to one person and b) forgot I was listening to a woman! I noticed a few odd mispronunciations in her narrative, but her performance overall is excellent, and I’d certainly recommend Firelight – in print or audio – to anyone looking for something a bit different in an historical romance.

Till Next We Meet by Karen Ranney

Till Next Meet

Catherine Dunnan is devastated when her beloved goes off to war – and only his promise to write often can sustain her in her loneliness. And what letters they are, filled with heartfelt emotions that move her to respond in kind. But then the unthinkable occurs. He is cruelly lost to her, and his beautiful words of passion and devotion cease forever.

When Moncrief agreed to write warm and loving missives in a fellow officer’s name, he never expected he’d become so enamored of the incomparable lady who answered them, a woman he has never met. Returning to England to assume the unexpected title of duke, Moncrief is irresistibly drawn to the beauty who has unwittingly won his heart. More than anything, he yearns to ease Catherine’s sadness with his tender kisses. But once she learns his secret, will his love be spurned?.

Rating: A-

I chose this book in response to one of the prompts for the AAR Days of the Week Reading Challenge, which was for Wednesday – Read an epistolary novel, or a book where letters, phone, text or email messages are relevant to the story.

I like epistolary novels in general – I’ve read several classics like Fanny Burney’s Evelina or Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I haven’t read too many when it comes to more recently written titles, so this was a prompt I was keen to take up. I had a few options on hand to choose from: Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly or Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy are both books in which letters exchanged by the central characters play an important part, but in the end, I went for Karen Ranney’s Till Next We Meet, which has a flavour of Cyrano de Bergerac about it.

Moncrief (and I’m never sure whether that’s his first or last name, as he’s rarely referred to as anything else), a Colonel in the British army serving in Canada has, for some months, been writing to the wife of one of his officers – Captain Harry Dunnant – because the man can’t be bothered to do so himself. It’s not as though Moncrief makes a habit of doing such things, but the letter Harry laughingly tosses at him touches him deeply; Catherine Dunnant pours her heart and soul into her letters and Moncrief is able to discern the loneliness that often lies beneath her words. This speaks to something deep inside him: Moncrief is a respected officer and commander, but he has been in the army and away from home for fourteen years, doesn’t have any strong family ties and is a very lonely man at heart. He tells himself at the outset that he will simply respond to Mrs Dunnant’s letter in order to allay her fears about her husband, but when she writes in response, he is unable to resist the temptation to continue their correspondence, even though he knows it is ill-advised. Months pass, and Moncrief comes to realise that he has fallen in love with the witty, generous and loving woman who shines through in the letters. The correspondence has to come to an abrupt end with Harry Dunnant’s death, and Moncrief believes that the letter he writes to Catherine, advising her of her husband’s demise will be his last.

Some months later sees Moncrief travelling back to his home of Balidonough in Scotland as the newly minted Duke of Lymond. A third son, he had never expected to inherit lands and title, but his years in the army have most definitely prepared him for running a large estate and directing lots of servants as well as imbuing him with an air of authority and command. On his way home, he cannot resist paying a visit to Catherine Dunnant’s home – and is shocked to find an unkempt and somewhat addled young woman still in the throes of deep grieving who is clearly being seriously neglected.

Returning the following day, Moncrief finds Catherine near death from a laudanum overdose. It’s touch and go but he saves her life – only to be accused by the local vicar of compromising her. Without stopping to question his motives too much, Moncrief marries her and removes her to Balidonough as soon as she is well enough.

Catherine is still in an agony of grief over Harry’s death and doesn’t remember her re-marriage or, in fact, remember much of anything. She immediately senses that Moncrief is a good man, and finds his assertion that he married her because she needed rescuing to be somewhat disconcerting – but is not ready to surrender her heartache and make a new life for herself.

Till Next We Meet is a terrific story, beautifully told. Moncrief is a hero to die for – he’s already more than half in love with Catherine right from the start, and isn’t afraid to admit it to himself. Outwardly, he’s autocratic and severe, but we already know from his letters that inside, he’s tender-hearted and rather romantic. His self-confidence and competence are immediately attractive, as is the fact that he takes his new responsibilities seriously, cares deeply about his land and dependents, and wants to make their lives better. One of the things I really enjoyed about the way the author portrays him is that we don’t get a physical description of him until Catherine starts to see him clearly, and then after that, that each time we see him through her eyes, she notices more and more about his physical presence and how absolutely gorgeous he is. (He’s the hero of a romance – it’s a given he’s gorgeous!) But of course, he’s gorgeous on the inside, too, and that’s the man Catherine fell in love with, sight unseen.

While Catherine starts out as rather a pathetic figure, a woman whose (misplaced) grief is so strong that she is careless of her own life, as she recovers and gains strength, both the reader and Moncrief begin to see once again the young woman who wrote those beautiful letters, so full of love and longing. I appreciate that the author doesn’t have her railing against her marriage and accusing Moncrief of all sorts of iniquity – she accepts the situation, and realises that sooner or later, she is going to have to make something of it. She does, however, have her own, subtle ways of letting her new husband know that she’s not ecstatic about their hasty marriage, such as continuing to wear her widow’s weeds, and the fact that she sleeps with “Harry’s” letters beneath her pillow. But as the story progresses, she begins to regain her spirit, and I was almost cheering at the point in the story when she finally snaps and tells some obnoxious guests and relatives where to get off.

There are hints throughout the story that perhaps Catherine’s near-death from an overdose had not been an accident, and later, an incident at Balidonough seems to suggest that either Moncrief or Catherine is in danger, but the author has kept the mystery element of the story very low key, giving priority to the relationship developing between her central couple. So it comes as rather a surprise – and one which I enjoyed – to find the tension ramping up in the later chapters as the plot and culprit are revealed.

The relationship between Moncrief and Catherine is beautifully developed and presented, with Catherine gradually coming to appreciate Moncrief’s sterling qualities and to value his company and his affection. The sexual tension between the couple builds slowly, and because Catherine has asked for time to get to know Moncrief better before consummating the marriage, it’s fairly late in the story before things progress from heated looks and touches. But when it does, the passion between them is almost uncontrollable, and it’s well worth the wait 😉 My one criticism is that it took too long for Moncrief to own up to the fact that he is the author of “Harry’s” letters; he is given several opportunities throughout the book to fess up, but each time, he shies away from it for no really compelling reason that I could fathom.

Fortunately however, this is a minor niggle, because the rest of the story really is excellent. The characterisation is strong all-round, with even the minor characters being fully-rounded, and the author has created an atmosphere that is sombre without being depressing or gloomy. The loneliness endured by both Moncrief and Catherine is vividly evoked, and their gradual coming together is a true delight to read; they are so deserving of happiness in their lives that the pleasure and contentment they eventually find with each other feels as though it has been fully earned.

TBR Challenge: The Duke’s Holiday by Maggie Fenton

dukeshol

The Duke of Montford, cold, precise, and more powerful than the Prince Regent himself, wants things the way he wants them: cross-referenced, indexed, and at his beck and call. And he always gets what he wants.

Until he meets Astrid Honeywell. And a giant pig. And a crooked castle in the middle of Yorkshire.

Astrid Honeywell, staunch bluestocking, has struggled for years to keep her family together by running the estate and family brewery after her father’s death. She is not about to let the tyrannical Duke of Montford steal away all she has worked for because of some antiquated contract between their families. So when the priggish Duke comes to call, she does everything in her power — including setting the family pig on him — to drive him away.

She didn’t expect him to be so … well, infuriatingly attractive. Every time he scowls at her, she has the most improper desire to kiss him — and a whole lot more.

Montford can’t decide whether to strangle Astrid or seduce her. The one thing he knows for a fact is that he must resist his powerful attraction for her at all costs. He has a very proper, very demure fiancée waiting for him back in London, after all. But when Astrid is kidnapped by a disgruntled suitor and whisked off to Gretna Green, Montford will do anything to get her back.

Will these two drive each other to Bedlam … or can they make it to the altar without killing each other?

Rating: C-

September’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a book that had been recommended to me by someone. A good friend on Goodreads recommended this book to me a while back, and quite a few of my other GR friends enjoyed it very much, so I settled in to enjoy.

It’s a light-hearted “romp” (the cover even boasts that it’s part of the author’s Regency Romp series – just in case I hadn’t realised) in which a very handsome, very rich, very proper, very aloof and very lonely duke (although he doesn’t actually admit the lonely part, of course) has his comfortable and orderly existence completely overturned when he travels to Yorkshire in order to investigate the goings-on at one of his properties there.
Cyril, Duke of Montford (and yes, he’s been given a very un-romantic-hero-like name on purpose) likes everything to be Just So. His pens have to be lined up in a certain way, his boot tassels must face one way and not another, and at meals, no food on his plate can be allowed to touch another food. The book synopsis indicates he has OCD, and clearly this is what the author is getting at, but at the risk of being a party-pooper, I used to know someone with OCD and it wasn’t quite like that.

But anyway. Dramatic license.

The duke dislikes travelling immensely, but circumstances conspire to force him to travel to Rylestone in Yorkshire, an estate he owns, but which has been inhabited for the last two hundred years by the Honeywell family, whose principal occupation is the manufacture of the popular and rather splendid Honeywell Ale. There is some kind of family feud dating back a couple of centuries, too, which I imagine is supposed to prime the reader for the ensuing conflict.

The story is a simple one – Astrid wants to get rid of the duke as soon as possible. He is immediately aware that all is not as it should be and wants to know what’s going on. Astrid tries to pull the wool over his eyes several times and discovers he’s much more canny than she’d given him credit for. And all the while, the pair are fighting a reluctant attraction. The author manages that part of the story quite well – the sexual tension bubbles along nicely, although the sex scenes themselves are nothing special.

[Seriously – what is it with sex scenes on horseback? Or in this case, a not-quite sex scene on horseback? Okay, so let’s be blunt here – a scene involving mutual masturbation in which the hero comes in his trousers (the “moist warmth” seeps through his breeches!) – on horseback. I presume the entire point of that was because the author thought it would be funny to have him fall off the horse because, as in the way of all men, he falls asleep after having an orgasm.

Er – no, it isn’t.]

I confess that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d hoped or expected to. The author certainly has potential, and I may be tempted to seek out the next book in the series, as I liked the way the two principal characters were being set up – but when it comes down to it, this book is a comedy and I didn’t find it all that funny. And in some places, what the author no doubt intended as humour was actually rather crass; for example, Montford finds the fact that Astrid has one blue eye and one brown one to be very unsettling, and in his extreme annoyance one evening, finds himself thinking that he’d like to gouge one of them out with a soup-spoon and replace it with another of the right colour. (Eeeew!) Although, of course, the problem is deciding which one to keep…

I’ve seen the book likened to a screwball comedy, which is a genre I adore. But I can’t see the similiarity, because The Duke’s Holiday completely lacks the sophistication one would find in the best screwball comedies. This is slapstick which is completely different. There are a couple of faintly amusing set-pieces in the book, such as the foot-and-ale race, and late on, an abduction and rescue, but nothing that really made me giggle.

But my biggest problem with the book is this – I just couldn’t warm to or like the heroine. She’s a woman in a man’s world, trying to run a business, a home, bring up a family and support the local community, which are all laudable things. But I couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one whose behaviour is so frequently infantile, childish and downright stupid that she quickly becomes intensely annoying rather than charmingly eccentric. For a woman whose intelligence is mentioned frequently (clearly a case of TELLING rather than SHOWING), she is disturbingly oblivious to the fact that the duke has the law completely on his side and no matter of moral right or obligation gives her the right to behave in the way she does.

If she’d been as intelligent as the author claims, Astrid would have tried to charm Montford and work out a compromise – which is when she would have discovered that he actually had no intention of throwing her and her family out of their home. After all, he’s got 27 (or is it 37?) houses in England alone, so he is perfectly able to continue to let this one out; but he quite naturally wants to make sure that it’s being properly run and cared for. And clearly, it isn’t.

But no – intelligent Astrid decides to behave outrageously and repeatedly tries to throw him off his OWN PROPERTY. And then she refuses to show him the ledgers and account books – which, again, as the owner, he is perfectly entitled to see – which leads to an overly long scene in the library during which the pair engages in a heated tussle which Astrid seeks to end by putting the ledger in her drawers (yeah, must’ve been large drawers or a small book!) – which is very mature.

When everyone around her is pointing out the folly of her actions – they’re all wrong and Astrid is the only one with the strength of purpose to do what must be done. Even when her sister Alice points out how Astrid’s unconventional attitude and behaviour has affected her and everyone else, Astrid STILL can’t be brought to see another point of view.

“I had no idea the opinions of small-minded gentry were so important to you,” she huffed.

Alice groaned in frustration. “You just don’t understand, Astrid. You never think beyond this pile of stones. Whether you like it or not, the opinions of other people matter. You’ll discover this soon enough when we’re tossed out of here.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“What? It’s true. The duke has the right. And the way you’ve treated him thus far does nothing to help our case. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t put us all in the workhouse.”

[…]

“I don’t need saving. I am the one trying to save the lot of you!” Astrid cried.

“How can you do it when you won’t accept the truth? Rylestone doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

In this, (which is the next part of the scene I’ve quoted at length below), Astrid sounds and acts like a petulant child stamping her foot and sulking because they know they’re in the wrong but can’t admit it.

Astrid is difficult to like and is just TOO whacky. It feels like the author is trying too hard to make her funny and loveable, but for most of the time, I couldn’t help sympathising with the duke, who thinks she’s completely bonkers and out of control and, when he doesn’t want to shag her, wants to throttle her. I get that the idea was to take the most proper and aloof aristocrat in the history of historical romance and take swipes at him so that bit by bit, he becomes human like the rest of us, but the method of doing so just didn’t work for me. Astrid treats him as a pariah from the get-go, and while he certainly is a bit of a stuffed shirt who needs to loosen up a bit, being unreasonably hostile and downright unpleasant isn’t the way to go about it. And if Montford really does have a form of OCD, flinging him into constant contact with someone as chaotic as Astrid doesn’t seem to me to be the way to devise useful coping mechanisms!

Montford is rather more engaging, although he doesn’t really rise above the two-dimensional, and I actually found myself a little confused by the author’s description of him. To start with, he’s described as incredibly fastidious in everything he does, including his appearance, so he’s well-dressed and never has a hair out of place. This fastidiousness, combined with his tendency to swoon at the sight of blood and his distaste for travel because it makes him throw up, gave me the picture of him as a bit of a fop. But then Ms Fenton turns him into your standard tall, dark, handsome, well-muscled, well-endowed historical hero, and as a result, I found it very difficult to get a handle on him. He’s given a backstory of sorts that is never really fleshed out, which is a missed opportunity. We’re told that Montford lost his parents in a carriage accident when he was four years old, and this is clearly meant to account for his dislike of travel and the sight of blood. I confess, I immediately thought of Colin Sandhurst in Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked – who had to fend off wild dogs aged 8 when his parents were killed in a similar manner. But the big difference (besides AWtbW being a MUCH better book!) is that we are SHOWN how this event affected and continues to affect Colin throughout that story – here, Montford faints at the sight of blood and throws up in carriages. And that’s about all we get.

The Duke’s Holiday isn’t a terrible book by any means, but it would have benefited from some judicious editing and proof-reading. There is a lot of repetition within scenes which disrupts the pacing and delays the story progression, so there is a lot of pruning and tightening up needed. There are a number of typos and errors, the most obvious of which was the mention of a character wearing a crinoline in the Regency period. Also, Ms Fenton’s grasp of the conventions of the period is a little tenuous and the language and overall style is rather too modern.

I don’t have too much of a problem with that in certain circumstances. I enjoy books by Tessa Dare and Maya Rodale, for example, both of whom write romantic comedies which require one to check one’s “historical accuracy hat” at the door. But Ms Fenton isn’t in that league in terms of either her characterisation or writing to bring out the humour.

I thought the best parts of the book were actually the more introspective and character-based ones. One scene which has stuck in my mind is the one in which Alice (younger than Astrid by three years) finally tells her some home truths:

“No, Astrid,” Alice cried… “I’m twenty-three years old and had no offers, and do you want to know why? Because of you. No respectable man dare approach me because they think my sister is a … a hoyden. A shocking, forward, proselytizing hoyden.”

[…]

“You show no one the slightest deference, attend church infrequently, argue with the vicar. You curse in company, converse with the farmhands and wear trousers.”

“I never wear trousers in public!” she interjected. “Only around the castle. And in the garden.”

Alice gave her a doubtful look. “You ride about the country astride.”

“Sidesaddle is dangerous.”

“It is when you tear off hell-for-leather like you’re riding into battle. Which you do all the time.”

“I wear a perfectly respectable habit.”

Alice snorted. “Which comes up past your ankles.”

“What is so shocking about ankles? I’ll never understand it.”

“Nor I, but that is just the way things are. …”

“What would you have had me do? Let our family starve?” Astrid burst out. “Someone had to run the estate when father cracked. Someone had to take care of you and the girls. Who else was going to do it? Aunt Anabel?”

Alice blanched at Astrid’s harsh tone. “You make me sound like an ungrateful wretch.”

“Perhaps that is because you are! I have done everything for this family, and you chastise me for it.”

“No! I am merely pointing out that your manner of doing things for this family is so very … blatant. Do you really need to wear trousers to save the estate? Really, Astrid?”

“I wear trousers because they are comfortable and practical, and I ride astride because it is also eminently practical. All of these petty rules and codes restricting the behaviour for ladies are destined solely to subjugate our sex.”

Alice rolled her eyes. “Of course they are, but flaunting [I think the author means “flouting”] those rules is not going to earn you any friends. Or a husband.”

“I don’t want a husband.”

“But I do! And what of Antonia and Ardyce [younger sisters]? What’s to become of them when they’re grown? Your conduct reflects on all of us. It’s a wonder we’re still received as it is.”

In fact, re-reading that passage makes me think Alice would have made a far better heroine –one who also chafes against the restrictions imposed upon her as a woman yet who is clear sighted enough to see that she needs to work within them in order to get what she wants.

Anyway, this review is already very long, so I’ll finish by saying that although I like the “opposites attract” trope as a rule, Montford and Astrid are two are polar opposites in so many ways that it’s hard to see how a relationship between them is going to work long-term. It’s certainly true that Montford needs loosening up, but I like to believe that a couple in a romance has potential beyond the HEA at the end of the book; and if he really does have some form of OCD, Astrid is going to drive him up the wall.

Seriously, Felix and Oscar look like soul-mates compared to this odd couple!

The Rules of Seduction by Madeline Hunter

rules seduction

Dangerous. Sensual. Handsome as sin. Meet Hayden Rothwell, the shamelessly erotic hero of The Rules of Seduction and author Madeline Hunter’s most irresistible alpha male yet: a man of extraordinary passion and power, a man who can bring out the seductress in any woman.…

He enters her home without warning or invitation–a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding sensuality. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her to bed. When one impulsive act of passion forces Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her, Hayden’s seduction of Alexia is nearly complete. What Alexia doesn’t know is that her irresistible new husband is driven by a secret purpose–and a debt of honor he will risk everything to repay. Alexia is the wild card. Reluctant to give up their nightly pleasures, Hayden must find a way to keep Alexia by his side…only to be utterly, thoroughly seduced by a woman who is now playing by her own rules.

Rating: B

I haven’t read many books by this author, and judging from various reviews I’ve seen, she can be a bit hit-and-miss for many, but I enjoyed this, and was particularly impressed with the way she utilises a specific historical event (the stock market crash of 1825) to provide both background detail and impetus for her story.

Lord Hayden Rothwell, brother of the eccentric Marquess of Easterbrook is a highly successful and skilled financier, as well as being a mathematical genius on the quiet. He is a man who keeps himself tightly controlled and is not subject to whim or impulse; everything he does is carefully considered and calculated, which has earned him a fearsome reputation in both high society and in financial circles.

Several years previously he, like many of his peers, travelled to Greece to fight in the war of independence against Turkey. Were it not for the actions of his friend, Benjamin Longworth, Hayden would have been killed – and that debt of honour is one that Hayden holds sacred, even four years after Benjamin’s death at sea. Because of that debt, Hayden now finds himself in an impossible situation, having discovered that Benjamin’s brother, Timothy, has been embezzling funds from the bank in which both he and Ben were partners. Hayden has no alternative but to confront Longworth with his knowledge; but owing Ben his life means he is not willing to throw Longworth to the wolves. He comes up with a way for Longworth to avoid the gallows – but it will mean repaying as much of the missing money as he can and then learning to live within his now meagre means.

Bound by his word never to reveal the truth to Longworth’s sisters and the impoverished cousin who lives with them, Hayden has to endure the misplaced enmity of the entire Longworth household. It’s not that he cares overmuch, even when rumour begins to circulate that he deliberately ruined the family, but it’s an inconvenience, especially when Hayden finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the Longworths’ cousin, Alexia Welbourne. He is impressed by her dignity even as she makes clear her dislike and disdain, and he can’t help rising to the tempting bait she presents, sensing that beneath her controlled exterior, she’s seething with frustration and unable to help thinking of other ways he would like to rouse her passions.

Alexia can’t deny that Hayden is a very handsome man, and against her will and better judgement she is attracted to him. But she is convinced it is a transient thing, and instead still clings to the memory of Ben, with whom she was in love. Before leaving for Greece, he had – she believes – promised to marry her, although he didn’t actually propose. He had no such intentions, of course, but she has remained unaware of that, and is clearly more in love with Ben’s memory and the idea of being in love, than she was with the man himself.

Realising that her cousins’ impoverished state means Alexia will not be able to continue to live with them, he arranges for her to take a position as his aunt’s companion and governess to his cousin who is to make her début this season. As the ladies will be taking up residence in the Longworth’s former home, Alexia will not have to leave or try to find other employment.

Because of his aunt’s demands that he dance attendance upon her and his cousin, Hayden is often in company with Alexia. He’s well aware that his aunt has designs upon him on her daughter’s behalf, but he’s interested only in Alexia and is prepared to put up with his relations in order to spend time with her. His continued presence makes her feel rather uncomfortable because she is starting to find much in him to admire, and to more than like the way he makes her feel when he kisses her. She can’t understand it – how can she feel such an intense attraction to a man she doesn’t even like?

After passionate kisses turn suddenly and unexpectedly into lovemaking, Alexia believes Hayden intends to make her his mistress. She decides to be practical and accept his offer of carte blanche with the intention of putting aside enough money and jewellery to support her comfortably after he leaves her and to offer her cousins what help they will accept.

She is stunned to receive an offer of marriage instead.

She knows that this will cause a serious breach between her and her cousins, who are her only family; yet Hayden is offering her a comfortable life, and one filled with passion for as long as they want it, for neither of them can deny the intensity of the sexual pleasure they experienced together. Prepared to live in a marriage of convenience in which both partners lead separate lives, Alexia can’t ignore the small voice at the back of her mind telling her that when her husband eventually strays from her bed, it will hurt like the devil.

While there are elements of miscommunication in the story, they don’t reach the level of the silly Big Misunderstanding, the sole existence of which is to provide easily resolvable conflict. There are issues between Hayden and Alexia that take time to resolve, it’s true, but for the most part they DO talk honestly. There is one important exception, however, which is Hayden’s request to Alexia early on that there should only ever be the two of them in their bed. He means it mostly as a reference to Ben, as he believes that although Alexia is a passionate and very willing bed-mate, she is still carrying a torch for his old friend; but she interprets it very literally, and never speaks of her problems in the bedroom, often reminding Hayden of his request on those occasions he asks what is troubling her.

While I do have a few minor quibbles about the book as a whole, the storyline is very well put-together both in terms of the romance and the plot concerning Hayden’s following of the money-trail as he tries to work out exactly who stole what and what happened to the money. There’s a brilliant and unexpected twist towards the end, which I didn’t see coming, but which, looking back on it, is subtly signposted.

The characterisation of both leads is very good, and there is plenty of chemistry between them. I liked that they actually talk to each other quite a lot, and especially enjoyed the way that Ms Hunter allows the romance to build slowly. Hayden is a delicious hero – tall, dark and handsome of course, but he’s also defined by an air of competence and a deep intensity and sensuality that make a heady cocktail! Alexia is practical and intelligent, and while there were times I didn’t agree with her actions, they nonetheless made sense within the terms of the plot. She resists her attraction to Hayden while he is determined to foster it – and in doing to, he falls hard and has to learn to accept that there are some things he can’t control. But he is also considerate and never treats his wife with anything other than respect – he values her opinions and her spirit, and is sensible of the fact that she needs to make her own decisions about him. With time, Alexia comes to see that her new husband is a man of honour and integrity, and to finally have her suspicions that perhaps the Longworths’ ruin was not his fault.

The Rules of Seduction is an enjoyable read featuring a well-developed love story set against a very intriguing historical background. There are three more books in the series, which I certainly intend to check out at some point on the strength of this one.