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!

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.

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.

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.

Andrew: Lord of Despair (Lonely Lords #7) by Grace Burrowes

andrew_4501

Andrew Alexander will do anything to protect those he loves…

After a tragic yachting accident leaves him wracked with guilt and despair, Andrew Alexander becomes certain he doesn’t deserve to be around his own family, let alone the beautiful, forthright Astrid Worthington. He wanders for years, only allowing himself respite from his self-imposed exile when he thinks Astrid safely married. He returns home to find instead that the only woman he’s ever loved has been recently – and mysteriously – widowed.

…especially from himself.

When Andrew leaves, Astrid refuses to pine. She finds an amiable husband and contents herself with a cordial if unexciting marriage. But her husband’s sudden death and Andrew’s reappearance threaten to break her heart all over again. When Astrid’s life is threatened, she finds Andrew will do anything to protect her not only from her enemies, but also from the truth of his dark past.

Rating: B+

Many of the books in Ms Burrowes’ Lonely Lords series have included an element of mystery or suspense alongside the romance, but Andrew has the feel of a gothic romance about it from fairly early on.

It also relates strongly to the book that preceeds it – Gareth – which makes sense, as Andrew is Gareth’s youngest brother. As with most of the books in the series, it does work as a standalone, as Ms Burrowes includes sufficient backstory for a newcomer to the series, but I think one needs to have read Gareth in order to fully appreciate both the storyline and the characterisation of Andrew himself.

Andrew Alexander and his mother are the only survivors of a boating accident thirteen years before which took the lives of the rest of their family. Gareth was the one member of the family who had not been on the expedition, and as a result, had to live for years with accusations and gossip accusing him of engineering the accident so that he could inherit his grandfather’s title. Gareth’s reaction was to work hard and play even harder, gaining himself the reputation of the greatest womaniser in London. Andrew, meantime, grew up and went to University, presenting to the world an open, sunny disposition that, as his story shows, hides a wealth of heavily suppressed self-loathing and despair.

During the events of the previous book, Andrew fell in love with the heroine’s sister, Astrid, but for reasons known only to himself felt that he had to separate himself from her. So despite his horror of travelling by sea, he left the country.

Four years later, Andrew returns to England only to discover that Astrid, married two years previously to Herbert Allen, Viscount Amery, has recently been widowed and is very likely pregnant. Andrew’s feelings for her haven’t changed, and neither have hers for him – but believing himself to be unworthy of the love of any decent woman, and even less worthy of being entrusted with the care of a child, Andrew instead determines to stand her friend, and nothing more.

But as the couple begins to get to know each other again, and Astrid reveals the truth of her marriage to a man who spent more time and money on his horses and his mistress than his wife, and whose physical intimacies were limited to a quick lift of her nightgown once a week, Andrew finds himself unable to remain aloof. Their short-lived relationship from years earlier had not seen them become lovers, but even so, Andrew knows Astrid is a passionate woman for whom the lack of the simple comfort offered by the touch of another person must have been truly miserable. So he offers that which she has been denied – a physical relationship borne of real affection and full of the passion she longs for – making it clear to her that he can give her nothing more.

Like her sister Felicity, Astrid is no shrinking female. She understands too well the limitations placed upon her as a woman, but her inner strength will not allow her to lose the man she loves without a fight. She accepts Andrew’s offer of an affair, determined to try to discover why he feels as he does and then perhaps, to find a way to get him to stay.

While this is going on, Astrid’s brother David, Viscount Fairly, has heard gossip that perhaps Astrid’s husband took his own life and has also learned that the money that should have been her widow’s portion has been stolen and spent, no doubt by Herbert on his mistress, horses and other sporting pursuits. Gareth, Andrew and David become suspicious that there is more going on than meets the eye, and their suspicions fall mainly upon Douglas Amery, Herbert’s younger brother and now holder of the viscountcy. Douglas is a cold fish, and a stickler for propriety, unlike the youngest Allen brother, Henry, who is a gregarious spendthrift, rather like Herbert. Henry is clearly his mother’s favourite, too, and the pair complain regularly about the economies Douglas is imposing upon them in his effort to shore up the severely depleted family finances. Astrid does not feel comfortable around her brother-in-law, and is even less so when she is reminded that, as head of the family, Douglas has the right to assume guardianship of her child and to remove it from her care should he so wish.

When Astrid suffers a fall one day, she puts it down to the fact that the early stages of pregnancy have made her feel very unwell and that she is subject to fainting fits. The men, however, are more suspicious, and realise that the only way to keep Astrid safe is to remove her from Amery’s orbit altogether. And the only way to do that is for her to marry someone of equal or higher status with plenty of money to pitch into a legal battle should one become necessary. There’s only one man on hand who fits that bill, and when a further incident indicates, without doubt, that Astrid’s life is in danger, she and Andrew are married without delay.

The story that unfolds is both a tender and rather tragic love-story as well as a fairly well-handled mystery. The identity of the villain is never in doubt (given that the next book in the series is Douglas’ story), but the plot twists are deftly executed, and the mystery storyline works well.

I find that every book of Ms Burrowes’ I read invariably requires a handful of tissues, but the final chapters of Andrew are so emotionally charged, that I could have done with a whole box full! A series of utterly heart-rending circumstances conspire to have Andrew finally admit the reasons behind the depth of his self-hatred to Gareth, who is also going through his own personal version of hell. I said in my review of Gareth that the relationship between the brothers was one of the highlights of the book, and that continues to be the case here, as they talk and take comfort from each other at a truly dark time.

Andrew is a very strong addition to the Lonely Lords series; one of the more emotionally charged and angst-ridden, but if, like me, you enjoy being put though the emotional mangle, that won’t put you off.

The Heywood Inheritance by Catherine Fellows

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When Sir Miles Heywood’s eccentric will was read, his granddaughter Sara became not only the mistress of a great house, but the target of her greedy relatives’ devious designs.

After a lifetime of service to her grandfather, Sara was eager for the gaiety that Regency England could offer. But while she was far too passionate a woman to turn her back on love, Sara was also far too shrewd to trust all the indecently attractive gentlemen who suddenly vied for her hand.

Even as she laughingly listened to her handsome suitors’ proposals, Sara knew that at least one of those charming young men was engaged in a desperate plot, and that she was gambling her heart in a game where the sweetest promises might well turn into the cruelest lies.

Rating: C+

This is another of the books I picked up for the AAR Back to School challenge. One of the prompts for Saturday is Read a book where the hero or heroine is or becomes wealthy– so this one immediately jumped out at me from the pile of second-hand paperbacks by the bed!

It proved to be an entertaining story, although much more of a mystery than a romance, which just “happens” in the final pages and even then, isn’t especially romantic! That said, however, the book is well-written, with a great deal of wit and a heroine who is thoroughly engaging and level-headed, showing none of the TSTL tendencies of so many of the “heroines-in-peril” one encounters in romantic mysteries.

The Heywood Inheritance was originally published in 1975, and, like many Regency romances of that era, comes in at around the two-hundred-page mark (191 to be exact!) It’s concise, but never feels rushed and although the storyline seems a little dark – the heroine’s life is in danger because she has just inherited a great deal of money and property – it’s handled with a light, sure touch.

Sara Heywood has spent the last four years as the sole carer for her elderly grandfather, having lived at the family home of Wildon Abbey all her life. At the beginning of the book, her family is gathered there to hear the reading of the late Sir Miles’ will, and to her shock, she discovers that he has left her everything until such time as she marries or dies. At that time, everyone else – her brother, cousins and aunt – will receive their not inconsiderable bequests and Sara will have a dowry of fifty-thousand pounds.

Because of the inclement weather – the local roads are flooded – Sara suddenly finds herself as the hostess of the house party from hell. She and her brother, Neville, have never really got on, and he’s incandescent with rage that she has received the inheritance he regards as his by right, being the only son of Sir Miles’ only son. His recent marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant was allowed because of his expectation of becoming the owner of a large and prestigious estate and his new wife is singularly unimpressed by his lowered status.

Sara’s great-aunt Elvira – one of those no-nonsense elderly ladies so beloved in historical romance – quickly points out that her cousins – Laurence, Marcus and Miles – will probably want to marry her, or do away with her, and that the latter option could also apply to her brother given the massive sums of money at stake. At first, she can’t believe that anyone could want to do her harm, but it soon becomes clear to her that her life is, indeed, in danger.

The setting reminds me somewhat of one of those scenes so beloved of mysteries wherein all the suspects congregate to hear the unravelling of the plot and unmasking of the wrongdoer. In fact, there are several of such gatherings throughout the book, as everyone appears to protest their innocence and account for their whereabouts following an attempt on Sara’s life (there are three or four!) This is the only aspect of the story where I felt things were a little heavy-handed – the rest of it is very deftly written, with plenty of humour in the exchanges between Sara and Elvira and Sara and Marcus.

In such a short book, there isn’t much room for character development, but the author does draw the family dynamics well and swiftly. Miles is still somewhat under his mother’s thumb, even though he is now a viscount. Unfortunately, his is an empty title, his father having run through the family fortune and left him and his mother with very little. Laurence resides with his uncle in London, and is, like many of the young bucks his age, in debt. He’s very charming and concerned for Sara, suggesting to her that it might be safer for her to agree to pretend to be engaged to him while they try to work out who is trying to harm her.

Marcus seems to be the black sheep of the family, as none of his relatives seem to think much of him or have a good word to say for him – apart from Elvira, who appreciates his good advice and his sense of humour. He’s handsome, authoritative and has a wonderfully irreverent manner which he is well aware rubs most of his relations up the wrong way!

Sara is a very likeable heroine; forthright, sensible and also possessed of wit and charm. She’s not happy with the situation, but is more likely to want to hit something than mope about it:

As soon as he [Neville] made his escape Sara laid her head on the table and worked her finger into her admirable coiffeure.

“I think,” she announced, with careful restraint, “that I am going to scream.”

“No sense in that –you’ll have ‘em all back again,” Elvira pointed out, practical to the last.

“It is all very well to apply common sense, but I warn you, Aunt, that another few days of this and I shall be beyond reason!” She stood up purposefully. “I shall try the healing powers of a little solitude. I am going for a ride, and don’t dare to tell the others!”

“Don’t get lost,” Elvira advised. “What shall I say if they should ask for you?”

“Oh… that I am clearning out the attics or consulting in the kitchen! Anything!”

I admit I had no idea whodunnit until it was finally revealed. Miles, Laurence and Marcus are concerned gentlemen, none of whom seems a likely suspect. The reveal, when it comes, is fast and quite simple, which made me wonder if the author had decided on the exact identity of the villain before writing the book! Even the character who is clearly designated as the romantic hero (although as I’ve said, there isn’t much romance) acts in ways which give cause for suspicion, which is a clever move, as the reader is never quite certain of her conclusions.

The Heywood Inheritance is an above average read, even though it lacks certain elements we’ve come to expect in romance these days – I’m not talking about sex scenes, but about character and relationship development. Still, the story was very skilfully written and possessed plenty of wit and humour. There are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours.

Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla Kelly

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Illegitimate Polly Brandon has never felt like more than an ugly duckling. So she’s amazed when Hugh Philippe Junot pays her such close attention as they sail for Portugal.

Under ordinary circumstances she knows this distinguished lieutenant colonel of marines would never have looked at her, but having his protection for the journey is comforting–and something more that she’s afraid to give a name to. Should she trust what she sees in Hugh’s eyes–has she turned from an ugly duckling into a beautiful, desirable swan?

Rating: A

Polly Brandon, the youngest of three sisters, is eighteen (going on nineteen), and has always felt herself to be the ugly duckling of the family. At the beginning of the story, she has obtained passage on a British ship bound for Portugal, intending to work alongside her sister, Laura, and her husband, who is chief surgeon at a military hospital in Oporto.

Recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Philippe d’Anvers Junot – a Scot, despite his French-sounding name – is wondering whether taking that promotion had been such a good idea after all, as it has left him landlocked. He is, he admits, dissatisfied both professionally and personally; in the case of the former, he misses life at sea, and in the case of the latter, he is lonely, and thinks that perhaps, at thirty-seven, he may have left it too late to find himself a wife and start a family.

Travelling to Portugal on a fact-finding mission, he is at somewhat of a loose end, until he realises that the ship’s other passenger, Polly, has not been seen for two days. He discovers her in the grips of a terrible bout of sea-sickness and, not being part of the crew and having no other urgent duties takes responsibility for her care – cleaning her up, moving her to his cabin and generally looking after her until they arrive at Oporto.

During this time, Hugh realises that Polly – whom he nicknames Brandon – is no milk-and-water miss. She is independent of mind and spirit with a great deal of backbone, and he finds himself falling for her, hard and fast. But he is almost twenty years her senior, and, convinced he is too old for her, determines to leave her in Oporto and journey onward to Lisbon, believing that once out of sight he will be able to put her out of his mind.

For her part, Polly is embarrassed by the Colonel’s care of her, knowing he’s seen her at her worst and believing it impossible that such a handsome, distinguished and commanding man could ever be interested in an a woman like her; plain and poor as she is, and illegitimate, to boot. But when they arrive at the convent-turned-hospital, Laura sees immediately that Hugh is more than a little interested in Polly, and warns him off. Hugh does not take exception to her warning – she says nothing that he hasn’t already told himself.

Hugh takes his leave, and Polly begins her work at the hospital, working alongside Sister Maria, who has asked her to teach English to the women and their children who have taken refuge at the convent. The women have been raped and brutalised by soldiers of the French army, and many of them still have nightmares about their experiences. One of the things Sister Maria does is to help soothe them at night so they can sleep, and she also asks for Polly’s help in this. Polly finds it difficult and draining – but knows she is doing good, and ends up writing pages and pages about her experiences and her own emotions in a long letter to Hugh, which she never intends to send.

Hugh misses Polly more than he could ever have imagined he would miss anyone, and admits to himself that he has finally found the woman he could spend the rest of his life with – while also telling himself he can’t have her because she’s too young for him and has her life to live.

When his ship returns to Oporto, he fully intends to sail back to England without seeing Polly again, not wanting to put himself through the pain of seeing her and having to leave her again. Fate, however, decrees otherwise, and very soon, the pair of them are thrust into an unwelcome and dangerous situation from which it seems unlikely they will escape with their lives.

Carla Kelly is one of those writers who can always be depended upon to come up with a well-written and entertaining story, but this book really is something special. The Napoleonic Wars are often referenced in historical romances set in and around this period, but are little more than a backdrop, whereas here, the reader is plunged into the midst of the uncertainty and horrors of war as experienced in this particular corner of Europe. There are a few upsetting scenes, especially when Hugh, Polly and Sister Maria are captured by a small group of French dragoons and their lives are hanging in the balance. Hugh and Polly claim to be married – hoping to prevent Polly’s violation at the hands of the soldiers – a fiction they maintain throughout their journey, which it becomes clear isn’t all that much of a fiction after all. The feelings which have already sprouted between them take root and grow, their affectionate gestures and verbal endearments a natural consequence of the attraction that already exists between them. It’s a beautifully written and heart-felt romance in which the connection between the protagonists is deep and real, and not just something which happens as the result of their terrible situation.

Hugh and Polly come across as real, ordinary people who find themselves having to deal with extraordinary circumstances. Hugh is a wonderful hero – strong and honourable, while being caring, protective and possessed of a wry sense of humour. And Polly is resilient and courageous, even though she is scared to death and isn’t afraid to admit it. Together, they help each other through weeks spent as the captives of a group of French dragoons as they travel across Portugal to join up with their captor’s regiment. The journey is hazardous, they are often starving and always uncomfortable, yet through it all they remain Hugh and Polly, two people doing what they must to survive who never lose their humanity amidst the terrible inhumanity of war.

Ms Kelly’s grasp of the history of the period is masterly, and she cleverly weaves a number of interesting historical facts into her story as well as engineering a meeting between her hero and heroine and the unconventional James Rothchild, one of the family of Jewish bankers who were doing their bit to undermine Napoleon through their financial and banking interests.

I am in awe of the author’s ability to have written such an emotionally intense and satisfying story in under three hundred pages. I freely admit to having teared up on at least two occasions while I was reading, and to finding my heart in my throat during times of peril. Ms Kelly doesn’t sugar coat the horror, desperation and degradation of war and I was truly impressed at the manner in which she humanised the opposing forces, showing them as men doing their jobs rather than demonising them.

Marrying the Royal Marine is a truly wonderful book, from start to finish. The romance is just beautiful, with Hugh and Polly showing each other over and over how much they care for each other in ways both big and small. They are partners in every sense of the word – looking out for each other, saving each other, and even managing to laugh together despite the gravity of the situation into which they are thrust. I know there are some readers who don’t care for such large age-gaps, but honestly, that doesn’t matter here. Polly isn’t some brattish teenaged air-head; she’s mature for her years and has a sensible head on her shoulders, and she and Hugh make a couple I can envisage as being happy together long after the last page has been turned.