A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

Advertisements

TBR Challenge: The Holly and the Ivy by Elisabeth Fairchild

the holly and the ivy

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Mary River’s grandmother has predicted a wonderful Christmas in London. And when their usually prickly neighbor, Lord Balfour, is increasingly attentive, Gran’s predictions may come true–if the merry Mary and the thorny lord can weather a scandalous misunderstanding and a chaotic Christmas Eve ball.

Rating: B-

My final read for this year’s Multi-Blog TBR Challenge is a sweet traditional Regency from Elisabeth Fairchild, whose The Christmas Spirit still ranks as one of my all-time favourite Christmassy reads.

Originally published in 1999, The Holly and the Ivy brings together a young man who has never enjoyed Christmas and a young woman who loves it, but is finding it a trial this year, being separated from her loving and beloved family and missing them profoundly.

Charles Thornton Baxter, Viscount Balfour – nicknamed Lord Thorn by many because of his rather prickly demeanour – has no patience with the festive season and just goes through the motions, hosting the season’s largest Christmas Eve ball simply as a way of fulfilling all his obligations for visiting and making merry at one stroke. This year, however, Christmas is going to be an especially difficult time, as he has recently lost a dear friend, the man who was more of a father to him than his own – largely absent – father ever was.

Mary Rivers is staying with her grandmother who lives next door to the tetchy – but handsome – young viscount, and is sorely missing her large family. Every year, one of the Rivers siblings is sent to London to stay with Gran, and while Mary loves the old lady, she can’t help feeling lonely. Still, she faces the world with a smile, a smile which Baxter finds incredibly irritating at first, wondering as he does what she can possibly have to smile about so continually and finding it offensive given his own raw grief. It’s only when he witnesses a private moment of sadness that he realises that her smile is just a façade and that behind it is a lonely young woman who has made an art out of making the best of things.

This is a lovely, character-driven romance in which the relationship between the central characters is allowed to develop at a decent pace and in which they get to know each other as friends while the undercurrent of attraction between them grows stronger. Unfortunately, however, things veer badly off course when Baxter, in his relative naivete when it comes to women (it’s not actually said outright if he’s a virgin, but if he’s not, he’s fairly inexperienced) listens to a couple of his more worldly friends who cause him to believe that Mary, who is not wealthy or titled, is a fortune hunter. When an unfortunate coincidence serves to reinforce that belief, he becomes cold and contemptuous toward Mary, who is at a loss to explain the sudden change of manner in the man she has come to know and love.

This is rather an unpleasant turn of events that risks destroying the reader’s sympathy for Baxter utterly, but fortunately, Ms Fairchild fleshes out his back-story in such a way as to enable the reader to retain it, even when he’s being a prize arse. He does redeem himself, however, being there for Mary when she badly needs him, even though she has given him no reason to hope for her forgiveness. But for most of the book, he’s a likeable character, an awkward, sometimes charming beta hero with a dry sense of humour who is struggling to adapt to a major loss and change in his life and to do the right thing by those who depend on him.

In spite of that tricky plot-turn, I enjoyed the book. Elisabeth Fairchild’s writing is expressive without being overly sentimental or saccharine; the emotions experienced and displayed by her characters are realistic and deeply felt, with moments of true poignancy for Baxter, especially, as he struggles with grief and loss amid so much festive cheer.

The Holly and the Ivy isn’t available digitally, which is a shame, as it’s an entertaining, well-written and emotionally resonant story in which the spirit of the season plays an important part. But reasonably priced second hand copies are easy to come by, and if you find one, I’d certainly recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, comforting seasonal read.

add-to-goodreads-button

TBR Challenge: The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie

the perfect rake

She ran from a brute…

Fleeing violent tyranny, Prudence Merridew escapes with her beautiful younger sisters to London. One of them must marry—and fast. To act as her sisters’ chaperone, Prudence invents a secret engagement to a reclusive duke…But when the duke arrives unexpectedly in London, she needs his help to avert disaster.

…into the arms of a rake

Aristocratic Gideon, handsome, rakish and with a strong frivolous streak, casually hijacks Prudence’s game, awarding himself a stolen kiss or three along the way. Used to managing sisters and elderly men, Prudence is completely out of her depth with a charming, devious and utterly irresistible rake. And her plot goes terribly — if deliciously—awry…

This title may be purchase from Amazon

Rating: B+

This is my second year taking part in Super Wendy’s Multi-Blog TBR Challenge, and even though I don’t read the various romance sub-genres widely, I’ve nonetheless managed to find something in my TBR pile to fit the prompts each month. But I’m afraid I’m going to wuss out for the first time. November’s prompt is “It’s all about the hype” – and I don’t have anything that fits the bill. For one thing, historical romances don’t attract that sort of attention any more and for another, as an ex-PR professional, one whiff of hype is enough to make me head for the hills and almost guarantee I’m NOT going to read the book in question!

So instead, I decided to pick up a book from my TBR pile that has been recommended to me various times and is regarded as one of those that every self-respecting historical romance reader should have read. I don’t have too many of those on my TBR these days, and while Anne Gracie’s The Perfect Rake is no Lord of Scoundrels or Flowers from the Storm, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story which, while mostly light-hearted and humorous, is nonetheless peppered with some darker themes and incidents which add weight to the overall texture and provide a necessary counterpoint to a book which could otherwise have turned into a farce.

It’s unusual to open an historical romance on a shocking scene, but The Perfect Rake does just that, as our heroine, Prudence Merridew has to rescue her youngest sister, Grace, from the severe beating being inflicted upon her by their vicious, maniacal grandfather. The five girls were left to his guardianship following the death of their parents, and he frequently beats and abuses them all. When the old man falls and breaks his leg chasing Prudence down the stairs, she decides, once and for all, that they must get away before one of them is killed. With their grandfather confined to bed, and with the help of the local doctor, Prudence concocts a scheme which sees them away to London to stay with their great-uncle Oswald. In a few weeks, Prue will be twenty-one, and the guardianship of her sisters will revert to her; and if one of them can marry quickly, the fortune left them by their parents will become available to them. With her sisters being such beauties, Prudence is utterly convinced that they will attract the right sort of male attention, and so she has high hopes of their being able to escape their grandfather for good.

Great-uncle Oswald, a fashionable and very kind older gentlemen, is delighted to see his five nieces, and is not only keen to have them stay with him, but also kits them out with new wardrobes and agrees to sponsor their débuts in society. There is, however, an unforeseen snag when Oswald, believing that anyone who sees the younger sisters will not look twice at Prudence, decides that he will “fire her off” alone, and not allow her sisters to appear in public until she has attracted a suitor. She is dismayed – this was not part of her plan at all, and besides, she regards herself as betrothed to Philip Otterbury, a young man employed in one of her grandfather’s businesses out in India, so cannot possibly contract another engagement.

Desperate to find a way to change her great-uncle’s mind, Prudence tells him she is betrothed to the reclusive Duke of Dinstable, knowing that the duke lives far away in Scotland and never leaves his estate. Unfortunately, however, the duke has decided it’s time to find himself a wife and has just arrived in London. Frantic, Prudence goes to his town house early the next morning to pre-empt Uncle Oswald’s call, and finds herself face-to-face with the handsomest – and most annoying – man she’s ever met.

Lord Gideon Caradice is actually the duke’s cousin, and has a reputation as a rake of the first order. Beneath the façade, however, is a truly good, kind-hearted man with a protective streak a mile wide. He’s adorable – gorgeous, funny and charming and even though his flippancy annoys Prudence, she can’t help but be amused by him and struck by his good-looks.

Their conversation here sets the tone for most of their interchanges throughout the book, which are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, often insightful and sometimes beautifully tender. Prudence has become used to thinking of herself as the ugly-duckling of the family, yet she is not envious of her sisters or bitter, wanting only the best for them. So it comes as a major surprise to her to realise that to Gideon, SHE is the beautiful one and he hasn’t even noticed her sisters.

“Plain? Why the devil does everyone keep saying she is plain?” declared Gideon in exasperation. “Do you all need spectacles?”

Where Prudence has looked at herself and seen a small, freckled, unfashionably red-haired young woman, Gideon sees a spirited, curvaceous beauty who trades him quip for quip and heats his blood. I do love the “rake felled by love” trope, and there’s no doubt that Gideon falls fast and hard for Prudence. She is equally smitten, but holds herself back; at first, she thinks his compliments are just the offhand flirtations of a hardened rake, and also feels bound by her betrothal to Philip. Prudence doesn’t take her promises lightly, and her loyalty is another of the things Gideon loves about her, even though, in this instance, it works against him.

Both principals are beautifully drawn characters and the reader is left in no doubt that they are perfect for each other. Given his background as the child of an unhappy marriage, Gideon could easily have been one of those stereotypical brooding heroes who swears off love, but he isn’t. There is a hint of darkness there, but he covers it with a lovely self-deprecating charm and his quick wit, often concealing his keen intelligence behind a buffoonish mask. The depth of his affection for Prudence is wonderful to see, and she truly blossoms under his care. She’s been holding her family together for so long, shoring up her sisters’ spirits by telling them stories of their young lives in Italy:

“We were all born in Italy, in a house filled with sunshine and laughter and love and happiness, and I promise you, no matter how bad it seems, one day we shall all live like that again. With sunshine and laughter and love and happiness. I promise!”

– and of their loving parents, vowing that she will get them away from their nightmarish life; and I loved that she at last found someone who could relieve her of some of that burden.

As is obvious, I really enjoyed The Perfect Rake, although I do have a couple of minor niggles. I’ve already mentioned that the opening is shocking, and while I don’t have a problem with that, I found the sudden change from dark to light once the girls have arrived in London to be a little jarring. I had the same feeling towards the end of the book when the mood again changes abruptly – this time in the opposite direction, and takes a turn for the overly melodramatic. What worked better were the hints dropped throughout the story about Prudence’s past and the truly disgusting treatment she received at the hands of the men who were supposed to care for her. It’s that which makes her story all the more uplifting; she suffered mistreatment and a terrible tragedy and yet she is still able to find it within herself to face the world and to fall in love.

Ms Gracie’s writing flows beautifully, and the humour in the book never feels artificial or forced. There is a strong cast of secondary characters including Prudence’s sisters and their formidable Aunt Agatha, the wonderfully unconventional widow of a South American nobleman. In spite of my small reservations, I’d definitely recommend The Perfect Rake to anyone looking for a light-hearted read with a bit of substance to it.

add-to-goodreads-button

TBR Challenge: The Dark Tower by Josephine Edgar

The Dark Tower

The ancient manor above the lake was beautiful to look upon, wreathed in the splendor of the Italian Alps. A place of dreams it seemed — where an innocent and romantic girl could find her dream of bliss.

Slowly, Florence Parmetto was forced to wake from that dream — to a reality worse than nightmare. Only gradually did she begin to have suspicions about the handsome, strong, yet strangely secretive man who had won her heart. Inexorably within her the seeds of terror began to send forth icy tendrils, chilling her blood, numbing her mind, bringing a cry of fear to her throat. But there is no one to hear her, no one to help her — and nowhere she could flee…

Rating: C+

For October’s prompt of Romantic Suspense or Paranormal, I went back to the Paperback Pile of Doom and pulled out a gothic romance originally published in 1965. I enjoyed The Dark Tower, although, as is the case with most gothic romances, the emphasis is on the gothic rather than the romance, which, in this case, is pushed so far into the back seat, it’s practically in the boot of the car!

Twenty-two year-old Kate Hayden has been teaching at a Yorkshire school for girls since the death of her father almost a year previously. She is informed one day that a new pupil will shortly be joining them for a short time, the daughter of the Contessa di Parmetto, who has formed an unsuitable attachment while travelling the Continent with her mother. Kate is told that the young woman will be in her care until at least the end of term, and while she isn’t comfortable with the idea of spying on her charge, she has no alternative but to agree to share a room and keep an eye on her.

The young woman is Fioretta – Florence – a small, rather plain girl of a few months short of twenty-one and therefore not much younger than Kate. She is accompanied to the school by her mother, a beautiful, but vain, selfish woman and her half-brother, a handsome, fair-haired Yorkshireman named Giles Redmayne, to whom Kate is immediately drawn.

Over the next few months, Kate and Florence become friends, and Kate learns that Florence is very much in love with a man named Ralph Briarwood, who had accompanied Florence and the Contessa on their travels. But when Giles learned of the relationship, he had insisted on parting them, solely, Florence believes, because of his dislike of Briarwood. Kate takes this with a pinch of salt; she has already learned that Florence has a penchant for the melodramatic, and is sure that there is another side to the story. When Giles invites Kate to accompany Florence to Thorpe Grange for the Easter Holiday Florence is despondent at the prospect of spending several weeks in that “gloomy house”, while Kate is thrilled at the thought of going home to the Dales… and not a little excited at the idea of seeing Giles again.

During Kate’s time at the Grange, she and Giles become closer and their friendship is poised to become something more when Florence elopes with Briarwood on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. Giles is furious, and in his anger and frustration, blames Kate – in part – because of something she had neglected to tell him and Kate, miserable, leaves the next day, wondering if she will ever see Giles again.

She returns to the school, and not long afterwards receives a letter from Florence asking her to come to visit her in Italy and telling Kate that she – Florence – has been in poor health since her marriage. She also says that she has inherited a great deal of money from her two miserly aunts following their recent, unexpected deaths. Kate is immediately suspicious, having by now learned the truth of Giles’ past acquaintance with Briarwood and the details of the latter’s relationship with the Contessa. Florence practically begs Kate to visit, and asks her to bring a trinket box that she mistakenly left behind, one which contains all the letters her husband sent her before they were married. Puzzled by this, Kate nonetheless retrieves the box – and, because she is still plagued by the feeling that something is not right, she reads the letters, only to have her suspicions about Briarwood’s motives and actions confirmed.

Yet she can’t leave Florence in such terrible danger from the husband she adores, and decides to accept the invitation. Before she leaves, she attempts to see Giles to tell him of his sister’s illness and of her suspicions, but he is away on business and not due back for some days. Kate leaves him a letter and bravely makes her way across Europe, learning a few things about life and herself on the way.

The Dark Tower is a subtle, character driven story rather than a roller-coaster ride from one tense situation to another. The author takes the time to set up the plotline and her characters in the first few chapters; level-headed, clever Kate, romantic, naïve Florence and her self-centred mother, who is an interesting character in her own right; an intriguing mix of black and white. Because we know the identity of the bad guy from the outset, the story isn’t so much about “who” as it is about “how” and “why”, and Ms Edgar creates an understated atmosphere of menace in the final section of the book which sees Kate staying with Florence and Ralph at the remote Castello Vecchio.

Kate is a sensible, likeable heroine who can admit to herself that she’s scared, but who knows she is the only person who can protect Florence and so doesn’t allow herself to show her fear. Florence, who has always wondered what a handsome, worldly man like Ralph sees in a plain little thing like her, is completely in thrall to her husband, although it gradually emerges that she is perhaps not as blind as she appears to be, although she continually refuses to see what is really going on.

The romance between Kate and Giles is a done-deal from very early on in the book, in spite of the way in which they part following Florence’s elopement. While they don’t spend a great deal of time together “on screen”, the reader is told enough about the weeks they spend together at Thorpe Grange that their falling in love is at least credible. They do, however, spend over half the novel apart, but I’ve found this is often the case with older gothic romances; the hero tends to be a very secondary character while the heroine gets on with dealing with whatever peril faces her. And as I knew what I was in for before I started reading, I wasn’t too worried with the lack of H/h interaction. As I was reading, I was involved enough in the story, in Kate’s travels and in the threat she was facing at the Castello that I really didn’t feel the lack of romantic development.

I enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the scenery and landscapes of both Yorkshire and Italy, which are evocative and enable the reader to get a clear sense of place in the mind’s eye. The storyline is well-executed, and even though it’s somewhat light on the romance, The Dark Tower proved to be an entertaining read. It’s not on a par with Victoria Holt’s gothic romances – especially the later ones – but if you’ve enjoyed Holt’s work, then this might be worth checking out.

add-to-goodreads-button

TBR Challenge: A Brilliant Mismatch by Elizabeth Mansfield

a brilliant mismatch

Fiery Moira Pattinger vowed that her domineering father would rue the day he dared interfere with her choice of husband… and so made an impetuous promise to marry the next man to cross her path. Little did Moira realize that the next morning, the first man she laid eyes upon would be a bootless, rugged, and unsightly vagrant sleeping in the Pattinger stables.

Undaunted, the stubborn redhead declared her engagement — while convincing the confused stranger to play along with the charade. But Moira didn’t bargain for the discoveries she would make about her mysterious fiancé… or the tender longing he would arouse in her heart…

Rating: B

Reading an historical romance for a reading challenge is rather like a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly; the only difficulty being which one to pick from the YOOOGE number I have sitting on my TBR pile. In the end, I closed my eyes, metaphorically stuck a pin in the Paperback Pile of Doom that sits by the side of the bed, and ended up with A Brilliant Mismatch by Elizabeth Mansfield, which was originally published in 1991.

Lady Moira Pattinger is, at twenty-six, the eldest of four sisters and the only one of them to remain unmarried. That is not by design, however. She has in fact been betrothed twice… and jilted twice, each time in favour of one of her sisters thanks to the interference of her father, who offered each suitor a substantial sum of money to give up Moira and marry one of her sisters. Discovering that her latest beau has been “diverted” to her youngest sister by the same means is the last straw. Furious at what she believes are her father’s attempts to keep her from marrying so that she can continue to serve as both housekeeper and secretary, Moira confronts him in a rage and tells him that she intends to go out in the morning and marry the very first man she sees.

The Honourable Oliver Sherrard, brother of the Earl of Lydbury, is a happy-go-lucky, good-natured sort of chap who, having spent most of his twenty-three years doing what other people want, has decided it’s time for him to have a bit of an adventure. As a second son, he is going to have to make his own way in the world, but before he does that, he plans to undertake an extended walking-tour, taking with him only what he can carry in his backpack, the clothes on his back, a sturdy pair of boots and enough money to see him through.

He makes good progress on the first day and stops for the night at a less than salubrious inn, where the fact that he pays for his board and lodging with a gold coin attracts the wrong sort of attention. The next day, he is set upon, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. Badly beaten, bruised and concussed, he eventually comes to and makes his way to the nearest building in order to shelter from the rain. He collapses, coming round hours later to see the most beautiful young woman he has ever seen staring at him and – here’s where he knows he must be dreaming – asking him to marry her.

Moira has Oliver conveyed to the house and sends for the doctor. Oliver is badly concussed and confined to bed for a couple of weeks, during which time he makes the acquaintance of Moira’s very pregnant sister and her husband, Horatio – with whom he strikes up a firm friendship – Moira’s youngest sister and her beau and Moira herself, to whom he is very much attracted. Recalling the promise he made to his brother before he left home not to do anything to disgrace the family name. Oliver introduces himself as Mr Thomas Oliver and makes no real attempt to correct the family’s assumption that he is some sort of labourer.

When he is well enough, Moira outlines her plan, which is not to actually get married, but to use the threat of marrying so unsuitably to force her father’s hand so that he will allow her to go to London in order to find a more appropriate husband. Realising, from his conversations with Horatio, that there is more to Moira’s situation than meets the eye, Oliver nonetheless agrees to go along with the scheme, all the time wondering how on earth he is going to stop himself falling head-over-heels with the lovely, bewitching young woman who clearly sees him as beneath her, in spite of her friendliness towards him.

The book is a fast-paced, quick read, but a satisfying one nonetheless. The star-turn is Oliver, who is an uncomplicated, honourable, kind and witty young man who bears with the veiled – and not-so-veiled – insults to his supposed low station with good-natured cheer, and whose sunny disposition gradually permeates through the entire household. His natural charm very quickly wins to his side the various members of Moira’s family, even her sister Bertie who was initially horrified at the idea of her sister’s marrying a supposed gardener. That’s not to say he’s perfect or a Mary-Stu; he isn’t above wanting to return the hurt Moira’s rejection inflicts upon him, and he is somewhat unpleasant to her towards the end of the book. But on the whole he’s a real sweetheart, and impossible to dislike.

Moira is a little more problematical, as for much of the book she’s selfish and single-minded in her determination to get the better of her father, and doesn’t much care that she’s using Oliver to do it. That said, I didn’t actively dislike her because she’s not mean-spirited and clearly enjoys Oliver’s company; and in fact, I almost felt sorry for her once or twice towards the end when she believes she has lost him for good.

The author draws a series of swift but clear portraits of the secondary characters, all of whom have their own distinct personalities, and I enjoyed the family dynamic she creates. Lord Pattinger, seen through Moira’s eyes at first, is hard-hearted and calculating; but is gradually revealed, through his interactions with others, not to be either of those things – and his final utterance made me smile.

The only thing about the story that doesn’t ring true is the way in which Moira and Oliver are allowed to spend time together in his room behind closed doors after he’s recovered, but otherwise, A Brilliant Mismatch is a well-written story that, while mostly lighthearted, has something to say about the class divide and that old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

A number of Ms Mansfield’s books have now been made available digitally, but unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. But second-hand copies are cheap and easy to find, and if you like older (clean) Regencies, then this is one you might want to seek out.

TBR Challenge: Kissing a Stranger by Margaret Evans Porter

kissing a stranger

Lady Lavinia Cashin and her father, an impoverished earl, leave their crumbling castle on the Isle of Man. To ensure her family’s survival, Lavinia must swiftly find a wealthy husband in London. When her father is arrested for debt and lands in the King’s Bench Prison, she must persevere. Necessity forces her to accept help from unexpected and possibly untrustworthy sources.

Shunned by society, the infamous and reckless gamester Lord Garrick Armitage is attracted to the mysterious Manx beauty from the moment he sees her. In London’s ballrooms, during a Christmas house party, on the hunting field, and at a Newmarket race meeting, he is ever more convinced that Lavinia is the girl for him—even if she doesn’t realize it. Though lacking the fortune she requires in a suitor, neither can he stand aside and watch her make a marriage of convenience devoid of the love and passion they share.

Lavinia must take drastic measures to save her family—and risks losing Garrick forever. And neither of them knows whether her desperate return to the Isle of Man will turn out to be a journey towards happiness or heartbreak.

Rating: C

August’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a book that was an impulse buy – The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!

I decided the easiest way to find one of these would be to look through the freebies and cheapies on my Kindle, (I don’t tend to buy expensive books on impulse!) and the first one I came across that sounded promising was Margaret Evans Porter’s Kissing a Stranger, a book originally published in 1998 and the first in a series of books in which the protagonists come from the Isle of Man – which isn’t a setting or background often used in historicals (or any genre, come to think of it!)

The Earl of Ballacrane and his family live in a tumbledown castle on the island in a style not too much different from the local farmers and crofters. The earl hopes that as soon as he receives the revenues due to him from the export of the wool from the mill he owns, he will be able to get the family out of their current straits, but even so, their financial situation is not robust. So he pins his hopes on his youngest daughter, the strikingly beautiful Lavinia, making a profitable marriage.

Lavinia is well aware of the need to marry well so that her brother can go to university and her sister, who is delicate, can travel to a warmer climate for the sake of her health. The earl takes Lavinia to London where, while out shopping one day, she almost literally stumbles into the arms of a handsome, fair-haired stranger who flirts outrageously with her. She is shocked and beats a hasty retreat, with no idea who he is or any expectation of seeing him again.

Lord Garrick Armitage has lived most of his life in Italy and returns to England only sporadically. His unconventional upbringing means that he is not looked upon kindly by the ton, but crying off from a betrothal was the last straw and now he is persona non grata. Although his brother is the Duke of Halford, Garrick has to support himself which he does principally by gambling. This is because he is actually only the duke’s half-brother, a fact known only to Garrick, his brother and his natural father. The old duke acknowledged and therefore legitimized Garrick, but refused to provide for him.

Lavinia and her father have been in London only a few days when the earl is imprisoned for debt. Now, more than ever, Lavinia feels the burden of having to marry well; she must find the money to secure her father’s release and to help the rest of her family. When Garrick Armitage introduces her to his sister, Lady Frances, it seems that Lavinia may just be able to fulfil her purpose in coming to London after all. Though he was instantly smitten with her upon their first meeting, Garrick can’t but be disappointed by Lavinia’s avowed intent to catch a rich husband, showing her to be as mercenary as any other ton beauty.

Frances has the perfect candidate in mind – the wealthy Lord Newbold – and invites him to her house-party in hopes of promoting the match. Garrick is also present, and the attraction that has been gently bubbling between him and Lavinia grows stronger and deeper as they spend time together getting to know each other. Garrick asks Lavinia to marry him and she agrees to run away to Gretna with him – but not before she asks him for money to pay the taxes on the earl’s wool imports. Even though she loves Garrick dearly, Lavinia can’t bring herself to tell him the real reason she needs the money – to secure her father’s release from the King’s Bench Prison. The couple gets as far as a local inn and spends the night together before the terrible weather makes it impossible for them to continue their journey. They are forced to return home, and when back in London, Garrick finds out the truth behind Lavinia’s request for money. Naturally, he is furious and hurt, initially believing her to have agreed to marry him only for the money, leaving Lavinia heartbroken and now – thanks to the underhand machinations of her father’s unscrupulous solicitor – with no option but to accept Lord Newbold’s offer.

I found the book to be a reasonably engaging read, although there are a number of things about it that bothered me and ultimately prevent me from rating it more highly. Lavinia’s failure to tell Garrick the truth about her family situation goes on for too long, and their separation in the last part of the book is frustrating. I didn’t understand why Garrick was so determined to be acknowledged by his natural father when it would have opened one helluva can of worms for him and his family, and the revelations about the solicitor’s parentage are pointless as they are not necessary to the overall storyline. These last two subplots had real potential, but are severely underdeveloped, so it seems as though the author threw them in just for the hell of it and then forgot about them.

The characterisation is also a little wobbly, especially when it comes to Lavinia. One minute, she’s a country-bred innocent, completely without guile, and the next is a young woman who lies to the man she loves and who agrees to a deception which will enable her to obtain some valuable jewellery she then plans to sell. Oh, her motives are good, but her dishonesty seems completely out of character.

On a more positive note however, the story is rich in historical background detail and the author has clearly done her research into the politics and government of the Isle of Man at this period. She has also incorporated a lot of interesting information – about different card games, horse racing and wagering, and about the penal system for debtors.   The writing flows well (although I noticed a number of errors and typos in the digital edition) and the story is well told. Kissing a Stranger is certainly not a bad read, but could have been a much better one had there been a little weeding out of extraneous plot elements – or a further development of those subplots I mentioned – and had the misunderstanding between the protagonists not been allowed to go on for so long.

 

TBR Challenge: Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

mrs drew

Young widow Roxanna Drew was fair game in the sport of cads. Her suddenly impoverished state made her as vulnerable as her beauty made her tempting to men with more money than morals. Lord Marshall Whitcomb, who held her purse strings in his pawing hands, was intent on luring her into his bed. But even more dangerous was Lord Winn, who owned the dwelling where she sought refuge. The dashing lord reminded the widow that the lure of sharing a warm bed on a winter’s night might indeed be worth the risks.

Lord Winn had trusted one woman and been betrayed. That disastrous marriage had endowed him with a wariness of females in general, and prospective wives in particular. But when the door to the dower house on one of his estates was opened by a woman with a cautious smile and memorable brown eyes, he knew here was danger to avoid at all costs — if he really wanted to…

Rating: B

July’s prompt was to read a book that had either won or been nominated for a RITA award; Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand won the award for Best Regency Romance back in 1995.

As she does in so many of her books, Carla Kelly imbues a serious story with humour, warmth and tenderness, and writes a pair of engaging central characters whose flaws only make them seem that much more human.

Roxana Drew was happily married for a number of years, bearing her husband – a clergyman – two daughters before he became seriously ill. For the last few years of his life, he was a bedridden invalid, and Roxana nursed him cheerfully and tirelessly. Six months after his death, she receives a very unwelcome and unpleasant proposition from his older brother, Lord Whitcomb. He must appoint another to the living which means that Roxana and her daughters – Helen and Felicity – will have to find another home. He suggests that they all move into his house, and that in return for providing shelter, Roxana should become his mistress, seeing as his own wife has absolutely no interest in the physical side of marriage and is unlikely to give him any children.

Roxana is naturally stunned and horrified by this suggestion, and realises that she must make alternative arrangements and make them quickly. When she is on one of her many long countryside walks, she comes across the uninhabited and somewhat dilapidated dower house on the neighbouring Moreland estate. She suggests to the bailiff that she could rent the property and help to renovate it – and he agrees. When Whitcomb finds out, he is livid, but with the help of the bailiff and a few of the estate workers, Roxana and her daughters very quickly move to their new home.

The owner of the estate – and the house – is Fletcher Rand, Marquess of Winn, a former officer who has spent little time in England of late and who rarely visits his various holdings. Winn was married to a beautiful woman who cuckolded him repeatedly – and so he divorced her. Divorce at this time was incredibly difficult and scandalous, but even though Winn was the injured party, he is still persona non grata as far as society is concerned. That doesn’t particularly worry him, although it does mean that marrying again – should he want to – will be very difficult, as most of the suitable young ladies avoid him because of his tarnished reputation. That suits him, however, given his previous experience of matrimony, although his sisters are continually nagging at him to remarry and provide an heir.

As one way of avoiding his sisters’ company, Winn decides it’s time for him to make the rounds of his various estates, and it’s on one such trip that he encounters Roxana and her daughters. Stunned to find the vicar’s widow is a lovely young woman, he soon finds himself falling for her. He has intended to stay in Yorkshire for only a short time, but he so greatly enjoys spending time with Roxana and her family that he can’t bear to tear himself away.

When, just before Christmas, Whitcomb threatens to remove the girls from Roxana’s care, she is distraught, but Winn comes to her aid once again with a rather outrageous suggestion. If they marry, he will be legally responsible for the girls and her brother-in-law won’t be able to touch them. Roxana quickly sees this is the only way to secure their futures, and agrees to a marriage of convenience. She finds Winn very attractive, but he has given no sign that he feels anything for her other than friendship, and in spite of the relationship that has developed between him and the girls, he is adamant that he doesn’t like children or want any of his own and makes it clear that he does not intend to “bother” his wife by actually living in the same house with her for more than a few weeks a year.

This part of the story is rather frustrating, because Winn is so very cautious about showing Roxana how he feels that she has absolutely no idea that he’s fallen in love with her. She takes him at his word as not wanting another wife because of the way his ex-wife treated him, so she is very careful not to overstep the boundaries of their convenient marriage – which in turn signals to Winn that she’s not attracted to him, when in fact, she loves and wants him desperately.

Otherwise, Winn is an engaging, endearing hero who is kind, generous and possessed of the sort of competence and self-assurance that is incredibly attractive. In spite of his assertions that he dislikes children, he is immediately captivated by Helen and Felicity, and I loved the way Ms Kelly shows us, through their interactions, how much Winn actually longs to be part of a loving family, and what a great father he could be. Roxana is strong and pragmatic, but sometimes wishes she had someone with whom to share her burdens. She misses the companionship she had enjoyed with her husband, and misses the physical side of marriage, something about which she feels more than a little ashamed, because of course, “proper” ladies didn’t enjoy sex or think about anything below the waist!

The conflict towards the end of the story, which is exacerbated by both protagonists’ particular negative traits; her tendency to procrastinate and his fear of rejection – is somewhat frustrating, as is the rather improbable volte-face by Lord Whitcomb, who hangs his head in shame and is then forgiven for his earlier nastiness.

Overall, however, the book is very well-written, the principals are likeable, well-drawn characters and their romance is sweet and develops at a sensible pace. The dialogue has a naturalistic feel to it that makes it easy to believe in the strength of the emotional connection between the two leads, and the characterisation is strong all round. I’m not a big fan of children in romance novels, but Ms Kelly brings truth and warmth to her depiction of Helen and Felicity which isn’t something every author can do.

In spite of my reservations Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand is a really lovely story and one I enjoyed very much.