Four Weddings and a Sixpence (anthology) by Julia Quinn, Laura Lee Guhrke, Elizabeth Boyle and Stefanie Sloane (audiobook) – Narrated by Mary Jane Wells

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Beloved authors Julia Quinn, Elizabeth Boyle, Laura Lee Guhrke, and Stefanie Sloane deliver the stories of four friends from Madame Rochambeaux’s Gentle School for Girls who find an old sixpence in their bedchamber and decide that it will be the lucky coin for each of their weddings…

“Something Old”
Julia Quinn’s prologue introduces her heroine Beatrice Heywood and the premise for Four Weddings and a Sixpence.

“Something New”
In Stefanie Sloane’s unforgettable story, an ever-vigilant guardian decrees that Anne Brabourne must marry by her twenty-first birthday. But love finds her in the most unexpected of ways.

“Something Borrowed”
Elizabeth Boyle tells the tale of Cordelia Padley, who has invented a betrothed to keep her family from pestering her to wed. Now she’ll need to borrow one to convince them she’s found her true love.

“Something Blue”
In Laura Lee Guhrke’s story, unlucky Lady Elinor Daventry has her sixpence stolen from her and must convince the rake who pilfered the coin to return it in time for her own wedding.

“… and a Sixpence in Her Shoe”
Julia Quinn finishes with the story of Beatrice Heywood, who never believed that the sixpence was anything but a tarnished old coin-until it led all of her friends to true love. But her faith in the coin is tested when it keeps sending her to the wrong man!

Rating: Narration – A- ; Content – C-/C/B+/B

I’m not a big fan of anthologies or novellas in general, because I find there are few authors who really understand how to use the shorter form to greatest effect, and I most often come away from them feeling a bit disappointed. And anthologies tend to be uneven; there will usually be one really good story and the others will be of lesser, variable quality. So why did I listen to this one? A look at the narrator’s name will answer that question. Mary Jane Wells can make even average material enjoyable to listen to, and while two of the stories here do fall into the average category, the other two – from Julia Quinn and Laura Lee Guhrke – definitely transcend that qualification. Each story in Four Weddings and a Sixpence features one of a group of four friends who, while at school, find an old sixpence in a mattress and, based on the words of the old rhyme:

Something old, something new

Something borrowed, something blue… and a silver sixpence for your shoe

– decide to keep the sixpence on the chance that it may lead them to true love.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

“This, madam, changes everything.”

Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…

Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!

Rating: B

The Duke’s Secret Heir is a second-chance romance that is loosely related to Sarah Mallory’s previous series, The Infamous Arrandales by virtue of the fact that its heroine appeared as a secondary character in The Chaperone’s Seduction. Miss Ellen Tatham as she then was, was a wealthy heiress of just seventeen, and her good-humoured level-headedness was a refreshing change from the sort of immature tantrum-throwing-teens often found within the pages of romance novels.

Having her own fortune – albeit one that came from trade – enabled Ellen to live an independent life and she spent some time after her come-out travelling with her former teacher and friend, Mrs. Ackroyd. While in Egypt some four years earlier, Ellen met and fell in love with Major Max Colnebrooke, and after a two-week, whirlwind romance, married him.  After just a few weeks, the uncertain military and political situation in the region meant that it was unsafe for Ellen to remain with Max, so he arranged for her to travel back to England with the assistance of a fellow officer, and they agreed that she would wait for Max in Portsmouth.

Unfortunately, however, amid all the confusion of the British occupation of Alexandria, Ellen and her companion were unable to adhere to Max’s plan, and instead left Egypt with the assistance of the French Consul who saw them safely to France and then arranged for them to be smuggled back to England.  On her return, Ellen is shocked to discover that there is no record whatsoever of Max’s presence in Egypt; there were no regiments stationed south of Cairo and most certainly there was no military chaplain in the area.  Devastated, she concludes she has been duped, believing that Max arranged a fake marriage just so he could get her into bed.

When Max learned that Ellen had left Egypt with the French Consul, he immediately assumed the worst and believed that she had deserted him for a new lover.  Mired in grief and rage, Max recklessly undertook increasingly dangerous missions, many of which resulted in loss of life or serious injury to others while he himself remained unscathed and for which, years later, he now carries a huge burden of guilt.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell #2) by Deanna Raybourn

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

Rating: B+

A Perilous Undertaking is the second book in Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian mysteries featuring the intrepid Veronica Speedwell, lepidopterist and lady adventurer and her friend and colleague Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known as Stoker – the scion of a noble family from whom he ran away to join the Navy and who has since made himself a name as a natural historian.

Both characters were very well introduced in the previous book, A Curious Beginning, so while this one can be read as a standalone in terms of the mystery, readers will get a lot more out of the books if read in order, as the mystery, while entertaining, is, to my mind, secondary to the continuing development of the unconventional relationship between Veronica and Stoker. Added to this is the gradual drip-feeding of information about Stoker’s past – a past that has obviously been full of heartbreak and betrayal – which is both masterful and incredibly frustrating, as Ms. Raybourn teases us with hints without revealing all – although she does build on what we learned about him in the last book.

The same is true of Veronica. She does have her secrets, but seems generally much more straightforward. She’s intelligent, outspoken and adventurous; she has travelled widely on her lepidoptery expeditions, she’s – discreetly – taken lovers (albeit never in England and never Englishmen abroad), and at the end of the last book, was revealed to be the natural daughter of Edward, Prince of Wales. She is still coming to terms with that knowledge; she knows she will never be acknowledged, and nor does she want to be – and she is still furious at the fact that she was offered hush money (which she rejected) in exchange for never revealing the truth of her birth.

So when, at the beginning of this story she is summoned to meet with a mysterious woman who turns out to be her aunt Louise, Veronica is not best pleased. The woman is imperious, brusque and condescending, but she informs Veronica that without her help, an innocent man will shortly go to the gallows for murder. Miles Ramforth is a friend of the princess’ and he will hang for the murder of his pregnant mistress in a week’s time – but Louise knows for certain that he is not guilty and wants Veronica to prove it. Louise makes it clear that she will not reveal the reason that she is certain Miles did not commit the crime – and I admit that I rather wanted Veronica to tell Louise where to stick it, because she was obviously withholding crucial information.

Anyway. Miles and his lover were part of a well-known ‘commune’ of bohemians and artists who gather under the auspices of the famous painter, Sir Frederick Havelock at Havelock House in London (which the author based on the home of the renowned artist Sir Frederick Leighton), so it’s there that Veronica and Stoker begin their investigations. There’s absolutely no doubt that Ms. Raybourn knows how to write a rollicking mystery story which keeps twisting and turning right up until the last moment, but it’s the relationship between Veronica and Stoker – and Stoker himself, such an adorable mixture of brooding, sexy and sweet – that are the big draws for me.

The author has cleverly engaged in a bit of role reversal, with Veronica usually being the one to make a risqué comment or engage in a bit of flirtation while Stoker is the one to blush or change the subject. Veronica makes absolutely no bones about her interest in men and sex – and there is quite a lot of talk about carnal matters in the book – and it’s very clear that although she’s definitely interested in getting Stoker into bed, her “no Englishmen” rule keeps her from extending that particular invitation. Plus, there’s also the fact that neither of them has ever experienced the sort of relationship they are building between them, and neither of them wants to risk it. Ms. Raybourn does an excellent job in conveying the truth and depth of their friendship; there’s the real sense that these are two people who understand each other at an instinctual level:

“Whatever this thing is that makes us different, this thing that makes quicksilver of us when the rest of the world is mud, it binds us. To break that would be to fly in the face of nature.”

In spite of that, however, the sexual tension between them is intense and if and when they do get it together romantically, I can see them continuing just as they are in every other aspect of their lives. They are strong, fiercely intelligent characters who aren’t afraid to challenge each other and don’t give a fig for what anyone else thinks of them; they trust each other absolutely and depend on each other without being dependent on one another, if that makes any sense. They know the other is there for them; they don’t need each other precisely, but they both recognise that their life is richer and more complete now they’ve found each other.

Those are all the really good things about the book. But there are a few things that bugged me enough to make me lower my final grade a bit. In my review of A Curious Beginning, I said of Veronica:

there were times I felt she was bordering on caricature and her unconventionality began to seem like artifice. I got that she was an unusual young woman quite early on and didn’t need to be reminded of it quite so often

And I’d say the same thing here. Almost every character has something to say about Veronica which – even when it’s intended to be insulting – is meant to show how thoroughly Unconventional and Not Proper she is. And if it’s not someone else, then it’s Veronica herself extolling her eccentricity and achievements, which strays dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. The thing is, this is the second book in a series, and while I know that authors who write series also have to try to write each book so that a newbie can jump in, those of us who have read the first book are already well aware of Veronica’s idiosyncrasies and the way she enjoys flouting the conventions of society – so we don’t need to be hit over the head with it quite so frequently.

I also feel that while we get to know a little more about Stoker’s past – we meet all his brothers (there are three of them) in this book – Veronica is pretty much as she was in the first book and her character has developed little. Right at the end of A Perilous Undertaking, she reveals something to Stoker that she is not ready to discuss, so there is potential for growth in the next story (I hope); but ultimately, I’d have liked a little more character development and introspection instead the continual reminders as to how wonderful and unusual Veronica is.

But the things I liked definitely outweighed the things I didn’t, and this is still a book I’d recommend to fans of the author and historical mysteries in general. It’s very well written, the dialogue and snarky banter between Veronica and Stoker in particular is excellent and the mystery element is nicely plotted and executed. While it didn’t work quite as well for me as the previous book, it’s an enjoyable read and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

A Bachelor Establishment by Jodi Taylor/Isabella Barclay (audiobook) – Narrated by Anna Bentinck

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Elinor Bascombe, widowed and tied to an impoverished estate, has learned to ask little of life. With no hope of leaving, the years have passed her by. Lord Ryde, exiled abroad after a scandal, has returned to strip his estate and make a new start in America. A chance encounter changes their plans, plunging Elinor and Lord Ryde into adventure and not a little peril until, finally, they are forced to confront the mystery of what happened on that night, all those years ago.

Are they both so entangled in the riddles of the past that they are about to miss this one last opportunity for future happiness?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

A Bachelor Establishment was published in 2015, but harks back to the Traditional Regency, with its strong observational humour and echoes of a comedy of manners. The attributed author is Isabella Barclay, which is actually the name of one of the characters created by Jodi Taylor in her St. Mary’s Chronicles, a series of novels based around a group of historians who travel through time to investigate major historical events. I’m not sure which book(s) Isabella Barclay appears in – but I rather like the idea of Ms. Taylor turning her into the author of historical romances.

Mrs Elinor Bascome, a widow in her forties, lives on the impoverished estate that by rights belongs to her late husband’s brother, George. But following the terrible events of one fateful night years ago, George fled his brother’s house and hasn’t been heard of since. So Elinor continues to live in reduced circumstances, secure in the knowledge that while she might not have much money, she is at least no longer subject to her husband’s physical abuse and her life is her own. Always a neck-and-neck rider, she’s galloping across the neighbouring land belonging to the absent Lord Ryde when she almost mows down an unknown man, who ends up – unharmed – in a ditch. Naturally, harsh words are exchanged – and Elinor then realises that the man, who is not much older than herself, must be Lord Ryde, returned from exile abroad.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

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Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

Simply Perfect (Simply #4) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

simply-perfect

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Tall, dark, and exquisitely sensual, he is the epitome of male perfection. Not that Claudia Martin is looking for a lover. Or a husband. As owner and headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, she long ago resigned herself to a life without love. Until Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough, arrives unannounced and tempts her to toss away a lifetime of propriety for an affair that can only lead to ruin.

Joseph has his own reasons for seeking Claudia out. Instantly, irresistibly attracted to the dedicated teacher, he embarks on a plan of seduction that leaves them both yearning for more. But as heir to a prestigious dukedom, Joseph is expected to carry on his family’s legacy. And Claudia knows she has no place in his world.

Now that world is about to be rocked by scandal. An arranged marriage, a secret that will shock the town, and a man from Claudia’s past conspire to drive the lovers apart. But Joseph is determined to make Claudia his at any cost. Even if that means defying convention and breaking every rule for a love that is everything he has ever wanted – a love that is perfection itself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Simply Perfect closes out Mary Balogh’s Simply Quartet of books, each of which takes as its heroine a school teacher from Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath. Our heroine here is the formidable Miss Martin herself, a confirmed spinster in her mid-thirties who has worked hard to achieve success and who loves what she does. But the course she has mapped out for herself is challenged when Joseph Fawcitt, the Marquess of Attingsborough arrives at the school, introducing himself as a friend of Susanna, Viscountess Whitleaf (Simply Magic), and offering to escort Claudia and two of her older pupils to London, where the younger ladies are to meet with prospective employers.

The marquess is about Claudia’s own age and is as handsome as he is charming, asking sensible questions and making complimentary comments about the school and its facilities. But Claudia is unimpressed. Her own experiences with the aristocracy have taught her that its members are haughty and uncaring, with no thought for anything but their own consequence and desires, and she absolutely wants to refuse the marquess’ offer and have nothing to do with him. But he has come at Susanna’s request, and Claudia does not want to be rude to her friend so she accepts Attingsborough’s escort.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Bound by a Scandalous Secret (The Scandalous Summerfields #3) by Diane Gaston

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A most shocking betrothal!

The pleasure-seeking Marquess of Rossdale has little interest in his birthright and even less in finding a bride. So he comes up with the perfect plan to survive the Season unscatheda fake engagement to a most unsuitable girl!

Outspoken Genna, the youngest of the scandalous Summerfields, has no wish to marry, either. So agreeing to be Ross’s temporary fiancee will grant her freedom for a little longer. But with every kiss, both Ross and Genna must face up to what they really desire a true match!

Rating: C+

Bound by a Scandalous Secret is the third book in Diane Gaston’s current series, The Scandalous Summerfields. I haven’t read either of the previous entries, but this one works perfectly well as a standalone. The Summerfield siblings – three sisters and their half-brother – have been tainted by their late father’s reputation as a drunkard and libertine and the scandal that arose as the result of their mother running off with her lover. The first two books saw middle sister, Tess, and brother Edmund get their respective HEAs, and now it’s the turn of the youngest sister, Genna, a vivacious young woman who breezes through life –somewhat naïvely, it has to be said – and puts on a cheerful face regardless of the disappointments she has suffered.

The oldest Summerfield sister, Lorene (whose story is up next) married the much older, disagreeable but wealthy Lord Tinmore, in order to save her siblings from having to marry for money. She and Genna now reside at Tinmore Hall, where Tinmore makes life thoroughly unpleasant through his constant criticism of Lorene and his obvious belief that neither young woman is capable of exhibiting proper behaviour.

One December day, Genna is out sketching their old home of Summerfield Hall when a gentlemen riding across the fields stops and introduces himself simply as Rossmore. He is staying at the Hall for the Christmas period with his friend, Lord Penford, the son of the distant cousin who inherited the title and property on the death of Genna’s father. Rossmore is handsome, charming and easy to talk to, and, to Genna’s surprise, doesn’t seem to mind her own particular brand of animated conversation.

Ross is fascinated by Genna’s openness and her eagerness to learn new things. They meet a few more times during his stay, and in the course of conversation, he discovers that Genna’s real passion is art, and that her ambition is to make a living as an artist. They enjoy each other’s company and strike up a genuine friendship which is cut short when Lord Penford departs unexpectedly for London and his friend accompanies him.

Some months later, Genna and Ross meet again, and very quickly rediscover their easy friendship. He decides that he wants to help her to realise her dream of becoming an artist, but they are both well aware that if they start spending a lot of time together, tongues will wag. So Ross – whose father, the Duke of Kessington, has been pestering him to get married and produce an heir – suggests to Genna that they become betrothed; that way, his step-mother will stop pushing him towards eligible young ladies, and he and Genna will be able to spend time together without causing gossip. Once Genna reaches twenty-one in October, she will be able to do as she wishes without reference to Tinmore, at which time she can cry off and she and Ross can go their separate ways. Genna agrees to the idea, with just the smallest pang of guilt over the fact that she will be deceiving her sister.

Ross and Genna are engaging characters but they do come across as rather immature, and it’s difficult to believe that Ross could be so naïve as to believe that a young woman, no matter how talented, would find it easy to make a career as an artist in 1815.  That said, Ms. Gaston does a good job of showing why Ross and Genna are the way they are; Ross’s mother was an outgoing, vivacious woman who was slowly stifled by her marriage to his politically motivated father, hence his determination to give Genna the freedom to be herself that his mother never enjoyed and his belief that marriage will rob her of her dream.  And Genna has the daily reminder of Lorene’s unhappy marriage and the knowledge of their parents’ miserable union to caution her against entering into the married state.

That, in essence, is the extent of the conflict in the story, and it’s somewhat weak because there’s never any question that Ross and Genna are perfect for each other.  The joy he gains from every new experience he offers her is sweet to see, whether it’s from taking her to see the Elgin Marbles or watching an artist at work; and in Ross, Genna has finally found someone who understands and accepts her, who doesn’t talk down to her or belittle her ambitions.  But ultimately, I felt I was watching the growth of a strong friendship rather than a romance, because while they are great together, there’s not much romantic chemistry there.  It’s also a bit of a stretch to believe in that Genna could support herself by working as an artist when she is really little more than a gifted amateur.

Bound by a Scandalous Secret is enjoyable enough, but there are some good ideas that aren’t followed up on (such as Ross’s secret philanthropy) and I was more intrigued by the potential relationship between Lorene and Lord Penfold than by that between Ross and Genna.  Penfold is an intriguing character with a tragic past – he lost his entire family in a recent fire and is struggling to adjust to life without them.  He is drawn to Lorene and sees how unhappy she is, but knows he can do nothing to help.  He shows her a few small kindnesses, but can’t do more for fear of heaping yet more scandal upon her name and earning her the censure of her husband.  The author establishes a clear connection between them, which I hope will be built upon in the next book.  But Ross and Genna’s romance suffers by comparison – it’s never a good thing when a secondary couple eclipses the hero and heroine in a romance novel.

If you’ve been following the series, then you might want to pick up Bound by a Scandalous Secret for completeness, but I’ve read better by this author and can’t give it a ringing endorsement.  I was, however, sufficiently intrigued by Lorene and Penford to want to read the next in the series which I believe will be coming out next Spring.