TBR Challenge: The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

the-wagered-widowThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE INSISTED ON TREATING HER LIKE A TROLLOP!

… and Rebecca Parrish, a most respectable young widow, found him utterly odious. What right had this supercilious rake, Trevelyan de Villars, to incessantly force his attentions on her? Rebecca far preferred Trevelyan’s charming friend, the noble Sir Peter Ward. Indeed, her dreams of handsome Sir Peter aimed straight for the altar!
What Rebecca soon discovered duly horrified her. For her dear Sir Peter and the contemptible Trevelyan had formailzed a bet – that Trevelyan could seduce the very proper widow within a month’s time.

Still, Trevelyan’s attentions grew ever more passionate. And Rebecca found (to her horror!) that she thrilled to his touch. As her heart strove to resist this irresistible cad, she suddenly saw what he really was: A libertine no more – now at last and forever in love!

Rating: B

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her books have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s books are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the paperback edition (1984) of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear that these are two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.

In Milady’s Chamber (John Pickett Mysteries #1) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

in-miladys-chamber

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Estranged from her husband through her failure to produce an heir, Lady Fieldhurst resolves to repay his neglect by taking a lover. Fate takes a hand when she and her would-be lover enter her bedchamber to find Lord Fieldhurst lying on the floor – with her nail scissors protruding from his neck.

Bow Street Runner John Pickett, 24 years old and new to the Bow Street force, has spent most of his brief career chasing petty thieves and pickpockets. Nothing in his experience has prepared him for low dealings in high society – or for the beautiful young widow who is the chief suspect.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife is one of my favourite traditional Regencies, and while I know it’s available in audio, I didn’t like the narrator based on the sample available at Audible, so chose not to listen further. But when the first of the author’s John Pickett Mysteries, In Milady’s Chamber (using a different narrator) came up for review, I decided to give it a go; I enjoy historical mysteries, and have heard good things about this series.

John Pickett made his first appearance in the novella, The Pickpocket’s Apprentice, which told the story of how fourteen-year-old John was taken under the wing of magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and, five years later, became involved in a criminal investigation that brought him to the attention of Bow Street. Now twenty-four, John is the youngest runner on the Bow Street force, and spends his days dealing mostly with petty crimes. But an accident which sees him in the right place at the right time catapults him into a murder investigation and into the rarefied world of the ton, a world outside his experience and which he is ill-equipped to deal with.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

imprudent-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Is she an innocent or not? Prudence Mallow, weary of the poor relation role, discovers her calling in writing novels. Modest, sincere novels, not the scandalous fare of Lord Dammler’s Cantos from Abroad. Drawn by the rakish marquis into the hotbed of London society, Prudence finds herself in way over her head—and heart.

Rating: B+

The Historical prompt for the TBR Challenge is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly, but even so, I still enjoy going through my books to find something I haven’t read yet.  This time round, I settled on a traditional Regency from 1978, Joan Smith’s Imprudent Lady. Many authors have had books likened to those of Georgette Heyer, and while that is a comparison that’s always going to draw my eye, I’ve been disappointed on many an occasion.  Not so here.  Imprudent Lady is an utterly delightful rake-meets-bluestocking story full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, beautifully observed wit and deftly drawn characters that has at its centre a warm, charming romance between a rakish, Byronic poet and an authoress with a talent for writing sharply observed characters and situations.

Miss Prudence Mallow and her mother have been left in reduced circumstances and have gone to live with Mrs. Mallow’s brother, Mr Clarence Elmtree, an amateur artist with a hugely inflated idea of the extent of his skill.  In order to earn a little money, Prudence does some work as a copyist for publisher, Mr. John Murray, and in the course of her work starts penning stories of her own.  Murray is impressed with her writing style and her strong observational skill and humour, and undertakes to publish The Composition, even though it is not in the current vogue for exciting romantic adventures à la Walter Scott.

The book sells steadily, and Prudence is soon at work on a second novel, and then a third.  Her work is well-regarded and she finds herself coming into contact with some of her favourite authors, such as Fanny Burney, but does not make much of an impression on them.

The literary world and English society is set abuzz is the return to England of Lord Dammler, whose Cantos from Abroad, thinly disguised tales – full of over-blown action, adventure and romance – of his three years travelling the world have become an instant success.  The handsome, aristocratic Dammler is society’s golden-boy, although he quickly finds that being constantly in the spotlight and the subject of endless sycophancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Along with the rest of society, Prudence has been enthralled by Dammler’s tales of derring-do, and is bowled over by his dark good looks.  Enthused by a brief meeting, she is moved to send Dammler an autographed copy of The Composition – and is hurt when she discovers he passed it on to his aunt without reading it. In a fit of pique, she dismisses Dammler’s writing as “nothing but a totally incredible novel in rhyme.”

Learning of this, Dammler takes up Prudence’s novel and is surprised to find it engaging and witty. When the two meet again, he is immediately intrigued by Prudence’s no-nonsense manner and the fact that she doesn’t simper and flirt like every other woman he meets.  Because her clothes are drab and she sports the sort of lace cap usually worn by older ladies, he at first takes her to be older than her twenty-four years and fails to mind his tongue, talking quite freely to Prudence about matters that are considered too “warm” for the ears of a younger lady.  But Prudence doesn’t really mind; in fact, Dammler’s discourse, while it might shock her at times, is eye-opening for her in many ways, and they strike up a friendship based on professional affinity – they’re both writers, they have the same publisher – and he begins to introduce her to people of influence and to advance her career.

The romance between this unlikely couple is very well done, with the bulk of the story focusing on Dammler’s gradual transition from rakehell to a man deeply in love.

He admired and respected Miss Mallow’s books and brains initially, then he began to like her dry wit, her understatement, her way of not pretending to be impressed with his past (and present) affairs, which he coloured bright, to shock her.

When she wore her new bonnets, he thought she was rather sweet looking, in an old-fashioned way.  They talked and laughed together for hours.  If anyone had told him they were well suited, he would have been shocked.

Dammler is all one could want in a romantic hero – handsome, clever, confident, but self-aware enough not to take himself too seriously.  Yet for most of the book, he has no idea that what he is feeling for Prudence IS love, although the reader sees the progression from professional interest to friendship to love through some of the wittiest banter I’ve read in a long time. And while Prudence is aware of the nature of her feelings, she believes the fact that Dammler talks so openly to her means that he sees her as another male friend, or – just as bad – a sister.

“I didn’t go out at all last night.  Stayed home and got the second act written in rough.”

This was the second time he had mentioned in a seemingly casual fashion the innocent nature of his nights, and Prudence decided to chide him about it.  “I wasn’t hellraking last night, either, but I hadn’t meant to brag to you about it.”

“Oh, what a heartless wench she is!  You complained loud enough when I was out carousing. Won’t you say a kind word on my improvement?”

“I did not complain!  Don’t cast me in the role of guardian of your morals.”

“Well, I hoped to please you by improving.  No one else ever was kind enough to worry about me, or care whether I ran to perdition.”

“What a plumper!  Your mama cried for two hours when you got drunk.”

“But she’s been dead for ten years.  I started drinking young.  And my father has been dead for fifteen years.  Just a poor orphan waif, really.  Couldn’t you pat my head and bless me, or must I lie on the floor and hold my breath to excite any interest?”

“Indeed it is not necessary to choke yourself.  Good boy,” she reached out and patted his head, and felt sorry for him in spite of his shameless bid for pity.

There are, of course, a couple of hiccups along the way in the form of some unsuitable suitors, one of whom is a particularly odious misogynist.  The final section, which takes place in Bath, lacks some of the earlier sparkle, but by that time, I was so firmly rooting for Dammler and Prudence to resolve their differences that I didn’t really mind.

Imprudent Lady is the perfect pick-me-up read; quick, funny and clever, with a nicely done romance and some great secondary characters, not least of which is Prudence’s uncle Clarence, the truly awful artist.  Somehow, Joan Smith keeps this running joke fresh, as Clarence expounds – frequently – upon various aspects of his art:

“I think Lawrence could pick up a trick of two from me, but he is quite spoilt with attention…  I blushed for him, poor fellow, to see everyone praising such likenesses.  He had a wart on Lady Cassel’s nose.  You’d think anyone who calls himself an artist would have panted it out.  But his sensitivity is entirely lacking.  He can only paint a pretty picture if he has as pretty subject.”

If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted, tender romance full of sharply observed witty banter, add Imprudent Lady to your TBR.  You won’t regret it.

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

a-most-extraordinary-pursuit

This title is available to purchase from Amazon.

February, 1906. As the personal secretary of the recently departed Duke of Olympia—and a woman of scrupulous character—Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove never expected her duties to involve steaming through the Mediterranean on a private yacht, under the prodigal eye of one Lord Silverton, the most charmingly corrupt bachelor in London. But here they are, improperly bound on a quest to find the duke’s enigmatic heir, current whereabouts unknown.

An expert on anachronisms, Maximilian Haywood was last seen at an archaeological dig on the island of Crete. And from the moment Truelove and Silverton disembark, they are met with incidents of a suspicious nature: a ransacked flat, a murdered government employee, an assassination attempt. As they travel from port to port on Max’s trail, piecing together the strange events of the days before his disappearance, Truelove will discover the folly of her misconceptions—about the whims of the heart, the motives of men, and the nature of time itself…

Rating: B

Having previously enjoyed Juliana Gray’s historical romances, I was intrigued when I learned she would be venturing into the sub-genre of historical mysteries with her latest series. It is connected to her Princess in Hiding books by virtue of the fact that the plot of A Most Extraordinary Pursuit revolves around the search for the new Duke of Olympia and that the son of the Duke of Ashland (How to Tame Your Duke), Freddie, Lord Silverton, is one of the protagonists. I was expecting an historical mystery – but when, in the first chapter, the heroine, Miss Emmeline Truelove, has a conversation with the late Queen Victoria, I realised I was going to have to adjust my expectations somewhat.

It’s 1906, and the imposing, silver-haired, Machiavellian colossus that was the Duke of Olympia is dead at the age of eighty-six, having expired while quietly fishing for trout. (Or so it seems.) His heir is his grandnephew, Maximillian Haywood who spends most of his time on archaeological expeditions outside England, but who is now expected to return to assume his responsibilities and title. The trouble is that nobody has heard from Max for some months; his last communication arrived shortly before Christmas nearly three months earlier, and he is not where he is supposed to be (at a dig at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete).

Miss Emmeline Truelove acted as the duke’s personal secretary for the past six years, having taken over that position after the death her father (actually, her step-father) who had previously fulfilled that role. She is practical, efficient and utterly no-nonsense, performing her role admirably – notwithstanding her tendency to see dead people.

Her late majesty has warned Miss Truelove that the dowager duchess is going to ask her to perform a certain task which she, Emmeline, must under no circumstances accept. But when the dowager’s request turns out to be that she track down the new duke and bring him home, Truelove doesn’t see how she can possibly refuse – although she knows a moment’s hesitation when she learns she will be accompanied by the unspeakably gorgeous Marquess of Silverton, who, at first glance, seems to have barely two braincells to rub together.

But the duchess has everything planned out, and within the hour, Truelove finds herself, Silverton at her side, being driven to Southampton where they will board the duke’s yacht for their journey to Crete.

Stopping off in Athens, the pair pay a visit to Max’s flat near the Acropolis. There is no trace of Max, but the place has clearly been ransacked; and this, together with the mysterious death of a government official with whom Max was associated, followed by an attack on them at their hotel, convinces Truelove and Silverton that there is more to Max’s disappearance than meets the eye. Silverton insists they return to the yacht and make for Crete and the archaeological site of Knossos, where they hope to make contact with Max’s assistant. While there, they stay at a villa on the site where Silverton proceeds to charm the attractive young housekeeper into giving them some useful information, much to Truelove’s chagrin. She has already worked out that Silverton is far from the buffoon he pretends to be, but realising he uses his charm and obvious physical attractions to seduce information out of women doesn’t sit at all well with her. Not that she’s jealous. No. Not at all.

The story shifts from Crete to Naxos (and as a side note, I have to say that I liked this aspect of the story, as it brought back memories of my own island-hopping holidays!) as Silverton and Truelove continue to follow Max’s trail while trying to stay at least one step ahead of whoever is following them. I can’t say much more without going into spoiler territory; suffice to say that when they do eventually catch up with Max, it leads to a momentous and fantastical discovery that I assume is going to be addressed in future books in the series.

I said at the beginning of this review that I had to adjust my expectations somewhat after the first couple of chapters, because A Most Unexpected Pursuit is not exactly the ‘straight’ historical mystery both the cover and the book blurb suggest. Not only does Truelove have conversations with the late Queen Victoria, she has them with her late step-father as well; strange artefacts, time-travel and mythological beings all make an appearance (kudos to Ms. Gray for the Downton Abbey reference!) and although the principal storyline – the discovery of Max’s whereabouts – is concluded here, the book throws up more questions than it answers. While I accept that is normal for the first book in a series that will feature ongoing plotlines, I would have liked answers to perhaps one or two more questions in this one.

There are romantic elements to the story, but they’re not the main focus. There’s a nice frisson of attraction between Truelove and Silverton which definitely has the potential to turn into something more down the line, but there’s not so much as an HFN in sight by the end of this book. They work well as a team, however and play to each other’s strengths; and while Truelove is perhaps a bit overly prim and proper, I liked them both as individuals and as a working couple. Silverton is smart, funny and protective, and although we get the odd glimpse of a darker side to him, it’s fleeting, and for the most part, he’s the perfect gentleman spy – hiding the fact that he’s a clever strategist and lethal killer behind a foppish, Bertie Wooster-ish exterior. Truelove is straightforward and supremely capable, forever quashing Silverton’s attempts to flirt with her in the attempt to deny that she’s well and truly smitten. Her exchanges with her late majesty are quite funny at times – but we’re not told whether these are hallucinations or something else, which made it a bit difficult to get a good handle on her as a character.

I did enjoy reading A Most Extraordinary Pursuit and it has certainly whetted my appetite for future stories, but I can’t deny that I was almost as much in the dark about some aspects of it at the end of the book as I was at the beginning! It’s fun, quirky and perhaps a bit silly, but it’s beautifully written and Truelove’s narrative voice is rather unique; somewhat starchy but dryly humorous and insightful. I was most definitely entertained and will be reading the next book, but I’d just remind anyone thinking about picking this one up that it’s not your conventional historical mystery. Once you’ve accepted that, however, enjoy the banter, embrace the quirkiness, picture the lovely locations and go with the flow!

Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia (audiobook) – Narrated by Juliet Stevenson

belgravia

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode.

Set in the 1840s, when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever….

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

I’m sure that most people will be familiar with the name of the writer of Gosford Park and the creator of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. In his latest novel, Julian Fellowes continues to explore England’s past and to look particularly at the class system and the way in which convention and reputation so dominated British society in the 19th century. As one would expect from an Oscar winning screenwriter, the story is beautifully written and developed; and as one would expect from Julian Fellowes, it’s full of acute social observation and comment delivered in a classically understated, English manner. The book’s gentle pacing may not suit all tastes, but when you throw in the hugely talented Juliet Stevenson into the mix as the narrator, that only allows the listener more time to listen to her beautiful voice and enjoy her truly outstanding performance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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TBR Challenge: Deirdre and Don Juan by Jo Beverley

deirdre and don juan

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ever since his wife left him, The Earl of Everdon – known by those around him as ‘Don Juan’ – has led a life of illicit liaisons and scandal. Until his rakish reputation threatens to be his downfall.

He sets his sights on Lady Deirdre Stowe, a quiet young girl from the village. Only, she is already betrothed… Will she let him win her heart?

Rating:B

July is RITA month for the TBR Challenge, and I always enjoy going through their lists of past winners to see which ones I’ve got on my TBR pile.  Fortunately, I always find a few, so I’m set for a few more years yet (!), and this year it seemed fitting to go for a title by Jo Beverley, whose name – not surprisingly – appears on the list of winners several times.

Deirdre and Don Juan  (winner of the award for Best Regency in 1994) is an utterly delightful take on the “rake-meets-plain-jane” trope, in which both hero and heroine have some growing up to do.  The gorgeous, charming and very rakish Mark Juan Carlos Renfrew, Earl of Everdon, is widely known throughout society as Don Juan for his half-Spanish heritage as well as his way with the ladies.  Although his wife ran off with another man a decade earlier, and after just six months of marriage, he didn’t seek a divorce because his status as a married man meant that he was safe from the matchmaking mamas on the marriage mart.

However, he has been recently widowed and decides to marry again before his new-found freedom becomes known throughout society at large and makes him a target for every eligible young lady in the ton.  When his mother – half-jokingly – suggests her somewhat mousy friend, Lady Deirdre Stowe as a possible wife, Everdon actually thinks it’s a good idea.  Deirdre is plain and quiet, just the sort of woman he wants; she’ll be only too glad to land a rich, handsome husband, give him his heir and spare and live quietly in the country while he gets on with his life in London.  It’s the perfect solution.

Lady Deirdre has other ideas, however.  For one thing, Everdon is a rake and not at all the sort of man who would make a good husband, and for another, she is in love with someone else, a man of genius, a mathematician named Howard Dunstable who is going to Do Great Things.  She has visions of her life with him in a pretty cottage, he working on his complex mathematics while she caters to his every whim, embroiders and eventually, she hopes, looks after the children.

Her parents are not at all pleased about the idea of their daughter making a match so far beneath her, but Deirdre is stubborn and has extracted a promise from them that if she has not received  a suitable proposal by the end of the season,  she will be allowed to marry Howard.  But with just a few weeks to go, along comes Everdon with his proposal and ruins everything.  If his reputation wasn’t enough to make her dislike him, the spoke he puts in the wheel of Deirdre’s plans to marry Howard certainly are, and she wants absolutely nothing to do with him.

Unfortunately for her, Deirdre’s father has agreed to the match, which means that Everdon cannot, in all honour, call it off.  (Ladies could break an engagement, gentlemen couldn’t).  But Deirdre can’t cry off either, as doing so will break the terms of the agreement with her parents.  When she explains the situation to Everdon he concludes that there’s only one way to end the betrothal and offers to engineer a situation whereby she will catch him in a compromising situation with another woman.  In the meantime, however, they must behave like an engaged couple and be seen to spend time together.

This, of course, allows both of them time to adjust their opinions of the other.  The more Everdon sees of Deirdre, the more he comes to admire her intellect, her kindness and her spirit and to realise that she’s not plain at all.  His late wife’s betrayal has made him understandably wary of emotional entanglements and lingering doubts about his own culpability in her desertion – he feels he neglected her – surface during his pursuit of Deirdre; but he doesn’t wallow and his doubts help him to realise that he wants to marry her because he loves her and not simply because she will be a convenient wife.

Deirdre refuses to be swayed by the earl’s good looks and charm, but even so, she can’t help comparing the way he treats her – as though he actually sees her and is interested in her for herself rather than what she can do for him – with the way Howard practically ignores her.  Everdon makes her feel beautiful and desired for the first time in her life, while her would-be fiancé is dismissive or takes her for granted.  She is perhaps a little too stubborn in her refusal to admit that Howard is completely wrong for her, but I can understand her difficulty; she’s been so set on marrying him for so long that to admit her mistake to herself is one thing, but to admit it to others is incredibly difficult and somewhat lowering.

There is a small, but well-realised cast of secondary characters, such as Everdon’s mother and his odd but strangely insightful cousin Kevin, otherwise known as the Daffodil Dandy because of his predilection for the colour yellow.  Deirdre’s young scamps of brothers are fun, and her mother, who makes up for what she lacks in fashion sense in her good common sense, clearly wants the best for her daughter in spite of her propensity to dress her in far too many ruffles and flounces.

This is a fairly short novel  (217 pages according to Amazon), and I flew through it in one or two sittings, I enjoyed it that much.  It’s a “kisses only” sensuality rating, but the air crackles between the couple from the start, and Jo Beverley builds the romantic tension between them so well that their looks, touches and eventual kisses are wonderfully sensual.  There’s a real warmth to the family dynamics and a lovely, understated humour; all of which combine to make Deirdre and Don Juan a truly charming traditional Regency.

NOTE: In the US, this title is available only in Lovers and Ladies, which also contains The Fortune Hunter.

The Virgin’s Spy (Tudor Legacy #2) by Laura Andersen

the virgins spy

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Queen Elizabeth I remains sovereign of England and Ireland. For the moment, at least. An Irish rebellion is growing and Catholic Spain, led by the Queen s former husband, King Philip, plans to seize advantage of the turmoil. Stephen Courtenay, eldest son of Dominic and Minuette, Elizabeth s most trusted confidantes, has accepted a command in Ireland to quell the unrest. But the task will prove dangerous in more ways than one.

The Princess of Wales, Elizabeth s daughter, Anabel, looks to play a greater role in her nation, ever mindful that there is only one Queen of England. But how is Anabel to one day rule a country when she cannot even govern her own heart?

Rating:A-

This is the second book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series, which returns to the alternate Tudor time-line she created in her Boleyn Trilogy some twenty years or so after the events that took place in The Boleyn Reckoning

While The Virgin’s Spy CAN work as a standalone, I wouldn’t recommend picking it up if you don’t have at least a bit of background information about both series. The setting is Tudor England – but one in which Anne Boleyn gave Henry VIII a son who lived to maturity and who succeeded his father to the throne. While that trilogy ended with history “back on track” and Elizabeth I becoming Queen of England, Ms. Andersen didn’t stop there, and went on to marry Elizabeth to Philip of Spain (off-screen) for the couple to have a daughter, Anne Isabella (Anabel), and then get divorced.

My admiration for the way the author interweaves actual historical events and personages with her alternative events and fictional characters is undimmed; anyone with some knowledge of the period will recognise familiar situations, some of which play out as they actually did, and some which take off in another – equally plausible – direction. The political intrigues and machinations are superbly described – these are the sorts of books you need to concentrate on, although that’s no hardship because they’re so compelling – and the characterisation of Elizabeth, in particular, is superb. Ms. Andersen gets to the heart of what it means to rule and how difficult it can sometimes be; she shows how isolated Elizabeth really is by virtue of her position; how difficult it is to strike a balance between doing something for the good of the realm and doing something she knows to be right. The reader really gets a sense of how the difficult decisions affect Elizabeth and how torn she can be.

The other principal characters in this series are the four Courtenay siblings, the two sons and two daughters of Dominic and Minuette Courtenay, Duke and Duchess of Exeter. Following the events of the previous trilogy, the Courtenays live quietly and mostly away from court, even though their rank and friendship with the queen places them among the highest in the land.

In the previous book in the series, The Virgin’s Daughter we followed Lucette, the eldest of the siblings as she travelled to France at Elizabeth’s bidding and got caught up in a desperate feud between the two Le Clerc brothers, one of whom she eventually married. The focus in The Virgin’s Spy turns to the Catholic rebellion in Ireland and to Stephen, the Courtenay’s eldest son and heir. Stephen is twenty-one and his considered level-headedness has often seen him compared to his formidable father, a man whose quiet dignity belies a sharp mind, an unbending sense of honour and leadership qualities that are second to none. But although he doesn’t show it, the constant comparisons are wearing, and Stephen is eager to step out from under his father’s shadow and make a name for being something other than the son of the great Dominic Courtenay.

He gets his chance when he is sent to Ireland to in order to reinforce the English troops engaged in fighting the Catholic rebels. His commanding officer, the Earl of Ormond, is an experienced and pragmatic man Stephen finds he can respect. Not so Captain Oliver Dane, who is brutal, uncompromising and without conscience, as Stephen discovers when Dane orders the slaughter of Irish prisoners after an English victory. Stephen is furious and disgusted at such an act and can’t help speaking out against Dane’s orders, something which marks him for trouble and earns Dane’s implacable enmity. Following a raid on his camp, Stephen is badly wounded and is brought home to recover, but his mind is more severely injured than his body and it is some time before he can let go of his rage for long enough to be able to coldly plan his vengeance. But to gain that, he needs to return to Ireland – and to do so, he must make a bargain with Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, and infiltrate one of the principal rebel strongholds.

It’s a decision which is going to profoundly change the course of his life, but from which there is no going back.

Ms. Andersen does a great job in balancing the personal stories of the Courtenays, Elizabeth and Anabel against the bigger picture of the highly volatile political situation. Mary Stuart, formerly Queen of Scots and now married to Philip of Spain, wants Spain to join forces with their Irish Catholic brethren against the English oppressors, and war is inevitable. It’s just a question of when it’s going to happen and how long Elizabeth has to prepare for it.

The relationship between the queen and her heir is very well drawn; Anabel is as keenly intelligent and politically astute as her mother, but she also has to face difficult choices in her personal life. A princess cannot afford to love where she chooses, and her growing attachment to Kit Courtenay can’t be allowed to interfere with the need for her to make a matrimonial alliance with France or Scotland. Kit’s twin sister, Pippa, who is Anabel’s closest friend and adviser, is also struggling with her feelings for Matthew Harrington (the son of their father’s oldest servant and friend) as well as to bear the burden placed upon her by the ‘gift’ which enables her to gain insight into the future. I particularly enjoyed seeing Kit come into his own in this book. Before, he was characterised as a charming, devil-may-care type who made people laugh and whom nobody took seriously. But now, he’s growing up and finding his identity apart from his father and the older brother he idolises but can’t help resenting. Dominic and Minuette have roles to play, too, and I enjoyed meeting them again. They are parents of grown children, yet it’s clear that they are still as devoted and in love as ever they were as they try to reconcile their desire to stay out of the spotlight with their strong sense of duty.

There are several different storylines being pursued here, some of which end with the book and some which will no doubt be concluded in the following one, The Virgin’s War. Ms Andersen has once again crafted a compelling, fast-moving and complex story and peopled it with a set of principal characters it’s easy to care about and root for. The Virgin’s Spy is a terrific read and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction but is in the mood for something a little different.

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