The Spinster and the Rake by Anne Stuart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Spinster: As a maiden aunt, Gillian Redfern lives as an unpaid servant to her demanding family. Little wonder she finds the attentions of a rake distracting, and even less wonder that her usual good sense begins to unravel when Lord Marlow takes her in his arms.

The Rake: Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlow, is a man of great charm and little moral character, a gambler, a womanizer, and handsome as sin to boot. He has no qualms about placing a wager on the virtue of one small, shy spinster.

But Lord Marlow is about to discover that Miss Redfern is more siren than spinster. She amuses him, arouses him, and, much to his dismay, makes him a better man. Gillian will discover, in turn, that Lord Marlow possesses the power to turn her into a very wicked woman. The rake and the spinster are poised to find a love that neither could have imagined.

If only someone weren’t out to destroy them both . . .

Rating: B

First published in 1982, The Spinster and the Rake is one of Anne Stuart’s earliest Regencies, and has, sadly, been out of print for a number of years.  I’ve been keen to read it ever since I became aware of its existence – I mean who doesn’t love a good rake-meets-spinster story? – and had despaired of ever finding it, but luckily it surfaced last year in a newly revised digital edition.  (I can’t say what the revisions are as I haven’t read the original, but I am guessing Ms. Stuart has added a pinch or two of extra spice 😉 )

This is one of those books that is exactly what it says on the tin, and very nicely done it is, too.  Our rake, Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlowe (who is the Marquess of Herrington so I’m not sure where the Marlowe comes from) is nearing forty, has been away from England since he was packed off by his family following a scandal twenty years earlier and, having unexpectedly inherited a title, has returned to England with the intention of remaining there.  His bearing, looks and manner of speech reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer’s Lord Damerel (who is my favourite hero of hers, and one of my all-time favourite romance heroes) and I defy anyone not to swoon at the author’s description of him:

“From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with grey, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes, the strong nose and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wickedly appealing.”

Be still my beating heart 😉

The spinster of the title is Miss Gillian Redfern, youngest of four siblings and the only one to remain unmarried.  At nearly thirty, Gillian –

… had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family reeling and a dislike of being useless.

She divides her time between her brother’s home in London and her sister, Patricia’s in Winchester, acting in both cases as nurse, nanny, companion, gofer, peacemaker and voice of reason; and it’s on her journey from Winchester to London that she first encounters Lord Marlowe, when the dilapidated coach her brother has sent to collect her suffers a broken axle and is thrown into a ditch. Fortunately for Gillian, another vehicle is close behind and its occupants stop to help, offering to convey her to her destination; the fact that the two travellers within are male gives her some pause, but she’s too long out of the schoolroom to be missish about it, and accepts their offer. One of the gentlemen, Vivian Peacock, is more than a little the worse for wear, while his companion, Lord Marlowe is quite the most sinfully attractive man Gillian has ever met.

No prizes for guessing where this is going, but Ms. Stuart does a fabulous job of building the relationship between these two, showing how Gillian gradually comes out of her shell and decides it’s time for her to live for herself for a change, while Marlowe tells himself that he’s doing Gillian a favour by flirting with her and giving her a taste of life beyond anything she’s known. He thinks he’s more than capable of handling the strong attraction he feels for Gillian and promises himself he won’t break her heart; he’ll just bruise it a little, and then she’ll be ready to move on to some other gentleman who will make her happy in the long term. Oh, Marlowe. Very much a man of the world and yet so clueless.

Both characters are engaging and very likeable. Marlowe has returned to England older and much wiser and I liked his practical, no-nonsense outlook. He doesn’t talk down to Gillian or dismiss her intellect; in fact he does the opposite, he solicits her opinions and takes her seriously, something it takes her a little while to adjust to at first, given the way her stuffed-shirt of a brother has always insisted on running her life. And even though Gillian has somehow fallen into the role of general factotum for her brother and indolent sister-in-law, she is far from a downtrodden poor relation. She has money of her own, a lively sense of the ridiculous and her grown-up niece and nephew, both of whom have important secondary roles to play in the story, obviously adore her for her lively wit and common sense.

Of course, there have to be a few hiccups along the road to happily ever after, and I admit the final twist, in which we discover the reason for Marlowe’s reluctance to marry Gillian, was a surprise I didn’t see coming. It does all resolve fairly easily, of course, as it happens quite near the end of the book, but by then I was so invested in Marlowe and his Gillyflower making a go of it that I was more than happy to just go with the flow.

The Spinster and the Rake is a quick, entertaining read that very skilfully treads a well-worn path. If, like me, you enjoy this particular trope, then I’m sure you won’t be disappointed if you pick it up.

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Wildfire (Fire #3) by Anne Stuart (audiobook) – Narrated by Jill Redfield

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Her power-hungry husband takes pleasure in her pain, but she’s done playing the victim.

Three years ago, ex-operative Sophie Jordan made the mistake of falling in love—and marrying—her target. Now she’s paying for it tenfold. Her husband might be one of the sexiest men alive, but he’s also a psychopath. She’s been a virtual prisoner, and the time has come for retribution—and escape.

Undercover agent Malcolm Gunnison has his orders: get intel from Sophie’s arms-dealer husband, then kill him. He plans to get rid of her, too, if she gets in his way, but he’s unprepared when she gets under his skin instead. Whose side is she on? And what is she hiding behind those mesmerizing eyes?

Sophie vowed to never fall for another man again, but this sexy undercover agent is different. With danger mounting, can Malcolm and Sophie trust each other—and their growing passion—enough to get out of this operation alive?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

Wildfire is the third in Anne Stuart’s current Fire series of romantic suspense novels which have kind of picked up where the Ice series left off and in which The Committee – the super-secret agency which acts to wipe out the bad guys and keep the world safe by any means necessary – is now working out of its new branch in the US.

Sophie Jordan, former CIA and State Department operative, joined the Committee a few years previously and was sent on a fairly routine surveillance mission while still undergoing her training. The subject of this mission was one Archer MacDonald, a ruthless, megalomaniac arms dealer who also happened to be one of the most gorgeous men on the planet. Against every instinct and every aspect of her training, Sophie fell for Archer and married him, so blinded by love that she didn’t discover his true nature until some months after the wedding. Three years on, Sophie has spent most of that time as a prisoner on an island off the coast of Florida that Archer owns – Isla Mordita – two of those years confined to her bed and a wheelchair following an “accident” which saw her shot in the back.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Wildfire (Fire #3) by Anne Stuart

wildfire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Her power-hungry husband takes pleasure in her pain, but she’s done playing the victim.

Three years ago, ex-operative Sophie Jordan made the mistake of falling in love—and marrying—her target. Now she’s paying for it tenfold. Her husband might be one of the sexiest men alive, but he’s also a psychopath. She’s been a virtual prisoner, and the time has come for retribution—and escape.

Undercover agent Malcolm Gunnison has his orders: get intel from Sophie’s arms-dealer husband, then kill him. He plans to get rid of her, too, if she gets in his way, but he’s unprepared when she gets under his skin instead. Whose side is she on? And what is she hiding behind those mesmerizing eyes?

Sophie vowed to never fall for another man again, but this sexy undercover agent is different. With danger mounting, can Malcolm and Sophie trust each other—and their growing passion—enough to get out of this operation alive?

Rating: B-

Any long-time romance reader probably has a favourite type of hero.  Protective alphas, arrogant arseholes, smooth spies and men of action… and then there are Anne Stuart heroes, who, as anyone familiar with her work will know, are a mixture of all the above with the aresholery often dialled up to the max.  But you know what?  They’re my blind spot.  They’re so full of testosterone, over-the-top masculine and fiercely protective of their women (albeit not quite at caveman levels) that they’re almost caricatures… but I still don’t care – I love ‘em.

The big saving grace is probably that your Anne Stuart alpha-hole hero isn’t a Neanderthal. He’s  highly-intelligent, well-educated, frighteningly competent, seriously hot – and ultimately redeemable.   Yes, any sane woman would probably run a mile in the opposite direction if she met one, but fortunately, this is highly stylised fiction, and Ms. Stuart always manages to redeem these ruthless men admirably.  But I can accept that her particular brand of gamma hero is an acquired taste, and if those types of characters aren’t for you, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise.

But for those of us who do drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, Malcolm Gunnison, the hero of Wildfire – the third in the author’s current Fire series – is another in a long line of those guilty-pleasure heroes we love to hate.  Mal is sent by the Committee  – a covert, international organization that paid no attention to legal or moral implications in its quest to make the world a safer place – to the Caribbean island of Isla Mordita to meet with Archer MacDonald, international arms and drug dealer, and the man behind the development of a new biological agent, RU48 (also known as Pixiedust!) which is unlike any chemical weapon previously developed.  Mal’s cover as an ex-Committee agent now acting as the middle-man for a potential buyer works perfectly to convince Archer that he’s dealing with a man every bit as dangerous as himself.

Mal’s job is to find out everything he can about the weapon, kill Archer and get out – and it’s up to him whether he gets the man’s wife out with him or leaves her there.  A former CIA and State Department agent, Sophie Jordan was in the early stages of her Committee training when she was made part of a team sent to undertake surveillance on Archer and made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying him – only to discover, too late, that the man was a ruthless psychopath.  When Archer discovered she had been a Committee agent, he ordered her murder.  Sophie narrowly escaped death, but the bullet damaged her spine and for the past two years, she has been confined to a wheelchair, a literal prisoner on the island subject to the not so tender mercies of her husband, who takes delight in playing psychological games, and abusing her both emotionally and physically.  But a year ago, she began to regain the use of her legs, and without anyone knowing, has been building her strength and training for the day when she will kill Archer and get the hell outta Dodge.

When Archer insists she join him in welcoming their latest guest to the island, Sophie is not at all prepared for the reaction Malcolm Gunnison elicits in her.  Since her accident, she has maintained the fiction of being desperately in love with her husband, who no longer has any use for her and enjoys taunting her about her lack of sexual appeal.  He has brought several attractive men to the island and paraded them in front of her trying to provoke a reaction, but she has remained completely unmoved – until now.  Even so, it’s clear that Gunnison is just as much of a ruthless, murderous bastard as her husband, and she has no intention of allowing herself to be diverted from her purpose.

The suspense plot is full of twists and turns, and there’s no question that Ms. Stuart really knows how to ramp up the tension; all in all I found Wildfire a hard book to put down. The characters are engaged in an intense and potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Mal and Archer circling around each other, assessing and trying to get the upper hand, even as Mal and Sophie are doing much the same thing as they try to work out whether they can trust each other or not.  The sexual chemistry between them is intense, the sex scenes are steamy and Mal and Sophie are undoubtedly in lust with each other, but the idea that a romantic relationship could have developed between them is harder to buy into.  Sophie has been isolated for the past two years, suffered a serious trauma and has been subject to a sadistic, manipulative man.  Yes, her training as an operative would have heightened her natural survival instincts and taught her self-reliance, but I couldn’t help thinking that given her circumstances, she might have fallen for anyone who had supported her and shown her that she wasn’t on her own anymore.  I also found it difficult to believe that Sophie – who is frequently described as tough, intelligent and highly competent – could have been so gullible as to have dismissed everything she’d learned about Archer during her training and fallen so easily and completely for him.  Much mention is made of the fact that she was inexperienced when she was sent on that fateful mission, but she worked for the security services for a number of years before being recruited by the Committee, and that level of naïveté just doesn’t ring true.  On the positive side, though, I admired her sheer guts and determination in the face of such overwhelming odds.  She’s under no illusions now, and her hatred of Archer is so visceral that the reader can actually feel it.

And Mal … well, he’s a pretty stereotypical Stuart hero – dangerous, frighteningly competent and utterly ruthless when called for – but that’s a potent and sexy combination that never seems to get old, and I’m not complaining.

While this is the third in a series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the previous two books before starting this one; I think they can probably be read in any order.  Even taking into account the drawbacks I’ve mentioned, Wildfire is still a fast-paced, edgy page-turner that kept me engrossed from start to finish.  I’m sure fans of Ms. Stuart and her unique, dark brand of romantic suspense will enjoy it.

Lord of Danger by Anne Stuart (audiobook) – Narrated by Susan Ericksen

lord of danger

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Half-sister to Richard the Fair, Alys has been schooled in the sheltered ways of the convent, far from the treachery and intrigue of castle life. Until she is taken from the cloister and brought to a place filled with secrets. Here she is to meet her future husband, a man some call a monster. His name is Simon of Navarre, a powerful and mysterious lord practiced in the black arts. This sensual stranger both terrifies her and fascinates her…and sets her heart burning with an unfamiliar fire.

Jaded by war, no longer able to believe in human goodness, Simon has turned toward the realm of darkness. But the master magician finds himself bewitched by the innocent Alys, who fears his very touch could damn her forever. Yet even as Simon begins to work his seductive magic, Alys senses the wounded soul beneath the cooly elegant facade. Now, as the two become pawns in Richard’s treacherous scheme to become England’s king, only one power can save them: the unstoppable force of love.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

Originally published in 1997, Lord of Danger is a standalone historical romance set in Medieval England at the time of the reign of Henry III. It has all the ingredients one would expect from an Anne Stuart novel – intrigue, suspense, a heroine with backbone and an amoral, dangerously sexy hero, all wrapped up in an above average narration by Susan Ericksen.

Lady Alys de Lancie and her younger sister Claire are half-sisters to Richard, known as Richard the Fair, who is cousin to the twelve-year-old king. The ladies have been brought up in a convent but are now to leave it and travel to Richard’s castle at Summersedge so that Alys can marry the man chosen for her, Richard’s trusted advisor and, according to rumour, a wizard and practitioner of the dark arts. Naturally, the idea of marriage to such a man is not an eminently appealing prospect, but Alys is a pragmatist and knows that she has no choice in the matter.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Pauley

shadow lover audio

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon

Victim. Lover. Both? His dark game is seducing her – just as it was when they were young.

How can he still have that power over her? Eighteen years ago, she saw him die.

Wealthy, selfish, and greedy, the McDowell family raised Carolyn McDowell – a foster child – like a modern Cinderella. Neglected and ignored, good-hearted Carolyn adored scion Alexander despite it all, even though he tormented her.

When Alex ran away one night, Carolyn followed and witnessed his murder, though she never told anyone. Her beloved Alex died when he was 17. There was no doubt.

Eighteen years later, Carolyn returns to the decadent milieu of the McDowell clan to care for her dying foster mother, Sally. As greedy relatives gather to claim their inheritances, a stunning stranger arrives, claiming to be Alexander. To Carolyn’s utter shock, Sally greets her “son” without question, and no one but Carolyn believes he’s a fraud.

As she delves into the mysteries of both the past and present, Carolyn quickly realizes that the resurrected Alex is a dangerous combination of seduction and power. Is this stranger after the McDowell fortune, or is he really, somehow, the Alex of old, coming back to claim her? How can he be an imposter and yet know family secrets only the real Alex would remember? Was someone helping him?

What would you do if the boy you loved returned almost 20 years later and you fell in love with him all over again – even if you were sure it couldn’t be him?

Rating: A- for narration; A- for content

Caz listens to a contemporary! Hold the Front Page! Er… well, perhaps that’s going a bit too far, but as is obvious, I don’t tend to stray much outside my historical comfort zone and it takes something a bit special to tempt me out of it. But Shadow Lover is a superb combination of mystery and romance that hooked me in from the start and didn’t let me go until I’d finished it. The hero is almost indecently sexy, the heroine won’t take any crap and goes toe-to-toe with him all the way, and while the sex scenes are probably quite tame by today’s standards, they’re nonetheless hot as hell. I read the book last year for a reading challenge and absolutely loved it – I’m a sucker for an Anne Stuart bad-boy, no matter the time-frame – so when I saw it had come out in audio format, I had to listen to it, even though I’m unfamiliar with the narrator.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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A 2014 Retrospective

I was going to write a “favourite books of 2014” or “best books of 2014” post or something of that nature, but then realised that I’ve written and contributed to a number of those, so I’m doing something different here.

cat_asleep_on_bookSo instead, I’m stealing an idea from the lovely Wendy the Super Librarian and have been looking through my Goodreads Stats to see how my ratings panned out across the year. Because I review a large number of new and current releases, the majority of the books I read in 2014 were published in 2014, but I managed to squeeze in a few others. And because Goodreads counts print/ebooks and audiobooks of the same title as two different books, while my total for the year was 231, it’s probably closer to 180 different books.

Looking through my stats (and if I’ve counted correctly!) the majority of my reading and listening fell within the 4/5 star bracket, which is pretty good going.

I gave 34 books and 19 audiobooks 5 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded up) A/A-
I gave 63 books and 32 audiobooks 4 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded down) B+/B
I gave 43 books and 15 audiobooks 3 stars (some will have been 3.5 stars rounded down) B-/C+/C
I gave 14 books and 2 audiobooks 2 stars C-/D+/D
I gave 3 books and two audiobooks 1 star (one of the books was a DNF, as was one of the audiobooks, because the narration was utterly dire.)

Putting together the list of books to which I gave a 5 star/A rating, it’s interesting to see that I’ve rated as many audio books at that level as I have printed books. Obviously, when rating an audiobook, I take the narration into account too – and if you look closely, you’ll see there are three names that crop up repeatedly as the narrators on those audiobooks; Nicholas Boulton, Rosalyn Landor and Kate Reading, who are, quite simply, three of the best narrators around when it comes to historical romance. In many cases, these are audiobooks where I may have rated the story at a A- or B+, but the narration is so good that the overall rating is bumped up. Of course, even the best narrator can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so even in those audios where the story isn’t quite at the five star level, it’s not going to be a dud!

The reviews are linked to the titles below the images.

5 star books:

 


Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh
Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne
Douglas: Lord of Heartache by Grace Burrowes
The Captive and The Traitor by Grace Burrowes
Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler
Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase
At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran
Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran
Mr (Not Quite) Perfect by Jessica Hart
Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla Kelly
Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
The King’s Falcon by Stella Riley
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain
Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart
The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

5 star Audiobooks:


The Escape by Mary Balogh & Rosalyn Landor
The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
Captives of the Night by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Lord of Scoundrels Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare & Carolyn Morris
Arabella by Georgette Heyer & Phyllida Nash
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer & Georgina Sutton
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer & Daniel Philpott
Venetia by Georgette Heyer & Phillida Nash
The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain & Michelle Ford
Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James & Mary Jane Wells
His at Night by Sherry Thomas & Kate Reading<
The Mask of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig & Kate Reading

Honourable Mentions:

– go to books and audios I’ve rated at 4.5 stars/A-/B+, but which I’ve rounded up to five because while there might have been something that niggled at me, it was a damn good book and felt closer to 5 stars than 4. Or just a book that, despite a few flaws, I really enjoyed.


The Boleyn Reckoning by Laura Andersen
The Laird by Grace Burrowes
The MacGregor’s Lady by Grace Burrowes & Roger Hampton
Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Firelight by Kristen Callihan & Moira Quirk
When the Duke Was Wicked by Lorraine Heath
The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt
A Grave Matter by Anna Lee Huber
Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner
It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden
Till We Next Meet by Karen Ranney
Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn
The Devil’s Waltz by Anne Stuart
The Perilous Sea by Sherry Thomas

I think it’s fair to say I had a pretty good year, reading-wise, with a high proportion of books I’d describe as good or better, and not too many “meh” or dire ones. (Although where would we be without the odd turkey to snark about?)

The first crop of 2015 releases looks promising; I’m taking part in a few challenges next year as well, which I’ll post about soon so I can keep track and I’m looking forward to my next year of reading, listening and reviewing.

How did you do last year?

Never Marry a Viscount by Anne Stuart (audiobook) – Narrated by Xe Sands

never marry a viscount audio

She’s crept back into the home she lost. He’s crept into her heart.

Sophie Russell was once society’s darling. But after the disgrace and death of her father, she now finds all doors firmly shut to her – including those of her family home. To discover the secrets now hidden within its beloved walls, she’ll pose as a cook and spy on the estate’s new owner, a broodingly handsome viscount, who may have schemed against the Russells. Instead of dishing up the truth, the viscount tempts Sophie with delicacies of his own.

Viscount Griffiths suspects that there is more to his new cook than meets the eye – especially since it was a mistress he hired sight unseen, not a cook. With the hope that her passion in the kitchen will extend to his bedchamber, he humors the beautiful interloper. But when that passion burns to brightest love, revelations may shake both of their wary hearts.

The final sensuous book in the Scandal at the House of Russell trilogy will lay the truth bare.

Rating: B for narration; B for content

Never Marry a Viscount is the third in Anne Stuart’s Scandal at the House of Russell trilogy which tells the story of three sisters who are left destitute upon the sudden death of their father, a wealthy shipping magnate. Led to believe his death was no accident, they are determined to discover the identity of the person responsible not only for their father’s murder, but also for embezzling all the funds from his company. In Book 1, Never Kiss a Rake, Bryony (the eldest) comes up with the idea of infiltrating the households of the three men who are the prime suspects.

Eustace Russell won the Renwick estate from its owner, Viscount Griffiths, in a card game years earlier, and the girls grew up there. On Russell’s death, the ownership has reverted to the new Viscount, Alexander Griffiths, a man rarely seen in society because he has lived mostly in the North – but who has recently taken up residence at Renwick.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.