The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

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It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some of Ben Sedgwick’s favorite things:

Helping his poor parishioners
Baby animals
Shamelessly flirting with the handsome Captain Phillip Dacre

After an unconventional upbringing, Ben is perfectly content with the quiet, predictable life of a country vicar, free of strife or turmoil. When he’s asked to look after an absent naval captain’s three wild children, he reluctantly agrees, but instantly falls for the hellions. And when their stern but gloriously handsome father arrives, Ben is tempted in ways that make him doubt everything.

Some of Phillip Dacre’s favorite things:

His ship
People doing precisely as they’re told
Touching the irresistible vicar at every opportunity

Phillip can’t wait to leave England’s shores and be back on his ship, away from the grief that haunts him. But his children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors and he must set things right. The unexpected presence of the cheerful, adorable vicar sets his world on its head and now he can’t seem to live without Ben’s winning smiles or devastating kisses.

In the midst of runaway children, a plot to blackmail Ben’s family, and torturous nights of pleasure, Ben and Phillip must decide if a safe life is worth losing the one thing that makes them come alive.

Rating: B+

It Takes Two to Tumble is the first book in a new series from Cat Sebastian entitled Seducing the Sedgwicks, which features a group of siblings who had a most unconventional, bohemian upbringing in a household comprising their father, his wife, his mistress and various itinerant hangers-on.  This first instalment features the eldest son, Benedict, the vicar of the parish of St. Aelred’s in Cumberland, a deeply compassionate, kind, sensitive man who yearns for the ‘normal’ life he never had while growing up.  The arrival at nearby Barton Hall of gruff, authoritarian naval captain Philip Dacre sees Benedict  gradually coming to the realisation that perhaps he needs to re-define exactly what ‘normal’ means to him, in this touching, beautifully written, character-driven romance from the pen of Cat Sebastian.

Benedict Sedgwick is content with his lot.  He is very well-liked by his parishioners, he has a secure living, and he is looking forward to marrying Alice Crawford, a young woman he has known since his youth and whom he regards as his best friend.  For many years, the Crawfords:

… were his second family, had been from the time Ben realized that his own family was decidedly inadequate, and what was worse, not normal.  The Crawfords had been fantastically normal: there was a sensible number of parents (two), a reasonable number of children (one) and, best of all, the desired number of those artistic hangers-on who seemed to colonize his father’s home (zero).

Alice and her parents were thus Ben’s refuge from the chaos and unpredictability of his own home when he was growing up. He cares greatly for them all, although while he loves Alice, he isn’t IN love with her… yet many couples marry without love, and his and Alice’s friendship is, surely, a strong basis for a lasting marriage.  He firmly suppresses that little niggle at the back of his brain that tells him he is drawn to men rather than women; not that he’s ashamed of his preferences, it’s just he’s never really allowed his desires to take shape beyond that nebulous admission of a truth he has learned to supress in order to pursue his goal of living an unexceptional, ordinary life.

Philip Dacre, a captain in the Royal Navy, has spent the majority of his life at sea and has carved himself a successful career.  But his childhood memories are tainted by his struggles with a learning difficulty and the feelings of inadequacy that rarely bother him aboard ship resurface at the prospect of returning home – something he has managed to avoid as often as possible.

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

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian (audio) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

An earl hiding from his future…
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past…

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl. Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives? Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give in to the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – A-

Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, was one of my favourite books of 2016 in both print and audio, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of her second, The Lawrence Browne Affair in audiobook format. Like its predecessor, this book is very well-written, sharply observed, strongly characterised, and contains a beautifully developed and sensual romance between two people who, at first, would seem to have little – or nothing – in common.

We met Georgie Turner – swindler, thief and con-artist extraordinaire – in the first book, and at the beginning of this one, he’s in big trouble with the local crimelord. Georgie has discovered that at the ripe old age of twenty-five, he’s developed a conscience, and it’s a real pain in the arse because it’s rendered him unable to see through his latest scheme to con an elderly lady out of all her money. Without that payoff, he can’t pay his ‘dues’ and if he can’t pay up, then he’s as good as dead. Fortunately for him, his older brother, Jack – a private investigator – has a job for Georgie that will take him all the way to Cornwall where he can lie low while he works out what to do next while also making himself useful by sending back reports to London on the mental state of his new employer, the Earl of Radnor.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rogue. Libertine. Rake. Lord Courtenay has been called many things and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel supposedly based on his exploits, he finds himself shunned from society. Unable to see his nephew, he is willing to do anything to improve his reputation, even if that means spending time with the most proper man in London.

Julian Medlock has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. As far as he cares, if Courtenay finds himself in hot water, it’s his own fault for behaving so badly—and being so blasted irresistible. But when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes—and lusts after—most.

As Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve, Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety. But he has secrets he’s determined to keep, because if the truth came out, it would ruin everyone he loves. Together, they must decide what they’re willing to risk for love.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian completes a hat-trick with her latest Regency romance, making a total of three winners in a row.  Like her previous books, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Browne Affair, The Ruin of a Rake is hugely entertaining; witty, sexy and poignant it’s the story of a rake in the process of reforming and the starchy, acerbic man given the task of helping him.  The trope –  rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold meets the uber-proper gentleman – plays out to wonderful effect; a superbly written clash of personalities that sees both men having to reassess their opinions of themselves as well as each other – and discovering that love really can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Lord Courtenay, whom we met in The Lawrence Browne Affair, has spent the last decade living abroad with his sister Isabella and her young son, Simon, who is heir to the Earl of Radnor (the Lawrence Browne of that book’s title).  Courtenay is more handsome than any man has a right to be, ineffably charming and game for almost anything; his indulgences – high-stakes gambling, strong drink and lots and lots of sex (with men and women) – mark him as a debauched rake of the highest order, and he has quite happily lived down to the expectations of his disapproving mother and of society in general.  But when his sister dies, he decides it’s time for him to return to England with his nephew who, as heir to an English earldom, should grow up there and receive the education accorded to every English gentleman.  Radnor is not best pleased to see Courtenay, but Simon adores his uncle and the two men reach an uneasy détente.

That changes, however, with the publication of a gothic novel in which the villain’s good looks, raven-dark hair, piercing green eyes and sardonic manner are quickly likened to Courtenay, and society being what it is, it is just as quickly assumed that the evil deeds of the dissolute Don Lorenzo are, in fact, Courtenay’s own.  For Radnor, it’s the last straw.  Knowing his brother-in-law is a libertine is one thing, but having his name bandied about and associated with a scandalous novel is quite another, and he bans Courtenay from having any contact with Simon.

Courtenay is seriously upset by this.  He more or less raised the boy, who is the last link to the sister he loved and feels he failed to adequately protect; but more importantly, Courtenay genuinely loves his nephew and wants to be part of his life.  Having spent the last of his money on getting Simon back home, he’s now stuck in a city populated by people who shun him and where the ghosts of bad decisions and past debaucheries conspire to haunt him.  He knows he has nobody to blame but himself – but self-awareness isn’t going to help either the state of his finances or his relationship with his brother-in-law.  Fate is ready to step in, however, in the form of his friend, Eleanor, Lady Standish, who decides it’s time Something Was Done and asks – or rather, tells – her brother, Julian Medlock, widely regarded as the most proper man in London, to help Courtenay get back into society’s good graces.

The Medlock siblings grew up in India where their grandfather was a wealthy merchant and shipping magnate. Regarding his own son as a worthless wastrel, Medlock senior instead trained his grandson to run the business and left everything to Julian when he died.  From the age of about sixteen, Julian shouldered the responsibility for both business and family, but his failing health (he suffers from Malaria and was having increasingly virulent attacks) saw Eleanor insisting on moving to England in the hope that the milder climate would benefit him.  Unfortunately, it also meant that his sister was separated from her husband, who, after six years, has still not joined her.  Julian feels increasingly guilty for Eleanor’s obvious unhappiness, which is one of the reasons he accedes to her request that he help rehabilitate Courtenay.

In the years since they came to England, Julian has steadily and carefully turned himself into the perfect gentleman, the very picture of respectability and an expert on manners and the social graces.  He is invited and welcomed everywhere – even though he often feels like he’s on the outside looking in, but that suits him.  He prefers to hold himself aloof and guard his secrets; friendships mean opening oneself up, warts and all, strong emotions risk a loss of control, and that’s not for him. Even when it comes to sex, he prefers his liaisons to be warm and controlled, rather than desperate and hot and full of unbridled passion.  Unfortunately, Courtenay seems just the man to provoke the latter sentiments – and the fact that Julian has secretly lusted after him for six years is just going to make things even more difficult. They’re like chalk and cheese and, right from the start, Courtenay seems instinctively to know how to raise Julian’s hackles.  And… other things.

Fireworks ensue as the buttoned-up, sharp-tongued Julian attempts to rein in the congenial, emotionally open Courtenay, who takes great delight in needling his ‘mentor’.  Both are strongly characterised, complex individuals who carry some fairly weighty emotional baggage, and Ms. Sebastian crafts a marvellous story full of humour, tenderness and – sometimes – raw emotion about two men coming to terms with their pasts, adjusting their self-perception and learning to accept that they’re worthy of the friendship and love of others.

I adored both characters individually and loved them together.  Courtenay may be a rake, but he’s also an absolute darling; easy going and charming, he has become so accustomed to giving that he has almost forgotten how to ask for what he wants and dismisses his own desires as unimportant.  He cares a great deal for those closest to him and even continues to support the mother who shuns him, constantly belittles him and blames him – unjustly – for his father’s death.  Courtenay has become so used to being thought worthless and to blaming himself for the death of his sister that he believes he doesn’t deserve happiness or to have anything good in his life.  His surprise when Julian actually takes his part is honest and touching; nobody has ever stuck up for him before and his realisation that this must be what friendship feels like pulled at my heartstrings a little.

Julian is prickly to the nth degree, possessed of a mind like a steel trap, a head for figures and a kind of sixth sense where the workings of society are concerned.  He doesn’t want to be attracted to Courtenay, he doesn’t want to feel anything for Courtenay and he most definitely doesn’t want to fall in love with Courtenay – but as Julian comes to know him better and to understand what his life has really been beneath the endless carousing, he discovers a kind, thoughtful man with a good heart, who sincerely wants to change his life and do better… and it’s impossible for Julian to remain aloof.

The verbal sparring between this mis-matched couple is funny, naughty and delightful, and the author creates a strong emotional connection between them as well as injecting their relationship with some scorching sexual chemistry.  The Ruin of a Rake is sweet, wickedly funny (and sometimes just plain wicked!), romantic and moving – and another DIK for Cat Sebastian.  Keep ‘em coming!

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

lawrence-browne-affair-cover

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

An earl hiding from his future . . .

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . .

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives?

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl  – was one of my favourite books of 2016.  Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.

Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.  While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness.  He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy.  His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth.  Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too.  He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday.  He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.

The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother.  His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London.  He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark.  Once a con-man, always a con-man…

Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene.  Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly.  But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them.  Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man.  Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns.  Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself.  Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.

There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together.  Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there.  He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life.  Or if he even wants to.

The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other.   Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness.  Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love.  It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case.  If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

best-of-2016-covers

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

The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the-soldiers-scoundrel-audio

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

A scoundrel who lives in the shadows.

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep, and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice.

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life – one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is matched only by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men meant only for each other.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

The Soldier’s Scoundrel is one of those rare début novels that is so accomplished in terms of the writing, characterisation and storytelling that it’s difficult to believe it’s someone’s first book. Cat Sebastian has penned a story which combines a wonderfully written and very… well, romantic romance with a dash of mystery and topped it off with a healthy dollop of relevant and cleverly interwoven social comment and a well-researched historical background.

A former thief, con-artist and gentleman’s gentleman now turned investigator, Jack Turner takes as his clients those people who, because of their gender or social station have no other way of securing justice – women and the poor. He is expecting his latest client when a gorgeous but angry man bursts into his office demanding to know why his sister, Lady Montford, has just paid Jack the large sum of two hundred pounds. Jack has no love for the aristocracy, and bridles immediately, recognising the man as Captain Oliver Rivington, younger son of the Earl of Rutland.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.