TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

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Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.

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TBR Challenge: The Vicar’s Daughter (Regency Quartet #1) by Deborah Simmons

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The Earl meets his match…

The Earl of Wycliffe is in store for a surprise when he buys a new estate. The vicar’s daughter who lives on his land is a curvaceous, green-eyed beauty about to make her debut in the Ton…and he’s assigned to chaperon her!

Max must ensure tempting Charlotte Trowbridge finds a suitable husband in her first Season. But when several men begin to compete for the debutante’s hand, the usually level-headed Max realises he might not want to let her go!

Rating: B-

For my ‘old-skool’ read, I chose a Harlequin Historical from 1995, the first in Deborah Simmons’ Regency QuartetThe Vicar’s Daughter is one of those ‘stuffed-shirt meets wild-child’ romances (although the heroine isn’t really a wild-child as such), and while it’s fairly predictable, it’s a light-hearted, fun read and the two central characters are well-drawn and endearing.  Maximillian Fortescue, Earl of Wycliffe has just inherited Casterleigh, near the village of Upper Bidwell in Sussex,  and is about to pay a half-hour (a suitable length of time for this sort of thing) courtesy  call on the local vicar.  Arrived at the vicarage, Wycliffe – a tightly controlled and rather staid young man – is confronted by a passel of noisy, boisterous children, and, when ushered into the parlour, is arrested by the sight of the lush backside of a young woman who is peering under the sofa.  Wycliffe’s impressions of her lusciousness are bolstered when she finally gets up clutching a pair of kittens; the vicar’s daughter is stunningly beautiful and Wycliffe – who isn’t normally one to languish over a woman’s charms – is pretty much smitten from the get go.  In fact, he’s so smitten that he fails to adhere to his self-imposed schedule and ends up staying for the family dinner, which is full of chatter and laughter and like nothing he’s ever experienced.  He can hardly take his eyes off the lovely Charlotte, yes, but he’s also amazed at the ease with which father and siblings interact with each other and with the way he’s been so quickly and easily accepted by them.

During the visit, Wycliffe learns that Charlotte is soon to depart for London where she is to take part in the Season under the auspices of an elderly cousin, with the intention of finding a husband.  Wycliffe is surprised to find he doesn’t like this idea at all – but tells himself not to be ridiculous and offers to look in on her in London so that he can reassure her father that all is going well.

Naturally, Wycliffe’s role as self-appointed guardian and defender of Charlotte’s honour sees him running off all her potential suitors, even as he is stubbornly denying his own attraction to her and reminding himself that a man of his station cannot possibly marry the daughter of a mere country vicar.

Charlotte might be fresh out of the schoolroom, but she’s no simpering miss; she’s unaffected, intelligent and good-natured, with a good sense of humour and is well aware that making an advantageous marriage is important for her entire family (she has seven brothers and sisters) and not just herself.  The trouble is that she’s also aware that most men are attracted only to her looks and aren’t likely to offer the sort of affection and companionship she longs for in her marriage.  Even though she knows that a man of Wycliffe’s station can’t possibly marry her, she can’t help wishing, and she can’t help loving him and wanting to show him the sort of love and affection she’s come to realise he’s never had in his life.

One of the best things about this type of story is watching the starchy, strictly disciplined hero gradually abandon all his routines as he falls for the heroine, usually without realising it. Wycliffe is widely known for being cold, unemotional and the sort of man you could set your watch by; even his visits to his (former) mistress were on a regular, pre-arranged schedule.  Yet from the moment he sets eyes on Charlotte, he starts to deviate from his routine, to the horror of his secretary and the amusement of Raleigh, Wycliffe’s best friend and hero of The Last Rogue, the fourth (and best) book in this series.

For all the story’s predictability, the romance is well-done, the chemistry between Wycliffe and Charlotte crackles nicely, and there are a few steamy love scenes along the way.  But a real bum note is struck near the end when a seemingly harmless suitor of Charlotte’s turns out to be a drug-crazed madman and attempts to carry her off – twice – in the last chapter or two.  I could have forgiven a bit of tacked-on drama once, but twice was taking it too far and it was incredibly jarring.

Overall though, The Vicar’s Daughter proved to be an enjoyable, low-angst read, and while it’s not going onto my keeper shelf, it was nonetheless entertaining. If you’re looking for an undemanding, upbeat historical that radiates warmth and gentle humour, you might consider checking it out.

TBR Challenge – Some Brief Folly (Sanguinet Saga #1) by Patricia Veryan

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The Napoleonic wars are at their height on the Continent when Miss Euphemia Buchanan, young, much sought-after, and unattainable, decides to journey from London to Bath with her brother Simon and her young page Kent to spend the Christmas holidays with Great Aunt Lucasta. Along the way, she entreats Simon to detour past the imposing lines of Dominer, the palatial country estate of Garret Hawkhurst, the appallingly dangerous rake responsible (or so it is rumored) for the deaths of his own wife and child.

But disaster strikes in the form of a landslide, and the Buchannan’s coach is overturned and brought within inches of complete destruction. It is only through the bravery and immediate efforts of a passing gentleman that Euphemia and her wounded brother and page are rescued at all. But Euphemia’s grateful thanks turn to horror when she realizes her rescuer is none other than the infamous Garrett Hawkhurst, and that she has no recourse but to help Simon and Kent convalesce within the walls of Dominer itself…

Rating: B+

Patricia Veryan wrote around thirty-five historical romances set in the Georgian and Regency periods between 1978 and 2002, and until recently, they were all out of print.  Fortunately, over the last few years, many have been made available digitally, and I read The Wagered Widow for one of last year’s TBR Challenge prompts.  Ms. Veryan’s books are often compared to Georgette Heyer’s, and on the strength of the couple I’ve read, I’d certainly say they’re worth checking out if you’re a Heyer fan.  Ms. Veryan seems to have had a similar gift for writing observational humour and sparkling dialogue, and for creating interesting characters who operate within the societal norms of the period. But while the vast majority of Heyer’s books are set in the Regency, many of Patricia Veryan’s take place in the Georgian era ; two series  – The Golden Chronicles and Tales of the Jewelled Men – are set in the early-mid 18th century, and I certainly plan on reading those as soon as I can find the time.

My choice for March’s Prompt of Sugar or Spice was Some Brief Folly, which IS set in the Regency and is the first (loosely linked) book in the author’s Sanguinet Saga.  It’s one of those rake-of-blackest-reputation-meets-spunky-heroine stories, and there’s definitely a more than a little of Venetia’s Damerel in our hero, Garret Hawkhurst, and The Grand Sophy’s titular character in our heroine, Miss Euphemia Buchanan. But that isn’t to call Some Brief Folly derivative – I think most of the cynical rakes in historical romance owe something to Damerel anyway – because it’s definitely got a life of its own, and one of its storylines takes a particularly unusual direction.

Euphemia – Mia – Buchanan is delighted when her brother, Lieutenant Sir Simon Buchanan comes home on a long medical leave, owing to a serious shoulder injury sustained while fighting with Wellington’ forces in Spain.  With Christmas approaching, they make plans to travel to Bath to spend the festive season with their Aunt Lucasta and other members of their family, but what is supposed to be a brief detour to take a peek at Dominer, the grand residence of Garret Hawkhurst – an infamous rake widely believed to have killed his wife and son – leads to a serious accident in which their coach is overturned.  Fortunately, help arrives quickly in the form of the dangerous Hawkhurst himself and his servant, but while Euphemia and Simon are quickly dragged from the wrecked carriage, Euphemia’s page, Kent (whom she had rescued from a cruel chimney sweep some months earlier) has been thrown over the edge of a steep cliff, and is barely hanging on for his life.  To Euphemia’s astonishment, Hawkhurst immediately sets about a rescue, endangering his own life by climbing down the cliff at the end of a makeshift rope to bring the boy back up – and then offers them hospitality at Dominer.

Mia knows the rumours about Hawkhurst – Hawk – of course, and over the course of her stay at Dominer gleans further information about his past, but she has already realised that the rumours and the reality of the man she sees every day are vastly different.  For sure, Hawk is quick tempered and intensely cynical, but beneath that is a compassionate, honourable man who cares deeply for his family and who possesses a sharp, sometimes wicked sense of humour, and Euphemia – whose string of admirers have nicknamed her “The Unattainable” – can’t help falling for him.

The rumours surrounding the death of Hawk’s wife and son are so heinous that any attempts to refute them proved so impossible that he eventually gave up trying and retreated to his country estate, where he now lives with his two aunts, his cousin (who is his heir) and his younger sister, Stephanie.  Euphemia is unlike the women who so often set their caps at him – or rather, at his wealth; she’s funny, down-to-earth and doesn’t flinch at his bad moods and sharp tongue.  She used to follow the drum with her father, so it takes a lot to faze her; a characteristic which proves invaluable, especially in the later part of the story.

Their relationship is nicely done – they have cracking chemistry and their verbal exchanges are effervescent, simply bubbling with wit and attraction, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  Hawk’s name is mud and he has no wish to bring Mia down into the dirt with him – and it seems that while both admit they have finally found the love of their life, Hawk’s intransigence on this point looks set to part them.

Some Brief Folly is an enjoyable read that fairly bowls along and boasts an engaging cast, an interesting secondary romance and two very well suited central characters, but it’s a book of two halves.  The first – which concentrates on the romance – is wonderful, as Hawk and Mia strike sparks off each other and his true nature is revealed.  He’s still a bit of a grouch – with good reason, as we learn later – but it’s clear that it’s a surface crustiness and that underneath is a warm and caring man who has been dealt a tough hand.  The second half, though, is devoted more to solving the mystery of who is trying to kill Hawk and why, and while it’s well done, it’s a bit too busy, and there’s one plot point that’s been foreshadowed throughout which is perhaps a stretch of credulity too far.

The secondary characters in the story are very well drawn; scatty, accident-prone Aunt Dora is a hoot, Stephanie is a sweet, kind girl with a steel backbone, Colley (the heir) is a young man trying to find his place who worships his cousin even though they are frequently at odds, and Simon is a decent man caught between a rock and a hard place who has to make some hard choices.  His is the interesting direction I mentioned earlier; he’s married to a woman who married him for money and status who, when the book opens, has just given birth to a second child Simon can’t have fathered.  He wants a divorce and she won’t give him one – although the author has tripped up here, because I believe that at this time, if a man wanted to divorce his wife and had sufficient money and influence to do so, he didn’t need her to agree to it.  I won’t spoil the story, but Ms. Veryan doesn’t follow the obvious path here, and while that plotline isn’t completely successful, I nonetheless appreciated the attempt to do something a bit different.

Had the book continued along the lines of the first half, Some Brief Folly would have been an easy A grade/DIK, but the change of direction in the second half pulls it back somewhat.  Even so, it’s well-written and engaging, and certainly something I’d recommend to historical romance fans who don’t mind sacrificing steam in favour of witty banter and good ol’ sexual tension.

TBR Challenge: A Certain Magic by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Piers Westhaven and Alice Penhallow have always been close friends, even during their marriages to other partners. Now they are both widowed, and Piers, who needs an heir, has asked his friend to help him choose a new bride.

Alice has always been in love with him herself, but hiding her feelings has become second nature to her. As a boy, he dearly loved her too until his best friend announced his intention of courting and marrying her. Soon their mutual passion begins to break through the careful bonds each has imposed upon it just as Piers is being trapped into offering marriage to someone else.

Will honor permit them to speak the heart’s truth before it is too late? Or is it already too late for them–again?

Rating: B

A Certain Magic is one of thirty Regency Romances that Mary Balogh wrote for Signet between 1985 and 1998. Most of those have been out of print for some time, but fortunately for those of us who missed them when they first came out, a number of them are gradually making their way back into circulation as ebooks. Dating from 1991, A Certain Magic is a charming friends-to-lovers romance exhibiting the thoughtful characterisation and insight that are among the author’s trademarks.

Alice Penhallow has been a widow for two years. She loved her husband dearly, but is moving on with her life and is comfortably settled in Bath, where she has made new friends and enjoys the sights and activities the city has to offer. A summons from her brother sees her travelling to London and to the house she owns in Cavendish Square – much to her brother’s dismay as he had wanted her to move in while his wife and children are ill. But much as she loves her nieces and nephews, Allie sticks to her guns and insists on staying at her own house and going back and forth; she has no intention of dwindling into the role of widowed and put-upon aunt.

She is pleased when her oldest friend, Piers Westhaven pays a call on her as they haven’t seen each other in some time. Alice, Webster (her late husband), and Piers grew up together, and continued to be close friends even after Alice and Web married, paying regular visits to each other in the country where their estates were next door to each other. Not long after Alice married his best friend, Piers, too, got married, to a sweet young woman named Harriet who, sadly died in childbirth a number of years earlier. Now aged thirty-six, Piers has reluctantly decided it’s probably time for him to look about him for another wife, especially as he has recently learned he is heir to a barony for which he will, at some point, need to provide an heir.

Breezily, he informs Alice – Allie – of his intention, and almost jokingly talks about looking over the current crop of debutantes to see if one will suit him – but Allie is not amused. She is afraid Piers will repeat the mistake he made with Harriet, choosing someone young, timid and biddable, who will not suit him at all. There is also the fact that Allie is now able to admit to herself that she has loved Piers since she was fourteen; she loved her husband and their life together, but, given no sign that Piers would ever return her feelings, she married Web and subjugated her feelings for Piers into friendship. She admits to being the tiniest bit jealous at the idea of Piers taking a wife – but more importantly, she wants him to be happy and knows a schoolroom miss will make him miserable.

Allie has no idea that Piers is as much in love with her now as he has been for the last fifteen years. He fell for her when she was just fifteen, but by then, Web had made his determination to marry her known, and being an honourable chap, Piers backed off and never let either of his dearest friends know the truth. He married Harriet in an unsuccessful attempt to forget Allie, and still carries a burden of guilt over her death; if she hadn’t been pregnant, she wouldn’t have died, but worse, he never really loved her and he can’t forgive himself for it.

Unlike so many heroes in his situation, Piers isn’t your typical grumpy, brooding sort, and instead, buries his deeper feelings beneath a blanket of conviviality and general good humour. He’s always ready with a joke or bon mot and is never serious – although Allie knows that about him and she is the one person with whom he ever drops the façade. Unfortunately, his tendency to look for the ridiculous in pretty much everything around him leads to make a huge mistake; one of the current crop of debutantes is the granddaughter of a cit who wants to secure a titled husband for her. Piers is handsome, wealthy and relatively young (albeit twice the girl’s age) and Mr. Borden has him firmly in his sights. Piers, who is amused by the man’s gaucherie and his stories of How I Made My Fortune in Fish, fails to see the trap being set for him until it’s too late.

I’ll admit that Piers’ willful blindness is a bit hard to swallow; he’s far from stupid and he knows he’s playing with fire, but in spite of his own knowledge and Allie’s warnings, he just can’t stop himself from doing things he knows are unwise – although I suspect he is still somehow beating himself up about his first wife and deep down, feels he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

But I enjoyed the book in spite of that niggle. It’s not a flashy story; nothing much happens other than that we follow these two people as they try to work out whether it’s worth risking years of friendship in order to see if there’s a chance there could be something more between them. Both Allie and Piers are likeable, attractive and mature characters (he’s thirty-six, she’s thirty) who have a wealth of shared experience behind them as well as a shared sense of humour. They obviously know each other extremely well and like each other a great deal; they banter back and forth quite beautifully and their friendship is wonderfully written. But the author also imbues their exchanges with a palpable sense of longing which grows as the story progresses, creating a quiet, gentle and touching love story that left this reader with the warm fuzzies.

“There has to be mutual respect and liking, a mutuality of mind, a companionship, a friendship.”

“And that is it? That is all?” he asked, smiling at the top of her head.

“And something else,” she said quietly. “Something in addition to all those things. Something that words cannot express. A certain magic.”

The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From exotic sandstone palaces… 

Sick of tragedy, done with rebellion, Emmaline Martin vows to settle quietly into British Indian society. But when the pillars of privilege topple, her fiancé’s betrayal leaves Emma no choice. She must turn for help to the one man whom she should not trust, but cannot resist: Julian Sinclair, the dangerous and dazzling heir to the Duke of Auburn.

To the marble halls of London… 

In London, they toast Sinclair with champagne. In India, they call him a traitor. Cynical and impatient with both worlds, Julian has never imagined that the place he might belong is in the embrace of a woman with a reluctant laugh and haunted eyes. But in a time of terrible darkness, he and Emma will discover that love itself can be perilous — and that a single decision can alter one’s life forever.

Destiny follows wherever you run. 

A lifetime of grief later, in a cold London spring, Emma and Julian must finally confront the truth: no matter how hard one tries to deny it, some pasts cannot be disowned…and some passions never die.

Rating: A

I read The Duke of Shadows for the first time some years ago – before I started reviewing – and I remember being blown away by the quality of the writing, the richness of the setting and the passion and intensity of the romance.  I don’t get much time for re-reading these days, but I decided one was in order prior to reading and reviewing The Sins of Lord Lockwood (Lockwood is a major – and very intriguing – secondary character in The Duke of Shadows), and I was once again awed by the author’s talent and this wonderful book which was, incredibly, her début.  As I didn’t write a review the first time around, I’m going to do that now.

It is 1857 and the British have ruled India – by fair means or foul (mostly foul) – for many years.  Trouble is brewing, but for the majority of the British contingent, who are unable to conceive that anything could challenge the might of the Empire, it’s business as usual and continued obliviousness to the rumblings of disquiet around them. Only one man among their number dares to posit that the country teeters on the brink of revolt and that British lives may soon be endangered – but he is derided and his views dismissed, even though he is an English peer.  Julian Sinclair, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is one quarter Indian which makes him someone who lives on the fringes of both English and Indian society.  His Indian blood renders him ‘not quite the thing’ among the insular, rule-bound English, who look on him with disdain and suspicion in spite of his being the heir to a dukedom – while his English blood causes the same reaction among his Indian family.

Emmaline – Emma – Martin was travelling to India accompanied by her parents in order to marry her fiancé, an officer in the East India Company, when tragedy struck. Their ship was wrecked and Emma is one of the few survivors.  The death of her parents – which she witnessed – has, naturally, affected her profoundly, but of more concern to Delhi society is the fact that she was rescued and transported to her destination on a ship full of rough sailors, so her reputation is now irretrievably tarnished.  Emma’s fiancé, Marcus Lindley is handsome and charming, but as Emma has known for some time, does not believe in confining his ‘charms’ solely to his betrothed.  Meeting him again for the first time in years, the scales fall from Emma’s eyes completely, and she sees him for what he is; arrogant, spiteful, dismissive of her intelligence and clearly only interested in her dowry.  Emma, a spirited and determined young woman, means to break things off with him as soon as she can.

Emma and Julian Sinclair meet at the party being held to celebrate her engagement, where they quickly enter into a wryly humorous conversation and declare themselves to be the black sheep of their respective families. Emma doesn’t know who this intriguing, darkly handsome guest is at first, until she is steered away by Marcus who did not trouble to hide his animosity towards the other man.  Marcus criticises Emma for speaking with Julian, telling her that he is pretty much a social outcast owing to his mixed blood – at which point she realises he is Marcus’ cousin, and that Marcus detests him because Julian is next in line to inherit the dukedom Marcus believes should be his.

After this initial meeting, we witness the slow awakening of attraction between Julian and Emma, two social misfits who gradually discover that they have more in common with each other than with those around them.  When Julian’s dire predictions come true and Delhi erupts into mutiny and violence, he manages to get Emma away, and the pair head to Sapnagar, from whence Emma can make her way back to England.  Ms. Duran does an outstanding job here of building a beautifully tender, passionate and intense emotional connection between the couple as they travel through burned-out villages and battle sites along their journey to safety.  The descriptions of the landscape are wonderfully vivid, the pacing is superb and the romantic and sexual chemistry between Julian and Emma just leaps off the page.  There is no question whatsoever that these people are kindred spirits and meant to be together – but fate has other plans, and it’s not until the second part of the book (set four years later) that we discover the truth behind the lies and unwarranted interference that cause both of them so much heartbreak.

I really don’t want to say much more about the plot from here on in; things get dark and angsty, and it’s obvious that Emma is still suffering the effects of her ordeals.  She is filled with rage and feelings of betrayal and is determined not to allow herself to fall for Julian again given the magnitude of his deception; and Julian, who has somewhat reluctantly picked up the pieces of his life (and is now the Duke of Auburn) is truly knocked-for-six by Emma’s sudden and completely unexpected appearance in London. Misunderstandings lie heavily between them and fortunately Ms. Duran doesn’t allow them to go on for too long; yet even after Emma learns the truth (that Julian didn’t betray or deceive her), she is still unwilling to risk her heart again and is determined to leave England to pursue her artistic studies in Italy.  While I understand that Emma is suffering from what we’d probably recognise today as PTSD, I did find her insistence on continually rejecting Julian to be the one discordant note in what is otherwise an outstanding novel.  Julian – who has carried a huge burden of guilt from their time in India – realises that what Emma really needs is a friend, someone to talk to who shared many of her experiences, and he sets out to be just that.  Gradually, he is able to break down her resistance and show her that he will always be there for her

The Duke of Shadows is an incredibly well-crafted, complex and powerful story that gripped me from first page to last and isn’t one I’m likely to forget in a hurry.  The author does a fabulous job of depicting the narrow-mindedness, prejudice and cultural insensitivity that dominated the society of the British Raj, and her descriptions of places and events are incredibly vivid, putting the reader right in the centre of the picture.  I’ll admit to being slightly less taken with the second part of the book, and to finding Emma on the verge of becoming unlikeable, but it’s testament to the author’s skill that I was able to understand her pain and her anger even as I didn’t like what it was doing to her and to Julian.  Ms. Duran’s portrayal of a young woman who has experienced more tragedy in her life than anyone should have to is superbly multi-faceted; Emma evokes the reader’s sympathy while retaining a steely determination that has clearly supported her in dark times but which could also prove to be her own worst enemy.

Julian has been on my list of top romance heroes ever since I read the book the first time, and I’m pleased to say he’s still there.  He’s gorgeous, clear-sighted, compassionate and deeply honourable; and when it comes to Emma he’s most insightful and understanding. He isn’t going to give up on her or let her give up on them, and his patience is justly rewarded.

At a time when the market is simply flooded with predictable, anachronistic wallpaper historical romances, it’s a real pleasure to read something like this, a shining example of what can be achieved in the genre.  The Duke of Shadows is, in spite of the small reservations I have expressed, a fantastic read full of warmth, tenderness, humour, pathos and, at times, emotion so raw that it’s almost painful.  If you’ve never read it – grab a copy now.  If you have and haven’t found time to re-read it, then maybe it’s time to remind yourself just how great historical romance can be in the hands of an author as talented as Meredith Duran.

TBR Challenge: A Song Begins (Warrender Saga #1) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unknown benefactor had sufficient faith in Anthea Benton’s singing voice to pay for her training under the celebrated operatic conductor, Oscar Warrender. She was ecstatic, but her joy was short-lived when she came face to face with the great man. Cold and forbidding, he proved to be a hard taskmaster. She felt her dreams can be coming true… but would she be tough enough to work under such and exacting taskmaster?

Rating: B

A Song Begins is the first in Mary Burchell’s thirteen-book Warrender Saga, which was originally and published between 1965 and 1985.  All the novels in the series take place in the high-pressure world of the classical concert hall and opera house circuit; many of the characters are top-flight musicians – singers, pianists, conductors – and it’s very clear, even though I’ve as yet read only this opening entry, that the author really knew her stuff.  As someone who worked in the classical music business for a number of years, and as an opera lover, I really appreciated Ms. Burchell’s attention to detail, her knowledge about and obvious love of the music itself and her insight into what it takes to sing those roles and make it in such a fiercely competitive arena.

The story is a fairly simple one.  Anthea Benson is an aspiring singer who lives in a small, provincial town, and when the story opens, has been told by her teacher that she has learned everything she can and now needs to go to London to train with someone who can take her further and help her embark upon a professional career.  Moving to London and all that it entails requires money Anthea doesn’t have; but when she learns that the local TV company is mounting a talent competition at the Town Hall things start looking up.  The winner will receive a cash prize – enough for Anthea to go to London  –  and she is optimistic about her chances. She’s not conceited but she doesn’t suffer from false modesty, either; she knows she has a great voice but also realises she’s got a lot to learn. That sort of self-awareness and confidence is essential in someone trying to make it as a performer, and  Ms. Burchell gets that aspect of her character just about right – it’s one of the things I most liked about Anthea as a heroine.

Anthea makes it to the last four entrants – only to have her hopes dashed by the arrogant, world-renowned conductor, Oscar Warrender, who pretty much forces his fellow judges to choose a different winner.  Anthea is furious at his high-handedness and deeply upset; she berates him to a close friend, calling him an arrogant, self-satisfied beast who doesn’t really care about art or music or artists or anything but himself.

A few days later, however, Anthea is stunned when her teacher receives a letter from Oscar Warrender informing her that he has been asked to undertake Anthea’s training by someone who heard and was impressed by her at the competition.  Anthea can’t believe it – Warrender is widely accounted a musical genius and she can’t help but wonder what could have induced him to want to take her on.  He’s also odious, but ultimately, there’s no denying he knows what he’s doing and that studying with him will provide the best possible start to Anthea’s career.

Apprehensive and excited, Anthea travels to London and to her appointment with the great man.  Here, he tells her that he had deliberately prevented her winning the competition because if she had, she’d have found herself in the spotlight for a few years during which she’d ruin her voice and that he had determined to prevent it.  Naturally, Anthea fumes at his assumption that she would have taken that path even as she is focusing on his description of her as having a splendid lyric [soprano] voice.

This scene more or less sets the tone for their interactions throughout the book.  Warrender is overbearing and brutally honest, but just avoids being an alpha-hole because there’s the sense that he’s asking nothing of Anthea that he hasn’t done or wouldn’t ask of himself.  In the style of many an older romance, this is very much the heroine’s story; she’s our narrator and we never get the hero’s PoV, yet Mary Burchell is able to define Warrender so well by his words and actions; she conveys his passion for music and for his craft through the intensity of his manner, and very skilfully shows the truth of his feelings for Anthea  in the things he says and does that she doesn’t quite notice or interpret correctly.   He’s an odd mix of Simon Cowell and Svengali (!) – although he reminds me most of Boris Lermontov, the character played by Anton Walbrook in the film The Red Shoes.  The heroine in that was a ballerina rather than an opera singer of course, but many of the dictats issued by Oscar Warrender reminded me of Lermontov; there’s a scene in which he drags Anthea away from a late night out, admonishing her that “… a singer’s life is a strict and dedicated one.  Late hours and nightclubs are not for you and the sooner you learn that fact the better.“  But he also – on occasion – shows a surprising tenderness and concern, heaping yet more confusion upon Anthea, who finds attraction creeping up on her; his strong hands fascinate her, his touch sets her pulse a-flutter…  and his completely unexpected kisses are utterly bewildering.

It would have been easy to have depicted Anthea as a bit of a doormat, cowering at the great man’s words and suffering for her art, but she is nothing of the sort.  It’s true that she does mostly end up going along with Warrender’s ‘instructions’, but she does it out of a recognition that no matter that he’s being high-handed, everything he does is because he wants to nurture her talent and develop her as an artist – which is what Anthea wants most in the world.  She questions him and challenges him and makes clear what she thinks of him – but he also inspires and enthuses her in a way no-one ever has, and his imperious manner only makes her all the more determined to prove herself.

Yet this is more than a romance between master and pupil.  In a truly lovely moment near the end, the author fully brings home Anthea and Warrender’s ‘rightness’ for one another in a wonderful moment of emotional bonding and mutual need; and the final scene clearly shows readers that this is a couple whose relationship is built on very strong foundations.

I could say so much more about the workings of this story – as I said at the outset, I’ve experienced the world of classical music and musicians first-hand – and while this book was written some thirty years before I entered that world, so much of it felt familiar.  I’ve sometimes been a little wary of reading romances featuring music and musicians – in some books I’ve read, the authors just haven’t known how to go about it properly – but that isn’t the case here because Ms. Burchell’s love for and opera and understanding of what it means to be an artist shines through on every page.

I enjoyed A Song Begins very much, in spite of some niggles over the hero’s behaviour – which was probably not unusual for romances written in the 1960s.  At least he’s an alpha because he’s hugely talented, highly competent and well respected, and not because he’s handsome (which he is), built like a male model and has slept his way through half of Europe!  And as I said earlier, I never doubted his feelings for Anthea and by the end, their relationship has definitely evened up somewhat. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more books in the series.


As an aside, I did a Google search to find out a bit more about Mary Burchell (a pen name for Ida Cook) and discovered many interesting things about her life, not least of which was how the great love of opera she shared with her sister led to both ladies being among the most effective British transporters of Jews out of Germany between 1937 and the outbreak of war. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, July 2007 – Rescue Mission by Louise Carpenter.)

TBR Challenge: Dissident (Bellator Saga #1) by Cecilia London


This title is available FREE on Amazon

“I will always be with you…”

Rising Democratic star Caroline Gerard hasn’t had an easy year. After losing her husband, she is raising two small children alone while trying to navigate the tricky and sometimes shallow halls on Capitol Hill. A string of nasty speeches has her scrambling to apologize to any number of candidates, including newly elected Republican Jack McIntyre. Falling in love again is the last thing on her mind.

Jack McIntyre might have a reputation as a playboy, but he has his sights set solely on his new colleague. Can he break through Caroline’s grief and capture her heart?

Told mostly in flashback and set against a chilling fascist backdrop, Dissident is a rollercoaster ride of political intrigue, passionate contemporary romance, and undying love.

One of my fellow AAR reviewers, Kristen Donnelly, has raved about Cecilia London’s Bellator Saga – and given that I like a nice, juicy political thriller, I decided pretty much at the beginning of the year that Dissident, the first book in the series would be my recommended read this year.

I’ll start out by saying that the saga is a serial in which one storyline runs through all six books in the series; rather like a TV mini-series, all the books need to be read in order for the reader to experience the entirety of the story, so if you’re planning on having a look at this one, be prepared to be in it for the long haul.  I think each book ends on a cliffhanger (which is clearly stated at Amazon); this one definitely does and I’m sufficiently invested in the story and characters (especially the two principals) to want to read more.

The story opens in the present as we follow a couple – a husband and wife we learn are named Jack and Caroline – as they run through the woods in the attempt to evade the soldiers who are pursuing them.  Both are injured, but Caroline is clearly in a very bad way, and she urges Jack to continue without her, telling him that the information they have risked so much to gather is more important than either of them.  It’s clear that these two are devoted to one another and that it costs Caroline a lot to make the suggestion and even more for Jack to hear it.  Even though we’re just a few pages into the book at this point, it’s quite devastating when Jack wrenches himself away and prepares to do as Caroline asks, saying:

“I will come back for you, Caroline.  Understand?  I promise I will come back.  I’m not giving up.  I will find someone I can trust and I will come back.”

As it’s the first in a series, Dissident is mostly set-up, focusing on the two central characters, the recently widowed Democratic Congresswoman Caroline Gerard and Jack McIntyre, a multi-millionaire Republican with a reputation for being an arsehole.  Having read Kristen’s reviews of two of the later books in the series, it’s clear that the author is going to take us to some dark and uncomfortable places, so it’s important that we get to know and understand these individuals given that they are our windows into the story, and that the relationship that evolves between them is its bedrock.

Over five years earlier, Jack and Caroline got off to a rocky start when she bad-mouthed him to the media, calling him a “millionaire playboy trying to buy his way into Congress.”. Her only defence is that at that time, she was in a very bad place; she had recently lost her husband and had thrown herself into work to compensate, making a number of bad decisions of which spouting off about would-be Congressman McIntyre was one.  Months later, she hopes to apologise to him in person, but he doesn’t want to hear it and brushes her off abruptly, which Caroline thinks she probably deserves.  But later that same night, Jack relents and the two of them strike up a conversation which leads to the development of a very close friendship which is terribly important to them both.

Ms. London writes this growing relationship incredibly well; Jack and Caroline are mature characters (he’s forty-seven, she’s thirty-six) and their life experience shows, lending a real sense of authenticity to their interactions, which are deep, playful, witty and insightful by turns.  Their gradual falling-in-love is superbly and subtly depicted; it’s obvious that Jack is head-over-heels fairly early on but recognises that he shouldn’t rush things, while Caroline is a little more hesitant to become romantically involved.  She’s warm, funny and utterly devoted to her young daughters as well as being the sort of person who fights for the underdog and wants to make a difference.  Jack comes across as an arrogant arse when we – along with Caroline – first meet him, but it’s soon clear that isn’t really who he is, and I loved the way that as their friendship progresses,  Caroline comes to see him for the good man he is beneath the highly polished exterior.  Their romance is beautifully done and nicely steamy (Jack is one hot silver fox!) and the emotional connection they share is very deeply rooted and one which, I suspect, is going to prove a lifeline for both of them as the story progresses.

While something like seventy-five percent of the book takes place five years in the past and concentrates on the growing romance between Jack and Caroline, there are a few  present day chapters scattered strategically throughout Dissident showing us what happens after Jack leaves Caroline in the woods.  (The fact that he leaves her is one of the reasons this character-building story is essential; we need to know the strength of Jack’s feelings for Caroline in order to realise just how important the information he is carrying must be if he is prepared to leave her to an unknown fate to keep it safe.)  It’s clear that all is not well in America; the information I’ve gleaned has come mostly from reading reviews, so I won’t spoil it here, save to say that mentions of secession and martial law and the accusations of treason levelled at Caroline definitely tell us we’re not in Kansas any more.

There are a few writing hiccups and the odd place where the pace flags a bit, but for the most part, this is a strongly-written and well-conceived tale of political intrigue that sucked me in from the start and kept me eagerly turning the pages.  Jack and Caroline are engaging characters, their romance is believable and passionate, and the author has started the ball rolling on what promises to be an epic story.

I’m definitely in it for the long haul.