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.”

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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!

Someone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life . . .

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate-and oh-so-dashing-earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past . . .

Rating: A-

Someone to Wed is the third book in Mary Balogh’s series following the fortunes of the Westcott family as its members struggle to put their lives back together after the revelation of a long-buried family secret impacts all of them in many different ways.  The author once again proves herself to be incredibly skilled at examining the detail and minutiae of relationships – both romantic and familial – and in her ability to make her characters’ dilemmas and insecurities feel understandable and realistic.  These aren’t ‘flashy’ books; the focus is very much on the characters and how they adjust to the fact that the lives they had imagined for themselves are suddenly taken away – and how they come to understand that perhaps the very thing they have regarded as a disaster might just have changed their lives for the better.

When, after his death, it was discovered that Humphrey Westcott, the Earl of Riverdale had married his countess while he was already married to someone else, the consequences were far reaching.  His ‘wife’ retired from society to reside with her brother and took to using her maiden name again, and their three children – two daughters and a son – were declared illegitimate, meaning that the supposed heir, Harry, a happy-go-lucky young man in his early twenties, could no longer inherit the earldom.  That honour now falls to Alexander Westcott, the late earl’s nephew, although it’s an honour Alexander could have done without.

When we first met Alex in Someone to Love, he had spent the better part of the last five years working on making good his family finances and setting his Kent estate, Riddings Park, to rights.  A young man who takes his responsibilities very seriously, Alex was at long last looking forward to settling into the life of a country gentleman and had expressed his intention of looking about him for a wife, hoping to find a woman with whom he could happily share his life.  But his dreams of love and a quiet life of obscurity were shattered when he became the Earl of Riverdale. He has inherited the entailed properties that come with the title without being left even the smallest amount of the money necessary to run them, meaning that Alex is now faced with the prospect of marrying for money rather than for love as he’d hoped.

When he receives an invitation to tea from his reclusive neighbour, Miss Wren Heyden, Alex is surprised on arrival to discover that he is the only guest, and even more surprised when Miss Heyden suggests that they are both in a position to offer the other something they want.  She is a shrewd, intelligent and very wealthy businesswoman who successfully runs the glassworks she inherited from her uncle, but owing to the birthmark that covers half her face, she considers herself disfigured and has lived the life of a hermit.  But she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life alone; she wants marriage and a family (and she’s not too coy about her desire to experience sexual passion) and decides to – in effect – buy herself a husband.  Alex is stunned (and not a little put out) by the offer, but he can’t deny that marrying Miss Heyden would solve his financial problems and enable him to put right everything that needs putting right at Brambledean Court.  Yet even so, he knows she isn’t his only option.  In spite of his lack of fortune, he’s very eligible – he’s young, titled and attractive – and there are enough wealthy cits looking to land a title for their daughters that he wouldn’t have any trouble finding a bride among them.  And while Wren’s birthmark doesn’t really worry him, he senses she’s broken somehow, that her “defensive, slightly mocking manner” and her “surface coldness” and self-imposed isolation are the result of emotional issues that go far beyond her face – and he isn’t sure he wants to deal with them.

After a few meetings, Wren and Alex agree that they will not suit and part ways.  Alex returns to London and his family, and gets down to the serious business of bride-hunting while Wren goes to Staffordshire to visit her glassworks.  Yet as Wren immerses herself in work and Alex sets about courting a suitable young lady, both find their thoughts straying to the other, and when, to Alex’s astonishment, Wren appears unexpectedly in London, he realises he’s happy to see her and had missed her.  It’s a new beginning for them both.  Alex has come to terms with the fact that Wren is clearly hiding the truth about her childhood, but feels fairly sure that, given time, she will confide in him, while Wren comes to understand that, should she actually become the Countess of Riverdale, her life as a recluse must end.  She realises the foolishness of her hopes to marry and continue to live in obscurity and, with the help and support of Alex and his family, all of whom treat her with warmth and respect, begins to come out of her shell and to live her life – which is by no means easy for her.  All her life she has hidden her face and her secrets, and it takes a huge amount of courage and determination to set aside years of conditioning and to deal with her fears of being seen in public as well as to believe that people can see past the mark on her face.  Throughout it all, Alex encourages and supports her with a growing sense of pride, even pulling her back occasionally when he senses she’s pushing herself too hard.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and easy to relate to.  There’s a danger that Alex – intuitive, responsible, gorgeous and charming – could come across as too good to be true, but there’s an honesty and depth to him that counteracts that, making him seem more human.  For instance, while his admission that he is put off by Wren’s emotional baggage might make him seem somewhat selfish, I applauded him for both his insight and his truthfulness.  And he gets extra Brownie Points for the way he owns up to being offended that a woman would propose a match based on monetary consideration, while it would have been perfectly acceptable had the boot been on the other foot and actually takes the time to think things through.  Wren is perhaps more difficult to warm to, but that’s intentional; she is self-assured and independent when it comes to business, but her insecurities and lack of social interaction make her seem aloof and prickly, although as soon as the reader begins to understand the reasons for her awkwardness, it’s easy to sympathise with her and to cheer her on as she decides to take back her life with both hands.

As I said at the beginning, this is not a ‘flashy’ book, meaning there are no convoluted plot-twists or melodramatic developments.  Someone to Wed is a leisurely-paced, beautifully developed, character driven romance of the sort at which Mary Balogh excels, and I have no qualms about giving it a wholehearted recommendation.

In Celebration of June Is Audiobook Month

To mark June is Audiobook Month, I and my fellow AudioGals have been choosing some of our favourite audiobooks in our favourite genres, and this week it was my turn to choose my Top Five Historical Romance audios. Which wasn’t easy. Last week saw Kaetrin picking her Top Five Contemporary Romances, and the week before that, BJ chose her Top Five Urban Fantasy/Paranormal listens. There’s still time to enter the giveaway for earbuds and downloads – head over to AudioGals and scroll down to the bottom of this week’s post for details.

In the meantime… my Top Five.

I might as well say this right now. I am utterly HOPELESS at choosing favourites. The minute anyone says to me “what’s your favourite (something)?” my mind goes completely blank and I struggle to think of ANYthing, let alone the ones I’d rate above all others. Then after the initial panic has subsided, I can think of too many. But because, when it comes to audiobooks, I’m someone who always places the narrator ahead of the author in terms of importance when it comes to choosing the ones I want to listen to (sorry, authors!), choosing five audiobooks I think would be a good introduction to historical romance in audio for someone who wants to take the plunge but doesn’t know where to start didn’t prove too difficult. My choices are therefore selected by narrator first; and as such, feature my “Fab Four” – four narrators I would quite happily listen to if they were reading the phone book.

You can read the rest of my list at AudioGals.

Slightly Dangerous (Bedwyn Saga #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

All of London is abuzz over the imminent arrival of Wulfric Bedwyn, the reclusive, cold-as-ice Duke of Bewcastle, at the most glittering social event of the season. Some whisper of a tragic love affair. Others say he is so aloof and passionless that not even the greatest beauty could capture his attention. But on this dazzling afternoon, one woman did catch the duke’s eye – and she was the only female in the room who wasn’t even trying.

Christine Derrick is intrigued by the handsome duke…all the more so when he invites her to become his mistress. What red-blooded woman wouldn’t enjoy a tumble in the bedsheets with a consummate lover – with no strings and no questions asked. An infuriating lady with very definite views on men, morals, and marriage, Christine confounds Wulfric at every turn. Yet even as the lone wolf of the Bedwyn clan vows to seduce her any way he can, something strange and wonderful is happening. Now for a man who thought he’d never lose his heart, nothing less than love will do.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

In this final book in Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn series, the limelight at last turns to Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle, the eldest of the six Bedwyn siblings who, along with the Marquess of Dain, Sebastian St. Vincent and a handful of others, is one of historical romance’s best beloved and most unforgettable heroes. He’s been a strong secondary presence in the other books in the series and has come across as a rather forbidding man with a reputation for being extremely proper, arrogant and cold, able to wound at twenty paces simply by virtue of a raised quizzing glass and a disdainful look. In Slightly Dangerous, we discover more about what has made him into the man he is and watch him unravel a bit as he finally meets his match.

Now that his brothers and sisters are all happily settled and starting families of their own, Wulfric is at a loss. He has fulfilled the vow he made when he assumed the title to make sure that they were all well taken care of – and at the age of thirty-five, realises he is lonely. His London home feels empty and he doesn’t much like the idea of returning to his principal seat at Lindsey Hall for the summer because that will be empty, too. He is also mourning the recent death of his mistress of ten years, not because he was deeply in love with her, but because they had been comfortable together and he had cared for her. It is this loneliness that prompts him to accept an invitation to a house-party being held by Lord and Lady Renable, although it doesn’t take him long after his arrival to regret his decision. He feels badly out of step with most of the other guests, having very little in common with any of them, and is not amused when he discovers that several of the younger ladies are setting their caps at him. The only person in attendance who is close to him in age is the widowed daughter of a schoolmaster, Mrs. Christine Derrick, who, he has already observed, is ridiculously impulsive and has no idea of proper behaviour.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve. An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.

In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Slightly Wicked (Bedwyn Saga #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

slightly-wicked-audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With his laughing eyes and wild, rakish good looks, Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is a hard man to resist. To Judith Law, a woman in need of rescue when her stagecoach overturns, Rannulf is simply her savior, a heroic stranger she will reward with one night of reckless passion before she must become a companion to her wealthy aunt.

Imagine Judith’s shock when the same stranger turns out to be among England’s most eligible bachelors, and when he arrives at Harewood Grange to woo her cousin. Certainly, they had made no vows, no promises, but Rannulf never did forget his uninhibited lover – nor did she forget that one delicious night. And as scandal sets the household abuzz, Rannulf proposes a solution. But when Judith refuses to have him – in love or wedlock – Rannulf has only one choice: to wage a campaign of pure pleasure to capture the heart of the woman who has already won his.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

One of the many things I love about audiobooks is that they’re a great way for me to catch up with older titles that, with the best will in the world, I’m unlikely to get around to reading for at least the next ten years or more. Another great thing is that it’s such a treat when books you’ve really wanted to listen to are finally recorded and made available. Last year – at long last – Mary Balogh’s popular Slightly series (originally published between 2003 and 2004) was given the audio treatment, and thankfully, production company, Tantor audio, had the very good sense to employ the incredibly talented Rosalyn Landor as narrator.

Book two in the series, Slightly Wicked is a variation on the Cinderella trope and while it’s perhaps a little clichéd, I enjoyed it and was reminded of how a truly great narrator can elevate a story so that it ultimately transcends the sum of its parts.

Our hero is Lord Rannulf, brother to the Duke of Bewcastle and one of the six Bedwyn siblings. He is on his way to visit his ailing grandmother, Lady Beamish, at Grandmaison Park when he comes across an overturned coach and stops to see what is to be done. The weather is inclement and Rannulf is travelling alone, so all he can really do is ride to the nearest town or village and send help and transport for the passengers as quickly as possible. A man with an eye for the ladies, Rannulf quickly spots a lovely, red-headed woman among the group and offers to take her with him to the inn; after all, someone has to be able to give clear instructions to the rescue party.

The woman introduces herself as Claire Campbell, an actress on the London stage who is taking a bit of a break. Rannulf tells her he is Mr Ralph Bedard, and they set off, both of them feeling an intense spark of attraction to the other and Rannulf, especially, thinking that this lovely armful of curvy, warm woman will provide a satisfying diversion for the night.

But just as Rannulf is concealing his true identity, so is Claire, who is actually Miss Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished country parson. With her younger brother – who is their parents’ only son – living well beyond his means and beggaring his family in order to do so, Judith’s parents can no longer afford to support their whole family, so she is being sent to live with her aunt Effingham, where she will live out the rest of her life as an unpaid drudge with no prospects for love, marriage or a family of her own.  So when the chance is offered her to spend the night with an attractive, charming man who desires her intensely, and knowing she is unlikely to ever again have the opportunity to experience passion, she decides to take it.  Nobody will ever know, and it will be a memory she can cherish forever.

Of course, this is Romancelandia, so the idea that ‘nobody will ever know’ is doomed the moment it is thought or uttered.  Because of course, ‘Claire’ and ‘Ralph’ are destined to meet again in their true guises.

Rannulf is his grandmother’s heir and he loves her dearly, but she is very ill, and he knows that the one thing he can do to ease her mind before she dies is to find a wife and set up his nursery. He is planning to tell her during this visit that he is now ready to do just that.  Lady Beamish thinks that Julianne Effingham, the daughter of her neighbour might suit him, and Rannulf has no objections to offering for the girl if she proves agreeable.

When he escorts his grandmother to tea at nearby Harewood House, home of the Effinghams, Rannulf doesn’t at first take notice of the shabbily dressed woman who is obviously some sort of poor relation.  Her clothes are ill-fitting, her hair is completely covered by an ugly cap – but when their gazes inadvertently meet, he’s shocked to the core to recognise Claire Campbell.

Learning of Judith’s true identity and realising that she is the daughter of a gentleman, Rannulf knows he must do the honourable thing, and proposes marriage.  But Judith will have none of it; she has accepted her lot in life and that their fling was just that – and besides she doesn’t want to be anyone’s duty or to force a man to marry her.  Rannulf is surprised at her rejection, but accepts it, and tries to focus instead on courting the lady his grandmother has suggested.  The problem is that he can’t get Judith out of his mind or ignore the strength of the pull between them.

The story isn’t especially original, it’s true, but Ms. Balogh’s writing and characterisation is so strong that the familiarity of the plot doesn’t matter; what’s important is that the listener can feel the emotions experienced by the protagonists and understand their dilemmas.  Rannulf is perhaps a little too good to be true, but he does show personal growth during the story because by the end he’s ready to settle and assume the responsibilities of the estate he will soon inherit because he wants to, not because he has to.  Judith really has drawn life’s short straw; not only does she have to put up with the indignities heaped upon her by her awful relatives, she is going to have to watch the man she loves court her brattish cousin, and all of it through no fault of her own.  She’s stoic and resigned to her fate, and I enjoyed the way that, with some assistance from Rannulf, she gradually comes to realise that she’s worth more and to stand up for herself and what she wants.

Rosalyn Landor is, quite simply, the best narrator of historical romances around.  There are a few others who come close and whose narrations I enjoy very much, but she really is the perfect choice for Mary Balogh’s understated yet emotionally-charged prose.  Her performances are technically flawless; her pacing is spot on, she hits all the right emotional notes and her character differentiation is superb because there is never any question as to which character is speaking at any given point.  In the few scenes in this book which feature several male characters, it’s easy to distinguish between Rannulf, the jauntily voiced Alleyne and the far more serious – and imperious – Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle.  All the female characters are similarly individualised. Judith’s ‘dual personality’ is given two slightly different vocal inflections, her aunt is portrayed using a suitably unpleasant, nasal tone and her cousin, Julianne an appropriately higher pitched, whiny timbre.

But it’s not just Ms. Landor’s technical ability that continues to impress me.  She also gets right to the emotional heart of any given story, gets into the heads of the characters and clearly demonstrates her understanding of them and the journey they are undertaking. She’s a narrator who really understands what audiobook listeners want to hear when it comes to romance – and that’s not true of every narrator of romance out there.

While there are certainly a number of inconsistencies in the story – it’s quite difficult to accept Judith’s belief in her own unattractiveness, and the secondary plotline regarding the missing jewels is a little obvious, for example – I nonetheless enjoyed listening to Slightly Wicked, in no small part due to Rosalyn Landor’s excellent performance.  The remaining books in the series are set for release over the next few months, and I’m sure they will be equally entertaining.  I’ll certainly be snapping them up as soon as they become available.