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.

Simply Perfect (Simply #4) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

simply-perfect

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Tall, dark, and exquisitely sensual, he is the epitome of male perfection. Not that Claudia Martin is looking for a lover. Or a husband. As owner and headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, she long ago resigned herself to a life without love. Until Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough, arrives unannounced and tempts her to toss away a lifetime of propriety for an affair that can only lead to ruin.

Joseph has his own reasons for seeking Claudia out. Instantly, irresistibly attracted to the dedicated teacher, he embarks on a plan of seduction that leaves them both yearning for more. But as heir to a prestigious dukedom, Joseph is expected to carry on his family’s legacy. And Claudia knows she has no place in his world.

Now that world is about to be rocked by scandal. An arranged marriage, a secret that will shock the town, and a man from Claudia’s past conspire to drive the lovers apart. But Joseph is determined to make Claudia his at any cost. Even if that means defying convention and breaking every rule for a love that is everything he has ever wanted – a love that is perfection itself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Simply Perfect closes out Mary Balogh’s Simply Quartet of books, each of which takes as its heroine a school teacher from Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath. Our heroine here is the formidable Miss Martin herself, a confirmed spinster in her mid-thirties who has worked hard to achieve success and who loves what she does. But the course she has mapped out for herself is challenged when Joseph Fawcitt, the Marquess of Attingsborough arrives at the school, introducing himself as a friend of Susanna, Viscountess Whitleaf (Simply Magic), and offering to escort Claudia and two of her older pupils to London, where the younger ladies are to meet with prospective employers.

The marquess is about Claudia’s own age and is as handsome as he is charming, asking sensible questions and making complimentary comments about the school and its facilities. But Claudia is unimpressed. Her own experiences with the aristocracy have taught her that its members are haughty and uncaring, with no thought for anything but their own consequence and desires, and she absolutely wants to refuse the marquess’ offer and have nothing to do with him. But he has come at Susanna’s request, and Claudia does not want to be rude to her friend so she accepts Attingsborough’s escort.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Someone to Love (Westcott #1) by Mary Balogh

someone-to-love

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family – including the daughter no one knew he had . . .

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna . . .

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.

Rating: B+

I don’t know where the time is going, but it seems hardly any has elapsed between turning the last page of Only Beloved, the final novel in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series – and reading Someone to Love, the first story in her new, eight-part series about the Westcott family. The story revolves around an orphan who discovers she is an heiress, and tells of her interactions with her new family and the highs and lows contained therein. Its underlying themes are, surely to do with the importance of self and family; about remaining true to who one believes oneself to be under even the most difficult of circumstances, and the importance of having those around us who love, understand and comfort us. These unwritten truths of the human condition are exactly the sorts of things that Mary Balogh explores so well within the pages of all her books; she isn’t much given to melodrama or high-adventure, preferring to work upon the smaller canvas of her characters’ experiences and emotions – good and bad – in ways that are relatable and familiar to readers.

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has recently died and has left his heir to the guardianship of Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby. After the reading of the late earl’s will, his widow asks the family solicitor for his help on a delicate matter. She knows that her late husband had been supporting an illegitimate child born before their marriage, and she would like to make some kind of final settlement upon her. Lady Riverdale asks the family solicitor to seek out this young woman and then to make her and Avery aware of the results of the search.

Anna Snow is twenty-five years old, and has lived almost all her life in the orphanage in Bath at which she is now a teacher. She enjoys her life and her job, she has good friends around her and is content. Completely out of the blue, she receives a letter from a solicitor she has never heard of, informing her that he is sending a chaise to take her to London for a few days. Anna is puzzled, having no idea what awaits her, but arranges a leave of absence from the school and travels to the capital with the companion provided for her.

Of course, Anna is the late Earl of Riverdale’s daughter, but unfortunately for the family, the solicitor’s inquiries have revealed much more than her identity and location, and this information is going to change the lives of the Westcott family forever.

For the child believed to be a by-blow is actually legitimate, the issue of the earl’s marriage to the daughter of a country parson.  His wedding to Lady Riverdale took place a few months before the death of his wife, meaning the later marriage was bigamous, and the son and daughters who believed themselves to be members of the nobility are nothing of the sort.  The repercussions of this discovery are huge.  The earldom and entailed property pass to the viscount’s cousin, Alexander, who has absolutely no desire to be an earl, far preferring his life as a country squire; the eldest Westcott daughter is jilted by her fiancé and the family is suddenly presented with Anna Snow – really Lady Anastasia Westcott – sole heiress to the earl’s unentailed property and almost the entirety of his fortune.

The Duke of Netherby watches all this from the sidelines, presenting a calm voice of reason amid all the turmoil.  He is the first person to appreciate that Anna’s pleasant, demure manner hides a steel backbone, and he is surprised to find that he rather likes and admires her for it.  He is one of those archetypally ennui-laden aristocrats often found gracing the pages of historical romance; he doesn’t like to exert himself overmuch and pays great attention to his clothes, but he’s sharp as a tack and far from a fop.  Unlike the typical romance hero however, he’s not tall, dark and handsome; he’s of average height, slightly built and almost angelically beautiful, and yet he possesses an aura of power held in check and there’s an almost overwhelming self-confidence and masculinity about him that means that he’s the centre of attention in any room he enters and that people generally fall over themselves to please him.  He’s also witty and charming to those he allows close enough to discern that about him, and the relationship that develops between him and Anna is an unlikely friendship underpinned by a completely unexpected mutual attraction.

There is quite a lot going on in this story, and I admit to having been just a little bit overwhelmed by all the different family members and connections that are introduced.  I suppose that this is because Someone to Love is the first in a series and there is a lot to be set up, but I still had to stop a few times to remind myself as to who was who.  The two principal characters are well drawn and Avery, in particular, is very intriguing, especially given he is so unlike the standard romance novel hero.  Being small and somewhat feminine in appearance as a child, he was horribly bullied when he was younger, and although he tried everything he could to fight it, nothing worked.  But a chance encounter in his teens helped him to overcome the bullies and I really appreciated his unusual backstory and loved learning how he gained his incredible self-possession.

Anna is perhaps a little too good to be true, but I liked her for her insistence on retaining her own sense of identity in the face of her sudden change in situation and enormous external pressure.   Faced with a group of very determined ladies of the ton, she recognises their superior knowledge of society and its conventions and allows herself to be guided by them – but only up to a point.  Her delight at the discovery that she has a family, something she’s dreamed of all her life, is bittersweet, given that family’s reaction to her, but I admired her ability to have empathy for them, even when their actions were deliberately hurtful.

The romance is fairly low-key but perfectly in character for both Anna and Avery, who are not people given to histrionics or great flights of passion. As it turns out, both are looking for Someone to Love – even Avery, who has cultivated aloofness and detachment to such an extent that he finds them difficult to shed, and I enjoyed the glimpse Ms. Balogh gives us into what happens to a new marriage after the honeymoon period and the difficulties faced by a fledgling husband and wife in adapting to their new state.

I enjoyed Someone to Love very much, and I am looking forward to learning more about Harry, Alex, Camilla, and the other characters introduced in the course of the story. Once again, Mary Balogh’s ability to create interesting characters and plotlines shines through, and her great strength in exploring the emotions and motivations of those characters is much in evidence.  My final grade takes into account the fact that the book suffers somewhat from “set-up-itis”, but it’s nonetheless a strong start to a new series from this much loved author.

Unforgiven (Horsemen Trilogy #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

unforgiven

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Woodfall and Hayes families have been bitter rivals for nearly a century. Now, after eight years, Kenneth returns home and realizes his underlying love for Miss Moira Hayes. For her, he is willing to forget the past. But can she?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

It’s a brave author who decides to write a novel in which one of the central characters is infuriatingly stubborn, who frequently, as the saying goes, cuts off her nose to spite her face, and who, because of those things is often downright unlikeable. In Unforgiven (originally published in 1998), the second book in her Horseman trilogy, Mary Balogh shows herself to be one such author, as she introduces us to Miss Moira Hayes, a young woman who is so intractable and determined to protect herself and her emotions that she almost loses her chance at happiness with the man she (won’t admit she) loves.

Indeed, for most of the book, Moira professes to hate Kenneth Woodfall, believing him to have been responsible, albeit indirectly, for the death of her brother some years earlier. Thus, his return to his Cornwall estate following his years of army service is an extremely unwelcome shock.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.