My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.

Audio

I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.


As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

The Sins of Lord Lockwood (Rules for the Reckless #6) by Meredith Duran

This title may be purchased from Amazon

BACK FROM THE DEAD, AN EARL SEEKS VENGEANCE…

Liam Devaliant, Lord Lockwood, was born into a charmed life. Charismatic, powerful, and wild, he had the world at his feet—and one woman as his aim. His wedding to Anna was meant to be his greatest triumph. Instead, in a single moment, a wicked conspiracy robbed him of his future and freedom.

…BUT WILL HIS LONG-LOST COUNTESS PAY THE PRICE?

Four years later, Liam has returned from death with plans for revenge. Standing in his way, though, is his long-absent bride. Once, he adored Anna’s courage. Now it seems like a curse, for Anna refuses to fear or forget him. If she can’t win back Liam’s love, then she means at least to save his soul…no matter the cost.

Rating: A

It’s been a decade since Liam Devaliant, the Earl of Lockwood, stepped onto the pages of Meredith Duran’s début novel, The Duke of ShadowsHandsome, charming and enigmatic, Lockwood immediately captured my attention, the mention of his mysterious four year absence from society and his obvious discomfiture at the presence of his estranged wife clearly hiding a story begging to be told – and now here it is.  The Sins of Lord Lockwood is an intense, angsty story that is sometimes hard to read, but is nonetheless a compelling tale of a man’s struggle to find his place after having his life ripped away from him, and a painful portrait of a marriage rent asunder by hatred and greed.

Anna, Countess of Lockwood and Countess of Forth (a Scottish title she holds in her own right) has learned, second-hand, of the return to England of the husband who deserted her on their wedding night four years earlier – and she’s furious.  Furious that she was stupid enough to fall for him all those years ago, furious that he abandoned her, furious she’s heard nothing of him for four years – and furious he hasn’t bothered to tell her he’s back and she’s had to learn of it from the newspapers.

When his wife arrives unexpectedly at his – their – London town house, Liam realises he’s seriously miscalculated.  He had thought he would have at least another month before news of his return could have reached her at her home on the Isle of Rawsey – where she retreated after his disappearance – a month in which he could bring to fruition his plan to have his revenge upon the man responsible for having him kidnapped on his wedding night and bundled aboard a ship taking convicts to New South Wales. That man is Liam’s cousin, Stephen, the man with whom he’d grown up and played as a boy, and who he’d looked out for all their lives – but with no direct evidence against him, Liam has to play a careful, devious game behind the scenes. With the help of his friends Julian, Duke of Auburn, and Crispin Burke MP, Liam is putting an end to Stephen’s fraudulent businesses and strategically and systematically bringing his cousin to the brink of financial ruin.

Anna’s sudden appearance in London doesn’t simply make a ripple in the pond of Liam’s careful existence – it throws a large rock into the middle and almost drowns him in the resulting explosion of spray.  He doesn’t want to be reminded of the feelings he’d had for her or the man he had been, and he certainly doesn’t want her in harm’s way – but she’s having none of it. Anna will remain in London for as long as she wishes; she will live in their house, she will do as she pleases and Liam can go – or, rather return – to the devil … but not until after he has given her the only thing she wants from him – an heir to the earldom of Forth.  Lockwood might not want an heir to his title, but she wants one for hers, and he’s the only means by which she can obtain legitimate progeny.

It’s a nice piece of role reversal to have it be the woman need of an heir; historical romance is littered with stories in which the man marries in order to do his dynastic duty, but rarely have I read a story in which it’s the woman in that situation, so that makes for a refreshing change. But Sins of Lord Lockwood is so much more than a novel in which an alienated couple find each other again because of the need to procreate. It’s the story of two people who still care for each other, but who have been damaged in very different ways and must learn to accept themselves as they are and to allow themselves to love and be loved. Liam’s scars are dreadfully deep, both physically and emotionally; he has taken to hiding behind a variety of different façades in order to prevent those around him from seeing how truly and irrevocably broken he is, and he can’t bear the thought of enduring anyone’s pity – least of all his wife’s. And Anna, an independent, outspoken and no-nonsense young woman, whose pedigree and wealth mean that her ‘eccentricities’ are viewed benignly by society, carries emotional scars of her own that are buried so deeply that nobody could ever guess at them.

The story is, of course, based on a major misconception; Anna’s belief that Liam left her by choice – and he takes no action to contradict that assumption. He constantly evades Anna’s questions, letting her believe him to be nothing more than the heartless gold-digger she has clearly convinced herself he was all along, but Ms. Duran brilliantly counteracts that in a series of carefully placed flashback chapters that chart the development of Liam and Anna’s romance four years earlier. Anna, a great heiress and peeress in her own right needs to find a husband in order to secure the access rights to the Isle of Rawsey and the future of its inhabitants. An impoverished English earl is nowhere on her list of suitable husbands, yet the handsome, charming Earl of Lockwood somehow manages to disarm her and breeze past her defences. For his part, Liam has never met anyone like the Countess of Forth, and even though he knows he can have no chance with her – she’s far too shrewd to allow herself to be wooed for her money – he is very soon smitten with her intelligence and her indomitable spirit as well as her smile and lush figure. These chapters are simply beautiful as they show the younger, unburdened (or less burdened) Liam and Anna falling in love almost against their better judgements and entering into what they tell each other is a marriage for the sake of expediency – and which is clearly anything but.

Both principals are strong, stubborn, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, even at those times you itch to bang their heads together. Anna is independent and strong-willed, but never in an over-the-top, “look at me, I’m unconventional” way – she’s a woman of her time who is able to bend the rules a little because of her wealth and status… and because she can afford not to give a damn what anyone else thinks. When she finally discovers the truth of what happened to Liam she comes out fighting, her fierce championing of him catching him off guard:

“You tried to hide them? [his scars] Why, you should walk naked in the street to boast of what you survived. Other men would learn then what it means to be a man – to survive all that, and to come home triumphant… You are mine and I am keeping you.”

Liam is complex and tormented, so much so that at times it’s difficult to believe he will ever be able to recover from the brutalisation and humiliation he endured at the hands of his captors. The intensity of Anna’s belief him and her unwavering support go some way towards helping Liam to find his way back to his true self, and he is further aided by his great friend Julian Sinclair (The Duke of Shadows), a man who has battled demons of his own, and whose advice, when it comes, is relevant and very much borne of experience. The relationship between the two men, previously glimpsed in the earlier book, is superbly done, and Julian’s presence is thus integral to the story rather than one of those ‘remember me?’ cameo appearances so often found in sequels and series books.

As I said at the beginning, The Sins of Lord Lockwood – who, surely, is more sinned against than sinning? – is an angst-laden story filled with moments of such intensity and raw emotion that it almost hurts to read them. I recognise that it might not suit those who prefer their historicals to be light and fluffy, but angst is my catnip and I enjoyed every single moment of this complex, deeply sensual and beautifully written novel. Ten years is a long time to wait, but when the result is as good as this one… maybe the wait is justified. And when one takes into account all the wonderful novels Ms. Duran has given us in the intervening years, I, for one, don’t feel the least bit short-changed.

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.

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!

Sweetest Regret (novella) by Meredith Duran

sweetest-regret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

At a house party in the countryside, the joyful spirit of the Christmas season threatens to sweep Georgiana Trent under the mistletoe—and back into the arms of the dashing rogue who broke her heart two years ago. Little does she know that Lucas Godwin has no intention of leaving until he has reclaimed her as his own.

This novella was originally published in 2015 as part of the anthology What Happens Under the Mistletoe.

Rating: B-

An engaging, readable novella, Sweetest Regret tells the story of lovers reunited at Christmas.  Georgina Trent, daughter of the influential diplomat, Sir Philip Trent, is used to acting as her father’s hostess, but is annoyed when he announces he has to travel to Constantinople immediately, leaving her with a half-dozen house-guests to deal with until Boxing Day.  To make things worse, he tells her that one of the guests has stolen an important letter, he wants Georgina to find it and he has summoned Lucas Goodwin, one of his most able subordinates, to help her.

Georgina is infuriated.  Not only is her father leaving her in the lurch, he is throwing her into the orbit of the man who broke her heart two years ago.  While living in Munich with her father, Georgina met Lucas who was not only handsome and charming, but someone she could talk to and whom she felt was genuinely interested in her opinions.  They spent a fair amount of time together until one day, she discovered that he had up and left for a posting in Paris without so much as a goodbye.  Devastated, Georgina concluded she had been silly for thinking that a man like Lucas would be interested in an unassuming, ordinary-looking woman such as she, and picked up the threads of her old life.

Lucas is every bit as annoyed to have been summoned to Harlboro Hall as Georgina is to have him there.  Their reunion doesn’t get off to the best of starts, but as they search for the missing letter, they discover that the pull of attraction between them has never really gone away, and eventually find out exactly what led to their parting two years earlier.

This novella is well-written and the fact that there is a pre-existing relationship between the two principals means that the love story doesn’t feel rushed.  Ms. Duran does a very good job in showing the level of hurt and sadness that lies between them, and in describing Georgina’s life as being secondary to her father’s career and her deep-seated frustrations at the way he has treated her over the years. And Lucas gets an equally well fleshed-out backstory; he is the son of a scandalous match between the son of an earl and the coachman’s daughter, so he has had to work doubly hard to prove himself and get to where he is in his profession.   Both are likeable, attractive characters that are easy to root for, and I liked the way Lucas is prepared to put everything on the line for the woman he loves.

Other reviewers have pointed out the huge howler in the story;  we’re told that a couple of characters have gone out looking for a Christmas tree at 5.45am, which means they’d be stumbling about in darkness for a couple of hours, as it’s never light here until much before 8am in the latter part of December.  There are a few others, too, one being that Sir Philip is referred to as “Sir Trent” – which is a big no-no; a knight or baronet is always “Sir firstname”.   Another is the name of Georgina’s home – Harboro Hall – just doesn’t look like an English place name.  Harborough would be more likely.

Those errors apart, Sweetest Regret is an enjoyable seasonal novella and while not the author’s best work is well worth a look if you’ve got an hour to spare.

TBR Challenge: A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran

a lady's lesson in scandal

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

IN GRITTY, WORKING-CLASS LONDON, SHE DOES WHAT SHE MUST TO SURVIVE…

When Nell Whitby breaks into an earl’s house on a midnight quest for revenge, she finds her pistol pointed at the wrong man – one handsome as sin and naked as the day he was born. Pity he’s a lunatic. He thinks her a missing heiress, but more to the point, he’ll help her escape the slums and right a grave injustice. Not a bad bargain. All she has to do is marry him.

A NOTORIOUS LADIES’ MAN COULD TAKE HER FROM POVERTY TO OPULENCE…BUT AT WHAT PRICE?

A rake of the first order, Simon St. Maur spent his restless youth burning every bridge he crossed. When he inherits an earldom without a single penny attached to it, he sees a chance to start over – provided he can find an heiress to fund his efforts. But his wicked reputation means courtship will be difficult – until fate sends him the most notorious missing heiress in history. All he needs now is to make her into a lady and keep himself from making the only mistake that could ruin everything: falling in love…

Rating:A-

This month’s theme of Favourite Trope was easy. Or rather, picking the trope was easy; I needed to do a bit of searching around for a book featuring it I haven’t read yet! There are few tropes I actively dislike, but I’m a sucker for a good marriage of convenience story. I love the idea of two people who don’t or who hardly know each other being put into a situation of enforced proximity and intimacy and watching them as they come to know and understand each other and to fall in love. It’s a trope that works especially well in historicals, and my enduring love for it is no doubt partly attributable to the fact that the first historical romance I remember reading is Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me which makes excellent use of the compromised-into-marriage plotline.

I’ve read a lot of MoC stories since then, and had to wonder if I had any left on my TBR pile! I went scurrying to AAR’s Special Title Listings for inspiration and came up with Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal. I’m a big fan of this author, and as I’ve said before, I save her books for when I want to read something I KNOW will be good, so this seemed a good time to finally read it.

Nell Whitby works in an East End cigar factory and lives with her invalid mother in a tiny hovel in Bethnal Green. It’s a tough life and a hand-to-mouth existence; and making things worse, her abusive step-brother is drinking away the money that could pay for her mother’s medicine and keeps suggesting that Nell starts making money on her back to pay for it. With her dying breaths, her mother tells Nell that she must get in touch with her father – her real father – the Earl of Rushden, and raves about having stolen her in order to save part of him and to save Nell.

Homeless and grieving for her loss, Nell decides she’ll do more than contact the Earl of Rushden, whom she believes must have got her mother pregnant and then thrown her out. She breaks into his bedroom late one night intent on murder – only to discover that the earl died some months earlier. The new earl, Simon St. Maur, is a very distant relation of the previous one; he’s also a lot younger, handsome as hell and twice as hot. But while he has inherited the Rushden estates and title, Simon is pockets to let, the old earl having disliked him so intensely that he left his two million pound fortune to his twin daughters and his estates to Simon without leaving him the means to run them.

Most believed Rushden to be mad, bequeathing half his fortune to a girl long thought dead. Over the years, there have been a number of imposters claiming to be Lady Cornelia Aubyn, but after years of searching, the daughter who had been kidnapped as a young child was never found. Yet now, incredibly, here she is, a golden opportunity if ever Simon saw one. He recognises Nell immediately and realises they can help each other; by marrying her, he will gain access to half the late earl’s fortune, and at the same time, he can restore her to her proper place in society. The fact that she’s an uncouth guttersnipe doesn’t really deter him; she’s got spirit and intelligence, and will easily be able to learn how to behave properly in society. Besides, the marriage can be annulled later; they’ll reach a financial settlement and go their separate ways, both of them much better off than they started out.

Not surprisingly, Nell thinks Simon is talking out of his arse when he tells her who she really is. Having been brought up in the slums and with no expectations of ever having anything better, she agrees to go along with Simon’s scheme simply in order to placate him even as she is pricing up the silver and stashing away small items she thinks to sell when she runs off. But there are small things niggling at the back of her mind; the familiarity of a picture, for instance, and the fact that she really does look very much like Lady Katharine, her supposed twin – that sew enough seeds of doubt in Nell’s mind as to make her start to believe that perhaps she really is the missing heiress. Then there’s her growing attraction to Simon, who, she quickly realises, is very far from being the sort of brainless, selfish product of his class she assumes all aristocrats to be.

This is very much a character-driven story, and Ms. Duran has created a couple of very attractive, multi-layered protagonists in Nell and Simon. At first glance, Simon seems to be a bit stereotypical – handsome and titled, but broke and needing to marry money. And it’s true – he is and he does – but he’s much more than that, which makes him all the more appealing. Like Nell, he has been hardened by his upbringing albeit in a different way, his harsh, cynical outlook on life concealing deeply buried vulnerabilities. He is a gifted musician and pianist, but because it wasn’t the done thing for a gentleman to excel in artistic pursuits, his family belittled his talent and wanted him to suppress it. Now, however, he is one of the foremost patrons of the arts in England, and the man all of society looks to in matters of artistic taste – To disagree with the Earl of Rushden’s artistic opinions was to risk being thought a bumpkin. Yet he is as trapped by his circumstances as Nell is by hers.

Nell is understandably prickly and quick to mistrust. Her life has been a difficult one and I completely understood her reluctance to believe Simon straight away, even though it would mean escape from her old life into a life of continued luxury. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for things to go wrong and makes her plans accordingly. It’s not until some way into the book that she finally accepts that she really is Lady Cornelia and agrees to undergo the training she will need to make her fit for society. Even then, however, she fights it, denouncing all the various conventions and social mores as hypocrisy – The rules here were rotten. The quick-fire verbal exchanges between Nell and Simon are superbly constructed, showing their matched wit and their equality of mind while also highlighting the very great social gulf between them.

Until coming here, until learning what it meant to be privileged, she’d not understood how far down St. Maur’s kind had to look in order to see hers. But here, in his own words, was the philosophy that made his lot comfortable with never bothering to look down at all.

“Money’s no virtue. It shouldn’t be an end in itself.” She gave a dry little laugh. “And neither should pleasure. If you knew any gin addicts, you’d realise that.”

Watching these two wary, naturally suspicious people move around each other in ever decreasing circles is an absolute delight. The romance is extremely well-developed as the initial spark of attraction between the couple gradually strengthens and deepens into love, and the sexual chemistry between them is utterly delicious and leaps off the page. Both characters are changed by their relationship, Simon especially, as he comes to see and understand the depth of the privation faced by so many people day after day; and Nell learns to stop expecting the worst all the time and to see herself as a woman whose background doesn’t mean she is unworthy of happiness and love. Ms Duran doesn’t sugar-coat the life Nell has lived, the squalor and the degradation and the way it has shaped her, or ignore the fact that, in spite of her noble birth, Nell is never really going to be fully accepted in society and will be forever “between classes”.

Loving him would not be easy. It would mean never again completely belonging anywhere – save with him. But she would belong with him. He would be her home, she thought.

But what gives the reader confidence for their future is that both of them are well aware of the difficulties they are likely to face and are prepared to face them together.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it’s one I’ll revisit, but it isn’t without its problems. Well into the second half, Nell has a massive over-reaction to something she overhears and then refuses to believe the truth about it; and there’s a nefarious plot by those who are intent on keeping the old earl’s money for themselves which crosses the line into melodrama. But otherwise, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal is a beautifully written and intense love story with complex, flawed characters who may not always be likeable but whose motivations are clear and understandable. Their continual reappraising of each other through words and actions is masterfully done, and I was pleased that Nell ends the book as essentially the same fiercely intelligent, strong woman she started out as, but has finally learned to trust in her happiness with the man she loves. I can’t do anything other than but the book on my Keeper shelf.

A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

Luck Be a Lady (Rules for the Reckless #4) by Meredith Duran

luck be a lady

They call her the Ice Queen. Catherine Everleigh is London’s loveliest heiress, but a bitter lesson in heartbreak has taught her to keep to herself. All she desires is her birthright – the auction house that was mercilessly stolen from her. To win this war, she’ll need a powerful ally. Who better than infamous crime lord Nicholas O’Shea? A marriage of convenience will serve them both.

Having conquered the city’s underworld, Nick seeks a new challenge. Marrying Catherine will give him the guise of legitimacy and access to her elite world – no one need know he’s coveted her for a year now. Their arrangement is strictly business, free from the weakness of love. Seduction, however, is an altogether different matter – an enticing game that he’s determined she’ll play, and what’s more, enjoy…

Rating: A

I haven’t yet met a book by Meredith Duran I didn’t at the very least like, and this one I LOVED. Everything about it just worked; the plot, the romance, the characterisations – it’s tightly written and incredibly well-researched, and the central relationship is wonderful. I love a good “marriage of convenience” story – it’s my favourite trope in the genre – and this is a very good one.

In lieu of a proper review, I’m linking to the Pandora’s Box discussion I had with Dabney over at All About Romance’s Blog.

Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

fooltwice

Sensible and lonely, Olivia Mather survives by her wits—and her strict policy of avoiding trouble. But when she realizes that the Duke of Marwick might hold the secrets of her family’s past, she does the unthinkable, infiltrating his household as a maid. She’ll clean his study and rifle through his papers looking for information.

Alastair de Grey has a single reason to live: vengeance. More beautiful than Lucifer, twice as feared, and thrice as cunning, he’ll use any weapon to punish those who fooled and betrayed him—even an impertinent maid who doesn’t know her place. But the more fascinated he becomes with the uppity redhead, the more dangerous his carefully designed plot becomes. For the one contingency he forgot to plan for was falling in love…and he cannot survive being fooled again

Rating: A

Alastair de Grey, Duke of Marwick was one of the most important political masterminds in the country, a man tipped as a potential prime minister, as well one whose power and connections behind the schemes earned him the moniker of “kingmaker”.

Following the sudden death of his wife, Margaret, Alastair discovered that what he had considered to be the perfect marriage was nothing but a sham. His wife was not only regularly unfaithful to him, but the men she chose to betray him with were his political enemies men, to whom she would divulge his plans and political secrets. From the letters that emerged after her death, not only was she actively conspiring against him, she and her lovers were laughing at him behind his back.

The manner of her death – from an overdose of opium – and his discovery of her treachery sent Alastair into a downward spiral. At the beginning of the previous book in the series,(That Scandalous Summer) he was arguing with his brother Michael, over the fact that Alastair, wanting nothing more to do with marriage, was demanding his brother marry and get to work producing an heir without delay. That argument led to a rift between them, and to Alastair’s committing a number of spiteful, vengeful acts (such as closing down the hospital he funded), which certainly painted him in a most appalling light.

The overwhelming rage he feels at the actions of his wife and her lovers, and at himself for allowing himself to be duped; his self-pitying frustration and the constant temptations to violence he feels have turned him into a recluse. He doesn’t leave his rooms, he barely eats and takes no interest in anything at all. His servants are terrified of going near him because of the threat of violence and as a result are running wild in the house with nobody to care what becomes of either house or master.

Olivia Mather – now going by the name of Olivia Johnson – appeared in That Scandalous Summer as companion and secretary to the heroine, Elizabeth Chudderly, who is now married to Michael de Grey. It was clear throughout that book that Olivia had something to hide, and at the end, she left Elizabeth’s employ, having stolen some letters that had been written by the late Duchess of Marwick. She plans to enter the duke’s house in order to steal information from him relating to Lord Bertram, a political associate of Alastair’s, and the man who threatens her very existence. Once in possession of what she believes to be damning evidence that could ruin him, Olivia plans to blackmail Bertram into leaving her alone.

Olivia presents herself at the house as an applicant – the sole applicant – for the position of housemaid, only to find herself offered the job of temporary housekeeper. She doesn’t want that, but circumstances conspire to force her hand, and she accepts the post.

What follows is a delicious slow-burn of a story in which Alastair is gradually coaxed back into the world of the living by OIivia, who stands up to him, regularly disobeys his orders, answers him back and, most importantly, tells him the truth and refuses to allow him to wallow in self-pity when he has so much to offer. Marwick insists he’s not a good man – and it’s true that he’s not your run-of-the-mill romantic hero. He’s rude, arrogant and downright unpleasant, but there’s an incredible intensity about him that is immediately captivating and attractive, in spite of the nasty side of him we see initially. He can’t let go of his rage, but the reason he won’t leave his rooms or the house is not the expected one – he won’t go out because he’s afraid that if he does, he’ll kill someone.

By degrees, Olivia re-humanises him, and along the way the reclusive duke and his no-nonsense housekeeper indulge in a number of completely inappropriate (given their relative statuses) conversations in which they argue and bicker constantly. Marwick sacks Olivia several times, but she always ignores him. (At this point, I had to wonder if Ms Duran is a West Wing fan – fellow fans will no doubt recall that in the early days, Josh Lyman was forever firing his devoted assistant, Donna – who was delightfully “impervious” and never listened to him, either).

“He held it up so she could see the spine:The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas.

“Ah, a tale of revenge. Are you seeking inspiration?”

He gave her a rather threatening smile. “So far, our hero seems spineless.”
“You must be in the early section, then. I assure you, after Dantes spends years and years locked away, growing into a ragamuffin, he emerges quite deadly. Why, the first thing he does is to cut his hair.”

He slammed shut the book. “You are peculiarly deaf to the cues most servants know to listen for. Was there some purpose to your visit? If not, you are dismissed.”

She held up the mirror again. “Here is my purpose: you look like a wildebeest. If your valet—”

“I don’t believe you know what a wildebeest looks like,” he said mildly.

Hesitantly she lowered the mirror. He was right; she hadn’t the faintest idea what a wildebeest looked like. “Well, you look how a wildebeest sounds like it should look.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” He opened his book again. “ ‘Sheepdog’ was the better choice.”

As the story develops and as Olivia discovers more about her employer – about his intellect, his altruism and real commitment to good governance – as well as getting to know him as a person (they have a lovely conversation about books which reveals much about them as individuals and shows why they belong together) – the harder she finds it to go through with her plans to deceive him and steal the information she needs. But she is getting desperate, and with time running out, she has to take her chances which, unfortunately, don’t go to plan.

The pace speeds up once Alastair discovers Olivia’s duplicity, and revelations and plot developments come thick and fast. But through it all, there are these two, wounded people who share a deep emotional connection and who need each other very much. It’s a mark of how far he has travelled that Alastair is able to forgive Olivia for her betrayal, and there is a crucial and wonderful moment in which he finally realise the selfishness and weakness of his actions in closeting himself away with his thoughts of revenge. When he learns Olivia’s true identity and her reasons for concealing it, he is floored to think that this young woman – who has no family or friends, no-one to care for her, look after her or fight her battles against someone who would do her harm – has been fighting against the darkness since she was sixteen years old. His way of dealing with betrayal was to retreat into himself. He had that luxury. Olivia, alone and friendless – and a woman – had no alternative but to fight.

The romance is beautifully written, and Ms Duran takes her time with it, building the sexual tension gradually but potently, giving even the slightest touch a real emotional and sensual punch:

“A little shock bolted through her. She stared down at his head, all that luxuriantly waving blond hair, and suddenly felt unable to move. This job required her to touch him. To plunge her hands through his hair and . . . handle him.

For no apparent reason, she suddenly recalled the feel of his hands on her wrists. His thumbs slipping across her pulse. Her stomach somersaulted.
[. . . ]
As she gathered up his locks, her fingers brushed along the base of his neck. His shoulders were solid muscle—even here, at their tops. She could feel them flex a little beneath her fingertips, and the sensation made her redden.
She shifted her hand up, to avoid that muscled bulk. But now her knuckles skated along the nape of his neck, and his bare skin was startlingly warm, very smooth. Three snips bared his nape—and she found herself staring, somehow startled by it: the whole strong shape of his neck, thick and muscled, corded as he bent forward to allow her better access.

His spine made a hard knob of bone at the base of his neck. In public, his collar would always hide this nexus of muscle and bone, even when his hair did not. It was a secret, intimate, vulnerable place. How many eyes had beheld it? His valet . . . and his late wife. Perhaps she had kissed it. It seemed like a spot one would enjoy kissing, were one his lover.

I think that might win the prize for the sexiest hair-cut ever 😛

The characterisation is excellent all-round, but both Alastair and Olivia are among the most strongly written characters I’ve encountered in a while. Olivia is stubborn, sensible and independent, determined to do what she must alone, as always – yet she can’t help but be intrigued by and drawn to Alastair, who has become so convinced of his unworthiness and of the world’s darkness that he at first, thinks to drag her down with him. She sees that he’s not as devoid of hope as he wants to believe, and he finds it impossible to resist her challenges and her blandishments, so that eventually he wants to haul himself out of the pit he’s been digging for himself. I said before that he’s an unusual romantic hero because of the fact he’s so bloody unpleasant to start with, but, unlike so many heroes who have tortured pasts, or terrible experiences, who merely curl their lips and look down their noses at people, Alastair behaves in a way that makes complete sense. He’s an out-and-out pain in the arse whose position as a duke gives him the power and the right to do as he wants with and to whom he wants without a qualm. He’s nasty, he’s rude, he’s insulting, yet his behaviour, following the shattering of his life and his illusions about his marriage, is that of a wounded animal – creeping away to lick its wounds it will also lash out at anything that threatens it. And that, for me, is Alastair at the beginning of the book.

It’s a mark of how good a writer Ms Duran is that she can make the reader care about him, even when he’s behaving like a total bastard. And when he finally emerges from his bastard-dom, he’s true hero material; the intensity he exhibited when in his “beast” phase never really goes away, and serves to make him even more compelling.

My one complaint about the book is that the ending feels a bit rushed, but that’s a minor point because I loved it and was gripped from beginning to end.

TBR Challenge: At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran

ayp

By candlelight she lures him…

Glittering court socialites and underworld cutpurses alike know that Adrian Ferrers, Earl of Rivenham, is the most dangerous man in London. Rivenham will let nothing—not the deepening shadow of war, nor the growing darkness within him—interfere with his ambition to restore his family to its former glory. But when tasked by the king to uncover a traitor, he discovers instead a conspiracy—and a woman whose courage awakens terrible temptations. To save her is to risk everything. To love her might cost his life.

At swordpoint she defies him…

Lady Leonora knows that Rivenham is the devil in beautiful disguise— and that the irresistible tension between them is as unpredictable as the dilemma in which Nora finds herself: held hostage on her own estate by Rivenham and the king’s men. But when war breaks out, Nora has no choice but to place her trust in her dearest enemy—and pray that love does not become the weapon that destroys them both.(

Rating: A

I picked this up in response to this month’s TBR Challenge prompt:
Read a book by an author who has more than one book on your TBR pile.

It’s true – while I’m a huge fan of Meredith Duran’s writing, I have more than one of her books I still haven’t read. In my defence, it’s because I save them up for when I’ve had a run of mediocre reads and can’t face another one! But the TBR Challenge was a good reason to pick one of them up – and I had no hesitation whatsoever in deciding that it would be this book. It’s set at a time which is not often featured in historical romance or historical fiction, which made it a shoe-in.

I freely admit that the transition from Stuart to Hanoverian monarchy is a period of history I don’t know much about, for all that I regard myself as a bit of an amateur historian. But I didn’t need to keep one eye on Wikipedia as I was reading, because Ms Duran does a splendid job of explaining why the characters have adopted their particular loyalties, why the conflicts between them exist, and weaving all the necessary information about the complicated political situation into her story without making it seem like a history lesson.

But given this is a book in which the main cause of the conflict between the two central characters is political and religious, I wanted a little more historical context and background. It’s absolutely NOT necessary in order to enjoy the book – it’s just me 🙂

This next part is me indulging in historical geekery, so please feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs to the actual book review!

The novel is set in 1715, the year after the death of the last Stuart monarch (Queen Anne). In the last years of her reign when it became apparent that she was not going to be able to bear an heir to succeed her, negotiations were undertaken with her second cousin, George of Hanover, who subsequently became George I. George wasn’t her closest living male relative, but he was the closest one who was acceptable to the British government and the British people, by virtue of the fact that he was a Protestant.

This was another period of great unrest and uncertainty in Britain, less than one hundred years after a bloody civil war which led to the execution of the king and the brief establishment of a republic. The Jacobite cause, which wanted to see the son of James II upon the throne, was principally supported by Britain’s Catholics (James had been deposed in 1688 because of his espousal of that religion), but he also had his supporters amongst the (Protestant) English political elite. And now, with discontent brewing over the choice of Anne’s successor, it seemed as though the country was in for another war, or even a revolution.

The situation of Catholics in England at the time was still a precarious one, despite the supposed religious freedoms introduced under Elizabeth I and taken further under Cromwell. Catholics were not permitted to hold positions of political power or vote, they could not worship openly, and they still risked fines, confiscation of property and imprisonment.

Here endeth the geekery
Amidst all this political unrest and subversion, Ms Duran spins a terrific tale of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. Leonora, the widowed Lady Towe, is the daughter of Lord Hoxton and sister of David Colville, both of whom have been stripped of their lands and titles because they have been plotting against the new king. The family is not Catholic, but rather, are political opponents of the Hanoverian monarchy, and father and son have fled to France where they continue to plot, basically abandoning Nora and leaving her alone to manage Hodderby, the home for which she has a deep and abiding love. Hoxton is settled at the Court of the Pretender in France, but Nora is in daily expectation of her brother’s return, even while knowing how dangerous it will be for him to set foot in England.

Adrian Ferrars, Earl of Rivenham has been sent to arrest Colville and bring him to London to face trial and, almost certainly, execution for treason. Nora is stunned at Adrian’s unexpected appearance, and not just because she knows the danger he represents to her brother. Their family estates border each other, so Adrian, David and Nora grew up together; and six years earlier, Adrian and Nora had fallen deeply in love and had a brief affair. When Nora’s father discovered their relationship, the pair were brutally separated, for Adrian was a Catholic, and thus not a suitable husband for the daughter of a high-ranking, Protestant family.

Their short-lived affair ended bitterly and violently, with Nora believing Adrian abandoned her to the fate forced upon her by her father (marriage to an older, abusive man) and Adrian believing she deserted him in order to do her father’s bidding and marry a rich man of his choice.

Adrian barely escaped David’s brutality with his life, and was then bundled off to France by his family for his own protection. Upon his return some years later, he renounced his faith and by virtue of his intelligence, charm and wits, rose quickly through the ranks of the court to become a trusted advisor to Queen Anne, and has retained his position under the new king.

The few times Adrian and Nora crossed each other’s paths at Court, he ignored her, causing her to believe he hated her; and the only way she can deal with that is to tell herself that she despises him. Their reunion is barbed and bitter, both of them haunted by memories of betrayal and heart-break and determined to convince the other of their utter indifference. Adrian is cold and cruel and Nora meets his harshness with sharp-tongued defiance, determined to protect her property and her brother, sometimes to the point of stupidity. What she doesn’t know is that Adrian is walking a political tightrope. He became a recusant in order to keep his own family safe from the sort of brutality inflicted upon him by the Colvilles – but he is still regarded with suspicion by many (especially those who are jealous of his position and influence) and has been given the job of bringing in David Colville as a way of proving his loyalty. If he succeeds, he will further cement his position of power at court – if he fails, his enemies will immediately accuse him of collaborating with Colville. And the Jacobite supporters want him out of the way so they can continue in their mission to restore a Stuart to the throne. With his political enemies prepared to join forces in order to bring Adrian down, he is prone to attack from all directions and decides there is only one way he can do what he must and keep Nora safe at the same time.

With the undercurrent of attraction that still swirls between them proving harder and harder to deny, the two begin an uneasy rapprochement. The devastating truth about what happened six years ago is revealed, and the barriers between them – barriers not of their own making – begin to break down. But even so, Adrian must ignore Nora’s wishes and act to protect her in a way which threatens to destroy their re-kindling relationship; to protect her from herself as much as from those outside forces which seek his destruction.

Ms Duran’s story is utterly compelling, as are her two central characters. Adrian is a wonderful hero, a man who can be ruthless and uncompromising when he has to be, but who also shows a remarkable capacity for tenderness and consideration. The depth of his love for Nora drives him to desperate measures, it’s true, but that love is never in question. Nora is a little more difficult to warm to, primarily because of the blind loyalty she shows toward David, who has put her in danger time and again. I found myself frequently wanting to scream at Nora to just cut the cord and leave him to fend for himself! Even though he is preparing to marry her off to another man to further his own ends, and after Adrian has revealed to her the extent of his duplicity six years before, she can’t bring herself to wash her hands of him. Loyalty is an admirable trait most of the time, but in this, Nora really is her own worst enemy.

Much mention is made of the helplessness of women in the society of the time; Nora, like most well-born young women, was regarded by her father as not much more than property, a useful pawn to be used in order to secure wealth, position and influence, and she is constantly frustrated by the way she is so often dismissed and treated as though she is not a person in her own right. Yet she is clever, stubborn, and courageous; her motives might not always be clear-sighted or in her best interests, but she possesses a great inner strength:

“He could not admire her destructive loyalty to her brother. But it was born of the steel at her core. As a girl, she had not disguised that steel, speaking boldly, daring the world to cross her. But now that she carried it concealed, it took on a new element of power, like the hidden stiletto that could save a man’s life when all else was stripped from him … men too often mistook bravado for courage. Her courage was not wasted on display.

But what a wealth of riches she offered to those who possessed her loyalties. She put her whole self into their defense and never accepted defeat. Even if her wits saw the weakness in a cause, she would sacrifice herself for the sake of honor.”

At Your Pleasure is a beautifully developed romance with real emotional depth set against a fascinating historical background. I found it to be an intense read with very little to lighten the tension and there are some scenes which make for downright uncomfortable reading – but I loved the intrigue and that feeling of walking the thin line along with the characters. The writing itself is gorgeous, and I applaud Ms Duran for the way she shows us the grey areas that are part of the lives of these characters and the tough decisions they have to make.