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

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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.

An Offer from a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3) by Julia Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Sophie Beckett never dreamed she’d be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton’s famed masquerade ball – or that Prince Charming would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.

Who was that extraordinary woman? Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other – except perhaps this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid’s garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet if he offers her his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

An Offer From a Gentleman – or The Bridgertons do Cinderella – is the third in Julia Quinn’s perennially popular series of books following the lives and loves of the eight alphabetically named Bridgerton siblings.

Benedict is the second eldest and has spent most of his life being referred to simply as “A Bridgerton” or “number two” and he’s fed up with it. Nobody – other than his family (and sometimes not even them!) – sees him as an individual, a man worthy of attention on his own account, until he meets a lovely masked woman in a silver gown at a masquerade, who sees him – Benedict – and his life changes instantly.

Our Cinders is Miss Sophie Beckett, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Penwood. Sophie has never been publicly acknowledged by the earl, although he has always provided for her; and while society whispers about the truth of her parentage, Sophie is known simply to be the earl’s ward. But her life changes dramatically after he remarries, and takes a real turn for the worse after his death when her stepmother grudgingly agrees to allow Sophie to remain living in her former home in return for an increased allowance under the terms of the earl’s will.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

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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.

The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons #2) by Julia Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, this author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London’s most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better… – Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn’t just decided to marry – he’s even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended’s older sister, Kate Sheffield – the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate’s the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams.

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes do not make the best husbands – and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate is determined to protect her sister – but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony’s lips touch hers, she’s suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

This is the first of Julia Quinn’s books I ever read and one of the first ‘modern’ historical romances I ever read about a decade or so ago, when I was just starting to read the genre. As a result, I have a bit of a soft spot for it, but that’s not surprising, considering it’s a terrific book.

It’s a classic enemies-to-lovers/compromised-into-marriage story and remains one of my favourite HRs and one of my favourites of the Bridgerton series (it’s up there with When He Was Wicked). I admit that I haven’t read it for some time, and I have forgotten bits, so this new audio was a fantastic reminder.

The relationship between Anthony and Kate is brilliantly done – the sexual chemistry just sizzles between them right from the start, and the author does a superb job of showing both characters falling head-over-heels with each other while trying to maintain their outward animosity.

I loved that Anthony is so family-oriented; there are so many dysfunctional families in romance that it’s refreshing to find one that isn’t. He’s also, quite simply, sex-on-legs.

Rosalyn Landor does an incredible job in the audio version. It’s a given that she’s technically superb – she’s always spot on when it comes to things like differentiation and pacing – but where she scores over practically ever other narrator of historical romance is that she ‘gets’ it like no-one else. The way she brings the emotional content of the story to the fore so vividly always amazes me and I had a lump in my throat several times while listening to this one.

I’m sure I don’t need to convince any reader of HR that this is a fabulous book, or anyone who listens to romance audios regularly that the narration is outstanding.

But I still had to shout about it, because it’s just THAT good.

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.

Slightly Married (Bedwyns #1) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Like all the Bedwyn men, Aidan has a reputation for cool arrogance. But this proud nobleman also possesses a loyal, passionate heart – and it is this fierce loyalty that has brought Colonel Lord Aidan to Ringwood Manor to honor a dying soldier’s request. Having promised to comfort and protect the man’s sister, Aidan never expected to find a headstrong, fiercely independent woman who wants no part of his protection, nor did he expect the feelings this beguiling creature would ignite in his guarded heart. And when a relative threatens to turn Eve out of her home, Aidan gallantly makes her an offer she can’t refuse: marry him, if only to save her home. And now, as all of London breathlessly awaits the transformation of the new Lady Aidan Bedwyn, the strangest thing happens: With one touch, one searing embrace, Aidan and Eve’s “business arrangement” is about to be transformed into something slightly surprising.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

Tantor is following its reissue of Mary Balogh’s Simply Quartet with new recordings of the Slightly series, six novels about the Bedwyn siblings which have been on the wish list of many a romance audio fan for some time, starting with Book 1, Slightly Married. Anyone who has read or listened to the Simply books will already have met most of the Bedwyns and be aware of who ends up with whom, but that doesn’t take anything away from the pleasure of being able to hear their stories in audio for the first time.

Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn, second of the four Bedwyn brothers has, in the manner of many second sons, made a career in the army. It has been a distinguished career, and he fully expects to continue to serve his country and to eventually rise to the rank of General. When he comes home on leave, his first task is to make his way to the home of Miss Eve Morris, the sister of a fallen comrade. Captain Percy Morris saved Aidan’s life at Ciudad Rodrigo, and his dying request was that Aidan inform Eve of his death in person and that he take care of her, “no matter what”.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.