TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

TBR Challenge: Waking Up Married by Mira Lynn Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Her first thought: “Who are you?”

It’s the morning after her cousin’s bachelorette party in Vegas and Megan Scott wakes up with the mother of all hangovers. Even worse, she’s in a stranger’s penthouse having woken up with something else as well – a funny, arrogant, sexy…husband!

Up until now, finding even a boyfriend had seemed impossible – been there, got the broken heart, sworn off men for good. Then a few martinis with Carter…no, Connor Reed and she’s gone from first meet to marriage in one night!

Megan wants a lawyer. But Connor’s shocking bombshell?

“I don’t want a divorce.”

Rating: C+

Scrolling through my Kindle to find a contemporary romance to read for this month’s prompt, I stumbled upon Mira Lyn Kelly’s Waking Up Married, one of the titles in Harlequin’s short-lived Kiss line (which is published as Mills & Boon Modern Tempted in the UK).  I’ve read a couple of the author’s more recent titles and enjoyed them – funny, sexy and sweet, they’re written with a secure but deft hand and boast attractive principals and a strong supporting cast.  I went into this one hoping for more of the same and found it, for the most part, but the story as a whole is rather let down by the hero who spends most of the novel trying to persuade the heroine into doing something she isn’t sure she wants to do.

Megan Scott is in Vegas with a group of (very bitchy) girlfriends, and they’re out partying before being bridesmaids at the wedding of one of their number the next day.  Megan has decided that she doesn’t want or need a man – she has never fallen in love with one and doesn’t think she is capable of it – instead, she intends to fulfil her desire for motherhood by a visit to the local sperm bank.

Connor Reed is surprised – in a good way – when the gorgeous woman he’d noticed earlier as he’d walked by her table approaches him and asks him if he’ll walk her out of the bar.  Her friends have been egging her on all night, and she won’t hear the end of it if she leaves the bar alone.  It’s an odd request, but he agrees, and he and Megan end up spending the next few hours together, during which they really do ‘click’; Megan tells Connor a bit about her seeming inability to fall in love, which she puts down to the fact that her mother has been married seven times (and had boyfriends in between) and having no desire to follow the path of falling in love and being repeatedly left.  As the night progresses,  Connor becomes more and more convinced that Megan wants the same things from life that he does.  Of course, they take in more than a few more drinks along the way, which is how Megan ends up with her head stuck down the great white telephone the next morning with the hangover from hell – and discovers she’s now Mrs. Reed.

In the spirit of ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, she tells her new husband they made a horrendous mistake and that they should start divorce proceedings immediately – and is stunned when Connor tells her he wants their marriage to stand.  Megan can’t believe what she’s hearing, but Connor persuades her to hear him out over breakfast.  From what Megan told him the previous night, it seems she wants the same things from a relationship that he does:

“All the vital components that make a relationship successful, without any of the emotional messiness to drag it down. It’s about respect, caring and commitment. Shared goals and compatible priorities. It’s about treating a marriage like a partnership instead of some romantic fantasy. It’s about two people liking each other.”

– and he’s one hundred percent there for that sort of marriage.

Even though Megan has decided she’s probably never going to find ‘the one’, a marriage like the one Connor is suggesting sounds terribly calculating, and she’s not sure it’s what she wants for the rest of her life.  But she agrees to a three month trial – although with no sex allowed – and moves into Connor’s house.

One of the things I liked straight away about Waking Up Married is that the ‘Oh no – we got drunk, got married and must get a divorce as quickly as possible’ trope doesn’t quite pan out that way, because while Megan and Connor did get married while drunk, Connor knew exactly what they were doing when they walked down the aisle.  The trouble is though, that I wasn’t wild about the idea that he was aware of what they were doing while Megan wasn’t; she can’t even remember saying her vows, or much of what Connor told her the previous night.  And while Connor is devastatingly handsome and extremely charming, he’s also incredibly manipulative; for the majority of the book, he’s doing his damnedest to convince Megan that what he wants is what she wants, too, which he does by being Mr. Reasonable and Mr. Unflappable, even when Megan tries everything she can think of to rile him or get him to give up – which seemed a bit mean considering she had actually agreed to give him and their marriage a chance to work out. Neither of them covers themselves in glory here, but fortunately, this stalemate isn’t allowed to continue and things start to look up – until Connor turns into an idiot not far from the end and only manages to turn things around in the last page or two.

Waking Up Married was enjoyable-  but ultimately forgettable – fluff.  I liked both protagonists, and the way Connor was so clueless as to the real state of his feelings about Megan was oddly sweet; he’s a nice blend of alpha and beta hero, a man who wants to protect and support his woman while also applauding her desire for independence.  On the downside, her being independent means less aggro for him and none of those nasty romantic luuurve cooties, so it’s not an entirely altruistic trait.  Ms. Kelly opts to give both characters a backstory that explains their reluctance to pursue love, but it’s very sketchy and could perhaps have been a little more developed; and I also have to admit that I wasn’t always comfortable with Connor’s more manipulative side.

I can’t recommend Waking Up Married without reservations, but if you enjoy rom-coms and are looking for an afternoon quickie (!), it might hit the spot.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Earl meets his match…

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR Challenge: A Certain Magic by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

TBR Challenge: Lord St. Claire’s Angel by Donna Lea Simpson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Celestine Simons was of good family, but an untimely death and a shortage of funds forces the homely spinster to take a position as governess at the estate of Lord Langlow and his wife. Never one to bemoan her change in fortune, Celestine is content to spend her days raising and overseeing their children, knowing in her heart she will never have any of her own.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, Langlow’s brother, is a rogue and seducer, content to while away his days pursuing pleasure—and driving his brother and sister-in-law mad by reducing their female staff to lovelorn fools with his flirtations. When he learns on his annual Christmas visit that the drab Celestine was hired as governess solely to thwart his dalliances, he devises a scheme to both stir her heart and spite his family’s interfering ways.

But as his game unfolds, the cunning St. Claire discovers this conquest may be more challenging than expected when the thoughtful and intelligent Celestine begins to fire an ache in his own heart. And what began as an amusement to give the plain, timid miss an innocent thrill is turning into much more, as St. Claire realizes she may be the one giving him the thrill—and teaching him in a way only a governess can that real beauty lies beneath the surface and that true love is often found where you least expect it.

Rating: A-

For December’s prompt of a Holiday Read, I went with Lord St. Claire’s Angel, a Traditional Regency which is, on the surface, your basic fairy-tale type story of a plain-Jane who finds love with a handsome rake. But Donna Lea Simpson has turned that familiar plotline into something that transcends the trope. Our sometimes not-at-all likeable hero really IS a rake; a self-absorbed, all-round selfish bastard, until he falls in love with a young woman whose goodness and unconditional love set him on the path to becoming a better man. Ms. Simpson took quite a chance in making him so unpleasant at times; prone to self-deception, he will always take the easy path if there is one – but St. Claire’s many faults somehow make him more real, even though there were times I wanted to smack him around the head. Our heroine, Celestine Simons, is one in a long line of down-on-their-luck ladies forced to take employment who has learned to expect little from life. It’s once again a tribute to the author’s storytelling and her ability to create complex, believable characters that while Celestine does occasionally seem bent on martyrdom, there’s more to her than a stereotypical goody-two-shoes; she’s come down in the world, but is determined to make her own way in life and stand on her own two feet, no matter how hard it may be.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, younger brother of the Marquess of Langlow, is handsome, charming, wealthy and, at the age of thirty-two, has managed to avoid the marital noose and intends to keep it that way. He’s not damaged or brooding, but as a second son, he wasn’t brought up to have responsibilities or any purpose in life, so he devotes his time to pleasure. He is making his annual Yuletide visit to the family estate for the weeks-long Christmas house-party and anticipates the usual round of respectable games and activities – and hopes for some not so respectable ones with some of the widows and bored wives likely to be in attendance. He is fond of his brother, although he regards the marquess as somewhat hen-pecked by his wife, Elizabeth, and certainly doesn’t envy him his social position and attendant responsibilities.

Gently-born Celestine Simons found herself in straightened circumstances around a year earlier after the death of her father, and took a position as governess to the Langlows. At twenty-eight, she is unprepossessing and suffers with an arthritic condition that can badly affect her hands, Celestine recognises she’s destined to remain a spinster and that working with children is the closest she will ever come to having a family of her own. Even so, she is somewhat hurt when she overhears the Marchioness telling her husband that one of the main reasons she hired Celestine was because she is plain and therefore unlikely to attract the attentions of Lord St. Claire when he visits – unlike the previous governess who plainly set her cap at the handsome devil the year before and had to be dismissed.

St. Claire may be many things, but he’s not stupid. As soon as he sees the drab Celestine, he is immediately wise to his sister-in-law’s machinations and, refusing to be outmanoeuvred, decides to strike up a flirtation with the governess anyway. In one of the most condescendingly obnoxious thought processes I’ve ever read in a romance hero, he reasons to himself that she will be grateful for the attention from a handsome lord, and that if he can steal a few kisses, he’ll be giving her something pleasant to look back on in the long years of spinsterhood ahead.

But Celestine isn’t stupid either. While she isn’t blind to St. Claire’s charms, and in fact comes to realise that there is an intelligent, thoughtful man behind the rakish exterior, she also suspects he’s playing a game with her when he markedly singles her out – and really wishes he wouldn’t. She can’t afford to lose her position, and St. Claire shows no sign of realising just what damage his notice of her could do.

But when, out of devilment, he accompanies Celestine and a couple of the other servants to a choir practice at the local church, he suddenly finds himself out of his depth. He is utterly spellbound by the unexpected beauty of Celestine’s singing voice; by the passion and the strength of spirit on display, and is profoundly affected by it. It’s an important turning point for him – although, I hasten to add, he doesn’t become a reformed character overnight. But from that point onwards, the reader is with him on his journey towards that reformation, a journey on which he makes mistakes, doesn’t always follow through on his decisions and sometimes deliberately sets out to sabotage his own good intentions. Ms. Simpson does a superb job of showing the reader that he’s falling in love without being aware of doing so – all St. Claire knows is that Celestine is far from the dowd he initially thought her and that she is possessed of great inner beauty and strength. It’s not until fairly late in the book that he finally wakes up to the truth – and his brutal honesty and determination to fight for the woman he loves go a very long way towards mitigating his earlier immaturity and thoughtless actions.

Both central characters are very well drawn, and even when St. Claire is acting like an idiot, there is still something about him that is engaging and that draws the reader to him. The same is true of Celestine – without the idiocy! – she’s an intelligent, generous and loving young woman who wants to do what she can to help the people in her life, and the author really does get to grips with exactly what life was like for a woman in her position, neither servant nor family and completely dependent on the goodwill of her employers.
There are lots of stories out there featuring rakish heroes who finally turn their lives around when they meet the right woman, but Lord St. Claire’s Angel is one of the best examples I’ve read. I said at the outset that making St. Claire selfish and unlikeable was a risk, but it contributes to the overall believability of the tale; had he not been like that, his transformation would not have been so dramatic and we wouldn’t be rooting so hard for him to see the error of his ways.

While the festival itself doesn’t play a large part in the story, the ideas of love and redemption that are so strongly associated with Christmas are major themes throughout the novel. Combined with a tender, deeply-felt romance, well-drawn secondary characters and a lovely, wintry feel, Lord St. Claire’s Angel is the perfect seasonal read.

Note: This book was originally published in 1999, and then reissued with some revisions by the author in 2013. Just a tad annoyingly – and the author has done this in some of her other books – some of the names have been changed; the hero in the old print version is named Lord Justin St. Claire, whereas in the new version, he’s Lord St. Claire Richmond. His brother, Lord Langlow was originally Lord Ladymead, and the heroine’s aunt Emily is now Lady Sedgley rather than, as she was originally, Lady Delafont. (Incidentally, Emily’s book, Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, has been reissued as Married to a Rogue.)

I have referred to the characters by the names they have been given in the 2013 version.