Tag Archive | Mary Balogh

Someone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh

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

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

Publisher and Release Date:  Berkley, November 2017

Time and Setting:
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Someone to Wed is the third in Mary Balogh’s charming Westcott series, showing readers more of the dramatic changes brought to the family by the late Earl of Riverdale’s bigamy.  This time the focus is on Alexander Westcott, the reluctant heir to the title who finds that his elevation in status comes with its own set of challenges.

Alexander had been quite happy with the direction his life was taking him.  Through years of hard work he had turned his family estates around and was ready for the next chapter of his life as a landed gentleman.  Sadly, through the misdeeds of his second cousin, that path was changed and at thirty Alexander has to restart his life as the Earl of Riverdale.  The title is flush with property, including the family seat of Brambeldean Court, and tenants dependent on the lands; however all of the money to run the estates was inherited by the late earl’s legitimate daughter.  Alex has little money of his own and Brambledean Court has been mismanaged for too long to refill the family’s coffers.  It upsets the young man’s pride to even consider that the fastest way to gain a fortune is to marry a woman with a large dowry but the reality is he may have to sacrifice his own plans for the good of his title.

Having grown up as a neighbor to the virtually abandoned Brambeldean Court, Miss Wren Heyden knows about Alexander’s new financial problems.  Alone after the death of her aunt and uncle, Wren has decided to use the large fortune she inherited from them to buy the one thing she has never had, the attention of a man.  Inviting the impoverished new Earl to tea, Wren hopes to entice Alexander with the promise of wealth if he’ll marry her and show her the physical pleasures of a courtship.  Their first meeting does not go as smoothly as Wren hoped, as she’s flustered by Alexander’s attractiveness as well as his hostility when she makes her offer of marriage.

For his part, Alex is shocked by the impropriety of meeting Wren virtually alone and it puts him on his guard.  It doesn’t help matters when the woman is completely hidden from view by the veil over her face.  Her cool offer of a convenient marriage comes across like a business transaction where he’s the commodity being traded.  Wanting to throw the woman off her game Alex asks to see her face before he will commit to anything.  Reluctantly Wren agrees and shows Alex the disfigurement – a large, purple birthmark – that has made her a recluse for almost twenty years.  Sensing that Alexander has already made up his mind about her offer Wren dismisses him but she’s surprised when instead he challenges her to meet him again at his estate.

When Wren arrives at Brambledean Court a week later it’s the start of a very strained courtship between the two.  For as much as Alexander comes to admire Wren’s independence, there is something about her demeanor that keeps him on guard.  Wren herself is uncomfortable in Alex’s company and despite his assurances that her marked face is something easily overlooked she still uses it to convince herself that Alex is the wrong person for her.  As Easter approaches and Alex discusses his plans to leave the country for London, Wren decides to withdraw her proposal and release Alex from any obligation he feels towards her.  It’s a painful choice, as Wren has come to admire Alex, but she knows it’s the best for them both.

Alexander arrives back in London resigned to the idea that marrying a woman with money is still the only way to save his estates; however each young lady he meets pales in comparison to Wren.  Feeling that he may have made the wrong decision to leave her behind, Alex is surprised when he sees her familiar figure walking along the Serpentine.  Wren had sworn she would never visit London – it had been one point of contention between them – yet there she is, running away from him.  Alex chases her down and, unwilling to let her disappear ,he invites her to stay with his family in town while allowing him to escort her during her visit.  Wren is reluctant to accept but when his family opens their arms to her in friendship it makes the decision easier.  Seeing Wren accepted by his mother and sister reinforces Alex’s own changed feelings for Wren.  He makes it his goal to show Wren that she can trust him and that there might be a future for them after all.

Someone to Wed is a slow-burning romance that is a pleasant change of pace from other stories with a similar storyline.  Alex and Wren aren’t driven by lust or their physical attraction into hasty choices;  instead they truly get to know each other before leaping into marriage.  Their relationship builds over time, with the uncomfortable getting-to-know-you phase happening in the safe and private confines of Brambledean Court or Wren’s home in the country.  When they separate it forces both Alex and Wren to think about those moments and what they meant.  As things pick up in London, there is more ease to their interactions and Alex becomes that safe place for Wren to expose herself and her self-doubts without fear of rejection.  Having that foundation makes their emotions true when they can admit just how much they feel for each other.

The dramas of the extended Westcott family come into play during Wren and Alex’s courtship and I liked how Wren inherently understands how important that dynamic is to Alex.  Her love for him shines through when she can put aside her discomfort around people to help his cousin or to invite the former countess and her daughter to return to the Westcott fold.  Alex isn’t blind to Wren’s sacrifices for his family and he protects her with everything he is when her own family secrets are exposed.  It’s very easy to love both main characters for their strength but they are also to be admired for their frailties and how they each overcome those problems.

I enjoy Mary Balogh’s stories for all of the emotion she conveys while still keeping her characters grounded in the societal norms of the times.  In Someone to Wed there are no grand and over the top declarations of love between Alex and Wren, yet the feelings they share come across so strongly, I was reluctant to put the book down.  Knowing that the former Countess of Riverdale’s story is next I’m eager to see how this incredible family will continue to strengthen their bonds around their most frayed connection.

 

 

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh

someone to hold

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Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery…

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…

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Publisher and Release Date: Jove Books, February 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Bath, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

I am a huge Mary Balogh fan and there’s one thing that never changes – as soon as she publishes a new book, I must have it – and I’m never disappointed; her imagination is endless and her storylines still original after decades of writing. In part, at least, some of her popularity and continuing success is in the subtlety and empathy always present in her story telling; in the unique way she has of presenting her out-of-the-ordinary characters as if she herself has walked in their shoes and experienced what they are feeling. Ms. Balogh has used this method to great effect in Someone to Hold, the second book in her Westcott series. And I could name at least two more of her books where I have felt this aspect of her writing very strongly.

In book one (Someone to Love) we met, Lady Camille Westcott, one of the disinherited daughters’ of the deceased Earl of Riverdale. At the will reading Camille and her family are left reeling by the shocking revelation that she and her two siblings are illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was – unbeknownst to anyone – a bigamous one. Camille reacts badly to these revelations and comes over as a thoroughly unlikeable character. But Ms. Balogh shows us that there’s a lot more to Camille than meets the eye.  I ended up liking her a lot and she earned my respect and sympathy, too.

After these life changing revelations Camille hides herself away at her grandmother’s house in Bath, refusing to go out unless heavily veiled. Then one day she wakes up, gives herself a good talking to and decides to take her life in hand – she has done nothing wrong, done nothing to feel ashamed of; she will live her life, such as it is, and hold her head high. She is drawn to the orphanage where her half-sister, Anastasia Westcott, or Anna Snow as she was known, had lived for most of her life and was later employed as a teacher. The orphanage is in need of a teacher once more, the one who had replaced Anna being unsuitable; impulsively Camille offers her services and is taken on on a trial basis. She cannot explain her need to do it, she has no experience with children or of teaching, but something impels her to walk in Anna’s shoes, even going so far as to remove from the luxury of her grandmother’s home and to take up residence in the tiny room Anna had occupied at the orphanage.

Camille meets the earthy, down-to-earth, Joel Cunningham, a man who is as far removed from the perfectly correct aristocrats of her former life as he could be. Joel is also a former inmate of the orphanage and now returns twice weekly to give art lessons to the children in his free time. To make matters worse, he always had a soft spot for Anna – although she never wanted anything from him other than friendship. Joel and Camille begin their acquaintance by irritating each other intensely, but still, they are inexplicably attracted to each other. He reluctantly admires her approach to teaching even though she appears clueless and retains her stiff-upper-lip, starchy persona and rarely smiles. Nevertheless, she has a natural ability and engages the children to such a degree that they look forward to and enjoy her lessons. This is something else I have always noticed about Ms. Balogh’s writing; in her younger life she was a school teacher and it is apparent in the way she understands and talks about children – particularly in this story.

Joel, like Anna Snow before him, has always been supported by an anonymous benefactor; more recently that benefactor has paid for Joel to attend professional art lessons to further develop his natural artistic talent. As a result he has earned himself a reputation in Bath as a superior portrait painter, and Camille’s grandmother has jumped on the bandwagon of the well-heeled inhabitants of Bath and commissioned portraits of her granddaughters. Camille is not best pleased by this plan as it means yet more time in his company whilst he makes preliminary sketches of her. Joel has an unorthodox approach when compared to other portraitists; he likes to get to know and spend time with his subjects, observing them as they chat and capturing an inner something he alone sees – he then pours this knowledge into his art with such great effect that it sets him above his peers. As a result of his observations, he begins to see the real Camille beneath the prim and proper walls she has erected against the pain she has suffered and learned to hide; for years craving her selfish father’s affection but failing to gain even a crumb of his attention. As a result of their interaction, the attraction between them deepens and soon becomes more intense. But there are many hurdles to jump before they can achieve their HEA. Camille can’t just change overnight, raised as she was as a very proper young lady. Joel, on the other hand was brought up in an orphanage – so even though at this point in their lives they are both relatively poor, both illegitimate and, therefore, on the face of it – equal – the chasm between them seems wide indeed.

I loved both these characters – they’re so vulnerable and real. Joel is adorable – if annoying occasionally in his indecisiveness – and Camille has to learn to love and trust him in spite of it while at the same time, attempting to change the habits of a lifetime.  She also needs to believe in the unconditional love of her family and to accept that just because her father failed her doesn’t mean that her extended family has followed suit. The love story between Camille and Joel is a voyage of discovery for both of them as their previously held ideals and prejudices crumble and they learn to accept and admit their love for each other and finally find Someone to Hold against all odds. I enjoyed meeting the family again, too, especially Avery whom I adored in Someone to Love. He is still his omniscient, wise self, still going to great lengths to project his seeming ennui to all around him, whilst barely managing to disguise the deeply caring side of his nature. I am very much looking forward to book three in which we see Alexander – the reluctant earl who inherited his title by default – find his Someone to Wed. This is a lovely series so far and one I highly recommend.

 

Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

Someone to Love (Westcott #1) by Mary Balogh

someone-to-love

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

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

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

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Published by Signet, November 2016

Time and setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Reviewed by Wendy

The new Westcott series from Mary Balogh is looking to be yet another winner for this great lady of Historical Romance. The first in this saga, Someone to Love has an original synopsis with some fascinating characters and with another seven books to follow, I am rubbing my hands together in anticipation.

Anna Snow has lived out twenty-one of her twenty-five years in an orphanage, first as an inmate and latterly as a teacher. Never privy to her origins beyond some few vague, unexplained flashbacks, she has naturally always wondered about her earlier life and her parents; and like most young women in her situation, dreamed that perhaps she is the long lost daughter of distinguished parents. This last seed was planted by virtue of her having known that she has an unknown benefactor. However, that old adage, be careful what you wish for has come home to haunt her as the unexpected arrival of a letter summoning her to London drops her into the middle of a nightmare.

The widow of the recently deceased Earl of Riverdale has long been aware that her husband was secretly supporting an illegitimate child. Now that he is dead she seeks to mitigate any future claims on the new earl; to this end she instructs her solicitor to find the child and make a one off payment. But what follows is beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. Anna, unaware of what awaits her, has been instructed to arrive at the home of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby. On arrival, she is met with derision and suspicion, first by Avery who mistakes her for a servant and then by the late earl’s widow and family, who, believing her to be the earl’s by-blow, are shocked by her attendance at the reading of his last will and testament. What transpires is shocking; the earl had covertly married Anna’s mother and kept her existence and that of their child a secret. He had then married the current Countess only months before the death of Anna’s mother, meaning that Anna is the earl’s only legitimate child, Lady Anastasia Westcott. His three children – including the new earl – are illegitimate, the issue of a bigamous marriage. I loved the way Mary Balogh draws the reader into the familial gathering so that we actually feel the dawning realisation – step by step – of the family’s shocked reactions; denial, shock and despair – as they slowly digest the ramifications and what it will now mean for the earl’s disinherited, illegitimate family. Anna – herself just as shocked – nevertheless remains dignified and calm throughout as she is derided by everyone and then verbally attacked by one of her half-sisters. Her only thought through it all is that at last she has the family she has always craved and how she just wishes to help her stepmother and half-siblings.

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby – who is related to this family through the second marriage of his father, and as nominated guardian of the young earl – has been unobtrusively and quietly observing proceedings. A closed and seemingly impenetrable aristocrat with an unmistakable air of entitlement, he is drawn by the quiet dignity of the newly promoted Lady Anastasia – an attraction he is unable to quantify. An exquisitely beautiful man of only average height and slight build but with a carefully cultivated aura of ennui which he uses to keep people at a distance, he nevertheless does not need to raise his voice nor use anything other than a well aimed look to part crowds or gain complete subservience. On the face of it, the attraction between the understated, plainly dressed Anna and the immaculately elegant figure of Avery is beyond comprehension; nevertheless he feels compelled to take her under his wing and guide her through the pitfalls of a society which is completely alien to her. The development of the relationship between these two complete opposites is expertly and realistically achieved and it’s difficult not to root for them even though their eventual HEA seems unlikely.

Mary Balogh does not need to depend on ridiculous plotlines; her writing and storylines are always quietly addictive and plausible. Avery – no tall dark and handsome Adonis – is nevertheless absolutely delectable and loveable, albeit dangerous and not to be trifled with. His story in itself is compelling; what we learn about his past and how it has shaped the man he is is fascinating and finally he finds someone to love and trust in the delightfully ordinary and quietly determined Anna, herself desperately in need of a family and someone to love.

Someone to Love is a beautiful, gently moving but highly compelling love story with hidden depths. As far as I am concerned nothing that Mary Balogh writes is less than a fantastic read. I loved it and look forward with much anticipation to the next in the series.

Only Beloved (Survivor’s Club #7) by Mary Balogh

only beloved
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For the first time since the death of his wife, the Duke of Stanbrook is considering remarrying and finally embracing happiness for himself. With that thought comes the treasured image of a woman he met briefly a year ago and never saw again.

Dora Debbins relinquished all hope to marry when a family scandal left her in charge of her younger sister. Earning a modest living as a music teacher, she’s left with only an unfulfilled dream. Then one afternoon, an unexpected visitor makes it come true.

For both George and Dora that brief first encounter was as fleeting as it was unforgettable. Now is the time for a second chance. And while even true love comes with a risk, who are two dreamers to argue with destiny?

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Publisher and Release Date: Signet, May 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: 1820s, London and Cornwall, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Dora Debbins, music teacher to the children of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire enjoyed her life, but she still missed her younger sister Agnes, who had lived with Dora for a year after she was widowed. Agnes has recently married and moved away; both she and her husband had encouraged Dora to live with them, but Dora preferred feeling useful. Sometimes her mind wanders back to a party at nearby Middlebury Park, where Dora had played the harp and pianoforte after dinner. The Duke of Stanbrook had been especially kind to her, and Dora had felt more alive than ever in her entire life. But, as a thirty-nine-year-old spinster, Dora allowed herself to entertain no romantic notions.

Meanwhile, at Stanbrook House in London, George Crabbe waved farewell to his house guests and settled into his comfortable library chair, reflecting how nice it was to know that he could do anything, or nothing, with his time. During the past two years, he had traveled hither and yon attending the weddings of all six of his closest friends, all members of the Survivors’ Club. Now the weddings are over, and George finally admits to himself that he is lonely. He wants companionship, and wonders whether Dora Debbins might be the right woman for him.
Imagine Dora’s shock when George appears unexpectedly in her parlor, announces that he has just arrived from London, and asks, “I wondered, Miss Debbins, if you might do me the great honor of marrying me.”

Thus begins the seventh and final book in Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club series. The survivors – five men and one woman – each suffered traumatic injuries in the wars against Napoleon, and the Duke of Stanbrook, whose son had died in battle, opened his estate in Cornwall as a convalescent home. Out of more than two dozen officers who lived there, six had stayed for some three years, and the bond that developed between them was stronger perhaps than those of family. Each of the six previous books focused on one survivor’s struggles, their sometimes incomplete recovery, and their path to happiness in marriage. Although these are romances, Mary Balogh does not sugar-coat the realities of war and its aftermath. For this, she is to be commended, although sometimes it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Only Beloved is quite different from the other books, however. George was not a soldier injured in war. His only child was killed in battle, and shortly thereafter, his wife took her own life. Opening his home to those in need of longer-term care was one way of assuaging his grief. He has appeared in all six books, as a kind of loving father-figure to the others, but we know very little about him, really. And contrary to the standard romance plot, this books begins with the proposal and the wedding, and only afterwards tells the story of George and Dora truly falling in love.

This is a quiet book. Some readers may find the first half or so a bit slow, but I did not, probably because George and Dora are so well-written and their relationship so beautifully and gradually revealed. As an, *ahem*, older reader, I reveled in the notion that this mature couple could find romance and even passion as they experience the ordinary events of everyday life. But, if you’re looking for adventure, this book is not for you. There is no Great Villain or Big Secret shadowing their lives.

There are, however, a villain and some secrets – things which complicate but do not overshadow George and Dora’s lives. It becomes apparent to Dora that George, the deeply compassionate man who took on everyone else’s burdens, has never had anyone with whom to share his. George has suffered tremendously, but he is reticent to share his experience with anyone until his fear of losing Dora convincers him to open up. There is a bit of a mystery here, which is rather well done; I did not anticipate the outcome.

Dora has conflicted feelings about her parents. Her life was almost ruined when her father publicly accused her mother of infidelity. After her mother fled with her supposed lover, her parents divorced, and Dora gave up her hopes for a Season in London to stay home and raise Agnes. The two women have never forgiven their mother and also have some degree of resentment toward their rather distant father for his imprudent public accusation. When Dora learns that her mother, happily remarried for some twenty years, lives in London, that Agnes’ husband has been to see her, and that Agnes refuses do likewise, she is torn. She benefits from George’s huge talent for compassion and understanding, as he supports her through her decision whether to re-establish a relationship with her mother.

George and Dora are expertly drawn. Dora is intelligent, modest, and sensible. Becoming a duchess does not make her giddy (as I believe it would me). Rank is not her purpose in marrying George, and she blossoms under his love and attention. George is downright adorable. His thoughtfulness – buying a harp for Dora, bringing her old piano to Penderris, encouraging her to play and sing for him – made me fall a little bit in love with him myself. They are the focus of the plot, but there are several vivid secondary characters. I was especially touched by the story of Dora’s mother and her husband and repelled by the gossipy Mrs. Parkinson.

I adored the story, and it was great fun to visit with all of the survivors, their spouses, and their growing families. The author spends a good deal of space on the backstory of the Survivors’ Club, which I found distracting. While technically this could be read as a standalone, I think that something would be lost from not knowing more about the Survivors.

Mary Balogh has been writing for more than thirty years, with seventy novels and almost thirty novellas to her credit. I believe that the Survivors’ Club series is her crowning achievement; all seven books are excellent stories of damaged people struggling to achieve some degree of recovery and happiness despite their injuries. I urge you to read them all.

Once Upon a Dream by Mary Balogh & Grace Burrowes

Once Upon a Drea

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In Another Dream by Mary Balogh, Miss Eleanor Thompson has found satisfaction as the director of a respected school for girls. The life of a dedicated educator offers many rewards and much meaning – but also more loneliness than Eleanor anticipated. She accepts an invitation from her sister, Christine, Duchess of Bewcastle, to attend a Bedwyn house party, never dreaming the summer curriculum might include stolen kisses and true love.

In The Duke of My Dreams by Grace Burrowes, banker’s daughter Anne Faraday is cast into the company of Elias, Duke of Sedgemere, at house party in the Lakes. Anne warms to the lonely man and conscientious father behind the title, and Elias becomes enthralled with the brilliant, burdened woman beneath Anne’s genteel facade. Liking turns to love under the Cumbrian summer moon, but family obligations, secrets, and a prodigal duck conspire to thwart the course of true love.

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Publisher and Release Date: Grace Burrowes Publishing, April 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Fair warning to our faithful readers: the following is a giddy fan-girl review.

Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two stories.

I’m giving this book five stars, based upon how very much I enjoyed reading it. Some of my HR friends, whose opinions I respect, have been more critical, with one calling these two novellas “just reader-friendly, predictable, comfort romance reads.” Just?? After some of the stinkers that I have read lately, that sounds like exactly what I want.

Mary Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke of Bewcastle. She appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. (Although Eleanor is pushing forty, she was destined to marry well, as all of the teachers at Miss Martin’s school went on to marry aristocrats.) On her way to a summer house party at Bewcastle’s estate, she stops at an inn to wait out a sudden storm, and while enjoying a quiet cup of tea she is accosted by an overly precocious ten-year-old girl. Georgette Benning is traveling with her young brother and their father. Although it is slightly improper, Eleanor enjoys a lovely dinner with Mr. Benning, and the next morning the travelers go on their separate ways.

Eleanor is quite surprised, therefore, when the Benning family arrives the next day to join Bewcastle’s house party. It turns out that “Mr. Benning” is in fact the Michael Benning, Earl of Staunton, and Christine has invited him with the expectation that he is on the verge of proposing marriage to another guest, a proper young miss with a dragon of a mother. The children have other ideas, however, and their antics help bring Eleanor and Michael together. Interestingly, Wulfric also plays matchmaker and there is a lovely scene where he counsels Eleanor after she confesses her unhappiness with running a school: “Sometimes our dreams lead us in the wrong direction and it would be foolish to continue pursuing them out of sheer stubbornness or the fear of disappointing others. There are other dreams waiting to be dreamed — the right dreams, the ones that will lead to contentment.”

If you haven’t visited Bedwyn World before, this novella probably will not appeal to you. Characters from almost all of the previous books are mentioned, along with the many children they have brought into the world. The plot is not particularly inventive. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of Ms. Balogh’s 1991 story The Best Christmas Ever (recently republished in Christmas Gifts). Young Georgette is a bit too eloquent for a ten-year-old and there is a jarring scene where Michael asks Eleanor whether she is a virgin when it’s clear that even if she is she won’t be for long. But for me, the romance was lovely, and visiting with Wulfric and Christine and rolling down that infamous hill with the rest of the Bedwyns was a joy.

Purely by accident, Grace Burrowes’s story bears some resemblance to Mary Balogh’s. Both feature slightly older and quite independent heroines who fall in love with widowed fathers and in both stories, the children play pivotal roles in bringing the couple together. The respective fathers’ attitude toward their children is quite different, however. Michael Benning is devoted to his, and his prospective fiancee’s desire to send them away to school is his first clue that she may not be the one for him. I had the impression, however, that Ms. Burrowes’ hero, Elias, Duke of Sedgemere, did not dote on his three little boys in the same way. He loved them, of course, but did not quite know what to do with them and frequently found himself apologizing for their behavior when they were just being typical little boys.

At first, Anne Faraday does not seem like the woman to bring this family together. She is the commoner daughter of an immensely wealthy banker, dedicated to taking care of her father. Although she moves among the ton, the ladies really do not like her and the men simply want to marry her money. Elias likes her, however, and when they are thrown together during the house party, he finds himself falling in love with her. She works magic with his little boys and teaches Elias how to let loose and enjoy their company. When they are caught in a compromising situation, however, she adamantly refuses to marry him, for she has a secret that she believes prohibits her from ever marrying. Elias figures out what it is, but this reader did not, and I can’t think of any other historical romance heroine with this particular secret.

At times, it was hard to know whether Anne was falling in love or just in lust. I enjoy a little hotness in my historical romances, but I do think that the author got a bit carried away, what with Elias and Anne getting it on at every available moment and in places where they could easily be caught. I also found that the presence of the Duke of Hardcastle was superfluous to requirements. He is Elias’s best friend and determined to dodge the matchmaking mamas. Other than that, he doesn’t do much. There really wasn’t much time for Burrowes to write those long, heart-felt conversations between gentlemen that she is so good at. If, however, you have read her May I Have This Duke in the anthology Dancing in the Duke’s Arms, you already know that he is going to meet his match when Elias and Anne throw their own house party.

Giving a rating to an anthology can be tricky unless the reader’s opinion of each story is exactly the same. In this case, I give the Balogh story five-plus stars and the Burrowes a four. If, like me, you consider these ladies to be two of the very best historical romance authors publishing today, I am confident that you will enjoy Once Upon a Dream.

A 2015 Retrospective – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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It’s that time of year when we start looking forward to another year of great reads, but also look back on the books we’ve read and enjoyed throughout the previous year. Members of RHR’s team of reviewers have chosen some of their favourite books and audiobooks from 2015; maybe they’re books you read and enjoyed, too, or they’re books you meant to read that got forgotten (so now’s the chance to catch up!).

If we’ve missed YOUR favourite books of last year, be sure to let us know yours in the comments!

Caz’s Favourites:

Stella Riley continues her Georgian-set Rockliffe Series with The Player , in which the hero, Adrian Devereux is forced to return from exile in France in order to assume the title and responsibilities of the Earl of Sarre. He left England under a cloud when he was wrongly suspected of the murder of his fiancée, and simply vanished, making his living as an actor – and an incredibly talented one, at that. But his return is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is that his decade of playing a part has left him unsure of who he is any more. Ms Riley has given us yet another swoonworthy hero in Adrian and her writing is a strong and intelligent as ever. The Player is a truly delightful read with a strong storyline, a well-written, tender romance and a cast of well-developed supporting characters.

It Started with a Scandal is the tenth in Julie Anne Long’s popular Pennyroyal Green series, and is a wonderfully romantic story with a bit of a “Jane Eyre-ish” vibe to it, about two people who don’t quite fit in finding that they fit perfectly with each other. Philippe and Elise are from different spheres of life – he French nobility, she a housekeeper – yet they are both fiercely protective towards those they love and desperate to do the right thing by them. Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, full of sexual tension and wonderfully witty banter, and the book is full of warmth and charm.

Lucinda Brant’s Deadly Peril is a popular choice, and deservedly so. It’s the third in her series of Georgian Historical Mysteries featuring the urbane and fiercely intelligent former diplomat, Alec Halsey, and it’s her best yet – which is saying something considering that the previous books are terrific reads. Here, Alec is made to confront some of the less pleasant aspects of his past as he travels to the German principality of Midanich, a place he had hoped never to see again. The plotting is superb – Ms Brant really does have a devious mind 😉 – and the fictional state of Midanich is so brilliantly evoked that I almost had to look it up on a map to see if it was real!  This book – actually, the whole series – is a must for fans of historical mysteries with a strong element of romance.

Alyssa Everett is one of my favourite authors, and her most recent book, The Marriage Act is a terrific, though not always easy, read.  It’s the story of an estranged couple who agree to reunite solely to assure the heroine’s father that they are happy together, and tells how they gradually begin to see that they have both been guilty of mistaken assumptions and of projecting their own hurts and insecurities onto the other. The characterisation and writing are both excellent, and even though there are times that both act in ways that are far from admirable, Ms Everett has written them in such a way as to ensure that even when the reader is thinking “ouch!”, their motivations are understandable.  The chemistry between John and Caroline is terrific and this is a story in which the messiness of the central relationship feels all the more realistic for not being  perfect.

While I’m a big fan of historical fiction, I was unsure about branching out into “alternate” historical fiction a couple of years back when I read Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy, which is set in a timeline in which Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who lived to inherit the throne. But I was utterly enthralled by the author’s ability to tell a great story while also incorporating a number of real historical events and figures. In The Virgin’s Daughter, Ms Andersen sets up yet another great “what if?” premise by having Elizabeth I married to Philip of Spain and having had a daughter by him. It’s a terrific read, the plot is enjoyably complex (although not confusing), the story is rich in background detail and intrigue and there’s an enjoyable romance running throughout the main story. I’m looking forward to reading more in this entertaining series.

Claudia’s Favourites


M is for Marquess by Grace Callaway

I discovered a new auto-buy author with this book … I’ve now read each of Grace Callaway’s books and loved them – which is exceptional. Gabriel and Thea from this book were two of the best characters I read this year. Both had their difficulties and it was charming to see how they overcame them together, even though it wasn’t always easy for them. This is my favourite book of 2015.

Falling Into Bed with a Duke by Lorraine Heath

This is the first book in a new series by this author, and I loved it. The way these two characters found their way to each other was delightful to read and I can’t wait for the next book.

Love in the Time of Scandal  by Caroline Linden

This is a great book and I really enjoyed how the two central characters worked out their troubles and found a way to each other. Benedict was a delightful hero, he was sweet, warm, charming but could also be wicked (in the nicest way!) and Penelope was the perfect heroine for him. I loved her more for the way she tried to make the best of things.

Lady Wesley’s Favourites:

This was the year that I became an audiobook addict, so for your listening enjoyment I’ve picked some audio titles published in 2015. By the way, I actually have read all of these books and can wholeheartedly recommend the print versions as well.

This year Loretta Chase continued treating her fans to audio versions of some of her classics. The Last Hellion, first published in 1998, pairs Lord Dain’s (Lord of Scoundrels) best friend, Vere Mallory, with crusading female journalist Lydia Grenville. Mallory, who never expected or wanted to be a duke, is probably a bigger reprobate than Dain, and carouses to forget his grief for the loved ones whose untimely deaths elevated him to the Ainsworth dukedom. Grenville, a fearless bluestocking, has no interest in men, and views Ainsworth with utter disdain. The plot is classic battle-of-the-sexes, with dangerous escapades and lots of Chase’s trademark banter. Lord and Lady Dain make cameo appearances, as does Lady Dain’s goofy brother, Bertie Trent, who gets his own HEA. Kate Reading, one of the best in the business, delivers another first-class performance.

Mary Balogh, another leading light in the historical romance genre, continued her Survivors’ Club series with Only a Promise) , narrated by the incomparable Rosalyn Landor. Waterloo survivor Ralph Stockwood, whose wounds are psychic and thus largely invisible to the world, is reluctant to take a wife even though he knows that he needs to. Enter Chloe Muirhead, who wants to marry and have a family but whose hopes have been dashed by scandal in her family. She proposes to Ralph, offering him a marriage of convenience free of pesky feelings of love and desire. Ah, but this is Romance, so it is inevitable that the two will indeed fall in love. Chloe and Ralph are mature adults, however, and thus it is the deliberate, realistic, and poignant manner in which this HEA comes about that distinguishes this story.

Last year, I recommended Grace Burrowes’ entire Captive Hearts trilogy, as I could not pick a favorite from among them, and this year I find myself in a similar quandary. Lucinda Brant, whose books are set in Georgian England, has published three series, but I think the very best is the Alec Halsey Mystery series. The first two volumes – Deadly Engagement and Deadly Affair – came out in audio format in 2015. The third, Deadly Peril, was published in print last month, and the audio version will be issued very soon. Alec Halsey is a career diplomat who was rather chagrined to find himself elevated to a marquessate for services to the crown. He is handsome, intelligent, somewhat enigmatic, intensely honorable, and decidedly his own man, and he gets involved with intrigues and mysteries, while trying to revive his relationship with his first love, a lady who is now a widow. With impressive research and first-class writing, Lucinda Brant vividly recreates 18th century England and deftly combines mystery and romance into one big delightful package that will please fans of both genres. She has found the perfect narrator in British actor Alex Wyndham, whose beautiful baritone perfectly captures the swoon-worthy Halsey, and who is equally adept at voicing females of all ages. Wyndham does not just narrate Brant’s stories, he virtually inhabits Brant’s characters. Listening to him is a joy beyond joy.

Natalie’s Favourites:

The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig

This book was the much awaited ending to Willig’s Pink Carnation series. In the final installment the Pink Carnation herself is finally paired with an intriguing turncoat spy and sparks fly. I adored the entire series, and was very happy with this final instalment that brought closure to several characters in Willig’s trademark style.

Death Comes To Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd

This is the third instalment in the Kurland St. Mary Mysteries and follows the curmudgeonly Major Robert Kurland and Spinster Lucy Harrington as they investigate yet another murder. I fell in love with the first two books in the series because our two main characters are both such anti-heroes but slowly they started coming around and in Death Comes to Kurland Hall they finally declare their feelings toward one another. This book falls more on the side of historical mystery but if you don’t mind a very chaste love story, pick up the first two books and then finish with this one.

Night of the Highland Dragon by Isabel Cooper

This third book in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragons series follows Judith MacAlasdair, the third shape-shifting MacAliasdair, and only female. Judith has been living in the ancestral home for 2 decades and is quickly coming on the moment when she will have to leave to hide her immortality from the townsfolk. But when a stranger turns up at the same time as several brutal murders are discovered, Judith realizes she must stay and protect her neighbors. I had read the first two books in this series a while back and when I started this one I was thrilled to have a female shape-shifter as the heroine of the final book in the series.

Sara’s Favourites:

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
This book had a bit of everything; a deeply tortured hero combined with a strong, supportive and caring heroine. A dark secret and the redeeming power of love. The story was gripping and immersive, giving a reader so much more than just the basic plot of two characters falling in love. It’s an incredible story that I was reluctant to finish, have already re-read, and has made me eager for more.

Diary of an Accidental Wallflower by Jennifer McQuinston
A romance that crosses classes and puts a working man into the spotlight as a hero. What makes the book special is that both main characters have dimension, developing and changing from their experiences throughout the story. The secondary characters are just as appealing and do their job of supporting the story and pushing the main characters in the right directions. This was an early release in the year but still remains a favorite.

I Loved a Rogue by Katharine Ashe
The conclusion to The Prince Catchers series, this story rewards a reader who has followed the breadcrumbs left by the author about her characters and their future. All the threads left hanging from the previous stories are tied up nicely, but the highlight is the romance between two souls kept apart by personal fears and social prejudices. A perfect mix of adventure and emotion in one amazing story.

Wendy’s Favourites:

Deadly Peril by Lucinda Brant: this Georgian mystery, the third in the Alec Halsey series, was just fascinating; it has so many twists and turns that the reader is kept guessing until the last paragraph. A fair indicator of an excellent read as far as I am concerned, is whether I can put it down easily – I couldn’t.

The King’s Man by Alison Stuart: this historical romance set during the English Civil war was my first by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked her characters, especially the hero, a bad boy (well only through circumstances) reformed by the love of a good woman. I look forward to more of this author’s work.

The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye is an historical romance by one of my favourites. Set in the aftermath of Waterloo, it features a compelling hero damaged by his experiences; as I’m fond of dark and angsty, this hit the spot.

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne: again another first for me, I found this very unusual novel, set in Victorian England strangely compelling. Written in a very unusual style it nevertheless appealed to me with its darker side. Not to everyone’s taste, but definitely to mine.

Tall, Dark, and Wicked by Madeleine Hunter: yet another first for me and I loved it. I thought a barrister as a hero a very original and interesting concept; Ms. Hunter is most definitely on my radar now.

 

So these are some of our favourite books of 2015.  I’m sure we could all have picked more that we’ve enjoyed, but these have been the titles that have stuck in our memories and those books we’ve put onto our “keeper” shelves.

We’d love to hear from you about the books you enjoyed last year, so please do join in the discussion in the comments!

happy new year

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caz

Christmas Gifts (anthology) by Mary Balogh

christmas gifts

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Christmas Gifts brings together three previously published and long out-of-print novellas, each on the theme of Christmas gifts that will last forever because the gift, in essence, is love. In The Best Christmas Ever, a boisterous house party is in progress and all the children when asked are eager to tell what they want for Christmas. But one man feels sad, for his young child has not spoken since her mother died and he does not know if the gifts he has bought her will be what she really wants. Unknown to him, her one fervent wish is for a new mother for Christmas, and when she sees one of the guests she knows who that will be. But the lady concerned has an unhappy history with the child’s father. In The Porcelain Madonna a gentleman becomes involved with helping an impoverished lady, who thinks of everyone’s happiness but her own. However, he has seen her gaze with longing at a porcelain madonna well beyond her means displayed in a shop window. In The Surprise Party a man and woman who are antagonistic to each other find themselves landed with the care over Christmas of children who are related to each of them. They quarrel over which of them should undertake the task. It is not a happy situation until the children teach them the true meaning of Christmas, and of love, and they discover that they can do it together.

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Publisher and Release Date: November 2015 by Class Ebook Editions Ltd.

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Mary Balogh has sent us all an early Christmas gift this year, with this anthology of three classic novellas. (She has also published a similar anthology, Christmas Miracles.) Actually, as she enters her thirtieth year of writing historical romance, I tend to think that Mary Balogh’s mere presence in the world is a sort of gift. I have read about two-thirds of her books and have yet to encounter a stinker. It’s very exciting for those of us who prefer ebooks that she has been digitizing many of her out-of-print books.

The three novellas in this collection date back to the 1990s and have long been out-of-print. They are unashamedly sentimental and full of snow, children, sleigh rides, presents, and love. As Ms Balogh recently wrote on her blog:

We expect good things of the Christmas season. We expect peace and goodwill and the warmth and closeness of family celebrating together. We expect love and joy. We expect, in fact, all the elements we look for in a good romance. What better marriage can there be than that between Christmas and romance?

In this blog posting, Ms Balogh also noted something that other authors of Christmas stories should take to heart:

Perhaps the best thing I learned from the writing of those novellas was that the stories could be far more effective if Christmas was an essential element and the story happened as it did because it was Christmas and not just because by pure chance it occurred late in December.

This lesson, I think, is what makes Ms Balogh’s plethora of Christmas novellas so successful. Even readers with Scroogish tendencies (that would be me) can find themselves experiencing the joy of the season.

I haven’t said anything about the plots, as the book blurb above does a fine job of previewing each story. My favorite has to be The Best Christmas Ever, where a motherless girl picks as her new mother a lady completely unsuitable for her father. And then there’s The Surprise Party, where the needs of three orphaned children help two people overcome the bitterness they have felt toward one another for years. But then, I also liked The Porcelain Madonna, in which the Earl of Bah Humbug learns about the Christmas spirit from a penniless young woman. Oh, never mind, I can’t really pick a favorite. All three are sweet, sentimental, utterly delightful, and guaranteed to deliver the best that Christmas has to offer.

Christmas Gifts and Christmas Miracles are specially priced at US$ 1.99 during the month of December. So why not click on the links above and give yourself a gift.

Only a Promise (Survivor’s Club #5) by Mary Balogh

only a promise

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Ralph Stockwood prides himself on being a leader, but when he convinced his friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, he never envisioned being the sole survivor. Racked with guilt over their deaths, Ralph must move on…and find a wife so as to secure an heir to his family’s title and fortune.

Since her Seasons in London ended in disaster, Chloe Muirhead is resigned to spinsterhood. Driven by the need to escape her family, she takes refuge at the home of her mother’s godmother, where she meets Ralph. He needs a wife. She wants a husband. So Chloe makes an outrageous suggestion: Strike a bargain and get married. One condition: Ralph has to promise that he will never take her back to London. But circumstances change. And to Ralph, it was only a promise.

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Publisher and Release Date: Signet, 9th June 2015

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: 1820s England
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

All the books in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series take as their central protagonist a character who has been seriously injured by war. Sometimes these are physical injuries, as with Sir Benedict Harper (of The Escape), who lost the use of his legs, and sometimes they are mental, as with Flavian Ponsonby (hero of the previous book – and my favourite of the series so far – Only Enchanting). In each case, the author has approached her characters’ injuries and disabilities sensitively and un-sentimentally, showing how difficult it has been for each of them to regain anything resembling a normal life following their terrible experiences, and has matched each of them so far with a heroine who has her own, though different, dragons to slay.

Ralph Stockwood is Earl ofBerwick and heir to his grandfather, the Duke of Worthingham. The duke is ailing, and Ralph knows that it is past time for him to his duty – he must marry and produce a son as soon as possible so as to ensure the succession. He won’t shirk his duty, but is far from overjoyed at the prospect of having to select a wife from the year’s crop of simpering misses just out of the schoolroom. He returned from war a very different man to the outgoing, optimistic one who went off, accompanied by his closest friends, to fight for king and country; and even though he has returned to society following the three years he spent convalescing at Penderris Hall with his fellow Survivors, he is plagued by an inner darkness and a feeling of emptiness that makes him reluctant to condemn any young woman to a life with him.

Chloe Muirhead is the grand-daughter of the duchess’s dearest friend, and is on an indefinite visit to Manville Court. Her life has been tainted by scandal, none of it of her making. Her first season had to be delayed due to mourning so she did not make her début until she was twenty-one, making her several years older than that year’s crop of eager, marriageable young misses. She nonetheless garnered an offer of marriage, but her fiancé cried off when her younger sister ran off with a married man, by whom she was expecting a child. Some years later, Chloe returned to society, only to find herself “cut” by the ton, because of speculation about her parentage.

Humiliated once more, Chloe fled London, her hopes of marriage and children dashed – but she needed some breathing space away from home, hence her stay with the duke and duchess.

She overhears a discussion between Ralph and his grandmother in which they discuss his need for a wife, and Chloe thinks that perhaps she has a solution to both their problems. Even though she finds Ralph somewhat forbidding, she suggests to him that they marry. She wants to be married and he needs to be married – she will give him an heir, and he will give her a home and a comfortable life. But love, romance and affection are most definitely NOT on the table as far as Ralph is concerned, he does not wish Chloe to know him or he to know her. Chloe’s main wish is to live the rest of her life well away from the glare of London society, and as Ralph is as keen to do that as she is, she is content with what is on offer.

The Marriage of Convenience is probably my favourite trope in historical romance, so the premise of this story naturally appealed to me very much. I enjoyed watching Ralph and Chloe coming to the gradual realisation that it is not feasible – or desirable – to live a life devoid of companionship at the very least. Chloe senses the emptiness inside Ralph, but because of their bargain, doesn’t ask him about it, no matter that she knows it’s eating away at him. He keeps reminding her that he’s a shell of a man with nothing to offer – he has been so badly traumatised by the things he experienced during the war that he has walled off his emotions and wishes never to feel again. There are times, I admit, when Ralph is difficult to like because of the way he treats Chloe and deliberately shuts her out, sometimes quite cruelly. There are reasons for this, of course, but it is still difficult to read.

Chloe is an engaging heroine, and I liked her rather fatalistic approach to life. None of the problems she has encountered are her fault, and even though she is more or less resigned to an uneventful life, she puts on a brave face and just gets on with it. Her proposal to Ralph takes a lot of courage, as do many of the things she does later in the book, and if I have a niggle, it’s that it takes her a bit too long to protest her husband’s sometimes callous treatment of her in the early stages of their marriage.

Ralph’s emotional scars run deep and his journey back to the land of the living is a difficult one. Chloe has fears of her own to face, too, but face them she does, with Ralph’s help and support. His growing realisation that he can’t maintain his emotional distance from Chloe, and the way in which she gradually worms her way under his skin and into his heart are very well-portrayed and often very poignant.

Ralph and Chloe are well-drawn, sympathetic characters, and one of their strengths as a couple is that, despite a rocky start, they actually TALK to each other and behave like responsible adults. There is an equally strong secondary cast, in particular Ralph’s grandparents and Chloe’s brother, Graham, and a number of the other Survivors make cameo appearances. In spite of the very small reservations I’ve mentioned, Only a Promise is a terrific read, and certainly a worthy addition to this enjoyable series.

Only Enchanting (Survivor’s Club #4) by Mary Balogh

only enchanting

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The Survivors’ Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, in the fourth novel of the Survivors’ Club series, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation—in the love of a most unsuspecting woman . . . .

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée’s desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back — and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love — and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she’s determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

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Publisher and Release Date: Signet, 28 October 2014

RHT Classifications:
Time and Setting: Regency England, Gloucestershire, Sussex & London
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 Stars

Review by Lady Wesley

This is the fourth installment in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series, and while all of them have been good, this one is first-rate. It delivers what we’ve come to expect from Ms Balogh – engaging, fully-developed characters, impeccable plotting, and a happily ever after that is not easily earned. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next, the result being that I read it in less than one day.

As the book opens, it’s time for the members of the Survivors Club to gather for their annual reunion, but instead of going to Penderris Castle in Cornwall, they journey to Middlebury Park, the Gloucester estate of Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh. This change in venue comes about because Vincent’s wife, Sophia, has recently given birth, and he doesn’t want to leave her.

Living near Middlebury Park is Sophia’s closest friend, Agnes Keeping, a widow who resides with her older sister, Dora, a music teacher.

At the age of twenty-six, Agnes Keeping has never been in love or ever expected to be – or even wished to be. She rather chooses to be in control of her own emotions and her own life, such as it is.

Agnes was married at age 18 to an older man, “a neighboring gentleman of sober address,” and while there was no love between them, there was affection, and Agnes was content. She leads a prosaic life in the village of Inglebrook and is satisfied with painting, tending house, and visiting with neighbors. She is wary of romantic passion, which was, as we learn later, her mother’s downfall.

Agnes and Dora attend a Harvest Ball at Middlebury Park and into her life strolls Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby. Flavian is handsome, witty, charming, and aloof, but his affable exterior masks enduring scars. He inherited his title only upon the death of his beloved brother, David. Shortly thereafter, Flavian suffered grievous head injuries in the Peninsular Wars. He was brought home unable to speak or even think coherently. When his fiancée, Velma, jilts him to marry his best friend, all he can do is fly into a fit of sputtering rage. Fortunately, he was taken in by the Duke of Stanbrook and spent three years recuperating with the other members of the Survivor’s Club, but he still speaks with a stammer and suffers from memory loss, headaches, and occasional outbursts of temper.

At the Harvest Ball, Flavian dances with Agnes, twice, and almost against her will Agnes falls ridiculously, hopelessly in love. The next day, Flavian leaves, and Agnes expects never to see him again. Six months later, though, he returns for the Survivor’s Club gathering, and although he can’t quite remember Agnes’s name, he is pleased to see her again. He does recall dancing with her though and later tells her, “I expected you to be s-sensible, but you were enchanting instead.”

Flavian and Agnes spend time together, exchanging the stories of their lives along with a few kisses. When Flavian suddenly proposes marriage, it is hard to know who is more surprised, but eventually Agnes accepts, and they are married by special license the next day. But there are surprises in store when they arrive at Arnott House in London, for awaiting them there are Flavian’s family along with the now-widowed Velma and her parents. All of them are expecting Flavian and Velma to reunite and marry, and they are unhappily surprised to learn that Flavian has married a nobody from nowhere. Moreover, Agnes is unhappily surprised to learn that Flavian has married her in order to be free from his family’s manipulations.

Flavian and Agnes are faced with a choice, and Agnes’s first inclination is to flee – back to her lonely but safe life in Inglebrook. But it turns out that Agnes is made of sterner stuff, and Flavian is desperate to keep her in his life. They are young, but mature beyond their years, and they address their problems directly and candidly.

Agnes is a wonderful heroine. It was great fun to watch her stand up to Flavian’s mother, to Velma, and even to the dragon ladies of the ton, who have their claws out after the truth about Agnes’s mother comes out. As Agnes comes into her own, Flavian begins to remember more about David’s death and about his own troubled relationship with Velma. Agnes and Flavian talk to one another about their problems like mature adults, which happens all too seldom in romance.

With her trademark faultless execution and insight, Mary Balogh shows how these two emotionally scarred people work together to address their problems and find the true meaning of love. They make a beautiful couple, and I highly recommend this book.