This month’s prompt for the multi-blog TBR Challenge is one that is fairly simple for a lot of voracious readers. We simply have to choose a book from an author represented more than once in our TBR towers (let’s get real – who has a small pile anymore?). Both of us went with historical picks this time – one set in England, one set in the American West. And as you will see, we both had mostly positive experiences this month.

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.”

Caz Owens

Grade: B                           Sensuality: Subtle

Buy it at: A/BN/iB/K

Beverly Jenkins has been an autobuy for me ever since I was first introduced to her books as a reviewer. Since our prompt this month calls for reading an author with more than 1 book in our TBR, it was an easy call for me. I tend to accumulate books far more rapidly than I read them (I know, I know), so I have 3 or 4 of Jenkins’ on my shelves.  I’ve heard great things about her Old West series, so I decided to go with Forbidden, published in 2016 and the first book in the series.

The premise of this story intrigued me right off the bat. Rhine Fontaine grew up enslaved in Georgia until the Civil War set him free. Given that he was conceived as the result of his white father assaulting his black mother, not to mention that he spent his childhood being resented  by his father’s wife, his life has contained no small amount of pain. He left his difficult past behind and headed west to build a life for himself.

The main story opens in Nevada. It’s 1870, and Rhine has established himself as a successful saloon owner and investor in Virginia City. Due to his coloring, he has been able to pass as white and this has allowed him to build a secure life for himself more easily than if he had not. Throughout the story, readers will see Rhine’s consciousness of his status and his inner conflict over this issue. On the one hand, Rhine goes out of his way to help black business owners and he welcome people of all races into his saloon. However, he keeps his own past firmly secret and as of the beginning of the book, he seeks to solidify his position in town by courting the daughter of a prominent white family.

Eddy Carmichael’s position differs vastly from that of Rhine. Working as a cook in Denver, she dreams of moving to California and hopefully saving enough money to open a restaurant there. As she plans her journey, we see how growing racism has narrowed her prospects and made it more difficult for her to earn a living in Denver. When she sets out for California, she not only faces the usual dangers of a woman traveling alone, but she is at times spoken to in more racist ways such as being called “girl” or later in Nevada, having white people behave as though she were invisible.

After being robbed and left for dead in the desert, Eddy is rescued by Rhine, who happens by just in time to save her. He helps her find lodging in Virginia City, and a job as cook in her landlady’s boardinghouse. Luckily for Eddy, her landlady Sylvie is not only a good boss, but becomes a good friend who helps her find her footing in the community. Rhine surprises himself by feeling quite taken by Eddy and he shows up in her life on all manner of pretexts.

Given that just about everyone in the story believes Rhine to be white, race is one of the main sources of tension in this romance. While conditions are not as bad as those faced in the South, Eddy still encounters daily reminders that her community is expected to live separately from their white neighbors in many respects. The local schools are integrated, but many other aspects of social life are not and a biracial couple would be all but unthinkable.  And for Rhine, disclosing the truth about his background could endanger everything he has worked for. As a prominent citizen in Virginia City, pursuit of a relationship with Eddy could cost him dearly.

As usual, Jenkins does a good job of weaving plenty of history into her story. For that reason, I found Forbidden a fascinating read. However, the historical background also led me to my one major frustration with this book. Toward the end, Jenkins introduces a crazed villain. Given the inherent tension that Rhine’s passing causes in his relationship with Eddy, the villain’s doings just felt tacked on and unnecessary. Instead of devoting time to that subplot, I found myself wishing that Jenkins had explored Rhine and Eddy’s story – and the decisions that ultimately must be made – a bit more deeply. There’s a lot of material and a lot of emotion woven into the decisions that these characters make about race and I would have liked to understand them a little better.  The story that readers get is good, but I have to admit I wanted more.

Lynn Spencer

Grade:   B                        Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: A/BN/iB/K

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.