The “comfort read” prompt for this month’s TBR Challenge can be a tough one, as often the books that spring to mind are those well-read tomes to which we come back time after time… which doesn’t help to shave anything off our massive TBR piles. So instead, Caz and Lynn turned to favourite authors, and came up trumps with a couple of excellent reads.

Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B             Sensuality: Subtle

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

The Most Marvellous Summer by Betty Neels

As far as TBR Challenges go, “comfort reads” always makes for a tough prompt. My definition of a comfort read generally involves rereading a much-loved book. It doesn’t do much to whittle down the TBR mountain, but such is life. After some thought and rummaging through my bookcases, I surfaced with a Betty Neels book I somehow hadn’t read. Betty Neels’ novels at their best are the perfect comfort reads. Published in 1992, The Most Marvellous Summer is one of her later works – and it is sublime.

In an unusual (for Neels) twist, this book doesn’t take place in a hospital and the heroine isn’t a nurse. Beautiful, red-headed Matilda is the daughter of a vicar and she works as a secretary for the unbearably stuck-up Lady Fox. And unusual for romance in general, Matilda ffinch (that really is her last name, I know, I know) is part of a happy family with two parents who are actually alive. The family doesn’t have much money, but it’s obvious that they are close and as a reader, I found that refreshing.

The story begins with a strong bolt of love at first sight. While sitting in church, Matilda spies a very handsome man sitting with the local doctor. She is instantly smitten. The object of her affections turns out to be one James Scott-Thurlow, a well-respected surgeon. Matilda figures she will never see him again after church, but he turns up the very next day as he comes to visit her employer’s home.

And as it happens, their paths just keep crossing. Even though Lady Fox is seriously unpleasant, her daughter Roseanne gets on quite well with Matilda. This results in Matilda being hired to accompany Roseanne on a visit to her aunt in London as a companion of sorts. Apparently Lady Fox is concerned that the shy, awkward Roseanne might decide to run off with unsuitable young men if she isn’t travelling with a minder of sorts. While in London, Roseanne meets the man of her dreams and Matilda crosses paths once again with the handsome James.

As you can guess from the summary, Betty Neels specializes in writing quiet stories. You won’t find spies of tons of quickly moving action, but you will find yourself gradually woven into a comfortable fairytale world where good heroines are rewarded with devoted doctor husbands and everyone gets to eat comfort food galore. This isn’t the kind of book that gets the heart racing, but it does leave one with a nice case of the warm fuzzies.

Even though Neels tends to write quiet stories, they don’t lack for conflict. In this case, James is already engaged to another, so while Matilda is quite smitten with him, she knows that nothing can ever happen between them. Matilda may meet acquaintances of James along the way who are convinced of her superiority to James’ current fiancee, but Matilda continues to be honorable and treat the engagement as completely real.  The fiancee is not a very nice person and her interests don’t align very well with James’ at all, so it’s really not hard to see what will eventually happen.  Still fun to be along for the ride, though.

The Most Marvellous Summer is perfect if you’re ever in the mood for a sweet summer romance. The beautiful girl gets the handsome doctor and by the end of the book, all is right in the world for almost everyone in the story. That certainly fits the bill for a comfort read in my library.

Grade:     A-         Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

Lynn Spencer
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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.