This month’s TBR Challenge prompt invites us to go into the Wayback Machine, or at least the Kinda Wayback Machine. Tasked with reading something more than ten years old, we both dug into our book stacks. Caz read a classic category novel by Mary Burchell, while Lynn went with a somewhat newer (though not quite new) historical from Cara Elliott. We both had a good month, so check it out!

To Sin With a Scoundrel by Cara Elliott

I have a lot of older romances in my stash, so normally the “read a book at least ten years old” prompt is easy-peasy. I must be feeling a little contrary this year because everything I’m REALLY wanting to read seems to be of the shiny and new variety. So, I’m fudging it a little bit. To Sin With a Scoundrel is actually a 2010 release (though it’s early 2010, so I’m technically reading a book that’s 9.5 years old here!!) I’ve been off historicals a bit this year, and this novel really was a breath of fresh air to me.

First of all, I loved that we got to see the lead characters both being exactly what we’re told they are. Lady Ciara Sheffield really is something of a recluse, and she’s the real deal when it comes to scientist heroines. She experiments in her home, and participates actively in a women’s intellectual society. Likewise, not only are we told that Lucas, Earl of Hadley is a rake – complete with a catchy nickname – but we see him in action. Given some of his opening scenes in the book, it’s fair to say that he is no fake rake.

For a fake engagement to work, there has to be a truly believable reason for it. Ciara has believability in spades. Not only was her late husband an abusive jerk, but he has grasping relatives who want to get control of her son so that they can then control his inheritance. Said relatives have embarked on a whisper campaign to convince both Society and the authorities that Ciara murdered her husband.This leaves Ciara in a vulnerable position.

And then there’s Lucas. He’s got a terrible reputation in the scandal sheets, and is also in a bit of a pickle. He may not take much in his life seriously, but he does dearly love the uncle who raised him. Said uncle has stumbled upon a mysterious manuscript which needs translating and Ciara may be just the person for the job. So the two strike a bargain. A false engagement will help defend Ciara from the whispering campaign as well as help Lucas appear at least a little less disreputable. Throw in some work on the manuscript and a spicy side-bet involving the study of ornithology and we’re off to the races.

Lucas and Ciara are quite fun. They clearly have different worldviews, and I loved how they engaged with each other. There’s banter, but real discussion, too. And the author does a wonderful job both of showing the man behind Lucas’ rakish attitude as well as showing his gradual evolution as he comes first to appreciate Ciara and then to really fall for her.

I’m normally not pro-kids in romances because they’re often props rather than characters. However, Ciara’s son Peregrine is a believable seven/eight-year-old boy. And his relationship with Lucas adds to the story as well as letting readers see sides of both leads that otherwise would not have been conveyed. The friendships shown in this book – Lucas with his uncle, Ciara with her scientific society – also give the story a richness that I appreciated. There’s a warmth to this book that made me feel welcomed into a circle of good company.

There are a few slow parts to the story, and the great dramatic climax with the villain at the end felt a little tacked on. However, I still greatly enjoyed myself while reading this book and I’ve already picked up the sequel.

~ Lynn Spencer

Grade:      B                   Sensuality Rating:  Warm

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

The Broken Wing by Mary Burchell

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.

Grade: B-                        Sensuality Rating: Kisses

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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