My first 2016 pick for book of the month is Silent Melody by Mary Balogh, which was originally released in 1997 and again in August last year in a repackaged trade format. I'd never read the original book, and when I read the cover copy I was a bit leery. Emily Marlowe, the female protagonist, has been a deaf mute since childhood. Profoundly handicapped heroines are incredibly difficult to write, particularly when they can't hear or speak dialogue. Also (for obvious reasons) it's often painful for me personally to read this sort of story.
Mary Balogh doesn't use deafness as an element of entertainment in this novel. It's something that defines Emily's character physically, and certainly creates obstacles for her in every day life. But this isn't the deaf girl love story you might think. Emily herself isn't emotionally crippled by her inability to hear or (at least at the beginning of the book) speak. Much like the blind hero Mary wrote in her Survivor's Club series, Emily copes with her handicap, tries to keep it from ruining her life, and ultimately boots it off center stage by sheer force of personality. This isn't the poor little deaf girl trotted out to make everyone instantly sympathetic. Actually there were a couple of times I wanted to shake Emily until her teeth rattled.
As a writer I know what a technical challenge this book had to be to write, but what I loved about the story was that it didn't focus on Emily's deafness as the hub of all conflict. That was nicely handled by the male protagonist, Emily's brother-in-law, Lord Ashley Kendrick. Probably one of the most screwed up romantic heroes I've read in a long time. Ashley's life seriously and repeatedly derails as he and Emily are brought together, and it doesn't end there. The guy is a walking train wreck. I felt so sorry for Ashley that when he behaved like a complete ass with Emily I really wasn't surprised. From there I was hooked, and as the twists and turns of the story swept me along I kept thinking, Okay, I got this now -- and then in the next chapter I found out I didn't. What should have been a simple love story turned out to be a very twisted, suspenseful read that evolves so beautifully that by the time I finished it I was pretty much speechless.
Bottom line: beautiful story, terrific read, and the kind of quality writing we just don't see anymore out there in historical romance land. I highly recommend Mary Balogh's Silent Melody, and predict it will be one of the best romances you'll read in 2016.