published by New American Library in June 2012
When his family abandoned him at Eton, Benedict Hastings found an unexpected ally in his best friend’s sister. Her letters kept him going—until the day he had to leave everything behind. Years later, Benedict has seen his share of betrayal, but when treachery hits close to home, he turns to his old friend for safe haven...Genre: Historical romance
After five torturous years on the marriage circuit, Lady Evelyn Moore is finally free to live her life as she wishes. So when her brother shows up with a dashing stranger, she finds herself torn between her dreams...and newfound desires. Despite his determination to keep Evie at a distance, Benedict cannot deny the attraction that began with a secret correspondence. Yet as they begin to discover one another, the dangers of Benedict’s world find them, threatening their lives, their love, and everything they thought they could never have...
Series: Sealed with a Kiss series, Book #1
The Story: More Than a Stranger starts with Evie, at the age of 11, receiving a letter from her older brother, and also best friend, Richard who's left home for school at Eton. His latest letter - as the previous ones - is full of "Hastings this" and "Hastings that." Feeling threatened, Evie pens a letter to Richard's new friend, Benedict Hastings, warning him off Richard since her brother already has a best friend - her. What ensues is years of friendly and witty correspondence between Evie and Benedict... till days before graduation when the two were set to meet for the first time. Benedict, having been recruit to be an agent of the Crown, figures he should cut all ties with his previous life and therefore sends a hurtful letter to Evie, ensuring that their friendship is over.
Years later, Benedict shows up at Richard's doorstep in London in need of a favor. Benedict's latest mission has taken a bad turn and could ruin his career, but more importantly, his family. While he figures things out, Benedict needs a place to hide, preferably in the country. However, when they arrive at Hertford Hall - Richard's family home, Benedict is in for a surprise: Richard's family has yet to leave for London for the Season. It turns out that the delay is due to Evie campaigning at her mother to skip the Season and the marriage mart as she has no intention to fall in love and marry someone. Instead, all she wants is to work in her father's stables with the horses. But Evie's plans might change with the arrival of Richard's handsome friend, Mr. James Benedict, whom she gets along famously well... as if they've been friends for a long, long time...
My Opinion: I was excited to read More Than a Stranger because of the blurb, but also because it was a historical romance from New American Library - same publishing house as Emma Wildes. Yes I know, I can be a dork sometimes, keeping track of publishers. Anyway, I find Ms Wildes' historical romance refreshing and I was hoping for the same from Ms Knightley :)
After reading More Than a Stranger, my first thought was that it was a great effort for a debut novel. I think Ms Knightley displayed great writing and understanding of characters. The characters were likable, the romance enjoyable and the relationships, well-developed :) As a result, I loved the first half of the book where the focus was on the characters and their relationships. I really enjoyed reading the correspondence between Evie and Benedict - of which we got snippets at the beginning of each chapter. I thought it was a great way for Ms Knightley to impart more of Evie and Benedict's personalities and wits to the readers. However, nothing beats the first letter Evie wrote to Benedict, telling him Richard already had a best friend and therefore to leave her brother alone, LOL. It's so childish, but at the same time, such a normal reaction :) And really, two thumbs up to Evie for taking such initiative LOL. Despite this great opening, I have to admit that while very likable, I didn't feel Evie and Benedict were memorable characters. And I did like Evie more for overcoming a broken heart and being more determined.
The strength of More Than a Stranger would be the relationships and interactions between the characters. Not just of Evie and Benedict, but with Evie's family such as her brother Richard, younger sister Bea and even her parents. I enjoyed Evie and Benedict's relationship because it was great fun - lots of witty comments and banter :) I also really enjoyed the dynamics of the Moore family. It was nice that for a change, the parents were reasonable and got along well with each other and with the children. It was also good to see that Evie and Richard were still very close, even after growing into adults. A lot of time, it feels older brothers are introduced into historical romances simply to be an obstacle to the romance, to be overbearing and over-protective ^_^; It was clearly not the case in More Than a Stranger, you could see a connection between the two siblings :) As for Bea, well LOL. Poor Bea, trying to help out, but being treated as a little sister and getting frustrated. It's nice to have younger sister acting like a younger sister :P By the way, she's the one who inspired me to take a picture of the keyhole. Speaking of relationship, I liked Richard and Benedict's friendship :P Especially the part when Richard was angry at Benedict for bringing danger, but at the end of the day, still helped Benedict out because friendship prevailed.
Unfortunately, what didn't work for me was the whole secondary storyline of Benedict being a Crown Agent. I felt Ms Knightley focused too much on the characters, relationships and romance in the first half and as a result, the Crown Agent storyline just wasn't well integrated into the main story. Also, Tracy nailed it in her review when she said it felt like two separate stories, especially because the change in the tone is quite drastic. And the biggest issue is by the time Ms Knightley addressed the Crown Agent storyline, I just wasn't interested in it anymore. All I wanted was more of the romance.
One other thing that bothered me was that Benedict knew there was a risk of danger with his presence. He kept telling himself he had to let Evie go, there was no future - not under the current circumstances. So why did he keep going after Evie, starting something between the two, putting himself through it. I felt he could help himself. Let her go and once everything is settled, come back! ^_^; And of course, you had the whole part about him keeping his identity secret from her that didn't help matters. I just felt that Benedict knew better and he could have handled things differently, especially when his conscience was telling him to.
Finally, the crux of Benedict's problem was his family and throughout the book, there was a constant reminder of how Benedict is not close to his family. His family and the Moores keep being contrasted. I think it would have helped if we had a better picture of Benedict's family and the distance was explained... Or at least, some concrete explanations other that Benedict is the spare.
My Grade: B-. There were flaws in More Than a Stranger, but none of them deal-breakers. I think Ms Knightley simply has to tighten the plot and make the book more balanced. Otherwise, I thought More Than a Stranger was a solid debut novel with a lot to enjoy and like. I will definitively pick up a book by this author in the future :)