Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

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On the verge of a stilted life as an aristocrat’s wife, Poppy Hammond does the only sensible thing—she flees the chapel in her wedding gown. Assisted by the handsome curate who calls himself Sebastian Cantrip, she spirits away to her estranged father’s quiet country village, pursued by the family she left in uproar. But when the dust of her broken engagement settles and Sebastian disappears under mysterious circumstances, Poppy discovers there is more to her hero than it seems.

With only her feisty lady’s maid for company, Poppy secures employment and travels incognita—east across the seas, chasing a hunch and the whisper of clues. Danger abounds beneath the canopies of the silken city, and Poppy finds herself in the perilous sights of those who will stop at nothing to recover a fabled ancient treasure. Torn between allegiance to her kindly employer and a dashing, shadowy figure, Poppy will risk it all as she attempts to unravel a much larger plan—one that stretches to the very heart of the British government, and one that could endanger everything, and everyone, that she holds dear.

Rating: A-

You know how sometimes you read the opening line or two of a book, and not only does it hook you immediately, but you can just tell it’s going to be a great read? Well, Night of a Thousand Stars is one of those books.

It opens with Penelope Hammond, step-daughter of a rich American industrialist running out on her wedding to a stodgy viscount’s heir with the help of a rather attractive and delightfully unflappable curate. He introduces himself as Sebastian Cantrip, and agrees to drive her to her father’s house in Devon. On the way, Penelope explains that she prefers to be called by her nickname “Poppy”, and that her last name isn’t actually Hammond, because her step-father has never legally adopted her. Her actual last name is March.

Which is where I might have squealed, just a little bit.

Because – as anyone who has read any of the books in Ms Raybourn’s series of Victorian mysteries will know – March is the maiden name of the eponymous Lady Julia; and as Poppy’s father turns out to be none other than Eglamour, or “Plum” March, it makes Lady Julia Poppy’s aunt.

Having safely deposited Poppy with her father, the obliging curate leaves the following morning, which, for some reason she can’t fathom, leaves her feeling a little flat.

Poppy’s parents are divorced and while her step-father treats her as one of the family, she has never really felt as though she belonged. She was the same at school, her quick wit and adventurous nature getting her into trouble more often than not. She tries to live up to her mother’s expectations of what a young lady should be and gets engaged to a worthy – if dull – young man, but no matter what she does, she just doesn’t do “conventional”. Reading her aunt’s journals (the first of which is entitled Silent in the Grave), something finally clicks for Poppy, and she determines it’s time to be herself rather than try to fit in with other people’s expectations. She wants to have a “little adventure”, and decides to start by going to London – where she will have to put on a brazen front to brave the gossip – in order to find Mr Cantrip so that she can thank him properly for his assistance.

Returning to the church from which she ran away, she is disturbed to discover that the curate is in fact a Mr. Hobbs, who tells her that the name Cantrip is actually an archaic Scottish word meaning “trick”. Something is obviously not right, which makes Poppy – who has started to believe that perhaps Sebastian is in some sort of trouble – even more determined to track him down.

Her investigations eventually lead her to discover that Sebastian – whose real last name is Fox – has travelled to the Holy Land and Poppy must find a way to follow him there.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – Narrated by Laura Paton

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Fiery, strong-willed Deb Grantham, who presides over a gaming house with her aunt, is hardly the perfect wife for the young and naive Lord Mablethorpe. His lordship’s family is scandalized that he proposes to marry one of “faro’s daughters”, and his cousin the proud, wealthy Max Ravenscar – decides to take the matter in hand. Ravenscar always gets his way, but as he and Miss Grantham lock horns, they become increasingly drawn to each other. Amidst all the misunderstandings and entanglements, has Ravenscar finally met his match?

Rating: B+ for narration, B for content

It’s been quite some time since I read Faro’s Daughter, and given my memories of it are rather hazy, listening to this was almost like listening to something completely new. It’s a little different to many of the author’s other romances in that the heroine, while certainly well-born, is not “respectable” because she runs the genteel gaming establishment that is owned by her aunt, Lady Bellingham. It also contains one of the most highly antagonistic central relationships that I can remember reading in her books – the hero and heroine’s barbed banter is often cutting to the point of unpleasantness and in fact, some of the epithets the hero flings at the heroine’s head are downright offensive.

Deborah Grantham and her younger brother were taken in by their aunt upon the death of their father, a man with a large appetite for gaming and very little luck. Lady Bellingham opens her home to “select gaming parties” as a way of making ends meet; preserving the illusion that people attend by invitation only allows her to maintain a façade of respectability.

Deborah is quick-witted, intelligent and practical, although at twenty-six years of age, she is pretty much on the shelf, and the fact that she presides over her aunt’s gaming salon renders her ineligible as a wife for any man of good breeding. Yet the young Viscount Maplethorpe professes himself in love with her and makes clear his desire to marry her – which throws his mother into a panic. She cannot possibly countenance Adrian’s marrying a common hussy – and while he is not yet of age, his birthday in two months’ time will see him finally independent and able to bestow his person and his considerable fortune anywhere he pleases.

In her desperation to prevent such an imprudent marriage, Lady Maplethorpe turns to her nephew, Max Ravenscar for help. Ravenscar is Adrian’s other guardian and is very shrewd, incredibly wealthy, doesn’t care much for society and cares even less for society’s opinion of him. He’s used to getting his own way, and is sure that he can avert disaster by offering the wench money to leave Adrian alone. He attends Lady Bellingham’s that evening to see “this cyprian of Adrian’s” – and is surprised to discover that she is not at all what he had expected. Far from looking, sounding or behaving like a trollop, Miss Grantham is rather lovely

“built on queenly lines, [she] carried her head well, and possessed a pretty wrist, and a neatly turned ankle. She looked to have a good deal of humour, and her voice, when she spoke, was low-pitched and pleasing.”

and he finds himself able to completely understand the reasons for his young cousin’s infatuation.

What Max has no way of knowing is that Deborah has not the slightest intention of marrying Adrian. She is well aware that the young man is merely suffering from a severe case of calf-love and has never given him the slightest encouragement or occasion to believe that she will accept his suit. She is sure he will soon grow out of his attachment to her and is quite happy to let things run their course, in spite of the fact that her aunt keeps dropping massive hints to the effect that Adrian’s fortune would obliterate their financial worries.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee

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In a Mayfair ballroom, beautiful Emma Northcote stands in amazement. For gazing at her, with eyes she’d know anywhere, is Ned Stratham—a man whose roguish charm once held her captivated.

But that was another life in another part of London.

With their past mired in secrets and betrayal, and their true identities now at last revealed, Ned realizes they can never rekindle their affair. For only he knows that they share a deeper connection—one that could make Emma hate him if she ever discovered the truth….

Rating: B-

Margaret McPhee packs a surprising emotional punch into the pages of The Gentleman Rogue, the story of a young, well-born woman whose fortunes have taken a downward turn and a self-made man who, despite his wealth is still relegated to the outskirts of the society to which the heroine once belonged.

Emma Northcote was brought up a lady but after her brother Kit staked – and lost – the family fortune in a game of chance, she and her father have been forced to move to a much less salubrious area of London and take employment in order to keep body and soul together. (How realistic it is for two ex-Mayfair residents who probably never worked a day in their lives to be able to do such a thing is something I question, but they’ve been working for some time when the book opens.)

One of the more recently arrived regulars at the Whitechapel chop house in which Emma works is a young, shabbily dressed man who exudes an aura of quiet strength and keeps himself very much to himself. Emma can’t help noticing that despite his worn trousers and jacket, his shirts are fine – and that he’s possessed of a very striking pair of blue eyes and a roguish scar through one eyebrow. He’s called Ned Stratham –and that’s all anybody knows about him.

Their interactions are limited – until one night, he saves Emma from the unwanted advances of a lascivious sailor, and shows himself to be a very dangerous man indeed when he single-handedly despatches not only the lothario himself but several of his gang.

After that, Emma and Ned strike up an acquaintance, but with a strong pull of attraction between them, it’s not long before this friendship leads to their exchanging passionate kisses each night when Ned walks Emma home to the shabby boarding house she inhabits with her father. Ms. McPhee sets up the central relationship really well in this early part of the book. Even through the prose is fairly sparse, it thoroughly conveys the intensity of the sexual attraction between Ned and Emma, and communicates that combination of nerves and wonder that accompanies the first flush of infatuation and attraction very well.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Baron Next Door by Erin Knightley

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After an exhausting Season, Bath’s first annual music festival offers Charity the perfect escape. Between her newly formed trio and her music-loving grandmother, Charity is free to play the pianoforte to her heart’s content. That is, until their insufferably rude, though undeniably handsome, neighbor tells her to keep the “infernal racket” to a minimum.

Hugh Danby, Baron Cadgwith, may think he’s put an end to the noise, but he has no idea what he’s begun. Though the waters of Bath provide relief from the suffering of his war injuries, he finds his new neighbor bothersome, vexing, and… inexplicably enchanting. Before long, Hugh suspects that even if his body heals, it’s his heart that might end up broken.

Rating: C+

This is the first in a new trilogy of books by Ms Knightley, in which the heroines are musicians. It’s a pleasantly light-hearted read, although I found it lacking in substance overall, and the romance is somewhat underdeveloped.

Miss Charity Effington has gone to Bath to stay with her grandmother following the scandal caused by her broken engagement (which happened in A Taste for Scandal). A very talented pianist and musician, she plans to enter the inaugural “Summer Serenade in Somerset” festival, and spends most of her time practicing for her recital.

Her next door neighbour, Hugh Danby, Baron Cadgwith, is not at all enamoured either of Charity’s playing or music in general. Having suffered a serious neck and upper spinal injury in the war, he has been left with a chronic condition (compression of the spinal cord) which can see him debilitated, in great pain and confined to bed for days on end. As this is a condition which can be brought on by loud noise, listening to music is one of the things he is no longer able to do, so being forced to listen to his neighbour practicing at all hours of the day for hours on end through the thin walls is a form of torture for him.

At their first meeting, Hugh is disparaging and sarcastic, making very clear his objections to Charity’s playing. Unfortunately for him, his words have the opposite effect to the one he had intended; Charity is not at all cowed by his comments about her music and instead plays even more instead of less. I can’t help but think that if he’d been reasonable enough to explain a bit and request a change to her routine rather than try to ride roughshod over her, the effect would have been more beneficial, but had he done that, this would be a much shorter book!

Charity is, of course, infuriated by her neighbour’s high-handedness, but that doesn’t prevent her from noticing he’s a hottie. Subsequent encounters reveal to her that there is something lurking in the depths of Hugh’s eyes showing that perhaps he isn’t everything he seemed at their first meeting. She also notices the signs of strain and fatigue that seem ever-present in his face, and starts to wonder what may have put them there in such a young and seemingly vital gentleman.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Boleyn King (Boleyn Trilogy #1) by Laura Andersen (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Vance

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Just seventeen years old, Henry IX, known as William, is a king bound by the restraints of the regency yet anxious to prove himself. With the French threatening battle and the Catholics sowing the seeds of rebellion at home, William trusts only three people: his older sister Elizabeth; his best friend and loyal counselor, Dominic; and Minuette, a young orphan raised as a royal ward by William’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

Against a tide of secrets, betrayal, and murder, William finds himself fighting for the very soul of his kingdom. Then, when he and Dominic both fall in love with Minuette, romantic obsession looms over a new generation of Tudors. One among them will pay the price for a king’s desire, as a shocking twist of fate changes England’s fortunes forever.

Rating: B+ for narration, B+ for content

The Boleyn King is the first book in a trilogy set in an “alternative” Tudor time-line, and having thoroughly enjoyed the books in print, I was really pleased to see that they’ve been made into audiobooks with the extremely talented Simon Vance on board as narrator.

The trilogy is founded upon an intriguing premise – what if Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who had lived to succeed his father?

In The Boleyn King, William Tudor (who will be crowned as Henry IX) is in the final year of his minority. Since the death of his father, Henry VIII, England has been governed by a protectorate under the control of the clever, powerful and wily George Boleyn (brother of Anne), the Duke of Rochford. Being the first book in a trilogy, it takes time in setting up the relationships that are central to all three books – namely those between the characters of William, his sister Elizabeth, William’s closest friend, Dominic Courtenay and Elizabeth’s attendant, Genevieve Wyatt (known as “Minuette”). The friendship dynamic between these four is crucial to the story as it develops – Will, the young king-in-waiting is clever, but impulsive; Dominic, five years older and a soldier of renown, is the restraining hand, the one man Will knows will always tell him the truth, no matter how unpalatable. Elizabeth is highly intelligent, more considered than William and loves her brother dearly, and Minuette is the life-and-soul, a vivacious and generous spirit who is ever the peacemaker – with a backbone as steely as the most practiced courtier.

It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving too much away. Anyone familiar with historical fiction set in this period will have a good idea of what to expect – plenty of court intrigue and political manoeuvring, with lives often lived on the knife-edge of royal approval. The story is certainly full of all those ingredients, right from the start when Minuette and Dominic discover the body of a young woman – also one of Elizabeth’s attendants – lying at the bottom of a staircase. Did she fall, or was she pushed? The plot thickens the following morning when Minuette receives a letter from the dead woman containing a seemingly meaningless message, which, once Dom has decoded it, seems to point to the fact that the woman had been involved in a potentially treasonous plot to question William’s parentage and thus, his right to the throne.

In addition to this, there is the ever-present threat to the throne embodied by William’s half-sister Mary who, although living quietly away from court, is nonetheless the focus for the nation’s disgruntled Catholics. The treaty with France that Rochford is attempting to negotiate is foundering, meaning England is faced with the prospect of war with France once again, and at home, Minuette and Elizabeth become embroiled in the search for a document which purports to prove William’s illegitimacy and which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could incite civil war.

The story is well-paced and quite complex, so this isn’t the sort of audiobook that’s easy to keep up with without giving it one’s full attention – although fortunately, it’s so interesting that’s not difficult to do.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Duke’s Obsession by Frances Fowlkes

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London 1818

An American Heiress Who Must Swallow Her Pride

Miss Daphne Farrington despises three things: England’s dreary weather, the grimy streets of London, and most especially the English aristocracy. Despite her misgivings, she must persuade the very English Duke of Waverly to save her family shipping business. If only she could ignore the way he makes her pulse race whenever she’s near him.

A Duke Who Must Overcome Her Prejudice

Edward Lacey, the Duke of Waverly, is convinced that the lovely Miss Farrington, with her penchant for numbers, is the woman he’d like to make his Duchess. But unless he can convince her that not all English lords are callous, calculating rakes, a dark secret will ruin his chance at happiness.

Rating: D

I picked up this category-length novel because I was intrigued by the idea of the heroine’s character having a “penchant for numbers”. I’ve come across quite a few books lately where the hero is some sort of mathematical or scientific whizz-kid, but it’s less common to find a heroine where that is the case.

Unfortunately, however, I was destined to be disappointed, as it seems that the heroine’s mathematical superpowers are pretty much limited to adding, subtracting and balancing the books.

Daphne Farrington has come to London from Boston with her brother, Thomas, who is visiting to check on their father’s shipping business. Daphne and her numerical superpowers are looking over the paperwork relating to a business deal they are about to conclude when she discovers that the documents are inaccurate and that the terms of the agreement have been surreptitiously altered.

So she does what any stereotypical, brash, American female would do and barges into her brother’s office steaming mad to share her discovery with her brother and his guests, Edward, the Duke of Waverly and the duke’s man of business, Mr Burnham. Needless to say, Burnham attempts to mask his guilt with indignation and by pointing out that Daphne is a mere woman and thus incapable of understanding the intricacies of such things.

Once Daphne is proved correct, Burnham leaves, but not before shaking his fist at her screaming “I’ll get you my pretty!” Well, no, he doesn’t – I just made that up, but he might as well have done, as he then proceeds to encourage Farrington’s investors to remove their cargos from their ships.

Thomas is naturally pretty pissed off at this turn of events, and tells Daphne she has to fix it by making the Duke aware of what’s happening and asking for his help. But the thing is, Daphne absolutely hates Englishmen and especially hates titled Englishmen, because she blames them for the death of their brother after he’d been impressed into service on an English ship several years previously. And not only that, but all titled Englishmen are arrogant, pompous, selfish bastards who should all go the way of Louis XVI.

But Daphne does as her brother asks and speaks to the very handsome Duke of Waverly who, in spite of his being a duke, is neither pompous nor a bastard, and whose touch makes her tingle. He agrees to help by investing in their shipping firm – on one condition. Daphne must give him the chance to prove to her that he’s not like all the other English nobility and see him as a man rather than as a duke.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

Dancing in the Wind by Mary Jo Putney (Audiobook) – Narrated by William Kirby

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Like his nickname, Lucifer, Lord Strathmore is know for unearthly beauty and diabolical cleverness. A tragic past has driven Lucien to use his formidable talents to protect his country from hidden enemies. It’s a job he does superbly well—until he meets a mysterious woman whose skill at deception is the equal of his own. By turns glamorous and subdued, his enchanting adversary baffles his mind even as she dazzles his senses.

A perilous mission has forced Kit Travers into a deadly gave of shifting identities and needful lies, where a single misstep might cost Kit her life. But her disguises are easily penetrated by the Earl of Strathmore, who may be a vital ally—or a lethal enemy.

Unwilling to trust, yet unable to part, Kit and Lucien join forces to search the dangerous underside of London society. Yet even two master deceivers cannot escape passion’s sensual web—or from an impossible love more precious than life itself.

Rating: Narration D- Content B-

Some of Mary Jo Putney’s books have been available in audio format for a number of years, but the author has recently begun self-publishing some of her back catalogue in audio format.

So far, she has released books one and two (or three, depending on which listing you read!) in her Fallen Angels series – Thunder and Roses and Dancing on the Wind, and the standalone book, The Bargain, which is a personal favourite in print. Each title has used a different, unknown narrator, and although I haven’t listened to Thunder and Roses, I have listened to the other two and find myself sadly unable to recommend either of them because the performances are very disappointing.

The story of Dancing on the Wind is an intriguing mix of espionage, romance and mystery, laced with a bit of the (IMO, rather silly) paranormal. The hero, Lucien Fairchild, Earl of Strathmore has, for a number of years, worked for British intelligence, and at the beginning of the story is attempting to infiltrate a group of men known as the “Hellions Club”, a society dedicated to the pursuit of debauchery of all kinds – because he believes that one member of their inner circle is a French spy.

While he is engaged in proving to the Hellions that he’s worthy of initiation into the group, Lucien comes into contact on several occasions with a mysterious young woman masquerading as, variously, a servant, a buxom barmaid, an actress and a courtesan. Not a man to be easily swayed by female charms, Lucien is nonetheless intrigued by the woman, and becomes more and more determined to find out who she is and what she’s up to. After several encounters, she realises that Lucien is nothing if not persistent, and eventually discloses something of the truth; that she is in fact the radical journalist L.J. Knight who has penned a number of reformist articles for London newspapers. She is also writing an exposé of the Hellions Club, following claims that they are far more depraved than the original Hellfire Club, and that they are involved in kidnap, torture and murder.

That, however, is not the whole story. Lady Katherine (Kit) Travers is an extremely determined young woman, who, for the last few months, been living a double life. Her identical twin sister, Kira (Kristine) – who is a celebrated comic actress – has disappeared, and Kit is desperate to find her. Reasoning that the best way to learn about Kira’s life is to actually live it, Kit spends her time either pretending to be Kira on stage, or in disguise, investigating her sister’s disappearance. She suspects that one of the members of the Hellion Club is responsible, and being unable to find anyone to take her concerns seriously, has taken the investigation into her own hands.

The story is quite complex, especially in the first half, when Lucien isn’t quite sure which of the two sisters he is pursuing or falling for; and there are some rather odd “interludes” which have a definite S&M bent – that seem at first to be dreams or memories of Kit’s – although as the story develops, it emerges that is not the case.

I wasn’t convinced by the slightly supernatural nature of the connection between the sisters. I know people often say that twins have more than a sixth sense when it comes to their sibling, but the psychic connection between Kat and Kira and their ability to experience each other’s dreams was a little too far-fetched for my taste.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals