The Rejected Suitor by Theresa McCarthy (audiobook) – narrated by Pearl Hewitt

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Lady Emily Clearbrook secretly loved Jared, the Earl of Stonebridge, but one day, he left her without a word. Now, years later, Emily’s four brawny brothers have decided she needs to marry. With no idea about Emily’s past love, the Clearbrook brothers ask their friend, Lord Stonebridge, to guard Lady Emily from unfit suitors until they find her a proper husband. With his dangerous past, the last thing Stonebridge needs is to be watchdog to Lady Emily. But he certainly cannot tell her brothers that the person Emily needs the most protection from is himself!

Rating: B- for narration, D for content

The Rejected Suitor was originally published in 2004, and I regret to say that I don’t think it has aged well. The story revolves around the on-off romance between Lady Emily Clearbrook and Jared Ashton, Lord Stonebridge, who had fallen in love three years earlier, but were unable to marry because her father refused to grant them permission. Following that, Jared had quickly married another woman and taken up a post in India, breaking Emily’s heart in the process.

In the year since his return from India as a widower, Jared has been working undercover for the British government, his sooper-sekrit identity known only to a select few – including Emily’s eldest brother, who has worked alongside him. And unbeknownst to both her brother and Jared, Emily has a sooper-sekrit identity of her own, assumed when she began to work for Whitehall, too, to dull the pain caused by Jared’s abrupt defection and departure.

This isn’t a spy story, however – and more’s the pity, because then it might have been more interesting.

The book opens as Lady Emily’s four brothers inform her that they will shortly be choosing her a husband, much to her dismay. She is headstrong, beautiful and rich, and they want to make sure she doesn’t end up in the clutches of some unscrupulous fortune hunter. Her eldest brother, Roderick, Duke of Elbourne, is dictatorial (to put it mildly) and acts as though he has a stick up his arse for most of the book. And the others aren’t much better. Almost the entire first chapter – about twenty-five minutes long – consists of the five of them having the following conversation:

“You must marry the man we choose.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Daddy said I could choose my own husband.”

“Our father has been dead for three years, we’re your guardians now, and you do what we say.”

“No. And you’re all idiots.”

“How dare you, you inferior female!”

As he and his brothers are about to remove to London, the duke decrees that Emily should go to stay at the country home of Agatha Appleby, a friend of the family. But they need someone there to keep an eye on her. How about Agatha’s nephew, the newly minted Earl of Stonebridge (Jared)? He’s staying with his aunt, and is the ideal person to keep an eye on Emily! (*rolls eyes*)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

What the Groom Wants by Jade Lee

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An honest love…

Radley Lyncott has been in love with Wendy Drew as long as he can remember. When he went to sea, she was too young to court. Now that he’s returned to take up his Welsh title, he is appalled to find that debt has ruined the Drew family, and—even worse—Wendy is being courted by another man.

Or a dangerous attraction?

Family comes first for seamstress Wendy Drew, who is forced to settle her brother’s debt by working nights at a notorious gambling den. But her double-life hasn’t gone unnoticed—she has captivated none other than Demon Damon, a nefarious rake who understands Wendy’s darkest desires and is hell bent on luring her into his arms

Rating: C-

What the Groom Wants is the fourth book in Ms Lee’s Bridal Favours series, which contains three other full length novels and four novellas. I mention that because there is clearly a lot of backstory covered in those books which is referred to in this latest one and I often felt as though I’d missed something when reading it as I haven’t read any of the others in the series.

Radley Lyncott has spent most of the last decade at sea, but throughout all that time, has carried a torch for his best friend’s sister, Wendy Drew. When he returns from his latest voyage, he decides it’s finally time for him to declare himself and court her. But his life is about to change radically. Radley has long known that he is distantly related to an aristocratic family; his grandfather was a duke’s son who was disowned when he took a wife of which his father did not approve. But a sudden and contagious illness has wiped out almost the entire family which leaves Radley to inherit the dukedom of Bucklynde.

Wendy – a name which, incidentally, seems not to been introduced until the 1880s – has a number of qualities which make her an unusual heroine in the genre. She’s tough, pragmatic, and can actually be quite ruthless and manipulative when she has to be. A seamstress and part-owner of a very successful dress shop, Wendy also has to work at a gambling hell in the evenings in order to pay off debts incurred by her younger brother. She is determined to protect her mother and brothers from the hell’s owner, Damon Porter – often referred to as Demon Damon – who, it seems, is thoroughly deserving of that particular soubriquet. He’s devious, ruthless, and cruel and will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which is Wendy in his bed.

What develops is a kind of love/hate-triangle between Wendy, Radley and Damon, all of whom grew up together. While she knows Damon is evil personified and thoroughly dislikes him, Wendy can’t help but be fascinated by him and reluctantly sexually attracted to him. You know how they always say that the villain gets the best lines? Well, he might not have got those here, but when it came to the male-hawtness stakes, Damon outdoes Radley most of the time. Radley’s a beta hero who frequently comes across as ineffectual, and seems to bumble from one crisis to another – and there were times I couldn’t help wondering what on earth Wendy saw in him!

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

Incidentally, there are a couple of things I refer to in that review but was not specific because we try to avoid spoilers. I have, however, included details at my Goodreads review under spoiler tags, should you wish to read them.

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – narrated by Carmen Rose

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As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.
• Ugly duckling turned swan?
• Abducted by handsome highwayman?
• Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and . . . Heh.

Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?

This one.

Rating: B- for narration, B+ for content

Tessa Dare is, in my book, the undisputed queen of the sexy, funny, screwball-style historical romance. Her latest series, Castles Ever After, begins with Romancing the Duke which is full of her trademark humour as well as delivering a deeply felt romance featuring two thoroughly engaging protagonists.

Isolde Ophelia (Izzy) Goodnight has been left almost destitute following the death of her father, a famous author of childrens’ stories. When she discovers, completely out of the blue, that she has been left a bequest in her godfather’s will, she uses the last of her meagre finances to travel to Gostley Castle in Northumberland to meet with the executor at his request. On arrival, she meets a dishevelled but devastatingly handsome man who proclaims himself to be Ransom Vane, Duke of Rothbury and owner of the castle – but when the executor arrives, he informs her that SHE is now the owner, as the castle had been purchased by her godfather some months before.

Both Izzy and Ransom are aghast. For one thing, Ransom has holed up at the castle intent on the biggest self-pity party in the history of the universe following an incident which left him scarred and almost blind – and he most definitely does NOT want company. He also knows that he has not sold the property, and is adamant that Izzy must leave. For her part, Izzy had hoped for a monetary bequest to support herself – instead, she is confronted with a huge, dilapidated, bat-and-rat-infested castle in the north of England. But Izzy has elevated the practice of “making the best of things” to an art form in her twenty-six years – she informs Ransom that she’s not leaving and starts making plans to set the place to rights.

Ransom is still determined to get rid of her and tries everything he can think of – which includes presenting himself as a threat to her virtue by kissing her senseless – but Izzy won’t be deterred and in any case, she has nowhere else to go. So they strike a bargain. Because of his injury, Ransom is unable to deal with the huge mountain of correspondence which has arrived over the last seven months – in which, Izzy suggests, they might find documentation about the supposed sale – and she offers to act as his secretary.

During the course of their work, it becomes apparent that there is something insidious afoot, which could cost Ransom more than his run-down castle.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Mr (not quite) Perfect by Jessica Hart

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What do women really want?

Journalist Allegra Fielding has a problem. She’s pitched a story to her boss – how to transform a not-so-perfect man into Prince Charming – and now she has to deliver! But where is she going to find a man willing to take part in a makeover? Time to blackmail her flatmate, Max…

But Allegra’s cunning plan backfires spectacularly when Max refuses to be ‘perfected’! He’s a guy who knows what he likes, and he’s going to enjoy proving to Allegra that there’s nothing hotter than a man who’s a little rough around the edges…

Rating: A

This month’s prompt for the Multi-Blog Reading Challenge was to read a Contemporary Romance. Actually, this is where the “challenge” part of a reading challenge comes into play, because it made me pick up a book in a genre I don’t read much any more. I admit, I have probably welched on it to some extent though, because the book I picked up was a) something a couple of my AAR colleagues rated very highly, so I was pretty sure I’d like it, and b) a category romance, which meant it was something I could whip through in a couple of hours. That wasn’t because I didn’t want to read something longer – I did actually have another book in mind – but I was running out of time and didn’t want to miss the deadline.

Mr (not quite) Perfect is a charming and sexy friends-to-lovers story which, while it may be eminently predictable, is elevated into something a bit special by the quality of the writing and characterisation. I know that Mills and Boon/Harlequin books take a lot of flack sometimes for being too simplistic and/or too formulaic, but they have a good number of writers in their stable who are able to freshen up those formulas by means of intelligent and inventive writing; and I have a huge admiration for those among them who are able to do that while also putting out 4-6 books a year.

Allegra Fielding is a junior feature writer for a fashion magazine called Glitz and is longing for the opportunity to prove herself to her fearsome editor and earn herself a promotion – and at the beginning of the book, she thinks she has come up with the way to do just that. Given that many women bemoan the fact that the men in their lives are lacking in some way (they don’t dress well, don’t cook, aren’t romantic enough…) Allegra hits on the idea of turning a “Mr Average” into a “Mr Perfect” and writing an article about it. In order to do that, of course, she has to find herself a willing guinea pig – who takes the form of Max, her best friend’s brother.

Allegra and Max have known each other for years; she thinks of him as her friend’s straight-laced, boring brother, and he sees her as his sister’s ditsy, frivolous friend. Max has recently split up with his fiancée and has temporarily moved into the house Allegra shares with his sister while she is away in Paris. Allegra tells Max this is her big chance, her breakthrough article – and mentions that it will involve him going out with a famous underwear model, which is certainly an added inducement, but Max can also see how important this is to Allegra and he agrees to help her.

Of course, this throws them more into each other’s company, which they both believe accounts for the fact that they are beginning to look at one another differently and to feel a pull between them of something other than friendship.

For a category romance, the characterisations are surprisingly deep. Both Max and Allegra have perceptions about each other which are challenged as things progress, and Allegra has a very interesting relationship with her mother, who is a kind of female Jeremy Paxman (a British journalist well known for ripping politicians to shreds on the TV every night!). Max is a lovely guy – ordinary, perhaps, but not boring, and one who sounds and thinks like a bloke (something that doesn’t always occur in romance novels!), but isn’t afraid to put himself out there when push comes to shove.

The friendship between Max and Allegra is extremely well written, the dialogue feels very naturalistic and much of it is very funny. The sexual tension between them builds beautifully, and when they finally do give into their urges and hit the sheets, the language is far from explicit but the scene is hot enough to blister paint.

One of the best things about the book is that, by the end of it, both Max and Allegra have grown a bit and come to realise that sometimes the thing you want (or think you want) isn’t necessarily the thing you need. Max learns that perhaps making an effort occasionally isn’t a bad thing while Allegra comes to see that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t have to mean ‘boring’ or ‘unexciting’. Mr (not quite) Perfect is a superb read from start to finish, and is certainly worth a few hours of any romance fan’s time.

How to Master Your Marquis by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Heather Wilds

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Of all her sisters, Princess Stefanie is by far the least amenable to law and order, which is why she’s appalled to find herself masquerading as an unbearably drab clerk for the most honorable barrister in England. But her dull disguise turns out to have its privileges: namely, the opportunity to consort unchaperoned with her employer’s exceedingly handsome nephew, James Lambert, the Marquess of Hatherfield.

Hatherfield quickly realizes that his uncle’s spirited new clerk is, in fact, a lovely young woman of daring habits. The outwardly impeccable marquis isn’t about to reveal her deception. After all, he’s hiding a dangerous secret of his own. But when one too many escapades with the madcap princess bring Hatherfield’s troubled past to light, it is only Stefanie’s sharp wits that stand between the marquis and utter disaster, and only Hatherfield’s daring that can save the princess from the shadowy agents bent on finding her

Rating: B+ for narration and B for content

I reviewed the first title in Ms Gray’s A Princess in Hiding Romance trilogy – How to Tame Your Duke – narrated by Veida Dehmlow, and enjoyed it in spite of a few reservations about both story and performance. This second book in the set boasts a different narrator, and having enjoyed Ms Wild’s performance in Julie Garwood’s Castles, I was keen to listen to her again.

The premise of the series is that three princesses from a minor (and fictional) German principality have to go into hiding following the assassination of their father. Their uncle – the powerful and machiavellian Duke of Olympia – has arranged for each of the girls to be smuggled to different parts of Britain, disguised as young men and given employment in lowly occupations, incognito, in order to ensure their safety. To say I’m not a fan of the whole cross-dressing thing is an understatement, but it’s a tribute to Ms Gray’s storytelling ability that she was able to make me like this book despite my dislike of that particular trope.

Princess Stefanie, the youngest of the three sisters, is the joker in the pack. She’s unconventional, spirited and full of fun, so placing her in the stuffy chambers of one of London’s foremost legal minds may not be the best fit for her, but Olympia has his reasons. At her first meeting with her new employer, Sir John Worthington, she also meets his friend, James Lambert, the Marquis of Hatherfield, who happens to be the most gorgeous man on the planet. As a result, she finds the prospect of spending time under Sir John’s roof a much more attractive one.

Much of the story is told in flashback, a device I rather enjoy. When done well – as here – it really helps to build tension, and I like getting glimpses of the characters “in the present” and then finding out how they got there.

Following the first meeting between the principals in the prologue, we jump forward a few months to the Old Bailey, where Hatherfield is on trial for the murder of his stepmother. It’s clear that he and Stefanie are already in a relationship, but as Stefanie is still in disguise and working for the counsel for the defence, whatever is between them must remain a secret, so as not to reveal Stefanie’s true identity.

Despite the fact that the story centres around a murder trial, there’s a lot of humour in the book, much of it stemming from Stefanie’s rather “manful” attempts to be seen as one of the boys. There’s also some terrific dialogue between her and the Marquis; her natural vivacity and impish sense of humour make her a very attractive character and a perfect match for Hatherfield, who might be the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, but is also a bit of a dull dog. However, he wouldn’t be the perfect romantic hero without a bit of a tortured past, and his is a particularly distressing one. He’s the antithesis of the sort of hero who typically inhabits the pages of many an historical romance, because most of the time he behaves like a responsible adult!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership…even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

Rating: A for narration, A for content

I read The Countess Conspiracy immediately upon its release back in December and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2013. Reading it was a highly emotional experience, however, and I had to keep taking breaks because I found it so intense. It’s clearly a book that’s very close to its author’s heart, paying tribute as it does to all the “forgotten” women of history, specifically those who were involved in the numerous scientific discoveries made in the nineteenth century, but who were derided or dismissed because of their sex.

For a book of average length, the novel is very complex, with multiple plot threads weaving themselves in and around the lives of the two protagonists. We have met them before, albeit briefly, in the previous books in the series, The Duchess War and The Heiress Effect. Sebastian Malheur is cousin to Robert, Duke of Clermont and his half-brother Oliver Marshall; Violet, the widowed Countess of Cambury more or less grew up with Robert and Sebastian as their family estates were close together.

In the previous books, Sebastian was shown to be the joker of the group. Even though his scientific work has made him an object of disgust and ridicule in some circles, he nonetheless maintains a happy-go-lucky manner which, combined with his handsome features and devastating charm, makes him the life and soul of any party. He’s highly intelligent, witty, and the kind of man who is able to put even the most nervous of people at their ease, yet, one of his most attractive qualities is his inability to realise just how clever he actually is. Even he thinks of himself as a bit of a waste of space, a view which is further reinforced by the fact that his elder brother keeps insisting Sebastian has made nothing of his life.

Violet is Sebastian’s complete opposite. She’s tightly buttoned up and lets nobody get close to her. Her eleven-year marriage was unhappy and, by the last years, she had become incredibly withdrawn and subject to frequent and increasingly dangerous bouts of illness.

Both Sebastian and Violet have complicated relationships with their respective families; Violet’s mother, in particular, is an incredibly intriguing character who, while a stickler for propriety on the surface, would nonetheless do anything to ensure the safety of her two daughters. And Sebastian desperately wants his brother’s approval. But the complications of these familial relationships are almost nothing compared to the difficulties that are faced by Sebastian and Violet in their own incredibly complex partnership.

As a woman, Violet’s scientific discoveries were not taken seriously. Five years earlier, Sebastian had the idea of presenting her work as his – just to see if the academic establishment would take Violet’s ideas and concepts seriously with a man’s name on the work. Once her paper was accepted, Violet asked Sebastian to continue as her mouthpiece, so to speak. Over the years, Sebastian has become almost as much of an expert in their chosen field as Violet. Nobody knows of their collaboration but the deception has begun to take its toll on Sebastian and at the beginning of the story, he tells Violet he can no longer continue.

Violet is devastated. All she has is her work – her work is her identity and she feels as though her entire world has been ripped out from under her.

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

Once a Rake by Eileen Dreyer

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All he wants is her help . . .

Colonel Ian Ferguson may be a rake, but he’s no traitor. Accused of trying to kill the Duke of Wellington, the disgraced Scotsman is now a fugitive–from the law, the army, and the cunning assassin who hunts him. Wounded and miles from his allies, Ian finds himself at the mercy of an impoverished country wife. The spirited woman is achingly beautiful . . . and hiding some dangerous secrets of her own.

All she needs is his heart . . .

She was a child nobody wanted. Now for Lady Sarah Clarke, holding on to her vanished husband’s crumbling estate is her final chance to earn respectability. She knows that hiding the devastatingly handsome Ferguson will jeopardize her home. Common sense demands that she turn him in. But a single, delirious kiss shatters her resolve . . . and awakens a passion that neither of them can escape

Rating: B

Once a Rake is the fourth book in Ms Dreyer’s Drake’s Rakes series, in which the titular rakes are in fact a group of English gentlemen-spies who are working to root out traitors and wrong-doers as part of Britain’s fight against Bonaparte. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, and although this one can be enjoyed as a standalone, there were a couple of times I found myself wishing I had a bit more background information. But that wasn’t often, and it didn’t cause me any major problems in following the storyline.

The thing that hooked me in straight away was the quality of the writing, which had great warmth and depth to it. Our heroine, Lady Sarah Clarke, is working herself into the ground trying to run her small estate with very little help, and to cope with her self-centred mother-in-law and frequently petulant fifteen year-old sister-in-law. Sarah’s husband is in the army and has not been heard from for months and his smarmy cousin, Martin, is his heir. Martin is convinced his cousin is dead, so wants the ladies out of the house and off the land – and isn’t above employing underhand tactics to get what he wants.

Sarah is the illegitimate child of a duke who disowned her, constantly slighted her, and reminded her of her status as a “nobody”. Since his death, her brother has taken the same position, and even arranged for her to be married off, using a dowry as a bribe – a dowry which was then spent by her husband in purchasing his commission.

Money is scarce, and Sarah works hard on the farm and to keep her little family together, even though Lady Clarke the elder shows her little real consideration. Even so, because Sarah has never really had anywhere she can call home, or anywhere she feels she has ever belonged, this is the closest thing to family she has ever had. Still, the intensity of her feelings of isolation and loneliness leap off the page.

Given the struggle she has to keep things on a reasonably even keel, the last thing Sarah needs is to find a wounded man hiding out in one of her barns.

Colonel Ian Ferguson, an officer in the Black Watch, is on the run, having been accused of making an attempt on the life of the Duke of Wellington. Badly wounded as he made his escape, Ian needs to travel to London to meet with Lord Marcus Drake, so that he can both exonerate himself and impart the information he has gained as to the identity of the would-be assassin, but he is too weak to undertake such a journey. Torn between wanting to help an injured man and the knowledge that his discovery could bring serious repercussions for her family, Sarah reluctantly agrees to let him remain at Fairbourne until he is recovered enough to move.

There’s an immediate current of attraction between Ian and Sarah – even though they both realise that nothing can come of it. For one thing, Sarah has a husband, and for another, Ian is betrothed to a society lady, one who shares his reformist views and who he believes will be the perfect partner to help him navigate his way through political society. Then there’s the fact that he’s a wanted man and she’s illegitimate, poor and insignificant.

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