Soulbound (Darkest London #6) by Kristen Callihan (AUDIOBOOK) – narrated by Moira Quirk

soulbound audio

Once two souls are joined…

When Adam’s soul mate rejected him, there was more at stake than his heart. After 700 years of searching, his true match would have ended the curse that keeps his spirit in chains. But beautiful, stubborn Eliza May fled―and now Adam is doomed to an eternity of anguish, his only hope for salvation gone…

Their hearts will beat together forever.

No matter how devilishly irresistible Adam was, Eliza couldn’t stand the thought of relinquishing her freedom forever. So she escaped. But she soon discovers she is being hunted by someone far more dangerous. The only man who can help is the one she vowed never to see again. Now Adam’s kindness is an unexpected refuge, and Eliza finds that some vows are made to be broken.

Rating: A for narration; A- for content

Paranormal romances aren’t my usual cup of tea, but having seen so many good reviews of the first book in this series (Firelight), I listened to the audiobook last year and both story and narration were so completely engaging that I was thoroughly pulled in to the author’s world of Darkest London and eager for more.

I’ve since read the next two books, and although I’m not completely caught up with the series, when the opportunity came to review Soulbound, I couldn’t pass it up. It helped to know that, although the books are all connected, they all work well as standalones, so even though I’ve yet to read or listen to Evernight (the previous book), I was sure I wouldn’t have too much trouble following the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Twice Tempted by a Rogue (Stud Club #2) – AUDIOBOOK, narrated by Rosalyn Landor

twice tempted by a rogue

Luck is a double-edged sword for brooding war hero Rhys St. Maur. His death wish went unanswered on the battlefield, while fate allowed the murder of his good friend in the elite gentlemen’s society known as the Stud Club. Out of options, Rhys returns to his ancestral home on the moors of Devonshire, expecting anything but a chance at redemption in the arms of a beautiful innkeeper who dares him to take on the demons of his past–and the sweet temptation of a woman’s love.

Meredith Maddox believes in hard work, not fate, and romance isn’t part of her plan. But when Rhys returns, battle-scarred, world-weary, and more dangerously attractive than ever, the lovely widow is torn between determination and desire. As a deep mystery and dangerous smugglers threaten much more than their passionate reckoning, Meredith discovers that she must trust everything to a wager her heart placed long ago.

Rating: A for narration; B for content

Twice Tempted by a Rogue is the second book in Tessa Dare’s Stud Club series – the moniker not referring to the sexual attributes of the heroes (sadly!) but to the fact that they belong to an exclusive club which allows its members breeding rights to Osiris, England’s most valuable stallion. In the first book in the series (One Dance With a Duke) we learn that the club’s founder, Leo Chatwick, has been murdered, and the quest to bring the killer to brook is a theme running throughout the three books in the series.

A secondary character in book one, Rhys St. Maur has recently inherited the title of Lord Ashworth. Following a devastating fire fourteen years previously, he left his Devonshire home to join the army, and he hasn’t been back since. In all his years away, he’s faced death – gone looking for it, even – more times than he can count and has cheated it every time.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Widow Wager (The Notorious Flynns #3) by Jess Michaels

widow wager

Crispin Flynn has been on a downward spiral ever since he lost the woman he loved and watched his brother forced into a life he never would have chosen. His response has been drinking and gambling his way to utter ruin. One night, deep in his cups, he places a dangerous bet that results in him being forced to marry Gemma, the widow of the Earl of Laurelcross.

Gemma once had a passionate side, but has been hiding it ever since her much older husband died during the act of making love. Now she finds herself the much unwanted wife of one of the biggest libertines in London and the subject of even more gossip than ever.

Once they determine they cannot escape the marriage, the two begin a slow circling of each other. Passion is easy, but can they overcome mistrust and secrets in order to make the worst night of their lives one of their best? Or are they bound to lose each other before their love can take root?

Rating: C+

This is the third book in Ms. Michaels’ Notorious Flynns series, and focuses on Crispin, the younger brother of the new Duke of Hartholm, and a young man who has, for the past few months, been bent on self-destruction. It’s a fairly quick read, with possibly more sex scenes than one might normally find in a book of this length – not that I’m complaining! Jess Michaels writes them very well indeed, as one would expect of an author with fifty or so romances to her name. But the downside to that is that while Ms. Michaels has provided both hero and heroine with a fair amount of emotional baggage as a way of adding depth to their characterisation, the amount of time spent in the bedroom combined with the short-ish page-count means that their issues are resolved too quickly, especially considering the fact that Crispin is pretty much an alcoholic at the beginning of the story.

Crispin Flynn has always had a reputation as a hell-raiser, but ever since his brother Rafe suddenly found himself in possession of a title and a wife he didn’t want, his downward spiral has accelerated. Waking up one morning to find himself married to a woman he has never met sobers him abruptly – albeit temporarily. He is determined to find a way out of the union – he was in his cups and appears to have won her in a game of cards, so it surely can’t be legal. His brother is a duke, and even though they have been somewhat estranged for a while, surely someone with his power and influence will be able to find Crispin a way out.

His new wife, Gemma, formerly the Countess of Laurelcross, is no happier at finding herself married to a notorious rake, but given the dreadful rumours that are already circulating throughout society about her, will be utterly and completely ruined should her new husband be able to cast her off. Society will care nothing for the fact that she was humiliated and all but sold by her avaricious father – but if it were only her own reputation at stake, Gemma would brave the censure in order to gain her freedom. Unfortunately, however, she has a younger sister who is still dependent on their father, and any further stain on Gemma’s name will attach itself to Mary as well.

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

TBR Challenge: A Kiss for Luck (novella) by Grace Burrowes

kiss for luck

Game designer Sadie Delacourt has moved to the peaceful, bucolic town of Damson Valley for a fresh start where she can keep an eye on a recently divorced sister and her small nephew. Sadie plans to focus on her business and her family, until handsome neighbor Gideon Granville turns his focus on Sadie. When Sadie learns where Gideon has been aiming his snooping skills, she’s ready to delete him from her plans entirely—though Gideon is all that stands between her and the trouble she thought she’d left behind her.

Rating: C+

This month’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a contemporary romance. As is obvious, I don’t read them very often, but this is a challenge after all, and I like to rise to it if I can. I didn’t completely wimp out on this one, but I confess that I’ve taken a bit of a short cut. In my defence, I did start a couple of other contemporaries, but didn’t make it past the first few chapters because they just didn’t grab me. Or more likely, I wasn’t in the mood – I have to be in the right frame of mind to read a contemporary and for various reasons – not least of which was being unwell – I just wasn’t.

Rooting around through my Kindle revealed this, one of the novellas in Grace Burrowes’ Sweetest Kisses series set in the fictional Damson Valley in rural Maryland. I’m a huge fan of her historicals, and had wondered how her very distinctive writing style would translate to contemporaries, and as this is a novella, I was able to zip through it quickly.

It’s a sweet story in which the two protagonists – a game designer and a lawyer-turned-investigator – meet when they become neighbours. It’s quite a packed story and while to my historically attuned sensibilities, the relationship seems a bit rushed, it’s quite possible that in contemporary terms, that isn’t the case – I don’t read enough of them to be able to know what the norm is, to be honest.

What I can say is that many of Ms Burrowes’ trademarks are very much in evidence. Unusual names (some of them recycled – Trenton, MacKenzie, Winters), the hero and heroine calling each other by last names and full names, bonding over lemonade and other foodstuffs, very well written familial and relationships and friendships and, best of all, the high degree of honesty and intimacy between the two protagonists. The only problem with the latter is that I’d normally expect it to develop over a longer time; at their very first meeting, Sadie verbalises her assessment of Gideon as likeable, self-sufficient and observant, but unacquainted with the state of his own emotions. It seems that one of Sadie’s ‘problems’ is her excessive bluntness, and we learn later that she’s the child of a pair of alcoholics which led her to more or less bringing up her younger sister. But both these things –Sadie’s bluntness and Gideon’s emotional sterility are not really explored or followed up.

The author’s background as a family law practitioner is put to good use in the story, as Sadie and her sister Jay-Jay have moved to Damson Valley in order to get Jay-Jay and her young son away from her abusive ex. When we learn Gideon is considering taking a case that would involve tracking down a child he’s being told has been deliberately kept from his father, it’s fairly obvious where the conflict in the story is going to come from, but seeing it all work out and watching Gideon interact with his friends, the Knightley brothers (who are the heroes of the three full-length novels in the series) was interesting enough to keep me reading.

I may go on to read one or more of the novels when I’m in the mood – the author’s writing style is very recognisable – again, I’m not sure how it works in the context of a contemporary, but it was one of the things I most enjoyed about the story. Both Sadie and Gideon are decent people, although if I’m honest Gideon is probably too good to be true (which is a common trait in all her heroes!) and there are some really lovely, tender moments between them.

Ultimately, I was a little disappointed that the characterisation of the principals wasn’t deeper and the their issues weren’t more fully explored, as that is the sort of emotional depth I’ve come to expect from Ms Burrowes, but I suspect the lack was more due to the limitations imposed by the shorter format than anything else.

The Duke’s Disaster by Grace Burrowes

The Duke's Disaster

Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm, exercises the pragmatism for which he’s infamous when his preferred choice of bride cries off, and her companion, Lady Thea Collins, becomes his next choice for his duchess. Lady Thea’s mature, sensible and even rather attractive-what could possibly go wrong?

As a lady fallen on hard times, Thea doesn’t expect tender sentiments from His Grace, but she does wish Noah had courted her trust, lest her past turn their hastily arranged marriage into a life of shared regrets. Is His Grace courting a convenient wife, or a beautiful disaster?

Rating: A-

In The Duke’s Disaster, Grace Burrowes paints an incredibly realistic portrait of the situation faced by two people who marry for the sake of expediency and then realise that they will have to work at it if they’re going to have any chance of making a go of things.

Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm, comes from a family in which the men are famed for their sexual promiscuity. Unlike most of his male relatives, Noah is not licentious or irresponsible – not that it makes much difference to the tarnish that exists on his family name; or the gossips, who believe him to be cut from the same cloth as every other Winters male. In order to fulfil a deathbed promise, Noah is planning to marry, and has selected himself a suitable bride from the year’s bevy of simpering debutantes. On the verge of proposing, he is put out to discover that he has been pipped to the post by someone else, and although his amour propre is somewhat wounded, he is nonetheless quite relieved, as he doesn’t want to live his life shackled to a “giggling twit”. But he still has to find a wife, and instead turns to his former intended’s companion, Lady Araminthea Collins, who is, most unusually, an earl’s daughter. For an earl’s daughter to be in service is almost unheard of, but Thea’s family is in straightened circumstances, and her brother, the new earl, seems determined to drink himself into an early grave, exhibiting no care for Thea or their younger sister. Thea is shocked by Noah’s proposal and determined to turn him down – but when she realises that becoming his wife will enable her to keep her sister from having to tread the same path, she accepts, and they are married three weeks later.

The thing I adore about this book is the way in which it concentrates almost exclusively on the development of the relationship between Noah and Thea. The marriage of convenience/arranged marriage is a common theme in historical romance – and one of my favourites – but even so, the story of this one manages to be something out of the ordinary. We’re shown the pitfalls of marrying someone you hardly know, and how difficult it can be to adjust to having another person to consider besides oneself. It doesn’t help that Thea is keeping a pretty big secret from Noah, something which puts their fledgling marriage on the rocks immediately and about which he is both bitter and frustrated. Yet the more he comes to know Thea and to care for her, the more he comes to see that her situation is likely not her fault and that she’s deserving of compassion and understanding rather than censure.

Then there’s the fact that Noah is keeping a secret of his own – or rather, one belonging to someone else he doesn’t feel at liberty to reveal. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but he is nothing if not honourable, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he’s a man for whom family is incredibly important, and who will do whatever he has to do in order to clear up whatever messes have been created by his less responsible relatives. As these now include Thea’s wastrel brother, Noah spends a lot of time with the young man trying to get him to mend his ways, and do his duty by his sisters. Unfortunately, the new earl isn’t especially welcoming of his brother-in-law’s efforts, and while it would have been easy to have him take Noah’s advice to heart and become suddenly reformed, Ms Burrowes doesn’t take that road, and the story is the better for it.

All the characters, from the two protagonists to the secondary ones are very well fleshed-out, and the central relationship is beautifully developed. Noah describes himself at the beginning as “not nice” – and it’s true that he is somewhat autocratic and that he can say some rather cutting things – but Ms Burrowes expertly charts his progress from single man to caring husband, and it’s a delight to read. Noah and Thea suddenly realise that they don’t know each other at all well, even though Thea had spent time in his company as companion to her charge. Both are so used to being self-sufficient that they don’t share easily, but I watched them gradually come to trust each other and own their vulnerabilities with immense satisfaction.

One of the things Ms Burrowes does so well in the book is to show all those little details and small intimacies that are present within long-term relationships, but which are often overlooked because they’ve become so ingrained. I loved the breakfast routine the couple quickly establishes; Thea is not a morning person, so it’s Noah who fixes her tea, then drinks half of it while also snitching her toast. Thea very quickly becomes accustomed to sleeping (as in actual sleeping!) with her husband, enjoying the warmth of his large body and the comfort of his presence, and dreading the day when they will do the same as other tonnish couples and sleep in separate beds.

As is ever the case with this author, the descriptive prose is beautiful and her ability to find the emotional heart of both characters and story never ceases to amaze me. She has a very distinctive writing style which I admit may not be to everyone’s taste, although personally, I like it very much. As an example, Noah and Thea constantly refer to each other as “Husband” and “Wife” throughout the story. In the hands of a lesser author this might seem like affectation, but Ms Burrowes turns the words into the most intimate of endearments that feel perfectly natural coming from the mouths of these characters.

The Duke’s Disaster is a truly delightful read that takes a well-used trope and – incredibly – has something new to say about it. Highly recommended.

Of Silk and Steam (London Steampunk #5) by Bec McMaster

of silk and steam

Enemies. Allies. Lovers.

When her beloved father was assassinated, Lady Aramina swore revenge. The man responsible is well beyond her grasp, but his dangerously seductive heir, Leo Barrons, is fair game. When Mina obtains evidence proving that Leo is illegitimate, she has the means to destroy both the killer and his son, a man who troubles her heart and tempts her body.

A woman of mystery, Mina’s long driven Leo crazy with glimpses of a fiery passion that lurks beneath her icy veneer. He knows she’s hiding something, and he’s determined to unravel her layer by silken layer. He just doesn’t expect the beautiful liar to be the key to overthrowing the corrupt prince consort… or to saving his own carefully walled-off heart.

Rating: B+

I’m not sure why I picked up this, the last in the author’s London Steampunk series without having read any of the others, other than that I’ve been meaning to give her books a try for a while and when I saw this on NetGalley, I thought “why not?”

Bec McMaster has created a complex world, full of intrigue and danger, and an intricate social hierarchy which is teetering on the brink. It took me a little while to work out what was what, but she has skilfully built in enough information for a new reader to be able to pick up the basics without too much trouble and without impeding the flow of the story. I think I would have liked to have read the others first – and intend to go back to them – but it’s just about possible to read this as a standalone, although I probably missed some of the subtler nuances.

In this version of Victorian London, steam and clockwork are powering technological advances, and the ruling classes are “blue-bloods”, who have superhuman strength, the ability to heal quickly and recover from almost anything – and who are, as a result, hard to kill. Only the highest born are selected to become blue-bloods, infected with the craving virus as part of a ritual and needing a regular supply of blood in order to survive. (It sounds like vampirism, but in this world, a vampire is a blue-blood coming to the end of their lives, one who loses their humanity and becomes a mindless killer). The country is ruled by the Echelon, the council of blue-blood dukes and the queen and prince-consort. But the queen is little more than a puppet, kept docile by the regular administration of drugs and her husband’s beatings, and the prince consort is the de facto ruler, a ruthless man who is steadily eliminating all opposition. The “normal” humans have been chafing against the harsh rule imposed upon them and punitive blood-taxes, leading to the rise of a humanist movement that is waiting for the moment to instigate rebellion.

Lord Leo Barrons is the son of the Duke of Caine, and has taken his father’s place on the Echelon due to the duke’s illness. But Leo is living a lie – he’s the duke’s acknowledged heir, but Caine is not his biological father – and he has long struggled to find his place in the world, feeling he doesn’t quite fit in among the ruling classes, and having to hide his humanist sympathies. But when the truth of his birth is unexpectedly revealed, he is accused of treason and has to run for his life – taking with him as a hostage Lady Aramina Duvall, the Duchess of Casavian who is one of only two female blue-bloods and a close friend of Queen Alexia. The only people Leo can turn to are his siblings and their spouses, who operate from London’s rookeries and who are also heavily involved in the upcoming rebellion.

Leo and Aramina – Mina – have a history going back years. She holds Leo and his father responsible for the slow, painful death of her father and wants her revenge – but she’s also fighting an attraction to Leo that she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. She’s a great character – a strong, independent woman in what is very much a man’s world, a woman who wields a great deal of power and influence but who is walking a political tightrope, trying to help the queen and preserve her appearance of loyalty to the Echelon while at the same time working behind the scenes to bring about its downfall.

Leo and Mina have both appeared in previous books, and from reading the author’s notes, I know that his is the story readers have been waiting for. He’s been deeply attracted to Mina for years, but his attitude towards her tends towards the light-hearted and flirtatious; he’s trying to show her he cares for her but without the risk of showing her too much. But deep down, he longs for the kind of contentment his sisters have in their relationships, he wants someone to belong to and who belongs to him, and his heart is set on Mina. His kindness towards her keeps Mina off-balance, causing her to question everything she’s ever believed about him, but she’s become so used to protecting herself from everyone and everything around her, to walling off her emotions and focusing on her cause that she can’t quite bring herself to take that final step and trust him, even when it appears they might actually be working towards the same end.

Together, they’re an explosive combination. They strike sparks off each other all the time, and have scorching chemistry in the romance department; and as a working team, they’re fantastic, too. One of the really admirable things about Leo is the way he trusts Mina to be able to do what needs to be done. Even when their backs are against the wall and everything in him is crying out to go to her and protect her, he knows she’s capable of getting the job done and lets her do it. Their romance is passionate and sexy, as Mina’s Ice Maiden persona finally melts under Leo’s determined pursuit. Along the way, they forge a deep emotional connection as well, discovering that perhaps they have more in common than either of them had ever thought possible. My one issue with their relationship is that while Leo put himself out there time after time and proves himself worthy of trust, Mina keeps holding back and refusing to take that final step and let herself believe in him, which gets a little frustrating, especially in the later stages of the book.

Of Silk and Steam is a fast-paced, action-packed read, full of political intrigue and unexpected plot twists, culminating in a revolution and a nail-biting showdown. Ms McMaster has done a splendid job building her Steampunk vision of London, and the writing and characterisation is very strong all round. I’m definitely going back to the beginning to read the other books in the series, and will be very interested to see what Ms McMaster turns her hand to next.

The Courtesan Duchess by Joanna Shupe

Courtesan Duchess

How to seduce an estranged husband—and banish debt!—in four wickedly improper, shockingly pleasurable steps…

1. Learn the most intimate secrets of London’s leading courtesan.
2. Pretend to be a courtesan yourself, using the name Juliet Leighton.
3. Travel to Venice and locate said husband.
4. Seduce husband, conceive an heir, and voilà, your future is secure!

For Julia, the Duchess of Colton, such a ruse promises to be foolproof. After all, her husband has not bothered to lay eyes on her in eight years, since their hasty wedding day when she was only sixteen. But what begins as a tempestuous flirtation escalates into full-blown passion—and the feeling is mutual. Could the man the Courtesan Duchess married actually turn out to be the love of her life?

Rating: B

I have to confess that when I read the opening scene of this, Joanna Shupe’s début novel, I almost closed the book and picked up something else. In it, the heroine watches her long-estranged husband pleasuring (though not shagging!) another woman in the middle of a game of cards at a very debauched party – which isn’t really the sort of thing I expect to read right at the beginning of a romantic novel! But I reasoned that I was probably supposed to think “eew”, and kept reading – and I’m glad I did, because The Courtesan Duchess turned out to be an engrossing, angsty story which, while not without flaws, was very readable.

Eight years before the book begins, Nicholas Seaton, heir to the Duke of Colton, was blackmailed by his unpleasant, dictatorial father into marrying a sixteen-year-old heiress for her money. Still reeling from the impact of the death of his beloved older brother, and knowing his father quite capable of carrying out his threats, Nick had no alternative but to agree to the scheme. But that was as far as he was prepared to go, and he left the country immediately following the ceremony, leaving his young bride untouched and dependent upon his cold, uncaring parents.

In the years of his absence, Nick has inherited the dukedom and has had no contact with his wife or his family, and wants none. He ignores what his friends tell him of his wife’s difficulties, and continues his hedonistic lifestyle with no thought or care for what is going on back in England, where Julia is facing penury. She doesn’t want her husband back; she doesn’t even know him other than by his reputation as the ‘Depraved Duke’, but his mother refuses to allow her to live in any of the ducal properties, his cousin is embezzling money from the estate and has drastically reduced her income in an attempt to force her to his bed – and in desperation, she comes up with a last-ditch plan to force the family to provide for her financially…

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