The Soldier (Windhams #2) by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by James Langton

the soldier audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

His idyllic estate is falling down from neglect, and nightmares of war give him no rest. Then Devlin St. Just meets his new neighbor…

With her confident manner hiding a devastating secret, his lovely neighbor commands all of his attention, and protecting Emmaline becomes Devlin’s most urgent mission.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B-

The Soldier is the second book in Grace Burrowes’ eight-book series about the sons and daughters of the Duke and Duchess of Windham and, as with the first book (The Heir), it features a number of recurring characters and family members. That said, the story works well as a standalone; anyone starting with the series here shouldn’t have any particular problems working out the various friendships and familial relationships.

Devlin St. Just is the Duke of Windham’s eldest son, although he was born on the wrong side of the blanket some time before the duke met and married his duchess. In fact, the duke was unaware of Devlin’s existence until he was around five years old, when his mother decided it would be better for her boy to be brought up in the comfort and security a ducal family would provide. Devlin was accepted into the family with open arms, growing up with his legitimate half-brothers and sisters and loved by them and by the duchess who looked upon him as she did her own sons.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Forevermore (Darkest London #7) by Kristen Callihan (audiobook) – Narrated by Moira Quirk

forevermore

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Miss Layla Starling, the young, beautiful, and extremely wealthy heiress, is the talk of London. Until now, she’s managed to evade the marriage noose. Despite the fact that she is unfortunately American, she’s received a staggering number of offers. And turned down every one.

St. John Evernight does not want to admit the relief he feels every time he hears that she has rejected one of her suitors. Which is unfair of him. Layla deserves to be happy. But he can not offer her happiness. He will never be normal, never be anything but a freak in her world.

So St. John resolves to keep his distance, until he is recruited by the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals to guard Layla. For she is in grave danger, and he is about to learn the full extent of his powers.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Forevermore is the seventh and final book in Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series of paranormal historical romances, and provides an exciting and fitting end to what has been one of my favourite series in both print and audio over the past few years. Even though most of the books can – just about – work as standalones, there are many plot threads and characters that are common across all the stories, and this is especially true of Forevermore; so anyone coming to it without any experience or knowledge of the other titles in the series is going to be at a disadvantage. The multiple common threads and characters also mean there are going to be spoilers for other books in the series in this review.

St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Evernight is the younger brother of the three Ellis sisters, Miranda, Daisy and Poppy (whose stories were told in Firelight, Moonglow and Winterblaze) and like them, is a powerful supernatural being. When he was a child, Sin was hidden away from his father, a crazed demon, and it wasn’t until very recently that he discovered that he had siblings and the truth about his parentage. While his sisters can control Fire, Earth and Water respectively, Sin is the most powerful of all of them, able to control all the elements and do much more besides.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Tangled by Mary Balogh

tangled

ONE MAN HAUNTED HER PAST…
Her beautiful eyes flashing with hate, Rebecca faced Lord David Tavistock. He had come back, wounded but still vibrantly, sensually alive, from the Crimean War. Julian Cardwell, her sweet, gentle bridegroom–and David’s foster brother–had not. She blamed wild, reckless David for Julian’s decision to enter the Queen’s Guards, and for the devastating loss of her perfect young husband, whose memory even now broke her heart and filled her dreams.

ONE PROMISED HER A FUTURE…
His blue eyes shadowed by dark secrets, David had come to claim the woman he had always loved. All his life he had protected the charming Julian, hiding the truth from Rebecca about the women Julian dallied with, the child he had fathered, the scandalous way he died. Now David offered Rebecca a life of privilege and wealth…as his wife. She wanted a marriage of convenience, but he intended to awake her deepest passions, to make her forget Julian Cardwell…and to find in his bed all the ecstasy of a man’s true love.

Rating: B

August’s TBR Challenge prompt is “Kickin’ it old-school” and it’s a prompt I always enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to pick something from the TBR Pile of Doom, which still looms large next to the bed. I went for Tangled by Mary Balogh, a standalone title originally published in 1991 which features a somewhat unusual premise; one I haven’t read before although I’m sure this isn’t the only book to have made use of it. I see that the book has engendered very mixed reactions over the years, and although I can understand why, I enjoyed it, principally because Mary Balogh is so skilled at portraying the emotional lives of her characters in a way that makes them feel very real to the reader.

The book opens as Lady Rebecca Cardwell is saying a fond farewell to her husband, Julian, before he departs with his regiment for Malta, and then the Crimea. He is accompanied by his foster brother, David, Viscount Tavistock, whom she dislikes and blames for Julian’s joining the army. Julian is eagerly reassuring his anxious wife that he will be in no danger, and it’s clear that he is keen to be on his way and sees the whole thing as an adventure.

The glimpses we see of Julian’s life in the army very quickly reinforce those initial impressions of his character. We learn some of his and David’s backstory, and see that Julian is one of those happy-go-lucky types who breeze through life with no care for anyone but himself. He’s not evil, per se, just incredibly selfish and immature. But his devil-may-care attitude, and particularly his womanising eventually has disastrous consequences which ultimately result in his death.

David returns home a decorated war hero, haunted by the death of the man he’d loved like a brother, and looking to settle down to a useful life at his country estate. He very quickly realises that Rebecca is in a difficult situation; even though she regards the Earl of Harrington as a father, she is not actually related to him and since his remarriage, feels the awkwardness of being the house’s former mistress in the presence of its new one. David has been in love with Rebecca for years, since long before she married Julian, and even though he knows that she will never love him, he offers her marriage, telling her that he can provide her with a home of her own and a purpose in life. He makes it clear, though, that while he is proposing a marriage of convenience, he wants a wife to share his bed and, hopefully, give him children.

Initially, Rebecca is stunned and turns him down. She doesn’t really like David, believing him guilty of a slew of misdemeanours in his youth and of having fathered a bastard child and refused to marry the mother. Yet she has to admit that since his return, she has seen a much quieter and more thoughtful man, and believes that perhaps he has outgrown his youthful exuberance. She also can’t deny that the prospect of a home of her own and having tasks to fill her days is an attractive one, so she eventually agrees to David’s proposal, assuring him that she will be a good wife to him and that once she is married to him, she will put Julian out of her thoughts.

At first, David thinks he has made a fairly good bargain, although his father is sceptical and warns him that he wants more than Rebecca will be prepared or able to give him. The marriage takes place and the newlyweds travel to their new home where Rebecca is delighted to discover that there is plenty for her to do and looks forward to being useful and taking her place as the foremost lady of the local community.

But their married life gets off to a rocky start. Rebecca’s version of “being a good wife” is letting her husband do as he wishes in bed with no thought for her own wants – and David is bewildered. He knows Julian and Rebecca were very much in love and thinks Rebecca must have experienced passion; but not only does she not respond to him, it’s clear she is having to force herself to endure his lovemaking. David believes that she is deliberately holding herself back from him because she doesn’t love him and because, in spite of her promise not to think of Julian, she is doing just that. Their relationship becomes incredibly strained until, after their third night together, David snaps, says some cruel things and then tells Rebecca he won’t be bothering her again.

Rebecca is equally confused. She has been brought up to believe that sex is for a husband’s pleasure and for procreation, and that she should just lie there and let him get on with it. She is surprised by her attraction to David, but is ashamed of her response to his kisses and lovemaking, feeling things she’s never felt before and desperate to control herself to make sure he isn’t disgusted by her wantonness. But after that night, she finds she misses the bonding that had begun between them in bed and also that she needs the reassurance of David’s presence there, and of his lovemaking, too. The couple settles into a way of life that sees them living and working together as little more than business partners, but Rebecca wants a real marriage and has no idea how to achieve it while David distances himself from her; his jealousy of Julian and the guilt, the secrets and the lies that shadowed their relationship distort his view of the situation and lead him to believe that Rebecca is disgusted by him. It’s a stalemate for quite some time until at last, it seems as though they have finally found a way through … which is when (of course) disaster strikes.

I am not normally a fan of stories in which so many misunderstandings and secrets abound, but I did enjoy Tangled. True, there were times I wanted to beat both protagonists over the head with a big stick and tell them to just be honest with each other; but somehow, Mary Balogh has made their reluctance to confide in each other believable. It’s frustrating to read at times, but is understandable, especially given that Rebecca’s upbringing has conditioned her to propriety and submission and that David is driven to protect the people he cares about. The deeper emotions are brilliantly illuminated, and the author has very skilfully illustrated the importance of sex in the development of the central relationship. Without it, David and Rebecca are almost strangers, and because they are both hiding things from each other, they don’t have any other way in which to achieve closeness on an emotional level.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers for the last third, but there are several places in that final section of the story that deliver a real emotional punch to the gut, as David and Rebecca struggle to adjust to a huge upheaval just as they were beginning to make something real out of their marriage. I especially liked the way in which the author shows that Rebecca is falling in love with David while being completely unaware of it, and how she shows the depths of his quiet, unrequited love for his wife, but as individuals, they are complex, flawed and not always easy to like. Rebecca puts Julian on a pedestal and is unable – or unwilling – to see any of the shortcomings of which the reader – and David – is aware. She elevates him practically to sainthood after his death, and there are times when her continual harping upon his perfection gets very irritating. David, too, is not without his faults; for the most part, he’s one of those honourable, quiet men who are driven to protect, but I did have to ask myself how he could bear to let so many people think badly of him for so long. But with those things said, both characters feel very much like products of their time, and I applaud Ms. Balogh for creating and keeping them that way in spite of the sometimes negative effect on their overall appeal.

While the secret-keeping is frustrating and the central characters could sometimes be a bit irritating, my principal criticism of Tangled is with the ending. Granted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion if David and Rebecca were to get their HEA, but the action that leads up to it is so completely out of character for the person concerned, that I had to read and accept it as a necessary plot device rather than a natural direction of the story.

This is an angsty and emotional book, and I can understand that the secrets, misunderstandings and – for want of a better word, passivity – of the protagonists may mean it is not one that everyone will like. But the depth of the emotion contained within its pages and the skilfully developed, strong connection between the protagonists are sufficiently compelling as to allow me to overlook any weaknesses and commend it as an absorbing and thought-provoking read.

His Royal Favourite (His Royal Secret #2) by Lilah Pace

his royal favourite

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

James, Prince of Wales, is making history. He’s decided to come out to his subjects—and the world. However, telling the truth means exposing his relationship with lone-wolf reporter Benjamin Dahan. Although Ben never wanted commitment, the unexpected depth of his feelings leads him to join James in the media’s harsh spotlight.

When the news story explodes across the globe, Ben can endure the mockery and dirty jokes. But after his tragic past is cruelly revealed, his life begins to implode. Can even his love for James be worth this?

James has it no easier. His revelation divides the country and sparks turmoil within the royal family. He must struggle to defend not only himself and Ben, but also his younger sister, who hovers on the brink of a breakdown that could endanger her life.

Is Ben strong enough to survive the onslaught and stand by James’ side? And will James have to make a choice between Ben and the crown?

Rating: A-

His Royal Favorite is the second book in the duology that began with His Royal Secret. As it’s a direct sequel, it’s advisable to have read the first book before embarking upon this one, and also means that there are going to be spoilers for His Royal Secret in this review.

The story in His Royal Favorite picks up pretty much where it ended in the previous book. In a Britain in which Queen Victoria and the House of Winsdor never existed, the reigning monarch is the elderly King George IX of the House of Hanover, and the next in line to the throne is his grandson, the handsome, popular, twenty-nine year old James, Prince of Wales. But James is gay and very firmly in the closet, believing that the British people will not accept a homosexual as their next king, and also well aware of the political and religious issues that would arise as a result of the fact that the monarch is also Head of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth.

But James’ life got even more complicated when he met and fell in love with Benjamin Dahan, an Israeli born German national who is also a journalist. Given the circumstances, the couple were happy to settle for a no-strings sex-only affair at first, but it wasn’t long before the relationship turned into something more emotional as both men realised that they had found something very special in the other, someone to talk to and laugh with, someone who understood them on an almost instinctual level. At the end of the book, James had finally decided that enough was enough and that he didn’t want to live a lie any longer. Knowing that Ben doesn’t want commitment, that putting a partner through the horrors of the media circus that was bound to follow his announcement would be extremely unfair, and, ultimately, loving Ben enough to let him go, James resigned himself to going it alone. I admit I had a lump in my throat when Ben told James he was in it for the long haul and that he was going to stand beside him through whatever was to come.

His Royal Favorite starts with James telling his PR people that he is going to be coming out as a gay man in an existing relationship and follows the two men through the ensuing months, which are going to prove incredibly difficult for both of them and will test them to their limits.

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

As Death Draws Near (Lady Darby #5) by Anna Lee Huber (audiobook) – Narrated by Heather Wilds

as death draws near

This title is available to download from Audible.

July 1831. In the midst of their idyllic honeymoon in England’s Lake District, Kiera and Gage’s seclusion is soon interrupted by a missive from her new father-in-law. A deadly incident involving a distant relative of the Duke of Wellington has taken place at an abbey south of Dublin, Ireland, and he insists that Kiera and Gage look into the matter.

Intent on discovering what kind of monster could murder a woman of the cloth, the couple travel to Rathfarnham Abbey school. Soon a second nun is slain in broad daylight near a classroom full of young girls. With the sinful killer growing bolder, the mother superior would like to send the students home, but the growing civil unrest in Ireland would make the journey treacherous. Before long, Kiera starts to suspect that some of the girls may be hiding a sinister secret. With the killer poised to strike yet again, Kiera and Gage must make haste and unmask the fiend before their matrimonial bliss comes to an untimely end.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

This fifth book in Anna Lee Huber’s series of historical mysteries featuring Lady Keira Darby is another well-constructed tale – one in which Keira and her new husband, inquiry agent Sebastian Gage, are asked to investigate the murder of an Irish nun.

The newly-weds are on their honeymoon when an urgent letter from Sebastian’s father, Lord Gage, reaches them, informing them that a young woman –a relative of the Duke of Wellington – has been found dead on the grounds of Loretto Abbey near Rathfarnham where she was a postulant. Seeing as Gage and Keira are in the north of England and can more easily travel to Ireland, Lord Gage asks them to look into the matter in his stead. Gage’s relationship with his overbearing father is strained to say the least, and has become moreso since he refused to marry the debutante chosen for him and married Keira, a widow dogged by scandal (The Anatomist’s Wife). They have half a mind to refuse the request, but fearing that Lord Gage would simply rush the inquiry and would more than likely not be impartial, they decide to go and do their best to obtain justice for the dead woman.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia (audiobook) – Narrated by Juliet Stevenson

belgravia

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode.

Set in the 1840s, when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever….

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

I’m sure that most people will be familiar with the name of the writer of Gosford Park and the creator of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. In his latest novel, Julian Fellowes continues to explore England’s past and to look particularly at the class system and the way in which convention and reputation so dominated British society in the 19th century. As one would expect from an Oscar winning screenwriter, the story is beautifully written and developed; and as one would expect from Julian Fellowes, it’s full of acute social observation and comment delivered in a classically understated, English manner. The book’s gentle pacing may not suit all tastes, but when you throw in the hugely talented Juliet Stevenson into the mix as the narrator, that only allows the listener more time to listen to her beautiful voice and enjoy her truly outstanding performance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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A Scandalous Adventure (Victorian Adventures #3) by Lillian Marek

A Scandalous Adventure

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

They’re hiding a scandalous secret
When his monarch’s flighty fiancée disappears, Count Maximillian von Staufer is dispatched to find her. His search leads Max to discover not the princess, but a look-alike who could be her double. Desperate to avoid an international crisis, he conceives a plan that will buy some time-and allow him to get to know a beautiful Englishwoman.

And time is running out
Lady Susannah Tremaine and her young friend Olivia are staying at the Grand Hotel in Baden, where so far the most exciting part of the visit has been the pastries. But when a devastatingly handsome royal Germanic officer asks Olivia to impersonate a missing princess, Susannah finds herself drawn into a dangerous world of international intrigue as she tries to protect her friend-and her heart.

Rating: C

This third book in Lillian Marek’s Victorian Adventures series takes place in the small – fictitious – German state of Sigmaringen and is basically a gender-swapped version of Anthony Hope’s classic, The Prisoner of Zenda (which the author acknowledges as her inspiration). In that book, an English gentleman traveller who could be the twin of the King of Ruritania Is asked to impersonate him during his coronation as the real king is temporarily indisposed.  In this one, a missing princess could spell disaster for the state of Sigmaringen  – but salvation is at hand in the form of a young English lady who agrees to act as a temporary decoy.

Lady Susannah Tremaine has accompanied her friend, Lady Olivia de Vaux, and her elderly Aunt Augusta on a trip to the German spa-town of Baden.  While the ladies are out for a stroll, they are accosted by a very large, very handsome man in uniform who proceeds to address Olivia as “princess” while he tries to drag her away with him.  Susannah is having none of that, telling him that Olivia is not a princess and, when he refuses to believe her, trying to beat him off with her parasol  – but that doesn’t work either.   It’s only when Lady Augusta arrives on the scene that the man – who introduces himself as Count Maximillian von Staufer, captain in the Royal Guard of Sigmaringen – is persuaded that perhaps Olivia really is an English lady after all.

Not long after this strange encounter, the ladies receive a visit from General Otto Bergen, who apologises for Max’s mistake, but then realises that perhaps here is the solution to a very big problem.  He and his men are escorting Princess Mila of Hechingen to their capital at Nymberg in order to solemnise the marriage between the princess and Prince Conrad, but the princess has run off.  The resemblance between Olivia and the princess is remarkable, and the general asks for her help.  If she were to accompany them to Nymberg and impersonate the princess for just a few days, that would buy his men enough time to find the princess and return her without her father discovering the truth and doing something stupid such as declaring war on Sigmaringen.

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