Ten Things I Love About You (audiobook) by Julia Quinn – Performed by Rosalyn Landor

10 things

Ten Things You Should Know About This Book

1. Sebastian Grey is a devilishly handsome rogue with a secret.

2. Annabel Winslow’s family voted her The Winslow Most Likely to Speak Her Mind and The Winslow Most Likely to Fall Asleep in Church.

3. Sebastian’s uncle is the Earl of Newbury, and if he dies without siring an heir, Sebastian inherits everything.

4. Lord Newbury detests Sebastian and will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening.

5. Lord Newbury has decided that Annabel is the answer to all of his problems.

6. Annabel does not want to marry Lord Newbury, especially when she finds out he once romanced her grandmother.

7 is shocking, 8 is delicious, and 9 is downright wicked, all of which lead the way to

10. Happily. Ever. After.

Rating: B+

I’ve been on a bit of a Julia Quinn audio-glom this year, having listened to Just Like Heaven, A Night Like This, and It’s in His Kiss in the last few months alone! I frequently turn to her books or audios when I want something light and a bit fluffy, which has plenty of humour and engaging characters, and I can say that Ten Things I Love About You most definitely fits that particular bill.

It may not be up to the standard of some of her earlier Bridgerton books, but in Sebastian Grey she has created a hero who can give any of the Bridgerton men a good run for their money! He’s everything one would expect of a romantic hero – handsome, extremely charming, and very witty, but he’s also rather a troubled young man whose distressing dreams lead to bouts of serious insomnia. In the midst of one of these bouts, he starts toying with the idea of writing a book – something we discover later has actually served him rather well.

I’m not quite sure what it is exactly, but there is something that sets Sebastian in a class apart from your usual handsome, charming, and witty hero; and the only word I can come up with to describe it is to say that he’s intensely loveable.

You can read the rest of this review over at AudioGals.

Secrets of a Runaway Bride by Valerie Bowman

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The Thrill Of Escape

Miss Annie Andrews is finally free to marry the man she loves. With her overprotective sister out of the country on her honeymoon, nothing can prevent her flight to Gretna Green—nothing, that is, but an abduction by the wrong gentleman.

The Sweetness Of Surrender

When Jordan Holloway, the Earl of Ashbourne, promised to look after his best friend’s sister-in-law, he didn’t realize she would prove so difficult. But when he spirits her away to his country house to prevent her elopement, he discovers that the tempting beauty knows how to put up a fight. To make matters worse, he’s stuck playing the role of honorable protector…when what he really wants is to run away with her himself.

Rating: C-

This started out as an enjoyable although predictable read, which I had the feeling would be a B-ish grade by the time I’d finished. It takes up the story of Anne (Annie) Andrews, younger sister of Lily, the heroine of the previous book in this series (Secrets of a Wedding Night) and is an “adversaries fall in love” story. It’s a trope I rather like, and which when done well can be extremely engaging, but it’s fraught with pitfalls which I’m sorry to say this author didn’t manage to wholly avoid.

You have a heroine who verged on the TSTL because of her insistence on doing things simply to annoy the hero rather than engaging her brain to see that he was right, more often than not. That’s not to say the hero wasn’t without faults either – he had his dumb moments, too, such as having sworn off marriage because he’d had his heart broken five years earlier, and being unable to keep his hands off the heroine despite his frequent admonitions to himself at how wrong it was for him to grope her and snog her senseless. Although she did have a head-start in the senseless stakes…

At the end of the previous book, Annie had eloped with Mr Arthur Eggleston, a young man a few years her senior with whom she believed herself to be in love. She was intercepted by her sister’s husband and his friend Jordan Holloway, the Earl of Ashbourne, who is the hero of this book. Annie’s newly-wed sister is on her honeymoon, and has asked Ashbourne to keep an eye on Annie while she’s away, a responsibility he takes very seriously. The opening scene sees the Earl discovering her shinning up or down a happily placed vine on the side of Eggleston’s town house so that she can speak to him, and ends with Annie being peeved that her beloved was not the slightest bit put out at finding her in the arms of the Earl (after he’d pulled her off the vine!).

The first part of the book is taken up with Annie’s repeated attempts to see Eggleston and Jordan’s repeated schemes to thwart her. Even when he tells Annie she’s making a fool of herself over a man who clearly doesn’t want her and that people are starting to talk, she refuses to see that he’s telling the truth. Seeming meekly to acquiesce to his instructions to leave Eggleston alone, Annie continues to scheme.

She firmly believes herself to be in love with Eggleston (and I have to say, the best line of the book comes in a comment about his having been named after something that comes out of a chicken’s arse!) – but even she has to acknowledge that he is the sort of man who is easily swayed by whoever he happens to be talking to at the time, and starts to chafe at his lack of fervour. Yet she still clings to her idea of love; you see, Annie has grown up in the shadow of her classically beautiful sister and feels very insecure about her physical attributes having been so often compared and found wanting – and Eggleston is the first man ever to have told her she was pretty… hence, he must be in love with her and what can she do but love him back?

Jordan. Is. Gorgeous. Honestly. He is. G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. I know this because it was repeated at least once every five pages (okay, so I haven’t really counted that it’s every five, but it certainly felt like it!) I like my heroes to be tall, dark and handsome, but I don’t need to be hit over the head with it.

By about half way through, I realised that my prediction for B-ish had been overly optimistic. For most of the book, Annie acts like a spoiled child (she’s only nineteen, and I admit to a preference for more mature heroines), which leads me to another of the pitfalls that so often occurs with an adversarial couple, that of inequality. Of course, society at this time was hugely unequal – men were dominant and the titled took precedence, but that’s not the type of equality I’m talking about. In the quintessential “dislike-to-love” novel,Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is far below Darcy on the social scale, but she is his equal in sense and intelligence. I think this type of story needs that kind of equality to work well, and that is sadly absent here. Jordan is twelve years Annie’s senior – an age gap with which I have no problem – but the gap between thirty-one and nineteen in this story seems much, much wider given Annie’s immaturity.

It wasn’t until the last 100 pages or so that I began to think: “At last. She’s showing some sense” as Annie finally admitted to herself that Jordan had been acting in her best interests all along and trying to preserve her reputation while she’d been so intent on getting Mr Egg’n’Chips to marry her that she hadn’t cared about it. But then my hopes were dashed once more when she decided to manoeuvre Jordan into bed by enlisting the help of one of his friends!, Viscount Medford (who I believe is the hero of the next book in the series). Medford concocts some story about his having the wrong key, plies Jordan with enough gin to get him a bit buzzy but not incapable and sends him off – unknowing – to Annie’s room where, once again, Jordan finds himself incapable of resisting her so ignores his better judgement and finally has sex with her.

(That sound you can hear is me, banging my head against the desk. Repeatedly.)

The thing is, Annie knows Jordan has sworn off marriage, and hasn’t taken him to her bed so that she can force him to marry her – oh, no, she’s far more noble than that. She just wants the chance to experience the wonder of having the man she truly loves while she can, with no strings attached. I find it so, SO difficult to accept it when a young and virginal romance heroine proposes “no strings” sex because she doesn’t want the hero to feel she’s trapped him, because a woman had so few options at that time. In this case, Annie is nineteen and (now) no longer a virgin. She might be the sister-in-law of a rich Marquess, but even that won’t make her a first-class marriage prospect, and if she doesn’t marry, the most likely outcome is that she’ll end up as the maiden aunt to her sister’s children, living as a dependent.

I know, I know – this is romance and there are always going to be elements to a story that are a bit fantastical. But IMO, this isn’t one of those things. If you want your nineteen-year-old heroine to have no-strings sex with a wealthy older man man who lives by a certain code of honour, then don’t write historicals. Oh, and please don’t turn her into a sex-goddess overnight. I don’t mind a heroine participating enthusiastically, or even given a bit of a nudge by the hero to…er… do a couple of things which might not have occurred to her on her own. But for her to go from being a virgin one day to being a girl who is comfortable performing fellatio while the hero’s friend is standing outside the bedroom door talking to him made me roll my eyes so hard they hurt.

But I digress. Annie is perfectly okay with the fact that Jordan has sworn off marriage, although she has hopes – and yet the next minute, after overhearing part of a conversation between Jordan and his brother Charlie in which Jordan makes it clear he’s never going to marry “her” – gets massively upset and runs away. Of course, Jordan wasn’t talking about Annie. But she jumps to conclusions and runs off, only to encounter Mr Eggs’n’Bacon who spirits her away. Fortunately, Annie comes to her senses, tells Mr Eggles-Cake that she wants to go home… but, oh no! They are intercepted by a mysterious highwayman! Who of course, isn’t a mysterious highwayman at all.

Secrets of a Runaway Bride passed the time well enough (until it got annoyingly frustrating!) but didn’t offer anything in terms of the story, writing or characterisation to in any way differentiate it from all the other “enemies-to-lovers” stories out there. I have no objection to there being a twelve year age-gap between the hero and heroine, but she was an immature nineteen, self-absorbed and so wrapped up with what she wanted that she couldn’t see she was ruining herself. Jordan was a fairly attractive hero – apart from the oft cited good looks, he also was honourable and kind had a good sense of humour -but I never felt he was a fully-rounded character either. The writing was decent overall, although I did notice a few typos and incorrect word choices in the paperback copy I was sent to review.

All in all, I’d say if you’re going to read this book, make sure you’re in an extremely forgiving mood.

The Misbehaving Marquess by Leigh LaValle

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Having awaited the return of her husband for half a decade, Catherine Raybourne, the Marchioness of Foster, has no intention of reconciling with her misbehaving marquess. But when he insists he needs an heir-immediately-she must confront her own lingering desires. Can she protect her heart while attempting to win his once again?

Rating: C

This was originally published in the anthology Three Weddings and a Murder which also included novellas by Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare – and I have to say, I found it fairly average. I’ve been fortunate enough to have read some very engaging novellas and short stories recently (Miranda Neville’s and Caroline Linden’s stories in At the Duke’s Wedding, Tessa Dare’s Scandalous No Good Mr Wright, Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, for example) all of which have managed to combine satisfying storytelling with a depth of characterisation and emotional engagement that is sometimes not found in full length novels, let alone the 100 or so pages of a novella.

Unfortunately, The Misbehaving Marquess, while being reasonably entertaining just didn’t have the depth I want from a story about the reconciliation of a couple who have been apart for five years, and the reasons given for their separation were, IMO, ridiculously flimsy.

It’s not a terrible way to spend an hour, but not a “must read”.

With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the review copy

Love and Other Scandals by Caroline Linden

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Joan Bennet is tired of being a wallflower. Thanks to some deliciously scandalous—and infamous—stories, she has a pretty good idea of what she’s missing as a spinster. Is even a short flirtation too much to ask for?

Tristan, Lord Burke, recognizes Joan at once for what she is: trouble. Not only is she his best friend’s sister, she always seems to catch him at a disadvantage. The only way he can win an argument is by kissing her senseless. He’d give anything to get her out of her unflattering gowns. But either one of those could cost him his bachelor status, which would be dreadful—wouldn’t it?

Rating: A-

Oh, what a lovely book! There was no melodrama; there were no huge angst-fests, no mysteries to solve, no evil ex-lovers or relatives out to steal the heroine’s fortune; no big misunderstandings or unexpected pregnancies… this was a story about two people finding each other and falling in love, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Tristan, Viscount Burke and Joan Bennet have been vaguely acquainted with each other since childhood. Tristan is a close friend of Joan’s brother, Douglas, and over the years the pair of them have got into scrapes, caused scandals and generally lived the dissolute lives of young, well-to-do gentlemen.

Tristan lost both his parents as a child and was reluctantly taken in by his aunt and uncle, neither of whom wanted anything to do with him. As a result, he tried to spend as little time at home as possible, inveigling invitations where he could to friends’ homes for school holidays. Having nobody to check him – and more importantly to love him – has meant that his behaviour in society has not always been everything it should be, although as he is young, titled, very handsome and very rich, he is welcome in all but the highest circles of tonnish society.

Joan is twenty-four and has spent most of her life trying to be a good daughter – which seems mostly to consist of doing what her mother wants. The problem is that Joan isn’t like her mother. She’s tall and statuesque, so the dresses, colours and hairstyles her mother favours make her look frumpish and unattractive, yet she continues to wear them because it makes her mother happy. Joan is clever and witty, but her height, figure and awful dresses mean that she is consigned to the ranks of the wallflowers at balls and other functions.
When Joan goes to visit her brother Douglas one morning with the intention of securing his agreement to attend a particular ball, she is surprised when his front door is opened by a shirtless and rather grumpy young man, which fazes Joan not one bit.

”I’m sorry,” she said, finding her tongue. “Have you taken up residence?”

“For two months,” he said. “Until my roof is repaired.”

“Ah,” she said. “How lovely that Douglas will have a companion in vice so conveniently to hand.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Vice? How interesting you would sieze on that so quickly.”

“It is the first thing that comes to mind when one considers my brother.” She looked him up and down. “And you, I imagine.”

“Good heavens,” he drawled. “It must have been the first thing to come to your mind, then, when I opened the door for you. Should I be flattered?”

The golden flecks in her eyes glinted. “Probably not,” she replied. “I imagine the two of you, thoroughly foxed, unable to walk, lying in your own filth as you sleep it off – no doubt snoring viciously and twitching every few moments.”

Each time Joan and Tristan meet, the sparks fly, and when Lady Bennet is taken ill and has to leave London, Douglas asks Tristan to keep an eye on Joan (whose aunt Evangeline has come to stay with her) and to make sure she doesn’t get bored – by which Douglas means taking her for a drive, dancing with her at a ball, that sort of thing. Well aware of his growing attraction to Joan, Tristan is little short of horrified at his friend’s request, but assents anyway, fully intending to keep his attentions to Joan to a minimum.

But he finds that to be impossible and spends much more time with her than he thinks is wise – taking her on a balloon ascension and dancing with her more times than is strictly proper, so that their names begin to be “linked”. Unfortunately, Lady Bennet is less than fond of Tristan, preferring to blame him for Douglas’ excesses rather than to see that her son doesn’t need any encouragement in that quarter – and when she returns to London, she is horrified to discover that Joan and Tristan are regarded as almost a couple by the society gossips.

What I liked best about the book is that while it’s an “ugly duckling” story, as Joan, with the help of her slightly scandalous aunt, finds her own style and learns to assert herself a little – it doesn’t take nicer dresses and better hairstyles for Tristan to notice her. He’s intrigued by her from the start, dubbing her “the fury” because of her sharp tongue and the way she stands up to him and answers him back; and it’s not long before he’s attracted as well as intrigued and infuriated by her, despite the bad dresses. He’s lusting after her before she makes the transformation into a swan, being appreciative of Joan’s intelligence and wit as well as her… more feminine attributes.

I also liked the fact that, when the inevitable happened and Joan and Tristan HAD to get married, Joan didn’t get missish and insist she wouldn’t marry him because she didn’t want to trap him into it – and in fact, Tristan was already making preparations to approach her father before word got about that he’d compromised her, because he wanted to marry her.

With Lady Bennet being so displeased at the way things have worked out, Tristan and Joan are allowed no time alone in the weeks before their wedding, and are thus unable to talk about their feelings for each other. Joan knows Tristan desires her, but feels he may be marrying her because he has no other option, which puts a damper on the whole thing for her.

What she doesn’t realise is that the uncertainty is mutual. Tristan has little or no experience with loving or being loved, but he’s man enough to own up to his feelings when Joan asks if he wants her for more than just sex. In fact, throughout the book, it’s made clear that he’s a man with a lot to offer – I loved his enthusiasm for his home and all the renovations he was having carried out; he went to a lot of trouble to arrange the balloon excursion for Joan because he knew her life had probably been rather staid and dull, and his teasing was always good-natured. He did something for Joan which nobody else had ever done – he made her feel beautiful, when for years she’d thought of herself as a dowd – and that’s one of the nicest thing any man can do for a woman, IMO.

This book was a treat from start to finish. Joan and Tristan were both truly warm and engaging characters, the dialogue was excellent and the sexual tension just sizzled whenever they were together on the page. . Love and Other Scandals is easily one of the best books I’ve read all year.

With thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for the review copy.

Hero’s Redemption by Georgie Lee

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London, 1817

Devon, the Earl of Malton, is a hero for his deeds at the Battle of Waterloo. But he suffers terrible nightmares, and drinks himself to sleep most nights. A habit he vows to break when he awakes one morning to find a woman sharing his bed, no memory of how she got there, and her angry brother at his door.

Cathleen is mortified when her wastrel brother and his greedy wife propose a blackmail scheme involving the earl, but as a penniless war widow she’s at their mercy. She goes along with the plan and sneaks into Devon’s bed one night, and ends up comforting him through a night terror.

Charmed by her beauty and kindness, Devon determines that rather than pay the blackmail, he will offer his hand in marriage to Cathleen. Although she is deeply attracted to the stoic earl, Cathleen cannot understand why Devon would want to marry her. What she doesn’t know is that Devon owes her a debt that can never fully be repaid…

Rating: C-

I’ve sometimes reviewed a full-length novel that I’ve felt would have worked better as a novella because the storyline didn’t contain enough plot and the novel felt as though half of it was padding. In Hero’s Redemption, I felt the reverse was the case.

There are several plot strands to story and all of them suffered from being underdeveloped. Devon, Lord Malton rescues Cathleen Selton from the clutches of her slatternly, grasping relatives by marrying her. But her nasty cousin Lionel and his equally unpleasant wife, Martha, had expected to blackmail Devon into keeping quiet about the fact that Cathleen had spent the night (innocently) in his bed. Needless to say, the marriage foils their plan so instead, they come up with one to murder Devon and appropriate Cathleen’s widows’ portion.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but added in are the fact that Devon, a decorated war hero, is tortured with guilt at the fact that a fellow soldier died saving Devon’s life; and that this soldier turns out to be none other than Cathleen’s late husband. So initially, he proposes to her out of guilt and as a way to make some sort of reparation for the fact that her husband died saving him.

Of course, Cathleen does not know the real reason Devon proposed to her, and even though he knows he should tell her, and in fact plans to do so, he keeps putting it off until she hears it from someone else. I suppose the fact that this is a novella means that this setback in their relationship was actually dealt with quite quickly rather than being dragged out, which is certainly a plus point.

But there is a lot on the negative side which outweighs it. The characters are not fully developed, the fact of Devon’s PTSD is not fully addressed, and Lionel and Martha read like pantomime villains. We are told that Devon finds Cathleen’s voice soothing and that she helps to pull him out of his nightmares – both waking and asleep – and settle him, but that’s hardly a long-term cure (and I use the word “cure” loosely) for PTSD!

Also – I didn’t really want to read about grubby, greedy Lionel and Martha having sex, thank you very much! The word-count was limited as it was, and could have been better spent on developing the romance between Cathleen and Devon which seemed to spring forth fully formed. There was no real getting to know each other – they went from strangers to being in love so quickly, I had to track back to make sure I hadn’t missed something.

To sum up, then, I thought the premise of Hero’s Redemption wasn’t at all bad, but it read like the bare bones of a novel, rather than a complete and, ultimately, satisfying novella.

Nicholas: Lord of Secrets by Grace Burrowes

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Nicholas Haddonfield has something to hide…

After a wild youth, Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, has promised his ailing father he’ll finally take a bride, though doing so will force Nick to make impossible choices and face old, painful wounds.

Leah Lindsey is glad to find refuge from her own desperate situation in a marriage of convenience with the gallant viscount. But soon convenience is not enough, and Leah can’t understand why Nick remains so distant. What is he hiding, and will he ever allow her into his heart?

Rating: B+

Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, was a secondary character in Darius, the first book in Grace Burrowes’ Lonely Lords series. In this, the second book, we get to know Nicholas more fully, and to discover the nature of the scandal which surrounded Darius’ sister, Leah, which was hinted at in the first book.

Nicholas is a giant of a man, often likened to a Viking because of his height and massive frame. He’s a giant on the inside, too, with appetites of all sorts (!) to match his stature and a big, warm heart which won’t allow him to ignore the plight of a woman he hardly knows. He’s devoted to his family and, despite their having had their differences, has an affectionate relationship with his dying father, Earl Bellefonte. Nicholas is also feeling the weight of responsibility from that quarter, as he knows it will not be long before he has to assume the reins of the earldom and he worries about being able to adequately fill his father’s shoes and live up to his responsibilities.

He’s a man who adores women and genuinely likes them as people and not just as sexual partners – even though his sexual exploits and appetites are legendary. He is well-liked, charming, warm and funny; in fact he seems to have a perfect life, apart from one thing. As the heir to an earldom, he knows it to be his duty to marry and continue the line, but he doesn’t want to have children and therefore feels it would be wrong to marry. A wife is entitled to expect intimacy with her husband, and to expect him to give her children and as Nicholas is not willing to risk the latter, he is willing to forgo the former. Marrying under those conditions would be unfair to whomever he married and so, despite his fondness for the ladies, he has decided to eschew marriage and that his eldest nephew – when he comes into existence – will be his heir.

His reason for not wanting children is, it seems, a simple one. He is a very large man and frequently attests to the fact that his size at birth was responsible for the death of his mother; and he does not want to put his wife at risk in that way. It becomes clear later in the book however that this is merely a cover and that the true reason is a completely different one, and one that he does not want to share with anyone. Nicholas has a daughter who, at the age of sixteen, has the mind of a child. In order to protect her from the cruel and wagging tongues of the ton, Nicholas has housed her in the country, not far from his home, with a companion and he visits her as often as he can. Leonie is the reason he is terrified of fathering more children; he fears that any other offspring of his will suffer from the same condition, and knows that while he can hide away and protect a daughter, his son and heir would be a very different matter. He is unwilling to expose a child of his to ridicule, scorn and probably worse.

In Darius it was obvious that his sister Leah had been the subject of scandal some years before, and in Nicholas we discover the full extent of it. She had eloped with her fiancé (who had been her lover) having been, she believed, encouraged to do so by her father who could not wait to be rid of her. But between the elopement and the wedding, the Earl of Wilton had changed his mind, and proceeded to kill Leah’s fiancé in a duel. Distraught and pregnant, Leah was hustled off to Italy by Darius and her older brother, Trenton, where she bore her child who sadly died in infancy.

Back in England, Wilton has all-but promised Leah to one of his cronies, an older man with a propensity for violence in bed – and there is little that either of her brothers can do to prevent the match as Leah is a virtual prisoner in her home.
It was fairly clear from Wilton’s treatment of Darius that the man is unhinged, and the lengths he is prepared to go to in order to keep Leah from marrying Nicholas are further proof of that. But Nick has planned ahead and in true white-knight fashion, rescues his lady from Wilton’s evil clutches.

Nicholas has made it clear to Leah that theirs must be a “white” marriage as he doesn’t want to risk getting her pregnant. She doesn’t understand his reasons for not wanting children and is unconvinced by his oft-stated reason, that any child of his is likely to be huge and difficult to birth. But not only does Leah have no alternative, she loves Nick, so she marries him, knowing that he will be kind to her and quietly determined to burrow her way through his defences.

As ever, Ms Burrowes writes a thoroughly convincing romance. Leah is up to Nicholas’ weight intellectually and verbally, and there is a great and palpable tenderness between them that leaps off the page. My main problem with the book though, was the way that Nick’s fears were overcome in the blink of an eye when he discovered that his daughter’s infirmities were not caused by a birth defect but rather by a severe fever she’d had as a child. That he was in regular contact with the girl’s nanny/nurse, but never, in sixteen years, asked about Leonie’s situation seems ridiculous to me, as it does that the woman would never have offered up such information. I don’t like it much when an author (and especially an author as good as this one) has to resort to such a flimsy plot device in order to make a large element of the story work properly. And while I’m on this subject, are we really to believe that Nicholas who was, let’s face it, something of a manwhore, had never heard of french letters, sponges, douches, withdrawal or other forms of contraception? Or were his romps through the boudoirs of society confined to “everything but” ? Sure, nothing is guaranteed (other than abstention), but he does not even speak about contraception with his wife, which is odd, seeing as discussions of contraception and conception are things that Ms Burrowes does employ in other books.

But that apart, I enjoyed Nicholas, again principally due to the excellent characterisation and the way that Ms Burrowes is able to make me care about the people who inhabit her books and to draw me in to the story. Nick is a truly good man, despite his womanising – he’s charming and funny and wonderfully warm-hearted, and Leah, despite all she’s gone through is a survivor and thoroughly deserving of her gentle giant of a husband.

As well as the beautifully developed love story, the other highlight of the book for me was the relationship between Nicholas and his older – Illegitimate – half-brother, Ethan Grey. Even though he was a bastard, Ethan was brought up with the Haddonfield children and being closest in age to Nick, the two boys became very close emotionally, too – until the earl separated them and sent Ethan away to school. It’s clear in this book that that separation and the following years spent alone have taken a toll on Ethan, but in this story, they take the first steps towards reconciliation, and it’s beautifully done.

And this leads me to say that while all the books in this series are designed to be read as standalones, I think reading Ethan (the next in the series) will prove very rewarding, as Ms Burrowes has written a truly wonderful relationship between the half-brothers which continues into the next book.

With thanks to Sourcebooks and NetGalley for the review copy.

In Defense of the Queen by Michelle Diener

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An artist never betrays her patron . . . especially one of the world’s most powerful kings.

Susanna Horenbout has learned this lesson from the cradle. But when she receives a letter from her father telling her to do just that, she faces a dilemma. Betray Henry VIII, or carry out the request of her father’s employer, Margaret of Austria, and pass secret information to Henry’s queen, Katherine of Aragon.

Caught between the machinations of her husband and her nephew, the Emperor Charles, Queen Katherine needs all the allies she can get. But what can Susanna really do to help her, and even if she does, will it be enough?

Susanna and her betrothed, Parker——one of Henry’s most trusted courtiers——balance on the knife’s edge of treason as they try to make sense of both international and domestic conspiracies. Sometimes, it’s better the enemy you know . . .

Rating: C+

This was a tightly-plotted and quick-moving mystery set in the reign of Henry VIII and is the third in Ms Diener’s series featuring John Parker and Susanna Horenbout. Parker and Susanna met in In a Treacherous Court when she was sent to England from Flanders to work as a court painter.

By the end of that story, the pair were lovers and had become betrothed. At the beginning of this book, they have yet to marry, although they seem to be living together fairly openly.

Both Parker and Susanna really existed and were really married to each other, although of course, the events of the mysteries are completely fictional. From her detailed author’s note, it’s clear that Ms Diener has done her homework, as the story is impeccably researched and the London locations well described.

In this story, Susanna is caught up in a plot to get an important message to Queen Katherine (Henry VIII’s first wife) regarding the marriage contracted between her daughter Mary and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles. As the plot thickens, Susanna is arrested for treason on the orders of Cardinal Wolsey, who, it appears, holds a grudge against her for something which happened in the previous book in the series. About half of the story is taken up with Susanna’s imprisonment and Parker’s desperate attempts to keep her from being thrown into the dungeons at Wolsey’s command, at the same time as he is trying to track down the shadowy French assassin, Jean (who appeared in the previous book) and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the message Susanna was given, the involvement of her brother, Lucas, and finding out who is running a network of double agents.

And as if all that is not enough, his investigations lead him to uncover a plot against the life of the young Henry Fitzroy, the king’s bastard son.

While it’s clear that Ms Diener’s research has been extensive, especially in her descriptions of the Tower and of the London streets, there were a couple of other things that didn’t sit quite right. One of these was the way that Wolsey, who was a clever, manipulative and very powerful man, was shown making his way with his guards through the streets of London in order to capture Susanna and have her incarcerated in the dungeons of the Tower. I just couldn’t see such a powerful figure doing his own dirty work, and in the scenes in which he is repeatedly thwarted by the efforts of Parker and his men, Wolsey seemed to have been reduced to the sort of villain one might find in an episode of Scooby Doo.

While I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said above felt it was well-paced, I did feel it lacked a certain depth. I haven’t read the earlier books in the series, which meant I wasn’t aware of what had caused Wolsey’s animosity towards Susanna, although I don’t think it is completely necessary to have all the details as what Ms Diener gives us is sufficient explanation and is enough drive the plot forward. The characterisations of both Parker and Susanna was rather static, however. Although there is definitely a romantic element to the book, as the pair are an established couple, the focus is less on their relationship and more on the mystery, so the story is plot, rather than character driven.

That said, both protagonists were engaging, and I thought Parker was a particularly attractive hero. He’s a fairly powerful member of the court, well-respected and highly intelligent; while Susanna, a woman in a man’s world, is well aware that her position is an unusual one and knows she has to tread carefully. I also thought Ms Diener captured the capricious nature of Henry VIII very well. His temper is uncertain and one could be in favour one moment and out of it the next, as Parker has already discovered.

Overall, In Defense of the Queen (and how it galls me to type “defense” instead of “defence”, which is the correct spelling!) was fast-paced and enjoyable, and I thought the relationship between John and Susanna was well-drawn even if its progress had to run second to Parker’s quest to save Susanna’s life and rescue her from the Tower. I’m going to seek out the two previous stories in the series and would certainly be interested in reading more books featuring the couple.