Devil’s Match by Anita Mills (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalind Ashford

Devils match

Patrick Danvers, the Viscount Westover, was known by another name among the people of society: Devil Danvers. No young lady dared to be seen in public with this man whose startling good looks were overshadowed by his scandalous escapades.

Caroline Ashley was a very respectable young lady, but with no one to protect her and no money to call her own. How could she resist Devil Danvers’ offer to be the wife he needed to win a wager and claim a fortune that hung on his producing an heir?

And so the battle begins between the dazzling lord who has every means to make a young lady say yes to his every desire, and the young lady determined not to surrender her pride, no matter the cost.

Rating: C+ for narration; C for content

In Devil’s Match, Patrick Danvers, newly-minted Viscount Westover, is in a bit of a bind. The black sheep of the family, his exploits on the duelling field have earned him the nickname ‘Devil’ Danvers, and his reputation is so black as to send any right-minded, gently-bred female running in the opposite direction lest being seen in his company irrevocably ruins her reputation. But under the terms of his late uncle’s will, he must marry a respectable woman and produce an heir within a twelvemonth if he is to inherit the bulk of the lands and fortune that accompany his title.

Patrick’s cousin Judith is the one family member who does not shun him, and it’s she who comes up with (she thinks) the perfect solution to his problem. Her companion, Caroline Ashford, will soon be leaving and because Judith’s mother dislikes her, she will have no recommendation, no prospects and nowhere to go. Caroline is attractive, intelligent and well-bred, so why doesn’t Patrick marry her and kill two birds with one stone, so to speak?

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

What a Duke Dares by Anna Campbell (audiobook) – narrated by Steve West

what duke dares audio

What woman in her right mind would say no to marrying the dashing Duke of Sedgemoor? Miss Penelope Thorne, that’s who. She’s known Camden Rothermere since they were children – and she also knows she’d bring nothing but scandal to his name.

Cam can hardly believe Penelope turned down his proposal. But if she wants to run off to the Continent and set the rumor mill ablaze, he can’t stop her. Then her brother’s dying request sends him to bring home the one woman he thought he’d finally gotten over.

The only way they’ll both get back to London without their reputations in tatters is to pretend they’re married during the journey. That means kissing like they mean it and even sharing a bed – until it becomes hard to tell where the game ends and true desire begins…

Rating: A for narration; B for content

In What a Duke Dares, Camden Rothermere, future Duke of Sedgemoor is young, handsome, rich – and completely stunned when Penelope Thorne turns down his proposal of marriage. He and Pen have known each other almost all their lives, and while the Sedgemoor title has been tarnished in recent years by the very public way in which his parents’ marriage has disintegrated, it’s one of the oldest in the kingdom. Cam is determined to force the polite world to forget his parents’ serial infidelities as well as the fact that the old duke is probably not his biological father, and he lives his life by an incredibly rigid set of rules, making sure his actions are above reproach and doing everything he can to restore his family name to respectability.

Penelope – Pen – insists that she’s not the right wife for him. She has a mind of her own, a reputation for hoydenish behaviour, and her father and brothers are hardly models of propriety. Given Cam’s desire to restore his family’s reputation, she tells him he needs a wife who is beyond reproach, one who will never give him a moment’s concern or cause people to smirk behind their hands.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Viscount Vagabond by Loretta Chase (audiobook) – narrated by Stevie Zimmerman

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Catherine Pelliston simply would not abide by her father’s wishes and marry the slovenly Lord Browdie. But her escape through the streets of London only seemed to lead her from bad to worse. First, she was robbed. And then, her supposed “rescue” by a kindly old woman stranded Catherine in a bordello — where the handsome Viscount Rand was intent on sampling her wares! A dire predicament indeed-especially when the dashing aristocrat decided to assume full responsibility for the ravishing runaway by taking her, quite against her will, into his home. But little did Catherine know that her struggle to preserve her virtue had inflamed the debauched gadabout’s heart … and might well net her a husband worth desiring!

Rating: B for narration; C for content

Originally published in 1990, Viscount Vagabond is one of Loretta Chase’s earliest historical romances, and one which has only recently come to audio along with a handful of other titles such as Isabella, The English Witch and Knave’s Wager. It’s a lighthearted and often humorous romp that tells the story of a mismatched couple who are so convinced of their unsuitability for each other that they fail to see what’s right under their noses.

The eponymous hero is Max Demowery, Viscount Rand, who never expected to inherit wealth or title, and in fact, never wanted to, until the death of his elder brother changed things irrevocably. Max knows that at some point, he will have to do his duty, but he asks his father for six months’ grace – six months in which he can go off and do exactly as he pleases. At the end of that period, he will return to the fold ready to settle down, find the right young woman to marry, and become a model viscount. On his last night of freedom, he decides to go out with a bang, so to speak (!), gets roaring drunk, and then sets about getting laid.

Catherine Pelliston is fleeing an arranged marriage with one of her father’s unpleasant cronies when she’s offered help by a kindly, motherly woman who then drugs and abducts her with the intention of putting her to work in her brothel. Catherine’s first client is an incredibly handsome young man who is clearly very, very drunk – but he’s her only chance of escape, and she implores him to help her.

Even though he’s more than three sheets to the wind, Max is surprised when the young woman procured for him shows no interest in getting down to business. After a few minutes, however, Max begins, he thinks, to see the light – the girl likes playing games:

“Oh, all right. I’ll chase you if you like.” He started to get up, changed his mind, and slumped back against the pillow in a half-recumbent position. “Only it’s such a bother.”

But gradually, his drink-addled brain starts to see that the young woman is truly frightened and completely serious about having been brought to the brothel against her will, so he helps her to escape and takes her back to his seedy lodgings for the night.

Believing her saviour to be a slovenly man and habitual drunkard, Catherine is rather surprised when, the next morning, he takes her to meet his sister, the Countess of Andover. And she’s shocked even further when he turns out to be a viscount and heir to an earldom. It’s not long before Catherine is discovered to be a distant relation of the Andovers, and the countess decides to take her under her wing and bring her out. But before Catherine can be advised of this, she’s decided that her tattered reputation – not only was she discovered in a brothel, but she spent the night in a man’s lodgings without a chaperone – will only bring disrepute down upon her new friends, so she skips off to make her own way in the world, and finds work as a seamstress.

In the short time she spends with the Andovers, Catherine and Max are striking sparks off each other and trying to deny their attraction. He finds her to be rather preachy and sanctimonious and she believes him to be an inveterate sot, yet in spite of that, they’re reluctantly fascinated by each other. So what can Max do when Catherine bolts but track her down and bring her back?

Both characters are rather endearing. Max is an absolute sweetie, and even Catherine’s self-righteousness is written in such a way as to make the listener understand that she’s not so much a killjoy as a sheltered young woman who needs to gain a little experience and develop some maturity of outlook. Max delights in very gently pulling her leg and making fun of her more priggish pronouncements, and this is done in a way that doesn’t belittle her, but instead comes across as affectionate and concerned.

The pair continues to bicker their way through various silly and improbable situations, and it’s all deftly written and rather charming but when I got to the end, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I recently listened to – and enjoyed – another of Ms Chase’s earlier books, Knave’s Wager, which is full of her trademark dry wit and humour, with sparkling dialogue and terrific chemistry between the two leads. I had hoped for more of the same with Viscount Vagabond, but while it started well, it never quite lived up to its early promise. Max is a terrific hero – witty, charming and self-deprecating with a bit of depth to him, but Catherine is a little too close to being TSTL at times, and the chemistry that sparked between them at the outset seemed to fizzle out somewhere along the way.

In terms of the narration, it must have been a daunting task for Stevie Zimmerman to narrate these early Loretta Chase titles in the wake of Kate Reading’s stupendous performance of Lord of Scoundrels, which was the first of Ms Chase’s books to make it into audio format. I hadn’t listened to Ms Zimmerman beforeKnave’s Wager, but she did an excellent job in that audio, and her performance in Viscount Vagabond is equally good. Her voice is pleasant and well-modulated, sitting in what I’d call the higher end of the mezzo range (I’d put Rosalyn Landor and Kate Reading in the contralto category, if that helps for comparison) and she narrates clearly, at a good pace and with a good deal of expression. She differentiates well between all the characters, adopting a slightly lower pitch and harder edge for most of the male characters, and applying a variety of timbres in order to distinguish them from one another, such as the unpleasant gruffness she gives Lord Browdie (Catherine’s erstwhile suitor). Ms Zimmerman also makes good use of regional accents for characters such as the madam, the modiste and the young lad, Jemmy.

I have to once again express my concern over the sound quality, because the whole thing sounds somewhat tinny and treble-heavy. Both of the titles published under Loretta Chekani have had similar issues.

I wouldn’t say that the less-than-stellar sound quality spoiled the audiobook on this occasion, and in fact, Ms Zimmerman’s engaging performance increased my enjoyment overall. While I can’t count Viscount Vagabond among my favorite Loretta Chase titles, it certainly isn’t an unpleasant way to while away a few hours.

A Matter of Grave Concern by Brenda Novak (audiobook) – narrated by Michael Page

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When Maximillian Wilder hides his noble identity and joins the notorious body snatchers known as the London Supply Company, the last thing on his mind is love. He’s worried about Madeline, his vanished half sister, who was last seen in the company of Jack Hurtsill, the gang’s conscienceless leader. Raiding graveyards, stealing corpses, and selling them to medical colleges as dissection material is dirty work, but Max knows he must gain Jack’s trust. He’s determined to find out what happened to Madeline and to bring Jack to justice if she was murdered for the coin her body could earn.

Beautiful, spirited Abigail Hale, daughter of the surgeon at Aldersgate School of Medicine, detests the challenging, hard-bargaining Max almost as much as Jack. But she must procure the necessary specimens if she is to save the college and her father’s career. She believes she is going to be successful until Jack double-crosses her. Then she’s swept into a plot of danger and intrigue, one where Max must intervene to protect her, no matter the risk to his plan or his heart.

Rating: B for narration; C for content

A Matter of Grave Concern is one of those books that has an interesting premise and starts strongly, but which loses momentum fairly quickly and ends up not living up to its potential.

The story is set in London in 1830, at a time when the study of the medical sciences was increasing disproportionately to the number of corpses and cadavers that were available to medical students for study, meaning that many colleges resorted to purchasing corpses illegally. One such institution is Aldersgate College in the East End of London, where anatomy is taught by Edwin Hale, a highly respected surgeon and anatomist. His daughter, Abigail, more or less runs the college and is devoted to her father, in spite of the fact that it quickly becomes apparent to the listener that her devotion is not reciprocated. In fact, Hale has been rather a neglectful father since the death of his wife when Abigail was six, and the only education she has received is one she has gleaned herself from her father’s books. She is thus rather ignorant of the ways of society, and also dreams of one day being admitted to the college to study rather than just supervise the accounts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Splendor by Brenda Joyce (audiobook) – narrated by Marian Hussey

Splendor

She played a dangerous game.

Carolyn Browne was a poor bookseller’s daughter and an enlightened thinker, delighting London with her scathingly witty columns, written under the name Charles Copperville. Penetrating the town’s gilded salons in male disguise, Carolyn soon throws her barbs at the wrong man – the enigmatic Russian prince, Nicholas Sverayov.

He was a dangerous target. His notoriety, extravagances, and indulgent disregard for social convention fuel Carolyn’s outrage. Nicholas has moved through the balls and soirees of high society effortlessly, a natural target of gossip, envy, and desire. But Nicholas is furious to find himself lampooned by Copperville, and quickly discovers Carolyn’s dearly held secret. Now, as the two spar, a new game begins – a game of deception and pride, of longing and chance.

And they played for the ultimate prize… As Nicholas sweeps Carolyn from the teeming streets and gala balls of Regency London to the splendor and majesty of St. Petersburg, against all odds the unlikely lovers embark upon a whirlwind of passion and peril until there is no turning back – for the stakes have changed, demanding no less of them than the unwavering courage to claim the love of a lifetime.

Rating: B+ for narration; B for content

Originally published in 2004, Splendor is a richly detailed and captivating story which moves from London to St. Petersburg over the course of a few months in the fateful year of 1812. With Napoleon’s army sweeping across Europe, Russia is under threat of invasion and Tsar Alexander has sent his cousin, Prince Nicholas Sverayov, to England in order to make peace with their former enemy and negotiate an alliance against Bonaparte.

The prince is highly intelligent, liberal in his views, well-read and honourable, with a dry wit he doesn’t display often to those who don’t know him well. He’s also very handsome and charming, and is certainly not averse to living up to his reputation as a ladies’ man, despite the fact that he’s married to one of the most beautiful women in Europe.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – narrated by Georgina Sutton

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The accomplished Corinthian Sir Richard Wyndham is wealthy, sophisticated, handsome, and supremely bored. Tired of his aristocratic family constantly pressuring him to get married, he determines to run away after meeting the delightful, unconventional heroine Penelope Creed. Penelope – literally – falls into his life late one night as she hangs from the window of her aunt’s house – she too attempting to escape the pressures of forced marriage. The two allies become embroiled in a series hilarious madcap adventures as they cross-dress, run into escaped criminals, have a case of mistaken identity, and save people from their own dramatics. Little do they predict their feelings for each other blossoming into romance.

Rating: A+ for narration; B+ for content

One of the best things about listening to new audio versions of older books is becoming reacquainted with stories I read many more years ago than I care to count! Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian is not a title I’ve re-read over the years, so coming back to it in audio was almost like experiencing a new book. And a terrific experience it was!

The story is one with which any regular Regency reader is probably very familiar: an older, sophisticated and somewhat ennui-laden man-about-town becomes accidentally embroiled in a hare-brained scheme perpetrated by a younger female. One thing leads to another, in the way of a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountainside, and the couple ends up in the middle of all sorts of madness and mayhem while falling in love.

That’s pretty much the plot of The Corinthian – with more laughs, obviously. Handsome and extremely wealthy, twenty-nine year-old Sir Richard Wyndham is constantly pressured by his family to hasten his betrothal to the lovely, demure and very proper Honourable Melissa Brandon, who, they keep telling him, will make him the perfect wife. Unable to postpone the inevitable any longer and intending to propose the next day, Richard goes out and gets drunk and, on the way home, stops to assist a young lad climbing out of a window. The boy turns out (naturally) to be a very feminine armful, Miss Penelope Creed. Penelope – or Pen – is running away from her aunt and uncle to escape their plot to marry her to her fish-faced cousin to keep her large dowry in the family.

Pen tells Richard she owns a house in Somerset and intends to make her way there to seek the help of a childhood friend. She is about to turn and leave, but Richard is not quite drunk enough for his common sense to have completely abandoned him. He insists that Pen can’t possibly wander the streets of London alone, late at night, dressed as a boy and tells her he will escort her to Somerset. On their journey, the pair cross paths with a jewel thief, a Bow Street Runner and even a dead body, and Richard finds himself having to constantly think on his feet to be able to keep up with Pen’s seemingly endless capacity for spinning yarns and finding trouble – and finds himself having the most fun he’s ever had in his life.

The plot is fairly thin, it’s true, but as is the case with so many of Georgette Heyer’s books, the plot is of secondary importance to the style, the wit and the wonderful sense of the ridiculous. The story is part farce, part mystery, and it races along with feel of a runaway train. The dialogue sparkles, with exchanges between Richard and Pen that are full of humour and affection, showing that despite the disparity in their ages, they’re very well-matched. I’m not someone who is bothered by the twelve year age gap – Emma Woodhouse is sixteen years younger than Mr Knightley, and if it’s good enough for her (and Jane Austen), then it’s good enough for me!

Richard, the eponymous Corinthian is a charming hero – unflappable, funny and kind, with an air of quiet strength and competence about him that is very attractive. I’m not a fan of very young heroines, and Pen is just seventeen, but while she’s certainly got that air of invincibility that so often comes with youth, she’s not stupid or insensitive. She’s got gumption and a degree of self-awareness that makes her seem a little more mature.

There’s a wonderful cast of supporting characters, from the cant-spouting jewel thief to the insipid young woman Pen’s friend is determined to marry, and the various members of Richard’s almost-fiancée’s family. The author’s gift for biting wit and subtle irony brings them all into sharp focus.

I’ve never heard of narrator Georgina Sutton before, but when I saw that she’s recently narrated a version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I was sure I was in for a treat. Naxos AudioBooks has done a stupendous job in matching narrators to books with their Heyer recordings, and this one is no exception. Ms Sutton is absolutely superb, bringing all the characters vividly to life in a performance that is nothing short of virtuosic. The aforementioned jewel thief is a character straight out of a Dickens novel, and Ms Sutton absolutely relishes his slang-laden dialogue. She later affects a perfect simpering breathiness for a rather drippy secondary love-interest, and her portrayal of the Honourable Melissa’s brother Cedric is completely over-the-top and utterly hilarious. Richard’s mother is a woman so languid it’s a wonder she can even get out of bed of a morning. Ms Sutton’s characterisations of the two principals are spot on, too. She adopts a slightly lower pitch and a very measured delivery for Richard that perfectly reflects the world-weary persona he presents to the world, and which contrasts brilliantly with Pen’s seemingly endless capacity for wonder and fascination with everything around her.

This is one of the most delightful audio experiences I’ve had in a while. Ms Sutton has a real affinity for the material and the energy and joyousness that shine through with every word make The Corinthian a must-listen for fans of historical romance, Georgette Heyer and romance audiobooks alike. Highly recommended.

TBR Challenge: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers

provoked

Lowborn David Lauriston lacks the family connections needed to rise in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. Worse, his latest case—defending weavers accused of treason—has brought him under suspicion of harbouring radical sympathies.

Troubled by his sexuality, tormented by memories of a man he once platonically loved, David lives a largely celibate life—until a rare sexual encounter with a compelling stranger turns his world on its head.

Cynical and worldly, Lord Murdo Balfour is more at home in hedonistic London than dingy, repressed Edinburgh. Unlike David, he intends to eventually marry while continuing to enjoy the company of men whenever he pleases. Yet sex with David is different. It’s personal, intimate, and instead of extinguishing his desire, it only leaves him hungry for more.

As David’s search for the man who betrayed the weavers deepens, he begins to suspect that his mysterious lover has more sinister reasons for his presence in Edinburgh. The truth could leave his heart broken…and more necks stretching on the gallows.

Rating: B

November’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read an historical romance. Given I read historicals almost exclusively, this wasn’t much of a challenge so I decided to look for something a bit different, and came up with Provoked, the first in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy, and an M/M romance, which is a genre I’ve read only once or twice before. Not being overly familiar with historical M/M, I thought that it would be quite difficult for a romance to have a convincing HEA for two men at a time in history when homosexuality was not only illegal, but punishable by death – and while I certainly have no problem with the idea of two hot guys stripping off their frock coats and getting it on, I can read erotica for that if I want to. I read romance (as opposed to erotica) most of the time because I want more than that in my reading material – I want a decent storyline, too, and – with any luck – one that doesn’t stretch my credulity to breaking point and beyond.

Reviews of this series have been overwhelmingly positive, and a search through my Kindle books revealed that I actually own a copy of Provoked – obviously that positivity made an impression on me – so now seemed like the perfect time to finally get around to reading it. (I should point out that I knew going in that this is book one of a trilogy in which the story (and the romance) in on-going, so I wasn’t expecting there to be an HEA at this stage.)

The book is set in Regency Scotland, at a time of much political and social unrest. The author immediately evokes a strong sense of time and place with the opening of the story in which two young men – weavers wrongly convicted of treason – are publicly executed. Present in the crowd is David Lauriston, a twenty-four year-old advocate who had defended the men in court, even though their fate was a foregone conclusion.

David is the son of a tenant farmer who, with his father’s help, has managed to put himself through University and is now forging himself a career in the law. He’s incredibly hard-working and diligent, but the fact that his sympathies lie with the oppressed and downtrodden are perhaps at odds with his aspirations to a profession typically practiced by the upper classes.

On his way back to Edinburgh, David meets and dines with a tall, handsome man who introduces himself as Murdo Balfour. David instantly feels a spark of interest – interest he doesn’t want to feel but is unable to dispel. Surprised to discover that the attraction he’s feeling appears to be mutual, and after carefully dancing around the subject to gauge interest, the two men act on that attraction, not expecting to see each other again – which suits David. He’s always full of self-loathing after he “lapses”, and prefers to keep his rare sexual encounters with other men as brief and impersonal as possible.

But sex with Murdo is something out of David’s range of limited experience; for the first time he experienced more than just sexual gratification, and as much as he’d like to forget it and move on, he can’t stop thinking about it – and about Murdo.

A few months later, both men are surprised when they stumble across each other again at an assembly – and with Murdo now fixed in Edinburgh for a short time, it’s impossible for either of them to deny that want more from each other than fumbling encounters in dark alleys.

When Euan MacLennan, the brother of one of the executed men approaches David for help in tracking down the agent provocateur who betrayed him, David is at first unwilling to become involved, believing the young man to be blinded by his grief. Quickly realising that Euan will proceed, with or without his help (and that without it, he is likely to end up at the end of a rope as well), David reluctantly agrees to see what he can find out, not really expecting to have any success.

But a purely incidental comment at a dinner party leads him to suspect that perhaps there is something to Euan’s tale – and also furthers his association with Murdo, as it appears that the reasons he has given for his presence in the city may not be entirely truthful.

The story then focuses on David and Euan’s search for the Englishman who betrayed the weavers, while at the same time furthering the relationship between the two protagonists. While David is a sympathetic character, he sometimes comes across as somewhat sanctimonious. It’s not that he hates himself for being gay, that he tries to deny his homosexuality, or that he tries to fool himself into thinking he can fight it. He knows what he is, but because he’s uncomfortable with the way he needs to express himself sexually, he seems to wallow in self-denial, which is a continual source of conflict with Murdo, who is his opposite in practically every way. Titled, rich and comfortable with his sexuality, Murdo believes he’s perfectly entitled to take his pleasure as he wishes while following the pattern laid out for him as a member of the nobility and taking a wife and fathering children, something which David, with his clearly defined sense of honour could never contemplate.

The burgeoning romance between David and Murdo is both sweet and hot, although their struggle to understand the other’s point of view means they are often at odds, which adds a real dollop of realism to their personalities and their story. David is the more well-defined character of the two, a good-hearted man with a backbone of steel and very highly defined sense of honour. Murdo, at this stage, comes across as not much more than a privileged man with a strong sense of self-entitlement, but there’s the sense that, as he and David become closer, he’s starting to allow David to see the man he truly is underneath the aristocratic veneer. I’m sure that as the trilogy progresses, we’ll get to know the true Murdo Balfour.

Provoked is an enjoyable, well-written story in which the author has strongly established the central relationship and in which there are clearly some interesting plotlines laid out for future development. The immediate conflict in the story – the search for the government spy – is resolved, but the book ends with David and Murdo parting, possibly permanently. Yet there is clearly much more to be said between them, and I’ll certainly be seeking out the other books in the trilogy.