The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated, and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

Rating: B+

The Ashes of London is an absorbing, intricately plotted historical mystery set in Restoration London in the aftermath of the Great Fire; indeed the book opens with one of the main characters – lowly clerk, James Marwood  – standing amid the crowds one night in early September 1666 watching in horror as St. Paul’s Cathedral is burned almost to the ground.  He saves the life of a boy by dragging him away from the flames, only to discover that “he” is a “she” when she struggles, bites his hand and then makes off with his cloak.  It’s a seemingly innocuous encounter, but one that will very soon start to assume importance for Marwood as it becomes clear that the young woman may somehow be linked to a series of murders.

The story takes place over the few months following the fire, and is told through two different viewpoints.  We meet James Marwood first of all, a young man eking out a living as a clerk in the employ of Master Williamson, the editor and publisher of The London Gazette – a man of influence whose position gives him access to governmental circles.  Marwood is caring for his ailing father, a staunch supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth who refused the new king’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result.  After several attempts, Marwood managed to have his father released – on condition that he lives quietly away from London.  Marwood senior is becoming ever more confused and subject to the wandering of his wits (we would probably today recognise this as dementia), making it sometimes very difficult for his son to make sure he adheres to the terms of his release.

The other narrator in the story is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, the niece of Henry Alderley, one of the wealthiest men in London.  Her name is tainted in the same way as Marwood’s; her father is a Regicide – one of the men who had been directly instrumental in the execution of King Charles I – and a wanted fugitive.  Catherine – Cat – is just seventeen and dreams of becoming a draughtsman or architect and is desperate to avoid the marriage her uncle has arranged for her with a man much older than herself.  It seems, however that there is no way out – until one night, her cousin Edward forces himself upon her, and, after attacking him with a knife, Cat flees the house with the help of her father’s most trusted old servant, Jem.

Not long after these events, Marwood is summoned by Williamson and taken to view a body that was discovered among the remains of St. Paul’s – but the death was not caused by the fire.  The corpse’s arms are bound at the back by the thumbs and the head pierced by a thin blade at the back of the neck – clearly this is murder, and when he realises that the dead man had worn the livery of a servant in the Alderley household, things begin to fall into place.  Henry Alderley is an alderman of the city as well as a goldsmith; reputed to be enormously wealthy, even the King himself is rumoured to be one of his principal debtors, and the murder of a member of Alderley’s household could lead to embarrassment for the crown.  When another body is found some days later, murdered in the same way and also in some way connected to the Alderleys, Marwood finds himself drawn further and further into a mystery that reaches far beyond the dead bodies themselves and stretches back to the reign of the previous king and his successor, Oliver Cromwell.

The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, and Andrew Taylor brings it brilliantly to life, his descriptions of the burned out shell of the once-proud St. Paul’s and the city around it so vivid as to make it seem as though London itself is another character in the book.  His research into the period has obviously been extensive, but at no time was I subjected to info-dumps or large sections of exposition that felt like a history lesson; everything is smoothly woven through the story and the scholarship is never put on show.  I particularly enjoy historical fiction in which politics and intrigue play a large part, so I was captivated by the author’s explorations of the precarious political situation and of the still present religious divide which had, two decades earlier, set Englishman against Englishman in a bloody civil war.

Woven in, out and around the murder mystery are a couple of other plotlines; one relating to the King’s determination to find the remaining Regicides and the other to what becomes of Cat after she leaves her uncle’s house.  Mr. Taylor weaves these various stories together with great skill, bringing them inexorably closer together with Marwood narrating his side of the tale in the first person while the parts he doesn’t know about are filled in by Cat, whose narrative is in the third person.  It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but I found that it worked extremely well and was surprised how much I liked it.

The two central characters are intriguing, with Marwood probably being the more likeable of the two.  He’s a fairly young man and wants nothing more than to be able to live down the notoriety of his name, make his way in the world and better himself – but it seems he’s unable to free himself of the shadows of the past as he finds himself dragged back into the murky world of old scandal and political chicanery. His father can be somewhat of a trial to him, yet his love for the older man shines through in his patience and tender care of him, leading to some of the most touching moments in the book.

Cat, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to warm to, even though her actions are understandable given what happens to her at the beginning.  She’s unusual in her interest in draughtsmanship and architecture, which were, of course, not professions open to women, or even thought to be interests fitting for the fairer sex; but I really enjoyed that aspect of her character, and seeing her find an outlet for her particular talents.

The one real criticism I have of the book is that while these two characters are fairly-well drawn, I didn’t really feel as though I got to know either of them particularly well and I was left wanting to know a bit more about them. But this is billed as the first of a new series of books, so perhaps that was intentional and if, as I hope, we will see more of them in future novels, we will also get to know them better as the series progresses.

In spite of that, however, I was completely engrossed in the book from beginning to end, so I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Ashes of London to anyone who likes a gritty, strongly written, tightly-plotted historical mystery in which the historical aspect is of key importance to the story.

The Duke of Desire (The Untouchables #4) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ten years ago Ivy Breckenridge’s life was ruined. She had to reinvent herself, and now, after painstakingly making her own way in the world, she’s nearly forgotten the dreams of home and family she’d once nurtured. Until one man peers into her soul and awakens every one of her hidden desires. But no matter how good he makes her feel, she can’t trust him—alone by choice is better than alone by necessity.

With a notorious reputation for training married women in the art of passion, Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare, is reviled by some and celebrated by others. He doesn’t allow anyone close enough to see past his charming exterior. When Ivy uncovers the man beneath, the seducer is suddenly the seduced. Enraptured by her mind and spirit, he wants more but revealing his darkest secrets is a price he won’t pay.

Rating: B+

The Duke of Desire, the fourth book in Darcy Burke’s series, The Untouchables, is quite possibly my favourite of them all so far. I will admit that when I read the blurb, I was doubtful. After all, the idea that the eponymous duke is a kind of Regency Era sex-therapist who helps couples to liven up their love lives by sleeping with the wives and helping them to learn to find and give pleasure – is certainly most unusual, not to mention unlikely. But bear with me; the ability to suspend your disbelief on that point will pay dividends, because said duke turned out to be one of the most charming, well-balanced and thoroughly adorable heroes I’ve read about in a while.

Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare – known as West to his friends – has such a notorious reputation as a seducer of married women that he has been nicknamed ‘The Duke of Desire’ by lady’s companion, Ivy Breckenridge and her friends Lucy and Aquilla (heroines of the previous two books). West is one of several eligible gentlemen the ladies also designated as ‘Untouchable’, men so far about them in station that they daren’t even look that high, let alone think about doing anything else. However, given that Lucy and Aquilla have recently married two of those men (The Duke of Daring and The Duke of Deception), it seems that perhaps the Untouchables weren’t so far out of reach after all. Although Ivy has absolutely no intention whatsoever of finding out if the Duke of Clare is touchable or not; in fact, she wanted to nickname him ‘The Duke of Depravity’, because the ease with which he embarks upon his numerous affairs disgusts her.

She is therefore not best pleased when, at a house-party she is attending with her employer, the duke takes notice of her and attempts to start up a flirtation. There’s no doubt he’s very handsome and very charming, but Ivy isn’t interested, and certainly not in a man whose attention to a lowly, paid companion can only lead to one thing. And Ivy isn’t interested in that, either. Yet in their few, brief encounters, West reveals himself to be something quite different to the heartless seducer Ivy believes he is. He doesn’t deny the truth of his many affairs, but unlike the other rakes she has encountered, West is not self-centred or jaded – in fact he’s the exact opposite. She has never before met someone who seems so comfortable in his own skin, someone with such a capacity for joy and the desire for others to find their own happiness… and in spite of her misgivings, she begins to wish she could experience some of that joy for herself.

But she persists in holding herself back from both joy and him.  Ten years earlier, Ivy fell in love with a young man who promised her marriage but then left her utterly ruined.  In the intervening years, she endured great hardship, and then, with the help of a kind lady patroness, re-invented herself and made a new life, leading to her current situation as a companion.  She isn’t interested in men or in marriage; she just wants to live a quiet, respectable life and to pursue her many charitable interests, most of which take the form of helping to improve the lot of people who have been unlucky enough to have ended up in the workhouse.

Ivy may come across as rather cold and inflexible to begin with, but she has good reasons for that, some of which are quickly obvious, some of which are revealed to good effect later on in the story.  But in spite of her past and in spite of her determination not to like West, she soon finds that it’s completely impossible not to fall under his spell. West is determined to pursue Ivy at first, but once she turns him down, he backs off, and, as he has no wish to ruin her, tries to leave her alone.  But he also recognises that she needs someone like him – he says himself that it’s his nature to push people into challenging themselves – because he can see that Ivy is not the dry, mirthless woman she makes herself out to be, and he wants her to live and enjoy her life rather than just trudge through it.  As fellow guests at a house party they cannot completely avoid each other, which makes their interactions even more of a delight. It’s clear that West isn’t actively trying to charm Ivy (although his charm is so natural that he really can’t help it!) and isn’t pretending friendship in order to get her into bed.  He wants her, yes, and offers to teach her about pleasure, but he leaves it to Ivy to decide how their relationship should proceed.

One of the things I really liked about the book is the way in which both West and Ivy are changed by their association.  Ivy deliberately represses her emotions because she believes that allowing herself to feel will lead to more pain and heartbreak, but hasn’t realised that in doing so, she has cut herself off from positive emotions as well.  She is profoundly affected by West’s honesty and zest for life – and starts to realise what she has been denying herself; not just passion but pleasure in even the simplest things. And West has his eyes opened to the terrible situation faced by so many when he accompanies Ivy and some of the other ladies on a visit to a local workhouse, and is moved to help; not just because he wants to impress (although he admits that might be part of it) but because his compassionate nature compels him to do so.

West has his own cross to bear in the form of his puritanical mother, whose reaction to his normal, healthy, teenaged preoccupation with females was to castigate and beat him.  As a result, he began to take delight in defying and shocking her, his rebellion taking the form of leaping in to the beds of as many women in as scandalous a fashion as possible.  It’s perhaps a bit extreme, but the Duchess is a complete horror and fortunately, doesn’t get a lot of page time.

I liked the way the truth of West’s character is gradually revealed and the subtlety with which the author shows the evolution of his feelings for Ivy.  He’s intrigued by her spirit and intelligence from the start, but it takes her rejection to get him to start looking beneath the beautiful surface, and to realise that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye.  And that’s another of the things I loved about him; he’s intuitive and as sensitive to the things people don’t say as to the things they do.

The chemistry between West and Ivy is scorching right from the start, and I’d venture to say that the love scenes in this story are probably the sexiest I’ve read in any of this author’s books.  There’s one particularly sensual scene where all West does is talk… kudos, Ms. Burke, on that, because not many authors can write a Kindle-melting scene where the characters are a) upright and b) fully clothed.

In spite of the eyebrow raising concept of the nobleman sex-therapist, The Duke of Desire – the book, and the man himself – completely won me over.  The pairing of the independent, somewhat repressed heroine who needs to learn to let go once in a while with the confident, all-round-swoon-worthy hero who oozes sex appeal is a potent one that proved, in the end, to be a winning combination.

The English Duke by Karen Ranney

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For years, Martha York has been fascinated by a man she’s never met—Jordan Hamilton, the new Duke of Roth and protégé to her inventor father. Could the elusive gentleman possibly live up to his brilliant letters? When Martha travels to his estate to carry out her father’s last bequest, she discovers that the answer is a resounding yes, for the duke’s scientific mind belies a deep sensuality…

Jordan was determined to complete his prototype alone, but it’s impossible to resist the alluring young woman who shows up at his door. Working together, they grow ever closer, until a case of mistaken identity leaves him bound to another. A woman’s heart may be more complex than the most intricate invention, but Jordan must find a way to win Martha’s, or lose the only woman who can truly satisfy him…

Rating: B

I hesitate to describe Karen Ranney’s latest offering, The English Duke as being part of a series, because really, it’s a standalone novel that doesn’t feature any characters or continue any plotlines from the author’s last book, The Scottish DukeThe titles are similar, of course (the forthcoming third book is The American Duke) and there are a number of common plot elements;  the hero is a scientist and there’s an evil “other woman” character, for instance. I’m not sure if the similarities are deliberate – a way of providing a link between the books – or just accidental, but whatever the case, I enjoyed this one enough to feel happy recommending it.

Martha York’s father was a scientist and inventor of some renown. Upon his death, he left his large fortune to his two daughters, and bequeathed his prototypes and notes on his latest project to his protégé and long-time collaborator, Jordan Hamilton, the Duke of Roth. York and the duke had corresponded for years, since before Jordan, a former naval officer, inherited his title, so Martha was both upset and annoyed when the duke failed to respond to her father’s request that Jordan visit before he died. The one communication Martha has received tersely informed her that the duke did not want her father’s bequest, and she can’t understand it.  Over the years, she was privy to the correspondence between Jordan and her father, and feels she came to know and understand him a little through his words. She knows he was as invested in their current project – to develop a working torpedo-ship – as her father was. Why then, is he so emphatic about refusing her father’s dying wish?

She decides that if the duke won’t come to her, then she will go to him and arranges to travel to his estate, Sedgebrook, accompanied by her younger half-sister, Josephine, and their grandmother.  Martha intends to deliver the numerous boxes and files her father left, stay at the village inn overnight and travel back the next day, but when her grandmother is taken ill, there is no alternative but for the ladies to accept the duke’s (somewhat begrudging) offer of hospitality.

Jordan Hamilton was never meant to be a duke.  A second son, he made his career in the Navy and then at the War Office (in the department that was eventually to become the Intelligence Division) and inherited his title following the death of his older brother – discovering only then that both brother and father had dipped deep and left him with a large estate but not the means to pay for its upkeep.  Not long after that, he had a serious riding accident which crushed his leg; the doctors said he’d never walk again, but he has proven them wrong through sheer bloody-mindedness, although he has to use a cane and still suffers a lot of pain.  He’s not gregarious – as his brother was – much preferring his own company and “tinkering” with his various scientific projects which, of which, at the moment, the development of the torpedo-ship is the most important.

When Mrs. York is taken ill, Jordan is too gentlemanly not to allow the ladies to stay but he isn’t happy about it.  The younger York sister, Josephine is beautiful but shallow, her mind full of fashion and the latest on-dits, things that don’t interest Jordan at all, but Martha… Martha is a completely different matter.  She acted as her father’s assistant and is as knowledgeable about the torpedo-ship and as at home fiddling with cogs and springs or hammering out bits of copper as Jordan is.  She’s inquisitive, clever and forthright but is still a woman of her time, feeling out of step because she doesn’t care much about clothes or finding a husband.  The friendship that develops between Jordan and Martha is one born of mutual respect and common interests, and the author does a fabulous job of showing their growing attraction and most especially of imbuing their scenes together with a palpable sense of longing and tenderness.

If left to themselves, there’s no doubt these two lonely, unusual people would have eventually come together, but Josephine has set her sights on becoming a duchess and mistress of Sedgebrook and will do anything in order to achieve that aim.  I know that some readers are not fond of the “evil other woman” trope, and I admit that I did roll my eyes a bit (mostly because, as I said at the beginning, there’s an “evil OW” in the previous book, too) but actually, it works well to heighten the tension in the story.  Josephine is selfish, spoiled and treats Martha like dirt – but I like a bit of melodrama sometimes, and she’s certainly one of those characters one can love to hate while eagerly awaiting their comeuppance.

Fortunately, the author has mostly avoided the trap of making Josephine so flamboyant a character that she eclipses Martha.  Martha is definitely more subdued, but there’s a quiet dignity about her that means, even when she’s at her lowest ebb, she doesn’t come across as hopelessly weak – just uncertain and a little vulnerable.

As a romantic hero, Jordan stands out from the regular crop of arrogant man-whores or roguish gambling club owners; he’s scientifically minded, and, in spite of his outwardly grumpy demeanour, rather sweet and perhaps a little introverted.  I also loved the idea that he and Martha had come to know each other through the letters he exchanged with her father;  I’m a big fan of stories in which letters play an important part, and although we only get snippets of the correspondence in the novel, the glimpses we do get are significant and reveal something important about both characters.

The downside is perhaps that the protagonists are a bit too nice, and that the sub-plot concerning Jordan’s friend, Reese, is a little thin and not followed through.  However, I did enjoy the parts of the story that dealt with the torpedo-ship which, per Ms. Ranney’s Author’s Note was something that was actually around at the time, and had been used in a primitive form during the Crimean War.

The English Duke is an entertaining and sweetly romantic story about two misfits finding each other and having to overcome a few bumps along the way. The plot is perhaps a little hackneyed, but the most important thing is that the author has crafted a beautiful sense of emotional intimacy between the central characters, which is, after all, one of the main things I – and I suspect, most of us here – look for in a romance.

Tinderbox (Flashpoint #1) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the volatile tinderbox of the Horn of Africa, Morgan Adler has made the paleoanthropological find of a lifetime. The discovery brings her to the attention of a warlord eager to claim both Morgan and the fossils, forcing her to make a desperate dash to the nearby US military base to beg for protection.

Master Sergeant Pax Blanchard has orders to intercept Dr. Adler before she reaches the base, and in so doing saves her life. After a harrowing afternoon, he safely delivers her to his commanders, only to find his responsibilities toward protecting the obstinate archaeologist have only just begun. Morgan and Pax are forced to work together in the Djiboutian desert heat, but it is the fire that ignites between them that threatens to combust them both. For the Green Beret, involvement with the woman he must protect is a threat to his career, while for the archaeologist, the soldier is everything she never wanted but somehow can’t resist. When Morgan uncovers a mystery surrounding Djibouti’s most scarce and vital resource, the danger to her reaches the flashpoint. For Pax, protecting her is no longer a matter of following orders, and he’ll risk everything to bring her back alive.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

I discovered Rachel Grant’s romantic suspense novels less than a year ago, and have been hooked ever since. I’ve read and listened to several of the titles in her Evidence series, all of them tightly-plotted thrillers interwoven with a nicely steamy romance featuring intelligent, sassy heroines and gorgeous, alpha-male heroes. The author makes excellent use of her own background in history and archaeology in her books, which are extremely well researched both in terms of the locations in which they are set, and the technological and specialist detail which add so much interest and depth to the stories. Tinderbox, the first book in her new Flashpoint series is no different. The story opens with a bang – literally! – and the pace never lets up, as our two protagonists are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy in a part of the world which exists on a knife-edge.

Doctor Morgan Adler has been contracted by the Djibouti government to undertake an archaeological survey of the proposed route of a new railway. That particular area, known as the Horn of Africa (on the East coast – Djibouti is bordered by Eritraea, Ethiopia and Somalia) is a haven for terrorists and pirates –as well as being a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists. Morgan has just made what is likely to be the find of the decade – if not the century – in ‘Linus’ a set of three and a half million-year-old remains that could prove to be as significant an archaeological find as Lucy was in the 1970s. But she has been forced to flee the dig by several armed men working for Etefu Desta, an Ethiopian warlord looking to expand his territory into Djibouti. With the American Embassy closed, the only place she can think of that will be able to provide secure storage for the finds she has so far uncovered is the US military base at Camp Citron, and she’s on her way there with her precious cargo when she’s stopped by two Green Berets – Special Forces Operatives – about two miles from the camp.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF THE AUDIOBOOK OF TINDERBOX, READ MY INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR AND ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE

Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Stolen nights with the secret princess…

Bound to marry for duty, Princess Tahira finds her only freedom in forbidden escapes to the desert. Then one night she encounters a stranger under the stars—adventurer Christopher Fordyce. He’s wildly attractive and thrillingly dangerous…an illicit fantasy she can’t resist!

Even unaware of Tahira’s royal blood, Christopher knows his shameful past makes any future with her impossible. But in the sultry desert heat, desires are uncovered and secrets unveiled, and soon Christopher will risk everything to claim his desert princess!

Rating: B-

Claiming His Desert Princess is the final book in Marguerite Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights quartet of historical romances set in Arabia in the early 1800s. Contemporary romances abound with gorgeous sheikh heroes, but they’re not so often found in historicals, and neither are there that many regency romances set outside England, so the series had a dual appeal for me, and I’ve enjoyed all the books to varying degrees (my favourite is still the first, The Widow and the Sheikh). In this story, however, it’s the heroine rather than the hero who is of royal blood. Christopher Fordyce, who has appeared briefly in the earlier books, is clearly on a mission of some kind, the nature of which has not so far been made entirely clear. Having conceived the idea of him as a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia (as personified by Peter O’Toole), I’ve been looking forward to his story and finally discovering exactly what he was up to. All is indeed revealed in this book, but I can’t deny that some pacing issues, a rushed ending and a sense of “oh – was that it?” ultimately left me feeling a little disappointed.

English antiquarian and surveyor, Christopher Fordyce, has travelled to Arabia in order to return a valuable ancient artefact to its rightful owner – or at least to the owner’s descendants. He has been in the country for over six months, travelling around trying to trace the origin of a turquoise amulet which was left to him upon the death of his father, and finally believes he has located the key to his quest in the form of the newly opened mines in the kingdom of Nessarah. He visits at night in order to see what progress has been made on the excavations, and is discovered there by a young woman named Tahira who explains she is deeply interested in the history of Nessarah and has begun to make a study of it and the various artefacts she finds. There is an undeniable spark of attraction between them from the very first, and they immediately bond over their shared interest in history and in uncovering the mysteries of the past. Tahira is able to supply Christopher with some interesting snippets of information regarding the mine and its workings and at each meeting, they reveal a little more of themselves to each other which, for Tahira, provides an incredible taste of freedom from the life to which she has been born. For she is keeping one, very important detail from Christopher, which is that she is the eldest sister of Prince Ghutrif, who is the de factor ruler of Nessarah.

Ghutrif is determined to marry Tahira off.  She has been betrothed twice before, both times to the Prince of Murimon – but those betrothals ended when her first intended was killed in a fall from his horse, and her second, Prince Kadar (Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride) fell in love with someone else.  Tahira is blamed for both these failures to marry, told she has brought dishonour upon her family, and her position at the palace is becoming increasingly difficult to bear.  The one bright spot in her life is her nightly meetings with the handsome Englishman who understands her sense of connection with the past, and who truly listens to her and values her opinion.  She decides not to disclose her  identity to him because then he is bound to insist they stop meeting – and given she has very little time left before she is married, Tahira is reluctant to end their association before she is forced to do so.

Christopher is keeping secrets as well, ones which clearly relate to a painful past that he refuses to discuss.  All he will tell Tahira is that returning the amulet to its rightful place means that he will finally be able to shake off the yoke of the past and face the future with a clean slate.  This is the weakest part of the story, because I found it difficult to believe that Christopher had imbued an inanimate object with such power over his life.  The major part of the reveal as to his reasons and why he is running from his past does not come until around two-thirds of the way through the book, so it’s difficult to say more without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it revolves around Christopher’s sense of self and identity following a discovery made after the death of his father. He believes the amulet to have been a bribe and that the only way he can live with a clear conscience is to return it. But it feels like a flimsy plot device, and didn’t make much sense to me.

The writing flows smoothly, and the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the desert and the bazaars and souks are as evocative as always, but the first two thirds of the book are fairly static, consisting mostly of a series of night-time meetings between Christopher and Tahira in which they continue their search for artefacts, interspersed with glimpses into the monotony of Tahira’s life in the palace harem, or of Christopher’s attempts to track the provenance of the amulet.   His wanting to make Tahira’s wishes come true – sliding down the dunes, riding across the desert at night, swimming in an oasis – is sweet, and their clandestine meetings provide plenty of opportunity for things to become fairly heated between them, although Christopher refuses flat out to ruin Tahira and leave her with the consequences of their actions.  It’s all very well done, in particular the parts that show very clearly just how limited Tahira’s choices are, but it’s somewhat repetitive until the point at which we are made privy to Christopher’s motivations. The pacing picks up from around there, but I can’t help wishing that Ms. Kaye had chosen to ‘drip-feed’ Christopher’s story throughout rather than saving all the explanations until the back end of the book.

Marguerite Kaye is one of my favourite authors and she always writes with intelligence, researches her subjects well and creates a strong sense of time and place in her stories.  However, I suspect that maybe Claiming His Desert Princess is a victim of my own high expectations – I liked it, but I wanted to LOVE it, and I didn’t quite make it that far.  Nonetheless it’s a solid read with a nicely developed romance and at the very least merits a qualified recommendation

The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title is available to download from Audible

Strong as a Viking. Handsome as Adonis. Rich as Midas. Collin “Cole” Talmage, Duke of Trewyth, is the stuff that legends are made of. He’s the English Empire’s golden son – until fate has its way with him. Cole’s family is killed and his closest comrade betrays him on the battlefield, leaving him gravely injured. But Cole is not one to dwell on misfortune. He is a man of duty, honor, and desire. And now he’s ready for the fight of his lifetime….

Imogen Pritchard is a beautiful lass who works in a hospital by day and as a serving maid at night. Years ago, when she was young and penniless, she ended up spending a scandalous night with Cole, whose tormented soul was matched only by his earth-shattering passion. Imogen entered a marriage of convenience – one that left her a wealthy widow – but she never forgot Cole. Now that her long-lost lover has turned up in her hospital, injured and with no memory of her, Imogen is torn. Is it a blessing or a curse that their past remains a secret to Cole, even as his new passion for her leaves him wanting to protect and possess her at all costs?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Note to cover designer: It is repeatedly stated throughout the book that Cole is BLOND. Clearly, you didn’t get that particular memo.

Kerrigan Byrne’s brand of slightly darker, high-stakes romances featuring larger-than-life, dangerously sexy heroes and the women who love them has proved to be a hit with readers and listeners alike. Her Victorian Rebels books comprise one of the strongest historical romance series to have appeared in recent years, and I’ve enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The audiobook versions have the added attraction of excellent narration by Derek Perkins; and I freely admit that in The Duke, the strength of his performance goes a long way towards papering over the cracks in the characterisation and storytelling that make this particular story the weakest of the set so far.

We first meet our eponymous duke, Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, on the day he has just buried his mother, father and brother, who were killed in a tragic accident. Not only does he have his grief to deal with, on the following day he has orders to leave England for an undisclosed location in order to undertake a very hush-hush mission. He and some of his fellow officers end up at The Bare Kitten in Soho intent on drinking the night away and availing themselves of some willing, warm female bodies; and Trenwyth – Cole – decides he wants Ginny, the dark-haired serving maid. Ginny is not a whore, but when Cole offers the club’s owner the huge sum of twenty pounds for her, she has no alternative but to do as she is told. But Ginny isn’t actually Ginny at all – she’s Imogen Pritchard, a nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital by day, who works at the Kitten by night in order to pay off the debt to the place incurred by her father before his death. Cole is well into his cups, but not incapable (romance heroes never seem to suffer from Brewer’s Droop!) and Imogen is surprised at the gentleness shown her by this intimidatingly large, gorgeously handsome but heartbreakingly sad man.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

You can also read my interview with Derek Perkins HERE

The Secret of My Seduction (Scandals #4.5) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The final chapter in the Scandals series…

Rule #1: Be discreet

No one suspects Bathsheba Crawford of being the anonymous author of a wickedly scandalous series of naughty novels. But she is.

Rule #2: Do not fall in love

When she approaches her publisher, rakish Liam MacGregor, with an indecent proposal, he’s shocked. But he accepts.

Rules were made to be broken…

The requirements for their affair are simple: complete secrecy and no romantic attachment. But the more they see each other… the more pleasure they find in each other’s arms…the harder it becomes to remember the rules…

Rating: B

One of the things linking together the books in Caroline Linden’s recent Scandals series was Fifty Ways to Sin, the series of erotic pamphlets featuring the amorous adventures of the anonymous Lady Constance, a woman whose uninhibited pursuit of sexual pleasure captured the imagination of thousands of readers throughout England. The final book in the series, Six Degrees of Scandal, revealed the identity of the author, and saw the publication of the final instalments in the promised fifty stories, giving Lady Constance her own happy ending in the arms of a mystery lover and closing the book on the series.

But did it?

Bathsheba Crawford who, together with her brother, Daniel, had been responsible for printing the original pamphlets, was reluctant to say goodbye to their illicit enterprise. Not only had the money made from publishing Fifty Ways made them secure financially, she had, on occasion, edited the stories for publication, and had enjoyed being part of something that celebrated a woman’s sexuality and her search for love. So she decided to try her hand at writing something similar, and, when The Secret of My Seduction opens, has been writing a series of successful stories entitled Tales of Lady X for a number of months, now. Her brother knows nothing of this, however; Bathsheba’s publisher is Liam MacGregor – the owner and editor of the London Intelligencer, a popular news and gossip sheet – who appeared briefly in the final stages of Six Degrees when his presses helped meet the demand for the final issues of Fifty Ways to Sin.

But Bathsheba has a problem. While she has plenty of ideas for her stories, her writing is becoming stale, and she is becoming bored with writing the same thing over and over. She’s not a virgin, but her few sexual experiences were not exactly exciting and she has never experienced the sort of passion described by Lady Constance, which makes it difficult to write about in a believable way. So she comes up with the idea of asking Liam to make love to her in order to further her knowledge. After all, she tells him in her typically no-nonsense way, it will be to both their benefits – it will make her writing better and hopefully increase sales – and, she says, if the rumours about him and his prowess with the ladies are true, then she should certainly gain some useful experience in his bed.

Liam is stunned by her request, and his first instinct is dismissal – until Bathsheba suggests finding someone else to help her instead.  At that point, of course, Liam’ protective instincts kick in, and he changes his mind, realising that perhaps seducing the plainly dressed, often overlooked, but very forthright Bathsheba Crawford won’t exactly be a hardship.

Okay, so this is a terribly contrived set up, but once the reader has rolled their eyes and moved on, The Secret of My Seduction is a very well-written, sexy novella that delivers more than just a hundred-page bonk-fest.  Yes, there are several sex-scenes, but in this story that’s kind of the point, and I wasn’t expecting otherwise.  More importantly, though, the author does a great job in those scenes of revealing more about the characters through their interactions under very intimate circumstances.  Bathsheba knows that she has long harboured feelings for Liam and tells herself sternly that anything more than the physical release he is offering her is out of the question. And Liam is surprised to discover in Bathsheba a woman after his own heart – rational, logical, persistent and passionate – and begins to wonder if he really had not given any thought to seducing her before she asked him to, or if he’d secretly longed to all along.

Ms. Linden also fleshes out both characters quite well considering the limited page count, with Bathsheba probably being the more well-defined of the two.  Life hasn’t been easy for her – following the death of her parents, the failure of the family printing business and her brother’s return from war unable to work, it was her sheer determination to grasp what opportunities she could that saw her and Daniel resurrecting their old printing press to print the first issue of Fifty Way to Sin. Liam is perhaps a little more of your stereotypical tall, dark, handsome sex-god of a hero, but his competitive relationship with his brother and his obvious fondness for his family adds some shading to his characterisation and rounds him out a little.

The sex scenes are steamy, intensely romantic and very well-written and the chemistry between Bathsheba and Liam is evident from their first scene together.  This builds steadily throughout the story to culminate in an explosive wall-banger(!) which I think will make my personal “hottest of 2017” list.  The story moves fairly quickly without feeling rushed, although I did think that Liam’s realisation of the truth of his feelings for Bathsheba was a little fast.  That said though, I liked that he wasn’t afraid to admit it and was then ready to go after what he wanted and the final scene, wherein he answers all her questions about love, seduction and kissing is sweet and maybe just a little bit melty 😉

The Secret of My Seduction is a quick, sexy read that works both as a standalone and as a nice coda to the Scandals series.