Hard-Hearted Highlander (Highland Grooms #3) by Julia London

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An indomitable governess…a brooding Highlander…a forbidden affair…

An ill-fated elopement cost English-born governess Bernadette Holly her reputation, her unsuitable lover and any chance of a future match. She has nothing left to fear–not even the bitter, dangerously handsome Scot due to marry her young charge. Naive wallflower Avaline is terrified to wed Rabbie Mackenzie, but if he sends her home, she will be ruined. Bernadette’s solution: convince Rabbie to get Avaline to cry off…while ignoring her own traitorous attraction to him.

A forced engagement to an Englishwoman is a hard pill for any Scot to swallow. It’s even worse when the fiancee in question is a delicate, foolish young miss–unlike her spirited, quick-witted governess. Sparring with Bernadette brings passion and light back to Rabbie’s life after the failed Jacobite uprising. His clan’s future depends upon his match to another, but how can any Highlander forsake a love that stirs his heart and soul?

Rating: C+

I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series in spite of my general aversion to Scottish/Highland set romances; both books are strongly character driven with, in the case of the first book, Wild Wicked Scot, a dash of politics and intrigue thrown in to add an extra layer of interest. So I’ve been looking forward to this third book, in which the hero is Rabbie Mackenzie, younger son of Laird Arran and his English wife, Margot. But I’m afraid I can’t say that I enjoyed Hard Hearted Highlander as much as the other books, mostly because the eponymous hero is such a miserable bastard for well over half of the story, and it’s difficult to find any vestige of sympathy or liking for a man who is so ill-mannered and self-centred.

That’s not to say that Rabbie doesn’t have grounds for what is immediately apparent is a case of severe depression. The book is set in 1750, five years after the Battle of Culloden, and takes place in a very different world to the previous novel. Many families and clans were wiped out on the battlefield and after, and of those who weren’t many have fled – to the cities, or overseas – and the landscape has been forever changed. Even the powerful Mackenzie clan is struggling to look after its own; their neutrality in the conflict did not protect them from the widely wrought devastation and times are hard.

Like many of his countrymen, Rabbie is frustrated and bitter about the huge change the battle has wrought in the Highlander way of life, but he is also mired in grief for the woman he loved, Seona MacBee, who was killed, along with her family, either during or after the uprising. It’s been years since her death, but Rabbie mourns her every day, and continues to scowl and growl his way through life, much to the consternation of his family. They love him dearly and hate to see him so melancholy, but don’t know what to do to help – and know that he would probably reject it if they tried.

As the Mackenzies struggle to rebuild their fortunes after the rebellion, it becomes necessary for Laird Mackenzie to broker a match between Rabbie and the young daughter of Lord Kent, an English nobleman who has purchased the nearby estate of Kileaven and looks set to buy up other lands around Balhaire. If that happens, there won’t be enough land to sustain even the small number of Mackenzies who are left, and a this arrangement is the only way to protect Balhaire and its dependents. Rabbie recognises the importance of this marriage to his family and agrees to marry the girl. He doesn’t care – he’s dead inside anyway.

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

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

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

Brighter than the Sun (KGI #11) by Maya Banks (audiobook) – Narrated by Tad Branson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The Kelly Group International (KGI): A super-elite, top secret family run business.

Qualifications: High intelligence, rock-hard body, military background.

Mission: Hostage/kidnap victim recovery. Intelligence gathering.

Handling jobs the US government can’t.

As the last unattached member of the Kelly clan, Joe is more than ready to risk life and limb on any mission he’s assigned to, but when it comes to love, he’ll keep his distance. He’s content to watch his brothers become thoroughly domesticated.

Zoe’s had nothing but heartbreak in her life, and she’s determined to start over with a completely new identity thanks to her college friend Rusty Kelly. But it’s the gorgeous smile and tender words of Joe Kelly that begin to weaken her resolve to never risk her heart again. And Joe will have to put everything on the line to save Zoe when secrets of her past resurface – and threaten to tear them apart.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – D

This eleventh book in Maya Banks’ KGI series of romantic suspense novels, Brighter than the Sun, would have been more appropriately titled Duller than the Dishwater. Honestly, I’m really glad I managed to listen to most of it while I was on the move, either around the house or in the car, otherwise I’d be suffering from the concussion incurred as a result of the number of times I’d’ve banged my head on the desk to keep myself awake.

I can’t believe this is supposed to be a romantic suspense novel. It’s a total misnomer, because it doesn’t possess much of either; the pacing is snail-like and there is NO action worth the name, NO suspense and NO romance, unless you count insta-lust as romance. And I don’t.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Enforcer (Games People Play #2) by HelenKay Dimon

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Security expert Matthias Clarke hunts down people who don’t want to be found. His latest prey: the sole survivor of a massacre that killed his brother years ago. Kayla Roy claimed she was a victim of the carnage. Then she disappeared. Matthias thinks Kayla may have actually been the killer—and he wants justice.

Kayla Roy never stays in one place too long and never lets a man get too close. But keeping Matthias at arm’s length may be impossible. Dark and enigmatic, Matthias draws Kayla in from the start. She knows nothing about his connection to her dark past, or his thirst for vengeance. She only knows their attraction feels overpowering—and very dangerous.

Matthias’s suspicions about the sensual Kayla clash with his instinct to protect her, especially when he realizes her life is in danger. But Kayla’s not looking for a savior—especially one who seems hell-bent on tempting her down a lethal path.

Rating: B

The Enforcer is the second book in HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series of romantic suspense novels, which feature heroes who supply skills and services that are perhaps not available from typical law-enforcement organisations; finding people who don’t want to be found, obtaining and using sensitive information and providing security and protection to those who are unable – or don’t want – to go through normal channels. As such, they often operate in that shady area outside the law, doing what needs to be done even though they might need to cross lines in order to do it.

In The Fixer, book one in the series, we met the enigmatic Wren, head of a company specialising in intelligence and information gathering, and who, years earlier, was one of a group of young men who looked to be headed in completely the wrong direction until they were ‘rescued’ by a man named Quint who insisted they accomplish something with their lives. In the course of his business, Wren often has occasion to call upon the services provided by Quint Enterprises, the security firm run by the gruff, taciturn Matthias Clarke. The men are friends – as far as men like them can ever be friends – and more importantly, Wren is one of the very few people that Matthias trusts absolutely.

Matthias had a troubled childhood, growing up in a series of foster homes which ranged from okay to terrible. He’s a loner, and his work is his life; he does his job, eats when he’s hungry, has sex when he has the urge – and he’s content with that. But some months earlier, and completely out of the blue, he was contacted by the birth mother who abandoned him, Mary Patterson, who also told him that he’d had a younger half-brother, Nick, who had been murdered seven years earlier and the case has never been solved. While Matthias is fully aware of Mary’s attempt to manipulate him by trying to send him on a guilt-trip, he nonetheless feels some sort of responsibility to the brother he never knew, and agrees to see what he can find out.

Seven years earlier, Kayla Roy was the sole survivor of a brutal multiple murder. She became a prime suspect in the killings in the early stages of the investigation, but in the absence of any real evidence, she was never charged. Still, she disappeared not long afterwards and has spent the last seven years on the run, never putting down roots or staying too long in any one place. Now, however, she is the closest thing to settled she’s been in all that time, in the small, seafront town of Annapolis, where she waits tables at the local café.

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

The Vicar’s Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

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Cassie, the youngest of six daughters in the Wilton family, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There’s only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn.

Evan Glenside, a soft-spoken, East London clerk, has just been named his great-uncle’s heir and, though he is eager to learn all that will be required of him, he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position.

A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. But then Evan begins to court Lenora, thinking she is the author of the letters.

As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar’s daughter be able to reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

Rating: C

The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.

It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.

When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.

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

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve. An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.

In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Highland Dragon’s Lady (Highland Dragons #2) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Regina Talbot-Jones has always known her rambling family home was haunted. She also knows her brother has invited one of his friends to attend an ill-conceived séance. She didn’t count on that friend being so handsome… and she certainly didn’t expect him to be a dragon.

Scottish Highlander Colin MacAlasdair has hidden his true nature for his entire life, but the moment he sets eyes on Regina, he knows he has to have her. In his hundreds of years, he’s never met a woman who could understand him so thoroughly… or touch him so deeply. Bound by their mutual loneliness, drawn by the fire awakening inside of them, Colin and Regina must work together to defeat a vengeful spirit – and discover whether their growing love is powerful enough to defy convention.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C-

I’m not a great fan of paranormal romances in the main (although I adored Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London books), but I read one of the other titles in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragon series a while back and enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading or listening to another one. Until recently, only the first book, Legend of the Highland Dragon has been available in audio format, but Tantor Audio has now issued books two and three, The Highland Dragon’s Lady and Night of the Highland Dragon (which is the one I’ve read). With Derek Perkins once again lending his considerable narrating skills to the project, I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting story filled with magic and mysterious goings on.

Two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. Because while there’s certainly magic and mysterious goings on, the story isn’t very exciting. In fact, it was so dull in places that even Mr. Perkins couldn’t save it or stop my mind wandering, and I found myself backtracking several times throughout the listen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.