An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work – and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship…

Rowley just wants to be left alone – at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding…it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered. Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets – and their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

An Unseen Attraction is the first in K.J Charles’ new Sins of the Cities trilogy of historical romantic mysteries set in the late Victorian era. She has taken as her inspiration the pulp fiction of the day; the Victorian sensation novel as penned by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu and Mary E. Braddon. As a big fan of that particular genre, I was rubbing my hands with glee whilst awaiting this first instalment, and am happy to report that the wait was well worth it.

English born, Anglo-Indian Clem Tallyfer keeps a respectable lodging house for skilled artisans in Clerkenwell, which was, even in Victorian times, an area of London where multiculturalism flourished. Clem is quiet, unassuming and content with his lot; he enjoys his work and he’s good at it because he’s good with people. He’s a decent, kind man with a good-heart and an optimistic outlook… although he does find one particular resident rather troubling, the Reverend Lugtrout, an habitual drunkard who gets aggressive and rude when under the influence, but whom he is powerless to evict. The lodging house is owned by Clem’s brother, and Clem’s position is conditional on Lugtrout’s living there. He doesn’t know why, or even how his brother knows Lugtrout, but Clem can’t do other than accept the situation and put up with the man’s unpleasant behaviour.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Live Wire (Nashville’s Finest #1) by Caisey Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE’S NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING…

Explosive ordinance disposal specialist Chase Fisk never breaks a sweat defusing even the most complicated of explosives. So when a homicidal maniac threatens to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival, Chase is the man to take him down. But with the reappearance of a woman he thought was long dead, everything he thought he knew is blown away.

EXCEPT LOSING HER AGAIN.

FBI operative Vivien Montgomery is an enigma to everyone around her. So when a deadly threat lands her in Nashville and paired up with the only man she’s ever loved, she isn’t looking forward to an emotional reunion. She’s only here to get the job done and get out. But when the madman behind the chaos targets her for death, the one man she left behind might be the only person she can count on to save her life…

Rating: C-

Live Wire is the first book in Caisey Quinn’s aNashville’s Finest series, and with a blurb that promised a homicidal maniac threatening to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival,  and a rekindling romance between an explosives expert and his former lover, now an FBI agent, you’d think I was in for an action-packed, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, right?

Wrong.

Because Live Wire is, in fact, a damp squib.  There is very little action, the romance is perfunctory, the characters are barely two-dimensional and the plot is predictable and not particularly suspenseful.

Four years before the book opens, Chase Fisk watched the love of his life get blown to smithereens when a military training exercise went badly wrong.  He still has nightmares about that day, and has never really got over Vivien Brooks, in spite of having spent the first couple of years after her death trying hard to forget her in the beds of numerous other women.  An injury sustained during the blast got him a medical discharge from the army, and Chase now heads up an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit with the Nashville PD.

When a tip off leads Chase and his team to a condemned building on the east side of town they aren’t expecting to find a stash of military grade explosives and maps of the city marked up in a kind of code.  But with the prestigious Country Music Festival just weeks away – which will see a massive influx of tourists into the city – there’s no time to waste in decoding the maps, working out what is planned – and who is planning it.

Given the nature of the discovery, the FBI is called in, and immediately dispatches three highly trained agents to aid the Nashville police.  Among them is Vivien Montgomery, who, four years previously, had been undergoing military training when she’d been informed that she was the target of a Russian mafia boss who had a grudge against her family.  For her own safety, the Bureau faked her death and she was then sent on an undercover assignment to take down said mafia boss, which lasted around two years.  She is naturally wary at the prospect of seeing Chase again, certain he’s going to be furious at her deception rather than pleased to see her – and this is borne out at their first meeting, which is anything but a tender reunion. Fortunately, however, after some initial hostility and sniping, they realise they can’t go on this way and decide they need to address the elephant in the room.

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

TBR Challenge: My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway

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Connie Brockway’s novel of unexpected love begins with a series of letters between a world-weary adventurer and the beautiful suffragette whose passion calls him home.

“Dear Mr. Thorne, For the next five years, I will profitably manage this estate. I will deliver to you an allowance and I will prove that women are just as capable as men.” Lillian Bede is shocked when she is tapped to run the affairs of an exquisite country manor. But she accepts the challenge, taking the opportunity to put her politics into practice. There’s only one snag: Lily’s ward, the infuriating, incorrigible globe-trotter Avery Thorne.

“My Dear Miss Bede, Forgive me if I fail to shudder. Pray, do whatever you bloody well want, can, or must.” Avery’s inheritance is on hiatus after his uncle dies—and his childhood home is in the hands of some domineering usurper. But when he finally returns, Avery finds that his antagonist is not at all what he expected. In fact, Lily Bede is stunning, exotic, provocative—and impossible to resist.

Rating: B+

March’s prompt for the TBR challenge is “comfort read”, which is defined as a book that uses a favourite trope or setting, or is by a favourite author.  I’ve chosen something from my TBR that everyone seems to have read except me – Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, which combines two of my favourite things, an enemies-to-lovers romance and a story in which letters play an important part (I do love an epistolary novel!).  It’s a gloriously romantic, character-driven story set at the end of the 19th century, in which our hero – a famous explorer – and heroine – an advocate of women’s suffrage – butt heads over the home they both love, sniping and pushing each other’s buttons as the attraction between them deepens.

Avery Thorne finds himself all but disinherited upon the death of his uncle Horatio, who, believing Avery to be a weakling and in need of discipline and humility, has granted stewardship of his home and lands to the illegitimate daughter of his late wife’s sister, nineteen-year-old Lilian Bede.  Miss Bede is to take possession of the property for a period of five years, and at the end of that time, if the farm and land are profitable, the house will belong to her fully.  Avery is furious, but he can do nothing, and opts to leave England rather than watch someone else take possession of the only home he has ever known.

Lily Bede is astonished to find herself the recipient of a house, and does worry that if she accepts the bequest, she will be doing the legitimate heir – whom she has never met – a bad turn.  But she doesn’t really have an alternative; with her parents both dead, she is living pretty much hand-to-mouth, and the prospect of having a real home – even one that might end up being temporary – is too much to resist.  And besides, the alternative, receiving a small income instead, but one she will lose unless she publicly denounces the Women’s Suffrage movement… well, that just isn’t going to happen.  Taking the house is, as far as Lily is concerned, the lesser of two evils.

During the five years of Avery’s absence, he and Lily exchange a series of letters, that are full of biting sarcasm (without being nasty), humorous banter and, sometimes, emotional honesty.  Avery has gained a reputation as an adventurer and explorer, and has also made himself a lot of money by writing up the stories of his exploits which are serialised in a popular newspaper.  Yet he still carries with him his ideal of home and is still determined to claim Mill House when he returns to England.

In that time, Lily has had some success in turning a profit, but she’s not in the clear yet. She’s economised considerably, reducing the staff to a bare minimum and doing a lot of the work herself; it’s her only chance to have a house and home of her own, as she doesn’t ever want to get married, so she’s worked hard and is determined to keep the house that has become her home.

Even though she and Avery have been corresponding for nearly five years by the time he returns home, Lily is in no way prepared for the way he affects her from their first meeting.  Having been led – by descriptions of those who knew him before, and from his portrait – to expect a rather scrawny and unprepossessing individual, she is stunned to come face to face with the most handsome man she’s ever seen, one who radiates confidence and masculinity to such an extent he nearly takes her breath away.

Avery is just as surprised to discover that instead of the dried up spinster he’d expected, Lily is an exotic, feminine beauty, albeit one that strides around the place in tweed bloomers.  Of course they’re both smitten – but we knew that from reading their letters and especially from Avery’s reaction to the one Lily sent him after the death of a close friend.

Their romance is beautifully written and developed as both of them try to get the upper hand in order to prove they have a right to the house while coming to appreciate each other’s sterling qualities.  Avery is a truly swoonworthy hero without being stereotypical; he’s handsome, competent and confident, but he’s more of a beta than an alpha.  He’s not vastly experienced with women, he loves his home and wants to marry and have a large family.  He’s protective without being suffocating, and I loved the way he treats Lily as an equal and lets her do things for herself whereas many men of the time would have attempted to step in and do things for her.  The way he – and the reader – is shown the extent of Lily’s care of the estate and the prejudice she has encountered on account of her gender and her illegitimacy, is masterfully done, with one moment in particular almost reducing me to a quivering wreck.  His insistence on being a gentleman is very sweet – especially as his view of what is gentlemanly tends to be somewhat fluid – but the subtle message, that the mark of a true gentleman lies in the truth and honour of his actions rather than in his manners and the adherence to convention is expertly and effectively conveyed.

Lily, too, is a great character, and I liked her very much even though there were times I wanted to shake some sense into her near the end of the book. For most of it though, she’s terrific – witty, clever, sarcastic and perfectly able to hold her own against Avery’s barbs; it’s much more difficult for her to conceal how strongly attracted to him she is than it is to find the words to get under his skin.  My main criticism of Lily is that while her reasons for not wanting to marry are sound and very well explained (her mother’s husband took away her children after she left him and she never saw them again – it’s a heartbreaking story), she has chained herself to a dead woman’s grievances and made a crusade of her mother’s pain to such an extent that she has blinded herself to the truth of what’s standing in front of her – a man who loves and respects her deeply and will never hurt her.

There is a small but very well-drawn cast of secondary characters, most intriguing of whom is Horatio’s unmarried sister, Francesca, a fading beauty who fills her life with frivolity and, it’s implied, men, but who is characterised by an underlying sadness.  Bernard, Avery’s twelve-year-old cousin is a delight; a boy becoming a man, intent on protecting his womenfolk while he also suffers from the severe asthma which affected Avery as a child (and continues to do so in certain circumstances). The relationship that evolves between the pair is just lovely.

My main criticism of the book as a whole is that the ending is very abrupt, and, given all the angst that has gone before it, the tiniest bit anticlimactic. There is an epilogue set around a decade afterwards, but I needed a little more closure on the original story rather than a glimpse into the future.

But even so, My Dearest Enemy is a gem of a book, and I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s witty and clever, with some moments of true poignancy near the end which had me quite choked up – plus Avery is one of the most wonderfully romantic heroes I’ve ever read.

The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Julie McKay and Dara Rosenberg

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Jazz Age comes alive with a love story for the ages: a rugged Prohibition agent and a saucy flapper from one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootlegging families…
Manhattan, present day.

Ella Hawthorne thinks she’s going crazy when she hears strange noises coming from the walls of her new apartment late at night. When she discovers that it used to be home to a speakeasy during the Jazz Age, she’s determined to discover the building’s secrets.

Manhattan, 1924.
Geneva ‘Gin’ Kelly, a smart-mouthed, red-haired flapper, reluctantly agrees to help rugged Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson catch her stepfather, a notorious bootlegger. But the truth will shake Manhattan society to its foundations….

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

The Wicked City tells the story of two very different women who live in New York City at very different times. In 1998, Ella Gilbert has just left her husband, and in 1924, Geneva Rose Kelly – known to her friends as Gin or Ginger – is a bright young thing who can be found most evenings at Christopher’s the speakeasy next door to the apartment building where she lives. While I enjoyed both stories, the book isn’t equally split between the two; it seemed to me as though we spent about 65% of the time with Ginger and 35% with Ella, but because both storylines were equally interesting, I didn’t find myself getting impatient with one while waiting to get back to the other. That said, there are a few pacing issues in Ginger’s sections of the story, places where an overabundance of descriptive prose impedes the progress of the narrative, but this becomes less frequent as the story progresses – or I just didn’t notice it as much.

When Ella caught her husband of six years having sex with a prostitute in the stairwell of their apartment building, she was devastated and left him that very evening. She has just moved into a new place in Greenwich Village and is trying to get her bearings, pull herself back together and decide what to do next, whether to attempt to reconcile or to start divorce proceedings. Deciding to do her laundry early on a Saturday morning because she thinks it’s likely the machines will be free and it’s unlikely she’ll meet anyone else down in the basement, she is startled and a bit miffed to discover that not only are all the machines in use, but that she’s not alone.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

When the Marquess Falls (Hellions of Havisham Hall #3.5) by Lorraine Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The Marquess of Marsden always follows the rules. Expected from birth to adhere to decades of tradition, he plans to marry a proper young woman from a good family. But when a beautiful, and completely unsuitable, woman snags his heart, he begins to realize that to get what you want, sometimes you have to break the rules.

Linnie Connor dreams of the independence of running her very own bakery. And while she may be allowed to be a marquess’ childhood companion, the baker’s daughter never ends up with the handsome nobleman. Determined to achieve at least one of her dreams, Linnie makes plans to leave her sleepy village for London, intent on purging him from her heart. And yet, when an invitation to the Marsden annual ball arrives, she can’t refuse her one chance to waltz in his arms.

It will be a night that stirs the flames of forbidden desires and changes their lives forever.

Rating: B-

I knew, when I picked up this coda novella to Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham series, that I was going to be reduced to a quivering wreck by the end of it. I suppose that’s a considerable achievement on the part of the author – zero-to-sobbing in under 100 pages!

If you’ve read the final book in the trilogy, The Viscount and the Vixen, then you’ll know where When the Marquess Falls is going to end up, but I nonetheless appreciate the fact that Ms. Heath decided to tell the story of Marsden and his Linnie, which is very sweet and very sad – although don’t despair, there IS an HEA (albeit a slightly different sort of one). In terms of the structure, it’s more of a series of vignettes than a cohesively plotted novella, but that format works well here.

By the time we met George St. John, Marquess of Marsden in Falling into Bed with a Duke, he had already lost the love of his life following the birth of their son six years earlier. He stopped all the clocks, stopped caring about anything very much, and acquired the sobriquets the “mad marquess” or “mad Marsden” because the few remaining servants at Havisham Hall often heard him talking to his dead wife.

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

The Paid Companion by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Bianca Amato

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The Earl of St. Merryn needs a woman. His intentions are purely practical – he simply wants someone sensible and suitably lovely to pose as his betrothed for a few weeks among polite society. He has his own agenda to pursue, and a false fiancée will keep the husband-hunters at bay while he goes about his business. The simplest solution is to hire a paid companion. Finding the right candidate proves more of a challenge than he expected. But when he encounters Miss Elenora Lodge, the fire in her golden eyes sways him to make a generous offer. Her sorry financial circumstances – and dreams of a life of independence – convince her to accept. But St. Merryn appears to be hiding a secret or two, and things seem oddly amiss in his gloomy London home. Elenora soon discovers that this lark will be a far more dangerous adventure than she’d been led to believe. And the Earl of St. Merryn will find that the meek and mild companion he’d initially envisioned has become a partner in his quest to catch a killer – and an outspoken belle of the ball who stirs a bothersome passion in his practical heart.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This recording of one of my favourite of Amanda Quick’s books – The Paid Companion –  came out in 2014, but I didn’t immediately snap it up, because I already own a copy of the recording narrated by Michael Page that was produced in 2004, and I wasn’t sure if I really needed another version. While it’s commonplace to find more than one version of older, “classic” books (as I discovered when listening and writing my Caz’s Classics Corner posts for AudioGals last year), it’s unusual for more modern books to be re-recorded, so I was surprised when this one appeared. But having really enjoyed listening to Bianca Amato in A Dangerous Beauty, I gave in and decided to give it a whirl.

In the prologue, which takes place around a year before the beginning of the story proper, we meet Arthur Lancaster, the Earl of St. Merryn on the night his lovely young fiancée elopes with another man. He’s at his club, and is surprisingly – or perhaps not so unsurprisingly, given that those who know him regard him as rather a cold fish – unmoved by the news that his intended has left him, and doesn’t make a move to go after the couple. He gives it as his opinion that the next time he considers matrimony, he might as well seek a bride from an employment agency such as those that exist for paid companions, given that the qualities exhibited by the ideal companion – they are well-bred, well-educated, possessed of a sterling reputation, steady nerves, and a meek and modest manner – are exactly the same as those a man would want in a wife.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Bedchamber Games (Rakes of Cavendish Square #3) by Tracy Anne Warren

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Rosamund Carrow has spent years learning the law by assisting her barrister father, despite the frustrating truth that the profession is closed to women. When he dies unexpectedly, necessity compels her to disguise herself as a man so she can step into the courtroom to finish his cases. She’s willing to put her reputation at risk, but she never expects that the greatest peril will be to her heart…

Lord Lawrence Byron is a rising star in London’s legal circles, despite his reputation as an unrepentant rakehell. When an upstart young barrister defeats him in court, he’s determined to discover everything he can about his rival. He’s stunned when he uncovers the shocking secret that his new opponent is actually a beguiling, brilliant woman, one he can’t help but want in his bed. Passion draws them together as they break all the rules, but it may lead to something more lasting like love…

Rating: B-

This final book in the Rakes of Cavendish Square trilogy features Lord Lawrence Byron, the twin brother of Lord Leo whose story was told in the first instalment, The Bedding Proposal. I enjoyed both that and the previous book (Happily Bedded Bliss) enough to want to read this final one, even though it uses one of my least favourite tropes – a woman passing herself off as a man. It’s testament to the author’s ability to tell an entertaining story and craft strong characters that I was able to set aside that dislike and enjoy the developing relationship between the two protagonists, which is well-paced and imbued with a slow-burning sexual tension that really draws the reader in.

Rosamund Carrow and her brother, Bertram, were both extensively tutored in law by their father, a renowned barrister. Even though the profession is closed to her purely because of her gender, Rosamund showed a great aptitude for the subject and regularly assisted her father in his preparations and research, but his sudden death leaves behind a lot of unfinished, untried – and unpaid – cases. The obvious solution would be for Bertram to complete the work and make the necessary court appearances, but he suffers from a speech impediment which becomes worse whenever he gets nervous, and it quickly becomes apparent that he isn’t going to be able to take on his father’s role. Nervously, Rosamund agrees to Bertram’s suggestion that she should pose as their cousin, Ross Carrow; that way, she can assist Bertram in court and as soon as the cases are cleared, she can return to being herself again and quietly disappear.

On their first day in court, Rosamund and Bertram find themselves pitted against none other than Lord Lawrence Byron, a man with a formidable reputation for winning his lawsuits and a keen legal mind. He’s also the handsomest man Rosamund has ever seen, with a rakish reputation to go along with his abundance of good looks and charm. The case – brought by a young widow against her late husband’s family – is a tricky one, Bertram’s nerves prove his undoing and he’s forced to ask Rosamund to take over as lead counsel. Still unable to believe that nobody has noticed the deception she is practicing, she nonetheless rises to the challenge and, incredibly, wins the case.

Lawrence is gracious in defeat, acknowledging that “Mr. Carrow’s” persuasive arguments carried the day, and, finding himself rather well disposed towards the young lawyer, invites “him” to dinner at his club.

Over the next few weeks, as Rosamund continues to represent her late father’s remaining clients in court, she also gets to spend more time with Lawrence, who has taken her under his wing. Lawrence is amused at the gaucheness of this slight young man who can’t hold his drink and doesn’t quite seem comfortable in his own skin, but he can’t help admiring his quickness of mind and his ability to construct a strong legal argument. The problem is that for the first time in his life, Lawrence finds himself distracted by the speaking eyes, plump lips and nicely rounded bottom of a member of his own sex – and is unnerved by it.

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