You May Kiss the Bride (Penhallow Dynasty #1) by Lisa Berne (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Wealthy and arrogant, Gabriel Penhallow knows it’s time to fulfill his dynastic duty. All he must do is follow “The Penhallow way” – find a biddable bride, produce an heir and a spare, and then live separate lives. It’s worked so well for generations, certainly one kiss with the delectable Livia Stuart isn’t going to change things. Society dictates he marry her, and one chit is as good as another as long as she’s from a decent family.

But Livia’s transformation from an original to a mundane diamond of the first water makes Gabriel realize he desperately wants the woman who somehow provoked him into that kiss. And for all the ladies who’ve thrown themselves at him, it’s the one who wants to flee whom he now wants. But how will he keep this independent miss from flying away?

Rating: Narration – A- Content – D+

I admit that I picked up You May Kiss the Bride for review solely because of Carolyn Morris. Reviews for this début historical romance, the first in Lisa Berne’s Penhallow Dynasty series have been mixed, but I knew I’d at the very least enjoy the narration, so I decided it give it a go. In the end, my opinions about the story are pretty much along the same lines as the less than glowing reviews; it’s nothing I haven’t read before and the author’s inexperience shows clearly in terms of the storytelling and characterisation.

Livia Stuart hasn’t had an easy life. Orphaned in India when she was a child, she was sent back to England and resides with her listless aunt and drunken uncle, who never really wanted her and who wouldn’t miss her if she disappeared. She is constantly patronised by her neighbour and local mean girl, the Honourable Cecily Orr, who pretends friendship but in reality does everything she can to make “dear Livia” aware of her inferior situation, insisting on giving her her cast off gowns and never missing an opportunity to point out Livia’s status as a poor relation.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

The Spinster and the Rake by Anne Stuart

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The Spinster: As a maiden aunt, Gillian Redfern lives as an unpaid servant to her demanding family. Little wonder she finds the attentions of a rake distracting, and even less wonder that her usual good sense begins to unravel when Lord Marlow takes her in his arms.

The Rake: Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlow, is a man of great charm and little moral character, a gambler, a womanizer, and handsome as sin to boot. He has no qualms about placing a wager on the virtue of one small, shy spinster.

But Lord Marlow is about to discover that Miss Redfern is more siren than spinster. She amuses him, arouses him, and, much to his dismay, makes him a better man. Gillian will discover, in turn, that Lord Marlow possesses the power to turn her into a very wicked woman. The rake and the spinster are poised to find a love that neither could have imagined.

If only someone weren’t out to destroy them both . . .

Rating: B

First published in 1982, The Spinster and the Rake is one of Anne Stuart’s earliest Regencies, and has, sadly, been out of print for a number of years.  I’ve been keen to read it ever since I became aware of its existence – I mean who doesn’t love a good rake-meets-spinster story? – and had despaired of ever finding it, but luckily it surfaced last year in a newly revised digital edition.  (I can’t say what the revisions are as I haven’t read the original, but I am guessing Ms. Stuart has added a pinch or two of extra spice 😉 )

This is one of those books that is exactly what it says on the tin, and very nicely done it is, too.  Our rake, Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlowe (who is the Marquess of Herrington so I’m not sure where the Marlowe comes from) is nearing forty, has been away from England since he was packed off by his family following a scandal twenty years earlier and, having unexpectedly inherited a title, has returned to England with the intention of remaining there.  His bearing, looks and manner of speech reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer’s Lord Damerel (who is my favourite hero of hers, and one of my all-time favourite romance heroes) and I defy anyone not to swoon at the author’s description of him:

“From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with grey, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes, the strong nose and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wickedly appealing.”

Be still my beating heart 😉

The spinster of the title is Miss Gillian Redfern, youngest of four siblings and the only one to remain unmarried.  At nearly thirty, Gillian –

… had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family reeling and a dislike of being useless.

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

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – C-

I’ll confess straight off that I’m not what I’d call a Sherlock Holmes “aficionado”. I’ve read some of the books and stories, and have enjoyed his various celluloid iterations, from Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sherry Thomas’ re-imagining of Sherlock as Charlotte in A Study in Scarlet Women was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of last year. But I can’t quote chunks of text or even remember all the plots of the stories I’ve read, so I’m most definitely not a card-carrying member of the Sherlock Fan Club.

But I was definitely up for the idea of a story featuring The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, although now I’ve finished it, I can’t say if it’s the sort of book that will appeal to diehard Sherlockians or to the relatively uninitiated. Speaking as a member of the latter group, I’m not sure whether the style adopted by author Leonard Goldberg is akin to Conan Doyle’s or if it was his intention for the entire book to seem like averagely-written Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Reviews of the book on Goodreads certainly indicate that those more familiar with Conan Doyle’s work appreciated the writing in this, but I found it plodding and unimaginative.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Pursuit of Pleasure (Dartmouth Brides #1) by Elizabeth Essex

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE DOES SAY SHE’LL NEVER MARRY…

Miss Elizabeth Paxton is a new sort of heiress—educated, opinionated and entirely independent. The last thing she wants is a husband mucking about her life. Even if he is the only man she’s ever loved.

BUT SHE HAS ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WIDOW.

When dashing Captain Jameson Marlowe returns to Dartmouth, he proposes to give Lizzie exactly what she wants—a marriage without the man. After one night of searing passion, his sworn duty will take him far off to sea…or so she thinks until secrets and lies set a collision course with the smugglers along the south coast, and Lizzie is caught in the dark tide of treason. Can she salvage her pride and learn to trust in true love before it’s too late?

Rating: C-

Having read and enjoyed some of Elizabeth Essex’s more recent books, I thought I’d try one of her earlier titles and picked up The Pursuit of Pleasure which is her début novel. Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited this newly republished version (I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say what the changes are), but still, the book suffers from a number of flaws – principally related to the characterisation of the heroine and the development of the romance – that have prevented me from rating it more highly.

Elizabeth Paxton and Jameson Marlowe were childhood sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, ever since Jamie ran off to join the navy when he was just fourteen and broke Lizzie’s heart in the process. Now, a decade later, he’s back in Dartmouth charged with a very secret mission and with a very clear design as to how to accomplish it. But when he sets eyes on Lizzie again and overhears her telling a friend that while she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather like to be a widow because of the freedom it would afford her, Jamie realises that his schemes could offer up a hitherto unforeseen benefit. He offers Lizzie exactly what she wants, telling her that he will shortly be leaving England for the Antipodes, where he will be stationed for eight years and where the chances he will meet an early death are highly likely. If they marry, Lizzie will have her independence and also the income from the house and lands he has recently purchased – property he doesn’t want to bequeath to his smarmy cousin. Lizzie is a little suspicious at first; all the gain is on her side and she can’t see what Jamie will be getting out of the agreement, but he manages to persuade her and they are married a couple of days later.

Neither of them is really prepared for the passion that sparks between them on their wedding night, and both of them realise that perhaps letting go is going to be harder than they at first thought. But Jamie is committed and leaves on schedule, asking Lizzie to do one thing for him, which is not to live at the house, Glass Cottage, because it is in a state of disrepair and isn’t really fit to be lived in. Lizzie doesn’t understand this, as she has already fallen in love with the place and has designs to put things to rights, but as this is likely the last thing Jamie will ever ask of her, she agrees… until events conspire to change her mind and suspicions begin to take root.

I can’t really say much more about the plot without giving spoilers, although as this is a romance novel, I think it’s fairly obvious that Jamie hasn’t told Lizzie the truth about his plans to sail to the other side of the world. But overall, I’m afraid I liked the IDEA of the story more than the story itself, because in order for it to work, Jamie – who really does care for Lizzie, and can be rather a charming chap – has to treat her really badly and allow her to go through some pretty horrible experiences so that he can carry out his mission to bring down the dangerous smuggling ring that is operating from somewhere near Glass Cottage. I could understand that, as a member of the military, he was operating under orders, but it didn’t make him an easy character to like. Mind you, Lizzie isn’t especially likeable, either, being the sort of heroine who is so set on being independent and doing things Her Way, that she makes poor decisions and doesn’t listen to good advice. Instead of coming off as practical and determined, she frequently seems childish and petulant, and as though she’s doing things because other people don’t want her to rather than because they’re the right thing to do.

The romance storyline occurs primarily in the first half of the book, because the two protagonists are separated for most of the second. I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, but it seems to me that Ms. Essex has used their previous association as a kind of “shorthand”, because the relationship is never really developed. Jamie and Lizzie see each other again and both suffer a bad case of insta-lust, but other than the physical, it’s difficult to see what attracts them to one another. Jamie likes Lizzie’s spirit and respects her desire for independence (good for him on that one) and Lizzie feels that Jamie is the one person who really knows and understands her – but these are things we’re told and asked to accept, rather than things we can experience along with the characters.

The smuggling plotline which drives the second half of The Pursuit of Pleasure is intriguing, although the identity of the villains is pretty obvious from the start, and there are a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story on several occasions. The storyline has a lot of potential, but falls down in the execution, and that, combined with the not-too-likeable characters and weak romance make this a book I can’t really recommend.

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Rating: A

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

The Most Dangerous Duke in London (Decadent Duke’s Society #1) by Madeline Hunter (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlotte Gray

This title may be downloaded from Audible.com.

Notorious nobleman seeks revenge

Name and title: Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton. Affiliation: London’s elite Society of Decadent Dukes. Family history: Scandalous. Personality traits: Dark and brooding, with a thirst for revenge. Ideal romantic partner: a woman of means, with beauty and brains, willing to live with reckless abandon. Desire: Clara Cheswick, gorgeous daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

Faint of heart need not apply

Clara may be the woman Adam wants, but there’s one problem: She’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than getting married – especially to a man said to be dead-set on vengeance. Though with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if his desire for justice is sincere – along with his incredibly unnerving intention to be her husband. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for Adam clearly comes with a cost. But who knew courting danger could be such exhilarating fun?

Rating: Narration – D+ Content – B+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Madeline Hunter’s books and I count myself among her fans, but given she’s one of the biggest names in historical romance, she’s being very poorly served when it comes to audio. Her last series, the Wicked trilogy, started out well, with His Wicked Reputation being excellently narrated by Mary Jane Wells, but went downhill when Ms. Wells was not used for the rest of the series. I was so disappointed by Lulu Russell’s lacklustre performance in book two, (Tall, Dark and Wicked), that I didn’t bother listening to the final book and stuck to the print version. And for her new Decadent Dukes Society series, Ms. Hunter again gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop, this time with a narrator who sounds like a teenaged girl. Maybe casting youthful sounding narrators works in some genres, but it doesn’t work in romance and it REALLY doesn’t work in historicals, where you need someone who can inject those aristocratic males with a sufficient degree of hauteur while at the same time making them sound attractive enough to appeal as a romantic hero. To cast for the ingénue heroine (although the heroine in this book isn’t an ingénue) almost always means getting someone with a very narrow range, whose voice lacks the necessary resonance and colour to be able to render the hero and a range of supporting characters from formidable dowagers to old family retainers. Ms. Gray has a vocal range of about half an octave, and her ‘hero voice’ is higher in pitch than my normal speaking voice. In the book, Adam, Duke of Stratton, is supposed to be dangerous – he’s fought lots of duels, he’s got an unpredictable temper, he’s dark and brooding and sexy – but he sounds as though he’s barely out of short trousers. I wanted to warm him some milk, ruffle his hair and ask if he’d finished his homework yet.

If I were Madeline Hunter, I’d be seriously displeased.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.