Voyageurs by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Two men battle the wilderness – and desire.

It’s 1793, and Simon Cavendish needs to get to his station at Fort Charlotte, a fur-trading outpost in the untamed Canadian wild. The fort is only accessible by canoe, and there’s just one man daring enough to take him on the perilous, thousand-mile journey from Montreal this late in the summer.

Young Christian Smith, the son of an Ojibwe mother and absent English father, is desperate for money to strike out on his own, so he agrees to take clueless Simon deep into the wild. As they travel endless lakes and rivers, they butt heads.

Yet the attraction between Simon and Christian, two men from vastly different worlds, grows ever stronger. Locked in a battle against the wilderness and elements, how long can they fight their desire for each other?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I suppose saying “it was too short” is a form of praise – right? I recently reviewed another novella by Keira Andrews – Arctic Fire – and said exactly that; I enjoyed it and would have loved to have listened to a longer story featuring those characters. The same is true of Voyageurs, an historical romance which is more of a short story than a novella, coming in at just over ninety minutes in audio. I don’t often review ultra-short audiobooks like this one, but Keira Andrews has become a favourite author and with Joel Leslie narrating… Pfft. No brainer.

It’s July 1793, and Simon Cavendish, formerly of the East India Company, has arrived – a month late owing to bad weather and a ship in need of repairs – at the offices of the North West Company in Montréal, from where he is to travel to take up a post at Fort Charlotte, a thousand miles away. Simon is eager to take up his new position, but unfortunately, the delay in his arrival means that the party of voyageurs (young men hired to transport goods to trading posts) he was to have joined for the journey had to leave without him. Simon is disappointed to learn that he will have to wait until next spring to travel safely – and jumps on the idea of maybe travelling with just one or two voyageurs if they can be found and persuaded to make the trip.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Sign of the Raven (Ash & Juliana #2) by L.C. Sharp

the sign of the raven

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The London ton protect their own. Even when it comes to murder. 

“There’s been an incident.”

In the finer circles of 1749 London, incident is apparently the polite way to describe discovering a body with a gruesome wound and no sign of the killer. But for newlyweds Lady Juliana and Sir Edmund “Ash” Ashendon, it’s a chance to track down the culprit and right a wrong—something they are both intimately familiar with.

Indeed, it is the only thing they are intimately familiar with. For the moment.

Though their marriage may be one of convenience, there’s nothing convenient about learning the victim has ties to a name from their past: the dreaded Raven. And the Raven isn’t the only danger they face. The aristocracy protects its own, and in London’s darkest corners, no one wants to be unmasked.

With Juliana’s life on the line, time is running out for Ash to find the killer before their marriage comes to an inconveniently bloody end.

Rating: C+

Opening around a year after the events of the previous book (The Wedding Night Affair), The Sign of the Raven, the second book in L.C. Sharp’s series of historical mysteries set in Georgian London sees husband and wife Ash and Juliana looking into the suspicious death of a nobleman at a firework display.  Like the previous book, this story benefits from a strong sense of time and place and two very engaging leads whose evolving relationship is one of the book’s main draws – but the slow pacing meant I found it difficult to get into and the mystery was so simplistic that I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the end.

Please note that this review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series.  While it’s not essential to have read that first, I’d advise it, as it provides important background information about the two principals and their relationship.

Sir Edmund Ashendon is with his family – his wife and his siblings – at a firework display at Vauxhall Gardens when a member of staff summons him to the scene of “an incident”.  The incident in question is actually a dead body – that of a man lying face down on the ground, blood still seeping from the bullet wound to his back.  By the look of his clothing and possessions, the man is obviously well-to-do, but neither Ash nor Juliana can identify him.  An examination of his pockets yields little of interest other than some tokens made of a dull, silvery metal with something stamped on the surface –  and it’s not until Juliana’s parents put in an appearance, disapproval radiating from them, that Ash and Juliana can put a name to the victim – Lord Coddington.

The name rings a bell for Ash; he’s heard of Coddington and his “exploits” – a fondness for gaming hells and running up debts among them.  At first, the gossip puts Coddington’s death down to a robbery gone wrong, but Ash isn’t so sure; too many things don’t add up, and when another gentleman is murdered, Ash and Juliana find themselves setting an elaborate trap to catch the killer.

Unfortunately, after a strong set-up, the pacing starts to flag and there is little progress for the first half of the story.  I did, however, enjoy the introduction of some important new secondary characters – Ransom, the nosy journalist whom Juliana very cleverly recruits to ‘Team Ash’ – and pickpocket and scoundrel  Cutty Jack, who can recruit any number of urchins to be Ash’s eyes and ears on the less salubrious streets of London.  I enjoyed reading about the development of Ash and Juliana’s relationship, too, but the mystery here is weak and didn’t really capture my interest.

In fact, the most interesting part of it is the involvement of the eponymous Raven, the mysterious and dangerous criminal mastermind who rules London’s underworld with a rod of iron.  He’s been a thorn in the side of London’s lawmakers for some time, and here, he and Ash are set up as major antagonists.  I’d begun to suspect the truth of his identity – but only just before the reveal, which certainly puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons – or, indeed, ravens – for future entries in the series.

It’s clear that the marriage of convenience Ash and Juliana embarked upon in the previous book has evolved into a strong friendship, and that by the time this book begins, they’re on the cusp of more. For the first time ever, Juliana has someone in her life who genuinely cares for her and her welfare, and Ash is delighted to see his wife growing into herself and recognises that his feelings toward her are changing – but although their relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, what we see here is the result of progress that has happened mostly off page, in that year between stories, and I have to say that I felt a little bit cheated by that.

Once again, the story is very firmly grounded in mid-eighteenth century London, whether the action is taking place in a palatial mansion, a bustling coffee house or the worst of the slums, and those who enjoy their mysteries served with a good helping of historical background are sure to appreciate the author’s skilful way of incorporating interesting historical detail into the story.

Unfortunately however, the stodgy pacing and the lacklustre mystery mean this outing for Ash and Juliana isn’t as strong as the first.  I can’t quite recommend The Sign of the Raven, but I’m going to keep an eye out for future instalments and hope the next one grabs my attention more than this one did.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

the queer principles of kit webb

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too.  In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two.  But it’s still an entertaining read.

After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London.  It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored.  He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day.  Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse,  Kit is instantly intrigued.

Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare.  Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous.  After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan.  Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.

Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation.  To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are).  It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.

And, as it turns out, neither is Kit, although he’s tempted.  Very tempted – and by more than just the idea of one last job.  But he knows his own limitations and that his bad leg won’t hold up sufficiently for him to be able to pull off the robbery himself.  So he offers to teach Percy how to do it instead.

The first section of the story details Percy’s attempts to persuade Kit to help him, using a mixture of financial incentive and flirtation that stops little short of outright seduction.  The chemistry between them is palpable, the dialogue is superb – witty and very sharply observed – and I enjoyed their spirited conversations and the steadily growing affection and tenderness between them.

Kit and Percy are likeable, complex characters, complete opposites who shouldn’t work as a couple – yet they do.  Kit is an adorable grouch who has no idea of the esteem in which he’s held by those around him, and Percy hides a deep vulnerability behind his ostentatious outfits and witty conversation.  He makes little attempt to hide his attraction to men, while Kit is less concerned with what’s between a partner’s legs and, as he puts it, seldom goes to bed with people because he seldom meets anyone he really wants to go to bed with.

Both men are carrying considerable emotional baggage – Kit has experienced great loss, and Percy hasn’t known much love or affection – and have come to believe that they don’t deserve to be happy or loved. But as they become closer and begin to fall in love with each other, that experience – and the mutual support they can now offer – gradually shows them the lie and they begin to understand that they’re more than the sum of their past experiences and that together, they can be better than they were before.  I was pleased with their honesty and that they behave and speak like adults, discussing their pasts in a realistic, sensible way, and that there are no overblown dramatics.

The big problem with the book though, is the plot, which gets progressively more complicated somewhere after the halfway mark.  We don’t find out what’s so important about the book Percy wants to steal until really late in the day, and the way plot point after plot point is suddenly stuffed in in the last quarter of the story not only had my head spinning but contributed to an overall feeling of ‘is that it?’ when the book ended.  I understand there’s going to be a sequel , but this novel wasn’t originally billed as part of a series (and still isn’t) and I came away from it feeling vaguely disappointed at the way so many things have been left hanging.

In the end, I liked, but didn’t love, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  The romance is sweet, tender and sexy, and the setting of Georgian London is well-established;  I especially loved the descriptions of Percy’s sumptuous outfits.  The secondary characters – special mention goes to Betty, Kit’s employee, and Collins, Percy’s valet – are interesting and well-rounded, and the discussions as to the evils and abuses of great privilege are perceptive and, dare I say, timely.  Despite my criticisms, fans of queer historical romance will find plenty to enjoy here.

King’s Man (Outlawed #1) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when the love of your life becomes your enemy?

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together as intimate friends, and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of the conflict…

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him.

The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is quite different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost to the war.

The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. And despite everything that still divides them, old passions begin to stir…

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is their tangled past too painful to forgive?

Rating: A

In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle.  This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that  combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.

In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont.  Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes.  (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory).  But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought.  Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more;  and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.

Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London.  Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London.  It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents.  But he won’t be travelling alone.

Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel BenjaminTalmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors.  In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down.  But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.

Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list.  The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves.  But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.

Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible.  Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet.  Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour.  The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.

Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful.  Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses.  In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating.  I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.

Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.

Rebel: An Outlawed Story (Outlawed #0.5) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling in love is just the beginning…

Samuel Hutchinson has lived his whole life in Rosemont, Rhode Island. And as far as he’s concerned, his future is fixed: complete his legal training, marry a respectable woman, and settle down to raise a family.

But Sam never counted on meeting Nathaniel Tanner.

Clever, urbane, and dazzling, Nate has been banished to Rosemont by a father determined to remove him from the rising political tension in Boston. The last thing Nate expects to find in the sleepy Rhode Island town is a man who’s not only interested in Nate’s radical ideas, but who interests Nate in return.

In every conceivable way.

Over books and conversation, their friendship deepens. But when Nate dares to confess his true feelings, Sam faces a stark choice—reject his friend and continue to live a lie, or rebel against everything he’s been taught and embrace his heart’s desire…

Rating: B+

Sally Malcolm’s Rebel is a novella/short story that acts as a prequel to the full-length novel King’s Man, out later this month.   It’s short and sweet, but packs quite an emotional punch as it charts the development of the relationship between two young men from very different backgrounds whose lives will be forever changed by their association.

Handsome, charming and well-to-do Harvard graduate Nathaniel Tanner is sent to the sleepy Rhode Island town of Rosemont by his father, who disapproved of the people Nate chose to spend time with.  Nate is to clerk for lawyer John Reed, and it’s at Reed’s modest offices that fellow clerk Samuel Hutchinson sets eyes on his new colleague for the first time. Sam is instantly smitten – against his will, against his judgment – and tries hard to quell the inappropriate thoughts and feelings that arise whenever Sam looks at Nate, or the shocks that rush across his skin with every accidental touch.  For the first few weeks, Nate keeps himself to himself; he doesn’t talk about himself and doesn’t socialise, so Sam is surprised when he suggests they share a pre-Christmas drink.  During the course of the evening, Nate starts to tell Sam a little of his circumstances, and soon they’re conversing on a variety of subjects – novels, poetry, philosophy, politics – and over the following weeks and months, a genuine friendship develops between them. Sam has been alone since the death of his parents from typhus a couple of years earlier and the meals and discussions he shares with Nate quickly become the high point of every week.

Nate hadn’t expected to find someone like Sam in provincial Rhode Island, a man willing to listen to and endlessly debate Nate’s free-thinking ideas.  And he can’t help finding it somewhat ironic that his father banished him in part because of his bedroom preferences, only for Nate to end up sharing a small office with “an Adonis who spent his days shooting Nate confused and confusing looks.“  He’s fairly sure he’s reading Sam’s interest correctly, and also that Sam likely is struggling with his attraction to Nate.

Rebel is a little gem of a story which, in just thirty-six pages presents readers with two well-characterised leads and a passionate love story developed through a series of vignettes.  Sally Malcolm is one of those writers who can create the most delicious, intense chemistry between characters with the merest look or touch, and the longing and soul-deep connection she forges between Sam and Nate simply leap off the page.

Rebel is completely absorbing and ends on a hopeful HFN.  My appetite for King’s Man is well and truly whetted!

Note: Rebel was previously made available free to subscribers to the author’s mailing list.

Gathering Storm (Storm Over Scotland #1) by Maggie Craig (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Worsley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Edinburgh, Yuletide 1743, and Redcoat Captain Robert Catto would rather be anywhere else on earth than Scotland. Seconded back from the wars in Europe to command the city’s town guard, he fears his covert mission to assess the strength of the Jacobite threat will force him to confront the past he tries so hard to forget.

Christian Rankeillor, her surgeon-apothecary father, and his apprentice, Jamie Buchan of Balnamoon, are committed supporters of the Stuart Cause. They’re hiding a Jacobite agent with a price on his head in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary: a hanging offense.

Meeting as enemies, Robert and Kirsty are thrown together as allies by their desire to help Geordie and Alice Smart, young runaways from Cosmo Liddell, bored and brutal aristocrat and coal owner.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A

I first reviewed Maggie Craig’s Gathering Storm when it was released in audiobook format back in 2015, in the version narrated by James Bryce (which is no longer available). I enjoyed the story a great deal, but had a number of reservations about the narration; one that the pacing was very slow, but most importantly, that the narrator was not able to effectively portray the hero of the story, Robert Catto, who, rather than a virile young man just shy of twenty-five, sounded like a grizzled old campaigner in his forties.

When the author released the sequel – Dance to the Storm – last year, she opted to self-publish and selected a narrator much more suited to the material. Ms. Craig has now had Gathering Storm re-recorded by Steve Worsley and was kind enough to send me a copy. Given I’d so enjoyed the story, but felt let down by the narration, I decided to revise my original review to reflect the change. Gathering Storm is a terrific book, and it deserves to reach a wide audience; the historical backdrop is meticulously researched and skilfully incorporated, there’s a star-crossed romance, political intrigue, secrets, lies and betrayal, and an intensely charismatic leading man, things which combine to make this a must for fans of well-written romantic historical fiction.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Midwinter Magic (Rockliffe #7) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Celebrate among old friends … and perhaps a gate-crasher or two. There will be wassailers and kissing-boughs; music, dancing and romance; laughter and some tears. Above all, expect the unexpected because at Christmas anything can happen.

So accept your invitation for what promises to be the most talked-of house-party of 1778 … and is also a last Huzzah to the Rockliffe series.

Rating: B+

In Midwinter Magic, the final book in her Georgian-era Rockliffe series, author Stella Riley bids a heartwarming and utterly charming farewell to her cast of much-loved characters by bringing them all together for a memorable and magical Christmas celebration.  (A warning – if you’re not familiar with the six novels that precede this series finale, you’ll likely have trouble keeping track of all the characters; if that’s the case, go back to book one, The Parfit Knight and make your way through the other books; I promise you won’t regret it!)

It’s Christmas 1778, and the Earl and Countess of Sarre – Adrian and Caroline Devereux  – (The Player) have invited their closest friends to Sarre Park in Kent for the festive season.   The Rockliffes, Amberleys, Chalfonts – and their respective children – the Audleys and Wynstantons, and Caroline’s grandpa Maitland and her good friend, Lily Brassington will all be in attendance, and Adrian and Caroline are looking forward to a convivial time spent in good company.  Preparations for the house party are well under way, despite their housekeeper’s  doom-laden pronouncements that decorating the house before Christmas Eve will bring bad luck – and Adrian has tasked his closest friend Bertrand Didier with overseeing the activities and entertainment for the duration.

With the company all assembled, things get off to a wonderful start with a visit to the beach – but on their return, it seems Betsy’s dire predictions have come true;  Caroline’s pushy, social-climbing mother has arrived uninvited, and has brought Caroline’s two sisters with her.  Caroline had been planning to invite them to stay at a later date, wanting to spare her guests Mrs. Maitland’s continual toadying and thinly veiled insults.  But there’s nothing to be done; Caroline can’t send them back home and room is found for them at nearby Devereux House.

Otherwise, however, the house party continues as planned, with plenty of activities – for the adults as well as the children – overseen by the wily Bertrand, who really does seem to have thought of everything!

One of the many things I’ve always enjoyed about Stella Riley’s books is the way she creates such genuine friendships between her characters, something which is much in evidence here as we get to see so many of them interacting with each other, teasing and joking and supporting each other as all good friends should.  There are two delightful romances to be found here (the one between the more mature couple was especially nice to see), and the various Christmas traditions are skilfully and vividly integrated into the story so that you can almost smell the greenery and see the coloured ribbons on the kissing boughs.  Best of all, these are the characters we’ve come to know and love; Rock is his ducal, perceptive self, Sebastian is witty and a teeny bit naughty, Julian is charmingly distracted; and the children in the story are well-written and feel age appropriate.  There are some wonderfully entertaining set-pieces, too – a boisterous game of football on the beach, a visit to Deal Castle, an impromptu concert for the tenants and villagers – and one of the most memorable moments in the book comes when Tom – the eldest of Julian and Arabella’s wards – reads a letter he’s written about his life, and his love for his adopted father, which is incredibly poignant and quite beautifully done.

The inclusion of the Maitlands and later, of Adrian’s obnoxious mother, serve to highlight that old adage that while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family; and their presence provides a stark contrast to the genuine warmth and affection the other characters so obviously find in their friendships and the happiness that permeates the rest of the book.

A Christmas story wouldn’t be a Christmas story without a bit of magic, and that’s here, too – albeit not in a way you might expect, and which I can’t say too much about without giving spoilers.  Suffice it to say that it’s woven carefully through the story and is sure to delight fans of the series.

Midwinter Magic is just that, a magical combination of warmth and wit, love and laughter, and a perfect conclusion to one of the best historical romance series around.

Deadly Kin (Alec Halsey #4) by Lucinda Brandt (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Alec is back! Summer 1764. Alec and Selina anxiously await the birth of their first child at their estate in Kent. It should be a time of family celebration, but the death of a young poacher has Alec investigating murder. And when renovations to his sprawling manor unearth a secret burial chamber, a shocking family secret comes to light. Everything Alec thought he knew about his birth is again called into question, and with it the special bond with his irascible uncle Plantagenet.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

It’s been a while since Lucinda Brant released the last book in her series of Georgian-era historical mysteries featuring former diplomat, reluctant marquess and amateur sleuth Alec Halsey. (When I checked, I saw that book three, Deadly Peril, came out in November 2015.) I enjoyed the previous instalments in the series very much; Ms. Brant’s eye for period detail is remarkable, her plots are tightly written and full of devious twists and turns and she’s created a truly memorable leading man in the handsome, urbane and fiercely intelligent Halsey.

Eagle-eyed (eared?) listeners will notice that the narrator’s chair for Deadly Kin is occupied by the reliably good Matthew Lloyd Davies (who has taken over from Alex Wyndham) and I’m pleased to be able to say that his performance is top-notch.

Deadly Kin opens some months after the conclusion of Deadly Peril and sees Alec and his wife Selina residing at Alec’s family estate of Deer Park in Kent while they await the birth – any day now – of their first child. Alec’s elevation to the marquessate of Halsey is recent and not completely welcome; he had made himself a name in diplomatic circles, and is still adjusting to the change of pace that has come along with his change in status. Along with his new title, he has inherited his late brother’s crumbling Kentish estate at Delvin Park – which he has renamed Deer Park – and if were up to him, he’d pull it down and build something more modern, but Selina loves the old pile and Alec loves Selina so… renovation it is.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dance to the Storm (Storm Over Scotland #2) by Maggie Craig (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Worsley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Edinburgh, December 1743: Redcoat Captain Robert Catto is between the Devil and the deep blue sea. His investigations have turned up compelling evidence of a real threat posed to the House of Hanover by a plan to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. His duty is to draw out as many Jacobites as he can find in Scotland’s capital and gather evidence against them, their names to be handed over to Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session, and Catto’s mentor. Two of those dedicated Jacobite plotters are Patrick Rankeillor, surgeon-apothecary, and his daughter Christian Rankeillor. Yet with every day that passes and despite their very different and deeply held views, Robert and Christian are falling ever more deeply in love. How is he to reconcile doing his duty with his feelings for Christian Rankeillor?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

Dance to the Storm is the second book in the Storm Over Scotland trilogy by author and historian Maggie Craig, and if you enjoy meaty, well-researched historical fiction with a compelling, star-crossed romance at its heart, then I suggest these books might be right up your alley!  I’ll say straight off though that this is absolutely not a standalone and that you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Gathering Storm, before tackling this one.  I listened to it some years ago and even I needed a refresher course as to who was who and what happened because there’s been a gap of six years between books.  Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait so long for book three!

A quick recap.  It’s 1743 and Captain Robert Catto is recalled from fighting in Europe by the Lord President of Scotland to become captain of the town guard in Edinburgh.  But that’s just a cover for his real mission, which is to track down a Jacobite agent and member of the Pretender’s inner circle believed to have travelled to the city.  Robert has information leading him to suspect that respected surgeon and apothecary Patrick Rankeillor may be harbouring the traitor; Rankeillor, his daughter and all those in his immediate circle are known to be dedicated to the Jacobite cause, and Robert is sure that they planning on spiriting the agent safely away from Edinburgh.  During his encounters with Rankeillor’s spirited daughter Kirsty, Robert is often overbearing, sarcastic and downright rude, initially as a shock tactic but later as a way of trying to put a stop to his growing interest in her.  Kirsty is similarly smitten and desperately trying to ignore the attraction that insists on sparking between her and the handsome captain, but given that they’re on opposite sides, with Kirsty committed to a cause Robert has good reason to despise, they both know that nothing can come of it.

Events at the end of Gathering Storm mean that Robert is going to be faced with some very difficult choices.  The Jacobite agent has escaped the city along with Patrick Rankeillor, and Robert knows Kirsty was involved – more out of loyalty to her father than anything else, he suspects.  But his overwhelming instinct is to keep her part in the escape hidden, to keep her safe until he can at least work out what his next move should be.  He’s never been so torn; he’s an honourable man and a fine soldier, but for the first time, he has something – someone – in his life as important to him as his career and he’s going to have to work hard to walk the tightrope between love and duty.  It has to be said that Kirsty isn’t always a great help when it comes to that; her stubborn devotion to her father and a seeming lack of a sense of self-preservation threaten to undermine Robert’s attempts to keep her safe, and it’s easy to understand why he gets so angry with her on occasion.  He has a wider understanding of the dangers they’re facing;  the situation in Scotland is teetering on a knife edge, with supporters of the ‘King Over the Water’ committed to ousting the Hanoverian monarch and returning the Stuarts to the throne, and Robert knows only too well the likely outcome for the ordinary citizens should the divisions throughout Scotland erupt into bloody civil war.  He has other good reasons, more personal ones, for being strongly opposed to the Jacobite cause – reasons which, should they become known, could cause his loyalties to be questioned, ruin him professionally and possibly pose a threat to his life.

Rife with intrigue and with the historical background and Scottish locations brought vividly to life, Dance to the Storm is a compelling tale, full of tension and shifting priorities as we watch events unfold through Robert and Kirsty’s eyes.  The events of the story take place over little more than a week (as was the case in Gathering Storm) but as Robert and Kirsty fall deeper into love – and recognise what an untenable situation they’re in – the stakes for both of them are much higher than before.

The writing is excellent, and Ms. Craig is incredibly skilful at weaving the historical detail into her fictional tale without ever resorting to dry info-dumps.  The protagonists are complex, three-dimensional characters, and the secondary cast is also well-drawn, from those we love to hate (Charlotte) to those we want to snuggle and pamper (Geordie).  The standout – as one might expect – is Robert Catto. A career soldier of just twenty-five who has spent his entire adult life soldiering, he’s seen a lot in his young life and hasn’t known much in the way of closeness or affection.  He’s handsome, charismatic and quick-witted, but he’s also short-tempered and ruthless; he’s loyal and compassionate and sarcastic as hell, yet his flaws just make him that much more human and easy to relate to.  Brave and clever, Kirsty is a skilled apothecary and healer and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so in that respect she and Robert are made for each other!  I did, however, get just a teeny bit irritated with her unswerving devotion to her father, because it causes her to make some extremely unwise decisions that risk her safety.  But their romance is really well done; the longing and desire running between them is palpable and I’m eager to find out where they go from here.

Narrator Steve Worsley is new-to-me and I understand that Ms. Craig listened to a lot of performers  before settling on him to narrate her story. (A different narrator was used for the previous book and he didn’t really do it justice).  A native Scot, Mr Worsley has a smooth, well-modulated voice that is easy on the ear and on the whole, he differentiates effectively between a fairly large cast of principals and secondary characters.  There were a few times I felt that his female voices were a little too close in range to the male ones (Kirsty’s speech, in particular, is sometimes difficult to identify without the aid of dialogue tags) but mostly I was sufficiently engaged in the story for that not to have been too much of an issue.  Mr. Worsley’s portrayal of Robert Catto is excellent, however;  the previous narrator sounded as though Robert was in his forties, so it was a shock when the text indicated he was a few days shy of his twenty-fifth birthday!  There’s no problem at all believing he’s in his twenties here.  Robert speaks with a cultured English accent (the result of his having moved around so much) with the occasional Scottish inflection, and the narrator does a really good job of bringing out the softer side of his character – a side he really only shows to Kirsty and Geordie – and in his more humorous moments. The pacing is perhaps a little on the slow side, and – and this is a production issue – on numerous occasions there were no breaks between paragraphs, so not only did I not have time to absorb what just happened, I suddenly found myself ‘somewhere else’ with no warning.  The same is true of chapter breaks, where a chapter would finish and was then immediately followed by the chapter header for the next.

As I’m reviewing the audio production as a whole, I have to take these things into account when assigning a grade for the narration, which I’ve knocked down by half a grade point.

Dance to the Storm was an entertaining and sometimes gripping listen featuring engaging characters it’s easy to root for, a vividly described setting and a lovely romance full of yearning and UST.  Fair warning – the book ends with “To Be Continued…” although it’s not so much a cliffhanger as an indication that the story isn’t over yet, and I’m certainly going to be here for whatever comes  next.  Strongly recommended for fans of well-written, well-researched  romantic historical fiction.

First Comes Scandal (Rokesby/Bridgerton #4) by Julia Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She was given two choices . . .

Georgiana Bridgerton isn’t against the idea of marriage. She’d just thought she’d have some say in the matter. But with her reputation hanging by a thread after she’s abducted for her dowry, Georgie is given two options: live out her life as a spinster or marry the rogue who has ruined her life.

Enter Option #3

As the fourth son of an earl, Nicholas Rokesby is prepared to chart his own course. He has a life in Edinburgh, where he’s close to completing his medical studies, and he has no time – or interest – to find a wife. But when he discovers that Georgie Bridgerton – his literal girl-next-door – is facing ruin, he knows what he must do.

A Marriage of Convenience

It might not have been the most romantic of proposals, but Nicholas never thought she’d say no. Georgie doesn’t want to be anyone’s sacrifice, and besides, they could never think of each other as anything more than childhood friends . . . could they?

But as they embark upon their unorthodox courtship they discover a new twist to the age-old rhyme. First comes scandal, then comes marriage. But after that comes love . . .

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Julia Quinn’s Rokesby-Bridgerton / Bridgerton Prequels series (honestly, the series name seems to change with each book published!) continues with book four, First Comes Scandal, a funny, sweet friends-to-lovers story in which the youngest Rokesby son, Nicholas, finds his HEA with the elder Bridgerton sister, Georgiana. The series has been a bit of a mixed bag; I liked the first two books, but the third, The Other Miss Bridgerton, was a bit of a disappointment, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this one. After the first couple of chapters, I thought I’d be able to report that it was something of an improvement – until it got bogged down around the end of the first half and never regained its initial momentum.

Nicholas Rokesby, who is studying medicine in Edinburgh, is rather alarmed to receive a summons from his father Lord Manston asking him to return home immediately. Fearing tragedy and disaster, Nicholas embarks on the five day journey to Kent – only to find out that he’s travelled all that way, in the middle of the term and right before his exams, because Georgiana Bridgerton – who is his father’s goddaughter as well as one of Nicholas’ oldest friends – is in a fix and he wants Nicholas to get her out of it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.