Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen

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Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.

But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.

Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.

Rating: C+

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies?  In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced.  Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas.  In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.

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

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The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels #6) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

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The bravest of heroes. The brashest of rebels. The boldest of lovers. These are the men who risk their hearts and their souls-for the passionate women who dare to love them . . .

He is known only as The Rook. A man with no name, no past, no memories. He awakens in a mass grave, a magnificent dragon tattoo on his muscled forearm the sole clue to his mysterious origins. His only hope for survival-and salvation-lies in the deep, fiery eyes of the beautiful stranger who finds him. Who nurses him back to health. And who calms the restless demons in his soul . . .

A LEGENDARY LOVE

Lorelei will never forget the night she rescued the broken dark angel in the woods, a devilishly handsome man who haunts her dreams to this day. Crippled as a child, she devoted herself to healing the poor tortured man. And when he left, he took a piece of her heart with him. Now, after all these years, The Rook has returned. Like a phantom, he sweeps back into her life and avenges those who wronged her. But can she trust a man who’s been branded a rebel, a thief, and a killer? And can she trust herself to resist him when he takes her in his arms?

Rating: Narration – A : Content – C+

I’ve read and/or listened to all the books in Kerrigan Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series, and I hate to say it, but I think it’s running – has run – out of steam. The first two or three were very good – The Highwayman (book one) continues to be my favourite of the series, with The Hunter a close second – but books four to six have been distinctly lacklustre, and I think that had it not been for the fact that Derek Perkins is one of my favourite narrators and I’ll always jump at the chance to listen to him performing an historical romance novel, I might well have given up on it by now.

When I started The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (and don’t get me started on the penchant for derivative titles in HR these days!), I thought – at first – that at last, here was a return to the gripping storytelling of The Highwayman, but after a very strong opening and first few chapters, things start to fizzle out; the rest of the plot is tissue-paper thin, the central relationship is almost completely recycled from book one, the principals are bland and underdeveloped and there are large chunks in the middle of the book where nothing much happens.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sweet Enemy (Veiled Seduction #1) by Heather Snow (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Marcin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Beakers and ball gowns don’t mix. So when lady chemist and avowed spinster Miss Liliana Claremont receives a coveted invitation to the earl of Stratford’s house party, no one expects her to accept. After all, it’s well known Lord Geoffrey Wentworth, a rising political star, is in need of a suitable bride, and it’s assumed he will choose one from the select group of attendees.

Yet Liliana has no desire to lure the rich and powerful earl into marriage. She’s come to Somerton Park for one reason – to uncover what the Wentworths had to do with the murder of her father. She intends to find justice, even if she has to ruin Stratford to do it.

To get the evidence she needs, Liliana intends to keep her enemy close, though romance is not part of her formula. But it only takes one kiss to start a reaction she can’t control…

Rating: Narration – C- : Content – C+

Heather Snow’s début novel, Sweet Enemy, was originally published in 2012 and is the first in her Veiled Seduction trilogy of historical romances featuring smart, scientifically minded heroines. I remember reading and very much enjoying the third book, Sweet Madness, but I haven’t managed to get around to reading the other two books, so I was delighted when Sweet Enemy popped up at Audible and immediately requested a review copy.

Liliana Claremont has lived alone since the death of her father and has devoted herself to scientific pursuits, mostly her overriding interest in chemistry and how it can be applied to healing. She’s dedicated, intelligent and continually frustrated at not being taken seriously by the scientific institutions of the day which are, of course, only open to men. Returning to her home following yet another rejection, she discovers it has been ransacked – and worse than that, the intruder is still there. She manages to escape unharmed and is gradually setting things back to rights when she finds a secret compartment she’s never seen before, and inside it, a large bundle of letters. When she finds one dated two days before her father’s death, something within it kick-starts her memories of that day and of his final words to her – and she realises that his death had been no accident.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: What I Did for a Duke (Pennyroyal Green #5) by Julie Anne Long

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For years, he’s been an object of fear, fascination…and fantasy. But of all the wicked rumors that shadow the formidable Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, the ton knows one thing for certain: only fools dare cross him. And when Ian Eversea does just that, Moncrieffe knows the perfect revenge: he’ll seduce Ian’s innocent sister, Genevieve—the only Eversea as yet untouched by scandal. First he’ll capture her heart…and then he’ll break it.

But everything about Genevieve is unexpected: the passion simmering beneath her cool control, the sharp wit tempered by gentleness…And though Genevieve has heard the whispers about the duke’s dark past, and knows she trifles with him at her peril, one incendiary kiss tempts her deeper into a world of extraordinary sensuality. Until Genevieve is faced with a fateful choice…is there anything she won’t do for a duke?

Rating: A-

Incredible as it may seem (and it still does – to me!) the Pennyroyal Green series is one that I haven’t yet completed.  I’ve read the last three or four books but not the earlier ones, so I decided to pick up one of them for September’s TBR prompt to read an historical romance.  The novel is fifth in the series and was originally published in 2011 – and I’m rather partial to the formidable but misunderstood hero trope, which is what decided me on this particular instalment.

Alexander Moncreiffe, Duke of Falconbridge, is not a man to be crossed.  A certain aloofness combined with a reputation for ruthlessness and the rumours he killed his wife for her money makes him an object of fear and fascination among the ton, although of course, his immense wealth and title mean that he is welcomed everywhere.  Sardonic, charismatic and darkly attractive, women want him and men want to be him; and recognising the futility of attempting to change society’s opinion, Alex does nothing to dispel the rumours and actually, rather enjoys the reputation conferred upon him and is only too willing to play up to it on occasion.

When he finds Ian Eversea in bed with his fiancée, he is (naturally) furious, but instead of challenging Ian to a duel he decides to make him sweat and keep him wondering as to when he will exact his revenge or what form it will take.  He decides that poetic justice will best suit his purposes and gets himself invited to the house party being held by the Eversea family at their country estate in Pennyroyal Green; there he intends to seduce and then abandon Ian’s younger sister, Genevieve.

Genevieve has been in love with Harry Osborne for years, and is sure that at any moment he will declare his love and propose.  He’s handsome, funny and charming (if a little oblivious at times) and they have a lot in common, such as their love of Italian art.  So she is devastated when, during a tête-á- tête, he confesses his plan to propose to their mutual friend, Millcent and, heartbroken, attempts to hide herself away as much as possible.  When the formidable – and fascinating – Duke of Falconbridge singles her out for his attentions and seeks her company, Genevieve tries to avoid him – but is intrigued in spite of herself.  Soon, she discovers a man rather different to the one she’d expected; he’s authoritative and very ‘ducal’ of course, but Genevieve sees through the highly polished veneer to discover a man capable of charm, humour and considerable perspicacity, at the same time as the duke encourages her to discover and admit to certain truths about herself.

This is one of those books where not very much happens – no kidnappings, pirates, spies, missing heirs or murders – but in which the pages just fly by and the reader becomes completely and utterly invested in the central characters, their interactions and their gradually developing romance.  Neither Genevieve nor Alex is exactly what they seem, which becomes a point of commonality between them; Alex’s reputation as a cold, sometimes cruel man is not undeserved, but he’s also clever, intuitive and witty, while Genevieve is widely believed to be sensible, quiet and shy whereas she’s nothing of the sort. Her demeanour is the result of careful consideration rather than natural reticence, and she is often impatient with the mistaken impression society has of her.  I loved the way Ms. Long used flowers to point up the impressions held by others of Genevieve and her sister; Olivia is routinely sent bouquets of vibrant, colourful flowers by her numerous admirers, while Genevieve, when she gets flowers at all, gets daisies and narcissi and pale, insipid arrangements, until one morning a huge display of roses that is – magnificently intimidating and almost indecently sensual – arrives for her.  Of course, it’s from Alex, and it’s a wonderful way of showing that he really sees Genevieve for the remarkable woman she truly is.  In spite of his plan to debauch and ruin her (which is soon abandoned in an unexpected and fitting way), we see that he is coming to genuinely care for and understand her while she is doing the same thing as regards him.

Julie Anne Long’s writing is superb; deft, witty, warm and perceptive, she has a knack for dialogue and vivid description, and for creating multifaceted, flawed and yet thoroughly engaging characters.  (Although I really wish someone had corrected all the errors with titles – a duke is never addressed as “Lord” anybody). Alex is a formidable man but he’s also a very lonely one who is tired of playing society’s games and wants some peace in his life.  Genevieve is misunderstood and undervalued, a young woman who doesn’t yet really know who she is, but who learns, through her association with Alex, how to be the passionate, vibrant, pleasure-loving woman she really is.  They really do bring out the best in each other, and I loved the fact that Alex wanted so badly for Genevieve to become her best self; even if he couldn’t have her for himself, he wanted her to have that and to be properly appreciated.

What I Did for a Duke is a captivating character-driven story that has no need for flashy plotlines and over-wrought drama to propel it forward.  What begins as a May/December romance between an underestimated young woman and a world-weary rake slowly morphs into something more complex and nuanced, a story about two people able to see past the distorted lens with which they are each generally viewed to the real person inside – and to love that person unreservedly.  When AAR reviewed the book on its release, it was awarded it DIK status, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur.

A Sinner Without a Saint (The Penningtons #4) by Bliss Bennet

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An honorable artist

Benedict Pennington’s greatest ambition is not to paint a masterpiece, but to make the world’s greatest art accessible to all by establishing England’s first national art museum. Success in persuading a reluctant philanthropist to donate his collection of Old Master paintings brings his dream tantalizingly close to reality. Until Viscount Dulcie, the object of Benedict’s illicit adolescent desire, begins to court the donor’s granddaughter, set on winning the paintings for himself . . .

A hedonistic viscount

Sinclair Milne, Lord Dulcie, far prefers collecting innovative art and dallying with handsome men than burdening himself with a wife. But when rivals imply Dulcie’s refusal to pursue wealthy Miss Adler and her paintings is due to lingering tender feelings for Benedict Pennington, Dulcie vows to prove them wrong. Not only will he woo her away from the holier-than-thou painter, he’ll also placate his matchmaking father in the process.

Sinner and saint – can both win at love?

But when Benedict is dragooned into painting his portrait, Dulcie finds himself once again drawn to the intense artist. Can the sinful viscount entice the wary painter into a casual liaison, one that will put neither their reputations, nor their feelings, at risk? Or will the not-so-saintly artist demand something far more vulnerable–his heart?

Rating: B

I’ve been looking forward to reading A Sinner Without a Saint, the fourth book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington family.  It features the remaining unwed sibling, Benedict, and Viscount Dulcie, a long-standing family friend and former schoolmate of Benedict’s, with whom he appears to have a bit of a love/hate relationship.  The snippets of them together we’ve seen in previous books have mostly consisted of Dulcie exercising his sharp wit and knowing manner in order to needle Benedict into reacting to him; it’s clear there’s a mutual attraction there and equally clear that Benedict isn’t particularly happy about it. This is a frenemies-to-lovers story with depth and originality; in each of the books in the series, Ms. Bennet has chosen interesting backdrops that are more than just window-dressing, and she ties her characters and storylines very closely to them.

The timeline of this book runs concurrently with those of The Penningtons books two and three and some events from those stories are referenced here, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read those, as sufficient explanation is given to enable A Sinner Without a Saint to work as a standalone.

When he was just twelve years old, Benedict Pennington developed a severe case of calf love for the gorgeous Sinclair Milne, Viscount Dulcie, only son and heir to the Earl Milne.  Dulcie is five years Benedict’s senior and for a time at school, Benedict was his fag (fagging was a traditional practice at British boys’ boarding schools wherein younger pupils acted as servants to the most senior boys). When Dulcie failed to return to school after the Easter holidays one year without explanation, Benedict was devastated and felt Dulcie had abandoned him.  Years later, Benedict – a hugely talented artist – went to live on the continent, where he honed his craft and acquired a reputation not only as a fine portraitist, but as a connoisseur, and as such, his opinions are sought regularly by collectors.  He continues to accept commissions, but his passion is the creation of a national collection of art which may be seen by all, and not just those who can afford the entrance fee to exclusive exhibitions.  The prevailing belief among the artistic establishment is that the masses could have no appreciation for the fine arts but Benedict believes that art should be accessible to all and he has managed to persuade Julius Adler, a wealthy businessman and owner of the finest collection of Old Masters in England to donate some of his paintings to the project.

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

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch

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Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray. When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairytale, where all the rules of magic—and love—are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life-changing truths—and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: A-

First of all – don’t let that horrible cover put you off!

Salt Magic, Skin Magic is a very impressive almost-début novel from Lee Welch – I say ‘almost’, because the author has previously published a novella – and I devoured it in two sittings.  I’m not widely-read in the fantasy genre, but the premise seemed quite unique, the world-building – in terms of the rules governing the use of magic – is well-thought out and explained, and the two central characters are engaging and strongly defined.

Soren Dezombrey, Lord Thornby, lives a life devoted to pleasure in London, as is usual for many heirs-in-waiting.  He is estranged from his father, the Marquess of Dalton, whom he hasn’t seen for twenty years, so is naturally surprised when the marquess visits him in town and insists that Soren returns to the family’s Yorkshire estate of Raskelf Hall so that he can marry one of two heiresses selected for him.  In fact, the marquess does more than insist; his servants overpower Soren and force him into the carriage, and Soren is now a prisoner in his own home.  For the past eighteen months, he’s been at Raskelf – and he can’t leave.  Literally.  He isn’t bound or locked in; he can go wherever he pleases within the estate boundary, but whenever he gets close to it, he starts to panic, think the nineteenth century equivalent of “damn, I’ve left the oven on!” and immediately turns back and returns to the hall.

John Blake is a down-to-earth industrial magician, an exponent of inanimate magic, which is regarded in magical circles as lesser, more common magic than that practiced by Theurgists, who summon demons to do their magic for them and so don’t get their hands dirty.  His normal line of work is in factories and other industrial buildings, where he is employed to ward against things like fires, injuries or accidents, so the request to visit the home of a nobleman is a very unusual one.  But a friend – who happens to be Lady Dalton’s cousin – tells him that the lady is terrified that her stepson is using magic with intent to harm her, and he asks John to visit Raskelf as a favour.  John reluctantly agrees to go, and immediately senses that there’s something not right.  The house is literally drenched In ancient magic, curses and things John doesn’t understand, and even odder is the fact that Thornby seems to be completely immune to his magic.  John’s curiosity is aroused – as are other things, because Thornby, while the epitome of the arrogant, disdainful nobleman, is quite the most beautiful man John has ever seen.

At first, what he sees would seem to support the idea that Thornby is indeed a malevolent force within the household, and he takes little heed of the latter’s insistence that he holds no ill-will towards Lady Dalton and that he is unable to leave the estate.  It’s only when he witnesses first-hand – by marching Thornby forcibly across the estate boundary – the other man’s struggles to return and then watches as horrible wounds appear on his face that he at last comes to realise that there’s something truly sinister at work at Raskelf and to believe that Thornby is an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game… but what exactly is going on and who is pulling the strings?

Lee Welch has created an original, riveting magical fantasy in Salt Magic, Skin Magic, which combines an intriguing, tightly-constructed and high-stakes plot laden with mysticism, magic and suspense with a warm, tender romance between two men at opposite ends of the social spectrum who should, by rights, never have met.  The chemistry between Soren and John is intense right from the start, although neither is happy about the degree to which they’re drawn to the other man; and I loved the evolution of their relationship as it progressed from antagonism and suspicion to trust, affection and soul-deep belief in each other. Their interactions are flirty, funny and tender, and the romance develops in a wholly believable, organic way.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic is unquestionably one of the most original, compelling books I’ve read this year, and I’m eager to see what Ms. Welch comes up with next.

A Marriage Made in Scandal (Rescued from Ruin #9) by Elisa Braden

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Wanted: A countess for the most feared lord in London
With a family legacy tainted by murder and madness, Phineas Brand, the Earl of Holstoke, is having a devil of a time securing a proper wife—or even an improper one. Society misses faint at the sight of him. Matchmaking mamas scurry to avoid him. Only one woman is bold enough to keep drawing near, and she’s more scandalous than he is.

Caution: A lady’s brazen ways may lead to ruin
Lady Eugenia Huxley knows all about running aground in the marriage mart, thanks to a scandal involving a footman and too much drink. No matter. She’ll gladly pursue millinery over matrimony. But when her sister’s spurned suitor returns to London in search of a wife, she can’t resist offering him a bit of courtship advice, even if the chilly, brilliant, honorable Lord Holstoke does give her shivers—heated, head-to-toe shivers that are anything but fearful.

Danger: This match may be combustible
After a series of vicious murders brings suspicion to Holstoke’s door, Eugenia risks everything to be his alibi. The only rational remedy is to marry the minx before she generates another scandal. Yet, the dangers don’t end at the altar. A poisonous enemy coils ever closer, threatening the woman who awakens his soul. How far will he go to protect her? That may be the greatest danger of all.

Rating: C+

This ninth book in Elisa Braden’s Rescued from Ruin takes place around six years after book seven, (Confessions of a Dangerous Lord), and revisits the members of the Huxley family.  A number of events that took place in that book are referenced here – principally the crimes committed by the hero’s mother and the resultant fallout – so this probably isn’t the ideal book to pick up if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series. A Marriage Made in Scandal is a very readable novel that combines a friends-to-lovers romance with an intriguing mystery, but even though I liked quite a few things about it, there are things I didn’t that prevent me from recommending it.

One of those things is the way the story opens.  Lady Eugenia Huxley is the daughter of an earl, but when we first encounter her she is working in a far from exclusive hat shop in one of the less salubrious areas of London.  Anyone who reads historicals regularly will immediately recognise the incongruity of the idea of an earl’s daughter working for a living.  As I read on I learned that a couple of years previously Eugenia – Genie – had caused a massive scandal by being caught in flagrante delicto with a footman and so I thought, “okay, so she disgraced herself and her family threw her out.  That makes more sense.”  Except – no.  Not only did her family not disown her, she still lives at the family home in Mayfair!  It’s said early on that Genie’s disgrace has naturally affected her younger sister’s marital prospects, that Genie no longer goes out in society and that she is still whispered about – but she lives at home?  And goes to work every day?  I didn’t buy it.  There are occasions when I can roll my eyes at a set up and move on, but not this time.  Ms. Braden is a good writer and I’m sure she could have come up with another way to have Genie be the family scandal without resorting to something so implausible.

Anyway.  While working in said downmarket hat shop, Genie runs in to Phineas Brand, Lord Holstoke, who, years earlier, had been courting her sister Maureen.  Phineas is a rigidly controlled young man whose mother (this isn’t a spoiler, as it happened in a previous book) was revealed to have been a murderess, having killed Phineas’ father and numerous others.  That was six years ago, and society still views Phineas with caution, which is making his search for a suitable bride difficult, to say the least.  And it’s made even more difficult when a young woman is murdered – poisoned using methods and poisons known to have been favoured by Phineas’ mother – and several more killings ensue in quick succession.  It seems someone is out to implicate Phineas in the murders, and when Genie impulsively steps in to provide him with an alibi, it’s the last straw for her father, who makes it clear he expects Phineas to marry her.  And in the meantime, the murder sub-plot picks up steam. The deaths seem random and there’s no way of knowing how, where or whom the poisoner will strike next, and Phineas greatly fears that by marrying Genie, he has placed her firmly in the killer’s sights.

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