The Royal Conquest (Scandalous House of Calydon #4) by Stacy Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Anna Parker Naples

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After being cruelly jilted by a lord who claimed to adore her, Miss Payton Peppiwell swore her future husband would be as ordinary as she. Now if only her family would listen to her. Then she meets Mikhail Konstantinovich, an untitled horse breeder, in a highly improper and scandalous encounter. Never had Payton expected to be so attracted to the dark, intriguing man, who seduces her to recklessness with a mere stare.

Mikhail abhors anything to do with intimacy. Yet Miss Peppiwell stirs hunger and a need long forgotten in him. But Mikhail has a dark past-one that means his lust must be sated in a way entirely unsuitable for a lady. But his biggest secret will be the hardest for Payton to overcome: Mikhail is not only titled, he’s a prince…

 

Rating: Narration – D- Content – D

 

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that Stacy Reid’s The Royal Conquest is far and away the front runner for the title of “Worst Audiobook I Have Listened to This Year”. I’ve listened to mediocre stories performed by excellent narrators and excellent stories ruined by poor narrators, but this one has it all – a mediocre story performed by an inept narrator. It rarely gets worse than this.

But such is the reviewer’s lot. Sometimes when looking for titles to review, I think – “oh, I’ve not listened to that author/narrator before, so let’s give it a go”, and sometimes I’m lucky – like when I thought “oh yes, Alex Wyndham – I’ve seen him on the telly, so let’s see what he does with an audiobook” – and sometimes I’m not. This is one of those times.

Normally when I write a review of an audiobook, I spend a bit of time talking about the plot and characterisation and leave the discussion of the narration until the end. This time, however, I am going to reverse that, because even if this book had been the best ever written – and that isn’t the case by a long chalk, I assure you – the narration is so dreadful it would have rendered it completely un-listenable-to. (I may have made that term up – put it down to my still being traumatised!)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

The Duke of Danger (The Untouchables #6) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After killing his opponent in a duel, Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is known as the Duke of Danger. Tortured by guilt, he shields himself with a devil-may-care attitude. However, when he kills another man in another duel, he’s beyond redemption, even though it wasn’t his fault. He refuses to smear a dead man’s name, especially when he’s left behind a blameless widow who doesn’t deserve an even bigger scandal.

Widowed and destitute, Lady Emmaline Townsend must marry the man of her parents’ choosing or beg unsympathetic relatives for support. The only way out is to ask for help from the one man she’s sworn to hate, the man who owes her anything she asks, the man who killed her husband. They strike a devil’s bargain in which passion simmers just beneath the surface. But her dead husband’s transgressions come back to haunt them and threaten their chance at love.

Rating: B

I’ve been enjoying Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, although I’ll admit I was rather disappointed in the last instalment, The Duke of Defiance and wasn’t sure I was going to read further. But I decided to put that one down as an aberration and I’m glad I picked up The Duke of Danger, which is a much more strongly-written and well-conceived story than the previous one. The eponymous duke isn’t actually a duke, but the ducal nicknames were invented – tougue-in-cheek – to show that the gentlemen in question were of the highest echelons of society and far above the touch of the young ladies who coined them – as well as to be alliterative ;). The Duke of Danger shows a different side to the dashing hero who has fought many duels and escaped with nary a scratch; Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is a man of great integrity and honour who has acquired his moniker because of his involvement in a couple of duels in which he either killed or badly wounded his opponent, but who in in no way sees these events as badges of honour. Instead, he is haunted by the fact he has taken life in cold blood and hates himself for it.

It’s with a heavy heart, and as a last resort, that Lionel calls out Viscount Townsend for threatening to besmirch the honour of a lady who is one of Lionel’s oldest and dearest friends. He gave Townsend every chance to recant, but the man refused, leaving Lionel with one alternative – he will shoot wide in order to merely graze his opponent and take whatever comes his way. But when Townsend turns and fires before the end of the count, Lionel reacts instinctively and out of self-preservation – and shoots the man in the leg instead. It’s believed the wound is not a fatal one – but days later Townsend dies and impulsively, Lionel pays a visit to his widow, telling her she can call on him if there is ever anything she needs. After that, as he has done before, Lionel leaves England to escape the gossip and in an attempt to dull the agony of regret.

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

My Fair Lord (Once Upon a Bride #1) by Wilma Counts

My Fair LordThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Henrietta Parker, daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, has turned down many a suitor for fear that the ton’s bachelors are only interested in her wealth. But despite the warnings of her dearest friends, Harriet and Hero, she can’t resist the challenge rudely posed by her stepsister: transform an ordinary London dockworker into a society gentleman suitable for the “marriage mart.” Only after a handshake seals the deal does Retta fear she may have gone too far . . .

When Jake Bolton is swept from the grime of the seaport into the elegance of Blakemoor House, he appears every inch the rough, cockney working man who is to undergo Retta’s training in etiquette, wardrobe, and elocution. But Jake himself is a master of deception—with much more at stake than a drawing room wager. But will his clandestine mission take second place to his irresistible tutor, her intriguing proposal . . . and true love?

Rating: C-


The first in her new Once Upon a Bride series, Wilma Counts’ My Fair Lord is exactly what one would infer from such a title; a Pygmalion inspired tale with the principal roles reversed. Our Covent Garden flower-seller is morphed into a London dockworker by the name of Jake Bolton and our professor is Lady Henrietta (Retta) Parker, eldest daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, who is goaded into accepting a wager proposed by one of her sisters, that she – Retta – could transform “any worker off the London docks” into “your typical gentlemen of the ton.” It’s a popular trope (and the best version of it in historical romance, to my mind, is still Judith Ivory’s The Proposition), but unfortunately, in Ms. Counts’ hands it makes for rather a dull, pedestrian read, mostly because there’s a lot of telling and not much showing and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the principals.

Lady Henrietta is the only child of the Earl of Blakemoor from his first marriage, and she is several years older than her younger half-siblings, twins Gerald and Richard, and daughters Rachel and Miranda. The countess – her step-mother – resents Henrietta and, of course, favours her own children, something which wouldn’t bother Retta quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that her father knows it and does nothing about it. Disgruntled because the countess prevented her accompanying them to Vienna (where the Earl is to attend the Congress) and needled by the constant catty remarks made by her sisters over the fact that Retta is more or less on the shelf, she allows her irritation to get the better of her and is manoeuvred into making the above mentioned wager with spiteful Rachel. While her eldest brother, Gerald, urges caution, Retta’s stubborn streak won’t allow her to back down in the face of her sisters’ mockery, and the bet is made, even as Retta’s common sense tells her it’s a bad idea.

The search for a suitable subject starts the following day down at the docks and eventually settles upon Jake Bolton, who is, to say the least, surprised at the proposal set before him. But as luck would have it, his being installed in the London home of the Blakemoors could be just the thing Jake needs in order to uncover the identity of the person – or persons – responsible for leaking important government information which could undermine England’s negotiations in Paris and Vienna. For Jake is no dockworker; he’s Major Lord Jacob Bodwyn, a military officer and third son of the Duke of Holbrook who has been temporarily seconded to the Foreign Office on the orders of his commanding officer, the Duke of Wellington. The Blakemoors, along with several other prominent families, all of whom have varying degrees of access to sensitive information, have been under discreet surveillance for a while, and his removal to Blakemoor house will allow Jake to do some more close-up snooping.

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

Too Scot to Handle (Windham Brides #2) by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by James Langton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a captain in the army, Colin MacHugh led men, fixed what was broken, and fought hard. Now that he’s a titled gentleman, he’s still fighting – this time to keep his bachelorhood safe from all the marriage-minded debutantes. Then he meets the intriguing Miss Anwen Windham, whose demure nature masks a bonfire waiting to roar to life. When she asks for his help to raise money for the local orphanage, he’s happy to oblige.

Anwen is amazed at how quickly Lord Colin takes in hand a pack of rambunctious orphan boys. Amazed at how he actually listens to her ideas. Amazed at the thrill she gets from the rumble of his Scottish burr and the heat of his touch. But not everyone enjoys the success of an upstart. And Colin has enemies who will stop at nothing to ruin him and anybody he holds dear.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – B

Grace Burrowes has returned to her popular Windham family for her latest series, the Windham Brideswhich follows the romantic fortunes of four sisters, the nieces of the Duke and Duchess of Moreland. The ladies are in London for the Season and are residing with their uncle and aunt while their parents – the duke’s brother and sister-in-law – have taken an extended holiday-cum-second honeymoon in Wales. As is the case with all Ms. Burrowes’ books, regular readers and listeners will welcome cameo appearances from other characters from both this series and some of her other books, but newcomers need not be too worried, as these are usually secondary characters whose presence is easily explained and knowledge of their stories is not usually essential to the understanding of what is happening in this one.

In the previous book, The Trouble with Dukes, Megan Windham, the third youngest sister, met her match in the big, braw, brooding Hamish MacHugh, a former army officer and the newly minted Duke of Murdoch. In Too Scot to Handle, the author turns her attention to his younger brother, Lord Colin, also formerly of His Majesty’s army and who has remained in London so that his sisters can continue to enjoy the Season while Hamish and his new bride have decamped to Scotland. Like Hamish, Colin, though resourceful and more charming than his brother, is somewhat uncomfortable in the world of the ton and finds the process of learning its ins and outs and dos and don’ts rather trying. Even though he is the brother of a duke, a Scottish dukedom doesn’t rank quite as highly with the snobby sticklers of London society, so Colin is having to tread carefully to make sure of his acceptance. He is being helped in this endeavour by the advice of Winthrop Montague, a man who is invited everywhere, knows everyone and, in spite of not being wealthy, is regarded by all as an arbiter of excellent taste.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French Revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing 12-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder…and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Rating: Narration – B Content: A-

In Beauty Like the Night, the sixth entry in Joanna Bourne’s acclaimed Spymasters series, the author turns her focus to Séverine de Cabrillac, sister of Justine (heroine of The Black Hawk) whom we first met when she was a very young child being taken away from revolutionary Paris by the man she now calls ‘Papa’, William Doyle, Viscount Markham.

Sévie grew up in England alongside Doyle and Maggie’s (The Forbidden Rose) children and among various agents of the British Service. Aged seventeen and fed up with being treated like a child, she ran off to join Military Intelligence – the Service’s less efficient cousin – where she made herself a formidable reputation as a spy; and on her return home after the war, she set up as a private investigator and has earned herself a name for being every bit as tenacious, clever and frighteningly effective as she was during the war.

Her reputation for getting results is not, however, the only thing about Sévie that leads Raoul Deverney to enter her bedroom late one night and to calmly demand the return of a missing girl and a missing amulet. Sévie is surprised – but not frightened – at waking to find a man bearing a knife sitting on her bed; she knows she is capable of defending herself, and equally calmly – and quite truthfully – says she has no idea what he’s talking about. As they converse, Sévie is sizing the man up, coming to the conclusion that he’s either mad or deadly – and is fairly sure he’s not the former. But something about him unsettles her, never more so than when he gently touches a hand to her cheek before he disappears into the night.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer (Scandal and Disgrace #1) by Georgie Lee


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A stolen kiss from a spy!

Working undercover for the government, Bartholomew Dyer must expose a nefarious plot to make Napoleon the ruler of England! He needs access to the highest echelons of Society to find those involved, so he’s forced to enlist the help of the woman who jilted him five years ago—Moira, Lady Rexford.

Moira’s widowed, yet still as captivating as ever, and Bart’s determined not to succumb to her charms a second time. But as they race against time Bart suspects it’s not their lives at greatest risk—it’s their hearts…

Rating: C+

I’ve read a number of books by Georgie Lee over the last few years, and while I’ve enjoyed some more than others, she has yet to write the book that wows me and turns her into an auto-read author. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting, because although Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer, is a more than decent read, it doesn’t have the wow factor, either.

The eponymous Mr. Dyer – Bartholomew – is the fifth son of Lord Denning, who doesn’t care all that much about his children beyond his heir and his spare. Bart’s choice of career has alienated him from his father even further; as a successful and high-profile barrister, his name frequently appears in the newspapers, something his father dislikes intensely. What Denning doesn’t know, however, is that Bart also works for the Alien Office as part of a department dedicated to rooting out traitors working to undermine England’s safety and stability. The irony that the one part of his life that would probably make his father proud is the one part of it he can’t tell him about isn’t lost on Bart.

The book opens when Bart’s close friend and colleague, Frederick, Earl of Fallworth tells him that he will no longer assist him in his quest to foil the plot by a group known as the Rouge Noir to overthrow the government and hand England over to Bonaparte. Bart is frustrated and angry; someone like Freddie has the entrée to circles that are not easily accessible to Bart but Freddie is adamant. Since the loss of his young wife he has been a broken man, drinking heavily and taking little interest in the running of his home and estates. But now, he is determined to do better, and is unwilling to risk his safety – or that of his young son – any longer. Bart is surprised when their heated discussion is interrupted by Freddie’s sister, Moira, the widowed Countess of Rexford, and the woman whom, five years earlier, Bart had hoped to marry but whose family disdained him and encouraged her to marry elsewhere.

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