TBR Challenge: When Love is Blind (Warrender Saga #3) by Mary Burchell

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

Antoinette Burney, a more than promising music student, is disappointed and furious when the famous concert pianist Lewis Freemont fails her in an exam.

To make matters worse, he tells her forthrightly that she will never make the grade as a professional pianist

Her hopes and dreams of success and notoriety are all destroyed in a single blow.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive him.

But it would seem that fate has other ideas and the tables are quickly turned, making Antoinette the innocent cause of the accident that, in destroying Lewis Freemont’s sight, destroys his career as well.

Subdued by his debilitating condition and the knowledge that he will never play the piano again, Lewis quickly becomes a shell of his former self.

Horrified and remorseful, when Antoinette gets a chance to make some sort of amends — by becoming Lewis’s secretary — she seizes it with both hands.

Just when she thought life couldn’t get any more complicated, Antoinette soon finds herself falling in love with the man that only a few weeks ago, she despised.

But what will Lewis do when, as inevitably he must, he discovers who she really is?

Full of hope and broken dreams, When Love is Blind is a heartfelt tale about never giving up.

Rating: B-

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

Silent Sin by E.J. Russell (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

silent sin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When tailor Marvin Gottschalk abandoned New York City for the brash boom town of silent film-era Hollywood, he never imagined he’d end up on screen as Martin Brentwood, one of the fledgling film industry’s most popular actors. Five years later, a cynical Martin despairs of finding anything genuine in a town where truth is defined by studio politics and publicity. Then he meets Robbie Goodman.

Robbie fled Idaho after a run-in with the law. A chance encounter leads him to the film studio, where he lands a job as a chauffeur. But one look at Martin and he’s convinced he’s likely to run afoul of those same laws – laws that brand his desires indecent, deviant…sinful.

Martin and Robbie embark on a cautious relationship, cocooned in Hollywood’s clandestine gay fraternity, careful to hide from the studio boss, a rival actor, and reporters on the lookout for a juicy story. But when tragedy and scandal rock the town, igniting a morality-based witch hunt fueled by a remorseless press, the studio brass will sacrifice even the greatest careers to defend their endangered empire. Robbie and Martin stand no chance against the firestorm – unless they stand together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

E.J. Russell’s Silent Sin is a standalone historical romance set in the Hollywood of the 1920s featuring a movie star and the man who – through a fortunate circumstance – lands a job as his driver. The author has clearly done her homework when it comes to the background of this story – about the studio system and the influence it exerted over all aspects of the lives of its stars, about the relationship between the studios and the press – and that, together with the inclusion of a number of real-life figures and events, grounds the story very firmly in its time and place. I had a couple of niggles, but overall it’s a compelling story with fantastic narration by Greg Boudreaux, and I lapped it up.

When the book begins, we meet Robbie – Robinson Crusoe Goodman – as he arrives in a place called Hollywood. He’s disappointed; he’d hoped the farmer who’d given him a lift in his truck would have taken him a bit further along the road – plus in a town, he’s unlikely to find any work of the sort that could be done by a former potato farmer from Idaho whose meagre possessions amount to the very threadbare set of clothes on his back. After spending the night in an uninhabited shack at the edge of town, a tired, hungry and thirsty Robbie walks slowly back down main street, with no real idea of what to do next. He watches, surprised, as a cowboy – wondering just what a cowboy is doing in a town where there are no cows? – strolls along the street announcing he’s just got a part in a new picture. Robbie has no idea what the man is talking about, and just as he’s about to move along, is tapped on the shoulder and turns to find an older man wearing a uniform is speaking to him. For just a second or two, Robbie panics – uniforms mean authority and Robbie has been running from the authorities for six weeks now – but the man – who says that everyone calls him Pops – tells Robbie he’s done nothing wrong and then offers to buy him breakfast. Robbie can’t believe his luck, and as they eat, Pops tells Robbie that he works at Citadel Motion Pictures and, after ascertaining that Robbie knows how to drive, offers him a job.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal find in each other the strength to love.

History books will call it The Great War, but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity, and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.

Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself, Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected passion.

As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.

Rating: B

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.

Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.

Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.

As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing.  And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.

Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on.  Clearly,  there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.

Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.

Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.

While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.

That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

proper scoundrelsThis title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Their scandalous pasts have left them wounded and unworthy – and hopelessly perfect together.

London, 1925

Sebastian de Leon is adjusting to life after three years spent enthralled by blood magic. The atrocities he committed under its control still weigh heavily on his conscience, but when he’s asked to investigate a series of mysterious murders, it feels like an opportunity to make amends. Until he realizes the killer’s next likely target is a man who witnessed Sebastian at his worst – the Viscount Fine.

Lord Fine – known as Wesley to his friends, if he had any – is haunted by ghosts of his own after serving as a British army captain during the Great War. Jaded and untrusting, he’s tempted to turn Sebastian in, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the reformed paranormal, and after Sebastian risks his own life to save Wesley’s, they find common ground.

Seeking sanctuary together at Wesley’s country estate in Yorkshire, the unlikely pair begins to unravel a mystery steeped in legend and folklore, the close quarters emboldening them to see past the other’s trauma to the person worth loving beneath. But with growing targets on their backs, they’ll have to move quickly if they want to catch a killer – and discover whether two wounded souls can help each other heal.

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – A-

Note: Although this is a standalone novel, it is linked to the Magic in Manhattan series; and as there are references to events that occurred in those books, there are likely to be spoilers for the series in this review.

When Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series came to an end last year, I was pleased to learn that she would be writing a spin-off novel that would follow two different protagonists who had previously appeared as secondary characters in the main series. Proper Scoundrels is that spin-off, and I have to admit that much as I came to enjoy the series that spawned it, it is – so far – my favourite of the author’s novels. Plus – and this is a BIG plus – this book benefits enormously in audio from having the always excellent Joel Froomkin as narrator; the earlier series was (unfortunately) performed by a relatively inexperienced narrator who didn’t do it justice.

The action in Proper Scoundrels shifts from New York in 1925 to England later the same year, where we catch up with Wesley Collins, Viscount Fine, who is as prickly, cynical and irritable as ever. Even though he had a fairly large role to play in the events of Wonderstruck, Arthur, Rory and the gang were able to keep him in ignorance of the existence of magic – although unbeknownst to him, his Kensington home is now protected by a magical painting by the paranormal artist Isabella de Leon, which prevents other paranormals from properly seeing the house. As an extra precaution, her brother Sebastian – who has hidden himself away in London to lick his wounds after having been magically enslaved by the evil Baron Keppler – wanders past the place every so often, just to keep an eye out and make sure that Lord Fine is in no danger as a result of his connection to Arthur Kenzie and Rory Brodigan.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1) by Freya Marske (audiobook) – Narrated by David Thorpe

a marvellous light

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he’s actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society. If it weren’t for this administrative error, he’d never have discovered the incredible magic underlying his world.

Cursed by mysterious attackers and plagued by visions, Robin becomes determined to drag answers from his missing predecessor – but he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his hostile magical-society counterpart. Unwillingly thrown together, Robin and Edwin will discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

Freya Marske’s debut novel A Marvellous Light is the first in a new historical/fantasy romance series set in Edwardian England. I read it back in December 2021 and enjoyed the clever blend of magic, humour, mystery and antagonists-to-lovers romance, so I decided I’d give it a go in audio as well.

Although he inherited his baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, Sir Robert (Robin) Blyth needs to continue to work in order to support himself and his younger sister; thanks to the excessive spending habits of their parents, their meagre inheritance isn’t enough for them to live on. Robin arrives at the Home Office to take up his new position of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints without a very clear idea of what the position actually entails; all he knows is that the previous incumbent – Reggie Gatling – disappeared suddenly a couple of weeks earlier, and he honestly suspects his appointment was a mistake. He’s barely taken his seat when a man enters his office and abruptly demands to know where Reggie is. When the man, who introduces himself as Edwin Courcey, liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly, starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement, Robin is further baffled and even more convinced that someone is having a joke at his expense. Edwin, exasperated at having to work with someone so obviously clueless, insists it’s no joke, and proves to him that magic really does exist.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Subtle Blood (Will Darling Adventures #3) by KJ Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

subtle blood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Will Darling is all right. His business is doing well, and so is his illicit relationship with Kim Secretan – disgraced aristocrat, ex-spy, amateur book-dealer. It’s starting to feel like he’s got his life under control.

And then a brutal murder in a gentleman’s club plunges them back into the shadow world of crime, deception, and the power of privilege. Worse, it brings them up against Kim’s noble, hostile family, and his upper-class life where Will can never belong.

With old and new enemies against them, and secrets on every side, Will and Kim have to fight for each other harder than ever – or be torn apart for good.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

Note: Subtle Blood is the third instalment of a trilogy which has an overarching plotline; listeners are advised to listen to Slippery Creatures and The Sugared Game first. There are spoilers for those books in this review.

It’s been a few months since Will Darling and Kim Secretan uncovered the identity of the head of Zodiac, a dastardly, secret criminal organisation dedicated to destroying the structures of power – and Kim’s world fell apart. Effectively sacked from his job with the Private Bureau, he’s now helping out at Darling’s Used and Antiquarian, the bookshop Will inherited from his late uncle, but even though he’s turned out to be surprisingly suited to the work – organising the shop and acquiring some valuable collections – neither he nor Will is cut out for the quiet life, and both of them know it. But when Kim’s brother – and their father’s heir, Lord Chingford – is accused of murdering a fellow member of the Symposium Club, the peaceful life they’ve been building together is shattered. Could Chingford conceivably have done such a thing? Kim thinks so, yes. But did he? Chingford refuses point blank to offer any defence, believing that his station as the heir to a marquess means he’s untouchable and doesn’t have to explain his actions to anyone, even the police. Fighting against the current all the way, Kim and Will manage to find out that Chingford was heard having a blazing row with the victim earlier that day, and when Kim sees a small tattoo on the inside of the deceased’s wrist in the exact same place as those worn by the members of Zodiac, his blood runs cold. Could some of its members still be at large? And attempting to regroup?

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Missing Page (Page & Sommers #2) by Cat Sebastian

the missing page

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When James learns that an uncle he hasn’t heard from in ages has left him something in his will, he figures that the least he can do is head down to Cornwall for a weekend to honor the old man’s parting wishes. He finds the family home filled with half-remembered guests and unwanted memories, but more troubling is that his uncle has tasked his heirs with uncovering the truth behind a woman’s disappearance twenty years earlier.

Leo doesn’t like any of it. He’s just returned from one of his less pleasant missions and maybe he’s slightly paranoid about James’s safety, but he’s of the opinion that rich people aren’t to be trusted where wills are concerned. So he does what any sensible spy would do and infiltrates the house party.

Together they unravel a mystery that exposes long-standing family secrets and threatens to involve James more than either of them would like.

Rating: B

The Missing Page is the second book to feature country doctor James Sommers and spy Leo Page, whom we first met in Hither, Page, a cosy mystery  (sort of – true cosies aren’t supposed to include sex or swearing and there’s a little bit of both here!) set in a sleepy English village a few years after the end of World War II.  That book came out in 2019, so we’ve had a bit of a wait for this sequel, but it was worth it; The Missing Page is a charming, clever and none-too serious riff on the classic Country House Mystery in which we learn more about James’ past when he visits the childhood home to which he hasn’t returned in twenty years.

By the time the book begins, Leo has been ‘lodging’ in James’ house in Wychcomb St. Mary for over a year, and they’ve settled into a kind of domesticity neither had ever thought to have, although Leo’s job as a government agent takes him away fairly often.  James is eagerly awaiting Leo’s return from his most recent mission – but shortly before he’s due back, James receives a letter advising him of the death of his uncle, Rupert Bellamy, and asking him to be present at the reading of the will at the family home in Cornwall.   James spent many summers at Blackthorn as a child following the death of his parents, but was whisked away following a family tragedy in 1927 and was never invited back.

James is greeted by his cousin Martha, who had kept house for their uncle for as long as James can remember, and finds Rupert’s surviving daughter, James’ cousin Camilla, her husband Sir Anthony – a Harley Street doctor – and their daughter Lilah, whom he’s surprised to recognise as a famous actress, already gathered together, as well as a woman he doesn’t know at all, who is introduced as Madame Fournier.  The bequests are surprisingly small, until the very end, when the family solicitor reads the final appendix stating that the bulk of the estate will go to whoever can discover what really happened to Rupert’s other daughter Rose on 1st August 1927.  Rose is widely believed to have drowned that day, although there were lots of other rumours in circulation – she took her own life, she ran off with the chauffeur or the vicar, she was murdered  – among them, but Rose’s body was never found and nothing conclusive was ever discovered.

When Leo – exhausted after a very long journey – returns to Wychcomb St. Mary to find James gone, he pays a visit to their friends, former spies Cora and Edith, hoping that perhaps he’ll find James there.  When the ladies tell him where James has gone and why, Leo becomes concerned, especially at learning James had been present on the day that Rose Bellamy is thought to have died, worried at what memories being back there might stir up. Leo wastes no time in following James to Cornwall, determined to do whatever he can to help.

Cat Sebastian has crafted an intriguing story full of difficult family dynamics and long-held secrets, and she sustains the mystery right up until the last moment;  I certainly didn’t work out the truth until just before the reveal.  There’s a strongly defined set of secondary characters, from Martha the drab poor-relation, to Sir Anthony, the know-it-all who clearly looks down on James, and the mysterious Madame Fournier – and James and Leo themselves continue to be easy to enjoy and root for.  James is a genuinely good man, quiet and easy-going, happy with his quiet country life after the horrors of war and with Leo, while Leo operates more in shades of grey than in black and white and has been struggling more and more to reconcile the life he has with the life he wants.  Leo still finds it difficult to credit that a man as good as James could actually want to be with someone with such a murky past as his, but the obvious care and affection they have for each other permeates every page, and I loved watching them working together on the investigation, their different approaches and outlooks complementing each other.  The author cleverly explores James’ past through his interactions with his family members, and I particularly enjoyed Leo’s typical cynicism and the way he’s so protective of James.   As far as their relationship goes, they’re at that awkward stage where both of them want more but aren’t sure what the other is willing or able to give, but thankfully, there are no silly misunderstandings and they both realise that although they still have issues to work on, they want to work through them together.

The Missing Page is one of those books that’s easy to sink into and feels almost like a warm hug, but I do have a few niggles.  It’s generally on the slow side and doesn’t have the same kind of forward momentum as Hither, Page and while I did like the mystery, it’s not very high-stakes, especially not for our heroes.  As with the last book, the author has done a very good job with the English setting, but the odd Americanism still creeps in (“muffler” instead of “scarf” for example). Finally, I was confused as to the timeline; Hither Page takes place in 1946 and the date for this is given as 1948, but then I read James thinking of Leo: “They had only met a little over two months ago”.  To be fair, I did have an ARC, so I’m hoping this will have been corrected/clarified in the finished version, but it did make me scratch my head.

All in all, however, The Missing Page is an easy, enjoyable read featuring two engaging leads, and I’m pleased to recommend it to anyone who likes their mystery with a side of romance.  I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Mr. Page and Dr. Sommers.

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin

proper scoundrels

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1925

Sebastian de Leon is adjusting to life after three years spent enthralled by blood magic. The atrocities he committed under its control still weigh heavily on his conscience, but when he’s asked to investigate a series of mysterious murders, it feels like an opportunity to make amends. Until he realizes the killer’s next likely target is a man who witnessed Sebastian at his worst—the Viscount Fine.

Lord Fine—known as Wesley to his friends, if he had any—is haunted by ghosts of his own after serving as a British army captain during the Great War. Jaded and untrusting, he’s tempted to turn Sebastian in, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the reformed paranormal, and after Sebastian risks his own life to save Wesley’s, they find common ground.

Seeking sanctuary together at Wesley’s country estate in Yorkshire, the unlikely pair begins to unravel a mystery steeped in legend and folklore, the close quarters emboldening them to see past the other’s trauma to the person worth loving beneath. But with growing targets on their backs, they’ll have to move quickly if they want to catch a killer—and discover whether two wounded souls can help each other heal.

Rating: A-

Allie Therin’s Magic and Manhattan series concluded earlier this year with Wonderstruck, leaving Rory and Arthur in a good place, disposing of the evil Baron Zeppler and nicely tying up the major plotlines.  Despite a few quibbles, I enjoyed all three books, so I was pleased to learn the author was writing another novel set in the same universe, but featuring different lead characters and a different setting.  In Proper Scoundrels the action switches from New York to London (and Yorkshire), and we catch up with Lord Wesley Fine – Arthur Kenzie’s former lover – and Sebastian de Leon,  a powerful paranormal whose particular abilities made him a valuable asset to the bad guys – both of whom had major parts to play in Wonderstruck.  Although Proper Scoundrels is a standalone novel, I would strongly advise anyone thinking about picking it up to read the Magic in Manhattan series first in order to understand the character backstories and magical systems and world the author has created.

The action picks up shortly after the end of Wonderstruck, where we find Sebastian living in London, where he’s retreated to lick his wounds after spending three years enslaved by the blood magic practiced by Baron Keppler.  He’s weighed down by guilt for the things he was forced to do while under the Baron’s control and is desperate to find ways to atone.  He’s damaged, scared and alone, having deliberately distanced himself from friends and family because he believes himself unworthy of affection, happiness or redemption.

Wesley, Lord Fine, is also back in London and is at something of a loose end. Like Sebastian, he feels like an outsider, his experiences of war putting him forever out of step with those around him.   He’s a self-confessed scoundrel; jaded, cynical, arrogant and often deliberately rude, he despises nearly everyone and everything.  Despite his involvement with the events of Wonderstruck, he has no idea of the existence of magic and the paranormal world – and no inkling that his Kensington home is under magical protection or that Sebastian regularly passes by to make sure that Arthur’s aristocratic friend [isn’t] in any danger owing to his association with Arthur and Rory.

One evening, Sebastian receives a note from Jade Robbins containing a list of the dates of three recent unexplained murders and asking him to meet her.  He grasps the implications immediately – whoever is committing these murders is a paranormal; his conversation with Jade and her partner, Zhang, confirms this and also suggests the perpetrator may be the man responsible for the theft of a number of valuable and dangerous magical artefacts belonging to Sebastian’s family, the Earl of Blanshard.  And among the guests at the last party the earl held at his Yorkshire estate was Wesley, Viscount Fine.  Could he be the paranormal murderer’s next target?

Proper Scoundrels is superbly plotted and perfectly paced, and there’s what I can only describe as an overall air of confidence to the writing and storytelling that wasn’t quite there in the author’s previous work. The romance is given the time to develop and the attraction between Wesley and Sebastian made a lot more sense right off the bat than the romance between Rory and Arthur, who felt so very mis-matched until quite late in their series.  Wesley and Sebastian may be polar opposites, but  their relationship doesn’t suffer from the same feeling of inequality; the push-pull of their attraction, their individual trauma and coping mechanisms, and the amount of growth they go through as characters makes their romance – across one single title – very believable and deeply satisfying.

Wesley and Sebastian are as compelling as individuals as they are as a couple and I liked both of them very much – although it’s Wesley who really stole the show for me.  I loved his sharp and very distinctive narrative voice; he’s under no illusions about himself – unless it’s about his hard-heartedness and inability to love – and his irritation with himself over his attraction to Sebastian is funny and leaps off the page.  He’s every bit the arrogant, rude, snarky, cantankerous arsehole he was in the previous books, but there’s a depth and vulnerability to him that he’d never admit to, and he’s brave, open-minded, witty and generous to those few he truly cares about.  I enjoyed watching him decide that maybe caring for someone – and allowing someone to care for him – might be worth it after all.  Sebastian has been through a lot and is suffering from what we’d recognise as PTSD as a result, but he isn’t prepared to cut himself any slack and blames himself for all the things he did while in thrall to Baron Keppler, even though he had absolutely no choice in the matter.    He’s unfailingly kind and considerate – Jade is spot on when she calls him a “dangerous marshmallow” – and will fight to the death to protect those around him – especially sharp-tongued, non-magical viscounts  – but he’s no pushover.  I just loved watching these two lonely, damaged men slowly growing closer and allowing the other to see things about themselves they allow no-one else to see. Their chemistry is off-the-charts and they light up the pages when they’re together, Wesley’s acerbity the perfect counterpoint to Sebastian’s sweetness.

Having bemoaned the fade-to-black sex scenes in the Magic in Manhattan books because I felt the author missed an opportunity to add depth to the romance, I was pleased at the inclusion of on-page scenes of sexual intimacy here.  These moments between Wesley and Sebastian feel absolutely appropriate for the relationship and the characters and definitely add depth to their emotional connection.

While Arthur and Rory are namechecked a few times, they don’t actually appear on the page – which I think was the right decision, as this story belongs entirely to Wesley and Sebastian – I was delighted to see Jade and Zhang again; they’re terrific characters and I enjoyed their interactions with the two leads and seeing them playing important roles in the story.

Proper Scoundrels is my favourite of Ms. Therin’s books so far and I raced through it in a couple of sittings.  The two leads are compelling, well-developed characters who grab the attention right from the start, the mystery plot is well-executed and overall, it feels as though the author has taken all the really good things from the first three books and made them even stronger.  It’s my final DIK of 2021, and I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it.

Burning Season (Wild Ones #3) by Rachel Ember

burning season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The year is 1972. Dylan Chase is nineteen, and most days he’s lucky enough to ride a tough bronc, have a beer with his friends, and maybe even sleep under the stars on his family’s third-generation cattle ranch.

Dylan’s life would be perfect if it weren’t for his forbidden itch. An itch he’s only scratched once… with Bo, a hitchhiker he never thought he’d see again. When Bo shows up as the new hire at a neighboring ranch, Dylan is sure his almost-perfect life is about to implode.

After the calves are driven out to the spring pastures, Bo will move on to California. Dylan just has to hold it together until then… if he can.

But Bo can soothe a restless horse with a touch and keeps a battered book of poems in his saddle bag. And the more Dylan learns about him, the more he wants Bo—and the less he wants Bo to go, damn the risk.

Rating: B

I’ve categorised Rachel Ember’s Burning Season as an historical romance – although it feels utterly weird to use the word ‘historical’ to describe a story that takes place during my lifetime!  Set in 1972 (when I was eight!) it’s the third published book in the author’s Wild Ones series, but is the first chronologically; I believe the two leads appear as secondary characters in the first two books (which I have yet to read)  but it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Burning Season is a quiet, uplifting story about being brave and being yourself, with a sweet and sensual romance of at its centre.

Bronc rider Dylan Chase is nineteen and while he’s pretty sure he’s queer, he hasn’t ever had the chance to explore his sexuality.  While away from home on a trip to Texas to take part in the rodeo, he decides to visit a club he’s heard about, a club for men who ‘like’ men – but he gets part of the way there and loses his nerve.  On the drive back to his motel, he picks up a hitchhiker, Bo Bailey, who is headed to the rodeo to try to find a job.  There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between them, which leads to some steamy, stolen moments that bring both revelation and sorrow.  Dylan has never been with a guy, but the connection he feels with Bo – and the sex – is like nothing he’d imagined.  But they’re unlikely to ever meet again.

Fate, however, has other ideas.  Dylan and his friend Glen are about to depart to head back to Nebraska and home when Glen realises he’s lost his wallet and decides to go back to the rodeo grounds to see if anyone has found it.  Waiting for Glen in the truck, Dylan dozes off, only to awaken once they start moving again – and to discover they’ve picked up a familiar passenger.  It turns out Bo found Glen’s wallet and was already asking around to find who it belonged to so he could return it; he and Glen got chatting and Glen offered Bo some temporary work on his dad’s ranch, which borders the one owned by Dylan’s family.

The thought of being able to spend time with Bo produces a mixture of fear and elation in Dylan.  Being gay in 1972 isn’t illegal, but in the sort of conservative, close-knit community Dylan comes from, it’s not acceptable and coming out would certainly make life difficult and could even put him at risk.  Dylan doesn’t want anyone to know the truth about him – and Bo makes it clear he has no intention of saying anything to anyone – but Dylan also can’t help being excited at the thought of being around Bo for longer and maybe getting to do … more of what they’d done the night they met.

The romance between Dylan and Bo is a sweet slow-burn with lots of well-written longing and sexual tension, and I enjoyed watching the pair get to know each other and their relationship transition from heady infatuation and sexual exploration to love over the following weeks.   Bo is, perhaps, wise beyond his years, but I liked his combination of calm and fierceness; he’s very laid back in many ways, but is no pushover and firmly believes that there’s nothing at all unnatural in his attraction to men (this is 1972, remember) and in his desire to do whatever is best for Dylan – even if it means not being able to be with him openly.  There’s a strong emotional connection and plenty of chemistry between them, although as the story is told almost entirely through Dylan’s PoV*, Bo does remain somewhat enigmatic throughout.  But this is really Dylan’s story and the author does a great job presenting him as a complex, rounded character who is torn between loyalty to his family and the life he’s always believed he’d have (and resigned himself to) and the sudden and new prospect of living a different, more honest and open one with someone he loves at his side.

The family dynamics are well-done, too, the loving, tight-knit, multi-generational family unit containing the sorts of fault-lines and conflicts that we can all relate to, and the author’s gift for evocative description shines through as she paints a detailed picture of the landscapes and the day-to-day life of the folks on a ranch.  In fact the only part of the setting I can fault is the chronological one;  apart from the absence of mobile phones and computers, there’s nothing that really screams “1972” to me – although I freely admit that, as a non-American, and someone completely unfamiliar with how ranchers and cowboys live, there may well have been indicators I missed.

The secondary cast, from Dylan’s dictatorial grandfather (whose machinations and manipulations are a large reason for those conflicts and fault-lines I mentioned) to his exasperated and grouchy brother Rob and best friend Glen, is well-drawn and adds richness to the story, and while there is period-appropriate homophobia, it’ mostly implied, which makes it more impactful when it happens (briefly) on the page.

The epilogue set fifty years in the future (i.e, now) is cute, as we check in with a much older Bo and Dylan, and also acts as a teaser for the next book in the series, so there’s a little bit of a cliffie, but it’s not one that will affect your enjoyment of the story.

This isn’t Rachel Ember’s first published book, but she’s a new-to-me author and definitely one whose work I intend to read more of.  Burning Season is a beautifully written, charming and poignant love story featuring engaging, well-drawn characters and a skilfully realised setting.  I’m happy to recommend it.

* The prologue – which details the initial meeting between Bo and Dylan -is told from Bo’s perspective and was originally released as the novella Sweat, Leather and Lipstick.

A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1) by Freya Marske

a marvellous light

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he’s actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society. If it weren’t for this administrative error, he’d never have discovered the incredible magic underlying his world.

Cursed by mysterious attackers and plagued by visions, Robin becomes determined to drag answers from his missing predecessor – but he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his hostile magical-society counterpart. Unwillingly thrown together, Robin and Edwin will discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.

Rating: B+

Freya Marske’s inventive and impressive début, A Marvellous Light, is an enchanting blend of magic, mystery and romance set in England in 1908, in which a newly-appointed civil servant finds himself suddenly part of a mysterious and fantastical world of deadly curses, spells and secrets.   It’s a clever, well-written story featuring two attractive and strongly characterised protagonists, the magical world-building is vivid without being overly complex or subject to info-dumps, and the opposites/antagonists attract romance is nicely developed and steamy.  There are a few places where the pacing flags a bit, and the secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, but those issues didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Sir Robert – Robin – Blyth inherited a baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, but thanks to the profligacy of both his parents, he needs to work for a living in order to support himself and his younger sister Maud.  When the story begins, he’s just arrived at the Home Office to take up the post of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, a position which opened up after the disappearance of the previous incumbent, Reggie Gatling.  Robin hasn’t got a clue what’s expected of him – he’s never even heard of the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints – and assumes his appointment must be a mistake.  On his very first morning, he meets the snappish Edwin Courcey  – liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly – who rudely demands to know where Reggie is.  Robin can’t enlighten him – and is further baffled when the other man starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement and other things that make little to no sense.  Assuming, at first, that this is some sort of joke, Robin is sceptical – until Edwin provides a physical demonstration and it’s impossible for him to disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes.  Magic is real.

Later that day, Robin has left the office and is still trying to make sense of everything he’s learned when he is accosted by a man – who appears to have no face –  who loops a glowing piece of yarn around Robin’s wrist that makes him unable to do anything other than follow where he’s led.  Two more men wearing “fog masks” await them – men who tell Robin that his predecessor hid something very important in his office and that Robin is going to help them find it.  Robin is determined to do no such thing – but then something is burned into his arm – a pattern of runes that causes excruciating pain which, he later learns, is a curse.

Robin and Edwin don’t get off to the best of starts, but after Robin arrives at work the next morning to find his office has been wrecked, he fills Edwin in on his encounter the previous night and they decide the only option is for them to work together to see if they can find out what Reggie had hidden and if Edwin can find a way to lift the curse.  Realising he needs more information than is available to him in London, Edwin invites Robin to accompany him to his family home in Cambridgeshire, where they can make use of the extensive library to research the curse, attempt to work out what happened to Reggie and discover the location of the item the fog-masked men are after.

Robin and Edwin are well-rounded and engaging characters who are like chalk and cheese, in appearance, temperament and magical ability. Robin is completely non-magical; he’s charming, spontaneous and open-hearted with a good sense of humour and an innate generosity, where Edwin is thoughtful and meticulous, somewhat closed-off and cautious. He’s a brilliant scholar with a massive amount of magical knowledge – but not much magical ability, something which causes his family members to look down on him and treat him with disdain.  His older brother is a powerful magician who bullied Edwin mercilessly when they were children and continues to do so at every opportunity, and his sister is a social butterfly who, like their parents, turns a blind eye to the way Edwin is treated and often joins in.  Robin has no family now apart from Maud; he was never close to his parents, who put on a public face of philanthropy and compassion while really caring only for themselves and who remembered Robin or his sister only when they wanted to use them to show everyone around them what wonderful parents they were.

Robin and Edwin gradually begin to develop a mutual respect and admiration; from this, a genuine friendship grows and is the basis for their romance, which is a nicely-done slow-burn.  They have terrific chemistry and I thoroughly appreciated that the author takes the time to draw out the sexual tension and give things time to breathe before they embark on a physical relationship.  There are still issues to be settled between them however; Edwin has become so used to having to lock down  his true self and hide his most vulnerable side as a form of self-preservation that he finds it difficult to trust and give of himself to Robin, no matter how much he wants to.

I liked the way magic works in the book; we’re told that magicians in England use “cradling” – a system of hand movements based on Cat’s Cradle – to cast spells, and I loved the magical house and the idea of people being magically connected to certain places.

On the downside, the pacing is a little uneven in places, the dénouement is a bit drawn out and slightly repetitive, and the secondary characters are slightly one-note – although I did enjoy Miss Morrisey and her sister (two Anglo-Indian ladies), and hope that perhaps we’ll see a bit more of Lord Hawthorn.  I would like to have learned more about the Magical Assembly and the history of magic in England – although as this is a series, perhaps those details will become clear in future instalments.

In the end, though, A Marvellous Light is a highly entertaining and very readable début novel featuring two endearing leads and plenty of gentle humour, magical shenanigans, mystery and romance.  I’m more than happy to recommend it, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.