A Wicked Kind of Husband (Longhope Abbey #1) by Mia Vincy (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met.

Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once – on their wedding day two years earlier – and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.

Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.

Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable…and irresistibly kissable.

As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part…but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, came out in the middle of 2018, but I didn’t get around to reading it until December – and was so impressed by it that it was a last-minute entry into my Best Books of 2018 list. Historical romance has been in a bit of a slump for the past couple of years, so it was a huge relief to find this gem, a very well-written, funny, tender and poignant marriage of convenience story featuring complex, well-drawn characters and peppered with superb-one liners and humour that never feels forced. In fact, even as I was reading it, I just knew that if the book ever came out in audio format, Kate Reading would be the ideal narrator; that dry wit and banter was just crying out for her wonderful deadpan delivery – and what do you know? Sometimes wishes really do come true!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Well Met (Well Met #1) by Jen DeLuca (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C+

There was quite a bit of pre-publication buzz about Jen Deluca’s Well Met, and positive reviews together with the fact that I’ve enjoyed Brittany Pressley’s work in the past suggested it would be an audiobook I’d enjoy, so I requested a copy for review. The final verdict? Mixed feelings. The narration is excellent, but the story and characters felt somewhat underdeveloped. I also missed the dual PoV that’s common in so many contemporary romances. There’s a reason we don’t get the hero’s perspective, but the lack of it does make him seem rather two-dimensional, which, for a hero-centric reader/listener like me, wasn’t ideal.

After losing her job and breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Emily has temporarily relocated to the small Maryland town of Willow Creek to be with her older sister, who is recuperating from a car accident. She figures it’s as good a place as any to lick her wounds and figure out where she goes from here. Emily has also assumed the role of ‘Adult in Charge’ when it comes to her niece, Caitlin, and when the story opens has driven her to the local high school on a Saturday morning so that Caitlin can sign up to take part in the town’s annual Renaissance Faire. Cait is very excited about joining the faire for the first time – but Emily isn’t so enthusiastic when she’s informed that because her niece is only fourteen, she won’t be able to ‘do Faire’ unless she’s accompanied by an adult. Gah! But what can Emily do? Cait is so excited and would be SO disappointed not to be able to take part so Emily agrees… although her first glimpse of the gorgeous Mitch – “Tall, blond, muscled, with a great head of hair and a tight T-shirt. Gaston crossed with Captain America with a generic yet mesmerising handsomeness” is what really tips the balance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.

Rating: B-

May Peterson’s début novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is an intricately constructed gothic fantasy with an intriguing storyline, set in a world that reminded me somewhat of eighteenth century Italy where dark secrets lurk behind the scenes, political backstabbing is rife and influential families jostle for power.  Adding to that particular vibe is the fact that one of the main characters is an opera singer, and I loved the way his vocal talent is incorporated into the fabric of the world the author has created.  In fact, I liked almost all the different elements that went to make up the novel – the worldbuilding, the characters, the plot – but ‘almost’ is the key word there, because there are two fairly major problems I couldn’t overlook.  Firstly, Ms. Peterson’s writing style just didn’t work for me – which I recognise is entirely subjective – and secondly, the romance isn’t well-developed; it springs almost fully formed out of nowhere and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between the leads.

Mio is the son of Serafina Gianbellici, a powerful witch whose ambition is to control the government of the city of Vermagna, which she does by learning the secrets of its members and using that knowledge to keep them in line. In this world, a mage’s magical power lies in a specific part of the body, and Mio’s lies in his beautiful voice, which he can use to enter someone’s mind and soul to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets – which his mother then uses against them. Mio hates doing what amounts to mind-rape, and hates himself for helping Serafina, but he does it nonetheless, partly because he fears her power and partly because, well… she’s his mother.  On the night the story opens, Mio is pretending to be a footman at the house of Pater Donatelli, Serafina’s latest target, waiting until she calls him inside to sing, when he is accosted by a drunken guest (who mistakes him for a pretty girl) who tries to drag him away.  Mio has barely begun to try to free himself when the man is pulled off him and dunked into a nearby fountain by a large, dark gentleman Mio quickly realises must be a moon-soul, someone brought back from the dead and invested with the spirit of a noble beast (in this case a bear).  Once upon a time, these shape-changing elite had been numerous but now, they are very small in number and coming across one is rare. Feeling unexpectedly comfortable in the man’s presence, Mio decides to take a chance to escape his mother’s machinations once and for all.  Before he is summoned inside, he presses a note into the man’s hand which says just three words: Stop me. Please.

From that intriguing beginning unfolds a story of mystery and magic that builds slowly and kept me guessing as it moved towards a shattering climax.  When Mio finally breaks free of his mother’s control, he runs to the one person ever to make him feel safe  – Rhodry, the moon-soul, who bears a terrible curse he can never escape.  Twists and turns abound as Mio and Rhodry gradually begin to understand the nature of the curse and the dark forces at work in Rhodry’s home; it’s an engrossing story and unlike anything else I’ve read recently.  I liked Mio’s strength and determination – even in the face of his greatest fears – and Rhodry’s dry (sometimes naughty) sense of humour.  I even liked (well, liked to hate!) Mio’s mother, a complex character intent on dominating a world set against her kind who is prepared to use her children while also loving them quite fiercely.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book has a lot going for it.  The worldbuilding, (even though it’s a bit shaky in some areas) the plot, the characters, and the inclusion of a non-binary, femme character in a main role and Rhodry’s unconditional acceptance of Mio for the person he is. But I had problems with the prose, which was overly flowery for my taste; so much so that it often got in the way of the story and the storytelling.  And…er… then there was this:

He fondled my chest, as if feeling the shape of my muscles. Maybe it was good to be so firm. Speaking of firm—he jumped slightly as I took a liberty. Heavens, did he have a bouncy little plum. Sweet cleft, muscle tensing under my grasp—damn, I could hold on to that forever.

bouncy little plum?!  (I’m sorry, but once an author has made me laugh (and not in the good way), during a love scene, they’ve lost me.)  Not only is it ridiculous, it’s so out of character for Rhodry; he’s a big, dark, brooding presence who knocks back whisky like it’s water and swears like a trooper… and he takes “a liberty” and thinks “Heavens!” ?  But it’s also an illustration of the point I was making about language getting in the way and obscuring meaning.  What exactly is Rhodry grasping?  Is the bouncy little plum in question Mio’s arse?  Mio’s cock? A nearby  fruit bowl?

And then there’s the underdeveloped romance. There’s no doubt that by the time Mio and Rhodry are on the same page romantically they care for each other deeply and that they’re both prepared to make extreme sacrifices – their lives if need be – in order to keep the other safe.  But the movement from initial attraction to full-blown love was weak; it’s pretty much insta-lust/love and there was no real build-up of romantic and sexual tension.

Writing this review and grading this novel has been difficult.  Lord of the Last Heartbeat has a lot to offer, and I fully admit that the problem I had with the prose is very subjective.  Ultimately, however,  I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly and honestly recommend a book in which the writing so often gets in the way of the story – although I’m sure there are many readers for whom Ms. Peterson’s writing style will work better than it did for me.

Bringing Down the Duke (League of Extraordinary Women #1) by Evie Dunmore

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Oxford, 1879. A beautiful bluestocking is about to teach a duke a lesson . . .

Brilliant but destitute Annabelle Archer is one of the first female students at Oxford University. In return for her scholarship, she must recruit influential men to champion the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her first target is Sebastian Devereux: cold, calculating and the most powerful duke in England.

When Annabelle and her friends infiltrate his luxurious estate, she’s appalled to find herself attracted to the infuriatingly intelligent aristocrat – but perhaps she’s not the only one struggling with desire. . . Soon Annabelle is locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own. She’ll need to learn fast just what it takes to bring down a duke.

Rating: B+

Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke is the first book in the A League of Extraordinary Women series, and is a very strong début from someone who promises to add a much-needed fresh voice to historical romance.  The writing is sharp and clear, and displays a really good sense of time and place; the characters feel true for the time period, and I was particularly impressed by the heroine, who is forward-thinking and progressive without being one of those contrary-for-the-sake-of-it, look-at-how-unconventional-I-am types who annoy the crap out of me.

Annabelle Archer has lived under the roof of her cousin, a country clergyman, since the death of her parents.  She’s an unpaid skivvy; she keeps house, looks after his children and endures his continual complaints about the fact that her father over-educated her – why on earth would a woman need an education?  So when Annabelle is offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall (in 1878, LMH was the first Oxford college to open its doors to women) he’s  far from pleased, but when she says she’ll fund the cost of a replacement housekeeper (somehow), he begrudgingly allows her to go.

Some months later, we find Annabelle in London with a group of her friends, like-minded young women who, under the leadership of Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, are planning to approach various men of influence with a view to getting them to support changes to the Married Women’s Property Act.  The strategy – identify a man of influence, approach him firmly, but with a smile, and deliver a pamphlet boldly declaring The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife! – isn’t difficult to grasp, but at this period, just walking up to a gentleman unannounced and unchaperoned wasn’t the done thing and could lead to worse things than a refusal to listen.  Annabelle is understandably nervous, but nonetheless determined to do her bit when she notices a man who appears to be exactly the sort of man of influence she needs to approach.

Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, is one of the most powerful and respected men in England.  He  has a reputation for being cold and severe, and devotes most of his time to the running of his numerous estates and is particularly concerned at present with regaining possession of his family seat, Castle Montgomery, which his profligate father lost in a card game.  The Queen (who was, sadly, one of the biggest opponents of female emancipation) promises her support for his cause if he will take on the role of chief strategic advisor for the Tory party in the upcoming election – a job he doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to perform.  But he can’t refuse what is tantamount to a royal command.

When news of his new appointment reaches Lady Lucie’s ears, she realises a change of strategy is required, and that she needs to know more about the duke. To his end, she hatches a plan whereby she, Annabelle and a couple of other ladies will be invited to the house party being held at Claremont, the duke’s country home, with a view to finding out as much about the duke as they can in the attempt to ‘know thine enemy’.

Of course, the house party offers the chance for Sebastian and Annabelle to meet again, and to get to know each other. The spark both felt at their initial meeting really flares to life, and the author does a fantastic job building their romance in a believable manner that enables them to stay true to themselves. Their conversations and interactions are delightful; their flirtations via philosophical discussions and the way Sebastian shows the degree to which he really sees Annabelle through his selection of books for her are completely swoonworthy, and the longing they feel for one another is palpable.

Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, which fits their characters and situations perfectly. Both of them are well aware of the difficulties which lie in the path of a relationship between a duke and a commoner, and unlike so much historical romance, which just sweeps those things under the carpet, the author handles this aspect of the story in a way that feels completely authentic for the period. That said, however, I really don’t like that whole ‘I can’t marry you because I love you too much to ruin you’ thing, which I always feel is one character accusing the other of not knowing his or her own mind – and it’s one of the reasons I couldn’t quite push this up into the DIK bracket. Annabelle’s insistence on self-sacrifice felt out of character and also left Sebastian to do all the hard work while she did nothing to fight for what she wanted. I also felt Sebastian to be somewhat underdeveloped as a character, especially compared to Annabelle, and there are a few places where the pacing is a little off; the circling around one particular issue goes on a little too long, and there are a few plot points (notably one concerning Annabelle’s romantic past) that are under-explored.

On the surface, Bringing Down the Duke is nothing we haven’t seen before – uptight-duty-bound-hero-meets-unconventional-young-woman-who-gets-him-to-loosen-up-a-bit is a well-used plotline. Here though, the author breathes fresh life into the trope by giving her principals a real depth of character that’s been lacking in so many of the historical romances I’ve read lately. Annabelle is fully aware that her pursuit of an education and personal freedom, together with her espousal of the cause of women’s suffrage could have serious consequences for her, but these things are terribly important to her and she’s prepared to fight for them. She’s not loud or flashy (in the manner of Lady Lucie) but she’s no less committed, and her quiet determination adds weight and seriousness to her character and keeps the tone of the story grounded in reality. She’s a different sort of heroine just as Sebastian is a different sort of hero; he isn’t a cold, ruthless man with daddy issues, he’s a man genuinely dedicated to doing the best he can for those he cares for, and there’s the real sense that his association with Annabelle is gradually changing him because she’s opening his eyes to things he hadn’t previously seen or considered. Sebastian and Annabelle’s pasts inform their characters, but they also act according to their own lights and carve their own individuality separately from their upbringings and circumstances.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the (horrible) cover. It appears to be yet another attempt by the marketing folks at persuading potential readers that they won’t get infected by those nasty romance cooties if they read this book in much the same way so many contemporaries (Fix Her Up, The Hating Game, The Right Swipe etc.) are doing at the moment. I confess that I’m not a huge fan of the dress-falling-off-half-naked-clinch covers either, but this one looks like something daubed in a kid’s fingerpainting class!

So don’t judge this book by its cover – or its title, which doesn’t make much sense either. Bringing Down the Duke is an impressive début novel that’s firmly grounded in its historical setting and manages to offer some insightful social comment without bashing the reader over the head with it. The writing is intelligent and accomplished, the central characters are engaging and three-dimensional, and the romance is sensual and tender. I’m looking forward to reading more by Evie Dunmore.

Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

Rating: B

The synopsis for Allie Therin’s début novel  Spellbound caught my attention immediately.  Supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance, magic and an unusual setting -1920s Manhattan – it all looked like a recipe for a great read, and for the most part, it was.  The story pulled me in right away, I was impressed by the worldbuilding, the plot is intriguing, I liked the characters, and the setting is vividly described; pretty much everything about the book works, although I had a few issues with the central romance.

Twenty-year-old Rory Brodigan is a psychometrist, possessing a unique talent that allows him to touch an object and discover its history.  More accurately, the object pulls his mind into its history and there is often a very real possibility that it may never be able to return to the present.  Feeling himself to be something of a freak – and following a scrying that went badly wrong – he’s become something of a recluse and lives with his aunt, an antiques dealer in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.  Thanks to Rory’s talent – which they are careful to keep secret – she has built a reputation for being able to distinguish real artefacts from fake ones, which is what brings congressmen’s son Arthur  Kenzie to her shop with a rush job he’s prepared to pay handsomely for.

A veteran of WW1, Arthur is the scion of an incredibly wealthy, well-connected, New York family.  He’s handsome, well-educated, sophisticated – and lonely, taking pains to keep his relationships casual, infrequent and usually outside the US.  During his wartime service, he learned of the existence of magic courtesy of two of his closest friends – both of whom he saw die horribly – and although he doesn’t possess a scrap of magic of his own, he’s dedicated himself to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it.  He’s received word that an extremely dangerous and powerful artefact is on its way to New York, possibly into the hands of a fearsome enemy; and with it due to arrive any day, he’s racing against time to find someone with the necessary talent to be able to help him and his small band of allies to find it.  Having heard of someone in Hell’s Kitchen who has been uncannily accurate in discerning the provenance of various items, he prepares a test – a set of skilfully forged letters that he says he needs authenticated straight away – and takes them to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop.

When – unimpressed – she meets with Arthur the next morning to give him the news – all the letters are fakes – he explains he wasn’t wasting her time, but was instead assessing her suitability for another, much bigger job.  He gives her a case containing a relic packed inside a secure, lead-lined box, a ring that has defeated his associates’ attempts to assess its power or purpose  – but before he can explain, he’s called away, and leaves her with instructions not to open the box until he arrives at the shop so they can discuss it further.   It’s this relic – a ring that can control the wind – that ultimately reveals the truth to Arthur and brings him and Rory together.  Unable to resist taking a look inside the case – wondering what the rich arsehole who brought them a bunch of fake letters could possibly want this time – Rory opens the ring box, touches the relic, and is immediately pulled into a vision from which he very nearly doesn’t make it back.  Livid, he telephones Arthur Kenzie to tell him where he can stick his ring, and Arthur, realising the ring box has been opened, rushes to the shop to find out what’s going on.  Realising eventually that Rory is the psychometric, Arthur and his closest friends and allies – Jade, a telekinetic and Zhang, an astral walker – band together to protect him and his unique gift from those who would abuse it.

Rory, however, doesn’t want anything to do with them.  He’s rude and abrasive and mistrustful; life has taught him that’s the only way to stay safe, and when we learn more of his past, it makes perfect sense that he would be slow to trust – and fortunately for him, Arthur and his friends aren’t going to give up on him that easily.  He pushes them away – or tries to – at almost every opportunity, even as his attraction to the handsome and urbane Arthur grows stronger.

The story is well conceived and well executed, and the author does a fabulous job of integrating the prohibition era setting and the details of her secret magical world into it.  I enjoyed learning about the existence of relics and their power, of the use of magic for good and evil and of the prejudices facing supernatural beings in the society in which they live.  The main secondary characters are easily as interesting as the leads; Arthur’s principal allies Jade and Zhang are well-developed characters whose presence is integral to the suspense plot.  The first part of the book was a five-star read, easily, and I flew through it, eagerly immersing myself in the world Ms. Therin has created.  But somehow, the second half of the book didn’t quite live up to the first.  The plot – in which Arthur faces a devastating betrayal at the same time as he, Rory, and their allies must race to save Manhattan from spectacular destruction – is tense and exciting, but the villains were somewhat underdeveloped.  I also had a problem with the romance, because try as I might, I found it difficult to see what the gorgeous, sophisticated and world-weary Arthur saw in Rory who, while only eight years younger than him (Arthur is twenty-eight) often acts more like someone in his mid-teens than a young man of twenty.  I understood Rory’s prickly nature – his backstory is heartbreaking – and I understood Arthur’s natural instinct to protect; they do have chemistry, but Rory’s brattish behaviour goes on too long, and when he does eventually drop it, the couple goes from zero-to-sixty in the blink of an eye.  This is a series, so there was no real need for things to progress quite so quickly – and the book’s single sex scene is all build-up and then fades to black, which is a missed opportunity for relationship development.  When done properly, intimate scenes are an excellent way of showing the connection between characters, something which was sorely needed here given Rory’s trust issues and the way he treats Arthur for the first part of the book.

Despite those reservations however, Spellbound was an impressive début and a truly enjoyable read.  I liked the found-family quality of Arthur’s relationships with Jade and Zhang, and Rory’s with Mrs. Brodigan (who turns out to be a bit of a badass in her own right!), and the diversity of the cast, which felt right for the location and time period, was another big plus.  The book ends with a firm HFN for Arthur and Rory, and a clear indication that there’s more to come, so I’ll definitely be picking up book two when it comes out next year.

Appetites and Vices (The Truitts #1) by Felicia Grossman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s her ticket into high society…

Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.

A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal.

She’s his ticket out…

Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.

But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off…

Rating: B-

Felicia Grossman’s début historical romance, Appetites & Vices makes use of a setting I’ve not come across before in historical romance – 1840s Delaware – and boasts a couple of interesting, though flawed, central characters who enter into a faux engagement in an attempt to better the social standing of the heroine so she can marry the man of her choice.  There are some things about the plot that didn’t quite work and some odd writing tics that took me out of the story on occasion, but overall it’s a solid outing and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Ms. Grossman’s work.

Ursula Nunes is twenty-one, beautiful, clever and wealthy.  By rights, she should have society at her feet, and she would, but for two things.  One, she says what she thinks and has no social skills whatsoever.  And two – she’s Jewish, which, in Delaware in 1841 puts her pretty much beyond the pale.  She and her dearest friend Hugo Middleton have decided that it would be preferable to marry each other than to marry strangers, but the Middletons are one of the oldest families in society and with Hugo’s father intent on securing personal advancement, won’t countenance Hugo’s marriage to a Jew, no matter how rich she is.

John Thaddeus Truitt V – Jay – comes from a family that is even more prestigious than the Middletons, but that doesn’t mean life is any easier for him.  The only son of a disapproving father who always believes the worst of him, Jay is well aware he’s a disappointment all round and wants nothing more than to take himself off to Europe and never come back.  When he witnesses Ursula and Hugo in intense, whispered conversation and then overhears Ursula muttering to herself about ways she could ingratiate herself with the Middletons , he finds himself fighting back laughter at the incongruity of the idea of a woman as strong and vibrant as Ursula paired with a man so clearly  unsuited to her as Hugo.  But then inspiration strikes – and he has the solution to both their problems.  In spite of his blackened reputation, the Truitt name still counts for something, and if he and Ursula pretend to be engaged to one another, her association with him means she’ll be able to move in the exclusive social circles to which she is currently denied entrance.  And when she jilts him publicly,

“A good faux broken heart will be enough for my parents to stop trying to make me into something I’m not.”

That’s the set-up for the story, and the author does a really good job of exploring the prejudice Ursula encounters because of her birth and the difficulties she faces because she has so little patience with the superficiality of high society.  She wants so badly to belong, but she doesn’t fit in anywhere, not in Hugo’s world, certainly not in Jay’s… and not even in that of her own (Jewish)  family.

Jay is a very troubled young man who feels that nothing he ever does will be good enough and is so weighed down by guilt that all he wants to do is to escape into the drug-induced haze that is the only thing he’s found that will enable him to forget and lay down those burdens.  The truth of Jay’s addiction isn’t sugar-coated; although the author doesn’t come out and directly say Jay is an opium addict – instead hinting at it – until some way into the book, his cravings are clearly and convincingly described.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, not least of which is the humour and snappy banter between the two principals, and the way the author shows the understanding that develops between them; I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jay uses the game of poker to try to teach Ursula how to read people and situations. Their chemistry isn’t the strongest I’ve ever read, but it simmers nicely, and the love scenes are well written.  BUT.  I don’t know a lot about American society of the time, but I’m guessing the rules that governed male/female interaction were pretty similar to those in England, so I was surprised at how often Ursula and Jay were able to sneak off to have sex – in her house with family members (her father!) and servants around (there’s an explanation of sorts given towards the end, but that seemed like a convenient afterthought), and please, can we stop it with the virgin heroines who can give championship blow jobs at the first attempt and deep-throat the hero like a professional?  I get that Ursula is curious and uninhibited, but I just don’t buy into that whole she-knows-how-to-do-it-just-by-instinct thing.

I also found some of the plans and situations rather convoluted – there were a few places where I had to stop and go back to re-read – and there’s quite a lot of woeful introspection on the part of both protagonists that got to be a bit much. The middle of the book is repetitive, and the way the secrets held by various characters are foreshadowed is quite heavy-handed.  There are also some grammatical constructions that really bugged me and kept pulling me out of the story.  I won’t go into huge detail, as I know not everyone is a grammar-nerd like me, but one thing I will mention is the use of contractions with names.  Instead of ‘Lydia would’ or ‘Rachel did’, we get ‘Lydia’d’ or ‘Rachel’d’.  Now, sure, they’re both fine on occasion, but in some places, sentences and phrases are so littered with them that they become unnatural and clumsy.  If read aloud, they’d sound pretty odd.  Some of the dialogue felt ‘off’ for the time period, and for some reason, Jay decides to shorten Ursula’s name and calls her ‘Urs’, which is a really ugly diminutive, and sounded far too close to ‘arse’ whenever I heard it in my head.  If you don’t like your protagonist’s name, then use a different one!

Speaking of Ursula (I refuse to call her ‘Urs’!), I confess that for all her spark and originality, I found her difficult to connect with, and sometimes felt her behaviour to be quite immature (and she cries a lot).  On the other hand, I did like Jay and warmed to him more easily; he’s damaged, witty, dangerously charming and possessed of the kind of emotional intelligence that Ursula lacks.

Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m giving Appetites & Vices a recommendation, albeit a cautious one.  The story at its heart – a woman who wants to belong and a man who wants to be seen for who he really is – is a good one, Jay and Ursula are well-matched, and both character and romantic development are well-done.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (audiobook) – Narrated by Carly Robins

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases – a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with as well as way less experience in the dating department than the average 30-year-old. It doesn’t help that she has Asperger’s and that French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. She decides that she needs lots of practice – with a professional – which is why she hires escort Michael Phan.

The Vietnamese-Swedish stunner can’t afford to turn down Stella’s offer, and he agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan – from foreplay to more-than-missionary position… Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses but also to crave all of the other things he’s making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges convinces Stella that love is the best kind of logic…

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

Helen Hoang’s début contemporary romance, The Kiss Quotient, has been on my radar ever since it came out last summer, but it’s showing up on so many “Best Books of 2018” lists that I decided I really should get around to listening to it! It’s a very accomplished piece of work – sexy, funny and moving, it’s an enjoyable story that pulled me in from the start and kept me engaged thanks, in part, to the strong characterisations and excellent narration by Carly Robins.

Stella Lane is a genius. She’s a brilliant econometrist who is completely dedicated to her job and comes from a very well-off family; at thirty, she’s settled and secure, although she wishes her mother would stop trying to set her up on blind dates and stop dropping anvil-sized hints about grandchildren. Stella has generally found dating to be a demoralising and disappointing experience; her autism means she doesn’t function well in social situations and her dislike of being touched only makes the prospect of intimacy that much more daunting.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.