The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian

the-soldiers-scoundrel

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A scoundrel who lives in the shadows

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life-one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is only matched by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men only meant for each other.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance is a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely accomplished piece of work that sees a prickly former-thief-turned-investigator working with the son of an earl to establish the identity of a blackmailer and falling in love along the way. This is no light-hearted romp, however; during the course of the story, the author explores the realities of the class differences lying between the two men and takes a look at the inequalities inherent in a justice system which really only operated in favour of the wealthy and influential.

Former valet, former thief and former perpetrator of various other illegal activities, Jack Turner now runs his own business working as an investigator and righter of wrongs for those in society – the poor and women – who have little or no recourse to justice via normal means. His life on the wrong side of the law and then as a servant has only served to reinforce his own opinions about the ‘nobs’, the gentlemen of the nobility who largely regard themselves as untouchable and if his work gives him the opportunity to even the score a little, then he regards it as a job well done.

So Jack isn’t best pleased when Mr Oliver Rivington – second son of the Earl of Rutland – bursts into his office one day, demands to know why his sister recently paid Jack a large sum of money, and refuses to leave until he gets an answer. Realising he can’t get rid of the man without causing a scene, Jack allots Rivington a seat in a dark corner while he interviews his latest client, a young, married lady who is being blackmailed over a series of letters exchanged with a former beau.

A serious leg wound after a decade in the army has led the former Captain Rivington to sell his commission and he has returned home eager to embark upon a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos and frequent lawlessless of the army. His experiences with the sort of riot and mayhem wreaked by a victorious force following a battle have made him determined to uphold the law and respect due process, so the idea that Jack Turner could have employed less than legal means in order to help Charlotte sits badly with him, no matter that whatever Jack actually did has kept her drunken, abusive husband away overseas for the last two years.

Both men are rather surprised to recognise the sudden sexual attraction that crackles between them, and both ruthlessly tamp it down. Jack doesn’t want anything to do with aristrocrats, no matter how pretty they are, and Oliver is most certainly not going to become embroiled with a criminal. Realising that Jack is probably going to resort to law-breaking in order to help Mrs. Wraxhall, Oliver is determined to find a way of getting the lady’s letters back without using illegal means to do so, and begins making inquiries of his own.

When it seems that a journey to Mrs. Wraxhall’s former home in Yorkshire will be needed to dig up more information on the lady’s past, Jack very reluctantly agrees to accept Oliver’s help. After all, a prettily behaved, good-looking gentleman like him will be able to open doors that are closed to Jack, and Oliver will probably be able to charm people into revealing confidences that Jack’s gruffness would be unlikely to encourage. And while his intense fascination with Rivington irritates him, the attraction is obviously mutual and also impossible to ignore, so Jack decides that he might as well indulge himself while he can. It’s not something he does very often; he doesn’t do emotional entanglements and the only people in his life he trusts are his brother and sister, but he’s certainly not averse to taking Oliver to bed.

Oliver is similarly captivated by Jack – a man he is coming to know as having his own code of honour that he lives by, no matter how strongly he might deny it. Oliver recognises that Jack’s gruffness is his way of keeping people at arms’ length and he very much wants to break through that barrier and show Jack that he’s worth caring about.

Cat Sebastian has crafted a very well-balanced tale in which the relationship between the protagonists takes centre stage, while also offering an intriguing sub-plot about the blackmail investigation. As I said at the outset, she takes a look at the inequality in a justice system that permitted the upper classes to – sometimes literally – get away with murder while it would hang a starving man for stealing a crust. And worse, a system that would turn a blind eye to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage or a woman being threatened in the vilest terms. But there is no heavy-handed sermonising or info-dumping; her observations are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, adding richness and colour to an already readable and entertaining story.

But there’s no question that Jack and Oliver’s romance is at the heart of this book, and it’s by turns funny, tender, sexy, and wonderfully romantic. The two men complement each other in terms of their personalities and outlook; Jack is all rough edges, where Oliver is polished politeness and charm; Jack is outspoken where Oliver is more considered – and they make a terrific couple. I particularly liked their playfulness with each other, and the sense that, in spite of the class difference, they are equals in the relationship. I’ve not read m/m romance very widely, but in some I’ve read there is one experienced character and one who is less so or perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his sexuality. It’s refreshing to see that isn’t the case here, and I really liked how, despite his blushes, Oliver is shown to be every bit as comfortable with himself and his preferences as Jack – and, when called for, just as naughty 😉 Even though they hide things from each other to start with, once they get to know and accept one another, there’s a lovely honesty to their relationship, a true caring that goes deeper than lust or attraction, and Ms. Sebastian has done a superb job in conveying that depth through their words and actions.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel captivated me from start to finish and is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central romance is wonderfully portrayed, the characterisation is excellent and I loved Oliver and Jack to bits. I can’t wait for more from Ms. Sebastian and am eagerly awaiting her next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – next year.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (audiobook) – Narrated by Katie Schorr

the hating game

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

NEMESIS (n)
1) An opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome
2) A person’s undoing
3) Joshua Templeman

Lucy Hutton has always been certain that the nice girl can get the corner office. She prides herself on being loved by everyone at work – except for imposing, impeccably attired Joshua Templeman.

Trapped in a shared office, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive, never-ending game of one-upmanship. There’s the Staring Game, The Mirror Game, The HR Game. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything – especially when a huge promotion is on offer.

If Lucy wins, she’ll be Joshua’s boss. If she loses, she’ll resign. So why is she questioning herself? Maybe she doesn’t hate him. And just maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game . . .

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

If you’re part of the online romance community in even the smallest way, you are unlikely to have missed all the buzz about Sally Thorne’s début novel, The Hating Game, a flirty, funny and sexy Rom Com between two co-workers who are forced to share an office following the merger of the two publishing companies for which they work.

Lucinda – Lucy – Hutton and Joshua Templeman hated each other on sight. Or so they tell themselves. But unfortunately, their roles as executive assistants to the CEOs of Gamin Publishing and Bexley Publishing respectively, mean they spend their days in forced proximity, and have, over the past year, honed their verbal sniping and games of one-upmanship – some of them rather juvenile but nonetheless very funny – into an art form.

Lucy firmly identifies with the Gamin Publishing company, having an artistic, rather bohemian self-image, while she places Joshua firmly in the Bexley camp, rigid and boringly efficient, exemplified by the fact that he organises his shirts by the days of the week, wearing the same colour on a particular day. She’s well-liked, charming and helpful, where Josh is a bully whose fearsome scowls and bad temper are legendary.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Jilting the Duke (The Muses’ Salon #1) by Rachael Miles

jilting the duke

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Aidan Somerville, Duke of Forster, is a rake, a spy, and a soldier, richer than sin and twice as handsome. Now he is also guardian to his deceased best friend s young son. The choice makes perfect sense except that the child s mother is the lovely Sophia Gardiner, to whom Aidan was engaged before he went off to war. When the news reached him that she had married another, his ship had not yet even left the dock.

Sophia does not expect Aidan to understand or forgive her. But she cannot allow him to stay her enemy. She s prepared for coldness, even vengeance but not for the return of the heedless lust she and Aidan tumbled into ten years ago. She knows the risks of succumbing to this dangerous desire. Still, with Aidan so near, it s impossible not to dream about a second chance…

Rating: B-

Rachael Miles’ début novel, Jilting the Duke is an entertaining and well-crafted story featuring a pair of attractive and strongly-characterised protagonists and a well-drawn set of secondary characters. There is a lot going on – perhaps too much at times – but at its heart are a well-written second-chance romance and an intriguing espionage story, both of which pulled me into the book and which were compelling enough to enable me to see past some of the flaws I’ll discuss later in this review.

Ten years earlier, Aidan Sommerville, third son of an impoverished duke, had to make his own way in the world and had chosen the army as his profession. Having no means to support a wife, he and Sophia Gardiner became secretly engaged before he went to war, but mere weeks after they parted, he was heart-broken to learn that she had married his best friend, Tom, Lord Wilmot and moved to Italy with him. Years later, and following the deaths of his father and older brothers, Aidan became the Duke of Forster and has worked hard to turn his fortunes around at the same time as he continues to work for the British government as a Home Office agent. He has never really recovered from Sophia’s betrayal, and grabs at the chance to revenge himself upon her when she returns to England a widow with a nine year old son.

Sophia has lived quietly in the year since her husband’s death, as dictated by the custom of mourning, but now, she receives unwelcome news in the form of a letter written by Tom before his demise, telling her that he wants Aidan to assume the co-guardianship of their son, Ian. She is naturally fearful that Aidan will want to remove the boy from her care, given that women had no rights over their children, as well as worrying about how she will react to Aidan and he to her. She is pleasantly surprised when Aidan turns out to be conciliatory and not at all desirous of taking custody of her son, but rather makes suggestions which she can see are going to be of great help to Ian as he makes a new life for himself in England.

Of course, this is all part of Aidan’s plan to gain her confidence, seduce her and then publicly ruin her, but even at this stage, it’s clear to the reader that his actions are not at all consistent with such a scheme. His intentions may be very dishonourable, but what Ms Miles shows us is a conflicted man who is still bitter and angry at Sophia, but who loves her as much as he ever did and whose desire for revenge is ultimately never strong enough to overcome the depth of his feelings for her.

Because of her censorious aunt and self-righteous prig of a brother, Sophia has learned to be very cautious about what she allows others to see, so at the beginning of the book is reserved and aloof. I enjoyed watching her gravitate towards Aidan and unbend in his company; and although she holds on to some of her secrets a little too long, she’s a relatable heroine and one I quickly came to like.

At the same time as Aidan is making a place for himself in the lives of Sophia and Ian, he is asked by his superiors at the Home Office to investigate an accusation of treason that has been levelled against Tom, who, in addition to being an authority on botany and author of several highly regarded tomes on the subject, was a British spy. The accusations extend to Sophia, but Aidan can’t believe either of them guilty and agrees to use his renewed closeness with her in order to find out the truth. It quickly becomes clear that the government isn’t the only interested party when one of Aidan’s brothers – the manager of the Wilmot estate – is brutally attacked by a mysterious intruder who is clearly looking for the papers which are believed to be in Sophia’s possession. With Sophia and Ian in danger, Aidan swiftly whisks them away from London intent on guarding them closely while he works to discover the identity of the traitor and to find the coded documents Tom sent to England just before his death.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a strong début and I was impressed by the author’s ability to tell a rollicking good story. There are, however, a number of flaws which brought my final grade down, and which I hope the author will be able to iron out as she develops as a writer.

One of the biggest problems is that, at several points in the book, it feels more like the second or third in a series than the first. There is a fairly large number of secondary characters in the story, most of them family members, and it seemed as though I was already supposed to know who they all are and how they ended up with their relative spouses. For example, reference is made to the dramatic events leading up to the wedding of Sophia’s cousin Malcolm and his wife and mention is made of the fact that she has a son andthey have a daughter. There’s clearly a story to tell about Aidan’s brother Colin (hero of the next book) and his wife as well. Whereas in many series books, the author sets up certain characters as sequel bait; here, it’s like they’re prequel bait, and while I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued at the thought of eventually reading those stories, the little snippets I was thrown made me feel as though I’d missed something important and distracted me from the book I was actually reading.

The pacing is good, but there is simply too much going on, which again, sometimes made me feel as though I’d missed something. Taken in random order, there is a dead spy-husband, a dead (possibly) spy-brother, a mistress, a secret love-child, secret codes, a ghostly apparition, an evil mastermind… Ms Miles clearly had a plan and organized everything well, but the book would have benefited from some judicious pruning so that she could have concentrated on fewer elements and perhaps developed them more.

Aidan and Sophia make a good couple and there are some nice moments of sexual tension between them, but the actual sex scenes are a little clumsy and therefore disappointing. I get the feeling the author wanted to write them, but was a bit shy of or reluctant to do so – and that reluctance is obvious on the page. Writing sex scenes is one of those things where you either go for it, or you don’t. If you’re going to write a sex scene, then go for it; you have to have the courage of your convictions or your readers won’t be convinced and the whole thing will be one big anticlimax (:P)

In her informative author’s notes at the end Ms Miles says that she has taken care with the language used in the story so as not to use words which were not in common usage at the time the book is set. I always applaud an author for this sort of attention to detail – but Ms Miles, why, when you were so careful with things like this did you fail to weed out the numerous Americanisms that appear? I keep repeating myself in reviews, but in England, we have pavements (not sidewalks), Autumn (not fall), suspenders are worn to hold up a man’s socks not his trousers (the over-the-shoulder-holding-up-trousers-things are called braces) and the only sort of pants worn by men here are underpants, which I’m sure isn’t what you meant when you used the term – they’d be pantaloons, breeches or trousers. If you can research which words might be anachronistic, then surely it’s not too hard to look up which words don’t travel across the Atlantic?

Having said all that, I’m still giving Jilting the Duke a qualified recommendation, because the thing that shines through all those flaws is the fact that Ms Miles is an excellent storyteller. Had she not been, the book would have received a much lower grade, or maybe it would still be languishing in my TBR pile. That it isn’t is down to the fact that she drew me into the story within the first few pages and engaged me sufficiently as to make me not want to put the book down. I will certainly be looking out for the next book in the Muses’ Salonseries, Chasing the Heiress, and will hope that some of these weaknesses have been addressed.

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To Steal a Heart (Secrets and Spies #1) by K.C Bateman

to steal a heart
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Forced to do the bidding of a corrupt government minister, Marianne de Bonnard agrees to plant incriminating evidence in the offices of France’s most notorious spymaster. Under cover of night, the tightrope-walking thief puts her skills to good use—until her aerial stunt is foiled when her target appears in the window and, with consummate poise, helps Marianne off the wire and into his lair. The tremors that run through her body are not just from fear; there’s an unwanted frisson of desire there, too. But is it because of her elegant, wickedly handsome host . . . or his proposition?

Nicolas Valette has had plans for his graceful trespasser since he witnessed her unique skills at the Cirque Olympique. Sinuous as a cat, Marianne is perfect for his next mission, but she refuses his generous offer for fear of disobeying her family’s tormenter. When their mutual enemy auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder, Nicolas leaps at the chance to purchase her cooperation. Keeping her will be like trying to tame a wild animal, but what’s life without a little risk? Besides, Nicolas and Marianne both want the same thing: revenge—and, perhaps, something else that’s equally delicious.

Rating: A-

I was lucky enough to read a number of very strong début novels last year, and that trend is continuing into 2016 with K.C Bateman’s To Steal a Heart, (Secrets and Spies book 1), an action-packed, sexy romantic adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The story grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it – which I did in about two sittings.

Marianne Bonnard has worked at the Cirque Olympique as a tightrope walker and circus performer for the last five or six years, ever since the death of her parents in a fire. This left her and her younger sister, Sophie, with nobody but each other, and everything Marianne does is focused on keeping Sophie safe and well. After the fire, they were brought to Paris by their slimy cousin Duval, a corrupt official with responsibility for overseeing the city’s many brothels, who threatened to put the girls – then aged ten and fourteen – to work in one of them. But Marianne struck a deal with him. If she could find a way to earn enough money to more than pay for their keep, she would do that instead, on condition that he left Sophie alone. Duval agreed, although not without conditions, which are that Sophie remains in Paris under his control and that Marianne steals and spies for him.

Her latest assignment is to plant some incriminating evidence in the apartment of Nicolas Valette, spymaster, protégé of two of France’s most powerful men, and, according to some, one of the most dangerous men in France. But Valette’s reputation for being one step ahead the game is not undeserved; on the night Marianne is due to break into his study, he is there waiting for her, aware of what she’s there to do. But instead of killing her or turning her in, he makes her an offer. He will protect her sister and destroy Duval if she will undertake to work on one mission for – and with – him.

I’m not going to give the game away, save to say that the mission is an audacious one and Ms Bateman does a terrific job in balancing the romance with the action-based elements of the plot. Marianne and Valette are instantly attracted to each other, but the author rightly focuses on the task at hand, keeping their attraction at a simmer and allowing it to develop through thoughts and feelings as they circle warily around each other. Nicolas is controlled and frighteningly competent, yet we’re shown Marianne gradually getting under his skin, especially during the time they spend together as he puts her through a gruelling training regime. He pushes her to her limits time and again and she tries to hate him for it – but he knows what she’s going to be up against and what she’s going to have to be able to do if she’s going to survive. The sexual chemistry between them is smoking hot and some of the best I’ve read; and their acerbic, sharp-tongued verbal sparring is perfectly done.

“Do you speak Italian?”

“A little. Laurent taught me. Especially swearwords. ‘Vaffunculo,’” she offered sweetly, “means go f—“

I know what it means,” he said with a dark chuckle. “Good. We’re Italian. You’re my wife, Fatima.”

Nerves made her snippy. “My father would be so proud. He always hoped I’d marry a lying turncoat spy.”

There’s never the sense that these characters are flirting just for the sake of it; rather, the things Valette and Marianne say and do arise naturally out of the situations in which they find themselves. Unlike so many historical romantic spy stories where the espionage plot is nebulous and clearly little more than a way of throwing the hero and heroine together, in To Steal a Heart, there’s a real sense of danger and of something important being at stake.

I won’t deny that there’s a modernity of tone to some aspects of the storyline and dialogue, but it’s not obtrusive and this is one of those books where the story is so entertaining and the characters so engaging as to make it easy to overlook the odd slip. The plot is well-thought out and the characterisation of the leads is excellent. Marianne reminds me somewhat of Annique from Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady. She’s determined, courageous, skilled and quick-witted, and won’t take any crap from the men around her; and like Grey, Valette knows she can handle herself and doesn’t try to cosset her or wrap her up in cotton wool. Nicolas Valette is, quite simply, sex on legs. Handsome, dangerously charming, highly intelligent, devious and completely ruthless, he is the sort of man from whom one would probably run a mile in real life, but as the hero of a romance novel? Oh, yes please! *swoon*

Valette’s life for the past six years has been ruled by his overwhelming desire for revenge against Napoleon for the murder of his younger brother, while Marianne has to overcome the events of her past in order to move forward. These aspects of their characters are dealt with reasonably well, although in the end, Nicolas’ desire for revenge almost costs them both dear. Because of that, I am a little torn over the events which lead up to the ending of the book. Nicolas makes a choice which is so perfectly in character that it’s difficult to see how he could have made a different one, but it means he and Marianne are not together at a crucial point in the story. It’s true she’s not a heroine who needs saving and does pretty well on her own, thank-you-very-much – but I still felt just the tiniest bit cheated that they weren’t together at that point. That said, I have to applaud Ms Bateman for the direction she takes because to have done things differently would have been out of character for both of them.

I dithered over the final grade for To Steal a Heart, wondering whether to give it a B+ or an A- and thus make it a DIK. I’ve gone with my gut instinct – the DIK – mainly because the high level of engagement I experienced and sheer entertainment value mean it’s a book I’m likely to re-read. And on top of that, the writing and characterisation are superb, the romance is hot, snarky and tender and the hero is delicious. I couldn’t ask for much more in an historical romance and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever Ms Bateman comes up with next.

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A Convenient Engagement by Kimberly Bell

a convenient engagementThis title is available to purchase from Amazon

An independent young woman of means, Miss Hannah Howard is as stubborn as she is beautiful. After she moves to London for her first season among the ton, she immediately finds herself in a heated dispute with her neighbor, the ill-mannered Gavan Dalreoch, Earl of Rhone. Giving the Earl a black eye is a lapse in judgment—even though the Scottish scoundrel deserved it. Now with her reputation in jeopardy, her only hope for saving face is the man whose face she bruised.

Gavan is content to live up to his rakish reputation, but with family pressuring him to marry, he and Hannah agree to get engaged just long enough to appear respectable. Yet as the charade continues with stolen kisses and a trip to Gavan’s Scottish castle, Gavan and Hannah discover that their false engagement may be more real than they imagined.

Rating: C

Kimberly Bell’s A Convenient Engagement is her historical romance début, a romantic comedy in which two feuding neighbours have to agree to a faux betrothal after the heroine, Miss Hannah Howard, is shunned by society because of what it sees as her hoydenish behaviour. The book is entertaining, the central characters are attractive and Ms Bell displays a deft touch with the humour, but while it started well (I was thinking I’d found a 4 star/B grade book), things went downhill after that and the novel didn’t live up to its early promise.

Gavan Dalreoch, Earl of Rhone, hasn’t been home to Scotland for sixteen years and intends to keep it that way. He’s perfectly happy wending his debauched way through London society – or he would be were it not for all the noise coming from the house next door which is undergoing extensive renovation. The continual hammering and banging only serves to exacerbate Gavan’s usual morning hangovers, and to make matters worse, his starchy, very proper cousin Ewan has just arrived from Castle Dalreoch to try to sober him up and guilt him into going home and fulfilling his responsibilities to his clan and the earldom.

After he’s ejected the two comely ladies currently sharing his bed, a furious, still drunk Gavan stomps to the house next door, insults the young woman who owns it and finds himself on the receiving end of her fist, falling down the steps and ending up flat on his back in full view of everyone on the select London street where they live.

When it emerges that Miss Howard’s reputation has been all but shredded because of such unladylike behaviour, Ewan, whose sense of honour and fair-play is unbending, demands that Gavan do something to help her – by marrying her, as it’s the only way to salvage her reputation in the eyes of society.

Naturally, Gavan is aghast – but Ewan’s method of persuasion is… unusual to say the least, and Gavan can do nothing else but agree. Well, sort of. He comes up with another plan. He and Hannah will become betrothed, and during the length of their engagement, he will introduce her to every eligible man he can think of so that she can jilt him and marry someone else.

When he proposes this idea to the stunned Hannah, she at first thinks he must have lost his mind. But she, too, sees that this is the only way she is going to be able to hold her head up in society, and agrees to it. For Hannah, this is her one chance to enjoy the delights of London and the Season. She is alone in the world now, having recently lost her autocratic, controlling father, and is determined to enjoy herself before retiring to the country to live out the rest of her days in quiet spinsterhood.

She doesn’t, however, tell Gavan that she intends never to marry. Her mother’s death turned her father into an automaton who had no time for his daughter and Hannah has no intention of falling in love and risking such an all-encompassing loss.

Gavan has his own inner demons, too, the ones that keep him away from home and living a life of drunken dissipation. His family situation is rather complicated; his father was not the man to whom his mother was married, a fact which is widely known and which meant that Gavan’s childhood was a difficult one. He left home as soon as he could, full of resentment towards his family and has never gone back, neglecting his tenants and his clan and carefully cultivating the lowest expectations possible.

Hannah and Gavan strike sparks off each other from the get-go, and their snarky banter is well done. They have great chemistry and I liked the way they came to understand and appreciate each other at more than a surface level. I also liked the little role-reversal the author engages in when she has Gavan be the one to admit his feelings and Hannah trying to deny hers and stick to her original plan of never marrying. On the downside, however, this is very much a wallpaper historical, and if it hadn’t been for a small number of pointers (reference to men wearing wigs, to the Jacobite cause and details about Gavan’s costume for a masquerade) I wouldn’t have been able to place it in any particular time-frame. There are also a lot of annoying Americanisms – we don’t have sidewalks, they’re pavements, Fall is Autumn, and we absolutely, categorically do NOT pour gravy on biscuits, which are sweet (think shortbread) – to list but a few. The overall tone is very modern, and although the author tries to explain away some of those modernisms (like Hannah’s frequent utterances of “Bloody Hell!”) by putting them down to the fact that she has lived outside society and doesn’t really know how to go on, it doesn’t wash.

But in spite of those negatives, I didn’t dislike the book and found it quite entertaining. For all his rakish ways, Gavan is a sexy, endearing doofus who undergoes significant change throughout the course of the story, and there is an engaging cast of secondary characters, from his enigmatic butler, Magnus, to the stock-in-trade but delightfully outspoken older lady who is probably the world’s most unsuitable chaperone. The author also makes some insightful character observations that give the story and characters a little depth, and that, together with the humour is what eventually put A Convenient Engagement into the 3 star/C grade bracket. It’s a light-hearted, funny romp, perfect for those times you want to switch off your brain and read something undemanding and don’t mind that the characters are essentially 21st century people dressed up in tight breeches and pretty frocks. But if you like your historical romance to have more historical content and accuracy, you’ll probably want to give it a wide berth.

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In Search of Scandal (London Explorers #1) by Susanne Lord

in search of scandal

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A DARING EXPLORER

All of London is abuzz with the tale of Will Repton. The lone survivor of a massacre in Tibet has returned to England a hero, but the traumatized explorer has no time for glory. Another dangerous expedition awaits. Nothing will deter him from his quest, and no one will unearth his secret—until Will meets Charlotte Baker.

IS NO MATCH FOR AN ADVENTUROUS HEART

Vivacious Charlotte Baker also has a mission—to find a man whose bold spirit matches her own. When she meets Will Repton, she immediately recognizes him as her soul mate, and she’s naively willing to turn her back on the rules of propriety to ensnare him. Will is torn between his fascination with Charlotte and his vow to finish his quest. He knows what it is to risk life and limb—but what if his most perilous adventure doesn’t lie across an ocean, but within his own lost heart?

Rating: B

In Search of Scandal, the first in a new series of historical romances by Susanne Lord is the author’s first novel, and a very strong début it is. She is clearly an excellent storyteller, having crafted a compelling and emotionally nuanced tale featuring a hero with an unusual background and a romance in which both protagonists have changes and reassessments to make if they are going to make things work between them.

On the downside, the heroine is rather irritating for the first part of the book, and her motivations are either unclear or simply don’t make sense; and there were a few times I felt that something needed fleshing out more or further exploration. But on the whole it’s a well-written and very readable story that will definitely appeal to readers who, like me, like their romances with a goodly-sized side-order of angst.

The plot turns on the rather complicated family situation of the heroine, Charlotte Baker. Her sister married an earl, and that, together with Charlotte’s vivacious beauty, ensured that she was much admired and courted by many gentlemen. But when the earl died and Lucy re-married (for love) an untitled botanist, that, and their origins as ‘commoners’ meant that the family was no longer accepted by the ton. While Ben and Lucy don’t appear to care all that much about it, Charlotte now sees it as her responsibility to make a good match so that the family can be elevated once more and so that she can ensure her younger sisters are accepted into society and have the chance to make good marriages. Further complicating matters is the fact that her brother Wallace was recently the subject of a sodomy trial, but this only makes her all the more determined to restore her family’s name and reputation.

One of her brother’s associates, William Repton, has recently returned to London after five years spent exploring and collecting plant specimens from Tibet and China. Charlotte has eagerly followed the written accounts of his expeditions published by the Geographical Society, and, over the years, has built an image in her mind of him as the perfect man – handsome, kind, daring and brave – and just the man for her. If she weds a man of such celebrity, she believes, every door will be open to her and her family, so not only will she have accomplished her aim in their regard, she will have secured herself the husband of her dreams.

Her first sight of Will Repton only reinforces her belief in the rightness of her scheme – he’s absolutely gorgeous (even though he walks with a pronounced limp) and although he seems quite shy, Charlotte is convinced he is “the one” and is sure it won’t be long before he joins her queue of suitors. But what Charlotte reads as an endearing shyness is in fact a disinclination to have anything to do with her and a strong discomfort with her obvious hero worship.

The sole survivor of a horrifying attack, Will Repton is a broken man, haunted by memories and dreams of the friends and colleagues he has lost and by his last sight of their camp, a grizzly, blood soaked nightmare of bodies and remains. He returned to England only because he was too ill to prevent his being sent home, and now all his focus is on raising enough money to enable him to return to China on another expedition. He desperately needs to exorcise his survivor’s guilt and to atone for the act he believes saved his life at the expense of the others of his party; and even though he finds himself strongly attracted to Charlotte, the last thing he wants or needs in his life is to form any sort of emotional attachment, let alone one to a woman who will no doubt want him to remain by her side.

Will is fascinating, a decent, honourable, self-deprecating man who has been devastated by circumstance, and the author explores his character and motivations in such a way as to make the reader experience his discomfort and the feeling that he is somehow ‘out of step’ with everyone around him. While he is at times unkind to Charlotte in his attempts to dispel her fantasies about him and to make clear his unwillingness to join her band of suitors, Ms Lord skilfully keeps him on the right side of the line between ‘hero’ and ‘arsehole’ by making the reader aware that his actions are well-intentioned and designed to stop Charlotte getting in too deep given his intent to leave England in the near future. She just as skilfully shows the reader the strength of Will’s reluctant, growing interest in Charlotte by the way in which he expresses his disdain for the suitor who can’t be bothered to learn her favourite flower, or how he always insists that the weather is about to turn for the worse when that suitor is taking her out for a drive.

As I mentioned at the outset, Charlotte is a difficult character to warm to. She is obviously more in love with the idea of Will than she can actually be with HIM, given that she hasn’t even met him before the story opens. It’s not until the second half of the book that she comes into clearer focus and becomes the sort of character one wishes to root for, and even then there were times I wanted to smack her. When circumstances lead to their having to make a hasty marriage, she decides to sacrifice her own happiness for the chance to be with Will, even for a short time, and this means being unfailingly cheerful and not letting him know of her deeper thoughts and feelings. But this only muddies the waters between them even further, hampering their attempts to understand each other and to be together happily for the few months they have agreed to. The misunderstandings and miscommunications between them in the latter part of the book are heartrending and even painful, making it difficult to see how they can possibly be resolved to give both characters the ending they deserve.

I’m certainly going to be giving the book a recommendation, although there are a few things that prevent my rating it more highly. There are some elements that are somewhat glossed over, such as Charlotte’s family dynamic and her brother’s trial; and I never quite understood why Charlotte believed that her family would once more be embraced by the ton simply because she had a famous husband. (They would have been flavour of the month for a while and then quickly forgotten, I imagine.) The romantic and sexual tension between the protagonists is very well written with some deliciously steamy moments between Charlotte and Will, but the climactic love scene towards the end happens almost out of the blue and goes completely against everything Will has said up until that point. There is also a secondary plot featuring one of Charlotte’s thwarted suitors which is overly melodramatic and which could have been omitted without any adverse effect on the main story.

But as I’ve said, this is a very strong début in spite of those weaknesses, and I am definitely looking forward to reading more of Susanne Lord’s work. In Search of Scandal is well-written, the characters are strongly drawn and the romance is well-developed, with advances and set-backs along the way that add depth to the relationship and strengthen the feeling of a growing emotional connection between the principals. It’s highly accomplished for a first novel, and has convinced me that Ms Lord is an author to watch.

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The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

The Kings Man audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf’s actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king’s bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.

Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.

Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

Rating: A+ for narration; B for content

A couple of months ago, Laura Kinsale announced on her website that although Nicholas Boulton had finished recording all her books (boo!) he was going to be recording some more historical romances (yay!) – “recent titles that I’ve loved and appreciated for their quality and emotional intensity”. That recommendation together with the prospect of being able to listen to more of that velvety voice was enough to have me eagerly snapping up the audiobook of Elizabeth Kingston’s début novel, The King’s Man.

The story centres around two emotionally damaged characters who have spent most of their lives doing the bidding of others. Both of them are struggling to break free of the expectations that bind them to their pasts, but only together can they find the strength to be true to themselves and to lead their own lives.

Ranulf Ombrier, Lord of Morency, is known throughout the land as King Edward’s man, his enforcer, a man as ruthless as his master and one for whom no deed is too foul. At the beginning of the book, Ranulf awakens in a strange bed in a strange room and looks up to see what he thinks is an angel tending him. He has been severely wounded in a skirmish with a group of knights from Ruardean, a formidable stronghold on the Welsh Marches, and gradually comes to realise that he has been close to death. A death he would actively welcome as a way of finally escaping the memories that haunt him.

His ‘angel’ is Gwellian of Ruardean, a young woman who has been groomed since birth to be ready to lead the people of Wales in an uprising against the King. But having to constantly be what her domineering mother wants, to prove herself to be stronger and faster than the men around her, to inspire and lead is exhausting, and all Gwenllian really wants is to be left alone with her herbs and plants to further her knowledge of the healing arts. But her men respect her and look up to her, and no matter how much she wishes things to be different, they are what they are, and she accepts the weight of command to which she has been bred. Because of her unusual upbringing and military training, Gwenllian believes herself lacking as a woman – tall and leanly muscled, she knows she is unprepossessing and has none of the feminine accomplishments that ladies of her status are expected to have acquired.

While Ranulf is healing, he is rude and dismissive towards Gwenllian, seeing nothing in her of his ‘angel’ and wondering how he could ever have taken such an unattractive woman for such a thing. His taunts and barbs eventually lead to an armed confrontation between them – and when Gwenllian bests him, Ranulf becomes even more resentful. Yet even at this early stage in the story, and after such an inauspicious beginning, there is the sense that there is something growing between them, that these are two kindred spirits who are drawn to each other in spite of their wariness and distrust.

The King’s Man is very much a character driven story, in spite of the turbulent times in which it is set. The pacing allows time for the (at first) reluctant attraction between Ranulf and Gwenllian to build to an almost incendiary degree, and for the author to gradually reveal more and more about what makes them tick. Both characters have serious hang-ups; Ranulf was brought up by a cruel, ruthless man who never subjected Ranulf to the abuses he heaped upon everyone else, leaving him ashamed of the fact that he had loved his foster-father even as he had been ultimately driven to murder him. And Gwenllian has always been a pawn in the strategy of others, never allowed to live for herself or be herself – even her name is not truly her own, having been given to her because of the expectations that she would take on the mantle of her legendary namesake, the Welsh princess who led an army against the Normans more than a century earlier.

The romance between Ranulf and Gwenllian is intense, passionate and refreshingly free of so many of the tropes and stereotypes that abound in historical romance. I admit I was a little sceptical of the idea of Gwenllian as ‘warrior woman’, especially as women of the time were so powerless; but Ms Kingston has written her in such a way as to make it plausible and easy to accept.

Both Ranulf and Gwenllian are strongly-drawn, flawed characters who do not always do the right thing or act admirably. Yet they are compelling and easy to root for, especially when Gwenllian’s mother’s purpose becomes clear and it seems as though the couple are doomed to be on opposite sides in a long-brewing conflict.

I’m sure there were many other fans of historical romance audiobooks who, like me, were hoping that the final audiobook of Laura Kinsale’s oeuvre (so far) wouldn’t be the last we heard of Nicholas Boulton as a narrator in the genre. He really has raised the bar when it comes to audiobook narration, to a height only a very few can hope to match; and here, he once again proves himself a master of artistry and technique. The narrative is expressive and perfectly paced, and every single character, regardless of the amount of ‘screen time’ they get, is clearly and distinctly rendered, so there is never any question as to who is speaking at any given time. Mr Boulton has an incredibly wide range of timbre and accent, many of which he uses to excellent effect here, whether it be for the gravelly-voiced, Welsh-accented Madog, Gwenllian’s cousin and protector, or the tightly controlled, sometimes harsh-edged tone he employs to portray Ranulf, who is clearly a man wound incredibly tightly and full of hidden vulnerability and emotion. The principal female characters of Gwenllian and her overbearing mother are easy to tell apart in their scenes together, with Mr Boulton doing a terrific job with his interpretation of Gwenllian, getting to the heart of the character and skilfully conveying the self-doubt that lies beneath her warrior-queen exterior.

The King’s Man is a well-written, character-driven story, rich in historical detail and in the complexity of its characterisation. If I have a complaint, it is that Ranulf’s journey towards redemption is perhaps a little too easy for him, but overall, this is a strong début which is only enhanced by another incredibly accomplished performance from Nicholas Boulton.

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