The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

England, 1666; the year all the prophecies said the world would end. For Chloe Hervaux, marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, waking up with an epic hangover, the discovery that he has acquired a bride is an unwelcome shock. But while the marriage remains in name only, other forces are gathering.

England is at war with the Dutch, and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work in the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark, secret labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles 11’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the diverse facets of Mr. Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed, her mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr. Deveril himself.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for personal matters and less for his bride. But as the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, he and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk…their choices may save it.

The Marigold Chain is a richly-woven tale of intrigue, danger, and love set against a backdrop of Restoration England during the year expected to be Doomsday.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

The Marigold Chain is one of Stella Riley’s earliest published works, and, as it’s a long-time favourite of mine, I’ve been waiting not-at-all patiently for it to make an appearance in audiobook format. I first read it in the mid-1980s and loved it; for me, it ticks all the boxes. A brilliant, gorgeous, sharp-tongued hero enters into a marriage of convenience with a practical, quick-witted heroine who doesn’t take any of his crap; set that against the backdrop of the politics and intrigue-laden Restoration court of Charles II, and you’ve got another winner from a writer who really knows how to put the historical into historical romance while at the same time creating a tender, sensual love story. With the exceptionally talented Alex Wyndham once more at the microphone, there’s no question The Marigold Chain is a fabulous audio experience – so just sink into your favourite chair, lock the door, take the phone off the hook and let the world look after itself for a few hours while you get stuck in!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A story too secret, too terrifying – and too shockingly intimate – for Victorian eyes.

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant, and chronicler for 20 years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: Narration – A-: Content – A

K.J. Charles’ The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is a collection of wonderfully imaginative, well-written and downright spooky tales of ghostly goings on and supernatural shenanigans set in the late Victorian era featuring ghost-hunter extraordinaire, Simon Feximal, and his chronicler and long-term companion Robert Caldwell. The author draws on ancient legends and late Victorian sensation fiction for inspiration and has crafted a set of original and compelling creations while also charting the development of the relationship between her two protagonists, a lasting partnership built on a solid foundation of love and respect that endures through dark days and the direst of adversity.

When we first meet Robert Caldwell, he is a making a name for himself as a journalist for The Chronicle. He has recently inherited old, dilapidated Caldwell Place and decides to sell it rather than live there. The only problem is that it appears to be haunted – and when the walls start bleeding, Robert realises he’s got to do something about it before he can even think of putting the place up for sale. So, he calls in the renowned ghost-hunter Simon Feximal in the hope that he will be able to get rid of his unwanted, ghoulish guest, and is immediately struck by Simon’s imposing form and air of command. Feximal clearly knows what he’s doing – but both he and Robert have reckoned without the strength of a spirit long denied its desires, and a highly-charged, passionate encounter ensues which sends the mischievous spirit packing and sees our principals left to their own – most pleasurable – devices.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From exotic sandstone palaces… 

Sick of tragedy, done with rebellion, Emmaline Martin vows to settle quietly into British Indian society. But when the pillars of privilege topple, her fiancé’s betrayal leaves Emma no choice. She must turn for help to the one man whom she should not trust, but cannot resist: Julian Sinclair, the dangerous and dazzling heir to the Duke of Auburn.

To the marble halls of London… 

In London, they toast Sinclair with champagne. In India, they call him a traitor. Cynical and impatient with both worlds, Julian has never imagined that the place he might belong is in the embrace of a woman with a reluctant laugh and haunted eyes. But in a time of terrible darkness, he and Emma will discover that love itself can be perilous — and that a single decision can alter one’s life forever.

Destiny follows wherever you run. 

A lifetime of grief later, in a cold London spring, Emma and Julian must finally confront the truth: no matter how hard one tries to deny it, some pasts cannot be disowned…and some passions never die.

Rating: A

I read The Duke of Shadows for the first time some years ago – before I started reviewing – and I remember being blown away by the quality of the writing, the richness of the setting and the passion and intensity of the romance.  I don’t get much time for re-reading these days, but I decided one was in order prior to reading and reviewing The Sins of Lord Lockwood (Lockwood is a major – and very intriguing – secondary character in The Duke of Shadows), and I was once again awed by the author’s talent and this wonderful book which was, incredibly, her début.  As I didn’t write a review the first time around, I’m going to do that now.

It is 1857 and the British have ruled India – by fair means or foul (mostly foul) – for many years.  Trouble is brewing, but for the majority of the British contingent, who are unable to conceive that anything could challenge the might of the Empire, it’s business as usual and continued obliviousness to the rumblings of disquiet around them. Only one man among their number dares to posit that the country teeters on the brink of revolt and that British lives may soon be endangered – but he is derided and his views dismissed, even though he is an English peer.  Julian Sinclair, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is one quarter Indian which makes him someone who lives on the fringes of both English and Indian society.  His Indian blood renders him ‘not quite the thing’ among the insular, rule-bound English, who look on him with disdain and suspicion in spite of his being the heir to a dukedom – while his English blood causes the same reaction among his Indian family.

Emmaline – Emma – Martin was travelling to India accompanied by her parents in order to marry her fiancé, an officer in the East India Company, when tragedy struck. Their ship was wrecked and Emma is one of the few survivors.  The death of her parents – which she witnessed – has, naturally, affected her profoundly, but of more concern to Delhi society is the fact that she was rescued and transported to her destination on a ship full of rough sailors, so her reputation is now irretrievably tarnished.  Emma’s fiancé, Marcus Lindley is handsome and charming, but as Emma has known for some time, does not believe in confining his ‘charms’ solely to his betrothed.  Meeting him again for the first time in years, the scales fall from Emma’s eyes completely, and she sees him for what he is; arrogant, spiteful, dismissive of her intelligence and clearly only interested in her dowry.  Emma, a spirited and determined young woman, means to break things off with him as soon as she can.

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

The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

Think of England by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Tom Carter

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lie back and think of England…

England, 1904. Two years ago, Captain Archie Curtis lost his friends, fingers, and future to a terrible military accident. Alone, purposeless, and angry, Curtis is determined to discover if he and his comrades were the victims of fate, or of sabotage.

Curtis’s search takes him to an isolated, ultra-modern country house, where he meets and instantly clashes with fellow guest Daniel da Silva. Effete, decadent, foreign, and all-too-obviously queer, the sophisticated poet is everything the straightforward British officer fears and distrusts.

As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share – a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.

As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail, and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…

Rating: Narration – B: Content – A

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Think of England ever since I learned that Audible Studios was going to be releasing a number of K.J. Charles’ backlist titles in audio. It’s one of my favourite books of hers (one of my favourite books, full-stop, actually) and while I admit to a bit of trepidation when I saw that an unknown narrator had been used, I’m pleased to be able to say that on the whole, Tom Carter does a pretty good job.

The story is set in 1904, and opens with former army captain Archie Curtis arriving at Peakholme, near Newcastle, for a house-party given by Sir Hubert Armstrong, a wealthy industrialist. Curtis was invalided out of the army after losing three fingers and sustaining a serious knee injury at Jacobsdal in South Africa, occasioned when a faulty batch of guns backfired and exploded, also maiming and killing a number of his men.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Tramps and Thieves (Murder and Mayhem #2) by Rhys Ford (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Whoever said blood was thicker than water never stood in a pool of it.

Retiring from stealing priceless treasures seemed like a surefire way for Rook Stevens to stay on the right side of the law. The only cop in his life should have been his probably-boyfriend, Los Angeles Detective Dante Montoya, but that’s not how life – his life – is turning out. Instead, Rook ends up not only standing in a puddle of his cousin Harold’s blood but also being accused of Harold’s murder…and sleeping with Harold’s wife.

For Dante, loving the former thief means his once-normal life is now a sea of chaos, especially since Rook seems incapable of staying out of trouble – or keeping trouble from following him home. When Rook is tagged as a murder suspect by a narrow-focused West LA detective, Dante steps in to pull his lover out of the quagmire Rook’s landed in.

When the complicated investigation twists around on them, the dead begin to stack up, forcing the lovers to work together. Time isn’t on their side, and if they don’t find the killer before another murder, Dante will be visiting Rook in his prison cell – or at his grave.

Rating: Narration – A+: Content – B+

I so enjoyed Murder and Mayhem, the first book in Rhys Ford’s series about the cop and the (ex) cat burglar, that I was tempted to move straight on to book two, Tramps and Thieves immediately it came out. But then I told myself to be a good little reviewer and listen to some of the other things that were – admittedly – ahead of it on my TBL. So I did. But now here I am to tell you that, in spite of some similarities in the plotline (someone is Out To Get Rook), Tramps and Thieves is every bit as entertaining as Murder and Mayhem; Dante and Rook are every bit as engaging as they were before and Greg Tremblay’s narration is every bit as awesome.

At the end of Murder and Mayhem, L.A. detective Dante Montoya and Rook Stevens, the ex-thief who’d haunted Dante’s thoughts for years, were an established couple – although it was clear that things weren’t going to be plain sailing for the rather mis-matched duo. Falling in love with someone who spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law is something Dante never expected, and loving the acerbic, vulnerable and complicated Rook has turned his life upside down. But in a good way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.’

Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet – until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!

Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret – her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defences. But, when her former fiancé returns Lizzie realises that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust – with her heart and her son…

Rating: A

If you only read one Christmassy historical romance this year, I’d strongly advise you to make it this one.  His Mistletoe Wager is simply delightful from start to finish; it’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s full of warmth and tenderness – and in Hal Stuart, Virginia Heath has created one of the most swoonworthy heroes I’ve read all year.

The story opens with a prologue set five years before the book proper begins, with Lady Elizabeth Wilding awaiting the arrival of her bridegroom, the Marquess of Rainham. She’s blissfully happy, deeply in love with her fiancé and can’t wait to tell him the news that she’s to bear his child – but her hopes for a bright future are dashed when her brother arrives at the church to tell her that Rainham isn’t coming.  He has run off with the Duke of Aylesbury’s daughter and her large fortune.

Five years on, and we learn that Elizabeth – whose aloofness and icy demeanour have earned her the nickname “sullen Lizzie” – is still moving about in society, having had her child in secret with the full support of her family, which is a refreshing change from so many stories where a heroine “in trouble” is disowned.  Her father, a prominent member of the government, is eager for Lizzie to marry, and has, over the past few years, paraded suitor after suitor in front of her in the hopes that one of them would take her fancy – but to no avail.  Lizzie is determined to remain unwed for the sake of her son; she has no desire to surrender her independence to a man who might take Georgie away from her or mistreat him, and she certainly has no desire to fall in love. In fact, though she knows it will break her father’s heart, she has made plans to retire to a small village in Yorkshire where she can live as a widow and allow Georgie to grow up without the need for secrecy and where he will be able to have a normal life among other children. She hasn’t yet had the heart to tell her father of her plans, but she is holding fast to her intention to depart after Twelfth Night.

Having inherited his title around a year earlier, Hal Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge is surprised to discover that he rather enjoys all the things that go along with being an earl.  He’s got a talent for spotting good investments and has already substantially increased the family fortune, he is a good landlord and estate manager and he likes being involved in politics, things he never in a million years thought he’d actually enjoy after having spent his youth rebelling against his unpleasant, authoritarian father.

Even more worrying for Hal – who has rather a devilish reputation as a ladies’ man – is that he hasn’t felt much like sowing any of the wild oats he’s certain that, at twenty-seven, he still has in abundance.  He’s not sure exactly what’s wrong with him, and right now, between escorting his mother to various seasonal entertainments and dodging the eager match-making mamas and their equally eager debutante daughters, Hal doesn’t really have the time to work it out.  But he’s certainly not himself, and is pondering the problem of his absent libido with his best friend and brother-in-law, Aaron Wincanton (who married Hal’s sister, Connie in Her Enemy at the Altar) suggests that perhaps Hal is just missing the thrill of the chase now he’s got women throwing themselves at him.  In an attempt to pull Hal out of his funk, Aaron suggests a wager.  His interest piqued, Hal listens as Aaron outlines the details of The Mistletoe Wager (their silly wagers always have names), which is that Hal must steal five kisses in five different locations from a lady of Aaron’s choosing before Twelfth Night.  No prizes for guessing whom Aaron chooses 😉

Daunted but not defeated, Hal quickly realises that the best way to approach Lizzie is to make it clear he’s not interested in her at all, but rather that he is taking advantage of her formidable reputation as an ice maiden to repel all boarders and hide from the barely-out-of-the-schoolroom-chits who keep trying to corner him. Surprised at such an approach, Lizzie finds herself sympathising with his plight and before she can help herself, tells him she’s in a similar situation vis-à-vis her father’s eagerness for her to marry.  Hal immediately sees a way for him to be able to spend time in Lizzie’s company and suggests they can help each other out.  If they pretend to be interested in each other, the debutantes will leave Hal alone and Lizzie will be able to refuse the attentions of the gentlemen her father continues to hope she will favour.

At first, Lizzie is appalled at the idea.  But when the smarmy Lord Ockendon approaches her and makes a number of cryptic comments that seem to indicate he knows something damaging about her, Lizzie changes her mind and agrees to Hal’s suggestion that they act like a courting couple until the Redbridge ball on Twelfth Night.

Yes, we all know where this is going, but Ms. Heath has fashioned a story of surprising depth and emotional complexity behind the whimsical set up and title.  Hal is still of the opinion that he’s far too young to be thinking about settling down, but it’s clear from the start that he’s no longer the hellion he was and is already making the transition from wild youth to responsible adult. He keeps telling himself he isn’t ready for marriage, but his actions towards Lizzie, his thoughts and feelings about her – feelings he steadfastly denies are born of anything other than the enjoyment he finds in her company – reveal he’s most certainly ready and more than that, he’s well over half-way head-over-heels in love.  He’s witty, clever and gorgeous; and more to the point, after an initial mis-step, takes the truth of Lizzie’s situation in his stride and wants to help and protect her however he can.

Lizzie could have been the rather stereotypical ice-maiden who guards her heart after being disappointed in love, but in Ms. Heath’s hands she’s more than that; she’s a woman determined to protect her son at all costs, even going so far as to give up all hope of personal fulfilment and happiness.  She’s young and beautiful, and should have been enjoying the thrill of a stolen kiss, a first waltz or a harmless flirtation, but thanks to Rainham’s faithlessness, she has missed out on all those youthful pleasures, taking refuge instead behind the emotional walls she has erected.

Ms. Heath develops their relationship splendidly, showing two mature, like-minded people trading quips and intelligent discussion enjoying each other’s company and coming to know each other.  Before long, spending time with Lizzie has become far more important to Hal than the wager, and Lizzie, who had sworn never again to be taken in by good looks and charm, realises that there is far more to Hal than a pretty face and that there’s an intelligent and well-informed man behind the rakish exterior.

Of course there are a few road-bumps along the way to true love and happiness.  The threat to Lizzie is nasty and is extended to those she loves, and Ms. Heath thankfully doesn’t opt to go down the Big Mis route.  Lizzie knows she can’t handle it alone and confides in her father and in Hal, who really does leave no stone unturned in order to help her.

His Mistletoe Wager is romantic, funny, poignant and will charm you completely. If you’re wondering what to give yourself for Christmas… it’s the perfect seasonal treat.