Voyageurs by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

voyageurs

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Two men battle the wilderness – and desire.

It’s 1793, and Simon Cavendish needs to get to his station at Fort Charlotte, a fur-trading outpost in the untamed Canadian wild. The fort is only accessible by canoe, and there’s just one man daring enough to take him on the perilous, thousand-mile journey from Montreal this late in the summer.

Young Christian Smith, the son of an Ojibwe mother and absent English father, is desperate for money to strike out on his own, so he agrees to take clueless Simon deep into the wild. As they travel endless lakes and rivers, they butt heads.

Yet the attraction between Simon and Christian, two men from vastly different worlds, grows ever stronger. Locked in a battle against the wilderness and elements, how long can they fight their desire for each other?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I suppose saying “it was too short” is a form of praise – right? I recently reviewed another novella by Keira Andrews – Arctic Fire – and said exactly that; I enjoyed it and would have loved to have listened to a longer story featuring those characters. The same is true of Voyageurs, an historical romance which is more of a short story than a novella, coming in at just over ninety minutes in audio. I don’t often review ultra-short audiobooks like this one, but Keira Andrews has become a favourite author and with Joel Leslie narrating… Pfft. No brainer.

It’s July 1793, and Simon Cavendish, formerly of the East India Company, has arrived – a month late owing to bad weather and a ship in need of repairs – at the offices of the North West Company in Montréal, from where he is to travel to take up a post at Fort Charlotte, a thousand miles away. Simon is eager to take up his new position, but unfortunately, the delay in his arrival means that the party of voyageurs (young men hired to transport goods to trading posts) he was to have joined for the journey had to leave without him. Simon is disappointed to learn that he will have to wait until next spring to travel safely – and jumps on the idea of maybe travelling with just one or two voyageurs if they can be found and persuaded to make the trip.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Never Fall for Your Fiancée (Merriwell Sisters #1) by Virginia Heath

never fall for your fiancee

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The trouble with lies is they have a tendency to catch a man out.

The last thing Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, wants is a wife. But since the only way to keep his mother’s matchmaking ways at bay is the promise of impending nuptials, Hugh takes the most logical action: he invents a fake fiancée.

It’s the perfect plan – until Hugh learns that his mother is on a ship bound for England to meet his ‘beloved’. He needs a solution fast, and when he collides with a mysterious beauty, he might just have found the answer to his prayers.

Minerva Merriwell is desperate for money to support her sisters, and although she knows that posing as the Earl’s fiancée might seem nonsensical, it’s just too good an offer to refuse.

As the Merriwells descend upon Hugh’s estate, the household is thrown into turmoil as everyone tries to keep their tangled stories straight. And with Hugh and Minerva’s romantic ruse turning into the real thing, is true love just one complication too many?

Rating: B-

Virginia Heath has been one of my favourite authors of historical romance since I read her second book (Her Enemy at the Altar) for Mills & Boon/Harlequin back in 2016. Her stories are generally light-hearted and a lot of fun although not without a more serious side, her characters are well-rounded and engaging, her prose is crisp and the humour never feels forced.   Never Fall for Your Fiancée, the first book in her new Merriwell Sisters trilogy, is her first book for St. Martin’s Press, and it bears all the hallmarks of her style – a gorgeous hero, an intelligent and snarky heroine who won’t put up with any crap, sparking dialogue and genuinely witty banter – although it’s a tad overlong and the chemistry between the two principals isn’t quite as compelling as I know she’s capable of delivering.  The plot isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but Ms. Heath makes good use of the fake-relationship trope and her bright and breezy writing style carries the day.

Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, is in a bit of a bind.  His mother, who lives in Boston with her second husband, is on her way to England for a visit expressly to meet Hugh’s fiancée Minerva, the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for the past two years.  The problem?  Minerva is entirely a product of Hugh’s imagination, invented in order to head off his mother’s constant reminders that he should get married and her offer (which Hugh saw more as a threat) to come home to help him find a bride.  Hugh adores his mother, but he is absolutely convinced that a man should only enter into a marriage when he had every intention of honouring his vows, and being sure he isn’t capable of either love or fidelity, he has decided to eschew matrimony.  But his mother’s arrival is imminent, and the idea of telling her the truth weighs heavily.  He never, ever wanted to hurt her and, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries hard not to be too often), he also wants to avoid admitting to her that he’s far too much like his late father to consider settling down.

Minerva Merriwell has been the family caretaker since their mother died when Minerva was nine, and has been solely responsible for her younger sisters Diana and Vee (short for Venus) since their good-for-nothing father abandoned them when she was nineteen.  Now twenty-four, Minerva ekes out a living as an engraver but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence and her worries are never-ending.  Today’s is that one of the people she’s produced work for is four weeks late with payment; she’s confronted him outside his house to request – politely – that he pay her right away and things are deteriorating when a gentleman steps in and offers his assistance.  The bluster displayed by Minerva’s ‘employer’ can’t hold up in the face of the stranger’s aristocratic hauteur; the debt is settled and the gentleman offers to escort her home.

Hugh can’t believe his good fortune.  Not only does this young woman share the name of his fake fiancée, she’s entirely captivating – beautiful, witty and self-assured – and on the spot, he decides the answer to his problem is right in front of him.  He’ll pay Minerva to act as his fiancée, and then engineer some sort of falling-out that will end their ‘engagement’.  But he’s surprised when Minerva expresses reservations.  It’s clear she needs the money he’s offering, but she’s not happy about the idea of practicing such a deception; the Merriwells may be on the cusp of destitution, but they had morals.

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

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller

the brightest star in paris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Amelie St. James is a fraud. After the Siege of Paris, she became “St. Amie,” the sweet, virtuous prima ballerina the Paris Opera Ballet needed to restore its scandalous reputation, all to protect the safe life she has struggled to build for her and her sister. But when her first love reappears looking as devastatingly handsome as ever, and the ghosts of her past quite literally come back to haunt her, her hard-fought safety is thrown into chaos.

Dr. Benedict Moore has never forgotten the girl who helped him embrace life after he almost lost his. Now, years later, he’s back in Paris. His goals are to recruit promising new scientists, and maybe to see Amelie again. When he discovers she’s in trouble, he’s desperate to help her—and hold her in his arms.

When she finally agrees to let him help, they disguise their time together with a fake courtship. Soon, with the help of an ill-advised but steamy kiss, old feelings reignite. Except, their lives are an ocean apart. Will they be able to make it out with their hearts intact?

Rating: B

The Brightest Star in Paris is the follow up to Diana Biller’s 2019 début, The Widow of Rose House.  I haven’t got around to reading that one, but I gather that the books are linked by virtue of the fact that the hero of Brightest Star – Doctor Benedict Moore – is the brother of Sam from Rose House, and Alva, its heroine, is a good friend of this book’s heroine, Amelie.  Despite those connections however, the stories in each book are separate and I had no trouble reading this one as a standalone.  It’s rather lovely – beautifully written with a melancholy tinge, dealing with themes of grief and loss at the same time as it details the second-chance romance between Amelie and Benedict – but there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me that mean I can’t give it a higher grade.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1878, although there are a few flashback chapters that date back to twelve years earlier, when Benedict and Amelie first met.  This was after Benedict returned from serving as a medic in the American Civil War, so haunted by his experiences that his family is deeply concerned for his health and spirits.  Meeting Amelie, a bright, enchanting young woman who overflows with positive energy and completely captivates him, helps him find a renewed sense of purpose and start on his road to recovery;  the pair fall in love, but (for reasons not made clear until much later in the book) Amelie sends him away and he leaves to return to America with his family. Just a few years later,  Amelie and the people of Paris face terrible hardships resulting from the Franco Prussian WarThe Siege of Paris and the bloody fall of the Paris Commune in 1870-1; these events effect profound changes on her life, as she is forced to do whatever is necessary in order to survive and take care of her much younger sister, Honorine.

Now, though, she’s the darling of Paris.  Prima ballerina – étoile – at the Paris Opéra, Amelie is ‘St. Amie’, widely known and loved for her perfection, both on stage and off, a paragon of virtue in a world in which dancers were generally regarded as one step up from prostitutes.  Her pristine image hasn’t come without a price, however; as she’s worked her body hard to attain peak physical condition so she’s also worked hard to create a very specific image, one she now has to maintain at all costs.

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

A Gentleman Tutor by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Callum Hale

a gentleman tutor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For Frank Harte, impoverished schoolteacher, January in London means a yearly fight to survive. A former soldier, his injuries have barred him from all but the lowest paid posts, and the cold incapacitates him still more.

The chance to work as tutor to Viscount Gracewater, son of the famous big-game hunting Earl, comes as a lifeline to Frank. The Earl’s Knightsbridge mansion is huge, elegant – and, most temptingly, kept warm from basement to attics. Viscount “Scapegrace” Gracie, used to foreign climes, is delicate. He’s also wild, charming, and only five years younger than Frank himself. His innocence and feckless good nature soon endear him to the quiet, reserved tutor. But the Earl’s house is a dark one beneath its bright veneer, and the Viscount is in the thrall of unscrupulous Arthur Dickson, a handsome, brutal parasite who’ll stop at nothing to retain his power over Gracie’s heart and soul.

Edwardian secrets burgeon as Frank begins a battle to free his student, confronting along the way the knowledge that he’s losing his own heart to this brilliant and beautiful young man.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

Harper Fox’s A Gentleman Tutor is a standalone historical romance with a gothic tinge; a poor tutor goes to work at a grand house (although this one is in Kensington and not on the wild and windy moors!) and is caught up in a battle for the heart and soul of his tutee. I have it in print but – (you guessed it!) – haven’t got around to reading it yet, so I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the audio version. Narrator Callum Hale is new to me, and although it took me a little while to get used to him, he acquits himself well and I’d certainly listen to him again.

Impoverished schoolteacher Frank Harte is facing a cold and difficult winter. A leg wound sustained during military service in India has left him with a severe limp (and other problems) and proves a bar to finding a better-paid position, so he works two jobs, teaching at a boys’ school in Shoreditch during the day and teaching dockhands to read and write three nights a week. He is barely keeping body and soul together, having to make continual trade-offs as to what essentials he can afford. Until recently, his long-time best friend Cyril was in similar circumstances, but he inherited a fortune on the recent death of his father, money that is now allowing him to move in higher circles than previously, and when the book opens, he’s sought Frank out to tell him that he’s recommended his services to the Earl of Gracewater, who is looking for a tutor to prepare his twenty-one-year-old son for Cambridge.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: A Stitch in Time (Thorne Manor #1) by Kelley Armstrong

a stitch in time

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.
Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.

Rating: B

Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her.  A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt.  The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.

It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house.  Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future.  After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more.  But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black.  When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.

Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors.  The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors.  Or did they?  And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this?  In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him.  Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.

Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again.  Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.

There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur.  Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far.  And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.

As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy.  For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century.  I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career.  The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived.  And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.

But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!

Honey from the Lion (Love Across Time #2) by Jackie North (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

honey from the lion

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Soulmates across time. A love that was meant to be.

In present day, Laurie, tired of corporate life, takes a much-needed vacation at Farthingdale Dude Ranch.

The very first night, a freak blizzard combined with a powerful meteor shower takes Laurie back to the year 1891. When he wakes up in a snowbank, his only refuge is an isolated cabin inhabited by the gruff, grouchy John Henton, who only wants to be left alone. His sense of duty prevails, however, and he takes Laurie under his care, teaching him how to survive on the wild frontier.

As winter approaches, Laurie’s normally fun-loving manner makes it difficult for him to connect with John, but in spite of John’s old-fashioned ways, the chemistry between them grows.

Sparks fly as the blizzard rages outside the cabin. Can two men from different worlds and different times find happiness together?

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – B+

Honey from the Lion is book two in Jackie North’s Love Across Time series of timeslip romances, and although I haven’t listened to the first book (Heroes for Ghosts), the two aren’t connected by storyline or characters, so this one can be listened to as a standalone. I enjoyed this one sufficiently to want to go back to Heroes, and also to hope that the remaining four books in the series will find their way into audio – especially if Greg Boudreaux continues to narrate them!

Twenty-four-year-old software designer Laurie Quinn is tired, stressed-out and badly needs a break from his familiar routine and surroundings. When the book begins, he’s just arrived at the Farthingdale Dude Ranch in Wyoming and is looking forward to time spent in the fresh air, doing something completely different – a bit of “cowboy work”, evenings round the fire, camping under the stars, riding the range and generally escaping the stresses of modern life. Things get off to a pretty good start, with an evening spent around the campfire, eating food from the chuck wagon and listening to ghost stories told by the ranch’s owner, Bill. (I loved the use of the story about Oooooooold Joe and his Little Red Fox, which starts out as just a throwaway campfire story and is later shown to have much more significance.) Laurie goes to sleep that night looking forward to a ride across the dusty high plains the next day.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Reckless Match (Ruthless Rivals #1) by Kate Bateman

a reckless match

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Maddie Montgomery’s family is in debt, and her hope rests on the rival Davies clan missing their yearly “pledge of goodwill,” ceding the land that separates their estates. With Maddie’s teenage nemesis, Gryffud “Gryff” Davies, Earl of Powys, away, hope is in reach.

But then, Gryff shows up and is stunned that the tomboy he once teased is now a woman. When Gryff and Maddie discover contraband on their land, they realize it can benefit both families. But they’ve also uncovered a dangerous plot, and they need to work together to get out alive. Soon, their hatred for each other starts to feel more like attraction.

Rating: B

Set in nineteenth-century Wales, Kate Bateman’s A Reckless Match is an entertaining frenemies-to-lovers romance between scions of two noble families who have been enemies for so many hundreds of years that no-one now alive can remember the reason for that enmity.  The humour and effortless banter between her leads are things I’ve always appreciated about the author’s work, and her ability to create strong chemistry and palpable sexual tension is once again in evidence here, as her two protagonists – Gryffud Davies and Madeleine Montgomery – continue both the family rivalry and the relationship built on verbal sparring and one-upmanship they engaged in as children.

The prologue explains the feud and why, for centuries, it’s been necessary for a Davies and a Montgomery to meet at noon on the summer equinox on the disputed stretch of land that lies between their estates. A representative from each family must shake hands as a show of good faith  at that time and place every year, and if one of them doesn’t show, then the land is forfeit to the other. On day of the spring equinox of 1815, noon is getting closer and closer and there’s not a Davies in sight – and Maddie Montgomery is gleeful at the thought that her father will finally be able to take possession of the land and the rich deposits within it she’s sure will replenish the Montgomery coffers.  Not having to marry the lecherous Sir Mostyn Drake (who’s sixty if he’s a day) is an added bonus, as is finally getting the upper hand over the insufferable Gryffud Davies, an irresponsible rakehell who hasn’t been home since he inherited his father’s estate and title – and her nemesis since childhood.

Sadly, however, Maddie is destined for disappointment, as with just minutes to spare, a lone horseman appears, galloping furiously towards her – and there’s no mistaking that broad silhouette or the effortless grace of the rider.  Her pulse pounding, Maddie hopes that perhaps Gryff has lost some of his appeal or his looks – but no such luck.  If anything he’s even more handsome than he’d been the last time they’d seen each other three years earlier, and his wicked green eyes and gently mocking smile turn her knees to water and make her insides lurch as much as ever.  Maddie steels herself for confrontation, telling herself she doesn’t care a whit what Gryff thinks of her.

Gryff, who has recently returned from the war on the continent, inherited the title of Earl of Powys while he was still serving in the army and wasn’t even able to return home for his father’s funeral.  Since returning to England, he decided to spend a bit of time in London and have some fun; he knows it’s his duty to take a wife and set up his nursery, but he’s not ready to settle down quite yet;  he’s decided to give himself a year to get to grips with how his life has changed  before taking a wife.  This is the first time he’s been home since his return and he’s delighted to see Maddie waiting for him, his spirits soaring at the thought of resuming his verbal battle with the beautiful, tart-mouthed thorn in his side and noting with appreciation that she’s no longer the skinny tomboy he’d left behind.  The sexual tension thrums between them from the start, but of course, neither is ready to admit to the attraction they feel for one another and attempt to hide it behind cool disdain (her) and flirtatious teasing (him) while waging their “merry war” of verbal darts and well-aimed barbs.

When they accidentally discover a network of caves and passages that lead to the coast, they realise they’ve uncovered a large-scale smuggling operation – and their attempt to put an end to the illegal trade leads them into great danger… and unprecedented discoveries.

Maddie and Gryff are a great couple who light up the pages whenever they’re together.  The adventure plot is well-crafted and unusual, with never a dull moment as the pair banter their way through their various exploits while it becomes harder and harder for them to deny the pull they feel towards each other. The characters are engaging and well-defined; I liked that Maddie, who is something of an amateur archaeologist, is not your typical wallflower bluestocking; she’s very knowledgeable and passionate about her subject, but is also a convincing woman of her time, concerned about her reputation and loyal and loving towards her father.  And while Gryff has been labelled a rake by the gossips, he isn’t really; he’s a young man blowing off steam after years at war, who is sensible of his responsibilities – and it’s very clear he’s always had a soft spot for Maddie.  He’s another of Ms. Bateman’s delicious heroes; smart, gorgeous, determined, and obviously head-over-heels for his lady-love once he’s ready to admit it.

There were, however, a couple of things that dinged the grade on this one a bit.  The whole ‘I don’t want to die a virgin’ thing was a cliché too far, there are a couple of places where the pacing lags a little, and towards the end, there’s a bit of very obvious set up for the next book(s) that felt rather out of place.

Otherwise however, the book is a delight. Well-plotted, fast-paced and devoid of over-the-top drama, A Reckless Match is a charming romance full of adventure, sexual tension and great banter, and it gets Kate Bateman’s new Ruthless Rivals series off to a strong start.

TBR Challenge: Marked by Fire by Mia West

marked by fireThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Eighteen-year-old Arthur burns for two things: a warrior’s ink, and Bedwyr, his older brother’s shieldmate.

Though the warlord’s son is beyond his reach, a Saxon incursion finally brings Arthur’s chance at the tattoo that will brand him a fighter.

But when he abandons his training in the heat of battle, his reckless ambition costs Bedwyr his sword hand.

Once, Bedwyr trusted in two things: he was a warrior, and the presumed heir of Uthyr.

Now, reeling from injury and sent away by his father, he’s lost everything. The last person he wants to see is the cub who ignited his disastrous instinct to protect.

Especially when he arrives with Bedwyr’s armor and a dangerously hopeful scheme to restore him to his rightful place.

Rating: B-

I really had to wrack my brains to recall if I already had a book that would fit this month’s prompt of “unusual”, and I was coming up with a big blank – until I found Mia West’s Marked by Fire, book one in her Sons of Britain series, and decided that an m/m romance set in sixth century Wales definitely fit the bill!

Ms. West has mined Arthurian legends and given them a new slant, so that while the characters are mostly familiar, they don’t always fit the roles we may be used to seeing them in – for instance, Arthur isn’t the son of Uther Pendragon (or Uthyr, the Pen y Ddraig) and Bedwyr, who is often related to the sidelines in the myths, has a central role – and given there are so many legends and so many variations on them, I had no problem with that.  This is certainly not the Camelot of chivalric legend and the Lady of the Lake; no, this is the Dark Ages, mere decades since the Romans departed Britain, and life is tough and brutal.  The author does an excellent job capturing the feel of the period – it’s dark and gritty and very real – and of setting up the network of relationships that will populate her version of the story.

Eighteen-year-old Arthur ap Matthias is restless, hotheaded and eager to prove himself in battle and impress not only his leader, Uthyr, but also Uthyr’s son Bedwyr, who Arthur has watched and longed for from afar for years.  His chance comes when a small band of Saxons is spotted advancing into Cymru, but he fails to heed instructions and his recklessness has dire consequences – and in trying to defend him Bedwyr loses a hand.  His survival is in doubt, but Matthias – who is the village healer – is able to save him. (The author doesn’t sugarcoat the treatment he undergoes, so there are some scenes that might not be for the squeamish!). Arthur is distraught and desperate to beg Bedwyr’s forgiveness, but Bedwyr point blank refuses to see him.  Of course he’s furious with Arthur for costing him his sword hand, but he’s fearful, too – what use is a warrior who cannot fight?  Bedwyr’s worst fears come true when his father banishes him to a small shepherd’s hut outside the village.

Uthyr summons Arthur and makes it clear he expects Arthur to pay a price for causing Bedwyr’s injury.  Arthur at first thinks Uthyr is going to take his own right hand, and is shocked when Uthyr tells him to take his and Bedwyr’s armour to the hut and that he’s going to retrain Bedwyr to fight with his left hand – and that he must not, under any circumstances, tell Bedwyr that Uthyr sent him.  Relieved and pleased to have a chance to make amends, but worried Bedwyr will refuse to see him, Arthur nonetheless sets out for the hut, determined to do whatever it takes.

Bedwyr has pretty much given up and succumbed to self-pity when Arthur turns up, and he wants nothing to do with him.  But Arthur is stubborn and determined, and – begrudgingly – Bedwyr starts to acknowledge him and then to take an interest in what he’s come there to do.  A tentative friendship forms, and as the days pass, Bedwyr begins to pull himself out of his funk and to become the man – and warrior – he has always been meant to be, while Arthur’s remorse and desire to do right by Bedwyr engenders a new maturity and self-control.  And as Bedwyr comes to know Arthur as a man and not just as his best friend’s foolhardy younger brother, he takes his first step towards accepting the truth of his desires.  (Although the fact he has a bit of a crush on Matthias at the beginning of the book made his growing interest in Arthur a bit… ick?  I had to blank that out!)

Marked by Fire is a well-paced and enjoyable story with a strong setting and engaging, flawed characters who are both trying to learn from their mistakes and have undergone considerable growth by the end.  The romance between Arthur and Bedwyr is a slow-burn, and I enjoyed their progress from awkwardness to dawning friendship, playfulness and trust as their attraction to one another strengthens.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are nicely steamy, but I’d like there to have been a little more depth to their relationship overall.  That said, their story continues in book two (Bound by Blood); this one ends on an HFN (with a final scene that is a bit of a cliffhanger) so there is clearly more to come and I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next, so I’ll be reading that at some point.

Portrait of a Scotsman (League of Extraordinary Women #3) by Evie Dunmore

portrait of a scotsman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Going toe-to-toe with a brooding Scotsman is rather bold for a respectable suffragist, but when he happens to be one’s unexpected husband, what else is an unwilling bride to do?

London banking heiress Hattie Greenfield wanted just three things in life:

1. Acclaim as an artist
2. A noble cause
3. Marriage to a young lord who puts the gentle in gentleman

Why then does this Oxford scholar find herself at the altar with the darkly attractive financier Lucian Blackstone? Trust Hattie to take an invigorating little adventure too far. Now she’s stuck with a churlish Scot who just might be the end of her ambitions . . .

When the daughter of his business rival all but falls into his lap, Lucian sees opportunity. As a self-made man, he has vast wealth but holds little power, and Hattie might be the key to finally setting his political plans in motion. Driven by an old desire for revenge, he has no room for his new wife’s apprehensions or romantic notions, bewitching as he finds her.

But a sudden journey to Scotland paints everything in a different light. Hattie slowly sees the real Lucian and realizes she could win everything – as long as she is prepared to lose her heart.

Rating: B

Evie Dunmore’s series about a group of young women activists in late Victorian Britain continues with Hattie’s story, Portrait of a Scotsman.  Like the previous two novels in the set, this one is extremely well written and strongly characterised; the lack of agency of well-bred young ladies of the period is again critically examined, and the very genuine struggles they face in trying to reconcile rigidly traditional upbringings with their own emerging sense of self and a desire for something more are articulated with a great deal of insight.  If you enjoyed the author’s previous work, chances are you’ll enjoy this, too; all the things you’ll have come to expect of her books – strong heroines and heroes who actively support them and understand their worth, themes of female empowerment and sexy, well-written romances are to be found here.  BUT.  In spite of all that, I have mixed feelings about this novel as a whole – mostly because I wasn’t wild about the heroine and I really disliked the ending.

Hattie Greenfield is studying art at Oxford University, but is frustrated at not being taken seriously – even by her professors, who are condescending to all the female students.  She longs to create more meaningful work and paint more challenging subjects – and hopes to gain some inspiration from the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.  To this end, she arranges to join a tour to view John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia, which is currently in the collection belonging to one Mr. Blackstone – a man with a reputation so black society has dubbed him “Beelzebub”, and who happens to be one of her father’s business rivals – but when she arrives at the gallery at the appointed time, she’s concerned to discover that either she’s late for the tour, or that nobody else has arrived.  While she’s waiting to view the painting, a man enters the room – a darkly attractive man with hard grey eyes and unruly black hair – who offers to give her the whole tour… and promptly kisses her instead.

Lucian Blackstone (whom we met briefly in A Rogue of One’s Own) is a self-made man with a reputation for cold-blooded ruthlessness in his business dealings.  Born into a Scottish mining community, he’s survived real hardship and suffering, but has pulled himself up from nothing to become a captain of industry and amass a fortune along the way.  He never forgets where he came from though, and is determined to do whatever he can to improve the lots of the people who work for him.  But while he’s very wealthy, he has little real power or influence, and he needs both if he’s going to be able to bring about the changes he wants to effect; so in order to make himself more… acceptable to society, he has begun the attempt to rehabilitate his fearsome reputation.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t met with much success so far, but his brief meeting with Greenfield’s daughter has given him the germ of an idea as to what his next move should be.  And while there are a number of well-bred young ladies in society who would suit his purpose, he’s rather surprised to find there’s really only one of them he wants.

It’s not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb – to say that it’s not long before Hattie and Blackstone are married, and even though Hattie is wildly attracted to her new husband, it’s far from the sort of marriage she had envisioned for herself.  She’d wanted to find a true life-partner, someone who would share his time – and himself – with her, someone she deeply loved and who would love her the same way, and I liked that about her, that she wants love and affection and family and doesn’t see that desire as somehow ‘lesser’ – while at the same time being determined to attain her independence and be herself.

Up until this point, I was enjoying the story a lot; it’s perhaps a little slow to start, but that meant there was plenty of time for the author to establish the personalities and motivations of her characters and to round them out so they came to life on the page.  But then, Hattie discovers something unpalatable and starts behaving like an immature brat rather than trying to address it, and I lost sympathy with her.

Fortunately however, the author managed to regain some of that in the second half of the book, in which the newly-weds make their way to Scotland so that Blackstone can take care of various business concerns there.  Maybe it’s not the most romantic honeymoon, but the time they spend together here slowly brings them to a closer understanding of one another, and the slow-burning attraction that’s been there since their first meeting and first kiss builds into an intense desire.   Running alongside the romance is a fascinating storyline about Blackstone’s desire to improve the working conditions for the people working in his mine (which also goes some way towards explaining the unpalatable thing I mentioned earlier) and to invest in new infrastructure and technologies to increase profits rather than just working the miners to death.  As Hattie learns more about her husband’s past and gets to know the real man behind the reputation, she finds much to admire and a worldview similar to her own in many ways.  She finds herself abandoning the resentment she’d determined to harbour against him, while Blackstone is coming to realise that the woman he’s married is far more than the nervous chatterbox he’d first thought her, and that he enjoys talking and debating with her as much as he enjoys thinking about how to get her into bed.  This section is easily the best part of the book; the relationship development, as they take the time to learn about each other’s aspirations and ambitions, to learn why they are the people they are now, is extremely well done.

But then judgmental Hattie returns and jumps to a conclusion about something that may or may not be true –  she has no way of knowing – and the author undid all the good work she’d done in getting me to like Hattie again.  And then… the ending.  Okay, so first of all, let me assure you that this book DOES have an HEA, so no worries on that score.  And actually, what happens makes sense in terms of the way Hattie is characterised as someone who wants to make her own choices in life and, just as importantly, wants to be chosen.  But even though I understood that, and could see the sense in it – I still thoroughly disliked it.

Hattie and Blackstone have good chemistry and they work well as a couple, but while he’s a terrific hero – a bit dangerous and somewhat morally ambiguous, but with a heart very much in the right place and a strong desire to enact change for the better –  Hattie is inconsistent.  I liked a lot about her and felt a lot of sympathy for her to begin with; she’s talented and smart and determined to succeed on her own terms, but unfortunately, nobody in her family sees her or appreciates her for who she truly is, and her frustration at always being the odd one out comes across really strongly.  But when she became judgmental and jumped to unwarranted conclusions – I liked her a lot less.

Portrait of a Scotsman is undoubtedly entertaining and well-written, although if you’re expecting another story about women fighting for universal suffrage, you may be disappointed as this one is more about Hattie’s personal struggle to find herself and live life on her own terms.  The author’s research is impeccable as always, her social commentary is insightful and razor sharp, and the central romance is a passionate and sexy slow-burn, but overall, it lacks some of the charm of the previous instalments, and my disappointment with the ending meant I came away from the book on a downer.  It turned out to be one of those books I could appreciate but didn’t really feel – although I’m sure there will be many readers who disagree with me!

I’m Only Wicked With You (Palace of Rogues #3) by Julie Anne Long

I'm only wicked with youThis title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s the battle-hardened son of a bastard, raised in the wilds of New York. She’s the sheltered, blue-blooded darling of the London broadsheets, destined to marry a duke. Their worlds could only collide in a boardinghouse by the London docks…and when they do, the sparks would ignite all of England.

Nothing can stop Hugh Cassidy’s drive to build an American empire…unless it’s his new nemesis, the arrogant, beautiful, too-clever-by-half Lady Lillias Vaughn. The fascination is mutual. The temptation is merciless. And the inevitable indiscretion? Soul-searing—and the ruination of them both. Hugh’s proposal salvages Lillias’s honor but kills their dreams for their futures…until they arrive at a plan that could honorably set them free.

But unraveling their entanglement inadvertently uncovers enthralling truths: about Lillias’s wounded, tender heart and fierce spirit. About Hugh’s stunning gentleness, depth, and courage. Soon Hugh knows that as surely as he’d fight a thousand battles to win her…the best way to love Lillias means breaking his own heart.

Rating: C+

I reviewed this one jointly with my fellow All About Romance reviewer Evelyn North; she liked it a lot more than I did and gave it an A, whereas I couldn’t go higher than a C+. I didn’t care much for the heroine, and while I did like the hero, there’s nothing worse tnan a romance in which you feel one half of the central couple doesn’t “deserve” the other, which was where I ended up on this one.

You can read our review HERE