TBR Challenge: Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell

mr. warren's profession

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lindsey Althorp, the only son of a wealthy baronet, has never worked a day in his life. Aubrey Warren was born in a workhouse and hasn’t stopped working since.

When Lindsey wins a textile mill in a game of cards, he falls at first sight for the assistant clerk, Aubrey. Lindsey is certain that Aubrey is the Achilles to his Patroclus, the David to his Jonathan. Yet Aubrey, unaccustomed to affection, refuses to be a kept man-though he isn’t immune to Lindsey’s considerable charm.

Buoyed by Lindsey’s optimism and fuelled by Aubrey’s industry, the two men strive to overcome the class gulf between them. But a horrific accident reveals a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart forever.

Rating: B+

For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time.  It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.

Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester.  He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections.  But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness.  He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.

Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten.  It’s a defining moment for Lindsey;  for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men.  He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.

While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies.  The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not.  But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.

While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other.  They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart.  As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk?  Very suspicious indeed.

So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot.  There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)

There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit –  for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly!  Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.

In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for.  I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness.  If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

To Marry and to Meddle (Regency Vows #3) by Martha Waters

to marry and to meddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Marriage isn’t always smooth sailing

Lady Emily Turner should really be married by now, but with a dowry of her father’s debts, her only suitor is the odious owner of her father’s favourite gambling house.

Lord Julian Belfry is the second son of a marquess, but has managed to scandalise polite society with his acting career and the fact that he owns a less than salubrious theatre.

Crossing paths at a house party, they discover that a marriage of convenience might benefit them both: Emily can use her society connections to add some respectability to Julian’s theatre, while also managing to escape the dubious world of her father.

With differing ideas on the roles each will play in their marriage, and an on-the-run actress, a murderous kitten, and some meddlesome friends adding to the complications, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience might be leading to some rather inconvenient feelings.

Rating: B+

This third instalment in Martha Waters’ Regency Vows series is, I think, my favourite so far.  It’s a charming marriage-of-convenience romance between two characters we’ve already met – the rakishly charming and somewhat scandalous Lord Julian Belfry and the very proper Lady Emily Turner.  It’s a delightful read; the prose flows effortlessly, the characterisation is excellent and the romance is superbly developed;and I especially enjoyed watching the transformation of Lady Emily from a rather reticent young woman into one who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express it.

Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of the Marquess of Eastvale, purchased a run-down theatre in a fit of youthful impetuousness and has since restored the building and the company, even going so far as to appear on stage himself when the mood takes him.  Needless to say, such behaviour is highly shocking in the eyes of the ton, but Julian rather likes that his scandalous reputation prevents matchmaking mamas from throwing their eligible daughters at him.  In the book’s prologue, which takes place several years before the story proper, his father, fearing that Julian’s less than pristine reputation will affect his sister’s chances on the marriage mart, orders Julian to sell the place – he’s had his fun, he’s made a tidy profit on his investment, and now it’s time to find an more respectable occupation.  Even though a small voice deep inside can’t disagree with the Marquess’ comments about the fact that the Belfry has earned itself a rather sordid name over the past few years, or fail to recognise that his father has been remarkably indulgent with him, Julian nonetheless resents being given an ultimatum – sell the theatre, or be cut off from his family – and he refuses to sell.

Lady Emily Turner is in her sixth season, but unfortunately, her beautiful face and impressive lineage is not enough to compensate for the fact that her dowry is non-existent and her father is rumoured to have racked up massive gambling debts.  She leads a stifling existence; her mother has, for years, drummed into her that her behaviour must be beyond reproach, and she knows that her parents are relying on her to prevent the family’s plunging into ruin.  But after six years, she has only one real suitor, the somewhat odious Mr. Cartham, the man to whom she believes her father is indebted.

Emily and Julian met a few months before this story begins, when Emily’s friend and Diana (To Love and to Loathe) took her to a performance at the Belfry. In the months following, an odd friendship has grown between them and Julian has danced with her at balls and escorted her to the odd musicale, but recently, his behaviour has changed somewhat, leading Emily to believe a marriage proposal may be imminent. She’s correct. During Lord Willingham’s house party, Julian asks for Emily’s hand, telling her honestly that he isn’t in love with her, but that a match could be advantageous for both of them. He’s on a mission to clean up the Belfry’s reputation and turn it into somewhere gentlemen might take their wives rather than their mistresses, and wants Emily to use her society connections to promote the theatre to a more respectable clientele. In return, Emily will gain independence from her parents and won’t have to worry about Cartham’s attentions any more – in short, she’ll be free to live a life of her own choosing.

To Marry and to Meddle is smart, fun and sexy, but somehow feels ‘quieter’ than the other two books in the series. I don’t mean that in a negative way, far from it; rather that the barbed banter and games of one-upmanship that characterises those books is absent here, so the focus is more firmly on Julian and Emily learning how to be together, as Emily – with Julian’s help and support – is working out who she wants to be now she’s out from under the restrictions placed upon her by her parents, and Emily is helping Julian to work through the deep-seated anger and resentment he holds towards his father.

The chemistry between the pair is terrific and their romance is very nicely done. Friendship proves a solid basis for marriage; Emily and Julian clearly like each other a lot and they possess a good degree of insight into what makes the other tick. Before they marry, they both agree never to lie to one another – and they don’t, which leaves no room for a Big Mis. (Yay!) Instead, the conflict in the story comes mostly from Julian’s insistence that Emily be the irreproachable society wife she’s been brought up to be, while Emily wants to take an interest in the threatre and to tread a different path to the one previously laid out for her. Julian has become so focused on turning the Belfry into a respectable venue that he fails to see he’s trying to push Emily into a role she doesn’t really want, and that he’s also trying to be someone he’s not – and he stubbornly refuses to admit why.

Emily and Julian are sunny, endearing characters, and I liked them as individuals and a couple. Julian is a sexy hero with a dry sense of humour, who, despite his rakish reputation, is a good, kind man, and Emily is delightfully witty, unaffected and pragmatic.

Among the secondary cast are the couples from the previous books, together with Julian’s brother and sister, who are lovely, and his father, who, I was pleased to note, is not at all the sort of stock-in-trade tyrannical authoritarian who so often appears in romances where a father/son conflict is part of the story. That said, however, Eastvale being essentially decent does make it a bit harder to believe in the reasons behind his and Julian’s estrangement. That’s the only major quibble I have with the book; otherwise, To Marry and to Meddle is a thoroughly entertaining read and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone looking for a lively, character-driven historical romance.

Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening (Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters #2) by Marguerite Kaye

lady armstrong's scandalous uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Hers was a body of marble…

Until he brought it to life

Since her tyrannical late husband ruined her reputation, Lady Mercy Armstrong has been longing to reinvent herself. The perfect opportunity presents itself when rebellious self-made man Jack Dalmuir presents a daring proposition—a fake dalliance that will change society’s view of her! Only her cavorting with the handsome Scotsman ignites a passion that could change their lives for ever…

Rating: B

For this second book in her Victorian Era Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters series, Marguerite Kaye returns briefly to her Armstrong family, albeit a generation on, and shows the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the person of the deceased but obnoxious-from-beyond-the-grave Lord Harry Armstrong.  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening opens on the day of the reading of the late Lord Armstrong’s will at which his two brothers (twins) and his wife, Mercy (née Carstairs), are to be present.  It’s very clear that the Armstrongs’ seventeen year marriage was anything but happy, and that the deceased was cold, domineering and unkind, traits that became more pronounced as the years went by and Mercy failed give him the all-important son and heir. (Because of course it was her fault.)

Not content with being a domestic tyrant in life, however, Lord Armstrong has one last dig at his wife in the most appalling way, attaching a codicil to his will and insisting it be read aloud.  In it, he accuses her of having an “obstinate and determined failure to provide [him] with an heir” and denounces her as “a disgrace to the gentle sex… and not fit to be a wife.  Lady Mercy Armstrong is frigid.  Engage with her at your peril.”  Mercy knows very well that the new Lord Armstrong and his brother will waste no time in making sure their late brother’s words are reported in the press and about society, whose members will no doubt relish the opportunity to gossip and gloat to their heart’s content.

One year later, and Mercy is finally out of morning for the husband who oppressed and belittled her.  She’s spent the last year living quietly in the country with her brother Clement, a scholar, but has decided it’s time to get on with her life.  She’s realised the one of the reasons for her late husband’s spitefulness was because he wanted to make sure she spent the rest of her life alone as a form of revenge – but she’s determined to make the most of her new-found freedom and independence and most of all, have some fun.

A chance meeting with Jack Dalmuir, a successful Glaswegian engineer, seems as though it will offer Mercy just the opportunity she wants.  On the very day her morning ends, Mercy finds herself – somewhat tipsily and very uncharacteristically – sharing some of the details of her life and her husband’s cruelty, finding in Mr. Dalmuir a concerned and sympathetic listener who encourages her in her desire to make a fresh start.

“Enjoy yourself, kick over the traces a bit.  Do some of the things that you’ve always wanted to.”

More than that, he offers to help if he can, proposing to serve as her escort should she need one, and the pair make arrangements to meet again when they are both in London.

Marguerite Kaye is one of the few writers of historical romance around who regularly writes stories featuring non-titled heroes, instead opting to write about military men or men of business and enterprise, of which Jack Dalmuir is one.  He’s a self-made man who runs his own engineering firm, and he and Mercy meet when Jack is travelling to London in order to oversee the installation of the steam engines built by his company into two new water pumping stations.  He’s attractive, intelligent and has a clear life plan mapped out; he’s dedicated to his business and intends to remain so for some years yet before turning his attention to taking a wife – a strong, practical woman from a similar background to his own – and perhaps starting a family.

Jack and Mercy are both single and neither is in the least interested in marriage, so there can be no harm in their going on outings and spending time together.  They enjoy each other’s company and for Mercy, being with a man who does not seek to judge or oppress her is a revelation.  Yet there’s an undeniable attraction between them that’s impossible to deny, and as their association continues, both realise that they’re getting in deeper than they had ever intended.

As is always the case with a Marguerite Kaye book, her meticulous historical research shows itself in the way she so skilfully weaves interesting background detail throughout her stories. Here, we’re treated to descriptions of the London docks, a visit to a Holborn pie stall and to the Scottish countryside around Glasgow, and to discussion of how Jack’s innovations will help to transform lives.  The romance is beautifully written and the chemistry between Jack and Mercy is terrific, the focus firmly on their growing feelings for each other at the same time as Mercy, with Jack’s unwavering support and encouragement,  is growing into the confident, strong woman she was always meant to be.

I’m going to put this next part under a spoiler tag, as it’s a subject that’s come up around here a few times and something readers may appreciate knowing about in advance.

SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ –
In the last part of the book, Mercy, who has believed herself barren, discovers she’s pregnant.  It’s not a plot device I particularly like and I confess that when I realised this was the direction the book was taking, my heart sank.  BUT.  Consider sticking with it, because Ms. Kaye actually makes it work better than most.  She makes it clear just how ignorant Mercy was and how she’d been more or less browbeaten into believing her childlessness couldn’t possibly be her husband’s fault.  She doesn’t use the pregnancy as a convenient way to provide the book’s HEA, instead showing the protagonists working through their issues about marriage.  Mercy’s determination never to marry again is well cemented into the story and completely understandable, and the way she’s torn between wanting to preserve her independence and do the best for her child is well articulated.  She could leave town and have her baby somewhere nobody knows her, but she’s fully cognisant of the stigma that would be borne by her child should its illegitimacy be discovered, and also of how unfair it would be to Jack to deprive him of the opportunity to be part of his son or daughter’s life.  There’s also never any question of Mercy not telling Jack she’s pregnant; there are frayed tempers and a few harsh words between them at one point, but otherwise, they talk and act like the adults they are to work things out – and in doing so, to realise how much they really mean to each other.

I had a few niggles with the story, mostly relating to the way Mercy so easily talks to a perfect stranger about her marriage, but overall,  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening is an intelligently written, emotionally satisfying and sensual romance featuring two engaging protagonists who, while from opposite ends of the social spectrum, are perfect for one another.  I enjoyed it, and am happy to recommend it to anyone looking to read a well-researched historical romance that feels properly grounded in the period in which it is set.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

something fabulous

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating:  Narration – A+; Content – B+

I read an ARC copy of Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulou a while back, but when I saw Nicholas Boulton would be narrating the audio version, there was no way I wasn’t going to listen to it as well! It’s a gloriously queer, charmingly nonsensical Regency romp that plays with familiar tropes in the most affectionate way while at the same time delivering a sexy romance and a tender story of self-discovery.

Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern is a serious-minded, rather stuffy young man, brought up to always consider his position and status, and to put duty first. There is, however, one particular duty he’s neglected for too long, and when the book begins, he’s proposing marriage to Miss Arabella Tarleton, the young woman intended for him since birth. Miss Tarleton, however, is not at all inclined to accept, and even though Valentine is more concerned with accomplishing his late father’s wish than he is with actually getting married, her pointedly barbed rejection still stings

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

proper scoundrelsThis title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

London, 1925

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

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

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

Rating:  Narration – A-; Content – A-

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

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

a marvellous light

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

subtle blood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall

something fabulous

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating: B+

If you’re looking for an historical romance with a complex plot, serious characters and a bucket-load of angst, then move right along, because Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulous isn’t it.  If, however, you’re up for a frivolous romp through Regency England bubbling with wit and brilliant comic timing that, for all its ridiculous trope-y-ness, contains an achingly tender story of self-discovery, then dive right in.
The book opens with a delightfully – although somewhat more barbed – Heyer-esque proposal-gone-wrong in which Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern, has decided it’s time to honour his late father’s wishes and become formally betrothed to Miss Arabella Tarleton, who has been intended for him since birth.  Miss Tarleton, however, has no intention of accepting Valentine’s proposal and makes that clear in no uncertain terms:

“There is no fashion, Your Grace, in which you could propose that would render it anything other than profoundly repugnant to me.”

Valentine is both astonished and affronted.  A refusal is something he had never remotely considered – after all, what impoverished young woman wouldn’t want to secure her future and that of her family by marrying a wealthy, young and handsome duke?

Later that night – or rather, in the early hours of the morning – Valentine (having made liberal use of the brandy bottle) is awoken by Arabella’s twin brother, Bonaventure – Bonny for short – who informs him that Arabella has run away and that they should go after her so Valentine can save her from ruin and propose again.  And that he’d better make a good job of it this time.  Valentine is not keen; it’s not that he doesn’t want to retrieve his wayward intended, he just doesn’t want to go without due thought or preparation. Or his valet.  Bonny, however, is something of a force of nature, and won’t take no for an answer, so before long, Valentine is being hurried along and into a curricle wearing a coat borrowed from the assistant gardener and a hastily tied – courtesy of Bonny – cravat.

That’s the set up for the fluffiest, silliest and most outrageously charming road-trip / grumpy-sunshine romance I’ve read in quite some time. (Or ever.) It doesn’t take itself seriously – even though it does have some serious points to make – and focuses entirely on the relationship between Valentine and Bonny, and on Valentine’s journey towards reaching a deeper self-awareness, understanding  how attraction works for him and that being seen and loved for who he is as a person is not impossible.

The writing is deft and insightful with plenty of clever nods to the genre, the dialogue sparkles and the two leads are superbly characterised.  Valentine, the repressed, dutiful duke has no idea of his own privilege but is somehow endearing in his cluelessness;  he’s deeply lonely but doesn’t realise it, and he has very little experience of sexual attraction until Bonny, and the sudden wealth of feelings that assail him when Bonny is around completely blindside him. Watching Valentine slowly learn that he is allowed to have feelings, that he can feel attraction and affection – and the way Bonny accepts him exactly as he is and without question – is simply lovely.  As for Bonny, well, he’s just adorable; free-spirited,  vibrant, charming and kind, he’s not ashamed of who he is and what he wants, and isn’t willing to settle for anything less than to be loved in the way he loves – with his whole heart and soul.

There’s a small, but well-drawn secondary cast. I particularly liked Peggy, Arabella’s best friend and some-time lover who is a welcome voice of reason in contrast to Arabella’s frequent and overblown histrionics, and Sir Horley, the rakish older gentleman with an eye on Bonny and a heart of gold.  As one would expect from an Alexis Hall book, the queer rep is varied and excellent;  Peggy is genderfluid, Sir Horley is gay,  I got the impression Arabella is aromantic, and there are two delightful ladies who are married in all but name.

Sadly, the book’s biggest flaw is Arabella.  I understood her frustration and where she was coming from – no legal rights, no right to an opinion, no rights over her own body, even – but rather than making the attempt to explain herself or just talk to Valentine, she screams and throws tantrums and melodramatic fits, she makes ridiculous and unfounded accusations and generally behaves like a spoilt brat.  If she’d been the heroine of a book, it would have hit the wall before the end of the first chapter!  It’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a character in a book, but I honestly couldn’t stand her and felt sorry for Bonny having to put up with her all his life.  And this leads to my other issue with the story, which is that the catch-up-with-her/she’s-run-away-again is a bit repetitive – although I fully accept this may be because I so disliked Arabella that I just wanted her to run away and stay gone!

Other than that, however, Something Fabulous certainly lives up to its name.  It’s funny, sexy, daft and just a bit over the top, but it’s all done with obvious love and affection and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

the missing page

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When First I Met My King/The Dragon’s Tale (The Arthur Quartet 1&2) by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

These titles may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon:

Book 1Book 2

When First I Met My King:

Once upon a time, there was a winter that wouldn’t end. And all that stands between the people of White Meadows and starvation is a young man called Lance.

Lance is 16 years old, and for all his courage and hunting skills, he’s running out of fight. His family has been wiped out in a border raid, and he’s drowning in loneliness. When strangers arrive at White Meadows, all Lance can think of is using his last strength to drive them away. But these men have come in peace, not to burn and destroy. Among them is a hot-headed, utterly charming prince-in-training named Arthur.

For Lance, Arthur’s arrival is like the return of the sun. The prince has everything – learning, battle skills, a splendid destiny. But as the days unfold in the remote northern settlement in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, it soon becomes clear that Arthur needs Lance, too.

The Dragon’s Tale:

Lance has finally gained his freedom to join his beloved king. It is the depth of a northern winter, but his heart and his blood are warm with joy as he sets off to the fort of Din Guardi on the coast, where Arthur is locked in negotiation with the ancient powers of the realm – warlords who could help him defend the whole country against the Saxon invaders, if only he can unite them. But Lance knows such unity may not be possible – or even for the ultimate good of the kingdom. And although his delight at being with Art is boundless, there are other, darker forces at work in the wild dune lands.

A deep and delicate balance has been disturbed, and the fort is under siege by a creature out of legend, a monster that ravages villages and leaves a trail of bodies and burned fields in its wake. The darkest nights of winter are approaching. Arthur, with unendurable weights to bear on shoulders too young for them, only has Lance to befriend him and shield him from the bitterness of battlefield experience and loss. As their bond grows, Lance must find a way to heal the breach between the old world and the new before it devours the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Harper Fox sets her re-imagining of the Arthurian legends – The Arthur Quartet – firmly in Dark Ages Britain, in a divided land slowly emerging from centuries of Roman occupation, one in which the ‘new religion’ of Christianity is challenging the old ways and polytheistic traditions of the Druids and the Celts. She places Lancelot – Lance – at the centre of the tale, relating most events from his perspective and skilfully weaving together his backstory with the familiar elements of the legend – Excalibur, Camelot, Merlin, the Round Table, knights, dragons, magic – and laying the foundations of (what I hope will be) an epic romance between him and Arthur.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.