Frail by Susannah Ives

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?

Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?

Rating: B-

I’ve read a few books by Susanna Ives over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that she is at her best when she’s doing something a little different to the norm in historical romance. Her début novel, Rakes and Radishes turned the reformed rake trope on its head, and Wicked My Love was an entertaining enemies-to-lovers story featuring a gregarious hero and an awkward, maths genius heroine.  In fact, the least successful of the books of hers I’ve read was one in which she pursued a more conventional storyline (How to Impress a Marquess), so when I read the synopsis for Frail, I was pleased to see that Ms. Ives has opted once again to follow a less well-trod path by centering the story around a romance between a hero with PTSD who likes to garden, and a socialite heroine brought low by her father’s criminal activities.

Theo Mallory, second son of the Earl of Streswick, returned from fighting in the Crimea a very different man to the sociable, charming one who left.  He knows he is a disappointment to his father, who is anxious and awkward around him, clearly not knowing what to do or say, and Theo can’t blame him; sometimes he doesn’t know what to do or say either.  His return from the war angry, frustrated,  unable to sleep, suffering hallucinations and nightmares that he tried to quiet by indulging in drink, drugs, women and violence was difficult for all of them, his family’s belief that they could somehow find a doctor who could ‘cure’ him irritating him as much as it made him feel guilty that their hopes were dashed time after time.  Things were going from bad to worse, the earl starting to wonder if an asylum was the safest place for his unpredictable son, when Theo retreated to a property in Snowdonia, North Wales, where he has lived quietly for the past five years, pursuing his love of gardening and regaining his equilibrium and his sense of self.  He still suffers bad memories and bad dreams, but he has learned to cope and feels he has at last found his place in life.

Returning to London after five years away is difficult for him, but he is led to do so in order to meet with an officer from Scotland Yard to whom he has given evidence of a fraud being perpetrated on a number of former soldiers with whom Theo had served by a London banker named John Gillingham. At the urging of his father and stepmother, Theo attends a ball with them – and comes face to face with Gillingham’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Helena, who teases him a little and then, most unconventionally, asks him to dance with her. Already off-balance in the hot, crowded ballroom, Theo’s control slips further during their dance as he finds it impossible to contain his anger at this “vain, ignorant and selfish girl”, whose beautiful gowns have been paid for with money swindled from former soldiers and hard-working people.  He accuses her of being cruel and uncaring and stalks away, leaving Helena wondering what on earth she has done to deserve such treatment, and feeling vaguely sorry that such a handsome young man should be so clearly unbalanced.

A day or so later, however, Helena’s life is shattered when her father commits suicide, leaving her alone and with nothing.  She comes to understand the truth; that her father had committed a massive fraud and took his own life when threatened with exposure – and that he has escaped the consequences while leaving her to face scandal and public vitriol.  Helena has no close relatives; her ‘friends’ no longer want to know her and her only means of supporting herself it to sell everything she can.  Months pass, she is running out of things to sell and will shortly have to leave her home, and still she has no inkling of what to do or where to go – when she remembers her cousin Emily in Wales, who happens to be a neighbour of Theo Mallory’s.  She writes to Emily more or less begging her to take her in, and is relieved to receive a letter filled with kind words and compassion, inviting her to make her home with Emily and her daughter.

Helena is not well-received by the majority of the local villagers, many of whom either lost money, or know someone who lost money in her father’s scam.  Emily, who is liked and respected by all, proves to be her staunch champion, as does Theo, who surprises Helena by showing himself to be relaxed, confident and comfortable in both himself and his surroundings – in short, a completely different man to the one she’d met in London.

Helena, having at first believed that the best thing she could do for the woman who has shown her such kindness and generosity would be to leave the village, gradually finds herself settling into the rhythm of daily life there, and doing what she can to prove herself worthy of Emily’s faith in her.  As she spends more time with Theo, she finds herself drawn to his quiet strength and truly, deeply moved by the beautiful gardens and outside spaces he has created, places she is able to find the sort of peace and tranquillity she craves.  Theo starts to let Helena know him, telling her something of his wartime experience and of his subsequent illness and the effect it has had on his family.  These are two people struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences who come understand something of the other’s pain and to enjoy each other’s company.  A strong mutual attraction develops between them, but as Theo realises he is falling in love, he has to ask himself if Helena – who has no idea of his part in her father’s downfall – could possibly love the man ultimately responsible for it.  He is torn between a desire to tell the truth and his desire for Helena, and in his desperation, makes some poor decisions that could ultimately cost him dear.

Theo and Helena are both strongly characterised and Ms. Ives does a splendid job in conveying the perilous nature of Helena’s situation following her father’s death.  Her disconnectedness and fears for her future are palpable, as are her disorientation and confusion when she arrives in Wales.  I also appreciated that she doesn’t fall into the trap of having Theo suddenly and miraculously cured by the love of the right woman.  It’s true that he finds a degree of comfort in Helena’s presence and finds himself going to those dark places in his mind less frequently, but it’s clear that the mental scars he bears are not going to heal easily or completely.

Frail is not a fluffy, easy read; the emotions are messy, complicated and often strung taut as a bow-string, and the author doesn’t sugar coat some of the descriptions of Theo’s hallucinations.  But ultimately, it’s one of those books where the execution doesn’t quite live up to the intriguing premise.  The first part of the book is stronger than the second, and the pacing in the middle is a little stodgy as things get bogged down in the preparations for an event that it is hoped will smooth Helena’s path to acceptance by the locals – which then seems to happen rather easily.  There is a rather needless subplot concerning Emily’s pregnant maid-of-all-work, some of the language in the love scenes is a bit clumsy, and the disclosure of Theo’s involvement in Gillingham’s downfall takes place so late in the book that the entire final section feels rushed and the ending abrupt.

Even with those provisos, I’d say that Frail might suit readers looking for a slightly darker, more emotionally fraught story than is usually found in historical romance.  I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re on the look-out for something a little different to the norm, it’s worth your consideration in spite of its flaws.

Advertisements

Count the Shells (Porthkennack #6) by Charlie Cochrane


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

 

Rating: B-

 

Count the Shells, by new-to-me author, Charlie Cochrane, is the sixth entry in Riptide Publishing’s Porthkennack series of standalone romances that are linked by virtue being set in and around the fictional Cornish town of the same name.  The series boasts a mixture of contemporary and historical stories, and this is the second historical (the first was Joanna Chambers’ excellent A Gathering Storm), set – I’m guessing, because it’s not actually made clear what the year is – not long after the end of World War One.

Count the Shells is a gently moving, reflective story which opens as a young man – Michael Gray – ponders love and loss as he reminisces about his past lovers, some of whom fought in the war and unlike him, did not come home.  Playing on the beach with his young nephew, Michael counts aloud in several different languages as he places shells on the sand, one for each of his five lovers, while thinking about those very different men and the nature of his feelings for them.

Number one – un, uno, eins – on Michael’s list is, and will always be Thomas Carter-Clemence, his oldest friend, the love of his life… and the man from whom he’d parted following a bitter row in the Spring of 1909. Thomas had joined the army not long after that, and had then been killed in the early days of the war; he and Michael had never reconciled but Michael still feels the pain of their parting and his loss and never expects to love so deeply and completely again.

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

TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

My Fair Lord (Once Upon a Bride #1) by Wilma Counts

My Fair LordThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Henrietta Parker, daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, has turned down many a suitor for fear that the ton’s bachelors are only interested in her wealth. But despite the warnings of her dearest friends, Harriet and Hero, she can’t resist the challenge rudely posed by her stepsister: transform an ordinary London dockworker into a society gentleman suitable for the “marriage mart.” Only after a handshake seals the deal does Retta fear she may have gone too far . . .

When Jake Bolton is swept from the grime of the seaport into the elegance of Blakemoor House, he appears every inch the rough, cockney working man who is to undergo Retta’s training in etiquette, wardrobe, and elocution. But Jake himself is a master of deception—with much more at stake than a drawing room wager. But will his clandestine mission take second place to his irresistible tutor, her intriguing proposal . . . and true love?

Rating: C-


The first in her new Once Upon a Bride series, Wilma Counts’ My Fair Lord is exactly what one would infer from such a title; a Pygmalion inspired tale with the principal roles reversed. Our Covent Garden flower-seller is morphed into a London dockworker by the name of Jake Bolton and our professor is Lady Henrietta (Retta) Parker, eldest daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, who is goaded into accepting a wager proposed by one of her sisters, that she – Retta – could transform “any worker off the London docks” into “your typical gentlemen of the ton.” It’s a popular trope (and the best version of it in historical romance, to my mind, is still Judith Ivory’s The Proposition), but unfortunately, in Ms. Counts’ hands it makes for rather a dull, pedestrian read, mostly because there’s a lot of telling and not much showing and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the principals.

Lady Henrietta is the only child of the Earl of Blakemoor from his first marriage, and she is several years older than her younger half-siblings, twins Gerald and Richard, and daughters Rachel and Miranda. The countess – her step-mother – resents Henrietta and, of course, favours her own children, something which wouldn’t bother Retta quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that her father knows it and does nothing about it. Disgruntled because the countess prevented her accompanying them to Vienna (where the Earl is to attend the Congress) and needled by the constant catty remarks made by her sisters over the fact that Retta is more or less on the shelf, she allows her irritation to get the better of her and is manoeuvred into making the above mentioned wager with spiteful Rachel. While her eldest brother, Gerald, urges caution, Retta’s stubborn streak won’t allow her to back down in the face of her sisters’ mockery, and the bet is made, even as Retta’s common sense tells her it’s a bad idea.

The search for a suitable subject starts the following day down at the docks and eventually settles upon Jake Bolton, who is, to say the least, surprised at the proposal set before him. But as luck would have it, his being installed in the London home of the Blakemoors could be just the thing Jake needs in order to uncover the identity of the person – or persons – responsible for leaking important government information which could undermine England’s negotiations in Paris and Vienna. For Jake is no dockworker; he’s Major Lord Jacob Bodwyn, a military officer and third son of the Duke of Holbrook who has been temporarily seconded to the Foreign Office on the orders of his commanding officer, the Duke of Wellington. The Blakemoors, along with several other prominent families, all of whom have varying degrees of access to sensitive information, have been under discreet surveillance for a while, and his removal to Blakemoor house will allow Jake to do some more close-up snooping.

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

Too Scot to Handle (Windham Brides #2) by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by James Langton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a captain in the army, Colin MacHugh led men, fixed what was broken, and fought hard. Now that he’s a titled gentleman, he’s still fighting – this time to keep his bachelorhood safe from all the marriage-minded debutantes. Then he meets the intriguing Miss Anwen Windham, whose demure nature masks a bonfire waiting to roar to life. When she asks for his help to raise money for the local orphanage, he’s happy to oblige.

Anwen is amazed at how quickly Lord Colin takes in hand a pack of rambunctious orphan boys. Amazed at how he actually listens to her ideas. Amazed at the thrill she gets from the rumble of his Scottish burr and the heat of his touch. But not everyone enjoys the success of an upstart. And Colin has enemies who will stop at nothing to ruin him and anybody he holds dear.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – B

Grace Burrowes has returned to her popular Windham family for her latest series, the Windham Brideswhich follows the romantic fortunes of four sisters, the nieces of the Duke and Duchess of Moreland. The ladies are in London for the Season and are residing with their uncle and aunt while their parents – the duke’s brother and sister-in-law – have taken an extended holiday-cum-second honeymoon in Wales. As is the case with all Ms. Burrowes’ books, regular readers and listeners will welcome cameo appearances from other characters from both this series and some of her other books, but newcomers need not be too worried, as these are usually secondary characters whose presence is easily explained and knowledge of their stories is not usually essential to the understanding of what is happening in this one.

In the previous book, The Trouble with Dukes, Megan Windham, the third youngest sister, met her match in the big, braw, brooding Hamish MacHugh, a former army officer and the newly minted Duke of Murdoch. In Too Scot to Handle, the author turns her attention to his younger brother, Lord Colin, also formerly of His Majesty’s army and who has remained in London so that his sisters can continue to enjoy the Season while Hamish and his new bride have decamped to Scotland. Like Hamish, Colin, though resourceful and more charming than his brother, is somewhat uncomfortable in the world of the ton and finds the process of learning its ins and outs and dos and don’ts rather trying. Even though he is the brother of a duke, a Scottish dukedom doesn’t rank quite as highly with the snobby sticklers of London society, so Colin is having to tread carefully to make sure of his acceptance. He is being helped in this endeavour by the advice of Winthrop Montague, a man who is invited everywhere, knows everyone and, in spite of not being wealthy, is regarded by all as an arbiter of excellent taste.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr. Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession…or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

Rating: Narration – A+ Content – A-


Those two names up there in the review title should be enough to tell you why you need to go and buy this audiobook at once. The combination of Ms. Riley’s wonderfully intelligent writing and Mr. Wyndham’s extraordinary skills as a narrator is always a delight to experience, and in The Wicked Cousin, book four in the author’s Rockliffe series of Georgian-set romances, both author and narrator are at the top of their game.

Following the death of his twin brother, Theo, at the age of eight, young Sebastian Audley, now the only son and heir of Viscount Wingham, spends the best part of the next thirteen years chafing at being wrapped up in several layers of cotton wool and over-protected to the point of suffocation. So naturally, as soon as he is able to do so, he sets about raising merry hell, which he does up and down the length and breadth of Europe with such great success that his exploits become the stuff of legend and his name regularly appears in the scandal sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French Revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing 12-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder…and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Rating: Narration – B Content: A-

In Beauty Like the Night, the sixth entry in Joanna Bourne’s acclaimed Spymasters series, the author turns her focus to Séverine de Cabrillac, sister of Justine (heroine of The Black Hawk) whom we first met when she was a very young child being taken away from revolutionary Paris by the man she now calls ‘Papa’, William Doyle, Viscount Markham.

Sévie grew up in England alongside Doyle and Maggie’s (The Forbidden Rose) children and among various agents of the British Service. Aged seventeen and fed up with being treated like a child, she ran off to join Military Intelligence – the Service’s less efficient cousin – where she made herself a formidable reputation as a spy; and on her return home after the war, she set up as a private investigator and has earned herself a name for being every bit as tenacious, clever and frighteningly effective as she was during the war.

Her reputation for getting results is not, however, the only thing about Sévie that leads Raoul Deverney to enter her bedroom late one night and to calmly demand the return of a missing girl and a missing amulet. Sévie is surprised – but not frightened – at waking to find a man bearing a knife sitting on her bed; she knows she is capable of defending herself, and equally calmly – and quite truthfully – says she has no idea what he’s talking about. As they converse, Sévie is sizing the man up, coming to the conclusion that he’s either mad or deadly – and is fairly sure he’s not the former. But something about him unsettles her, never more so than when he gently touches a hand to her cheek before he disappears into the night.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.