The Jackal’s House (Lancaster’s Luck #2) by Anna Butler (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the jackal's house

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Something is stalking the Aegyptian night and endangering the archaeologists excavating the mysterious temple ruins in Abydos. But is it a vengeful ancient spirit or a very modern conspiracy? Rafe Lancaster’s relationship with Gallowglass First Heir, Ned Winter, flourishes over the summer of 1900, and when Rafe’s House encourages him to join Ned’s next archaeological expedition, he sees a chance for it to deepen further. Since all the Houses of the Britannic Imperium, Rafe’s included, view assassination as a convenient solution to most problems, he packs his aether pistol—just in case. Trouble finds them in Abydos. Rafe and Ned begin to wonder if they’re facing opposition to the Temple of Seti being disturbed.

What begins as tricks and pranks escalate to attacks and death, while the figure of the Dog—the jackal-headed god Anubis, ruler of death—casts a long shadow over the desert sands. Destruction follows in his wake as he returns to reclaim his place in Abydos. Can Rafe and Ned stand against both the god and House plots when the life of Ned’s son is on the line?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

The Jackal’s House is book two in Anna Butler’s Lancaster’s Luck steampunk trilogy featuring aeronaut-turned-coffee-house-owner Rafe Lancaster and his lover, Ned Winter, renowned Aegyptologist and heir to the head of Britain’s most powerful political House. All the things I enjoyed about book one (The Gilded Scarab) – the fabulous worldbuilding and Rafe’s distinctive voice and wonderful sense of irony among them – are all very much in evidence, together with a compelling mystery, well-realised setting and some likeable (and not-so-likeable) well drawn secondary characters.

It’s the summer of 1900 and all Rafe wants to do is make the best coffee in Londinium, spend as much time as he can with the man he loves and keep as far away from house politics as is humanly possible. As a younger son of one of the minor Houses (in this universe, Britain is ruled, under the monarch, by the eight Convocation Houses) Rafe doesn’t have too much trouble doing that; he’s always been something of the black sheep of House Stravaigor, and is happy to keep it that way.

But when he receives an unexpected visit from the Stravaigor himself, it becomes clear that however much Rafe wants to escape the tangled webs of intrigue woven by the Houses, he’s not going to be able to. The Stravaigor is pleasant and surprisingly good-humoured, which only makes Rafe more suspicious as to his motives; and he’s surprised when in the end, all the Stravaigor asks is for him to maintain his friendship with Ned which, given Ned’s status as heir to House Gallowglass, could prove valuable to House Stravaigor. Rafe isn’t pleased that his relationship with Ned is seen as something to be exploited, and his relief at being asked for so little is tempered by the knowledge that that is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (The Doomsday Books #1) by K.J. Charles

the secret lives of country gentlemen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Abandoned by his father, Gareth Inglis grew up lonely, prickly, and used to disappointment. Still, he longs for a connection. When he meets a charming stranger, he falls head over heels—until everything goes wrong and he’s left alone again.

Then Gareth’s father dies, turning the shabby London clerk into Sir Gareth, with a grand house on the remote Romney Marsh and a family he doesn’t know. The Marsh is another world, a strange, empty place notorious for its ruthless gangs of smugglers. And one of them is dangerously familiar…

Joss Doomsday has run the Doomsday smuggling clan since he was a boy. When the new baronet—his old lover—agrees to testify against Joss’s sister, Joss acts fast to stop him. Their reunion is anything but happy, yet after the dust settles, neither can stay away. Soon, all Joss and Gareth want is the chance to be together. But the bleak, bare Marsh holds deadly secrets. And when Gareth finds himself threatened from every side, the gentleman and the smuggler must trust one another not just with their hearts but also with their lives.

Rating: A-

I’ve yet to meet a book by K.J. Charles that I haven’t at the very least liked – or more usually, loved – and her latest title, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is no exception. The story is set in and around Romney Marsh in Kent – a fairly desolate part of the country even today and one that from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, was something of a smuggler’s paradise due to its topography, location and isolation. TSLoCG is a fabulous mix of frenemies-to-lovers romance and mystery boasting a wonderfully evoked setting, lots of interesting historical detail and plenty of the wry humour and sharp observation that I so enjoy about the author’s work.

After the death of his wife, Sir Hugo Inglis sent his six-year-old son Gareth to live in London with his uncle. It very much a case of out of sight, out of mind for Sir Hugo, who married again and ignored his son’s pleas to be brought home. Gareth grew up without love and affection, knowing he was unwanted from the moment Henry Inglis made it very clear to his bereaved, exiled nephew that he had taken him in on sufferance and because he was being paid to. Gareth eventually studied law and has worked as his uncle’s clerk for several years, when, completely out of the blue, Inglis dismisses him for no reason. Just two days later, Gareth learns that his father is dead and that he has inherited the baronetcy, his house in Romney Marsh in Kent and a fairly respectable sum of money.

Going through his father’s books and papers, Gareth finds himself intrigued by his collection of books on natural history, maps of the local area and the collection of notebooks in which Sir Hugo made copious notes about the local birds, wildlife, flora and fauna and his particular interest in insects. Gareth has always been interested in natural history and at first thinks that by reading the notebooks, he might learn something about his father… but there’s nothing by way of personal reflection or insight to be found. Still, his own interest is piqued and he begins to explore his surroundings, starting in his own garden and then going further afield and onto the marshes. Out late one night, he stumbles across a string of ponies laden with packs and barrels; realising immediately what this means, he steps back out of sight, but can’t help overhearing voices raised in argument and then seeing a man pull off the cloth covering his companion’s face. Gareth is surprised to recognise the young woman, but before he can think much about it, she barks a command and the train moves on. The next day, Gareth thoughtlessly mentions this in front of his half-sister Cecilia’s beau, a revenue officer; the young woman is arrested and brought for trial, and Gareth, despite not really wanting to rock any boats, is called to give evidence against her.

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

My 2022 in Books and Audio

What was I listening to and reading in 2022?  My Goodreads stats show I managed 238 books overall (just over my Reading Challenge target of 225) which was split almost equally between print and audio – 52.2% ebook, 47.8% audio – and around two-thirds of my reading/listening last year was ARCs/ALCs.  (Returning to work as a teacher and continuing my freelance work as an audio proofer had a slight impact on my overall total, which is a little bit less than last year.)

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 123 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 30 3 star books, 2 2 star books and 1 DNF.

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, around 34-35 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total.

The books that made my Best of 2022 list at All About Romance:

Nicky James and C.S. Poe are at the top of their game right now; Rachel Reid gave Shane and Ilya the perfect send-off and I was really pleased to be able to include a début author (Jess Everlee) on the list, with her late-Victorian era queer romance. Jay Hogan has long been a must-read author, Charlie Adhara got her new Monster Hunt series off to a great start and of course no Best of the Year list of mine would be complete without at least one book by Gregory Ashe! (Although I really don’t like that cover…)

Some of favourite audiobooks of the year at AudioGals are the audio versions of some of the above titles:

The other titles I rated most highly are complete (or ongoing) series:

Another series I binged in 2022 was Cole McCade’s Criminal Intentions. Books 1-3 came out in audio (superbly narrated by Curt Bonnem- reviews of books 1& 2 HERE), and I was very quickly hooked to the fabulous combinations of dark, twisty mystery/procedurals and the super slow burn romance between the two leads. But with no sign of any more books being released in audio, I switched to print and steadily worked my way through the rest of Season One and am almost finished Season Two. I gather that the author decided to put the series on hiatus last year after some very ugly online bullying (honestly – have these people nothing better to do than to badger and berate an author because he’s not writing his books the way they want them written??) – but that he was planning to put out the remaining ten books this year. I don’t know for sure if that’s happening, but I really hope so; I love Mal and Seong-Jae and want to know how it all pans out for them.

From my didn’t-quite-make-it (the “also rans”) list:

In audio, these were the titles where I gave an A grade for narration and a B+ for the story:

I also had a lot of fun listening to Meghan Maslow’s Starfig Investigations series (narrated by the wonderful Greg Boudreaux) – a light-hearted adventure romp with a romance between a wizard and a dragon shifter, finishing up with Eden Winter’s excellent Diversion series and with the latest PsyCop story, Subtle Bodies in which Gomez Pugh continues to completely embody the character of Victor Bayne. Nazri Noor’s Fantasy/Urban Fantasy is a recent discovery – he has excellent narrators (I’ve listened to Greg Boudreaux and Zachary Johnson so far) and is very prolific, so I’ve got some catching up to do in 2023!

Other books I’m looking forward to – I’ve already read (and loved) KJ Charles’ The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (out in March) so I’m eager to read the second book in her Doomsday duology, which is out this autumn. With any luck, she’ll get stuck on whatever she’s writing next and will just write a different book while she gets unstuck! (Sorry, KJ – not that I’m wishing writer’s block on you!) There’s one more book (that I know of, maybe more) to come in Nicky James’ Valor and Doyle series plus C.S. Poe’s Broadway Butchery (May), which is absolutely one of my most anticipated books of the year. I’d love to get book four in the Magic & Steam series, too, but maybe I’m just being greedy…

Thanks for your company – here and at Goodreads (and AAR and AG) – over the past year, and for chatting about books and audiobooks with me! I’ll be back in this spot next year to see how 2023 went!

TBR Challenge: Tommy Cabot Was Here (The Cabots #0.5) by Cat Sebastian

tommy cabot was here

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Massachusetts, 1959: Some people might accuse mathematician Everett Sloane of being stuffy, but really he just prefers things a certain way: predictable, quiet, and far away from Tommy Cabot—his former best friend, chaos incarnate, and the man who broke his heart.

The youngest son of a prominent political family, Tommy threw away his future by coming out to his powerful brothers. When he runs into Everett, who fifteen years ago walked away from Tommy without an explanation or a backward glance, his old friend’s chilliness is just another reminder of what a thoroughgoing mess Tommy has made of his life.

When Everett realizes that his polite formality is hurting Tommy, he needs to decide whether he can unbend enough to let Tommy get close but without letting himself get hurt the way he was all those years ago.

Rating: B

For the first prompt of 2023 – Starting Over – I chose Cat Sebastian’s Tommy Cabot Was Here, a short and sweet second-chance romance set in 1959 about two men who were best friends (and more) at boarding school, went their separate ways after college and who unexpectedly find each other again fifteen years later.

On “Visting Sunday” – a month after the start of the new school year – Everett Sloane is surprised to see a familiar face among the crowds of parents at Greenfields, the prestigious boarding school where he was once a pupil and to which he has returned as a teacher. The face belongs to Tommy Cabot, the youngest son of an influential political family, with whom Everett shared his first kiss, his first sexual experiences and who was his first love – until after graduating college, Tommy told Everett he would be getting married, to exactly the ‘right’ sort of wealthy young woman his family have been expecting him to marry. Heartbroken, Everett left for England right after the wedding, and the two haven’t seen each other since.

Catching a glimpse of the boy at Tommy’s side, Everett realises this must be his son, Daniel, but when he really looks at Tommy, he looks nothing like the polished, successful politician he had imagined Tommy would be by this time; instead he’s a bit frayed around the edges, his clothes slightly dishevelled, his hair overlong, his shave not quite close enough – and he’s holding himself stiffly and somewhat defensively. Before Everett can beat a hasty retreat, however, Tommy notices him and greets him warmly – and with an unexpected hug; after a few excruciating minutes Everett, confused and upset, makes an excuse and walks away.

Tommy is surprised to see Everett at Greenfields, but not surprised to see how little he’s changed over the years, still neat as a pin and just a bit starchy… it hurts to remember how much Tommy had loved coaxing him out of that stuffiness, getting a smile or a laugh out of him, and hurts even more to think how clueless he’d been as to the nature of his feelings for Everett back then, how stupid he’d been not to realise how deeply that cluelessness had hurt the man who had been his best friend. And who could, perhaps, have been so much more.

For all it’s only ninety-one pages long (the rest of the Kindle edition I read is taken up with a preview of  Peter Cabot Gets Lost), Tommy Cabot Was Here doesn’t lack depth or emotion. The author rounds out the characters very well indeed, so we get a real sense of their quite different personalities; Tommy the people pleaser, Everett, reserved and quieter, but far more aware of his feelings than the outgoing Tommy was when they were younger, and she creates a strong emotional connection between them so that their rekindled romance is entirely believable. There’s a real sense of longing between them in the early stages of the story, with both of them feeling conflicted about seeing each other again and fearing that maybe it’s too late to be anything more than nodding acquaintances. But the pull they feel towards one another is strong enough to give them the courage to work through past hurts and losses to find a way forward together.

I’ve read a lot of novellas I wish had been longer, but I can’t say that’s the case here. In fact, I think that had this been novel-length, I might have found it too drawn out and criticised it for not containing enough plot! That said, I do think some things are a bit too glossed over (such as Tommy’s decision to come out to his family – it’s 1959, wasn’t he worried someone might report him to the police for being “bent”? – and seek a divorce given he knew he’d be cut off ) and the cameo by Tommy’s nephew Peter (presumably to set up the next book) feels a bit contrived. Despite that, however, I found Tommy Cabot Was Here to be a rather lovely, warm and moving story about finding hope, love and second chances and I’m glad I read it.

Masters in This Hall by K.J. Charles

masters in this hall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

John Garland was in love: now he’s in disgrace. He’s jobless, alone, and determined to avenge himself on the thief who ruined his life. All he wants for Christmas is Barnaby Littimer in gaol.

Barnaby has secured a job running the extravagant traditional Christmas at a rich man’s country house. John intends to thwart whatever he’s up to.

But amid the festivity, the halls are decked with unexpected dangers. And John will need to decide if he can trust Barnaby one more time…

Rating: B+

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

The Christmas festivities at Codlin Hall will culminate in the wedding of Abel’s daughter, Ivy (yes, she really is called Ivy Garland!) to the Earl of Dombey, so a large party is gathered there, many of whom look down on Abel because he made his millions in trade, and are only too pleased to accept his lavish hospitality while sneering about him behind his back. John’s unexpected arrival on Christmas Eve doesn’t go down too well with Ivy, who is worried about appearances and who John knows doesn’t want him –

“reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.”

But even though she tries to insist there’s no room at the inn (!), help comes from an unexpected quarter in the shape of Ivy’s nice-but-dim fiancé, who is only too happy to welcome John to join in the celebrations. In turn, John is only too happy at the thought of putting a spoke in Barnaby’s wheel – and at the look on Barbaby’s face when he first sees John amid the assembled guests. Angry and resentful – not least because he’s still very attracted to the man and can’t forget the happy hours they’d spent together – John refuses to listen to Barnaby’s explanations or to his warnings when he tells John he should leave. Maybe Barnaby looks scared and maybe John’s first instinct is to offer to help him, regardless of what he’s done – but John squashes those feelings under his determation not to be made a fool of again.

As always, K.J. Charles fills her story with lots of fascinating historical detail, sharp social observations and, as it’s Christmas, doesn’t stint on the Dickensian references or the puns. Abel Garland doesn’t go in for Victorian sentiimentality, far perferring to hark back to the medieval and pagan ritual that is the real backbone of so many of our Christmas traditions today, so there’s much to learn about wassail, mummers, carols and the Lord of Misrule as well as some sharp commentary about the social pecking order and the abuse of privilege.

The animosity between John and Barnaby isn’t allowed to go on for too long, fortunately, and after that, they join forces to expose a thief and some very shady dealings while also coming up with a way to keep themselves well out of it, with help from the devious brain of a mostly unnamed but very recognisable character – he of the beautiful baritone voice and the dangerously sardonic eyebrow – known to detectives across England simply as “That Bastard” (and to KJC afficionados as Jerry Crozier.) I always enjoy seeing favourite characrters from the points of view of those who don’t really know them, and the author certainly doesn’t disppoint here; John and Barbaby are suitably wary of this Lilywhite Boy and his reputation, and Jerry is wonderfully grumpy – and terrifying – at being forced out of retirement to deal with “Captain Algy”.

John and Barnaby themselves are very likeable characters, clever, witty and self-deprecating but quietly competent, and their past history is  laid out in some very brief flashbacks that set up their romance nicely. There’s a real sense of longing as they both think back wistfully on what could have been, and then a real blossoming of hope when they realise they might have a second chance. They’re sweet and lovely together and their HFN is just right.

Masters in This Hall is the perfect Christmas novella for those of us who prefer our seasonal tales to have a bit of zing and bite. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s devoid of religion and sentimentality, and it’s just the ticket for a cold winter’s afternoon. Enjoy

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

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

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.

There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.

Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.

I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.

Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.

As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.

Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack #2) by Joanna Chambers (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Goldhill

a gathering storm

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother. In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree.

Until Fate steps in to lend a hand. Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal. A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

It’s taken a while for Joanna Chambers’ 2017 historical romance, A Gathering Storm, to make it into audio, but I remember enjoying the story back when I read it, so, despite the fact that the narrator is new-to-me, I decided to give the audiobook version a listen. The book is part of the multi-author Porthkennack series, all set in and around the Cornish seaside town of the same name, but it’s a standalone, so it’s not necessary to have read any of the other books in order to enjoy it.

The story begins on the night of a terrible electrical storm, when Sir Edward Fitzwilliam (known as ‘Ward’) is aboard ship, crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to Anglesey. The storm is at its height when Ward experiences something very strange – he hears the voice of his twin brother George calling out to him and assuring him that all will be well. Realising later that this must have been the exact moment of George’s death and believing he’d received a communication from ‘beyond the veil’. Ward dedicates himself to recreating the conditions that allowed it to happen, in spite of the disapproval and dismissal of the wider scientific community of which he is – or had been – a respected member.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: When Love is Blind (Warrender Saga #3) by Mary Burchell

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

Antoinette Burney, a more than promising music student, is disappointed and furious when the famous concert pianist Lewis Freemont fails her in an exam.

To make matters worse, he tells her forthrightly that she will never make the grade as a professional pianist

Her hopes and dreams of success and notoriety are all destroyed in a single blow.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive him.

But it would seem that fate has other ideas and the tables are quickly turned, making Antoinette the innocent cause of the accident that, in destroying Lewis Freemont’s sight, destroys his career as well.

Subdued by his debilitating condition and the knowledge that he will never play the piano again, Lewis quickly becomes a shell of his former self.

Horrified and remorseful, when Antoinette gets a chance to make some sort of amends — by becoming Lewis’s secretary — she seizes it with both hands.

Just when she thought life couldn’t get any more complicated, Antoinette soon finds herself falling in love with the man that only a few weeks ago, she despised.

But what will Lewis do when, as inevitably he must, he discovers who she really is?

Full of hope and broken dreams, When Love is Blind is a heartfelt tale about never giving up.

Rating: B-

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

A Thief in the Night by KJ Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by James Joseph & Ryan Laughton

a thief in the night

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Toby never meant to be a highway robber, but needs must. He didn’t plan to impersonate a top London valet either, but when the chance comes to present himself as the earl of Arvon’s new gentleman’s gentleman, he grabs it. Unfortunately, the earl is the man he seduced and robbed on the road to get here. Oops.

Miles, Lord Arvon, is not impressed. But he’s faced with a tumbledown home and lost family fortune, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Toby—shameless, practical, and definitely desperate—may be just the man he needs.

To steal back a priceless bracelet, that is. What else were you thinking?

Narration – A/B; Content – B+

In KJ Charles’ 2021 novel The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, we were introduced to Robin and Marianne, two siblings who conned their way into society with a view to their both making very advantageous marriages. Brief mention was made of the fact that they had grown up with an older half/step sibling named Toby who just up and left them one day and whom they haven’t seen since. In A Thief in the Night, we get to meet Toby, who, like his brother and sister, lives by his wits, with one eye (metaphorically) always looking over his shoulder, and the other always on the main chance.

The story opens at an inn where Toby, while waiting for the drink he’s ordered to arrive, is keeping an eye on the attractive man of military bearing sitting by the fire. His clothing is travel-stained, but looks to be that of a man of means, so Toby nonchalantly walks over and strikes up a conversation. After exchanging names (Toby doesn’t give his real one, of course), they get to talking, and Toby learns that his companion, Miles Carteret, has recently returned from fighting on the Penunsula and is on his way home. Toby is quick to recognise the signs of interest, and to make his own interest clear; before long, they’re out back, exchanging greedy touches and frantic kisses and Toby is on his knees. After putting themselves to rights, they had back inside where Miles dozes off – and Toby helps himself to his watch and pocket book and scarpers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner

sailor's delight

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Self-effacing, overworked bookkeeper Elie Benezet doesn’t have time to be in love. Too bad he already is—with his favorite client, Augustus Brine. The Royal Navy sailing master is kind, handsome, and breathtakingly competent. He’s also engaged to his childhood sweetheart. And now that his prize money is coming in after years of delay, he can afford to marry her…once Elie submits the final prize paperwork.

When Augustus comes home, determined to marry by the end of his brief leave, Elie does his best to set his broken heart aside and make it happen. But he’s interrupted by one thing after another: other clients, the high holidays, his family’s relentless efforts to marry him off. Augustus isn’t helping by renting a room down the hall, shaving shirtless with his door open, and inviting Elie to the public baths. If Elie didn’t know better, he’d think Augustus didn’t want to get married.

To cap it all off, Augustus’s fiancée arrives in town, senses that Elie has a secret, and promptly accuses him of embezzling. Has Elie’s doom been sealed…or is there still time to change his fate?

Rating: B-

I’ve read and positively reviewed several of Rose Lerner’s historical romances here, so I was excited when I saw that she had a new m/m historical coming out and eagerly snapped up a review copy. Sailor’s Delight is loosely linked by character to The Woman in the Attic, but it doesn’t share any storylines, so can absolutely be read as a standalone.

Eleazar Benezet is a Navy Agent – a job which involves looking after the financial and legal affairs of naval men and officers while they’re away at sea. Among his numerous clients is sailing master Augustus Brine, whom Elie has known for more than a decade… and been sweet on for just as long. When the book opens, Elie is surprised and delighted to learn that Brine’s ship has docked a couple of weeks early and that he will be coming ashore for the first time in two years; Elie is eager to see him, but also dreads it, because he knows that Brine is planning to marry the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for several years during this period of shore leave. The wedding will take place as soon as Brine can afford it, which will be once he receives his share of the prize money from the Vliegende Draeck, a Dutch merchant ship captured in 1809, but which, thanks to various court appeals, has yet to be paid. Now, however, the court cases are over and it’s simply a matter of finalising the accounts – which Elie has been putting off doing for weeks.

Elie knows he should have finished by now and that it shouldn’t have taken him this long, but… Brine’s marriage will likely mean the end of their close friendship, and Elie can’t deny that part of the reason for the delay is simply his own selfishness at wanting to have Brine as his client and friend for a bit longer, and to continue to dream about the possibility of something he knows is never going to happen. But he is going to procrastinate no longer. Rosh Hashanah is over and the Days of Awe are beginning, so it’s the perfect time to make amends for the wrong he has done Brine in failing to move the matter forward in a more expeditious manner.

Elie and Brine are tw of the nicest men you could ever meet – they’re sweet but totally clueless! Elie is the sole PoV character, so we only see Brine through his eyes, and the author does a good job of showing the reader lots of little things that Elie doesn’t see that make it clear that Brine is equally smitten (such as the fact he’s clearly studied the customs of and pays attention to the observances of Elie’s Jewish faith). Despite that, however, I never really connected with Brine as I did with Elie.

This book has a lot going for it. The detail of Elie’s job is fascinating and the elements of Jewish culture are deeply and skilfully embedded into the story; I liked the way the passing of time is marked by the use of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, and by the various wardroom toasts at the head of each chapter. I enjoyed spending time with Elie’s large and loving family, and I was impressed with the subtle but impactful way in which the author tackles the issue of the anti-semitism Elie faces. But the romance is a bit lacklustre, mostly because the mutual pining and Elie’s obliviousness about Brine’s true feelings (and vice versa) goes on for too long, and so much of the story is concerned with Elie’s guilt over procrastinating about the prize money and his determination to make amends.

I appreciated the way Ms. Lerner counters stereotypes in the characterisation of Brine’s fiancée, Sarah Turner. Her arrival in Portsmouth certainly complicates matters and causes an even greater degree of misunderstanding between Elie and Brine, but I liked her; she’s a no-nonsense, independent woman who clearly has Brine’s best interests at heart – and has known for a while that those interests do not lie with her. Yet Elie and Brine are continually at cross-purposes and can’t seem to have a proper conversation about her. Brine feels duty-bound to marry Sarah because she looked after his parents before they died; Elie is sure Brine wants to marry Sarah and tries hard to assure her of that fact, even as it kills him to do so. It takes so long for Elie and Brine to have an honest conversation that I was beginning to wonder whether it would happen at all; this is a long-ish novella, coming in at around two hundred pages, but the confessions of love don’t come until the final chapter, and it’s rushed and doesn’t deliver the kind of emotional satisfaction I want from an HEA.

If you’re looking for a low-angst, incredibly well-researched historical romance featuring an engaging, realistic principal character and lots and lots of pining, Sailor’s Delight could well be the book for you. But for me, even though I thoroughly appreciated the informative and well-crafted historical backdrop and the way the story is so firmly grounded in Jewish customs and culture, it was a little bit too low-key.