TBR Challenge: The Broken Wing (Warrender Saga #2) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tessa Morley has spent her entire life in the shadow of her beautiful and bewitching twin sister Tania.

Unlike Tania, whose vivacious beauty and outgoing personality have ensured that she is forever in the limelight, Tessa lacks her sister’s confidence and has always been exceedingly shy. Although blessed with the voice of an angel, and musical talent that far surpasses that of her twin, Tessa has never been given the same kind of chances as her sister because she happened to be born lame.

With the dream of a stage career out of reach, Tessa has taken work as a secretary for Quentin Otway, the arrogant and temperamental artistic director for the Northern Counties Festival who, along with famous conductor Oscar Warrender, is responsible for the gathering of significant musical talent for the festival.

Tania, determined to be cast in the festival’s production of Cosi fan tutte, convinces Tessa to ask Otway for an audition — and without warning Tessa finds herself having to deny her one great talent…her voice.

As upsetting as the situation is, Tessa is willing to bear the hurt for the sake of her sister, whom she loves dearly, but then it seems Tania will even rob Tessa of the man she loves. Her only consolation comes in the form of Oscar Warrender, whose keen ear identifies Tessa’s skill and who insists that for the first time in her life Tessa must take centre stage. Will Otway see Tessa for who she really is? Or is she doomed forever to be overshadowed by her sister?

NOTE: I don’t know why the cover depicts someone playing the violin when the heroine is a singer.

Rating: B-

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.

TBR Challenge: Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Victorian London, if you’re not a blue blood of the Echelon then you’re nothing at all. The Great Houses rule the city with an iron fist, imposing their strict ‘blood taxes’ on the nation, and the Queen is merely a puppet on a string…

Lena Todd makes the perfect spy. Nobody suspects the flirtatious debutante could be a sympathizer for the humanist movement haunting London’s vicious blue blood elite. Not even the ruthless Will Carver, the one man she can’t twist around her little finger, and the one man whose kiss she can’t forget…

Stricken with the loupe and considered little more than a slave-without-a-collar to the blue bloods, Will wants nothing to do with the Echelon or the dangerous beauty who drives him to the very edge of control. But when he finds a coded letter on Lena—a code that matches one he saw on a fire-bombing suspect—he realizes she’s in trouble. To protect her, he must seduce the truth from her.

With the humanists looking to start a war with the Echelon, Lena and Will must race against time—and an automaton army—to stop the humanist plot before it’s too late. But as they fight to save a city on the brink of revolution, the greatest danger might just be to their hearts…

Rating: B+

Bec McMaster has created a detailed and original world for her London Steampunk series, a steam-powered but recognisable version of Victorian London that is populated by humans, mechanoids and blue bloods and ruled over by the Echelon.  When I reviewed the first book, Kiss of Steel, I gave a brief outline of the London Steampunk world, so I won’t repeat that here; I’ll assume that if you’re reading this review you know what blue bloods, mechs and verwulfen are and what the Echelon is (and if you don’t, just click on the link above to find out. Or better still, read the books!)  Although each novel features a different central couple, there’s an overarching plot running throughout the series, which means it’s helpful to read them all in order – and there are likely to be spoilers in this review.

Heart of Iron is the second book the series, and it takes place about three years after the events of Kiss of Steel. In that book, we first met the Todd siblings – Honoria, Lena and Charlie – and Honoria, who had worked alongside their scientist father as he attempted to find a cure for the Craving Virus found her HEA with Blade, a rogue blue blood who has made an empire of his own among the rookeries of the East End.  Honoria’s sister Lena never felt at home in the Warren (as Blade’s home is known); not scientifically minded in the way that Honoria was, she was usually overlooked at home, and was brought up on lessons on etiquette and things young ladies should know, prepared for a life in blue blood society.  When the Todds moved to the Warren, seventeen-year-old Lena became fascinated by Will Carver, the big, handsome verwulfen who was Blade’s right hand man, but when, one night, she gathered her courage and kissed him, Will rebuffed her and “he told me he would tolerate my childish little games for Blade’s sake, but that he would prefer it if I didn’t throw myself at him.”  Hurt but determined not to show it, Lena left Whitechapel shortly afterwards with the intention of making her delayed début and returning to society.  Moving into her half-brother Leo’s London mansion as his ward (Leo Barrons is the heir to the Duke of Caine, and can never publicly acknowledge his relationship to the Todds), Lena plunges herself into the social whirl, a whirl which can be an extremely dangerous place for young women like her, who are seen as easy pickings for any blue blood lord until they sign a thrall contract with one, exchanging blood rights for his protection.

But while Lena moves in that dangerous world by night, she is also determined to gain a degree of independence, and to that end, continues to produce incredibly detailed, skilfully-wrought clockwork pieces for Mr. Mandeville, the man to whom she’d once been apprenticed.  Through him, Lena has become involved – albeit peripherally – with the growing humanist movement, who want to oust the Echelon and gain the rights and opportunities they are currently denied.  Lena principally acts as a messenger, carrying encrypted messages from the humanist leader known only as ‘Mercury’ (messages she receives via Mandeville) to the humanists’ contact within the Echelon, whose true identity is also unknown to her.

Will no longer lives at the Warren either, having left the day after Lena kissed him.  He’s still Blade’s muscle, the ‘Beast of Whitechapel’, and visits regularly – although he always times his visits so that he never meets Lena there.  His rejection of her was never because he didn’t want her; he did and still does, but there’s a reason verwulfen are forbidden from taking human mates and Will has no intention of putting Lena in danger.  He was infected with the loupe virus when he was just five years old and it almost killed him; he was then sold to a travelling showman who caged and beat him and exhibited him as a freak. He refuses to risk infecting Lena or to subject her to the horrors and indignities he suffered simply for being who and what he was.

There’s a really well-conceived sub-plot in the book concerning the political manouevering required to broker a treaty between the Echelon and the Scandinavian verwulfen clans against the growing threat posed by fanatical factions in France and Spain.  Barrons asks Will if he will act as a kind of liaison and help win over the more hard-line factions in the Scandinavian party; in exchange, the Echelon will revoke the law that outlaws verwulfen and create a new one that will give verwulfen the same rights as blue bloods. Will isn’t used to mixing in political circles and isn’t comfortable with the idea, but the promised rewards are too good to pass up. He agrees to the proposal – and then asks for Lena’s help to teach him how the ins and outs of blue blood society, not because he longs to spend time with her (hah – you tell yourself that, Will!) but because it will mean he can keep an eye on her and protect her from unscrupulous predators.   Lena decides to use the opportunity to get a bit of her own back on Will, to torture him a little with her nearness and a little flirtation – only to find it backfiring as she realises she’s as desperately attracted to him as she ever was.

Having read the spin off series – London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy – I was pleased to meet some of the characters who will play main roles in those stories, most notably Adele Hamilton, who notoriously entraps the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn (who also makes notable appearances here) into marriage.  There are also appearances by a number of the other secondary characters who move seamlessly in and out of the series; another of the things I so enjoy about this author’s work is the way she never shoe-horns in secondary characters just for the sake of it and they’re all integral to the story.

I liked both Will and Lena, although sometimes I found Lena a little too impetuous and apt to leap before she looked.  Will on the other hand… *sigh*…  is your classic big, brooding and tortured hero who will stop at nothing to keep his lady-love safe, even if it means denying himself the only thing he has ever truly wanted.  On the surface, they’re constantly at odds, but beneath, they’re a seething mass of warring emotions that neither knows how to deal with. I did wish Will had told Lena the real reason behind his rejection earlier than he does, but that’s really my only niggle.  Mostly, their romance is really well done; the sexual tension and chemistry between them burns bright and the eventual love scenes are sexy and romantic.

Bec McMaster again achieves a terrific balance between the various different elements of her story, combining a sensual romance with intriguing plotlines and memorable characters.  Heart of Iron is another terrific read and the London Steampunk series deserves a place on any romance fan’s bookshelf.

TBR Challenge: To See the Sun by Kelly Jensen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Survival is hard enough in the outer colonies — what chance does love have?

Life can be harsh and lonely in the outer colonies, but miner-turned-farmer Abraham Bauer is living his dream, cultivating crops that will one day turn the unforgiving world of Alkirak into paradise. He wants more, though. A companion — someone quiet like him. Someone to share his days, his bed, and his heart.

Gael Sonnen has never seen the sky, let alone the sun. He’s spent his whole life locked in the undercity beneath Zhemosen, running from one desperate situation to another. For a chance to get out, he’ll do just about anything — even travel to the far end of the galaxy as a mail-order husband. But no plan of Gael’s has ever gone smoothly, and his new start on Alkirak is no exception. Things go wrong from the moment he steps off the shuttle.

Although Gael arrives with unexpected complications, Abraham is prepared to make their relationship work—until Gael’s past catches up with them, threatening Abraham’s livelihood, the freedom Gael gave everything for, and the love neither man ever hoped to find.

Rating: B+

The last few times the “Something Different” prompt has come up in the TBR Challenge, I’ve found myself picking up a Science Fiction romance.  I don’t know why I don’t read many of them – I like the genre in TV and film – and I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read, so this prompt is always a good opportunity to read another one!  I chose Kelly Jensen’s To See the Sun for a couple of reasons; firstly, I really enjoyed her recent This Time Forever series, a trilogy of novels in which a group of men in their late forties finally find their happy ever afters and was keen to read something else of hers, and secondly, my fellow reviewer Maria Rose put the book in her Best of 2018 list, so that was a strong recommendation. Plus, it’s a variation on the mail-order-bride trope, and I haven’t read many of those, so that also worked for this particular prompt.

To See the Sun is set on the remote colony of Alkirak, a terraformed planet on which humans carve out their homes from the rock in the crevasses which provide shelter from the largely inhospitable surface. Ex-miner Abraham Bauer is stretched pretty thin keeping everything going on his small farm, but least he’s working for something that’s his rather than risking his neck day in, day out in the mines.  It’s also a lonely life, and Bram longs to find someone to share his life and maybe even build a family with, but that seems almost impossible.  Finding someone to have sex with isn’t difficult, but Bram wants more than that, he wants connection and affection, maybe even love – and that’s much harder to come by.  When he hears about companies that arrange things called companion contracts, he doesn’t hold out much hope – after all, there are millions of people just like him out there, and who on earth would want to come and spend their life on a remote outpost with an unstable atmosphere for what little Bram has to offer? – but he signs up anyway… and on logging on to the site one evening is captivated by the video of a beautiful young man whose shy, considered manner and obvious sweetness strike a chord deep within Bram that is more than simple lust.  He dares to hope that he might just have found what he’s been searching for.

Gael Sonnen ekes out an existence on Zhemozen, a beautiful planet at the opposite end of the galaxy that’s a paradise – if you’ve got money.  But Gael and the millions like him who are poor, live hand-to-mouth in the crowded, squalid undercity, a place with “dark streets, bitter air, and water that tasted like sweat.”  When he falls foul of a powerful criminal family, Gael’s only option is to run – and the farther away the better.  With no money, it seems his only option will be life as an indentured servant, until a friend suggests another possibility.  Good-looking as he is, Gael will have no trouble getting a companion contract somewhere far away from Zhemosen;  and a year’s contract as companion – or more – to a lonely farmer at the other end of the galaxy seems as good a way to escape as any.

Bram and Gael are decent, likeable characters, ordinary men who just want to make a quiet life with  someone with the same wants, needs and outlook.  Bram is in his late forties and used to being alone, which has probably made him a bit set in his ways;  while Gael is younger (twenty-nine) and has had a tough life, didn’t know either of his parents, and struggled to bring up his younger brother, who was neuroatypical and for whose death Gael blames himself.  He’s a good man and is determined that Bram won’t regret his decision to make the contract – although an unexpected event may have scuppered Gael’s chances before he can even get settled.

But he wants very much to help Bram and not to take advantage of his generosity. Gael is a natural caretaker, and I loved the small ways he starts to make a place for himself in Bram’s life, whether it’s cooking a meal, helping on the farm or just sitting quietly, listening to Bram talk or watching a video with him at the end of the day.  Their relationship is incredibly touching and really well developed as they learn about each other, work alongside one another and start to fall in love.

There are a few dramatic events along the way to keep things moving, (although the last act ‘black moment’ kind of comes out of nowhere and is resolved very quickly), but ultimately, this is a character driven, sweet story about things we can all identify with; wanting to make a personal connection with someone, or escape a hopeless situation, or make a family and being prepared to fight hard to keep it.

Ms. Jensen’s worldbuilding is superb.  She incorporates details about Alkirak and Zhemosen seamlessly into the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to build clear pictures in the mind’s eye – of the dark, underground city on Zhemosen and of the austere, hostile surface of Alkirak, the acid mists, violent storms, and most of all, the dangerous but beautiful sun that so fascinates Gael and makes the clouds glow and colours the sky and the horizon.  The dangers of daily life in such a place are brilliantly contrasted with everyday things like eating a meal or watching TV, and the slow-burn romance between Bram and Gael is beautifully done.

To See the Sun may be set on a distant planet at some unspecified time in the future, but at its heart, it’s a story about two lonely people finding something in each other they’ve been missing and yearning for.  It’s sweet and gorgeously romantic and I enjoyed every bit of it.

TBR Challenge: Paternity Case (Hazard and Somerset #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

It’s almost Christmas, and Emery Hazard finds himself face to face with his own personal nightmare: going on a double date with his partner—and boyhood crush—John-Henry Somerset. Hazard brings his boyfriend; Somers brings his estranged wife. Things aren’t going to end well.

When a strange call interrupts dinner, however, Hazard and his partner become witnesses to a shooting. The victims: Somers’s father, and the daughter of a high school friend. The crime is inexplicable. There is no apparent motive, no connection between the victims, and no explanation for how the shooter reached his targets.

Determined to get answers, Hazard and Somers move forward with their investigation in spite of mounting pressure to stop. Their search for the truth draws them into a dark web of conspiracy and into an even darker tangle of twisted love and illicit desire. And as the two men come face to face with the passions and madness behind the crime, they must confront their own feelings for each other—and the hard truths that neither man is ready to accept.

Rating: A

Paternity Case is the third in Gregory Ashe’s series of novels featuring two detectives based in the small Missouri town of Wahredua, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset.  These are gritty, complex stories that are practically impossible to put down once started; the mysteries are twisty and really well-conceived but at the heart of each book – and the series – is the complicated, fucked-up relationship between the two principals, a pair of stubborn, emotionally constipated individuals with a dark and  painful shared history that stretches back twenty years.

While each of the six books in the series boasts a self-contained mystery, there is also an overarching storyline that runs throughout, so I’d strongly recommend starting at the beginning with book one, Pretty Pretty Boys.  There’s probably enough backstory in this book for a newcomer, but if you do jump in here, you’ll miss out on a lot of relationship development and exploration of Hazard and Somerset’s history – which is absolutely integral to the series as a whole.  Gregory Ashe knows how to create sexual tension so thick it can be cut with a knife; this is slow-burn romance at its finest – and possibly most frustrating! – so don’t go into this series expecting a quick HFN/HEA.

A little bit of background. Detective Emery Hazard moves back to his small home town of Wahredua after being fired from his job in St. Louis (for reasons we don’t yet know).  The town doesn’t hold many good memories for him; the only openly gay kid at school, he didn’t have many friends and was badly bullied by three boys who made his life a misery for years.  Of these, one is now dead, another is a broken down mess, and the third… Hazard doesn’t know what happened to him, the charming, popular, movie-star handsome John-Henry Somerset, son of one of the town’s wealthiest families – until he turns up at his new station and meets his new partner.

Yep.

The first book sees Hazard and Somerset – who now goes by Somers – starting to work though the issues that lie between them, although it’s going to take more than an apology and the new, grudging, respect Hazard slowly develops for his new partner’s ability as a detective, and Somers’ admiration for Hazard’s intellect and his ability to work his way through complicated puzzles and construct solutions, to fix things between them.  Somers is almost desperate to prove to Hazard that he’s changed – and he really has – since they were in college, but Hazard is cautious and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him that isn’t work-related.  Somers is garrulous and quick to tease the much more serious Hazard, and on the surface they’ve got a bit of an ‘odd couple’ thing going on; but underneath, it’s all much darker and more complicated as the feelings that sparked between them twenty years earlier come roaring back to life.

For two books, readers have watched them struggle to adjust to their working partnership and ignore the intense mutual attraction that neither wants to acknowledge.  They’ve had their heated moments, but are both in deep denial; Somers has been trying (unsuccessfully) to work things out with his estranged wife (with whom he has a two-year-old daughter), while Hazard has embarked on a relationship with a gorgeous (and much younger) grad-student, Nico Flores. Both men are involved with someone who just doesn’t ‘get’ them or understand their dedication to their job or loyalty to each other, especially Nico, who can’t understand how Hazard can bear to work with Somers considering their history.

Paternity Case opens as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to go out – on a double-date, of all things; Hazard and Nico, Somers and his almost-ex-wife, Cora.  The reader already knows this is one of the worst ideas in history and a train-wreck in waiting, but before things can get too uncomfortable, Somers receives a phone call from his father, who practically orders him to the family home during the Somerset’s annual pre-Christmas party.  It’s not a case, but Somers insists Hazard accompanies him anyway, and they arrive to find a very drunk – or stoned – old guy wearing nothing but a Santa hat in the middle of the Somerset’s living room.  As Somers and Hazard try to find out what on earth is going on, the lights go out and shots are fired, one killing a young woman and five of the others landing in Glenn Somerset’s chest but somehow not killing him.

Naked-Santa is deemed to be responsible and is taken into custody, but both Hazard and Somers are immediately seeing things that don’t add up. And when they arrive at the hospital to discover that the suspect has been shot and killed by another detective, it ratchets up suspicions they’ve held for a while now that one of their colleagues is on the take.  The hints of political corruption and intrigue that have appeared in the earlier books now become something more solid, and when Hazard and Somers are ordered to drop their investigation they smell more than just one rat.  Their boss insists there’s nothing to investigate, but neither man buys that; for Somers this is personal – he might not get along with Glenn Somerset, but the man is still his father – and Hazard isn’t about to sit idly by and watch his partner self-destruct or put himself in danger without someone to watch his back.

While both characters get equal billing in the series title, the previous two books have focused a little more on Hazard as the main protagonist. Here, that focus shifts to Somers, and as he starts to unravel, readers are shown more of what lies beneath that gorgeous, wise-cracking exterior – a man who doesn’t like himself much and who is weighed down by the guilt of a terrible betrayal he wrought years ago.  Mr. Ashe very deftly delineates Somers’ toxic family situation, and his insight into the power dynamics that existed when Hazard and Somerset were kids is completely on the nose.  We see a different side to the normally personable, laid-back detective as the author peels away the layers to reveal  the loneliness lying at his core as he is forced to face up to some painful and unwelcome truths about his long-buried feelings, and to reach some significant conclusions as a result.

Both men are guarded and not easy to understand. They talk a lot – well, Somers does – but rarely – if ever – say what they mean, and right from the start, their conversations have been as much about what they don’t say as what they do. They’re both excellent detectives; Hazard is precise and logical while Somers has the kind of emotional intelligence that makes him a really good ‘people person’ – and yet they’re both blind when it comes to each other.  While the investigation is the focus of the plot, the intensity of the underlying love story permeates the book; these two are stupid in love but certain the other doesn’t feel the same, and the emotional punch the author delivers at the end is simply masterful.

The secondary cast is strongly-drawn, the plot is cleverly constructed and Gregory Ashe’s writing ranges from the vividly descriptive  –

At this time of year, when darkness came early, Warhedua looked like the last place of light and warmth in a burned-out world. Ahead of them, the sodium lights dropped away until the only thing illuminating the asphalt was the Interceptor’s headlights, bluish-white, the color of fresh snow if it had somehow transformed into light.

to the lyrical…

Love isn’t a choice. Love is collision. Love is catastrophe. Somers had thought he’d understood. He thought he’d known how dangerous those words were, he thought he’d sensed how deeply Emery Hazard had upset his life.

But he’d had no idea.

There are moments of observation and insight so sharp it’s almost painful, and the circumlocutory conversations that characterise Hazard and Somers’ interactions are both completely absorbing and a masterclass in how to say something without ever actually uttering the words.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll close by saying that if you’re a fan of m/m mysteries and romantic suspense, then you’re going to want to start on the Hazard and Somerset series right away.  I promise you’ll thank me later 😉

 

TBR Challenge: What I Did for a Duke (Pennyroyal Green #5) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For years, he’s been an object of fear, fascination…and fantasy. But of all the wicked rumors that shadow the formidable Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, the ton knows one thing for certain: only fools dare cross him. And when Ian Eversea does just that, Moncrieffe knows the perfect revenge: he’ll seduce Ian’s innocent sister, Genevieve—the only Eversea as yet untouched by scandal. First he’ll capture her heart…and then he’ll break it.

But everything about Genevieve is unexpected: the passion simmering beneath her cool control, the sharp wit tempered by gentleness…And though Genevieve has heard the whispers about the duke’s dark past, and knows she trifles with him at her peril, one incendiary kiss tempts her deeper into a world of extraordinary sensuality. Until Genevieve is faced with a fateful choice…is there anything she won’t do for a duke?

Rating: A-

Incredible as it may seem (and it still does – to me!) the Pennyroyal Green series is one that I haven’t yet completed.  I’ve read the last three or four books but not the earlier ones, so I decided to pick up one of them for September’s TBR prompt to read an historical romance.  The novel is fifth in the series and was originally published in 2011 – and I’m rather partial to the formidable but misunderstood hero trope, which is what decided me on this particular instalment.

Alexander Moncreiffe, Duke of Falconbridge, is not a man to be crossed.  A certain aloofness combined with a reputation for ruthlessness and the rumours he killed his wife for her money makes him an object of fear and fascination among the ton, although of course, his immense wealth and title mean that he is welcomed everywhere.  Sardonic, charismatic and darkly attractive, women want him and men want to be him; and recognising the futility of attempting to change society’s opinion, Alex does nothing to dispel the rumours and actually, rather enjoys the reputation conferred upon him and is only too willing to play up to it on occasion.

When he finds Ian Eversea in bed with his fiancée, he is (naturally) furious, but instead of challenging Ian to a duel he decides to make him sweat and keep him wondering as to when he will exact his revenge or what form it will take.  He decides that poetic justice will best suit his purposes and gets himself invited to the house party being held by the Eversea family at their country estate in Pennyroyal Green; there he intends to seduce and then abandon Ian’s younger sister, Genevieve.

Genevieve has been in love with Harry Osborne for years, and is sure that at any moment he will declare his love and propose.  He’s handsome, funny and charming (if a little oblivious at times) and they have a lot in common, such as their love of Italian art.  So she is devastated when, during a tête-á- tête, he confesses his plan to propose to their mutual friend, Millcent and, heartbroken, attempts to hide herself away as much as possible.  When the formidable – and fascinating – Duke of Falconbridge singles her out for his attentions and seeks her company, Genevieve tries to avoid him – but is intrigued in spite of herself.  Soon, she discovers a man rather different to the one she’d expected; he’s authoritative and very ‘ducal’ of course, but Genevieve sees through the highly polished veneer to discover a man capable of charm, humour and considerable perspicacity, at the same time as the duke encourages her to discover and admit to certain truths about herself.

This is one of those books where not very much happens – no kidnappings, pirates, spies, missing heirs or murders – but in which the pages just fly by and the reader becomes completely and utterly invested in the central characters, their interactions and their gradually developing romance.  Neither Genevieve nor Alex is exactly what they seem, which becomes a point of commonality between them; Alex’s reputation as a cold, sometimes cruel man is not undeserved, but he’s also clever, intuitive and witty, while Genevieve is widely believed to be sensible, quiet and shy whereas she’s nothing of the sort. Her demeanour is the result of careful consideration rather than natural reticence, and she is often impatient with the mistaken impression society has of her.  I loved the way Ms. Long used flowers to point up the impressions held by others of Genevieve and her sister; Olivia is routinely sent bouquets of vibrant, colourful flowers by her numerous admirers, while Genevieve, when she gets flowers at all, gets daisies and narcissi and pale, insipid arrangements, until one morning a huge display of roses that is – magnificently intimidating and almost indecently sensual – arrives for her.  Of course, it’s from Alex, and it’s a wonderful way of showing that he really sees Genevieve for the remarkable woman she truly is.  In spite of his plan to debauch and ruin her (which is soon abandoned in an unexpected and fitting way), we see that he is coming to genuinely care for and understand her while she is doing the same thing as regards him.

Julie Anne Long’s writing is superb; deft, witty, warm and perceptive, she has a knack for dialogue and vivid description, and for creating multifaceted, flawed and yet thoroughly engaging characters.  (Although I really wish someone had corrected all the errors with titles – a duke is never addressed as “Lord” anybody). Alex is a formidable man but he’s also a very lonely one who is tired of playing society’s games and wants some peace in his life.  Genevieve is misunderstood and undervalued, a young woman who doesn’t yet really know who she is, but who learns, through her association with Alex, how to be the passionate, vibrant, pleasure-loving woman she really is.  They really do bring out the best in each other, and I loved the fact that Alex wanted so badly for Genevieve to become her best self; even if he couldn’t have her for himself, he wanted her to have that and to be properly appreciated.

What I Did for a Duke is a captivating character-driven story that has no need for flashy plotlines and over-wrought drama to propel it forward.  What begins as a May/December romance between an underestimated young woman and a world-weary rake slowly morphs into something more complex and nuanced, a story about two people able to see past the distorted lens with which they are each generally viewed to the real person inside – and to love that person unreservedly.  When AAR reviewed the book on its release, it was awarded it DIK status, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur.

TBR Challenge – A Duchess in Name (Grantham Girls #1) by Amanda Weaver

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Victoria Carson never expected love. An American heiress and graduate of Lady Grantham’s finishing school, she’s been groomed since birth to marry an English title—the grander the better. So when the man chosen for her, the forbidding Earl of Dunnley, seems to hate her on sight, she understands that it can’t matter. Love can have no place in this arrangement.

Andrew Hargrave has little use for his title and even less for his cold, disinterested parents. Determined to make his own way, he’s devoted to his life in Italy working as an archaeologist. Until the collapse of his family’s fortune drags him back to England to a marriage he never wanted and a woman he doesn’t care to know.

Wild attraction is an unwanted complication for them both, though it forms the most fragile of bonds. Their marriage of convenience isn’t so intolerable after all—but it may not be enough when the deception that bound them is finally revealed.

Rating: B+

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.

TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.