TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

TBR Challenge: Delicious by Sherry Thomas


This title may be purchased from Amazon

He has risen from the gutters to become a powerful man–London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand in the House of Commons. She is a woman who spends her days in the kitchen. A chance encounter changes both their lives, but she disappears at dawn, leaving behind no name, no address, and only a pair of muddy galoshes.

Ten years later, the last thing Stuart Somerset expects, as he arrives at his new country estate following the unexpected death of his elder brother Bertie, is to fall in love with the delicacies from the kitchen of Madame Verity Durant, Bertie’s mysterious and notorious cook. Little does he know, Madame Durant and his lost beloved are one and the same, and he stands to lose his hard-won respectability were he to follow the yearnings of his heart.

Rating: C

It’s no secret that I’m a massive Sherry Thomas fangirl. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and when it came to this month’s TBR prompt of Backlist, I decided to read one of the two (I think) historical romances of hers I haven’t yet read – Delicious, from 2008.  Billed as a kind of Cinderella story, it features a celebrated – even notorious – cook and a highly-respected MP who reunite after they spent a night together ten years earlier, but though I like second-chance romances and I love Sherry Thomas’ writing, the story didn’t work for me at all.  In fact, it was just plain… odd.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused through the first few chapters, but one thing that is apparent early on is that gourmet chef/cook Verity Durant is not exactly what she seems.  Infamous throughout English society because of her (supposed) loose morals, she was the mistress of her employer Bertie Somerset for a time, although that relationship ended ten years before and she remained at Fairleigh Park as his cook.  Bertie dies at the beginning of the book, and his estate is inherited by his estranged half-brother Stuart, a hard-working lawyer and up-and-coming politician who is tipped as a future Prime Minister.  And the man with whom Verity shared one single night of passion ten years earlier.

Verity has mixed feelings upon learning that Stuart will be coming back into her life. She knows there is little reason for them to meet but is still in love with him even after all that time, and she wants to give him a gift, one she realises has been ten years in the making – happiness on a plate.

But unlike his half-brother, who was a real foodie, for Stuart, food is a necessity, something to fuel his body and to prevent hunger.  All he wants is to eat his first dinner as the owner of Fairleigh Park in peace and quiet while he reads his newspaper.  But from his very first mouthful of soup, he’s distracted:

The sip turned into an explosion of flavors on his tongue, rich, deep, pure, like eating the sunshine and verdure of a fine June afternoon.  Startled, he did something he almost never did – putting down his newspaper when he dined alone – and stared into the soup.

A mouthful later, he’s sent the soup away, seeing his enjoyment of it as an indulgence and a weakness.  But as the days pass, he finds himself unable to stop thinking about Madame Durant, fantasising about her even though at this point, (he thinks) he has never even met her.   Oh, and he’s just become engaged to a young woman with whom he’s been friends for a number of years and who he believes will make a good political wife.

But basically, that’s the story, Stuart fighting against seduction by proxy – the proxy being Verity’s amazing and incredibly culinary creations – while Verity simultaneously wants him to love her and actively avoids letting him see her and realise who she is.

The author makes good use of flashbacks to fill in the backstory, so we get to witness the first meeting between Verity and Stuart, the circumstances of their night together and what happened afterwards. But – and here is one of the book’s biggest problems – it was just ONE night, and the entire romance in the present is predicated on that single encounter.  It’s intensely passionate to be sure, but it’s basically insta-love, and when you add to that the fact that Verity and Stuart don’t really interact all that much in the present timeline (and when they do, they don’t see each other’s faces until right at the end), well, I found their romance really difficult to buy into.

Another problem is with the way the conflict in the romance is resolved.  Stuart’s fiancée is happily taken care of (there’s an excellent secondary romance which I liked more than the main one), but even then, Verity’s reputation will spell the end of Stuart’s political career, unless … well, a secondary character does a complete volte face and turns into a deus ex machina.

I didn’t connect with either Stuart or Verity.  Hints are dropped early on that Verity was born into an aristocratic family but was estranged from them at sixteen; she’s had a tough time of it and the fact she’s made something of herself in the face of such adversity really is admirable, but I just couldn’t become invested in her.  And I’m not sure how I feel about the fact she slept with brothers. (Okay, half-brothers, but still…) As for Stuart… two hours after finishing the book I’m trying to recall something about his personality, but other than his determination not to enjoy Verity’s cooking, and an obsession with her that springs out of nowhere, I can’t remember much.  And speaking of cooking, I really didn’t care for was the way in which the food was described as magical and life-altering and… so much hyperbole that I started skimming those parts.

I did like the secondary romance, which was funny and tender, and I think my favourite parts of the story were those when Stuart began to reappraise his relationship with Bertie, to whom he’d been really close when they were boys.  But it’s a bad sign when, in a romance novel, the love stories that are the most interesting don’t involve either of the two principal characters.

A C grade is the best I can do for Delicious – and I can’t remember the last time a Sherry Thomas book got anything lower than an A grade from me.  It’s always a sad day when I have to write a negative review of a favourite author,  but I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience and move on.

TBR Challenge: Imagine by Jill Barnett

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After years imprisoned on Devil’s Island for a murder he never committed, escaped convict Hank Wyatt knows how to survive and believes his luck has finally changed. But when he stows away on board a ship destined to sink, his luck turns bad. He doesn’t know if he can last an hour when he is marooned on a deserted island with a beautiful, know-it-all blonde attorney and three orphaned children. Suddenly looking out for number one doesn’t seem to be enough.

San Francisco attorney Maggie Smith wants to have a good cry. Thoroughly modern, wealthy, and bright, her unwanted holiday turns bad when she is suddenly cast in the role of mother and forced to battle wits and hearts with the most arrogant, pig-headed man she’s ever met.

Fate has thrown this makeshift family Robinson together, and kismet tosses in a 2000 year-old floating bottle filled with magic. Is the chance for a love more powerful than they could ever imagine only a wish away? Father Goose meets Donovan’s Reef in this funny and tender historical romance about misfits who find that life might not be so bad after all…if they can do the impossible, and find a way to be family.

Rating: C+

Many romance series feature siblings, but for the Family Ties prompt, I decided to go for a ‘found family’ story, and Jill Barnett’s Imagine (originally published in 1995 and reissued in 2017) fit that bill perfectly.

It’s 1896, and in San Francisco, successful, hard-working attorney Margaret Huntington Smith has been urged by her father, a judge, to take a well-deserved vacation.  Knowing she won’t go unless given a push (in the best way) he’s brought her a first class ticket for a cruise to “French Oceania – Tahiti, the Cook Islands and more – A little taste of paradise for a daughter who works too hard.”

In the penal colony of Leper’s Gate on Dolphin Island, Hank Wyatt (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit) has spent four years doing hard labour and enduring horrific cruelty, and when he sees a chance for escape he takes it. Disguised as a priest, he makes his way to Port Helene on the other side of the island where he stows away aboard a steamship.

But Hank’s luck has run out.  That night, there’s a terrible storm and the ship goes down; Hank and the woman and three young orphans he rescues are the only survivors.

So what we’ve got is what the book blurb describes as “a makeshift family Robinson” consisting of a rough-and-ready ex-convict, a very proper female attorney and three children (two girls and a boy) aged two, five and eleven.  (Oh, and an obstreperous goat they later name Rebuttal – because she keeps butting Hank in the butt.)

There’s a sort of African Queen Bogey/Hepburn vibe between Hank and Margaret (whom he nicknames Smitty) – although I don’t remember Bogart’s Charlie being quite so deliberately rude to Hepburn’s Rosie – and the pair are frequently at loggerheads, usually over Hank’s insistence that he knows best and Margaret should just worry about cooking meals and looking after the children.

Fortunately, and in spite of his attitude – in which, let’s face it, he’s very much a man of his time – the author succeeds in making Hank a likeable character.  Hidden deep inside behind the dismissiveness and crass behaviour is a caring man who has been battered about by life and learned early on that aspiration only leads to disappointment. But he proves himself to be kind, capable of laughing at himself, and also – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – to be good with the children. He needs some prodding to do the right thing at times, but he steps up when needed, teaching five-year-old Theodore to swim and to fish and becoming a father-figure to a boy who desperately wants a Dad.  Something Hank never had.

Margaret’s mother died when she was young, so she was brought up by her father, who taught her to believe in herself and that she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  She’s whip-smart and determined, likes to think things through and to find logical solutions to problems… although as she quickly discovers, none of those things really work all that well when confronted with an energetic toddler and a troubled eleven-year-old for whom she can’t seem to do anything right.

The author does a good job of pulling this unexpected family gradually together, in creating the chemistry between Hank and Margaret, and showing Margaret’s confusion at how she can possibly be attracted to a man she doesn’t particularly like.  Much of the comedy comes from Margaret’s ineptitude at those supposedly feminine tasks of looking after the children and cooking; she’s hopeless at the latter and burns everything – even after several weeks when I’d have thought a woman of her intelligence would have worked out how NOT to burn the fish Hank and Theodore caught.  Which begs the question – what did they actually eat?  Apart from bananas and coconuts, and later in the book, some oysters, there’s not much attention devoted to that.

Anyway.   I liked a lot about this story; the verbal sparring between Hank and Margaret is fun, the children are nicely developed as individuals rather than plot-moppets, and there are some really touching scenes as both Hank and Margaret start to bond with them.  The romance is nicely done, too; Margaret and Hank are like chalk and cheese, and what starts out as a physical attraction is given time to grow into a friendship and then more.  So why haven’t I given the book a higher grade?

Put simply – the genie.

Even though he appears in the prologue, I’d completely forgotten about him.  I became caught up in the story of Hank’s escape – which is quite a feat of ingenuity – and the drama of the shipwreck and rescue, their journey to the island and their first days trying to get used to their situation and each other, then – poof! – Muddy appears in a puff of purple smoke, and the whole thing went downhill.  Okay, so credit to the author for not having the first wish – or second – be ‘get us off this island’ – but it was obvious that he was going to end up playing Deus ex Machina at some point.   Apart from that function, I honestly couldn’t see the point of including him in the story.

Had it not been for that, I’d have given the book a higher grade, but it just didn’t work for me.  I read paranormal and fantasy romances, so the idea of magical beings isn’t the issue; it’s the dropping in of one into an otherwise non-magical setting for no apparent reason (other than to get them off the island when the author was ready).

Imagine was an entertaining read that had a lot going for it, but I can’t deny I was disappointed overall, especially as it had such a strong start.  But YMMV – there are plenty of 4 and 5 star reviews around for this one. so obviously it will work better for some readers than others.

TBR Challenge: Dangerous Ground (Dangerous Ground #1) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt have been partners and best friends for three years, but everything changed the night Taylor admitted the truth about his feelings for Will.

Taylor agreed to a camping trip in the High Sierras — despite the fact that he hates camping — because Will wants a chance to save their partnership. But the trip is a disaster from the first, and things rapidly go from bad to worse when they find a crashed plane and a couple of million dollars in stolen money.

With a trio of murderous robbers trailing them, Will and Taylor are on dangerous ground, fighting for their partnership…and their lives.

Rating: B

I thought, when I saw April’s prompt – “freebie” – that it’d be easy to find a book to read for it, but when it came to it and I was searching my Kindle, I realised that my choices were limited by my memory; I couldn’t recall which books I’d picked up for free and which I’d paid for!  Fortunately, I remembered that I’d received a couple of free books when I signed up for Josh Lanyon’s mailing list a while back, so that solved my problem.

The Dangerous Ground series is a set of six novellas (the first was published in 2008, the last was published this year) featuring agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt.  They’re fast-moving stories – kind of like a TV episode in book form – and each instalment contains a complete mystery/investigation, but the relationship between the leads develops throughout. I knew this going in, so the abrupt ending of book one, Dangerous Ground wasn’t an issue as I knew there was more to come, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I jumped straight into book two, Old Poison (and then bought the rest of the series.)

Taylor and Will have been partners and best friends for almost four years.  They’re very different in some ways – Will is the more settled and considered of the two, where Taylor is more impulsive – but they work well together and share a similar jaded worldview and sarcastic sense of humor.  But six weeks before Dangerous Ground opens, things between them went horribly wrong; Taylor was shot during an operation and Will is alternately furious – with Taylor for (as he thinks) carelessly looking for trouble – and beating himself up with guilt, believing it’s his fault Taylor was off his game.  The night before the shooting, Will and Taylor had gone out for a few drinks, which had ended with Taylor getting smashed and then telling Will how he felt about him. But Will turned him down.  It’s not that he’s blind to the fact that Taylor is gorgeous or that he isn’t attracted to him… but he doesn’t think the commitment-shy Taylor is a good bet for a relationship and doesn’t want to ruin what they already have.

The trouble is, that things are changing anyway and there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  Six weeks after Taylor was shot, and shortly before he’s due to return to work, Will suggests they go on a camping trip into the High Sierras… and although he hates camping, Taylor agrees.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for Will and he, too, thinks that perhaps they need some time to sort out where they stand with each other.

The book starts a few days into the trip when Will and Taylor stumble across the wreckage of a small plane they realise was used in the infamous Black Wolf Casino heist a few months earlier.  The only body on board is that of the pilot – who was shot in the head – and there’s no sign of the other passengers.  What they do find, however, is the loot – over two million dollars, which they decide to stash in a bear box while they make their way down the mountain to alert the authorities.  But with that much money at stake, it’s not long before Will and Taylor find out they’re not the only ones on a trip into the mountains.  Only the armed men and woman who find them are clearly not there on vacation.

The author packs a surprising amount of plot into a relatively short page count, and keeps both the plot and romantic elements of the story moving smoothly in tandem.  I liked the way the backstory – the shooting, Taylor’s drunk declaration – was drip fed throughout the early chapters, the tension between them is palpable, and there’s no denying the pair have great chemistry.  There’s a really strong sense of place in the story, too, wonderfully evocative descriptions of the scenery, the warmth of the sun, the chill in the air and the sounds of nature.  On the downside, the characterisation is perhaps a little thin, as we don’t know a great deal about Will and Taylor, but as I said, this is the first of six, so there’s room for development on that front.

Dangerous Ground is fast-paced and entertaining, the leads are engaging and the author achieves a good balance between the suspense plot and the romance, with some high stakes action and steamy love scenes along the way.  It’s a quick read, but has enough depth to have made me care about the characters and want to know more about them.  I definitely intend to read the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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.