Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner

sailor's delight

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris

when blood lies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.

Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

Rating: A-

I eagerly await the release of a new Sebastian St. Cyr book every year; we’re up to book seventeen with When Blood Lies and it’s one of the best of the recent instalments, a fabulous blend of whodunit and history set in Paris in March of 1815, in the days leading up to Napoleon’s escape from Elba. As the author has picked up the long-running storyline relating to Sebastian’s search for the truth about his parentage, it’s impossible to write a review of When Blood Lies without reference to earlier books in the series, so please be aware there are spoilers ahead.

For the last twenty-odd years, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin and heir to the Earl of Hendon, believed his mother Sophia – who left her marriage and England when he was a boy – was dead.  But he has recently discovered that is not the case, and in the previous book (What the Devil Knows) learned she was living in Paris, and was presently in Vienna, where negotiations between the various countries and states of Europe have been in progress for some time, as they work to rebuild following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

When this story begins, Sebastian, his wife Hero and their children are in Paris where he hopes, at long last, to meet with his errant mother on her return to the city and to finally get some answers to questions long unasked – even though he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear them.  Walking the misty banks of the Seine one evening, he’s reached the Pont Neuf when his attention is caught by a glimpse of what looks like an out-flung arm down on the river bank; he hurries down the stone steps to discover the body of a tall, slim, well-dressed woman lying motionless at the water’s edge, her pale cheek smeared with blood. Bolts of recognition and devastation hit Sebastian when the woman looks into his eyes before uttering a single word – his name.

Sebastian has his mother taken to his house in the Place Dauphine, where he and Hero tend her as best they can while they wait for the doctor to arrive – but her injuries are too severe, and all the doctor can do when he arrives is accede to Sebastian’s request that he examine the body to see if he can give him some idea as to cause of her death.  Sebastian suspects, given where she was found, that his mother may have fallen or been pushed from the bridge; the physician agrees that her injuries indicate a fall, but also tells Sebastian that she was stabbed in the back before being lifted and thrown over the parapet.  Clearly, whatever happened was no accident – but Sebastian knows so little about his mother’s life over the past two decades that he has no inkling as to why she would be murdered.  But that isn’t going to stop him from doing everything he possibly can to find out – no matter that his investigation will bring him into conflict with the most powerful families and factions in France.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, all of them absolutely gripping, all of them very cleverly slotted together. The pacing is swift but not rushed; there’s time to absorb every new development before moving on to the next, each new piece of information often raising more questions than it answers. Sebastian learns that Sophia had been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals – a Scotsman to whom Sebastian bears more than a passing resemblance – who is now in Vienna negotiating on behalf of the newly reinstated Bourbons, and that after leaving Vienna, Sophia visited Napoleon on Elba before returning to Paris. But why? What’s the significance of the – now empty – jewellery case she was carrying on the night of her death? And what was she doing on the Pont Neuf that night? Sebastian and Hero have their work cut out as they search for the truth while the political situation in France hangs in the balance; the growing dissatisfaction of the populace with their Bourbon king has rumours that L’Empereur is about to return spreading like wildfire – and when the news reaches Paris that Napoleon has escaped his prison on Elba, Sebastian realises he’s running out of time… as, perhaps, is everyone around him.

When Blood Lies is an engrossing page-turner, a book I found difficult to set aside and was eager to get back to. The seamless way the author weaves her original plot threads through the fabric of history is masterful, as is the way she incorporates the various historical figures who appear throughout the tale. We see a little less of Hendon and Jarvis here – although the latter makes his presence felt in his usual inimitable fashion – but having Hero taking such a major role in the story is a big plus. She and Sebastian are so finely attuned that they appear almost able to read each other’s minds; I love the level of trust and understanding between them, and the way they bounce ideas off each other and help and support one another is wonderful to see. Sebastian goes through a lot in this book; grief for his mother, regret for their lost years together, frustration at the fact he may never now find out the identity of his biological father – which he tries to set aside while he tries to find the murderer, but his conflicted emotions are never far away and Hero is his rock.

Full of intrigue and suspense with a superbly-drawn cast of characters, a compelling leading man and packed to the gills with fascinating historical detail, When Blood Lies is another wonderful instalment in this excellent long-running mystery series. Now the waiting starts for book eighteen next year!

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?

Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?

Rating: B+

This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.

At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.

After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.

The story that follows is fast-moving and satisfyingly complex, as Sebastian moves from suspect to suspect, many of whom have much to hide and are rarely forthcoming.  As always, the author skilfully incorporates some of the lesser-known histories of London into her plot, and the way Sebastian pieces together all the snippets of information – and weeds out the lies he’s fed along the way – is superbly done, with lots of character interaction, investigative pondering and insightful observation about the huge disparity that existed between the haves and have-nots, and the injustices perpetrated on the lower echelons of society by greedy public officials and institutions that were supposed to exist for the betterment of all, not just a self-serving few.

Sebastian continues to be a compelling, sympathetic character, and one of the things I so enjoy about this series is watching him grow and change from the hot-headed younger man who was careless of his own safety to a devoted husband and father, a truly and deeply compassionate man who believes strongly in justice and in using his position and abilities to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.  His wife, Hero – daughter of the devious, formidable Lord Jarvis  – shares his interests and convictions; she is an investigative journalist who writes about what life is really like for London’s poor and less fortunate, and I love how in-tune they are and the way they are each other’s staunch support.  She has a relatively small part to play in this story, but her discoveries pack a considerable emotional punch as she interacts with young women making a living on the streets, telling stories about their lives and experiences that are far from pretty.

As with the last few books in the series, the standalone mystery takes precedence,  so a reader new to it could jump in here and not feel as though they’re missing anything.  This has been the case with the last couple of books; the long-running storylines concerning Sebastian’s search for the truth about his heritage – and particularly his search for his mother – his relationship with his father, and the machinations of the Machiavellian Lord Jarvis are present, but are simmering along on the back-burner.  Sebastian learns that his mother has been living in Paris, but that she’s recently removed to Vienna – where European heads of state are gathering to put “the world back together after the defeat of that Corsican upstart” – under an assumed name, but has no idea why; Jarvis’ relationship with the cunning and mercenary Victoria Hart-Davis (were ever two villainous characters so well suited to each other?) progresses, and changes are afoot in Sebastian’s household.  As the timeline of the series inches closer to Napoléon’s escape from Elba and to Waterloo, I become more and more intrigued as to what lies in store for Sebastian – and I certainly plan on sticking around to find out.

What the Devil Knows is another strong instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series.  The mystery is gripping and tightly-written and the author’s descriptive prose is – as always – so wonderfully evocative that the reader can feel the dampness of the creeping fog , see the crowded tap-rooms and hear the gulls screeching overhead around the docks.  Why is it not a DIK?  Simply because I’m starting to feel the need for a bit more movement on issues surrounding Sebastian’s history; this seems to have been pushed aside in the last few books in the series – and while I can sort of understand the author wishing to keep this particular mystery going a bit longer as she obviously has more stories to tell, cynical me can’t help but see the drawing out of it as a delaying tactic.

But don’t let that put you off; this series is one of the best (if not THE best) historical mystery series around, and What the Devil Knows is another fantastic read.

Redeeming the Reclusive Earl by Virginia Heath


This title may be purchased from Amazon

His heart is a fortress.

And she’s trespassing!

After losing all he holds dear in a horrific fire, Max Aldersley, Earl of Rivenhall, shuns the world – until he catches Effie Nithercott digging holes on his estate! He banishes the intrepid archaeologist and the unsettled feelings she rouses within him. But she returns even more determined and infuriatingly desirable than before! He wonders just how deep she is prepared to dig – so far she’ll reach the man beneath his scars…?

Rating: A-

Another winner from Virginia Heath in the form of this lovely, funny, warm and sexy grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-heroine story that is easily one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a while.

Badly injured in a ship-board fire he barely survived, and then unceremoniously dumped by his beautiful but shallow fiancée, Max Aldersley, Earl of Rivenhall, has holed up on his Cambridgeshire estate, and intends to remain there, licking his wounds (metaphorically) for… well, ever, if he has his own way.  The last thing he wants is to find himself distracted from his wallowing by a breeches-wearing, challenging and rather lovely female who insists on digging up bits of his land in the name of archaeology – and he tells his irritating trespasser so in no uncertain terms.

Miss Effie Nithercott has dedicated her life to the study of antiquities, and is dismayed at the prospect of having to discontinue her work.  She’s nearly thirty and unmarried – the man she had planned to marry was killed in the war – and she has resigned herself to spinsterhood and a life spent in academic pursuits.  Her dream is to have one of her papers published by the Society of Antiquities, but they will not even look at her work because she’s a woman; even so, she continues to write and send them… and to receive them back unopened.

She refuses to give up her dig without a fight, and in the face of yet another refusal, starts digging alone in the dark – and Max eventually gives in, citing the threat to her personal safety as the reason, and allows her to continue with her excavations in the daylight. Not long afterwards, she finds herself entertaining a lordly guest who just happens to come by “accidentally” every day to share her lunch, listen to her talk about her discoveries and whom she manages to persuade to wield a pick-axe on occasion.

Virginia Heath has penned a lovely, slow-burn romance full of chemistry, affection, tenderness and teasing between two people who have found themselves on the outside through no fault of their own. Effie is neuroatypical;  her mind is always on the go, she has a huge thirst and capacity for knowledge and she’s possessed of an eidetic memory.  She’s known she was ‘odd’ all her life; men have been attracted to her, but have been intimidated by the intelligence she’s unable to hide.  She can’t simper and flirt as other women do, she’s too much herself to try to be anything she is not and she speaks her mind, often without thinking first; none of these qualities men look for in a wife.

Max, however, is fascinated by Effie’s mind and the way it works.  He’s physically attracted to her, too, but her inquisitiveness and amazing capacity for joy in her work delight him.  He’s reluctant to let her in, to tell her about and let her see all the ways the fire he survived damaged him inside and out; but as he begins to see and understand the obstacles she has faced – and continues to face – he slowly starts to let her in.  I cheered at the moment when Effie calls Max on his wallowing, and reminds him that he has far more choices in life than she does – and again later, when he finally understands what she’s been telling him:

The world was made for men and brutally unfair to a woman as brilliant as her.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is the way the author imbues it with a feminist message without hitting readers over the head with it.  Effie is unusual and rather eccentric, but her quirkiness is a properly established character trait, and not just a way for her to go around telling everyone how unconventional she is.  Another is that Effie absolutely refuses to pity Max for his scars or for what caused them and what happened after.  She understands a terrible thing happened to him, and helps him to see that:

“We all have a choice, Max. We can either fact it fighting or let it beat us and win.”

I was also pleased at the way Max’s sister, Eleanor is portrayed.  Often, a character such as she is interfering and annoying,  but here, it’s very clear that Eleanor (and okay, so she is one for interfering!) loves her brother very much – she leaves her own family for weeks at a time because she’s worried about him – and wants him to be happy.  I liked her kindness and sense of humour, and the friendship that developed between her and Effie.

Redeeming the Reclusive Earl is a gorgeously romantic, sensual love story featuring two lonely souls who are perfect one another.

TBR Challenge: Feather Castles (Sanguinet Saga #2) by Patricia Veryan

Note: This title appears to be available in ebook formats in the US only.

In Feather Castles, Patricia Veryan gives us another sparkling Regency full of drama and romance as she unfolds the spellbinding adventures and apparently star-crossed love of the soon-to-be-married Miss Rachel Strand and a man whose name she does not even know.

It is dusk on the ruined battlefields of Waterloo. In a carriage slowly making its way across the desolation is Rachel Strand, fiancée to the rich and powerful Claude Sanguinet, who is accompanying her friend and teacher Sister Maria Evangeline in a desperate search for one man among the thousands who lie wounded. Before they can find that man, they come across a valiant young solider who, though badly wounded, saves them from plunderers–a man who cannot remember his name, or even his nationality.

So begins a riveting tale that takes us to both sides of the English Channel, from elegant drawing rooms and a magnificent sinister country estate to riotous taverns and hostelries…

Rating: B

Patricia Veryan wrote some thirty-five historical romances between 1978 and 2002, many of which were out of print for a long time but are now available digitally. (Only in the US it seems – in the UK they’re only available in used paperback 😦 ) Two of her best-known series are set in the eighteenth century and the other – which is also the longest one – in the nineteenth.  I reviewed Some Brief Folly, book one in the Sanguinet series for a TBR prompt last year, and decided to pick up the next book, Feather Castles, for this year’s “Old School” round.  It’s more of a romantic adventure yarn than pure romance, and is actually the first book in which the character who gives his name to the series – the villainous Claude Sanguinet – appears.  The story took a little while to get going, and flagged a bit in the middle, but I enjoyed it on the whole, and there’s a neat twist near the end that I hadn’t expected but which lays some groundwork for the rest of the series.

The book opens immediately following the Battle of Waterloo, and we find our heroine, Rachel Strand, accompanying her friend and mentor, Sister Maria Evangeline, to the battlefield to search for someone  among the dead and wounded.  When the ladies are accosted by a group of looters, they are saved by a wounded officer Rachel takes to be French (given that’s the language he speaks before collapsing) who comes to their aid just before Sister Maria Evangeline’s friend, Diccon, finds them and runs the ruffians off.  Diccon and Sister Maria Evangeline want to get away as quickly as possible, but Rachel refuses to just leave their rescuer to die, so they bundle him into their carriage and later aboard ship, bound for England.

Meanwhile, on another part of the battlefield, Captain Sir Simon Buchanan (brother of Mia, heroine of Some Brief Folly) is dismayed to learn of the death of his friend, Tristram Leith, from an exploding shell.  It’s with a heavy heart he carries the news of the death of Lord Leith’s only son and heir back to England.

Of course, the reader is able to put two and two together straight away, and work out that the courageous ‘French’ officer is Tristram Leith, but he is unaware of his identity for most of the book, his memory returning in fits and spurts, but not giving him a complete picture, or providing him with any clue as to his name or place of origin.  He does work out that he’s English rather than French, and discovers he was a high-ranking officer (a Colonel) but his memory is like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing.  The first part of the story focuses on his recovery from his injuries, and the burgeoning romance between him and the lovely Rachel, but she is betrothed to the suave and powerful Claude Sangiunet, and when Tristram is sufficiently recovered, they part, he to journey to London, to Horse Guards to find out what he can about himself, she to her fiancé and wedding preparations.

Feather Castles gets off to a bit of a slow start and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was pulled into the world the author has created.  We’ve got an evil mastermind – who is scarily plausible and good at hiding in plain sight – plenty of adventure and long odds to be overcome, together with attractive leads and a group of secondary characters who are present as more than just sequel-bait; they have important parts to play within the story, and will, I suspect,  crop up throughout the series.  Tristram is a terrific hero, a military man whom the author actually shows being the sort of commanding, cool-under-fire presence his rank would suggest.  Even when he doesn’t know who he is, his sterling qualities are obvious; he’s clearly a leader of men and Ms. Veryan shows those skills over and over again.  We’re also introduced to the impulsive, brash Alan Devenish, a rather insubordinate young man who has obviously yet to come into his own, and whose impetuousness serves as a good contrast to Tristram’s calmer but no less determined approach.

Rachel is the sort of heroine who has perhaps gone out of fashion in recent years.  She’s fairly passive in the first part of the story and doesn’t really start to question her actions or try to seek a way out until fairly late on in the book.  Her family’s disgrace (her father had cheated at cards, which was a huge no-no at this time) means she and her siblings have been ostracised from society, and she saw an engagement to the wealthy, charming Claude as a way to make sure that her invalid sister Charity would be taken care of.  She accepted Claude out of gratitude, and even though Sister Maria Evangeline makes it clear she believes Rachel is doing the wrong thing by agreeing to the match, Rachel refuses to consider an alternative; her focus is on Charity and Rachel is, to start with at least, wilfully blind to the signs that Claude isn’t the kindly altruist she believes him to be.  But in this, she’s a woman of her time; so much of a woman’s ‘worth’ was bound up in family and reputation, and with no other way of keeping a roof over her head and paying for her sister’s treatment, Rachel took the only option open to her.  Her situation certainly evokes sympathy, and I liked that she gradually came to admit to her mistake and to want to do something about it.  On the downside however, the romance lacks a real spark; the absence of bedroom scenes isn’t an issue, but while I liked Tristram a lot, it wasn’t until near the very end that I started to believe Rachel was the woman for him.

Still, I think fans of traditional romances, or those looking for a Regency-era story full of intrigue, adventure and derring-do will enjoy Feather Castles.  Patricia Veryan deserves to be more widely read; she’s frequently likened to Georgette Heyer, although I’m never sure that’s a completely apt comparison given Veryan wrote mostly romantic adventures as opposed to comedies of manners, but chances are if you like Heyer, you’ll like Veryan – and even if you don’t like Heyer, I suspect you could read it and be pleasantly surprised.

Irresistible (Horsemen Trilogy #3) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sophia Armitage does not consider herself attractive. Even her late husband treated her more as a companion than a lover when she accompanied him to war. But Sophia hopes to enjoy a Season in London as her niece makes her social debut – until, that is, her hopes are dashed when she is faced with a threat she can reveal to no one. Then she meets Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne, an old army friend, and falls in love with him even as she must discourage his growing passion for her. Nathaniel can sense Sophia’s unhappiness and fear, but does not understand that his attempts to protect and help her can only bring about her downfall….

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B+

First published in 1998, but newly available in audio, Irresistible is the final book in Mary Balogh’s Horsemen Trilogy, which features a group of friends who served together in the Peninsular War, and whose fearless feats of derring-do earned them the nickname the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a gently moving and compelling friends-to-lovers story that has a few flaws (mostly relating to some of the heroine’s actions) but which I enjoyed very much in spite of them.

Sir Nathaniel Gascoigne has spent the last couple of years rusticating on his Yorkshire estate drowning (as he sees it) in female relatives – five sisters and one cousin. With four of his sisters now settled, he’s looking forward to having the place to himself once he has found suitable husbands for his youngest sister and cousin, and is heading to London for the Season for the first time in two years with exactly this intention. He also plans a reunion with his fellow Horsemen (two of whom are now happily married) and to have a bit of *ahem* fun whilst he’s in town and break his two-year dry spell ;). One morning shortly after his arrival in town, he and his friends are riding in the park when they are delighted to meet an old friend, Mrs. Sophia Armitage.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Wayward Bride (Romance of the Turf #3) by Theresa Romain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Though their horse-racing family is as troubled as it is talented, all of the Chandler siblings have found love…except eldest brother Jonah. Married four years ago and abandoned after his wedding night, single-minded Jonah now spends his days training Thoroughbreds—while his lost bride is a family mystery no one dares discuss.

And that’s just the way Jonah and his wife, Irene, want it.

The biracial daughter of a seamstress and a con artist, Irene has built a secret career as a spy and pickpocket who helps troubled women. By day she works as a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies; in spare moments she takes on missions that carry her everywhere from London’s elite heart to its most dangerous corners.

Jonah agreed to this arrangement for four years, until Irene’s family fortunes were made. After surviving on passionate secret meetings and stolen days together, now it’s time to begin the marriage so long delayed. But as these two independent souls begin to build a life together, family obligations and old scandals threaten to tear them apart…

Rating: B-

I enjoyed the first three books in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series, which focuses on a family of successful horse-breeders and trainers based in Newmarket.  One of the attractions of the series has been that there’s nary a duke or earl in sight – historical romance about non-aristocratic characters is relatively rare, so the author is to be applauded for writing about the gentry instead of the nobs.  It’s been a while since the last title in the series (Scandalous Ever After) was released, but  I did remember that the eldest of the Chandler siblings, Jonah, had appeared and/or been mentioned in the earlier books, and that he was married… but that his wife, for some unexplained reason, wasn’t around.

As it turns out, Irene Chandler – née Baird – is a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (as featured in the novella duo by Ms. Romain and Shana Galen), an exclusive boarding school in Marylebone that teaches classes in self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more traditional subjects.  Irene has been a teacher of geography and history there for six years, and loves it; but like some of her fellow teachers, she also carries out certain extra-curricular activities at the behest of Mrs. Brodie.  Irene is, in fact:

… a sort of spy. A thief.  A secret agent.  The headmistress of her academy had ties to prominent people across England, and she pulled strings to make sure their power was used for good.  Irene was, when needed, the physical hand who did the pulling.

As a biracial woman – her mother is a black Englishwoman, her father a white American – Irene knows only too well the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of injustice.  She loves the life she has built for herself and is fulfilled by it, even as she recognises that her work is of the sort that will never, ever be done when there are people who need the sort of help Mrs. Brodie can provide.  But she made a bargain four years earlier, one that is going to change the course of her life, and payment is now due.

Jonah Chandler is the eldest son of Sir William Chandler and, since the illness that has confined his father to a wheelchair, has taken over many of the duties involved in running the family business.  Unlike his siblings Nathaniel and Kate (whose stories were told in the previous books), Jonah has been the one to stay at home, to follow the path laid down for him, going from home to school to the stud farm and while he loves his work, he wants more from his life.  Four years earlier, at Newmarket, he found that something – or rather someone – when he met Irene Baird (in rather unusual circumstances).  After a whirlwind courtship, they married quietly, but haven’t lived together since, only meeting a few times a year when they could both snatch the time to spend a few days or hours together – because Irene needed to remain in London and at her post until her younger brother was thirteen and old enough to be sent away to the prestigious boys’ school at which she has, with Mrs. Brodie’s help, secured him a place.  With those four years almost up, Jonah comes to London in order to ask Irene to return to Newmarket with him as agreed.  He loves her and misses her and wants to make a family with her; he’s a decent, steady and compassionate man and had been content to be Irene’s convenient husband, but now he wants to walk his own path… and he wants to do it with his wife at his side.

Irene is horribly torn.  She loves Jonah and wants to be with him, but she’s also reluctant to give up the life she’s built for herself and worries that she is in danger of losing herself if she does so.  Theresa Romain does a terrific job of articulating Irene’s many shifting thoughts and emotions; is she being selfish by wanting things to stay the same; how she can give up teaching and her missions when there are always going to be people who need help; how can she be fair to Jonah and to herself; is she good enough for him? – presenting Irene as a multi-faceted and very real character as she wrestles with these and many other problems.

Jonah is a lovely beta hero who has never wanted Irene to be anything but herself and has recognised – and admired – her spirit and independence and appreciated the importance of her work. But now he has seen what she does with his own eyes, and sees the difference she makes, he understands, more than ever, how difficult a choice he has presented to her.  But a choice is inevitable.  And he doesn’t want to “not be your choice anymore.”

Ms. Romain has clearly done a lot of research into horse breeding and training and into the London of the 1820s, presenting it as a cosmopolitan place, with areas of the City of London and East End home to many businesses owned, operated by and employing people from all over the world, and people of colour specifically.  She has clearly given a lot of thought to depicting the way Irene and her family members are viewed by some and the casual prejudice they encounter – which, while distasteful to read, was – and sadly, continues to be – found in people from all walks of life.

But even with the number of very positive things the book has going for it, I can’t deny that it fails to deliver one really important thing.

A romance.

Irene and Jonah met before this story starts, so the falling-in-love part of their story is over and done by the time we meet them.  I liked the fact that they’re a couple who isn’t estranged for the usual reasons found in romance novels (family pressure, infidelity, deception etc.) and that they are both as in love with one another now as they were when they first met.  Most romance novels end at the HEA and readers rarely glimpse those couples again (other than in cameo roles in other books in the same series) and once again, I applaud Ms. Romain for tackling a situation that doesn’t crop up all that often in the genre.  But the problem – for me – is that I am recognising all these really good things with my head and my brain; the writing is excellent, the dilemmas faced by the characters are really well put forward, the research is impeccable… but I didn’t FEEL anything of the romantic chemistry and spark I look for between the principals when reading a romance.  I also can’t deny thinking that perhaps Irene didn’t love Jonah as much as he did her; she has set aside ideas of her own happiness in favour of securing the happiness of others, which, in turn, gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction – but when the ‘other’ whose happiness she could secure is her own husband’s… well, she doesn’t give him the same consideration she affords everyone else.

There are several sub-plots in the book  – all of which are tidily wrapped up – one might say too tidily – by the end, some of which have little bearing on the overall story and are, I think, loose plot threads from earlier in the series that needed to be tied up.  In fact, one of them felt as though it belonged in a completely different book.

To sum up… I came away from His Wayward Bride unsure as to how I felt about it.  It’s got a lot going for it, but the superb insight and beautiful prose can’t quite disguise the fact that, for me at least, the book lacked an emotional centre and real… for want of a better word, ‘heart’.  That said, I think there are many out there who will enjoy this tale more than I did, and for that reason, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.

 

Someone to Remember (Westcott #7) by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s never too late to fall in love . . .

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable – love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again . . .

Rating: B

Someone to Remember is the seventh (and penultimate?) instalment in Mary Balogh’s Westcott saga, which has followed the fortunes of the various members of the large and close-knit Westcott family after the discovery that the late Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had committed bigamy and that his second marriage was therefore invalid.  This discovery naturally had serious repercussions; his son and two daughters lost titles, fortunes and status; his widow couldn’t even claim to have been a wife, and the earldom diverted to a cousin who didn’t want it. Through six books, readers have followed the fortunes of various family members in the wake of these events, and now we come to Matilda, Humphrey’s older sister, a woman of mature years – fifty-six – who has appeared throughout the series as the dutiful spinster aunt who fusses over her mother because it’s something to do and has gradually faded into the background.

In order to understand the relationship in Someone to Remember, it’s necessary to refer back to the previous book in the series, Someone to Honor, so please be aware that this review contains spoilers for that book. Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington returned from fighting at Waterloo to discover his late wife had left their four-year-old daughter in the care of her parents, who are now refusing to return her to his care. Although Gil was an officer, his illegitimacy and humble origins made him unacceptable to his in-laws; his father was a nobleman – Viscount Dirkson – but his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith who refused all offers of support from the viscount, and allowed Gil to believe that he had washed his hands of them.  When Gil joined the army, Dirkson purchased a commission for him, but after that Gil made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with him.

But when Abigail Westcott married Gil, the entire Westcott clan naturally became interested in the situation; and when Matilda learned that Dirkson was Gil’s father, she took the unprecedented – and rather scandalous – step of paying a call upon the gentleman at his home in order to ask him to speak for Gil at the upcoming custody hearing.  It was clear from the moment Dirkson’s name was mentioned that he and Matilda had some shared history, and it’s soon revealed that they had once been in love and hoped to marry, but that Matilda’s parents had opposed the match and persuaded her to give him up.

When Someone to Remember opens, Alex, the Earl of Riverdale, announces that he has invited the viscount to dinner by way of thanks for his help and support in the custody case.  Matilda is profoundly unsettled by this turn of events, but puts a brave face on it, telling herself that she can manage to spend one evening in company with the man with whom she’d once been deeply in love.  She already knows he has aged well, that he’s still handsome and vital, whereas she herself has become somewhat drab and disregarded, especially by her mother, who almost never has a kind word to say to or about her.

Dirkson is hugely conflicted over seeing Matilda again.  On the one hand, he’s angry with her for stirring up emotions he’d thought long dead and buried, but on the other, he can’t seem to stay away from her.  But his anger soon turns from being directed towards Matilda to anger on her behalf when he realizes how invisible she has become to her family.  They don’t mistreat her or ignore her, but none of them really see her:

She was a person by God, even if she was past the age of fifty.  Even if she was a spinster.  She deserved a life.

Someone to Remember is a gentle, charming story of love lost and found.  There’s not a lot of plot, but Mary Balogh excels when it comes to exploring emotions, character and relationships, and she packs quite a lot of that into the short page-count as Matilda and Charles think back on their youthful relationship, ponder their mis-steps and how their choices have shaped their lives ever since.  The best thing about the story, though, is watching Matilda transform from a woman who had dwindled into a shadow of her former self into one revitalised by love and happiness. When we first met her earlier in the series, she came across as a rather stereotypical spinster aunt, somewhat fussy and always on the verge of reaching for the smelling salts, but as the series has progressed, she has been revealed to be a more complex character, one with a dry wit and sense of humour that is perhaps a little rusty from disuse, and a woman with a mind of her own who is compassionate and deeply loyal to her family and those she loves.  Fellow reviewer Janet Webb wrote an interesting piece on Matilda’s presence and influence throughout the series, and if you’ve read it, many of the pointers to the things that have brought Matilda to this point in life have been dotted throughout the series like a trail of breadcrumbs, and it’s been masterfully done.

Dirkson’s backstory isn’t one filled with sunshine and roses either.  After Matilda rejected him, he went off the rails a little (and had the affair that produced Gil) and earned himself a reputation as a rake of the first order.  His marriage was arranged and while not unhappy, was not one in which either party felt love or passion for the other (he was wayward and she had no real interest in men) but the connection he feels to Matilda has endured and starts coming back to life as he realises that he very much wants to take advantage of the second chance life is offering him.

There’s an engaging secondary cast consisting of the younger generation of Westcotts, I enjoyed watching Matilda’s mother admit to having made a mistake when she talked her daughter out of marrying Dirkson -and for anyone wondering about the state of Gil’s relationship with his father, there’s more on that, too.  Someone to Remember is a quiet story but a satisfying one that shows it’s never too late to find – or rekindle – love.

Note: The Amazon listing says this is 272 pages (and it’s priced accordingly), but Someone to Remember is a novella of around 110 pages; the rest of the page count is taken up with sample chapters of other books in the series.

Someone to Honour (Westcott #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Abigail Westcott’s dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she’s grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies. But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon.

Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn’t take lightly to being condescended to – secretly because of his own humble beginnings. If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B-

The heroine of Someone to Honor, the sixth book in Mary Balogh’s series about the Westcott family is Abigail Westcott, the younger daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale. She was approaching her come out and her eighteenth birthday when her father was discovered to have married her mother bigamously, meaning that she and her siblings – sister Camille and brother Harry – were illegitimate and that Harry could not inherit the Riverdale title (which passed to their cousin, Alex). Abby is now twenty-four, and has spent most of the six intervening years resisting her family’s urging to resume her life in society and find a husband. Although at the time, the news of her family’s change of status was hugely upsetting, she now realises that what happened has set her free in a way she could never have imagined being before. Without the pressure of having to conform to society’s expectations of the daughter of an earl, Abby has been able to take the time to discover who she truly is as a person and to work out what she really wants in life – and has found that the idea of remaining unmarried is no longer as scary as it was six years earlier when she was expected to make a match befitting her status. As her mother and siblings had to forge their own paths to happiness, so Abby has begun to forge hers – the trouble is convincing her loving, well-meaning but sometimes misguided family that she knows what she’s doing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Surrender of a Siren (Wanton Dairymaid #2) by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – Narrated by Gabrielle Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Desperate to escape a loveless marriage and society’s constraints, pampered heiress Sophia Hathaway jilts her groom, packs up her paints and sketchbook, and assumes a new identity, posing as a governess to secure passage on the Aphrodite. She wants a life of her own: unsheltered, unconventional, uninhibited. But it’s one thing to sketch all her wildest, most wanton fantasies, and quite another to face the dangerously handsome libertine who would steal both her virtue and her gold.

To any well-bred lady, Benedict “Gray” Grayson is trouble in snug-fitting boots. A conscienceless scoundrel who sails the seas for pleasure and profit, Gray lives for conquest—until Sophia’s perception and artistry stir his heart. Suddenly, he’ll brave sharks, fire, storm, and sea just to keep her at his side. She’s beautiful, refined, and ripe for seduction. Could this counterfeit governess be a rogue’s redemption? Or will the runaway heiress’s secrets destroy their only chance at love?

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C

Originally published in 2009, Surrender of a Siren is the second book in Tessa Dare’s Wanton Dairymaid trilogy, and is her second published novel. It was released in audiobook format earlier this year, and although I’ve never listened to narrator Gabrielle Baker before, I decided to pick it up for review. In fact, the narration turned out to be the best thing about the listening experience; Ms. Baker’s delivery and speech patterns reminded me very much of Mary Jane Wells (who is narrating Ms. Dare’s current Girl Meets Duke series), and although I had issues with certain aspects of her performance, I enjoyed listening to her and will definitely seek out more of her narrations. When it comes to the story, however… well, it’s an early work and it shows, especially in terms of the plot and the characterisation of the heroine, who annoyed me for something like ninety percent of the book.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.