For Deader or Worse (John Pickett Mysteries #6) by Sheri Cobb South

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After a modest wedding ceremony, Bow Street Runner John Pickett and his bride Julia, the former Lady Fieldhurst, set out for a wedding trip to Somersetshire, where Pickett must face his greatest challenge yet: meeting his in-laws.

Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon are shocked at their daughter’s hasty remarriage–and appalled by her choice of a second husband. Pickett, for his part, is surprised to learn that Julia once had an elder sister: Claudia, Lady Buckleigh, disappeared thirteen years earlier, leaving no trace beyond a blood-soaked shawl. When Sir Thaddeus confides that his wife is convinced Claudia’s spirit now haunts her childhood home, Pickett sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Julia’s family. He agrees to investigate and, hopefully, lay the Runyon “ghost,” whoever–or whatever–it is.

Matters take a grisly turn when Sir Thaddeus’s groom is discovered with his throat slit. The timing could hardly be worse, for the whole village is aflutter with the news that Lord Buckleigh has brought home a new bride, just when Major James Pennington, the vicar’s son who was Claudia’s childhood sweetheart, has returned on leave from war in the Peninsula. The major was apparently the last person to see Claudia alive, and Pickett is convinced he knows more about her disappearance than he’s telling. Suddenly it seems the distant past is not so distant, after all. It may not even be past . . .

Rating: C+

For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.

Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.

As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.

On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.

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

Slightly Wicked (Bedwyn Saga #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

slightly-wicked-audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With his laughing eyes and wild, rakish good looks, Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is a hard man to resist. To Judith Law, a woman in need of rescue when her stagecoach overturns, Rannulf is simply her savior, a heroic stranger she will reward with one night of reckless passion before she must become a companion to her wealthy aunt.

Imagine Judith’s shock when the same stranger turns out to be among England’s most eligible bachelors, and when he arrives at Harewood Grange to woo her cousin. Certainly, they had made no vows, no promises, but Rannulf never did forget his uninhibited lover – nor did she forget that one delicious night. And as scandal sets the household abuzz, Rannulf proposes a solution. But when Judith refuses to have him – in love or wedlock – Rannulf has only one choice: to wage a campaign of pure pleasure to capture the heart of the woman who has already won his.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

One of the many things I love about audiobooks is that they’re a great way for me to catch up with older titles that, with the best will in the world, I’m unlikely to get around to reading for at least the next ten years or more. Another great thing is that it’s such a treat when books you’ve really wanted to listen to are finally recorded and made available. Last year – at long last – Mary Balogh’s popular Slightly series (originally published between 2003 and 2004) was given the audio treatment, and thankfully, production company, Tantor audio, had the very good sense to employ the incredibly talented Rosalyn Landor as narrator.

Book two in the series, Slightly Wicked is a variation on the Cinderella trope and while it’s perhaps a little clichéd, I enjoyed it and was reminded of how a truly great narrator can elevate a story so that it ultimately transcends the sum of its parts.

Our hero is Lord Rannulf, brother to the Duke of Bewcastle and one of the six Bedwyn siblings. He is on his way to visit his ailing grandmother, Lady Beamish, at Grandmaison Park when he comes across an overturned coach and stops to see what is to be done. The weather is inclement and Rannulf is travelling alone, so all he can really do is ride to the nearest town or village and send help and transport for the passengers as quickly as possible. A man with an eye for the ladies, Rannulf quickly spots a lovely, red-headed woman among the group and offers to take her with him to the inn; after all, someone has to be able to give clear instructions to the rescue party.

The woman introduces herself as Claire Campbell, an actress on the London stage who is taking a bit of a break. Rannulf tells her he is Mr Ralph Bedard, and they set off, both of them feeling an intense spark of attraction to the other and Rannulf, especially, thinking that this lovely armful of curvy, warm woman will provide a satisfying diversion for the night.

But just as Rannulf is concealing his true identity, so is Claire, who is actually Miss Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished country parson. With her younger brother – who is their parents’ only son – living well beyond his means and beggaring his family in order to do so, Judith’s parents can no longer afford to support their whole family, so she is being sent to live with her aunt Effingham, where she will live out the rest of her life as an unpaid drudge with no prospects for love, marriage or a family of her own.  So when the chance is offered her to spend the night with an attractive, charming man who desires her intensely, and knowing she is unlikely to ever again have the opportunity to experience passion, she decides to take it.  Nobody will ever know, and it will be a memory she can cherish forever.

Of course, this is Romancelandia, so the idea that ‘nobody will ever know’ is doomed the moment it is thought or uttered.  Because of course, ‘Claire’ and ‘Ralph’ are destined to meet again in their true guises.

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

Passion Favors the Bold (Royal Rewards #2) by Theresa Romain

passion-favors-the-bols

This title may be purchased from Amazon

DESPERATE MEASURES
Georgette Frost’s time is almost up. On her twenty-first birthday, the protections outlined in her late parents’ will are set to expire. With prospects for employment or marriage unfavorable at best, she decides to leave London and join her brother, Benedict, on a treasure hunt for gold sovereigns stolen from the Royal Mint.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS
Lord Hugo Starling has always felt protective of his friend Benedict’s sister, Georgette. So when he discovers her dressed in ragged boy’s clothes, about to board a coach for parts unknown, he feels duty bound to join her search. But mystery piles upon mystery as they cross England together, not least of which is the confounded attraction between them. As Georgette leads him to a reward he never expected, Hugo realizes he’s embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime…

Rating: B+

Passion Favors the Bold is the sequel to Theresa Romain’s thoroughly enjoyable romance-cum-treasure hunt, Fortune Favors the Wicked, wherein a blind former naval officer teams up with a former courtesan to locate the six missing crates of gold sovereigns that have been stolen from the Royal Mint in order to claim the hefty finder’s fee. The events of this book run more or less concurrently with this one, so it’s not really necessary to have read that first – and in fact, the books can be read in any order.

Georgette Frost will, on her twenty-first birthday, likely become homeless. After her parents died in an accident, the conditions of their will stipulated that the relatives who took over the family bookshop would house her until she was of age. Her birthday is approaching, and while her aunt and uncle have never been unkind to her, Georgette knows that they need space for their own, growing family, and having to keep her fed and housed has been a drain on their resources. Knowing that her brother, Benedict, has travelled to Derbyshire in search of the missing coins, Georgette decides to join him there and help if she can. She doesn’t know him well as he has been at sea for most of her life, but he’s her only family, and Georgette yearns to be part of something and to find a purpose in life.

Sir Hugo Starling, younger son of the Duke of Willingham is a friend of Benedict’s, having studied medicine with him in Edinburgh. Medicine is not a typical profession for a man in Hugo’s position – in fact, his family intended him to go into the Church – but the loss of his twin brother more than a decade earlier led Hugo to take a different path, no matter that it put a strain on his relationship with his family. Firmly believing that his brother’s life could have been saved had the duke employed a physician selected because of his knowledge and skill rather than his reputation in society, Hugo became determined to prevent others from suffering such devastation and loss and trained as a doctor. He continues to practice, but his driving passion now is the creation of a brand new hospital in London, but he is having trouble getting the needed financial backing. When he encounters his friend’s sister – dressed in ragged, boy’s clothes and insisting on travelling to meet up with her brother in Derbyshire – Hugo wants to take her to stay with his mother until he can contact Benedict, but Georgette is adamant, telling Hugo that “being in [Benedict’s] company would be better than being alone”. When she learns of Hugo’s difficulty in persuading anyone to invest in his hospital plan, she tells him that if he were to be instrumental in finding the gold, the publicity that will attach to his name can only help him in his cause – and realising that she’ll go with or without him, Hugo begrudgingly agrees to accompany her.

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

Surrender to the Marquess (Herriard Family #3) by Louise Allen

surrender-to-the-marquess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A battle of wills!

When Lady Sara Herriard’s husband dies in a duel, she turns her back on the vagaries of the ton. From now on, she will live as she pleases. She won’t change for anyone – certainly not for the infuriating Lucian Avery, Marquess of Cannock!

Lucian must help his sister recover from a disastrous elopement and reluctantly enlists Lady Sara’s help. She couldn’t be further from the conventional, obedient wife he’s expected to marry, but soon, all he craves is for her to surrender – and join him in his bed!

Rating: A-

Surrender to the Marquess is the third book in Louise Allen’s series about the Herriard family which began in Forbidden Jewel of India. That book told the story of Major Nicholas Herriard and Anusha Laurens, the Anglo-Indian daughter of an East India Company merchant and a high-born Indian lady. After their marriage, the couple remained in India and brought up their two children there, but when, a couple of years before this book opens, Herriard became Marquess of Eldonstone, the family relocated to England.

Not long after their return, their daughter, Lady Sarisa, fell in love with and married a young Cambridge scholar, Dr. Michael Harcourt. He was certainly an unusual choice for the daughter of a marquess, but her parents only wanted Sara to be happy, and the couple was certainly that – until one tragic night when her husband and his best friend imbibed too much and got into an argument. A challenge was issued, the duel was fought, and Michael was killed, leaving Sara a young widow burdened with guilt at the fact that the argument had been about her and furious at the stupid, careless way that men resort so quickly to violence in order to defend their honour and avenge any slight, no matter how insignificant.

Following her loss, Sara decided she needed time to work out what she wanted to do with her life. She went to stay at a quiet seaside resort in Dorset and ended up purchasing a small shop that sells artist and craft supplies. Twice a week, she also opens it as a tea room for the local ladies, where they can meet to discuss their projects and congregate somewhere they are not expected to confine themselves to idle chit-chat or to sit about looking decorative. Everyone knows that Mrs. Harcourt is also Lady Sarisa, but she is well-liked and respected within the community and they are happy to indulge her whim of maintaining her two separate personalities; as a shopkeeper by day and a well-born lady at local assemblies and other social events.

Sara is naturally able to spot a well-to-do gentlemen when she sees one, and that’s exactly what she sees when the sinfully handsome Mr. Dunton enters her shop one day, looking, he tells her, for something to amuse and occupy his younger sister, who has been ill and is not recovering well. Sara suggests that perhaps she could visit Miss Dunton and take along some samples of her arts and crafts supplies to see if she can find something to interest the young lady. Mr. Dunton readily agrees, and on meeting Marguerite, Sara sees that her brother’s descriptions were not exaggerated, and suggests that perhaps she might like to attend her tearoom that afternoon. Very soon, the ladies have fallen into friendship, and Sara learns the truth of the situation, that Marguerite had fallen in love and eloped with her brother’s secretary, that she lost a baby and that her lover has unaccountably disappeared.

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

My Dangerous Duke (Inferno Club #2) by Gaelen Foley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

my-dangerous-duke

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Rohan Kilburn, the Duke of Warrington, has quite a reputation. He’s “The Beast” – a debauched rake whose many exploits echo in the countryside surrounding his ancient familial castle. In truth, he’s devoted his life to the Inferno Club, swearing off love for duty in an attempt to thwart a tragic family curse.

Beautiful spitfire Kate Madsen wants nothing to do with “The Beast” after she is mistakenly abducted by smugglers and delivered into his fearsome clutches. Rohan similarly refuses to fall for her, mindful of the many dangers in his life. But when she starts to thaw his icy heart, Rohan knows he will do anything to make Kate his own.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

I really struggled with the first few hours of My Dangerous Duke, and had I not been listening for review, there’s a good chance I might have abandoned it. The narration by Marian Hussey is fine – in fact, it’s the best thing about the audiobook – and she’s a massive improvement on Annette Chown, who narrated the previous instalment in the Inferno Club series. But the early part of the story progresses at the speed of a snail moving through molasses and is weighed down by lots of irrelevant and overly descriptive prose, so much so that I wished (and here I’m dating myself) I could cut and splice large chunks of it so as to keep things moving.

Fortunately, however, things do start to pick up a bit after that, as the hero and heroine finally meet and begin interacting. The story is one of murky secrets, dark deeds and feats of derring-do; in fact, the last section of the book turns into a cross between Indiana Jones and a computer game, as our intrepid heroes head off on the trail of a hidden treasure. There are plenty of sparks flying between them, although I’m somewhat weary of the hero who believes he is unworthy of love because He is A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things – and that’s the source of most of the conflict in the romance. I also had to check the publication date of the book – 2010 – because there’s an old-skool feel to My Dangerous Duke (especially when it comes to some of the wince-inducing purple prose – I hope Ms. Hussey was well compensated for having to utter lines like this: He knew how to safely wield the oversized weapon with which Nature had endowed him) that made me think it must have been written in the 90s or earlier.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Lady Without a Lord (Penningtons #3) by Bliss Bennet

a-lady-without-a-lord

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theodosius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined she’ll succeed

Harriot Atherton is trying to keep a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

Rating: B+

This third book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington siblings turns its attention to the eldest, Theodosius (Theo), who became Viscount Saybrook on the death of his father just over a year earlier. On the surface, it’s a simple story about childhood friends coming together after a number of years and starting to see each other in a different light, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the things I have enjoyed about this author’s other books is the way she has incorporated a sound historical background into the story in a subtle and informative way. The previous book, A Man Without a Mistress, featured a couple who were very involved in politics, and here, Ms. Bennet takes a look at the importance of community, the responsibility of landowners towards their dependents, and throws in a dash of local politics without any of that overshadowing the development of the romance or the personal issues faced by both protagonists.

Since inheriting his title, the new viscount has made no move to assume the responsibilities that go with it, or to visit his estate, preferring instead to continue to live it up in London, bedding beautiful women and carousing with his many friends and acquaintances. But the recent marriage of his sister (in A Man Without a Mistress), suddenly brings Theo’s unfettered existence to an end; a meeting with his solicitor in order to arrange the payment of Sybilla’s dowry reveals that something is badly wrong with the family finances, and he realises that if he’s to do right by his sister and her new husband – who are intending to use the money to finance his bid to enter parliament – Theo will have to leave London, head to Lincolnshire and try to find out what has happened to the missing money.

He is not an uncaring man. He knows he has people depending on him, but told himself he was doing the right thing by leaving things in the very capable hands of his father’s – now his – steward, Mr. Atherton. Theo has never had a head for numbers; in fact, his father believed him to be little more than an imbecile because Theo struggled with even the most basic of calculations as a boy, and his father’s disgust very quickly turned to disapproval of practically everything else about his heir. So when he was old enough, Theo decided he might as well live down to expectations and took himself off to London where he very soon acquired himself a reputation as a cheerful, good-hearted wastrel.

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

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

lawrence-browne-affair-cover

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

An earl hiding from his future . . .

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . .

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives?

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl  – was one of my favourite books of 2016.  Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.

Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.  While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness.  He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy.  His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth.  Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too.  He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday.  He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.

The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother.  His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London.  He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark.  Once a con-man, always a con-man…

Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene.  Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly.  But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them.  Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man.  Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns.  Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself.  Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.

There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together.  Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there.  He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life.  Or if he even wants to.

The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other.   Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness.  Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love.  It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case.  If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.