Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet — but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles has made no secret of the fact that her latest book, Band Sinister, is an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, and in it she has great fun playing in the trope-pit of regency romance and turning quite a few of them on their heads.  We’ve got the stranded-injured-sibling trope; the man-of-the-world-falls-for-country-innocent trope; the oops-I-(not so)-accidentally-wrote-you-as-the-villain-in-my-racy-book trope – and those are just the ones I can remember of the top of my head.  I’m sure I’ve missed some.

But trope-tastic as it is, Band Sinister still manages to delight, breathing life into the tried-and-tested by virtue of Ms. Charles’ sharp wit, deft hand and obvious love for the genre.

The storyline is a simple one.  Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live a secluded life in the village of Yarlcote, just a few miles from Rookwood Hall, the country estate of Sir Philip Rookwood.  The Frisbys and the Rookwoods are all but mortal enemies, owing to the fact that Sir James Rookwood (elder and now deceased brother of the present holder of the title) ran off with Guy and Amanda’s mother some years earlier, driving their father to drink and an early grave.  He left them completely dependent on their aunt, a dictatorial and unsympathetic woman who supports them for the sake of appearances rather than because she has any love or affection for them.

When the story opens, Guy is reading the manuscript of the gothic novel Amanda has just had published – and is rather appalled to discover that she has modelled her villain – in physical appearance anyway – on Sir Philip Rookwood, and some of the other characters in the book on his friends.  Sir Philip and his set have the most dreadful reputations as degenerates and rumour has it that the ‘Murder’ – as the group is known – is a kind of hellfire club that engages in orgies, satanic rituals and other reprehensible activities.  When Amanda expresses the wish that they might actually visit to find out for themselves, Guy is appalled.  He wants nothing to do with Rookwood, but circumstances conspire against him when Amanda is thrown from her horse while riding on Sir Philip’s land, and badly injured – which means Amanda gets her wish to visit the hall, although under less pleasing circumstances than she would have liked.

When Guy receives the news of Amanda’s situation, he’s doubly panicked – terrified because she’s been hurt and worried for her reputation, which has already got a few dents in it courtesy of their mother’s exploits and a youthful indiscretion.  Guy goes to the hall with the intention of taking her home immediately, but is dissuaded by the doctor attending on her – a friend of Sir Philip’s – who explains that her injury is such that moving her could prove fatal.  Guy accepts the wisdom of that, but he’s not happy, especially as it’s impossible to persuade any woman of suitable consequence to come to the hall to act as chaperone.

Given the bad blood between their families, Guy is torn between gratitude to his host for allowing Amanda to remain at his home, and determination to remain aloof and retain his animosity.  That, however, soon becomes difficult when Guy comes to realise that Philip and his friends are nowhere near as black as they are painted and have in fact encouraged the gossip about them that has given them all such tarnished reputations.  (Especially Lord Corvin who lives to be talked about!)  The Murder (and once we learn the names of Philip’s friends, it’s easy to work out the reason behind that appellation) is actually a group of free-thinking, like-minded friends who gather to engage in spirited (and to Guy’s tender ears, alarming) debate, enjoy each other’s company and love who they wish without having to continually look over their shoulders.  It’s a real eye-opener for Guy, who at first isn’t sure how to take anything he sees or hears; dinner table discussions are about anything and everything from art and literature to science and the newly emerging theories which seem to disprove the Bible’s account of creation (shocking!) and are stimulating and fascinating – and he can’t help but be drawn in by the liveliness of the discussion and by the conviviality of his surroundings.

He also can’t help being drawn to Philip, whose kindness and generosity are completely unexpected, and whose attractiveness and desire for Guy are equally so.

Philip holds these gatherings for his friends in order to give them all a safe haven from the strict conventions of society.  He met his two closest friends, Lord Corvin and John Raven, when they were all unwanted or forgotten ten-year-olds and the three of them forged lifelong bonds.  Friends – and friends-with-benefits when they want to be – they love each other deeply, and the openness and honesty of their relationship is superbly conveyed, teasingly affectionate and full of the perfect amount of snark.

I really enjoyed all the characters, a disparate group that encompasses a diversity of racial and sexual orientation – a former slave, a bisexual viscount, a Jewish doctor, a married couple in which ‘Mrs.’ is trans FtM, a black composer and his violinist lover – even those we meet only briefly add richness and colour to the story and are beautifully crafted.  Amanda Frisby is wonderfully bright and spirited and I was so glad that she got her own happy ending, too.  Philip is intelligent, charming, kind, and forward-thinking, with a well-developed conscience that owes nothing to society and everything to his own inner compass.  He is turning over much of his land to the production of sugar beet with a view to creating a home-grown sugar industry which will remove the necessity for importing so much sugar produced by slave labour – a laudable ambition but an uphill struggle given that his tenant farmers are resistant to change.  Guy is perhaps a little passive at times, but he’s far from being the “plank” Philip originally believes him to be; he’s quiet and unassuming, but ferocious and passionate in defence of the things that are important to him. My heart broke for him a bit when it became clear how lonely he was and had always been, and I loved watching him gradually break out of his shell and begin to truly live.

The romance between Philip and Guy is sweetly sensual, and witnessing the development of their mutual attraction as they navigate the waters of their new relationship was a complete delight.  And it’s not just about the physical; Guy is seduced as much by the new ideas to which he is exposed and to the new experience of acceptance and being part of a friendship  as he is by Philip’s more sensual approaches, which are heartfelt and honest,  with an explicit focus on consent.  Their romance is also conducted within the parameters of their other important relationships; in Philip’s case, with Corvin and Raven, in Guy’s with Amanda – and the fact that they both understood and accepted those relationships made their HEA that much stronger.

Band Sinister is a wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights.  It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.  It’s not often you get impassioned debate about geology, women’s rights and religion, dirty talk derived from Latin, and information about the ins-and-outs of sugar beet farming in the same book, but Ms. Charles incorporates everything quite naturally and with great aplomb – and I loved it from start to finish.  Brava!

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Quickie Reviews #2

Here are another couple of Quickie Reviews; books I’ve read or listened to recently but haven’t written full-length reviews for.


Among the Living (PsyCop #1) by Jordan Castillo Price

Rating: B-

An entertaining novella, first in a series featuring the rather endearingly shambolic PsyCop, Victor Bayne. The author sets up her world – in which “stiff” (non-psychic) cops are paired up with a psi – very well, and clearly shows there’s a downside to having psychic gifts. Victor and his new partner, Lisa Gutierrez, are assigned to investigate a murder in which the victim is artfully arranged on a bed, surrounded by glass/mirror fragments. Victor, a level five medium is concerned when he can’t sense the dead person – usually their ghosts hang around to bitch about being dead – so this is odd. We’re also introduced to Victor’s love interest, Jacob Marks (another “NP” – non-psychic) and his partner, Caroline who is the human equivalent of a lie detector, and the four of them set about solving the mystery and finding the killer.

Because this is a novella, certain aspects are rushed – like the relationship between Victor and Jacob, who, in the books first pages, hook up at a party, but hopefully there’ll be more development in future books.

Victor is an engaging narrator and I’ll be checking out more of the books in the series.

ETA: I recently picked up the audio version of this in a Whispersync deal, and Gomez Pugh does a terrific job with the narration.  Great character differentiation and a terrific portrayal of Victor – I’m definitely going to pick up more of this series in audio.


The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham

No Rating

This was actually a very rare DNF for me, so I will not be rating the book; I didn’t finish reading it because I didn’t care for the BDSM element of the story. I’m no prude, I read books with explicit sex scenes on a regular basis, but I just can’t equate pain with sexual pleasure and I was unable to sympathise with the hero as a result. (And as a hero-centric reader, that’s pretty much the death knell for any book for me.) What I read was well-written and I would be interested in reading more from this author, but the BDSM scenes – though very few – turned my stomach. I also didn’t care for the cheating fairly late on in the story (I skimmed through to the end after I stopped reading); there’s a scene in which the heroine discovers the hero on his knees, stripped to the waist, and obviously aroused while being whipped by another woman.  YMMV of course, but in my mind, that’s infidelity and although I can deal with it in a romance under certain circumstances, this wasn’t one of them.  I don’t have many dealbreakers when it comes to what I read, but two in one story torpedoed this one.


His Rags to Riches Contessa (Matches Made in Scandal #3) by Marguerite Kaye


This title may be purchased from Amazon

From the streets of London…

…to Venetian high society!

To catch his father’s murderer, broodingly arrogant Conte Luca del Pietro requires help from a most unlikely source—Becky Wickes, London’s finest card-sharp. Against the decadence of Carnival, Becky’s innocence and warmth captivates Luca, but as their chemistry burns hotter the stakes in their perilous game are getting higher. For Luca is no longer playing only for justice—but also to win Becky’s heart…

Rating: B

His Rags to Riches Contessa is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series, and tells the story of an actress and card sharp who is hired to help a Venetian nobleman obtain revenge against the man who killed his father.  The four novels in the set are linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer; a woman whose clients come to her “with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions”, solutions she provides while at the same time helping young women to whom life has dealt a poor hand make themselves a better future.  Becky Wickes is one such; abandoned by the man she loved – and whom she believed loved her – to face a future as a fugitive from the law and a possible death sentence should she be apprehended – Becky has gone to ground and holed up in a dingy room in the rookery of St. Giles.  It’s here that the Procurer finds her and offers her the chance to change her life.

Becky travels to Venice, to the luxurious Palazzo Pietro, where she will meet the Procurer’s client – the Conte del Pietro – and receive all the details of her assignment.  She is surprised to discover that the Conte – Luca – is half-English on his mother’s side and that he spent many years in the Royal Navy before his father’s death necessitated his return home, and even more so when she finally learns the reason for her journey.  Luca explains that his father and his father’s best friend, Don Massimo Sarti, had together been respected government officials who had acted to preserve as many of the city’s treasures as they could before Venice surrendered to Napoléon some twenty years earlier.  The plan was to hide as many items of value as possible – especially those pertaining to the city’s heritage – and to return them once the Republic of Venice was restored, but things didn’t quite work out that way.  Venice was used as a pawn over the years and only now, after Napoléon’s defeat, is the situation stable enough to consider restoring all the artefacts that the men had spirited away.  In his final communication to his son, Luca’s father explained that he had visited the hiding place in order to make an inventory only to discover the place was empty.  It seems Don Massimo has stolen everything he and Luca’s father had vowed to preserve in order to fund his gambling habit – and when threatened with exposure had his former friend killed.

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

Last Night With the Earl (Devils of Dover #2) by Kelly Bowen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Earl. War hero. Notorious rake. After the Battle of Waterloo, Eli Dawes was presumed dead-and would have happily stayed that way. He’s no longer the reckless young man he once was, and only half as pretty. All he wants is to hide away in his country home, where no one can see his scars. But when he tries to sneak into his old bedroom in the middle of the night, he’s shocked to find someone already there.

Rose Hayward remembers Eli as the arrogant lord who helped her late fiancé betray her. Finding him stealing into her art studio doesn’t correct her impression. Her only thought is to get him to leave immediately. Yet the tension between them is electric, and she can’t help but be drawn to him. He might be back from the dead, but it’s Rose who is suddenly feeling very, very much alive.

Rating: B-

Kelly Bowen’s first historical romance was published back at the end of 2014, and she very quickly made her way onto my list of must-read authors.  I’ve read nearly all of her books, and have been impressed with her storytelling and ability to create strong, determined and unusual heroines while at the same time having them operate largely within the conventions of the time so they don’t just seem like twenty-first century women in period dress.  The first Devils of Dover book, A Duke in the Night, introduced readers to the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, an exclusive academy which operates a summer school at which a small number of exceptionally gifted pupils are afforded the chance to pursue studies in fields not usually open to them.  This is held at Avondale House in Dover, which Clara Hayward, the school’s headmistress (and now Duchess of Holloway) has rented for a number of years from the Earl of Rivers.  Or rather, from his estate; the old earl died six years earlier and his only son is presumed killed at Waterloo, although as no body has been found, the title has been held in abeyance until such time as Eli Dawes can be legally declared dead.

But now, having chosen to remain in hiding on the continent since the battle at Waterloo, the new earl has decided to return home and assume his rightful place and title.  He plans to live quietly at Avondale and hide the injuries and disfigurement he sustained during the battle; he’s not exactly a vain man, but he knows how much of his former popularity and social standing was due to his exceptional good-looks, and cannot bear the idea of being pitied, shunned or vilified because his appearance is so changed.

The last person he expects to see on his return to Avondale is the woman he’d fallen in love with six years earlier – Rose Hayward, daughter of the (then) dizzyingly wealthy Baron Strathmore.  Rose was known to be a bluestocking who didn’t appear much in society, but Eli was smitten anyway, impressed by her cutting wit and brilliant mind – but was too late to win her. His best friend Anthony Gibson was courting her and Rose was so obviously in love that Eli had to step back, and instead, flung himself into an endless whirl of debauchery in an unsuccessful attempt to forget her.  Now, after six long years have passed, he feels wary and ashamed when he meets her again, not just because of his ruined face, but because of the way Gibson treated Rose when he broke things off with her, lampooning her and several other society ladies in a book of cruel caricatures which shattered reputations and destroyed lives.

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

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.

But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.

Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.

Rating: C+

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies?  In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced.  Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas.  In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.

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

Sweet Enemy (Veiled Seduction #1) by Heather Snow (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Marcin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Beakers and ball gowns don’t mix. So when lady chemist and avowed spinster Miss Liliana Claremont receives a coveted invitation to the earl of Stratford’s house party, no one expects her to accept. After all, it’s well known Lord Geoffrey Wentworth, a rising political star, is in need of a suitable bride, and it’s assumed he will choose one from the select group of attendees.

Yet Liliana has no desire to lure the rich and powerful earl into marriage. She’s come to Somerton Park for one reason – to uncover what the Wentworths had to do with the murder of her father. She intends to find justice, even if she has to ruin Stratford to do it.

To get the evidence she needs, Liliana intends to keep her enemy close, though romance is not part of her formula. But it only takes one kiss to start a reaction she can’t control…

Rating: Narration – C- : Content – C+

Heather Snow’s début novel, Sweet Enemy, was originally published in 2012 and is the first in her Veiled Seduction trilogy of historical romances featuring smart, scientifically minded heroines. I remember reading and very much enjoying the third book, Sweet Madness, but I haven’t managed to get around to reading the other two books, so I was delighted when Sweet Enemy popped up at Audible and immediately requested a review copy.

Liliana Claremont has lived alone since the death of her father and has devoted herself to scientific pursuits, mostly her overriding interest in chemistry and how it can be applied to healing. She’s dedicated, intelligent and continually frustrated at not being taken seriously by the scientific institutions of the day which are, of course, only open to men. Returning to her home following yet another rejection, she discovers it has been ransacked – and worse than that, the intruder is still there. She manages to escape unharmed and is gradually setting things back to rights when she finds a secret compartment she’s never seen before, and inside it, a large bundle of letters. When she finds one dated two days before her father’s death, something within it kick-starts her memories of that day and of his final words to her – and she realises that his death had been no accident.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.