Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve. An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.

In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Ready Set Rogue (Studies in Scandal #1) by Manda Collins (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverly A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

WHO WILL WRITE THE BOOK OF LOVE?

When scholarly Miss Ivy Wareham receives word that she’s one of four young ladies who have inherited Lady Celeste Beauchamp’s estate with a magnificent private library, she packs her trunks straightaway. Unfortunately, Lady Celeste’s nephew, the rakish Quill Beauchamp, Marquess of Kerr, is determined to interrupt her studies one way or another…

Bequeathing Beauchamp House to four bluestockings—no matter how lovely they are to look at—is a travesty, and Quill simply won’t have it. But Lady Celeste’s death is not quite as straightforward as it first seemed…and if Quill hopes to solve the mystery behind her demise, he’ll need Ivy’s help. Along the way, he is surprised to learn that bookish Ivy stirs a passion and longing that he has never known. This rogue believes he’s finally met his match—but can Quill convince clever, skeptical Ivy that his love is no fiction?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C+

Ready Set Rogue is the first book in Manda Collins’ new Studies in Scandal series, which features four young ladies – all known as bluestockings – who unexpectedly inherit a country estate. Lady Celeste Beauchamp, a lady of some erudition, wished to enable the women to pursue their studies unencumbered by the responsibilities they all bear towards their families and bequeathed them her home – complete with its marvellous library and collections of artefacts – for the period of one year, at the end of which one of them will inherit outright.

Needless to say, Lady Celeste’s closest relative, her nephew, Torquil, the Marquess of Kerr, is not at all pleased at the prospect of the property going out of the family, and he is determined to find a way to counter his aunt’s instructions. To this end, he travels to Beauchamp House in order to confront the women and get rid of them if he can, and is frustrated when bad weather interrupts his journey and means he is stranded for longer than he would like at a coaching inn en route. While there, he comes to the aid of an attractive young woman who is being accosted by a ruffian in one of the public rooms. He assumes, given her drab clothing and the fact she is travelling with several trunks full of books, that she must be a governess, so discovering she is actually one of the scheming women he has set out to thwart does nothing to improve his mood.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1813.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder—and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished. Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm.

Rating: A

When it comes to C.S. Harris’ long-running series of historical mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, I arrived rather late to the party. With eleven books already available, I wasn’t going to be able to catch up on them all in print, so, as I often do in such cases, I turned to the audiobook editions instead, and have been catching up with Sebastian’s adventures that way, and enjoying them hugely. I couldn’t resist the temptation of picking up book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, when it came up for review, and was completely hooked, right from the first page.

As I said, this is the twelfth book in the series (so there may be spoilers for the others in this review) and Ms. Harris shows no sign of running out of steam – or of ideas. As fans will know, the main mystery plot in each book is self-contained (although occasionally, some elements do turn out to have a bearing on a future story), and there’s no doubt that the author is a master of her craft when it comes to constructing a tightly plotted, gripping and atmospheric tale in which all the pieces are laid out and skilfully drawn together as the book hurtles towards a nail-biting finish. But what draws me back to the books over and over is the overarching storyline concerning Sebastian himself, as he continues to make discoveries about his own past and gradually, over the course of the series, has come to realise that many of the things he has believed about himself are untrue. He is having to adjust his perceptions about himself and those around him, and the revelations he uncovers and the way he handles them over time are just as engrossing as the individual mysteries.

In the three years since he investigated his first murder, Sebastian’s life has undergone significant change. Most recently, he has become a father, and even though he continues to be haunted by some of the things he experienced when he was a soldier fighting on the continent, he is a much more settled individual than when we first met him, and is enjoying a passionately happy marriage with Hero, the daughter of the powerful Lord Jarvis… who just happens to be Sebastian’s deadliest enemy.

When the body of a teenaged boy is discovered in a shallow pit on the grounds of a disused factory in Clerkenwell, the local magistrate sees it as just one more death of a worthless street-child, taking no account of the fact that the body bears the marks of whips, knives and ligatures – which indicate the boy had also been horribly tortured. When an enterprising constable has the body sent to Paul Gibson, surgeon, anatomist and long-time friend and colleague of Sebastian’s, it’s a only a matter of time before Sebastian interests himself in the case and determines to root out the person responsible for such a depraved, gruesome act of violence.

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

Bound by Their Secret Passion (Scandalous Summerfields #4) by Diane Gaston

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A forbidden attraction… A hidden desire!

Years ago, penniless Lorene Summerfield wed for duty, giving her siblings the chance to marry for love. But now the generous-hearted countess finds herself widowed…and the man she’s loved in silence for years is falsely accused of her husband’s murder!

Although he closed his heart to love long ago, the Earl of Penford has always found Lorene irresistible. Their newly ignited passion may be scandalous, but now he’ll stop at nothing to clear his name and win Lorene’s hand!

Rating: C+

Bound by Their Secret Passion is the fourth and final book in Diane Gaston’s series of stories about The Scandalous Summerfields, three sisters and one half-brother whose name became a byword for scandal when their mother ran off with her lover and their father, a libertine and drunkard, gambled away everything and left them destitute.

The previous book, Bound by a Scandalous Secret, whetted my appetite for this, the story of the eldest sister, Lorene, who sacrificed her own happiness in order to marry a much older, dictatorial man so that she could provide financially for her siblings.  Her life with Lord Tinmore was not a happy one.  He took delight in belittling his young wife, allowed the servants to get away with showing her disrespect and insisted on controlling her every move, frequently prohibiting her from leaving the house.  In the previous book, the author hinted at the possibility of Lorene having developed a tendre for Dell Summerfield, Earl of Penford, the very distant relative who inherited the family’s title and estate after her father’s death.  The depth of longing between the two was so well conveyed as to be palpable, so I was looking forward to theirs being an angsty story of forbidden love.

Bound by Their Secret Passion begins as Dell is escorting Lorene home after Christmas Day spent at Summerfield House with her sisters, Tess and Genna, and their husbands. On arrival at Tinmore House, Tinmore furiously accuses Dell and Lorene of having an affair; Dell informs him that is not true and tries to leave, having reached the front steps when Tinmore attacks him with his cane. Dell is prepared to parry the intended blow but before he can do so, the older man clutches at his head, falls down the steps and is dead before he reaches the bottom.

The coroner and magistrate are sent for immediately and an inquest is held which absolves Dell of any responsibility in Tinmore’s death, despite the assertions of the vengeful butler, Dixon, that Dell and Lorene had deliberately conspired to murder Tinmore so they could be together.

Coming from a family whose name is a byword for scandal and having endured plenty of it herself when she was labelled a fortune hunter after her marriage to a wealthy, older man, Lorene wants no more of it.  She is more than half-way in love with Dell, but she knows that if the two of them are seen together now, even after the exoneration at the inquest, there will be gossip about them and some people will continue to believe that they murdered her husband.

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

The Wallflower Duchess by Liz Tyner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams – and Edge is determined to make her his!

Rating: C

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.

Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Stolen nights with the secret princess…

Bound to marry for duty, Princess Tahira finds her only freedom in forbidden escapes to the desert. Then one night she encounters a stranger under the stars—adventurer Christopher Fordyce. He’s wildly attractive and thrillingly dangerous…an illicit fantasy she can’t resist!

Even unaware of Tahira’s royal blood, Christopher knows his shameful past makes any future with her impossible. But in the sultry desert heat, desires are uncovered and secrets unveiled, and soon Christopher will risk everything to claim his desert princess!

Rating: B-

Claiming His Desert Princess is the final book in Marguerite Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights quartet of historical romances set in Arabia in the early 1800s. Contemporary romances abound with gorgeous sheikh heroes, but they’re not so often found in historicals, and neither are there that many regency romances set outside England, so the series had a dual appeal for me, and I’ve enjoyed all the books to varying degrees (my favourite is still the first, The Widow and the Sheikh). In this story, however, it’s the heroine rather than the hero who is of royal blood. Christopher Fordyce, who has appeared briefly in the earlier books, is clearly on a mission of some kind, the nature of which has not so far been made entirely clear. Having conceived the idea of him as a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia (as personified by Peter O’Toole), I’ve been looking forward to his story and finally discovering exactly what he was up to. All is indeed revealed in this book, but I can’t deny that some pacing issues, a rushed ending and a sense of “oh – was that it?” ultimately left me feeling a little disappointed.

English antiquarian and surveyor, Christopher Fordyce, has travelled to Arabia in order to return a valuable ancient artefact to its rightful owner – or at least to the owner’s descendants. He has been in the country for over six months, travelling around trying to trace the origin of a turquoise amulet which was left to him upon the death of his father, and finally believes he has located the key to his quest in the form of the newly opened mines in the kingdom of Nessarah. He visits at night in order to see what progress has been made on the excavations, and is discovered there by a young woman named Tahira who explains she is deeply interested in the history of Nessarah and has begun to make a study of it and the various artefacts she finds. There is an undeniable spark of attraction between them from the very first, and they immediately bond over their shared interest in history and in uncovering the mysteries of the past. Tahira is able to supply Christopher with some interesting snippets of information regarding the mine and its workings and at each meeting, they reveal a little more of themselves to each other which, for Tahira, provides an incredible taste of freedom from the life to which she has been born. For she is keeping one, very important detail from Christopher, which is that she is the eldest sister of Prince Ghutrif, who is the de factor ruler of Nessarah.

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

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.