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.

TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

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It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

The Sinner’s Gamble (The Perdition Club #1) by Merry Farmer

the sinner's gamble

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Caesar Potts loves his life as a co-owner of Perdition, one of the sultriest and most hedonistic of London’s gaming hells. He is as passionate about showing customers of Perdition a good time as he is about his charitable activities on the side. But Caesar’s good nature and sensual sense of fun are put to the test when handsome preacher George Mulgrew darkens his doorstep.

George is desperate to save souls, mostly because his own is in such turmoil. He can’t seem to stay away from beautiful and intriguing club owner, Caesar, even though he believes him to be guilty of the worst sort of evils. Something within George responds to something in Caesar, no matter how much he tries to deny it.

When George finds himself trapped in Perdition as Caesar’s prisoner, everything he thought he knew and believed himself to be fighting for is thrown into question. Can Caesar show George another way to live, and will the fire between the two men light the way for a new journey?

Rating: D

Oh, dear. The Sinner’s Gamble is the first book of Merry Farmer’s I’ve read, and it started quite well in terms of the writing, which is polished and smooth, and overall feel, but that quickly went out the window when, at the end of the first chapter, one of our gambling club owners, one Caesar Potts, in a desperate attempt to stop the Reverend George Mulgrew from preaching at his patrons from the club steps, imploring them to see the error of their ways and not pass through the doors of such a den of iniquity, invites him inside – and takes him to a room in which, just minutes ago, he’d seen an MP getting it on with one of the club’s… er… gentlemen of the night, and doesn’t stop to think they might still be there. Only when he sees the ARE does he start to worry that maybe the vicar will report him and the club to the authorities. This is 1815 and homosexuality was illegal and carried a harsh punishment – death in some cases. The fact that Caesar is gay as well just makes this stupidity worse – he knows how dangerous it is to have sex with men, yet he blithely leads a vicar – A VICAR – into the room.

Jeez.

But don’t worry. He took him in there because a) he thought he’d be able to convince him that what goes on in the club isn’t so bad after all and b) because if he couldn’t he could just chloroform him and tie him to his bed.

Yep.

I considered giving up there, but as it’s only a 140 page book, I decided to persevere – and I was intrigued as to how the author was going to show and resolve George’s conflicted feelings – his calling as a minister and his desire for Caesar. After reading the beginning I suppose I should have known that she wasn’t going to do that. George has sex with Caesar several times, and the following day accompanies him on a visit to a less than salubrious area of town (it doesn’t say where – the East End maybe?) where he watches Caesar giving money and food to the poor and saving a battered wife from her abusive husband, and learns that he funds lots of charitable endeavours designed to help those less fortunate – in short, he’s practically perfect in every way. George realises that THIS is what he, as a man of the cloth, should really be doing, that practical help is far more useful to people in need than ranting at them about their immortal souls (really? I’d never have guessed!) and it takes him all of TWO WHOLE DAYS to cast off everything he’s been brought up to believe (and okay, his father is a bitter old fire-and-brimstone type who doesn’t give a shit about helping people) and doesn’t even give a second thought to the fact that his religious beliefs will have told him that his sexual desires are depraved and abnormal. Don’t misunderstand me – nobody should ever feel that way, but this is set in 1815 when, sadly, those attitudes were the prevailing ones.

George’s father is a cartoon villain, Cesar’s friends and business partners are barely two-dimensional, and the whole thing is so sugary sweet it’s a wonder my teeth haven’t rotted in the hour or so it took me to read it.

The only thing the book really has going for it is the cover – it makes a nice change to see a traditional “clinch” cover on an m/m romance. But if, like me, you cut your m/m romance reading teeth on historicals by the likes of KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, then you really will want to give this one a miss.

To Marry and to Meddle (Regency Vows #3) by Martha Waters

to marry and to meddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Marriage isn’t always smooth sailing

Lady Emily Turner should really be married by now, but with a dowry of her father’s debts, her only suitor is the odious owner of her father’s favourite gambling house.

Lord Julian Belfry is the second son of a marquess, but has managed to scandalise polite society with his acting career and the fact that he owns a less than salubrious theatre.

Crossing paths at a house party, they discover that a marriage of convenience might benefit them both: Emily can use her society connections to add some respectability to Julian’s theatre, while also managing to escape the dubious world of her father.

With differing ideas on the roles each will play in their marriage, and an on-the-run actress, a murderous kitten, and some meddlesome friends adding to the complications, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience might be leading to some rather inconvenient feelings.

Rating: B+

This third instalment in Martha Waters’ Regency Vows series is, I think, my favourite so far.  It’s a charming marriage-of-convenience romance between two characters we’ve already met – the rakishly charming and somewhat scandalous Lord Julian Belfry and the very proper Lady Emily Turner.  It’s a delightful read; the prose flows effortlessly, the characterisation is excellent and the romance is superbly developed;and I especially enjoyed watching the transformation of Lady Emily from a rather reticent young woman into one who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express it.

Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of the Marquess of Eastvale, purchased a run-down theatre in a fit of youthful impetuousness and has since restored the building and the company, even going so far as to appear on stage himself when the mood takes him.  Needless to say, such behaviour is highly shocking in the eyes of the ton, but Julian rather likes that his scandalous reputation prevents matchmaking mamas from throwing their eligible daughters at him.  In the book’s prologue, which takes place several years before the story proper, his father, fearing that Julian’s less than pristine reputation will affect his sister’s chances on the marriage mart, orders Julian to sell the place – he’s had his fun, he’s made a tidy profit on his investment, and now it’s time to find an more respectable occupation.  Even though a small voice deep inside can’t disagree with the Marquess’ comments about the fact that the Belfry has earned itself a rather sordid name over the past few years, or fail to recognise that his father has been remarkably indulgent with him, Julian nonetheless resents being given an ultimatum – sell the theatre, or be cut off from his family – and he refuses to sell.

Lady Emily Turner is in her sixth season, but unfortunately, her beautiful face and impressive lineage is not enough to compensate for the fact that her dowry is non-existent and her father is rumoured to have racked up massive gambling debts.  She leads a stifling existence; her mother has, for years, drummed into her that her behaviour must be beyond reproach, and she knows that her parents are relying on her to prevent the family’s plunging into ruin.  But after six years, she has only one real suitor, the somewhat odious Mr. Cartham, the man to whom she believes her father is indebted.

Emily and Julian met a few months before this story begins, when Emily’s friend and Diana (To Love and to Loathe) took her to a performance at the Belfry. In the months following, an odd friendship has grown between them and Julian has danced with her at balls and escorted her to the odd musicale, but recently, his behaviour has changed somewhat, leading Emily to believe a marriage proposal may be imminent. She’s correct. During Lord Willingham’s house party, Julian asks for Emily’s hand, telling her honestly that he isn’t in love with her, but that a match could be advantageous for both of them. He’s on a mission to clean up the Belfry’s reputation and turn it into somewhere gentlemen might take their wives rather than their mistresses, and wants Emily to use her society connections to promote the theatre to a more respectable clientele. In return, Emily will gain independence from her parents and won’t have to worry about Cartham’s attentions any more – in short, she’ll be free to live a life of her own choosing.

To Marry and to Meddle is smart, fun and sexy, but somehow feels ‘quieter’ than the other two books in the series. I don’t mean that in a negative way, far from it; rather that the barbed banter and games of one-upmanship that characterises those books is absent here, so the focus is more firmly on Julian and Emily learning how to be together, as Emily – with Julian’s help and support – is working out who she wants to be now she’s out from under the restrictions placed upon her by her parents, and Emily is helping Julian to work through the deep-seated anger and resentment he holds towards his father.

The chemistry between the pair is terrific and their romance is very nicely done. Friendship proves a solid basis for marriage; Emily and Julian clearly like each other a lot and they possess a good degree of insight into what makes the other tick. Before they marry, they both agree never to lie to one another – and they don’t, which leaves no room for a Big Mis. (Yay!) Instead, the conflict in the story comes mostly from Julian’s insistence that Emily be the irreproachable society wife she’s been brought up to be, while Emily wants to take an interest in the threatre and to tread a different path to the one previously laid out for her. Julian has become so focused on turning the Belfry into a respectable venue that he fails to see he’s trying to push Emily into a role she doesn’t really want, and that he’s also trying to be someone he’s not – and he stubbornly refuses to admit why.

Emily and Julian are sunny, endearing characters, and I liked them as individuals and a couple. Julian is a sexy hero with a dry sense of humour, who, despite his rakish reputation, is a good, kind man, and Emily is delightfully witty, unaffected and pragmatic.

Among the secondary cast are the couples from the previous books, together with Julian’s brother and sister, who are lovely, and his father, who, I was pleased to note, is not at all the sort of stock-in-trade tyrannical authoritarian who so often appears in romances where a father/son conflict is part of the story. That said, however, Eastvale being essentially decent does make it a bit harder to believe in the reasons behind his and Julian’s estrangement. That’s the only major quibble I have with the book; otherwise, To Marry and to Meddle is a thoroughly entertaining read and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone looking for a lively, character-driven historical romance.

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!

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall

something fabulous

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating: B+

If you’re looking for an historical romance with a complex plot, serious characters and a bucket-load of angst, then move right along, because Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulous isn’t it.  If, however, you’re up for a frivolous romp through Regency England bubbling with wit and brilliant comic timing that, for all its ridiculous trope-y-ness, contains an achingly tender story of self-discovery, then dive right in.
The book opens with a delightfully – although somewhat more barbed – Heyer-esque proposal-gone-wrong in which Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern, has decided it’s time to honour his late father’s wishes and become formally betrothed to Miss Arabella Tarleton, who has been intended for him since birth.  Miss Tarleton, however, has no intention of accepting Valentine’s proposal and makes that clear in no uncertain terms:

“There is no fashion, Your Grace, in which you could propose that would render it anything other than profoundly repugnant to me.”

Valentine is both astonished and affronted.  A refusal is something he had never remotely considered – after all, what impoverished young woman wouldn’t want to secure her future and that of her family by marrying a wealthy, young and handsome duke?

Later that night – or rather, in the early hours of the morning – Valentine (having made liberal use of the brandy bottle) is awoken by Arabella’s twin brother, Bonaventure – Bonny for short – who informs him that Arabella has run away and that they should go after her so Valentine can save her from ruin and propose again.  And that he’d better make a good job of it this time.  Valentine is not keen; it’s not that he doesn’t want to retrieve his wayward intended, he just doesn’t want to go without due thought or preparation. Or his valet.  Bonny, however, is something of a force of nature, and won’t take no for an answer, so before long, Valentine is being hurried along and into a curricle wearing a coat borrowed from the assistant gardener and a hastily tied – courtesy of Bonny – cravat.

That’s the set up for the fluffiest, silliest and most outrageously charming road-trip / grumpy-sunshine romance I’ve read in quite some time. (Or ever.) It doesn’t take itself seriously – even though it does have some serious points to make – and focuses entirely on the relationship between Valentine and Bonny, and on Valentine’s journey towards reaching a deeper self-awareness, understanding  how attraction works for him and that being seen and loved for who he is as a person is not impossible.

The writing is deft and insightful with plenty of clever nods to the genre, the dialogue sparkles and the two leads are superbly characterised.  Valentine, the repressed, dutiful duke has no idea of his own privilege but is somehow endearing in his cluelessness;  he’s deeply lonely but doesn’t realise it, and he has very little experience of sexual attraction until Bonny, and the sudden wealth of feelings that assail him when Bonny is around completely blindside him. Watching Valentine slowly learn that he is allowed to have feelings, that he can feel attraction and affection – and the way Bonny accepts him exactly as he is and without question – is simply lovely.  As for Bonny, well, he’s just adorable; free-spirited,  vibrant, charming and kind, he’s not ashamed of who he is and what he wants, and isn’t willing to settle for anything less than to be loved in the way he loves – with his whole heart and soul.

There’s a small, but well-drawn secondary cast. I particularly liked Peggy, Arabella’s best friend and some-time lover who is a welcome voice of reason in contrast to Arabella’s frequent and overblown histrionics, and Sir Horley, the rakish older gentleman with an eye on Bonny and a heart of gold.  As one would expect from an Alexis Hall book, the queer rep is varied and excellent;  Peggy is genderfluid, Sir Horley is gay,  I got the impression Arabella is aromantic, and there are two delightful ladies who are married in all but name.

Sadly, the book’s biggest flaw is Arabella.  I understood her frustration and where she was coming from – no legal rights, no right to an opinion, no rights over her own body, even – but rather than making the attempt to explain herself or just talk to Valentine, she screams and throws tantrums and melodramatic fits, she makes ridiculous and unfounded accusations and generally behaves like a spoilt brat.  If she’d been the heroine of a book, it would have hit the wall before the end of the first chapter!  It’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a character in a book, but I honestly couldn’t stand her and felt sorry for Bonny having to put up with her all his life.  And this leads to my other issue with the story, which is that the catch-up-with-her/she’s-run-away-again is a bit repetitive – although I fully accept this may be because I so disliked Arabella that I just wanted her to run away and stay gone!

Other than that, however, Something Fabulous certainly lives up to its name.  It’s funny, sexy, daft and just a bit over the top, but it’s all done with obvious love and affection and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’m Only Wicked With You (Palace of Rogues #3) by Julie Anne Long

I'm only wicked with youThis title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s the battle-hardened son of a bastard, raised in the wilds of New York. She’s the sheltered, blue-blooded darling of the London broadsheets, destined to marry a duke. Their worlds could only collide in a boardinghouse by the London docks…and when they do, the sparks would ignite all of England.

Nothing can stop Hugh Cassidy’s drive to build an American empire…unless it’s his new nemesis, the arrogant, beautiful, too-clever-by-half Lady Lillias Vaughn. The fascination is mutual. The temptation is merciless. And the inevitable indiscretion? Soul-searing—and the ruination of them both. Hugh’s proposal salvages Lillias’s honor but kills their dreams for their futures…until they arrive at a plan that could honorably set them free.

But unraveling their entanglement inadvertently uncovers enthralling truths: about Lillias’s wounded, tender heart and fierce spirit. About Hugh’s stunning gentleness, depth, and courage. Soon Hugh knows that as surely as he’d fight a thousand battles to win her…the best way to love Lillias means breaking his own heart.

Rating: C+

I reviewed this one jointly with my fellow All About Romance reviewer Evelyn North; she liked it a lot more than I did and gave it an A, whereas I couldn’t go higher than a C+. I didn’t care much for the heroine, and while I did like the hero, there’s nothing worse tnan a romance in which you feel one half of the central couple doesn’t “deserve” the other, which was where I ended up on this one.

You can read our review HERE

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

At their next outing, Henry swears Melissa to secrecy and tells her that he’s been tasked with keeping an eye on a possible French spy (bear in mind this is official business, and they’ve known each other three days). Melissa tells Henry about her suspicions that the despicable Harlby is planning to contract a fake marriage with an – as yet unknown – heiress.  She has already alerted her friends to this, and between them, they plan to go to as many social events as possible in to track down Harlby’s target and warn her; if she and Henry arrange to attend events together as well, not only will they be able to help foil Harlby’s dastardly plan, but they will also be able to watch Henry’s quarry, too.  It’s the perfect solution to both problems.

Henry and Melissa are insightful, intelligent and witty, and their relationship is refreshingly honest; their discussions are lively and interesting, and they both learn from each other as together, they thwart Harlby’s dastardly plan – only to end up in hot water themselves.  In fact, I liked a lot about this story – but I had a real problem with the speed at which Harry and Melissa’s friendship develops.  They talk and behave like people who have known each other for years rather than people who have spent just a few hours together, and for Henry to involve Melissa in his spy-hunting seemed highly irresponsible.  (Not to say unprofessional.)

But as any Nora Ephron fan knows, men and women can never really be friends, and of course the sex thing gets in the way for this Regency Harry and Sally as well.  Henry and Melissa start to realise that they’re attracted to each other and worry about what might happen to their friendship if the other finds out how they feel.  The author seeds the gradual transition from friendship to attraction to love throughout the story and creates palpable chemistry between the couple so that the progression feels organic.  I liked that they were determined to respect each other’s boundaries, but both are hung up on the fact that they believe the other isn’t interested in anything more than friendship, leading to a bit of late-book conflict which, thankfully, isn’t allowed to drag on for too long.

Had the progression of the friendship in A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship been more credible, I’d have been giving the book a higher grade and a stronger recommendation.  If you can get past that however, you’ll find much to enjoy – likeable characters who (mostly) communicate well and who speak and act like adults, subtle social commentary and a well-written romance.

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

what the devil knows

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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.

To Love and to Loathe (Regency Vows #2) by Martha Waters

to love and to loathe

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The only thing they can agree on is that the winner takes all

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, are as infamous for their bickering as for their flirtation.

Shortly before a fortnight-long house party at Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when he appears at her home with an unexpected proposition.

After finding his latest mistress unimpressed with his bedroom skills, Jeremy suggests that they embark on a brief affair. He trusts Diana to critique him honestly, and she’ll use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana has bet Jeremy that he will marry within the year, and she intends to use his proposal to her advantage.

But in this battle, should the real wager be who will lose their heart to the other first?

Rating: B+

To Love and To Loathe is the follow-up to Martha Waters’ 2020 début historical romance, To Have and To Hoax.  AAR’s reviewer was less than impressed with it, citing problems with the premise and immaturity of the leads, and overall, reviews were mixed. With so many other books to review on my plate, I didn’t get around to reading it, so I can’t offer an opinion.  But I wanted to give the author a try, so I picked up this second book in The Regency Vows series, because I am a sucker for that whole Beatrice and Benedick sparring-couple-who-are-desperately-in-love-but-would-deny-it-to-the-death thing.  And I’m glad I did, because To Love and To Loathe is funny, clever and sexy, featuring complex, well-rounded characters and incorporating pertinent observations about the nature of privilege and the unfairness of the patriarchal norms and laws that deprived women of autonomy.

At the age of eighteen, the Honourable Diana Bourne is well aware that most men are fools, but a man doesn’t need to be clever to be possessed of a hefty fortune, which is exactly what she’s looking for.  Since the death of their parents, she and her brother have lived with relatives who have seen her as nothing but a burden and who resent the expense her presence incurs.  So Diana is determined to snare a wealthy husband so she will never have to worry about something as vulgar as money ever again.

The one tiny glitch in her plan is her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham, who while just as much of a fool as every other man, is nonetheless a massively enticing fool who has only to walk into a room to turn the head of every woman in it – and set Diana’s heart beating just a bit faster than she would like.  But no matter how handsome and charming Jeremy is (or how strongly she’s attracted to him), he’s irresponsible,  overly fond of drink and women, and – most importantly – almost broke, so he won’t suit Diana’s purposes at all.

A few years later, Diana is a wealthy widow and Jeremy is still cutting a swathe through the beds of the bored wives and widows of the ton.  Their inability to agree on anything is widely known throughout society, as is the fact they’re engaged in a game of one-upmanship involving a constant barrage of well-aimed barbs and cleverly chosen put-downs.  On one particular evening when Willingham again scoffs at the idea of matrimony, Diana impulsively wagers him that he’ll be married within the year – or she’ll pay him the sum of one hundred pounds.  Of course, Willingham accepts – and only afterwards does Diana realise it was perhaps not the wisest thing she’s ever done, because honestly, she can’t see him marrying in the next twelve months, either.

Shortly after the wager is made – and just before Diana is to travel to Jeremy’s country estate for his annual house party – he comes to her seeking her help on a very delicate matter.  His most recent mistress implied he couldn’t satisfy her in bed – and Jeremy can’t get her accusations out of his mind.  Looking for reassurance, he turns to the only woman he knows he can rely on to tell him the absolute truth – and suggests to Diana that they embark on a brief affair during the house party.  Diana isn’t inclined to agree to this – until he points out that a discreet affair with him will send the right signals to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

“I’m not certain that the signal I’m looking to send is that I’ve joined the legion of women who’ve lifted their skirts for the Marquess of Willingham.  I’m surprised they haven’t formed a society. With matching hats.”

She’s still not convinced – until Jeremy points out:

“If nothing else, it would finally dispel whatever this is between us,” he added, waving his hand at the space between them… “And don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean… Because I know you do.”

Of course as any romance reader knows, the old let’s-do-it-once-to-get-it-out-of-our-systems chestnut never works the way the participants intend it to.  Diana and Jeremy are obviously head-over-heels for each other from the get-go and have been that way for years, but there are obstacles preventing both of them from fully acknowledging the truth of their feelings for one another – obstacles that feel authentic to who these two people are; flawed but immensely likeable characters who learn about themselves as they gradually reveal more of their true selves to each other.

I really liked that Diana and Jeremy were so clear-sighted about each other, even as they had things to learn about one another.  Jeremy viewed the younger Diana’s eagerness to marry as somewhat mercenary, but didn’t know the reasons behind it; Diana suspects Jeremy is hiding his intelligence behind the wastrel he presents to society, but hasn’t fully understood the depth of his grief and anger over the death of the older brother who left him with a title and responsibilities he’d not been brought up to and didn’t want.  They’re both perspicacious and fully up to each other’s weight when it comes to their ‘merry war’, and their chemistry as they snark and flirt their way towards their HEA is terrific.

I liked them individually and together.  Diana is clever and funny and her status as a widow means she’s allowed more freedom to do as she wants than an unmarried woman would be, so her reluctance to consider giving up her independence in another marriage is understandable. And I loved Jeremy, a decent, considerate, generous man who has spent years making certain no-one would ever expect anything of him or take him too seriously because of his deep sense of unworthiness.  Their inner conflicts are very well articulated and I loved watching them come to a greater understanding of one another.

I really enjoyed the book, but there are a few things that keep it just out of DIK territory.   Part of Diana’s plan to win the wager involves her trying to find someone else to get Jeremy married off to – and she decides to throw him together with Lady Helen, a young woman known to be desperate to find a husband and who is widely disliked.  Hints are dropped that Lady Helen is not what she seems, but Diana doesn’t know this and her determination to marry the man she loves (even if she isn’t ready to admit to it) to a young woman who is so patently wrong for him and would make him utterly miserable just didn’t sit right with me.  I get that it was a mark of Diana’s desperation not to admit to how she felt about Jeremy, but it felt childish and petty.

The Big Mis that occurs near the end is a misfire, and I wasn’t wild about the amount of time given to setting up a future book in the series, which interrupted the flow of the main narrative. It’s well done and skilfully integrated into conversation and multi-character scenes, but I could still have done with a bit less of it.

All in all however, To Love and To Loathe is great fun. The writing is crisp and clever, the characters are engaging and the dialogue sparkles.  For those of you who – like me –  have been struggling to find really good historical romance lately, I’m happy to say that it’s well worth a look.