Pretty Pretty Boys (Hazard & Somerset #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

After Emery Hazard loses his job as a detective in Saint Louis, he heads back to his hometown–and to the local police force there. Home, though, brings no happy memories, and the ghosts of old pain are very much alive in Wahredua. Hazard’s new partner, John-Henry Somerset, had been one of the worst tormentors, and Hazard still wonders what Somerset’s role was in the death of Jeff Langham, Hazard’s first boyfriend.

When a severely burned body is discovered, Hazard finds himself drawn deeper into the case than he expects. Determining the identity of the dead man proves impossible, and solving the murder grows more and more unlikely. But as the city’s only gay police officer, Hazard is placed at the center of a growing battle between powerful political forces. To his surprise, Hazard finds an unlikely ally in his partner, the former bully. And as they spend more time together, something starts to happen between them, something that Hazard can’t–and doesn’t want–to explain.

The discovery of a second mutilated corpse, though, reveals clues that the two murders are linked, and as Hazard gets closer to answers, he uncovers a conspiracy of murder and betrayal that goes deeper–and closer to home–than he could ever expect.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – A-

Pretty Pretty Boys is the first book in Gregory Ashe’s six-book series about Missouri-based detectives Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset. I really enjoyed the story, which boasts a well-crafted, intricate mystery and combines it with the difficult, angsty relationship between the two men, who have known each other since boyhood and whose shared history is a complicated one. I’ll say right now though, that while there are romantic elements to the book, they’re low-key and mostly confined to some really delicious sexual tension between the leads, so if an HEA or HFN in every book is a must, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. We’re talking slow burn, with an emphasis on the slooooooooow – although reviews of later books lead me to believe that the guys get there eventually. Each instalment in the series takes place across a fairly short time-span, and the whole series only spans a few months, so it makes sense that the romantic side of things would take a few books to get going. Even though the wait is frustrating…

Anyway. For reasons listeners are not (yet) privy to, Detective Emery Hazard has been forced to quit his post in St. Louis. He’s offered the choice between being demoted to a desk job or keeping his shield and going somewhere else – and chooses the latter option, deciding to return to his home town of Wahredua – which he remembers as a dismal backwater – intent on finally discovering what drove his first boyfriend to commit suicide some fifteen years earlier. The place doesn’t hold many happy memories for him. The only openly gay kid in a small, insular town, he was tormented at school by a group of three boys, and he still bears the scars – both physical and emotional – of that bullying, so returning to Wahredua brings back all those memories and more. He knows one of his three persecutors is dead, and he soon discovers another is a wreck of a man… which leaves him wondering what happened to the third, the town’s golden-boy; the drop-dead gorgeous, charming and popular John-Henry Somerset.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.


What I’ve Done (Morgan Dane #4) by Melinda Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Haley Powell wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the night before. When she sees a man lying in the backyard, stabbed to death, she has only one terrified thought: What have I done?

Agreeing to take the case as a favor to her PI friend Lincoln Sharp, Morgan must scale a mountain of damning circumstantial and forensic evidence to prove her client innocent. Haley couldn’t appear more guilty: her bloodstained fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and she has no alibi. But Morgan can’t shake the feeling that this shocked young woman has been framed.

Someone out there is hell-bent on sabotaging her defense, targeting Morgan, her partner, and especially Haley. Someone who will stop at nothing—and whose next move will be deadly.

Rating: B+

What I’ve Done is the fourth book in the author’s series of novels that feature former prosecutor-turned-defence attorney Morgan Dane and the men of Sharp Investigations, Lincoln Sharp and Lance Kruger, her former high school boyfriend, with whom she is again romantically involved. I haven’t read the previous three books, but this one works well as a standalone; there are a few references to prior events, but these are quickly and simply explained and I didn’t feel as though I was missing any of the information I needed to make sense of – and enjoy – this story.

Morgan is asked to take on the case of a young woman named Haley Powell who has been accused of stabbing a man to death.  She woke up covered in blood in a strange bed in a strange house with no recollection of where she was or how she got there; feeling completely disoriented she got up and looked around, saw blood everywhere and found the body of the young man she vaguely remembers hooking up with the night before lying outside the back door.  She’s taken into custody and is pretty much completely out of it – she’s been without medication for her Addison’s disease for longer than is advisable and its flare up is only making it harder for her to function.

Haley’s late father was a cop who was shot in the line of duty over two decades earlier, and his partner, Lincoln Sharp, vowed he’d look after his best friend’s wife and daughter.  Elizabeth and Haley moved away from Scarlet Falls some time ago, but have recently returned – and it’s to Sharp that Elizabeth turns for help.  He brings in Morgan, who quickly realises that Haley has been framed – but with the evidence against her seemingly overwhelming and the local media whipping public opinion into a frenzy proving it is going to be an uphill struggle.

I liked the way the story unfolds for the reader just as it does for Haley; we know what she knows to start with and our knowledge of what happened grows along with Morgan’s as she and the guys gradually put the pieces of the puzzle together.  I was also impressed with the way the author portrayed the “trial by media” aspect of the story, creating a real sense of menace out of the mob mentality displayed by so many of the townsfolk who had convicted Haley of murder while knowing nothing of the truth, and who extended their hatred to Morgan and the team simply for doing their jobs.

Morgan, Lance and Sharp are engaging, fully-rounded characters who obviously like and respect each other a great deal, and while the romantic aspect is low key (Morgan and Lance are an established couple who are obviously in it for the long haul) their relationship is so well founded that it was easy to see that they care for each other deeply and that while Lance obviously wants to keep Morgan safe, he’s not one of those men who misguidedly tries to cut her out of the loop; he knows she’s smart, tough and capable and trusts her to know what she can handle.

What I’ve Done is a tense, tightly-plotted thriller that kept me guessing up until just about the last minute and eagerly turning the pages.  I’m looking forward to the next in the series, and am going to try to catch up with the earlier books before Secrets Never Die comes out next Spring.

The Judas Kiss (Tyburn Trilogy #3) by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England, 1820. The trial of Queen Caroline is underway. Prinny, George IV now, is determined to divorce his detested wife.

The Whigs hope that the Queen will win her case. The Tories pray that she will not. More than a few Londoners wish that the politicians, taking their monarch with them, would jump off the nearest pier.

London is about to become even more exciting. In the midst of all this uproar, Clea Fairchild returns home.

At fifteen, Clea had been reading Ovid’s ART OF LOVE. And scheming how to, once she acquired bosoms, introduce herself into rakehelly Baron Saxe’s bed. Clea is one-and-twenty now, a widow whose husband died under mysterious circumstances she is determined to resolve.

Kane is almost twice that age.

Reprobate though he may be, Lord Saxe is not sufficiently depraved to act on the unseemly attraction he feels for his friend Ned’s little sister, whom he is convinced means to drive him mad.

Clea wonders, is Kane trying to drive her mad? In the years since they last met, he has grown more dissolute, more jaded, and even more damnably attractive.

He has also grown skittish, and is avoiding her as if she carries the plague.

Clea isn’t one to sit quietly in a corner. She has a mystery to solve. Villains to elude. Schoolgirl fantasies to explore.

Providing her husband’s murderer doesn’t dispose of her first.

Rating: B

When I read Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz a few months back, I found myself rooting for a romance (in a future book) between the hero’s sister and his oldest friend, who had crazy chemistry in spite of the fact that she was a precocious fifteen-year-old and he was in his thirties.  I hasten to add that nothing ikky or untoward happened in that book; it was clear that Lady Clea had a crush on Kane, Lord Saxe, but he treated her like his best friend’s annoying little sister, and their banter was free of sexual references or innuendo – but still, it was apparent there was something there.

The Judas Kiss is set some six years after The Tyburn Waltz, and in it we’re treated to another complex and engaging mystery while at the same time, Clea and Kane are finally able to admit to what they’ve both known and wanted for a long time.

When we met her in the first book in the trilogy, it was clear that Clea was going to grow into an extraordinary young woman.  Highly intelligent, quick witted and insatiably curious, she had a Latin quote at her fingertips for every occasion and could hold her own with the best of them in any verbal exchange.  The one person who could fluster her was her brother’s good friend, Lord Saxe, whom she’s known forever, and on whom she had a massive crush. Rakishly handsome and devilishly charming, he’s fodder for her romantic dreams and yearnings, even though she recognises that such a notorious rake is not for her.

A year or so after the events in that novel, Clea accompanied her brother Ned, the Earl of Dorset, to Vienna, where it seemed all of Europe was gathered while monarchs and heads of state negotiated peace in the wake of Napoléon’s defeat.  There, Clea met and fell head-over-heels in love with a young officer, Harry Marsden;  they married when she was  eighteen but had only a year together before tragedy struck; and now, at twenty-one, Clea returns to England a widow, determined to make herself a new life following her young husband’s suicide.  Her journey has, however not been without incident, as she and her companion were set upon by highwaymen twice on the road – the second time on the outskirts of London, when Clea coolly despatched one of them by putting a bullet in his shoulder.  The robbers fled after that.

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

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

Cadenza (Rockliffe #6) by Stella Riley

The performance finished in a flourish of technical brilliance and the young man rose from the harpsichord to a storm of applause…

Julian Langham was poised on the brink of a dazzling career when the lawyers lured him into making a catastrophic mistake. Now, instead of the concert platform, he has a title he doesn’t want, an estate verging on bankruptcy … and bewildering responsibilities for which he is totally unfitted.

And yet the wreckage of Julian’s life is not a completely ill wind. For Tom, Rob and Ellie it brings something that is almost a miracle … if they dare believe in it.

Meanwhile, first-cousins Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden embark on a daring escapade which will provide each of them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The adventure will last only a few weeks, after which everything will be the way it was before. Or so they think. What neither of them expects is for it to change a number of lives … most notably, their own.

And there is an additional complication of which they are wholly unaware.

The famed omniscience of the Duke of Rockliffe.

Rating: B+

This sixth book in Stella Riley’s Georgian Era Rockliffe series introduces a handful of new characters and, as in Hazard (book five), weaves together a pair of romances. While the seemingly omniscient Duke of Rockliffe has a pivotal role to play in them both and there are cameo appearances by characters from the other books in the series, Cadenza works very well as a standalone;  anyone new to the series and unfamiliar with all the relationships and strong ties of friendship among Rockliffe’s set of friends and relations will be able to enjoy the novel without needing to have read the rest of the series. (Although you really should, because they’re all excellent reads!)

A harpsichordist of virtuosic skill, Julian Langham has devoted his life to music, focusing on achieving his ambition of being a concert performer while pursuing his studies before finally getting his big break.  Julian makes his concert début in Vienna and receives a rapturous reception, leaving him poised on the brink of the career he’s dreamed of.  Still giddy with joy, Julian is brought quickly down to earth by news he neither expects nor wants.  He is informed that he is the fifth Earl of Chalfont and that he must return to England at once.  Julian refuses.  He doesn’t want to be an earl and doesn’t care what happens to the title; he’s Julian Langham, musician, and that’s all he wants to be.  But he’s persuaded that all he needs to do is to sign some papers and put the earldom’s affairs in order – after that he can return to Europe and to his musical career.

But of course, it doesn’t work out that way.

Completely unequipped to be an earl, let alone to administer a large, debt-ridden estate, Julian has no idea what to do after his lawyers leave him in the lurch.  The estate is entailed, and there is nothing of value left to sell to raise funds in the short-term; Chalfont Hall is in a dreadful state of disrepair, the lands have been neglected, the tenant’s homes are dilapidated, and the old earl’s reputation as a debauchee and defiler of women means that Julian is viewed with intense suspicion by the locals.  When Julian discovers that his predecessor left three young, illegitimate children without provision, he does the only thing that makes sense to him and takes them in, although they continue to run wild about the village and generally make nuisances of themselves.  But the worst thing, by far, is that the only musical instrument in the house – an old harpsichord – is completely unplayable, and without the ability to make music, Julian is slowly dying inside.

At Brandon Lacey in Yorkshire, (anyone familiar with the author’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series of historical romances set during the English Civil War will no doubt find themselves smiling at the references to Gabriel and Venetia from Garland of Straw as we catch up with the family a few generations on), Arabella Brandon is hoping to avoid a London Season.  Still smarting after her fiancé of three years – an army officer currently stationed in America – married another woman completely out of the blue, Bella has become rather withdrawn and content to hide herself away, believing herself unmarriageable because she and her betrothed anticipated their vows before he left with his regiment. When her mother tells her she has written to the Duchess of Rockliffe – a distant relation – to ask if she will sponsor Bella’s début, and that of her cousin, Bella becomes a little more enthused, reasoning that even if she can’t marry, at least Elizabeth deserves the chance to find herself a good husband.

But Elizabeth Marsden is facing a very different prospect.  The eldest of the three daughters of the local vicar, she doesn’t expect to marry and has instead decided to ease her family’s financial burdens by seeking a position.  She responds to an advertisement for a mature lady required to oversee the running of a gentleman’s establishment and also regulate the care of young children and is surprised to receive a response offering her the position for a trial period.

When the Duchess of Rockliffe offers to sponsor both girls in London, Bella is delighted – but that is short-lived when Elizabeth tells her that her father will not accept the duchess’ offer.  Disappointed, Elizabeth tells Bella she has accepted the post she has been offered at Chalfont Hall in Nottinghamshire; after all, if she is going to have to work for her living, she might as well get started and get used to it.

But Bella isn’t going to just drop the idea of Elizabeth’s getting a chance to experience what London has to offer and comes up with an audacious plan.  She and her cousin are about the same age and size, and nobody outside their immediate locale has met them – certainly not the Rockliffes or any of the people they are likely to meet in London, and definitely not Elizabeth’s new employer.  She suggests they swap places for a few weeks – until the end of Elizabeth’s trial period – so that Elizabeth can experience some of what London has to offer and Bella can avoid the marriage mart.  At first, Elizabeth is horrified at the idea – it’s far too risky and it will never work – but eventually she allows herself to be persuaded, and all too soon, it’s time to depart.

Bella’s journey goes smoothly, but not so Elizabeth’s.  When the carriage she is travelling in veers off the road into a ditch, she and her maid are rescued by a passing gentleman and his servant and conveyed to the nearest inn.  Elizabeth’s rescuer introduces himself as Ralph, Lord Sherbourne, and he clearly isn’t the sort of man to inspire warmth or friendly feelings.  He’s darkly handsome but rather cold and aloof, and clearly isn’t pleased at the interruption to his journey, but as a gentleman, could do no less.  Unfortunately, however, the terrible weather that caused the accident continues and means that Elizabeth and Sherbourne are forced to spend a couple of days in one another’s company, which could put Elizabeth’s reputation at risk.

Meanwhile, Bella arrives at Chalfont to discover that her employer is not the older gentleman she had expected, but is a heartbreakingly beautiful and somewhat unworldly young man who doesn’t seem to know how to dissemble and says exactly what he thinks.  But then, she’s not at all what Julian had expected either – she’s too young, too beautiful and too terrifying; women tie his stomach and his tongue in knots and he is inclined to ask her to leave, but his friend –the local doctor – points out that he needs help in the house and with the children and that he should at least allow her to complete her trial period.  Julian – somewhat reluctantly – agrees, and although he finds interacting with her difficult at first, he quickly finds himself looking forward to seeing her and to spending time in her company.  ‘Lizzie’, as she has asked to be called, is surprisingly easy to talk to and seems to understand so much about him and his need for music in his life; she listens to him, gently draws him out, and before long he’s tumbled head-over-heels in love for the first time in his life.

Although both romances get pretty much equal page time, I admit that I found myself more invested in Elizabeth’s with Sherbourne, mostly because tall, dark and sarcastic is my catnip and I was eager to see how Ms. Riley was going to redeem him and turn him into a romantic hero, considering he was such a git to Genevieve (his half-sister) in Hazard. Needless to say, she does it with aplomb, giving readers more background about his relationship with the two good-for-nothing brothers he keeps having to haul out of the messes they make, and about the woman he’d loved and intended to marry who turned out to have been manipulating him in order to conceal a particularly unpleasant secret.  It’s not your typical ‘she-done-him-wrong-so-he-has-sworn-off-women’ trope; Sherbourne is certainly emotionally walled-off, but there are pretty good reasons for that, and it quickly becomes clear that while his reputation is somewhat tarnished, he is a decent man who is nowhere near as black as he is painted.

Pulling the strings and putting all the puzzle pieces together is Rockcliffe, one of the few among the plethora of dukes in today’s historical romance who is actually and properly ducal.  He can be arrogant and is fully aware of what is owed him courtesy of his position, but he’s also fair, compassionate and fiercely loyal to those he cares for.  He’s prepared to allow himself to be the butt of society’s jokes and goes to great length to protect Elizabeth’s reputation, drawing Sherbourne into his inner circle for her sake (and allowing him to remain there for his.)  One thing worth noting is that there is no villain in this novel – well, not in the sense of someone who is out to do harm to our heroes and heroines.  Instead, Arabella and Elizabeth are faced with the censure of society, its rumourmongers and its insatiable desire for gossip, Julian is the victim of his own generous nature and Ralph loved unwisely and bears the weight of a reputation that he doesn’t deserve.

Ms. Riley skilfully interweaves her different storylines together while displaying her customary eye for period detail and for creating engaging characters it’s easy to care about and root for.  She’s clearly done her research when it comes to Julian’s musical abilities and repertoire, definitely captured Julian’s dedication and that sometimes otherworldliness that can be associated with those who are intensely gifted and creative.  I very much liked the contrast we were given between the Julian who was trying to find his feet as an earl, and the ultra-confident, assertive man he became when performing; off stage, he’s endearing, on it, he’s compelling, and with time and experience that’s the man Julian is capable of becoming in everyday life as well.

The one problem I had with the book was with the character of Arabella. I can’t think of another heroine by this author that I haven’t liked, but I just couldn’t warm to her.  And that being the case, I wasn’t as invested in the romance between her and Julian as I’d like to have been – and much as it pains me to say it – I found their chemistry somewhat lacking.

Fortunately, the romance between Elizabeth and Sherbourne has plenty of chemistry, and ultimately, Cadenza’s many good points far outweigh that one drawback.  Extremely readable with a pair of very different but likeable heroes and a fabulous supporting cast, the writing bristles with intelligence, warmth and humour and I’m more than happy to recommend the novel to fans of the author’s and of historical romance in general.

The Purloined Heart (Tyburn Trilogy #2) by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Poor Maddie Tate. Widowed with two children. An ordinary sort of female, no more memorable than a potted palm. Seven and twenty years of age.

Lucky Angel Jarrow. Temptation incarnate, lazy and spoiled – and why should he not be, when the whole world adores him, save for the notable exception of his wife?

Maddie Tate and Angel Jarrow. In the ordinary course of events, their paths might never cross. But then comes the Burlington House bal masque, when Maddie witnesses something she should not, and flees straight into Angel’s arms.

And he discovers that he does not want to let her go.

Mysterious masqueraders. Misbehaving monarchs. Political perfidy.

While in the background the ton twitters, and a fascinated London follows the Regent’s preparations for his Grand Jubilee.

Rating: B

A few months back I picked up Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz for a prompt in the TBR Challenge, and enjoyed it enough to want to read the other books in the Tyburn Trilogy.  At that point, only the second book – The Purloined Heart – was available, but I was pleased to learn the third was on the way, especially as it would feature two secondary characters from the first book who were clearly destined for one another. Although there are a couple of characters who appear in both books – most notably Kane, Baron Saxe – The Purloined Heart can be read independently of its predecessor, and proved to be an enjoyable mix of mystery and romance.

Maddie Tate is, at twenty-seven, the widowed mother of two young sons, and has gone back to live under her stentorian father’s roof.  Sir Owen Osborne Is dismissive and dictatorial, and Maddie fears he may try to separate her from the boys if she doesn’t dance to his tune.  But that particular dance is palling quickly and she’s chafing under her father’s constant criticisms of her manner, her clothes and, well, everything about her; hence her decision to sneak out to a scandalous masquerade being held at Burlington House one night, where she’s borrowed the costume that was supposed to have been worn by a friend who is unable to attend.  She’s nicely tipsy when a young gentleman dressed as Henry VIII approaches her and starts spouting Shakespeare and fiddling with the arrows in her quiver. (Get your mind out of the gutter!  She’s dressed as Diana the huntress!) Puzzled as to why Henry should have been lurking outside the ladies’ withdrawing room, Maddie follows him as he wends his way along the more private corridors of the house, watching as he enters an out-of-the way room. Hearing raised voices, Maddie peers through the keyhole, and witnesses a man dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh clubbing Henry over the head; he falls to the floor just as the door inconveniently swings open, revealing Maddie behind it.  She runs, only to collide with a gentleman dressed as a Cavalier, and demands he kiss her – to hide from her pursuer of course. One kiss turns into two… three, and into something more than a simple matter of expediency.

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

The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

Skipping ahead a few months, we find Charlotte and Mrs. Watson comfortably settled in a cottage situated not very far from Stern Hollow, the country estate of Charlotte’s closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton.  The two have known each other since they were in their teens and it’s been very clear from the moment readers were introduced to Lord Ingram – Ash – that there’s more lying between him and Charlotte than friendship.  But he is married (albeit very unhappily) and Charlotte is… an unusual woman, to say the least, one who does not “understand the full spectrum of human emotions”, or rather, whose own reactions to those emotions are not always those that are desired or easily understood by others.  Lord Ingram and Charlotte know and understand each other on a deep, instinctual level, and their relationship is both beautiful and frustrating; the complementary way their minds work is wonderful to see – when it comes to logic and investigation, their thoughts mesh seamlessly – but their emotional connection is far more complex and Lord Ingram, fully aware of the nature of his feelings for Charlotte, is just as fully aware that they may never be returned as he would wish.

However, the reason Charlotte and Mrs. Watson are sojourning near Stern Hollow is not Lord Ingram, but Charlotte’s sister, Olivia, who is staying close by, at a house party being hosted by their father’s cousin, Mrs. Newell.  Given that Charlotte was disowned after her disgrace (A Study in Scarlet Women), she cannot openly contact Livia and hopes she will be able to see her while she is in the vicinity.  It looks as though fate is against them when Mrs. Newell’s home is flooded and it seems the party must be broken up, but Lord Ingram steps in to offer the hospitality of Stern Hollow to the displaced guests.  Livia’s enjoyment of her new surroundings is slightly marred by the presence of  two of society’s pre-eminent gossips, who have alleged that Charlotte and Lord Ingram are lovers and are trying to prove it.  Lady Ingram’s continued absence – the story is that she has gone abroad for the sake of her health; the truth is that she was divulging state secrets to Moriarty, and was allowed to leave the country before she could be arrested – produces even more juicy speculation on the part of the two ladies, who are now putting forth the rumours that Lord Ingram may have done away with the wife from whom he was known to be estranged in order to marry Charlotte.  When, a day or so later, Lady Ingram’s dead body is discovered in the ice house, Livia knows it will look as though those rumours are true – and that there’s only one person who will be able to prove Lord Ingram’s innocence.

Gah!  There’s so much more I could say about this book, but I don’t want to give too much away.  The bulk of the story is devoted to the investigation into Lady Ingram’s death – but it’s far more complicated than that, and we’re gripped by the various twists, turns and discoveries as Sherlock’s ‘brother’ – Sherrinford Holmes – helps Lord Ingram to ferret out and piece together the evidence needed to exonerate him. There’s no question the stakes are high; this is the first time we’ve seen Charlotte even the slightest bit rattled, and the pervasive sense of fear running throughout the story is palpable.  For three-quarters of the novel, Ms. Thomas lulls readers into the belief that this is the story – only to rip out the carpet from under our feet and show it’s been about something else all along, revealing that while Ash’s life really IS on the line, he and Charlotte are facing a very dangerous, devious foe and they’re out to do much more than bring a murderer to justice.  That’s not the only twist in the tale however – a couple of chapters later I was reeling from yet another unexpected reveal that had my husband wondering what on earth I was swearing aloud about!

One of the (many) things that marks the Lady Sherlock series out as superior to so many other historical mysteries is the incredible amount of character development going on.  More layers of Charlotte’s complex personality are peeled back here, and we learn a lot more about Lord Ingram and his unpopular wife; but most importantly, with Ash and Charlotte together for almost the entire book we get to see the reality of their messy, complicated relationship and to gain a deeper understanding of why things between them are the way they are.  Their scenes together are electric, the sexual tension so thick it could be cut with a knife; the author wasn’t kidding when she said – “this is the one in which the romance between Charlotte Holmes and her good friend Lord Ingram really picks up steam”, so it’s not a spoiler to say that there are some interesting developments between them, but there is still much to hope for in future instalments.

Even with the high-stakes plot and the character and relationship development, there’s still time to shine a light on Charlotte’s family situation; on her plans for Bernadine, the older sister whose mind has never progressed beyond early childhood and on Livia, prone to melancholy and fearful for the future, but fiercely devoted to Charlotte – and, it seems, in love for the first time.  Inspector Treadles, who has been struggling ever since discovering Sherlock Holmes’ true identity, his judgement strongly coloured by his – probably typical for the time – misogynistic views as to what a woman should and shouldn’t be, proves a trustworthy ally, and by the end of the book – thanks to Charlotte – he’s realised the need to let go of this preconceived ideas.

The story is very cleverly constructed, making excellent use of flashbacks in the latter part to complete the bigger picture and fill in some of the information the reader almost doesn’t realise has been withheld. That’s not to say that I felt cheated at any point – I didn’t.  But I was able to figure out some things and not others, meaning that there were still plenty of surprises in store, and I loved that.

The Hollow of Fear is yet another tour de force from Sherry Thomas – and long may she continue to deliver them. A mystery filled with as many twists and turns as any Conan Doyle fan could wish for, a fascinating character study, and an unusual romance, it’s easily the best book of the series (so far) and my only complaint is that I have to wait until next year for another helping.