Too Hot to Handel (John Pickett Mysteries #5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a rash of jewel thefts strikes London, magistrate Patrick Colquhoun deploys his Bow Street Runners to put a stop to the crimes. The Russian Princess Olga Fyodorovna is to attend a production of Handel’s Esther at Drury Lane Theatre, where she will wear a magnificent diamond necklace. The entire Bow Street force will be stationed at various locations around the theatre – including John Pickett, who will occupy a box directly across from the princess.

In order to preserve his incognito, Pickett must appear to be a private gentleman attending the theatre. Mr. Colquhoun recommends that he have a female companion – a lady, in fact, who might prevent him from making any glaring faux pas. But the only lady of Pickett’s acquaintance is Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, to whom he accidentally contracted a Scottish irregular marriage several months earlier, and with whom he is seeking an annulment against his own inclinations – and for whom he recklessly declared his love, secure in the belief he would never see her again.

The inevitable awkwardness of their reunion is forgotten when the theatre catches fire. In the confusion, the Russian diamonds are stolen, and Pickett is struck in the head and rendered unconscious. Suddenly it is up to Julia not only to nurse him back to health, but to discover his attacker and bring the culprit – and the jewel thief – to justice.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

This fifth John Pickett mystery is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series in that our hero spends a rather large part of it unconscious, leaving his lady-love, Lady Julia Fieldhurst to the bulk of the sleuthing when it comes to solving the mystery of some missing diamonds. That said though, John is nonetheless a major presence in Too Hot to Handel, and Joel Froomkin’s hugely entertaining narration kept me engaged throughout, so I didn’t feel the slightest bit short-changed.

Note: There will be spoilers for earlier books in the series in this review.

It’s three months since Bow Street Runner John Pickett said farewell to the woman he fell in love with almost a year earlier, and a matter of weeks before the case for the annulment of the “irregular marriage” they inadvertently contracted in Scotland comes before the ecclesiastical court. At the end of the previous book, Dinner Most Deadly, he declared his love for Lady Julia Fieldhurst, but also said that they should not meet again; he has always known that the huge gulf in their stations makes any relationship between them impossible, and it’s become too painful for him to keep spending time with her while knowing she can never be his. For Julia it’s been three long, colourless months and none of her usual activities hold much interest for her any more. Even a night out at the theatre is dull until, on the way out, she hears a distressed older lady claiming that her jewels have been stolen. Recalling that the Duchess of Mallen’s rubies had also disappeared while that lady was at the theatre, and that they had been recovered by the Bow Street force, Julia suggests sending for a Runner, and for a few brief minutes, is excited at the prospect of seeing John again – only to come crashing down when someone else appears in his stead.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dinner Most Deadly (John Pickett Mysteries #4) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

dinner most deadly

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, returns from Scotland restless and out of sorts, her friend Emily Dunnington plans a select dinner party with half a dozen male guests from whom Julia may choose a lover.

But Emily’s dinner ends in disaster when one of her guests, Sir Reginald Montague, is shot dead.

When Bow Street Runner John Pickett is summoned to Emily’s house, he is faced with the awkward task of informing Lady Fieldhurst that their recent masquerade as a married couple (Family Plot) has resulted in their being legally wed.

Beset by distractions – including the humiliating annulment procedure and the flattering attentions of Lady Dunnington’s pretty young housemaid – Pickett must find the killer of a man whom everyone has reason to want dead.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

Note: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the charming young Bow Street Runner John Pickett continues apace with the fourth full-length novel in the series, Dinner Most Deadly. It’s another enjoyable mix of murder-mystery and romance, but here, the romantic angle is as much the focus as the mystery, as John and the love of his life, Lady Julia Fieldhurst, struggle to deal with the ramifications of their recent masquerade as Mr. and Mrs. Pickett in book three, Family Plot. This instalment is particularly angsty in terms of their continuing relationship; John has been in love with Julia since they met in book one, In Milady’s Chamber, and while it’s taken Julia longer to realise the truth of her feelings for the thoughtful, insightful and achingly sweet young man who is so devoted to her, she is finally starting to see them for what they really are. But… a viscountess and a thief-taker who earns the princely sum of twenty-five shillings a week? The social divide between them is too great to permit even the merest nodding acquaintance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Compromised by the Prince’s Touch (Russian Royals of Kuban #1) by Bronwyn Scott

compromised by the prince's touch

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An irresistible royal seduction…

Daring Prince Nikolay Baklanov feels London is worlds away from his life of battle and revolution in Kuban. But then the Russian ambassador’s daughter, beautiful Klara Grigorieva, approaches him with her father’s dangerous proposition…

Since her mother’s death, Klara has complied with all her father’s wishes. She’s virtuous, polished – a Society lady through and through. But meeting dashing Prince Nikolay awakens a rebellious passion in Klara…a passion that only this man can satisfy!

Rating: B

I’ve had a bit of a hit-and-miss relationship with Bronwyn Scott’s books. I’ve enjoyed some and been less enthused about others, but I’m pleased to say that Compromised by the Prince’s Touch – which is the first book in her new Russian Royals of Kuban series – falls very squarely into the ‘hit’ column. Ms. Scott has crafted a story of romance and intrigue boasting a well-constructed a plot full of political scheming and high-stakes manouevering that skilfully blends fact and fiction to create a highly entertaining story.

Exiled from his home of Kuban (in Southern Russia on the Black Sea and bordering the Crimean Peninsula) Prince Nikolay Baklanov now lives in London with three of his closest friends, all of whom have also been banished from their homeland. He wants to make a new life for himself in England, although he feels as though he is merely treading water; he misses Kuban – the language, the food, the traditions, the people – and the knowledge that he can never go back still rankles, especially as his exile was forced upon him by the actions of others. He currently works as a riding instructor at a prestigious London stable and plans to set up his own riding school as soon as he can find an appropriate property. His clientele seems mostly to consist of young debutantes who can barely sit a horse properly and seem to think they’re there to giggle and cast flirtatious glances his way, so when he sees that the daughter of the Russian ambassador has booked a lesson with him, he anticipates more of the same.

He quickly discovers his error, however, when he returns to the training arena to find his pupil already mounted – and wearing breeches, no less – more than competently putting a splendid black mare through her paces. Nikolay is immediately suspicious; this young woman is already an extremely good rider, so what can she expect him to teach her? As the daughter of a powerful Russian diplomat, could she have an ulterior motive? Are the Kubanians searching for him? Could she have been sent to smoke him out?

Klara Grigorieva has indeed been sent by her father to ‘vet’ Nikolay.  The prince has been in London for two months, and has not yet called on the ambassador – but Grigoriev wants information about his intentions and his loyalties.  The ambassador is at the head of a small group of disaffected Russian nobility and military men who are planning to engineer a revolution and having a man like Nikolay as one of their number – a man of great courage, a natural leader able to inspire loyalty in the troops – would give them a massive advantage.  It will also give them an obvious scapegoat should things go awry.

But Nikolay is far from stupid and is well aware of the reasons for which he is being ‘courted’.  He is reluctant to be dragged back into Russian politics, but recognises that it may be impossible to avoid it or simply refuse to take sides. Much as he wants to see the outmoded, backward ways of his beloved country changed and modernised, he knows he is likely being set up to take a fall; but if he declines to involve himself, he stands – at best – to lose the new life he has envisaged for himself and at worst, to lose his life altogether.

Since the death of Klara’s English mother, it has been her father’s aim to bring up and educate his daughter as befits her station as a member of the English ton and then to secure her an excellent marriage.  Intelligent, quick-witted and a good judge of character, Klara has proved herself to be extremely useful to Grigoriev in his work, her ability to draw people out and to assimilate and relay information providing insights that he might not be able to obtain from other sources.  She has always taken pride in the fact that her father includes her in his life in this way – which is unusual among people of her station – but when she begins to realise exactly why she has been sent to get to know Nikolay, and the danger their acquaintance poses to him, Klara begins to reassess her situation and to wonder if she is merely a pawn in her father’s schemes and not a beloved daughter after all.

Nikolay and Klara are attracted to each other from their very first meeting, but both are guarded, Nikolay especially, as he is immediately suspicious of Klara’s motives for seeking him out.  For her part, Klara is enjoying her role as her father’s confidante and the chance it gives her to flirt with such a dangerously attractive and vital man.  But as the story progresses, and Klara begins to realise that her association with Nikolay has drawn him into a life-threatening situation, she becomes determined to protect him at all costs – even if it means she can never see him again.

There’s a lot of plot going on in this novel, but I enjoy stories featuring politics and intrigue and Ms. Scott does a very good job of keeping the storyline focused and of continually raising the stakes for our two protagonists.  Nikolay is reluctant to lower his guard around Klara, but the more he gets to know her as opposed to the ambassador’s daughter, the more he finds to like and admire about her.  The romantic chemistry between the couple is strong and the love scenes are sensual, but the best parts of their relationship are those snatched moments when they can just be together, such as the night Nikolay takes Klara into the Russian ex-pat community in Soho, which is full of local colour and vivid descriptions that paint a wonderfully detailed, exotic picture in the mind’s eye.

Such stories usually demand a villain, and there’s a particularly nasty one here in the form of the Duke of Amesbury, an unscrupulous and ruthless man who is set to make a huge profit by selling arms to the revolutionaries and who is determined to obtain the spirited Klara for himself.  There are a few times he’s in danger of veering into cartoonish, moustache-twirling territory, but  mainly, he’s nasty and creepy; it’s clear he poses a very real threat to Klara and is prepared to ruin Nikolay by any means necessary.

I suspect that some may feel the romance is a little overshadowed by the other plot elements in this book, but speaking as one who enjoys romantic suspense novels, the balance between the romance and the intrigue here is just about right.  I enjoyed Compromised by the Prince’s Touch and will definitely be on the lookout for subsequent books in the series.

TBR Challenge: Tangled by Mary Balogh


Her beautiful eyes flashing with hate, Rebecca faced Lord David Tavistock. He had come back, wounded but still vibrantly, sensually alive, from the Crimean War. Julian Cardwell, her sweet, gentle bridegroom–and David’s foster brother–had not. She blamed wild, reckless David for Julian’s decision to enter the Queen’s Guards, and for the devastating loss of her perfect young husband, whose memory even now broke her heart and filled her dreams.

His blue eyes shadowed by dark secrets, David had come to claim the woman he had always loved. All his life he had protected the charming Julian, hiding the truth from Rebecca about the women Julian dallied with, the child he had fathered, the scandalous way he died. Now David offered Rebecca a life of privilege and wealth…as his wife. She wanted a marriage of convenience, but he intended to awake her deepest passions, to make her forget Julian Cardwell…and to find in his bed all the ecstasy of a man’s true love.

Rating: B

August’s TBR Challenge prompt is “Kickin’ it old-school” and it’s a prompt I always enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to pick something from the TBR Pile of Doom, which still looms large next to the bed. I went for Tangled by Mary Balogh, a standalone title originally published in 1991 which features a somewhat unusual premise; one I haven’t read before although I’m sure this isn’t the only book to have made use of it. I see that the book has engendered very mixed reactions over the years, and although I can understand why, I enjoyed it, principally because Mary Balogh is so skilled at portraying the emotional lives of her characters in a way that makes them feel very real to the reader.

The book opens as Lady Rebecca Cardwell is saying a fond farewell to her husband, Julian, before he departs with his regiment for Malta, and then the Crimea. He is accompanied by his foster brother, David, Viscount Tavistock, whom she dislikes and blames for Julian’s joining the army. Julian is eagerly reassuring his anxious wife that he will be in no danger, and it’s clear that he is keen to be on his way and sees the whole thing as an adventure.

The glimpses we see of Julian’s life in the army very quickly reinforce those initial impressions of his character. We learn some of his and David’s backstory, and see that Julian is one of those happy-go-lucky types who breeze through life with no care for anyone but himself. He’s not evil, per se, just incredibly selfish and immature. But his devil-may-care attitude, and particularly his womanising eventually has disastrous consequences which ultimately result in his death.

David returns home a decorated war hero, haunted by the death of the man he’d loved like a brother, and looking to settle down to a useful life at his country estate. He very quickly realises that Rebecca is in a difficult situation; even though she regards the Earl of Harrington as a father, she is not actually related to him and since his remarriage, feels the awkwardness of being the house’s former mistress in the presence of its new one. David has been in love with Rebecca for years, since long before she married Julian, and even though he knows that she will never love him, he offers her marriage, telling her that he can provide her with a home of her own and a purpose in life. He makes it clear, though, that while he is proposing a marriage of convenience, he wants a wife to share his bed and, hopefully, give him children.

Initially, Rebecca is stunned and turns him down. She doesn’t really like David, believing him guilty of a slew of misdemeanours in his youth and of having fathered a bastard child and refused to marry the mother. Yet she has to admit that since his return, she has seen a much quieter and more thoughtful man, and believes that perhaps he has outgrown his youthful exuberance. She also can’t deny that the prospect of a home of her own and having tasks to fill her days is an attractive one, so she eventually agrees to David’s proposal, assuring him that she will be a good wife to him and that once she is married to him, she will put Julian out of her thoughts.

At first, David thinks he has made a fairly good bargain, although his father is sceptical and warns him that he wants more than Rebecca will be prepared or able to give him. The marriage takes place and the newlyweds travel to their new home where Rebecca is delighted to discover that there is plenty for her to do and looks forward to being useful and taking her place as the foremost lady of the local community.

But their married life gets off to a rocky start. Rebecca’s version of “being a good wife” is letting her husband do as he wishes in bed with no thought for her own wants – and David is bewildered. He knows Julian and Rebecca were very much in love and thinks Rebecca must have experienced passion; but not only does she not respond to him, it’s clear she is having to force herself to endure his lovemaking. David believes that she is deliberately holding herself back from him because she doesn’t love him and because, in spite of her promise not to think of Julian, she is doing just that. Their relationship becomes incredibly strained until, after their third night together, David snaps, says some cruel things and then tells Rebecca he won’t be bothering her again.

Rebecca is equally confused. She has been brought up to believe that sex is for a husband’s pleasure and for procreation, and that she should just lie there and let him get on with it. She is surprised by her attraction to David, but is ashamed of her response to his kisses and lovemaking, feeling things she’s never felt before and desperate to control herself to make sure he isn’t disgusted by her wantonness. But after that night, she finds she misses the bonding that had begun between them in bed and also that she needs the reassurance of David’s presence there, and of his lovemaking, too. The couple settles into a way of life that sees them living and working together as little more than business partners, but Rebecca wants a real marriage and has no idea how to achieve it while David distances himself from her; his jealousy of Julian and the guilt, the secrets and the lies that shadowed their relationship distort his view of the situation and lead him to believe that Rebecca is disgusted by him. It’s a stalemate for quite some time until at last, it seems as though they have finally found a way through … which is when (of course) disaster strikes.

I am not normally a fan of stories in which so many misunderstandings and secrets abound, but I did enjoy Tangled. True, there were times I wanted to beat both protagonists over the head with a big stick and tell them to just be honest with each other; but somehow, Mary Balogh has made their reluctance to confide in each other believable. It’s frustrating to read at times, but is understandable, especially given that Rebecca’s upbringing has conditioned her to propriety and submission and that David is driven to protect the people he cares about. The deeper emotions are brilliantly illuminated, and the author has very skilfully illustrated the importance of sex in the development of the central relationship. Without it, David and Rebecca are almost strangers, and because they are both hiding things from each other, they don’t have any other way in which to achieve closeness on an emotional level.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers for the last third, but there are several places in that final section of the story that deliver a real emotional punch to the gut, as David and Rebecca struggle to adjust to a huge upheaval just as they were beginning to make something real out of their marriage. I especially liked the way in which the author shows that Rebecca is falling in love with David while being completely unaware of it, and how she shows the depths of his quiet, unrequited love for his wife, but as individuals, they are complex, flawed and not always easy to like. Rebecca puts Julian on a pedestal and is unable – or unwilling – to see any of the shortcomings of which the reader – and David – is aware. She elevates him practically to sainthood after his death, and there are times when her continual harping upon his perfection gets very irritating. David, too, is not without his faults; for the most part, he’s one of those honourable, quiet men who are driven to protect, but I did have to ask myself how he could bear to let so many people think badly of him for so long. But with those things said, both characters feel very much like products of their time, and I applaud Ms. Balogh for creating and keeping them that way in spite of the sometimes negative effect on their overall appeal.

While the secret-keeping is frustrating and the central characters could sometimes be a bit irritating, my principal criticism of Tangled is with the ending. Granted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion if David and Rebecca were to get their HEA, but the action that leads up to it is so completely out of character for the person concerned, that I had to read and accept it as a necessary plot device rather than a natural direction of the story.

This is an angsty and emotional book, and I can understand that the secrets, misunderstandings and – for want of a better word, passivity – of the protagonists may mean it is not one that everyone will like. But the depth of the emotion contained within its pages and the skilfully developed, strong connection between the protagonists are sufficiently compelling as to allow me to overlook any weaknesses and commend it as an absorbing and thought-provoking read.

Is that a banana in your pocket… or are you just pleased to see me?


A few weeks ago, I read a book – which I enjoyed very much – that prompted me to write a post about the different euphemisms which those of us who read romantic novels frequently see used on a regular basis during the … “romantic interludes”… which take place between the hero and heroine between the sheets, up against doors, on floors, on tables, on rugs… and so on.

If you’re not a fan of sex scenes in your romance novels, then you might want to look away now, because this is a post about the language used to describe those steamy moments. So be warned that there will be several rude words and naughty phrases from here on out.

Back in the day when I used to read (and write) fanfiction, I remember reading some truly execrable sex scenes. You know the sort – the ones where you know the author was trying to burn up the screen but ended up causing widespread hilarity. There is a fine line to tread between something being hot or being funny, and while it is certainly going to be the case that one person’s turn-on is another’s unbridled amusement, I find that there are certain words and/or phrases, or an overall ‘feel’ that is guaranteed to make me giggle rather than get hot under the collar.

You can read the rest of the post over at All About Romance. Please feel free to join the discussion and post your favourite – or not – examples 🙂

Soundheads and Shagamuffins … alias Roundheads and Cavaliers – a guest post by Stella Riley

Stella Riley has been one of my favourite authors since the 1980s and so I’m delighted that she’s revising and republishing her backlist in ebook form. The latest of her titles to receive the treatment is “The Black Madonna”, and in this post, she talks a bit about the book and its inspiration.

My updated review is here.

When Passion Rules by Johanna Lindsey (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor


Forced to flee Napoleon’s rampaging army on the continent, orphaned Alana Farmer and her eccentric guardian make a new home for themselves in London. There, Alana enjoys every privilege a daughter of the nobility could hope for, plus an education fit for a queen. Now, on the eve of her debut into London Society, she learns the shocking secret of her birthright. Can it be true? Is she really the lost princess of the European kingdom of Lubinia? Persuaded by her guardian to return to their homeland to quell a bloody revolt, Alana finds herself in an isolated, mountainous country whose customs strike her as medieval!

With controversy and intrigue brewing around the beautiful newcomer, Christoph Becker, the captain of the palace guards, arrests Alana on suspicion that she is either a wily imposter or a seductive spy working for the shadowy figures determined to depose the king. No stranger himself to seduction, Christoph uses every means at his disposal to draw the truth from his alluring prisoner, even if he must lay his own life on the line to protect her from harm. Now, as a fiery passion flares between Alana and the man who has wrongly imprisoned her, the fate of a nation rests in their hands and on their hearts.

Rating: B- overall

C for the story and A for the performance

Okay. So I admit that this isn’t a book that would normally have been near the top of my TBR pile.  I haven’t read it before, haven’t read any reviews and only had the synopsis to go on; and decided that while it sounded okay, I wasn’t going to bust a gut when I’ve got so many other things I want to read.

BUT.  Then I discovered that Rosalyn Landor had narrated the audiobook, and as I’ve been glomming her stuff big time lately, I changed my mind.

This is one of those times when I think the performance elevated my enjoyment of what would probably –in print – have been a fairly ordinary book.  The story starts out with an assassin deciding – rather like Snow White’s huntsman – that he can’t kill the princess, but unlike the huntsman, he takes her away with him to England and brings her up as a lady rather than leaving her to roam the woods and shack up with seven vertically-challenged forest-dwellers.

On Alana’s eighteenth birthday, her ‘guardian’ (known as Poppy) sits her down to tell her the truth.  She’s not his niece and she’s the heir to the throne of Lubinia (a fictional country somewhere where there’s lots of snow and hot guys in tight uniforms with sexy accents).

Alana is devastated by the news and doesn’t believe it.  But there is unrest in Lubinia due to the king’s lack of an heir and the country is facing civil war – so there is only one thing to do.  Alana must return to take up her rightful place, and Poppy is going to find out once and for all who paid him to kill the baby princess.

With Poppy’s warnings about the need for caution in her ears, Alana heads for the palace to present herself to her father.  She goes alone – if Poppy (formerly Leonard Kasner, aka “Rastibon”) is discovered he will be imprisoned or shot on sight, so he leaves her to her own devices while he heads off to track his quarry.  After all, as well as learning to sing and embroider tablecloths like any other English lady, Alana has been trained to fence, shoot and box, so she can take care of herself.

After a long wait at the palace, Alana encounters the captain of the guard, the mouth-wateringly gorgeous Count Christoph Becker.   After mistakenly thinking she’s come to the palace looking to find herself a powerful ‘protector’ (nudge, nudge) he then informs her that she’s the latest in a line of imposters who have presented themselves as the princess and then proceeds to interrogate her and behave like a complete asshat.

But the thing is, because of Ms Landor’s exceptional acting abilities, I couldn’t dislike him for it!  She gave him a sexy accent with just the right amount of arrogance to be attractive and brought out the humour in his frequent double-entendres and suggestive comments; so while I was listening knowing I should be rolling my eyes at his total lack of PC (or, as Alana would have said, his “barbaric tendencies”), I wasn’t.

Once the two of them met (which was a fair way into the story) things started to move at a cracking pace.  Christoph doesn’t believe Alana’s story for almost the whole of the book, but he fancies the hell out of her does at least decide to give her the benefit of the doubt.  There are a couple of plot twists and turns which make for an enjoyable romp (one of which I didn’t see coming) and some rather charming scenes featuring Christoph’s family – all of whom were superbly and distinctively voiced.

While I found Christoph rather attractive (I know *hangs head*.  He’s an alpha-asshat, but so disarming with it!),  Alana was rather annoying at times.  She slept with Christoph and then kept him at a distance while desperate for more; insisted on thinking of him as a barbarian, which he plainly wasn’t and didn’t get to display her kick-ass fighting skillz, which I thought was rather a shame.  On the positive side, she was brave and intelligent (mostly) and the banter between her and Christoph – while being a little too modern at times – was probably the best thing about the book.

The best bit?  For me this came late on, once Christoph has brought Alana to the king and he’s acknowledged her as his daughter.  The king asks Christoph if he’d done something he (the king) had suggested previously – namely to seduce Alana to get information out of her. Oops.  You have to feel sorry for Christoph at that point – in the dog house for shagging the king’s daughter (even though he didn’t do it for information ;-))

The ending is rather rushed.  Alana is restored to her father and he immediately wants to marry her off to the head of the opposing faction in order to secure peace.  As she’s in love with her gorgeous captain, she is naturally not best pleased – but this is a romance, so it all works out in the end.

I’m sure that if I’d read the book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half so much as I did listening to it. Rosalyn Landor’s narration was as well-paced and beautiful as ever, and she invests even the minor characters with their own distinct voices.

When Passion Rules isn’t something I’d recommend if you want a book to take seriously, but it was a fun romp for when you want to put your brain into “park” and have a rest and a bit of unabashed fun.  And failing that, you can just stare at the cover model. Because. Day-um! 😉

Sweet Madness by Heather Snow


There’s a fine line between love and insanity.

An Untamed Mind

Ever since her husband’s sudden and tragic death, Lady Penelope Bridgeman has committed herself to studying the maladies of the mind, particularly treating traumatized soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. It is this expertise that brings the Marquess of Bromwich’s family to her door.

Gabriel Devereaux’s unexpected and unpredictable episodes are unlike any Penelope has studied. The once proud soldier has been left shaken and withdrawn, but she manages to build a fragile trust between them. Strangely, Gabriel seems completely lucid when not in the grips of his mania, and in the calm between bouts, she is surprised by how much she is drawn to him.

Despite his own growing feelings, Gabriel knows that he is fit for no one, and is determined to keep Penelope away from his descent into madness. But even though she knows first-hand the folly of loving a broken man, Penelope cannot stop herself from trying to save him, no matter the cost.

Rating: A

Sweet Madness is the third book in Heather Snow’s Veiled Seduction series, and while I haven’t yet read the other two, I certainly intend to on the strength of this one.

Lady Penelope Bridgeman, the heroine of this story, had already appeared as a secondary character in one of the other books, but unlike her brilliant cousin, Liliana, she is more of a “traditional” debutante in her love of parties, balls, and general frivolity. At the beginning of this third novel, we meet her at the ball thrown to celebrate her wedding, at which she meets her new husband’s cousin, Gabriel Devereux, Marquis of Bromwich. She senses that Gabriel is not completely comfortable in his surroundings and does her best to put him at ease – something which he never forgets.

The action then skips ahead two-and-a-half years, and we meet a very different Penelope. Gone is the fun-loving, optimistic young bride, and in her place is a dour widow, a young woman still, but one very changed by her marriage and the death of her husband.

Following that tragic event, Penelope had shut herself away from society, shunning even her closest friends – of which Gabriel had become one – as she wrestled with her guilt at what she perceived as her own failings and the part she played in Michael’s death. Some months after this, Liliana asks Penelope to help at the hospital that she and her husband have set up for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. It’s there that she discovers a talent for helping men who are suffering from what was then called “battle fatigue.” Where Liliana is scientifically brilliant, Penelope is intuitive and sensitive to others. She listens, encourages, learns when to push people to talk and when to leave them alone, and has even begun to use art as part of her healing therapies.

As a result of her success, she is asked by Gabriel’s mother to go to see him at Vickering Place – not his ancestral home, but an asylum where he has been sent as a result of the onset of increasingly violent ‘episodes.’

When she arrives, Penelope meets with resistance from everyone. The director of the institution, Mr Allen, is clearly not happy about her ideas for Gabriel’s treatment and the scene that greets her on arrival is truly horrifying. Gabriel, whom she recalls as a gentle, handsome man, has turned into a wild animal, prone to violent outbursts, and subject to restraint and horrific treatments.

Penelope has doubts at first, about whether there is anything she can do to help Gabriel, but the more time she spends in his company, the more convinced she becomes that his mania – the like of which she has never seen before –and his symptoms of battle fatigue are not related.

Gabriel himself greets Penelope’s theories with skepticism, and is reluctant to accept her help – not through any misplaced sense of male pride, but rather because he is almost convinced of his own insanity and doesn’t want to do her harm. But she overcomes his objections with a mixture of compassion and good, old-fashioned common sense; she very sensibly explains to him what she proposes by way of treatment, encouraging him to talk to her about his thoughts and experiences.

But Gabriel has his share of intuition as well, and Penelope soon discovers that this is going to be a two-way healing process. She has spent the last two years working with men suffering from mental illness, partly as a way to try to atone for her failure to help her husband who suffered from what we would today call Bi-Polar Disorder, and who committed suicide a mere six months into their marriage.

This may be a romance, but Heather Snow has chosen to deal with some dark themes and she does so very successfully. Gabriel and Penelope are strong, likeable characters who (for the most part) behave in a realistic manner. Penelope is intelligent and intuitive; she knows she doesn’t have all the answers and that it’s possible Gabriel will never be cured. He’s a very appealing hero – honorable but broken, and his PTSD is presented in a credible manner. With Penelope’s help, he begins to take small steps on the road to recovery and I found it really heart-warming to read of the delight he takes in each small success and of his gradually building confidence. But he and Penelope know there’s no miracle cure, realizing instead that it’s a long process that may involve backward as well as forward steps.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed into one full of genuine affection and mutual understanding. Gabriel has been carrying a torch for Penelope ever since they first met, and some of the tenderest moments in the book were those in which he told her how she’d acted as his light in the darkness and been his talisman in times of despair. I liked that Penelope was honest with herself about her physical attraction to Gabriel. She’s been married and isn’t afraid to admit to sexual desire – although I’ll admit that perhaps her treatment for his claustrophobia was rather unorthodox.

One of the things I thought came across really well was just how powerless Gabriel was. This is a man’s world, and in the majority of historical novels one reads, the men hold all the power and the women have none. But here is one of the rare instances when a man could be as helpless to dictate his own fate as a woman. Because Gabriel was suspected of insanity, it would have been a fairly simple matter to strip him of his wealth, his lands and his title – his very identity – and he could do nothing to prevent it. Penelope was similarly helpless in the face of male authority, which really ratcheted up the tension as she realized she was racing against time to get Gabriel away to prevent his being locked up forever.

Woven through the love story is a plot strand which shows us of what life was often like for the rank-and-file soldiers returning from the battlefield; how hard it was for them to get work and medical treatment if needed and how it could be even worse for their wives and families. The scenes which tell of the fates of dozens of the women and children left behind are quite horrifying – and Heather Snow pulls no punches when it comes to Gabriel’s final revelation about his last battle.

For those interested in the historical accuracy of stories like this, there’s some interesting background information about the different theories and treatments of mental illness prevalent at this time in the author’s note – she’s obviously done her homework!

Sweet Madness is a very-well written, well-developed story, which tackles a difficult subject without sugar-coating it or dismissing it as soon as the perfect happy ending appears on the horizon. The characterization is strong and consistent, and while I think the dénouement came a little out of left-field, I can’t deny that the author had set it up earlier in the book, so maybe it was just my being dense that meant I didn’t see it coming.

In any case, I am giving this book a wholehearted thumbs up. It’s tragic, romantic and ultimately uplifting, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more by this author.

Ruined by Rumour by Alyssa Everett (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalyn Landor


After waiting five years for her fiancé to return from the war and marry her, Roxana Langley has been jilted! She may have longed for excitement, but this was not what she had in mind….

Who could possibly throw over a woman as beautiful and vivacious as Roxana? Certainly not Alex Winslow, the Earl of Ayersley, who has spent years trying in vain to forget his unrequited love. When he learns she’s been abandoned by her cad of a fiancé, he finds himself offering a shoulder for her to cry on. Comfort soon turns into a passionate kiss – and scandal when they are caught in an embrace.

Only one thing will save Roxana from certain ruination: marriage to the earl. The match may save her reputation, but responsible, tongue-tied Ayersley is a far cry from her dashing former fiancé. She’s convinced Ayersley is merely doing his duty…while he’s sure Roxana is still in love with another man. Are they trading one disaster for another?

Rating: A-

This is another of the books that’s been languishing on my TBR mountain for a while that I decided to listen to rather than leaving it buried on the pile for much longer.

The marriage-of-convenience is one of my favourite plots in romance novels, so I came to this one with fairly high hopes of enjoyment, and I wasn’t disappointed. The story is well-told and the writing and characterisation are very good and the author, while basing her story on a series of misunderstandings and misconceptions, managed to make them fairly believable, even though there were times I felt like I wanted to smack both the hero and heroine and tell them to sit down and TALK properly!

One of the things I enjoyed and thought was a little different from the norm was the fact that in this story, the hero has been secretly in love with the heroine for years. He’s titled, rich and good-looking and takes his responsibilities as landowner and ‘lord of the manor’ very seriously, so seriously in fact, that he is thought by some to be rather dull. He has some very deep-seated insecurities about his suitability for the position he occupies and works himself incredibly hard as a result. Roxana, however, has eyes only for her handsome, soldier fiancé, and has in fact been convinced of the hero’s indifference due to the fact that he rarely speaks to her or seeks her out. What she doesn’t know of course is that Alex Winslow, despite being an earl and a highly respected MP, is so much in love that he is terrified of making an idiot of himself around her and therefore opted to keep his distance. He’s a lovely beta-hero, the epitome of the strong, silent type who will take a lot of crap, but only to a point – after which he comes out fighting and God help whoever gets in his way.

At the beginning of the book, Roxana Langley is shown to be rather an immature heroine. Blinded by the looks and charm of her fiancé, George Wyatt, she is easily lead by him into thinking ill of others, especially of Alex Winslow, who George categorises as a ‘dull dog’ and crashing bore. In that respect, she reminded me a little of Elizabeth Bennet, who is lead into similar cruelty and insensitivity under the influence of Wickham.

When George breaks off their five-year engagement, Roxana is devastated. The author has already sewn enough seeds of doubt as to the true nature of George’s character by that point for the reader to realise that his protestations to Roxana that amount to “it’s not you – it’s me” are hiding something else entirely, but I thought it was a clever move not to reveal him as an out-and-out cad right from the start.

As stated in the synopsis, Alex and Roxana have to marry due to the gossip that he has compromised her. Unlike many of the marriage of convenience stories I’ve read where the hero tells the heroine she can do whatever she likes as long as she is discreet, in this, the one thing Alex insists on is fidelity. Roxana cannot conceive of ever being unfaithful to him – principally because she believes herself to be frigid; she had not enjoyed George’s kisses or embraces (although she liked Alex’s well enough!).

Alex has also given Roxana to believe that he is in love with a girl he met in London, so both protagonists enter into the marriage believing their partner is in love with someone else.

Many of the misunderstandings between them actually arise as a result of Roxana’s rather clumsy attempts to explain her feelings to Alex. When she tries to talk to him about her fear of disappointing him in bed, she phrases things so awkwardly as to make him believe she is telling him that he can never match up to George. Alex is (of course) an experienced, tender and generous lover, but Roxana is so constrained by her fears that she never lets herself go, which naturally disappoints him, even though he tries not to show it. And towards the end of the book when she feels that Alex is deliberately distancing himself from her, she tries to ask him if he regrets marrying her but makes it easy for him to misconstrue what she says, which leads him finally to fly into a towering rage and walk out on her without giving her a chance to explain.

I thought his refusal to listen to her was perhaps a little contrived, but when seen in the context of Alex’s character – he’s not given to fits of temper, and is generally quite guarded of his emotions – it works. He’s so desperately in love and has been so weighed down by his own insecurities and his fears about Roxana’s feelings for George that he can’t take it any more and just blows!

Both Alex and Roxana grow as characters during the course of the book. Alex learns to let his hair down a little on occasion and that having a wife means that he doesn’t have to bear all his responsibilities alone; and Roxana learns to appreciate her husband for the man he is (I liked the way he became more and more outwardly attractive to her as the book progressed) and to understand why he works as hard as he does and to share his aims and enthusiasms.

If I had a niggle with the book, it was with the fact that the early part of the story was perhaps a little too focused on Roxana’s family life, and we waited a teeny bit too long for our first sight of Alex. But I thought that the scenes which dealt with Roxana’s disappointment at George’s lack of attention worked very well to build up a picture of his true character and ultimately to the scene in which he jilts her.

Overall, I thought this was an enjoyable take on a well-used trope. The storytelling and characterisation were excellent and the central couple were both likeable and engaging.

In terms of the audiobook, Rosalyn Landor’s performance is, as always, superlative. Her voices for the different female characters are all very distinct so there is never any confusion as to who is speaking, and the tone she employs to voice Roxana’s five-year-old brother is clearly a boy rather than a girl! George is suitably pompous-sounding, while Alex is somewhat softer – I thought she did a really good job in conveying his below-the-surface frustration at his awkwardness and his insecurities. Her narration is also beautifully nuanced – I’ve listened to some narrators who, while quite good with the characters seem rather wooden when simply telling the story, but that is never the case with Ms Landor.

To sum up, I highly recommend both the book and the audiobook, depending on your taste.

The Baron’s Betrothal by Miranda Davis

Poor William Tyler de Sayre, Lord Clun, finds true love while hoping to avoid the catastrophe altogether by arranging a marriage to someone he’s never met. At the same time, Lady Elizabeth Chapin Damogan, whose father betrothed her to the baron without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ will be damned if she marries a man she’s never met, much less a man who refuses to consider the possibility of love.

Rating: B+

The Baron’s Betrothal is a worthy follow up to The Duke’s Tattoo. Like the hero of that novel William Tyler de Sayre, Baron Clun is one of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, named thus because of their audacity and courageous service during the Napoleonic Wars.

Our heroine, Lady Elizabeth Damogan is an independent-minded young woman who, at the beginning of the book, has fled London to escape the marriage that her father has arranged for her. Cleverly, she reasons that the last place anyone will look for her is on the estate of the man from whom she is hiding; and thus she ends up living in a small cottage on Clun’s land in Shropshire.

Clun is a giant of a man – tall, dark and intimidating – and when he stumbles across Elizabeth for the first time, neither of them knows who the other is. Although they have been betrothed for the past year, they have never met. Clun soon discovers her identity, and decides to have a little fun at her expense by not immediately revealing himself to her, and teasing her about the decrepit state of her future husband.

While the pair experience a very strong physical attraction, they are also growing to like each other; and although Elizabeth is initially annoyed at Clun’s deception, she is nonetheless pleased to discover that her intended is a man she could easily love, rather than the “toothless old macaroni” of Clun’s description.

But therein lies the rub. Clun, the product of an unhappy marriage, his mother an incredibly bitter and malicious woman, doesn’t want a love match. He wants a sensible marriage, unencumbered by emotional entanglements – his parents had supposedly married for love, but their marriage had very quickly turned to disaster and he wants none of it. So Clun and Eizabeth are at an impasse: he doesn’t want love; she won’t marry without it. And thus we have the basis of the on/off nature of their relationship.

London society being what it is, they can’t avoid each other – and the more they see of each other, the more each realises the importance to them of the other. Clun and Elizabeth are a well-matched couple – her natural optimism counters his tendency to pessimism and while she is more than capable of standing up for herself (and has, in fact, had to be fairly self-reliant for her entire life), she nonethetless brings out – and quite likes – his protective side. Their encounters in the earlier part of the book sparkle with humour and good-natured teasing; and later, when things become fraught between them, their heartache and disappointment is palpable.

Both characters grow within the story, and their eventual HEA is well-deserved as they’ve both had to suffer and work for it. Elizabeth eventually comes to realise that if she is not to lose Clun altogether, then she will have to compromise on her insistence on love; Clun has to admit that he has, in fact, fallen head over heels and be prepared to trust Elizabeth with his heart.

Miranda Davis has a gift for writing spirited, witty dialogue and for creating likeable, well-drawn characters. In addition to the principals, she has created a strong supporting cast, which includes the other three “Horsemen” , Tyler Rodwell – Clun’s half-brother and steward – Clun’s harpy of a mother, Elizabeth’s reclusive father and assorted bit-players, all of whom are deftly delineated.

If I have a reservation about the book, it’s to do with the epilogue because I felt it was too much of a change in tone after Clun and Elizabeth had resolved their differences. I understand why it’s there and the points it’s intended to make; I just thought it was a rather traumatic – albeit perfectly reaslistic – way to make them.

I admit that although I enjoyed The Duke’s Tattoo, I liked The Baron’s Betrothal even more; the characters felt more naturalistic and the premise more plausible. It’s warm and funny and by the end of the book, I felt confident that Clun and Elizabeth really were going to live “happily ever after” and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next instalment.

Disclaimer: I know the author, read this book in an earlier draft and have proof-read the final version. That said, this is an impartial review, based solely on the writing and content.