Masters in This Hall by K.J. Charles

masters in this hall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

John Garland was in love: now he’s in disgrace. He’s jobless, alone, and determined to avenge himself on the thief who ruined his life. All he wants for Christmas is Barnaby Littimer in gaol.

Barnaby has secured a job running the extravagant traditional Christmas at a rich man’s country house. John intends to thwart whatever he’s up to.

But amid the festivity, the halls are decked with unexpected dangers. And John will need to decide if he can trust Barnaby one more time…

Rating: B+

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

The Christmas festivities at Codlin Hall will culminate in the wedding of Abel’s daughter, Ivy (yes, she really is called Ivy Garland!) to the Earl of Dombey, so a large party is gathered there, many of whom look down on Abel because he made his millions in trade, and are only too pleased to accept his lavish hospitality while sneering about him behind his back. John’s unexpected arrival on Christmas Eve doesn’t go down too well with Ivy, who is worried about appearances and who John knows doesn’t want him –

“reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.”

But even though she tries to insist there’s no room at the inn (!), help comes from an unexpected quarter in the shape of Ivy’s nice-but-dim fiancé, who is only too happy to welcome John to join in the celebrations. In turn, John is only too happy at the thought of putting a spoke in Barnaby’s wheel – and at the look on Barbaby’s face when he first sees John amid the assembled guests. Angry and resentful – not least because he’s still very attracted to the man and can’t forget the happy hours they’d spent together – John refuses to listen to Barnaby’s explanations or to his warnings when he tells John he should leave. Maybe Barnaby looks scared and maybe John’s first instinct is to offer to help him, regardless of what he’s done – but John squashes those feelings under his determation not to be made a fool of again.

As always, K.J. Charles fills her story with lots of fascinating historical detail, sharp social observations and, as it’s Christmas, doesn’t stint on the Dickensian references or the puns. Abel Garland doesn’t go in for Victorian sentiimentality, far perferring to hark back to the medieval and pagan ritual that is the real backbone of so many of our Christmas traditions today, so there’s much to learn about wassail, mummers, carols and the Lord of Misrule as well as some sharp commentary about the social pecking order and the abuse of privilege.

The animosity between John and Barnaby isn’t allowed to go on for too long, fortunately, and after that, they join forces to expose a thief and some very shady dealings while also coming up with a way to keep themselves well out of it, with help from the devious brain of a mostly unnamed but very recognisable character – he of the beautiful baritone voice and the dangerously sardonic eyebrow – known to detectives across England simply as “That Bastard” (and to KJC afficionados as Jerry Crozier.) I always enjoy seeing favourite characrters from the points of view of those who don’t really know them, and the author certainly doesn’t disppoint here; John and Barbaby are suitably wary of this Lilywhite Boy and his reputation, and Jerry is wonderfully grumpy – and terrifying – at being forced out of retirement to deal with “Captain Algy”.

John and Barnaby themselves are very likeable characters, clever, witty and self-deprecating but quietly competent, and their past history is  laid out in some very brief flashbacks that set up their romance nicely. There’s a real sense of longing as they both think back wistfully on what could have been, and then a real blossoming of hope when they realise they might have a second chance. They’re sweet and lovely together and their HFN is just right.

Masters in This Hall is the perfect Christmas novella for those of us who prefer our seasonal tales to have a bit of zing and bite. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s devoid of religion and sentimentality, and it’s just the ticket for a cold winter’s afternoon. Enjoy

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

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

The Gilded Scarab (Lancaster’s Luck #1) by Anna Butler (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the gilded scarab

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to London in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.

Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Sad to say, but Anna Butler’s name wasn’t even on my radar when I saw The Gilded Scarab crop up at Audible, but Gary Furlong’s name on the cover together with a quick peek at the reviews on Goodreads convinced me to take a punt – and I’m glad I did. It’s the first book in a trilogy with a steampunk-y vibe set in an AU Victorian era and it’s full of excellent period detail (many of the historical events of the time are referenced), strong worldbuilding, and boasts a fully three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging lead character.

In this world, the Britannic Imperium is ruled, under the monarch, by eight Convocation Houses which hold all the political power. They divide government departments between them and staff them with members of their own Houses or of the Minor Houses allied to them. Captain Rafe Lancaster is a minor scion of one of those Minor Houses, who, instead of becoming an equally minor government official, decided to join the Aero Corps, much to the annoyance of his family. He’s become one of the Corps’ best – if not THE best – aeronauts; he’s well-liked and a bit of a dare-devil (sometimes a troublemaker) but when push comes to shove, he’s the man for whatever job the Corps wants to throw at him. When the book opens, he’s fighting in South Africa (in the equivalent of what we know as the Boer War) when the famous ‘Lancaster’s Luck’ finally runs out, and his aerofighter is shot down while on a mission. Rafe survives the crash with mostly cuts and bruises, but the head injury he sustains damages his optic nerve which means his vision is no longer fit for military service, and he is medically discharged.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.

There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.

Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.

I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.

Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.

As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.

Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

TBR Challenge: Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell

mr. warren's profession

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lindsey Althorp, the only son of a wealthy baronet, has never worked a day in his life. Aubrey Warren was born in a workhouse and hasn’t stopped working since.

When Lindsey wins a textile mill in a game of cards, he falls at first sight for the assistant clerk, Aubrey. Lindsey is certain that Aubrey is the Achilles to his Patroclus, the David to his Jonathan. Yet Aubrey, unaccustomed to affection, refuses to be a kept man-though he isn’t immune to Lindsey’s considerable charm.

Buoyed by Lindsey’s optimism and fuelled by Aubrey’s industry, the two men strive to overcome the class gulf between them. But a horrific accident reveals a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart forever.

Rating: B+

For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time.  It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.

Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester.  He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections.  But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness.  He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.

Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten.  It’s a defining moment for Lindsey;  for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men.  He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.

While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies.  The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not.  But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.

While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other.  They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart.  As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk?  Very suspicious indeed.

So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot.  There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)

There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit –  for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly!  Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.

In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for.  I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness.  If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller

the brightest star in paris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Amelie St. James is a fraud. After the Siege of Paris, she became “St. Amie,” the sweet, virtuous prima ballerina the Paris Opera Ballet needed to restore its scandalous reputation, all to protect the safe life she has struggled to build for her and her sister. But when her first love reappears looking as devastatingly handsome as ever, and the ghosts of her past quite literally come back to haunt her, her hard-fought safety is thrown into chaos.

Dr. Benedict Moore has never forgotten the girl who helped him embrace life after he almost lost his. Now, years later, he’s back in Paris. His goals are to recruit promising new scientists, and maybe to see Amelie again. When he discovers she’s in trouble, he’s desperate to help her—and hold her in his arms.

When she finally agrees to let him help, they disguise their time together with a fake courtship. Soon, with the help of an ill-advised but steamy kiss, old feelings reignite. Except, their lives are an ocean apart. Will they be able to make it out with their hearts intact?

Rating: B

The Brightest Star in Paris is the follow up to Diana Biller’s 2019 début, The Widow of Rose House.  I haven’t got around to reading that one, but I gather that the books are linked by virtue of the fact that the hero of Brightest Star – Doctor Benedict Moore – is the brother of Sam from Rose House, and Alva, its heroine, is a good friend of this book’s heroine, Amelie.  Despite those connections however, the stories in each book are separate and I had no trouble reading this one as a standalone.  It’s rather lovely – beautifully written with a melancholy tinge, dealing with themes of grief and loss at the same time as it details the second-chance romance between Amelie and Benedict – but there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me that mean I can’t give it a higher grade.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1878, although there are a few flashback chapters that date back to twelve years earlier, when Benedict and Amelie first met.  This was after Benedict returned from serving as a medic in the American Civil War, so haunted by his experiences that his family is deeply concerned for his health and spirits.  Meeting Amelie, a bright, enchanting young woman who overflows with positive energy and completely captivates him, helps him find a renewed sense of purpose and start on his road to recovery;  the pair fall in love, but (for reasons not made clear until much later in the book) Amelie sends him away and he leaves to return to America with his family. Just a few years later,  Amelie and the people of Paris face terrible hardships resulting from the Franco Prussian WarThe Siege of Paris and the bloody fall of the Paris Commune in 1870-1; these events effect profound changes on her life, as she is forced to do whatever is necessary in order to survive and take care of her much younger sister, Honorine.

Now, though, she’s the darling of Paris.  Prima ballerina – étoile – at the Paris Opéra, Amelie is ‘St. Amie’, widely known and loved for her perfection, both on stage and off, a paragon of virtue in a world in which dancers were generally regarded as one step up from prostitutes.  Her pristine image hasn’t come without a price, however; as she’s worked her body hard to attain peak physical condition so she’s also worked hard to create a very specific image, one she now has to maintain at all costs.

But that has become less and less easy over time, and she’s come to realise, too, that her dancing, while flawlessly polished, is form over substance, unemotional and just… not her.  And then there’s the additional problem of a damaged hip, another secret she needs to maintain if she’s to continue to dance – for only another two years – until she has enough money to be able to retire comfortably and continue to provide for Honorine.

By the time Benedict returns to Paris in 1878 in order to attend a medical conference, he has become a specialist in the field of brain science and has been named as the head of the prestigious new United States Institute for Brain Research.  He hasn’t quite decided whether he will seek out Amelie or not when fate conspires to put him in her path on his very first day in the city.  Both of them are stunned – and Benedict can see that Amelie isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him.

Just after the unexpected encounter with Benedict, which has stirred up all sorts of deep, conflicting feelings, Amelie goes to do some barre practice, and as she’s working, she’s joined by a member of the corps de ballet, a young woman whose name she can’t immediately recall.  After working silently for a while, they exchange a few words, and Amelie leaves, thinking no more of it until the next day when she learns that the body of the very same dancer – Lise Martin – was pulled from the Seine that morning – and that she has been dead for at least three days.  But how can that be?  Amelie spoke to her just the night before so it’s impossible… unless she’d had a conversation with Lise Martin’s ghost.

Amelie reaches this conclusion a little quickly perhaps, but even she admits there’s a difference between believing in ghosts and actually seeing one – and her ability to see one seems to open up a door or gate, as Lise’s spirit is quickly joined by those of two other women Amelie had known.  She’s sure she needs to do something for them, something to help them find peace, but she doesn’t know what that is, and the spirits themselves either can’t or won’t tell her.  She needs help, and reaches out to Benedict, who she knows will believe her, given his own family’s experiences with the spirit world.  Benedict is, of course, immediately on board with this, and suggests that he should pretend to court her, as it will allow them to spend time in each other’s company while they work out what the spirits want without giving rise to gossip which might tarnish her reputation.

There’s much to enjoy here, from the complex and superbly characterised Amelie, to the snarky interactions between the ghosts, to the author’s depictions of what life was like for Amelie in a Paris torn to pieces by war and devastation, which are stunningly good and utterly heartbreaking.  The paranormal element of the tale is skilfully incorporated and works well within the context of the story, and the romance is a sweet slow-burn.  I liked seeing how Benedict learns to respect Amelie and her choices, despite how much he longs to ride in and save and protect her.   But although there’s no question they care for each other very much, and I felt the depth of the affection between them, the ‘spark’ of attraction is somewhat muted.

One of the things that caused me to lower my grade a bit is the pacing, which flags around the middle of the book, but which, in the final chapters, gallops towards the end so fast that I was in danger of whiplash.  The second-half appearance of the unconventional and slightly bonkers Moore clan means the disappearance of the ghost plotline for a bit, and while it’s true that their arrival does inject a bit of necessary humour and light into the story, the juxtaposition feels jarring.

All that said, however, I enjoyed The Brightest Star in Paris a lot and would certainly recommend it in spite of my reservations. It’s extremely well written, and while at times is extremely sad, Amelie’s spirit and determination really do shine through and the eventual HEA is hard won and well deserved.

TBR Challenge: A Stitch in Time (Thorne Manor #1) by Kelley Armstrong

a stitch in time

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.
Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.

Rating: B

Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her.  A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt.  The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.

It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house.  Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future.  After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more.  But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black.  When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.

Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors.  The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors.  Or did they?  And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this?  In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him.  Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.

Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again.  Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.

There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur.  Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far.  And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.

As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy.  For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century.  I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career.  The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived.  And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.

But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!

Portrait of a Scotsman (League of Extraordinary Women #3) by Evie Dunmore

portrait of a scotsman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Going toe-to-toe with a brooding Scotsman is rather bold for a respectable suffragist, but when he happens to be one’s unexpected husband, what else is an unwilling bride to do?

London banking heiress Hattie Greenfield wanted just three things in life:

1. Acclaim as an artist
2. A noble cause
3. Marriage to a young lord who puts the gentle in gentleman

Why then does this Oxford scholar find herself at the altar with the darkly attractive financier Lucian Blackstone? Trust Hattie to take an invigorating little adventure too far. Now she’s stuck with a churlish Scot who just might be the end of her ambitions . . .

When the daughter of his business rival all but falls into his lap, Lucian sees opportunity. As a self-made man, he has vast wealth but holds little power, and Hattie might be the key to finally setting his political plans in motion. Driven by an old desire for revenge, he has no room for his new wife’s apprehensions or romantic notions, bewitching as he finds her.

But a sudden journey to Scotland paints everything in a different light. Hattie slowly sees the real Lucian and realizes she could win everything – as long as she is prepared to lose her heart.

Rating: B

Evie Dunmore’s series about a group of young women activists in late Victorian Britain continues with Hattie’s story, Portrait of a Scotsman.  Like the previous two novels in the set, this one is extremely well written and strongly characterised; the lack of agency of well-bred young ladies of the period is again critically examined, and the very genuine struggles they face in trying to reconcile rigidly traditional upbringings with their own emerging sense of self and a desire for something more are articulated with a great deal of insight.  If you enjoyed the author’s previous work, chances are you’ll enjoy this, too; all the things you’ll have come to expect of her books – strong heroines and heroes who actively support them and understand their worth, themes of female empowerment and sexy, well-written romances are to be found here.  BUT.  In spite of all that, I have mixed feelings about this novel as a whole – mostly because I wasn’t wild about the heroine and I really disliked the ending.

Hattie Greenfield is studying art at Oxford University, but is frustrated at not being taken seriously – even by her professors, who are condescending to all the female students.  She longs to create more meaningful work and paint more challenging subjects – and hopes to gain some inspiration from the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.  To this end, she arranges to join a tour to view John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia, which is currently in the collection belonging to one Mr. Blackstone – a man with a reputation so black society has dubbed him “Beelzebub”, and who happens to be one of her father’s business rivals – but when she arrives at the gallery at the appointed time, she’s concerned to discover that either she’s late for the tour, or that nobody else has arrived.  While she’s waiting to view the painting, a man enters the room – a darkly attractive man with hard grey eyes and unruly black hair – who offers to give her the whole tour… and promptly kisses her instead.

Lucian Blackstone (whom we met briefly in A Rogue of One’s Own) is a self-made man with a reputation for cold-blooded ruthlessness in his business dealings.  Born into a Scottish mining community, he’s survived real hardship and suffering, but has pulled himself up from nothing to become a captain of industry and amass a fortune along the way.  He never forgets where he came from though, and is determined to do whatever he can to improve the lots of the people who work for him.  But while he’s very wealthy, he has little real power or influence, and he needs both if he’s going to be able to bring about the changes he wants to effect; so in order to make himself more… acceptable to society, he has begun the attempt to rehabilitate his fearsome reputation.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t met with much success so far, but his brief meeting with Greenfield’s daughter has given him the germ of an idea as to what his next move should be.  And while there are a number of well-bred young ladies in society who would suit his purpose, he’s rather surprised to find there’s really only one of them he wants.

It’s not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb – to say that it’s not long before Hattie and Blackstone are married, and even though Hattie is wildly attracted to her new husband, it’s far from the sort of marriage she had envisioned for herself.  She’d wanted to find a true life-partner, someone who would share his time – and himself – with her, someone she deeply loved and who would love her the same way, and I liked that about her, that she wants love and affection and family and doesn’t see that desire as somehow ‘lesser’ – while at the same time being determined to attain her independence and be herself.

Up until this point, I was enjoying the story a lot; it’s perhaps a little slow to start, but that meant there was plenty of time for the author to establish the personalities and motivations of her characters and to round them out so they came to life on the page.  But then, Hattie discovers something unpalatable and starts behaving like an immature brat rather than trying to address it, and I lost sympathy with her.

Fortunately however, the author managed to regain some of that in the second half of the book, in which the newly-weds make their way to Scotland so that Blackstone can take care of various business concerns there.  Maybe it’s not the most romantic honeymoon, but the time they spend together here slowly brings them to a closer understanding of one another, and the slow-burning attraction that’s been there since their first meeting and first kiss builds into an intense desire.   Running alongside the romance is a fascinating storyline about Blackstone’s desire to improve the working conditions for the people working in his mine (which also goes some way towards explaining the unpalatable thing I mentioned earlier) and to invest in new infrastructure and technologies to increase profits rather than just working the miners to death.  As Hattie learns more about her husband’s past and gets to know the real man behind the reputation, she finds much to admire and a worldview similar to her own in many ways.  She finds herself abandoning the resentment she’d determined to harbour against him, while Blackstone is coming to realise that the woman he’s married is far more than the nervous chatterbox he’d first thought her, and that he enjoys talking and debating with her as much as he enjoys thinking about how to get her into bed.  This section is easily the best part of the book; the relationship development, as they take the time to learn about each other’s aspirations and ambitions, to learn why they are the people they are now, is extremely well done.

But then judgmental Hattie returns and jumps to a conclusion about something that may or may not be true –  she has no way of knowing – and the author undid all the good work she’d done in getting me to like Hattie again.  And then… the ending.  Okay, so first of all, let me assure you that this book DOES have an HEA, so no worries on that score.  And actually, what happens makes sense in terms of the way Hattie is characterised as someone who wants to make her own choices in life and, just as importantly, wants to be chosen.  But even though I understood that, and could see the sense in it – I still thoroughly disliked it.

Hattie and Blackstone have good chemistry and they work well as a couple, but while he’s a terrific hero – a bit dangerous and somewhat morally ambiguous, but with a heart very much in the right place and a strong desire to enact change for the better –  Hattie is inconsistent.  I liked a lot about her and felt a lot of sympathy for her to begin with; she’s talented and smart and determined to succeed on her own terms, but unfortunately, nobody in her family sees her or appreciates her for who she truly is, and her frustration at always being the odd one out comes across really strongly.  But when she became judgmental and jumped to unwarranted conclusions – I liked her a lot less.

Portrait of a Scotsman is undoubtedly entertaining and well-written, although if you’re expecting another story about women fighting for universal suffrage, you may be disappointed as this one is more about Hattie’s personal struggle to find herself and live life on her own terms.  The author’s research is impeccable as always, her social commentary is insightful and razor sharp, and the central romance is a passionate and sexy slow-burn, but overall, it lacks some of the charm of the previous instalments, and my disappointment with the ending meant I came away from the book on a downer.  It turned out to be one of those books I could appreciate but didn’t really feel – although I’m sure there will be many readers who disagree with me!

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

The Gangster

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

1881 – Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

I read The Gangster, book two in C.S Poe’s Magic & Steam series earlier this year and really enjoyed it, so I decided to experience it again in audio format. I’d already listened to the first book – The Engineer – and enjoyed the narration by Declan Winters, so I was pretty sure of a good listen.

Because The Gangster is a direct sequel, I’d strongly recommend starting the series with The Engineer; it’s novella-length (just over two-and-a-half hours) and provides an excellent introduction to the alternate vision of 1880s New York the author has created, and the central characters of the series, Special Agent Gillian Hamilton of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, and Gunner the Deadly, the legendary outlaw Gillian meets while on assignment in Arizona. The story is fast-paced and exciting with plenty of sizzling chemistry between Gillian and Gunner – who agree to a temporary truce and join forces in order to defeat a bonkers mad-scientist type. The Engineer ends on a strong HFN, with the promise of more to come, and C.S. Poe certainly delivers on that promise in The Gangster, with a full- length story that continues to develop the romance between these two very unlikely men while also telling an action-packed, well-paced story and keeping listeners guessing about… nope, not telling. But be prepared – the book ends on one helluva cliffhanger. I believe book three is due later this year, but at time of writing, there’s no date set.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson with Marguerite Kaye

her heart for a compass uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London 1865

In an attempt to rebel against a society where women are expected to conform, free-spirited Lady Margaret Montagu Scott flees her confines and an arranged marriage. But Lady Margaret’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, as close friends with Queen Victoria, must face the public scrutiny of their daughter’s impulsive nature, and Margaret is banished from polite society.

Finding strength amongst equally free-spirited companions, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, Margaret resolves to follow her heart. On a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain, Lady Margaret must follow her heart and search for her place, and her own identity, in a changing society.

Rating: B

Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.

I reviewed this one with Evelyn North, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR.

You can read our review at All About Romance.

The Devil and the Heiress (Gilded Age Heiresses #2) by Harper St. George

the devil and the heiress

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No one would guess that beneath Violet Crenshaw’s ladylike demeanor lies the heart of a rebel. American heiresses looking to secure English lords must be on their best behavior, but Violet has other plans. She intends to flee London and the marriage her parents have arranged to become a published author–if only the wickedly handsome earl who inspired her most outrageously sinful character didn’t insist on coming with her.

Christian Halston, Earl of Leigh, has a scheme of his own: escort the surprisingly spirited dollar princess north and use every delicious moment in close quarters to convince Violet to marry him. Christian needs an heiress to rebuild his Scottish estate but the more time he spends with Violet, the more he realizes what he really needs is her–by his side, near his heart, in his bed.

Though Christian’s burning glances offer unholy temptation, Violet has no intention of surrendering herself or her newfound freedom in a permanent deal with the devil. It’s going to take more than pretty words to prove this fortune hunter’s love is true….

Rating: B-

Harper St. George’s The Devil and the Heiress is book two in her series of novels about Gilded Age Heiresses, wealthy – or potentially wealthy – young American women who come to England to search for a titled husband. Laura Lee Guhrke’s An American Heiress in London has a similar premise as does Maya Rodale’s Keeping Up With the Cavendishes; all feature American heiresses and the Transatlantic culture clash as they struggle to adapt to the rigid conventions of English high society in which, despite their enormous wealth, they are looked down upon because their money is “new” and their breeding questionable. I haven’t read the previous book (The Heiress Gets a Duke), which was generally well received, but I read this one easily as a standalone so anyone choosing to jump in here won’t find it difficult to do so.

Dabney Grinnan and I chatted about this one over at All About Romance and both agreed it was a bit… lacklustre, with a bland heroine and an unmemorable romance.

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