The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title is available to download from Audible

Strong as a Viking. Handsome as Adonis. Rich as Midas. Collin “Cole” Talmage, Duke of Trewyth, is the stuff that legends are made of. He’s the English Empire’s golden son – until fate has its way with him. Cole’s family is killed and his closest comrade betrays him on the battlefield, leaving him gravely injured. But Cole is not one to dwell on misfortune. He is a man of duty, honor, and desire. And now he’s ready for the fight of his lifetime….

Imogen Pritchard is a beautiful lass who works in a hospital by day and as a serving maid at night. Years ago, when she was young and penniless, she ended up spending a scandalous night with Cole, whose tormented soul was matched only by his earth-shattering passion. Imogen entered a marriage of convenience – one that left her a wealthy widow – but she never forgot Cole. Now that her long-lost lover has turned up in her hospital, injured and with no memory of her, Imogen is torn. Is it a blessing or a curse that their past remains a secret to Cole, even as his new passion for her leaves him wanting to protect and possess her at all costs?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Note to cover designer: It is repeatedly stated throughout the book that Cole is BLOND. Clearly, you didn’t get that particular memo.

Kerrigan Byrne’s brand of slightly darker, high-stakes romances featuring larger-than-life, dangerously sexy heroes and the women who love them has proved to be a hit with readers and listeners alike. Her Victorian Rebels books comprise one of the strongest historical romance series to have appeared in recent years, and I’ve enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The audiobook versions have the added attraction of excellent narration by Derek Perkins; and I freely admit that in The Duke, the strength of his performance goes a long way towards papering over the cracks in the characterisation and storytelling that make this particular story the weakest of the set so far.

We first meet our eponymous duke, Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, on the day he has just buried his mother, father and brother, who were killed in a tragic accident. Not only does he have his grief to deal with, on the following day he has orders to leave England for an undisclosed location in order to undertake a very hush-hush mission. He and some of his fellow officers end up at The Bare Kitten in Soho intent on drinking the night away and availing themselves of some willing, warm female bodies; and Trenwyth – Cole – decides he wants Ginny, the dark-haired serving maid. Ginny is not a whore, but when Cole offers the club’s owner the huge sum of twenty pounds for her, she has no alternative but to do as she is told. But Ginny isn’t actually Ginny at all – she’s Imogen Pritchard, a nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital by day, who works at the Kitten by night in order to pay off the debt to the place incurred by her father before his death. Cole is well into his cups, but not incapable (romance heroes never seem to suffer from Brewer’s Droop!) and Imogen is surprised at the gentleness shown her by this intimidatingly large, gorgeously handsome but heartbreakingly sad man.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

You can also read my interview with Derek Perkins HERE

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work – and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship…

Rowley just wants to be left alone – at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding…it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered. Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets – and their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

An Unseen Attraction is the first in K.J Charles’ new Sins of the Cities trilogy of historical romantic mysteries set in the late Victorian era. She has taken as her inspiration the pulp fiction of the day; the Victorian sensation novel as penned by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu and Mary E. Braddon. As a big fan of that particular genre, I was rubbing my hands with glee whilst awaiting this first instalment, and am happy to report that the wait was well worth it.

English born, Anglo-Indian Clem Tallyfer keeps a respectable lodging house for skilled artisans in Clerkenwell, which was, even in Victorian times, an area of London where multiculturalism flourished. Clem is quiet, unassuming and content with his lot; he enjoys his work and he’s good at it because he’s good with people. He’s a decent, kind man with a good-heart and an optimistic outlook… although he does find one particular resident rather troubling, the Reverend Lugtrout, an habitual drunkard who gets aggressive and rude when under the influence, but whom he is powerless to evict. The lodging house is owned by Clem’s brother, and Clem’s position is conditional on Lugtrout’s living there. He doesn’t know why, or even how his brother knows Lugtrout, but Clem can’t do other than accept the situation and put up with the man’s unpleasant behaviour.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Connie Brockway’s novel of unexpected love begins with a series of letters between a world-weary adventurer and the beautiful suffragette whose passion calls him home.

“Dear Mr. Thorne, For the next five years, I will profitably manage this estate. I will deliver to you an allowance and I will prove that women are just as capable as men.” Lillian Bede is shocked when she is tapped to run the affairs of an exquisite country manor. But she accepts the challenge, taking the opportunity to put her politics into practice. There’s only one snag: Lily’s ward, the infuriating, incorrigible globe-trotter Avery Thorne.

“My Dear Miss Bede, Forgive me if I fail to shudder. Pray, do whatever you bloody well want, can, or must.” Avery’s inheritance is on hiatus after his uncle dies—and his childhood home is in the hands of some domineering usurper. But when he finally returns, Avery finds that his antagonist is not at all what he expected. In fact, Lily Bede is stunning, exotic, provocative—and impossible to resist.

Rating: B+

March’s prompt for the TBR challenge is “comfort read”, which is defined as a book that uses a favourite trope or setting, or is by a favourite author.  I’ve chosen something from my TBR that everyone seems to have read except me – Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, which combines two of my favourite things, an enemies-to-lovers romance and a story in which letters play an important part (I do love an epistolary novel!).  It’s a gloriously romantic, character-driven story set at the end of the 19th century, in which our hero – a famous explorer – and heroine – an advocate of women’s suffrage – butt heads over the home they both love, sniping and pushing each other’s buttons as the attraction between them deepens.

Avery Thorne finds himself all but disinherited upon the death of his uncle Horatio, who, believing Avery to be a weakling and in need of discipline and humility, has granted stewardship of his home and lands to the illegitimate daughter of his late wife’s sister, nineteen-year-old Lilian Bede.  Miss Bede is to take possession of the property for a period of five years, and at the end of that time, if the farm and land are profitable, the house will belong to her fully.  Avery is furious, but he can do nothing, and opts to leave England rather than watch someone else take possession of the only home he has ever known.

Lily Bede is astonished to find herself the recipient of a house, and does worry that if she accepts the bequest, she will be doing the legitimate heir – whom she has never met – a bad turn.  But she doesn’t really have an alternative; with her parents both dead, she is living pretty much hand-to-mouth, and the prospect of having a real home – even one that might end up being temporary – is too much to resist.  And besides, the alternative, receiving a small income instead, but one she will lose unless she publicly denounces the Women’s Suffrage movement… well, that just isn’t going to happen.  Taking the house is, as far as Lily is concerned, the lesser of two evils.

During the five years of Avery’s absence, he and Lily exchange a series of letters, that are full of biting sarcasm (without being nasty), humorous banter and, sometimes, emotional honesty.  Avery has gained a reputation as an adventurer and explorer, and has also made himself a lot of money by writing up the stories of his exploits which are serialised in a popular newspaper.  Yet he still carries with him his ideal of home and is still determined to claim Mill House when he returns to England.

In that time, Lily has had some success in turning a profit, but she’s not in the clear yet. She’s economised considerably, reducing the staff to a bare minimum and doing a lot of the work herself; it’s her only chance to have a house and home of her own, as she doesn’t ever want to get married, so she’s worked hard and is determined to keep the house that has become her home.

Even though she and Avery have been corresponding for nearly five years by the time he returns home, Lily is in no way prepared for the way he affects her from their first meeting.  Having been led – by descriptions of those who knew him before, and from his portrait – to expect a rather scrawny and unprepossessing individual, she is stunned to come face to face with the most handsome man she’s ever seen, one who radiates confidence and masculinity to such an extent he nearly takes her breath away.

Avery is just as surprised to discover that instead of the dried up spinster he’d expected, Lily is an exotic, feminine beauty, albeit one that strides around the place in tweed bloomers.  Of course they’re both smitten – but we knew that from reading their letters and especially from Avery’s reaction to the one Lily sent him after the death of a close friend.

Their romance is beautifully written and developed as both of them try to get the upper hand in order to prove they have a right to the house while coming to appreciate each other’s sterling qualities.  Avery is a truly swoonworthy hero without being stereotypical; he’s handsome, competent and confident, but he’s more of a beta than an alpha.  He’s not vastly experienced with women, he loves his home and wants to marry and have a large family.  He’s protective without being suffocating, and I loved the way he treats Lily as an equal and lets her do things for herself whereas many men of the time would have attempted to step in and do things for her.  The way he – and the reader – is shown the extent of Lily’s care of the estate and the prejudice she has encountered on account of her gender and her illegitimacy, is masterfully done, with one moment in particular almost reducing me to a quivering wreck.  His insistence on being a gentleman is very sweet – especially as his view of what is gentlemanly tends to be somewhat fluid – but the subtle message, that the mark of a true gentleman lies in the truth and honour of his actions rather than in his manners and the adherence to convention is expertly and effectively conveyed.

Lily, too, is a great character, and I liked her very much even though there were times I wanted to shake some sense into her near the end of the book. For most of it though, she’s terrific – witty, clever, sarcastic and perfectly able to hold her own against Avery’s barbs; it’s much more difficult for her to conceal how strongly attracted to him she is than it is to find the words to get under his skin.  My main criticism of Lily is that while her reasons for not wanting to marry are sound and very well explained (her mother’s husband took away her children after she left him and she never saw them again – it’s a heartbreaking story), she has chained herself to a dead woman’s grievances and made a crusade of her mother’s pain to such an extent that she has blinded herself to the truth of what’s standing in front of her – a man who loves and respects her deeply and will never hurt her.

There is a small but very well-drawn cast of secondary characters, most intriguing of whom is Horatio’s unmarried sister, Francesca, a fading beauty who fills her life with frivolity and, it’s implied, men, but who is characterised by an underlying sadness.  Bernard, Avery’s twelve-year-old cousin is a delight; a boy becoming a man, intent on protecting his womenfolk while he also suffers from the severe asthma which affected Avery as a child (and continues to do so in certain circumstances). The relationship that evolves between the pair is just lovely.

My main criticism of the book as a whole is that the ending is very abrupt, and, given all the angst that has gone before it, the tiniest bit anticlimactic. There is an epilogue set around a decade afterwards, but I needed a little more closure on the original story rather than a glimpse into the future.

But even so, My Dearest Enemy is a gem of a book, and I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s witty and clever, with some moments of true poignancy near the end which had me quite choked up – plus Avery is one of the most wonderfully romantic heroes I’ve ever read.

When the Marquess Falls (Hellions of Havisham Hall #3.5) by Lorraine Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The Marquess of Marsden always follows the rules. Expected from birth to adhere to decades of tradition, he plans to marry a proper young woman from a good family. But when a beautiful, and completely unsuitable, woman snags his heart, he begins to realize that to get what you want, sometimes you have to break the rules.

Linnie Connor dreams of the independence of running her very own bakery. And while she may be allowed to be a marquess’ childhood companion, the baker’s daughter never ends up with the handsome nobleman. Determined to achieve at least one of her dreams, Linnie makes plans to leave her sleepy village for London, intent on purging him from her heart. And yet, when an invitation to the Marsden annual ball arrives, she can’t refuse her one chance to waltz in his arms.

It will be a night that stirs the flames of forbidden desires and changes their lives forever.

Rating: B-

I knew, when I picked up this coda novella to Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham series, that I was going to be reduced to a quivering wreck by the end of it. I suppose that’s a considerable achievement on the part of the author – zero-to-sobbing in under 100 pages!

If you’ve read the final book in the trilogy, The Viscount and the Vixen, then you’ll know where When the Marquess Falls is going to end up, but I nonetheless appreciate the fact that Ms. Heath decided to tell the story of Marsden and his Linnie, which is very sweet and very sad – although don’t despair, there IS an HEA (albeit a slightly different sort of one). In terms of the structure, it’s more of a series of vignettes than a cohesively plotted novella, but that format works well here.

By the time we met George St. John, Marquess of Marsden in Falling into Bed with a Duke, he had already lost the love of his life following the birth of their son six years earlier. He stopped all the clocks, stopped caring about anything very much, and acquired the sobriquets the “mad marquess” or “mad Marsden” because the few remaining servants at Havisham Hall often heard him talking to his dead wife.

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

The Paid Companion by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Bianca Amato

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The Earl of St. Merryn needs a woman. His intentions are purely practical – he simply wants someone sensible and suitably lovely to pose as his betrothed for a few weeks among polite society. He has his own agenda to pursue, and a false fiancée will keep the husband-hunters at bay while he goes about his business. The simplest solution is to hire a paid companion. Finding the right candidate proves more of a challenge than he expected. But when he encounters Miss Elenora Lodge, the fire in her golden eyes sways him to make a generous offer. Her sorry financial circumstances – and dreams of a life of independence – convince her to accept. But St. Merryn appears to be hiding a secret or two, and things seem oddly amiss in his gloomy London home. Elenora soon discovers that this lark will be a far more dangerous adventure than she’d been led to believe. And the Earl of St. Merryn will find that the meek and mild companion he’d initially envisioned has become a partner in his quest to catch a killer – and an outspoken belle of the ball who stirs a bothersome passion in his practical heart.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This recording of one of my favourite of Amanda Quick’s books – The Paid Companion –  came out in 2014, but I didn’t immediately snap it up, because I already own a copy of the recording narrated by Michael Page that was produced in 2004, and I wasn’t sure if I really needed another version. While it’s commonplace to find more than one version of older, “classic” books (as I discovered when listening and writing my Caz’s Classics Corner posts for AudioGals last year), it’s unusual for more modern books to be re-recorded, so I was surprised when this one appeared. But having really enjoyed listening to Bianca Amato in A Dangerous Beauty, I gave in and decided to give it a whirl.

In the prologue, which takes place around a year before the beginning of the story proper, we meet Arthur Lancaster, the Earl of St. Merryn on the night his lovely young fiancée elopes with another man. He’s at his club, and is surprisingly – or perhaps not so unsurprisingly, given that those who know him regard him as rather a cold fish – unmoved by the news that his intended has left him, and doesn’t make a move to go after the couple. He gives it as his opinion that the next time he considers matrimony, he might as well seek a bride from an employment agency such as those that exist for paid companions, given that the qualities exhibited by the ideal companion – they are well-bred, well-educated, possessed of a sterling reputation, steady nerves, and a meek and modest manner – are exactly the same as those a man would want in a wife.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct (Rules for the Reckless #5) by Meredith Duran

a-ladys-code-of-misconduct

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL…
Trapped in the countryside, facing an unwanted marriage and the theft of her fortune, Jane Mason is done behaving nicely. To win her freedom, she’ll strike a deal with the most dangerous man she knows—a rising star in politics, whose dark good looks mask an even darker heart.

…NEVER GOES TO PLAN.
The bitter past has taught Crispin Burke to trust no one. He’ll gladly help a lovely young heiress, provided she pays a price. Yet when a single mistake shatters his life, it is Jane who holds the key to his salvation. And in a world that no longer makes sense, Crispin slowly realizes that she may be the only thing worth fighting for…

Rating: A

Fans of Meredith Duran have had a fairly long time to wait between the publication of her last novel – Luck Be a Lady – and this new one, which is billed as the fifth in her Rules for the Reckless series, but I’m pleased to report that the wait, while frustrating, was well worth it. In A Lady’s Code of Misconduct, she has once again dazzled me with the beauty and focus of her writing, and her ability to craft a tightly-knit, intriguing plot and wonderfully complex, imperfect and highly intelligent characters who very quickly take on lives of their own in the mind of the reader.

The story centres around the political career and machinations of Mr. Crispin Burke MP, the second son of Viscount Sibley and most definitely the black sheep of his family. With ambitions to become Prime Minister, Burke has steadily drawn many in the Commons to his side by means of threats, blackmail and bribery; his name is a byword for corruption in parliamentary circles and it seems as though he is about to achieve his goal. His Penal Reform bill, a punitive, unfair piece of legislation, has enough support to defeat the government and unseat Palmerston.

Burke’s closest ally is Philip Mason, a man with as black a heart and as few principals, and who is currently supporting himself and his family at the expense of his niece, Jane, whose father left his considerable fortune to her at his death. Mason is unable to touch the principal amount, but has been syphoning off everything he could for years, and intends to marry her to his son in order to keep the money in the family. Jane is twenty-three, but has never had a season and is not allowed to go beyond the gates, so she has, in effect, been a prisoner for the past six years. But worse than all that is the fact that she has had to pretend to be a brainless ninny for all of that time. Her late parents were progressive, so she was well-educated and brought up to think for herself and not to be afraid to express her opinions – but her uncle believes women should be seen and not heard and Jane has had to suppress that side of herself while she has bided her time and waited for an opportunity to escape.

Finally, that opportunity has arrived – only to be thwarted by the odious Crispin Burke. Even though Jane has encountered him numerous times over the years, this is the first time she has really talked to him or even been close to him, and she is simultaneously surprised and repelled to discover that he holds a strange fascination for her. He’s a beautiful man, no question, but he’s ruthless, amoral and rotten to the core and his methods disgust her – but he offers her some advice and a way of avoiding her uncle’s wrath, in exchange, naturally, for something he wants – information on something involving Mason. Jane has no alternative but to agree to do as he asks.

Not long after this, and shortly before the final reading of his bill, Burke is attacked and left for dead on the London streets. Having taken his advice and inveigled her uncle into bringing her to London, Jane hatches an audacious plan, one that was also suggested to her by Burke, albeit with a different outcome in mind. She uses a fraudulently obtained – but legitimate – marriage certificate and announces that she and Burke were recently – and secretly – married. She will shortly be a widow according to the doctors, and her marriage will release her father’s fortune into her hands, meaning that she can finally achieve her dream of travelling to New York and making a new life for herself.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Crispin survives – although there are big gaps in his memory and he can remember little of what happened over the past five years. Now caught in a lie, Jane feels guilty and unsure, but decides that she needs to play along with the fake marriage, at least until the legalities surrounding the release of her inheritance are completed. I’m normally a little sceptical about amnesia plots, but didn’t blink when I learned that this book used one, because I knew that Meredith Duran would make it work. She does that and then some; the way she transforms Crispin from a ruthless, conscienceless politician to a man of honour and sound principles who genuinely wants to make the world a better place is brilliant, but more importantly, it’s believable. There are still facets of the old Burke remaining – the keen mind, the devilish sense of humour, the aura of implacability and sense of his being a dangerous man, but the more he finds out about his old self, the more determined he becomes to face the demons of his past, eradicate them and move on.

Because he can’t afford others to see how much his injuries have affected him, Crispin asks for Jane’s help in navigating his way through all his political alliances and connections. She can’t deny that being able, after so long, to use her brain and have her opinions listened to and respected is incredibly flattering and freeing, or that the ‘new’ Crispin is compassionate, thoughtful, unexpectedly vulnerable and incredibly attractive.

Jane is just as satisfyingly complex a character as Crispin, and her story of self-discovery is equally compelling. Her situation as the virtual prisoner of her uncle evokes sympathy, and her character is set up as a kind of representation of truth and justice… yet as the story progresses, she is shown to have been as deceitful and secretive in her way as Crispin has been in his. The way that she comes to understand herself more, and also to understand what drove Crispin to take the path of blind, conscienceless ambition is superbly done, as is Crispin’s conviction that no matter what he can or cannot remember, his feelings for Jane won’t change. I loved that Jane tries to spare him learning the worst of himself and that when he does, it just makes him stronger and all the more determined to become a better man.

The chemistry between the protagonists is intense, and their romance develops believably and at a realistic pace. Jane gradually overcomes her suspicions and opens herself to the attraction she realises she has long felt for Crispin, even though she can’t quite let go of her fear that the ‘old’ him could return at any moment. And I loved that Crispin never questions his marriage; for him, Jane is his rock from the moment he awakens, building on the hints of interest she sparked in him even before his attack and showing clearly but subtly that his feelings for her run deep.

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct is a must-read for fans of this author and of historical romance in general. The political background is interesting, well-researched and smoothly incorporated so the reader never feels as though they are being given a history lesson, and the plot which gradually emerges – relating to the information the ‘old’ Crispin was seeking from Jane – is intriguing and suspenseful. Add in the wonderful romance and two compelling but vulnerable and flawed protagonists, and you’ve got an un-put-downable book which I’m already sure will go down as one of my favourite books of the year.

Historical romance really doesn’t get better than this.

Devil in Spring (Ravenels #3) by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Mary Jane Wells

devil-in-spring

An eccentric wallflower
Most debutantes dream of finding husbands. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

A cynical rake

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

A perilous plot

After succumbing to Gabriel’s skilled and sensuous persuasion, Pandora agrees to become his bride. But soon she discovers that her entrepreneurial endeavors have accidentally involved her in a dangerous conspiracy – and only her husband can keep her safe. As Gabriel protects her from their unknown adversaries, they realize their devil’s bargain may just turn out to be a match made in heaven.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

I think it’s fair to say that Devil in Spring is the most highly anticipated historical romance of 2017. I know that I – along with practically every other fan of the author and the genre – was excited at the prospect of meeting Lord St. Vincent mark II in the form of Gabriel Challon, eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of Kingston; aka Sebastian and Evie from Devil in Winter, surely one of the genre’s most beloved couples.

In the book’s prologue, Sebastian – who is as gorgeous at sixty as he was at thirty – and Evie discuss the fact that a couple of nights earlier at a ball, Gabriel was found in a compromising position with Lady Pandora Ravenel. Pandora, who had been attempting to do a favour for a friend, became stuck in the ornate scrollwork of a piece of furniture, and when Gabriel was helping her get free, they were seen at the worst possible time by their host, leaving Gabriel no alternative but to offer marriage.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.