The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels #6) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

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The bravest of heroes. The brashest of rebels. The boldest of lovers. These are the men who risk their hearts and their souls-for the passionate women who dare to love them . . .

He is known only as The Rook. A man with no name, no past, no memories. He awakens in a mass grave, a magnificent dragon tattoo on his muscled forearm the sole clue to his mysterious origins. His only hope for survival-and salvation-lies in the deep, fiery eyes of the beautiful stranger who finds him. Who nurses him back to health. And who calms the restless demons in his soul . . .

A LEGENDARY LOVE

Lorelei will never forget the night she rescued the broken dark angel in the woods, a devilishly handsome man who haunts her dreams to this day. Crippled as a child, she devoted herself to healing the poor tortured man. And when he left, he took a piece of her heart with him. Now, after all these years, The Rook has returned. Like a phantom, he sweeps back into her life and avenges those who wronged her. But can she trust a man who’s been branded a rebel, a thief, and a killer? And can she trust herself to resist him when he takes her in his arms?

Rating: Narration – A : Content – C+

I’ve read and/or listened to all the books in Kerrigan Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series, and I hate to say it, but I think it’s running – has run – out of steam. The first two or three were very good – The Highwayman (book one) continues to be my favourite of the series, with The Hunter a close second – but books four to six have been distinctly lacklustre, and I think that had it not been for the fact that Derek Perkins is one of my favourite narrators and I’ll always jump at the chance to listen to him performing an historical romance novel, I might well have given up on it by now.

When I started The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (and don’t get me started on the penchant for derivative titles in HR these days!), I thought – at first – that at last, here was a return to the gripping storytelling of The Highwayman, but after a very strong opening and first few chapters, things start to fizzle out; the rest of the plot is tissue-paper thin, the central relationship is almost completely recycled from book one, the principals are bland and underdeveloped and there are large chunks in the middle of the book where nothing much happens.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Matrimonial Advertisement (Parish Orphans of Devon #1) by Mimi Matthews

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She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

Rating: B-

Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books.  The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme.  I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured.  Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.

Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up.  He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game.  After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.

Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:

“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum.  A woman I can bed on occasion.”

– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife.

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

You Only Love Twice (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #3) by Bec McMaster

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With the clock ticking down, the Company of Rogues must find a deadly killer and stop them from assassinating the Queen… before London burns.

First rule of espionage: don’t ever fall in love with your target.

Five years ago, Gemma Townsend learned the hard way what happens when you break this rule. She lost everything. Her mentor’s trust. The man she loved. And almost her life. Love is a weakness she can never afford again.

When offered a chance at redemption, the seductive spy is determined to complete her assigned task: to track down a dangerous assassin known as the Chameleon, a mysterious killer sent after the queen, whose identity seems to constantly change.

But as her investigation leads Gemma into a trap, she’s rescued by a shadowy figure she thought was dead—the double agent who once stole her heart.

A man with few memories, all Obsidian knows is Gemma betrayed him, and he wants revenge. But one kiss ignites the unextinguished passion between them, and he can’t bring himself to kill her.

Can Obsidian ever trust her again? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Because it soon becomes clear the Chameleon might be closer than either of them realized… and this time Gemma is in the line of fire.

Rating: A-

The third book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series, You Only Love Twice boasts an engrossing, intricately-woven and high-stakes suspense plot woven through a steamy second-chance romance and I was glued to it from pretty much start to finish. We’ve reached the middle of a five-book series, and the author provides some compelling plot developments, drawing together threads from the first two books to reveal the terrifying nature of the threat faced by this version of Victorian London, and who is behind it. This instalment also ends on rather a massive cliffhanger – but fortunately, Ms. McMaster isn’t going to make readers wait too long to find out what happens next as book four, To Catch a Rogue, is coming out in October .

Be warned –there are spoilers in this review, so if you’re planning to read the series and haven’t yet, proceed with caution.

In case I haven’t made it clear, the novels in the Blue Blood Conspiracy series need to be read in order. Each book focuses on a particular romantic pairing and has a self-contained plotline, but there are also overarching storylines that run throughout, so I would advise going back to book one, Mission Improper, in order to fully appreciate the intricacies of the stories and of the richly detailed world that the author has created.

I don’t have space in this review to delve too far back into the on-going storyline, so I’m going to assume anyone reading this is familiar with the London Steampunk world of these books, and knows what the Echelon is, what blue bloods, vampires, dhampir and mechs are, and is aware of the basic conflict that has featured thoughout; namely, the overthrow of the corrupt and degenerate ruling class (the Echelon) by an alliance of more progressive blue-bloods, mechs and humans in the original series, and in this one, the unrest that continues to plague London as everyone struggles to settle into the new order… a new order that someone is intent on destroying.

A highly trained spy and deadly assassin, Gemma Townsend is one of the Company of Rogues’ most valuable operatives. Five years earlier, she’d been on a mission in Russia, working with the Duke of Malloryn (leader of the CoR) to undermine the creation of an alliance between the Russian Blood Court and the Echelon, when she’d met and fallen for Dmitri Zhukov, who was working for their opponents and in favour of the treaty. The pair fell in love against the odds and their better judgements, but in a heartbreaking betrayal, Gemma was shot by her lover and left for dead. She survived thanks to some quick thinking on Malloryn’s part, and believes Dmitri died in St. Petersburg… until a recent attempt on her life was thwarted through the actions of someone she could almost swear was him.

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

Six Weeks With a Lord by Eve Pendle

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Grace Alnott is out of time. To save her younger brother from an abusive guardian, her merchant father’s will demands she must marry a peer. Handsome but destitute Everett Hetherington, Earl of Westbury agrees to her offer of a marriage of convenience but stipulates she must live with him for six weeks. No matter how honorable he seems she can’t allow him to get too close, because the aristocracy cannot be trusted.

Six weeks. Major Everett Hetherington, new Earl of Westbury, has exactly six weeks to convince the very independent Grace Alnott to spend the rest of her life with him. Despite her belief she doesn’t belong in his world, he must tempt the alluring Grace into staying, because he has fallen for her. Hard. He just has to ensure she never discovers his secret.

Rating: C+

Eve Pendle’s début historical romance, Six Weeks With a Lord,features an engaging hero, a prickly heroine and a marriage of convenience designed to help him to save his failing estate and to help her gain custody of her four-year-old brother.  The twist in the tale is that the hero is determined to keep his convenient wife, while she is anxious to go it alone at the end of an agreed period (the titular six weeks).  The story is fairly-well conceived, although the set-up is clumsy and the villain only wants a moustache to twirl and an evil laugh to complete the cartoonish picture; and while all’s well that ends well, the resolution to the conflict at the heart of the plot comes too quickly and too easily.

Grace Alnott’s father, a wealthy tradesman, has recently died, leaving her the sum of fifty-thousand pounds in the form of a dowry she cannot access unless she marries a peer.  She was aware of his ambitions for her but had resisted them, owing to her distrust and dislike of titled gentlemen, who are arrogant and care for nothing but their own pleasure.  As if having the money left to her tied up in such a way wasn’t bad enough, her father has left her young brother to the guardianship of Lord Rayner, the man who raped her former maid and companion and got her pregnant – actions which only cemented her determined dislike and distrust of the aristocracy.

There’s only one thing to be done, which is to contest the guardianship in the Courts of Chancery (which will be expensive and probably very long and drawn out – see Bleak House!) – for which Grace will need plenty of money; hence her need to contract a fast marriage of convenience to a peer of the realm.

Everett Hetherington resigned his army commission on the death of his older brother and returned to England to take up the title and responsibilities of Earl of Westbury.  Burdened with the debts incurred by both his father and brother, he is brought even closer to financial ruin by a plague that is sweeping the herds of cattle farmed on his estate.  He’s a conscientious landlord who cares about the well-being of his tenants, and wants to be able to compensate them for their losses – but to do that and pay off the debts, he needs somewhere in the region of fifty thousand pounds, and he needs it quickly.

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

Scandal Above Stairs (Kat Holloway #2) by Jennifer Ashley

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Priceless artwork has gone missing from the home of a wealthy baronet, and his wife stands to take the blame. When Kat’s employer asks for help in clearing her friend’s name, Kat trades her kitchen for the homes of Mayfair’s wealthiest families.

Soon antiques are disappearing not only from the extravagant households of connoisseurs and collectors, but from the illustrious British Museum. As the thefts increase in frequency, Kat calls upon her friend Daniel McAdam, who has already set himself up in a pawnshop on the Strand as a seedy receiver of stolen goods. When a man is murdered in the shop, Kat must use all of her wits to see that the thieves are caught and justice is done.

Rating: C+

Scandal Above Stairs, the second book in Jennifer Ashley’s series of historical mysteries featuring the no-nonsense cook, Kat Ashley, takes place a few months after the events of book one, Death Below Stairs, and sees our intrepid heroine once again embroiled in the search for a killer, aided by her love-interest – the enigmatic Daniel McAdam – his son James, and her new assistant, Tess Parsons. It’s a well-written ‘cosy’ mystery, and the reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive – but I have to confess to being a bit bored until about the last quarter of the book when the pacing, which is pretty pedestrian throughout, finally picks up as we head into the dénouement and resolution of the central plotline.

It’s been a couple of months since Kat helped Daniel to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen, and she’s just a little bit miffed that she hasn’t seen or heard from him in all that time. She still doesn’t know much about him other than that he’s a chameleon who can blend in with workmen, toffs and all the social spectrum in between, and that he must be working for the police or some other government agency. In Death Below Stairs, he promised that one day he’d tell her everything – but that time obviously hasn’t arrived yet. But Kat isn’t one to mope over a man – she knows Daniel must be alright because James would have told her if he wasn’t, and she goes about her normal business as usual – cooking for the Bywaters, now in residence at Lord Rankin’s Mayfair home (they are his cousins) and Lady Cynthia (his sister-in-law), who continues to wear men’s suits, smoke cheroots and, with her small group of like-minded friends, to infiltrate such bastions of masculine privilege as gentleman’s clubs and gaming houses whenever they can.

Well aware of Kat’s sleuthing talents, Lady Cynthia asks if Kat will help a friend of hers, whose husband has accused her of stealing some valuable paintings in order to pay off her gambling debts. On the pretext of visiting the house’s cook – most servants in grand houses knew each other –Kat accompanies Lady Cynthia to the home of Lady Clementine Godfrey to see what she can see – and it doesn’t take her long to work out exactly what’s going on and announce that Sir Evan Godfrey is selling the paintings himself because he’s in need of funds.

The mystery doesn’t end there, however. Before the visit, Kat had found Daniel again, this time working as the proprietor of a dingy pawnbrokers in the Strand where, he tells her, he’s been placed in order to investigate the recent thefts of a number artefacts and antiquities from museums that have never made it into exhibitions and have been put into storage and forgotten. Not long after this, a dead body is found in Daniel’s shop, and it doesn’t take long for Kat to realise that Daniel’s investigation and her previous observations about the Godfreys’ missing paintings are somehow linked.

I liked the way Ms. Ashley laid out her different plot elements and then gradually drew them together, and I was pleased to learn a little more about Daniel – although it is a very little and we’re no closer to knowing exactly who he’s working for and why. Kat continues to be an admirable heroine, a woman who’s worked hard to get where she is and who is determined to succeed in spite of the lousy hand life dealt her in the form of a bigamist ‘husband’, and I liked the new character of Tess, the young woman – a former thief – sent to her by Daniel when he learned Kat was short-handed in the kitchen. Tess is prickly to start with but soon proves to be a quick learner and a genuine help and support to Kat, both in the kitchen and in her investigating. The author does an excellent job of setting her story very firmly in late Victorian London, and her descriptions of the locations, whether a Mayfair mansion or the dingier London streets, are vivid.

There’s something (still) brewing between Lady Cynthia and Daniel’s good friend Elgin Thanos (a scholar and mathematical genius), but Kat and Daniel’s relationship here is pretty static. It’s clear they care deeply for one another, but neither of them is in a position – or hurry – to change anything at this stage, which, while it makes sense given their situations in life, is just a bit frustrating. I’m aware this is a mystery novel rather than a love story, but given the author has chosen to include a romance on the side, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of Daniel – and of him Kat together.

As I said at the beginning, I had issues with the slow pacing of the novel, which made it difficult for me to fully engage with the story for around half of the book. There’s also a fair bit of telling-not-showing going on; and while the descriptions of the food Kat prepares are mouthwatering, there are too many of them – as I said in my review of Death Below Stairs, I felt as though I was being hit over the head with reminders that Kat Is A Cook. The biggest problem, however, is that when I sat down to write this review a day or so after I finished reading, I found I could recall very little about the plot – not even the identity of the villain – and had to look at the notes on my Kindle to refresh my memory. The pace quickens in the final chapters and the eventual reveal is a good one, but it all came too late to save the book, which, ultimately, I found lacklustre and unmemorable.

Judging from the positive reactions to the novel elsewhere, it seems that perhaps this is one of those occasions when ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but I can only recommend Scandal Above Stairs to devotees of ‘cosy’ mysteries. If you like your mysteries served up with a little more tension and a little more romance, this is probably not for you.

TBR Challenge – A Duchess in Name (Grantham Girls #1) by Amanda Weaver

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Victoria Carson never expected love. An American heiress and graduate of Lady Grantham’s finishing school, she’s been groomed since birth to marry an English title—the grander the better. So when the man chosen for her, the forbidding Earl of Dunnley, seems to hate her on sight, she understands that it can’t matter. Love can have no place in this arrangement.

Andrew Hargrave has little use for his title and even less for his cold, disinterested parents. Determined to make his own way, he’s devoted to his life in Italy working as an archaeologist. Until the collapse of his family’s fortune drags him back to England to a marriage he never wanted and a woman he doesn’t care to know.

Wild attraction is an unwanted complication for them both, though it forms the most fragile of bonds. Their marriage of convenience isn’t so intolerable after all—but it may not be enough when the deception that bound them is finally revealed.

Rating: B+

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.

Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing youth. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles always finds fresh, new angles to pursue in her stories and peoples them with characters in unusual walks of life – and her new novella, Unfit to Print, is no exception.  Set in late Victorian London, one of the protagonists is a purveyor of naughty books and has a shop in Holywell Street, which was, at that time, the centre of London’s porn trade; while the other is a somewhat uptight lawyer who views the whole business with a degree of distaste.  The novella boasts a mystery to be solved, a relationship to be rekindled and a mountain of filth to be shifted, and all of it is deftly and expertly done in well under two hundred pages.

Vikram Pandey and Gilbert Lawless are from minority – albeit fairly well-do-do – backgrounds, and met at boarding school several years before the story opens.  Vik’s father had been a high-ranking government official in India, while Gil is the result of a liaison between a black housemaid and a wealthy gentleman who publicly acknowledged him, paid for his education and treated him as a son.  Gil and Vik bonded at school and became the best of friends in spite of the fundamental differences in their natures, Gil seeming never to have a care in the world while Vik was always a little uptight and reserved. But one day when they were sixteen, both their lives were upended when Gil disappeared without warning or a word to anyone.  Vik was devastated, but his enquiries at school were always met with stony silence and disapproval, and eventually he stopped asking about or looking for Gil, believing him to be dead. He must be, or surely he’d have got word to Vik somehow, to tell him what happened.

In fact, Gil was removed from school and pretty much cast onto the streets on the day his father died and his half-brother inherited the estate.  Gil begged and scraped a living and now runs a small bookshop on Holywell Street near the Strand which, at that time, contained the largest concentration of porn shops in England.  Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller is Gil’s two-fingered-salute to the brother who, he later learned, cheated him out of his father’s last bequest, as well as to the “kind of respectability that means keeping other people in line while you do as you please.”

He is surprised when his cousin Percy asks him to attend Matthew Lawes’ funeral – and not at all surprised when he discovers there was an ulterior motive for inviting him. It seems his uncle was a connoisseur of pornography of all sorts, and faced with a massive library of books and photographs which could cause the family huge embarrassment, (not to mention large fines and possible imprisonment!)  they want Gil to take it all away and dispose of it.  Gil isn’t interested in most of it, but some of the books – one of them particularly rare – catch his eye, so he decides he might as well get what he can out of it, and agrees to have the lot transported to his shop.  It’s when he’s looking through some of the photographs that he recognises the likeness of a young lad – a rent boy – named Errol, who was found dead in a local alley just three weeks earlier.

Vik is now a solicitor who divides his time between paying clients and Pro Bono work for the poor Indian workers barely ekeing out an existence in the East End. He is asked one day to visit the Gupta family in Shad Thames (the area of London around Tower Bridge), who are worried about their sixteen-year-old son, Sunil, who has disappeared. Vik realises the young man has most likely been selling himself in order to make money for his family, and, recalling his own distress at the disappearance of his dearest friend so many years ago, says that he will do his best to help.

Sunil left his family a framed, obviously professionally-taken photograph, so Vik decides to start at the photographers – which is based in Holywell Street. He knows perfectly well the sort of trade for which the street is renowned, and unsurprisingly, the shopkeepers – all of whom could face indecency charges should they utter the wrong word in the wrong place – are reluctant to say anything to a well-dressed, well-spoken man asking questions. Vik has just left his latest dead end when he finds himself standing in front of the shop sign for Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller – and can’t believe his eyes.

The longed-for reunion is awkward and somewhat stilted at first, on Vik’s part at least, because Gil is as breezily open and friendly as he ever was. Gil is at a bit of a loss to understand his old friend’s bitterness, and the way these two former friends gradually re-forge their friendship and come to an understanding of how they’ve changed and how – and if – they can fit together now as they once did is poignant and very well done. Also well done is the background to the story; observations and discussions about the sex trade in Victorian times are pertinent and never preachy or dull, and also shed light on the personalities of both protagonists as they reconnect and begin to re-evaluate things they thought they knew about themselves and each other.

Even though this is a novella, the relationship between Gil and Vik doesn’t feel rushed, mostly, I suspect, because the author does such a good job of conveying the depth of the bond that developed between them as boys, meaning that what transpires between them in the story ‘proper’ is completely believable as an extension of that connection. The mystery plot reaches a dramatic resolution – perhaps a little quickly, but that’s not something that worried me overmuch. So many novellas try to do too much in too little space, but Ms. Charles gets it just right, keeping the focus of the story firmly on the love story while bringing the plot to a satisfying conclusion.

Unfit to Print is a uniquely entertaining and layered tale that’s bursting at the seams with humour, tenderness and period detail of the sort not found in many (if any!) historical romances. Fans of the author are going to need no persuasion to one-click, and if you’ve never read her before, this expertly crafted and immensely satisfying read would be a great place to start.