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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

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

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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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.

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

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Rating: B+

This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing.  It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.

If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life.  Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth.  Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will,  and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.

Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street.  The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can.  Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip.  Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.

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

My One True Duchess (True Gentlemen #5) by Grace Burrowes

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Jonathan Tresham, heir to the Duke of Quimbey, needs a discreet ally to help him choose a wife from the mob of young ladies eager to become his duchess. When proper widow Theodosia Haviland rescues him from a compromising situation, he knows he’s found an advisor he can trust. Theo’s first marriage taught her the folly of indulging in romantic notions, and she’s determined that Jonathan Tresham’s intended be an ideal match for him, not some smitten ninnyhammer.

When Jonathan suggests Theo should be at the top of his list of possible duchesses, she protests, though she knows that Jonathan is kind and honorable despite his gruff exterior. The last person Theo can allow Jonathan to marry is a widow guarding scandalous secrets, even if she does also harbor an entirely inappropriate attraction to the one man she can never have.

Rating: B

Opening up a Grace Burrowes book these days is like going to visit old friends.  Even though each of her novels focuses on a different couple, the author has done such a thorough job of creating her own Regency world and peopling it with the many different families who move in the same elevated circles, that I know I’m going to meet up with at least one – and usually, several – familiar characters and enjoy their interactions with whichever of the principals they happen to be most closely involved with.  My Own True Duchess is book five in the True Gentlemen series, and in it, I was pleased to become reacquainted with the Duke of Anselm (The Duke’s Disaster) and several of the Dorning brothers (Will Dorning is the hero of Will’s True Wish) as well as the Earl and Countess of Haddonfield and the youngest Haddonfield, Lady Della.  While it probably helps to have at least a rough idea of who all these people are, it’s not essential;  they are all secondary characters and their stories don’t really affect the principal narrative, in which a close friend of Anselm’s is out to find himself a suitable bride.

Mr Jonathan Tresham, a mathematical genius and highly successful businessman, has lived in Europe for the last decade and made himself a tidy fortune.  Having recently become heir to the Duke of Quimbey, he has returned to England, knowing it is incumbent upon him to find himself a wife and set about securing the future of the dukedom.  The trouble is that there’s a strong chance he’s not going to be given the time or opportunity to consider his choice; most of the eligible young ladies in London and their mamas have already scented blood and are circling the waters, some of them going to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a proposal from him.  One of these enterprising young misses has managed to manoeuvre him into a deserted library, and Jonathan can feel the noose tightening – but the débutante’s hopes are dashed when a slightly older, poised and attractive woman enters the room and very politely and delicately runs her off.

Jonathan’s saviour is Mrs. Theodosia Haviland, a widow who lives in shabby-genteel almost-poverty with her sixteen-year-old sister and her seven-year-old daughter.  Her late husband – who had been heir to a viscountcy – died young (from the effects of dissipation) and hugely in debt, and the new viscount used the finds that should have reverted to Theo in order to pay them off, leaving her with nothing.  In addition, he refused to pay Haviland’s ‘debts of honour’ (gambling debts) which were massive and which have taken Theo years of scrimping and scraping to be able to settle.

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

His Wicked Charm (Mad Morelands #6) by Candace Camp (audiobook) – Narrated by Will Thorne


This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s too prim.

Lilah Holcutt dislikes Constantine Moreland from the moment she meets him. He may be handsome, but he’s frivolous, rash, impulsive and, worst of all, a flirt. Now that Con’s twin brother has married Lilah’s best friend, she’s seeing way more of Con than she’d like. And when Con’s sisters are inexplicably kidnapped, Lilah’s own curiosity and stubbornness get the better of her, and she finds herself swept into Con’s investigation.

He’s indifferent to propriety.

Con knows that Lilah hates him — he just wishes she weren’t so devastatingly beautiful, that he weren’t so attracted to her. Especially since they’re working closely together to solve the kidnapping, an adventure that leads them to Lilah’s peculiar childhood home, Barrow House, which sits atop an ancient fen and features an eerie maze on its grounds.

They’ll have to join together to conquer a sinister force.

The more Con and Lilah uncover, the more they’re convinced that the answers lie buried deep within Barrow House — answers to a mystery darker than either of them could ever have realized.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

This is the sixth book in Candace Camp’s Mad Morelands series, which originally comprised four books, but which has been expanded to include stories for the two youngest Moreland siblings, twins Alex and Con. His Wicked Charm opens not long after His Sinful Touch ended; I wasn’t overly impressed with the storyline of that book (my content grade was C+) which I found clichéd and somewhat clumsily executed. His Wicked Charm is an improvement, mostly due to the fact that Con is a more engaging character than Alex – Con is lively and funny where Alex was quite dour – but even so, the story meanders and lacks focus, and the paranormal elements are rather corny and melodramatic.

Constantine Moreland and Lilah Holcutt disliked each other from the moment they met. She thinks he’s too impulsive and not serious enough, and he thinks she’s too proper and bound by convention, but now Con’s brother has married Lilah’s best friend, they have to play nice. Needless to say, they are rarely successful; Con delights in needling Lilah by flirting with her outrageously, and most of their interactions end up as arguments. So, it amazes both of them to find that when the situation calls for it, they can actually set those differences aside and work together to achieve a desired outcome – in this case the rescue of Con’s mother and sisters, who are abducted off the street during a demonstration in support of female emancipation. Lilah insists on accompanying Con when he sets off in pursuit, but it turns out that the ladies are on the verge of rescuing themselves when the couple arrives (as detailed in the short story included at the end of the audiobook, Their Unexpected Adventure), but they still have to work out who kidnapped them and why.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

House of Cads (Ladies of Scandal #2) by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Vivez la vie pleinement…Live life to the fullest.

That’s always been Marie-Anne de Vauteuil’s motto. As a Frenchwoman of highly questionable upbringing, she was shunned by genteel society. But then, an invitation to London on a mission of mercy from the very family who cast her aside lands Marie-Anne back in society – and into the arms of a man who can be nothing but trouble.

When life gives you lemons…Make petit fours. 

Wealthy American businessman Mason is a) accidentally engaged, b) desperate to get out of it, and c) neither wealthy nor a businessman. Marriage is the last thing on his mind. Money, however, is always of utmost importance. But when he meets the irresistible Marie-Anne, she makes him rethink his life as a fraud, and hoping for something he never believed possible: A proper life with a not-so-proper wife.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Elizabeth Kingston returns to the Regency world of A Fallen Lady to bring us House of Cads, a sequel to the earlier book which features as its heroine the lively, unconventional and somewhat scandalous Frenchwoman Marie-Anne de Vauteil, the dear friend of Helen, Lady Summerdale. The audiobook also marks the very welcome return of the fabulous Nicholas Boulton to the romance genre; needless to say, his performance is superb, and I found myself enjoying the story even more in audio than I did when I read it a couple of months back.

Helen’s recent marriage and move away from the cottage they shared in the small village of Bartle-on-the-Glen has left Marie-Anne feeling rather lonely. As the story opens, she is upset at the ending of her affair with the village shoemaker, who has broken up with her because he’s going to get married. She isn’t in love with him, and being honest, she admits she’s more disgruntled at the fact that he’s called a halt to their association rather than the other way around – which was always the case in the past. Fortified with baked goods, she opens a letter just arrived from London and is astonished to discover that it’s from Lady Shipley, the woman who had almost become her mother-in-law. Some years earlier, Marie-Anne had fallen deeply in love with the Shipley’s eldest son, Richard, and they were to have been married – but Richard fell ill and died just days before the wedding, leaving a devastated and pregnant Marie-Anne to the not-so-tender-mercies of his parents, who believed her to be nothing more than an opportunist whore. The shock of Richard’s death, together with the Shipleys’ cruelty in barring her from the funeral caused Marie-Anne to miscarry, and after that, she retired to the small village of Bartle where she met and befriended Helen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.