My Dangerous Duke (Inferno Club #2) by Gaelen Foley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

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This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Rohan Kilburn, the Duke of Warrington, has quite a reputation. He’s “The Beast” – a debauched rake whose many exploits echo in the countryside surrounding his ancient familial castle. In truth, he’s devoted his life to the Inferno Club, swearing off love for duty in an attempt to thwart a tragic family curse.

Beautiful spitfire Kate Madsen wants nothing to do with “The Beast” after she is mistakenly abducted by smugglers and delivered into his fearsome clutches. Rohan similarly refuses to fall for her, mindful of the many dangers in his life. But when she starts to thaw his icy heart, Rohan knows he will do anything to make Kate his own.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

I really struggled with the first few hours of My Dangerous Duke, and had I not been listening for review, there’s a good chance I might have abandoned it. The narration by Marian Hussey is fine – in fact, it’s the best thing about the audiobook – and she’s a massive improvement on Annette Chown, who narrated the previous instalment in the Inferno Club series. But the early part of the story progresses at the speed of a snail moving through molasses and is weighed down by lots of irrelevant and overly descriptive prose, so much so that I wished (and here I’m dating myself) I could cut and splice large chunks of it so as to keep things moving.

Fortunately, however, things do start to pick up a bit after that, as the hero and heroine finally meet and begin interacting. The story is one of murky secrets, dark deeds and feats of derring-do; in fact, the last section of the book turns into a cross between Indiana Jones and a computer game, as our intrepid heroes head off on the trail of a hidden treasure. There are plenty of sparks flying between them, although I’m somewhat weary of the hero who believes he is unworthy of love because He is A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things – and that’s the source of most of the conflict in the romance. I also had to check the publication date of the book – 2010 – because there’s an old-skool feel to My Dangerous Duke (especially when it comes to some of the wince-inducing purple prose – I hope Ms. Hussey was well compensated for having to utter lines like this: He knew how to safely wield the oversized weapon with which Nature had endowed him) that made me think it must have been written in the 90s or earlier.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

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This title may be purchased from 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: B+

K.J. Charles announced a while back that her new Sins of the Cities series of historical romances would feature stories in the mould of Victorian Sensation Fiction:

“… channelling my love for Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Dickens in his wilder moods, and the other glorious writers of complicated plots with scandals, secrets and shenanigans up the wazoo.”

To say I was excited at the prospect of something like this coming from one of my favourite writers is a gross understatement; I read a steady diet of books by those authors – and others – throughout my twenties and thirties, so I eagerly snapped up An Unseen Attraction, eager to see how Ms. Charles would employ the conventions and stylistic features of that particular genre of fiction in her story.  And she does not disappoint.  It’s all here – swirling Pea-Soupers, sinister figures lurking in the dark, a long-buried family secret, manipulative relatives who are not what they seem…  and an endearingly innocent protagonist and the stalwart love of his life who support each other through life-threatening events and unpleasant revelations.  The main difference, of course, is that those characters are both male, and the author has done a fabulous job in translating the traditional role of the artless heroine who is – unknowingly – under threat from the machinations of an evil relative to a male character who is similarly circumstanced.

That character is Clem Talleyfer, who keeps a quiet, respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell which was, even in mid-Victorian times, an area where multiculturalism flourished.  Clem is English, but was born to a white father and Indian mother, and he feels comfortable there, where –

There were Jews, Italians, Indians, Germans, Arabs and Africans and Chinese and more, all going about their own business like everybody else.

He has kept the lodging house for about eight years, and is good at it because he’s a “people person”; he’s a good listener and a kind, compassionate man with a good heart.  He’s quiet, reserved and methodical; he doesn’t like crowds or noise and finds it difficult sometimes to organise his thoughts, but he takes pride in his work – although he wishes the drunken Reverend Lugtrout, who lives at the house at the behest of Clem’s brother, who owns the place, would take himself somewhere else.

He has never understood his brother’s stipulation about Lugtrout having to live there, but there isn’t much he can do about it as the man has never shown any inclination to leave.  But when he is murdered and left unceremoniously on Clem’s doorstep, things take an abruptly menacing turn, threatening not only Clem’s safety, but that of the man he has come to love, Rowley Green, the taxidermist who rents the shop next door.

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

Lady Claire is All That (Keeping Up With the Cavendishes #3) by Maya Rodale (audiobook) – narrated by Saskia Maarleveld

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

In the third installment of Maya Rodale’s captivating, witty series, a marquess finds his fair lady – but must figure out how to keep her.

Her brains…

Claire Cavendish is in search of a duke but not for the usual reasons. The man she seeks is a mathematician; the man she unwittingly finds is Lord Fox: dynamic, athletic, and as bored by the equations Claire adores as she is by the social whirl upon which he thrives. As attractive as Fox is, he’s of no use to Claire…or is he?

Plus his brawn…

Fox’s male pride has been bruised ever since his fiancée jilted him. One way to recover: win a bet that he can transform Lady Claire, society’s roughest diamond, into its most prized jewel. But Claire has other ideas – shockingly steamy ones.

Equals a study in seduction.

By Claire’s calculations Fox is the perfect man to satisfy her sensual curiosity. In Fox’s estimation Claire is the perfect woman to prove his mastery of the ton. But the one thing neither of them counted on is love.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Anyone familiar with Maya Rodale’s current Keeping Up with the Cavendishes series can’t fail to have noticed that the plots of the previous books in the series (Lady Bridget’s Diary and Chasing Lady Amelia) have been loosely based on famous films**. The plot of Lady Claire Is All That, the third instalment, is no exception, deriving a storyline from the 90s movie She’s All That, which in turn borrowed its plot from Pygmalion.

The basic premise is that of high-school jock – in this case an incredibly handsome, ridiculously wealthy, hugely popular marquess – meets and falls for high-school geek – here, a new-to-London American lady who is obsessed with mathematics and widely thought to be rather odd. It’s a fun, fluffy listen for the most part, but amid the froth, Ms. Rodale manages to make some pertinent points about sexism and feminism, and to include some moments of insight and introspection on the parts of both hero and heroine as they come to realise they need to make some major re-evaluations of their sense of self and plans for the future.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Secret of Love (Rakes and Rebels #2) by Cynthia Wright (audiobook) – Narrated by Tim Campbell

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

When Lady Isabella Trevarre first laid eyes on Gabriel St. Briac, she announced to her best friend: “That is the man I will marry!” Now a woman grown, Izzie has traded her girlish dreams for the independent life of an artist, but she never quite forgot the dazzling Frenchman who captivated her young heart. When he appears again in Cornwall, the seeds of desire grow between them.

As Napoleon’s army loots art treasures throughout Europe, Gabriel St. Briac’s priceless Leonardo da Vinci painting vanishes from its hiding place. Bent on recovering his family’s prized possession, Gabriel sets sail for the chaos of wartime France – only to find Izzie stowed away on his ship. Though fearful for her safety, he allows her to join in his quest. But Izzie harbors a dark secret…a secret that could shatter the tender blossom of their trust. When danger puts them both to the test, will these two guarded souls dare to risk all for love?

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – C+

This latest instalment in Cynthia Wright’s long-running Rakes and Rebels series is the sequel to Smuggler’s Moon, which I reviewed a couple of years back. Even though it’s part of a series, The Secret of Love can be listened to as a stand-alone novel, because while some characters from other books in the series appear in this one, they have secondary roles to play and the storyline is self-contained, so there is no real need to have read or listened to any of the other instalments.

At the end of Smuggler’s Moon, fourteen year-old Lady Isabella – Izzie – Trevarre told her best friend that she had met the man she was going to marry. That man was Gabriel St. Briac, a handsome young Frenchman and associate of her brother Sebastian’s from the brief time he made his living as a smuggler. Moving on six years, we find Isabella in London at the salon of the famous artist, <a href=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89lisabeth_Vig%C3%A9e_Le_Brun, who recognised Izzie’s considerable artistic talent and agreed to be her mentor. Izzie is determined not to end up trapped in a loveless marriage like her mother and has set her sights instead on making her way in the world as an artist.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Claiming Mister Kemp (Baleful Godmother #4) by Emily Larkin

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lucas Kemp’s twin sister died last year. He’s put aside his mourning clothes, but not his heartache. If Lucas ever needed a friend, it’s now—and who should walk in his door but Lieutenant Thomas Matlock…

Lucas and Tom are more than just best friends; they’ve been in love with each other for years. In love with each other—and pretending not to know it.

But this time, Tom’s not going to ignore the attraction between them. This time, he’s going to push the issue.

He’s going to teach Lucas how to laugh again—and he’s going to take Lucas as his lover…

Rating: B

Claiming Mister Kemp is a long-ish novella that is the fourth story in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series.  While characters from the previous books make brief appearances, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this as a standalone – although the other three books are excellent and well worth reading.

Lucas Kemp and Thomas Matlock have been friends ever since their first term at Eton, even though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.  Lucas comes from a wealthy background and a warm, loving family, whereas Tom, the youngest son of an earl, was born to parents who really couldn’t be all that bothered about him, and his fondest childhood memories are of the holidays he spent at Whiteoaks, where he and Lucas made a foursome with Lucas’ cousin, Letty Trentham (Trusting Miss Trentham) and his twin sister, Julia.  The four children were close, although as twins, Lucas and Julia shared a unique bond.  They remained close as they grew into adulthood, but eventually their lives took them in different directions, with Tom going into the army, Letty and Julia entering society and Lucas inheriting an estate of his own.  But some sixteen months before this book opens, tragedy struck, and Julia was killed when she fell from her horse.  Everyone was devastated at her death, but for Lucas, it’s even worse than that.  He feels as though he has lost something of himself, and although his mourning period has ended, he continues to miss his sister intensely.  He puts on a good show for those around him, fooling those who don’t know him well, or don’t care to look beyond the surface, but inside, he’s a mess, having resorted for a time to taking too much laudanum to try to dull the pain and when that avenue was denied him (his valet found his stash and threw it away) took to drinking too much and too often.

Tom, now a member of General Wellesley’s staff, has returned to London with the general in order to speak at a military enquiry into Wellesley’s actions after the battle of Vimeiro.  A recent brush with death has given him a new appreciation for living and made him determined not to waste another minute of his life in denial of the feelings he has always held for his best friend.

It’s Lucas’ birthday, and Tom knows it will be a difficult day for him, seeing as it should have been Julia’s birthday, too.  He goes to Lucas’ lodgings intent on offering comfort and support, only to find his friend drunk and alone in the dark.  His heart breaking for Lucas all over again, Tom decides to seize the chance to show Lucas that he is not alone, and that his – Tom’s – feelings for him go beyond friendship. When Lucas, his inhibitions and defences lowered, doesn’t refuse Tom’s advances, they share a brief moment of sexual intimacy.

Afterwards, Lucas is utterly horrified and disgusted at what happened, and tries – unsuccessfully – to avoid Tom the next day.  But Tom won’t allow him to ignore what happened between them, and pushes Lucas to acknowledge the truth of his own feelings as well as the strength of the attraction between them.  As his anger with Tom lessens, Lucas finds it harder and harder to resist the pull of that attraction and allows his long suppressed feelings for his friend to come to the fore – although once their moment of shared passion is over, he is once again overwhelmed by his thoughts and his fear of discovery and being labelled a sodomite.

Given that homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment (or even death) at this time, Lucas’ fears are well-grounded.  But this is much more than a story about a man’s reluctance to explore his sexuality; it’s also about a terribly lonely man who is so mired in grief and loss that he is in danger of losing himself, too.  Lucas has known for a long time that he’s not attracted to women and refused to admit the possibility that he was attracted to men; and the moment at which Tom realises that while he’s been away in the army, surrounded by people, having sexual relationships (with both sexes), Lucas quite literally had no-one is like a punch to the gut.

While I sometimes felt that Tom was perhaps a little too pushy, he’s redeemed by the fact that he is so patient with Lucas, allowing him to dictate the pace of their sexual relationship and to do as much or as little as he wants.  He’s funny and warm and charming, and there’s absolutely no doubt as to the fact that he loves Lucas dearly and would do anything for him.  But things come to a head when Lucas’ fears overcome him once more and he pushes Tom away for what could be the last time.

The events in this story run concurrently with those of Trusting Miss Trentham and one of the things I really liked was that we get to see the other side of some of the conversations both Tom and Lucas had with Letty Trentham in that book.  But if you haven’t read it, don’t worry – as I said at the outset, this stands on its own.

Claiming Mister Kemp is a heartfelt, compelling love story featuring two well-developed and likeable central characters. The sex scenes are sensual and well-written, conveying a real sense of the depth of the love and affection between the two men, and the emotional connection between the pair is palpable.  At somewhere around 170 pages, it’s a quick and satisfying read and one I’m recommending without hesitation.

A Lady Without a Lord (Penningtons #3) by Bliss Bennet

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theodosius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined she’ll succeed

Harriot Atherton is trying to keep a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

Rating: B+

This third book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington siblings turns its attention to the eldest, Theodosius (Theo), who became Viscount Saybrook on the death of his father just over a year earlier. On the surface, it’s a simple story about childhood friends coming together after a number of years and starting to see each other in a different light, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the things I have enjoyed about this author’s other books is the way she has incorporated a sound historical background into the story in a subtle and informative way. The previous book, A Man Without a Mistress, featured a couple who were very involved in politics, and here, Ms. Bennet takes a look at the importance of community, the responsibility of landowners towards their dependents, and throws in a dash of local politics without any of that overshadowing the development of the romance or the personal issues faced by both protagonists.

Since inheriting his title, the new viscount has made no move to assume the responsibilities that go with it, or to visit his estate, preferring instead to continue to live it up in London, bedding beautiful women and carousing with his many friends and acquaintances. But the recent marriage of his sister (in A Man Without a Mistress), suddenly brings Theo’s unfettered existence to an end; a meeting with his solicitor in order to arrange the payment of Sybilla’s dowry reveals that something is badly wrong with the family finances, and he realises that if he’s to do right by his sister and her new husband – who are intending to use the money to finance his bid to enter parliament – Theo will have to leave London, head to Lincolnshire and try to find out what has happened to the missing money.

He is not an uncaring man. He knows he has people depending on him, but told himself he was doing the right thing by leaving things in the very capable hands of his father’s – now his – steward, Mr. Atherton. Theo has never had a head for numbers; in fact, his father believed him to be little more than an imbecile because Theo struggled with even the most basic of calculations as a boy, and his father’s disgust very quickly turned to disapproval of practically everything else about his heir. So when he was old enough, Theo decided he might as well live down to expectations and took himself off to London where he very soon acquired himself a reputation as a cheerful, good-hearted wastrel.

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

The Harlot and the Sheikh (Hot Arabian Nights #3) by Marguerite Kaye

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A defiant womanin a desert king’s world!

After inheriting a broken kingdom, Prince Rafiq made a vow to restore its pride by winning a prestigious horse race. To ensure success, he hires an English expert. But even notoriously controlled Rafiq is shocked when his new employee is introduced as Miss Stephanie Darvill!

Stephanie is determined to leave her shameful past and broken dreams behind she will prove to Rafiq she deserves his trust! But this hard-hearted desert sheikh calls to Stephanie in the most primal of ways Dare she give in to her wildest desires?

Rating: B

The Harlot and the Sheikh is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s series of historical romances set in early nineteenth century Arabia, and once again features a heroine with an unusual occupation;  in this case, she’s a veterinarian specialising in the care and treatment of horses.  Ms. Kaye’s research into the scientific background and interests of each of her heroines so far is obviously extensive, and the notes she provides at end of each novel are interesting and informative.  But at the heart of each book is a complex, heartfelt and satisfying romance; and one of the things I so admire about this author is the way she is able to develop that romance while also telling an engaging story that incorporates fascinating historical and technical detail while also producing such superb descriptive prose that the reader is immediately transported to whatever location she is writing about.

Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince of the Arabian Kingdom of Bharym is a troubled young man with a great weight of responsibility upon his shoulders.  Years before, and aged just sixteen, he had watched his father destroy himself, the honour of the royal family and the spirit of his people by losing the Sabr, the renowned endurance race that symbolises Bharym’s pride and honour.  The kingdom is famous for breeding the finest horses in the world, horses whose bloodlines can be traced back to the purest of antecedents;  but following a fire that devastated the stables and stud farm after the loss of the Sabr, the kingdom – and Rafiq’s father – entered a slow and lingering decline.  When he came to the throne at twenty-two, Rafiq inherited a kingdom that seemed to have lost its way, and promised his people that he would make Bharym a better place, keen to make a number of changes and improvements and to employ various technical advancements in order to make Bharym a kingdom fit for the new century.  But his proposals and enthusiasm were met by disinterest and apathy; for Rafiq’s people, the only thing that seems to matter is to reclaim their lost pride by winning the Sabr.

Now, eight years later, it seems that victory might, at last, be within Rafiq’s grasp.  He has worked hard to rebuild his stables and the stud farm and sacrificed much of his personal happiness and peace of mind in order to do so.  But it seems that isn’t enough, because over the last few months, Rafiq has been dealt another crushing blow as he has had to watch eight of his priceless breeding stock die of an unknown disease.

He needs specialist help and he needs it quickly, so he sends for Richard Darvill, the renowned veterinary surgeon attached to the Seventh Hussars who is reputed to be the foremost equine expert in the world.  So he is not best pleased when his summons is answered not by Darvill, but by his daughter, Stephanie, who explains that her father is unable to leave his regiment given Napoleon’s progress through Europe, and that she has been expertly tutored and works alongside him as his assistant.

What Stephanie doesn’t disclose is that she jumped at the chance to travel to Arabia because of her need to get away from a scandal.  A couple of years earlier, she thought herself in love and allowed herself to be seduced by one of the Hussar officers, only to be devastated when she discovered he had no intention of marrying her.  While a man is patted on the back and praised for his sexual exploits, the woman is branded loose and wanton; Stephanie’s reputation was ruined and, not wanting to risk her father’s position with the regiment, she left, first heading back to England where she continued her work and studies at a Newmarket stud farm, and thence to Bharym, with her father’s blessing.

The fact that Stephanie is a woman is not a great issue for Rafiq, although he knows that it will be one for his Master of the Horse, who believes that a woman in the stables will bring very bad luck.  But Rafiq, impressed with Stephanie’s good sense and honesty – she does not promise a miracle, only that she will do everything in her power to help – decides to appoint her as Royal Horse Surgeon.

Although they both try to resist the pull between them, the attraction between Stephanie and Rafiq is intense and really leaps off the page.  He is impressed by her knowledge and her methods – and even by the fact that she is prepared to stand up to him when necessary – and very gradually, gets her to open up to him about her past disgrace.  She expects him to be disgusted; he shows her clearly that he is not and through his kindness and respect, helps her to start to regain her self-respect and rebuild her self-esteem.  And in turn, Stephanie helps Rafiq to lay aside the burden of guilt he still carries over the death of his wife and shows him that sometimes it’s necessary to bend in order not to break, that while tradition is important, there are times when a fresh approach is needed.

The plotline concerning the mysterious illness that plagues the horses and Stephanie’s unstinting efforts on their behalf is absorbing, and the romance between the prince and his Royal Horse Surgeon is equally so. The couple is allowed time to get to know and understand each other, and I liked that they admit the strength of their mutual attraction and agree to explore it further in a mature way.  The air sizzles between them and their physical encounters are sensual and nicely steamy.  Rafiq is a gorgeous hero – jaw-droppingly handsome, of course, but also honourable, caring and fully sensible of the responsibilities he bears; and Stephanie is perfect for him in every way – intelligent, determined and spirited while being aware of the importance of tradition and convention in the society in which she finds herself.  My one quibble is that they manage to surmount the difficulties posed by the huge gulf in their social stations very easily (he’s a prince, she’s the daughter of a former farrier), but sometimes you just have to embrace the fairy tale and go with the flow.

The Harlot and the Sheikh is a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish and makes another fine addition to this series of Arabian-set historicals – so if you’re looking for an historical romance with an unusual setting and background, then you need look no further.