One-Eyed Royals (Seven of Spades #4) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

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Shattered by their devastating breakup, Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo find themselves at war right when they need each other most. While Dominic is trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, Levi despairs of ever catching the Seven of Spades. The ruthless vigilante’s body count continues to climb, and it’s all Levi can do to keep up with the carnage.

When Levi’s and Dominic’s paths keep crossing in the investigation of a kidnapping ring with a taste for mutilation, it feels like history repeating itself. Thrown together by fate once again, they reluctantly join forces in their hunt for the mastermind behind the abductions.

But the Seven of Spades hates sharing the spotlight, and they have an ace in the hole: a new batch of victims with a special connection to Levi. Their murders send shockwaves through Las Vegas and change the rules of the game forever.

The Seven of Spades has upped the ante. If Levi and Dominic don’t play their cards right, they’ll end up losing everything.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series comprises some of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you’re a fan of m/m romantic suspense/thrillers and haven’t read them yet, then you’ve got a real treat in store.  The titular Seven of Spades is a serial killer plaguing Las Vegas, and because the series has plotlines and character relationships that stretch across all five books in the series, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.  And this is absolutely not the place to jump in if you haven’t read the previous books.  Go back to book one, Kill Game, and then work your way here – I promise you won’t be disappointed because this series is one of the most gripping I’ve ever read.

At the end of book three, Cash Plays, Detective Levi Abrams and his lover, PI Dominic Russo, crashed and burned in a pretty spectacular way.  Dominic, a compulsive gambler, doesn’t see his addiction as an illness, believing instead that it’s a personal weakness he just has to be strong enough to conquer.  Because of this, he hasn’t really sought out the right sort of help (or much of it), and when a case he was working put him in the way of starting to gamble again in order to maintain his cover, he fell very quickly back into old habits.  One of the things Cordelia Kingsbridge does spectacularly well in these books is explore the motivations and thought processes of an addict, and she shows very clearly the processes of self-deception and denial Dominic goes through in order to convince himself there’s nothing wrong and he can stop gambling after the case is over.  And while Dominic is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and desperate to hide his relapse from Levi, Levi is going through hell courtesy of his increasing frustration over the lack of progression in the Seven of Spades case and the growing suspicion of his colleagues. In yet another Machiavellian turn, the killer is targeting the men who beat Levi so viciously over a decade earlier and were never punished, and the SoS’s fascination – obsession – with Levi and the similarities in their psyches pointed out by the  FBI profiler in the previous book are driving a wedge between him and those around him. He’s hanging on to his volcanic temper and his sanity by the merest thread, his professional reputation is being gradually eroded and he’s more afraid than ever of what he might do if he’s pushed too far.  And he’s going through it alone and without the support of the man he loves.

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

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Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

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Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet — but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles has made no secret of the fact that her latest book, Band Sinister, is an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, and in it she has great fun playing in the trope-pit of regency romance and turning quite a few of them on their heads.  We’ve got the stranded-injured-sibling trope; the man-of-the-world-falls-for-country-innocent trope; the oops-I-(not so)-accidentally-wrote-you-as-the-villain-in-my-racy-book trope – and those are just the ones I can remember of the top of my head.  I’m sure I’ve missed some.

But trope-tastic as it is, Band Sinister still manages to delight, breathing life into the tried-and-tested by virtue of Ms. Charles’ sharp wit, deft hand and obvious love for the genre.

The storyline is a simple one.  Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live a secluded life in the village of Yarlcote, just a few miles from Rookwood Hall, the country estate of Sir Philip Rookwood.  The Frisbys and the Rookwoods are all but mortal enemies, owing to the fact that Sir James Rookwood (elder and now deceased brother of the present holder of the title) ran off with Guy and Amanda’s mother some years earlier, driving their father to drink and an early grave.  He left them completely dependent on their aunt, a dictatorial and unsympathetic woman who supports them for the sake of appearances rather than because she has any love or affection for them.

When the story opens, Guy is reading the manuscript of the gothic novel Amanda has just had published – and is rather appalled to discover that she has modelled her villain – in physical appearance anyway – on Sir Philip Rookwood, and some of the other characters in the book on his friends.  Sir Philip and his set have the most dreadful reputations as degenerates and rumour has it that the ‘Murder’ – as the group is known – is a kind of hellfire club that engages in orgies, satanic rituals and other reprehensible activities.  When Amanda expresses the wish that they might actually visit to find out for themselves, Guy is appalled.  He wants nothing to do with Rookwood, but circumstances conspire against him when Amanda is thrown from her horse while riding on Sir Philip’s land, and badly injured – which means Amanda gets her wish to visit the hall, although under less pleasing circumstances than she would have liked.

When Guy receives the news of Amanda’s situation, he’s doubly panicked – terrified because she’s been hurt and worried for her reputation, which has already got a few dents in it courtesy of their mother’s exploits and a youthful indiscretion.  Guy goes to the hall with the intention of taking her home immediately, but is dissuaded by the doctor attending on her – a friend of Sir Philip’s – who explains that her injury is such that moving her could prove fatal.  Guy accepts the wisdom of that, but he’s not happy, especially as it’s impossible to persuade any woman of suitable consequence to come to the hall to act as chaperone.

Given the bad blood between their families, Guy is torn between gratitude to his host for allowing Amanda to remain at his home, and determination to remain aloof and retain his animosity.  That, however, soon becomes difficult when Guy comes to realise that Philip and his friends are nowhere near as black as they are painted and have in fact encouraged the gossip about them that has given them all such tarnished reputations.  (Especially Lord Corvin who lives to be talked about!)  The Murder (and once we learn the names of Philip’s friends, it’s easy to work out the reason behind that appellation) is actually a group of free-thinking, like-minded friends who gather to engage in spirited (and to Guy’s tender ears, alarming) debate, enjoy each other’s company and love who they wish without having to continually look over their shoulders.  It’s a real eye-opener for Guy, who at first isn’t sure how to take anything he sees or hears; dinner table discussions are about anything and everything from art and literature to science and the newly emerging theories which seem to disprove the Bible’s account of creation (shocking!) and are stimulating and fascinating – and he can’t help but be drawn in by the liveliness of the discussion and by the conviviality of his surroundings.

He also can’t help being drawn to Philip, whose kindness and generosity are completely unexpected, and whose attractiveness and desire for Guy are equally so.

Philip holds these gatherings for his friends in order to give them all a safe haven from the strict conventions of society.  He met his two closest friends, Lord Corvin and John Raven, when they were all unwanted or forgotten ten-year-olds and the three of them forged lifelong bonds.  Friends – and friends-with-benefits when they want to be – they love each other deeply, and the openness and honesty of their relationship is superbly conveyed, teasingly affectionate and full of the perfect amount of snark.

I really enjoyed all the characters, a disparate group that encompasses a diversity of racial and sexual orientation – a former slave, a bisexual viscount, a Jewish doctor, a married couple in which ‘Mrs.’ is trans FtM, a black composer and his violinist lover – even those we meet only briefly add richness and colour to the story and are beautifully crafted.  Amanda Frisby is wonderfully bright and spirited and I was so glad that she got her own happy ending, too.  Philip is intelligent, charming, kind, and forward-thinking, with a well-developed conscience that owes nothing to society and everything to his own inner compass.  He is turning over much of his land to the production of sugar beet with a view to creating a home-grown sugar industry which will remove the necessity for importing so much sugar produced by slave labour – a laudable ambition but an uphill struggle given that his tenant farmers are resistant to change.  Guy is perhaps a little passive at times, but he’s far from being the “plank” Philip originally believes him to be; he’s quiet and unassuming, but ferocious and passionate in defence of the things that are important to him. My heart broke for him a bit when it became clear how lonely he was and had always been, and I loved watching him gradually break out of his shell and begin to truly live.

The romance between Philip and Guy is sweetly sensual, and witnessing the development of their mutual attraction as they navigate the waters of their new relationship was a complete delight.  And it’s not just about the physical; Guy is seduced as much by the new ideas to which he is exposed and to the new experience of acceptance and being part of a friendship  as he is by Philip’s more sensual approaches, which are heartfelt and honest,  with an explicit focus on consent.  Their romance is also conducted within the parameters of their other important relationships; in Philip’s case, with Corvin and Raven, in Guy’s with Amanda – and the fact that they both understood and accepted those relationships made their HEA that much stronger.

Band Sinister is a wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights.  It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.  It’s not often you get impassioned debate about geology, women’s rights and religion, dirty talk derived from Latin, and information about the ins-and-outs of sugar beet farming in the same book, but Ms. Charles incorporates everything quite naturally and with great aplomb – and I loved it from start to finish.  Brava!

My Once and Future Duke (Wagers of Sin #1) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What happens at the infamous Vega Club…

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can’t afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that’s too extravagant to refuse, she can’t resist. If she wins, she’ll get 5,000 pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club…

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he’s at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it’s a lie. He can’t keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. If he wins, he wants her – for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what’s left of Sophie’s reputation. It might even cost her her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off….

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

Better late than never, so they say, and I’m pleased to agree with that when it comes to the release of this first book in Caroline Linden’s Wagers of Sin series. My Once and Future Duke was released in print at the end of February and I’m happy to report that the audio version – narrated by the ever-reliable Beverley A. Crick – was worth the wait.

In the prologue, we’re introduced to the three heroines of the series – Sophie, Eliza and Georgiana – when Sophie is sent to school by her grandfather, Viscount Makepeace, who wants nothing to do with her. He disowned Sophie’s father when he married an opera singer, and Sophie has lived all her life abroad as the family travelled frequently to her mother’s engagements. When her voice began to fail, Sophie’s father did what he could to support his family by gambling; having some knowledge of mathematics, probabilities and odds, he didn’t do too badly and Sophie learned many card games from him – and from the lads in the stables, she learned dicing, how to calculate odds, when to be cautious and when to take a risk. Sophie’s parents died when she was twelve and she was left to the care of the viscount, who made it clear that his financial support would stop when she was eighteen, so she has devised a plan which will secure her future – but it’s risky and means she will have to live on the edge of respectability.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas


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Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

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

When a Duke Loves a Woman (Sins for All Seasons #2) by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Gillie Trewlove knows what a stranger’s kindness can mean, having been abandoned on a doorstep as a baby and raised by the woman who found her there. So, when suddenly faced with a soul in need at her door – or the alleyway by her tavern – Gillie doesn’t hesitate. But he’s no infant. He’s a grievously injured, distractingly handsome gentleman who doesn’t belong in Whitechapel, much less recuperating in Gillie’s bed….

Being left at the altar is humiliating; being rescued from thugs by a woman – albeit a brave and beautiful one – is the pièce de résistance to the duke of Thornley’s extraordinarily bad day. After nursing him back from the brink, Gillie agrees to help him comb London’s darker corners for his wayward bride. But every moment together is edged with desire and has Thorne rethinking his choice of wife. Yet Gillie knows the aristocracy would never accept a duchess born in sin. Thorne, however, is determined to prove to her that no obstacle is insurmountable when a duke loves a woman.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

The first two books in the author’s Sins for All Seasons series – Beyond Scandal and Desire and When a Duke Loves a Woman – have been released simultaneously as audiobooks, and as I read and reviewed the first book earlier this year, I opted to review the second in audio. It’s a low-angst, low-conflict Cinderella story which is well written, boasts a couple of engaging central characters and a romance that feels very mature – but ultimately, it lacks the emotional punch I’ve found in other books I’ve read by this author, and I came away from it feeling a little disappointed.

Antony Coventry, Duke of Thornley, is some way into his cups when he decides to make his way to Whitechapel, the last known destination of the woman who jilted him at the altar that morning. While there, Thornley – Thorne – falls foul of a bunch of footpads who rob him and beat him quite badly. He just about recalls hearing a low, melodious voice yelling at the men to leave him alone and moves in and out of consciousness as his rescuer, gets him to her flat, has the doctor called, and then takes care of him until he is well enough to be able to return home.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Cash Plays (Seven of Spades #3) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

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In this game, the stakes are life or death.

The Seven of Spades is back with a vengeance — the vigilante serial killer has resumed their murderous crusade, eluding the police at every turn. But a bloodthirsty killer isn’t the only threat facing Sin City. A devious saboteur is wreaking havoc in Las Vegas’s criminal underworld, and the entire city seems to be barreling toward an all-out gang war.

As Detective Levi Abrams is pushed ever closer to his breaking point, his control over his dangerous rage slips further every day. His relationship with PI Dominic Russo should be a source of comfort, but Dominic is secretly locked in his own downward spiral, confronting a nightmare he can’t bear to reveal.

Las Vegas is floundering. Levi and Dominic’s bond is cracking along the seams. And the Seven of Spades is still playing to win. How many bad hands can Levi and Dominic survive before it’s game over?

Rating: A-

Cash Plays is the middle book of a five book series, and it’s a game-changer.  Cordelia Kingsbridge amps up the tension and the angst to the max in terms of the hunt for the dangerous, enigmatic serial killer, the Seven of Spades, and also within the relationship between our two central characters, homicide detective Levi Abrams, and PI Dominic Russo.  The killer is clever, calculating and bit-by-bit chipping away at Levi’s sanity, forcing him to confront the demons he’s tried to bury for years and those that are nearer the surface, pushing him to doubt himself at every turn and bringing him closer and closer to the edge.  Dominic, meanwhile, is facing demons of his own which are bleeding away his self-esteem and eroding his sense of self; by the end of Cash Plays, both Levi and Dominic are in very dark places and readers are left wondering how they will ever find their way out of the shadows.  And back to each other.

When the man believed to be the serial killer the Seven of Spades committed suicide at the end of Kill Game,  the case was closed, leaving Levi angry and frustrated, because he knew that they’d got the wrong man and that the real killer was still at large.  He’d begun to investigate further on his own time despite being warned to stay away, but at the end of Trick Roller, the Seven of Spades made their presence known in spectacular fashion and Levi was proven right.  The case is re-opened, but it’s still maddeningly dead-ended as there are no new leads to follow and it seems as though the SoS will never be caught.  Levi’s feelings of helplessness are sparking old, traumatic memories that only intensify his current frustration with the case; he’s never been the most popular guy on the team, but thanks to the way the SoS has singled him out, many of his colleagues are viewing him with suspicion, and Levi’s own erratic behaviour is serving to alienate them from him further.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough – the profile of the SoS put together by the FBI not only describes the killer to a T – it fits Levi perfectly as well.

Levi’s partner, Dominic Russo, is now a fully-licensed private investigator and has been taken on one of Las Vegas’ most prestigious firms.  He’s working on a missing persons’ case; Jessica Miller, a bright, smart young woman suddenly dropped out of college and was – so her parents believe – pressured into running away by her boyfriend.  Dominic’s inquiries lead him to discover that the boyfriend is every bit as unsavoury as Jessica’s parents believe, and that she is practically a prisoner, watched 24/7 by armed criminals and stuck in a large, walled compound it’s going to be difficult to break her out of.  No way is Dominic going to leave her there  – but it turns out the risks associated with the case are even higher than he’d imagined, and he’s going to be pushed to his limits… and maybe beyond.

An increasingly fraught Levi and his colleagues are also faced with an impending turf war between the three gangs who operate in the area – and it doesn’t take Levi very long to suspect that they’re being set up; that someone is pulling strings and setting gang against gang in an escalating series of incidents designed to cause maximum damage and instil fear into the local population.

As in the previous books, it gradually becomes apparent that Levi’s and Dominic’s seemingly diverse cases are related, and the author pulls her story threads together in an incredibly skilful – and ultimately devastating – manner  I don’t want to go into detail because readers need to be able to savour the tight, complex plotting for themselves, but I do want to say how impressed I’ve been with the way Ms. Kingsbridge explores the mentality of addiction in these stories.  Her background in social work perhaps makes her expertise in this area unsurprising, but even so, she is able to bring home to the reader exactly what is driving Dominic; his motivations and thought-processes, in a precise way that is easy to understand without trivialising the very serious nature of what he’s going through.

Her treatment of Levi’s issues and deep-seated insecurities is similarly well done and in both cases the men’s problems feel real and properly related to their personalities; Levi suffered a severe trauma in his twenties which ultimately prompted him become a cop and it’s clearly something that haunts him and continues to inform many of his decisions and actions.

Cash Plays is a difficult book to read at times, simply because of what Levi and Dominic go through, but I want to emphasise that this is no “let’s torture the heroes because I can”, hurt/comfort trope-y sort of book.  The emotional instability and pain both men experience in this story doesn’t just appear from nowhere; it’s firmly rooted in who they are, and the fact that the rest of the plot doesn’t just stop while they indulge in a bit of navel-gazing makes the story and the characters feel that much more real.  The stakes are high in terms of the story, too, with rival gangs starting to tear Las Vegas apart and Dominic’s need to rescue the young woman from an abusive situation; there’s no time to take a breath, and both men are being pushed to breaking point.

I have to make quick mention of Stanton Barclay, Levi’s ex, who plays a small but significant role here.  He and Levi split in Kill Game when it became clear to Levi that they wanted very different things from life; it’s equally clear that Stanton still loves Levi but has accepted his decision to leave.  In the hands of a lesser author, Stanton could have become a whiny or evil ex type, which I always think is a bad move, as it causes the reader to wonder why the hero was with him in the first place.  Instead, Ms. Kingsbridge makes Stanton a sympathetic character, and there’s a wonderful scene near the end where Levi goes to see him to apologise (for the breakup and other things that happen during the course of the book) that is so emotionally open and beautifully written that it brought a lump to my throat.

Cash Plays is another thrilling, engrossing instalment in the Seven of Spades series; the ante is upped to the nth degree, emotions and tensions run incredibly high and you’ll very likely feel emotionally drained after you finish it.  The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, but fortunately you can jump straight into book four, One-Eyed Royals, which promises to be every bit as much of an emotional rollercoaster ride as this one.

 

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.