An Unsuitable Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met – and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now – his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive – or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – B+

K.J. Charles brings her wonderful Victorian-set romantic/gothic/mystery Sins of the Cities trilogy to a most satisfying conclusion with An Unsuitable Heir, in which missing heirs are found, peril is encountered, murder is a distinct possibility and love grows in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve found the trilogy utterly captivating and entirely delightful; the characters, the setting and the plotting are extremely strong throughout and given that I’m a fan of the sort of Victorian sensation novel which Ms. Charles has taken as her inspiration, I’ve relished the way she has incorporated key elements of the genre into the trilogy. While An Unsuitable Heir isn’t my favourite book of the three (that’s An Unnatural Vice), it’s nonetheless an exciting and fitting end to the series; and another excellent, vibrant performance from Matthew Lloyd Davies makes it a terrific listen.

As I’ve covered the individual plots of the other books in my reviews (linked below), I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive rehash here. I’ll just say that if you’re thinking of listening to this audiobook without reference to the others, I wouldn’t recommend it; the series really does need to be listened to in order. The romances are played out in each, but the overarching plotline of the search for the missing heir to the Moreton earldom runs through all three novels – and because of this, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Advertisements

Scandal at the Christmas Ball by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott


This title may be purchased from Amazon

One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love affairs! 

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye 

At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair will make for a very different future…

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott 

As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife, and certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way to bring her to surrender?

Rating: B (B+ for the Kaye, C for the Scott)

Scandal at the Christmas Ball is the second collaboration between historical romance authors Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott, and, like their previous work, Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, takes place at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore, a widely liked, respected and highly influential couple who are regarded as powerbrokers within the ton and whose invitations are much sought after.

Among their guests this Yuletide are the duke’s nephew and heir, Vale Penrith, Lady Viola Hawthorne, a shockingly fast young woman who goes out of her way to do and say outrageous things, and a former officer of the Scots Guards, Drummond MacIntosh, whose army career ended somewhat ignominiously three years earlier, just after the Battle of Waterloo.


A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye (Grade: B+)

Ms. Kaye is one of the few authors of historical romance who regularly writes about untitled, non-aristocratic progatonists, and she continues that trend in this poignant, tender and sometimes heart-wrenching story about an ex-army officer and an ill-treated, down-on-her-luck governess who find each other one Christmas but who will face some difficult choices if they are ever to make a life together.

Drummond MacIntosh has lived a somewhat reclusive existence for the past three-and-a-half years owing to the huge scandal that attended his catastrophic fall from grace.  With his reputation in tatters, he has finally accepted that he needs help if he is ever going to claw his way back from ruin and carve out a new and useful existence.  No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington himself arranged Drummond’s invitation to the Brockmores’ Christmas house party, but as Drummond wryly notes, the Duke wouldn’t have done such a thing if it hadn’t been ultimately useful to himself; he needs a man of Drummond’s good sense, practicality and ability to lead men at his back and is presenting Drummond to Brockmore “for inspection” as it were.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in Drummond’s mouth; he doesn’t want to be beholden to Wellington (or to anyone) and certainly not on terms which attempt to brush years of exile under the carpet and blame Drummond for acting as his conscience dictated.

Drummond’s situation is mirrored by that of Miss Joanna Forsythe, a governess who has been invited to the party so she can meet a prospective employer.  Joanna had a comfortable position in the household of Lady Christina Robertson, but has been reduced to teaching at a ramshackle school in return for her bed and board, after she was wrongly accused of theft and dismissed without a character. Like Drummond, she has been invited to the Brockmores with a view to improving her situation, but also like him, the hoped for “improvement” falls short.  Joanna had hoped for an apology after her innocence was discovered and the real culprit owned up. But instead, her former employer wants to buy her off by the offer of an excellent new position and a sum of money.

Even before they know of the similarities of their respective situations, Drummond and Joanna are strongly drawn to each other and very soon find themselves exchanging confidences… and increasingly heated kisses.  I admit that the pair progresses to this stage rather quickly but Ms. Kaye creates such a strong emotional connection between them, and imbues their burgeoning relationship with such depth and longing that it’s possible to overlook its somewhat speedy beginning.  This is a pair of ordinary people in very difficult circumstances who demonstrate the importance of a spotless reputation to those who had to earn their living, for without it, there was little to no chance of their ever securing decent employment. But with Drummond on the verge of a prestigious appointment and a return from the cold, how can Joanna – and her tarnished reputation – stand in his way?

This is a beautifully wrought, heartfelt romance between two people in difficult circumstances.  I was completely gripped by Drummond’s story and applaud Ms. Kaye for the introduction of a character motivated by compassion whose actions were so misunderstood and reviled.  He’s not a character-type I’ve read in historical romance before, and I could be singing the author’s praises for that alone.  But added to a very well-crafted romance and a strong, determined heroine in the form of Joanna, A Governess for Christmas  makes my list of favourite seasonal reads.


Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott (Grade: C)

In this story, a rather proper gentleman finds himself reluctantly fascinated by the most unsuitable sort of woman he could ever have imagined would attract him.  Vale Penrith, heir to the Duke of Brockmore, has still not recovered from the deaths of his father and older brother some years ago, and continues to find his role as a ducal heir somewhat ill-fitting.  He really would prefer to be left to his own devices in the library, but knows he will have to do his bit and take part in the various activities planned for the duration of the party.  He is also aware that while the Brockmores’ Christmas parties don’t have the same match-making reputation as their summer affairs, his uncle has a prospective bride lined up for him – something else he doesn’t want anything to do with.

Lady Viola Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Calton, is a determined, high-spirited woman whose deepest desire is to go to Vienna to study music.  “The Shocking Beauty” as she is known, has quite the scandalous reputation, all of it designed to put off any suitors so she can remain unwed and pursue her dreams of Vienna and a musical career.  She reckons that one final, massive scandal at the Brockmores’ party should do the trick once and for all and cause her parents to give up on their attempts to marry her off.  Hence her decision to climb a ladder to hang mistletoe from a chandelier in the hall while wearing no underwear; perched at the top, affording the crowd of young men below a glimpse of her ankles (and possibly other things besides) she manages to achieve her end just before the ladder wobbles and she falls – literally – into the arms of Vale Penrith, who is appalled and annoyed at such reckless, outrageous behaviour.

Viola likes what she sees, but Penrith, while gorgeous, is a stuffed shirt and not at all the sort of man she’d be interested in.  But when her friend, Lady Anne, tells Viola that her parents are trying to arrange a match with Penrith while she – Anne – is in love with someone else, Viola agrees to help her out by providing a distraction.  The problem is that she finds herself being distracted by Vale – who is not at all the cold fish she had first imagined – as much as he is distracted by her, and the more time they spend together, the more they discover about what lies behind their social masks and the more they are drawn together.

I have to say straight off that I really didn’t care for Viola in this story.  I admired her desire to forge her own path in her life, but her methods – which are, basically, to shock as many people as often as possible – are childish, and she behaves more like a mistress or courtesan than a duke’s daughter, drinking spirits, smoking and playing billiards with the men.  I’m sure not all young ladies at this time were as pure and virginal as fiction would have us believe, but Viola goes a little too far in the opposite direction for my taste.  Vale is much more likeable, but because I disliked the heroine, it was difficult to understand what he saw in her beyond the physical and I found it difficult to believe that two people possessed of such opposing personality types could forge a lasting relationship.

If you’re more tolerant of the spoiled and outrageous type of heroine than I am, this story might work better for you than it did for me.


Ultimately, Scandal at the Christmas Ball is something of an uneven read, but is worth it for the Kaye story alone.

A Good Day to Marry a Duke (Sin and Sensibility #1) by Betina Krahn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Daisy Bumgarten isn’t thrilled to be trying to catch a duke’s attention while dressed like a flower pot caught in a swarm of butterflies. But, after all, when in Rome (or in this case London society). . . . Since her decidedly disastrous debut among New York’s privileged set, the sassy Nevada spitfire’s last chance to “marry well” lies across the pond, here in England. If she must restrain her free spirit, not to mention her rib cage, so be it. She knows she owes it to her three younger sisters to succeed . . .

Now, under a countess’s tutelage, Daisy appears the perfect duchess-in-training . . . Until notorious ladies’ man Lord Ashton Graham, a distraction of the most dangerous kind, glimpses her mischievous smile and feisty nature—and attempts to unmask her motives. Daisy has encountered snakes on the range, but one dressed to the nines in an English drawing room is positively unnerving—and maddeningly seductive. When a veiled plot emerges to show up Daisy as unworthy of the aristocracy, will Ashton be her worst detractor? Or the nobleman she needs most of all?

Rating: B-

Betina Krahn is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for ages and haven’t got around to.  Most of her books were published before I got into reading romance in a big way, and she’s one of several authors whose backlists I mean to explore … when I get the time.  Happily for me, however, Ms. Krahn has embarked upon a new historical romance series entitled Sin and Sensibility, affording me the chance to sample something new from her. In the first book, A Good Day to Marry a Duke, we find an American heiress crossing the Atlantic – as did many so-called ‘dollar princesses’ in the late nineteenth century – in order to marry a titled gentleman.  She sets her sights upon the young and somewhat gauche Arthur Graham, Duke of Meridian, but she reckons without the havoc wreaked upon her emotions (and her libido) by his younger brother, Ashton, widely known as a rake of the highest order.

Daisy Bumgarten – and honestly, that name?  Are we supposed to think the heroine is a joke before the story even starts? – comes from a family whose money is so new that even the nouveau riche of New York society look down on them.  When Daisy scandalises all the other ladies present at the Bellington Hunt by wearing trousers under her skirts, riding astride, taking all the fences alongside the men and swigging spirits from her uncle’s flask, her mother is horrified and furiously points out that not only has Daisy ruined her own reputation by her reckless behaviour, but she has also scuppered her sisters’ reputations as well.  Daisy – at last – realises the enormity of what she’s done and decides she must make amends, so two years after the disastrous hunt, she travels to England with her uncle Redmond (Red) Strait and, having secured the sponsorship of the Countess of Kew, prepares to enter society and snare herself a duke. What better way to make it up to her mother and restore her sisters’ chances of marrying well?

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

It’s Hard Out Here for a Duke (Keeping Up with the Cavendishes #4) by Maya Rodale

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some Mistakes…

When American-born James Cavendish arrives in London tomorrow, he’ll become the Duke of Durham. Some might be ecstatic at the opportunity. Not James. He’s a simple man, fond of simple pleasures. And right now, nothing could be more pleasurable than spending his last night of freedom with a beautiful stranger.

Are Far Too Good…

One wild night, Meredith Green, companion to the dowager Duchess of Durham, said yes to a man she thought she’d never see again. Suddenly, they’re living under the same roof, where Meredith is expected to teach James how to be a duke—while trying not to surrender to temptation a second time.

To Be Forgotten

For a duke and a commoner, marriage would be pure scandal. Yet nothing has ever felt as right as having Meredith in his arms… and in his bed. Soon he must choose—between a duty he never desired, and a woman he longs for, body and soul…

Rating: B+

I seem to have spent a bit of time lately saying “don’t let the stupid title put you off reading this book because it’s really good” – and now I’m saying it again.  This fourth book in Maya Rodale’s Keeping Up With the Cavendishes series is the best of the set once you get past yet another vomit-inducing excursion into Craptastic-Titles-R-Us, so try not to let it put you off reading what is actually a very well-written, tender and poignant story that is as much about the two central characters working out what it really means to be true to oneself as it is about their love for each other.

Readers who have been following the series will know that the four Cavendish siblings – James and his sisters Claire, Bridget and Amelia – have recently come to London from their home in America owing to the fact that James has unexpectedly inherited a dukedom he doesn’t want.  He would be more than content to remain at the family ranch doing what he does best and what he loves – breeding and raising horses – but is prompted to come to England because of his concern for his sisters.  All of them are no longer young (by early nineteenth century standards!) and perilously close to being on the shelf; and James thinks that perhaps moving to England will improve their prospects of making a good marriage.  He also thinks he should at least keep an open mind about the dukedom and what it entails – but the closer he gets to English shores, the more anxious and uncertain he becomes.

He and his sisters are to stay the night at an inn in Southampton before resuming their journey to London.  When they’ve gone to their rooms, James stays downstairs in the tap-room and is pondering his fate, when he notices a lovely young woman sitting alone at the bar.  He can’t keep his eyes off her, and her shy glances indicate some interest on her part, too.  James approaches her, they strike up a conversation and agree to spend the night together, ‘Just James’ and ‘Just a girl’ he’s met at a bar.

Yes, the idea that a respectable young woman at this period would sit alone at a public bar and then agree to a one night stand with a man she just met is a bit of a stretch of credulity, but it’s worth getting past it in order to enjoy the rest of the story.

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

The Lady and Mr. Jones (A Spy in the Ton #4) by Alyssa Alexander

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Born in the rookeries, the hard life is something Jones is all too familiar with. Saved as a young boy, he was trained to be a spy, one of the best–elite, in fact. He now spends his days serving His Majesty in espionage, hunting rogue spies.His latest assignment, though, has him tracking a fellow spy…

Cat Ashdown is a baroness. Nothing is more important than protecting five hundred years of heritage. She knows every detail of every estate that commands the largest income in Britain— yet her father placed her inheritance in trust to her uncle who is forcing her to marry a man she has no desire for. The baroness’s battle against law and convention leads her to Jones and results that are surprising … and possibly unwanted.

Rating: B

The Lady and Mr. Jones, the fourth and final (I think?) book in Alyssa Alexander’s A Spy in the Ton series turns the spotlight on the eponymous Jones, a secondary character in previous books and a member of the elite spy ring that includes Shadow, Angel and the Flower.  Picking up some of the threads laid out in the previous book, A Dance with Seduction, Ms. Alexander has crafted a tender cross-class romance which plays out alongside an engaging suspense plot which sets spy against spy in a perilous, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse.  I enjoyed the book and the characters, although the ending is a little weak and brought my final grade down a notch.

Jones – who doesn’t appear to have any other names – is a lad from the streets; an orphan from the rookeries who was plucked from poverty and trained by the best of the best in the art of spycraft.  Deeply loyal and honourable to a fault, Jones is so discreet, skilful and efficient that he is the man his superiors turn to when they need to keep an eye on one of their own.  In A Dance with Seduction, we met the Flower and her handler, Henry, Lord Wycombe, another member of Britain’s intricate network of spies and informants.  As the story progressed, it became clear that Wycombe was involved with something underhand and that his position had become compromised in some way – and now, Jones is assigned to keep watch on him and discover the truth about his activities and allegiances.

Lady Mary Elizabeth Frances Catherine Ashdown, the Baroness Worthington, is one of the richest women in England – or she would be if her late father hadn’t tied up her money in such a way that she is dependent on her guardian – her uncle, Viscount Wycombe – until she marries or reaches her thirty-fifth birthday.  Cat is one of the few women in England to bear a title in her own right (the barony is over five hundred years old, and as is the case with some of the oldest titles, can be held by a female) and she takes her responsibilities to her title and those who depend on her very seriously.  But her requests for funds to make improvements and repairs to the estate at Ashdown Abbey are continually blocked by her uncle and trustees and she is increasingly suspicious of Wycombe’s motives. She’s also furious, but her uncle is a dangerous and unpleasant man and she knows better than to reveal her feelings; instead she decides to pay for the repairs to her tenants’ cottages using her allowance.  Well aware that not all the servants at Worthington House are loyal to her, Cat slips from the house in order to post her letter of instruction to her steward – but on the way back, is accosted by a ruffian who tries to abduct her.

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

Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (Audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham, Billie Fulford-Brown, Morag Sims, Gary Furlong, Derek Perkins, Greg Wagland, Antony Ferguson, Jane Copland and Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes – as everyone does – that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafés of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently….

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict – but how? – and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war, he also faces personal battles back home, where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears – and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris – a cherished packet of letters in hand – determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Last Christmas in Paris is a beautifully written, superbly narrated epistolary novel which centres around the correspondence exchanged between three friends during the years of the First World War. I suspect the degree to which any listener will enjoy the story will depend on whether one enjoys novels that consist entirely of letters; personally, I’m a big fan of that literary device, so that, added to the fact that I have a particular interest in the history of the period, plus the list of excellent narrators attached to the project pretty much ensured my enjoyment of this audiobook. And enjoy it I did, although ‘enjoy’ seems rather a feeble word to describe how I feel about it now that I’ve finished listening to it. I was so caught up in this story of friendship, emancipation, love, loss, tragedy, hope, despair… a real gamut of emotions, that I couldn’t bear to set it aside; I listened to it in only two or three sittings and, when I finished it, felt that strange sense of emptiness that always seems to descend when I’ve finished reading or listening to something really good – that feeling of “what do I do now?”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Catalyst (Flashpoint #2) by Rachel Grant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a food storage depot in famine-struck South Sudan is torched, American aid worker Brie Stewart flees, only to land in a market where she’s the next item up for auction. Is the attack on the aid facility another assault upon the war-torn fledgling democracy, or has her family set her up as a pawn in their quest for oil rights?

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford crossed paths with Brie years ago when she was a shill for her family’s company, pushing a pipeline that threatened his tribe’s land. Determined to lead the rescue operation to save her, he won’t let her abduction—or the attraction that flares between them—get in the way of settling their unfinished business.

The Green Beret’s skills are put to the test in the flooded grasslands of South Sudan, where they must battle nature and dangerous factions who are after more than oil. Bastian and Brie put their hearts on the line as they find themselves embroiled in a conflict that extends beyond country and continent. Together they must douse the spark before it reaches the flashpoint and engulfs everything they hold dear.

Rating: B+

I’ve become a huge fan of Rachel Grant’s particular blend of complex, steamy and intricately plotted romantic suspense novels over the past year or so, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Catalyst, the second book in her Flashpoint series. Like the previous book, Tinderbox, Catalyst is set in a real-life flashpoint, this time in South Sudan, a young nation embroiled in an ongoing civil war, and features characters based at the (fictional) US military outpost of Camp Citron in Djibouti. There are some things in this book that may be difficult to read about – in particular the buying and selling of women and children – and the way that the plight of so many people in desperate need is thrust aside in favour of big business and political expediency made my blood boil on more than one occasion. Ms. Grant tells a gripping, well-paced and impeccably researched story that pulled me in from the start and kept me transfixed until the nail-biting conclusion.

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford is surprised to recognise a familiar face one night in the bar at the camp – Gabriella Prime, the daughter of Jeffrey Prime Sr., owner of one of the world’s largest energy corporations. The last time Bastian saw her, she was in full ball-buster ‘Princess Prime’ mode – designer clothes, killer heels, full make-up – in her role as Prime Energy’s PR executive, defending the company’s plan to screw over the native American tribes of East Washington by building an oil pipeline that would ignore even the most basic environmental rules. The woman in front of him now, a decade later, is different, though. The outward trappings of the corporate shill and billionaire boss’s daughter are gone; over the last decade, Gabriella Prime has cleaned up, grown a conscience and left her old life behind her. She deliberately sabotaged PE’s plans for the Northwest oil pipeline, cut all ties with her father and brothers, legally changed her last name to Stewart (her mother’s name) and for the past five years has lived and worked under the radar for USAID in South Sudan. Bastian is rather stunned to discover that Brie Stewart is an aid-worker who lives from pay-day to pay-day like everyone else – and maybe a little suspicious that such a ruthless leopard could have changed its spots, but he has to admit to a reluctant admiration for the guts it must have taken to thwart her father’s plans and then to re-invent herself. But that doesn’t tell him what he really wants to know – which is what she’s doing in Djibouti hanging out with the camp ‘spook’, the enigmatic CIA operative, Savannah James.

One month later, the aid station Brie works at is attacked and she and her three co-workers are forced to flee for their lives. Brie manages to evade capture for a couple of days, but her luck runs out and she is taken to the very slave market she had been summoned to Camp Citron to talk to Savannah James about.

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