The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – C-

I’ll confess straight off that I’m not what I’d call a Sherlock Holmes “aficionado”. I’ve read some of the books and stories, and have enjoyed his various celluloid iterations, from Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sherry Thomas’ re-imagining of Sherlock as Charlotte in A Study in Scarlet Women was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of last year. But I can’t quote chunks of text or even remember all the plots of the stories I’ve read, so I’m most definitely not a card-carrying member of the Sherlock Fan Club.

But I was definitely up for the idea of a story featuring The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, although now I’ve finished it, I can’t say if it’s the sort of book that will appeal to diehard Sherlockians or to the relatively uninitiated. Speaking as a member of the latter group, I’m not sure whether the style adopted by author Leonard Goldberg is akin to Conan Doyle’s or if it was his intention for the entire book to seem like averagely-written Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Reviews of the book on Goodreads certainly indicate that those more familiar with Conan Doyle’s work appreciated the writing in this, but I found it plodding and unimaginative.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Pursuit of Pleasure (Dartmouth Brides #1) by Elizabeth Essex

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SHE DOES SAY SHE’LL NEVER MARRY…

Miss Elizabeth Paxton is a new sort of heiress—educated, opinionated and entirely independent. The last thing she wants is a husband mucking about her life. Even if he is the only man she’s ever loved.

BUT SHE HAS ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WIDOW.

When dashing Captain Jameson Marlowe returns to Dartmouth, he proposes to give Lizzie exactly what she wants—a marriage without the man. After one night of searing passion, his sworn duty will take him far off to sea…or so she thinks until secrets and lies set a collision course with the smugglers along the south coast, and Lizzie is caught in the dark tide of treason. Can she salvage her pride and learn to trust in true love before it’s too late?

Rating: C-

Having read and enjoyed some of Elizabeth Essex’s more recent books, I thought I’d try one of her earlier titles and picked up The Pursuit of Pleasure which is her début novel. Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited this newly republished version (I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say what the changes are), but still, the book suffers from a number of flaws – principally related to the characterisation of the heroine and the development of the romance – that have prevented me from rating it more highly.

Elizabeth Paxton and Jameson Marlowe were childhood sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, ever since Jamie ran off to join the navy when he was just fourteen and broke Lizzie’s heart in the process. Now, a decade later, he’s back in Dartmouth charged with a very secret mission and with a very clear design as to how to accomplish it. But when he sets eyes on Lizzie again and overhears her telling a friend that while she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather like to be a widow because of the freedom it would afford her, Jamie realises that his schemes could offer up a hitherto unforeseen benefit. He offers Lizzie exactly what she wants, telling her that he will shortly be leaving England for the Antipodes, where he will be stationed for eight years and where the chances he will meet an early death are highly likely. If they marry, Lizzie will have her independence and also the income from the house and lands he has recently purchased – property he doesn’t want to bequeath to his smarmy cousin. Lizzie is a little suspicious at first; all the gain is on her side and she can’t see what Jamie will be getting out of the agreement, but he manages to persuade her and they are married a couple of days later.

Neither of them is really prepared for the passion that sparks between them on their wedding night, and both of them realise that perhaps letting go is going to be harder than they at first thought. But Jamie is committed and leaves on schedule, asking Lizzie to do one thing for him, which is not to live at the house, Glass Cottage, because it is in a state of disrepair and isn’t really fit to be lived in. Lizzie doesn’t understand this, as she has already fallen in love with the place and has designs to put things to rights, but as this is likely the last thing Jamie will ever ask of her, she agrees… until events conspire to change her mind and suspicions begin to take root.

I can’t really say much more about the plot without giving spoilers, although as this is a romance novel, I think it’s fairly obvious that Jamie hasn’t told Lizzie the truth about his plans to sail to the other side of the world. But overall, I’m afraid I liked the IDEA of the story more than the story itself, because in order for it to work, Jamie – who really does care for Lizzie, and can be rather a charming chap – has to treat her really badly and allow her to go through some pretty horrible experiences so that he can carry out his mission to bring down the dangerous smuggling ring that is operating from somewhere near Glass Cottage. I could understand that, as a member of the military, he was operating under orders, but it didn’t make him an easy character to like. Mind you, Lizzie isn’t especially likeable, either, being the sort of heroine who is so set on being independent and doing things Her Way, that she makes poor decisions and doesn’t listen to good advice. Instead of coming off as practical and determined, she frequently seems childish and petulant, and as though she’s doing things because other people don’t want her to rather than because they’re the right thing to do.

The romance storyline occurs primarily in the first half of the book, because the two protagonists are separated for most of the second. I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, but it seems to me that Ms. Essex has used their previous association as a kind of “shorthand”, because the relationship is never really developed. Jamie and Lizzie see each other again and both suffer a bad case of insta-lust, but other than the physical, it’s difficult to see what attracts them to one another. Jamie likes Lizzie’s spirit and respects her desire for independence (good for him on that one) and Lizzie feels that Jamie is the one person who really knows and understands her – but these are things we’re told and asked to accept, rather than things we can experience along with the characters.

The smuggling plotline which drives the second half of The Pursuit of Pleasure is intriguing, although the identity of the villains is pretty obvious from the start, and there are a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story on several occasions. The storyline has a lot of potential, but falls down in the execution, and that, combined with the not-too-likeable characters and weak romance make this a book I can’t really recommend.

Of One Heart (St. Briac #2) by Cynthia Wright (audiobook) – Narrated by Tim Cambell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A BATTLE FOR POSSESSION

… in which the beautiful young French widow Michelene Tevoulere becomes the pawn in a royal scheme involving England’s King Henry VIII and the court of France’s Francois I.

A BATTLE FOR POWER

… in which handsome young Earl of Sandhurst is betrothed against his will to the bewitching Michelen but conceives an even grander plot to outwit the kings and test both Michelene’s honor and her sensuality.

A BATTLE FOR PASSION

… in which the splendid Michelene finds the very depths of her womanhood aroused and tormented by a man her body adores but her mind resists.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – C-

Of One Heart (originally titled A Battle for Love) is the second in Cynthia Wright’s St. Briac series and was originally published in 1986. It’s set in Paris and London in 1532/3 and charts the romance between an English Marquess and the beautiful young French widow he is ordered to marry, sight unseen. I am a big fan of the arranged marriage trope, and given I’m a bit of a Francophile to boot, I thought I’d find much here to enjoy. Sadly, however, I found a dull story that is stretched out for far too long, a couple of cardboard cut-out protagonists, a romance that isn’t particularly romantic and an ending so ridiculous that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s largely thanks to the engaging performance by Tim Campbell that I was able to make it to the end without falling asleep.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Love With a Scottish Outlaw (Highland Weddings #3) by Gayle Callen

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The last thing clan chief Duncan Carlyle expects to encounter in the rain-soaked highlands was Catriona Duff, daughter of the corrupt earl responsible for the price on his head. Yet Duncan finds himself sheltering the beauty who claims to have lost her memory. Catriona could be the key to stopping her father, but only if Duncan can keep her identity—and his dangerously powerful desire—to himself.

Duncan may have rescued Catriona, but the gruff outlaw clearly doesn’t trust her. She’s moved by his mission to rescue kidnapped children, but hiding in a network of caves means living in close quarters with everyone—including Duncan. And even as Catriona struggles to remember her past, the present draws her ever closer to this enigmatic man…and to the secret that could change everything.

Rating: C

I said, somewhere in a review in the dim and distant past, that I’m not a great fan of Scottish-set romances because the plotlines are generally so formulaic.  You know the sort of thing – Girl from Clan X meets Boy from Clan Y and they fall in love even though their respective clans are deadly enemies.  Girl from Clan X is usually all flashing eyed, flame-haired feistiness; Boy from Clan Y is a kilted hunk who is filled with lust in spite of his distrust of Girl from Clan X because of who her father is.  Yes, all romances are formulaic to an extent, but for some reason, most of those set north of the border (with the notable exception of Grace Burrowes’ MacGregor series) don’t deviate much from that particular plotline.  And I’m afraid that Love with a Scottish Outlaw sticks pretty much to that pattern.

In the first book in Gayle Callen’s Highland Weddings series, the heroine, Catriona Duff was The Wrong Bride because her nasty uncle, the Earl of Aberfoyle, had manipulated the hero, Hugh McCallum into making off with her in the belief that Riona was his (Aberfoyle’s) daughter instead of his niece.  Hugh and Riona fell in love, which risked the fragile accord between the Duffs (family name of the earls of Aberfoyle) and the McCallums being broken and would likely lead to bloodshed.  Fortunately, the earl’s son, Owen, stepped up to marry Hugh’s sister, Maggie, and thus averted armed conflict between the clans.

So now it’s turn for the other Catriona Duff – known as Cat – to get her HEA with a Hunky Highlander, who duly arrives in the form of the eponymous Scottish outlaw, Duncan Carlyle.  When he tried to speak out against the disgusting practice of rounding up the local orphaned (and some not-so-orphaned) children and selling them as slaves to plantation owners in the Americas, Duncan was not believed by those in authority, who were clearly taking back-handers from the people behind the practice, the most notable of which was Aberfoyle.  Duncan was arrested, and when he escaped, a price was put on his head, and he now lives in the caves beneath the ruins of his ancestral home with only a few trusted clansmen and women, unwilling to live on his estate and thereby endanger the other members of his clan.

He is riding to the caves when he comes across a bedraggled and injured woman staggering across his path.  He has nowhere else to take her but the caves – fortunately, she is in no fit state to take note of his route, but he is cautious even so, for he has recognised her as the daughter of his greatest enemy, the Earl of Aberfoyle.  The woman, however, has no idea of who, what or where she is; she doesn’t know her name or how she came to be lying in the mud alongside two dead men close to where Duncan finds her.  Duncan decides that concealing Cat’s whereabouts will give Aberfoyle a taste of the sort of heartbreak he doles out to others by kidnapping their children, and thinks that perhaps he can turn the situation to his advantage later on; but for now, he concentrates on getting her to the caves so her injuries can be tended to.

Most of the first half of the book consists of Cat lusting after Duncan while telling herself that it’s not fair on either of them to start something while she has no idea of who she is; and Duncan lusting after Cat in spite of the fact that her father is his enemy AND his guilt over the fact that he knows who she is and hasn’t told her.

When she is able to, Cat mucks in with the women in the caves, cooking, cleaning, washing and mending while learning more about Duncan’s schemes to thwart the child-traffickers and his method of supporting his clan by ‘diverting’ the shipments of smuggled whisky that frequently cross Carlyle lands.

Of course, when she remembers everything and realises that Duncan has lied to her, Cat is furious with him, but can’t deny that she admires his dedication to his clan and most particularly to freeing the kidnapped children and either reuniting them with their families or finding them good homes.  She’s in love with him, of course, but can’t trust him ever again – and without trust, there can never be anything between them.  Fortunately, love finds a way.

I finished reading Love With a Scottish Outlaw only a few hours before starting this review, and already I am finding it difficult to recall much about the book, other than the first names of the principal characters, that much of the story takes place in a cave and that there’s a sub-plot about child-slavers.  And while the latter is an interesting plot choice, it feels like a tacked-on development in order to give Duncan something suitably heroic to do – otherwise, he’d just be lurking around his caves all day.

The two central characters are bland, and there’s little chemistry between them; we briefly meet Cat’s brother, Owen, and his sometimes clairvoyant wife, Maggie – who, luckily (!) has had a premonition that Cat and Duncan will be together and happy – but quite honestly, the whole book is an unmemorable and somewhat formulaic addition to what has been a just average series, and I’m not going to recommend it.

Royally Matched (Royally #2) by Emma Chase (audiobook) – Narrated by Andi Arndt and Shane East

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Some men are born responsible, some men have responsibility thrust upon them. Henry John Edgar Thomas Pembrook, Prince of Wessco, just got the motherlode of all responsibility dumped in his regal lap.

He’s not handling it well.

Hoping to help her grandson to rise to the occasion, Queen Lenora agrees to give him “space”—but while the Queen’s away, the Prince will play. After a chance meeting with an American television producer, Henry finally makes a decision all on his own:

Welcome to Matched: Royal Edition.

A reality TV dating game show featuring twenty of the world’s most beautiful blue bloods gathered in the same castle. Only one will win the diamond tiara, only one will capture the handsome prince’s heart.

While Henry revels in the sexy, raunchy antics of the contestants as they fight, literally, for his affection, it’s the quiet, bespectacled girl in the corner—with the voice of an angel and a body that would tempt a saint—who catches his eye.

The more Henry gets to know Sarah Mirabelle Zinnia Von Titebottum, the more enamored he becomes of her simple beauty, her strength, her kind spirit… and her naughty sense of humor.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day—and irresponsible royals aren’t reformed overnight.

As he endeavors to right his wrongs, old words take on whole new meanings for the dashing Prince. Words like, Duty, Honor and most of all—Love.

Rating: Narration – A (Shane East)/B (Andi Arndt) Content – C+

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I picked up Royally Matched. There seems to be a current fad for fake-British royals in romances, in which authors seem to think it’s okay to mangle British history and geography just so they can employ the trappings of the monarchy in their stories. For her Royally series, author Emma Chase appears to have carved up the UK to create the kingdom of Wessco (which sounds like a supermarket chain). I gather it has ties to England and Scotland that go back to medieval times – so where is it? A rock in the North Sea? A bit of Scotland that has somehow become independent, referendum notwithstanding? I’m sorry, I know this is a rom-com and most people probably don’t care, but I live here (the UK, not a rock in the North Sea) and things like this BUG me!

Anyway. In the previous book, the Crown Prince, Nicholas, stepped aside from the succession in order to marry the woman he loved, leaving his younger brother Harry Henry as heir to their grandmother, the formidable Queen Lenora. Henry has always been the “other” one, the rebel who likes to party long and hard, the one who doesn’t care about tradition and rules – and the one most likely to fuck up. But now, he’s faced with the prospect of becoming king one day, and he’s not adjusting at all well.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Pleasures of Passion (Sinful Suitors #4) by Sabrina Jeffries

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When Niall Lindsey, the Earl of Margrave, was forced to flee after killing a man in a duel, he expected Brilliana Trevor to wait for him. Seven years later, Niall has returned, disillusioned and cynical – so being blackmailed by the government into helping his former love catch a counterfeiter connected to her father doesn’t improve his mood.

The now widowed Brilliana wants nothing to do with the reckless rogue who she believes abandoned her to a dreary, loveless life, but she will do anything to save her father. Yet as their fake engagement brings long-buried feelings to the surface, can she let go of the old hurt and put her pride aside? And will the pleasures of their renewed passion enable them both to rediscover love?

Rating: C+

The Pleasures of Passion is the fourth book in Sabrina Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors series, and it brings to a close the plotline that has run through all the books so far, that of Niall Lindsey, the Earl of Margrave who, seven years before this book opens, killed a man in a duel and was forced to flee the country as a result. Because parts of Niall’s story were revealed in the other books – most notably book two, The Study of Seduction – there will be spoilers in this review.

Before the fateful duel took place, Niall had met and fallen in love with seventeen-year-old Brilliana Payne, but because she was not yet out in society they kept their relationship a secret. Niall planned to ask for her hand as soon as he could court her openly, but because of the duel, he instead asks her to leave with him that very day as he cannot afford to linger in England. Brilliana – or Bree, as Niall nicknames her – is distraught and confused as well as concerned for her mother’s failing health and in the end tells him she can’t go with him – but they part with a sort of vague agreement that she will join him as soon as it’s possible for her to do so.

When, just a few months later, Niall learns that Bree has married someone else, the suspicions planted by his father before he left – that she didn’t want to accompany him because she would then be unable to enjoy her position as a viscountess and move about in society – took root, and over the years of his exile he became accustomed to thinking of her as having wanted him for his rank and fortune rather than himself.

For her part, Bree hears the rumours that quickly begin to circulate after Niall’s flight – that he and his opponent had duelled over another woman – and believes he had been merely toying with her affections. Nonetheless, she can’t stop loving him, and rejects other offers for her hand, until her father promises her to Reynold Trevor as payment for the large gambling debt he owes the man’s father.

Seven years later, Bree is a widow with a young son, and Niall has secured a pardon thanks to the intervention of a high-ranking Home Office official, Lord Fulkham, the spymaster for whom Niall had worked on numerous occasions while living abroad. We witnessed the first, awkward meeting between the former lovers in the previous book, The Danger of Desire, and at the opening of this one, they are still wary of each other and labouring under the misapprehensions fostered by Niall’s late father and society gossip.

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

The Duke of Defiance (The Untouchables #5) by Darcy Burke

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Difficult and defiant as a child, Bran Crowther, Earl of Knighton left England as a young man to pursue independence and adventure. He never expected to inherit the title and when duty calls him home, he still finds Society’s codes constricting and others’ expectations oppressive. Nevertheless, he needs a wife to be a mother to his young daughter, preferably a woman of intelligence and warmth who is, above all, immune to his idiosyncrasies—and to falling in love.

Widow Joanna Shaw isn’t interested in a second marriage, not after the loveless, passionless union she endured. She’d much rather dote on her young niece and nephew since they will likely be the only children in her life…until she meets a precocious girl, in desperate need of a mother. But her father, the so-called Duke of Defiance, is as peculiar as he is handsome, and Jo won’t take another risk with her heart. Their rules, however, are made to be broken, even when the consequences could destroy them both.

Rating: C

I haven’t read all the books in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and can confidently say that each book works as a standalone.  The Duke of Defiance features a new central couple and briefly re-introduces readers to the “Untouchables”, gentlemen so named by their heroines because their lofty positions in society meant they were well beyond their touch.  Although as things have turned out, they obviously weren’t 😉

Mrs. Joanna Shaw is the widowed sister of Nora, the Duchess of Kendal, who was the heroine of book one, The Forbidden Duke.  Joanna – Jo – was unhappily married to a country clergyman for around eight years, and is now living with Nora while she decides what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  At thirty-one, she is still lovely and her position as the sister of a duchess gives her a certain cachet in society – but she is not sure if she wants to remarry.  Her late husband’s emotional cruelty has naturally soured her view of the institution, and her inability to conceive a child during eight years of marriage makes her a less attractive prospect as a wife.

Bran Crowther, the Earl of Knighton was a third son who never expected to inherit his father’s title.  But the recent deaths of his two elder brothers necessitates his return to England from the successful life he had built for himself in Barbados, and he and his five-year-old daughter, Evie, are finding it difficult to adjust.  Fortunately, however, Evie has found a good friend in Becky, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kendal, and when Bran arrives to collect Evie from a play date, he meets Mrs. Shaw and is immediately struck by her wit and good sense, as well as by her beauty.

Bran and Jo are attracted to each other, and their interactions are nicely judged and generally very honest.  They are initially brought together when Nora offers to help Bran to find a new nurse for Evie and then has to send Jo in her stead.  Bran is pleased to discover that Jo’s views fit with his own, and also finds her comments about the dos and don’ts of London society very helpful as he tries to settle into his new life.  When he – and Evie – practically beg Jo to become Evie’s governess, she finds she cannot refuse, even as she knows that being in close proximity to Bran day after day is not a good idea.  But she has come to love Evie as she is coming to love the girl’s father, and agrees to a trial period, trying not to think about what will happen when Bran eventually takes a wife who will be able to give him more children and, most importantly, an heir.

Jo’s concern about her lack of fertility is the main source of conflict in the romance, and it’s one I’m not particularly fond of.  The women in such stories always blame themselves without any reason to do so other than that they’re women and therefore the fault must lie with them!  Bran at least has the sense to suggest that it might not be Jo’s fault, but she is naturally very sensitive about it, and isn’t prepared to let him take the risk that she won’t be able to give him any more children.  Her belief is not helped by the insecurities about her womanliness fostered in her by her late husband, but it’s nonetheless a plot point that always makes me roll my eyes.

Bran is a no-nonsense sort of person, and his years of living away from the strictures of London society have made him careless of convention and proper behaviour.  He thinks nothing of allowing Evie to go without shoes when they are at home – to the intense disapproval of some of his starchier servants – or of divesting himself of cravat and coat in front of Jo, when it is certainly not the done thing to ‘disrobe’ in front of a lady.  (Not that Jo minds, of course😉)  When he describes how clothes make him “itchy” and then explains how, as a child, his mother regarded him as defiant because he refused to wear clothing or eat what he was given; how he could never sit still or remain in bed all night, I thought Ms. Burke may have been setting him up as someone with a condition such as ADHD or on the Autistic Spectrum, but this is never made clear.  Jo comes to recognise and accept Bran’s quirks, but other than having been brought up by an extremely harsh, unforgiving mother and a father who didn’t bother with his third son, we’re not really given much of an explanation for them, and for the most part they are just glossed over.  There’s an implication that Evie, too, has anxiety issues, but these are handled in more or less the same way.

And on the subject of Evie, much of the time she comes across as much older than the five years of age she is supposed to be.  At one point, she tells her father: “I was certain you might be falling in love” – which sounds more like a teenager, for instance, and she reads as more of a plot-moppet than a real child.  Children are hard to write well (Grace Burrowes is one of the very few romance authors who is able to get it right) and I’m afraid Ms. Burke has missed the mark. She’s also way off the mark when it comes to the master/servant relationship that should exist between Bran and Jo. He pretty much treats her as the mistress of the house as soon as she sets foot in it, assigning her a bedchamber in the family wing, a maid of her own, and insisting upon her eating meals with him, to name just a few things no over governess would have been granted. I get that Bran is supposed to be unfamiliar with society customs but Jo should know better and allows Bran to wave aside her very weak protests.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book does work as a standalone, but information about previous characters and situations is given in obvious info-dumps, rather than evolving naturally; and while the good-natured teasing between the four heroes of the previous books is one of the best things about the this one, it felt like overkill for all four of them to just happen to be around in order to meet Bran.

While the writing is strong and the love scenes are sensual, The Duke of Defiance is, sadly one of the weaker entries in this series. I do plan to read more by Darcy Burke, but I’m going to chalk this one up as a misfire.