How to Fake it in Hollywood by Ava Wilder (audiobook) – Narrated by Thérèse Plummer & Andrew Eiden

how to fake it in hollywood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Grey Brooks is on a mission to keep her career afloat now that the end of her long-running teen TV show has her (unsuccessfully) pounding the pavement again. With a life-changing role on the line, she’s finally desperate enough to agree to her publicist’s scheme: Fake a love affair with a disgraced Hollywood heartthrob who needs the publicity, but for very different reasons.

Ethan Atkins just wants to be left alone. Between his high-profile divorce, struggles with drinking, and grief over the death of his longtime creative partner and best friend, Ethan has slowly let himself fade into the background. But if he ever wants to produce the last movie he and his partner wrote together, Ethan needs to clean up his reputation and step back into the spotlight. A gossip-inducing affair with a gorgeous actress might be just the ticket, even if it’s the last thing he wants to do.

Though their juicy public relationship is less than perfect behind the scenes, it doesn’t take long before Grey and Ethan’s sizzling chemistry starts to feel like more than just an act. But after decades in a ruthless industry that requires bulletproof emotional armor to survive, are they too used to faking it to open themselves up to the real thing?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

If you read my reviews regularly, you’ll know that m/f contemporary romance has never been something I gravitate towards, but the occasional one does catch my eye now and then, and Ava Wilder’s début romance, How to Fake it in Hollywood, is one of those. I picked it up on a whim  because I’d read a couple of reviews that intrigued me – and, okay, also because of Andrew Eiden.

On the surface, it’s your basic bad-boy meets good-girl story with a fake-dating trope thrown in, but there’s a bit more going on beneath, especially because both leads are carrying a lot of baggage which trips them up several times along the road to their eventual HFN. Grey Brooks – whose real name is Emily – is twenty-seven and has been working in front of the camera for two decades. The successful teen drama in which she’d played the lead ended eight months earlier, and although she’s done the odd bit part here and there, she’s yet to land another decent role. Together with her best friend Kamilah, Grey is drafting a script based on a best-selling novel and they’re planning to direct (Kamilah) and star (Grey) once they can get the project greenlit. Now, though, Grey is up for a role in a major fantasy franchise, but she’s been out of the spotlight for a while and profile counts in this business, so her publicist comes up with a way to increase her chances of getting the part and getting backing for the movie further down the road.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Holidays in Blue by Eve Morton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sometimes it takes a little ice to discover a whole lot of heat.

Cosmin Tessler is going home for Christmas. Eric Campbell is too.

Neither expected a homecoming quite like this.

When Cosmin Tessler’s radio show is canceled and Eric Campbell’s acting jobs dry up, they find themselves unexpectedly back in their old Toronto neighborhood…and back in each other’s lives years after they’d gone their separate ways. With a series of failed relationships and one ill-advised marriage behind them, both believe their chance for love has come and gone.

Luck, in the form of a massive ice storm, throws the former neighbors together again and they find themselves stranded, alone, for Christmas. Despite their difference in age, long-ago crushes and undeniable attraction prove too much to resist. But when the ice melts, only time will tell if their burgeoning romance will become just another missed chance—or a love story whose time has finally come.

Rating: C

Début author Eve Morton’s Holidays in Blue is billed by Carina Press as a “forced proximity Christmas romance” and the blurb goes on to say how the two principal characters find themselves stranded together for Christmas.  Some of my favourite seasonal romances use that particular trope, so I decided to pick up this book for review, expecting a lot of snow, a bit of awkwardness and flirting, plenty of sexual tension and a Christmassy atmosphere… and this book contains exactly NONE of those things.  Okay, so it’s an ice storm rather than snow that strands the guys together,  but when a book is billed as a “Christmas romance” I think it’s reasonable to expect it to have a) a Christmas feel to it and b) some romance in it – no?

Cosmin Tessler and Eric Campbell lived across the street from each other maybe twenty years before but never really knew each other that well, because Cosmin is around a decade older and moved away while Eric was still in school.  But the age gap didn’t stop Eric from developing a crush on Cosmin, and it was thanks to watching Cosmin and his boyfriend making out one night (in the front seat of the bf’s car) that kind of cemented his suspicions that he wasn’t completely straight.

Eric became an actor and for a while starred in a (not-very-good) TV show, but seems now to spend most of his time failing auditions and narrating audiobooks, while Cosmin went on to become a teacher, writer, and radio personality.

The pair meet again – very briefly – when Eric is tending bar at the radio station’s Christmas party.  Cosmin has just received the news that his contract is not being renewed so he goes to the bar for a drink.  He’s been thinking all night that Eric looked familiar but wasn’t able to place him;  Eric re-introduces himself, but Cosmin is quite rude to him and leaves.

They don’t see each other again until around a quarter of the way into the book, after Cosmin returns to his family home intending to sort through his recently deceased father’s possessions (and to look for the papers relating to his adoption) and Eric goes home for Christmas a few days early (his family is away visiting his sister, but will be back by Christmas Eve).  Hearing the news of a coming ice storm on the radio, Eric, who doesn’t realise George Tessler has died, decides to go over there to check the old man is okay, and is pleasantly surprised to be greeted by Cosmin instead. The ice storm sets in quickly after that, and strands them together for a couple of nights.

That’s the set up, but what follows is far more the story of one man coming to terms with his father’s death and the other working through his feelings over his failed marriage than it is a romance.  The author has some interesting things to say about grief and loss and moving on, but it’s very… cerebral (which does fit with Cosmin’s character), and while I did enjoy Cosmin’s journey as he comes to learn and understand his father more than he had done in life, it does give the story a more melancholy feel than I expected.

Cosmin’s story is the dominant one and we get a lot more insight into his situation than into Eric’s, but he has a journey to make, too. In his case, it’s learning to forgive himself for some of the things he did which led to the breakdown of his marriage, and to stop seeing himself in terms of failure.

Holidays in Blue does have some things going for it – the writing is generally good  and sometimes lyrical (although some of the sex scenes felt as though the author wasn’t comfortable writing them), but the pacing is off; sometimes things move really slowly, and at others, they go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye.  An example – Cosmin and Eric don’t really interact until the twenty-three percent mark; at thirty-three, they’re making out and talking about fucking.  If I’d had a print book, I think I’d have been flipping through the pages looking for the missing chapters!

The biggest problem with it, however, is that the romance is a complete non-starter.   There’s no chemistry between Cosmin and Eric, no real connection and very little by way of romantic development.  At a rough estimate, they spend about half the book apart (possibly a bit more) and  I didn’t feel I got to know either of them outside of Cosmin’s grief and Eric’s self-recrimination – and I didn’t feel they got to know each other outside of that either.  Plus, they’re not “stranded, alone, for Christmas”.  They spend two days and nights together (before Christmas) and then go their separate ways until the reunite in the penultimate chapter.

Ultimately, the book tries to be too many things and loses sight of the one thing that should have been front and centre.  There’s a sub-plot concerning a friend of Cosmin’s whose daughter has an eating disorder and who has to be admitted to hospital, and another about Eric and an unexpected windfall (and the way he spends the money he inherited made no sense to me whatsoever).  The book addresses a lot of important issues – grief, adoption, infidelity (there’s no cheating in the story) unemployment, anorexia, to name a few, but it’s too much for a book of just over two hundred pages, and it’s the romance that suffers and is squeezed out.

When it comes down to it, this isn’t a romance novel; it’s a story of self-discovery and learning to move on after loss that happens to have a romantic sub-plot. (And not a very good one at that).  Needless to say, I can’t recommend it.

The Roommate by Rosie Danan (audiobook) – Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Clara Wheaton is the consummate good girl: over-achieving, well-mannered, utterly predictable. When her childhood crush invites her to move across the country, the offer is too good to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

Suddenly, Clara finds herself sharing a house with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive – not to mention handsome – for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the internet . . .

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realises living with him might destroy the reputation she’s spent years building. But while they may not agree on much, both Josh and Clara believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

InThe Roommate, début author Rosie Danan takes the classic uptight-meets-laid-back trope, mixes in a little of the close-proximity trope and adds a touch of insightful comment to produce a thoroughly enjoyable, cute and sexy rom-com.

Trust-fund baby and east coast socialite Clara Wheaton has had a crush on her best friend Everett Bloom since childhood. Their families move in the same social circles and seem to expect them to get together, but more than twenty years have gone by and Everett shows no sign of getting with that particular program. When he suggests to Clara that she should “follow her bliss” and move across the country to California and live with him (platonically) she decides to do it. All her life she’s been the quiet one, the responsible one, the one who did everything right while her other family members caused scandal after scandal, and she decides it’s time for her to get out from under her mother’s shadow and do something for herself for a change. Unfortunately for Clara, Everett is an oblivious dickhead; he collects her from the airport with the news that he’s off on tour with his (not hugely successful) rock group and that he’s sub-let his part of the house for the summer. So she’ll be living with a complete stranger. Great.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spare by Miranda Dubner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“I’m publicly bisexual now, I’ll make all the musical theatre references I please. I’ll belt Cole Porter songs prancing on top of this bar if I want to.” —His Royal Highness Prince Edward Nicholas William Desmond, second son of Her Majesty Queen Victoria II of England and the Commonwealth.

The second son of the Queen of England has certain responsibilities. Dress well, smile at public events, uphold the family honor, be straight. At sixteen, Edward Kensington had been convinced that hiding his bisexuality was a small price to pay to protect his mother and siblings from yet another tabloid scandal in the wake of his parents’ high-profile divorce. But over ten years later, even a closet the size of Buckingham Palace feels small, and his secrets have only gotten harder to keep. Like being in love with his bodyguard—a man by the name of Isaac Cole.

Then he’s outed by the press.

The official schedule has no time for an identity crisis, even though every member of the royal family seems to be having one at once. Eddie’s estranged father shows up. His sister flirts with the reporter hired to write their grandmother’s biography. His older brother, harboring a secret of his own, is more reluctant than ever to take up public-facing duties, and Her Majesty is considering going out on a date. And now the Public Relations Office has set Eddie the task of finding himself a suitable fiancée.

But when Eddie learns that Isaac returns his decidedly inconvenient feelings, keeping calm and carrying on becomes impossible. Prince Charming never wished harder for a men’s size 12 glass slipper, but life in the spotlight isn’t a fairy tale, and there are some dragons not even a prince can fight alone. For any one of them to steal a happily ever after, the Kensingtons will have to pull together for the first time since the Second World War.

Hold on to your tiaras. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Rating: A-

I’m not a royal-watcher, and as a rule, I’m not a fan of royal romances.  Of those I’ve read (and that isn’t a large number) the only one that really worked for me was Lilah Pace’s His Royal Secret/His Royal Favorite duology, and a big part of that was because the author had taken care to set the story in an AU (alternate) but recognisable contemporary Britain in which all the important things (like the two world wars) still happened, but the royal line had taken a different direction. When I read the synopsis for Miranda Dubner’s début novel The Spare I was intrigued by the storyline and pleased to see that the book is also set in carefully constructed AU.  I decided to give it a try, and I’m very glad I did.

HRH Edward Nicholas William Desmond Kensington, second son of Queen Victoria II – and the eponymous spare – arrives, somewhat apprehensively, at the Royal Opera House to attend a performance at which his mother, his sister Alexandra, and various other society luminaries will also be present. Handsome, suave, charming Edward is the real ‘people person’ of the next generation of royals; he’s always been the one to deflect unwanted attention with a quip or able to turn an awkward conversation with a well-placed question or anecdote, and going to a royal gala is nothing he hasn’t done a hundred times before.  But this time is different.  A couple of weeks earlier, he was forcibly outed when a tabloid printed a photograph of him, taken when he was at university, which clearly shows him in an embrace with another man.  This is his first public appearance since the story broke, and while he knows all too well he’s going to be the subject of hushed gossip and hurriedly-stopped conversations, he doesn’t know how bad it’s going to be.  He’s bisexual, and his family is aware of it; and while he wanted to come out, he knows there was never going to be a good time for him to do it and has been holding off for the sake of his family, which has suffered enough scandal in the past decade due to his parents’ divorce, the first ever involving a reigning monarch – but the rainbow cat is well and truly out of the bag now and the fallout has to be dealt with.

The Palace communications team is, of course, keen to mitigate the damage, and they suggest Eddie squashes the “ugly rumours” by being seen with a suitable (and carefully vetted) young woman he could believably form a “long connection” with. Even as he knew this was going to be the likely response, and that he has no alternative but to do what is being asked of him – just like he always has – internally, he’s railing against the frustration that he can do nothing about the invasion of privacy he’s suffered, the demand that he continue to deny who he really is – and that he still has to hide the fact that for the last eight years, he’s been in love with a former SAS officer by the name of Isaac Cole. Who happens to be his principal protection officer.  His bodyguard.

The first part of the novel offers readers a good insight into the relationship between Eddie and Isaac (although I can’t deny I’d have liked it to have been fleshed out a little more), and offers a bit of their backstory and an explanation for exactly how and why they have become so close.  Isaac is every bit as gone for Eddie as vice versa, but he’s never been anything but professional around him, has never overstepped any boundaries… until the night a bomb goes off at a high-profile London club – with Eddie in the middle of it.

I’m not going to give more specifics about the plot, because there’s a lot of it.  The synopsis for The Spare talks more about the romance between Eddie and Isaac than about anything else in the book, but after the bombing, the focus widens and it becomes more of a family drama. Eddie and Isaac are at the heart of the story; even when they’re separated for a chunk of the second half, the depth of their longing for one another is always there in the background – but there’s a lot more going on than just their romance.  One of the people Eddie has been trying so hard to protect from the media spotlight over the years is his older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, who has recently been pretty much ordered to leave the job he loves with the RAF and come back to join the circus (the real royals refer to The Firm; here, it’s The Circus, which is a good alternative!) and who is quiet, reserved  and not as well-equipped as Eddie to deal with life in the goldfish bowl of media attention. There’s his sister Alexandra, whom the media has labelled self-absorbed and empty-headed, and his complicated, conflicting feelings about his father, whose addictions and infidelities eventually led to the end of his marriage, but whom Eddie can’t quite bring himself to hate.  All these other storylines are really well done and all the characters – from the principal players down to the smallest bit-parts – are superbly fleshed-out, making it easy to become invested in them and their stories.  I ended up loving the book, but I realise it may not work as well for others because of the wider focus than one normally expects in a romance.

The author has obviously done her homework (her author’s note is well worth reading), looking into the way the Royal Family works and various customs and protocols (and has adapted some of them in a way that makes them perfectly plausible), but unfortunately this makes the Americanisms – fall, fawcet, trash, diaper, ass – seriously, this sentence: “A bunch of politicians who think I’m an idiot are going to surreptitiously stare at my ass” will make any British person wonder why a bunch of politicians are going to stare at a donkey; using “school” to mean higher education and describing Isaac as a “upperclassman” –  stick out like sore thumbs.  It’s a shame, when Ms. Dubner has clearly worked very hard on giving the novel the ring of authenticity, to be let down by things like that, but I understand corrections will be made in future editions.

There are places where the book could have done with a stronger editorial hand, a few scenes that didn’t seem to accomplish anything or go anywhere, and perhaps a couple that could have been reserved for later books (the author implies in her author’s note that there could be more to come).

Ultimately however, I really enjoyed The Spare and raced through it in a couple of sittings.  It’s sharply observant, especially when it comes to the workings of today’s media and how vicious it can be;  it’s funny – the banter is fresh and witty – and there are some incredibly poignant moments, some of them coming from a quarter you’d least expect.  The plot does get a bit soapy towards the end, and there was one thing that I side-eyed hard, but in the end, I was enjoying the book so much, I decided to go with the flow.

Part romance, part family drama, The Spare may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it worked well for me in spite of its flaws.  I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more from Miranda Dubner.

Well Met (Well Met #1) by Jen DeLuca (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C+

There was quite a bit of pre-publication buzz about Jen Deluca’s Well Met, and positive reviews together with the fact that I’ve enjoyed Brittany Pressley’s work in the past suggested it would be an audiobook I’d enjoy, so I requested a copy for review. The final verdict? Mixed feelings. The narration is excellent, but the story and characters felt somewhat underdeveloped. I also missed the dual PoV that’s common in so many contemporary romances. There’s a reason we don’t get the hero’s perspective, but the lack of it does make him seem rather two-dimensional, which, for a hero-centric reader/listener like me, wasn’t ideal.

After losing her job and breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Emily has temporarily relocated to the small Maryland town of Willow Creek to be with her older sister, who is recuperating from a car accident. She figures it’s as good a place as any to lick her wounds and figure out where she goes from here. Emily has also assumed the role of ‘Adult in Charge’ when it comes to her niece, Caitlin, and when the story opens has driven her to the local high school on a Saturday morning so that Caitlin can sign up to take part in the town’s annual Renaissance Faire. Cait is very excited about joining the faire for the first time – but Emily isn’t so enthusiastic when she’s informed that because her niece is only fourteen, she won’t be able to ‘do Faire’ unless she’s accompanied by an adult. Gah! But what can Emily do? Cait is so excited and would be SO disappointed not to be able to take part so Emily agrees… although her first glimpse of the gorgeous Mitch – “Tall, blond, muscled, with a great head of hair and a tight T-shirt. Gaston crossed with Captain America with a generic yet mesmerising handsomeness” is what really tips the balance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.

Rating: B-

May Peterson’s début novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is an intricately constructed gothic fantasy with an intriguing storyline, set in a world that reminded me somewhat of eighteenth century Italy where dark secrets lurk behind the scenes, political backstabbing is rife and influential families jostle for power.  Adding to that particular vibe is the fact that one of the main characters is an opera singer, and I loved the way his vocal talent is incorporated into the fabric of the world the author has created.  In fact, I liked almost all the different elements that went to make up the novel – the worldbuilding, the characters, the plot – but ‘almost’ is the key word there, because there are two fairly major problems I couldn’t overlook.  Firstly, Ms. Peterson’s writing style just didn’t work for me – which I recognise is entirely subjective – and secondly, the romance isn’t well-developed; it springs almost fully formed out of nowhere and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between the leads.

Mio is the son of Serafina Gianbellici, a powerful witch whose ambition is to control the government of the city of Vermagna, which she does by learning the secrets of its members and using that knowledge to keep them in line. In this world, a mage’s magical power lies in a specific part of the body, and Mio’s lies in his beautiful voice, which he can use to enter someone’s mind and soul to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets – which his mother then uses against them. Mio hates doing what amounts to mind-rape, and hates himself for helping Serafina, but he does it nonetheless, partly because he fears her power and partly because, well… she’s his mother.  On the night the story opens, Mio is pretending to be a footman at the house of Pater Donatelli, Serafina’s latest target, waiting until she calls him inside to sing, when he is accosted by a drunken guest (who mistakes him for a pretty girl) who tries to drag him away.  Mio has barely begun to try to free himself when the man is pulled off him and dunked into a nearby fountain by a large, dark gentleman Mio quickly realises must be a moon-soul, someone brought back from the dead and invested with the spirit of a noble beast (in this case a bear).  Once upon a time, these shape-changing elite had been numerous but now, they are very small in number and coming across one is rare. Feeling unexpectedly comfortable in the man’s presence, Mio decides to take a chance to escape his mother’s machinations once and for all.  Before he is summoned inside, he presses a note into the man’s hand which says just three words: Stop me. Please.

From that intriguing beginning unfolds a story of mystery and magic that builds slowly and kept me guessing as it moved towards a shattering climax.  When Mio finally breaks free of his mother’s control, he runs to the one person ever to make him feel safe  – Rhodry, the moon-soul, who bears a terrible curse he can never escape.  Twists and turns abound as Mio and Rhodry gradually begin to understand the nature of the curse and the dark forces at work in Rhodry’s home; it’s an engrossing story and unlike anything else I’ve read recently.  I liked Mio’s strength and determination – even in the face of his greatest fears – and Rhodry’s dry (sometimes naughty) sense of humour.  I even liked (well, liked to hate!) Mio’s mother, a complex character intent on dominating a world set against her kind who is prepared to use her children while also loving them quite fiercely.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book has a lot going for it.  The worldbuilding, (even though it’s a bit shaky in some areas) the plot, the characters, and the inclusion of a non-binary, femme character in a main role and Rhodry’s unconditional acceptance of Mio for the person he is. But I had problems with the prose, which was overly flowery for my taste; so much so that it often got in the way of the story and the storytelling.  And…er… then there was this:

He fondled my chest, as if feeling the shape of my muscles. Maybe it was good to be so firm. Speaking of firm—he jumped slightly as I took a liberty. Heavens, did he have a bouncy little plum. Sweet cleft, muscle tensing under my grasp—damn, I could hold on to that forever.

bouncy little plum?!  (I’m sorry, but once an author has made me laugh (and not in the good way), during a love scene, they’ve lost me.)  Not only is it ridiculous, it’s so out of character for Rhodry; he’s a big, dark, brooding presence who knocks back whisky like it’s water and swears like a trooper… and he takes “a liberty” and thinks “Heavens!” ?  But it’s also an illustration of the point I was making about language getting in the way and obscuring meaning.  What exactly is Rhodry grasping?  Is the bouncy little plum in question Mio’s arse?  Mio’s cock? A nearby  fruit bowl?

And then there’s the underdeveloped romance. There’s no doubt that by the time Mio and Rhodry are on the same page romantically they care for each other deeply and that they’re both prepared to make extreme sacrifices – their lives if need be – in order to keep the other safe.  But the movement from initial attraction to full-blown love was weak; it’s pretty much insta-lust/love and there was no real build-up of romantic and sexual tension.

Writing this review and grading this novel has been difficult.  Lord of the Last Heartbeat has a lot to offer, and I fully admit that the problem I had with the prose is very subjective.  Ultimately, however,  I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly and honestly recommend a book in which the writing so often gets in the way of the story – although I’m sure there are many readers for whom Ms. Peterson’s writing style will work better than it did for me.

Bringing Down the Duke (League of Extraordinary Women #1) by Evie Dunmore

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Oxford, 1879. A beautiful bluestocking is about to teach a duke a lesson . . .

Brilliant but destitute Annabelle Archer is one of the first female students at Oxford University. In return for her scholarship, she must recruit influential men to champion the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her first target is Sebastian Devereux: cold, calculating and the most powerful duke in England.

When Annabelle and her friends infiltrate his luxurious estate, she’s appalled to find herself attracted to the infuriatingly intelligent aristocrat – but perhaps she’s not the only one struggling with desire. . . Soon Annabelle is locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own. She’ll need to learn fast just what it takes to bring down a duke.

Rating: B+

Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke is the first book in the A League of Extraordinary Women series, and is a very strong début from someone who promises to add a much-needed fresh voice to historical romance.  The writing is sharp and clear, and displays a really good sense of time and place; the characters feel true for the time period, and I was particularly impressed by the heroine, who is forward-thinking and progressive without being one of those contrary-for-the-sake-of-it, look-at-how-unconventional-I-am types who annoy the crap out of me.

Annabelle Archer has lived under the roof of her cousin, a country clergyman, since the death of her parents.  She’s an unpaid skivvy; she keeps house, looks after his children and endures his continual complaints about the fact that her father over-educated her – why on earth would a woman need an education?  So when Annabelle is offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall (in 1878, LMH was the first Oxford college to open its doors to women) he’s  far from pleased, but when she says she’ll fund the cost of a replacement housekeeper (somehow), he begrudgingly allows her to go.

Some months later, we find Annabelle in London with a group of her friends, like-minded young women who, under the leadership of Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, are planning to approach various men of influence with a view to getting them to support changes to the Married Women’s Property Act.  The strategy – identify a man of influence, approach him firmly, but with a smile, and deliver a pamphlet boldly declaring The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife! – isn’t difficult to grasp, but at this period, just walking up to a gentleman unannounced and unchaperoned wasn’t the done thing and could lead to worse things than a refusal to listen.  Annabelle is understandably nervous, but nonetheless determined to do her bit when she notices a man who appears to be exactly the sort of man of influence she needs to approach.

Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, is one of the most powerful and respected men in England.  He  has a reputation for being cold and severe, and devotes most of his time to the running of his numerous estates and is particularly concerned at present with regaining possession of his family seat, Castle Montgomery, which his profligate father lost in a card game.  The Queen (who was, sadly, one of the biggest opponents of female emancipation) promises her support for his cause if he will take on the role of chief strategic advisor for the Tory party in the upcoming election – a job he doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to perform.  But he can’t refuse what is tantamount to a royal command.

When news of his new appointment reaches Lady Lucie’s ears, she realises a change of strategy is required, and that she needs to know more about the duke. To his end, she hatches a plan whereby she, Annabelle and a couple of other ladies will be invited to the house party being held at Claremont, the duke’s country home, with a view to finding out as much about the duke as they can in the attempt to ‘know thine enemy’.

Of course, the house party offers the chance for Sebastian and Annabelle to meet again, and to get to know each other. The spark both felt at their initial meeting really flares to life, and the author does a fantastic job building their romance in a believable manner that enables them to stay true to themselves. Their conversations and interactions are delightful; their flirtations via philosophical discussions and the way Sebastian shows the degree to which he really sees Annabelle through his selection of books for her are completely swoonworthy, and the longing they feel for one another is palpable.

Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, which fits their characters and situations perfectly. Both of them are well aware of the difficulties which lie in the path of a relationship between a duke and a commoner, and unlike so much historical romance, which just sweeps those things under the carpet, the author handles this aspect of the story in a way that feels completely authentic for the period. That said, however, I really don’t like that whole ‘I can’t marry you because I love you too much to ruin you’ thing, which I always feel is one character accusing the other of not knowing his or her own mind – and it’s one of the reasons I couldn’t quite push this up into the DIK bracket. Annabelle’s insistence on self-sacrifice felt out of character and also left Sebastian to do all the hard work while she did nothing to fight for what she wanted. I also felt Sebastian to be somewhat underdeveloped as a character, especially compared to Annabelle, and there are a few places where the pacing is a little off; the circling around one particular issue goes on a little too long, and there are a few plot points (notably one concerning Annabelle’s romantic past) that are under-explored.

On the surface, Bringing Down the Duke is nothing we haven’t seen before – uptight-duty-bound-hero-meets-unconventional-young-woman-who-gets-him-to-loosen-up-a-bit is a well-used plotline. Here though, the author breathes fresh life into the trope by giving her principals a real depth of character that’s been lacking in so many of the historical romances I’ve read lately. Annabelle is fully aware that her pursuit of an education and personal freedom, together with her espousal of the cause of women’s suffrage could have serious consequences for her, but these things are terribly important to her and she’s prepared to fight for them. She’s not loud or flashy (in the manner of Lady Lucie) but she’s no less committed, and her quiet determination adds weight and seriousness to her character and keeps the tone of the story grounded in reality. She’s a different sort of heroine just as Sebastian is a different sort of hero; he isn’t a cold, ruthless man with daddy issues, he’s a man genuinely dedicated to doing the best he can for those he cares for, and there’s the real sense that his association with Annabelle is gradually changing him because she’s opening his eyes to things he hadn’t previously seen or considered. Sebastian and Annabelle’s pasts inform their characters, but they also act according to their own lights and carve their own individuality separately from their upbringings and circumstances.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the (horrible) cover. It appears to be yet another attempt by the marketing folks at persuading potential readers that they won’t get infected by those nasty romance cooties if they read this book in much the same way so many contemporaries (Fix Her Up, The Hating Game, The Right Swipe etc.) are doing at the moment. I confess that I’m not a huge fan of the dress-falling-off-half-naked-clinch covers either, but this one looks like something daubed in a kid’s fingerpainting class!

So don’t judge this book by its cover – or its title, which doesn’t make much sense either. Bringing Down the Duke is an impressive début novel that’s firmly grounded in its historical setting and manages to offer some insightful social comment without bashing the reader over the head with it. The writing is intelligent and accomplished, the central characters are engaging and three-dimensional, and the romance is sensual and tender. I’m looking forward to reading more by Evie Dunmore.

Appetites and Vices (The Truitts #1) by Felicia Grossman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s her ticket into high society…

Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.

A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal.

She’s his ticket out…

Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.

But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off…

Rating: B-

Felicia Grossman’s début historical romance, Appetites & Vices makes use of a setting I’ve not come across before in historical romance – 1840s Delaware – and boasts a couple of interesting, though flawed, central characters who enter into a faux engagement in an attempt to better the social standing of the heroine so she can marry the man of her choice.  There are some things about the plot that didn’t quite work and some odd writing tics that took me out of the story on occasion, but overall it’s a solid outing and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Ms. Grossman’s work.

Ursula Nunes is twenty-one, beautiful, clever and wealthy.  By rights, she should have society at her feet, and she would, but for two things.  One, she says what she thinks and has no social skills whatsoever.  And two – she’s Jewish, which, in Delaware in 1841 puts her pretty much beyond the pale.  She and her dearest friend Hugo Middleton have decided that it would be preferable to marry each other than to marry strangers, but the Middletons are one of the oldest families in society and with Hugo’s father intent on securing personal advancement, won’t countenance Hugo’s marriage to a Jew, no matter how rich she is.

John Thaddeus Truitt V – Jay – comes from a family that is even more prestigious than the Middletons, but that doesn’t mean life is any easier for him.  The only son of a disapproving father who always believes the worst of him, Jay is well aware he’s a disappointment all round and wants nothing more than to take himself off to Europe and never come back.  When he witnesses Ursula and Hugo in intense, whispered conversation and then overhears Ursula muttering to herself about ways she could ingratiate herself with the Middletons , he finds himself fighting back laughter at the incongruity of the idea of a woman as strong and vibrant as Ursula paired with a man so clearly  unsuited to her as Hugo.  But then inspiration strikes – and he has the solution to both their problems.  In spite of his blackened reputation, the Truitt name still counts for something, and if he and Ursula pretend to be engaged to one another, her association with him means she’ll be able to move in the exclusive social circles to which she is currently denied entrance.  And when she jilts him publicly,

“A good faux broken heart will be enough for my parents to stop trying to make me into something I’m not.”

That’s the set-up for the story, and the author does a really good job of exploring the prejudice Ursula encounters because of her birth and the difficulties she faces because she has so little patience with the superficiality of high society.  She wants so badly to belong, but she doesn’t fit in anywhere, not in Hugo’s world, certainly not in Jay’s… and not even in that of her own (Jewish)  family.

Jay is a very troubled young man who feels that nothing he ever does will be good enough and is so weighed down by guilt that all he wants to do is to escape into the drug-induced haze that is the only thing he’s found that will enable him to forget and lay down those burdens.  The truth of Jay’s addiction isn’t sugar-coated; although the author doesn’t come out and directly say Jay is an opium addict – instead hinting at it – until some way into the book, his cravings are clearly and convincingly described.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, not least of which is the humour and snappy banter between the two principals, and the way the author shows the understanding that develops between them; I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jay uses the game of poker to try to teach Ursula how to read people and situations. Their chemistry isn’t the strongest I’ve ever read, but it simmers nicely, and the love scenes are well written.  BUT.  I don’t know a lot about American society of the time, but I’m guessing the rules that governed male/female interaction were pretty similar to those in England, so I was surprised at how often Ursula and Jay were able to sneak off to have sex – in her house with family members (her father!) and servants around (there’s an explanation of sorts given towards the end, but that seemed like a convenient afterthought), and please, can we stop it with the virgin heroines who can give championship blow jobs at the first attempt and deep-throat the hero like a professional?  I get that Ursula is curious and uninhibited, but I just don’t buy into that whole she-knows-how-to-do-it-just-by-instinct thing.

I also found some of the plans and situations rather convoluted – there were a few places where I had to stop and go back to re-read – and there’s quite a lot of woeful introspection on the part of both protagonists that got to be a bit much. The middle of the book is repetitive, and the way the secrets held by various characters are foreshadowed is quite heavy-handed.  There are also some grammatical constructions that really bugged me and kept pulling me out of the story.  I won’t go into huge detail, as I know not everyone is a grammar-nerd like me, but one thing I will mention is the use of contractions with names.  Instead of ‘Lydia would’ or ‘Rachel did’, we get ‘Lydia’d’ or ‘Rachel’d’.  Now, sure, they’re both fine on occasion, but in some places, sentences and phrases are so littered with them that they become unnatural and clumsy.  If read aloud, they’d sound pretty odd.  Some of the dialogue felt ‘off’ for the time period, and for some reason, Jay decides to shorten Ursula’s name and calls her ‘Urs’, which is a really ugly diminutive, and sounded far too close to ‘arse’ whenever I heard it in my head.  If you don’t like your protagonist’s name, then use a different one!

Speaking of Ursula (I refuse to call her ‘Urs’!), I confess that for all her spark and originality, I found her difficult to connect with, and sometimes felt her behaviour to be quite immature (and she cries a lot).  On the other hand, I did like Jay and warmed to him more easily; he’s damaged, witty, dangerously charming and possessed of the kind of emotional intelligence that Ursula lacks.

Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m giving Appetites & Vices a recommendation, albeit a cautious one.  The story at its heart – a woman who wants to belong and a man who wants to be seen for who he really is – is a good one, Jay and Ursula are well-matched, and both character and romantic development are well-done.

A Wicked Kind of Husband by Mia Vincy

a wicked kind of husband

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met

Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once—on their wedding day two years earlier—and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.

Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.

Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable … and irresistibly kissable.

As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part … but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?

Rating: A-

I love it when I pick up a book by a début or new-to-me author and find myself quickly engrossed by it – which is exactly what happened with Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband.  I’m a sucker for a good marriage-of-convenience story, and this IS a good one; well defined, complex characters, strong writing and excellent dialogue, all combine to make this an entertaining and emotionally satisfying read, and one I’d urge fans of the genre to check out.

The second eldest of four sisters, Cassandra DeWitt has been the linchpin holding her family together since her father’s unexpected death a couple of years earlier. Her mother exists in her own, laudanum-fuelled world and her eldest sister is married and lives elsewhere with her husband, so it’s fallen to Cassandra to manage the household, estate and her two younger sisters… who have no concept of all that Cassandra does for them and certainly no appreciation for it.  For some months, the behaviour of nineteen-year-old Lucy has been becoming increasingly outrageous; Cassandra realises that being cooped up away from society is the likely cause, and that it’s time to find her sister a husband.  In order to do that, however, Lucy will need to make her society début, which means going to London… something Cassandra hasn’t done in the two years since her marriage to wealthy industrialist Joshua DeWitt – whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding night.

Cassandra’s father arranged her marriage in order to enable her to continue to reside at of Sunne Park after his death, and she didn’t question it, because at the time, she was still reeling from the fact that the man she loved had eloped with someone else.  She recalls very little about her bridegroom other than that he was rude and abrupt, and is content to have nothing whatsoever to do with him.  For the past two years, it’s suited her to remain in Warwickshire – in accordance with Mr. DeWitt’s preference (read – insistence) that she stay there – but she can do so no longer; she determines to approach her grandmother, the Duchess of Sherbourne, to ask her to sponsor Lucy’s season, and in order to do that, Cassandra will have to go to London.  As luck would have it, Mr. DeWitt is due to travel to Liverpool, so as long as Cassandra times her visit to take place whilst he is away, he won’t even know she’s in London.  You know what they say about the best laid plans…

I’m sure there’s no need for me to elaborate more on the plot, but the journey on which Ms. Vincy takes her characters – and her readers – is an exceptionally entertaining and insightful one, as Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt match wits (!) cross (metaphorical) swords and slowly find that their arranged marriage has become far more than the mutually convenient union it was initially supposed to be.

Joshua DeWitt grew up as heir to the Earl of Treyford and was, until the age of fourteen, as pampered and privileged as any other scion of the peerage.  But his life, and that of his siblings, changed drastically when the earl was discovered to have married their mother bigamously, and the former countess disappeared, along with her daughter, and Joshua and his two brothers were cast out and left to their own devices.  Joshua went to work in Birmingham and thanks to the unlooked for kindness and aid from a stranger – Cassandra’s father – settled his brothers in their chosen professions, built himself a trading empire and now owns “four factories, three estates and a growing fleet”.  He may no longer have the social standing he once did, but money talks:

“They recoil because he is an industrialist, but receive him because his investments make them rich… meanwhile he goes where he pleases, says what he pleases and no one dares get in his way.”

Joshua is blunt, devoid of tact, lacks patience, doesn’t suffer fools at ALL, let alone gladly, and full of energy and ideas.  He likes his life as it is and is used to being obeyed without question by everyone around him, so the sudden appearance of the woman he married in order to repay his obligation to her father is unwelcome and irritating.  He wants to pack her off back to Warwickshire; she has no intention of leaving until she has secured her grandmother’s agreement to sponsor Lucy.

But even as he is adamant that Cassandra must leave London, Joshua is reluctantly impressed by his wife’s determination and her ability to give as good as she gets:

“You’re meant to be in Warwickshire,” he said.

“You’re meant to be in Liverpool.”

“I did not give you permission to come to London.”

“I did not ask your permission.”

“You should…  Let me explain, Mrs. DeWitt, how marriage works.”

“Oh, please do, Mr. DeWitt, I’m all agog.”

“I am the husband, so I make the rules to suit me.”

“And I am the wife, so I change the rules to suit me.”

And worse… she might even be likeable. Which would be disastrous.

“You seem puzzled,” said his disruptive wife, as they reached the gate. “Have I said something to puzzle you?”

“Most of what you say puzzles me.  It’s almost as though you have a mind of your own.”

“Please don’t vex yourself. I’ll try not to use it too often.”

Cassandra is an admirable heroine, one who operates within the conventions of society but still manages to be anything but the meek, obedient spouse those conventions suggest she should be.  She’s quick witted and easily able to hold her own against her irascible husband, but there’s a hidden vulnerability to her, too, a vulnerability that Joshua soon recognises lying behind her suddenly fixed smiles and diplomatic manner which speaks to his protective nature and makes him want to fix all her problems and encourage her to “stop giving up your space. Fight for what is yours.”

Both principals are compelling, likeable but flawed characters who leap off the page, and the secondary cast is also superbly drawn and rounded out. Neither Joshua nor Cassandra is your usual, stock-in-trade historical romance character, the chemistry between them is terrific, and their frequent verbal sparring is a complete delight.

“What happened to you last night?” she said. “It looks like someone punched you in the face.”

“Someone did.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Not very.”

“Oh.”

She took a knife and quartered her pear.

“Is that it?” he said

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“That’s all you have to say? ‘Oh.’” She looked at him blankly. “Where’s the love and sympathy, wife? You aren’t wondering what happened? You aren’t wondering if I’m in pain? You aren’t wondering if your dear husband will be all right?”

“Mainly I’m wondering why you don’t get punched in the face more often.”

The author has managed to put her own spin on a very well-worn plot device, bringing a degree of unpredictability to her story that enables it to transcend the trope.  Her writing is intelligent and energetic, and the story is by turns funny, poignant, sexy, angsty and, most importantly, romantic.

With that said, the book does have a few flaws; Lucy’s antics are a bit over the top and there’s some anachronistic dialogue and behaviour in places, but otherwise, A Wicked Kind of Husband is one of the best historical romances I’ve read all year; a sparkling début that’s landed Mia Vincy very firmly on my list of authors to watch.

 

You May Kiss the Bride (Penhallow Dynasty #1) by Lisa Berne (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Wealthy and arrogant, Gabriel Penhallow knows it’s time to fulfill his dynastic duty. All he must do is follow “The Penhallow way” – find a biddable bride, produce an heir and a spare, and then live separate lives. It’s worked so well for generations, certainly one kiss with the delectable Livia Stuart isn’t going to change things. Society dictates he marry her, and one chit is as good as another as long as she’s from a decent family.

But Livia’s transformation from an original to a mundane diamond of the first water makes Gabriel realize he desperately wants the woman who somehow provoked him into that kiss. And for all the ladies who’ve thrown themselves at him, it’s the one who wants to flee whom he now wants. But how will he keep this independent miss from flying away?

Rating: Narration – A- Content – D+

I admit that I picked up You May Kiss the Bride for review solely because of Carolyn Morris. Reviews for this début historical romance, the first in Lisa Berne’s Penhallow Dynasty series have been mixed, but I knew I’d at the very least enjoy the narration, so I decided it give it a go. In the end, my opinions about the story are pretty much along the same lines as the less than glowing reviews; it’s nothing I haven’t read before and the author’s inexperience shows clearly in terms of the storytelling and characterisation.

Livia Stuart hasn’t had an easy life. Orphaned in India when she was a child, she was sent back to England and resides with her listless aunt and drunken uncle, who never really wanted her and who wouldn’t miss her if she disappeared. She is constantly patronised by her neighbour and local mean girl, the Honourable Cecily Orr, who pretends friendship but in reality does everything she can to make “dear Livia” aware of her inferior situation, insisting on giving her her cast off gowns and never missing an opportunity to point out Livia’s status as a poor relation.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.