The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran

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From exotic sandstone palaces… 

Sick of tragedy, done with rebellion, Emmaline Martin vows to settle quietly into British Indian society. But when the pillars of privilege topple, her fiancé’s betrayal leaves Emma no choice. She must turn for help to the one man whom she should not trust, but cannot resist: Julian Sinclair, the dangerous and dazzling heir to the Duke of Auburn.

To the marble halls of London… 

In London, they toast Sinclair with champagne. In India, they call him a traitor. Cynical and impatient with both worlds, Julian has never imagined that the place he might belong is in the embrace of a woman with a reluctant laugh and haunted eyes. But in a time of terrible darkness, he and Emma will discover that love itself can be perilous — and that a single decision can alter one’s life forever.

Destiny follows wherever you run. 

A lifetime of grief later, in a cold London spring, Emma and Julian must finally confront the truth: no matter how hard one tries to deny it, some pasts cannot be disowned…and some passions never die.

Rating: A

I read The Duke of Shadows for the first time some years ago – before I started reviewing – and I remember being blown away by the quality of the writing, the richness of the setting and the passion and intensity of the romance.  I don’t get much time for re-reading these days, but I decided one was in order prior to reading and reviewing The Sins of Lord Lockwood (Lockwood is a major – and very intriguing – secondary character in The Duke of Shadows), and I was once again awed by the author’s talent and this wonderful book which was, incredibly, her début.  As I didn’t write a review the first time around, I’m going to do that now.

It is 1857 and the British have ruled India – by fair means or foul (mostly foul) – for many years.  Trouble is brewing, but for the majority of the British contingent, who are unable to conceive that anything could challenge the might of the Empire, it’s business as usual and continued obliviousness to the rumblings of disquiet around them. Only one man among their number dares to posit that the country teeters on the brink of revolt and that British lives may soon be endangered – but he is derided and his views dismissed, even though he is an English peer.  Julian Sinclair, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is one quarter Indian which makes him someone who lives on the fringes of both English and Indian society.  His Indian blood renders him ‘not quite the thing’ among the insular, rule-bound English, who look on him with disdain and suspicion in spite of his being the heir to a dukedom – while his English blood causes the same reaction among his Indian family.

Emmaline – Emma – Martin was travelling to India accompanied by her parents in order to marry her fiancé, an officer in the East India Company, when tragedy struck. Their ship was wrecked and Emma is one of the few survivors.  The death of her parents – which she witnessed – has, naturally, affected her profoundly, but of more concern to Delhi society is the fact that she was rescued and transported to her destination on a ship full of rough sailors, so her reputation is now irretrievably tarnished.  Emma’s fiancé, Marcus Lindley is handsome and charming, but as Emma has known for some time, does not believe in confining his ‘charms’ solely to his betrothed.  Meeting him again for the first time in years, the scales fall from Emma’s eyes completely, and she sees him for what he is; arrogant, spiteful, dismissive of her intelligence and clearly only interested in her dowry.  Emma, a spirited and determined young woman, means to break things off with him as soon as she can.

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

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TBR Challenge: A Song Begins (Warrender Saga #1) by Mary Burchell

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An unknown benefactor had sufficient faith in Anthea Benton’s singing voice to pay for her training under the celebrated operatic conductor, Oscar Warrender. She was ecstatic, but her joy was short-lived when she came face to face with the great man. Cold and forbidding, he proved to be a hard taskmaster. She felt her dreams can be coming true… but would she be tough enough to work under such and exacting taskmaster?

Rating: B

A Song Begins is the first in Mary Burchell’s thirteen-book Warrender Saga, which was originally and published between 1965 and 1985.  All the novels in the series take place in the high-pressure world of the classical concert hall and opera house circuit; many of the characters are top-flight musicians – singers, pianists, conductors – and it’s very clear, even though I’ve as yet read only this opening entry, that the author really knew her stuff.  As someone who worked in the classical music business for a number of years, and as an opera lover, I really appreciated Ms. Burchell’s attention to detail, her knowledge about and obvious love of the music itself and her insight into what it takes to sing those roles and make it in such a fiercely competitive arena.

The story is a fairly simple one.  Anthea Benson is an aspiring singer who lives in a small, provincial town, and when the story opens, has been told by her teacher that she has learned everything she can and now needs to go to London to train with someone who can take her further and help her embark upon a professional career.  Moving to London and all that it entails requires money Anthea doesn’t have; but when she learns that the local TV company is mounting a talent competition at the Town Hall things start looking up.  The winner will receive a cash prize – enough for Anthea to go to London  –  and she is optimistic about her chances. She’s not conceited but she doesn’t suffer from false modesty, either; she knows she has a great voice but also realises she’s got a lot to learn. That sort of self-awareness and confidence is essential in someone trying to make it as a performer, and  Ms. Burchell gets that aspect of her character just about right – it’s one of the things I most liked about Anthea as a heroine.

Anthea makes it to the last four entrants – only to have her hopes dashed by the arrogant, world-renowned conductor, Oscar Warrender, who pretty much forces his fellow judges to choose a different winner.  Anthea is furious at his high-handedness and deeply upset; she berates him to a close friend, calling him an arrogant, self-satisfied beast who doesn’t really care about art or music or artists or anything but himself.

A few days later, however, Anthea is stunned when her teacher receives a letter from Oscar Warrender informing her that he has been asked to undertake Anthea’s training by someone who heard and was impressed by her at the competition.  Anthea can’t believe it – Warrender is widely accounted a musical genius and she can’t help but wonder what could have induced him to want to take her on.  He’s also odious, but ultimately, there’s no denying he knows what he’s doing and that studying with him will provide the best possible start to Anthea’s career.

Apprehensive and excited, Anthea travels to London and to her appointment with the great man.  Here, he tells her that he had deliberately prevented her winning the competition because if she had, she’d have found herself in the spotlight for a few years during which she’d ruin her voice and that he had determined to prevent it.  Naturally, Anthea fumes at his assumption that she would have taken that path even as she is focusing on his description of her as having a splendid lyric [soprano] voice.

This scene more or less sets the tone for their interactions throughout the book.  Warrender is overbearing and brutally honest, but just avoids being an alpha-hole because there’s the sense that he’s asking nothing of Anthea that he hasn’t done or wouldn’t ask of himself.  In the style of many an older romance, this is very much the heroine’s story; she’s our narrator and we never get the hero’s PoV, yet Mary Burchell is able to define Warrender so well by his words and actions; she conveys his passion for music and for his craft through the intensity of his manner, and very skilfully shows the truth of his feelings for Anthea  in the things he says and does that she doesn’t quite notice or interpret correctly.   He’s an odd mix of Simon Cowell and Svengali (!) – although he reminds me most of Boris Lermontov, the character played by Anton Walbrook in the film The Red Shoes.  The heroine in that was a ballerina rather than an opera singer of course, but many of the dictats issued by Oscar Warrender reminded me of Lermontov; there’s a scene in which he drags Anthea away from a late night out, admonishing her that “… a singer’s life is a strict and dedicated one.  Late hours and nightclubs are not for you and the sooner you learn that fact the better.“  But he also – on occasion – shows a surprising tenderness and concern, heaping yet more confusion upon Anthea, who finds attraction creeping up on her; his strong hands fascinate her, his touch sets her pulse a-flutter…  and his completely unexpected kisses are utterly bewildering.

It would have been easy to have depicted Anthea as a bit of a doormat, cowering at the great man’s words and suffering for her art, but she is nothing of the sort.  It’s true that she does mostly end up going along with Warrender’s ‘instructions’, but she does it out of a recognition that no matter that he’s being high-handed, everything he does is because he wants to nurture her talent and develop her as an artist – which is what Anthea wants most in the world.  She questions him and challenges him and makes clear what she thinks of him – but he also inspires and enthuses her in a way no-one ever has, and his imperious manner only makes her all the more determined to prove herself.

Yet this is more than a romance between master and pupil.  In a truly lovely moment near the end, the author fully brings home Anthea and Warrender’s ‘rightness’ for one another in a wonderful moment of emotional bonding and mutual need; and the final scene clearly shows readers that this is a couple whose relationship is built on very strong foundations.

I could say so much more about the workings of this story – as I said at the outset, I’ve experienced the world of classical music and musicians first-hand – and while this book was written some thirty years before I entered that world, so much of it felt familiar.  I’ve sometimes been a little wary of reading romances featuring music and musicians – in some books I’ve read, the authors just haven’t known how to go about it properly – but that isn’t the case here because Ms. Burchell’s love for and opera and understanding of what it means to be an artist shines through on every page.

I enjoyed A Song Begins very much, in spite of some niggles over the hero’s behaviour – which was probably not unusual for romances written in the 1960s.  At least he’s an alpha because he’s hugely talented, highly competent and well respected, and not because he’s handsome (which he is), built like a male model and has slept his way through half of Europe!  And as I said earlier, I never doubted his feelings for Anthea and by the end, their relationship has definitely evened up somewhat. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more books in the series.


As an aside, I did a Google search to find out a bit more about Mary Burchell (a pen name for Ida Cook) and discovered many interesting things about her life, not least of which was how the great love of opera she shared with her sister led to both ladies being among the most effective British transporters of Jews out of Germany between 1937 and the outbreak of war. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, July 2007 – Rescue Mission by Louise Carpenter.)

TBR Challenge: Dissident (Bellator Saga #1) by Cecilia London


This title is available FREE on Amazon

“I will always be with you…”

Rising Democratic star Caroline Gerard hasn’t had an easy year. After losing her husband, she is raising two small children alone while trying to navigate the tricky and sometimes shallow halls on Capitol Hill. A string of nasty speeches has her scrambling to apologize to any number of candidates, including newly elected Republican Jack McIntyre. Falling in love again is the last thing on her mind.

Jack McIntyre might have a reputation as a playboy, but he has his sights set solely on his new colleague. Can he break through Caroline’s grief and capture her heart?

Told mostly in flashback and set against a chilling fascist backdrop, Dissident is a rollercoaster ride of political intrigue, passionate contemporary romance, and undying love.

One of my fellow AAR reviewers, Kristen Donnelly, has raved about Cecilia London’s Bellator Saga – and given that I like a nice, juicy political thriller, I decided pretty much at the beginning of the year that Dissident, the first book in the series would be my recommended read this year.

I’ll start out by saying that the saga is a serial in which one storyline runs through all six books in the series; rather like a TV mini-series, all the books need to be read in order for the reader to experience the entirety of the story, so if you’re planning on having a look at this one, be prepared to be in it for the long haul.  I think each book ends on a cliffhanger (which is clearly stated at Amazon); this one definitely does and I’m sufficiently invested in the story and characters (especially the two principals) to want to read more.

The story opens in the present as we follow a couple – a husband and wife we learn are named Jack and Caroline – as they run through the woods in the attempt to evade the soldiers who are pursuing them.  Both are injured, but Caroline is clearly in a very bad way, and she urges Jack to continue without her, telling him that the information they have risked so much to gather is more important than either of them.  It’s clear that these two are devoted to one another and that it costs Caroline a lot to make the suggestion and even more for Jack to hear it.  Even though we’re just a few pages into the book at this point, it’s quite devastating when Jack wrenches himself away and prepares to do as Caroline asks, saying:

“I will come back for you, Caroline.  Understand?  I promise I will come back.  I’m not giving up.  I will find someone I can trust and I will come back.”

As it’s the first in a series, Dissident is mostly set-up, focusing on the two central characters, the recently widowed Democratic Congresswoman Caroline Gerard and Jack McIntyre, a multi-millionaire Republican with a reputation for being an arsehole.  Having read Kristen’s reviews of two of the later books in the series, it’s clear that the author is going to take us to some dark and uncomfortable places, so it’s important that we get to know and understand these individuals given that they are our windows into the story, and that the relationship that evolves between them is its bedrock.

Over five years earlier, Jack and Caroline got off to a rocky start when she bad-mouthed him to the media, calling him a “millionaire playboy trying to buy his way into Congress.”. Her only defence is that at that time, she was in a very bad place; she had recently lost her husband and had thrown herself into work to compensate, making a number of bad decisions of which spouting off about would-be Congressman McIntyre was one.  Months later, she hopes to apologise to him in person, but he doesn’t want to hear it and brushes her off abruptly, which Caroline thinks she probably deserves.  But later that same night, Jack relents and the two of them strike up a conversation which leads to the development of a very close friendship which is terribly important to them both.

Ms. London writes this growing relationship incredibly well; Jack and Caroline are mature characters (he’s forty-seven, she’s thirty-six) and their life experience shows, lending a real sense of authenticity to their interactions, which are deep, playful, witty and insightful by turns.  Their gradual falling-in-love is superbly and subtly depicted; it’s obvious that Jack is head-over-heels fairly early on but recognises that he shouldn’t rush things, while Caroline is a little more hesitant to become romantically involved.  She’s warm, funny and utterly devoted to her young daughters as well as being the sort of person who fights for the underdog and wants to make a difference.  Jack comes across as an arrogant arse when we – along with Caroline – first meet him, but it’s soon clear that isn’t really who he is, and I loved the way that as their friendship progresses,  Caroline comes to see him for the good man he is beneath the highly polished exterior.  Their romance is beautifully done and nicely steamy (Jack is one hot silver fox!) and the emotional connection they share is very deeply rooted and one which, I suspect, is going to prove a lifeline for both of them as the story progresses.

While something like seventy-five percent of the book takes place five years in the past and concentrates on the growing romance between Jack and Caroline, there are a few  present day chapters scattered strategically throughout Dissident showing us what happens after Jack leaves Caroline in the woods.  (The fact that he leaves her is one of the reasons this character-building story is essential; we need to know the strength of Jack’s feelings for Caroline in order to realise just how important the information he is carrying must be if he is prepared to leave her to an unknown fate to keep it safe.)  It’s clear that all is not well in America; the information I’ve gleaned has come mostly from reading reviews, so I won’t spoil it here, save to say that mentions of secession and martial law and the accusations of treason levelled at Caroline definitely tell us we’re not in Kansas any more.

There are a few writing hiccups and the odd place where the pace flags a bit, but for the most part, this is a strongly-written and well-conceived tale of political intrigue that sucked me in from the start and kept me eagerly turning the pages.  Jack and Caroline are engaging characters, their romance is believable and passionate, and the author has started the ball rolling on what promises to be an epic story.

I’m definitely in it for the long haul.

The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding by Amanda McCabe


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A country Christmas at Barton Park

Plain, sensible Rose Parker is a self-proclaimed wallflower, but she’s always dreamt of dancing with Captain Harry St George…

Once, Harry wouldn’t even have noticed Rose. But now, after a hard war, Harry’s knows he’s a different man. Shy, sweet Rose intrigues him more than any gregarious young lady – but he must marry a rich bride to save his mortgaged estates – and Rose is no heiress. Now, more than ever, Harry needs the magic of a mistletoe kiss…

Rating: C

The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding is a pleasant, light-hearted story set in an English country home at Christmastime in which two lonely people find love amid the hustle and bustle of a family house party. It’s an easy read to which the word ‘nice’ can be frequently applied; the hero and heroine are nice people, their hostess is nice, the hostesses children are nice, the book as a whole is nice… I think you can see where I’m going with this. It’s one of those books that has nothing wrong with it, but which isn’t going to set the world alight, either.

In the prologue – which is set three years before the rest of the story – Miss Rose Parker, her mother and younger sister, Lily, are attending a summer party at Barton Park the large estate owned by their cousins, the Bancroft family. The recent death of Mr. Parker has left them with large debts which meant they had to leave their home in order to repay them. They live quietly in a small cottage, but the Bancrofts continue to invite them to Barton Park from time to time, and it’s at this particular gathering that Rose first meets Captain Harry St. George, the handsome but somewhat retiring owner of the neighbouring estate, Hilltop Grange. Harry and Rose talk briefly, dance together and recognise that they have made some sort of connection; and Rose, normally a very pragmatic young woman, starts to dream, just this once, of a different life and a home of her own. Sadly, however, her girlish musings soon come to an end when she overhears that the Captain is to marry the lovely and sophisticated Miss Helen Layton.

Moving forward three years, we find Rose living with her overbearing Aunt Sylvia as her paid companion. Rose’s sister, Lily, married the man she loves – the local curate – and now has two small children, and their mother continues to live in her tiny cottage; the money Rose earns in her position is enough to make sure she can live reasonably comfortably. Sylvia is cantankerous and exacting, so Rose can’t deny the relief she feels when she receives a letter from her cousin Jane inviting her to Barton Park for Christmas, ostensibly to help with the children and give them some music tuition.

Harry St. George has left the army, no longer eligible for active service following the loss of one eye. All the while he was in the army, he dreamed of coming home to Hilltop Grange and living the quiet life of a gentleman farmer, but with the place in a serious state of disrepair, it seems he will have to marry for money if he is to restore it and fulfil his responsibilities to his dependents.  His brother Charles reminds him that Lady Fallon – formerly Miss Layton, who married a much older man shortly after Harry embarked on his most recent stint in the army – is now a widow and has been left very well provided for;  perhaps she may be the solution to Harry’s money worries.

When Rose and Harry are reunited at Barton Park, it’s almost as if the intervening years have never happened, and they very quickly pick up where they left off, conversing easily and without embarrassment or any of that stiltedness that often attends the building of a new friendship.  Rose and Harry are decent, intelligent and compassionate people and developing emotional connection between them is well drawn. Their romance is sweet and tender, and there’s no question they are perfect for each other – apart from the fact that Rose hasn’t a penny to her name and Harry needs money.

While the couple is falling more and more deeply into love, the author is also setting up a potential romance between Charles and Helen, both of whom are obviously dragging a lot of emotional baggage and who were – at times – more interesting than the two principals. I assume their story will be told in a future book.  In the final stages of this one, Ms. McCabe employs one of my least favourite plot points, the ‘I love you too much to ruin your life by marrying you’ cliché, and the only point of conflict in the romance – Rose’s lack of funds – is easily solved by the wave of the fairy godmother’s wand (or in this case, an aunt’s sweep of the pen).  On the plus side, however, the author does a terrific job of describing the Christmas parlour games and traditions, the decorations and the food, injecting her gathering with an engaging degree of Yuletide spirit and cheer.

The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding is a well-written story which is ultimately somewhat bland.  As I said at the beginning, it’s not bad, but it’s not especially memorable either, and I suspect that its low-angst, low-drama storytelling may appeal to some readers more than others.

Frail by Susannah Ives

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?

Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?

Rating: B-

I’ve read a few books by Susanna Ives over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that she is at her best when she’s doing something a little different to the norm in historical romance. Her début novel, Rakes and Radishes turned the reformed rake trope on its head, and Wicked My Love was an entertaining enemies-to-lovers story featuring a gregarious hero and an awkward, maths genius heroine.  In fact, the least successful of the books of hers I’ve read was one in which she pursued a more conventional storyline (How to Impress a Marquess), so when I read the synopsis for Frail, I was pleased to see that Ms. Ives has opted once again to follow a less well-trod path by centering the story around a romance between a hero with PTSD who likes to garden, and a socialite heroine brought low by her father’s criminal activities.

Theo Mallory, second son of the Earl of Streswick, returned from fighting in the Crimea a very different man to the sociable, charming one who left.  He knows he is a disappointment to his father, who is anxious and awkward around him, clearly not knowing what to do or say, and Theo can’t blame him; sometimes he doesn’t know what to do or say either.  His return from the war angry, frustrated,  unable to sleep, suffering hallucinations and nightmares that he tried to quiet by indulging in drink, drugs, women and violence was difficult for all of them, his family’s belief that they could somehow find a doctor who could ‘cure’ him irritating him as much as it made him feel guilty that their hopes were dashed time after time.  Things were going from bad to worse, the earl starting to wonder if an asylum was the safest place for his unpredictable son, when Theo retreated to a property in Snowdonia, North Wales, where he has lived quietly for the past five years, pursuing his love of gardening and regaining his equilibrium and his sense of self.  He still suffers bad memories and bad dreams, but he has learned to cope and feels he has at last found his place in life.

Returning to London after five years away is difficult for him, but he is led to do so in order to meet with an officer from Scotland Yard to whom he has given evidence of a fraud being perpetrated on a number of former soldiers with whom Theo had served by a London banker named John Gillingham. At the urging of his father and stepmother, Theo attends a ball with them – and comes face to face with Gillingham’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Helena, who teases him a little and then, most unconventionally, asks him to dance with her. Already off-balance in the hot, crowded ballroom, Theo’s control slips further during their dance as he finds it impossible to contain his anger at this “vain, ignorant and selfish girl”, whose beautiful gowns have been paid for with money swindled from former soldiers and hard-working people.  He accuses her of being cruel and uncaring and stalks away, leaving Helena wondering what on earth she has done to deserve such treatment, and feeling vaguely sorry that such a handsome young man should be so clearly unbalanced.

A day or so later, however, Helena’s life is shattered when her father commits suicide, leaving her alone and with nothing.  She comes to understand the truth; that her father had committed a massive fraud and took his own life when threatened with exposure – and that he has escaped the consequences while leaving her to face scandal and public vitriol.  Helena has no close relatives; her ‘friends’ no longer want to know her and her only means of supporting herself it to sell everything she can.  Months pass, she is running out of things to sell and will shortly have to leave her home, and still she has no inkling of what to do or where to go – when she remembers her cousin Emily in Wales, who happens to be a neighbour of Theo Mallory’s.  She writes to Emily more or less begging her to take her in, and is relieved to receive a letter filled with kind words and compassion, inviting her to make her home with Emily and her daughter.

Helena is not well-received by the majority of the local villagers, many of whom either lost money, or know someone who lost money in her father’s scam.  Emily, who is liked and respected by all, proves to be her staunch champion, as does Theo, who surprises Helena by showing himself to be relaxed, confident and comfortable in both himself and his surroundings – in short, a completely different man to the one she’d met in London.

Helena, having at first believed that the best thing she could do for the woman who has shown her such kindness and generosity would be to leave the village, gradually finds herself settling into the rhythm of daily life there, and doing what she can to prove herself worthy of Emily’s faith in her.  As she spends more time with Theo, she finds herself drawn to his quiet strength and truly, deeply moved by the beautiful gardens and outside spaces he has created, places she is able to find the sort of peace and tranquillity she craves.  Theo starts to let Helena know him, telling her something of his wartime experience and of his subsequent illness and the effect it has had on his family.  These are two people struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences who come understand something of the other’s pain and to enjoy each other’s company.  A strong mutual attraction develops between them, but as Theo realises he is falling in love, he has to ask himself if Helena – who has no idea of his part in her father’s downfall – could possibly love the man ultimately responsible for it.  He is torn between a desire to tell the truth and his desire for Helena, and in his desperation, makes some poor decisions that could ultimately cost him dear.

Theo and Helena are both strongly characterised and Ms. Ives does a splendid job in conveying the perilous nature of Helena’s situation following her father’s death.  Her disconnectedness and fears for her future are palpable, as are her disorientation and confusion when she arrives in Wales.  I also appreciated that she doesn’t fall into the trap of having Theo suddenly and miraculously cured by the love of the right woman.  It’s true that he finds a degree of comfort in Helena’s presence and finds himself going to those dark places in his mind less frequently, but it’s clear that the mental scars he bears are not going to heal easily or completely.

Frail is not a fluffy, easy read; the emotions are messy, complicated and often strung taut as a bow-string, and the author doesn’t sugar coat some of the descriptions of Theo’s hallucinations.  But ultimately, it’s one of those books where the execution doesn’t quite live up to the intriguing premise.  The first part of the book is stronger than the second, and the pacing in the middle is a little stodgy as things get bogged down in the preparations for an event that it is hoped will smooth Helena’s path to acceptance by the locals – which then seems to happen rather easily.  There is a rather needless subplot concerning Emily’s pregnant maid-of-all-work, some of the language in the love scenes is a bit clumsy, and the disclosure of Theo’s involvement in Gillingham’s downfall takes place so late in the book that the entire final section feels rushed and the ending abrupt.

Even with those provisos, I’d say that Frail might suit readers looking for a slightly darker, more emotionally fraught story than is usually found in historical romance.  I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re on the look-out for something a little different to the norm, it’s worth your consideration in spite of its flaws.

TBR Challenge – My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady by day, Robin Hood by night…

Arabella Knightley is an earl’s granddaughter, but it’s common knowledge that she spent her early years in London’s gutters. What the ton doesn’t know is that while Arabella acts the perfect young lady by day, at night she plays Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Adam St Just is one of Society’s most sought after bachelors. He’s also the man responsible for Arabella Knightley’s nickname: Miss Smell o’ Gutters—a mistake he regrets, but can never erase.

Bored by polite society, Adam sets out to unmask the elusive thief … but he’s not prepared for what he discovers.

Rating: A-

The Historicals prompt in the TBR Challenge is my Busman’s Holiday, but it can nonetheless be quite difficult to choose a book from the many still sitting unread on my Kindle. In the end, I decided to go for something I was pretty certain would be a winner and picked up Emily Larkin’s My Lady Thief, a standalone title that was first published as The Unmasking of a Lady in 2010, under her Emily May pen-name. Every book I’ve read by this author has proved to be extremely enjoyable and well-written; she creates attractive, well-rounded characters and puts them in interesting situations and her romances are always well-developed and laced with sexual tension. My Lady Thief most ably continues that impressive track record.

Miss Arabella Knightley is beautiful, poised, intelligent, self-assured and the granddaughter of an earl – a most eligible parti were it not for the fact that her early years were spent in the London slums owing to the fact that her father, the second son of an earl, was cast off by his father for marrying her mother without permission. When, after her husband’s death, Arabella’s mother, Thérèse, approached the earl for help, he agreed to take in the daughter but not the mother. Unwilling to be parted from her child, Thérèse took Arabella to live with a friend of her late husband’s and became the man’s mistress. After this, she was rumoured to have had a number of protectors, but eventually she and her daughter ended up in the slums. After her death when Arabella was twelve, the old earl took his granddaughter in and made her the heir to his fortune after his sons all died without issue. So not only is Arabella beautiful, on her twenty-fifth birthday, she will inherit a considerable fortune – but she is not interested in marriage and intends instead to retire to the country and run the girl’s school she has secretly set up. Good society tolerates her because of her lineage and wealth, but she knows she is not really accepted, and, for the most part, doesn’t care. She presents a calm, unruffled exterior to the ton, the veiled and not-so-veiled insults she elicits merely glancing off her façade of tough insouciance and affecting her not at all. Apart from that one time six years earlier when she’d learned that Adam St. Just – handsome, wealthy, charming and one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors – had described her to his set as smelling of the gutters, and the nickname had stuck. She is still referred to behind hands and fans as “Miss Smell O’Gutters”.

Adam St. Just heartily regrets his actions that day, which had been borne of anger and frustration after his callous father had taken him to task about the fact that he had singled out “the daughter of a French whore” for his attentions. Adam had neither known nor cared about Miss Arabella Knightley’s origins, having been struck by her beauty and intelligence – but his father’s disdainful interference had sent Adam to the bottle and he’d been well into his cups when he’d made that damaging, crass remark. In the intervening years, he and Miss Knightley have done their best to avoid contact with each other, although moving in the same circles means that they are often present at the same events. Adam is therefore surprised –and not especially pleased – to see Arabella sitting with his sister one evening and to note that whatever Miss Knightley is saying to Grace is being well received and seems to have bolstered her spirits, which have been somewhat dampened of late.

Adam is very protective of his sister, and it worries him that she does not appear to be enjoying the season as so many other young ladies are. When he discovers the cause – that she has been blackmailed over some letters she wrote to a young man with whom she’d believed herself in love – Adam is furious with the man and the blackmailer, guilty that he had not seen how miserable Grace was and curious as to the identity of the person – identified merely as “Tom” – who has returned the letters and the jewellery with which Grace had bought the blackmailer’s silence.

Given that readers are privy to Tom’s true identity from the start, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arabella quickly emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who goes one step further from stealing from the rich to feed the poor. She uses the proceeds from her thefts to finance the school she has set up outside London for girls who might otherwise be forced into prostitution AND chooses as her victims those members of the ton who have been cruel, duplicitous or just downright mean to those weaker than themselves.

Adam becomes determined to discover the identity of the mysterious Tom, and finds himself developing a sneaking respect for the man, who seems only to steal from people who can a) afford it and b) deserve it. It’s only when he starts to look deeper that he begins to suspect Tom’s true identity – and once all is revealed to him, his respect for Tom – Arabella – only increases.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and engaging, and their romance is beautifully written. The way these two circle around each other warily, alternately flirting and mocking and then retreating when threatened with exposing their vulnerabilities had me glued to the pages and their progression from suspicious enmity to admiration to love is perfectly paced and wonderfully romantic. I particularly liked the way Adam is gradually shown to be altering his perceptions of Arabella; to start with he admits he is strongly attracted to her, but that there can be no question of his marrying her, but as the story progresses and he comes to know and understand her better, he is entirely captivated by her; her intelligence, her spirit and her compassion – and sees her for the woman she really is. As Arabella starts to let Adam know her, she shows him something of what her life was like as a child, and exposes him to a side of London he has never seen or really considered. What he sees appals him, and he is genuinely motivated to do something positive and practical to help, while also being more impressed than ever by Arabella’s determination and strength of character.

The chemistry between Adam and Arabella is sizzling, although I have to say that the first sex scene (which comes quite late on) is a little off-key and that, together with a very poor decision Arabella makes near the end, accounts for this book not getting a straight A grade. Otherwise, My Lady Thief is a terrific read that features two fully-rounded and sympathetic central characters, a strong secondary cast and an intriguing storyline. If you’ve never read this author before, this would be a great place to start; and if you’re familiar with her work, it most certainly won’t disappoint.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Rating: B+

I’ll start this review by saying that while The Mech Who Loved Me could be read as a standalone novel, it probably won’t make much sense to you unless you have read at least some of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk books. In that series, the author introduces and develops her alternative vision of Victorian London in which the city is ruled by the elite blue bloods while other races – humans, mechs and verwulfen – are second class citizens (and in the case of verwulfen, even lower). At the end of the final book, Of Silk and Steam, the corrupt ruling elite – the Echelon – was overthrown by an alliance comprising all the races, including many blue bloods who opposed the harsh rule imposed by the prince-consort. This new series, London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy is set three years after those events, in a London where all the races now have freedom and equality, although things are by no means easy. Distrust, suspicion and hatred built up over generations doesn’t just disappear overnight; and now it appears that there is someone out there trying to stir up all those old feelings and open up all those old wounds to set the races at each others’ throats once more.

In book one, Mission Improper, readers were introduced (or re-introduced, as some appeared in minor roles in earlier books) to the characters who make up the newly formed Company of Rogues, a small, hand-picked team who are charged with finding out exactly who is trying to incite unrest among the population of London. Under the direction of the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn, this group of blue bloods, a verwulfen and a human/mech discover the existence of a shadowy organisation called the Rising Sons, a group intent on creating anarchy in order to disrupt the uneasy peace between the races, perhaps even on bringing down the queen. They also learn of the existence of a creature called the dhampir, something stronger, faster and even more powerful than a blue-blood which, given blue bloods are almost indestructible, poses a serious threat to anyone who dares to oppose them.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up pretty much where Mission Improper left off, and we’re plunged straight into the action with the discovery of a mysterious virus that appears to be killing blue bloods. Ava McLaren, who was previously a crime scene analyst for the Nighthawks (the organisation that polices London) is now a member of the Company of Rogues, and is eager to prove her skills as an investigator rather than being someone who works behind the scenes all the time. She is pleased when Malloryn assigns her to discover the nature and source of the virus, although the fact that the gruff, cynical mech Liam Kincaid is appointed as her bodyguard takes some of the shine off. A human made mech when he lost his hand, Kincaid has never hidden his dislike of blue bloods and he and Ava couldn’t be more different. He’s big, terse, rough round the edges and makes no secret of his womanising ways whereas Ava is dainty, almost ethereally lovely and prone to letting her words get away from her – and is a virgin to boot. She’s fiercely intelligent, logical and tired of being seen as weaker than the others in the team and someone who must be protected at all costs. I loved that she’s the sort of heroine who doesn’t have mad-fighting-skillz and who puts her intellect and her emotional strength to good use instead. She really shines as she works her way through clues and puzzles to uncover the truth, all the while she and Kincaid are plunged into one dangerous situation after another – and the attraction that has long simmered between them reaches boiling point.

At the beginning of the book, Ava is contemplating her spinsterhood and is somewhat depressed at the idea that she’s unlikely to ever experience passion, when a friend points out that she doesn’t have to have an actual relationship with a man for that. Ava is rather traditional, and hadn’t really given that possibility much thought… or she hadn’t until she met Kincaid and developed the sort of awareness of him that makes her breath hitch and her insides flutter. And Kincaid isn’t blind; Ava is attractive and he knows she’s interested in him, but the other Rogues have already warned him off on pain of many not nice things and besides, he doesn’t seduce virgins. It’s only when the virgin in question asks to be seduced that things get complicated and what was intended to be an affair of finite duration gains the potential to be something much more. The author does a great job of developing this ‘opposites attract’ romance, showing how what starts as a working relationship spills over into the personal as the pair begins to appreciate, trust and open up to one another. The chemistry between Ava and Kincaid is terrific, the sex scenes are hot and earthy and Kincaid proves to be a truly swoon-worthy hero, his ability to really see Ava for the brilliant woman she is helping her to stand up for herself and conquer her insecurities.

I also love the wider dimension Bec McMaster brings to her stories; her steam-powered world is already well-established, the politics and intrigue of this alternative London are intriguing and well thought-out, and I’m already loving the way she is developing the overarching plot, revealing a little more in each book while also making sure that each one is a satisfying story and romance in itself. My one complaint about this story is to do with the rather too convenient resolution to the situation that threatens Kincaid and Ava’s HEA – I can’t see what else the author could have done in order to resolve the issue, but even so, I wasn’t wild about it.

But that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of The Mech Who Loved Me, which is richly detailed and strongly written, featuring complex, well-developed characters, a well-paced, action-packed plot and a steamy romance, all of which kept me thoroughly engrossed and invested in the outcome. Believably dangerous villains help to keep the stakes high for our heroes; well-developed secondary and recurring characters add colour and depth (I’m already very intrigued by Malloryn and eagerly anticipating his story) and the next book in the series really can’t appear soon enough.