The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

the queer principles of kit webb

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too.  In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two.  But it’s still an entertaining read.

After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London.  It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored.  He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day.  Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse,  Kit is instantly intrigued.

Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare.  Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous.  After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan.  Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.

Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation.  To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are).  It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.

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

The Wedding Night Affair (Ash & Juliana #1) by L.C. Sharp

the wedding night affair

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The year is 1748, and Lady Juliana Uppingham awakens in a pool of blood, with no memory of how her new husband ended up dead beside her. Her distaste for her betrothed was no secret, but even so, Juliana couldn’t possibly have killed him…could she?

Juliana’s only hope is Sir Edmund Ashendon, a dashing baronet with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable crimes—and a reputation for trouble. A man as comfortable in the rookeries of St. Giles as he is in the royal court, Ash believes Juliana is innocent, though all signs point to her as the killer. He doesn’t expect to develop a soft spot for the spirited widow, one that only grows when escalating threats against Juliana force Ash to shelter her in his home.

When another body is found, it becomes clear that Juliana has been dragged into something much, much bigger than simply her husband’s murder. With a collection of deadly black-tipped feathers as their sole clue and a date at the end of a hangman’s noose looming, they’ll have to find the real killer—before it’s too late.

Rating: B

The Wedding Night Affair is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in Georgian England entitled Ash & Juliana for its two protagonists – Sir Edmund Ashendon, a well-to-do young lawyer and Lady Juliana, daughter and sole heir to the Earl of Hawksworth.  This opening instalment has a similar premise to the first books in at least three other historical mystery series I can think of – Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn), John Pickett (Sheri Cobb South) and Lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) – in that the heroine is accused of murdering her (thoroughly unpleasant) husband, but that’s really the only similarity, and The Wedding Night Affair very quickly establishes its own distinctive world and authorial voice.

The story opens in a memorably shocking way as new bride Lady Juliana awakens the morning after her wedding to Lord Godfrey Uppingham.  Every part of her body aches and she’s covered in bruises; her wedding night was one of pain and terror as her husband used her roughly and repeatedly in a way she had not been at all prepared for.  (The assaults are not detailed on the page but are referred to in sufficient detail as to leave no doubt about what took place the night before.)  When Juliana moves the covers so she can get out of bed, she at first thinks the smear of blood on her thighs is only to be expected – until she realises it’s more than a smear. She’s lying in a pool of blood, her husband lying flat on his back next to her with his own knife sticking out of his chest.  The same knife he’d used to slice through her clothes the night before.

Juliana’s screams naturally bring servants running, followed by her in-laws, who immediately berate her for alerting the servants by making so much noise and then accuse her of murdering their son.  Still in shock, the only thing Juliana can do is cling to the knowledge that she didn’t kill her husband while his parents send her back to her family home in disgrace.

Henry Fielding (yes THE Henry Fielding) is the magistrate in charge of Bow Street at this time, and having learned of the murder, asks lawyer Sir Edmund Ashendon to go to question the lady and bring her back to Bow Street where she can be safely housed until a date is set for her trial.  Already intrigued by the case, Ash agrees and makes his way to the Hawksworth town house, where he is able to speak with Lady Juliana and get her side of the story.  As he listens to her and realises how terribly she has been treated by everyone around her, he can’t help feeling sympathy – and listening to her account of her wedding night, suggests she may have been acting in self-defence.  But Juliana insists she didn’t commit the murder – and Ash is starting to believe her.

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

The Royal Secret (Marwood and Lovett #5) by Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret

Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.

Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…

Rating: B+

The events of The Royal Secret – book five in Andrew Taylor’s series of mysteries set in seventeenth century London during the reign of Charles II – take place around four years after the Great Fire and our first meeting with James Marwood and Catherine – Cat – Lovett.  Theirs is an unusual relationship; they’ve saved each other’s lives and reputations more than once, and both have good reason to be distrustful of others, yet they’ve formed a somewhat uneasy but genuine bond of something stronger than friendship, but which doesn’t always contain any of the warmer feelings friendship might provide.  There’s a strong undercurrent of attraction there, too, something neither of them is particularly willing to acknowledge, especially Cat, whose traumatic personal history and unhappy marriage to a much older man, mean she is more determined than ever to never again give up her independence.

Cat has taken over the running of the business left by her late husband – a draftsman and architect – while Marwood continues to do well in his post as secretary to (and sometimes spy/investigator for) Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington.  They’ve started to see each other every couple of weeks – to take walks, to dine, to visit the theatre – and it’s during one of the latter excursions (after Cat gets annoyed when she sees Marwood looking appreciatively at a comely orange-seller) that they chance to meet Mr. Fanshawe, a  merchant and a client of Cat’s, and his companion, Henryk Van Riebeek  (to whom Marwood takes an instant dislike because he starts flirting with Cat.) 

Marwood encounters Fanshawe again few days later, when he is instructed to retrieve some confidential files that were removed from Lord Arlington’s office by one of his clerks, Richard Abbott.  Abbott has died suddenly and had not returned the files beforehand, and when a visit to Abbot’s lodgings proves fruitless – all Marwood and his servant find there are dead rats – he learns that Abbott’s wife – who was formerly married to Fanshawe’s son – and stepdaughter have gone to live with Fanshawe at his home in Slaughter Street.  Marwood pays Fanshawe a visit in order to retrieve the files, and when looking them over later that day, uncovers some discrepancies which only intensity his suspicions as to the nature of Abbott’s death.  He discovers that Abbott had run up huge gambling debts at the Blue Bush – and while there to see what he can find out, Marwood catches sight of a familiar face – Van Riebeek – although he’s going by a different name.  This fact, in addition to the dutchman’s familial connection to Abbott (Abbott’s wife is Van Riebeek’s sister) convinces Marwood that he is involved in some way – and also that there is more going on than meets the eye; that what he found in the files, Abbott’s murder and Van Riebeek’s hiding under an assumed name are all related somehow, and that whatever links them is far more serious than he’d at first thought.

Meanwhile, Cat has been commissioned by Lord Arlington to design a poultry house for the king’s sister Minette (who is married to the Duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV), and is asked to travel to France with the plans and to have a scale model built to take with her as well.  Once arrived in France however, she can’t help wondering if there is some other reason for her presence there – and whether the interest Van Riebeek had shown in her before her departure, had been genuine.

As is the case with the other books in the series, the mystery in this one incorporates actual historical events and takes place (mostly) in a London still being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Mr. Taylor skilfully weaves together fact and fiction wherin uncertain political alliances, treachery and intrigue all come into play as Cat inadvertently becomes caught up in the very mystery Marwood is investigating. Although I wasn’t sure what that mystery was going to be to start with – with mentions of poison, witchcraft, a caged lion and disgruntled servants, there’s a lot going on! – I was nonetheless caught up in the world of Restoration London the author evokes so well.

Cat and Marwood are complex, flawed, three-dimensional individuals and their relationship – which veers from dislike to affection and back again – is frustrating and well written.  I appreciate Cat’s determination to make her way in an unusual (for a woman) profession in a man’s world, and how much Marwood has grown – is continuing to grow – as a character.  He’s perhaps more cynical than he was, and he’s learned how to play the game with those who are more powerful than he is, but at heart, he’s a good, decent man while very much a man of his time. 

Excellent research, clever plotting and fascinating historical detail combine to make The Royal Secret another excellent instalment in the Marwood and Lovett series.  I really hope there’s more to come

Prairie Bride (Dodge City Brides #1) by Julianne Maclean (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlotte North

Prairie Bride

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

A loveless marriage of convenience on the Kansas prairie turns out to be far more than she bargained for….

He’s part of the west 

Briggs Brigman has been burned once before, and the last thing he needs is a beautiful wife who will spend hours in front of the mirror, primping herself. He knows how hard the prairie can be on a woman, and all he wants is a stalwart bride who won’t complain about hauling water from the creek….

She’s a city girl with no idea what she’s in for….

All Sarah MacFarland wants is to escape her fearful life in Boston and start fresh with a new identity. Answering an advertisement for a mail order bride seems like the perfect solution, until she meets her soon-to-be husband – a ruggedly handsome, strapping farmer who leaves her breathless on their wedding night. But is it possible that two tormented souls can find happiness, when all they know is betrayal, and when trust is the only way out of a tumultuous past that simply won’t stay buried? 

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C

The mail order bride trope is a common one in Western Historical Romance, but up until now, I haven’t actually read or listened to one. When Julianne Maclean’s Prairie Bride – book one in her Dodge City Brides series – showed up with the excellent Charlotte North listed as the narrator, I decided it was time to give one a go.

Even though I have no direct experience with this trope, I’ve been around Romancelandia long enough to have been able to make a reasonable guess as to what the story would be about – and I was pretty much spot on. A young woman running from her past travels from the city to the back of beyond to marry a man she’s never seen, doesn’t expect quite the primitive standard of her new home but decides to make the best of it, falls for her husband (who is, fortunately, hot as hell) her past catches up with her, drama ensues – The End.

If by that you infer that the story is predictable – then you’re inferring correctly.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Catch a Duke (Rogues to Riches #6) by Grace Burrowes

how to catch a duke uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘I have come to ask you to kill me, my lord.’

Miss Abigail Abbott desperately needs to disappear-permanently-and the only person she trusts to help her do that is Lord Stephen Wentworth, heir to the Duke of Walden. Stephen is brilliant, charming, and-when he needs to be-absolutely ruthless. So ruthless that he proposes marriage instead of “murder” to keep Abigail safe.

Stephen was smitten the instant his sister introduced him to Abigail, a woman with the dignity and determination of a duchess and the courage of a lioness. When she accepts his courtship of convenience, he also discovers she kisses like his most intimate wish come true. For Abigail, their arrangement is a sham to escape her dangerous enemies. For Stephen, it’s his one chance to share a lifetime with the lady of his dreams-if only he can convince her his love is real.

Rating: B-

How to Catch a Duke is the sixth and final book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series about the members of the Wentworth family.  The first book – My One and Only Duke – saw a ducal title conferred upon Quinton Wentworth, a wealthy banker from extremely humble origins who grew up doing whatever jobs he could find in order to provide for his younger siblings, and subsequent books have followed the various family members as they’ve each found their HEAs.  The hero of How to Catch a Duke is Stephen, Quinn’s younger brother and heir whom we first met as a brilliant, mercurial teen whose insight and often biting wit was shadowed by melancholy, and whose frustrations over his disability – his abusive father smashed Stephen’s knee when he was a child and he needs a cane (sometimes two) to walk – came through strongly.  Ten years later, Stephen is still brilliant and mercurial; he’s also charming, loyal, generous and quite ruthless when he wants to be and hasn’t let his physical limitations stop him from shagging his way across the continent or from ‘dallying’ extensively in England with a variety of willing partners.

When this book opens, Stephen receives a visit from Miss Abigail Abbott, the enquiry agent who recently did some work for his sister Constance (The Truth About Dukes).  In a dramatic opening, Abigail tells Stephen that she has “come to ask you to murder me, my lord.”  – which is, of course, not what she means at all; what she wants is to disappear while she attempts to find out why someone – a marquess no less – is out to do her harm.  Abigail is cagey, but Stephen – being Stephen – quickly works out who it is and promptly offers to kill him instead.

The next morning over breakfast, Abigail explains that Lord Stapleton believes her to be in possession of some letters he wants returned – which she is unable to do as she no longer has them.  She refuses to answer Stephen’s questions as to the identity of the writer and recipient of the letters, simply saying that the marquess is not entitled to them and is clearly prepared to go to any lengths to get them.  Stephen recognises that Abigail – whom he already admires for her spirit and no-nonsense attitude (and lusts after for her other attributes) – is genuinely scared, and suggests that instead of faking her death, they should pretend to be engaged and that she should go to stay under Quinn’s protection at Walden House while they work out how to retrieve the letters or get Stapleton to stop hounding her – and preferably both.
I’m generally a fan of Grace Burrowes’ novels, although I’ve long since given up trying to keep up with them all! I enjoy her quirky writing style and the strong familial connections she creates in her stories, and although I haven’t read all the books in this series, I’ve read enough of them to be able to know who most of the characters are and how they relate to one another – so this isn’t the place to start with the Wentworths! But with all that said, I had a number of issues with the book that mean I can’t grade it more highly. The plot is stretched thin and moves very slowly until well into the second half, and I didn’t feel a great deal of chemistry between Stephen and Abigail, who become lovers very quickly, before they really know each other. And while I applaud Ms. Burrowes for writing a couple who talk frankly about sex and their past relationships, I found it hard to believe a young unmarried woman – even one who had had a lover – would have felt comfortable discussing such things with a man she didn’t know all that well. Then there’s the fact that Stephen makes no bones about the fact that he’s had intimate relationships with a few men as well as women, and Abigail takes that in her stride, too (as, it seems, do other members of the family). On the one hand, it’s great to see such a supportive, non-judgmental reaction, but on the other, their easy, unconcerned acceptance seemed too modern.

The best thing about the book is undoubtedly Stephen, probably the most complex and damaged character of all the Wentworths. He’s living with a terrible secret as well as a disability that has caused many to see him as ‘less than’ and has spent most of his life compensating for it in one way and another; not just in his legendary prowess between the sheets, but in many other ways, too, channelling what had been, in youth, self-destructive impulses into creative ones. The other thing I really liked was the new and greater understanding that develops between him and Quinn. Although Stephen had no wish to feel it, he couldn’t help resenting Quinn for being able to do things he couldn’t and for being able to escape their father’s cruelties, and Quinn has seen Stephen as somewhat spoiled, and self-indulgent, and has even been jealous of his intelligence. There’s never been any question that they’d do anything for each other, but they’ve always been a bit wary of each other, too, and I was pleased to see those misunderstandings finally laid to rest.

There’s a large-ish secondary cast of Wentworth siblings and in-laws I enjoyed re-visting, the villain of the piece is suitably nasty (although no match for Stephen), and the author skilfully weaves a realistic look at the plight of the less fortunate into the background of the story – whether it’s the soldiers returning from war to find there was no work and no help for them, or children, forced to work from the age of six as climbing boys or in mines and factories.

I liked many things about How to Catch a Duke, but unfortunately, the romance isn’t at the top of the list. I’ve been intrigued by Stephen since he first appeared in the book one, so I had high hopes for his book and I really wanted to like it more than I did, but even so, it’s certainly worth a qualified recommendation.

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?

Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?

Rating: B+

This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.

At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.

After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.

The story that follows is fast-moving and satisfyingly complex, as Sebastian moves from suspect to suspect, many of whom have much to hide and are rarely forthcoming.  As always, the author skilfully incorporates some of the lesser-known histories of London into her plot, and the way Sebastian pieces together all the snippets of information – and weeds out the lies he’s fed along the way – is superbly done, with lots of character interaction, investigative pondering and insightful observation about the huge disparity that existed between the haves and have-nots, and the injustices perpetrated on the lower echelons of society by greedy public officials and institutions that were supposed to exist for the betterment of all, not just a self-serving few.

Sebastian continues to be a compelling, sympathetic character, and one of the things I so enjoy about this series is watching him grow and change from the hot-headed younger man who was careless of his own safety to a devoted husband and father, a truly and deeply compassionate man who believes strongly in justice and in using his position and abilities to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.  His wife, Hero – daughter of the devious, formidable Lord Jarvis  – shares his interests and convictions; she is an investigative journalist who writes about what life is really like for London’s poor and less fortunate, and I love how in-tune they are and the way they are each other’s staunch support.  She has a relatively small part to play in this story, but her discoveries pack a considerable emotional punch as she interacts with young women making a living on the streets, telling stories about their lives and experiences that are far from pretty.

As with the last few books in the series, the standalone mystery takes precedence,  so a reader new to it could jump in here and not feel as though they’re missing anything.  This has been the case with the last couple of books; the long-running storylines concerning Sebastian’s search for the truth about his heritage – and particularly his search for his mother – his relationship with his father, and the machinations of the Machiavellian Lord Jarvis are present, but are simmering along on the back-burner.  Sebastian learns that his mother has been living in Paris, but that she’s recently removed to Vienna – where European heads of state are gathering to put “the world back together after the defeat of that Corsican upstart” – under an assumed name, but has no idea why; Jarvis’ relationship with the cunning and mercenary Victoria Hart-Davis (were ever two villainous characters so well suited to each other?) progresses, and changes are afoot in Sebastian’s household.  As the timeline of the series inches closer to Napoléon’s escape from Elba and to Waterloo, I become more and more intrigued as to what lies in store for Sebastian – and I certainly plan on sticking around to find out.

What the Devil Knows is another strong instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series.  The mystery is gripping and tightly-written and the author’s descriptive prose is – as always – so wonderfully evocative that the reader can feel the dampness of the creeping fog , see the crowded tap-rooms and hear the gulls screeching overhead around the docks.  Why is it not a DIK?  Simply because I’m starting to feel the need for a bit more movement on issues surrounding Sebastian’s history; this seems to have been pushed aside in the last few books in the series – and while I can sort of understand the author wishing to keep this particular mystery going a bit longer as she obviously has more stories to tell, cynical me can’t help but see the drawing out of it as a delaying tactic.

But don’t let that put you off; this series is one of the best (if not THE best) historical mystery series around, and What the Devil Knows is another fantastic read.

King’s Man (Outlawed #1) by Sally Malcolm


This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when the love of your life becomes your enemy?

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together as intimate friends, and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of the conflict…

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him.

The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is quite different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost to the war.

The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. And despite everything that still divides them, old passions begin to stir…

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is their tangled past too painful to forgive?

Rating: A

In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle.  This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that  combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.

In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont.  Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes.  (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory).  But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought.  Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more;  and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.

Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London.  Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London.  It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents.  But he won’t be travelling alone.

Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel BenjaminTalmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors.  In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down.  But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.

Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list.  The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves.  But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.

Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible.  Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet.  Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour.  The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.

Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful.  Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses.  In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating.  I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.

Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.

Rebel: An Outlawed Story (Outlawed #0.5) by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling in love is just the beginning…

Samuel Hutchinson has lived his whole life in Rosemont, Rhode Island. And as far as he’s concerned, his future is fixed: complete his legal training, marry a respectable woman, and settle down to raise a family.

But Sam never counted on meeting Nathaniel Tanner.

Clever, urbane, and dazzling, Nate has been banished to Rosemont by a father determined to remove him from the rising political tension in Boston. The last thing Nate expects to find in the sleepy Rhode Island town is a man who’s not only interested in Nate’s radical ideas, but who interests Nate in return.

In every conceivable way.

Over books and conversation, their friendship deepens. But when Nate dares to confess his true feelings, Sam faces a stark choice—reject his friend and continue to live a lie, or rebel against everything he’s been taught and embrace his heart’s desire…

Rating: B+

Sally Malcolm’s Rebel is a novella/short story that acts as a prequel to the full-length novel King’s Man, out later this month.   It’s short and sweet, but packs quite an emotional punch as it charts the development of the relationship between two young men from very different backgrounds whose lives will be forever changed by their association.

Handsome, charming and well-to-do Harvard graduate Nathaniel Tanner is sent to the sleepy Rhode Island town of Rosemont by his father, who disapproved of the people Nate chose to spend time with.  Nate is to clerk for lawyer John Reed, and it’s at Reed’s modest offices that fellow clerk Samuel Hutchinson sets eyes on his new colleague for the first time. Sam is instantly smitten – against his will, against his judgment – and tries hard to quell the inappropriate thoughts and feelings that arise whenever Sam looks at Nate, or the shocks that rush across his skin with every accidental touch.  For the first few weeks, Nate keeps himself to himself; he doesn’t talk about himself and doesn’t socialise, so Sam is surprised when he suggests they share a pre-Christmas drink.  During the course of the evening, Nate starts to tell Sam a little of his circumstances, and soon they’re conversing on a variety of subjects – novels, poetry, philosophy, politics – and over the following weeks and months, a genuine friendship develops between them. Sam has been alone since the death of his parents from typhus a couple of years earlier and the meals and discussions he shares with Nate quickly become the high point of every week.

Nate hadn’t expected to find someone like Sam in provincial Rhode Island, a man willing to listen to and endlessly debate Nate’s free-thinking ideas.  And he can’t help finding it somewhat ironic that his father banished him in part because of his bedroom preferences, only for Nate to end up sharing a small office with “an Adonis who spent his days shooting Nate confused and confusing looks.“  He’s fairly sure he’s reading Sam’s interest correctly, and also that Sam likely is struggling with his attraction to Nate.

Rebel is a little gem of a story which, in just thirty-six pages presents readers with two well-characterised leads and a passionate love story developed through a series of vignettes.  Sally Malcolm is one of those writers who can create the most delicious, intense chemistry between characters with the merest look or touch, and the longing and soul-deep connection she forges between Sam and Nate simply leap off the page.

Rebel is completely absorbing and ends on a hopeful HFN.  My appetite for King’s Man is well and truly whetted!

Note: Rebel was previously made available free to subscribers to the author’s mailing list.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.