Masters in This Hall by K.J. Charles

masters in this hall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

John Garland was in love: now he’s in disgrace. He’s jobless, alone, and determined to avenge himself on the thief who ruined his life. All he wants for Christmas is Barnaby Littimer in gaol.

Barnaby has secured a job running the extravagant traditional Christmas at a rich man’s country house. John intends to thwart whatever he’s up to.

But amid the festivity, the halls are decked with unexpected dangers. And John will need to decide if he can trust Barnaby one more time…

Rating: B+

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

The Christmas festivities at Codlin Hall will culminate in the wedding of Abel’s daughter, Ivy (yes, she really is called Ivy Garland!) to the Earl of Dombey, so a large party is gathered there, many of whom look down on Abel because he made his millions in trade, and are only too pleased to accept his lavish hospitality while sneering about him behind his back. John’s unexpected arrival on Christmas Eve doesn’t go down too well with Ivy, who is worried about appearances and who John knows doesn’t want him –

“reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.”

But even though she tries to insist there’s no room at the inn (!), help comes from an unexpected quarter in the shape of Ivy’s nice-but-dim fiancé, who is only too happy to welcome John to join in the celebrations. In turn, John is only too happy at the thought of putting a spoke in Barnaby’s wheel – and at the look on Barbaby’s face when he first sees John amid the assembled guests. Angry and resentful – not least because he’s still very attracted to the man and can’t forget the happy hours they’d spent together – John refuses to listen to Barnaby’s explanations or to his warnings when he tells John he should leave. Maybe Barnaby looks scared and maybe John’s first instinct is to offer to help him, regardless of what he’s done – but John squashes those feelings under his determation not to be made a fool of again.

As always, K.J. Charles fills her story with lots of fascinating historical detail, sharp social observations and, as it’s Christmas, doesn’t stint on the Dickensian references or the puns. Abel Garland doesn’t go in for Victorian sentiimentality, far perferring to hark back to the medieval and pagan ritual that is the real backbone of so many of our Christmas traditions today, so there’s much to learn about wassail, mummers, carols and the Lord of Misrule as well as some sharp commentary about the social pecking order and the abuse of privilege.

The animosity between John and Barnaby isn’t allowed to go on for too long, fortunately, and after that, they join forces to expose a thief and some very shady dealings while also coming up with a way to keep themselves well out of it, with help from the devious brain of a mostly unnamed but very recognisable character – he of the beautiful baritone voice and the dangerously sardonic eyebrow – known to detectives across England simply as “That Bastard” (and to KJC afficionados as Jerry Crozier.) I always enjoy seeing favourite characrters from the points of view of those who don’t really know them, and the author certainly doesn’t disppoint here; John and Barbaby are suitably wary of this Lilywhite Boy and his reputation, and Jerry is wonderfully grumpy – and terrifying – at being forced out of retirement to deal with “Captain Algy”.

John and Barnaby themselves are very likeable characters, clever, witty and self-deprecating but quietly competent, and their past history is  laid out in some very brief flashbacks that set up their romance nicely. There’s a real sense of longing as they both think back wistfully on what could have been, and then a real blossoming of hope when they realise they might have a second chance. They’re sweet and lovely together and their HFN is just right.

Masters in This Hall is the perfect Christmas novella for those of us who prefer our seasonal tales to have a bit of zing and bite. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s devoid of religion and sentimentality, and it’s just the ticket for a cold winter’s afternoon. Enjoy

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

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

The Gilded Scarab (Lancaster’s Luck #1) by Anna Butler (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

the gilded scarab

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to London in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.

Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Sad to say, but Anna Butler’s name wasn’t even on my radar when I saw The Gilded Scarab crop up at Audible, but Gary Furlong’s name on the cover together with a quick peek at the reviews on Goodreads convinced me to take a punt – and I’m glad I did. It’s the first book in a trilogy with a steampunk-y vibe set in an AU Victorian era and it’s full of excellent period detail (many of the historical events of the time are referenced), strong worldbuilding, and boasts a fully three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging lead character.

In this world, the Britannic Imperium is ruled, under the monarch, by eight Convocation Houses which hold all the political power. They divide government departments between them and staff them with members of their own Houses or of the Minor Houses allied to them. Captain Rafe Lancaster is a minor scion of one of those Minor Houses, who, instead of becoming an equally minor government official, decided to join the Aero Corps, much to the annoyance of his family. He’s become one of the Corps’ best – if not THE best – aeronauts; he’s well-liked and a bit of a dare-devil (sometimes a troublemaker) but when push comes to shove, he’s the man for whatever job the Corps wants to throw at him. When the book opens, he’s fighting in South Africa (in the equivalent of what we know as the Boer War) when the famous ‘Lancaster’s Luck’ finally runs out, and his aerofighter is shot down while on a mission. Rafe survives the crash with mostly cuts and bruises, but the head injury he sustains damages his optic nerve which means his vision is no longer fit for military service, and he is medically discharged.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: When Love is Blind (Warrender Saga #3) by Mary Burchell

when love is blind

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Dreams have been dashed…

Antoinette Burney, a more than promising music student, is disappointed and furious when the famous concert pianist Lewis Freemont fails her in an exam.

To make matters worse, he tells her forthrightly that she will never make the grade as a professional pianist

Her hopes and dreams of success and notoriety are all destroyed in a single blow.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive him.

But it would seem that fate has other ideas and the tables are quickly turned, making Antoinette the innocent cause of the accident that, in destroying Lewis Freemont’s sight, destroys his career as well.

Subdued by his debilitating condition and the knowledge that he will never play the piano again, Lewis quickly becomes a shell of his former self.

Horrified and remorseful, when Antoinette gets a chance to make some sort of amends — by becoming Lewis’s secretary — she seizes it with both hands.

Just when she thought life couldn’t get any more complicated, Antoinette soon finds herself falling in love with the man that only a few weeks ago, she despised.

But what will Lewis do when, as inevitably he must, he discovers who she really is?

Full of hope and broken dreams, When Love is Blind is a heartfelt tale about never giving up.

Rating: B-

I’ve read a couple of the books in Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga for the TBR Challenge, and picked up another one – the third – for this month’s prompt – “Lies”. The thing that keeps me coming back to this series is the way the author writes about music, musicians and the world of the professional performer, but the romances are tame by today’s standards, and, as I’ve remarked before, the heroes can feel like secondary characters because the stories are all about the heroine’s journey and are written from her PoV. And even though some of the language and attitudes are outdated now, reading them is oddly comforting; they play out in my head like old black-and-white films from the 1940s or 1950s, with their stiff-upper-lips and portrayals of glamourous lifestyles (okay, so this book dates from 1967, but it could easily have been set a decade or two earlier; there’s no real sign it’s the “swinging sixties”!)

The heroine of When Love is Blind is twenty-year-old aspiring concert pianist Antoinette Burnley. Having shown a prodgious talent at a young age, she’s spent pretty much all her young life making music, but all her dreams come crashing down around her ears when her idol (and long-time crush), Lewis Fremont, fails her in an exam, saying her performance is akin to that of “a clever automaton without glimmer of the divine spark.”

Deep down, Antoinette knows he’s right – somewhere along the line, she lost her connection to the heart and soul of the music and focused entirely on developing an outstanding technique – but even so, she’s deeply hurt and can’t now conceive of making a musical career. She decides to make a drastic change, and enrolls on a secretarial course.

Several months later on a day out, Antoinette finds herself in Lewis Fremont’s neck of the woods; she’s crossing the road opposite his hose when a car comes racing around the bend towards her, swerves to avoid her and spins out of control. She’d already recognised the car as that belonging to Fremont – rushing over to see if she can help, finds him alive, but unable to see and then goes to get help. Feeling scared, guilty and completely overwhelmed, she watches from afar as Fremont is carried from the wreckage, but doesn’t return to the wreckage

A few days later, Antoinette’s is offered a job as Lewis Fremont’s secretary. Her immediate response is to refuse – but then she thinks that perhaps working for Fremont and helping him in whatever way she can will atone, in some small way, for the accident, which she regards as her fault.

On her first day, Antoinette is shaken to find Fremont so subdued, so miserable and helpless, although perhaps it’s not surprising considering his life has been completely turned upside-down. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to play for an audience ever again, his pride stinging at the idea of having to be led to the piano, “fumbling” to find his place at the keyboard. Antoinette shocks herself by immediately tells him not to be so arrogant and self-pitying – and to her surprise, Fremont actually takes her rebuke in (mostly) good part. Later, Fremont’s manager Gordon Everleigh suggests to Antoinette that she should do whatever she can to encourage him to remain positive, to excite his interest and participation – they’re united in their aim to get him back on to the concert platform

The turning point comes when Antoinette finally agrees to play for Fremont. She’d turned him down the first time he asked, but this time, she sees a way that might provide exactly the encouragement Everleigh was talking about; she agrees to play the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata but then says he’ll have to play the third, because she isn’t up to it. And sure enough, playing for her brings everything back and sets Fremont on the path back to re-entering the musical world.

The book fits the prompt because, of course, Fremont has no idea that his “Toni” as she asks him to call her, is the same girl who inadvertently caused his accident. He recalls her vaguely – he’d seen her standing in the road – and recognised her then as the student he’d failed and who had subsequently appeared at the front of the audience at several of his concerts. He believes her to have been stalking him and planning some kind of revenge, and is absolulely determined to find her, so of course, and as all liars do, Antoinette finds herself having to propogate more falsehoods in order to keep her identity a secret.

I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said, the focus on music and the way the author writes about it work really well for me, so the main reason for the middling grade on this one is that the romance is very rushed. The growing friendship between Antoinette and Fremont has a solid foundation in their mutual love of music, and of his appreciation for her good sense and willingness to challenge him and stand her ground, but the declaration (his) comes out of the blue around half way through and was one of those ‘wait – what?’ moments where I had to backtrack and check I hadn’t missed a couple of chapters.

Speaking of the things that didn’t work for me, the ending is also rushed, and the writing during the ‘accident’ scene at the beginning is really clunky; I get that it’s exposition, but it was hard to take it seriously. The same is true of the scene near the end in which

(highlight to read) he regains his sight

and from then on it’s a mad rush to the end.

I did like the two leads, though. Antoinette is a believable twenty, with all the uncertainty, self-consciousness and self-absorption that come with being young, and I was really rooting for her as she re-discovers the inner musicality she’d lost sight of, the ability to play from the heart rather from the head, and how her finding her way back to it mirrors her growth as a character. Fremont is your musical genius in the Warrender mould, a true artist at the top of his profession with the arrogance and artistic temperment to go with it – and yet he’s a fair man (he could have phrased his comment in Antoinette’s exam better, but what he said was the truth) he’s fairly down-to-earth and while he can be a but snappish at times, he’s not intentionally cruel – and I liked that Antoinette doesn’t take any crap from him. She may have started out as Fremont’s secretary, but she slowly becomes his support and his beacon of hope as he works to get back to performing.

I can’t say When Love is Blind was a resounding success, but it was worth reading.

A Thief in the Night by KJ Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by James Joseph & Ryan Laughton

a thief in the night

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Toby never meant to be a highway robber, but needs must. He didn’t plan to impersonate a top London valet either, but when the chance comes to present himself as the earl of Arvon’s new gentleman’s gentleman, he grabs it. Unfortunately, the earl is the man he seduced and robbed on the road to get here. Oops.

Miles, Lord Arvon, is not impressed. But he’s faced with a tumbledown home and lost family fortune, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Toby—shameless, practical, and definitely desperate—may be just the man he needs.

To steal back a priceless bracelet, that is. What else were you thinking?

Narration – A/B; Content – B+

In KJ Charles’ 2021 novel The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, we were introduced to Robin and Marianne, two siblings who conned their way into society with a view to their both making very advantageous marriages. Brief mention was made of the fact that they had grown up with an older half/step sibling named Toby who just up and left them one day and whom they haven’t seen since. In A Thief in the Night, we get to meet Toby, who, like his brother and sister, lives by his wits, with one eye (metaphorically) always looking over his shoulder, and the other always on the main chance.

The story opens at an inn where Toby, while waiting for the drink he’s ordered to arrive, is keeping an eye on the attractive man of military bearing sitting by the fire. His clothing is travel-stained, but looks to be that of a man of means, so Toby nonchalantly walks over and strikes up a conversation. After exchanging names (Toby doesn’t give his real one, of course), they get to talking, and Toby learns that his companion, Miles Carteret, has recently returned from fighting on the Penunsula and is on his way home. Toby is quick to recognise the signs of interest, and to make his own interest clear; before long, they’re out back, exchanging greedy touches and frantic kisses and Toby is on his knees. After putting themselves to rights, they had back inside where Miles dozes off – and Toby helps himself to his watch and pocket book and scarpers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sailor’s Delight by Rose Lerner

sailor's delight

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Self-effacing, overworked bookkeeper Elie Benezet doesn’t have time to be in love. Too bad he already is—with his favorite client, Augustus Brine. The Royal Navy sailing master is kind, handsome, and breathtakingly competent. He’s also engaged to his childhood sweetheart. And now that his prize money is coming in after years of delay, he can afford to marry her…once Elie submits the final prize paperwork.

When Augustus comes home, determined to marry by the end of his brief leave, Elie does his best to set his broken heart aside and make it happen. But he’s interrupted by one thing after another: other clients, the high holidays, his family’s relentless efforts to marry him off. Augustus isn’t helping by renting a room down the hall, shaving shirtless with his door open, and inviting Elie to the public baths. If Elie didn’t know better, he’d think Augustus didn’t want to get married.

To cap it all off, Augustus’s fiancée arrives in town, senses that Elie has a secret, and promptly accuses him of embezzling. Has Elie’s doom been sealed…or is there still time to change his fate?

Rating: B-

I’ve read and positively reviewed several of Rose Lerner’s historical romances here, so I was excited when I saw that she had a new m/m historical coming out and eagerly snapped up a review copy. Sailor’s Delight is loosely linked by character to The Woman in the Attic, but it doesn’t share any storylines, so can absolutely be read as a standalone.

Eleazar Benezet is a Navy Agent – a job which involves looking after the financial and legal affairs of naval men and officers while they’re away at sea. Among his numerous clients is sailing master Augustus Brine, whom Elie has known for more than a decade… and been sweet on for just as long. When the book opens, Elie is surprised and delighted to learn that Brine’s ship has docked a couple of weeks early and that he will be coming ashore for the first time in two years; Elie is eager to see him, but also dreads it, because he knows that Brine is planning to marry the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for several years during this period of shore leave. The wedding will take place as soon as Brine can afford it, which will be once he receives his share of the prize money from the Vliegende Draeck, a Dutch merchant ship captured in 1809, but which, thanks to various court appeals, has yet to be paid. Now, however, the court cases are over and it’s simply a matter of finalising the accounts – which Elie has been putting off doing for weeks.

Elie knows he should have finished by now and that it shouldn’t have taken him this long, but… Brine’s marriage will likely mean the end of their close friendship, and Elie can’t deny that part of the reason for the delay is simply his own selfishness at wanting to have Brine as his client and friend for a bit longer, and to continue to dream about the possibility of something he knows is never going to happen. But he is going to procrastinate no longer. Rosh Hashanah is over and the Days of Awe are beginning, so it’s the perfect time to make amends for the wrong he has done Brine in failing to move the matter forward in a more expeditious manner.

Elie and Brine are tw of the nicest men you could ever meet – they’re sweet but totally clueless! Elie is the sole PoV character, so we only see Brine through his eyes, and the author does a good job of showing the reader lots of little things that Elie doesn’t see that make it clear that Brine is equally smitten (such as the fact he’s clearly studied the customs of and pays attention to the observances of Elie’s Jewish faith). Despite that, however, I never really connected with Brine as I did with Elie.

This book has a lot going for it. The detail of Elie’s job is fascinating and the elements of Jewish culture are deeply and skilfully embedded into the story; I liked the way the passing of time is marked by the use of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, and by the various wardroom toasts at the head of each chapter. I enjoyed spending time with Elie’s large and loving family, and I was impressed with the subtle but impactful way in which the author tackles the issue of the anti-semitism Elie faces. But the romance is a bit lacklustre, mostly because the mutual pining and Elie’s obliviousness about Brine’s true feelings (and vice versa) goes on for too long, and so much of the story is concerned with Elie’s guilt over procrastinating about the prize money and his determination to make amends.

I appreciated the way Ms. Lerner counters stereotypes in the characterisation of Brine’s fiancée, Sarah Turner. Her arrival in Portsmouth certainly complicates matters and causes an even greater degree of misunderstanding between Elie and Brine, but I liked her; she’s a no-nonsense, independent woman who clearly has Brine’s best interests at heart – and has known for a while that those interests do not lie with her. Yet Elie and Brine are continually at cross-purposes and can’t seem to have a proper conversation about her. Brine feels duty-bound to marry Sarah because she looked after his parents before they died; Elie is sure Brine wants to marry Sarah and tries hard to assure her of that fact, even as it kills him to do so. It takes so long for Elie and Brine to have an honest conversation that I was beginning to wonder whether it would happen at all; this is a long-ish novella, coming in at around two hundred pages, but the confessions of love don’t come until the final chapter, and it’s rushed and doesn’t deliver the kind of emotional satisfaction I want from an HEA.

If you’re looking for a low-angst, incredibly well-researched historical romance featuring an engaging, realistic principal character and lots and lots of pining, Sailor’s Delight could well be the book for you. But for me, even though I thoroughly appreciated the informative and well-crafted historical backdrop and the way the story is so firmly grounded in Jewish customs and culture, it was a little bit too low-key.

Silent Sin by E.J. Russell (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

silent sin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When tailor Marvin Gottschalk abandoned New York City for the brash boom town of silent film-era Hollywood, he never imagined he’d end up on screen as Martin Brentwood, one of the fledgling film industry’s most popular actors. Five years later, a cynical Martin despairs of finding anything genuine in a town where truth is defined by studio politics and publicity. Then he meets Robbie Goodman.

Robbie fled Idaho after a run-in with the law. A chance encounter leads him to the film studio, where he lands a job as a chauffeur. But one look at Martin and he’s convinced he’s likely to run afoul of those same laws – laws that brand his desires indecent, deviant…sinful.

Martin and Robbie embark on a cautious relationship, cocooned in Hollywood’s clandestine gay fraternity, careful to hide from the studio boss, a rival actor, and reporters on the lookout for a juicy story. But when tragedy and scandal rock the town, igniting a morality-based witch hunt fueled by a remorseless press, the studio brass will sacrifice even the greatest careers to defend their endangered empire. Robbie and Martin stand no chance against the firestorm – unless they stand together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

E.J. Russell’s Silent Sin is a standalone historical romance set in the Hollywood of the 1920s featuring a movie star and the man who – through a fortunate circumstance – lands a job as his driver. The author has clearly done her homework when it comes to the background of this story – about the studio system and the influence it exerted over all aspects of the lives of its stars, about the relationship between the studios and the press – and that, together with the inclusion of a number of real-life figures and events, grounds the story very firmly in its time and place. I had a couple of niggles, but overall it’s a compelling story with fantastic narration by Greg Boudreaux, and I lapped it up.

When the book begins, we meet Robbie – Robinson Crusoe Goodman – as he arrives in a place called Hollywood. He’s disappointed; he’d hoped the farmer who’d given him a lift in his truck would have taken him a bit further along the road – plus in a town, he’s unlikely to find any work of the sort that could be done by a former potato farmer from Idaho whose meagre possessions amount to the very threadbare set of clothes on his back. After spending the night in an uninhabited shack at the edge of town, a tired, hungry and thirsty Robbie walks slowly back down main street, with no real idea of what to do next. He watches, surprised, as a cowboy – wondering just what a cowboy is doing in a town where there are no cows? – strolls along the street announcing he’s just got a part in a new picture. Robbie has no idea what the man is talking about, and just as he’s about to move along, is tapped on the shoulder and turns to find an older man wearing a uniform is speaking to him. For just a second or two, Robbie panics – uniforms mean authority and Robbie has been running from the authorities for six weeks now – but the man – who says that everyone calls him Pops – tells Robbie he’s done nothing wrong and then offers to buy him breakfast. Robbie can’t believe his luck, and as they eat, Pops tells Robbie that he works at Citadel Motion Pictures and, after ascertaining that Robbie knows how to drive, offers him a job.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Sinner’s Gamble (The Perdition Club #1) by Merry Farmer

the sinner's gamble

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Caesar Potts loves his life as a co-owner of Perdition, one of the sultriest and most hedonistic of London’s gaming hells. He is as passionate about showing customers of Perdition a good time as he is about his charitable activities on the side. But Caesar’s good nature and sensual sense of fun are put to the test when handsome preacher George Mulgrew darkens his doorstep.

George is desperate to save souls, mostly because his own is in such turmoil. He can’t seem to stay away from beautiful and intriguing club owner, Caesar, even though he believes him to be guilty of the worst sort of evils. Something within George responds to something in Caesar, no matter how much he tries to deny it.

When George finds himself trapped in Perdition as Caesar’s prisoner, everything he thought he knew and believed himself to be fighting for is thrown into question. Can Caesar show George another way to live, and will the fire between the two men light the way for a new journey?

Rating: D

Oh, dear. The Sinner’s Gamble is the first book of Merry Farmer’s I’ve read, and it started quite well in terms of the writing, which is polished and smooth, and overall feel, but that quickly went out the window when, at the end of the first chapter, one of our gambling club owners, one Caesar Potts, in a desperate attempt to stop the Reverend George Mulgrew from preaching at his patrons from the club steps, imploring them to see the error of their ways and not pass through the doors of such a den of iniquity, invites him inside – and takes him to a room in which, just minutes ago, he’d seen an MP getting it on with one of the club’s… er… gentlemen of the night, and doesn’t stop to think they might still be there. Only when he sees the ARE does he start to worry that maybe the vicar will report him and the club to the authorities. This is 1815 and homosexuality was illegal and carried a harsh punishment – death in some cases. The fact that Caesar is gay as well just makes this stupidity worse – he knows how dangerous it is to have sex with men, yet he blithely leads a vicar – A VICAR – into the room.

Jeez.

But don’t worry. He took him in there because a) he thought he’d be able to convince him that what goes on in the club isn’t so bad after all and b) because if he couldn’t he could just chloroform him and tie him to his bed.

Yep.

I considered giving up there, but as it’s only a 140 page book, I decided to persevere – and I was intrigued as to how the author was going to show and resolve George’s conflicted feelings – his calling as a minister and his desire for Caesar. After reading the beginning I suppose I should have known that she wasn’t going to do that. George has sex with Caesar several times, and the following day accompanies him on a visit to a less than salubrious area of town (it doesn’t say where – the East End maybe?) where he watches Caesar giving money and food to the poor and saving a battered wife from her abusive husband, and learns that he funds lots of charitable endeavours designed to help those less fortunate – in short, he’s practically perfect in every way. George realises that THIS is what he, as a man of the cloth, should really be doing, that practical help is far more useful to people in need than ranting at them about their immortal souls (really? I’d never have guessed!) and it takes him all of TWO WHOLE DAYS to cast off everything he’s been brought up to believe (and okay, his father is a bitter old fire-and-brimstone type who doesn’t give a shit about helping people) and doesn’t even give a second thought to the fact that his religious beliefs will have told him that his sexual desires are depraved and abnormal. Don’t misunderstand me – nobody should ever feel that way, but this is set in 1815 when, sadly, those attitudes were the prevailing ones.

George’s father is a cartoon villain, Cesar’s friends and business partners are barely two-dimensional, and the whole thing is so sugary sweet it’s a wonder my teeth haven’t rotted in the hour or so it took me to read it.

The only thing the book really has going for it is the cover – it makes a nice change to see a traditional “clinch” cover on an m/m romance. But if, like me, you cut your m/m romance reading teeth on historicals by the likes of KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, then you really will want to give this one a miss.

TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal find in each other the strength to love.

History books will call it The Great War, but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity, and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.

Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself, Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected passion.

As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.

Rating: B

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.

Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.

Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.

As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing.  And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.

Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on.  Clearly,  there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.

Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.

Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.

While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.

That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.

All the Duke I Need (Desperately Seeking Duke #3) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

all the duke i need

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She’s a duchess in all but name
Philippa Kirkpatrick has been raised at Carlyle Castle by her doting guardian, the Duchess of Carlyle. Preoccupied with the succession of the dukedom and the duke’s health, the duchess has left the estate in Philippa’s hands—and Philippa is determined not to let her down.

He’s not a duke at all . . .

The arrival of a new estate steward should be a relief, but instead it threatens to upend everything. William Montclair is handsome, brash, and scandalously bold. The horrified duchess wants to sack him on sight. Philippa is just as shocked . . . but also, somehow, charmed.

But could he be her hero?

Carlyle cannot be her home forever, but Philippa is determined to leave it in good hands. She means to teach Will how to run the estate properly and love Carlyle as she does. The more time she spends with Will, though, the more she likes him . . . trusts him . . . even loves him. Unfortunately, she’s also more and more certain that Will is keeping secrets that could break her heart.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Caroline Linden’s All the Duke I Need features a lovely, well-developed romance between two likeable and engaging characters – but as the finale of a series in which the overarching plot has focused on the search for the heir to a dukedom, it pains me to say that it falls somewhat short. There are a number of plot points that are rushed or which don’t make much sense, and some important questions that remain unanswered by the end. The author has said that she’s writing an epilogue that should answer them all, but I still feel cheated; if the story requires more chapters to finish it properly, then those chapters should have been included in THIS book – not as an optional extra. With all that said – don’t let it put you off listening; the narration is very good, and the romance reaches a satisfying conclusion with the two leads nicely set up for a future together. I would just have liked more of an overall sense of completeness by the end.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Treasure (Greynox to the Sea #1) by Kim Fielding (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

treasure

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Julian Massey has always been sickly. When the young man’s parents send him to the seaside town of Urchin Cove to recuperate, he finds himself stranded in a tiny cabin with only the quirky local inhabitants for company. Then a storm blows through, and he finds an unexpected discovery washed up on the beach: an unconscious man.

After stealing a treasure, Kit Archer is taken prisoner by a ruthless pirate, Captain Booth. When a storm hits the pirate ship, Kit is able to escape, but not without serious injuries. Jules nurses him back to health, and friendship grows into desire. But Captain Booth is bound to come in search of his treasure and the man who stole it.

In a world with dragons, sprites, and wizards, it’s going to take more than a little magic for Jules and Kit to find lasting happiness together.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I so enjoyed listening to Kim Fielding’s Farview a few weeks ago that I decided to back-track and listen to the novella that preceded it, Treasure. It’s a little gem of a tale that introduces listeners to the magical world of Greynox and Croftwell with its imps and wizards and dragon-drawn carriages

Julian Massey – a quiet, bookish young man who has suffered from poor health all his life – is sent by his family to the seaside town of Urchin Cove in order to take advantage of the restorative effects of the fresh, sea air. When he arrives at the holiday cottage rented for him, Julian is at something of a loss; he’s never had to look after himself before, so has to learn how to do simple tasks very quickly (I have to say that I found it odd he was sent there alone given his family’s worries for his health). But he does learn, surprising himself with the sense of achievement he feels and enjoying his new-found freedom from his family’s constant and suffocating concern, his books and his occasional chat with the quirky inhabitants of the nearby village. It’s not long before Julian begins to feel the benefit of the change of environment and the exercise.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals