TBR Challenge: The Mad Countess (Gothic Brides #1) by Erica Monroe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Lady Claire Deering’s mother enters an insane asylum, society is quick to scorn her, dubbing her the Mad Daughter. But Claire’s tattered reputation is the least of her worries, as those rumors hold a horrible, terrifying truth: the Deering women are victims of a dark witch’s curse. If Claire marries her true love, she’ll spend the rest of her life under the thrall of madness.To save herself, she remains isolated…until a will reading at a mysterious castle on All Hallows Eve places her in close confines with her dearest friend and secret love.

Bashful, scholarly Teddy Lockwood has never met a rule he didn’t rejoice in following. When he unexpectedly inherits the Ashbrooke earldom, he’s determined to turn over a new, more courageous leaf–starting with telling Claire that he’s loved her since they were children. The will reading presents the perfect opportunity to win her heart, even if he’s vastly out of his element at this enigmatic, shadowy Cornwall castle. Soon, the simmering passion between them becomes unstoppable. Now, to save the love of his life, Teddy will do whatever it takes to break the dark magic’s hold on Claire. Will Claire spend her life within the grips of strange delirium, or will love prove the strongest of all?

Rating: D

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

A Convenient Fiction (Parish Orphans of Devon #3) by Mimi Matthews (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She Needed a Husband…. It’s been three years since Laura Hayes’ father died, leaving her and her invalid brother to subsist on the income from the family’s failing perfume business. But time is swiftly running out. What she needs is a husband, and fast. A noble gentleman who can rescue them all from penury. When a mysterious stranger arrives in the village, he seems a perfect candidate. But Alex Archer is no hero. In fact, he just might be the opposite. He Wanted a Fortune…. Alex has no tolerance for sentiment. He’s returned to England for one reason only: to find a wealthy wife. A country-bred heiress in Surrey seems the perfect target. But somewhere between the village railway station and the manor house his mercenary plan begins to unravel. And it’s all the fault of Laura Hayes – a lady as unsuitable as she is enchanting. From the beaches of Margate to the lavender fields of Provence, a grudging friendship slowly blossoms into something more. But when scandal threatens, can a man who has spent his entire life playing the villain finally become a hero? Or will the lure of easy riches once again outweigh the demands of his heart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

A Convenient Fiction is book three in Mimi Matthews’ Parish Orphans of Devon series, and the first of the set I’ve listened to (I read the first book, A Matrimonial Advertisement), and I confess I picked it up for review principally because Alex Wyndham is the narrator (the earlier books in the series were narrated by someone I don’t care to listen to). The author has a reputation as someone who pays attention to historical detail and accuracy in her novels, and her characters speak and behave in a way that is very period-appropriate – which isn’t something I can say about a lot of the historical romances published recently. Her writing is smooth and engaging and she has the knack for creating nicely simmering romantic chemistry between her protagonists – but if you’re someone who likes a bit of on-page action between the sheets in your romances, then you won’t find that here, as Ms. Matthews closes the bedroom door very firmly once the characters make it that far!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Countess for a Week by Sarah Mallory

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A pretend marriage to the Earl

Sharing everything—except a bed…

To uncover a ruthless killer, Arabella Roffey masquerades as the Countess of Westray—never expecting her ‘husband’ suddenly to appear! He could expose her, but instead he agrees to continue her ruse for a week. Randolph is brooding, handsome, and Bella likes him more than she should. Pretending to be his wife, she shares everything with him—except a bed—but the temptation to do so is becoming all too real…

Rating: C+

Sarah Mallory’s His Countess for a Week is a mix of mystery and romance featuring an appealing hero who, when the book opens, has just returned to England after having been pardoned of the crime for which he was transported to Australia six years earlier. Randolph Kirkster, the new Earl of Westray (who originally appeared in the author’s Pursued for the Viscount’s Vengeance),has endured much and has emerged as a better man for it, one who is determined to make up for the idleness of his youth and to fulfil his responsibilities to those dependent upon him.   Sadly, however, his heroine is far less interesting and engaging, which made it difficult to become invested in the romance.

After arriving in Portsmouth, Randolph (mostly shortened to Ran, which I really didn’t like), decides to visit one of his smaller estates, Beaumont Hall in Devon, before making his way to his principal seat in Oxfordshire.  Accompanied by his manservant, Joseph Miller – really his best friend  – whom Ran credits with saving his life on more than one occasion – Ran arrives at Beaumont and is surprised when the housekeeper informs him that his countess – who has been in residence for the past two weeks – is out for the evening and is staying the night at neighbouring Meon House.

Curious to discover both the identity of the lady masquerading as his wife and her reasons for doing so, Ran makes his way to Meon House, and is immediately conveyed to his ‘wife’ – who promptly faints at the sight of him.

When she’d hatched her scheme to find the person responsible for the death of her husband George, Arabella Roffey had believed the Earl of Westray to be far, far away and that there was no chance of her deception being exposed.  When told her husband had arrived, for a brief second, Arabella had expected to see her beloved George, not an austerely handsome stranger – but knowing the game is up, she does not attempt to excuse her behaviour or deceive him as to her purpose and explains she has reason to suspect that something happened to her husband on his most recent visit to Meon House.  Realising she was unlikely to learn anything as plain Mrs. Roffey, she decided the best way to gain entrée to the circles George was moving in was to pretend to hold a title – and this evening was her first opportunity to meet some of the people in attendance at the house at the time of George’s last visit.

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

The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage (Penniless Brides of Convenience #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Their marriage was a solution…

Until passion turns it into a problem!

Lord and Lady Elmswood’s convenient marriage has allowed them to live separate lives for years. Until larger-than-life Daniel almost dies and Kate must nurse the husband she barely knows back to health…and discover how maddeningly attractive he is! With the clock ticking on his departure, they disagree on everything – except the impossibility of resisting each other!

Rating: B+

When I read The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first book in Marguerite Kaye’s Penniless Brides of Convenience series, I was instantly intrigued by the character of Kate, Lady Elmswood, guardian to the three young women – her nieces by marriage – who were the heroines of the other novels in the series.  In that book, we learned that Kate and her husband Daniel had been married for over a decade, but that theirs is a marriage in name only and they haven’t seen each other since they wed as Daniel spends his time travelling the world.

In the prologue, we meet Kate and Daniel a decade earlier, at a point when Kate, the daughter of Elmswood Manor’s steward, has actually been managing the estate for the past couple of years owing to her father’s deteriorating health.  When the old earl dies, Kate, concerned for her future and that of the estate and its tenants, and needing to provide and care for her ailing father, conceives a daring plan as a way of doing all those things, as well as continuing to manage and improve the estate which is the only home she’s ever known.  Daniel Fairfax – the new Earl of Elmswood – has no intention of settling in England and plans to return to his travels abroad as soon as his father’s estate is settled, and Kate seizes the opportunity to propose her audacious scheme; that they marry.  This will enable Kate to all the things she wants to do and will benefit Daniel as he will be able to leave Elmswood knowing it is in good hands.

In the intervening decade, Kate became guardian to her husband’s three nieces (his sister’s children), all of whom have now found love and are making families of their own – and Kate is, for the first time in a long time, without a purpose and feeling a little adrift.  The estate is running so well that it doesn’t really need her any more, and she is trying to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life when she receives news that Daniel is seriously ill, and that she must travel to Cyprus in order to bring him home.

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

The Princess Plan (Royal Weddings #1) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London’s high society loves nothing more than a scandal. And when the personal secretary of the visiting Prince Sebastian of Alucia is found murdered, it’s all anyone can talk about, including Eliza Tricklebank. Her unapologetic gossip gazette has benefited from an anonymous tip off about the crime, forcing Sebastian to ask for her help in his quest to find his friend’s killer.

With a trade deal on the line and mounting pressure to secure a noble bride, there’s nothing more dangerous than a prince socialising with a commoner. Sebastian finds Eliza’s contrary manner as frustrating as it is seductive, but they’ll have to work together if they’re going to catch the culprit. And soon, as temptation becomes harder to ignore, it’s the prince who’ll have to decide what comes first—his country or his heart.

Rating: D+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Julia London’s books in the past, so I thought I’d give her latest title a try.  The Princess Plan is billed as a mixture of mystery and romance, in which a visiting prince teams up with a lively spinster to solve a murder and falls in love along the way.  It seemed as though it might be an enjoyable romp, but sadly wasn’t.  The mystery wasn’t mysterious, the romantic development was non-existent, it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t a romp.  Unless you define a romp as pages of inane chatter and un-funny attempts at banter that seem to exist only as a way of padding out the page count.

Miss Eliza Tricklebank is twenty-eight years of age, and a spinster who keeps house for her father, a Justice of the Queen’s Bench (who has recently lost his sight) and mends clocks to earn a little something on the side.  Her sister Hollis is a widow who inherited a publishing business from her late husband and now publishes Honeycutt’s Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies, and her best friend Lady Caroline Hawke is a debutante (well, she’s described as such, but if she’s the same age as Hollis or Eliza then she’s quite an elderly debutante!), and together the three of them spend lots of time chattering about nothing in particular while also deciding what to put in the next edition of the Gazette.  Under discussion when the book opens, is the visit to London by a delegation from the small (fictional) country of Alucia, in London in order to negotiate a new trade agreement at the behest of its crown prince, who is rumoured to be in search of a bride.

Caroline – who, we’re told, knows everybody in London – is able to secure invitations to the masked ball held in honour of the visit for herself and her friends, and it’s here that Eliza, quietly getting tipsy on the rum punch, makes the acquaintance of a gentleman she later realises is none other than Crown Prince Sebastian.

You’re shocked, I can tell.

Flirting and silliness ensure until Sebastian has to go to put in an appearance at the meet and greet portion of the evening, after which he finds himself a woman for the night.  This means Sebastian never does go to meet with his secretary and dear friend Matous, who had told him he needed to see him as a matter of urgency.

And who turns up dead the next morning, his throat cut.

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

Christmas With His Wallflower Wife (Beauchamp Heirs #3) by Janice Preston

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A convenient bride

Can he be the groom she deserves?

Lord Alexander Beauchamp has protected Lady Jane Colebrooke since childhood. So seeing she’s about to be forced to wed, he steps in with a proposal of his own! But Alex had underestimated the closeness that taking Jane as his bride demands – something he expected never to give. As Christmas approaches, he knows he must confront the dark secrets that shadow their marriage…

Rating: B+

Christmas With His Wallflower Wife is the sixth and final book in Janice Preston’s two trilogies featuring two generations of the Beauchamp family, and it focuses on Alex, younger son of the Duke of Cheriton and his struggle to find out the truth of his mother’s death almost two decades earlier. If you’ve read any of the other books in the series, you’ll know that Alex is a very troubled young man whose relationship with his father is strained and who has deliberately distanced himself from the other members of his family for reasons that have never been fully explained. In presenting Alex’s story, Ms. Preston does an excellent job of slowly unpacking his damaged soul and bringing to light the truth of the trauma he suffered that prompted his withdrawal from his family; Alex is both flawed and compelling, and while there were times I wanted to tell him to get over himself and stop behaving like an idiot, his thoughts and motivations are so very well examined that it was easy to sympathise with him even as I was disagreeing with his methods and seeing the pitfalls marking the horizon.

It’s been several years since Alex visited the family seat, Cheriton Abbey. When he was just seven years old, Alex discovered his mother’s dead body in the summer house by the lake there, and was so severely traumatised that he didn’t speak for a year afterwards. Even though he’s now in his twenties, Alex still avoids the place like the plague and continues to maintain the emotional distance he has painstakingly manufactured between him and the rest of his family. But he’s persuaded to return there for a garden party at which all his family members will be present – a rare occurrence – intending to leave as soon as he can. Another of the guests is his oldest friend, Lady Jane Colebrooke, who is present with her father and dragon of a stepmother, who dislikes Jane and is determined to marry her off to the odious Sir Denzil Pikeford by hook or by crook. It seems that she’s chosen the latter option when Alex hears screams coming from near the lake and immediately dashes to the rescue to discover Jane struggling under the weight of an inebriated Sir Denzil. Jane’s stepmother gleefully insists that Jane must marry Pikeford or be ruined, but Alex won’t hear of it. He’s always liked Jane, they get on well and have many interests in common… he’ll need to get married at some point, so why not marry a woman he already knows and likes? Jane has loved Alex for years and is aghast at the idea of his being forced to marry her, but he manages to overcome her objections and the couple is married without delay.

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

Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary – so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke’s remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: He’ll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec’s new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman’s most secret desires, and soon he’s got Alec in his bed – and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what’s between them…all without getting caught.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Any Old Diamonds is the first of two novels set in late Victorian England featuring a pair of jewel thieves known as the Lilywhite Boys, and in it, K.J. Charles relates a thoroughly entertaining story of murder, betrayal, revenge, intrigue… and love found in the unlikeliest of places.

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, has supported himself for the past eight years, working – as plain Alec Pine – as an illustrator for books and newspapers. As the son of one of the wealthiest men in the country it’s far from the life he was born to, but he and his older brother and two sisters were cut off by their father following a massive falling out that had been brewing for years. After their mother’s death, the duke married – with indecent haste – the woman with whom he’d been having an affair, and when Alec and his siblings refused to kowtow to the new duchess as their father demanded, he disowned them.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.