When First I Met My King/The Dragon’s Tale (The Arthur Quartet 1&2) by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

These titles may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon:

Book 1Book 2

When First I Met My King:

Once upon a time, there was a winter that wouldn’t end. And all that stands between the people of White Meadows and starvation is a young man called Lance.

Lance is 16 years old, and for all his courage and hunting skills, he’s running out of fight. His family has been wiped out in a border raid, and he’s drowning in loneliness. When strangers arrive at White Meadows, all Lance can think of is using his last strength to drive them away. But these men have come in peace, not to burn and destroy. Among them is a hot-headed, utterly charming prince-in-training named Arthur.

For Lance, Arthur’s arrival is like the return of the sun. The prince has everything – learning, battle skills, a splendid destiny. But as the days unfold in the remote northern settlement in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, it soon becomes clear that Arthur needs Lance, too.

The Dragon’s Tale:

Lance has finally gained his freedom to join his beloved king. It is the depth of a northern winter, but his heart and his blood are warm with joy as he sets off to the fort of Din Guardi on the coast, where Arthur is locked in negotiation with the ancient powers of the realm – warlords who could help him defend the whole country against the Saxon invaders, if only he can unite them. But Lance knows such unity may not be possible – or even for the ultimate good of the kingdom. And although his delight at being with Art is boundless, there are other, darker forces at work in the wild dune lands.

A deep and delicate balance has been disturbed, and the fort is under siege by a creature out of legend, a monster that ravages villages and leaves a trail of bodies and burned fields in its wake. The darkest nights of winter are approaching. Arthur, with unendurable weights to bear on shoulders too young for them, only has Lance to befriend him and shield him from the bitterness of battlefield experience and loss. As their bond grows, Lance must find a way to heal the breach between the old world and the new before it devours the man he loves.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Harper Fox sets her re-imagining of the Arthurian legends – The Arthur Quartet – firmly in Dark Ages Britain, in a divided land slowly emerging from centuries of Roman occupation, one in which the ‘new religion’ of Christianity is challenging the old ways and polytheistic traditions of the Druids and the Celts. She places Lancelot – Lance – at the centre of the tale, relating most events from his perspective and skilfully weaving together his backstory with the familiar elements of the legend – Excalibur, Camelot, Merlin, the Round Table, knights, dragons, magic – and laying the foundations of (what I hope will be) an epic romance between him and Arthur.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin

proper scoundrels

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1925

Sebastian de Leon is adjusting to life after three years spent enthralled by blood magic. The atrocities he committed under its control still weigh heavily on his conscience, but when he’s asked to investigate a series of mysterious murders, it feels like an opportunity to make amends. Until he realizes the killer’s next likely target is a man who witnessed Sebastian at his worst—the Viscount Fine.

Lord Fine—known as Wesley to his friends, if he had any—is haunted by ghosts of his own after serving as a British army captain during the Great War. Jaded and untrusting, he’s tempted to turn Sebastian in, but there’s something undeniably captivating about the reformed paranormal, and after Sebastian risks his own life to save Wesley’s, they find common ground.

Seeking sanctuary together at Wesley’s country estate in Yorkshire, the unlikely pair begins to unravel a mystery steeped in legend and folklore, the close quarters emboldening them to see past the other’s trauma to the person worth loving beneath. But with growing targets on their backs, they’ll have to move quickly if they want to catch a killer—and discover whether two wounded souls can help each other heal.

Rating: A-

Allie Therin’s Magic and Manhattan series concluded earlier this year with Wonderstruck, leaving Rory and Arthur in a good place, disposing of the evil Baron Zeppler and nicely tying up the major plotlines.  Despite a few quibbles, I enjoyed all three books, so I was pleased to learn the author was writing another novel set in the same universe, but featuring different lead characters and a different setting.  In Proper Scoundrels the action switches from New York to London (and Yorkshire), and we catch up with Lord Wesley Fine – Arthur Kenzie’s former lover – and Sebastian de Leon,  a powerful paranormal whose particular abilities made him a valuable asset to the bad guys – both of whom had major parts to play in Wonderstruck.  Although Proper Scoundrels is a standalone novel, I would strongly advise anyone thinking about picking it up to read the Magic in Manhattan series first in order to understand the character backstories and magical systems and world the author has created.

The action picks up shortly after the end of Wonderstruck, where we find Sebastian living in London, where he’s retreated to lick his wounds after spending three years enslaved by the blood magic practiced by Baron Keppler.  He’s weighed down by guilt for the things he was forced to do while under the Baron’s control and is desperate to find ways to atone.  He’s damaged, scared and alone, having deliberately distanced himself from friends and family because he believes himself unworthy of affection, happiness or redemption.

Wesley, Lord Fine, is also back in London and is at something of a loose end. Like Sebastian, he feels like an outsider, his experiences of war putting him forever out of step with those around him.   He’s a self-confessed scoundrel; jaded, cynical, arrogant and often deliberately rude, he despises nearly everyone and everything.  Despite his involvement with the events of Wonderstruck, he has no idea of the existence of magic and the paranormal world – and no inkling that his Kensington home is under magical protection or that Sebastian regularly passes by to make sure that Arthur’s aristocratic friend [isn’t] in any danger owing to his association with Arthur and Rory.

One evening, Sebastian receives a note from Jade Robbins containing a list of the dates of three recent unexplained murders and asking him to meet her.  He grasps the implications immediately – whoever is committing these murders is a paranormal; his conversation with Jade and her partner, Zhang, confirms this and also suggests the perpetrator may be the man responsible for the theft of a number of valuable and dangerous magical artefacts belonging to Sebastian’s family, the Earl of Blanshard.  And among the guests at the last party the earl held at his Yorkshire estate was Wesley, Viscount Fine.  Could he be the paranormal murderer’s next target?

Proper Scoundrels is superbly plotted and perfectly paced, and there’s what I can only describe as an overall air of confidence to the writing and storytelling that wasn’t quite there in the author’s previous work. The romance is given the time to develop and the attraction between Wesley and Sebastian made a lot more sense right off the bat than the romance between Rory and Arthur, who felt so very mis-matched until quite late in their series.  Wesley and Sebastian may be polar opposites, but  their relationship doesn’t suffer from the same feeling of inequality; the push-pull of their attraction, their individual trauma and coping mechanisms, and the amount of growth they go through as characters makes their romance – across one single title – very believable and deeply satisfying.

Wesley and Sebastian are as compelling as individuals as they are as a couple and I liked both of them very much – although it’s Wesley who really stole the show for me.  I loved his sharp and very distinctive narrative voice; he’s under no illusions about himself – unless it’s about his hard-heartedness and inability to love – and his irritation with himself over his attraction to Sebastian is funny and leaps off the page.  He’s every bit the arrogant, rude, snarky, cantankerous arsehole he was in the previous books, but there’s a depth and vulnerability to him that he’d never admit to, and he’s brave, open-minded, witty and generous to those few he truly cares about.  I enjoyed watching him decide that maybe caring for someone – and allowing someone to care for him – might be worth it after all.  Sebastian has been through a lot and is suffering from what we’d recognise as PTSD as a result, but he isn’t prepared to cut himself any slack and blames himself for all the things he did while in thrall to Baron Keppler, even though he had absolutely no choice in the matter.    He’s unfailingly kind and considerate – Jade is spot on when she calls him a “dangerous marshmallow” – and will fight to the death to protect those around him – especially sharp-tongued, non-magical viscounts  – but he’s no pushover.  I just loved watching these two lonely, damaged men slowly growing closer and allowing the other to see things about themselves they allow no-one else to see. Their chemistry is off-the-charts and they light up the pages when they’re together, Wesley’s acerbity the perfect counterpoint to Sebastian’s sweetness.

Having bemoaned the fade-to-black sex scenes in the Magic in Manhattan books because I felt the author missed an opportunity to add depth to the romance, I was pleased at the inclusion of on-page scenes of sexual intimacy here.  These moments between Wesley and Sebastian feel absolutely appropriate for the relationship and the characters and definitely add depth to their emotional connection.

While Arthur and Rory are namechecked a few times, they don’t actually appear on the page – which I think was the right decision, as this story belongs entirely to Wesley and Sebastian – I was delighted to see Jade and Zhang again; they’re terrific characters and I enjoyed their interactions with the two leads and seeing them playing important roles in the story.

Proper Scoundrels is my favourite of Ms. Therin’s books so far and I raced through it in a couple of sittings.  The two leads are compelling, well-developed characters who grab the attention right from the start, the mystery plot is well-executed and overall, it feels as though the author has taken all the really good things from the first three books and made them even stronger.  It’s my final DIK of 2021, and I have no hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending it.

Burning Season (Wild Ones #3) by Rachel Ember

burning season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The year is 1972. Dylan Chase is nineteen, and most days he’s lucky enough to ride a tough bronc, have a beer with his friends, and maybe even sleep under the stars on his family’s third-generation cattle ranch.

Dylan’s life would be perfect if it weren’t for his forbidden itch. An itch he’s only scratched once… with Bo, a hitchhiker he never thought he’d see again. When Bo shows up as the new hire at a neighboring ranch, Dylan is sure his almost-perfect life is about to implode.

After the calves are driven out to the spring pastures, Bo will move on to California. Dylan just has to hold it together until then… if he can.

But Bo can soothe a restless horse with a touch and keeps a battered book of poems in his saddle bag. And the more Dylan learns about him, the more he wants Bo—and the less he wants Bo to go, damn the risk.

Rating: B

I’ve categorised Rachel Ember’s Burning Season as an historical romance – although it feels utterly weird to use the word ‘historical’ to describe a story that takes place during my lifetime!  Set in 1972 (when I was eight!) it’s the third published book in the author’s Wild Ones series, but is the first chronologically; I believe the two leads appear as secondary characters in the first two books (which I have yet to read)  but it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Burning Season is a quiet, uplifting story about being brave and being yourself, with a sweet and sensual romance of at its centre.

Bronc rider Dylan Chase is nineteen and while he’s pretty sure he’s queer, he hasn’t ever had the chance to explore his sexuality.  While away from home on a trip to Texas to take part in the rodeo, he decides to visit a club he’s heard about, a club for men who ‘like’ men – but he gets part of the way there and loses his nerve.  On the drive back to his motel, he picks up a hitchhiker, Bo Bailey, who is headed to the rodeo to try to find a job.  There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between them, which leads to some steamy, stolen moments that bring both revelation and sorrow.  Dylan has never been with a guy, but the connection he feels with Bo – and the sex – is like nothing he’d imagined.  But they’re unlikely to ever meet again.

Fate, however, has other ideas.  Dylan and his friend Glen are about to depart to head back to Nebraska and home when Glen realises he’s lost his wallet and decides to go back to the rodeo grounds to see if anyone has found it.  Waiting for Glen in the truck, Dylan dozes off, only to awaken once they start moving again – and to discover they’ve picked up a familiar passenger.  It turns out Bo found Glen’s wallet and was already asking around to find who it belonged to so he could return it; he and Glen got chatting and Glen offered Bo some temporary work on his dad’s ranch, which borders the one owned by Dylan’s family.

The thought of being able to spend time with Bo produces a mixture of fear and elation in Dylan.  Being gay in 1972 isn’t illegal, but in the sort of conservative, close-knit community Dylan comes from, it’s not acceptable and coming out would certainly make life difficult and could even put him at risk.  Dylan doesn’t want anyone to know the truth about him – and Bo makes it clear he has no intention of saying anything to anyone – but Dylan also can’t help being excited at the thought of being around Bo for longer and maybe getting to do … more of what they’d done the night they met.

The romance between Dylan and Bo is a sweet slow-burn with lots of well-written longing and sexual tension, and I enjoyed watching the pair get to know each other and their relationship transition from heady infatuation and sexual exploration to love over the following weeks.   Bo is, perhaps, wise beyond his years, but I liked his combination of calm and fierceness; he’s very laid back in many ways, but is no pushover and firmly believes that there’s nothing at all unnatural in his attraction to men (this is 1972, remember) and in his desire to do whatever is best for Dylan – even if it means not being able to be with him openly.  There’s a strong emotional connection and plenty of chemistry between them, although as the story is told almost entirely through Dylan’s PoV*, Bo does remain somewhat enigmatic throughout.  But this is really Dylan’s story and the author does a great job presenting him as a complex, rounded character who is torn between loyalty to his family and the life he’s always believed he’d have (and resigned himself to) and the sudden and new prospect of living a different, more honest and open one with someone he loves at his side.

The family dynamics are well-done, too, the loving, tight-knit, multi-generational family unit containing the sorts of fault-lines and conflicts that we can all relate to, and the author’s gift for evocative description shines through as she paints a detailed picture of the landscapes and the day-to-day life of the folks on a ranch.  In fact the only part of the setting I can fault is the chronological one;  apart from the absence of mobile phones and computers, there’s nothing that really screams “1972” to me – although I freely admit that, as a non-American, and someone completely unfamiliar with how ranchers and cowboys live, there may well have been indicators I missed.

The secondary cast, from Dylan’s dictatorial grandfather (whose machinations and manipulations are a large reason for those conflicts and fault-lines I mentioned) to his exasperated and grouchy brother Rob and best friend Glen, is well-drawn and adds richness to the story, and while there is period-appropriate homophobia, it’ mostly implied, which makes it more impactful when it happens (briefly) on the page.

The epilogue set fifty years in the future (i.e, now) is cute, as we check in with a much older Bo and Dylan, and also acts as a teaser for the next book in the series, so there’s a little bit of a cliffie, but it’s not one that will affect your enjoyment of the story.

This isn’t Rachel Ember’s first published book, but she’s a new-to-me author and definitely one whose work I intend to read more of.  Burning Season is a beautifully written, charming and poignant love story featuring engaging, well-drawn characters and a skilfully realised setting.  I’m happy to recommend it.

* The prologue – which details the initial meeting between Bo and Dylan -is told from Bo’s perspective and was originally released as the novella Sweat, Leather and Lipstick.

A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1) by Freya Marske

a marvellous light

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he’s actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society. If it weren’t for this administrative error, he’d never have discovered the incredible magic underlying his world.

Cursed by mysterious attackers and plagued by visions, Robin becomes determined to drag answers from his missing predecessor – but he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his hostile magical-society counterpart. Unwillingly thrown together, Robin and Edwin will discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.

Rating: B+

Freya Marske’s inventive and impressive début, A Marvellous Light, is an enchanting blend of magic, mystery and romance set in England in 1908, in which a newly-appointed civil servant finds himself suddenly part of a mysterious and fantastical world of deadly curses, spells and secrets.   It’s a clever, well-written story featuring two attractive and strongly characterised protagonists, the magical world-building is vivid without being overly complex or subject to info-dumps, and the opposites/antagonists attract romance is nicely developed and steamy.  There are a few places where the pacing flags a bit, and the secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, but those issues didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Sir Robert – Robin – Blyth inherited a baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, but thanks to the profligacy of both his parents, he needs to work for a living in order to support himself and his younger sister Maud.  When the story begins, he’s just arrived at the Home Office to take up the post of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, a position which opened up after the disappearance of the previous incumbent, Reggie Gatling.  Robin hasn’t got a clue what’s expected of him – he’s never even heard of the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints – and assumes his appointment must be a mistake.  On his very first morning, he meets the snappish Edwin Courcey  – liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly – who rudely demands to know where Reggie is.  Robin can’t enlighten him – and is further baffled when the other man starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement and other things that make little to no sense.  Assuming, at first, that this is some sort of joke, Robin is sceptical – until Edwin provides a physical demonstration and it’s impossible for him to disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes.  Magic is real.

Later that day, Robin has left the office and is still trying to make sense of everything he’s learned when he is accosted by a man – who appears to have no face –  who loops a glowing piece of yarn around Robin’s wrist that makes him unable to do anything other than follow where he’s led.  Two more men wearing “fog masks” await them – men who tell Robin that his predecessor hid something very important in his office and that Robin is going to help them find it.  Robin is determined to do no such thing – but then something is burned into his arm – a pattern of runes that causes excruciating pain which, he later learns, is a curse.

Robin and Edwin don’t get off to the best of starts, but after Robin arrives at work the next morning to find his office has been wrecked, he fills Edwin in on his encounter the previous night and they decide the only option is for them to work together to see if they can find out what Reggie had hidden and if Edwin can find a way to lift the curse.  Realising he needs more information than is available to him in London, Edwin invites Robin to accompany him to his family home in Cambridgeshire, where they can make use of the extensive library to research the curse, attempt to work out what happened to Reggie and discover the location of the item the fog-masked men are after.

Robin and Edwin are well-rounded and engaging characters who are like chalk and cheese, in appearance, temperament and magical ability. Robin is completely non-magical; he’s charming, spontaneous and open-hearted with a good sense of humour and an innate generosity, where Edwin is thoughtful and meticulous, somewhat closed-off and cautious. He’s a brilliant scholar with a massive amount of magical knowledge – but not much magical ability, something which causes his family members to look down on him and treat him with disdain.  His older brother is a powerful magician who bullied Edwin mercilessly when they were children and continues to do so at every opportunity, and his sister is a social butterfly who, like their parents, turns a blind eye to the way Edwin is treated and often joins in.  Robin has no family now apart from Maud; he was never close to his parents, who put on a public face of philanthropy and compassion while really caring only for themselves and who remembered Robin or his sister only when they wanted to use them to show everyone around them what wonderful parents they were.

Robin and Edwin gradually begin to develop a mutual respect and admiration; from this, a genuine friendship grows and is the basis for their romance, which is a nicely-done slow-burn.  They have terrific chemistry and I thoroughly appreciated that the author takes the time to draw out the sexual tension and give things time to breathe before they embark on a physical relationship.  There are still issues to be settled between them however; Edwin has become so used to having to lock down  his true self and hide his most vulnerable side as a form of self-preservation that he finds it difficult to trust and give of himself to Robin, no matter how much he wants to.

I liked the way magic works in the book; we’re told that magicians in England use “cradling” – a system of hand movements based on Cat’s Cradle – to cast spells, and I loved the magical house and the idea of people being magically connected to certain places.

On the downside, the pacing is a little uneven in places, the dénouement is a bit drawn out and slightly repetitive, and the secondary characters are slightly one-note – although I did enjoy Miss Morrisey and her sister (two Anglo-Indian ladies), and hope that perhaps we’ll see a bit more of Lord Hawthorn.  I would like to have learned more about the Magical Assembly and the history of magic in England – although as this is a series, perhaps those details will become clear in future instalments.

In the end, though, A Marvellous Light is a highly entertaining and very readable début novel featuring two endearing leads and plenty of gentle humour, magical shenanigans, mystery and romance.  I’m more than happy to recommend it, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.

Voyageurs by Keira Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

voyageurs

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Two men battle the wilderness – and desire.

It’s 1793, and Simon Cavendish needs to get to his station at Fort Charlotte, a fur-trading outpost in the untamed Canadian wild. The fort is only accessible by canoe, and there’s just one man daring enough to take him on the perilous, thousand-mile journey from Montreal this late in the summer.

Young Christian Smith, the son of an Ojibwe mother and absent English father, is desperate for money to strike out on his own, so he agrees to take clueless Simon deep into the wild. As they travel endless lakes and rivers, they butt heads.

Yet the attraction between Simon and Christian, two men from vastly different worlds, grows ever stronger. Locked in a battle against the wilderness and elements, how long can they fight their desire for each other?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I suppose saying “it was too short” is a form of praise – right? I recently reviewed another novella by Keira Andrews – Arctic Fire – and said exactly that; I enjoyed it and would have loved to have listened to a longer story featuring those characters. The same is true of Voyageurs, an historical romance which is more of a short story than a novella, coming in at just over ninety minutes in audio. I don’t often review ultra-short audiobooks like this one, but Keira Andrews has become a favourite author and with Joel Leslie narrating… Pfft. No brainer.

It’s July 1793, and Simon Cavendish, formerly of the East India Company, has arrived – a month late owing to bad weather and a ship in need of repairs – at the offices of the North West Company in Montréal, from where he is to travel to take up a post at Fort Charlotte, a thousand miles away. Simon is eager to take up his new position, but unfortunately, the delay in his arrival means that the party of voyageurs (young men hired to transport goods to trading posts) he was to have joined for the journey had to leave without him. Simon is disappointed to learn that he will have to wait until next spring to travel safely – and jumps on the idea of maybe travelling with just one or two voyageurs if they can be found and persuaded to make the trip.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Never Fall for Your Fiancée (Merriwell Sisters #1) by Virginia Heath

never fall for your fiancee

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The trouble with lies is they have a tendency to catch a man out.

The last thing Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, wants is a wife. But since the only way to keep his mother’s matchmaking ways at bay is the promise of impending nuptials, Hugh takes the most logical action: he invents a fake fiancée.

It’s the perfect plan – until Hugh learns that his mother is on a ship bound for England to meet his ‘beloved’. He needs a solution fast, and when he collides with a mysterious beauty, he might just have found the answer to his prayers.

Minerva Merriwell is desperate for money to support her sisters, and although she knows that posing as the Earl’s fiancée might seem nonsensical, it’s just too good an offer to refuse.

As the Merriwells descend upon Hugh’s estate, the household is thrown into turmoil as everyone tries to keep their tangled stories straight. And with Hugh and Minerva’s romantic ruse turning into the real thing, is true love just one complication too many?

Rating: B-

Virginia Heath has been one of my favourite authors of historical romance since I read her second book (Her Enemy at the Altar) for Mills & Boon/Harlequin back in 2016. Her stories are generally light-hearted and a lot of fun although not without a more serious side, her characters are well-rounded and engaging, her prose is crisp and the humour never feels forced.   Never Fall for Your Fiancée, the first book in her new Merriwell Sisters trilogy, is her first book for St. Martin’s Press, and it bears all the hallmarks of her style – a gorgeous hero, an intelligent and snarky heroine who won’t put up with any crap, sparking dialogue and genuinely witty banter – although it’s a tad overlong and the chemistry between the two principals isn’t quite as compelling as I know she’s capable of delivering.  The plot isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but Ms. Heath makes good use of the fake-relationship trope and her bright and breezy writing style carries the day.

Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, is in a bit of a bind.  His mother, who lives in Boston with her second husband, is on her way to England for a visit expressly to meet Hugh’s fiancée Minerva, the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for the past two years.  The problem?  Minerva is entirely a product of Hugh’s imagination, invented in order to head off his mother’s constant reminders that he should get married and her offer (which Hugh saw more as a threat) to come home to help him find a bride.  Hugh adores his mother, but he is absolutely convinced that a man should only enter into a marriage when he had every intention of honouring his vows, and being sure he isn’t capable of either love or fidelity, he has decided to eschew matrimony.  But his mother’s arrival is imminent, and the idea of telling her the truth weighs heavily.  He never, ever wanted to hurt her and, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries hard not to be too often), he also wants to avoid admitting to her that he’s far too much like his late father to consider settling down.

Minerva Merriwell has been the family caretaker since their mother died when Minerva was nine, and has been solely responsible for her younger sisters Diana and Vee (short for Venus) since their good-for-nothing father abandoned them when she was nineteen.  Now twenty-four, Minerva ekes out a living as an engraver but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence and her worries are never-ending.  Today’s is that one of the people she’s produced work for is four weeks late with payment; she’s confronted him outside his house to request – politely – that he pay her right away and things are deteriorating when a gentleman steps in and offers his assistance.  The bluster displayed by Minerva’s ‘employer’ can’t hold up in the face of the stranger’s aristocratic hauteur; the debt is settled and the gentleman offers to escort her home.

Hugh can’t believe his good fortune.  Not only does this young woman share the name of his fake fiancée, she’s entirely captivating – beautiful, witty and self-assured – and on the spot, he decides the answer to his problem is right in front of him.  He’ll pay Minerva to act as his fiancée, and then engineer some sort of falling-out that will end their ‘engagement’.  But he’s surprised when Minerva expresses reservations.  It’s clear she needs the money he’s offering, but she’s not happy about the idea of practicing such a deception; the Merriwells may be on the cusp of destitution, but they had morals.

Well, of course Minerva does agree and she – with Diana and Vee, who are as unhappy about the scheme as Minerva is  – travel to Hugh’s Hampshire estate to await the arrival of his mother and to learn their roles while they wait.  Unfortunately, however, Hugh’s mother and step-father arrive much earlier than expected – well before Minerva has acquired enough ‘polish’ – which necessitates some more impromptu, highly creative falsehoods on Hugh’s part.  The story moves fairly briskly, the central characters are likeable and the humour is dry and nicely observed, but around the middle, it gets a bit bogged down and some of the contortions Hugh has to make in order to perpetuate his lies get a bit overly convoluted, and I sometimes felt as though I was in the middle of a French farce.  Perhaps that was the intention, but although I’ve said that the humour in Ms. Heath’s books isn’t forced, it comes close a few times here.

Minerva is a great heroine, a young woman forced to become a parent when she wasn’t much more than a child herself and who puts her own wants and needs last every time. She’s intelligent, witty, generous and determined, but she’s grown so used to being her sisters’ sole support that she has sort of lost sight of the fact that they’re young women now, and should be taking responsibility for themselves.  I liked Hugh a lot, with some caveats.  He’s charming, funny, perceptive and caring, but he goes out of his way to act the indolent wastrel (not that we ever see that on the page) when he is in fact a conscientious landowner and employer, and an all-round decent man.  It doesn’t take Minerva long to work out that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, but what she can’t work out is why he’s so set on letting everyone around him believe he’s shallow, selfish and lazy.  (And quite honestly, neither could I.) BUT – and here are the caveats.  Firstly, he is convinced he’s bad husband material because the Standish Blood Runs In His Veins; his grandfather was a rotten bastard, his father was unfaithful to his mother, and Hugh isn’t going to visit heartbreak upon any woman – like his cheating sire and grandfather before him, he isn’t capable of love or commitment.  This is stated so very often that I felt I was being hit over the head with it;  I lost track of how many times the “bad blood” or the “Standish way” or the philandering grandfather and father were mentioned.  A grown man of thirty-two is responsible for his own behaviour, and Hugh was perfectly capable of steering his own course.  And then there’s the deception.  As Minerva says – “What sort of man invents a fiancée because he finds responsibility too daunting and is frightened of his own mother?” And that says it all, really.

There’s a small but well-drawn supporting cast.  Hugh’s mother is a delightful woman who obviously thinks the world of him and just wants him to be happy, Payne, the butler is a nineteenth century Jeeves –an expert in the pithy bon mot –  and I liked Hugh’s friend Giles, who I’m assuming will be the hero of a future book in the series.  I liked the middle sister, Diana, who is lively and forthright (and there are definite sparks between her and Giles) although Vee is… well, a bit of a wet blanket, honestly.  She’s still convinced their dead-beat dad is going to come back and won’t hear a word against him, and she presents a number of problems for Hugh’s scheme.

That said, Never Fall for Your Fiancée is fluff of the highest quality, and if you’re looking for a well-written, funny historical rom-com with some shrewd observation on the side, it might be just what you’re looking for.  But I can’t recommend it unreservedly, because much as I liked Hugh, I didn’t buy the reasons for his ‘I am not worthy’ act and all the miscommunication and misinterpretation became a bit wearing.  I like the fake-relationship trope, and I like Ms. Heath’s writing, but this one didn’t quite tick all the boxes for me.

Miss Moriarty, I Presume (Lady Sherlock #6) by Sherry Thomas

miss moriarty ukThis title may be purchased from Amazon

A most unexpected client shows up at Charlotte Holmes’s doorstep: Moriarty himself. Moriarty fears that tragedy has befallen his daughter and wants Charlotte to find out the truth.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson travel to a remote community of occult practitioners where Moriarty’s daughter was last seen, a place full of lies and liars. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Livia tries to make sense of a mysterious message from her beau Mr. Marbleton. And Charlotte’s longtime friend and ally Lord Ingram at last turns his seductive prowess on Charlotte—or is it the other way around?

But the more secrets Charlotte unravels about Miss Moriarty’s disappearance, the more she wonders why Moriarty has entrusted this delicate matter to her of all people. Is it merely to test Charlotte’s skills as an investigator, or has the man of shadows trapped her in a nest of vipers?

Rating: B

The game is – once again – very much afoot in this sixth installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series of clever historical mysteries.  As the synopsis indicates, she finally comes face-to-face with her nemesis – but rather than the expected violent confrontation, ‘Mr. Baxter’ instead wants to engage Holmes’ services to investigate the disappearance of his daughter from a Hermetic (possibly occultist) community in a remote corner of Cornwall.  Of course, Charlotte knows not to take anything at face value, but with no other options available, Charlotte, Lord Ingram and Mrs. Watson head for the Garden of Hermopolis to see what they can find out.  In the meantime, Charlotte’s sister, Livia, is following an intriguing trail of breadcrumbs left by Stephen Marbleton that leads to some very intriguing coded messages which could prove vital in the fight against Moriarty.

I reviewed this one jointly with Dabney Grinnan over at All About Romance.

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller

the brightest star in paris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Amelie St. James is a fraud. After the Siege of Paris, she became “St. Amie,” the sweet, virtuous prima ballerina the Paris Opera Ballet needed to restore its scandalous reputation, all to protect the safe life she has struggled to build for her and her sister. But when her first love reappears looking as devastatingly handsome as ever, and the ghosts of her past quite literally come back to haunt her, her hard-fought safety is thrown into chaos.

Dr. Benedict Moore has never forgotten the girl who helped him embrace life after he almost lost his. Now, years later, he’s back in Paris. His goals are to recruit promising new scientists, and maybe to see Amelie again. When he discovers she’s in trouble, he’s desperate to help her—and hold her in his arms.

When she finally agrees to let him help, they disguise their time together with a fake courtship. Soon, with the help of an ill-advised but steamy kiss, old feelings reignite. Except, their lives are an ocean apart. Will they be able to make it out with their hearts intact?

Rating: B

The Brightest Star in Paris is the follow up to Diana Biller’s 2019 début, The Widow of Rose House.  I haven’t got around to reading that one, but I gather that the books are linked by virtue of the fact that the hero of Brightest Star – Doctor Benedict Moore – is the brother of Sam from Rose House, and Alva, its heroine, is a good friend of this book’s heroine, Amelie.  Despite those connections however, the stories in each book are separate and I had no trouble reading this one as a standalone.  It’s rather lovely – beautifully written with a melancholy tinge, dealing with themes of grief and loss at the same time as it details the second-chance romance between Amelie and Benedict – but there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me that mean I can’t give it a higher grade.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1878, although there are a few flashback chapters that date back to twelve years earlier, when Benedict and Amelie first met.  This was after Benedict returned from serving as a medic in the American Civil War, so haunted by his experiences that his family is deeply concerned for his health and spirits.  Meeting Amelie, a bright, enchanting young woman who overflows with positive energy and completely captivates him, helps him find a renewed sense of purpose and start on his road to recovery;  the pair fall in love, but (for reasons not made clear until much later in the book) Amelie sends him away and he leaves to return to America with his family. Just a few years later,  Amelie and the people of Paris face terrible hardships resulting from the Franco Prussian WarThe Siege of Paris and the bloody fall of the Paris Commune in 1870-1; these events effect profound changes on her life, as she is forced to do whatever is necessary in order to survive and take care of her much younger sister, Honorine.

Now, though, she’s the darling of Paris.  Prima ballerina – étoile – at the Paris Opéra, Amelie is ‘St. Amie’, widely known and loved for her perfection, both on stage and off, a paragon of virtue in a world in which dancers were generally regarded as one step up from prostitutes.  Her pristine image hasn’t come without a price, however; as she’s worked her body hard to attain peak physical condition so she’s also worked hard to create a very specific image, one she now has to maintain at all costs.

But that has become less and less easy over time, and she’s come to realise, too, that her dancing, while flawlessly polished, is form over substance, unemotional and just… not her.  And then there’s the additional problem of a damaged hip, another secret she needs to maintain if she’s to continue to dance – for only another two years – until she has enough money to be able to retire comfortably and continue to provide for Honorine.

By the time Benedict returns to Paris in 1878 in order to attend a medical conference, he has become a specialist in the field of brain science and has been named as the head of the prestigious new United States Institute for Brain Research.  He hasn’t quite decided whether he will seek out Amelie or not when fate conspires to put him in her path on his very first day in the city.  Both of them are stunned – and Benedict can see that Amelie isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him.

Just after the unexpected encounter with Benedict, which has stirred up all sorts of deep, conflicting feelings, Amelie goes to do some barre practice, and as she’s working, she’s joined by a member of the corps de ballet, a young woman whose name she can’t immediately recall.  After working silently for a while, they exchange a few words, and Amelie leaves, thinking no more of it until the next day when she learns that the body of the very same dancer – Lise Martin – was pulled from the Seine that morning – and that she has been dead for at least three days.  But how can that be?  Amelie spoke to her just the night before so it’s impossible… unless she’d had a conversation with Lise Martin’s ghost.

Amelie reaches this conclusion a little quickly perhaps, but even she admits there’s a difference between believing in ghosts and actually seeing one – and her ability to see one seems to open up a door or gate, as Lise’s spirit is quickly joined by those of two other women Amelie had known.  She’s sure she needs to do something for them, something to help them find peace, but she doesn’t know what that is, and the spirits themselves either can’t or won’t tell her.  She needs help, and reaches out to Benedict, who she knows will believe her, given his own family’s experiences with the spirit world.  Benedict is, of course, immediately on board with this, and suggests that he should pretend to court her, as it will allow them to spend time in each other’s company while they work out what the spirits want without giving rise to gossip which might tarnish her reputation.

There’s much to enjoy here, from the complex and superbly characterised Amelie, to the snarky interactions between the ghosts, to the author’s depictions of what life was like for Amelie in a Paris torn to pieces by war and devastation, which are stunningly good and utterly heartbreaking.  The paranormal element of the tale is skilfully incorporated and works well within the context of the story, and the romance is a sweet slow-burn.  I liked seeing how Benedict learns to respect Amelie and her choices, despite how much he longs to ride in and save and protect her.   But although there’s no question they care for each other very much, and I felt the depth of the affection between them, the ‘spark’ of attraction is somewhat muted.

One of the things that caused me to lower my grade a bit is the pacing, which flags around the middle of the book, but which, in the final chapters, gallops towards the end so fast that I was in danger of whiplash.  The second-half appearance of the unconventional and slightly bonkers Moore clan means the disappearance of the ghost plotline for a bit, and while it’s true that their arrival does inject a bit of necessary humour and light into the story, the juxtaposition feels jarring.

All that said, however, I enjoyed The Brightest Star in Paris a lot and would certainly recommend it in spite of my reservations. It’s extremely well written, and while at times is extremely sad, Amelie’s spirit and determination really do shine through and the eventual HEA is hard won and well deserved.

A Gentleman Tutor by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Callum Hale

a gentleman tutor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For Frank Harte, impoverished schoolteacher, January in London means a yearly fight to survive. A former soldier, his injuries have barred him from all but the lowest paid posts, and the cold incapacitates him still more.

The chance to work as tutor to Viscount Gracewater, son of the famous big-game hunting Earl, comes as a lifeline to Frank. The Earl’s Knightsbridge mansion is huge, elegant – and, most temptingly, kept warm from basement to attics. Viscount “Scapegrace” Gracie, used to foreign climes, is delicate. He’s also wild, charming, and only five years younger than Frank himself. His innocence and feckless good nature soon endear him to the quiet, reserved tutor. But the Earl’s house is a dark one beneath its bright veneer, and the Viscount is in the thrall of unscrupulous Arthur Dickson, a handsome, brutal parasite who’ll stop at nothing to retain his power over Gracie’s heart and soul.

Edwardian secrets burgeon as Frank begins a battle to free his student, confronting along the way the knowledge that he’s losing his own heart to this brilliant and beautiful young man.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

Harper Fox’s A Gentleman Tutor is a standalone historical romance with a gothic tinge; a poor tutor goes to work at a grand house (although this one is in Kensington and not on the wild and windy moors!) and is caught up in a battle for the heart and soul of his tutee. I have it in print but – (you guessed it!) – haven’t got around to reading it yet, so I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the audio version. Narrator Callum Hale is new to me, and although it took me a little while to get used to him, he acquits himself well and I’d certainly listen to him again.

Impoverished schoolteacher Frank Harte is facing a cold and difficult winter. A leg wound sustained during military service in India has left him with a severe limp (and other problems) and proves a bar to finding a better-paid position, so he works two jobs, teaching at a boys’ school in Shoreditch during the day and teaching dockhands to read and write three nights a week. He is barely keeping body and soul together, having to make continual trade-offs as to what essentials he can afford. Until recently, his long-time best friend Cyril was in similar circumstances, but he inherited a fortune on the recent death of his father, money that is now allowing him to move in higher circles than previously, and when the book opens, he’s sought Frank out to tell him that he’s recommended his services to the Earl of Gracewater, who is looking for a tutor to prepare his twenty-one-year-old son for Cambridge.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: A Stitch in Time (Thorne Manor #1) by Kelley Armstrong

a stitch in time

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.
Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.

Rating: B

Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her.  A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt.  The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.

It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house.  Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future.  After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more.  But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black.  When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.

Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors.  The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors.  Or did they?  And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this?  In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him.  Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.

Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again.  Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.

There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur.  Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far.  And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.

As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy.  For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century.  I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career.  The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived.  And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.

But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!