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

The Doctor (Magic & Steam #3) by C.S. Poe

the doctor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1882—Gillian Hamilton, magic caster and Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has been stripped of his title, badge, and freedom. Gillian’s true name and powers have been exposed, so now he’s kept under lock and key. To make a tragedy worse, Gunner the Deadly has returned to his life out in the Wild West and has not been heard from since.

Rumors of a doctor, known only as Sawbones, with access to illegal magic have persisted into the new year. Gillian believes that violence, chaos, and certain death will befall New York City if this criminal isn’t apprehended. And despite having lost his sense of purpose, Gillian knows he’s the only one capable of confronting this new madman—with or without the backing of the FBMS.

But such dangers should never be undertaken alone. Gillian will need both Gunner’s deadeye marksmanship, as well as his love, if he’s to detain Sawbones before irreparable damage is done to the magic of his world.

Rating: A

This third book in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series is one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2022, and it absolutely did not disappoint. After the massive cliffhanger at the end of The Gangster, the author had some serious ground to cover in The Doctor in terms of furthering and pulling together the various plot-threads she laid out in the previous books, and in continuing to develop the romance between quietly-controlled lawman Gillian Hamilton and sexy outlaw Gunner the Deadly while also revealing more of their backstories. She pulls it all off with considerable aplomb, moving the story along at a swift pace and incorporating some superbly written set pieces and action scenes while also giving prominence to moments of insight, connection and tenderness between Gillian and Gunner that are heart-meltingly lovely in their understatedness.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

The Gangster ended on a massive clliffhanger when the past Gillian has worked so long and so hard to hide finally caught up with him. In a last-minute bombshell, we learned his real name is Simon Fitzgerald and that he’s been a wanted war criminal since he was just a boy, for atrocities he was forced to commit during the Great Conflict (this universe’s version of the American Civil War.) Before he was arrested, Gillian sent Gunner away for his own protection (he’s a wanted man, after all) – and in the weeks since then, Gillian has been incarcerated at The Home for the Magically Insane on Blackwell’s Island.

Starved, humiliated, abused and assailed by horrific memories, Gillian fears for both his life and his sanity, knowing he’s destined to be locked away until such time as those in power – the non-magical politicians who founded the FBMS – want to make use of him and his unparallelled magical abilities. He also knows there’s much more at stake, a threat to the magical community he’s now powerless to do anything about, tears in the atmosphere that are damaging the undercurrent of power drawn on by magic users that he believes are being caused by quintessence, a new, illegal kind of magic he and Gunner had discovered being used by the gangster, Tick Tock.

The one person who takes Gillian’s concern seriously is Eugene Barrie, a visiting doctor who helps him to escape the asylum and arranges to accompany him to California, where Gillian believes he’ll be able to track down the architect (spell-creator) who built the illegal spells, and Sawbones, the man responsible for creating Tick Tock’s grotesque army of half-human, half-mechanical men. And maybe he’ll be able to find Gunner, too, and apologise for sending him away – although he can’t help worrying that Gunner might want nothing more to do with him. However, all is not as it seems, and just a couple of days into the journey, Barrie is revealed to have nefarious ulterior motives.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, so I’ll just say that my jaw dropped a little further with each revelation as more of the story’s intricately woven web of connections is slowly revealed. Gillian and Gunner are dramatically reunited, and I just adore how in tune they are with each other, how they continue to grow together and love each other with such ferocity and genuine devotion. They fit so well together, Gunner’s steadfast support and strong protective streak just what Gillian needs after having been so very alone all his life.

Gillian’s secrets aren’t the only ones to come to light in this book, however. Gunner has been an enigmatic figure so far, a man who doesn’t lie but who is always very careful about what he says, and I’m so glad we’re – finally – getting to know more about him. The truth of his past comes as a complete surprise (more jaw-dropping!) and I may have squealed in delight when the thread tying Gunner and Gillian together was revealed 🙂 But there’s not too much time for wallowing in that connection as we hurtle towards a thrilling and high-stakes climax – which culminates in a shocking discovery that promises a greater threat, to both the magical world and Gillian and Gunner personally.

Both men are immensely likeable, complex, yet flawed characters who are easy to become invested in. Beneath the self-effacing stickler, Gillian is an endearingly sweet but prickly and vulnerable badass with a dry sense of humour and a driving need to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. He’s been through so much – his backstory is heartbreaking – but he’s a survivor, and I was so pleased to see him owning his truth and ready to love Gunner openly at last. I also loved that he’s no longer hiding his incredible power, and the moments when he really lets rip with his magic are deeply statisfying and vividly written, putting the reader right in the middle of the action. And while Gunner could easily have been a strong, silent stereotype, the affection for Gillian that radiates from him, the way he shows that affection in every word and deed, makes him so much more than a two-dimenstional cypher who’s there only to provide the muscle and the firepower. As is very clear, Gillian doesn’t need firepower, he needs someone to see him and believe in him – and Gunner is that someone.

I was pleased to catch up with some of the secondary characters from previous books, including Gillian’s boss, Loren Moore – his exchanges with Gunner provide some much-needed humour (and I couldn’t help sighing just a bit over Jealous!Gunner), and bare-knuckle fighter Addison O’Dea, who comes through for Gillian at a time of great need. The bad guys are the worst kind of evil – power-hungry, amoral, totally unscrupulous – who, at times, made my skin crawl. I can’t wait to see their plans thwarted, although right now, it’s looking like our heroes have a really tough road ahead.

It seems C.S. Poe loves to torment her readers, as The Doctor ends with another cliffhanger – this time relating to Gunner’s past (a clever mirror of the one in the previous book), which left me stunned, cursing and wondering just how much more heartache is in store for these two. But I’m in it for the long haul, so I’ll be here for book four, The Councilman, (the author recently confirmed this will be a five-book series) which honestly can’t get here soon enough.

The Doctor is a real edge-of-your-seat read; a fantastic combination of action, adventure and romance with loveable (and un-loveable!) characters and a skilfully developed steampunk world. The plot unfolds magnificently, the pacing is perfect, the writing evocative, and the emotional highs and lows will deliver happy sighs and punches to the gut. The Magic & Steam series one of the best ongoing series around, and with The Doctor, it gets even better.

To Marry and to Meddle (Regency Vows #3) by Martha Waters

to marry and to meddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Marriage isn’t always smooth sailing

Lady Emily Turner should really be married by now, but with a dowry of her father’s debts, her only suitor is the odious owner of her father’s favourite gambling house.

Lord Julian Belfry is the second son of a marquess, but has managed to scandalise polite society with his acting career and the fact that he owns a less than salubrious theatre.

Crossing paths at a house party, they discover that a marriage of convenience might benefit them both: Emily can use her society connections to add some respectability to Julian’s theatre, while also managing to escape the dubious world of her father.

With differing ideas on the roles each will play in their marriage, and an on-the-run actress, a murderous kitten, and some meddlesome friends adding to the complications, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience might be leading to some rather inconvenient feelings.

Rating: B+

This third instalment in Martha Waters’ Regency Vows series is, I think, my favourite so far.  It’s a charming marriage-of-convenience romance between two characters we’ve already met – the rakishly charming and somewhat scandalous Lord Julian Belfry and the very proper Lady Emily Turner.  It’s a delightful read; the prose flows effortlessly, the characterisation is excellent and the romance is superbly developed;and I especially enjoyed watching the transformation of Lady Emily from a rather reticent young woman into one who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express it.

Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of the Marquess of Eastvale, purchased a run-down theatre in a fit of youthful impetuousness and has since restored the building and the company, even going so far as to appear on stage himself when the mood takes him.  Needless to say, such behaviour is highly shocking in the eyes of the ton, but Julian rather likes that his scandalous reputation prevents matchmaking mamas from throwing their eligible daughters at him.  In the book’s prologue, which takes place several years before the story proper, his father, fearing that Julian’s less than pristine reputation will affect his sister’s chances on the marriage mart, orders Julian to sell the place – he’s had his fun, he’s made a tidy profit on his investment, and now it’s time to find an more respectable occupation.  Even though a small voice deep inside can’t disagree with the Marquess’ comments about the fact that the Belfry has earned itself a rather sordid name over the past few years, or fail to recognise that his father has been remarkably indulgent with him, Julian nonetheless resents being given an ultimatum – sell the theatre, or be cut off from his family – and he refuses to sell.

Lady Emily Turner is in her sixth season, but unfortunately, her beautiful face and impressive lineage is not enough to compensate for the fact that her dowry is non-existent and her father is rumoured to have racked up massive gambling debts.  She leads a stifling existence; her mother has, for years, drummed into her that her behaviour must be beyond reproach, and she knows that her parents are relying on her to prevent the family’s plunging into ruin.  But after six years, she has only one real suitor, the somewhat odious Mr. Cartham, the man to whom she believes her father is indebted.

Emily and Julian met a few months before this story begins, when Emily’s friend and Diana (To Love and to Loathe) took her to a performance at the Belfry. In the months following, an odd friendship has grown between them and Julian has danced with her at balls and escorted her to the odd musicale, but recently, his behaviour has changed somewhat, leading Emily to believe a marriage proposal may be imminent. She’s correct. During Lord Willingham’s house party, Julian asks for Emily’s hand, telling her honestly that he isn’t in love with her, but that a match could be advantageous for both of them. He’s on a mission to clean up the Belfry’s reputation and turn it into somewhere gentlemen might take their wives rather than their mistresses, and wants Emily to use her society connections to promote the theatre to a more respectable clientele. In return, Emily will gain independence from her parents and won’t have to worry about Cartham’s attentions any more – in short, she’ll be free to live a life of her own choosing.

To Marry and to Meddle is smart, fun and sexy, but somehow feels ‘quieter’ than the other two books in the series. I don’t mean that in a negative way, far from it; rather that the barbed banter and games of one-upmanship that characterises those books is absent here, so the focus is more firmly on Julian and Emily learning how to be together, as Emily – with Julian’s help and support – is working out who she wants to be now she’s out from under the restrictions placed upon her by her parents, and Emily is helping Julian to work through the deep-seated anger and resentment he holds towards his father.

The chemistry between the pair is terrific and their romance is very nicely done. Friendship proves a solid basis for marriage; Emily and Julian clearly like each other a lot and they possess a good degree of insight into what makes the other tick. Before they marry, they both agree never to lie to one another – and they don’t, which leaves no room for a Big Mis. (Yay!) Instead, the conflict in the story comes mostly from Julian’s insistence that Emily be the irreproachable society wife she’s been brought up to be, while Emily wants to take an interest in the threatre and to tread a different path to the one previously laid out for her. Julian has become so focused on turning the Belfry into a respectable venue that he fails to see he’s trying to push Emily into a role she doesn’t really want, and that he’s also trying to be someone he’s not – and he stubbornly refuses to admit why.

Emily and Julian are sunny, endearing characters, and I liked them as individuals and a couple. Julian is a sexy hero with a dry sense of humour, who, despite his rakish reputation, is a good, kind man, and Emily is delightfully witty, unaffected and pragmatic.

Among the secondary cast are the couples from the previous books, together with Julian’s brother and sister, who are lovely, and his father, who, I was pleased to note, is not at all the sort of stock-in-trade tyrannical authoritarian who so often appears in romances where a father/son conflict is part of the story. That said, however, Eastvale being essentially decent does make it a bit harder to believe in the reasons behind his and Julian’s estrangement. That’s the only major quibble I have with the book; otherwise, To Marry and to Meddle is a thoroughly entertaining read and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone looking for a lively, character-driven historical romance.

Farview (Greynox by the Sea #2) by Kim Fielding (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

farview

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Ravaged by a horrific experience, Oliver Webb flees the smog-bound city of Greynox for a quiet seaside village and the inheritance he’s never seen: a cottage called Farview. He discovers clear skies, friendly imps, and a charming storyteller named Felix Corbyn.

With help from Felix’s tales, Oliver learns surprising secrets about his family history and discovers what home really means. But, with Felix cursed, Oliver growing deathly ill, and an obligation in Greynox hanging heavy around his neck, it seems that not even wizards can save the day.

Still, as Felix knows, stories are the best truths and the most powerful magic. Perhaps the right words might yet conjure a chance for happiness.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

You know how, sometimes, you finish a book, sit back with a sigh and think “what a lovely story!”? I did just that after listening to Kim Fielding’s Farview (book two in her Greynox to the Sea series), a charming, whimsical romance set in a kind of fantasy/AU Victorian England where dragons pull carriages, imps, chatty ghosts, and winged people live side-by side and magic is a part of everyday life. Although it’s the second book in the series, it works perfectly well as a standalone – and I liked it sufficiently to want to backtrack and listen to book one, Treasure.

When the story begins, Oliver Webb has left the colourless, grime-filled streets of the city of Greynox, where he’s lived his entire life, to settle in the small fishing village of Croftwell , planning to live at Farview Cottage, a property that’s been in his family for generations and which he’s inherited from the mother who died when he was a child. Tired from the long journey, he ventures into one of the village taverns, The Merman, for a drink and a meal, and is somewhat surprised – and maybe a teeny bit irritated – at the friendliness of the locals; he’s not in Croftwell to make friends and he just wants to be left to his own devices. But not long after he sits down, he’s approached by a cheerful (and very attractive) young man called Felix who offers to tell him a story in return for a pint. Intrigued despite himself, Oliver agrees, and Felix tells him the ages old tale of Farview Cottage and the legendary Lyra Moon. Oliver finds himself completely caught up in the story and maybe just a little bit captivated by the storyteller.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris

when blood lies

This title may be purchased from Amazon

March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.

Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

Rating: A-

I eagerly await the release of a new Sebastian St. Cyr book every year; we’re up to book seventeen with When Blood Lies and it’s one of the best of the recent instalments, a fabulous blend of whodunit and history set in Paris in March of 1815, in the days leading up to Napoleon’s escape from Elba. As the author has picked up the long-running storyline relating to Sebastian’s search for the truth about his parentage, it’s impossible to write a review of When Blood Lies without reference to earlier books in the series, so please be aware there are spoilers ahead.

For the last twenty-odd years, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin and heir to the Earl of Hendon, believed his mother Sophia – who left her marriage and England when he was a boy – was dead.  But he has recently discovered that is not the case, and in the previous book (What the Devil Knows) learned she was living in Paris, and was presently in Vienna, where negotiations between the various countries and states of Europe have been in progress for some time, as they work to rebuild following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

When this story begins, Sebastian, his wife Hero and their children are in Paris where he hopes, at long last, to meet with his errant mother on her return to the city and to finally get some answers to questions long unasked – even though he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear them.  Walking the misty banks of the Seine one evening, he’s reached the Pont Neuf when his attention is caught by a glimpse of what looks like an out-flung arm down on the river bank; he hurries down the stone steps to discover the body of a tall, slim, well-dressed woman lying motionless at the water’s edge, her pale cheek smeared with blood. Bolts of recognition and devastation hit Sebastian when the woman looks into his eyes before uttering a single word – his name.

Sebastian has his mother taken to his house in the Place Dauphine, where he and Hero tend her as best they can while they wait for the doctor to arrive – but her injuries are too severe, and all the doctor can do when he arrives is accede to Sebastian’s request that he examine the body to see if he can give him some idea as to cause of her death.  Sebastian suspects, given where she was found, that his mother may have fallen or been pushed from the bridge; the physician agrees that her injuries indicate a fall, but also tells Sebastian that she was stabbed in the back before being lifted and thrown over the parapet.  Clearly, whatever happened was no accident – but Sebastian knows so little about his mother’s life over the past two decades that he has no inkling as to why she would be murdered.  But that isn’t going to stop him from doing everything he possibly can to find out – no matter that his investigation will bring him into conflict with the most powerful families and factions in France.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, all of them absolutely gripping, all of them very cleverly slotted together. The pacing is swift but not rushed; there’s time to absorb every new development before moving on to the next, each new piece of information often raising more questions than it answers. Sebastian learns that Sophia had been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals – a Scotsman to whom Sebastian bears more than a passing resemblance – who is now in Vienna negotiating on behalf of the newly reinstated Bourbons, and that after leaving Vienna, Sophia visited Napoleon on Elba before returning to Paris. But why? What’s the significance of the – now empty – jewellery case she was carrying on the night of her death? And what was she doing on the Pont Neuf that night? Sebastian and Hero have their work cut out as they search for the truth while the political situation in France hangs in the balance; the growing dissatisfaction of the populace with their Bourbon king has rumours that L’Empereur is about to return spreading like wildfire – and when the news reaches Paris that Napoleon has escaped his prison on Elba, Sebastian realises he’s running out of time… as, perhaps, is everyone around him.

When Blood Lies is an engrossing page-turner, a book I found difficult to set aside and was eager to get back to. The seamless way the author weaves her original plot threads through the fabric of history is masterful, as is the way she incorporates the various historical figures who appear throughout the tale. We see a little less of Hendon and Jarvis here – although the latter makes his presence felt in his usual inimitable fashion – but having Hero taking such a major role in the story is a big plus. She and Sebastian are so finely attuned that they appear almost able to read each other’s minds; I love the level of trust and understanding between them, and the way they bounce ideas off each other and help and support one another is wonderful to see. Sebastian goes through a lot in this book; grief for his mother, regret for their lost years together, frustration at the fact he may never now find out the identity of his biological father – which he tries to set aside while he tries to find the murderer, but his conflicted emotions are never far away and Hero is his rock.

Full of intrigue and suspense with a superbly-drawn cast of characters, a compelling leading man and packed to the gills with fascinating historical detail, When Blood Lies is another wonderful instalment in this excellent long-running mystery series. Now the waiting starts for book eighteen next year!

Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening (Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters #2) by Marguerite Kaye

lady armstrong's scandalous uk

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Hers was a body of marble…

Until he brought it to life

Since her tyrannical late husband ruined her reputation, Lady Mercy Armstrong has been longing to reinvent herself. The perfect opportunity presents itself when rebellious self-made man Jack Dalmuir presents a daring proposition—a fake dalliance that will change society’s view of her! Only her cavorting with the handsome Scotsman ignites a passion that could change their lives for ever…

Rating: B

For this second book in her Victorian Era Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters series, Marguerite Kaye returns briefly to her Armstrong family, albeit a generation on, and shows the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the person of the deceased but obnoxious-from-beyond-the-grave Lord Harry Armstrong.  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening opens on the day of the reading of the late Lord Armstrong’s will at which his two brothers (twins) and his wife, Mercy (née Carstairs), are to be present.  It’s very clear that the Armstrongs’ seventeen year marriage was anything but happy, and that the deceased was cold, domineering and unkind, traits that became more pronounced as the years went by and Mercy failed give him the all-important son and heir. (Because of course it was her fault.)

Not content with being a domestic tyrant in life, however, Lord Armstrong has one last dig at his wife in the most appalling way, attaching a codicil to his will and insisting it be read aloud.  In it, he accuses her of having an “obstinate and determined failure to provide [him] with an heir” and denounces her as “a disgrace to the gentle sex… and not fit to be a wife.  Lady Mercy Armstrong is frigid.  Engage with her at your peril.”  Mercy knows very well that the new Lord Armstrong and his brother will waste no time in making sure their late brother’s words are reported in the press and about society, whose members will no doubt relish the opportunity to gossip and gloat to their heart’s content.

One year later, and Mercy is finally out of morning for the husband who oppressed and belittled her.  She’s spent the last year living quietly in the country with her brother Clement, a scholar, but has decided it’s time to get on with her life.  She’s realised the one of the reasons for her late husband’s spitefulness was because he wanted to make sure she spent the rest of her life alone as a form of revenge – but she’s determined to make the most of her new-found freedom and independence and most of all, have some fun.

A chance meeting with Jack Dalmuir, a successful Glaswegian engineer, seems as though it will offer Mercy just the opportunity she wants.  On the very day her morning ends, Mercy finds herself – somewhat tipsily and very uncharacteristically – sharing some of the details of her life and her husband’s cruelty, finding in Mr. Dalmuir a concerned and sympathetic listener who encourages her in her desire to make a fresh start.

“Enjoy yourself, kick over the traces a bit.  Do some of the things that you’ve always wanted to.”

More than that, he offers to help if he can, proposing to serve as her escort should she need one, and the pair make arrangements to meet again when they are both in London.

Marguerite Kaye is one of the few writers of historical romance around who regularly writes stories featuring non-titled heroes, instead opting to write about military men or men of business and enterprise, of which Jack Dalmuir is one.  He’s a self-made man who runs his own engineering firm, and he and Mercy meet when Jack is travelling to London in order to oversee the installation of the steam engines built by his company into two new water pumping stations.  He’s attractive, intelligent and has a clear life plan mapped out; he’s dedicated to his business and intends to remain so for some years yet before turning his attention to taking a wife – a strong, practical woman from a similar background to his own – and perhaps starting a family.

Jack and Mercy are both single and neither is in the least interested in marriage, so there can be no harm in their going on outings and spending time together.  They enjoy each other’s company and for Mercy, being with a man who does not seek to judge or oppress her is a revelation.  Yet there’s an undeniable attraction between them that’s impossible to deny, and as their association continues, both realise that they’re getting in deeper than they had ever intended.

As is always the case with a Marguerite Kaye book, her meticulous historical research shows itself in the way she so skilfully weaves interesting background detail throughout her stories. Here, we’re treated to descriptions of the London docks, a visit to a Holborn pie stall and to the Scottish countryside around Glasgow, and to discussion of how Jack’s innovations will help to transform lives.  The romance is beautifully written and the chemistry between Jack and Mercy is terrific, the focus firmly on their growing feelings for each other at the same time as Mercy, with Jack’s unwavering support and encouragement,  is growing into the confident, strong woman she was always meant to be.

I’m going to put this next part under a spoiler tag, as it’s a subject that’s come up around here a few times and something readers may appreciate knowing about in advance.

SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ –
In the last part of the book, Mercy, who has believed herself barren, discovers she’s pregnant.  It’s not a plot device I particularly like and I confess that when I realised this was the direction the book was taking, my heart sank.  BUT.  Consider sticking with it, because Ms. Kaye actually makes it work better than most.  She makes it clear just how ignorant Mercy was and how she’d been more or less browbeaten into believing her childlessness couldn’t possibly be her husband’s fault.  She doesn’t use the pregnancy as a convenient way to provide the book’s HEA, instead showing the protagonists working through their issues about marriage.  Mercy’s determination never to marry again is well cemented into the story and completely understandable, and the way she’s torn between wanting to preserve her independence and do the best for her child is well articulated.  She could leave town and have her baby somewhere nobody knows her, but she’s fully cognisant of the stigma that would be borne by her child should its illegitimacy be discovered, and also of how unfair it would be to Jack to deprive him of the opportunity to be part of his son or daughter’s life.  There’s also never any question of Mercy not telling Jack she’s pregnant; there are frayed tempers and a few harsh words between them at one point, but otherwise, they talk and act like the adults they are to work things out – and in doing so, to realise how much they really mean to each other.

I had a few niggles with the story, mostly relating to the way Mercy so easily talks to a perfect stranger about her marriage, but overall,  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening is an intelligently written, emotionally satisfying and sensual romance featuring two engaging protagonists who, while from opposite ends of the social spectrum, are perfect for one another.  I enjoyed it, and am happy to recommend it to anyone looking to read a well-researched historical romance that feels properly grounded in the period in which it is set.