TBR Challenge: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Major Lagallan suggests to Miss Caroline Hetton that she should marry his young brother, she can hardly believe her good fortune, and at first sight Vivyan Lagallan seems to be the perfect bridegroom; young, charming and exceedingly handsome. Yet upon closer acquaintance, Caroline is disturbed by his wild, restless spirit and discovers that he has a taste for excitement that eventually endangers not only his life, but hers, too.

Rating: C+

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the engaging, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

TBR Challenge: Loose Cannon (Woodbury Boys #1) by Sidney Bell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Released after five years in the system for assault, streetwise Edgar-Allen Church is ready to leave the past behind and finally look to his future. In need of a place to crash, he’s leaning on Miller Quinn. A patient, solidly masculine pillar of strength and support, Miller has always been there for him—except in the one way Church has wanted the most.

With his staunchly conservative upbringing, Miller has been playing it straight his whole life. Now with Church so close again, it’s getting harder to keep his denial intact. As they fumble their way back to friendship after so many years apart, Miller struggles to find the courage to accept who he really is. What he has with Church could be more than desire—it could be love. But it could also mean trouble.

Church’s criminal connections are closing in on the both of them, and more than their hearts are at risk. This time, their very lives are on the line.

Rating: B+

With “friends” as the prompt for this month’s TBR Challenge read, my brain immediately leapt to “friends-to-lovers” – which is among my favourite tropes – and after a bit of digging around, I came up with Loose Cannon, the first book in Sidney Bell’s Woodbury Boys trilogy.  It fits the prompt in another way, too, because of the strong friendship that binds together the three characters whose stories are told in the three books in the series.

The central relationship in Loose Cannon spans several years, but when we first meet Edgar-Allen Church – who prefers to go by Church – it’s to witness him committing an act of extreme violence.  He’s only sixteen or seventeen years old when he beats a man so badly that he actually worries he might have killed him – and then, in a fit of remorse, calls 911 and waits for the authorities to arrive.  We next meet him as he’s being transferred from juvie to Woodbury Residential Treatment Center, a place where at-risk youth are offered the tools to make themselves new lives while still being held accountable for their actions.  Here, we witness his meetings with the two boys who are to become his closest friends – the sunny-natured, obviously well-to-do Tobias and later, the beautiful, enigmatic – and deadly – Ghost.

Four years later, aged twenty-two, Church is eligible for parole, and one of the conditions he must fulfil is to live with someone who will be a “grounding influence”.  At the last minute, however the person who’d agreed to put him up lets him down, and Church doesn’t have anywhere else to go.  Unless…  There’s one person who is sure to help him, but after the way their friendship crashed and burned  – for which Church blames himself entirely – he’s reluctant to reach out.  But he’s caught between a rock and a hard place – and he makes the call.

That friendship began the night Miller Quinn found a scrawny, scruffy, fifteen-year-old kid trying to haul his antiquated TV set out the window.  Instead of calling the cops, Miller sees the kid is desperate and scared, and manages to persuade him to stick around for a meal and a conversation.  He disappears afterwards and Miller thinks that’s that – so he’s surprised a couple of weeks later when Church turns up during a storm, looking for somewhere to hole up until it passes.  This marks the start of an unlikely friendship during which Church turns up at Miller’s place two or three times a week and it lasts for a couple of years – until (as he thinks) Church screws it all up.

The author drip-feeds this backstory through the first part of the novel by means of a few well-executed flashbacks, and they, together with the characters’ thoughts and conversations, shed light on the events that led to Church being imprisoned.  After this, the story progresses in linear fashion as Miller and Church meet each other again for the first time in five years, and have to find a way to be around one another and rebuild their friendship.  But the elephant that caused the problems all those years ago is still in the room; Church is gay and is attracted to Miller – is even in love with him – and Miller is straight.

But Church – older and wiser now – knows that wanting what he can’t have is a futile exercise and it doesn’t take long for him and Miller to get their relationship back on an even keel and back to the sort of close, platonic friendship they had before, where they bantered back-and-forth constantly and shouted at hockey games on TV.  There’s still an undercurrent of something else, though, and no matter how hard he tries to tell himself it’s stupid to have fallen for the straight guy, Church is sufficiently honest with himself to own the truth of his feelings.  Miller, on the other hand, is a mass of total confusion.  Having Church back in his life is throwing up all sorts of complications he just wants to ignore; he’s always known Church is gay and made it clear he has absolutely no problem with it. But Miller is straight so why is he noticing Church’s lean, muscled body, how he’s grown into his features and become so striking, somehow poetic and tough all at once?

Both men are incredibly complex, well-rounded characters with a lot of baggage to unpack between them.  Miller is a kind, decent person, a man who genuinely wants to help others in any way he can, who deserves to live as he wants and love how he wants, but his highly conservative, Catholic upbringing – conditioning even – means he’s never considered questioning his sexuality (and if he has, he’s buried it deep and left it to rot). There’s absolutely no doubt that he’s in love with Church, but he refuses to admit it; that’s not who he’s supposed to be.  His struggle to find the courage to start questioning and then accept that what he’s believed for thirty years is wrong is brought to life in such an insightful, considered and realistic way – and my heart broke for him.

But the real star of the show is Church, who, despite a truly shitty childhood and time spent in prison still manages to be honest, insightful and incredibly generous, and one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across in fiction.  He did a terrible thing as a kid, but doesn’t allow it to define him and is determined to do better.  He’s no angel and is definitely a bit rough around the edges, but the inner strength he displays as he struggles to own and control his negative emotions is amazing, and I loved watching him learning about himself and transforming from that confused kid into someone who knows himself and how to make the right choices.

The slow-burn romance is wonderful, but I also loved the way the deep affection Church and Miller have for each other is so very clear in everything they say and do, even before their relationship takes a romantic turn.  They’re crazy about each other – even though it takes Miller ages to acknowledge the truth – but they’re good for each other, too, and we’re shown that over and over.

There’s an intriguing sub-plot which I think serves more as a set up for Ghost’s book (which is the third, Rough Trade), in which Church becomes unwittingly caught up with a group of Russian mobsters.  This introduces an element of peril and suspense to the novel, and it’s generally well done, although some parts of it dragged a bit.  I enjoyed the relationship between Church, Tobias and Ghost, and there’s a great supporting cast in Miller’s sister and niece as well.

Loose Cannon is clever, angsty, poignant and beautiful, a compelling read featuring a pair of engaging leads whose flaws make them seem that much more real and whose HEA is hard won and very well deserved.  It’s highly recommended and I’m definitely going to be picking up the other two books as soon as I can.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

Rating: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR Challenge: The Christmas Deal by Keira Andrews

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Will fake boyfriends become the real deal this holiday?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—except ex-Marine Logan is jobless and getting evicted. Worse, he’s a new single dad with a stepson who hates him. A kid needs stability—not to mention presents under the tree—and Logan’s desperate.

Then he meets lonely Seth and makes a deal.

Can Logan temporarily pretend to be live-in boyfriends to increase Seth’s chances at a promotion? If it provides a roof over their heads for the holidays, hell yeah. Logan considers himself straight—he doesn’t count occasional hookups with guys—but he can fake it. Besides, with his shy little smile, Seth is surprisingly sexy.

Make that damn sexy.

Shocked that Seth has only been with one man, Logan can’t resist sweetening their deal to teach him the joys of casual sex. No strings attached. No feelings. No kissing.

No falling for each other.

Easy, right?

Rating: A-

Usually, when I’m choosing a book to read for the TBR Challenge, I pick one I already own that’s at least a year old.  I can’t remember if that’s a stipulation of the challenge or if it’s one I’ve imposed on myself – after all, the point is to read something from my ever-expanding TBR!  But when I looked through the Christmas-themed romances I have on my Kindle (and I don’t have many) none of them appealed to me, so I ended up reading a newly published title instead.  Keira Andrews is an author who’s been on my radar for a while, but I haven’t yet read anything of hers so I picked up The Christmas Deal, as the fake-relationship trope is one of my favourites.  It proved to be a good decision, as I devoured it in a couple of sittings on the same day, always a good sign!

Former marine Logan Derwood is at an all-time low.  After a work-related accident which left him badly injured, the company he worked for blamed him and hung him out to dry and as a result he’s finding it incredibly hard to find another job.  On top of this, the sudden death of his wife has left him sole guardian of her teenaged son, and Logan is struggling to parent the boy, who is permanently angry and for whom Logan can seem to do nothing right.  And to make things even worse, he’s about to be evicted from his ratty bungalow.

Seth Marston relocated to Albany on the promise of a promotion which hasn’t yet materialised.  His boyfriend moved with him but left him not long afterwards, and now, more than a year later, Seth is still single and still living in the mess of his partly remodelled house, not having either the time or the inclination to date or to finish the work.  But at least the promotion is back on the table; although news that the company’s new CEO is very family oriented and all her new hires/promotions have gone to people with families (to her credit, she’s not prejudiced against same sex couples), could put a spoke in that particular wheel.  When Angela Barker arrives at the office, Seth’s friend and colleague Jenna decides to help him along a bit and sneaks a framed photo of her brother Logan and his stepson onto Seth’s desk and, when Angela notices it, tells her it’s a photo of Seth’s fiancé and their son.  Seth is completely stunned and doesn’t really know what to do so just goes along with it – but things get complicated when Logan arrives at the office to see his sister, Angela recognises him from the photo, and promptly invites herself over for dinner.

Just as confused as Seth (whom he doesn’t really know), Logan plays along until Angela leaves and Jenna explains what she did and why she did it. Logan is too weighed down with other problems to really care very much, until Seth mentions the fact that Angela is expecting to come to ‘their’ home for dinner and that his kitchen is still in pieces.  Which gives Jenna another idea.  Logan needs a place to stay – temporarily – Seth needs his remodelling finished.  Couldn’t they help each other out?

The set-up is a bit bonkers it’s true, but the author makes it work and turns this particular Christmas Deal into a sweet, sexy and charming fake-relationship romance, crafting a convincing emotional connection between two very different men who find, in each other, something they never thought they’d want or be able to have.  Logan has always identified as straight, even though he’s hooked up with guys in the past, but in his mind, that was just sex. Relationships, kissing, physical closeness, they’re all things that happen with women; with guys it’s about getting off and nothing else.  But he can’t ignore the fact that he’s starting to want something other than ‘just sex’ with another man, and it confuses the hell out of him.  His gradually-dawning awareness of his bisexuality is very well done; it’s not that he’s suddenly gay for Seth (this isn’t really a GFY story), it’s that for the first time, he’s experiencing romantic feelings for a man, a desire for intimacy he’d thought reserved for his relationships with women.

Seth comes from an ultra-conservative, highly-religious family who threw him out when he told them he was gay.  That was twelve years ago, but Seth is still grieving for their loss (even though they’re plainly a bunch of arseholes who don’t deserve him!), and this part of his backstory is truly heartbreaking (and made me want to break something!).  He’s a lovely guy with a lot to give, but deep down, can’t quite believe he deserves good things.  His ex was his first and only sexual partner, and even though Seth knows he should get out there and date (and maybe hook up) he dislikes the idea of casual sex, finding it hard to throw off the ideas drummed into him as part of his upbringing.

But things change one night when, after learning that Seth has only ever been with one partner, Logan realises that while he might not be able to offer much, he can at least offer Seth the chance to experience casual, no strings sex and maybe help him get past his hang ups about it. Seth is surprised, to say the least, but decides he needs to stop over-thinking everything and just go for it. The attraction between the pair that has sparked and crackled from their first meeting – and that they’ve tried to suppress – roars to life, and it quickly becomes very clear to each of them that whatever this thing is between them, it’s far from casual.  But owning to wanting something more crosses every boundary they’ve set, and both men are understandably wary of risking their hearts.

The Christmas Deal has quite a lot going on within its pages, but I never felt as though anything was glossed over or rushed.  The characterisation of the two leads is excellent, and there’s a really well-drawn secondary cast including Jenna and Logan’s dad; and even Angela, who could easily have been an unpleasant character, is written with a degree of charm and heart that makes it hard to dislike her.  And then there’s Connor, a grieving, angry thirteen-year-old who is confused and hurting and lashes out whenever and however he can.  Logan really wants to do the right thing for Connor, but he’s finding his way, too, and the two of them clash horribly almost all the time – and I loved that Logan was prepared to listen to advice – from Seth, and even from Angela – as to how he might build bridges with Connor and get things between them on more of an even keel.

I really enjoyed The Christmas Deal and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a heart-warming – but not cheesy or overly sweet – love story with depth and charm.  It’s an emotionally satisfying read laden with plenty of Christmassy goodness, warmth, humour and a swoon-worthy romance with enough heat to keep anyone warm in the depths of winter!

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

TBR Challenge: Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin #1) by Jordan L. Hawk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reclusive scholar. A private detective. And a book of spells that could destroy the world.

Love is dangerous. Ever since the tragic death of the friend he adored, Percival Endicott Whyborne has ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man. Instead, he spends his days studying dead languages at the museum where he works. So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible.

Griffin left the Pinkertons after the death of his partner. Now in business for himself, he must investigate the murder of a wealthy young man. His only clue: an encrypted book that once belonged to the victim.

As the investigation draws them closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. But when they uncover evidence of a powerful cult determined to rule the world, Whyborne must choose: to remain safely alone, or to risk everything for the man he loves.

Rating: B

Like so many of the books I end up reading for the TBR Challenge each year, Jordan L. Hawk’s paranormal/romantic suspense Whyborne & Griffin series is one I’ve been meaning to read for AGES, so this prompt was just what I needed to galvanise me into reading book one, Widdershins.

Percival Endicott Whyborne comes from a very wealthy family – his father is a railroad baron – but didn’t want to go into the business (as his older brother did) and is thus somewhat estranged from his family.  His mother has been unwell for years and he doesn’t get on with his father, who disapproves of his choice to dedicate himself to comparative philology (Whyborne is fluent in thirteen languages and can read more,) scholarship and a job in the Department of Antiquities at the Ladysmith Museum in Widdershins, Massachusetts.  He keeps himself very much to himself, never really having got the hang of social interaction, and ruthlessly suppresses his attraction to men,  still haunted by thoughts of the first boy he ever loved and blaming himself for his tragic death.  He has only one real friend, Dr. Christine Putnam, a fiercely intelligent, independently minded archaeologist who won’t let him hide himself away all the time, and who, it must be said, has some of the best lines in the book:

“I will not surrender my profession simply because men throughout history have been unduly enamored of their penises!“

(this said in response to a male colleague seeking to prevent her looking at a papyrus fragment depicting a fellow “… in rather an excited state.” )

The appearance of ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty at the museum upsets Whyborne’s carefully maintained equilibrium.  Flaherty been asked to investigate the death of Philip Rice, son of the museum’s director who, the day before he died, sent a small, leather-bound book to his father which Griffin has brought to the museum – specifically to Whyborne – to have translated in order to see if its contents have any bearing on Philip’s death.  Although Whyborne is supposed to be working on deciphering some ancient scrolls which are due to be displayed in an upcoming exhibition, he agrees, wanting nothing more than to get the translation done and get rid of the handsome, too-friendly detective who is far too tempting for his peace of mind.

Whyborne’s efforts quickly reveal the book to be an Arcanorum, a book of arcane spells and alchemical treatises which details many occult rituals, not least of which is one able to bring back the dead.  As strange things start happening – from grave robbing to the appearance of mysterious and terrifying beasts, to break-ins at the museum  and the discovery of a powerful and ancient cult – Whyborne and Griffin are drawn into an investigation that will test them both to the limit and force them both to confront some of their darkest fears.

I enjoyed the story, which is immensely readable and entertaining, and I really liked the two central characters, reclusive, gawky Whyborne, and the more outgoing Griffin, whose handsome, charming exterior hides insecurities and emotional damage of his own.  While the story is related entirely from Whyborne’s PoV, the author does a terrific job of showing us Griffin through his eyes, although of course, Whyborne fails to notice the other man’s interest in him because he’s become so used to believing himself to be dull, awkward and unattractive.  But Griffin is smitten from the start; he obviously finds Whyborne’s shyness endearing and is also able to see beyond the bumbling scholar to the courageous, brilliant man beneath, his feelings made clear by the way he treats Whyborne with the sort of courtesy and respect he has never received from anyone before.

Their relationship starts as a slow, smouldering burn, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches, but after that, it moves fairly quickly – perhaps just a little bit too quickly – from that initial frisson to emotional commitment.  As this is the first book in a long running series (the eleventh and final book has just been published), the author could have perhaps taken a little more time to get them to the the ILYs.  I liked them as a couple and liked the way they come to know each other and talk about their pasts; the romance is both sweet and sexy as Griffin gradually coaxes Whyborne from his shell and Whyborne starts to allow someone beyond the emotional walls he’s so carefully constructed.  I just would have liked there to have been a little more time spent building an emotional connection between that initial slow burn and the declarations.  Delayed gratification and all that 😉

The plot, with its Lovecraftian influences and overtones, is a mix of suspense and supernatural horror, full of scary monsters, spooky goings-on (and a fair few “eeew!” moments) and a charismatic though creepy AF villain. The story is well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed among the more intimate and introspective moments, and moves inexorably towards a high-stakes climax which, while perhaps a tad predictable is nonetheless exciting.

In spite of my reservations about the romance and some aspects of the plot, I enjoyed Widdershins and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

TBR Challenge: The Broken Wing (Warrender Saga #2) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tessa Morley has spent her entire life in the shadow of her beautiful and bewitching twin sister Tania.

Unlike Tania, whose vivacious beauty and outgoing personality have ensured that she is forever in the limelight, Tessa lacks her sister’s confidence and has always been exceedingly shy. Although blessed with the voice of an angel, and musical talent that far surpasses that of her twin, Tessa has never been given the same kind of chances as her sister because she happened to be born lame.

With the dream of a stage career out of reach, Tessa has taken work as a secretary for Quentin Otway, the arrogant and temperamental artistic director for the Northern Counties Festival who, along with famous conductor Oscar Warrender, is responsible for the gathering of significant musical talent for the festival.

Tania, determined to be cast in the festival’s production of Cosi fan tutte, convinces Tessa to ask Otway for an audition — and without warning Tessa finds herself having to deny her one great talent…her voice.

As upsetting as the situation is, Tessa is willing to bear the hurt for the sake of her sister, whom she loves dearly, but then it seems Tania will even rob Tessa of the man she loves. Her only consolation comes in the form of Oscar Warrender, whose keen ear identifies Tessa’s skill and who insists that for the first time in her life Tessa must take centre stage. Will Otway see Tessa for who she really is? Or is she doomed forever to be overshadowed by her sister?

NOTE: I don’t know why the cover depicts someone playing the violin when the heroine is a singer.

Rating: B-

For this month’s Kicking it Old School prompt, I went back to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen novels set in the world of classical music that were originally published by Mills & Boon in the 1960s and 70s.  I read the first book, A Song Begins for a TBR Challenge prompt last year and haven’t yet got around to reading any more, although I own several of them, so this seemed like a good opportunity to play catch up.  The events of book two, The Broken Wing (originally published in 1966), take place about six months after those of A Song Begins and are focused around a prestigious music festival.  The principal characters are the festival’s director, Quentin Otway (who is, of course, both brilliant and demanding), and his super-efficient assistant/secretary, Tessa Morley, who – it’s obvious straight away – is infatuated with Quentin, just as it’s obvious that he has no idea of it.

Tessa and her twin sister, Tania, are like chalk and cheese.  They’re not identical twins, in either looks or personality; Tania is a vibrant go-getter and their former actress mother’s favourite, while Tessa is quiet and shy, her reticence always making her an afterthought at home.  Tessa isn’t jealous of Tania though, although she does get annoyed by her frequent self-absorbtion; the relationship between the sisters is well written and presented as something that has many different shades.  Tania isn’t the evil twin and Tessa isn’t the put-upon doormat; there are elements of that in there, yes, but both are protective of each other in their own way and Tania does take pride in Tessa’s achievements, despite her tendency to steamroller her way through life.  Both are talented singers, too, although Tessa  – sure has no hope of a stage career on account of her being lame and walking with a limp – hides her light under a bushel while Tania is doing fairly well in the field of comic opera and operetta.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Tania ‘persuades’ Tessa to get her an audition for the part of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte which is being mounted at the Northern Counties Festival with Oscar Warrender conducting.  Tessa isn’t wild about the idea, especially when Tania insists that she – Tessa – must, under no circumstances, let on that she sings as well.  Tania knows Tessa has the better voice, but is also sure that her vivacity and stage presence will carry her through; and sure enough, Tessa gets her the audition and Tania gets the part.  It seems at this stage that Quentin is quite bowled over by her – although the more canny Oscar Warrender isn’t quite as impressed with Tania and already suspects that there is more to Tessa than meets the eye.

One of the things I always notice when I read much older books like this one is the way in which the hero is almost a secondary character; they’re very heroine-centric novels and we only get to see the object of her affections through her PoV.  And viewed with modern eyes, those heroes can sometimes be unappealing; at best overbearing, at worst, dictatorial, and there’s no question that Quentin doesn’t always behave well to Tessa in this book.  He says some hurtful things, usually without realising it (and I’m not sure if that doesn’t make it worse!), but at other times, he seems quite in tune with her, and he isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and apologise for it.  And although the parallels between ‘damaged’ Tessa (the way her disability is portrayed and spoken of is distasteful) and the little figurine of the angel with the broken wing that Quentin keeps on his desk is howlingly obvious, there’s something about the way they bond over it that is rather sweet and which also indicates a degree of affection on Quentin’s side that Tessa is unaware of.  He can be thoughtless, but his ability to show vulnerability and to own up to his mistakes meant I liked him overall.

Tessa could easily have been something of a doormat, but she isn’t.  Yes, she puts up with Quentin’s dickishness, but he’s paying her wages and she has a job she loves and she’s not quite ready to tell him where he can stick it.  And she’s not afraid to call him on it when he’s being inconsiderate or let him know when he’s pissed her off; she’s one of those quiet heroines who can only be pushed so far, and I liked that about her.  I didn’t, however, like the way she was so preoccupied with her ‘lameness’.  She walks with a slight limp (she doesn’t appear to need a stick) but in spite of her vocal talent – which, according to Warrender (an expert) is worth cultivating – has ruled out any sort of musical career for herself on account of it.  Um.  I worked in the classical music biz for several  years and met and worked with a number of opera singers, many of whom were hardly built to be rushing around a stage!  And as Warrender says, a limp wouldn’t preclude Tessa having a concert career.  I suppose there had to be some sort of reason for Tessa not to want to be a singer; it’s just that this one is, and pardon the pun, rather lame.

Compared to many of today’s romances, The Broken Wing is pretty sedate, but its richly realised setting – which is once again permeated by the author’s love for and knowledge of opera and classical music – and clear, precise prose, are definite points in favour. Even taking into account the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to continue with the series.