TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

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.


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.


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.

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.

Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall

something fabulous

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Valentine Layton, the Duke of Malvern, has twin problems: literally.

It was always his father’s hope that Valentine would marry Miss Arabella Tarleton. But, unfortunately, too many novels at an impressionable age have caused her to grow up…romantic. So romantic that a marriage of convenience will not do and after Valentine’s proposal she flees into the night determined never to set eyes on him again.

Arabella’s twin brother, Mr. Bonaventure “Bonny” Tarleton, has also grown up…romantic. And fully expects Valentine to ride out after Arabella and prove to her that he’s not the cold-hearted cad he seems to be.

Despite copious misgivings, Valentine finds himself on a pell-mell chase to Dover with Bonny by his side. Bonny is unreasonable, overdramatic, annoying, and…beautiful? And being with him makes Valentine question everything he thought he knew. About himself. About love. Even about which Tarleton he should be pursuing.

Rating: B+

If you’re looking for an historical romance with a complex plot, serious characters and a bucket-load of angst, then move right along, because Alexis Hall’s Something Fabulous isn’t it.  If, however, you’re up for a frivolous romp through Regency England bubbling with wit and brilliant comic timing that, for all its ridiculous trope-y-ness, contains an achingly tender story of self-discovery, then dive right in.
The book opens with a delightfully – although somewhat more barbed – Heyer-esque proposal-gone-wrong in which Valentine Layton, Duke of Malvern, has decided it’s time to honour his late father’s wishes and become formally betrothed to Miss Arabella Tarleton, who has been intended for him since birth.  Miss Tarleton, however, has no intention of accepting Valentine’s proposal and makes that clear in no uncertain terms:

“There is no fashion, Your Grace, in which you could propose that would render it anything other than profoundly repugnant to me.”

Valentine is both astonished and affronted.  A refusal is something he had never remotely considered – after all, what impoverished young woman wouldn’t want to secure her future and that of her family by marrying a wealthy, young and handsome duke?

Later that night – or rather, in the early hours of the morning – Valentine (having made liberal use of the brandy bottle) is awoken by Arabella’s twin brother, Bonaventure – Bonny for short – who informs him that Arabella has run away and that they should go after her so Valentine can save her from ruin and propose again.  And that he’d better make a good job of it this time.  Valentine is not keen; it’s not that he doesn’t want to retrieve his wayward intended, he just doesn’t want to go without due thought or preparation. Or his valet.  Bonny, however, is something of a force of nature, and won’t take no for an answer, so before long, Valentine is being hurried along and into a curricle wearing a coat borrowed from the assistant gardener and a hastily tied – courtesy of Bonny – cravat.

That’s the set up for the fluffiest, silliest and most outrageously charming road-trip / grumpy-sunshine romance I’ve read in quite some time. (Or ever.) It doesn’t take itself seriously – even though it does have some serious points to make – and focuses entirely on the relationship between Valentine and Bonny, and on Valentine’s journey towards reaching a deeper self-awareness, understanding  how attraction works for him and that being seen and loved for who he is as a person is not impossible.

The writing is deft and insightful with plenty of clever nods to the genre, the dialogue sparkles and the two leads are superbly characterised.  Valentine, the repressed, dutiful duke has no idea of his own privilege but is somehow endearing in his cluelessness;  he’s deeply lonely but doesn’t realise it, and he has very little experience of sexual attraction until Bonny, and the sudden wealth of feelings that assail him when Bonny is around completely blindside him. Watching Valentine slowly learn that he is allowed to have feelings, that he can feel attraction and affection – and the way Bonny accepts him exactly as he is and without question – is simply lovely.  As for Bonny, well, he’s just adorable; free-spirited,  vibrant, charming and kind, he’s not ashamed of who he is and what he wants, and isn’t willing to settle for anything less than to be loved in the way he loves – with his whole heart and soul.

There’s a small, but well-drawn secondary cast. I particularly liked Peggy, Arabella’s best friend and some-time lover who is a welcome voice of reason in contrast to Arabella’s frequent and overblown histrionics, and Sir Horley, the rakish older gentleman with an eye on Bonny and a heart of gold.  As one would expect from an Alexis Hall book, the queer rep is varied and excellent;  Peggy is genderfluid, Sir Horley is gay,  I got the impression Arabella is aromantic, and there are two delightful ladies who are married in all but name.

Sadly, the book’s biggest flaw is Arabella.  I understood her frustration and where she was coming from – no legal rights, no right to an opinion, no rights over her own body, even – but rather than making the attempt to explain herself or just talk to Valentine, she screams and throws tantrums and melodramatic fits, she makes ridiculous and unfounded accusations and generally behaves like a spoilt brat.  If she’d been the heroine of a book, it would have hit the wall before the end of the first chapter!  It’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a character in a book, but I honestly couldn’t stand her and felt sorry for Bonny having to put up with her all his life.  And this leads to my other issue with the story, which is that the catch-up-with-her/she’s-run-away-again is a bit repetitive – although I fully accept this may be because I so disliked Arabella that I just wanted her to run away and stay gone!

Other than that, however, Something Fabulous certainly lives up to its name.  It’s funny, sexy, daft and just a bit over the top, but it’s all done with obvious love and affection and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

At their next outing, Henry swears Melissa to secrecy and tells her that he’s been tasked with keeping an eye on a possible French spy (bear in mind this is official business, and they’ve known each other three days). Melissa tells Henry about her suspicions that the despicable Harlby is planning to contract a fake marriage with an – as yet unknown – heiress.  She has already alerted her friends to this, and between them, they plan to go to as many social events as possible in to track down Harlby’s target and warn her; if she and Henry arrange to attend events together as well, not only will they be able to help foil Harlby’s dastardly plan, but they will also be able to watch Henry’s quarry, too.  It’s the perfect solution to both problems.

Henry and Melissa are insightful, intelligent and witty, and their relationship is refreshingly honest; their discussions are lively and interesting, and they both learn from each other as together, they thwart Harlby’s dastardly plan – only to end up in hot water themselves.  In fact, I liked a lot about this story – but I had a real problem with the speed at which Harry and Melissa’s friendship develops.  They talk and behave like people who have known each other for years rather than people who have spent just a few hours together, and for Henry to involve Melissa in his spy-hunting seemed highly irresponsible.  (Not to say unprofessional.)

But as any Nora Ephron fan knows, men and women can never really be friends, and of course the sex thing gets in the way for this Regency Harry and Sally as well.  Henry and Melissa start to realise that they’re attracted to each other and worry about what might happen to their friendship if the other finds out how they feel.  The author seeds the gradual transition from friendship to attraction to love throughout the story and creates palpable chemistry between the couple so that the progression feels organic.  I liked that they were determined to respect each other’s boundaries, but both are hung up on the fact that they believe the other isn’t interested in anything more than friendship, leading to a bit of late-book conflict which, thankfully, isn’t allowed to drag on for too long.

Had the progression of the friendship in A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship been more credible, I’d have been giving the book a higher grade and a stronger recommendation.  If you can get past that however, you’ll find much to enjoy – likeable characters who (mostly) communicate well and who speak and act like adults, subtle social commentary and a well-written romance.

TBR Challenge: The Duke of Diamonds by Emily Windsor

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In the coldest flint, there is fire…
Casper Brook, the eighth Duke of Rothwell, has forever spurned frivolous pleasures, his restless emotions remaining buried beneath duty and command.
Yet when a titian-haired minx perches upon his ducal desk and claims to know the whereabouts of his one burning obsession, a game of wits and passion erupts…

Fire ignites from a spark…
Miss Evelyn Pearce possesses naught but a frail young sister and an ebony-black cat. Left destitute by her baronet father’s spendthrift ways, fate and talent hand her the opportunity to seek escape from the dangerous alleys of London town.
The cold Duke of Diamonds holds the key, and all Evelyn must do is resist his not-so-cold kiss…

A dance of flaming desire…
A passion forged on secrets can never be satisfied, but as guises fall and plots unravel, will the duke’s controlled façade shatter to reveal his searching heart within?

Rating: B-

Emily Windsor may be new-to-me, but she’s not a “new” author, having already published over half-a-dozen or so historical romances over the last few years.  The Duke of Diamonds is the first book in her The Games of Gentlemen series, and while it’s nothing I haven’t read before, the writing is deft, the characters are engaging and the wryly observational humour is nicely done.

Evelyn Pearce and her younger sister Artemisia have come down in the world since the death of their father, a famed portraitist and artist who left them nothing but crushing debts.  During those three years, they’ve moved from their comfortable home to a series of increasingly less salubrious lodgings, and Evelyn has barely kept their heads above water with the money she earns from her job as a scenery painter at a local theatre.  But Artemisia is in poor health, and living in damp and dirty conditions and not being able to afford decent food is only making it worse; and the extra cost of medicine for her means they’re now in debt to an unscrupulous moneylender, who is threatening to put them to work on their backs if Evelyn can’t pay up.  In desperation, she comes up with an audacious – and potentially dangerous – plan.  She knows that one of her father’s paintings – The Fall of Innocence – was purchased by the Duke of Rothwell for one hundred pounds, and rumour has it, it’s his most prized possession.   Her father made sketches for a companion piece, but never actually painted it – so Evelyn, who learned to paint as his knee and knows she will be able to replicate his style exactly, paints the work with the intention of getting the duke to purchase it.  It’s an intensely risky plan – she could be charged with forgery should she be found out – but it’s either that or prostitution (and likely death for her sister) and with no other option, she decides it’s worth the risk.

Casper Brook, eighth Duke of Rothwell inherited his title at seventeen from his profligate father, who had run his estates into the ground and left his family practically destitute.  In the decade or so since, Casper has worked tirelessly to turn things around, and in doing so, has earned himself a reputation for being rigid, cold and ruthless. His uncle and brother are no help; Uncle Virgil is rather eccentric and his younger brother Ernest is rather wild, spending most of his time womanising, gambling and drinking – and Casper is forever trying to rein him in, worried he is following in their father’s footsteps.

Evelyn decides that a direct approach will be best, and contacts the duke’s man of business requesting an appointment.  Her first sight of Rothwell (lean, impeccably dressed and handsome as Apollo) almost buckles her knees, but this is no time to let a girlish infatuation (or unrequited lust) divert her from her purpose.  Realising that the demure persona she’d planned to adopt won’t work with someone so extremely haughty and aloof, she gathers her courage and instead tries a hint of challenge and flirtation as she tells him about the painting and invites him to view it.

Rothwell is intensely suspicious of “Mrs Swift”, but probably the one indulgence he allows himself in his life of rigid responsibility and dutiful hard work is his love and appreciation for art, and he can’t help being intrigued by the idea of the existence of a companion piece to his most treasured painting.  Half of him thinks it must be a forgery; the other half really hopes it isn’t;  finding himself –  reluctantly – as intrigued by the messenger as he is by the message, he agrees to attend the viewing some days hence.

As I said at the beginning, there’s not a lot new here, but it’s a well-paced and entertaining story, the characters are engaging and well-rounded, and the sexual tension and chemistry between Evelyn and Rothwell is intense and delicious.

To start with, Rothwell seems to be one of those rather stereotypical starchy heroes who needs a metaphorical kick up the arse to get him to live a little, but  as the story progresses and we get to know him better, we see the man beneath, the man with a kind heart who locked his emotions away in order to deal with the enormous burden he had to shoulder and who has, even though he no longer needs to be that man, caged his true self away for so long that he’s forgotten to allow himself to enjoy his life. I loved his eccentric Uncle Virgil – who steals the few scenes he’s in! – and the way Rothwell is brought to see the error of his ways with Ernest (even though that does happen a bit quickly) and to understand that by trying to exert control over his brother, he’s in danger of losing him altogether.

Evelyn is an admirable heroine who only resorts to deception when she’s out of options.  Their battle of wits is full of wit, charm and, at times, blunt honesty; one of my favourite exchanges is the one where Evelyn angrily accuses Rothwell of being a typically lazy aristocrat and he parries by telling her exactly how hard he works for everyone who depends on him (not a response I’ve seen all that often in HR.)

I did have a few issues with the story, however, the main one being the wobbly premise.  Evelyn could have sold her painting to anyone in order to get the money she needed to enable her and Artemisia to leave town – there were other people interested besides the duke.  The other thing that really bugged me was the cursing; not because I’m a prude (we Brits swear a lot and I can swear like a trooper!) but because it was just so… silly.  The phrasing may well be authentic, and some was undoubtedly funny, but it was just too much and quickly became annoying, and I also found it difficult to buy that Evelyn, who was brought up as a lady, would so far forget herself as to use slang/swearwords to a duke.  Ms. Windsor’s style is readable and breezy, although I couldn’t help feeling as though something was missing – I just can’t put my finger on what.

Ultimately, The Duke of Diamonds was an enjoyable read with an interesting plot, likeable characters and a good dose of humour and sensuality.  I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll read Ms. Windsor again, but this book was a good way to pass a few hours on a grey afternoon.

The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright (Spindle Cove #4.5) by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Miss Eliza Cade is a lady in waiting. And waiting. Because of a foolish mistake in her youth, she’s not allowed “out” in Society until her three older sisters are wed. But while she’s trying to be good, she keeps bumping elbows – and more distressingly, lips – with notorious rake Harry Wright. Every moment she spends with him, she risks complete ruin.

The sensual passions he stirs in her are so wrong…but Eliza just can’t resist Mr. Wright.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

I remembered enjoying this novella – which rounds out Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series – when it came out in print what I thought was just a few years ago. Imagine my surprise when I checked Goodreads and discovered I’d read it in 2012! Where did those eight years go?!

Anyway. I enjoyed it and was pleased to see it finally making it into audio with Carolyn Morris at the microphone; her performance of what I think is the author’s best book (A Week to be Wicked) is one of my favourites.

The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright is a novella so it’s a short listen, and it’s really a series of vignettes that span a period of around four years, detailing several meetings between the titular Mr. Wright and a young lady named Eliza Cade who made a silly mistake made when she was just fourteen (and no, it wasn’t that sort of mistake!), and because of it, her father decided to delay her society début until all her sisters were ‘out’ so as not to spoil their chances on the marriage mart.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

An Enchanting Regency Christmas (anthology) by Edith Layton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The long-awaited second anthology of Edith Layton’s Regency romance Christmas stories includes four heart-warming tales. Originally published in separate anthologies, and out-of-print for many years, these holiday novellas by legendary Regency romance author Edith Layton are in one volume for the first time ever! This collection includes the following stories:

The Earl’s Nightingale
The Hounds of Heaven
The Rake’s Christmas
The Dark Man

Rating: B-

Back in the day, historical romance fans new Christmas was around the corner when Signet published its annual anthology of Christmas stories by some of its most popular and most beloved authors.  Those original books are long since out of print – although second-hand copies can still be found – but some of the authors (or their estates) are now making their stories available in digital formats. Edith Layton’s daughter has been republishing her mother’s novels and short stories over the past few years, and follows up last year’s six-story anthology It’s a Wonderful Regency Christmas with An Enchanting Regency Christmas, which brings together another four previously published Christmas stories.

The Earl’s Nightingale

(originally published in A Regency Christmas Carol, 1997)

Grade: B-

A charming story with just a little bit of Christmas magic, The Earl’s Nightingale is about finding happlness where you least expect it.  Eliza Dumont, a gently-born young woman who supports herself and her mother by giving music lessons, needs to raise some money urgently and has no alternative but to pawn the gift left her by her late grandmother, a bejewelled, mechanical bird in a golden cage.  It breaks her heart to do so; it’s the last thing her grandmother gave her, and with it, the old lady left a letter telling her that the bird will bring her happiness.

Frauncis, the Earl of Elliott, is looking for a gift to give a respectable young lady for Christmas.  He knows the lady in question is expecting a betrothal ring, but he is not about to meet those expectations; still, he needs to send something appropriate.  When he sees the mechanical bird in the corner of the shop, he realises he’s found the perfect gift, and sends it to the  young lady – who is so angry at not receiving the gift she’d hoped for that she throws the cage across the room and gives it to her servant. Who sells it on…

When Eliza returns to retrieve the bird, she’s devastated to discover it’s been sold.  She pays a visit to the Earl to offer to buy it back, and he, of course is unable to oblige.  But he’s instantly smitten with Eliza and promises to retrieve it for her – except, as he discovers, it’s not that simple.  Over the next few days, he and Eliza track down the bird, and as they do, they draw closer and eventually, Eliza discovers that the bird has bought her happiness after all.

The Hounds of Heaven

(originally published in A Regency Christmas, 1998)

Grade: B-

This story isn’t so much a romance as it is the story of a man taking stock of himself and his life and opening himself up to what it means to be worthy – and capable – of love.

Wealthy, charming, titled and handsome, Lord Thadeus Rose, London’s most eligible bachelor., has decided it’s time to marry and has chosen himself a suitable bride.  Miss Helena Thatcher is beautiful, intelligent, sensible and well-bred, young enough to bear children but not an empty-headed schoolroom chit who will bore him silly.  So when he proposes to her, he’s stunned by her rejection, and doesn’t understand the reasons behind it

Stumbling home after drowning his sorrows, Thadeus is set upon by footpads – but is saved by a puppy (a large puppy, admittedly) who subsequently ‘adopts’ him and refuses to leave his side.  As Thadeus learns how to care for something other than himself, and as the dog’s unconditional love begins to show him how wonderful it feels to be loved, he comes to appreciate and understand the importance of the most human of emotions, and to know what he needs to do in order to win the heart of his lady.

The Rake’s Christmas

(originally published in A Regency Christmas, 1995)

Grade: B

I love a good poor-relation-gets-the-guy tale, and this is definitely a good one.  It’s my favourite story in this collection, and in it we meet, Ian, Viscount Hunt, a young man lately returned from the Peninsula war who has thrown himself into a life of hedonistic pleasures as a way of distracting him from sad memories.  He is approached by Lord Shelton, an older man and a confirmed rake and invited to attend a house-party over the Christmas season at Moon Manor, the home of a distant relative of his. Ian is a little wary – he doesn’t know Shelton other than by reputation – but allows himself to be persuaded.  On the way, Shelton is called away owing to an emergency, leaving Ian to attend the party without him.

Eve Thomkins is the poor relation, taken in for Christmas by her aunt and uncle but already looking forward to getting away from their forced and somewhat humiliating generosity, and to her upcoming twenty-fifth birthday, after which she need never spend Christmas with them again.  When Viscount Hunt arrives, the sense of kinship feels as their eyes meet for the first time startles her, making her wish, just once, that she could be even vaguely eligible, as the other young ladies are.

Hunt’s broodingly handsome looks naturally gain him the attention of all the young ladies at the party, although his somewhat intimidating manner cows most of them – apart from Eve with whom he occasionally lets his guard down.  Over the days that follow, he finds himself seeking Eve out – telling himself that what he really wants to do is warn her of Lord Shelton’s designs on her – but instead just enjoying her company and conversation.  And Eve, who is preparing to take up the mantle of ‘eternal spinster’ is determined to enjoy this last hurrah of time spent with an attractive man.

Eve and Ian are likeable and fully-fleshed out in a way that doesn’t always happen in novellas, and this story is the most ‘Christmassy’ in overall feel, incorporating many of the traditions of the festival, with its mistletoe and holly-gathering parties, yule log hunt, wassail and carolling.  The author packs a lot of emotional punch into this one, and the ending, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless left me smiling.

The Dark Man

(originally published in A Regency Christmas III, 1991)

Grade: C-

This is the story I liked least out of the set; it’s about an engaged couple who fall out and get back together again, but it isn’t particularly romantic.  Like The Hounds of Heaven, it focuses more on the hero’s journey to self-awareness, but it isn’t anywhere near as charming as that story.

When Eve Swanson discovers that her fiancé, the Earl of Poole, has a mistress (as well as a bevy of former mistresses amongst the ton) she knows all too well that it’s ‘the done thing’ among men of their class, but finds it difficult to handle the normality of it –  especially the idea of coming face-to-face with his former lovers and being expected to behave as though it’s nothing.  When she breaks their engagement, she’s sent off in disgrace to stay with her grandmother in the north of England, while Poole kicks his heels in London and comes to the realisation that what Eve had said about his always following the rules and expectations was true and that he needs to be true to himself if he’s to attain his heart’s desire and win her back.

This tale focuses a little more on New Year and its traditions than on Christmas, and that’s all nicely done, but the story feels rushed and the end of it is a bit nonsensical.

As I usually find to be the case with anthologies, An Enchanting Regency Christmas is a bit of a mixed bag.  But overall, it’s an enjoyable collection that is sure to provide plenty of warm fuzzies and feelings of good cheer over the festive season.

TBR Challenge: The Love Knot (Ramsey Saga #1) by Elisabeth Fairchild

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Enlisting the help of fastidious fop, Miles Fletcher, to teach her ballroom arts, tomboy Aurora Ramsay must marry wealthy Lord Walsh or lose everything. But Fletcher’s tangled intentions would turn the tricks of enticement to bind Miss Ramsay’s heart in a more worthy love knot.

Rating: B

Sometimes I look at a TBR Challenge prompt, and the perfect book comes to mind, sometimes I look at it and … it doesn’t.  “Dress for Success” was one of those times.  I was all set to give up and just read a random book from the TBR when I found I had Elisabeth Fairchild’s The Love Knot on my Kindle.  I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, and when I read the synopsis – an elegant gentleman agrees to help a gauche young woman learn to attract the object of her affections – I realised I’d found this month’s read.

It’s a fairly simple story that uses a familiar trope, but what bumps it up into the recommendation bracket is the way the central relationship is developed and the strong characterisation of the two leads.  It opens with a prologue set the night before the hero, Miles Fletcher, is due to leave London to stay with his friend Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall in Norfolk to observe the annual sheep shearing (Miles is an art dealer and knows little about farming; he’s interested and wants to learn for when he inherits his uncle’s property).  He’s settled for a quiet night at his club when he’s summoned to attend his uncle Lester who has just won a fortune at the gaming table.  Lester isn’t in good health and doesn’t expect to live for much longer, and before Miles leaves for Norfolk, Lester makes a cryptic request – to make sure a certain young lady doesn’t find that she’s been ‘fleeced’.

The subject of that request appears unexpectedly as Miles and his sister Grace approach Holkham in their carriage.  Stopping briefly to observe a group of ladies at archery practice, Miles is immediately struck by the skill and poise of a tall, red-haired young woman whose confidence calls to him as much as her looks do.  Aurora Ramsey is breathtaking, and Miles is smitten – he had not expected to find such beauty in fulfilling his promise to his uncle.

The Ramsey name is dogged by scandal, from the eldest brother’s gambling addiction to another’s drunkenness to another’s womanising, and Aurora- the only Ramsey female –  has been doing her best to run the family estate pretty much single-handedly.  But with the means to do so ever dwindling, it’s time for her to find a wealthy husband whose money will give her the chance to save the home and land she loves so much – and she’s settled on Lord Walsh, a young, handsome and wealthy peer who is also present at the house party.  The problem is that Aurora has absolutely no idea how to go about attracting a man, and no social graces to speak of.  She can ride and hunt and talk about sheep shearing and land management, but she can’t dance or play or paint or flirt… she has never learned any of the so-called accomplishments expected of society ladies.

This Pygmalion-esque story proceeds as one would expect; Miles offers to help Aurora to learn the sorts of things she’ll need to be able to catch a husband – what clothes to wear, how to flirt, how to converse appropriately and all the things society dictates a well-born young woman should know.  Naturally, during the course of these lessons Aurora finds it increasingly difficult to remember that she’s learning how to attract Lord Walsh.  Miles Fletcher may not be the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but he’s certainly the kindest, most honourable one – not to mention the best dressed!  – and for the first time in her life she understands what genuine attraction and desire feel like… if only she wasn’t feeling them for the wrong man!

Miles is a terrific beta hero.  He’s considerate and empathetic and just wants Aurora to be happy.  He does know something she doesn’t for most of the book – that her brother Jack lost the Ramsey estate to Miles’ uncle Lester and that Miles stands to inherit it when his uncle dies – but he doesn’t lie to her about it; or rather he doesn’t withhold the information because he deliberately sets out to deceive, he does it because he wants her to be able to make her own choices.  He’s smitten with Aurora from the first, and their subsequent interactions – in which their differences are plain to see, but in a way that shows how right they are for each other – only reinforce his initial impression that she’s the woman for him.  But if she decides she wants Lord Walsh, then Miles is determined to help her get what she wants, even if it breaks his heart in the process.

There were a couple of times I felt Aurora was being overly stubborn, but I liked her for the most part.  She’s in a really awkward situation; her brothers (with one exception) are wastrels and care for nothing except their own pleasure, so she’s been the one to manage their estate and through no fault of her own stands to lose the land she loves and the only home she’s ever known.  I mostly forgave her sometimes blinkered view of things because of that – upper class women of her time had so few options – and once her deep seated insecurities were revealed, I warmed to her.

I really enjoyed the setting of this story.  Sure, it’s at a Regency house-party, but instead of an emphasis on grand balls or musical evenings, there are outdoor scenes of the estate at work, which was a refreshing change of focus.

The chemistry between Miles and Aurora sparks from the outset, and even though the author doesn’t go beyond kisses on the page, the sexual tension is always present in the air between them, and in certain scenes (such as the one in the attic where they’re looking at a portrait) it’s so thick as to be almost palpable.  The dénouement is perhaps a little rushed, but overall, I enjoyed The Love Knot and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good Traditional Regency, or who simply wants to read an historical romance in which the characters aren’t twenty-first century people in period costume.

Her Best Friend, the Duke by Laura Martin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An excellent student…

In the art of flirtation

Caroline Yaxley has always been in love with her best friend James Dunstable, Duke of Heydon. But, after years of waiting for him, she’s finally admitted defeat and decided to find a husband. James suggests she practise her non-existent flirtation skills on him, which seems like a good idea—until she must pull away to avoid a shattered heart. Their pretend attraction has begun to feel alarmingly real…!

Rating: B-

Laura Martin’s latest historical romance promised a simple friends-to-lovers tale between a duke and his best friend, a young woman who has loved him for years but who has decided it’s time to stop waiting for him to fall for her and move on.  The author delivers on the premise;  Her Best Friend the Duke is a nicely done love story featuring two attractive protagonists in which there are no mysteries to be solved, no nefarious plots and no moral crusades;  those things have a place and I have certainly enjoyed books featuring  those sorts of plotlines, but it made a nice change to read a romance that focuses purely on the central relationship and characters.

At twenty-four years of age and having experienced seven London Seasons, Miss Caroline Yaxley is, if not on the shelf, then very nearly so.  That has never been a problem; Caroline has been reluctant to give up her small modicum of freedom by marrying, and has politely discouraged the suitors she’s had over the years, but lately, she’s started to undergo a change of heart.  She’s been in love with James, Duke of Heydon, for five years, and had convinced herself that having no-one was better than settling for second-best – but now she’s realised that she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life without companionship, home and family. She doesn’t expect to find a man who will make her heart flutter and her head swoon, but surely she will be able to find someone kind and considerate who will make her a good husband.

After betrothing himself to a suitable young lady who subsequently jilted him, James has decided that when he eventually marries, it will be to a woman he loves wholly and completely.  His parents fell in love at first sight and had a loving and happy marriage, and he wants that for himself – so now he’s determined to wait for the coup de foudre that will turn him inside out and knock him off his feet.

James is taken aback when Caroline announces her intention to marry, but accepts her decision and even offers to help her to polish up her flirting skills.  Of course, we romance devotees know that he’s toast from that moment on, but he has no idea, and is initially shocked to realise that Caroline’s smiles and heartfelt gazes are affecting him in a way he recognises as desire.  He continues in denial until one of his closest friends starts taking a serious interest in Caroline, and she indicates she may well accept his offer of marriage.

The author creates a warm, believable friendship between the couple and does a great job of slowly increasing the sexual tension between them as James starts to become aware of Caroline as a woman rather than just as his friend.   Her longing and desire for him are palpable, but I appreciated the level-headedness of her decision to move forward with her life.  I also liked that James was the one holding out for ‘true love’ – so often, the heroes in historical romance are allergic to relationships, so it was good to read one who isn’t!

Ms. Martin clearly shows, right from the start, that James is every bit as in love with Caroline as she with him and just doesn’t realise it.  I was looking forward to his gradually recognising that love had been under his nose all the way along, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite happen that way.  James recognises that he desires Caroline, and that he actually wants to marry her because they could have a good life together, but when it comes to realising he loves her… he’s not so good there.  It takes an outright statement from Caroline’s mother that the slow-building, slow-burning kind of love is just valid as the lightning strike kind, and later, a direct intervention from a close friend for James to wake up to the fact that he’s in love – and I’m not a fan of the kick-from-the-third-party element in a romance.  I prefer the person concerned to realise it for themselves, and here, I wasn’t convinced that James would ever have worked it out for himself because he was so set on what (he thought) he wanted.

The pacing lags somewhat around the middle and there’s a fair bit of repetition as well. James and Caroline interact, there’s a flare of desire between them, and they part, she knowing he’s something she can never have, he wondering why he’s suddenly feeling attracted to his friend.  And while the author does a reasonably good job of having Caroline behaving (more or less) according to convention (I could sort of turn a blind eye to the fact that she was rarely chaperoned because she was regarded as being on the shelf), I found it odd that there was no mention of possible consequences when James and Caroline finally make it into bed.

Her Best Friend the Duke is an easy, enjoyable read that is sure to appeal to anyone looking for a gently moving friends-to-lovers romance.  Caroline and James are likeable – even though James is a bit dense! – and easy to root for, and the connection between them is very well drawn.  It was a pleasant way to pass a few hours on a sunny afternoon.