The Other Miss Bridgerton (Rokesbys #3) by Julia Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She was in the wrong place…

Fiercely independent and adventurous, Poppy Bridgertonwill only wed a suitor whose keen intellect and interests match her own. Sadly, none of the fools from her London season qualify. While visiting a friend on the Dorset coast, Poppy is pleasantly surprised to discover a smugglers’ hideaway tucked inside a cave. But her delight turns to dismay when two pirates kidnap her and take her aboard a ship, leaving her bound and gagged on the captain’s bed…

He found her at the wrong time…

Known to society as a rascal and reckless privateer, Captain Andrew James Rokesby actually transports essential goods and documents for the British government. Setting sail on a time-sensitive voyage to Portugal, he’s stunned to find a woman waiting for him in his cabin. Surely, his imagination is getting the better of him. But no, she is very real-and his duty to the Crown means he’s stuck with her.

Can two wrongs make the most perfect right?

When Andrew learns that she is a Bridgerton, he knows he will likely have to wed her to avert a scandal-though Poppy has no idea that he is the son of an earl and neighbor to her aristocratic cousins in Kent. On the high seas, their war of words soon gives way to an intoxicating passion. But when Andrew’s secret is revealed, will his declaration of love be enough to capture her heart…?

Rating: B-

The Other Miss Bridgerton is the third instalment in Julia Quinn’s series of novels featuring members of the previous generation of Bridgertons and their neighbours and long-standing family friends the Rokesbys.  In the first book, Because of Miss Bridgerton, Sybilla (Billie) Bridgerton married George Rokseby; in the second, the story focused on the next Rokesby brother, Edward, an officer serving in North America. Andrew is the third brother and, when we met him in the first book, he was on leave from the Navy while he recovered from a broken arm.  Handsome, good-humoured, and well-liked by all, he’s a convivial chap with a sharp mind, a quick wit, and a reputation as the family jokester.

He’s also – unbeknownst to his family – a spy.

Poppy Bridgerton – cousin to Billie and niece of Viscount and Lady Bridgerton – has had two London seasons and has not, so far, found a man she wants to marry.  She’s starting to think she never will; perhaps it’s too much to hope that she will find a man who is interesting to talk to and who can make her laugh.  With the season winding down, Poppy has gone to stay in Dorset with a friend who is expecting her first child, and is enjoying the small freedoms afforded to her away from the eyes of society.  On a ramble along the beach, Poppy stumbles across a cave she’s never seen before and decides to investigate – only to find herself captured by members of the crew of the Infinityand forcibly taken aboard and into the presence of its captain, the devastatingly handsome, charming, witty and completely infuriating Andrew James. (aka Andrew James Edwin Rokesby. Of course).

When Andrew learns Poppy’s last name he’s surprised, to say the least, and also thankful that her being from a different branch of the Bridgerton family means they’ve never met. Time is of the essence if he is to deliver the packet of important documents which he has been tasked to deliver to the British envoy in Portugal, so he has no alternative but to take her along on the two-week return journey to Lisbon.

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

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Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Ruairi Carter

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfill his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life – or his soul.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – A-

Spectred Isle was one of my favourite books of 2017 and I’ve been eagerly looking forward to experiencing it again in audio format. The story is a captivating romantic adventure yarn set in England in 1923, wherein a small group of arcanists and ghost-hunters are England’s last line of defence against supernatural threat. Ms. Charles’ makes wonderful use of folklore, ancient myth and magical rites as she sets about pulling readers and listeners into the world she has created, one in which a war as terrible as the one being fought between 1914 and 1918 by men and machines was fought concurrently by forces of the occult.

The War Beneath, as that war is known amongst those who took part in it, was every bit as savage as the one going on in the trenches of Northern France, possibly moreso, as the opposing governments recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy. With both sides fairly evenly matched, the veil between the supernatural and the human worlds was irrevocably damaged; and with so many of the combatants dead, it now falls to just a handful of men and women to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3) by Joanna Shupe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

With the fate of her disgraced family resting on her shoulders, Lady Christina Barclay has arrived in New York City from London to quickly secure a wealthy husband. But when her parents settle on an intolerable suitor, Christina turns to her reclusive neighbor, a darkly handsome and utterly compelling inventor, for help.

Oliver Hawkes reluctantly agrees to a platonic marriage . . . with his own condition: The marriage must end after one year. Not only does Oliver face challenges that are certain to make life as his wife difficult, but more importantly, he refuses to be distracted from his life’s work–the development of a revolutionary device that could transform thousands of lives, including his own.

Much to his surprise, his bride is more beguiling than he imagined. When temptation burns hot between them, they realize they must overcome their own secrets and doubts, and every effort to undermine their marriage, because one year can never be enough.

Rating: B+

A Notorious Vow is the third book in Joanna Shupe’s The Four Hundred series, and quite possibly my favourite of the three.  In it, the daughter of a debt-ridden peer falls for a reclusive inventor who lost his hearing due to illness at the age of thirteen; it’s a bit trope-y, but the central love story is sensual and romantic as we witness the hero trying to talk himself out of love while the heroine tries to escape the self-doubt and insecurities that plague her as a result of her mother’s continual bullying and criticism.  I don’t think I’ve read a romance that features a deaf hero before; I can’t speak from experience as I’m not hearing impaired and don’t know anyone who is, but the author’s treatment of Oliver’s deafness and his reactions to the things he experienced as a result feel completely plausible and she pulls no punches when it comes to showing how misunderstood the condition was and the prejudice the deaf had to endure at the time the novel is set.

Lady Christina Barclay is viewed as nothing more than a means to an end by her parents, the Earl and Countess of Pennington.  Beautiful, well-mannered and demure, she has been brought up to obey her parents in all things and has been browbeaten by her mother for practically her entire life.  The family has fled to New York amid great scandal, and Christina knows her parents are planning to solve their financial worries by selling her off to the highest bidder. To escape her oppressive thoughts and her mother’s bullying, she spends a few hours every morning walking in the large, empty garden of the house next door, enjoying the peace and quiet for a few hours. She is aware she’s trespassing, but nobody has seen hide nor hair of the house’s owner in years, so it stands to reason she’s unlikely to do so.  Although she’s reckoned without the large dog, who, on this particular morning, bounds up to her and knocks her down, smacking her head against a bench and knocking her out.

Oliver Hawkes lost his hearing at thirteen and although he tried hard to assimilate into the hearing world, he was so often rejected and ridiculed that he eventually stopped trying.

He’d tried to carry on with what gentlemen considered a “normal” life after school. It had resulted in being called “dumb” and “broken” at every turn. Why should he try to fit into a society that so readily dismissed him?

Now aged twenty-nine, he keeps himself to himself, and is working on a device of his own invention that he hopes will eventually help those with hearing difficulties – not the completely deaf, like him – to hear more clearly.  He is very close to applying for a patent, but before he does that, wants to find a way of making certain parts of the device cheaper so its availability will not be limited to the wealthy.  He no longer leaves the house and interacts only with his friend – the doctor, who taught him to sign – and his butler, Gill, who has been with Oliver since childhood. But when he finds an unconscious young woman lying in his garden, he has no alternative but to carry her to the house and send for the doctor.

There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between Christina and Oliver despite the awkwardness of their first meeting.  And although Oliver tells her he doesn’t want her to visit his gardens again, he finds it impossible to be angry with her when, a few days later, he sees that she’s returned. He starts thinking over some of the things she’d said and realises that perhaps she’s unhappy… and discovers, to his surprise, that he wants to make her smile.

Oliver and Christina start spending a few hours together each day; she watches as he tinkers with his invention, he teaches her some basic sign language, and their mutual attraction deepens.  But then the thing Christina has dreaded happens –  she’s told she must marry a man old enough to be her grandfather who makes no bones about the fact that he wants a nubile, biddable young wife to hear him children.  Miserable, she tells Oliver what her parents have planned for her; he is appalled but tells himself he can’t get involved and merely suggests she should show her prospective bridegroom that she’s not as meek and biddable as he’s been led to suppose.  But when, a day or so later, Christina arrives in tears, clearly in acute distress, Oliver is forced to admit to himself that wants to protect her from anyone who would hurt her – and when her parents burst in on them,  they accuse him of compromising her and insist he marries her, having (of course) learned he’s incredibly wealthy beforehand.

Oliver resents the idea of being forced into anything.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about Christina or want to help her – he does, very much – but to be insulted in his own home and then forced to upend his life in a way that will undoubtedly distract him from his experiments … it’s not what he wants or had planned for himself.  But he can’t stand seeing Christina so upset, and he is eventually persuaded (by Christina’s cousin) to agree to the marriage.

The ceremony takes place that very night on the understanding that Christina’s parents are not to contact her afterwards and that as soon as the settlements are drawn up and paid, they will return to England.  Christina is almost unable to believe her sudden change in fortune – instead of marriage to an unpleasant, lecherous old man, she’s married to Oliver, a man she likes and is attracted to.  But Oliver, adamant he doesn’t want to be distracted from his work or to have his life change in any way decides that they should live separate lives, remain married for a year and then divorce (sigh – the let’s-get-married-and-then-get-it-annulled/divorced plotline has been done to death.).

Christina is disappointed and hurt when Oliver explains this to her, but she tries not to show it and determines to show her gratitude by doing exactly as her new husband wants.  Their romance is well-developed, growing out of a friendship that sprang up quickly but which is no less genuine for that.  They talk and laugh about many things, and discover that they’re both rather inclined to a quiet life and aren’t all that interested in the social whirl.  But after they’re married, Oliver spends a lot of time saying one thing and doing another, confusing Christina by giving off mixed-signals.  He tells her they needn’t interact, but then invites her to dine with him.  He sends her off to have dinner with a friend and then changes his mind and turns up at the restaurant – and soon he can’t help but admit to himself that wants Christina, as more than a friend.  Their romance isn’t all hearts and flowers though, and Oliver and Christina have some adjustments to make as they navigate their fledgling marriage.  Christina’s frustration at having her life dictated to her by others is starting to bubble over, and Oliver has to learn to step back and allow her to know what is best for her.  But most importantly, they are holding themselves back – not necessarily from each other, but from truly living their lives; they’ve become accustomed to playing it safe, and it takes an unexpected (and shocking) development to shake both of them out of their somewhat complacent attitudes.

One criticism I’ve made about other novels by this author is that she tends to throw in an eleventh hour suspense plot that is resolved rather too quickly and can feel a bit contrived.  There’s a similar final act drama enacted here, but because of the way it’s foreshadowed throughout the book, it feels more integral to the story, even though it’s resolved quickly and somewhat improbably.  In the grand scheme of things however, it was a minor issue and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel.  A Notorious Vow is a gorgeously romantic, character driven love story featuring a pair of quietly appealing protagonists whose HEA is more than well-deserved.

Better Not Pout by Annabeth Albert

This title may be purchased from Amazon

One hard-nosed military police officer.

One overly enthusiastic elf.

One poorly timed snowstorm.

Is it a recipe for disaster? Or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for holiday romance?

Teddy MacNally loves Christmas and everything that goes along with it. When he plays an elf for his charity’s events, he never expects to be paired with a Scrooge masquerading as Santa Claus. His new mission: make the holiday-hating soldier believe he was born to say ho-ho-ho.

Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki doesn’t do Santa, but he’s army to his blood. When his CO asks an unusual favor, Nick of course obliges. The elf to his Kris Kringle? Tempting. Too tempting—Nick’s only in town for another month, and Teddy’s too young, too cheerful and too nice for a one-night stand.

The slow, sexy make-out sessions while Teddy and Nick are alone and snowbound, though, feel like anything but a quick hookup. As a stress-free holiday fling turns into Christmas all year round, Teddy can’t imagine his life without Nick. And Nick’s days on the base may be coming to a close, but he doesn’t plan on leaving anything, or anyone, behind.

Rating: B+

I’m one of those people who doesn’t start feeling Christmassy until a couple of weeks beforehand.  I hate the fact that the cards and decorations start appearing in the shops at the end of August; I won’t listen to a Christmas song until well into December if I can avoid it, and it’s not time for It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge or The Muppet Christmas Carol until at least the second week of the month. The same holds true for Christmas-themed books; I don’t tend to pick them up until well into December, but I made an exception for Annabeth Albert’s Better Not Pout because the premise sounded so damn cute – a hard-boiled military police officer playing Santa for charity gets stranded in a snowstorm with a too enthusiastic (and too attractive) elf and realises that perhaps his life needn’t be so regimented after all.

Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki has spent twenty-eight years as a military police officer, and now, aged forty-six, is a month short of his retirement.  Truth be told, he doesn’t want to retire – but he isn’t being given the choice.  The military has been his family and his life for the entirety of his adulthood and it suits him.  He likes the structure, he likes the work, the thought that he’s serving his fellow personnel and his country – and the prospect of no longer having all that is a daunting one.  After he leaves the military, he plans to join a friend and former colleague in Florida who now runs a small business chartering boat trips for tourists; it’s pretty clear from the outset that this is unlikely to be a particularly good fit for Nick, but he figures he has to something with the rest of his life – and it might as well be this, right?  He’s made a firm commitment to his friend, and Nick never reneges on his promises; as the clock ticks down to his last weeks and days in the service, he tries to find some enthusiasm for the future…  but his heart just isn’t in it.

He’s in something of a state of limbo as regards his job, too.  It’s his last month on the base at Fort End in upstate New York, but in many ways it seems everyone around him has already moved past his leaving and he feels as though he’s somewhat superfluous to requirements.  So he’s not in the best frame of mind when his commanding officer asks a favour of him.  The local small town of Mineral Springs has a thriving charity centre called the Helping Hand, and her husband usually dons a Santa suit around this time of year to support the drive to generate funds and gifts for families in need.  But he’s unwell and is unable to participate this year – and Nick is asked to take his place.  Nick is far from enthusiastic but doesn’t feel he can say no, so he heads off to the Helping Hand Resource Center – where he is greeted by an extremely chatty and almost sickeningly upbeat young man dressed as an elf, who turns out to be the director of the charity and the centre.

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

Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She was unmarried, untouched, and almost 30, but novelist Amanda Briars wasn’t about to greet her next birthday without making love to a man. When he appeared at her door, she believed he was her gift to herself, hired for one night of passion. Unforgettably handsome, irresistibly virile, he tempted her in ways she never thought possible . . . but something stopped him from completely fulfilling her dream.

Jack Delvin’s determination to possess Amanda became greater when she discovered his true identity. But gently-bred Amanda craved respectability more than she admitted, while Jack, the cast-off son of a nobleman and London’s most notorious businessman, refused to live by society’s rules. Yet when fate conspired for them to marry, their worlds collided with a passionate force neither had expected . . . but both soon craved.

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

I was really pleased to see that some of Lisa Kleypas’ older, previously un-recorded/out of print titles are making their way into audio format, and even moreso when Suddenly You popped up at Audible with Beverley A. Crick as the narrator. (I’m not so pleased that Tantor’s next foray into Ms. Kleypas’ backlist, Someone to Watch Over Me, uses one of the worst narrators I’ve ever heard, but that’s another story!)

Suddenly You was originally published in 2001, and it’s easy to understand why it’s such a firm favourite with many. It’s got a higher steam-quotient than some of the author’s other books dating from this period, but the thing I most enjoyed about it was the way in which the hero is so completely smitten with the heroine from the outset and is wonderfully supportive and encouraging of her throughout.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

To Catch a Rogue (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #4) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible heist. A thief and a rogue. But will she steal his heart, instead?

The Company of Rogues finally knows the identity of the mastermind behind a plot against the queen—but their enemy is still one step ahead of them. When he kidnaps one of theirs, the Rogues plan a daring rescue mission that will lead them into the heart of the bloodthirsty Crimson Court.

It’s a job for a master thief, and there’s nothing Charlie Todd likes more than a challenge. To pull off the impossible, Charlie needs a crew, including the only thief who’s ever been able to outfox him.

He broke her heart. But now she must risk it all to save his life…

Lark’s spent years trying to forget her past, but the one thing she can’t ignore is the way a single smile from Charlie still sets her heart on fire. When he proposes they work together again, it feels just like old times, but she has one rule: this is strictly business.

It’s Charlie’s last chance to prove he can be trusted with her heart. But Lark’s keeping a deadly secret. And as passions are stirred and the stakes mount, it might be the kind of secret that could destroy them all…

Rating: A-

To Catch a Rogue, the fourth book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue-Blood Conspiracy series picks up more or less from where the previous book (You Only Love Twice) left off.  Like its predecessors, it’s a fabulous mixture of action, adventure, suspense and romance that pulled me in from the very first page and kept me utterly enthralled until the very end; I’ve been following the series from the beginning and can honestly say that it’s got better and better with each subsequent book.  One thing though – it’s definitely NOT a standalone, so if you like the sound of it, I’d strongly suggest going back to the beginning and starting with Kiss of Steel – I promise you won’t regret it.

There will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

It’s been two weeks since the Company of Rogues finally uncovered the identity of their deadliest enemy, the person responsible for the plot to overthrow the queen and for unleashing all manner of chaos upon London.  Lord Balfour, former right-hand man to the cruel and evil prince consort was thought to have been killed by the Duke of Malloryn during the revolution which overthrew the ruling Echelon, but he survived and has been engineering his revenge – on the city and on Malloryn.  At the end of You Only Love Twice, the duke was captured by Balfour’s lackeys and at the beginning of To Catch a Rogue, we discover he’s been taken to Russia, where Balfour is masquerading as the consort of the Grand Duchess Feodorevna at the violent and deadly Crimson Court.

The Company of Rogues, the small band of spies, assassins, thieves and bounty-hunters assembled by Malloryn to fight the threat to London and the queen, knows where he has been taken and has put together a plan to get him out.  It’s going to be incredibly dangerous and incredibly difficult; the Crimson Court is deadly, merciless and ruthless and the only protection they will have is the diplomatic immunity afforded them by virtue of the invitation sent to Lord Leo Barrons to attend the celebrations commemorating the tsarina’s coronation.

Charlie Todd – who has been a recurring character through both series – has been working for Malloryn and the CoR for some months and, along with Gemma Townsend, has come up with a rescue plan.  But to pull it off, they’re going to need outside help, someone who has never met a lock they couldn’t pick or a wall they couldn’t scale, and Charlie knows just the person for the job.

Lark Rathinger and Charlie were practically inseparable until, on the night of the revolution, her adoptive father, Tin Man, was killed saving Charlie’s life and Lark herself was so badly injured that she’d have died if Charlie hadn’t acted quickly and infected her with the craving virus that turned her into a rogue blue-blood and saved her life.  Overwhelmed with guilt over Tin Man’s death Charlie left Whitchapel – and Lark – behind, and although they’ve seen each other occasionally since, nothing between them has been the same.  Lark doesn’t blame Charlie for what happened, but she is still angry at him for abandoning her when she needed him the most, and is determined never to let him know that he broke her heart.

When Charlie turns up out of the blue and asks Lark to join the mission to free Malloryn, she is tempted by the thought of working with him again.  They’ve always shared a strong connection, the ability – almost – to read each other’s thoughts, and she recalls the thrill of pulling off the most difficult, risky jobs like a well-oiled machine… but she also recalls that the last time they’d worked together someone she cared for had died.  So she refuses – until she realises that Charlie and the CoR won’t be mounting their rescue mission in England, but in Russia.

I’m not going to say more about the plot, which is multi-layered and brilliantly conceived.  The author creates a pervasive atmosphere of menace from the moment the CoR arrives at the Crimson Court, and there’s the real sense that one false move could lead to disaster (and probably a most unpleasant death).  Two other important storylines are skilfully interwoven with the scheme to rescue Malloryn; one concerning Lark’s hitherto unknown past, which is connected to the Russian court in ways nobody expected, and the other devoted to the romance between Lark and Charlie, something fans of the series have been long awaiting.  This is friends-to-lovers romance at its very best; it’s tender, sensual and gorgeously romantic and there’s never any question that these two people know each other inside out and care deeply for one another in spite of the past hurt and misunderstandings that lies between them.  Lark and Charlie have been in love with one another ever since they were old enough to recognise the feeling for what it was, and their years apart have done nothing to lessen the intensity of the pull between them.   Worried for Charlie’s safety, Lark tries to shut him out and remain aloof, but it’s impossible.  From the moment they’re reunited, the pair resumes the verbal sparring that has characterised their relationship, although now, they’re both aware of the undercurrents of sexual tension and desire that run beneath their banter; and soon, they’re addressing the issues that lie between them and confessing the truth of their feelings for one another.  Even so, Charlie knows Lark is holding something back from him (and it’s a doozy!) but he’s a patient man and hasn’t waited this long to be with her to give up now.

I never come away from a Bec McMaster book feeling as though I liked one of the principals more than the other, or that the hero didn’t deserve the heroine in the end, or vice versa.  Each one of her couples are well-matched in terms of intelligence, understanding and ability, and the relationships she creates are ones of mutual respect and equality.  Charlie and Lark are a case in point; they’re both extremely good at what they do, and they never underestimate each other’s ability to do what has to be done.  They want to keep each other safe, yes, but there’s no overprotective BS and their trust and confidence in each other is wonderful to see.  Lark is a great heroine; she’s gutsy and intelligent but with a hidden vulnerability that makes her more rounded and Charlie… *sigh*… Charlie is simply gorgeous.  Not just to look at (although a six-feet-plus, broad shouldered, blond Adonis is nothing to be sneezed at!), but he’s kind, intuitive and loyal – it’s his belief that Malloryn would come for him were he in trouble that is the driving force behind the rescue mission – and his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve for Lark is swoonworthy:

“I missed you so much I could barely breathe, but I needed the time to work out who I was, and you needed the space to grieve. I missed you. Every day. Every night. Every breath I took.”

To Catch a Rogue is a fast-paced, action-packed, intensely romantic adventure that features a couple of terrific principals, an engaging secondary cast of familiar characters (some of the digs at Byrnes had me laughing out loud), truly menacing bad-guys, and a wonderfully complex and superbly executed plot.  I’m eagerly looking forward to the final book (Dukes are Forever) next year, although I’ll also be sad to bid goodbye to this world and these characters.  The London Steampunk books are dangerously addictive, but when they’re this good, who cares?

Barbarous (The Outcasts #2) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He could be her ruin

Hugh Redvers is supposed to be dead. So the appearance of the sun-bronzed giant with the piratical black eye patch is deeply disturbing to Lady Daphne Davenport. And her instant attraction to the notorious privateer is not only wildly inappropriate for a proper widow but potentially disastrous.Because he is also the man Daphne has secretly cheated of title, lands, and fortune.

She could be his salvation

Daphne Redvers’ distant, untouchable beauty and eminently touchable body are hard enough to resist. But the prim, almost severe, way she looks at him suggests this might be the one woman who can make him forget all the others. His only challenge? Unearthing the enemy who threatens her life . . . and uncovering the secrets in her cool blue eyes.

Rating: B

I thoroughly enjoyed Minvera Spencer’s début novel, Dangerous, and have been looking forward to its follow-up Barbarous, which features the dashing privateer Hugh Redvers, who played an important secondary role in the earlier novel.  I was engaged by the author’s sophisticated, witty writing, and her ability to create rounded and engaging characters who acted and spoke like adults rather than brattish teenagers; her prose and dialogue were definitely above average, and in some cases, well above it, and I was keen to read more of her work.

This second book in her The Outcasts series is somewhat different in tone to the first, and feels more like a traditional historical romance than the first one.  Hugh Redvers, Baron Ramsay and nephew of the Earl of Davenport, has been believed dead for almost twenty years, so his sudden reappearance at his (now deceased) uncle’s Sussex home comes as something of a shock to its mistress.  Banished by the earl because of his disgraceful behaviour, twenty-year-old Hugh left England and was captured by Barbary corsairs off the Gibraltar coast. Sold to the Sultan of Oran, he endured years of suffering and violence before, years later, he engineered his escape and became One-Eyed Standish, captain of the Batavia’s Ghost, King’s Privateer and scourge of the high-seas.  He’s finally returned to England in response to a summons from his oldest friend, who has received letters threatening the lives of the late earl’s widow Daphne and her twin sons, Lucien – the young earl – and Richard.  Hugh arrives at an opportune time; Daphne has just bloodied the nose of her smarmy cousin Malcolm Hastings who is attempting to force her into marriage (and force himself on her).  Seeing her dishevelled state, Hugh quickly draws the boys away and plays with them while she tidies herself and then resumes the picnic they’d originally intended to have.  She’s cool, composed and doesn’t freak out, which I really liked about her.

After Daphne gets over the shock of Hugh’s return she realises she’s got bigger problems than the fact that she’s as hopelessly infatuated with him as she was when she was a ten-year-old girl mooning over her handsome neighbour.  We learn early on that she was raped when she was just seventeen (by the aforementioned smarmy cousin), and that she was left pregnant as a result.  The Earl of Davenport – her mother’s oldest friend – although some fifty years Daphne’s senior, came to her rescue, married her (although they never lived as man and wife) and acknowledged the boys as his when they were born.  But now Hugh has returned, Daphne believes she has deprived him of what is rightfully his (the earldom), and feels dreadfully guilty about it.  Her intense attraction to him only makes things worse; she longs to spend time with him and, being honest with herself, to experience passion and the pleasure she’s sure he is capable of giving her; but knows she has to make plans to leave Lessing Hall as soon as she’s confessed the truth, as Lucien will no longer have any claim to it.

I have to take a quick tangential detour here, because this plot point bugged the hell outta me.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the laws of inheritance in the 19th century, but my understanding is that at this period, a child born to parents who were married at the time of his or her birth was legitimate, regardless of whether the woman’s husband actually provided the sperm.  This means that Lucien is – perfectly legally – the Earl of Davenport.  Would it cause gossip and scandal if there were rumours about Lucien’s true parentage?  Undoubtedly.  But would it make any actual difference to who held the title?  Unlikely.

The problem, then, is that this makes a large part of the plot redundant.  Daphne spends over half the book genuinely intending to tell Hugh the truth and finding reasons to put it off – but other than the fact that she feels terribly guilty, her fessing up wouldn’t actually change anything.

Anyway.

Hugh is a terrific hero.  He’s handsome, funny, sexy and larger-than-life (as well as larger than pretty much everyone else around him!), but he’s also kind, honourable and thoughtful, qualities which show in his every interaction with Daphne’s sons as well as those with Daphne herself, and I loved that he was so self-aware and prepared to let himself show his softer side when it came to Daphne and the boys.  He’s coming up on forty, and is finding his swashbuckling life on the high seas has palled somewhat; having a girl in every port was great for many years, but now, he wants more than just a warm body, he wants a companion, a woman he can enjoy out of bed as well as in it.  The attraction between him and Daphne sparks and crackles, and while the ‘inexperienced widow’ figure is perhaps a little cliché, the author develops their relationship very well.  Daphne gives as good as she gets when it comes to their verbal sparring, and Hugh has a major weakness for women who appear immune to his charm; he’s used to women throwing themselves at him, so having Daphne view him as a mere inconvenience only adds fuel to the fire on his part.

While I liked both principals and found their romance well-done, I had a couple of other issues with the story as a whole which prevent me from giving it a higher grade.  Firstly, there’s the blackmail/kidnap plotline towards the end, in which Daphne has a bit of a personality transplant and the villains are barely two-dimensional.  And then there’s the way the author deals with Daphne’s assault and her memories of it.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it struck me that Ms. Spencer wanted to have her cake and eat it; to provide a reason for Daphne to have to marry the earl and eventually lead to all that guilt at stealing Hugh’s birthright, but make it so that it wouldn’t affect her desire for Hugh or her ability to have sex with him, and I found it rather jarring.

Having said all this, I did enjoy Barbarous, although I wasn’t quite as pulled in to it as I was by Dangerous.  I found myself wondering if this book had been written before Dangerous, as there’s a pivotal scene in which Mia appears which obviously takes place before the events of that book.  I also felt Barbarous was a little less … polished is the only word I can come up with, not so much in terms of the writing and characterisation, but definitely in the case of the plot.  I may well be completely off the mark – it’s just a hunch.

Even with my reservations, I’m going to give Barbarous a cautious recommendation, because the romance is well done and Hugh is a hero to die for.  The plotline is definitely wobbly, but I know I’m extra-picky about accuracy and that there are many for whom something like that will not be an issue.  The writing is a cut above average, the characters are engaging – and the scarcity of decent historical romances this year means that even a flawed one by a talented author is worth checking out.


[One last thing – Ms. Spencer does address the fact that a marriage between an aunt and nephew – even though Hugh and Daphne are not related by blood – was forbidden by church law, even though it wasn’t illegal under the laws of the land. ]