And Then He Kissed Her (Girl Bachelors #1) by Laura Lee Guhrke (audiobook) – Narrated by Zara Hampton-Brown

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Supremely sensible Emmaline Dove wishes to share her etiquette expertise with London’s readers, and as secretary to Viscount Marlowe, Emma knows she’s in the perfect position to make her dream come true. Marlowe might be a rake with a preference for can-can dancers and an aversion to matrimony, but he is also the city’s leading publisher, and Emma is convinced he’s her best chance to see her work in print…until she discovers the lying scoundrel has been rejecting her manuscripts without ever reading a single page!

As a publisher, Harry finds reading etiquette books akin to slow, painful torture. Besides, he can’t believe his proper secretary has the passion to write anything worth reading. Then she has the nerve to call him a liar, and even resigns without notice, leaving his business in an uproar and his honor in question. Harry decides it’s time to teach Miss Dove a few things that aren’t proper. But when he kisses her, he discovers that his former secretary has more passion and fire than he’d ever imagined, for one luscious taste of her lips only leaves him hungry for more.

Rating: Narration- B; Content – B

And Then He Kissed Her, book one in Laura Lee Guhrke’s Girl Bachelors series, is one of those books that’s often cited as a favourite by historical romance fans. Originally published in 2007, this is the first time it’s been available in audio, and it’s good to see some old favourites finally making it into the format.

Set in the late Victorian era, And Then he Kissed Her tells the story of the romance between Harry, Viscount Marlowe – who, although an aristocrat, works for a living and owns a successful publishing house – and Miss Emmaline Dove (Emma), who has been his secretary for five years but is certainly not desperately in love with him and, knowing him to be a rake of the first order, is glad not to be so. When the book opens, Emma is being forced to listen to a ‘woe is me’ speech from Marlowe’s latest mistress – to whom he has just given her congé – and has no patience with any of it, relieved (sort of) that she’s not at all the sort of woman who would attract the attention of a such a man. Aged thirty, Emma has kind of accepted she’s likely to remain a confirmed spinster, and in any case, her ambitions lie in a different direction. She hopes one day to become a published author, and has in fact written a number of books on etiquette for young women; she has not so far been able to persuade Marlowe to publish any of them, but continues to write, undaunted.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Lilian and the Irreststible Duke (Secrets of a Victorian Household #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reunion in Rome…

Sparks an affair to remember!

Part of Secrets of a Victorian Household. Responsible widow Lilian Fairclough is persuaded to travel to Rome for a hard-earned break and to let down her hair! She’s surprised to be reunited with passionate, cynical Italian duke, Pietro Venturi. He reawakens her sensual side and intrigues her with glimpses of pain beneath his rakish surface. Enticed into a secret and temporary affair – what will happen once she returns home?

Rating: B

Virginia Heath’s Lilian and the Irresistible Duke is the final book in the multi-author Secrets of a Victorian Household series – a fact I didn’t realise until I read the author’s notes after I’d finished, so I can honestly say that it works perfectly well as a standalone!  I’m a big fan of the author’s work, so I don’t need much – if any – persuading to read one of her books, but the fact that this one is about a more mature couple (the hero is forty-eight, the heroine forty-five) was a definite draw.  That said, while there were things about the book I really liked, it won’t be joining other titles by this author on my keeper shelf.  I found the first half a bit repetitive and I very much disliked the ‘black moment’ in the second half.  I know there had to be one, but it didn’t work for me.

The eponymous Lilian, a mother of three (hero and heroines of the other books in the series) lost her husband Henry to illness around a decade earlier.  She loved him very much and had a fulfilling – if not always easy – life as wife, mother and helpmeet, assisting him with the running of the charitable foundation he set up to help those less fortunate. Working at Henry’s side and bringing up their children was a full-time occupation and one Lilian found personally fulfilling; but now her children are grown and married, she’s suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’ and isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life.  She’s begun to realise that, in working so hard for the Foundation, she’d allowed Henry’s passion to overtake hers; that she’d lost sight of her own interests, hopes and dreams.  So now that her children are all settled, she allows herself to be persuaded to take a holiday in the one place in the world she’s always longed to visit – Rome.

Lilian and her cousin Alexandra, who has accompanied her on the trip, are to stay at the home of one of Alexandra’s friends, Carlotta, the Contessa di Bagnoregio, and Lilian is just getting settled in when she almost literally runs into a man she’d never thought to meet again.  Several months before, at a Christmas party, Lilian had met Pietro Venturi, Duca della Torizia, who was visiting London at the time.  Late that night in a darkened carriage, Lilian had allowed herself to be thoroughly kissed by the handsome Italian, his kiss stirring up so many feelings that she’d thought long buried with Henry, and starting to unfurl something long dormant inside her.  Not just desire… a growing sense of self and a spirit of adventure, perhaps?

Pietro is just as surprised to see Lilian, and at first jumps to completely the wrong conclusion about her presence, saying some rather rude and crass things to her.  But he quickly realises his mistake, and takes care to apologise; and during the course of their conversation, they agree to put the kiss they’d shared behind them and to go on as friends.

Even so, both of them are fully aware of the strong mutual attraction thrumming between them.  Still, they try to adhere to their agreement as they start to spend part of each day together, Pietro escorting Lilian to see the city’s many artistic treasures.  He finds himself enjoying her enthusiasm for art and her insight, her refreshing way of seeing the paintings, frescoes and sculptures which are so familiar to him, and it isn’t long before they are unable to deny the desire they feel for one another.  They embark on a passionate affair which, at Lilian’s insistence, will be over and done when she leaves, although of course, both of them soon recognise that whatever is going on between them goes far deeper than the merely physical.  For Pietro, this is a disaster; he doesn’t want to have feelings for Lilian – for anyone – and he tries to convince himself that she’s no more to him than any of his other lovers.

I really liked Lilian. She’s sensible and down-to-earth, but not closed off to new experiences and I loved the way the author shows her growing awareness of herself as an independent person and as a woman, one with needs and desires she’s suppressed for a long time.  I liked Pietro, too – he’s handsome, charming and romantic in a very gentlemanly (and sexy) way – but his backstory is perhaps a bit stereotypical; he married young – his bride chosen for him by his father – and the marriage was obviously unhappy.  It’s clear to Lilian that he’s hiding something painful about it, but he refuses to enlighten her further, saying only that he has no wish to become emotionally involved with anyone.  Ever.  Not wanting another wife, he instead conducts highly discreet affairs with women who know the score; that their relationship is physical only and there is nothing more on offer.  Unfortunately, this fact comes back to bite him squarely on the arse later in the story – and although I can’t say much without spoilers, I will say that Lilian’s reaction to an overheard conversation felt very out of character, given the way the author has established her as a straightforward, pragmatic character who isn’t interested in playing emotional games.  I get that she was hurt and that perhaps her pride was bruised, but it still seemed like a massive over-reaction, and it happened so quickly, it’s a wonder I’m not suffering from whiplash.

In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the plot – and the fact that the epilogue is over-long (if you’ve read the other books in the series, it might work better for you, but I had no investment in any of the other characters) – there’s a lot to like about Lilian and the Irresistible Duke. It’s a ‘grown up’ romance between two people who have a wealth of life experience under their belts, the sex scenes are well-written – without lengthy mental-lusting, slick thighs or twitching appendages – and I really appreciated Lilian’s re-claiming of her self and the way she comes to realise she has a life of her own to lead.  It might not be my favourite of the author’s books, but is nonetheless head and shoulders above much of the historical romance currently on offer.

 

A Convenient Fiction (Parish Orphans of Devon #3) by Mimi Matthews (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She Needed a Husband…. It’s been three years since Laura Hayes’ father died, leaving her and her invalid brother to subsist on the income from the family’s failing perfume business. But time is swiftly running out. What she needs is a husband, and fast. A noble gentleman who can rescue them all from penury. When a mysterious stranger arrives in the village, he seems a perfect candidate. But Alex Archer is no hero. In fact, he just might be the opposite. He Wanted a Fortune…. Alex has no tolerance for sentiment. He’s returned to England for one reason only: to find a wealthy wife. A country-bred heiress in Surrey seems the perfect target. But somewhere between the village railway station and the manor house his mercenary plan begins to unravel. And it’s all the fault of Laura Hayes – a lady as unsuitable as she is enchanting. From the beaches of Margate to the lavender fields of Provence, a grudging friendship slowly blossoms into something more. But when scandal threatens, can a man who has spent his entire life playing the villain finally become a hero? Or will the lure of easy riches once again outweigh the demands of his heart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

A Convenient Fiction is book three in Mimi Matthews’ Parish Orphans of Devon series, and the first of the set I’ve listened to (I read the first book, A Matrimonial Advertisement), and I confess I picked it up for review principally because Alex Wyndham is the narrator (the earlier books in the series were narrated by someone I don’t care to listen to). The author has a reputation as someone who pays attention to historical detail and accuracy in her novels, and her characters speak and behave in a way that is very period-appropriate – which isn’t something I can say about a lot of the historical romances published recently. Her writing is smooth and engaging and she has the knack for creating nicely simmering romantic chemistry between her protagonists – but if you’re someone who likes a bit of on-page action between the sheets in your romances, then you won’t find that here, as Ms. Matthews closes the bedroom door very firmly once the characters make it that far!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Princess Plan (Royal Weddings #1) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London’s high society loves nothing more than a scandal. And when the personal secretary of the visiting Prince Sebastian of Alucia is found murdered, it’s all anyone can talk about, including Eliza Tricklebank. Her unapologetic gossip gazette has benefited from an anonymous tip off about the crime, forcing Sebastian to ask for her help in his quest to find his friend’s killer.

With a trade deal on the line and mounting pressure to secure a noble bride, there’s nothing more dangerous than a prince socialising with a commoner. Sebastian finds Eliza’s contrary manner as frustrating as it is seductive, but they’ll have to work together if they’re going to catch the culprit. And soon, as temptation becomes harder to ignore, it’s the prince who’ll have to decide what comes first—his country or his heart.

Rating: D+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Julia London’s books in the past, so I thought I’d give her latest title a try.  The Princess Plan is billed as a mixture of mystery and romance, in which a visiting prince teams up with a lively spinster to solve a murder and falls in love along the way.  It seemed as though it might be an enjoyable romp, but sadly wasn’t.  The mystery wasn’t mysterious, the romantic development was non-existent, it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t a romp.  Unless you define a romp as pages of inane chatter and un-funny attempts at banter that seem to exist only as a way of padding out the page count.

Miss Eliza Tricklebank is twenty-eight years of age, and a spinster who keeps house for her father, a Justice of the Queen’s Bench (who has recently lost his sight) and mends clocks to earn a little something on the side.  Her sister Hollis is a widow who inherited a publishing business from her late husband and now publishes Honeycutt’s Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies, and her best friend Lady Caroline Hawke is a debutante (well, she’s described as such, but if she’s the same age as Hollis or Eliza then she’s quite an elderly debutante!), and together the three of them spend lots of time chattering about nothing in particular while also deciding what to put in the next edition of the Gazette.  Under discussion when the book opens, is the visit to London by a delegation from the small (fictional) country of Alucia, in London in order to negotiate a new trade agreement at the behest of its crown prince, who is rumoured to be in search of a bride.

Caroline – who, we’re told, knows everybody in London – is able to secure invitations to the masked ball held in honour of the visit for herself and her friends, and it’s here that Eliza, quietly getting tipsy on the rum punch, makes the acquaintance of a gentleman she later realises is none other than Crown Prince Sebastian.

You’re shocked, I can tell.

Flirting and silliness ensure until Sebastian has to go to put in an appearance at the meet and greet portion of the evening, after which he finds himself a woman for the night.  This means Sebastian never does go to meet with his secretary and dear friend Matous, who had told him he needed to see him as a matter of urgency.

And who turns up dead the next morning, his throat cut.

Of course the proper authorities are informed, but Sebastian isn’t impressed with the way they seem to be handling things and decides to investigate the matter himself, much to the displeasure of his brother and the rest of his staff.  And when, a day or so later, an accusation is levelled against a member of the delegation – printed in a lady’s gazette – Sebastian is furious and demands to speak with the author of such unsubstantiated rubbish.

Thus do Eliza and Sebastian find themselves investigating the murder, but the mystery – and I use the term very loosely – is so incredibly weak that it’s impossible to invest in, and the identity of the villain(s) is telegraphed early on, so it’s obvious to everyone – except Sebastian it seems, who thus comes across as really dim.  And when the mystery is solved, the reader is not present when the full extent of the plot is revealed and is merely told about it afterwards.

The romantic relationship is equally lacklustre.  There’s no emotional connection between Sebastian and Eliza, no build-up to their first kiss and absolutely no chemistry between them.  The conflict in their romance is, of course, that Sebastian is royalty and Eliza is a commoner and thus ineligible to become his wife; plus he needs to marry a woman with pedigree and connections – and Eliza has neither.  The solution to this dilemma is ridiculously convoluted and, unless corrections have been made to the ARC I read, doesn’t work.  Sebastian’s solution is to find a way to make Eliza’s father a Baron, which will make her a Lady and thus an eligible bride.  Er… no. The daughter of a Baron is not a Lady, she’s still a Miss (a Right Honourable). To be a Lady, Eliza’s father would have had to have been made an Earl at least.  Seriously, this information is available widely on the internet and it took me ten seconds to find it.

Eliza is obviously meant to be one of those ‘breath of fresh air’, quirky heroines who doesn’t abide by the rules.  She points out, for instance, that while other young ladies must be accompanied by a maid when they go out, she goes wherever she likes on her own; she stood in the middle of London without fanfare all the time. Conversely, Sebastian is hemmed in by all sorts of rules and restrictions that accompany his position – he frequently bemoans the fact that he cannot go out alone, that he has very little privacy and so on and so on… so I had to wonder why free-spirited Eliza – who sees first hand just how restricted Sebastian’s life is – would want to subject herself to the same constraints.  And Sebastian is… well, I finished the book less than an hour ago, and I can’t remember much about him at all.

The Princess Plan doesn’t work as a mystery or a romance, and the plot –such as it is – is not substantial enough to fill a full-length novel.  The characters are unmemorable, the pacing is sluggish and quite honestly, I was bored.  As an alternative to The Princess Plan, might I suggest The Watching Paint Dry Plan, or The Watching Grass Grow Plan, either of which might afford a similar level of entertainment.

Gilded Cage (Lilywhite Boys #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles proves – once again – that she’s at the top of her game with Gilded Cage (the sequel to her late-Victorian-jewel-thief-caper Any Old Diamonds), which combines an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s poignant and it’s brilliantly observed, featuring wonderfully written, flawed characters who leap off the page, a villain worthy of all the boos and hisses and a high-stakes plot.

When jewel thief and one half of the Lilywhite Boys, Templeton Lane, encountered enquiry agent Susan Lazarus in Any Old Diamonds, it was clear there was a shared history between them – and that it wasn’t one that either of them remembered with fondness.  In Gilded Cage, readers learn the truth of that history – a story of young love gone badly wrong – after Templeton is accused of a double murder and Susan is the only person he feels he can turn to for help.

Against the advice of his associate Jerry Crozier – whom Templeton believes has lost his nerve since he fell in love – Templeton decides to go alone to a house in Mortlake in order to steal a set of highly valuable opals.  Things are going as planned until he enters the bedroom where the safe is located and discovers the house’s owner lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  When a terrified servant wakes the rest of the house, Templeton gets out (not before grabbing the jewels though!), evading his pursuers by swimming across the Thames (risky in the cold and dark) and then makes his way to the East End shop belonging to their regular fence, Stan, where he finds Jerry waiting for him.  Both are furious with Templeton for being so careless, not just of his personal safety, but of theirs, too, and tell him that he needs to get out of the country fast or face the hangman’s noose.  Angry and hurt at what he sees as a betrayal – although he does grudgingly admit to having cocked up big time – and unable to leave England owing to an increased police presence at the ports, Templeton needs to clear his name, which is how he ends up seeking out Susan Lazarus and hoping she won’t turn him in herself before he’s had a chance to explain.

What follows is part second chance romance part murder mystery in which the two leads are finally able to talk about their shared past while also gaining a new appreciation for and understanding of each other and who they are now.  Susan is a wonderful heroine.  Fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, perceptive and loyal with just a hint of vulnerability she keeps well hidden, she’s not thrilled about seeing the man who broke her heart seventeen years earlier, but also knows that whatever else he is, he’s not a murderer and agrees to help him prove his innocence by finding the true culprit. And although Templeton comes across as a bit of a git to start with – his temper-tantrum over what he sees as Jerry’s ‘defection’ and new-found happiness causes Templeton to make very poor decisions and behave like a petulant kid – he is gradually revealed to be a decent, thoughtful man, his obvious respect for Susan, his acceptance of her bisexuality, and his being prepared to follow her lead (both in the investigation and in their personal interactions) more than making up for his earlier poor judgment and selfishness.

Their relationship is superbly done, the chemistry sizzles and I loved watching them talk through the issues that lie between them and find their way back to each other.  The dialogue – laced with wit and very astute social observation – sparkles, and the plot very cleverly weaves together the threads of past and present to create an immensely satisfying three-dimensional story that has fun poking fun at and playing around with genre tropes.

As is always the case with this author, the writing is superb, the characters are fully-rounded, flawed individuals, and the whole novel is permeated by a wonderful sense of time and place.  Most impressive of all is Susan, a woman who faces the same challenges and restrictions faced by all women at the time (late 19th century) with regard to personal freedom and independence, but who is nonetheless forging her own path as best she can, and the HEA is both original and perfectly in character as well as being thoroughly satisfying.  My one criticism of the story is that because most of the investigation takes place off-page, the sense of urgency – Templeton stands to hang if found guilty, after all – isn’t quite as strong as it should have been.

Although the book works perfectly well as a standalone, there are some lovely shout-outs to both the Sins of the Cities and the Society of Gentlemen; Templeton Lane is really James Vane, whose Great Uncle was Richard Vane –  the mention of the slender, elderly man who taught Templeton the art of silent footsteps was just lovely! – and we get a little peek into the home life of Susan’s ‘guvnors’, Nathaniel Roy and Justin Lazarus, who is clearly as much of a shifty bastard as he ever was.

Gilded Cage is a fantastic read and one no fan of historical romance should miss.  K.J. Charles is one of the very few writers in the genre who really understands it, and given the current deplorable state of HR in general, a true gem like this is not to be missed.

 

The Duchess in His Bed (Sins for All Seasons #4) by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For a duchess with practical desires, falling in love is an inconceivable part of her plan…

As owner of the Elysium Club which caters to women’s fantasies, Aiden Trewlove is accustomed to introducing adventurous ladies to sin and vice. But he is uncharacteristically intrigued by the mysterious beauty who visits his club one night, yearning to indulge in the forbidden – with him. Drawn to her indomitable spirit, he breaks his rule of never becoming personally involved with his clientele and is determined to fully awaken her desires.

A recent widow, Selena Sheffield, Duchess of Lushing, has never known passion, not until Aiden’s slow, sensual seduction leads her on a journey of discovery and incredible pleasure. But her reasons for visiting the notorious club are not all that they seem.

As Selena’s motives become complicated by love, she finds herself with a most unexpected choice: forge ahead with a secret plan that could secure her future – or follow her heart which could prove ruinous.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: C+

I’ve said before that I’m a fan of Lorraine Heath’s and it’s no secret that Kate Reading is one of my all-time favourite narrators. But The Duchess in His Bed, book four in the Sins for All Seasons series was a real slog and I had difficulty getting through it. The plot is fairly simple, albeit one that presented certain ethical dilemmas, but there was so much padding that I zoned out for periods of time, and found that so little had happened during those periods that I didn’t need to rewind to catch up with what was going on.

Her Grace, Selena, Duchess of Lushing, has been recently widowed. Hers was an arranged marriage, but her husband was a good man and while she wasn’t in love with him, she did love him and is genuinely grieving for him. Or she would be, if she had the time to grieve, but she doesn’t, due to another pressing concern. She and Lushing have no children and he came from a family that was not only short-lived, but also not prolific when it came to procreation. Thus, there are no male heirs to his title or the wealth that goes with it and everything will pass to the crown, leaving Selena with a comfortable income, but not one comfortable enough to enable her to ensure her sisters make good matches. Her brother, the Earl of Camberley, spends most of his time and money gaming and living the high life, despite the parlous state of the family finances, so there will be no help for her sisters coming from that quarter. But Camberley comes up with an incredibly risky plan. If Selena can bear a child within ten months of her husband’s death, he or she will be recognised as Lushing’s legitimate heir. If the baby is a boy, he’ll become the next duke, it it’s a girl, the title will pass into escheat, but the entailment is constructed in such a way as to allow a female to inherit the wealth and lands of the dukedom and will thus retain an elevated position in society.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Love a Duke in Ten Days (The Devil You Know #1) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Famed and brilliant, Lady Alexandra Lane has always known how to look out for to herself. But nobody would ever expect that she has darkness in her past – one that she pays a blackmailer to keep buried. Now, with her family nearing bankruptcy, Alexandra strikes upon a solution: Get married to one of the empire’s most wealthy eligible bachelors. Even if he does have the reputation of a devil.

Love takes no prisoners.

Piers Gedrick Atherton, the Duke of Redmayne, is seeking revenge and the first step is securing a bride. Winning a lady’s hand is not so easy, however, for a man known as the Terror of Torcliff. Then, Alexandra enters his life like a bolt of lightning. When she proposes marriage, Piers knows that, like him, trouble haunts her footsteps. But her gentleness, sharp wit, independent nature, and incredible beauty awakens every fierce desire within him. He will do whatever it takes to keep her safe in his arms.

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B

The first thing I’m going to say about How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, the first book in Kerrigan Byrne’s new Devil You Know series is this: don’t let the cutesy title fool you. Unlike most of the romances out there with dumb movie or song rip-off titles, this isn’t a light-hearted, fluffy historical rom-com. Ms. Byrne has become known for writing fairly dark stories featuring damaged characters with troubled pasts, filled with purple-tinged prose and melodrama, and this is no different. The book opens with what’s become one of the author’s trademarks – an impactful yet disturbing prologue set some years in the past that details a traumatic event in the life of one of the leads. In this case, there’s a scene of sexual assault and murder, and listeners should be aware that the assault and its effects on the heroine in terms of how she views men and relationships are mentioned throughout. And while it’s possible to avoid listening to the event itself, skipping the prologue in its entirety will mean missing out on meeting Alexandra’s friends (and future heroines) and the events that bind them together.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.