A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.

A Rogue of One’s Own (League of Extraordinary Women #2) by Evie Dunmore

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A lady must have money and an army of her own if she is to win a revolution – but first, she must pit her wits against the wiles of an irresistible rogue bent on wrecking her plans . . . and her heart.

Lady Lucie and her band of Oxford suffragists are finally prepared for a coup against Parliament. But who could have predicted that the one person standing between her and success is her old nemesis and London’s undisputed lord of sin, Lord Ballentine? Or that he would be willing to hand over the reins for an outrageous price – a night in her bed.

Lucie tempts Tristan like no other woman, burning him up with her fierceness and determination every time they clash. But as their battle of wills and words fans the flames of long-smouldering devotion, the silver-tongued seducer runs the risk of becoming caught in his own snare.

As Lucie tries to outmanoeuvre Tristan in the boardroom and the bedchamber, she soon discovers there’s truth in what the poets say: all is fair in love and war . . .

Rating: B+

Evie Dunmore emerged onto the historical romance scene last year with Bringing Down the Duke, a tightly written, strongly characterised story which clearly marked the appearance of a fresh voice in the genre.  So – with that runaway success under her belt, the question fans of the genre were asking was ‘can she do it again or was that a flash in the pan?’  Well, I’m here to tell you that she clearly can do it again, because in A Rogue of One’s Own, she once more tells a thoroughly entertaining story featuring compelling characters and a sensual romance that is very firmly anchored in its late Victorian setting, while also delivering a feminist message in a way that is properly entrenched within the fabric of the story and faithful to the character of the heroine.

Lady Lucie Tedbury, a leader of the British suffragist movement, was disowned by her family a decade earlier for publicly espousing her radical beliefs. She now lives in what can best be described as genteel poverty in Oxford, where she and her friends meet regularly to discuss and organise their activities on behalf of the sufrragist cause.  Their current focus is lobbying Parliament to abolish or amend the Married Woman’s Property Act, and they are on the verge of purchasing half of the shares in publishing house London Print, with a view to publishing their report attacking the Act in its periodicals.  But a few days later, Lucie is horrified to learn that the other fifty percent have just been purchased by Tristan Ballantine, heir to the Earl of Rochester, a notorious libertine who was the bane of her childhood existence.

This is a major setback. Tristan is never going to agree to publish the report, which means all the time and effort spent collecting their data will be wasted.  But Lucie has never been one to give up without a fight and asks Tristan what it will take for him to sell her another one percent of the shares to give her a controlling interest in the company.  Tristan’s price?  A night in her bed. Or his.  He’s not fussed.

Tristan, a second son, never expected to inherit his father’s title.  The Earl of Rochester is a cruel man who insisted on absolute obedience and did his best to beat anything he regarded as not masculine out of his younger son.  Tristan went into the army and served in India, where he earned the Victoria Cross, but the death of his older brother means Tristan is now heir to the Rochester earldom, and his father is determined to make Tristan do his duty to the title by getting married and begetting an heir.  Tristan has no wish to do any such thing, but the earl – who can no longer beat him into submission – has found other ways to control his wayward son over the years, and anticipating his refusal, says that if Tristan doesn’t do as he’s told, then he will arrange for the Countess – who, by the sound of it is what we’d call bi-polar – to be put into an asylum.

Tristan is no longer fully financially dependent on his father, but his plan to get his mother away to safety – perhaps to India – needs funds, which is where London Print comes in.  Years earlier, Tristan anonymously authored a collection of romantic poetry which proved very popular; he now plans to republish it with his name attached, knowing that his reputation as a war hero and London’s most notorious rogue means it will sell in large numbers and provide the money he needs.

Both Lucie and Tristan are extremely well-drawn, complex characters who have upsetting and painful circumstances in their pasts and are trying hard to do what they think is right in their presents.  They’re easy to like and root for, and although Tristan does come across as a bit of a cold bastard to start with, Ms. Dunmore does a brilliant job of showing the reader that a thoughtful, sensitive and damaged man lies beneath the outwardly heartless philanderer, and revealing why the boy who liked to read rather than shoot, and to take care of animals rather than hunt them grew a tough outer shell and cultivated a reputation as a callous womaniser and corrupter of youth.

It’s clear that Tristan has long been carrying a torch for Lucie, but typical of the emotionally-stunted male, he metaphorically pulled her pigtails (and even dyed them once!) to hide the fact that he was sweet on her when they were younger.  Lucie has no interest in giving up the little freedom she has by getting married and has dedicated herself to the suffragist cause, but her disinterest in marriage doesn’t – to her dismay – mean that she isn’t interested in men, or at least, in one man in particular.  The chemistry between the pair crackles right from the start as they embark upon a battle of wills, and things heat up even more.  Tristan knows what a woman’s desire looks like; Lucie is horrified at herself for being so strongly attracted to him, and the confusion that afflicts her is very well depicted – how can she desire a man while despising him? But she is also surprised as she starts to discover the real man beneath the veneer, a well-educated, well-read man with an artistic soul and a willingness to listen and understand.

I was impressed with the way the author incorporates the feminist message in this book.  Lucies’s thoughts and feelings are incredibly well articulated and never come across as preachy or mere lip-service,  but as essential truths:

“A man’s lack of voice is connected to his lack of property… A woman’s lack of voice is forever connected to the fact that she is a woman. “

Anyone who knows anything about the period will know that women had few (if any rights) and that the few that were eventually won took a lot of continual, hard work by many.  (And that while many things have changed in the last 150 years, there are still many that have not).  And while Lucie is outspoken and prepared to stand up for what she believes in she also recognises the need to operate within the limits of the society in which she’s living.  She may be tough and determined, but there’s a vulnerable side to her she strives never to reveal, but which readers are allowed to glimpse as she wrestles with her conscience over her ability to continue to dedicate herself to her work should she become involved with Tristan.

Kudos to her, too, for incorporating a bisexual hero into a mainstream historical romance.  It’s not stated overtly, but it’s fairly clear that Tristan has had relationships with men as well as women (he even gets to flirt with Oscar Wilde at one point!), although this aspect of his character isn’t explored in any detail.

Electric chemistry, an intense attraction and a growing tenderness and understanding – the romance in this book works superbly on pretty much every level, although towards the end I started to feel as though Lucie was so overwhelmed by all the work she was undertaking and all the different directions she was being pulled in that she would never have time for a romantic partner in her life – and that impression, unfortunately, remained with me until the end.  It’s one of the reasons this book didn’t quite reach DIK status.  Another is that while it ends in what is probably the only way it could have ended and remained true to Lucie’s character, it’s a bit too pat and easy;  for Tristan and Lucie to do what they do is pretty risky, especially given that discovery could pose a real threat to Lucie’s ability to continue her work.

And then there’s this:

Spoiler

Near the end, Lucie learns something unpleasant and slaps Tristan on the face with no provocation other than a misunderstanding and her own anger.  Violence never solves anything, and a character who resorts to it for no reason other than temper immediately loses some of my respect.  It’s not acceptable, and had the situation been reversed, the book would probably never have been published.

Overall however, A Rogue of One’s Own is a terrific read, a sensual, insightful and wonderfully poignant love story featuring a well-matched central couple whose HEA is hard-won and thoroughly deserved.  The last couple of chapters left me feeling a teeny bit deflated, but not enough to give the book anything other than a strong recommendation.

TBR Challenge: Delicious by Sherry Thomas


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He has risen from the gutters to become a powerful man–London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand in the House of Commons. She is a woman who spends her days in the kitchen. A chance encounter changes both their lives, but she disappears at dawn, leaving behind no name, no address, and only a pair of muddy galoshes.

Ten years later, the last thing Stuart Somerset expects, as he arrives at his new country estate following the unexpected death of his elder brother Bertie, is to fall in love with the delicacies from the kitchen of Madame Verity Durant, Bertie’s mysterious and notorious cook. Little does he know, Madame Durant and his lost beloved are one and the same, and he stands to lose his hard-won respectability were he to follow the yearnings of his heart.

Rating: C

It’s no secret that I’m a massive Sherry Thomas fangirl. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and when it came to this month’s TBR prompt of Backlist, I decided to read one of the two (I think) historical romances of hers I haven’t yet read – Delicious, from 2008.  Billed as a kind of Cinderella story, it features a celebrated – even notorious – cook and a highly-respected MP who reunite after they spent a night together ten years earlier, but though I like second-chance romances and I love Sherry Thomas’ writing, the story didn’t work for me at all.  In fact, it was just plain… odd.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused through the first few chapters, but one thing that is apparent early on is that gourmet chef/cook Verity Durant is not exactly what she seems.  Infamous throughout English society because of her (supposed) loose morals, she was the mistress of her employer Bertie Somerset for a time, although that relationship ended ten years before and she remained at Fairleigh Park as his cook.  Bertie dies at the beginning of the book, and his estate is inherited by his estranged half-brother Stuart, a hard-working lawyer and up-and-coming politician who is tipped as a future Prime Minister.  And the man with whom Verity shared one single night of passion ten years earlier.

Verity has mixed feelings upon learning that Stuart will be coming back into her life. She knows there is little reason for them to meet but is still in love with him even after all that time, and she wants to give him a gift, one she realises has been ten years in the making – happiness on a plate.

But unlike his half-brother, who was a real foodie, for Stuart, food is a necessity, something to fuel his body and to prevent hunger.  All he wants is to eat his first dinner as the owner of Fairleigh Park in peace and quiet while he reads his newspaper.  But from his very first mouthful of soup, he’s distracted:

The sip turned into an explosion of flavors on his tongue, rich, deep, pure, like eating the sunshine and verdure of a fine June afternoon.  Startled, he did something he almost never did – putting down his newspaper when he dined alone – and stared into the soup.

A mouthful later, he’s sent the soup away, seeing his enjoyment of it as an indulgence and a weakness.  But as the days pass, he finds himself unable to stop thinking about Madame Durant, fantasising about her even though at this point, (he thinks) he has never even met her.   Oh, and he’s just become engaged to a young woman with whom he’s been friends for a number of years and who he believes will make a good political wife.

But basically, that’s the story, Stuart fighting against seduction by proxy – the proxy being Verity’s amazing and incredibly culinary creations – while Verity simultaneously wants him to love her and actively avoids letting him see her and realise who she is.

The author makes good use of flashbacks to fill in the backstory, so we get to witness the first meeting between Verity and Stuart, the circumstances of their night together and what happened afterwards. But – and here is one of the book’s biggest problems – it was just ONE night, and the entire romance in the present is predicated on that single encounter.  It’s intensely passionate to be sure, but it’s basically insta-love, and when you add to that the fact that Verity and Stuart don’t really interact all that much in the present timeline (and when they do, they don’t see each other’s faces until right at the end), well, I found their romance really difficult to buy into.

Another problem is with the way the conflict in the romance is resolved.  Stuart’s fiancée is happily taken care of (there’s an excellent secondary romance which I liked more than the main one), but even then, Verity’s reputation will spell the end of Stuart’s political career, unless … well, a secondary character does a complete volte face and turns into a deus ex machina.

I didn’t connect with either Stuart or Verity.  Hints are dropped early on that Verity was born into an aristocratic family but was estranged from them at sixteen; she’s had a tough time of it and the fact she’s made something of herself in the face of such adversity really is admirable, but I just couldn’t become invested in her.  And I’m not sure how I feel about the fact she slept with brothers. (Okay, half-brothers, but still…) As for Stuart… two hours after finishing the book I’m trying to recall something about his personality, but other than his determination not to enjoy Verity’s cooking, and an obsession with her that springs out of nowhere, I can’t remember much.  And speaking of cooking, I really didn’t care for was the way in which the food was described as magical and life-altering and… so much hyperbole that I started skimming those parts.

I did like the secondary romance, which was funny and tender, and I think my favourite parts of the story were those when Stuart began to reappraise his relationship with Bertie, to whom he’d been really close when they were boys.  But it’s a bad sign when, in a romance novel, the love stories that are the most interesting don’t involve either of the two principal characters.

A C grade is the best I can do for Delicious – and I can’t remember the last time a Sherry Thomas book got anything lower than an A grade from me.  It’s always a sad day when I have to write a negative review of a favourite author,  but I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience and move on.

The Winter Companion (Parish Orphans of Devon #4) by Mimi Matthews (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She needed to be seen…

As a lady’s companion, Clara Hartwright never receives much attention from anyone. And that’s precisely how she likes it. With a stormy past, and an unconventional plan for her future, it’s far safer to remain invisible. But when her new employer is invited to a monthlong holiday at a remote coastal abbey, Clara discovers that she may not be as invisible as she’d hoped. At least, not as far as one gentleman is concerned.

He wanted to be heard…

Neville Cross has always been more comfortable with animals than people. An accident in his youth has left him with a brain injury that affects his speech. Forming the words to speak to his childhood friends is difficult enough. Finding the right things to say to a lovely young lady’s companion seems downright impossible. But Miss Hartwright is no ordinary companion. In fact, there may not be anything ordinary about her at all.

During a bleak Devon winter, two sensitive souls forge an unexpected friendship. But when Clara needs him most, will Neville find the courage to face his fears? Or is saying goodbye to her the most heroic thing he can do?

Rating – Narration: B; Content- C

The Winter Companion is the fourth and final book in Mimi Matthews’ Parish Orphans of Devon series, which follows four young men who formed strong bonds of friendship as boys and who remain close friends in adulthood. This story takes place over the Christmas period and during a ‘family’ reunion as Justin, Tom and Alex (heroes of books 1-3) and their wives gather to celebrate the festive season at Justin’s North Devon home, which is where the fourth member of their group, Neville Cross, lives and works with the animals on the estate while also training to take over from Justin’s steward when he retires.

Unlike the other men – Justin went into the army, Tom moved to London and became a lawyer and Alex left England to make a living gambling and grifting – Neville never left Devon and doesn’t believe he ever will. An accident when he was younger left him with a brain injury which has affected his ability to transfer his thoughts into words. His thought processes and mental capacities are unaffected, but his difficulty in finding the right words – a situation which worsens whenever he’s nervous – has caused many to believe him to be lacking in intelligence. His friends know differently of course, but Neville is very self-conscious about it and prefers to have as little contact with other people as possible, instead spending most of his time with the horses and other animals in his care.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Master’s New Governess by Eliza Redgold

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A new position for the governess

As mistress of Pendragon Hall?

Unfairly dismissed from her previous position, her reputation ruined, governess Maud Wilmot is forced to take on a new identity. When she feels an ever-growing attraction to her new employer, Cornish railway entrepreneur Dominic Jago, Maud longs to reveal the truth. But doing so could end their fledgling romance before it’s truly begun…

Rating: D

Harlequin Historical has a fairly good track record and has a number of my favourite authors on its roster, so I picked up new-to-me author Eliza Redgold’s The Master’s New Governess in hopeful anticipation of another enjoyable, romantic read. But I was sadly disappointed. What I found instead was a dully plodding story, bland, barely two-dimensional characters and a romance that never got off the ground.

The position of a governess could be a very uncomfortable and insecure one, something brought home to Miss Maud Wilmot when she is dismissed from her position without a character for reasons which are merely alluded to, but which are easy to work out. Without references, she will not be able to secure another post, but as luck would have it, her sister Martha – who is recently married – had secured a situation in Cornwall prior to her marriage and has not yet written to decline it. So – with Martha’s full knowledge – Maud (pretending to be Martha) writes to Sir Dominic Jago of Pendragon Hall to accept the position as governess to his seven-year-old daughter, Rosabel, and is very soon on her way.

She has been sent a first class ticket for the last leg of her journey – even though it’s very unusual for a governess to travel in such luxury – and gets her first, unexpected glimpse of her new employer when he intervenes to resolve a dispute on the train. Maud knew Sir Dominic was a businessman, but hadn’t realised he’s the owner of the West Cornish Railway.

Arrived at the hall, Sir Dominic (the author makes a point of having Maud think that he should be addressed as Sir Firstname and not Sir Lastname – which is correct, so why hit readers over the head with it?) broaches a delicate subject before introducing Maud to her charge.  The last two governesses he employed had entertained “a fantasy of certain governesses that they might marry the master of the house.”  He wants to make it absolutely clear that he has no interest in remarrying and won’t tolerate any romantic notions about him on her part.  Maud quickly assures him she has absolutely no interest in anything other than educating his daughter.

To be fair to Maud, she does mean it.  But she doesn’t know she’s in a romance novel.

So, of course, romantic notions do eventually take root on both sides, but the pacing of the story is dreadfully slow, there’s so little chemistry between the characters  I’d actually put it in negative figures, and the writing is so full of overblown sentimentality and navel-gazing that I’d have been better entertained watching grass grow.  There’s no tension or forward momentum in the story at all (the only real bone of contention being that Maud is pretending to be Martha) and most of the story is devoted to Maud and Dominic busily castigating themselves for being attracted to the other, and thinking any relationship other than that of master and servant is impossible.

When they do finally kiss about two thirds of the way into the book, our hero is, of course, completely blown away and thinks it was better than any of the sex he had with his dead wife. While Maud, who –

had thought that the sensitive, previous part of her had been numbed, frozen, half-dead, unable to come alive.

(Not to belabour a point, of course.)

Starts to feel all those tingly feminine feelings rushing back.

Oh, puhleeze.

And naturally, Maud is the sort of governess who could put Mary Poppins to shame. We’re told  she’s far more popular than any previous governess had been. Dominic tells her early on that he’s worried that Rosabel has become overly timid, and he can “barely encourage her out of doors.”  But hey, whaddya know?  On her very first morning, Maud gets Rosabel outside to release a butterfly into the garden, and from that moment, she’s outside almost all the time, and Dominic’s fears are forgotten.  Maud makes up stories about butterflies every night, they go butterfly hunting by day, Dominic buys a vivarium for the butterflies… so yes, if you’re not fascinated by butterflies (or railways), you’re not going to have a lot of fun with this book.  Actually, that’s probably true even if you are fascinated by butterflies or railways.

There’s an evil Other Woman who has all the subtlety of a pantomime villain – she crops up to be nasty to Maud and taunt her with her plans to marry Dominic (she makes Blanche Ingram appear pleasant by comparison). Dominic speaks in info dumps about railways half the time and while I appreciated Maud’s dedication to the cause of female education, her speech to the evil OW near the end was preachy and only needed a flashing neon sign saying ‘important message here.’

As I said at the beginning, Harlequin has some terrific authors of historical romance in its stable who are able to write engaging stories, rounded characters and believable, well-developed romances within the shorter page-count generally allocated to the category romance – and I’m not going to let this dud put me off reading them.  But I’d advise giving The Master’s New Governess a miss.

The Earl Takes a Fancy (Sins for All Seasons #3) by Lorraine Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s looking for a nobleman to wed…

Though born out of wedlock, Fancy Trewlove is determined to fulfill her mother’s wish that she marry into nobility. Fancy’s keen intellect and finishing school manners make her the perfect wife for any gentleman—if he’s willing to overlook her scandalous lineage. But Fancy’s plans are thrown into chaos when an intriguing commoner begins visiting her bookshop—and she finds herself unable to stop thinking about him.

He’s looking to escape his title…

Widowed just a year ago, the reclusive Matthew Sommersby, Earl of Rosemont, has been besieged by women hoping to become his next wife. Desperate for anonymity, he sheds Society life to search for the peace that eludes him. Fancy’s shop is his one refuge, until the night their passion erupts into a kiss that nearly leads to her ruin—and leaves both longing for much more.

Together, they discover an unlikely love…

As Fancy finds herself torn between her family’s expectations and her growing feelings for Matthew, secrets are exposed—secrets that force Fancy to question if she can trust her heart’s desire…

Rating: C+

The Earl Takes a Fancy is book five in Lorraine Heath’s Sins For All Seasons series, which features the six Trewlove siblings, all but one of them by-blows of members of the nobility who were handed over to baby farmer Ettie Trewlove who, instead of neglecting them (as was, sadly, the most common result of this practice), cared for them, loved them and brought them up as her own. The four preceding books have seen Mick, Gillie, Aiden and Finn fall in love and marry well, and in this book, it’s the turn of Ettie’s daughter Fancy – the only Trewlove to whom Ettie actually gave birth – to meet her match.

Fancy is the baby of the family – she’s just nineteen in this story – and as is natural, Ettie wants nothing but the best for her daughter. Even before the family’s fortunes begin to rise, she is determined Fancy will marry a fancy man, live in a fancy house and enjoy a fancy life. Now, it looks as though Ettie’s dreams for Fancy will come true; her sister Gillie, Duchess of Thornley, is soon to hold a ball to launch Fancy into society, which will surely lead to her finding the lord Ettie and her family are so keen for her to marry.

Matthew Sommersby, Earl of Rosemont lost his wife a year earlier, so to say he’s surprised to see a letter from her published in the newspaper one morning is an understatement. In the missive, she talks about Matthew’s husbandly devotion, how much they’d loved each other and how much she wants him to find love again – and Matthew is furious. He knows his late wife is mocking him from beyond the grave because their marriage was a sham; he’d been a besotted fool, tricked into marriage by a woman who wanted only his title and status and he’s determined never to be so gullible again. This letter, however, has brought scores of match-making mamas and their similarly minded daughters to his door – and he wants none of it. Less than a week after the letter first appears, Matthew closes up his London house and disappears.

Fancy is facing the prospect of her society début with some trepidation. She knows that her illegitimacy will count against her as she tries to secure a position within high society, but her family is still set on seeing her married into the aristocracy – nothing less than an earl will do. Fancy, though, would much prefer to marry a man she loves and who loves her; her sister and three of her brothers have married for love and Fancy wants what they have… but is unwilling to disappoint her mum, whom she adores. Fancy has a tender regard for stories brimming with romance, and along with most of the women in London, thought the late Countess of Rosemont’s letter was incredibly romantic, and keeps a copy of it in her pocket, believing it offers the hope that she might one day discover the same sort of passion. The jingle of the bell of her bookshop interrupts her musings, and she finds herself facing a strikingly handsome man and falling into easy conversation about books with him. Very shortly after she has closed the shop for the evening, she runs into the man again at the pub she goes to for her supper; the stranger introduces himself as Mr. Matthew Sommersby, and explains he’s new to the area, and they end up sharing a table and continuing their conversation over their meal. Matthew finds his companion’s lack of guile completely refreshing, until, that is, Fancy dislodges the copy of his late wife’s letter from her pocket and he immediately assumes Fancy is just the same as any of the other women who have besieged him seeking wealth and title. *eyeroll*

Fortunately, he does realise his mistake quickly, and apart from this, the relationship between Matthew and Fancy is very well developed, with a palpable pull of attraction between the pair from the moment they meet. Ms. Heath takes the time to show readers the couple getting to know each other, bonding over a mutual love of books and reading , and most importantly, she shows us – and Fancy – exactly who Matthew is as a person; a kind, thoughtful man who wants someone who loves him for himself and not for his money or title. I will say, however, that if you’re someone for whom deception of any kind in a romance is a dealbreaker, then this may not be the book for you.

For the first half of the book I was pulled in by the romance and the characters, both of whom are well-drawn and attractive, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see the two huge plot-holes. 1. If Fancy’s family are so concerned for her happiness, why do none of them actually ask her what she wants? And 2. Why are the Trewloves so intent on introducing her to a society that they know will judge her for her illegitimacy and humble origins? Her brothers even point out that Gillie is the only one of them who is even vaguely accepted, and that’s because Thornley is a duke and can do whatever the hell he wants. They love Fancy so much, yet are prepared to subject her to humiliation and the potential misery of marrying a man she doesn’t love.

As the story wore on, however, it became repetitive – Fancy doesn’t want to disappoint her family so doesn’t tell them she doesn’t want what they want for her, and Matthew realises he needs to tell her the truth about who he is, but wants just a little bit more time to make sure she’s properly interested in him. Of course, he puts off telling her for too long, which leads to an eye-rolling eleventh-hour conflict that then rushes headlong into a hasty and credulity-snapping conclusion.

I’ve continued to read (and listen) to the books in this series in the hopes of a return to form by Lorraine Heath, but have so far been unable to rate any of them higher than a B (the last three have all been B-/C+ reads for me). As I read the first half, I was thinking things were looking up, and I’d be able to award The Earl Takes a Fancy a solid B grade, but in the end, the likeable characters couldn’t make up for the sagging middle, the holes in the premise and the ridiculous ending.

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.