Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening (Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters #2) by Marguerite Kaye

lady armstrong's scandalous uk

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Hers was a body of marble…

Until he brought it to life

Since her tyrannical late husband ruined her reputation, Lady Mercy Armstrong has been longing to reinvent herself. The perfect opportunity presents itself when rebellious self-made man Jack Dalmuir presents a daring proposition—a fake dalliance that will change society’s view of her! Only her cavorting with the handsome Scotsman ignites a passion that could change their lives for ever…

Rating: B

For this second book in her Victorian Era Revelations of the Carstairs Sisters series, Marguerite Kaye returns briefly to her Armstrong family, albeit a generation on, and shows the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the person of the deceased but obnoxious-from-beyond-the-grave Lord Harry Armstrong.  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening opens on the day of the reading of the late Lord Armstrong’s will at which his two brothers (twins) and his wife, Mercy (née Carstairs), are to be present.  It’s very clear that the Armstrongs’ seventeen year marriage was anything but happy, and that the deceased was cold, domineering and unkind, traits that became more pronounced as the years went by and Mercy failed give him the all-important son and heir. (Because of course it was her fault.)

Not content with being a domestic tyrant in life, however, Lord Armstrong has one last dig at his wife in the most appalling way, attaching a codicil to his will and insisting it be read aloud.  In it, he accuses her of having an “obstinate and determined failure to provide [him] with an heir” and denounces her as “a disgrace to the gentle sex… and not fit to be a wife.  Lady Mercy Armstrong is frigid.  Engage with her at your peril.”  Mercy knows very well that the new Lord Armstrong and his brother will waste no time in making sure their late brother’s words are reported in the press and about society, whose members will no doubt relish the opportunity to gossip and gloat to their heart’s content.

One year later, and Mercy is finally out of morning for the husband who oppressed and belittled her.  She’s spent the last year living quietly in the country with her brother Clement, a scholar, but has decided it’s time to get on with her life.  She’s realised the one of the reasons for her late husband’s spitefulness was because he wanted to make sure she spent the rest of her life alone as a form of revenge – but she’s determined to make the most of her new-found freedom and independence and most of all, have some fun.

A chance meeting with Jack Dalmuir, a successful Glaswegian engineer, seems as though it will offer Mercy just the opportunity she wants.  On the very day her morning ends, Mercy finds herself – somewhat tipsily and very uncharacteristically – sharing some of the details of her life and her husband’s cruelty, finding in Mr. Dalmuir a concerned and sympathetic listener who encourages her in her desire to make a fresh start.

“Enjoy yourself, kick over the traces a bit.  Do some of the things that you’ve always wanted to.”

More than that, he offers to help if he can, proposing to serve as her escort should she need one, and the pair make arrangements to meet again when they are both in London.

Marguerite Kaye is one of the few writers of historical romance around who regularly writes stories featuring non-titled heroes, instead opting to write about military men or men of business and enterprise, of which Jack Dalmuir is one.  He’s a self-made man who runs his own engineering firm, and he and Mercy meet when Jack is travelling to London in order to oversee the installation of the steam engines built by his company into two new water pumping stations.  He’s attractive, intelligent and has a clear life plan mapped out; he’s dedicated to his business and intends to remain so for some years yet before turning his attention to taking a wife – a strong, practical woman from a similar background to his own – and perhaps starting a family.

Jack and Mercy are both single and neither is in the least interested in marriage, so there can be no harm in their going on outings and spending time together.  They enjoy each other’s company and for Mercy, being with a man who does not seek to judge or oppress her is a revelation.  Yet there’s an undeniable attraction between them that’s impossible to deny, and as their association continues, both realise that they’re getting in deeper than they had ever intended.

As is always the case with a Marguerite Kaye book, her meticulous historical research shows itself in the way she so skilfully weaves interesting background detail throughout her stories. Here, we’re treated to descriptions of the London docks, a visit to a Holborn pie stall and to the Scottish countryside around Glasgow, and to discussion of how Jack’s innovations will help to transform lives.  The romance is beautifully written and the chemistry between Jack and Mercy is terrific, the focus firmly on their growing feelings for each other at the same time as Mercy, with Jack’s unwavering support and encouragement,  is growing into the confident, strong woman she was always meant to be.

I’m going to put this next part under a spoiler tag, as it’s a subject that’s come up around here a few times and something readers may appreciate knowing about in advance.

SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ –
In the last part of the book, Mercy, who has believed herself barren, discovers she’s pregnant.  It’s not a plot device I particularly like and I confess that when I realised this was the direction the book was taking, my heart sank.  BUT.  Consider sticking with it, because Ms. Kaye actually makes it work better than most.  She makes it clear just how ignorant Mercy was and how she’d been more or less browbeaten into believing her childlessness couldn’t possibly be her husband’s fault.  She doesn’t use the pregnancy as a convenient way to provide the book’s HEA, instead showing the protagonists working through their issues about marriage.  Mercy’s determination never to marry again is well cemented into the story and completely understandable, and the way she’s torn between wanting to preserve her independence and do the best for her child is well articulated.  She could leave town and have her baby somewhere nobody knows her, but she’s fully cognisant of the stigma that would be borne by her child should its illegitimacy be discovered, and also of how unfair it would be to Jack to deprive him of the opportunity to be part of his son or daughter’s life.  There’s also never any question of Mercy not telling Jack she’s pregnant; there are frayed tempers and a few harsh words between them at one point, but otherwise, they talk and act like the adults they are to work things out – and in doing so, to realise how much they really mean to each other.

I had a few niggles with the story, mostly relating to the way Mercy so easily talks to a perfect stranger about her marriage, but overall,  Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening is an intelligently written, emotionally satisfying and sensual romance featuring two engaging protagonists who, while from opposite ends of the social spectrum, are perfect for one another.  I enjoyed it, and am happy to recommend it to anyone looking to read a well-researched historical romance that feels properly grounded in the period in which it is set.

TBR Challenge: A Stitch in Time (Thorne Manor #1) by Kelley Armstrong

a stitch in time

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Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.
Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.

Rating: B

Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her.  A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.

Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt.  The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.

It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house.  Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future.  After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more.  But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black.  When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.

Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors.  The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors.  Or did they?  And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this?  In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him.  Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.

Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again.  Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.

There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur.  Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far.  And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.

As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy.  For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century.  I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career.  The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived.  And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.

But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

The Gangster

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

1881 – Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

I read The Gangster, book two in C.S Poe’s Magic & Steam series earlier this year and really enjoyed it, so I decided to experience it again in audio format. I’d already listened to the first book – The Engineer – and enjoyed the narration by Declan Winters, so I was pretty sure of a good listen.

Because The Gangster is a direct sequel, I’d strongly recommend starting the series with The Engineer; it’s novella-length (just over two-and-a-half hours) and provides an excellent introduction to the alternate vision of 1880s New York the author has created, and the central characters of the series, Special Agent Gillian Hamilton of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, and Gunner the Deadly, the legendary outlaw Gillian meets while on assignment in Arizona. The story is fast-paced and exciting with plenty of sizzling chemistry between Gillian and Gunner – who agree to a temporary truce and join forces in order to defeat a bonkers mad-scientist type. The Engineer ends on a strong HFN, with the promise of more to come, and C.S. Poe certainly delivers on that promise in The Gangster, with a full- length story that continues to develop the romance between these two very unlikely men while also telling an action-packed, well-paced story and keeping listeners guessing about… nope, not telling. But be prepared – the book ends on one helluva cliffhanger. I believe book three is due later this year, but at time of writing, there’s no date set.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson with Marguerite Kaye

her heart for a compass uk

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London 1865

In an attempt to rebel against a society where women are expected to conform, free-spirited Lady Margaret Montagu Scott flees her confines and an arranged marriage. But Lady Margaret’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, as close friends with Queen Victoria, must face the public scrutiny of their daughter’s impulsive nature, and Margaret is banished from polite society.

Finding strength amongst equally free-spirited companions, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, Margaret resolves to follow her heart. On a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain, Lady Margaret must follow her heart and search for her place, and her own identity, in a changing society.

Rating: B

Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.

I reviewed this one with Evelyn North, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR.

You can read our review at All About Romance.

The Devil and the Heiress (Gilded Age Heiresses #2) by Harper St. George

the devil and the heiress

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No one would guess that beneath Violet Crenshaw’s ladylike demeanor lies the heart of a rebel. American heiresses looking to secure English lords must be on their best behavior, but Violet has other plans. She intends to flee London and the marriage her parents have arranged to become a published author–if only the wickedly handsome earl who inspired her most outrageously sinful character didn’t insist on coming with her.

Christian Halston, Earl of Leigh, has a scheme of his own: escort the surprisingly spirited dollar princess north and use every delicious moment in close quarters to convince Violet to marry him. Christian needs an heiress to rebuild his Scottish estate but the more time he spends with Violet, the more he realizes what he really needs is her–by his side, near his heart, in his bed.

Though Christian’s burning glances offer unholy temptation, Violet has no intention of surrendering herself or her newfound freedom in a permanent deal with the devil. It’s going to take more than pretty words to prove this fortune hunter’s love is true….

Rating: B-

Harper St. George’s The Devil and the Heiress is book two in her series of novels about Gilded Age Heiresses, wealthy – or potentially wealthy – young American women who come to England to search for a titled husband. Laura Lee Guhrke’s An American Heiress in London has a similar premise as does Maya Rodale’s Keeping Up With the Cavendishes; all feature American heiresses and the Transatlantic culture clash as they struggle to adapt to the rigid conventions of English high society in which, despite their enormous wealth, they are looked down upon because their money is “new” and their breeding questionable. I haven’t read the previous book (The Heiress Gets a Duke), which was generally well received, but I read this one easily as a standalone so anyone choosing to jump in here won’t find it difficult to do so.

Dabney Grinnan and I chatted about this one over at All About Romance and both agreed it was a bit… lacklustre, with a bland heroine and an unmemorable romance.

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

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

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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

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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


This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.