The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas


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Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

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

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When a Duke Loves a Woman (Sins for All Seasons #2) by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Gillie Trewlove knows what a stranger’s kindness can mean, having been abandoned on a doorstep as a baby and raised by the woman who found her there. So, when suddenly faced with a soul in need at her door – or the alleyway by her tavern – Gillie doesn’t hesitate. But he’s no infant. He’s a grievously injured, distractingly handsome gentleman who doesn’t belong in Whitechapel, much less recuperating in Gillie’s bed….

Being left at the altar is humiliating; being rescued from thugs by a woman – albeit a brave and beautiful one – is the pièce de résistance to the duke of Thornley’s extraordinarily bad day. After nursing him back from the brink, Gillie agrees to help him comb London’s darker corners for his wayward bride. But every moment together is edged with desire and has Thorne rethinking his choice of wife. Yet Gillie knows the aristocracy would never accept a duchess born in sin. Thorne, however, is determined to prove to her that no obstacle is insurmountable when a duke loves a woman.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

The first two books in the author’s Sins for All Seasons series – Beyond Scandal and Desire and When a Duke Loves a Woman – have been released simultaneously as audiobooks, and as I read and reviewed the first book earlier this year, I opted to review the second in audio. It’s a low-angst, low-conflict Cinderella story which is well written, boasts a couple of engaging central characters and a romance that feels very mature – but ultimately, it lacks the emotional punch I’ve found in other books I’ve read by this author, and I came away from it feeling a little disappointed.

Antony Coventry, Duke of Thornley, is some way into his cups when he decides to make his way to Whitechapel, the last known destination of the woman who jilted him at the altar that morning. While there, Thornley – Thorne – falls foul of a bunch of footpads who rob him and beat him quite badly. He just about recalls hearing a low, melodious voice yelling at the men to leave him alone and moves in and out of consciousness as his rescuer, gets him to her flat, has the doctor called, and then takes care of him until he is well enough to be able to return home.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels #6) by Kerrigan Byrne (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

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The bravest of heroes. The brashest of rebels. The boldest of lovers. These are the men who risk their hearts and their souls-for the passionate women who dare to love them . . .

He is known only as The Rook. A man with no name, no past, no memories. He awakens in a mass grave, a magnificent dragon tattoo on his muscled forearm the sole clue to his mysterious origins. His only hope for survival-and salvation-lies in the deep, fiery eyes of the beautiful stranger who finds him. Who nurses him back to health. And who calms the restless demons in his soul . . .

A LEGENDARY LOVE

Lorelei will never forget the night she rescued the broken dark angel in the woods, a devilishly handsome man who haunts her dreams to this day. Crippled as a child, she devoted herself to healing the poor tortured man. And when he left, he took a piece of her heart with him. Now, after all these years, The Rook has returned. Like a phantom, he sweeps back into her life and avenges those who wronged her. But can she trust a man who’s been branded a rebel, a thief, and a killer? And can she trust herself to resist him when he takes her in his arms?

Rating: Narration – A : Content – C+

I’ve read and/or listened to all the books in Kerrigan Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series, and I hate to say it, but I think it’s running – has run – out of steam. The first two or three were very good – The Highwayman (book one) continues to be my favourite of the series, with The Hunter a close second – but books four to six have been distinctly lacklustre, and I think that had it not been for the fact that Derek Perkins is one of my favourite narrators and I’ll always jump at the chance to listen to him performing an historical romance novel, I might well have given up on it by now.

When I started The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (and don’t get me started on the penchant for derivative titles in HR these days!), I thought – at first – that at last, here was a return to the gripping storytelling of The Highwayman, but after a very strong opening and first few chapters, things start to fizzle out; the rest of the plot is tissue-paper thin, the central relationship is almost completely recycled from book one, the principals are bland and underdeveloped and there are large chunks in the middle of the book where nothing much happens.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch

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Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray. When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairytale, where all the rules of magic—and love—are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life-changing truths—and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: A-

First of all – don’t let that horrible cover put you off!

Salt Magic, Skin Magic is a very impressive almost-début novel from Lee Welch – I say ‘almost’, because the author has previously published a novella – and I devoured it in two sittings.  I’m not widely-read in the fantasy genre, but the premise seemed quite unique, the world-building – in terms of the rules governing the use of magic – is well-thought out and explained, and the two central characters are engaging and strongly defined.

Soren Dezombrey, Lord Thornby, lives a life devoted to pleasure in London, as is usual for many heirs-in-waiting.  He is estranged from his father, the Marquess of Dalton, whom he hasn’t seen for twenty years, so is naturally surprised when the marquess visits him in town and insists that Soren returns to the family’s Yorkshire estate of Raskelf Hall so that he can marry one of two heiresses selected for him.  In fact, the marquess does more than insist; his servants overpower Soren and force him into the carriage, and Soren is now a prisoner in his own home.  For the past eighteen months, he’s been at Raskelf – and he can’t leave.  Literally.  He isn’t bound or locked in; he can go wherever he pleases within the estate boundary, but whenever he gets close to it, he starts to panic, think the nineteenth century equivalent of “damn, I’ve left the oven on!” and immediately turns back and returns to the hall.

John Blake is a down-to-earth industrial magician, an exponent of inanimate magic, which is regarded in magical circles as lesser, more common magic than that practiced by Theurgists, who summon demons to do their magic for them and so don’t get their hands dirty.  His normal line of work is in factories and other industrial buildings, where he is employed to ward against things like fires, injuries or accidents, so the request to visit the home of a nobleman is a very unusual one.  But a friend – who happens to be Lady Dalton’s cousin – tells him that the lady is terrified that her stepson is using magic with intent to harm her, and he asks John to visit Raskelf as a favour.  John reluctantly agrees to go, and immediately senses that there’s something not right.  The house is literally drenched In ancient magic, curses and things John doesn’t understand, and even odder is the fact that Thornby seems to be completely immune to his magic.  John’s curiosity is aroused – as are other things, because Thornby, while the epitome of the arrogant, disdainful nobleman, is quite the most beautiful man John has ever seen.

At first, what he sees would seem to support the idea that Thornby is indeed a malevolent force within the household, and he takes little heed of the latter’s insistence that he holds no ill-will towards Lady Dalton and that he is unable to leave the estate.  It’s only when he witnesses first-hand – by marching Thornby forcibly across the estate boundary – the other man’s struggles to return and then watches as horrible wounds appear on his face that he at last comes to realise that there’s something truly sinister at work at Raskelf and to believe that Thornby is an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game… but what exactly is going on and who is pulling the strings?

Lee Welch has created an original, riveting magical fantasy in Salt Magic, Skin Magic, which combines an intriguing, tightly-constructed and high-stakes plot laden with mysticism, magic and suspense with a warm, tender romance between two men at opposite ends of the social spectrum who should, by rights, never have met.  The chemistry between Soren and John is intense right from the start, although neither is happy about the degree to which they’re drawn to the other man; and I loved the evolution of their relationship as it progressed from antagonism and suspicion to trust, affection and soul-deep belief in each other. Their interactions are flirty, funny and tender, and the romance develops in a wholly believable, organic way.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic is unquestionably one of the most original, compelling books I’ve read this year, and I’m eager to see what Ms. Welch comes up with next.

The Matrimonial Advertisement (Parish Orphans of Devon #1) by Mimi Matthews

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

Rating: B-

Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books.  The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme.  I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured.  Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.

Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up.  He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game.  After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.

Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:

“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum.  A woman I can bed on occasion.”

– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife.

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

You Only Love Twice (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #3) by Bec McMaster

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With the clock ticking down, the Company of Rogues must find a deadly killer and stop them from assassinating the Queen… before London burns.

First rule of espionage: don’t ever fall in love with your target.

Five years ago, Gemma Townsend learned the hard way what happens when you break this rule. She lost everything. Her mentor’s trust. The man she loved. And almost her life. Love is a weakness she can never afford again.

When offered a chance at redemption, the seductive spy is determined to complete her assigned task: to track down a dangerous assassin known as the Chameleon, a mysterious killer sent after the queen, whose identity seems to constantly change.

But as her investigation leads Gemma into a trap, she’s rescued by a shadowy figure she thought was dead—the double agent who once stole her heart.

A man with few memories, all Obsidian knows is Gemma betrayed him, and he wants revenge. But one kiss ignites the unextinguished passion between them, and he can’t bring himself to kill her.

Can Obsidian ever trust her again? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Because it soon becomes clear the Chameleon might be closer than either of them realized… and this time Gemma is in the line of fire.

Rating: A-

The third book in Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series, You Only Love Twice boasts an engrossing, intricately-woven and high-stakes suspense plot woven through a steamy second-chance romance and I was glued to it from pretty much start to finish. We’ve reached the middle of a five-book series, and the author provides some compelling plot developments, drawing together threads from the first two books to reveal the terrifying nature of the threat faced by this version of Victorian London, and who is behind it. This instalment also ends on rather a massive cliffhanger – but fortunately, Ms. McMaster isn’t going to make readers wait too long to find out what happens next as book four, To Catch a Rogue, is coming out in October .

Be warned –there are spoilers in this review, so if you’re planning to read the series and haven’t yet, proceed with caution.

In case I haven’t made it clear, the novels in the Blue Blood Conspiracy series need to be read in order. Each book focuses on a particular romantic pairing and has a self-contained plotline, but there are also overarching storylines that run throughout, so I would advise going back to book one, Mission Improper, in order to fully appreciate the intricacies of the stories and of the richly detailed world that the author has created.

I don’t have space in this review to delve too far back into the on-going storyline, so I’m going to assume anyone reading this is familiar with the London Steampunk world of these books, and knows what the Echelon is, what blue bloods, vampires, dhampir and mechs are, and is aware of the basic conflict that has featured thoughout; namely, the overthrow of the corrupt and degenerate ruling class (the Echelon) by an alliance of more progressive blue-bloods, mechs and humans in the original series, and in this one, the unrest that continues to plague London as everyone struggles to settle into the new order… a new order that someone is intent on destroying.

A highly trained spy and deadly assassin, Gemma Townsend is one of the Company of Rogues’ most valuable operatives. Five years earlier, she’d been on a mission in Russia, working with the Duke of Malloryn (leader of the CoR) to undermine the creation of an alliance between the Russian Blood Court and the Echelon, when she’d met and fallen for Dmitri Zhukov, who was working for their opponents and in favour of the treaty. The pair fell in love against the odds and their better judgements, but in a heartbreaking betrayal, Gemma was shot by her lover and left for dead. She survived thanks to some quick thinking on Malloryn’s part, and believes Dmitri died in St. Petersburg… until a recent attempt on her life was thwarted through the actions of someone she could almost swear was him.

Following Gemma’s shattering betrayal in Russia, Dmitri – now a powerful dhampir known as Obsidian – wanted nothing more than to forget her, and thanks to a combination of technology and conditioning, has been able to do exactly that.  He no longer has any memory of those events and doesn’t want to remember them; he’s learned to hate Gemma, but when the leader of the dhampir orders her death, he finds there’s something in him that won’t allow him – or anyone else – to kill her.  He doesn’t understand why  – she used him and betrayed him and he wants revenge – but instead of carrying out his orders, he kidnaps her in order to keep her safe.  He knows that he’s likely signing his death-warrant, but whatever is driving him to protect Gemma is stronger than his fear of retribution.

The scenes between the couple are electric and filled with intense emotion and chemistry that five years have done nothing to quell.  At first they’re both furious, each believing themselves betrayed by the other, and it becomes clear to the reader – and to Gemma – that Obsidian’s recollections have been altered somehow.  The more time he spends around her, the more he begins to question everything he’s been told and everything he thought he believed in, which gives Gemma hope that he may be amenable to helping the CoR … and that perhaps they can have another chance at a future together.

The author splits the narrative very skilfully between the romance and the overarching plot, which certainly thickens in this instalment. The murder of a former serial killer sets off a train of events that lead Malloryn to the realisation that the threat London faces is far greater than previously imagined; an old adversary is out to cause chaos, foster anarchy and overthrow the queen, and he won’t rest until he’s destroyed Malloryn in spirit, mind and body.

Bec McMaster is a fantastic storyteller, and I was on the edge of my seat several times, particularly in the last section of the book which is full of brilliant, shocking twists and turns.  I love second-chance romances, so Gemma and Obsidian’s storyline was one I was really looking forward to, and the author definitely doesn’t disappoint on that score.  Gemma is a terrific heroine – lethal in a fight, but possessed of a big, loving heart, she’s quick-witted and fiercely loyal; and while Obsidian is slightly less well-defined, it makes sense that he would be so given that he’s suppressed his memories for years and is only just coming to know himself once more.  The strength of their connection just leaps off the page, and the depth of their feelings – the hurt, the desire and the love – is evident in every moment they spend together. The sex scenes are earthy and passionate, the action is fast-paced, and the cliffhanger ending has me looking anxiously at the calendar and thinking October can’t come too soon!

I loved the affectionate banter and close-knit relationships the author has drawn between the rest of the Rogues, and watching the way they accept Obsidian for Gemma’s sake and then for his own. I was also really pleased to get  to know a bit more about Malloryn, who has been a strong, somewhat enigmatic presence in the series so far –  I’m now even more excited than ever to read his story in the final book.

If you’re already hooked on this series, then you probably need no urging from me to go out and grabYou Only Love Twice; if you have yet to try a book by Bec McMaster and you’re a fan of steampunk/paranormal historical romance then I have no hesitation in recommending the London Steampunk and Blue Blood Conspiracy series most strongly.

Six Weeks With a Lord by Eve Pendle

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Grace Alnott is out of time. To save her younger brother from an abusive guardian, her merchant father’s will demands she must marry a peer. Handsome but destitute Everett Hetherington, Earl of Westbury agrees to her offer of a marriage of convenience but stipulates she must live with him for six weeks. No matter how honorable he seems she can’t allow him to get too close, because the aristocracy cannot be trusted.

Six weeks. Major Everett Hetherington, new Earl of Westbury, has exactly six weeks to convince the very independent Grace Alnott to spend the rest of her life with him. Despite her belief she doesn’t belong in his world, he must tempt the alluring Grace into staying, because he has fallen for her. Hard. He just has to ensure she never discovers his secret.

Rating: C+

Eve Pendle’s début historical romance, Six Weeks With a Lord,features an engaging hero, a prickly heroine and a marriage of convenience designed to help him to save his failing estate and to help her gain custody of her four-year-old brother.  The twist in the tale is that the hero is determined to keep his convenient wife, while she is anxious to go it alone at the end of an agreed period (the titular six weeks).  The story is fairly-well conceived, although the set-up is clumsy and the villain only wants a moustache to twirl and an evil laugh to complete the cartoonish picture; and while all’s well that ends well, the resolution to the conflict at the heart of the plot comes too quickly and too easily.

Grace Alnott’s father, a wealthy tradesman, has recently died, leaving her the sum of fifty-thousand pounds in the form of a dowry she cannot access unless she marries a peer.  She was aware of his ambitions for her but had resisted them, owing to her distrust and dislike of titled gentlemen, who are arrogant and care for nothing but their own pleasure.  As if having the money left to her tied up in such a way wasn’t bad enough, her father has left her young brother to the guardianship of Lord Rayner, the man who raped her former maid and companion and got her pregnant – actions which only cemented her determined dislike and distrust of the aristocracy.

There’s only one thing to be done, which is to contest the guardianship in the Courts of Chancery (which will be expensive and probably very long and drawn out – see Bleak House!) – for which Grace will need plenty of money; hence her need to contract a fast marriage of convenience to a peer of the realm.

Everett Hetherington resigned his army commission on the death of his older brother and returned to England to take up the title and responsibilities of Earl of Westbury.  Burdened with the debts incurred by both his father and brother, he is brought even closer to financial ruin by a plague that is sweeping the herds of cattle farmed on his estate.  He’s a conscientious landlord who cares about the well-being of his tenants, and wants to be able to compensate them for their losses – but to do that and pay off the debts, he needs somewhere in the region of fifty thousand pounds, and he needs it quickly.

Y

So he sets out to find himself an heiress who will consent to a fast marriage.  At the Morrisons’ ball, the rumours of the fifty-thousand pound dowry that go with Miss Grace Alnott’s hand in marriage reach his ears, and he decides on the spot that she’s the one.  It’s a happy accident that he likes what he sees, and he quickly sets about making himself known to her (he cuts in on her dance with another gentleman, which struck me as ill-mannered and rather anachronistic – did this happen prior to the twentieth century?) and by the end of the dance, she’s invited him to call the next day.

Everett is a little surprised to discover that Grace is offering only half her dowry to the man she marries, but she’s still his best ticket to getting his hands on a large sum of money quickly, and he’s sure he will be able to charm the rest out of her given enough time.  She insists on a marriage in name only; he reckons he can seduce her into staying with him and giving up the whole fifty-thousand pounds.  He wants her to live with him for six months; she will allow only six weeks. Everett has no alternative but to agree, and to amend his timeline for seduction.

The exposition is rushed and the first two chapters are rather inelegant; the writing is choppy and the initial meeting between the principals requires rather a large suspension of disbelief. Fortunately however, the author seems to hit her stride after this, and the writing smooths out once Grace and Everett are married.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the six weeks the couple has agreed to spend together, and I appreciated the time spent on developing their relationship.  But I found it hard to like Grace for around half the book because she’s so prickly and prone to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts.  She is determined to have as little to do with Everett as possible, and allows her prejudices to inform her view of him; but while the reader is aware Everett has an ulterior motive, Grace is not, and yet she is standoffish and impolite at almost every opportunity, while he displays genuine concern for her happiness and comfort.

Deception in a romance isn’t a deal breaker for me provided the reasons for it are clear, sound and believable, and Everett’s desire to save his lands AND the livelihoods of his tenants is all those things as is Grace’s desire to gain custody of her brother.  However, I couldn’t understand Grace’s reasons for not telling Everett why she wants to retain half of her dowry (which she couldn’t have done anyway, because in the eyes of the law it belonged to the husband) and her reasoning seems solely based on her distrust of aristocrats, which is, in turn, based on the behaviour of ONE man.  When Rayner finally appears, he’s clearly a nasty piece of work, but even so, tarring all his ilk with the same brush isn’t really a mark of maturity on Grace’s part.

Six Weeks With a Lord is a decently entertaining read, but I can’t say it has anything new to offer.  The choppiness of the opening chapters is off-putting, the pacing drags in the middle, and the resolution employs the next best thing to a deus ex machina (is there such a thing as regina ex machina?!).  Eve Pendle shows promise as a writer, and I’d certainly consider reading something else of hers in future, but unfortunately, I can’t quite recommend this book.