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An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

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In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, June 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance with mystery elements
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

a gathering storm

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When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.
In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

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Publisher and Release Date: Riptide Publishing, April 2017

Time and Setting: Porthkennack, Cornwall, England, 1853
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

A Gathering Storm, part of the Porthkennack series of books by five award-winning, British LGBT!+ authors is terrific.  It’s romantic, tender, frustrating and sexy and I gobbled it up in one sitting.  I loved nearly everything about it (my only quibble is a major spoiler you’ll have to read the book to discover for yourself), and I recommend it heartily to fans of both historical and contemporary romance.  Although the Porthkennack books are somewhat linked, A Gathering Storm can be read as a standalone.

After being ridiculed by his peers for publicly defending a spiritualist in London, famed scientist Sir Edward  – Ward – Fitzwilliam has retreated to the remote village of Porthkennack on the Cornish coast.  Grief stricken following the death of his beloved identical twin, Ward is convinced his brother spoke to him from beyond the veil during a particularly violent electrical storm he witnessed whilst at sea, and he is convinced that if conditions are right he can recreate the experience and commune with the dead.  He’s chosen to build a home, Varhak Manor, in Porthkennack because the location and weather (with a bit of his own manipulation) seem conducive to recreating the stormy conditions he experienced at sea.  In order to prove his theories, Ward will also need the assistance of human subjects, but false rumors about his research abound meaning that few of the locals are willing to help him.  Desperate, he heads to the village pub to solicit additional candidates, which is where he learns some tantalizing information about the handsome man at the bar.

Nicholas Hearn is land steward for the Roscarrock family, the wealthiest landowners in Porthkennack.  The illegitimate son of Jacob Roscarrock, who abandoned him and his Romany mother shortly after his birth, Nick lives a mostly solitary life.  Handpicked by his grandfather – who does not publicly acknowledge him – to train as a land steward (following Jacob’s sudden and untimely death), Nick is neither family or servant; the ‘gypsy bastard’ lives alone in a cottage on the edge of the estate.   Despite his recently deceased mother’s reputation as a clairvoyant, and an all too real experience with a horrific ghost when he was younger, Nick is skeptical about the possibility of reaching through the veil to speak with the dead. He’s curious but not interested in participating in Sir Edward’s experiments, especially as the handsome, wealthy aristocrat strikes him as just the type of high-handed toff he usually avoids.

Shortly after the scene in the bar, Nick is forced to reconsider.  When Sir Edward witnesses Nick and another man kissing in the woods, he doesn’t threaten to reveal what he’s seen but the threat is implied.  Angry with himself and the circumstance in which Sir Edward discovered him, Nick agrees to help with his research. His indiscretion, and Ward’s reaction, set the narrative in motion.

Stoic about how events have unfolded, Nick arrives at Varhak Manor unwilling to be charmed by his handsome host and blackmailer.  With his harsh voice (a permanent side effect of a childhood bout of diphtheria) and aristocratic manner, Nick expects Ward to act every bit the entitled and wealthy gentleman he is.  He doesn’t expect Sir Edward to be nervous or uncomfortable, or for him to treat him as an equal.  He is, and he does, but he’s also fascinating, engaging, and convinced he can commune with the dead.  Experience has taught Nick to be cautious, so he carefully masks his emotions even though he’s secretly charmed by his host.  Ward is similarly smitten with Nick, but because he finds him so hard to read, he also keeps his growing fondness for his ‘volunteer’ under wraps.

A Gathering Storm is broken into chapters that span the weeks and months Ward and Nick spend together attempting to recreate Ward’s shipboard experience. Ward is frustrated by their lack of progress, Nick is skeptical as to whether it’s even possible, and both are increasingly infatuated with the other.   Nick begins to spend increasing amounts of time at Varhak Manor, and I loved how Ms. Chambers slowly builds the sexual tension and attraction between the men.  She truly tortures the reader as we wait for these two lovely people to admit they’ve fallen for each other.  But they persist in denying their feelings until Ward has a close brush with death and Nick finally kisses him.  Their first kiss is passionate, frantic and blissful and it’s clear to them (and us) they belong in each other’s arms.

Ward and Nick have each had a past relationship with another man, but those experiences were vastly different. Nick gives Ward his first ever kisses, and Ward gives Nick an education in the pleasures of lovemaking.  When they’re intimate, it’s explicit, sexy, wicked and wonderful.  Despite their differences – and they’re truly opposites in every way – they fall hard and fast for each other and Ward is particularly appealing.  He often reads as a slightly nerdy, naïve scientist, but when his clothes come off, he’s confident and delightfully dirty.  It’s a nice contrast to his everyday persona (Nick likes it too).  When Ward invites Nick to travel with him on an overnight trip and attend a seance with him, Nick agrees to go.  He’s eager to spend time with his lover, and worried that Ward’s grief might make him prey for those who might seek to take advantage of it.

Their trip starts on a high note but ends in disaster.  The crisis that tears Nick and Ward apart (reader, you knew it was coming) is brilliantly played.  In these few small pivotal scenes, Ms. Chambers returns full circle to the themes she developed at the start of the book.  Nick is left struggling against feelings of inferiority in his relationship with Ward and confused about his place in Porthkennack.  Who is he? Gypsy? Bastard? Or someone still to be discovered?  Lost, miserable and unwilling to give Ward a second chance, Nick doesn’t know who he truly is.  Ward, knowing he precipitated their break-up with just the sort of high-handed, unfeeling behavior Nick expected, is horrified and sickened.  He’s left to grieve the loss of his brother, and of his relationship with Nick.  He loves him but doesn’t know what to do to fix things.  Their separation persists until a storm forces them together once again.

A Gathering Storm features terrific storytelling, wonderfully developed characters (principal and secondary) and holds you in its thrall from start to finish.  An epilogue offers a delightful peak at Ward and Nick’s life months later.  I loved it – but kept waiting for one scene that never came (it’s the reason I deducted half a star).  I’m hopeful the author revisits these characters (and she’s hinted there’s more of the story to come), because I’m not ready to let them go.  You won’t be either.

Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox

seven summer nights

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It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.

He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.

It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.

It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…

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Publisher and Release Date: FoxTales, November 2016

Time and Setting: Rural England, 1946
Heat Level:
Genre: Historical Romance (m/m)
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Magical, romantic, suspenseful, and deeply moving, Harper Fox hits only high notes in Seven Summer Nights, setting the bar high for historical and queer romantic fiction. Ostensibly a love story about a forbidden romance, it’s also part fantastical mystery and suspenseful thriller. Secrets abound: men loving each other when homosexuality was a sin and homophobia rampant; a mysterious church with hidden pagan symbolism and villagers with old and closely held secrets; and a battlefield memory that threatens the life of our weary hero. All demand our attention, but Ms. Fox carefully and capably guides the reader to a satisfying conclusion. The village of Droyton Parva, an idealized imagining of rural country life and a character in and of itself, becomes the home you never knew you longed for. Interesting secondary characters, living in the village and its vicarage, are similarly well developed. The prose is lyrical, the principals are engaging, and the multifaceted story is romantic, compelling and thrilling.

Rufus Denby is a devastated and lonely shell of the man he was before the outbreak of WWII. Once a famed archaeologist, he’s now a decorated war veteran slowly losing his will to live. Shell-shocked since his last horrific moments on the battlefield, Rufus struggles to remember his last moments in the trenches at Fort Roche, and to control recurrent and uncontrollable violent outbursts. After a recent ‘episode’ on an excavation site he only vaguely remembers, and a brief hospitalization, Rufus is back in London. A no-nonsense but sympathetic supervisor gently lets him go, then suggests he go to see her cousin, a vicar, in Droyton Parva. The church is falling apart and requires extensive renovation, but the vicar believes ancient artwork inside might be archaeologically significant. Perhaps Rufus could visit the church and determine whether it’s worth preserving? Nearly destitute, bewildered by his life, lonely, sad and desperate, Rufus heads to Droyton.

The vicar was right about the church. Unable to locate him at the vicarage, Rufus visits on his own and recognizes its paintings are archaeologically significant, but the symbolism is confusing. Willing to wait to speak to the vicar, an exhausted Rufus falls asleep in the choir loft. His sleep is interrupted by visions of a naked woman being chased through the woods… but when Rufus awakens, he isn’t sure if the dream was real. Unable to trust his own mind and feeling like he might be losing it, he sets off to find the vicar.

Reverend Archie Thorne returned to rural Sussex after the war, but lost his faith along the way. A motorcycle-riding chaplain in wartime, Archie lives a full and purposeful life in Droyton, but though his home and parish keep him busy, he’s lonely. Warm and loving, he has a habit of collecting the waifs and strays of the village, and spends afternoons trying to keep the church from falling into ruin and caring for his flock… while frequently sneaking away to work on his motorcycle and have a smoke. When Rufus finally tracks him down and introduces himself as the archaeologist sent by his cousin, Archie recognizes a kindred lost soul. He’s also intensely attracted to his handsome visitor. Long repressed desire flares to life, and despite the societal danger attached to falling for another man, Archie finds himself irresistibly drawn to Rufus, and sets out to collect him, too.

Rufus is also attracted to the handsome vicar but carefully conceals it. A failed pre-war relationship (reader: I’m massively understating this) has taught him to be cautious, though the more time he spends with Archie, the more he wants him. When Rufus finally makes a subtle pass at him, he’s rewarded and charmed by Archie’s exuberant and enthusiastic response. A tender and affectionate romance blossoms, but to Rufus’s chagrin and secret pleasure, an eager (and lustful) Archie often forgets the dangers inherent in their relationship. The village, the household and the parish are ever underfoot, and with Rufus’s warning in mind, the beginning of their relationship is marked by passionate, frantic and furtive couplings. Archie knows Rufus continues to suffer the sins of his past and that the trauma of his life as a soldier still torments him, and Rufus senses their relationship soothes something dark in Archie’s history. Their love is deeply passionate and profoundly moving, and Ms. Fox ‘s prose shines whenever they are together on the page.

I want to tell you more about this charming pair, but though the central relationship is rich and satisfying, there’s so much more to Seven Summer Nights. Rufus and Archie spend their days in the church trying to discern the meanings behind the ancient (pagan?) artwork and discerning if there’s something hidden deep beneath the church itself. This mystery, with roots deep in Droyton’s past, is both fascinating and creepy. But Ms. Fox doesn’t rush the narrative and she slowly parcels the truth out bit by bit via discoveries at the church and in telling revelations about Droyton’s villagers. The unraveling of the church’s history and the labyrinth below it mirror the slow unraveling of the chaos in Rufus’s mind. That slow and painful disentangling, and Rufus’s frustrating inability to remember events on the battlefield at Fort Roche, set up the third and thrilling narrative – Rufus’s war experience and its aftermath.

From the opening chapters of the novel, Ms. Fox imbues Rufus’s fearful forgotten last moments on the battlefield with darkness and despair. As Rufus struggles to remember (or forget?) what happened, allegations arise against Rufus’s superior, his deceased brother-in-law, Charles, who served with him on the front. Rufus is the only one who can corroborate the allegations, but Charles’s father, Brigadier Spence,with whom Rufus’s sister Rosemary still lives, will do anything to preserve England’s heroic version of his son.

Shortly after an ill-timed visit from his sister Rosemary, Rufus is (falsely) accused of a violent crime he can’t remember committing. Desperate and convinced he must be guilty, Rufus flees Droyton, sacrificing himself to Brigadier Spence and the asylum (it’s anything but) he established for injured war veterans. Rufus’s escape, the asylum, Archie’s tortured realization when he realizes where he’s gone…it’s awful and heart wrenching. It’s impossible to delve too deeply into this juicy bit of storytelling without spoiling it, suffice it to say, any doubt either man had about their love for each other, or the power of that love to transcend their darkest, most profoundly humbling moments, are laid to rest in several brilliant, heart stopping chapters. Afterwards, the novel resumes its almost leisurely ebb and flow as Rufus and Archie solve the mysteries of the church and its significance among the villagers.

Seven Summer Nights is the compassionate and redemptive tale of two men trying to heal after the horrors of war. Harper Fox deftly weaves a powerful anti-church, anti-establishment message throughout the novel – the message is powerful, yet subtle. Profoundly moving, enchanting and charming, this is a novel that stays with you long after you finish it.

Can falling in love restore lost faith and heal a tortured soul? The answer, after reading this beautiful, poignant novel, is a resounding yes.