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An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

an unseen attraction

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Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship. . . .

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding . . . it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

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Publisher and Release Date:Loveswept, February 2017

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

Review by Wendy

I’m a recent convert to the talented writing skills of KJ Charles, my initiation being her magnificent Society of Gentleman series. I was therefore very pleased when given the opportunity to read and review An Unseen Attraction, the first in her new Sins of the City series. I admit that I approached it with a little trepidation, because not in my wildest dreams would I have believed that I could enjoy a story about a cockney Victorian taxidermist and an Anglo-Indian lodging-house keeper. I guess it’s testament to the author’s original and arresting style of writing that I was hooked from the first page and couldn’t put the book down. An Unseen Attraction is an engrossing and plausible story which only just touches on the aristocracy which in itself is a refreshing change in an historical romance. This story – and the two books we still have to look forward to in this trilogy – is about real people, with real personal problems and real jobs and I absolutely loved it.

Clem Talleyfer keeps a lodging house for skilled artisans, and prides himself on his standards. His lodgers like and respect him and that’s understandable because he is an extremely likeable young man; well spoken and with the darkly handsome good looks associated with his mixed race heritage – an Indian mother and an aristocratic English father. Rowley Green has taken the shop next door and has set himself up as a preserver – or, as we’d call him today, a taxidermist. Rowley is a quiet, unassuming and unexceptionable young man, whose dark past is reason enough for him to wish to blend in quietly and lead a non-confrontational lifestyle; another reason he prefers his rather solitary profession. He is neat and tidy, slight of stature, with a mop of tow-coloured hair and wire-rimmed spectacles – and Clem has been drawn to the quiet dignity of the man and more than a little attracted to him since he joined the lodgers at Talleyfer’s eight months previously. Unbeknownst to Clem, the attraction is mutual and their joint dilemma is how to discover if each feels the same about the other and how to make a move or declaration at a time when men such as they had to hide their sexual preferences for fear of prosecution. The two begin to explore their liking for each other in the simple domesticity of sharing a cup of tea by Clem’s parlour fireside of an evening in quiet companionship.

The author does a terrific job in developing these two characters and I found myself drawn to the very ‘unusual-ness’ of them. It was obvious to me from early on in the story – and the author confirmed it in her notes at the end – that Clem suffers from dyspraxia. KJ Charles’ explanations of his foibles; his difficulty concentrating on a subject, his clumsiness – which some mistake for stupidity, his dislike at being part of a jostling crowd, his inability to understand a double-entendre, sarcasm or to take a hint – are spot-on. I have a friend whose child suffers with this condition which is why I recognised it immediately and it underscored to me how very thorough the author’s research is and how interesting and touching to give her character this very real problem which often goes undiagnosed, even in this day and age. Clem’s vulnerability only heightens his appeal – who couldn’t love him? And the fact that Rowley loves Clem – understands his idiosyncrasies and helps him to cope without being judgemental or critical only serves to endear him to me more; and it wasn’t long before this quiet, plain little man had wiggled his way into my affections along with the gorgeous Clem – two adorable, out-of-the-ordinary characters who are quite clearly made for each other.

The only fly in Clem’s ointment is the elderly, drunken vicar, Lugtrout, who lives at Talleyfer’s under sufferance, his presence being a condition of the lease set up by Clem’s aristocratic half-brother who owns the lodging house and employs Clem as its manager. There is an excellent plot going on at the same time as Clem and Rowley are discovering each other and making tentative steps in their love affair. The drunken vicar is delivered – extremely dead – onto the lodging house doorstep; there are empty teeth sockets in the vicars gaping mouth and some finger tips missing too – so this is definitely no accidental death! As well as this mystery, Rowley’s shop is illegally entered and searched and then later on in another incident it is set on fire and Rowley attacked. It isn’t long before Clem and Rowley accept that the crimes are connected and the two become even closer as they put their heads together to solve the mystery that is scaring them both to death.

An Unseen Attraction is a most unusual and compelling story and extremely well researched too – I know an awful lot more regarding the recording of births deaths and marriages in England than I ever did before! Plus the amount of research the author must have undertaken in order to write with such authority on a subject like taxidermy is phenomenal – lets face it, it’s not a subject that would appeal to the average reader – and her extensive research served its purpose because I was intrigued by Rowley’s craft; the skill and talent involved, and shall now look at stuffed animals with new eyes and added interest when next I visit the Natural History Museum. The murder/mystery is gripping and plausible and the setting sinister and threatening with the tension ratcheting up as a deadly fog descends and cloaks Victorian London in a pea-souper which thickens and obliterates the daylight to hang in the atmosphere and render visibility to nigh on nil. And the terror and fear felt by our two unlikely detectives as they finally discover the identity of the murderer and the reasons surrounding all that has befallen them is palpable. An Unseen Attraction is a fascinating page turner of a story with never a dull moment, some genuinely amusing ones and a charmingly tender romance between two ordinary yet extraordinary characters. My guess is that K.J Charles has another winner under her belt and I shall wait in anticipation for the next in what promises to be an excellent trilogy.

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh

someone to hold

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Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery…

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.

An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead…

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Publisher and Release Date: Jove Books, February 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Bath, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

I am a huge Mary Balogh fan and there’s one thing that never changes – as soon as she publishes a new book, I must have it – and I’m never disappointed; her imagination is endless and her storylines still original after decades of writing. In part, at least, some of her popularity and continuing success is in the subtlety and empathy always present in her story telling; in the unique way she has of presenting her out-of-the-ordinary characters as if she herself has walked in their shoes and experienced what they are feeling. Ms. Balogh has used this method to great effect in Someone to Hold, the second book in her Westcott series. And I could name at least two more of her books where I have felt this aspect of her writing very strongly.

In book one (Someone to Love) we met, Lady Camille Westcott, one of the disinherited daughters’ of the deceased Earl of Riverdale. At the will reading Camille and her family are left reeling by the shocking revelation that she and her two siblings are illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was – unbeknownst to anyone – a bigamous one. Camille reacts badly to these revelations and comes over as a thoroughly unlikeable character. But Ms. Balogh shows us that there’s a lot more to Camille than meets the eye.  I ended up liking her a lot and she earned my respect and sympathy, too.

After these life changing revelations Camille hides herself away at her grandmother’s house in Bath, refusing to go out unless heavily veiled. Then one day she wakes up, gives herself a good talking to and decides to take her life in hand – she has done nothing wrong, done nothing to feel ashamed of; she will live her life, such as it is, and hold her head high. She is drawn to the orphanage where her half-sister, Anastasia Westcott, or Anna Snow as she was known, had lived for most of her life and was later employed as a teacher. The orphanage is in need of a teacher once more, the one who had replaced Anna being unsuitable; impulsively Camille offers her services and is taken on on a trial basis. She cannot explain her need to do it, she has no experience with children or of teaching, but something impels her to walk in Anna’s shoes, even going so far as to remove from the luxury of her grandmother’s home and to take up residence in the tiny room Anna had occupied at the orphanage.

Camille meets the earthy, down-to-earth, Joel Cunningham, a man who is as far removed from the perfectly correct aristocrats of her former life as he could be. Joel is also a former inmate of the orphanage and now returns twice weekly to give art lessons to the children in his free time. To make matters worse, he always had a soft spot for Anna – although she never wanted anything from him other than friendship. Joel and Camille begin their acquaintance by irritating each other intensely, but still, they are inexplicably attracted to each other. He reluctantly admires her approach to teaching even though she appears clueless and retains her stiff-upper-lip, starchy persona and rarely smiles. Nevertheless, she has a natural ability and engages the children to such a degree that they look forward to and enjoy her lessons. This is something else I have always noticed about Ms. Balogh’s writing; in her younger life she was a school teacher and it is apparent in the way she understands and talks about children – particularly in this story.

Joel, like Anna Snow before him, has always been supported by an anonymous benefactor; more recently that benefactor has paid for Joel to attend professional art lessons to further develop his natural artistic talent. As a result he has earned himself a reputation in Bath as a superior portrait painter, and Camille’s grandmother has jumped on the bandwagon of the well-heeled inhabitants of Bath and commissioned portraits of her granddaughters. Camille is not best pleased by this plan as it means yet more time in his company whilst he makes preliminary sketches of her. Joel has an unorthodox approach when compared to other portraitists; he likes to get to know and spend time with his subjects, observing them as they chat and capturing an inner something he alone sees – he then pours this knowledge into his art with such great effect that it sets him above his peers. As a result of his observations, he begins to see the real Camille beneath the prim and proper walls she has erected against the pain she has suffered and learned to hide; for years craving her selfish father’s affection but failing to gain even a crumb of his attention. As a result of their interaction, the attraction between them deepens and soon becomes more intense. But there are many hurdles to jump before they can achieve their HEA. Camille can’t just change overnight, raised as she was as a very proper young lady. Joel, on the other hand was brought up in an orphanage – so even though at this point in their lives they are both relatively poor, both illegitimate and, therefore, on the face of it – equal – the chasm between them seems wide indeed.

I loved both these characters – they’re so vulnerable and real. Joel is adorable – if annoying occasionally in his indecisiveness – and Camille has to learn to love and trust him in spite of it while at the same time, attempting to change the habits of a lifetime.  She also needs to believe in the unconditional love of her family and to accept that just because her father failed her doesn’t mean that her extended family has followed suit. The love story between Camille and Joel is a voyage of discovery for both of them as their previously held ideals and prejudices crumble and they learn to accept and admit their love for each other and finally find Someone to Hold against all odds. I enjoyed meeting the family again, too, especially Avery whom I adored in Someone to Love. He is still his omniscient, wise self, still going to great lengths to project his seeming ennui to all around him, whilst barely managing to disguise the deeply caring side of his nature. I am very much looking forward to book three in which we see Alexander – the reluctant earl who inherited his title by default – find his Someone to Wed. This is a lovely series so far and one I highly recommend.

 

Loving the Lost Duke (Dangerous Deceptions #1) by Louise Allen

loving the lost duke

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A duke confronting his demons. A beauty resisting love.

Almost seven years ago the young Duke of Calderbrook left England for the self-imposed exile that seemed the only way to save his life. Now Cal is back, a grown man bent on taking back his birthright and discovering who so nearly killed him – even if they prove to be someone he loves.

The truth, revenge, then a suitable marriage are Cal’s aims, but his determined quest is stopped in its tracks by Society beauty Sophie Wilmott. He wants Sophie and Sophie, armoured against love by her own secrets, wants Cal. He needs to keep her safe, she needs to guard her heart – but death is waiting at the heart of the Duke’s great house and only courage and love are going to give them the strength to overcome it.

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Publisher and Release Date: Louise Allen, January 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Blue

It’s time for Gareth Thorne, the “lost” Duke of Calderbrook to return home. Cal, as he is called by his family and friends, inherited his title as a young boy, and was raised by his uncle, whom he loved and considered a second father. Yet accident after accident happens to the young duke, causing broken bones and injuries that narrowly missed being fatal. He also suffered agonizing bouts of illness which left him weak and defenseless. When Cal overhears a conversation in which someone thinks he is being poisoned, he knows he needs to take action to save his life. Since he’s too weak to fight, he makes a plan to leave his home and stay one step ahead of anyone who might want to track him down. He arranges careful management of his estates and interests and writes regular letters to his uncle and cousin to ensure that he is not declared dead. Now, almost seven years later, Cal returns, a strong, determined man. He’s ready to claim his dukedom and find out whether it was his uncle or his beloved cousin, Ralph, who was trying to kill him.

Sophie Wilmott is having a private conversation with her dear friend, Toby, at a ball, and they’re discussing her requirements for marriage. Now twenty-four-years-old, she has been out for seven years and has not accepted any proposals. In addition to her exacting list of requirements, Sophie also has a scandalous incident from her début year, one which she has hidden from everyone. When Toby leaves her, she is shocked to find that another man had been behind them, listening to their whole conversation. While being embarrassed at having her list known to someone else, she is even more surprised to find that this gentleman is none other than the “lost” Duke of Calderbook, returned home at last.

Rather than being put off by Sophie’s requirements, Cal admires her method, and the fact that she doesn’t want or expect love to be part of the equation. Due to Cal’s experiences, he has no desire for love either, he’s not even sure he believes in it. Still, he does want to marry and produce an heir, and the beautiful and interesting Sophie seems to be an ideal candidate. Sophie’s experience with first love at the age of seventeen has left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she wants to select a spouse based on practical factors. She also needs someone who will be understanding and forgiving, as she won’t deceive her future spouse into believing that she is innocent.

Cal begins to court Sophie in earnest, and they genuinely like each other and have a sizzling chemistry. When Cal is finally ready to propose, Sophie confesses her secret, letting Cal know that she understands if he can’t accept her past. While inwardly Cal is gravely disappointed, he still wants to marry Sophie, and they become engaged. He also has yet to confess his own secrets to her, but he plans to do that at the upcoming houseparty.

Author Louise Allen has crafted a pair of outstanding protagonists in Loving the Lost Duke. Cal is intelligent, resourceful, brave, honorable, kind and sexy. When I saw his willingness to accept Sophie’s past, I fell a bit in love with him myself. Sophie is his perfect match. I love the fact that she was too honorable to try to deceive him, and how she was willing to help him find the truth about his family. This book had it all for me – an intriguing mystery, a delicious hero, subtle humor, a surprising resolution, steam, and a very satisfying romance.

Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin

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She’s not who she seems…

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…

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Publisher and Release Date: Emily Larkin, November 2016
Time & Setting: London, 1805
Genre: Historical Romance with Fantasy elements
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 5 stars

Review by Sara

I love when authors successfully merge two romantic subgenres without losing the tone a reader expects from each. Emily Larkin carefully folds supernatural elements into her Baleful Godmothers series so that the world building doesn’t get lost in the historical setting. The first book Unmasking Miss Appleby balances the magic and the romance perfectly into a story that I highly recommend.

Charlotte Appleby’s life has not turned out exactly as she had hoped. While she is grateful to her father’s sister for providing her a home after his death, she is far from a welcome member of the household. Suffering the family’s constant disrespect wears on Charlotte to the point that she dreams of finding a way to be independent but is unhappy with the options afforded an unmarried woman. Working as a governess or school teacher has no appeal and positions that offer the most income are only open to men. On her twenty-fifth birthday Charlotte is mulling over her future when a dark fairy arrives in her room claiming to owe her one wish as part of a centuries-old pact with the female members of Charlotte’s mother’s family. Wary of the woman and the magic she offers, Charlotte is careful to learn about the gifts the fairy can bestow. With the fairy quickly losing patience Charlotte chooses the power of metamorphosis. Charlotte can now become anyone or anything she wishes.

Charlotte seeks her independence in London by changing her appearance to a young man. Her new form includes all of the physical attributes of the opposite sex, but her mind remains that of a woman, and she can now experience life without the restrictions society places on a female. Charlotte – now Christopher Albin – applies for employment as secretary to the influential Earl of Cosgrove using a forged set of references but an eagerness the earl appreciates. She is hired on the spot and is quickly thrust into the earl’s investigation of who might be vandalizing his house and arranging attacks on him at night.

Marcus Langford knows he has both personal and political enemies but never thought they would stoop to petty crimes or assault to get the better of him. The last few years of his life have been marred by the scandal of his wife’s suicide and the rumors of her affairs in the gossip sheets. These recent attacks just add insult to injury; however Marcus will not let them dissuade him from fighting to outlaw slavery in England and the colonies. During the last attack his secretary was gravely injured and the new applicants for the position seem scared at the prospect of working for a moving target. Christopher Albin is the first applicant to seem cautious of the danger but still ready to jump into the position. Marcus is quickly impressed with Christopher’s analytical nature as they start searching for possible perpetrators of the crimes. ALbin’s enthusiasm for the job is only surpassed by his naiveté about the less savory aspects of London society and Marcus cannot help but like the young man.

The close working relationship Charlotte and Marcus develop causes Charlotte to feel sexual attraction for the first time. The physical responses to her interest could be disastrous if Marcus were to see them in her male form but Charlotte cannot help falling even deeper for her employer the more they uncover during their investigations. Taking some advice Marcus innocently gives to Albin about a man’s need to slake his lust, Charlotte creates a way for her to seduce Marcus in her true form, offering him clues about his attackers if he’ll sleep with her. Their liaisons become more intimate on a personal level as Marcus reveals another side of himself to Charlotte the woman while still being friendly and open to Albin the man. As the threat to Marcus escalates it becomes harder for Charlotte to keep the two sides of herself from being exposed to the man with whom she has fallen in love.

The paranormal elements of Unmasking Miss Appleby are easily integrated into Charlotte’s story as she learns about her family’s legacy along with the reader. She is unsure about her new abilities so we experience her fear and excitement at the same time as she does. Magic is an unknown force in the regular world so when things are revealed to Marcus his responses are just as genuine as my own might be. It’s very easy to be caught up in the romantic tension between Charlotte and Marcus and forget that she is wearing another face entirely for the closeness they share. In the beginning I wondered if Ms. Larkin was trying to send a very subdued message about the nature of attraction being a mental thing rather than a gender question, but things return to the status quo when Charlotte begins her seduction as a female.

I’ve read many romances with a woman disguised as a man but Ms. Larkin takes that idea to the extreme with Charlotte’s complete physical transformation. All of the little quirks an author normally folds into the heroine’s masquerade are explored and yet they feel fresh since Charlotte isn’t just wearing pants, she is anatomically a man with all of the responses that go with it. Along with all of her newfound knowledge about being a male Charlotte also comes to appreciate what it means to be female and to embrace her own sexuality. She offers herself to Marcus believing the encounter will strictly be a physical response to her attraction; however she finds that sharing herself with Marcus gives her power and a freedom that she never had before.

I could go on forever about how enjoyable reading Unmasking Miss Appleby was. From the clever twist in a standard romantic device to a story of female empowerment in a restrictive time there are many magical things for a reader to discover.

Someone to Love (Westcott #1) by Mary Balogh

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Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family – including the daughter no one knew he had . . .

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna . . .

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.

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Published by Signet, November 2016

Time and setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Reviewed by Wendy

The new Westcott series from Mary Balogh is looking to be yet another winner for this great lady of Historical Romance. The first in this saga, Someone to Love has an original synopsis with some fascinating characters and with another seven books to follow, I am rubbing my hands together in anticipation.

Anna Snow has lived out twenty-one of her twenty-five years in an orphanage, first as an inmate and latterly as a teacher. Never privy to her origins beyond some few vague, unexplained flashbacks, she has naturally always wondered about her earlier life and her parents; and like most young women in her situation, dreamed that perhaps she is the long lost daughter of distinguished parents. This last seed was planted by virtue of her having known that she has an unknown benefactor. However, that old adage, be careful what you wish for has come home to haunt her as the unexpected arrival of a letter summoning her to London drops her into the middle of a nightmare.

The widow of the recently deceased Earl of Riverdale has long been aware that her husband was secretly supporting an illegitimate child. Now that he is dead she seeks to mitigate any future claims on the new earl; to this end she instructs her solicitor to find the child and make a one off payment. But what follows is beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. Anna, unaware of what awaits her, has been instructed to arrive at the home of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby. On arrival, she is met with derision and suspicion, first by Avery who mistakes her for a servant and then by the late earl’s widow and family, who, believing her to be the earl’s by-blow, are shocked by her attendance at the reading of his last will and testament. What transpires is shocking; the earl had covertly married Anna’s mother and kept her existence and that of their child a secret. He had then married the current Countess only months before the death of Anna’s mother, meaning that Anna is the earl’s only legitimate child, Lady Anastasia Westcott. His three children – including the new earl – are illegitimate, the issue of a bigamous marriage. I loved the way Mary Balogh draws the reader into the familial gathering so that we actually feel the dawning realisation – step by step – of the family’s shocked reactions; denial, shock and despair – as they slowly digest the ramifications and what it will now mean for the earl’s disinherited, illegitimate family. Anna – herself just as shocked – nevertheless remains dignified and calm throughout as she is derided by everyone and then verbally attacked by one of her half-sisters. Her only thought through it all is that at last she has the family she has always craved and how she just wishes to help her stepmother and half-siblings.

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby – who is related to this family through the second marriage of his father, and as nominated guardian of the young earl – has been unobtrusively and quietly observing proceedings. A closed and seemingly impenetrable aristocrat with an unmistakable air of entitlement, he is drawn by the quiet dignity of the newly promoted Lady Anastasia – an attraction he is unable to quantify. An exquisitely beautiful man of only average height and slight build but with a carefully cultivated aura of ennui which he uses to keep people at a distance, he nevertheless does not need to raise his voice nor use anything other than a well aimed look to part crowds or gain complete subservience. On the face of it, the attraction between the understated, plainly dressed Anna and the immaculately elegant figure of Avery is beyond comprehension; nevertheless he feels compelled to take her under his wing and guide her through the pitfalls of a society which is completely alien to her. The development of the relationship between these two complete opposites is expertly and realistically achieved and it’s difficult not to root for them even though their eventual HEA seems unlikely.

Mary Balogh does not need to depend on ridiculous plotlines; her writing and storylines are always quietly addictive and plausible. Avery – no tall dark and handsome Adonis – is nevertheless absolutely delectable and loveable, albeit dangerous and not to be trifled with. His story in itself is compelling; what we learn about his past and how it has shaped the man he is is fascinating and finally he finds someone to love and trust in the delightfully ordinary and quietly determined Anna, herself desperately in need of a family and someone to love.

Someone to Love is a beautiful, gently moving but highly compelling love story with hidden depths. As far as I am concerned nothing that Mary Balogh writes is less than a fantastic read. I loved it and look forward with much anticipation to the next in the series.

VIRTUAL TOUR: A Raven’s Heart (Secrets and Spies #2) by K.C. Bateman

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In the war against France, Heloise Hampden is a high-value asset to the Crown. She’s cracked the enemy’s most recent communication, and for that, someone is trying to kill her. However, it’s the agent assigned to protect Heloise who poses the greatest threat to her heart: William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood. Heloise has quarreled with the man they call Raven since childhood, yet always maintained a chaste distance. She’s sure nothing will change, thanks to the disfiguring scar on her face. So why is she so enchanted by the sight of Raven’s jet-black hair, rakish smile, and wicked green eyes?

Nothing has changed. Raven still wonders how Hell-cat Hampden’s lithe body would feel pressed against his, but for the mission he must remind himself that the woman takes more pleasure in ancient languages than she does in seduction. His imprisonment six years ago broke him in a way that makes the prospect of love impossible. Still, his heart beats like mad whenever he’s within ten paces of Heloise, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe—even if that means taking her to Spain as an unwilling hostage. Protecting her from danger will be a challenge; protecting her from desire will be pure agony.

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EXCERPT

England, June 1816

“I’m a spy, not a bloody nursemaid!”

William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood, glared across the desk at his mentor, Lord Castlereagh.

The older man shook his head, supremely unmoved by his outburst. “Miss Hampden needs immediate protection. Someone’s targeting my code breakers and whoever killed Edward could also have discovered her identity. I can’t afford to lose her, too.”

Raven narrowed his eyes. “Use another agent.”

Castlereagh gave him one of those level, penetrating looks he so excelled at. “Who? Neither of her brothers are here; Nic’s in Paris, and Richard’s following a lead on that French forger he’s been after for months. Who else is left?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ve lost too many good men. First Tony got himself killed in France, then Kit disappeared. There’s been no news of him for months.”

Raven frowned. He refused to consider the distasteful probability that his friend was dead. Kit was like him, a master of survival. He could be deep undercover. But with every week that went by with no word it became harder and harder to stay positive.

“And now another good man, Edward Lamb, had been murdered,” Castlereagh sighed. “I don’t want Miss Hampden to be next.”

The older man was a master of applying just the right amount of pressure and guilt. He hadn’t made it to head of the Foreign Office without knowing how to manipulate people.

“You think I should entrust her to a less competent operative?” Castlereagh mused softly. “You’re not burdened by false modesty, Ravenwood. You know you’re the best I have. I was hoping you’d use your exceptional talent for survival to keep Miss Hampden alive, too.”

Raven sighed, well aware he was being backed into a corner. If it had been anyone else he wouldn’t have hesitated.

But Heloise Hampden was the fly in his ointment. The spoke in his wheel.

A total bloody menace.

Hellcat Hampden had been the subject of his guilty daydreams for years. What had started out as adolescent musings had matured into fevered erotic fantasies that showed absolutely no sign of abating. He’d told himself the attraction was because she was forbidden, tried to lose himself in other, far more available women. Nothing had worked. And while he’d rarely paid much attention to the monotonous sermons preached by the clergy, he was fairly sure there was something in the bible that said “thou shalt not covet thy best friend’s little sister.” Or words to that effect.

He was the last person she should be entrusted to. He’d sworn to stay away from her. Had avoided her quite successfully—give or take a few blessedly brief skirmishes—for the past six years. Hell, he’d traveled to the far corners of war torn Europe to try to forget her.

And now here he was, drawn back to her by some malevolent twist of fate.

As if his life wasn’t cursed enough already.

Over the past few years they’d settled into an uneasy, albeit barbed, truce; it was a sad reflection on his twisted nature that he preferred sparring with her to holding a reasonable conversation with anyone else.

His blood thrummed at the prospect of seeing her again and he smiled in self-directed mockery. Few things increased his heartbeat anymore. In combat he was a master of his emotions, sleek and deadly and efficient. Fighting barely elevated his pulse. He could kill a man without breaking a sweat. But put him ten paces away from that slip of a girl and a furious drummer took up residence in his chest, battering away against his ribs.

He shook his head. Being near her was a torture he both craved and abhorred, but he had a duty to keep her safe. A duty to her family, to Castlereagh, to the whole damn country. Much as he’d like someone else to deal with her, he didn’t trust anyone else. She was his to torment.

Castlereagh, the old devil, smiled, as if he already sensed Raven’s grudging acceptance. “That’s settled, then. She’s safe at home right now. You can go over and get her in the morning.”

He rose and strode to the door of the study, then flashed an amused glance at Raven’s immaculate evening attire and the mask resting on the desk. “I apologize for interrupting your evening, Ravenwood. I’ll leave you to your entertainments.”

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, October 2016

Time and Setting: England and Spain, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

A Raven’s Heart is both the second in K.C. Bateman’s Secrets and Spies series and her second published book – and what an exciting new addition to the genre she is. I was originally urged to read her début novel To Steal a Heart when it was first published by a respected friend/reviewer who was extremely impressed by it, but for various reasons, kept putting it off; now I’m wondering why on earth I didn’t jump to it immediately, because my friend knew me better than I knew myself and I was quite blown away by A Raven’s Heart.

William de l’lsle, Viscount Ravenwood, is an embittered and changed man since he was kidnapped six years earlier in an attempt to blackmail his grandfather, the Duke of Avondale. The duke, however, refused to pay the ransom demanded by the blackmailers, and misguidedly attempted to thwart the plot by employing his own investigators. Eventually, Ravenswood effected his own rescue and revenged himself upon his grandfather by refusing to have anything to do with him. Raven (as he is commonly known) then became an agent for the crown, a role for which he is well suited having gained confidence, fearlessness and ruthlessness whilst in captivity where he faced death on a daily basis. He fully accepts the new darker side to his character, but he can do little about the simmering attraction he feels for Heloise, a girl who can’t simply be seduced and left.

Heloise Hampden is highly intelligent with an unusual gift for intricate code breaking. Her talent has been discovered and utilised in the continuing war against the French who are anxious to liberate Bonaparte from exile and return him to power. As a result of her success at breaking the complex coded messages intercepted by English agents, her life is in danger, and Raven is assigned by Lord Castlereagh, head of the Foreign Office, as her protector.

Raven grew up as a friend to Heloise’s brothers, and the strong bond of friendship continues given that they are all in the same dangerous business. There has always been a spark of attraction between Raven and Heloise which they don’t acknowledge but which they keep under wraps by sniping at each other with petty insults. Heloise deciphers a message from the French which relates to a friend of Raven’s – fellow spy, Kit Carlisle – who is being held prisoner by the French. The message speaks of the possibility of an exchange of prisoners – Kit, for one of their valuable operatives; the exchange to take place in a village in Spain near the French border. And Raven, ruthless though he is, is also a man of integrity and loyal to a fault, so there is no question that he will do all in his power to rescue his friend; and as he must protect Heloise – she will travel with him.

The sexual tension between the two main protagonists fairly sizzles from beginning to end; Ms. Bateman has a rare talent for character development, they are superbly drawn – realistic and plausible. I just loved the tortured and damaged, but utterly gorgeous, Raven – what’s not to love about this charismatic hunk, flaws and all? Heloise – or Hell-cat as Raven refers to her – is a feisty, beautiful, headstrong and perceptive young woman. She is in love with Raven and always has been, but recognises the need to keep this revelation to herself. Instead she chips away at his defences and forces him to face up to his own shortcomings and feelings. These are two of the most likeable characters I have encountered recently in HR; although Heloise is an enlightened and strong young woman, she still retains her vulnerability and femininity; and although Raven is a cynical, fearless, arrogant, alpha male, he still has that little-boy-lost feel to his personality that we all love to love.

I thoroughly appreciated Ms. Bateman’s eloquent writing style and her scholarship is evident in many subjects, but in particular, I loved her references to characters and languages from classical civilisation, which added another layer to an already fascinating and intriguing story. I found myself constantly referring to the kindle dictionary and actually learned a lot. I was impressed by the well researched, historically correct background to the story and the non fictional historical characters interwoven with the fictional. The story is romantic, witty, tense, funny and interesting and kept me enthralled to the end. Ms. Bateman certainly hit the ground running with this, her first series, Secrets and Spies and I look forward with anticipation to more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

GIVEAWAY

K.C BATEMAN IS OFFERING A COPY OF TO STEAL A HEART (BOOK ONE IN THE SECRETS AND SPIES SERIES TO THREE LUCKY WINNERS! ENTER THE GIVEAWAY AT RAFFLECOPTER, BELOW.
The Giveaway is open for seven days, and the winner will be notified shortly after the release date. Please leave a comment stating your preferred format.

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About the Author

kate-bateman-author-picKate Bateman (writing as K. C. Bateman) wrote her first historical romance in response to a $1 bet with her husband who rashly claimed she’d ‘never finish the thing.’ She gleefully proved him wrong with a historical set in the Italian Renaissance. Now writing for Random House Loveswept, her ‘Secrets & Spies’ Regency-era trilogy features her trademark feisty, intelligent heroines, wickedly inappropriate banter, and heroes you want to alternately strangle and kiss—all mixed up in the intrigue and turmoil of the Napoleonic wars.

When not traveling to exotic locations ‘for research’, Kate leads a double life as a fine art appraiser and on-screen antiques expert for several TV shows in the UK. She splits her time between Illinois and her native England and writes despite three inexhaustible children and a husband who has flatly refused to read any of her books ‘unless she hits the NY Times Bestseller list.’ It is—naturally—her fervent desire to force the semi-illiterate, number-loving cynic to do so. He still owes her that dollar.

Kate loves to hear from readers. Contact her on Twitter @katebateman, Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon, Goodreads or via her website at www.kcbateman.com

The Autumn Throne (Eleanor of Aquitaine #3) by Elizabeth Chadwick

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England, 1176

Imprisoned by her husband, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, refuses to let her powerful husband bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her birthright. Freed only by Henry’s death, Eleanor becomes dowager Queen of England. But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry. Eleanor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to bring Richard his bride, and travels medieval Europe to ransom her beloved son. But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her warring sons, and find a place in the centres of power for her daughters. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s powerful story is brought to a triumphant and beautiful close by much-loved author Elizabeth Chadwick

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Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, October 2016

Time and Setting: England, 1176
Genre: Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 1.5
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

The Autumn Throne is the third and final book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy and brings to a close the riveting and fascinating story of this tremendously interesting woman. A duchess in her own right, but also a queen twice over, she was quite the stateswoman within the confines and attitudes of the times. She was a tigress where her children were concerned, especially her sons, but also – as revealed by this author’s scholarship and thorough research – a loving mother who suffered much in her ambitions for her children.

Eleanor – or more correctly – Alienor, was banished and held captive by her second husband Henry II after she supported her two eldest sons in a revolt against Henry. The Autumn Throne begins with Alienor having already served two years of what was to be fifteen years of imprisonment. She had already suffered the indignation of being publicly usurped by her husband’s mistress, and now, adding insult to injury, she has been incarcerated, with few luxuries and little or no company. Over the course of her fifteen years confinement she is occasionally summoned by her husband for various reasons – but always because he requires something from her. Occasionally she is given a few luxuries, but always her freedom is curtailed; however, never does she compromise her integrity in order to please Henry or to earn herself more comforts and often she is sent back into cold penury because of his anger at her obstinacy. In the end, her cruel imprisonment is brought to an end by the sudden death of Henry, and Richard honours his mother publicly as Queen of England.

Elizabeth Chadwick portrays Henry II as a cold and distant man; a man who never shows weakness and who seems undisturbed at the deaths of his own children – and that portrayal, as I see it – is spot on. The way I read and understand it, is that the author’s interpretation is based on his treatment of a wife who brought him many riches and lands, who faithfully stood by him, bore a large family in quick succession and – in the very early years of their marriage – played an active role in the governing of their vast joint holdings in England and France. Henry was a wheeler and dealer and as Ms. Chadwick succinctly showed in The Winter Crown he often got his fingers burned – one has only to think of the catastrophic failure of his attempt to deal with Thomas Becket. He seems to have been a man who was afraid to delegate power in case it diluted his own; this is borne out by the fact that he was shown to be a reasonably loving and caring father whilst his children were young but treated his sons as rivals once they grew to young adulthood.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s characters are beautifully drawn and developed and she brings the various members of the family and other peripheral characters to brilliant and vibrant life. My particular favourites are Richard and John. Richard, Alienor’s favourite son and the heir to her personal dominions of Gascony, Aquitaine and Poitou, is a stunning character, tall and golden, a god amongst men – truly worthy of his nickname of ‘Lion Heart’. In contrast, John is shown from an early age as being a sly troublemaker who wheedles his way into his father’s affections for his own gain – but as he is his father’s son, he has no real depth of feeling and cares for few. In the end he leaves his father alone to die a degrading and undignified death.

Alienor outlived all but one of her sons. In this book, the events leading up to Richard’s death – her frantic race to be by his side – and her dreadful sorrow are palpable and empathetically portrayed by this author who has expertly mixed her vast historical knowledge and research with her immense talent for transporting us into the moment.

I love Elizabeth Chadwick’s clever little observations/historic touches and how she reaches her conclusions as to how they may have come into being. Such as how we see Alienor overseeing the carving of the effigy of Henry’s tomb in Fontevrault Abbey, Chinon and her reasoning as to why he is depicted as a young man. And too, there is Alienor’s own effigy, and the possibility that she may have had a hand in the planning and design of it; the explanation of her own attire (her headdress) and the fact that she is holding an open book.

The Autumn Throne is a wonderful ending to a fantastic series. Alienor of Aquitaine has been adroitly and sympathetically portrayed by this great author of historical fiction and as has been the case with William Marshal, I suspect that she has increased the level of interest in this fascinating, medieval queen. A highly recommended must-read for fans of historical fiction.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

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On the night of the Parkhurst ball, someone had a scandalous tryst in the library.

Was it Lord Canby, with the maid, on the divan? Or Miss Fairchild, with a rake, against the wall? Perhaps the butler did it.

All Charlotte Highwood knows is this: it wasn’t her. But rumors to the contrary are buzzing. Unless she can discover the lovers’ true identity, she’ll be forced to marry Piers Brandon, Lord Granville–the coldest, most arrogantly handsome gentleman she’s ever had the misfortune to embrace. When it comes to emotion, the man hasn’t got a clue.

But as they set about finding the mystery lovers, Piers reveals a few secrets of his own. The oh-so-proper marquess can pick locks, land punches, tease with sly wit . . . and melt a woman’s knees with a single kiss. The only thing he guards more fiercely than Charlotte’s safety is the truth about his dark past.

Their passion is intense. The danger is real. Soon Charlotte’s feeling torn. Will she risk all to prove her innocence? Or surrender it to a man who’s sworn to never love?

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 2016
Time and Setting: Nottinghamshire, 1819
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Sara

Tessa Dare manages to find the best of both worlds in her latest release Do You Want to Start a Scandal. Combining the strong-willed and passionate women of her Spindle Cove series with the pop culture winks and humor of her Castles Ever After series creates a hilarious and thoughtful story of love between polar opposites.

It all started with the best of intentions. Miss Charlotte Highwood had hoped to warn his lordship the Marquess of Granville about the tricks her mother might attempt to bring them together during the Parkhurst house party. Knowing that she and the lofty peer wouldn’t suit each other as partners Charlotte decides to outsmart her mother by talking to Granville first and making a plan to keep as far from the other as possible for the duration of the party. Finding him alone in Lord Parkhurst’s library seems like the perfect chance to let him know of her plan; however their meeting is rudely interrupted by two other guests barging into the library. Charlotte and Granville hide together in the window seat, managing to hear every moment of the lover’s tryst happening on the other side of the curtain. When the coast is clear they try to leave the scene but the young master of the house sees them in the hallway and raises a cry of alarm. As the other party guests start converging in the hallway the damage to Charlotte’s good name has been done and everyone believes that she and Granville were the library lovers.

Piers Brandon had hoped to keep a low profile while attending the house party. If he had stayed focused on his task of investigating Lord Parkhurst and played his well-rehearsed role of the bored peer then he could have safely maneuvered Charlotte out of the library before they were discovered together. Somehow her forward but charming way of speaking threw him off of his game just enough for him to make a mistake; however Piers isn’t the type to allow an error to go uncorrected. Acting the noble gentleman, Piers makes it seem to all the guests that he and Charlotte have an understanding and he later discusses a real engagement with the woman herself. When she seems more than a bit reluctant to accept his suit Piers puts all of his skills at seduction to use by overcoming Charlotte’s misgivings about a match and showing her just how good they can be together.

I will stop right there with the plot synopsis because how the story unfolds for Charlotte and Piers is too good to be spoiled. On the surface they seem like the most unlikely pair to have such chemistry together. He’s brusque and logical while she’s lighthearted and a bit of a romantic. There’s an age gap which Charlotte notes on more than one occasion that should also keep them from having anything in common. But once they begin to peel the layers back on who they really are there are so many things that make them perfect for each other. Charlotte is smart enough to catch onto Piers’ dry wit and they are amused by the same absurdities they witness at the house party. She can see right through his mask of the lordly Marquess to the man beneath it all who could use a confidante. I adored their conversations not only for the playfulness that sneaks into their remarks but also how well they talk and hear what is being said. Piers tries to keep Charlotte in the dark with his own plans and yet she can understand the subtext and calls him on his duplicity.

Piers may be the smartest man in whatever room he’s in and yet he completely misses the clues within himself that he’s falling for Charlotte. He thinks he’s losing his touch for secrecy and such but it’s more that Charlotte just captures all of his focus whenever she’s in the room with him. She has an exuberance that makes her character different from the two older Highwood sisters and yet she fears that she has nothing to distinguish herself within the family. It was interesting to see both characters believe one thing about themselves but discover so much more as they fell in love. There is an easiness to Charlotte and Piers’ romance that keeps the tone of the entire book very light even when Charlotte learns more about Piers’ darker side.

The humor made things even more enjoyable. I found myself laughing out loud during Mrs. Highwood’s conversation with Charlotte about the wedding night and her silly examples of the male and female parts. This was one of those moments where I’m certain the author was having the most fun writing as she managed to wedge modern emojis into an historical setting. Charlotte’s declaration of love was also a funny moment as her heart gets ahead of her brain and she manages to garble those three little words. I even liked the addition of the young Parkhurst sibling’s ridiculous accusations of a MURDER occurring in the library and trying to capture Piers as the culprit. I love a story that doesn’t get itself get bogged down by all the deep feelings of the characters and just has some fun in creating the romantic situation.

As a fan of both previous series I appreciated the return of several beloved characters as it brought both worlds together in a believable way. We see Piers’ brother Rafe, both of Charlotte’s older sisters with their spouses and of course her aggressively matchmaking mother. I’m not sure if Do You Want to Start a Scandal was intended to close out the Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series or launch them both into a new direction with a few new characters but I’ll be eager to see what comes next.

AUDIO REVIEW: Katie Mulholland by Catherine Cookson – Narrated by Susan Jameson

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Some women are destined to arouse in men either fierce hatred or insatiable desire. Such a woman was Katie Mulholland.

At 15, a scullery maid in the house of the Rosires, she had been raped by the master. Now, many years later, she had enough money to maintain three carriages if she wanted to, and she was on her way to see Bernard Rosier under very different circumstances.

There was no pride in Katie Mulholland’s heart, however, only fear, for half of Tyneside still talked about the way she had flouted convention, and sniggered about the way she had made her money. So she had decided that her only hope was to climb above them, and that she would conquer her fear with power…

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Publisher and Release Date: Audible Studios, August 2016 (Originally published 1967)

Time and Setting: 1860 – WWII – North East England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content/5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

Catherine Cookson’s tales of northern England were a part of my growing up. I have many on my ‘keeper’ shelf and have read many of my favourites by her, over and over again. She was a South Tyneside lass, illegitimate and born into abject poverty with a ‘sister’ she later discovered was her mother. Most of her stories are based on the people and places she was familar with. Her stories are gritty, shocking, sometimes sad but always real and compelling, and it is obvious that the poverty she writes of has been inspired by and lived through, not just researched. There is always the obligatory happy ending, but it is not easily reached. Ms.Cookson’s characters are, in my opinion always far more realistic than the norm – very few hearts and roses for her heroes/heroines. And one of the things I have always loved about her writing is that these heroes and heroines are not always beautiful or classically handsome – often they are working men and women who have suffered hardships and misery but who almost always triumph over adversity.

Katie Mulholland spans a period of some eighty odd years, beginning when Katie is just fifteen and has been working as a scullery maid at ‘the big house’ owned by the local landowners and coal mining family, the Rosiers. The tenants and workers of the Rosiers are treated abominably, they live in houses not fit for animals, work in the family mine, and even have to spend their hard earned ‘brass’ (money) on groceries at vastly inflated costs at the company shop. Katie is considered by her cohorts to be lucky not to be working down the mine or in the local rope works. A beautiful, sunny natured child, she is adored by her family and every fortnight, her trip across the moors on her afternoon off brings light into their soul destroying existence. Then one day Katie is brought home in disgrace, she is pregnant and will not name the father of her child for fear of what will happen when her father retaliates; as she knows he will. Bernard Rosier, the eldest son, raped her on the night of his engagement ball and, fearing the repercussions should his fiancée’s powerful family discover his perfidy, forces Katie into marriage with the mine supervisor, Mark Bunting, a man who is despised by the pit men. He holds the miner’s livelihoods in the palm of his hand and by marrying him, Katie will earn the derision of the local people. She marries against the wishes of her family, thinking to save them, but as it turns out, nothing can stop the terrible and tragic series of events which sees Katie and her family on the road with her baby daughter. By now Katie has become the lynchpin of her family. Like children, they all look to her for guidance, and eventually, because of the overwhelming love she feels for them and also the guilt as a result of her pregnancy, she is forced into making a heart-rending decision which will have far reaching consequences. She may think that she has left the Rosier family behind, but her life is inextricably linked with them forever.

Katie meets and eventually marries a Swedish/Danish ship’s captain, Andree Franenkel, whom she calls Andy and, through him becomes a rich and powerful woman. But again and again, her life is touched by the vindictive and tyrannical Bernard Rosier who holds her accountable for every ill that has ever befallen him and refers to her as ‘the Mullholland woman’.

Katherine Cookson’s characters, are real, down-to-earth and intuitively developed. Bernard Rosier, though initially handsome and powerful, degenerates into a dissolute, menacing and frightening monster and each time he made an appearance I was on the edge of my seat. Katie is a beautiful and talented young women, but no matter how powerful she becomes, she never quite conquers her fear of Bernard Rossier and such is the power of Catherine Cookson’s writing that we, the reader, feel that fear, which is palpable and overshadows Katie’s entire life. Andy is just adorable, large, blonde, bearded and older than her by some sixteen years, he is utterly captivated by her from the first night he meets her. It is Andy who is Katie’s salvation and it is he who recognises that the only way he can help his ‘Kaa-tee’ kick poverty and her fear of Bernard Rossier is by making her rich and powerful and sets out to do just that – and succeeds with amazing results.

Susan Jameson, a British actress of some repute, is absolutely superb as the narrator of Katie Mulholland and handles the large cast of male and female characters, northern dialect, upper classes and – later on in the story – an American, with aplomb. I don’t believe that there is another actress who could capture and hold without wavering, and without putting a foot wrong, the dialects, humour and characters through almost twenty one hours of narration in the way that she does. Considering that this story spans such a long period, Katie’s voice goes from a youthful fifteen year old, through to a very old lady and Susan Jameson adapts her own tone and timbre to take account of this ageing process whilst still making Katie very recognisable. Andy’s English, spoken with a strong Scandinavian accent and an undoubtedly male, deeper intonation, is superbly done and the all consuming love he feels for his ‘Kaa-tee’ shines through and is really quite moving at times; even the jaunty sailor in him is apparent.

I just loved this feast of a book, one of Catherine Cookson’s earlier novels, first published in the 1960s. Susan Jameson brings it to glittering life with her very talented acting skills; this is no light listen and it is one which will probably leave the listener feeling wrung-out. Nevertheless I highly recommend it. There are more and more of this author’s books becoming available in audio, all narrated by Susan Jameson and I am holding my breath and waiting for two all time favourites to become available – The Dwelling Place and Kate Hannigan.