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AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

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Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.

Devil in Spring (The Ravenels #3) by Lisa Kleypas

devil in spring

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An eccentric wallflower . . .

Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

A cynical rake . . .

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

A perilous plot . . .

After succumbing to Gabriel’s skilled and sensuous persuasion, Pandora agrees to become his bride. But soon she discovers that her entrepreneurial endeavors have accidentally involved her in a dangerous conspiracy-and only her husband can keep her safe. As Gabriel protects her from their unknown adversaries, they realize their devil’s bargain may just turn out to be a match made in heaven

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon, February 2017

Time and Setting: London and Sussex, 1876
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

If, like me, you have read and adored Devil in Winter, you have probably been eagerly anticipating this book featuring the grown son of Sebastian and Evie, now the Duke and Duchess of Kingston. And if, like me, you read the prologue on Lisa Kleypas’s website last year, where Sebastian seduces a nursery maid, playfully pretending not to know that she is actually his wife, your anticipation grew even more. And you may be asking whether this books is as wonderful as Devil in Winter, to which I must answer with regret, “not even close.”

This new Viscount St. Vincent, Gabriel, is paired with Lady Pandora Ravenel, a sister of the hero and heroine in the first two volumes of The Ravenels series. I found the first book in the series, Cold-Hearted Rake, to be okay but not up to Kleypas’s usual standards. The second book, Marrying Winterborne, was much better, and the audio version, narrated by Mary Jane Wells, was a full five-star experience. Lisa Kleypas has been one of my favorite historical romance authors for years, but this book simply did not engage me to the extent that I’ve come to expect.

Gabriel is a hero who is too good to be true. We are told that he is a “cynical rake,” but we don’t see much of that in his behavior. He is handsome and charming and loves his family. He doesn’t seem to gamble or drink to excess, and he has made his own fortune by shrewd investing. While he does have a mistress, he doesn’t visit her even once after he meets Pandora. Supposedly he has some dark sexual desires, but that really comes to nothing more than liking a bit of light bondage. In short, “Gabriel” is an apt moniker for this man, for he is an angel.

Pandora, on the other hand, is a whirlwind, often unladylike, and firmly determined to run her own business. At a time when board games were beginning to become popular, she has invented a game (a story roughly patterned after the woman who invented the precursor to Monoply in 1903) and persuaded her brother-in-law, department-store magnate Rhys Winterborne, to sell it. When she meets Gabriel, her life is consumed with setting up a factory, hiring workers, and figuring out the final details of her invention.

Gabriel and Pandora are caught in a compromising situation at a society ball; although both are entirely innocent of any misbehavior, Lord Chaworth, one of the two men who happen upon them, insists that the right thing must be done. The other man is inclined to be more lenient, as he is Lord Westcliff, from It Happened One Autumn, an old friend of Gabriel’s father. I was hoping for more Westcliff, but he makes just the briefest of cameo appearances. (As it turns out, Chaworth may be harboring a grudge, as Gabriel’s father admits, “There may have been a brief dalliance with his wife a few years before I married your mother.”)

Gabriel and Pandora confess all to their families, but when Gabriel proposes marriage, Pandora turns him down flat. She has no intention of giving up her commercial aspirations and allowing her business to be controlled by a husband, which was how the laws of England stood in 1876. Gabriel has no desire to marry, but he finds himself intrigued by Pandora and rather shocked that she won’t have him. He has the typical Victorian male reaction to Pandora’s plans, and Ms. Kleypas does a good job of showing how Pandora gradually brings him around to understanding her distaste for becoming essentially some man’s property.

Gabriel’s parents decide to invite Pandora to their estate in Sussex so that the couple can become better acquainted, and before you know it they are in love. This happened way too quickly for my taste. Moreover, as I became better acquainted with Pandora, I found her less and less appealing. She was overly stubborn, uncompromising, thoughtless toward others’ feelings, and lacking in common sense. Her demands are non-negotiable, but sweet Gabriel is so smitten that he constantly looks for ways to assuage her fear of being a married woman. I simply could not understand why Gabriel was so enchanted by her.

I don’t think that it is a spoiler to disclose that Gabriel and Pandora do get married, as it occurs well before the end of the book. It is after they are married, however, that a so-so story becomes completely undone. Pandora is targeted by some murderous Fenians, an Irish nationalist organization, in a plot twist that simply comes out of nowhere. It felt as though Kleypas decided that there had not been any angst and the story needed some. I think she could have done better by showing us how Gabriel and Pandora, who had married rather quickly, adjusted to their new situation. In other words, some character development would have been nice.

Because it is Kleypas, the writing is competent, but I simply did not find it up to the standards of her earlier books. In Devil in Winter, Sebastian was a real devil who was gradually redeemed by the love of a devoted wife whom he married for money. Both characters are changed by their relationship, and this happened in a believable manner. Devil in Spring, however, has no devil, and the only character who changes is Gabriel, as he completely succumbs to Pandora’s demands. Perhaps Kleypas would have been better served to give Gabriel some other parents; to do so would not have required many changes in the manuscript, as Sebastian and Evie are rarely seen. And perhaps I am being unfair to even compare Gabriel’s story to that of his parents, but Kleypas must have known that expectations would be especially high.

I have read every historical romance written by Lisa Kleypas and I will continue to do so, notwithstanding my disappointment with this book, because she is a better writer than 90% of the HR authors on the market. Many other reviewers have given this book high ratings, so perhaps my disappointment has caused me to overlook things that those readers enjoyed. You be the judge.

SPOTLIGHT & GIVEAWAY: Proud Mary (Roxton Saga #5) by Lucinda Brant

RHR-Proud-Mary-Lucinda-Brant

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The Roxtons are back! Romance. Drama. Intrigue. Family secrets. There’s never a dull moment for the 18th Century’s first family…

Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.

Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.

Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.

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OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Sprigleaf Pty Ltd.

Time and Setting: Gloucestershire, 1777
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I love historical romance series featuring large families and covering a sizable period of time, and Lucinda Brant’s Roxton books fit that bill. The series begins in Paris in 1745, moves to Georgian England, and covers nearly thirty years, during which the expected births, deaths, love affairs, and marriages occur.

Proud Mary, the fifth book, opens in 1777 and features Lady Mary Cavendish, widow of Sir Gerald Cavendish, who has been dead for two years. Sir Gerald and Lady Mary were minor characters in the earlier books, where we learned that Gerald was a conceited bag of hot air who was shunned by Polite Society, disliked by his neighbors, and cruel to his wife and daughter. Lady Mary was completely under his thumb, which is not surprising since she grew up with a domineering snob of a mother, the Countess of Strathsay.

Sir Gerald was both impressed and envious that Mary was the daughter of an earl, a great-granddaughter of King Charles II, and a cousin to the Duchess of Roxton. Indeed, beginning when she was twelve, Mary had spent the happiest years of her life living at Roxton’s estate as a member of the family. When she returned to her mother, Lady Strathsay drilled into Mary’s head that women of her station had a higher calling than their inferiors, that she must precisely follow the rigid rules of society, and that she owed a duty to her noble lineage to marry well and produce sons. Mary was so browbeaten and miserable that she accepted an arranged marriage to Sir Gerald.

Now Sir Gerald is dead, leaving Mary with a nice estate (for her lifetime), Abbeywood, and a mountain of debts. In a final act of maliciousness, Gerald named the local squire, Christopher Bryce, as co-guardian, with the Duke of Roxton, of Mary’s daughter Theodora. “Teddy,” as she is known to all is a ten-year-old tomboy who likes nothing better than riding and hiking the wilds of Gloucestershire. She adores her “Uncle Christopher,” and he clearly returns the feeling. Seeing the sweet interplay between them is the first hint that Christopher has a heart beneath his overly sober exterior.

Christopher is charged with running Abbeywood and helping retire the debts that Gerald left behind. He is a strict administrator, and Mary chafes under his budgetary restraints. Mary politely loathes him, and while he is punctiliously correct toward Mary, he has quietly been in love with her since he returned to Gloucestershire eight years ago. Christopher’s years away from home are a mystery to Mary and the rest of their neighbors, and Christopher knows that his shameful secrets from that time would horrify a gentle lady such as she. For reasons unknown, he left suddenly for the Continent at the age of eighteen and cut himself off entirely from his parents. More than a decade later, he returned home to nurse his dying mother and brought his blind Aunt Kate to live with him. Unbeknownst to everyone, he also has done a bit of spying for England’s Spymaster General, Lord Shrewsbury, and to that end he had befriended Sir Gerald, whom Shrewsbury suspected of selling secrets to the French.

Squire Bryce was portrayed as dour and tyrannical in the previous Roxton book Dair Devil, which led me to have some skepticism about his suitability as a hero in this book. Ms. Brant, however, cleverly allows the reader to discover the real Christopher at the same time that Mary does. They begin to have forthright conversations, and along with Mary we learn that Christopher is an honorable man with strong principles but also strong emotions, which he keeps deeply hidden. Christopher grows more deeply in love with Mary, but knowing that she is an aristocrat and he is the son of nobody, he accepts that there can never be anything between them. He also comes to realize that Gerald had lied and exaggerated about virtually everything – even claiming that Roxton was Teddy’s true father. Gerald was no spy, Christopher decides, and so the hunt must continue.

Mary feels an attraction to Christopher, but she does not consider him as a possible mate even though she is desperately lonely. She is thirty years old and has never been in love or been loved. She has never shared a passionate kiss with any man, nor did the selfish Sir Gerald ever show her pleasure in the marriage bed. She loves her daughter with all her heart, but hopes she still has the capacity to love a man. Since her mother is insisting that it’s Mary’s duty to her family to marry again, she hopes that perhaps she will find love with a new husband.

When Mary pays a rare visit to Christopher’s office one day, he is not a little surprised when she announces that there is a ghost in the house. The couple join forces to discover tangible evidence of an intruder and set out to detect his true identity. His unmasking turns their little world upside down and threatens to bring an end to their budding romance, for the ghost is actually the man whom Mary once hoped to marry. I won’t disclose more, as I think the clever twists and turns of this story should not be spoiled.

Mary and Christopher make a lovely couple, and all of my misgivings about him melted away. In fact, by the time Mary realizes that she has fallen in love with him, I was a little bit in love too. It was wonderful to watch Mary fall for him, always fighting her mother’s little voice in her head pointing out his unsuitability for an earl’s daughter. Equally wonderful was watching Mary gain confidence in herself and fighting to overcome the years of being denigrated and bullied by her mother and her husband. Christopher, for his part, gradually and with great reluctance reveals his past to a shocked Mary, expecting at every turn that she will turn away from him in disgust. Of course, she does not.

I always feel a bit like a time traveler when reading one of Ms. Brant’s books. Using her impeccable research, she creates such an authentic 18th century world, and employing her wonderful imagination, she writes multi-layered stories with intricate plots. These talents are put to particularly good use in Proud Mary. I think that we 21st century readers often have a difficult time appreciating the class-based strictures of the past, and many authors who write cross-class romances downplay the difficulties that would have faced the duke who married his housekeeper, for example. Ms. Brant does not fall into the trap of making things easy for Mary and Christopher, however, and I felt a better understanding of how oppressive, yet widely accepted, the class structure was. It helps here that Mary’s Roxton relations are accepting of their relationship, but then we have seen in earlier books that they are somewhat non-conformist and powerful enough to do as they please.

As Christopher and Mary work toward their happily ever after, we get to see all of her extended family – all of whom, along with young Teddy, play a role in bringing Christopher and Mary together.

Ms. Brant has said that her next book will be Henri-Antoine’s story, but dare we hope that someday there is one pairing Teddy and Jack? I suppose that I am looking for ways for the Roxton Family Saga to continue for a long time. I will add that while Proud Marycan be read as a standalone, there is much more pleasure to be had by reading the series in order and learning to know and love this family as much as I and many other readers have.

Each book has been a joy to read, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

EXCERPT

“A-a—ghost? You saw a ghost?”

Christopher resisted the urge to roll his eyes and huff his disbelief. A ghost!? God grant him patience. He had interrupted his busy morning schedule for this. Correction. He had interrupted it for her. But she was talking fanciful nonsense.

Yet, in the years he had known her, fanciful was not a word he associated with the daughter of the Earl of Strathsay. Prim, and practical, yes. And proud—oh yes, the Lady Mary was very proud. But fanciful? Never. So there had to be some basis in fact for her belief in a ghost, the fear in her eyes told him so. She truly believed it.

And he believed her. It was just that he did not believe the house was haunted.

So he took a moment to compose himself, lest he appear supercilious, and awaited further explanation.

Lady Mary took his silence for condescending disbelief.

“I did not see it, Mr. Bryce. I heard it.”

~~~

Mary knew the moment she uttered the word ghost that Mr. Bryce did not believe her.

It was not so much his tone as the way in which his square jaw clamped shut, and his nostrils flared as he pressed his lips together, as if forcing himself not to smile. She was surprised he hadn’t punctuated his incredulity with a roll of his fine eyes. It must have taken all his self-control not to laugh out loud, too.

But she was not deterred by his skepticism. She had expected it; would have been surprised had he reacted in any other way. She had been incredulous herself. But it was the only explanation that made sense. After all, no one had used Sir Gerald’s rooms since his death two years ago. And if anyone did enter them, it was the servants during the autumn cleaning in preparation for winter, to dust what was not under holland covers, and to check that the fireplaces, one in the bedchamber and one in the dressing room, were not inhabited by rodents or birds. And then the servant door by which they had entered was locked again, and the key given to the housekeeper. The main door to the bedchamber, which led onto the corridor, had been locked and this key given to Lady Mary on the day of her husband’s funeral. She had not unlocked it since.

The autumn clean had been over a month ago now. And there was no reason for any of the servants to enter those rooms again, nor had they. She had checked with the housekeeper. And certainly no one would enter them at night, which was when she had heard the noises. And so she told Mr. Bryce, doing her best to appear as if she were discussing the everyday, and not something incorporeal. And because she was delaying for as long as possible confiding in him what she feared most.

“And where did you hear this specter, my lady?”

“I was in my bedchamber. The noises came from Sir Gerald’s dressing room.”

“Thank-you for the clarification. What time was this?”

“At night. It was late.”

“You were not—dreaming—perhaps?”
“No. I thought so at first. I thought I was having a nightmare. But when I was fully awake I knew I was not dreaming, which was far more disturbing than any nightmare.”

“Did you hear these—noises—just the once?”

“No. I was woken again later that night by similar noises. Which is why I-I decided to come to you.”

“Do you think that perhaps what you heard was a cat on the roof, or a bird nesting in the tree outside your window?

Or indeed, it may have been a branch of that tree scraping against the window pane?”

Mary considered this for a moment, then shook her head.

“No, Mr. Bryce. The noises could not have been made by those things. The sounds were different entirely. And it was a still night—has been still all this week. So there was no wind to stir the branches, or whistle through the sills.”

“What precisely did you hear, my lady?”

“My first thought, when I was still half-asleep, was that it was Sir Gerald come through from his bedchamber to visit me. To do so he must walk through his dressing room, which is the room that divides his bedchamber from mine…”

“And so you heard footfall?” Christopher gently prompted when Mary’s voice trailed off and she looked down at her hands.

Mary shook her head again, then slowly lifted her gaze to his brown eyes.

“No. Not footfall…”

GIVEAWAY

 

Lucinda is offering FIVE lucky people the chance to win an eCopy of Proud Mary, book five in her acclaimed Roxton Saga!

Enter at Rafflecopter, below. The Giveaway is open for the next seven days and winners will be notified shortly after the closing date. No purchase is necessary

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucinda-Brant-AuthorLucinda Brant is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of award-winning Georgian historical romances and mysteries. Her novels are described as “smart, witty, historical adventures full of heart wrenching drama with a happily ever after”. Lucinda is a university trained historian and a retired history and geography teacher who now writes full time. She has been researching and reading about the 18th Century for forty years, and still finds the Georgian era just as fascinating now as then. Lucinda drinks too much coffee and is addicted to Pinterest. Come join her there in her 18th Century world: http://www.pinterest.com/lucindabrant/, and also at:
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A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock #1) by Sherry Thomas

A Study in scarlet women

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With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, October 2016

RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a hint of romance to come
Time and Setting: 1886, England
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Sherry Thomas is one of the best historical romance authors of the past decade, so I had no concerns that she could write a good historical mystery. But Sherlock Holmes? As a woman? Even though I am a long-time Sherlockian, I am not fanatical about the sanctity of Conan Doyle’s canon – so why not? I can enthusiastically report that Thomas has pulled off this challenge in a first-rate manner.

It is very easy to see Sherlock in Charlotte Holmes’s personality, mannerisms, and intellect. Conan Doyle never showed us the very young Sherlock, so Thomas is free to experiment here. Charlotte is the youngest of four daughters born to the unhappily-wed Sir Henry and Lady Holmes. Henrietta, the eldest, has modeled herself after her unpleasant mother, and is married to a Mr. Cumberland. It remains to be seen whether she has adopted her mother’s habit of slapping hapless servants and unruly daughters. The next sister, Bernadine, is so withdrawn that she is no longer taken out in society; today we probably would diagnose her as autistic, perhaps epileptic, and anorexic to boot. Sister Livia, Charlotte’s only friend, has had eight unsuccessful Seasons and is prone to depression. She at least takes pleasure from writing incessantly in her journal.

Charlotte is her father’s pet and her mother’s despair. She is sharply intelligent and blessed with an amazing memory as well as powers of observation and deduction. She is forthright to the point of rudeness and so completely uninterested in getting married that she has turned down several proposals. She is quite beautiful and has allowed her mother to dress her in the height of fashion, but underneath the veneer Charlotte is a determined non-conformist.

Although they play relatively minor roles in the book’s plot, I mention Charlotte’s family because Thomas paints a particularly affecting portrait of them in the first few chapters. It wasn’t really necessary, but it sets up the story very nicely. Such is the mark of an extraordinary writer. Moreover, this part of the story is written from Livia’s point of view and suggests that Livia may be the chronicler, i.e., a sort of Watson to Charlotte’s Sherlock.

Charlotte’s ambition is to become headmistress of a girls’ school, which is really quite silly, as she has never been to school, but that seems to be the only professional option available to a gently-bred young lady. Her father encourages Charlotte’s aspiration, but as the book opens Charlotte is infuriated to see that he is succumbing to his wife’s pressure to marry her off.

Although Charlotte is supposedly very smart, she embarks on a farcical scheme to get herself ruined (by a carefully selected married man) and thus made ineligible for marriage. The scheme goes spectacularly awry, and Charlotte flees her home and reckons she can find some type of respectable employment, although with no references and no experience, she finds it rough going. Until, that is, she meets and instantly feels an affinity for a colorful, older lady whose army officer husband died in Afghanistan. This Mrs. Watson is a comfortably wealthy but lonely former actress who has unsuccessfully been looking for a paid companion. She is intrigued by Charlotte’s special talent for solving mysteries, and when she offers Charlotte the position as her companion, the reader can see that she envisions them as partners in adventure.

Aside from her sweet sister Livia, Charlotte has one other friend: Lord Ingram Ashburton, to whom she has been close since childhood. Indeed, when Lord Ingram enters the plot, it is clear that he and Charlotte are in love with one another. Not that they would admit it, for he is unhappily married and far too honorable to act upon his improper feelings. Lord Ingram, a gentleman archeologist, has served as a go-between for Charlotte and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Treadles (ah, we have our Lestrade) where Charlotte’s talent has helped solve a few cases. Treadles, however, does not know that Charlotte is Sherlock; he thinks she is Sherlock’s sister.

This, then, is the set-up for the mysteries that confront Inspector Treadles when Sherlock Holmes publishes a letter connecting three, apparently unrelated and apparently natural, deaths:

It has come to my attention that Mr. Harrington Sackville’s death, by apparent overdose of chloral, may not be an isolated incident: Lady Amelia Drummond preceded him in death by a week and a half; the Dowager Baroness Shrewsbury followed a mere twenty-four hours later. Lady Amelia was first cousin to Mr. Sackville’s elder brother by the same father, Lord Sheridan, and godmother to one of Baroness Shrewsbury’s children.

With this shocking announcement – and how could I resist saying it? – the game is afoot. I found this book to be quite as good as any Conan Doyle mystery (and I have read them all many times). The characters are intriguing and well-drawn, and the pacing is excellent. As with any mystery, not everyone is completely honest, but neither did I notice anything so misleading as to be considered unfair. Although this book is not an historical romance like many of Sherry Thomas’s other books, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries in a historical setting. I can’t wait for the next book, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, due out in September 2017, where Charlotte’s client is looking for her missing lover. And that client is none other than Lord Ingram’s wife!

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell #2) by Deanna Raybourn

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Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, January 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical Mystery/Adventure with a hint of romance to come
Time and Setting: London, 1888
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Veronica Speedwell returns for her second adventure with Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known to all (except his family) as Stoker. Veronica, who has made a career of sorts of lepidoptery, is the natural daughter of a Very Important Person, as revealed in the first book, A Curious Beginning. Stoker is a viscount’s younger son, who fled his unhappy home as a young man, became a doctor in the Royal Navy, and now has a significant reputation as a naturalist. (He also practices taxidermy, which makes for a couple of fairly gross scenes.)

Veronica and Stoker are true soul mates, minus the romance (mostly). In the first book, Veronica mused,

“I recognized his nature as my own. It was as if we were two castaways from a far-off land, adrift among strangers whose ways we could not entirely understand. But something within us spoke the same language, for all our clashes of words.”

Both are committed non-conformists who disdain the rules of Victorian society. They are witty, highly intelligent, fearless, strong, and loyal, and they have come to trust one another. In a neat role-reversal, however, Veronica is the more plain-spoken, logical one, while Stoker is reticent, more emotional, and more easily embarrassed. Although he agrees to pose nude for a sculptor/suspect, Veronica often shocks him with her forthright attitudes about sex. Their conversations, and frequent arguments, crackle with intelligence and plenty of humor.

Both of these books are mysteries, but the stories are really about Veronica and Stoker and the emerging personal and professional relationships between these brilliant, eccentric people. Don’t get me wrong – the mystery here is quite good and full of palace intrigue, decadent noblemen, bohemian artists, gothic secret societies, and politics.

The characters, however, drive the story. After an inauspicious beginning in the first book, Veronica and Stoker are now fast friends and colleagues. Their patron, Lord Rosemorran, has employed them to catalogue his vast collection of “art, artifacts, natural history specimens, [and] mementos.” They live in separate out-buildings on Rosemorran’s Marylebone estate and work in the Belvedere, “built as a sort of freestanding ballroom and storehouse for an eccentric Rosemorran ancestor.”

Even though they spend their days together, neither Veronica nor Stoker has opened up to the other about their past lives. Each has many secrets, and Raybourn gradually reveals bits and pieces to the reader. Nor have they acknowledged the underlying sexual attraction between them, although there are baby steps in that direction in this book. We yearn to know more, but she gives us enough to satisfy, at least until the next book.

When Veronica insists upon investigating the murder for which Miles Ramforth has been convicted, despite Stoker’s deep reservations, he goes along, mostly out of a sense of protectiveness. I won’t go into the twists and turns in the plot; there are so many and, besides, the book will be more enjoyable not knowing what happens next. I did not figure out the truth on my own, and I caution readers that some characters are hiding a lot more than you think.

Raybourn also populates her book with a roster of characters who are, well, characters. She excels at this, and I am always entertained by the unusual people who surround the main couple. Lord Rosemorran is eccentric, but not nearly as colorful as his elderly visiting aunt, Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk. She is not exactly the dragon aunt often found in historical novels – she’s clearly fond of Veronica and flirts with Stoker – but she is fierce nonetheless. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch is ably led by the secretive Sir Hugo Montgomerie, who finds Veronica infuriating, while the “charmingly ambitious” Inspector Mornaday finds her alluring (and Stoker does not like it). The coterie of artists surrounding Sir Frederick Havelock, the greatest painter of the day, are appropriately unusual. Along with the murder victim, they all live at Havelock House, so Veronica and Stoker have lots of suspects to investigate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book but could not give it five-stars for one simple reason: Veronica is incredibly irritating, even though it isn’t always her fault. I think that Raybourn has overdone it in her effort to show how much of a non-conformist she is. Everyone reacts to her, so we hear too often about her professional achievements, her subtle beauty, and her shocking behavior. This is not a major criticism, and indeed a reader who has not read A Curious Beginning might not notice it. I expect Raybourn was attempting to include sufficient detail for new readers; I simply found it more than sufficient.

That minor quibble aside, this is a delightful book. Deanna Raybourn is an excellent writer has become one of my auto-buy authors. Readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of romance definitely should give this series a try.

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!

 

VIRTUAL TOUR: A Scandalous Adventure (Victorian Adventures #3) by Lillian Marek

A Scandalous Adventure

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They’re hiding a scandalous secret

When his monarch’s flighty fiancée disappears, Count Maximillian von Staufer is dispatched to find her. His search leads Max to discover not the princess, but a look-alike who could be her double. Desperate to avoid an international crisis, he conceives a plan that will buy some time—and allow him to get to know a beautiful Englishwoman.

And time is running out

Lady Susannah Tremaine and her young friend Olivia are staying at the Grand Hotel in Baden, where so far the most exciting part of the visit has been the pastries. But when a devastatingly handsome royal Germanic officer asks Olivia to impersonate a missing princess, Susannah finds herself drawn into a dangerous world of international intrigue as she tries to protect her friend—and her heart.

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EXCERPT

Lady Susannah burst into their hotel sitting room and marched furiously about, her hoops swinging wildly about her, endangering the ornaments cluttering the numerous small tables. It was most unladylike behavior. She did not care. She did not feel ladylike at the moment. Far from it. “Of all the improper, infuriating, arrogant, high-handed, overweening, pompous, insolent…” She pressed her lips tightly together.

“Have you run out of adjectives, dear?” asked Lady Augusta as she untied her bonnet and set it aside. “That was exciting, was it not? Positively exhilarating. But now, if you will excuse me, I believe I will take a short nap. Enjoyable though that little interlude was, I am not accustomed to so much excitement.” She smiled cheerfully at the girls and walked to her bedroom.

“Oh dear,” said Olivia. “Did we hurry back too quickly? Have we tired her out excessively? She was walking quite energetically on the way back. More energetically than usual. Unless that’s why she’s tired now.” She sat down on the sofa of their sitting room and looked worriedly at the door Lady Augusta had just closed.

Ignoring them both, Susannah continued to pace about, pulling off the remains of her hat. Its ribbons hung down dirty and dispirited. It looked as if that…that creature had stomped on it. “Look at this! It’s battered out of recognition. And it was my favorite.”

Olivia looked around at that. “It was? I thought you said this morning that you didn’t care for it and you wished the wind would blow it away.”

Susannah had the grace to look a bit embarrassed. “Well, all right. It wasn’t my favorite. But that doesn’t mean I want some ill-mannered behemoth to be responsible for its demise.”

“He was enormous, wasn’t he?” Olivia shivered delightedly. “Almost frightening, like the villain in a novel. Or the hero. You know—the dark, brooding one you can’t be sure about. You were really quite brave, the way you stood up to him.”

“Frightening?” Susannah raised her brows. “I wouldn’t call him frightening. And he certainly wasn’t brooding. He was even laughing at me. Maddening is more like it. Aggravating. Infuriating. Insufferable. I’ve never been treated in such a way.”

“But he was so very big. And he was so angry that he certainly frightened me when he appeared out of nowhere.”

Susannah wasn’t listening. “Maddening,” she repeated. “Insulting. Completely ill-mannered and boorish. Paying absolutely no attention to anything anyone was saying. He had one idea inside that thick skull of his, and nothing anyone said would even penetrate.”

Olivia tilted her head to the side and considered. “Well, he did listen to Lady Augusta. At least, he did eventually.”

“Ha. Listen to her, did he? He certainly didn’t believe her. Didn’t you notice that he followed us back to the hotel?” Susannah flopped down onto a chair and scowled.

“He did?” Olivia sat up in momentary alarm. “How do you know? You weren’t looking behind us.”

“I didn’t have to. There are so many windows on the Kurhaus that they reflect everything several times over. Shop windows too.”

“Does that mean he knows where to find us?”

“Well, of course he knows where to find us. Aunt Augusta told him where we are staying, remember? He was following us because he thought she was making it all up. He’s obviously incapable of recognizing the truth when he hears it. As if a lady like Aunt Augusta would tell lies.” Susannah sat up straighter and drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair. She ignored the fact that Aunt Augusta was capable of making up all sorts of tarradiddle if it amused her.

“Oh.” Olivia sat there chewing on her lip for a long minute. “Does that mean he still thinks I’m that princess? Is he likely to try to drag me off again? I don’t think I would care for that.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. If he has any sense—and I’m not saying he does—but if he has any intelligence at all, he will ask about us at the hotel, and they will tell him how long we have been here. Sooner or later he will have to accept that we are who we say we are. After all, he can’t refuse to believe everyone in Baden.”

Unable to sit still any longer, Susannah sprang up, shook out her skirts, and strode over to the window. Holding the heavy velvet drape to the side, she looked out at the busy street in front of the hotel. Busy, but not hurried. People walked slowly, many of them with the aid of canes. Even the horses pulling the open carriages plodded along, moving scarcely faster than the pedestrians. Every now and then a breeze would come along to swirl the leaves that had begun to fall. How depressing that the most exciting sight from her hotel window was the dance of autumn leaves.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, August 2016

Time and Setting: German States, 1863
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical romantic adventure
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

“Well, that was fun, I said to myself, after finishing A Scandalous Adventure, the third in Lillian Marek’s Victorian Adventures series. Indeed, this appears to be Ms. Marek’s third book period, and I am impressed with how well she pulled it off. Her experience in journalism and teaching English certainly shows, as it was free of the grammatical and spelling errors that too often appear in newer writers’ work.

It was fun to read a book not set in Great Britain, as the heroine, Lady Susannah Tremaine, her friend, Lady Olivia de Vaux, and Susannah’s Aunt Augusta are resting in Baden during a tour of the continent. Delicious pastries and coffee topped with whipped cream are much in evidence, so I suggest not reading this book when you’re hungry.
Aunt Augusta was fun, as you knew she would be when Susannah muses that her aunt is causing problems, not because of her advanced age, but because of “her willingness to try anything once. Or twice.”

Even with a mouthful of a name, Count Maximillian von Staufer was fun as well. As a member of the Royal Guard of Sigmaringen, he had one job – to escort his monarch’s bride from the neighboring country to the capital for her arranged wedding. He in incredulous when he learns she has disappeared but quite relieved to spot her, after three days of searching, strolling blithely through a public garden. When he approaches her, however, he is attacked by another lady wielding a ruffled parasol. And by an elderly lady swinging a heavy cane.

Of course, it is Olivia and not the princess he has spied, and the lady’s defenders are Susannah and Aunt Augusta. When Max and his commanding officer call upon the ladies at their hotel, it turns out that the general is an old flame of Aunt Augusta’s. I adore scandalous old ladies in historical romance novels.

From there on, the story revolves around a plan to have Olivia pretend to be Princess Mila until Max’s soldiers find her. No one wants to admit that she’s missing, as her tetchy father would take offense, and the officers involved would be embarrassed and probably cashiered. Susannah is dubious, but Olivia (who always wants to help someone in trouble) and Aunt Augusta (who has her eye on the general) override her objections.

Is this ridiculously improbable? Yes, of course, but did I mention that it was fun? Max and Susannah argue but find themselves attracted to one another. It’s a sweet romance. There is also mystery and adventure, as Susannah finds herself in the middle of an international intrigue and a possible plot to depose Sigmaringen’s ruler, Prince Conrad, who, I might add, rapidly falls in love with his angelic bride-to-be. Will anyone have the nerve to tell him that the real Princess Mila is an ill-tempered, whiny shrew?

A Scandalous Adventure is not a book that I’m likely to reread, but it was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon. I think I’ll dig up the two preceding books in the series and wait for rain.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lillian MarekLillian Marek was born and raised in New York City. At one time or another she has had most of the interesting but underpaid jobs available to English majors.  After a few too many years in journalism, she decided she prefers fiction, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve. The first book in her Victorian Adventure series, Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, won first prize in both the Launching A Star and the Windy City Four Seasons contests. She was also a first prize winner in the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot contest.

You can connect with Lillian at her website * ~ * Facebook.

As Death Draws Near (Lady Darby Mysteries #5) by Anna Lee Huber

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July 1831. In the midst of their idyllic honeymoon in England’s Lake District, Kiera and Gage’s seclusion is soon interrupted by a missive from her new father-in-law. A deadly incident involving a distant relative of the Duke of Wellington has taken place at an abbey south of Dublin, Ireland, and he insists that Kiera and Gage look into the matter.

Intent on discovering what kind of monster could murder a woman of the cloth, the couple travel to Rathfarnham Abbey school. Soon a second nun is slain in broad daylight near a classroom full of young girls. With the sinful killer growing bolder, the mother superior would like to send the students home, but the growing civil unrest in Ireland would make the journey treacherous.

Before long, Kiera starts to suspect that some of the girls may be hiding a sinister secret. With the killer poised to strike yet again, Kiera and Gage must make haste and unmask the fiend, before their matrimonial bliss comes to an untimely end.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, July 2016

Time and Setting: Scotland and Ireland, 1831
Genre: Historical Mystery with romantic elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Since her debut in 2012, Anna Lee Huber has given us four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – featuring Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, and I believe it is the best yet.

The opening of this book finds Keira and Gage on their honeymoon in Keswick when they receive a message (an order, really) from Gage’s father requesting their help with an inquiry. Lord Gage, who moves in the highest circles (and does not approve of Keira), tells them that Wellington’s cousin, Harriet Lennox, has been murdered at a convent in Ireland. She had recently converted to Catholicism and was serving as a postulant while preparing to become a nun.

The couple sets off for Ireland, where they are confronted with many surprises. First, at the port town of Whitehaven, they encounter the Marquess of Marsdale, a dissolute rake who treats life as one big joke. He spins a tale about compromising an earl’s daughter and having to flee the country to avoid a forced marriage (or worse). After a stormy crossing and a rough carriage ride from Dublin, they reach the village of Rathfarnham, where they find that the nuns are kind but reticent and the villagers unkind and reticent. They are met with a baffling mystery that takes many twists and turns. The couple’s devoted and clever servants, Bree and Anderley, are there to help, and even Marsdale turns out to be of assistance when he confesses that Harriet Lennox is in fact his cousin.

It become apparent that Miss Lennox’s death likely had something to do with the political troubles that are roiling Ireland. Protestants and Catholics are at daggers drawn with one another and the occupying English are oppressive, high-handed, and contemptuous toward the Irish people. The local constabulary is no help, so Keira and Gage are largely on their own. When a second nun is murdered, everything is becomes muddier rather than clearer.

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. And now, should she and Gage have children, how could she continue working with him on investigations? Keira cannot bring herself to discuss this with Gage, but she pours out her heart to the mother superior, and what follows is a beautifully written conversation about the role of women in marriage and in society, how to ascertain God’s will, and how to make the best our of bad experiences. The mother superior is so loving and wise that I found myself wishing that I could share a cup of tea with her.

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. When he goes off on a risky errand and orders Keira not to leave the house – is he being a husband who expects to be obeyed or a fellow investigator who needs his partner not to go into danger on her own? Ah, yes, these two will have many challenges as they begin their next investigation, the disappearance of Gage’s cousin Alfred in the wilds of Dartmoor.

I cannot recommend the Lady Darby series strongly enough, and while this one works as a stand-alone, for maximum effect, they really should be read in order. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched. In addition to creating the wonderful characters, she brings the culture and the landscape into full view, and there is a strong sense of place. I can’t wait until we get to Dartmoor!

Only Beloved (Survivor’s Club #7) by Mary Balogh

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For the first time since the death of his wife, the Duke of Stanbrook is considering remarrying and finally embracing happiness for himself. With that thought comes the treasured image of a woman he met briefly a year ago and never saw again.

Dora Debbins relinquished all hope to marry when a family scandal left her in charge of her younger sister. Earning a modest living as a music teacher, she’s left with only an unfulfilled dream. Then one afternoon, an unexpected visitor makes it come true.

For both George and Dora that brief first encounter was as fleeting as it was unforgettable. Now is the time for a second chance. And while even true love comes with a risk, who are two dreamers to argue with destiny?

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Publisher and Release Date: Signet, May 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: 1820s, London and Cornwall, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Dora Debbins, music teacher to the children of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire enjoyed her life, but she still missed her younger sister Agnes, who had lived with Dora for a year after she was widowed. Agnes has recently married and moved away; both she and her husband had encouraged Dora to live with them, but Dora preferred feeling useful. Sometimes her mind wanders back to a party at nearby Middlebury Park, where Dora had played the harp and pianoforte after dinner. The Duke of Stanbrook had been especially kind to her, and Dora had felt more alive than ever in her entire life. But, as a thirty-nine-year-old spinster, Dora allowed herself to entertain no romantic notions.

Meanwhile, at Stanbrook House in London, George Crabbe waved farewell to his house guests and settled into his comfortable library chair, reflecting how nice it was to know that he could do anything, or nothing, with his time. During the past two years, he had traveled hither and yon attending the weddings of all six of his closest friends, all members of the Survivors’ Club. Now the weddings are over, and George finally admits to himself that he is lonely. He wants companionship, and wonders whether Dora Debbins might be the right woman for him.
Imagine Dora’s shock when George appears unexpectedly in her parlor, announces that he has just arrived from London, and asks, “I wondered, Miss Debbins, if you might do me the great honor of marrying me.”

Thus begins the seventh and final book in Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club series. The survivors – five men and one woman – each suffered traumatic injuries in the wars against Napoleon, and the Duke of Stanbrook, whose son had died in battle, opened his estate in Cornwall as a convalescent home. Out of more than two dozen officers who lived there, six had stayed for some three years, and the bond that developed between them was stronger perhaps than those of family. Each of the six previous books focused on one survivor’s struggles, their sometimes incomplete recovery, and their path to happiness in marriage. Although these are romances, Mary Balogh does not sugar-coat the realities of war and its aftermath. For this, she is to be commended, although sometimes it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Only Beloved is quite different from the other books, however. George was not a soldier injured in war. His only child was killed in battle, and shortly thereafter, his wife took her own life. Opening his home to those in need of longer-term care was one way of assuaging his grief. He has appeared in all six books, as a kind of loving father-figure to the others, but we know very little about him, really. And contrary to the standard romance plot, this books begins with the proposal and the wedding, and only afterwards tells the story of George and Dora truly falling in love.

This is a quiet book. Some readers may find the first half or so a bit slow, but I did not, probably because George and Dora are so well-written and their relationship so beautifully and gradually revealed. As an, *ahem*, older reader, I reveled in the notion that this mature couple could find romance and even passion as they experience the ordinary events of everyday life. But, if you’re looking for adventure, this book is not for you. There is no Great Villain or Big Secret shadowing their lives.

There are, however, a villain and some secrets – things which complicate but do not overshadow George and Dora’s lives. It becomes apparent to Dora that George, the deeply compassionate man who took on everyone else’s burdens, has never had anyone with whom to share his. George has suffered tremendously, but he is reticent to share his experience with anyone until his fear of losing Dora convincers him to open up. There is a bit of a mystery here, which is rather well done; I did not anticipate the outcome.

Dora has conflicted feelings about her parents. Her life was almost ruined when her father publicly accused her mother of infidelity. After her mother fled with her supposed lover, her parents divorced, and Dora gave up her hopes for a Season in London to stay home and raise Agnes. The two women have never forgiven their mother and also have some degree of resentment toward their rather distant father for his imprudent public accusation. When Dora learns that her mother, happily remarried for some twenty years, lives in London, that Agnes’ husband has been to see her, and that Agnes refuses do likewise, she is torn. She benefits from George’s huge talent for compassion and understanding, as he supports her through her decision whether to re-establish a relationship with her mother.

George and Dora are expertly drawn. Dora is intelligent, modest, and sensible. Becoming a duchess does not make her giddy (as I believe it would me). Rank is not her purpose in marrying George, and she blossoms under his love and attention. George is downright adorable. His thoughtfulness – buying a harp for Dora, bringing her old piano to Penderris, encouraging her to play and sing for him – made me fall a little bit in love with him myself. They are the focus of the plot, but there are several vivid secondary characters. I was especially touched by the story of Dora’s mother and her husband and repelled by the gossipy Mrs. Parkinson.

I adored the story, and it was great fun to visit with all of the survivors, their spouses, and their growing families. The author spends a good deal of space on the backstory of the Survivors’ Club, which I found distracting. While technically this could be read as a standalone, I think that something would be lost from not knowing more about the Survivors.

Mary Balogh has been writing for more than thirty years, with seventy novels and almost thirty novellas to her credit. I believe that the Survivors’ Club series is her crowning achievement; all seven books are excellent stories of damaged people struggling to achieve some degree of recovery and happiness despite their injuries. I urge you to read them all.