Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2)

35564594Summary from Goodreads:
Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Content Warning from Author: This book includes a main character who was sexually abused in the past; abuse happens off page but is alluded to.

The squealing that happened when I found the digital galley for A Gentleman Never Keeps Score on Edelweiss….I apologize to everyone in a three-county radius.  I was that excited.  Because I have wanted to read about Sam Fox ever since I read Cat Sebastian’s description of the book on her Twitter.

Sam is an ex-prize-fighter and publican, the owner of The Bell which Sam sees as an integral part of the Free Black community in London. It’s a place to get news, get a hot meal, get a decent drink, and socialize with other members of the small London community. When Sam’s friend (and future sister-in-law and community midwife) Kate asks him to recover a nude painting she posed for as a younger woman in need of money, he agrees. With some trepidation because a Black man caught house-breaking in Regency London would not come to a good ending.

In the course of planning out his house-breaking, Sam runs into Hartley. In the alley behind Hartley’s own Brook Street house – the target of Sam’s mission. Hartley was bequeathed the house from Sir Humphrey Easterbrook (more on this below) and after a series of comical misunderstandings Sam and Hartley get down to business.  The painting.  Which, unfortunately for Sam, is likely no longer in the house because the artwork had been removed from the walls before Hartley took possession.

But this doesn’t mean Sam’s mission is at an end because Hartley would also like to recover a painting from Sir Humphrey’s collection. Hartley allowed himself to be a sort of “kept” man by Sir Humphrey when a teen because it would ensure that his brothers would be able to attend school or university, and not be destitute. And now that Hartley has inherited the house, and a little money, and has the clothes, and the curricle this means his is a gentleman – he feels like what he gave up to Sir Humphrey has been worth it, even the fact that he can’t bear to be touched.  Except that someone has spread a rumor about Hartley’s sexual orientation and now he’s an outcast in Society. If this painting is ever made public, he could lose his life.

So the most unlikely pair begins to work together to find these paintings. They also begin very, very cautiously to work toward each other and find middle ground as a gay, cross-class, bi-racial couple in Regency London. Along the way they create a family of non-Society “outcasts,” from Kate and Nick (and other members of the Black community) to Hartley’s valet/man-of-work Alf, a young gay man, and Sadie, a young unwed mother abandoned by her “respectable” family due to her pregnancy who becomes Hartley’s cook. Hartley’s brothers Ben and Will also pop up (although I was slightly disappointed that Ben did not bring his “sea captain” and the kids).

I love this book. Sam Fox is the sweetest man ever invented, I swear. He’s such a cinnamon roll. Hartley is a wonderfully multi-layered character with the way he uses his privilege to mask his hurt and protect Sam. The way Sam and Hartley actually talk through their issues and misunderstandings is just A+.  Also, there is a scene late in the book that just filled my heart to bursting. (Incidentally, there is also a scene that is so hot that you will need to fan yourself. Holy cannoli. This book gets steamy, y’all, and it’s so well-written.)

Small trigger warning, as the author herself stated in the description, Hartley was abused/coerced as a young man, alluded to in the previous book, It Takes Two to Tumble, and clarified here, but Sebastian does not go into details on the page. Just FYI if you need to know ahead of time.

Now, I am intrigued at all the places Cat Sebastian is going these days.  Her next book, due in the fall, is A Duke in Disguise, about a guy who doesn’t want to be a duke (I think?) and a bookseller who just wants to get on with her publishing business.  And then we get a book the third Sedgwick brother, Will, who is apparently involved with Sir Humphrey’s son Martin and that was a twist I was not expecting (nor was Hartley, who then gave us a hilarious aside wondering about the probability of all the Sedgwick males being gay).

Dear FTC: I read this thing like yesterday once the galley was downloaded on my iPad and I’ve had this pre-ordered on my Nook since that was possible.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Peter Grant #1/Rivers of London #1)

16033550Summary from Goodreads:
Probationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

I finally clawed my way back to the top of the library hold list to finish Midnight Riot!

I really enjoyed the story of brand-new constable Peter Grant as he comes to learn about magic and the paranormal when he gets apprenticed to the decidedly weirdest Detective Superintendent in the entire London constabulary. It was quite an intricate plot, with all the details and bits of magic and history, but it didn’t feel bogged down by details. The narrator of the audiobook, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, really nailed Peter’s voice and the myriad London/non-London accents called for in the book. A+ to the publisher who did NOT Americanize the language (which sadly happens more often than not and annoys me greatly). I think Aaronovitch was a little heavy on the “Peter is hard up for a lay” part of Peter’s psyche; it got boring/old/tired/dude, get over yourself after a while. This book scratched all my “need a new Thursday Next” itches, so I am definitely going to read more.

Note: I do not like the new US audiobook cover (above) considering that Peter doesn’t carry a handgun as a London constable. I much preferred the map drawing.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this via the library’s Overdrive system.

mini-review · stuff I read

My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

35820405Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.

American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.

When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.

Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

When I finished My Oxford Year I had to sit with it for a little bit. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. (It was certainly better than my last go-round with an “Americans at Oxbridge institutions” novel, The Madwoman Upstairs).

This is…good. I almost quit reading after the first few chapters because I really didn’t get the whole get a Rhodes –> get told no one cares what you do at Oxford because you’re a Rhodie –> here’s a political job. And then there’s the wrinkle that, for someone so obsessed with getting to Oxford, Ella seems really clueless about how Oxford actually operates (i.e. where to buy books, where to buy gowns, how the housing works, etc). But I stuck with it because Ella’s neighbor Charlie is a hoot and the chemistry between Ella and Jamie was good. Their relationship becomes really interesting. Whelan also gets in an extraordinary amount of wonderful literary criticism about love and poetry (particularly Tennyson) and the expectations of women in the political sphere. There is a lot going on in this book.

But I will tell you that this is “romantic” in the way that Me Before You and many of Nicholas Sparks’s book are “romantic” (although this is far less maudlin, in my opinion). Whelan digs very deeply into the push-and-pull of loving someone with a serious and possibly terminal illness, the adjustments that both partners have to make, and the changes that you have to accept for the relationship to exist for the time that is given to you. This is a very much “Happy For Now” book.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

library · mini-review · stuff I read

Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham (Chief Inspector Barnaby #2)

454571Summary from Goodreads:
Actors do love their dramas, and the members of the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society are no exception. Passionate love scenes, jealous rages? they?re better than a paycheck (not that anyone one in this production of Amadeus is getting one). But even the most theatrically minded must admit that murdering the leading man in full view of the audience is a bit over the top. Luckily, Inspector Tom Barnaby ? first seen in The Killings at Badger’s Drift — is in that audience, and he’s just the man to find the killer. With so many dramas playing out, there’s no shortage of suspects, including secret lovers and jealous understudies galore. Ms. Graham tweaks her collection of community-theater artistes and small-town drama queens with merciless delight until the curtain falls on the final page.

Now that I finished all the seasons of Midsomer Murders on Netflix, I decided to go back and read the original books.  I had to start with book two Death of a Hollow Man, since someone else had book one (The Killings at Badger’s Drift) out from the library. Tom Barnaby is the original dad detective, he is a delight. And Caroline Graham does write in a very witty, almost Agatha Christie way. For being written in 1989, the book doesn’t feel that dated. However, I don’t like Sgt Troy’s character here, he’s much better in the TV adaptation.

The adaptation from book to screen – which I think was done by Graham herself – is very different in that the show adds in a connected murder to start the episode and lend motivation for the events leading up to Esslyn’s murder. I think it was a good choice for TV. All the extra stuff about Amadeus and the characters’ sniping at one another works on the page, but would have been really boring on screen.

This edition of Death of a Hollow Man, that I read, is very cheaply and poorly typeset. Words are misspelled, copy editing mistakes abound. I can’t decide if the use of “Persued” in the chapter heading “Exit, Persued by a Bear” instead of “Pursued” was meant to be a joke, since that was a spelling possible in Shakespeare’s time, or just another example of sloppiness. Won’t deter me from reading more though. It was fun. So if you’re looking for a mystery series that is fun and interesting without being gory, misogynistic, or too “cozy”, this might a good choice.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from the library.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare (Girl Meets Duke #1)

33296129

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.

His terms are simple:
– They will be husband and wife by night only.
– No lights, no kissing.
– No questions about his battle scars.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.

But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
– They will have dinner together every evening.
– With conversation.
– And unlimited teasing.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

When a new Tessa Dare romance is in the offing there is an expectation that:

  1. There will be banter, lots of it
  2. There will be hilarious jokes and puns
  3. The meet-cute will be unusual (cf. being chosen as a future Duchess while covered in sugar when one is the barmaid, writing letters to a fake fiancé who turns out to be a real person, inheriting a castle with a grumpy Duke still living in it, proposing that the local rake accompany you on a road-trip to a scientific conference with a dinosaur fossil in tow (that one has the drrrrtiest math jokes), etc.)

The Duchess Deal delivers on all three. And turns the Beauty and the Beast story on its head.

The Duke of Ashbury (Ash), sporting horrific facial scars from Napoleonic battle wounds and freshly jilted by his fiancé, finds himself bearded in his den by a seamstress in a wedding dress. Despite his growling, and insistence that the garment in question is so awful it belongs on a bawdy-house chandelier (among other insults), Emma Gladstone stands her ground and demands to be paid for the work done on his ex-fiancé’s wedding dress. Ash, who was recently reminded that he’ll need a male heir to prevent something untoward happening to the dukedom, decides to kill two birds with one stone – he offers to marry Emma instead.

Emma, with infinite good sense, does not agree to this immediately. (Yes, I am here for a romance heroine to take at least a few days to consider whether getting yourself permanently hitched to a dude one does not know well, in an era where divorce was almost never granted and then never to the woman’s benefit, is a good idea.) But in the end Emma agrees, with a few conditions of her own.

I loved this book. So good, I read it through twice over before marking it as “read.” Emma is one of the best romance heroines, with a solid moral center that feels natural as opposed to contrived. Her gift is knowing how to make someone look and feel good in their own skin; she covers Ash in it and loves him even when he can’t figure out how to love himself as he is now. Ash is another in Tessa Dare’s lineup of heroes physically and mentally damaged by war. His psychological reaction to having burn wounds is so real and true (though, maybe not the “Menace” bit, but you have to love that, too). The secondary characters are all wonderful. Khan, Penny, Alex, and Nicola are the best and while Penny, Alex, and Nicola are all set up as the next heroines in the series, I do wish that Khan could have had a relationship of his own. (Maybe in a novella? Please?) Breeches’s introduction to the story was a hoot and the servants’ plotting to get Emma and Ash to fall in love so Ash won’t be an insufferable pain-in-the-ass forever was my favorite B-plot.

(Props to the cover designer who at least put the male model in profile so we don’t have the mismatch of a totally unscarred dude on the cover.)

The Duchess Deal is out today!  Go get it!  Happy reading!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, twice, and I have a copy pre-ordered, too.

mini-review · stuff I read

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Summary from Goodreads:
The enchanting story of a bookshop, its grieving owner, a supportive literary community, and the extraordinary power of books to heal the heart

Nightingale Books, nestled on the main street in an idyllic little village, is a dream come true for book lovers–a cozy haven and welcoming getaway for the literary-minded locals. But owner Emilia Nightingale is struggling to keep the shop open after her beloved father’s death, and the temptation to sell is getting stronger. The property developers are circling, yet Emilia’s loyal customers have become like family, and she can’t imagine breaking the promise she made to her father to keep the store alive.

There’s Sarah, owner of the stately Peasebrook Manor, who has used the bookshop as an escape in the past few years, but it now seems there’s a very specific reason for all those frequent visits. Next is roguish Jackson, who, after making a complete mess of his marriage, now looks to Emilia for advice on books for the son he misses so much. And the forever shy Thomasina, who runs a pop-up restaurant for two in her tiny cottage–she has a crush on a man she met in the cookbook section, but can hardly dream of working up the courage to admit her true feelings.

Enter the world of Nightingale Books for a serving of romance, long-held secrets, and unexpected hopes for the future–and not just within the pages on the shelves. How to Find Love in a Bookshop is the delightful story of Emilia, the unforgettable cast of customers whose lives she has touched, and the books they all cherish.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop is adorable as all get-out. If you get a kick out of the foibles of the picturesque English villages of Midsomer Murders but could do without the murdering, this is for you. When Emilia’s father dies, she inherits his bookshop – including the financial problems it has – and the array of villagers who want to help her keep it open while dealing with their own problems. There’s about one love story too many plot-wise and extreme heteronormativity among all the characters, just FYI (the laws of probability should give us at least a few people who aren’t straight, the village isn’t that small). This was just the right book for the hot days of late summer with a glass of iced tea or lemonade.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.