I think folks sometimes underestimate just how huge the romance genre is. I’ve been reviewing romance since I was in my 20s, and I’ve been reading longer than that. Even so, there are still PLENTY of new-to-me authors. Caz tried a new historical, and after several false starts, I made it through a new-to-me romantic suspense novel from 2013. My TBR Challenge pick didn’t knock my socks off, but Caz fared better. What new-to-you authors have you tried lately?

The Duke of Diamonds by Emily Windsor

Emily Windsor may be new-to-me, but she’s not a “new” author, having already published over half-a-dozen or so historical romances over the last few years.  The Duke of Diamonds is the first book in her The Games of Gentlemen series, and while it’s nothing I haven’t read before, the writing is deft, the characters are engaging and the wryly observational humour is nicely done.

Evelyn Pearce and her younger sister Artemisia have come down in the world since the death of their father, a famed portraitist and artist who left them nothing but crushing debts.  During those three years, they’ve moved from their comfortable home to a series of increasingly less salubrious lodgings, and Evelyn has barely kept their heads above water with the money she earns from her job as a scenery painter at a local theatre.  But Artemisia is in poor health, and living in damp and dirty conditions and not being able to afford decent food is only making it worse; and the extra cost of medicine for her means they’re now in debt to an unscrupulous moneylender, who is threatening to put them to work on their backs if Evelyn can’t pay up.  In desperation, she comes up with an audacious – and potentially dangerous – plan.  She knows that one of her father’s paintings – The Fall of Innocence – was purchased by the Duke of Rothwell for one hundred pounds, and rumour has it, it’s his most prized possession.   Her father made sketches for a companion piece, but never actually painted it – so Evelyn, who learned to paint as his knee and knows she will be able to replicate his style exactly, paints the work with the intention of getting the duke to purchase it.  It’s an intensely risky plan – she could be charged with forgery should she be found out – but it’s either that or prostitution (and likely death for her sister) and with no other option, she decides it’s worth the risk.

Casper Brook, eighth Duke of Rothwell inherited his title at seventeen from his profligate father, who had run his estates into the ground and left his family practically destitute.  In the decade or so since, Casper has worked tirelessly to turn things around, and in doing so, has earned himself a reputation for being rigid, cold and ruthless. His uncle and brother are no help; Uncle Virgil is rather eccentric and his younger brother Ernest is rather wild, spending most of his time womanising, gambling and drinking – and Casper is forever trying to rein him in, worried he is following in their father’s footsteps.

Evelyn decides that a direct approach will be best, and contacts the duke’s man of business requesting an appointment.  Her first sight of Rothwell (lean, impeccably dressed and handsome as Apollo) almost buckles her knees, but this is no time to let a girlish infatuation (or unrequited lust) divert her from her purpose.  Realising that the demure persona she’d planned to adopt won’t work with someone so extremely haughty and aloof, she gathers her courage and instead tries a hint of challenge and flirtation as she tells him about the painting and invites him to view it.

Rothwell is intensely suspicious of “Mrs Swift”, but probably the one indulgence he allows himself in his life of rigid responsibility and dutiful hard work is his love and appreciation for art, and he can’t help being intrigued by the idea of the existence of a companion piece to his most treasured painting.  Half of him thinks it must be a forgery; the other half really hopes it isn’t;  finding himself –  reluctantly – as intrigued by the messenger as he is by the message, he agrees to attend the viewing some days hence.

As I said at the beginning, there’s not a lot new here, but it’s a well-paced and entertaining story, the characters are engaging and well-rounded, and the sexual tension and chemistry between Evelyn and Rothwell is intense and delicious.

To start with, Rothwell seems to be one of those rather stereotypical starchy heroes who needs a metaphorical kick up the arse to get him to live a little, but  as the story progresses and we get to know him better, we see the man beneath, the man with a kind heart who locked his emotions away in order to deal with the enormous burden he had to shoulder and who has, even though he no longer needs to be that man, caged his true self away for so long that he’s forgotten to allow himself to enjoy his life. I loved his eccentric Uncle Virgil – who steals the few scenes he’s in! – and the way Rothwell is brought to see the error of his ways with Ernest (even though that does happen a bit quickly) and to understand that by trying to exert control over his brother, he’s in danger of losing him altogether.

Evelyn is an admirable heroine who only resorts to deception when she’s out of options.  Their battle of wits is full of wit, charm and, at times, blunt honesty; one of my favourite exchanges is the one where Evelyn angrily accuses Rothwell of being a typically lazy aristocrat and he parries by telling her exactly how hard he works for everyone who depends on him (not a response I’ve seen all that often in HR.)

I did have a few issues with the story, however, the main one being the wobbly premise.  Evelyn could have sold her painting to anyone in order to get the money she needed to enable her and Artemisia to leave town – there were other people interested besides the duke.  The other thing that really bugged me was the cursing; not because I’m a prude (we Brits swear a lot and I can swear like a trooper!) but because it was just so… silly.  The phrasing may well be authentic, and some was undoubtedly funny, but it was just too much and quickly became annoying, and I also found it difficult to buy that Evelyn, who was brought up as a lady, would so far forget herself as to use slang/swearwords to a duke.  Ms. Windsor’s style is readable and breezy, although I couldn’t help feeling as though something was missing – I just can’t put my finger on what.

Ultimately, The Duke of Diamonds was an enjoyable read with an interesting plot, likeable characters and a good dose of humour and sensuality.  I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll read Ms. Windsor again, but this book was a good way to pass a few hours on a grey afternoon.

Grade: B-                   Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

Home by Dark by Marta Perry

I’m very open to trying new authors, so I generally have quite a few books in the TBR from new-to-me writers. This month, I tried several and ended up DNF-ing them. For whatever reason, nothing was really grabbing me. As the due date on this column approached, I grabbed a romantic suspense novel from the pile and told myself that I would stick with it no matter what. Marta Perry’s Home By Dark ended up being a mixed bag. Her development of the setting and background was definitely a cut above some of what I’ve read, but the story was a bit too slow-moving for me.

I’m not sure I’d call this mystery an Amish romance, but it’s definitely Amish-adjacent. The book is set in Pennsylvania Amish Country, where the author is from, and like the her, many of the characters have Pennsylvania Dutch roots. I tend to be wary of Amish books, but I did like the setting in this one. It’s not set in an insular bubble but rather spends a lot of time dealing with the intersections between the Amish and the majority culture around them. Most of the leading characters in this book are not Amish, and we see a lot of scenes devoted to showing how the two groups interact with one another. This was actually one of the more interesting parts of the book for me as a reader.

This novel is a romance, but it’s more heroine-centric than some. The lead, Rachel Mason, grew up Amish but left to marry her teenage sweetheart, with whom she moved to Philadelphia. Rachel’s first husband has died and she has returned to her hometown with her nine-year-old daughter. Her mother-in-law left Rachel her home and Rachel plans to turn the large Victorian home into a bed and breakfast.

The opening chapters of the book show Rachel being quite frank about her limited options in life due to the Amish way of only educating children through eighth grade. The author also shows the difficulties Rachel faces in coming back. She and her daughter live modern, twenty-first century lives and the reception that Rachel receives from friends and family is quite varied. She left before her baptism, so the church didn’t shun her, but some of Rachel’s family, particularly her father, are quite uncomfortable around her. Many Amish romances seem to romanticize Amish life, so this author’s view of things, which appeared more balanced, was interesting to me as a reader.

All of these tensions are well-written and would honestly have made for a compelling book in and of themselves. However, this is romantic suspense, so we do have a mystery and a romance thrown into he mix. Shortly after Rachel’s return, she learns that her younger brother Benjamin, with whom she is quite close, appears to have gotten mixed up in a teenage prank gone wrong. Benjamin is obviously afraid that someone is after him, and there are unsettling incidents occurring in and around Rachel’s property as well.

Colin McDonald, a high school friend of Rachel’s husband, soon shows up in this mix. Colin sees Rachel trying to rehab the old house and get her business going, and he feels moved to help her. Even though they had not been close as teenagers, Colin feels drawn to Rachel and is clearly protective of her. Even though it takes Rachel a while to figure it out, it becomes obvious Colin is attracted to Rachel.

On the positive side, I did like the dynamic between Colin, Rachel and Rachel’s daughter. Children in romance can be tricky, but Rachel’s daughter Mandy seems like a believable nine-year-old, and I did enjoy seeing her interactions with the main characters. However, the strength of the writing in the ‘family’ scenes did somewhat show the weaknesses in the romance.

What I mean by this is that Colin seemed to be at his most vivid when he’s with Mandy and Rachel. Meanwhile, in the more romantic scenes, he just felt less distinct as a character. While the attraction is pretty obvious, the development of the relationship just plodded along and the leads seemed to have little chemistry. The kisses given with questionable consent did not help with that either.

While the first few chapters drew me in and made me curious to see how Rachel would develop as a person, the story started to meander and eventually lost me. Vaguely creepy things happen around Rachel’s property and Colin is certainly protective, but the clues and information get doled out a bit slowly. In addition, it takes quite a while for the action to escalate on both the romance and suspense fronts, so the novel felt like it just plodded along. Home by Dark isn’t bad, but it does feel like a fairly humdrum read by the end.

Grade:    C+                  Sensuality:  Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.