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This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


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England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1919
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Mystery
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

Anna Lee Huber is a new to me author, though I’m fond of mysteries and historical romance, so it’s no surprise that many of my friends have recommended her books to me.  Unfortunately, my TBR pile somehow precluded me from reading her books each time I’ve made the attempt, so I was happy to get this first book in her new Verity Kent series for review.

Widowed when her husband Sidney was shot in a skirmish at the end of the World War I, Verity has spent the past year and a half trying to dull the pain of her loss in parties and evenings out with friends.  When she receives an invitation to an engagement party for one of Sidney’s fellow officers, an emotionally fragile Verity initially intends to decline.  But shortly after she receives the invitation, a cryptic letter arrives referencing her work for the Secret Service (a secret she kept from everyone, including Sidney) and suggesting Sidney might have committed treason before his death.  Shocked and unwilling to believe her husband guilty of treason, Verity decides to attend the weekend house party and do some investigating of her own.

As This Side of Murder opens, Verity – lost in thoughts of her husband, the letter, and the houseparty – nearly collides with another car.  When the handsome driver emerges, they engage in a flirtatious exchange about her driving and the driver’s own car – a pale yellow Rolls-Royce – and soon realize they’re both on their way to Walter Ponsonby’s engagement party.  After her companion introduces himself as Max Westfield, Earl of Ryde, Verity is startled when he asks if she’s Sidney Kent’s widow.  He reveals that he knew her husband – they attended Eton at the same time and served together during the war.  When they finally part and head to Poole Harbour, Verity finds herself wondering about Max and their meeting.  Why is he attending the party?  How well did he know her husband?  Could he be the letter writer?

Boarding the yacht that will take them to Umbersea Island for the party, Verity makes yet another discovery.  Though she expected the guest list to include some of Sidney’s fellow officers, it appears to be made up almost entirely of them.  It’s an odd group to invite for an engagement party, and, suspicious and overwhelmed by fresh grief for her husband, Verity climbs aboard determined to get to know the men who once fought alongside him – and to determine, once and for all, if he committed treason.

When she arrives on the island, Verity is greeted by her hosts and handed another letter. Exhausted by the journey and the prospect of the weekend ahead, she retreats to her room to read it – only to discover someone was there before her.  A battered copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which bears an inscription from her to Sidney, lies on the counterpane with yet another note tucked inside.  Verity is convinced the author is one of her fellow guests, but a separate discovery – intentionally hidden in the binding of the book? – seems to suggest Sidney might have been passing coded messages.  Verity isn’t sure whether her secret correspondent is working with – or against – her as she searches for the truth.

The initial trip to Umbersea Island casts a pervasive sense of foreboding and disquiet that runs throughout the book. Verity is suspicious of the other guests, and it’s obvious they are tense and ill at ease with each other. Something seems off, and it seems like the only person she can trust is Max – but even then, she’s unclear as to whether he can be trusted or not.  Most of the guests have history, and it soon becomes apparent that the men of the former Thirtieth Company have dark secrets they’ve kept hidden until this weekend.  As the engagement party continues apace, Verity simultaneously tries to crack the code contained in The Pilgrim’s Progress, get to the bottom of the tension between the guests, and determine if there’s a traitor in their midst.  No one is above suspicion, and when guests begin dying, Verity becomes desperate to discover what really happened to Sidney in his last days.

Ms. Huber paints Verity as an intelligent and independent woman who passionately loved her husband and hoped for a happily ever after with him following the war.  She alludes to Verity’s secret life working for the British Secret Service – but for some reason, she keeps the specifics of her work deliberately vague.  I never felt like I got to know Verity, aside from her feelings for Sidney (and maybe Max), and rather than leading an investigation, Verity seems more often to be in the right place at the right time to move the narrative forward.  When she cracks the code hidden in Sidney’s book, I sighed.  With only vague references to a history with the Secret Service, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe she knows so much about code breaking – and frankly, the skill just read like a convenient plot device.  We get to know the other guests at the party through the lens of Verity’s thoughts, but frankly, it was hard to keep track of all of them.  The guests each briefly star in the narrative, and then Ms. Huber focuses our attention on someone else. I never felt like I knew any of them well enough to suspect them as they were all – with the exception of Max – awful in their own way!  I liked Max despite Ms. Huber’s obvious efforts to make him a suspect, but without him, I’m not sure Verity would have ever ‘solved’ this case.  He’s definitely the more aggressive investigator – even though Verity kept information from him – and he rather conveniently ensures Verity is in the right place at the right time to discover new clues.  I had high hopes for him and Verity in future books… but, well, let’s just say I don’t believe Ms. Huber does.

I’m reluctant to spill any details of the house party only because I don’t want to reveal any secrets that might spoil the story.  That said, I’m not sure how my telling you – in detail – everything leading up to the denouement would really ‘spoil’ it for you.  Ms. Huber slowly but surely reveals the secrets that bind the guests together (there is an intrigue that links them to each other – and to Sidney) and ratchets up the tension…but when she introduces a ridiculous, convoluted plot twist ending, it just made me mad.  In hindsight, I see some of the clues she spread in the text… but really, if someone saw this coming, bravo.  I didn’t, I don’t see how you could, and I hated it.

Hmm… so would I recommend This Side of Murder?  Oh reader!  I’m torn.  I liked it, but I was easily and often distracted from it.  I wanted to like Verity, but I never really connected with her or the mystery and found it difficult to keep up with the secondary characters – about whom we know very little aside from their relationship to Verity’s dead husband.  It seems like Verity’s (very interesting) past will be more fully explored in future novels, and I’m curious about it.  But if those books feature her passively watching and waiting for events to unfold,  I’ll pass.

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Publisher and Release Date: KJC Books, August 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1923
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Caz

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

Miss Millie’s Groom by Catherine E. Chapman

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It is the summer of 1914 and Britain teeters on the brink of war. Society girl, Millicent Awbridge, is oblivious to the impending conflict and preoccupied with the recent shooting of her horse. When she confronts the culprit, Ryan O’Flynn, a groom in her father’s service, Millie finds romance rather than hostility. The encounter sparks a series of events that brings Millie’s burgeoning womanhood to fruition.

Millie and Ryan’s affair is conducted in secret but Millie’s aunt has her suspicions and is determined to bring an end to it. Inevitably, the war also impacts on the young people’s lives and others are implicated in the muddle. Will Millie and Ryan ever be truly united?

A sweet romance, set in England during the First World War.

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Publisher and Release Date: Catharine E. Chapman, September 2016

Time and setting: England, 1914-1919
Genre: Historical Fiction with Romantic Elements
Heat Level: 1
Rating: 3 stars

Review by Vikki

Millicent Awbridge is a bit of a hoyden, enjoying a rousing gallop more than the role of society girl her aunt Rose intends her to be. When her beloved horse has to be put down, Millie is filled with rage and seeks out the culprit who did the deed.

Ryan O’Flynn is a groom in Millie’s father’s stable and the young man who had to destroy the horse. Millie’s anger quickly turns from ire to attraction. Ryan, realizing how unsuitable it would be for them to entertain that attraction does all he can to discourage the strong-willed and determined miss,  even going so far as to join the army and then heading off to war.

When Ryan returns following an injury, the pair see each other again at the hospital where Millie works. The attraction between them is as strong as ever, but Millie’s aunt has thrown an obstacle in their path.

Will Millie and Ryan find a way to move beyond the difference in class and find the love they both crave, or will Millie’s aunt’s machinations keep them apart?

Miss Millie’s Groom was different than I expected, but a very interesting read.The pacing is steady for the most part, although, at times it does slow a bit too much, due to too much telling rather than showing.

Millicent’s character is vivacious, endearing and determined. I truly enjoyed her character a great deal from the first page to the last. She reminded me of Sybil from Downton Abbey; in fact, this novel has other overtones from that drama.

Ryan O’Flynn is an interesting hero, but I did not get to know him as well as I would have liked. Most of the story is told from Millie’s PoV, so I didn’t glean very much of Ryan’s insights and feelings. He is a likable character, though somewhat reminiscent of Tom Branson (also from Downton Abbey), although perhaps not quite as fierce in his radical beliefs.

While Miss Millie’s Groom does have a romance, it is more of a glimpse of a young girl’s coming of age during the Great War. I did enjoy the romance between the Millie and Ryan, but I would have liked to have been a more fleshed out.  The same is true of the characters.

Fans of Downton may enjoy Miss Millie’s Groom, but please don’t expect the brilliance of that drama. This is a sweet story, but it lacks depth. Nonetheless, I did enjoy it, and I am glad I had the opportunity to read it.

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

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February, 1906. As the personal secretary of the recently departed Duke of Olympia—and a woman of scrupulous character—Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove never expected her duties to involve steaming through the Mediterranean on a private yacht, under the prodigal eye of one Lord Silverton, the most charmingly corrupt bachelor in London. But here they are, improperly bound on a quest to find the duke’s enigmatic heir, current whereabouts unknown.

An expert on anachronisms, Maximilian Haywood was last seen at an archaeological dig on the island of Crete. And from the moment Truelove and Silverton disembark, they are met with incidents of a suspicious nature: a ransacked flat, a murdered government employee, an assassination attempt. As they travel from port to port on Max’s trail, piecing together the strange events of the days before his disappearance, Truelove will discover the folly of her misconceptions—about the whims of the heart, the motives of men, and the nature of time itself…

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, October 2016

Time and Setting: 1906, England and various locales in the Mediterranean
Genre: Historical mystery with paranormal elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Lady Blue

The beloved Duke of Olympia is dead, and his great-nephew and heir is nowhere to be found. The duke’s grieving duchess calls upon Emmeline Truelove, the late duke’s secretary, to travel to the Mediterranean, find the heir, and bring him home to his new dukedom. The duchess has also arranged for the Marquess of Silverton to accompany Emmeline, which does not make her happy, as her first impression of him is that he’s a shallow wastrel. The marquess (Freddie) is, in fact, a rakish, witty man, but he’s also an excellent fighter and a trained agent. Emmeline, who is called by her last name “Truelove” for most of this story, is not at all delighted with this situation, but agrees to travel with Freddie to find the missing Mr. Haywood, now the new duke. Truelove’s agreeing to go on this quest is also against the advice (demand) of the deceased Queen Victoria, who regularly appears to have conversations with her. Yes, Truelove communicates regularly with the former monarch, as well as with her own deceased father.

During the course of their travels, the prickly Truelove fends off any flirtatious attempts by Freddie with biting remarks, which he happily volleys. It soon becomes apparent that Haywood has not just gone off on his own – there is some nefarious plot afoot. The current events happening are directly related to a mythological tale (or is it?) from the past – and even involves the future.

This adventurous story is certainly a departure from previous books by Juliana Gray, and I give her credit for this intricate and detailed plot. A Most Extraordinary Pursuit undoubtedly held my attention and entertained me, but I did not become invested in the protagonists and their almost-sort of-romance. When I don’t find myself rooting for the characters to be together, or truly care for their future, the book doesn’t touch my emotions, and isn’t my preferred type of read. There are many unanswered questions, which I’m sure will be addressed in future books featuring Emmeline Truelove. If you enjoy a rollicking adventure with a bit of time-travel, some paranormal elements and plenty of witty banter, I believe this might well hit the spot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Wendy

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUDIO REVIEW: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence, narrated by Katherine Littrell

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

First published privately in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned from wider publication in the UK until 1960 and was the subject of censorship and book banning in the United States and elsewhere. Its erotic subject material, colorful language, and discussion of interclass relations were deemed obscene.

Now deemed a classic work of artistic merit written before its time, D.H. Lawrence’s thoughtfully penned novel scrutinizes marriage, infidelity, and the things people do to achieve physical and emotional happiness. The novel’s frank approach to sex and desire infuses Lady Chatterley’s Lover with a modern sensibility that rings as true and thought-provoking in the present as upon its first scandalous publication.

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Publisher and Release Date: Listen2aBook.com, August 2016

Time and Setting: Post WWI – Derbyshire, England
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Classic Literature
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars content/3.5 narration

Review by Wendy

I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960’s not long after it had been released for public consumption – for all of the wrong reasons! The book was whispered about and clandestinely read by school children (myself included), mostly because of its notoriety, and I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand or care about it’s deeper meaning. Reading, or in this case, listening, to it again, with a more mature view on life, I found the writing to be quite modern, with a lot of what was written being still pertinent or topical nearly ninety years after publication, although it is quite blatantly misogynistic. It is obvious to me why Lawrence was considered to be a man ahead of his time. What struck me throughout though, was the utter cynicism in tone; the characters don’t seem to like each other, which casts a very dreary pall on the story. There is no joy, no one is happy – not even when they are engaging in their very lacklustre sexual encounters.

The story is set post WWI when women were just beginning to emerge as a force to be reckoned with, and the very backbone of the upper classes is beginning to crumble. Constance (Connie) married Clifford Chatterley before he went off to war and they had had a short, normal, but insipid married life before their separation and he returned a badly injured man. He was not expected to live but made a surprisingly good recovery, albeit he is now confined to a wheeled chair and paralysed from the waist down. A baronet, he accepts his lot in life with equanimity and settles down to rule his little part of Derbyshire. The Chatterley’s lives plod on in a rather dull routine, the dullness felt mostly by Connie who is almost constantly at her husband’s beck and call. His own life is reasonably interesting; he begins to write seriously, takes an active interest in his coal mine and has visits from friends who engage in intellectual conversations in which Connie is not invited to participate. She sits quietly in the corner without comment whilst her husband and his cronies talk in great depth about sex, politics, the industrialisation of the Midlands, the class divide etc. I felt quite irritated on Connie’s behalf for the way she is quite summarily dismissed as a nonentity by her husband and his gang of ‘Hooray Henries’. I wanted to give her a shake but this is the 1920’s and women are still fighting for all women to have the right to vote, let alone the right to an opinion. I think what annoyed me most was the fact that Connie just accepts being put down; a colourless character overall, she had only really grown a little more on me by the end of the story.

Clifford begins to think that he might like an heir to succeed him and kind of gives Connie permission to have a quiet, discreet, affair and will accept any child conceived as his own – as long as the sire is intelligent and worthy. The insular and bitter gamekeeper – Oliver Mellors, is the man – although she doesn’t really choose him; he just crooks his finger, tells her to lie down and the deed is done! What an anticlimax. The sex is described in what I thought to be quite a degrading manner; Mellors had already decided he would live his life alone without sex after a disastrous marriage, but hey ho, here’s the lady of the manor apparently needing a stud. The first encounters between them come across as a man taking his own pleasure with no thought for hers; if she finds any – and later, occasionally she does –  it’s quite by accident. I was at a loss to understand why she kept going back for more, but she does, and it doesn’t get much better. I found his references to his ‘John Thomas’ and her ‘Lady Jane’, laughable… really? It’s at times like these that it is easy to remember that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written by a man.

The new-to-me, narrator Katherine Littrell does a good job in the telling of this rather boring, long winded story. She is an Australian and I could detect a slight inflection but it does not override or spoil the listening experience. In fact I enjoyed the narration far more than I did the content. Miss Littrell has a pleasant, melodious voice and switches effortlessly between characters so that they are recognisable, especially in the scenes where Clifford and his gang of cronies are in deep discussion. She is adept at capturing the mixed cast of upper class characters, both male and female, but her Derbyshire accent leaves something to be desired. Given that the book is set in Derbyshire and the lower classes (including the gamekeeper), play a large part in the story, this niggled at me. Still Miss Littrell is a narrator I will watch out for in the future as I liked her performance overall .

The whole story is based around a woman’s relationship with her rather needy, demanding husband, his striving to increase his already massive ego, and her illicit sex romps with their gamekeeper; which by today’s writing standards are pretty tame and uninspiring. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is definitely not a keeper for me.  I accept that Lawrence was a good writer but – rather like marmite – he is not to my taste.

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch

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In the sweeping, poignant sequel to The Vintner’s Daughter, the Lemieux family’s ambition to establish an American winemaking dynasty takes Sara and Philippe from pastoral Napa to the Paris World’s Fair and into the colorful heart of early 20th-century San Francisco.

It is 1897, and Sara and Philippe Lemieux, newly married and full of hope for the future, are determined to make Eagle’s Run, their Napa vineyard, into a world-renowned winemaking operation. But the swift arrival of the 20th century brings a host of obstacles they never dreamed of: price wars and the twin threats of phylloxera and Prohibition endanger the success of their business, and the fiercely independent Sara is reluctant to leave the fields behind for the new and strange role of wife and mother.

An invitation to the World’s Fair in 1900 comes just in time to revive the vineyard’s prospects, and amid the jewel-colored wonders of Belle Époque Paris, Sara and Philippe’s passion is rekindled as well. But then family tragedy strikes, and, upon their return to California, a secret from Philippe’s past threatens to derail their hard-won happiness in one stroke.

Sara gains an ally when Marie Chevreau, her dear friend, arrives in San Francisco as the first female surgery student to be admitted to prestigious Cooper Medical College. Through Marie, Sara gets a glimpse of the glittering world of San Francisco’s high society, and she also forges friendships with local women’s rights advocates, inciting new tensions in her marriage. Philippe issues Sara an ultimatum: will she abandon the struggle for freedom to protect her family’s winemaking business, or will she ignore Philippe and campaign for a woman’s right to vote and earn a fair wage?

Fate has other plans in store in the spring of 1906, which brings with it a challenge unlike any other that the Lemieux family or their fellow Northern Californians have ever faced. Will the shadow of history overwhelm Sara and Philippe’s future, despite their love for each other? In The California Wife, Kristen Harnisch delivers a rich, romantic tale of wine, love, new beginnings, and a family’s determination to fight for what really matters—sure to captivate fans of The Vintner’s Daughter and new readers alike.

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EXCERPT

November 1897, Vouvray, France

Sara Thibault had never been this sure—or scared—of anything in her life. Marriage to Philippe Lemieux would be like jumping into the rushing current of a river: thrilling to the senses, adventurous and undoubtedly tumultuous.

When she slid her arms around the man she’d just agreed to marry, his brilliant blue eyes warmed with affection, and his lips formed the crooked smile that never failed to soften Sara’s bones. She pressed her cheek to the lapel of his damp wool coat, enjoying the clean smell of the snow that blanketed them on this crisp, gray November morning. Sara was happy—for the first time since she’d fled Saint Martin last year.

Sara recalled the events that had brought them from Eagle’s Run, Philippe’s California vineyard, back to her family’s vineyard here in the heart of the Loire. The tragedy that had forced Sara and her sister, Lydia, to flee France in the first place had taken Sara to California. There, in spite of the tangled history between their two families, Sara and Philippe had formed an unbreakable bond. She shuddered, remembering how close they’d come to being separated forever—all because of one man.

“Are you cold, love?” Philippe asked. “Shall we go inside and share our news?”

“Not quite yet.” Sara looked past him to the watchman’s shed where her mother, her new husband, Jacques, and Sara’s nephew, Luc, waited. Of course she would have to tell them, but what would she say?

“Sara?” Philippe’s lips skimmed hers, and she instantly craved more.

She explained shyly, “I want to spend more time with you—alone.” The ten hectares of bare, dormant vines and rocky soil beckoned to her, just as they had during the winters of her youth. How could she make him understand? “I want to show you Saint Martin.”

His expression relaxed. “And I’d love to see it through your eyes.”

Sara’s face brightened and she linked an arm through his, tucking her hands into her warm woolen muff. Touring Philippe around Saint Martin was a sensible idea. It would keep her mind off the beautiful planes of his face, his tall, vigorous physique and the simmering need she repressed every time he called her name.

They strolled for nearly an hour. She guided him around the perimeter of the farm, past the watchman’s shed to the stables, which held two horses and a wagon. Sara paused at the spot with the clearest view of the Loire’s surging waters. Philippe was quiet and contemplative when she pointed out the three hectares, now vacant of vines, that had been ruined by the phylloxera louse two years ago. “When will we replant with American rootstock?” she ventured.

Philippe shook his head. “Not quite yet.” What did he mean? Sara grew self-conscious, suddenly aware of how small Saint Martin was in comparison to Philippe’s California vineyard. Ten hectares—nearly twenty-five acres of chenin blanc grapes—was no match for the two hundred acres of cabernet, zinfandel and chardonnay grapes at Eagle’s Run. Eagle’s Run was one of the largest vineyards in Napa, and Philippe was one of the county’s most respected vignerons—how could she compete? Nevertheless, this small patch of vines in Vouvray had shaped Sara’s soul from birth. She’d spent years of her life kneeling on Saint Martin’s rocky soil, plucking the thin-skinned chenin blanc grapes from their stems and tasting their juicy flesh. She and Lydia had chased chickens through the vine rows, their girlish laughter playing on the summer breeze. As a young girl, she’d carved her name into the winery’s enormous fermenting barrels, staking her secret claim upon her father’s legacy. Philippe would never fully understand Sara until he acquainted himself with every meter of Saint Martin—and Sara would never be satisfied until they restored Saint Martin to its former vitality.

She’d gone weak with relief when he’d appeared earlier today, but she couldn’t allow herself to blithely, blindly follow him back to America, away from her own aspirations. She would bide her time, but Sara was determined to have her way.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

California wife authorKristen Harnisch drew upon her extensive research and her experiences living in San Francisco and visiting the Loire Valley and Paris to create the stories for THE CALIFORNIA WIFE and her first novel, THE VINTNER’S DAUGHTER. Ms. Harnisch has a degree in economics from Villanova University and currently resides in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Visit her online at the following places:

https://www.kristenharnisch.com
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Indiana Belle (American Journey #3) by John A. Heidt

Indiana Belle

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Providence, Rhode Island, 2017. When doctoral student Cameron Coelho, 28, opens a package from Indiana, he finds more than private papers that will help him with his dissertation. He finds a photograph of a beautiful society editor murdered in 1925 and clues to a century-old mystery. Within days, he meets Geoffrey Bell, the “time-travel professor,” and begins an unlikely journey through the Roaring Twenties. Filled with history, romance, and intrigue, Indiana Belle follows a lonely soul on the adventure of a lifetime as he searches for love and answers in the age of Prohibition, flappers, and jazz.

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Publisher and Release Date: John A. Heldt, April 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: Indiana & California, United States, 1925 and 2017
Genre: Historical/Time Travel with Romantic Elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating:
4 stars

Review by: Heather C.

Indiana Belle has so many things going for it that it really defies a distinct categorization. It has a romance thread that runs throughout. It is packed with a little mystery, intrigue, and adventure from the earliest pages. There is the historical setting and some significant events. Oh, and let’s not forget the very critical element of time travel!

I have been a fan of John Heldt’s works since I first read back-to-back The Mine and The Journey in 2013 (both are from his other book series, The Northwest Passage). All of his books include an element of time travel and that was one of the elements that originally drew me to them. In Indiana Belle, the time travel element involves some tunnels, some gypsum crystals, and some scientific formulae. While the time travel element does require some level of suspension of reality, and maybe it’s presentation here isn’t what most would expect for a method of traveling through time, I found it creative and plausible. The novel also tackles the age old idea that if you travel back in time you must be careful to not change the past or it could affect the future. Cameron wrestles with this premise as he does not wish to let a historical murder happen on his watch. Seeing how he struggles with this and what decision he ultimately makes is one of the central concepts of this novel. Some of the best scenes of this book deal with Cameron’s making continuity mistakes while back in 1925 – some were things that I would never have even thought of.

The romance is a very light, but critical, part of the story. What happens if you fall in love with someone who isn’t from your time? It served as more of another obstacle to time travel and the completion of Cameron’s mission than anything else. The scenes were sweet and grew from a natural place.

Mr. Heldt does an excellent job here of bringing to life the Roaring Twenties; from the quiet mid-west town, to the speakeasy parties, to the big church revivals, it has it all. Cameron sees it as a simpler time initially, but it is full of its own problems, like the KKK and women’s struggle for rights. Some of these elements are obvious while others are atmospheric, but all contribute to a well-formed sense of time. The author also tends to cover an event of significance in most of his novels and here we get a little bit of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Having survived a tornado myself, his descriptions felt very real.

There was only a small element that I questioned while reading, which I’d thought might be resolved at some point in the novel; but ultimately it wasn’t. Cameron comes from 2017. I wondered at the choice to set the book in the near future instead of the current year. I wondered what difference it could make for anyone reading the book in a couple of years’ time – the entire novel will occur in the past. After reading, I concluded it didn’t have an obvious purpose.

While Indiana Belle is the third book in the American Journey series, it certainly is successful as a standalone novel. I have not read the first two books yet (September Sky and Mercer Street), but did not feel like I was missing out on anything. I have a feeling Geoffrey Bell, the professor referenced in the book description, probably has connections to the first two books based on some allusions to other time travelers and maybe we learn more about him there, but you still come away with a full understanding and appreciation of Indiana Belle on its own.

There is a little something for everyone here and would appeal widely to both men and women!

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Lost Among the Living
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England, 1921. Three years after her husband, Alex, disappeared, shot down over Germany, Jo Manders still mourns his loss. Working as a paid companion to Alex’s wealthy, condescending aunt, Dottie Forsyth, Jo travels to the family’s estate in the Sussex countryside. But there is much she never knew about her husband’s origins…and the revelation of a mysterious death in the Forsyths’ past is just the beginning…

All is not well at Wych Elm House. Dottie’s husband is distant, and her son was grievously injured in the war. Footsteps follow Jo down empty halls, and items in her bedroom are eerily rearranged. The locals say the family is cursed, and that a ghost in the woods has never rested. And when Jo discovers her husband’s darkest secrets, she wonders if she ever really knew him. Isolated in a place of deception and grief, she must find the truth or lose herself forever.

And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…

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Publisher and Release Date: NAL, April 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: England, 1921
Genre: Gothic Mystery with romantic elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Simone St. James may only have five published novels to her name (so far) but I was so taken with her very first book – The Haunting of Maddy Clare – that she pretty much immediately became an auto-buy author. In recent years, she has brilliantly revitalised the historical/gothic mystery, producing superbly-written, well-crafted and spine-tingling stories that have often kept me reading until well past my bedtime!

Lost Among the Living is set in 1921 and as the book opens, we meet Jo Manders, a young widow whose husband, Alex, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane was shot down in 1918, but his body was never found, meaning that Jo is not officially a widow and is therefore unable to claim a widow’s pension. With no other means of supporting herself and her mother – who is mentally ill and lives in an asylum – Jo has found employment as companion to Alex’s wealthy, aristocratic aunt, Dottie Forsyth. Dottie is opinionated, demanding and often rude, so working for her is no picnic, but she is also Jo’s one last link to Alex, so Jo sticks it out.

Jo’s assignment with Dottie was only supposed to last for the few months Dottie spent touring the Continent buying art from people and families driven to financial ruin by the war, so she is surprised when Dottie asks her to accompany her back to England. On arriving at Wych Elm House, however, Jo begins to question her decision. The house is a desolate place that is permeated by an atmosphere of grief and loss; the local villagers whisper about mysterious deaths that happened before the war and vicious ghosts roaming the woods; Dottie’s husband is a coldly calculating, raffish womaniser, their son, Martin, has returned from the war an invalid who seems headed for an early demise, and their daughter, Frances, died in mysterious circumstances. But the more Jo learns about that past tragedy, the more determined she is to discover the truth behind it, refusing to be intimidated by the footsteps that follow her or by the stories that circulate about a mysterious beast roaming the woods.

And on top of all this comes Jo’s dawning realisation about how little she knew about the man she married; she hadn’t known that Wych Elm House had been Alex’s home or that he had grown up with Dottie’s children… and certainly hadn’t known he visited the house on his last leave before he was shot down.

Lost Among the Living is a great blend of ghost story, mystery and romance, and the writing is superb. Ms St. James is a master at creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty, and her descriptive prose is often beautiful:

To my right and left, the roof of Wych Elm House fell away, as if I were the mermaid on the prow of a ship, sailing into the woods. Before me spread the tops of the trees, the closest ones visibly rippling and shimmering in the wind, the father ones mere ribbons of black and pewter and dusky silver, blending into a mass that spread for miles.

But while I enjoyed the book overall, there are a couple of things about it that didn’t work for me, and which prevented my rating it more highly. First of all, there is a massive spoiler in the publisher’s blurb which kind of skewed my reading of it. It’s difficult to describe without giving too much away, but the blurb says this: And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House. I was 99.9% certain I knew who this person was going to be, and as a consequence, I got frustrated when he failed to appear until around the final third of the book. Would I have read the book differently had I not read that spoiler? It’s difficult to say, but there are enough pointers towards this event in the book itself to have made it likely that I wouldn’t. My other big issue with the story was the rapidity with which Jo accepted the presence of the ghost and knew immediately who it was. To me, it felt as though the author was taking a bit of a short-cut; readers know what to expect from her books, they will be quick to accept the presence of a ghost and so Jo accepts it quickly, too.

But even with those reservations, Lost Among the Living is an intriguing and beautifully-written story in which the tension leaps off the page and the characters are complex and interesting. It isn’t my favourite of Ms. St. James’ books (that would be The Other Side of Midnight), but it’s certainly well worth reading if you enjoy mysteries and ghost stories with a touch of romance.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Forget Me Not by Allison Whitmore

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Theodora “Teddi” Donovan and Calvin Wynne have always hated each other. They didn’t have a choice after Teddi’s bootlegger father killed Calvin’s and left them both orphaned. The scandal has fueled gossip in quiet, quaint Brookhurst, New York, for over a decade. When a friendship develops between them as teenagers, they are ridiculed and shunned by the strict society that dictates life in their town. As they grow older, friendship turns into love, and Teddi and Calvin have to choose between their future and the scepter of their past. Spanning continents and decades, Forget Me Not is a coming-of-age story about truth, self-reliance, and the freeing power of love.

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EXCERPT

When her grandmother was out of sight, Teddi slipped back into her room to keep looking. After about fifteen minutes, she gave up. It wasn’t there. Could it have fallen when she and Calvin were walking home last night? No, she would have heard it. She tried mentally retracing her steps. The last time she’d seen the ring, she’d been inside of the lighthouse. Yes, the lighthouse. That was where it was. She could feel it in her gut. She had to go back.

She rushed downstairs again. She hastily called over her shoulder when she made it to the front part of the house. “Grandpa! I’m going to see Ben for a minute. I’ll be back, okay?”

“Don’t forget, it’s raining, buttercup,” her grandfather said, walking into the room as she nearly dashed out of the door uncovered in her new dress and new shoes.

“Oh, right.” Teddi looked outside. It was really beginning to pour. She quickly moved to the closet and pulled out a pair of blue rubber boots and a matching slicker and hat.

“I’ve never seen you get your rain things on so quickly,” her grandfather chuckled. “Is something wrong, dear?” His tone was knowing, but Teddi couldn’t deal with telling him right now. She hated lying to him, but there was really no time to explain.

“No, no, I just want to say goodbye and everything,” she sputtered, inching out the door.

Her grandfather’s old eyes shone with understanding, and Teddi smiled thankfully. “Be careful, dear.”

Ignoring the undertones of her grandfather’s warning, Teddi answered politely but swiftly, “I will,” and headed out the door.

The rain was almost blinding and finding her way to the lighthouse that morning was not as easy as it had been the night before. The streets were not flooded, but the sky was gray, too gray, and the warm wind had kicked up again. Once she made it to the shoreline road where she knew the lighthouse to be, Teddi picked up her feet and ran the quarter of a mile it took to get there.

She arrived out of breath, lungs burning, nose hot. But she had no time to think about that. She had to find the ring. She couldn’t leave for school without it. She was almost sure she dropped it while she was inside with Calvin. She and her soaking rubber boots trudged up the muddy embankment to the front of the lighthouse.

Teddi rapped her knuckles against the sturdy oak door several times, not sure if Old Man Hancock had happened by to check on the building. When no one answered, she dipped inside. Glad to be out of the rain and without looking around, Teddi ripped off her rain hat and shook it out.

“What are you doing here?” a familiar, surprised sounding voice startled her.

Teddi’s eyes grew wide as her heart drilled against her chest. There stood Calvin in the middle of the room, arms folded, staring right at her. She relaxed enough to quip back, “I get that a lot from you. And I could ask you the same thing.” Her eyes scanned his body. He wasn’t damp from the rain and looked like he had on the same clothes from last night.

“I came here after I walked you home. I fell asleep. Then it started raining and… Shouldn’t you be in Connecticut right now?”

“I’m taking a later train. My grandparents seem to think this rain’ll clear soon.”

“Doesn’t look like it,” he said, looking out of the window at the menacing clouds darkening the sky.

“I, um.” Teddi shifted unpleasantly. She didn’t want to tell Calvin why she’d come.

“Out with it,” he said, chuckling.

“I’m so horrible!”

Calvin looked confused. “What? Why are you horrible?”

Teddi shook her head and turned away from him. “I just am.”

“No, you’re not,” he said as he glanced out the door behind her. “Wow, it’s really getting bad out there.” He walked around Teddi and shoved the door shut against an attack of violent wind. “Maybe we should wait it out here.”

“What? No, I have to get back soon,” she said, looking around with a frown.

“What is it?”

“Nothing!”

Thunder clapped monstrously, startling them both. A haunting whistle and a deep howl flew past the windows carrying wet leaves and branches. The floors trembled.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to get back home safely in this,” he said, “and I don’t think your grandparents will be driving you out to Manhattan any time soon.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Teddi removed her wet coat and muddy boots. She tossed the coat onto the bench closest to the door and shoved the boots under it. Head hanging, she walked a little ways from the door towards a clump of hastily strewn blankets on the floor and leaned against the wall behind them, defeated. She sank down onto the dowdy but comfortable-looking covers Calvin apparently slept on the night before. “What difference does it make anyway? I’ll either die in this storm, or my grandmother will kill me when I get home.”

“You’re not going to die.” Calvin slid down beside her and placed a comforting hand on her knee. “Look at it this way. We get to spend more time together.” He slipped his arm around her.

Teddi put her head on his shoulder. Calvin ran his fingers up and down her arm, while Teddi circled the back of his hand with her thumb. “I like this,” she said, after a long while.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” said Calvin.

“So do I.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allison3Allison Whitmore started her first novel, Forget Me Not, one icy morning in her dorm room in Southampton, NY. After many years of teaching high school English, she came back to the novel to rewrite it. Allison comes from a family who loves history and enjoyed immersing herself in the research that brought Teddi and Calvin’s world to life. She lives in her hometown, Los Angeles, California.

You can connect with Allison at: www.allisonwhitmore.com * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Instagram.