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The Star in the Meadow (Spanish Brand #4) by Carla Kelly

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Marco Mondragón and his wife Paloma are living hectic but happy lives at the Double Cross, on the edge of Comanchería. Five years after the death of Comanche leader Cuerno Verde, cautious diplomacy between the tribe and the colonists is underway to end Comanche raids into New Mexico. Paloma’s time has been fully consumed by her two toddlers and newborn son and Marco’s by spring planting.

The Seven Year Audit of 1784 arrives and with it comes auditor Fernando Ygnacio. After years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit, Señor Ygnacio is a broken man. Although his daughter Catalina is bitter about his mistreatment by his superiors, her storytelling abilities captivate the household, including a frequent visitor from the nearby presidio, El Teniente Joaquim Gasca, who has been undergoing his own reformation from rascal to leader. Unknown to him, Marco has peculiar enemies plotting his downfall.

When Paloma and Catalina set out on a visit to Marco’s sister, meant to give Paloma relief from her busy life, the women are kidnapped. Devastated, Marco is torn between love and duty. He yearns to search for his wife, but feels bound by colonial duties to accompany his friend Toshua to Río Napestle, where Comanches have gathered to debate the region’s fragile peace. In his absence from the Double Cross, will Joaquim Gasca and Toshua’s wife Eckapeta be able to find the missing women?

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Publisher and Release Date: Camel Press, February 2017

Time and Setting: New Mexico, 1785
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Blue

With this fourth book of the Spanish Brand Series, Carla Kelly concludes the ongoing saga of Marco Mondragon, an Spanish official in 1780’s New Mexico.  When we first met him, he was heartbroken over the deaths of his beloved wife and twin sons.  After a time, he found happiness with a new love, Paloma, and they began to build a future together.  They now have two children, and Paloma has just given birth to their second son.  Although she is overjoyed at having been delivered of a healthy child, Paloma doesn’t bounce back.  She is restless, overwhelmed, tired, and confused.  She tries to put on a brave front, but Marco realizes something is wrong.  After learning that this condition happens occasionally to a woman after giving birth, Marco decides to send Paloma away to his sister’s home for a couple of weeks, where she can just relax and have no responsibilities.

Disaster strikes when Paloma and her companion are kidnapped while travelling.  The kidnappers originally targeted someone else, but upon learning that Paloma is Marco’s wife, they decide to keep her, as they have a grudge against him.  To make matters worse, Marco is scheduled to attend a very important meeting with the Comanche to discuss peace.  Marco has earned their respect, and there will be no talks without him there.  While he desperately wants to search for his missing wife, he is forced to let others search while he attends the gathering.

While the previous books in this series have been fraught with conflict and danger, I found The Star in the Meadow to be the most heartbreaking.  Marco and Paloma are apart for most of the book, and both have to make hard and distressing decisions, including one about their newborn child.  Throughout all this darkness, Carla Kelly manages to inject moments of light humor, and when the lovers are finally reunited, each unsure of their reception from the other, their love and passion burns brighter than ever.  This couple has a genuine goodness about them, which seems to enfold their family and friends, and makes them all the better for it.  The Star in the Meadow is beautifully written, and a satisfying conclusion to the series, though I hate to see it end.  I was left with a great feeling of warmth and optimism for their future, and I recommend this series highly.

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.

Secrets in the Mist (Gothic Myths #1) by Anna Lee Huber

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England 1812. Since the death of her mother and brother, Ella Winterton’s life has been consumed by keeping her drunkard father out of trouble and the roof of their crumbling cottage over their heads. But even isolated deep in the Norfolk broads, Ella has never been afraid of the marshes surrounding her home, despite their being riddled with treacherous bogs and local smugglers. Until one night a man masquerading as a Lantern Man—a frightening figure of local legend—waylays her in the marshes near her home, and her world suddenly begins to spiral out of control.

Ella can tell her friends and the local villagers are all hiding something terrible, something they refuse to share, and she can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the Lantern Man and his secret activities in the shadows of the seemingly quiet broads. But when Ella’s father is caught with smuggled brandy by the authorities and levied a crippling fine, she is forced to turn to the stranger for help, despite her distrust and his alarming ability to kiss her senseless.

Now she must unravel a twisted trail of deception and secrets, and uncover once and for all whether the Lantern Man is friend or foe. Or else risk being dragged down into the marshes, like the victims from the myth, and buried in a watery grave.

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Publisher and Release Date: Brightstone Media, October 2016
Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Gothic Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 Stars

Review by Jenny Q

So many of my friends are fans of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby mystery series, which I’ve not yet had a chance to read, so I jumped at the chance to review the first book in her brand new romantic suspense series centered around Gothic myths and folklore, Secrets in the Mist.

On a dark, foggy night, the kind of night where most people wouldn’t dare cross the East Anglian marshes on foot, Ella Winterton ventures out to take much-needed medicine to her sick friend, skeptical of her old housekeeper’s tales of Lantern Men until she spots their floating lights in the mist and comes face-to-face with one. Only he’s no specter but a flesh-and-blood man, dark and menacing and delivering a warning to stay out of the marshes. But that’s hard for Ella to do, living on the edge of them as she does, and spending so much time traveling back and forth between her humble home and her friend Kate’s house, Greenlaws. Kate recovers from her illness, but it soon becomes apparent that she and her brother, Robert, with whom Ella has a complicated past, are keeping secrets, and Ella’s refuge from her drunken father and dwindling prospects no longer seems so inviting. After several more run-ins with the handsome Lantern Man and a lecherous revenue man who levies an exorbitant fine for her father’s smuggled brandy, Ella has no choice but to take her family’s future into her own hands. But rather than turn to Robert for help, she forces the Lantern Man, aka Jack, to help her and stumbles onto an enterprise far more dangerous than she’d imagined. Now, caught in a trap of her own making, Ella must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect her father, her friends, and her very life, and whether Jack can be trusted or if he’s leading her into danger for his own nefarious purposes.

Secrets in the Mist is a very well-written and incredibly atmospheric romance. The author skilfully conjures up the images of marshy estuaries, hidden waterways tucked among the tall reeds and grasses, a treacherous path between a run-down cottage and a grand manor, a forlorn dock that becomes a clandestine meeting place, and the ever-present mist that can hide lovers in a romantic cocoon, hide smugglers from the eyes of the law, or hide things of a far darker nature from unsuspecting travelers. It’s also rich in historical detail. In a note on the author’s website, she reveals that many aspects of this story were inspired right from the pages of history. Coastal England must have been a very interesting place to live during the war with France.

While I really enjoyed the story, I did find sections of it to be slow-moving and repetitive, and I thought the plot fairly predictable. I had hoped the Lantern Men mystery would play out a bit longer so it could have been a tad spookier; as it is, the cause of the marsh lights Ella sees is revealed early on, so the suspense of the unknown doesn’t really reach its fullest potential, although a whole other type of danger presents itself. However, I still couldn’t put the book down. I had to keep reading to see if my assumptions were correct and to see how everything would come together in the end. I particularly enjoyed the romance. I really felt for Ella and her circumstances, and Jack is sexy and sweet under his gruff façade. The romantic tension between them is very well done.

Secrets in the Mist stands out to me as something unique and memorable in historical romance. It does stay pretty close to the classic Gothic romance formula, but it is set against a rich historical backdrop and incorporates many of the elements that make for a great read – dimensional and intriguing characters, an evocative setting, action, suspense, betrayal, danger, and of course, true love. I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series and will be adding Anna Lee Huber’s other series to my reading list.

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.

Live The Dream by Claire Lorrimer

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A young couple are forced to part at the onset of war … but dream of being reunited one day.

August, 1939. When it becomes clear that war is about to break out with Germany, twin sisters Dilys and Una Singleby are forced to leave their studies in Munich and return home to England. Heartbroken at being parted, Dilys and her Norwegian student boyfriend, Kristoffer, vow to be reunited as soon as it’s possible.

However, as the months pass, a series of misunderstandings and misguided actions keep the lovers apart. When she discovers she’s pregnant, Dilys, unable to contact Kristoffer, is driven to desperate measures to ensure that she can keep her baby and avoid bringing disgrace to her family. Kristoffer meanwhile joins the Resistance and faces dangerous times ahead. It seems as though the pair are destined never to meet again … can true love find a way?

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Publisher and Release Date: Severn House, October 2016

Time and Setting: WWII England 1939
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1/2
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Wendy

I was drawn to the synopsis of this story as I’m rather partial to a war time romance featuring star crossed lovers. And in Live The Dream the author certainly touches on almost every conceivable scenario of what could ‘cross the lovers’. In fact, I felt as though she tried to pack way too much into what is a fairly small word count.

Identical twin sisters Una and Dilys Singleby are seventeen as Hitler begins his march of tyranny across Europe. They have been having the time of their lives in Munich, supposedly studying, but mostly partying. When their father sends them a second telegram instructing them to return home immediately, they ignore it as they did the previous one. Putting his panic down to the fact that he is an MP and therefore likely to overreact, the girls just carry on with their lives, refusing to believe that the charming German boys with whom they are friends would ever turn against them. When their father suddenly arrives from England and demands that they pack for home immediately, Dilys is distraught as she is given no opportunity to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Norwegian student, Kristoffer Holberg. They have made a commitment to each other and become lovers and neither has considered the possible ramifications of their actions. After being torn apart the couple is desperate to re-unite, but firstly Dilys’ father and then Kristoffer’s, scuppers any likelihood of a reunion. By the time four months have passed, the innocent Dilys, and her slightly more worldly-wise, sister, Una, have put two and two together and realised that Dilys is pregnant; by mutual agreement they keep the secret for another three months.

In the meantime the girls have begun working as receptionists for the local vet, widower, James Sherwin. James is quick to notice Dilys’ pregnancy and offers her marriage as a way out of her predicament. In all of this time their mother has not realised that Dilys is pregnant, even though she is wearing a smock and is approximately seven months gone by this time. I know that the parents were each busy with their war work – but really..?

The most compelling part of this story is the well researched and thorough historical content told in great detail and with a confident knowledge, and I enjoyed that very much. We travel through the various stages of the Third Reich’s invasion and occupation of each European country and eventually Britain’s reluctant but necessary participation. In particular I found the details about Norway’s occupation and the work of its Resistance movement fascinating and we see Kristoffer’s, involvement as a partisan in an intricate plot. I’m assuming this plot to be historically correct – but in any case I found it engaging and it held my attention. Ms. Lorrimer does an excellent job in showing war as it really was in all of its stark reality. However, her character development leaves a lot to be desired, because it’s flat and one dimensional. I didn’t feel Dilys’ despair when she was on the brink of having her baby taken away for adoption, nor her appreciation for James’ enormously generous and selfless actions in saving her; even though she said she was grateful – I didn’t feel it. Another thing that really annoyed me was, that from the time of James’ introduction I lost count of how many times the twin sisters referred to him as “old”. I was astonished to learn eventually that he was only thirty four – sixteen years older than Dilys. I was fully expecting to be told he was at least fifty. I did not feel the love between Dilys and Kristoffer either, even though we are constantly told how much they love each other. Finally, the ending is farcical, implausible and comes over as contrived; it feels as though it’s just been added as an afterthought so as to give the story a dramatic ending. I admit that I would have been tempted to abandon this book because the romance is unremarkable and the numerous coincidences stretch implausibility to the limit. As it stands, the excellent and well told WWII historical content made the book worth reading, but it’s not something I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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

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England, 1176

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

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Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, October 2016

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

Review by Wendy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Tinker’s Daughter by Stuart S. Laing

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Edinburgh, June 1746

In the summer of 1746, a caravan of wandering Gypsies arrive in Edinburgh bringing with them Libby Oliver, a mysterious young woman with a troubled history. Caught in a struggle between a dangerous figure from her past, and forced to do the evil bidding of a man she had thought she could trust, she is desperate to escape from all those who wish to control her for their own nefarious ends.

When the chance for love, happiness and a future of her own choosing presents itself, will she have the courage to seize the moment, or will she remain as no more than the beautiful prize in a struggle between those she has come to despise?

Following a brutal murder in a dank courtyard, the finger of suspicion is pointed firmly in her direction. Desperate to escape injustice, she turns to the one man who she believes can help her: Robert Young of Newbiggin.

Unfortunately he is bedridden with illness, while a plot involving shadowy figures from within the ranks of Edinburgh’s council and powerful guilds swirls in the background.

It will fall to his wife, Euphemia, to search for the truth on the filth choked streets of old Edinburgh, see that the guilty are brought to justice, and allow Libby to find the happiness so long denied her.

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Publisher and Release Date: Stuart S. Laing, June 2016

Time and Setting: Edinburgh, June 1746
Genre: Historical Mystery with romantic elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Wendy

Set in post-Culloden Edinburgh, The Tinker’s Daughter opens with a darkly sinister, clandestine meeting in the early hours of the morning. A group of sober, unnamed men who are highly respected members of the city’s Guild of Hammermen, has gathered to discuss an incident they were all involved in thirty years previously when they were apprentices and which has now come back to haunt them. There are various threads of mystery and intrigue running throughout the story and most, in one way or another lead to Libby Oliver and the menacing figure of her adopted father, Balen Oliver, leader of a band of gypsies. Libby is a mysterious, beautiful young woman with an exceptional talent for playing the fiddle; the combination of her fear, musical talents and extraordinary beauty is exploited by Balen, who puts her to work in the streets and taverns around the old town of Edinburgh and its castle. The people of the granite city are still recovering from the devastating effects of the battle of Culloden one month previously and Libby’s musical ability is a light relief and much appreciated by the people of Edinburgh who are anxious to forget their woes. It is on one such appearance that Libby makes the acquaintance of Alice Galbraith who is attracted by her mesmerising music, beauty and person-ability; she stands to listen and watch with Euphemia Young, the youthful wife of Robert Young.

Robert is a kind of private detective whose services are much in demand when the more respectable citizens of Edinburgh don’t really want the Town Guard or other law enforcement involved. Unfortunately when he is approached by one such ‘respectable’ citizen for help, Robert is sick – smitten with a gastric/lung complaint, which renders him so weak and unwell that he is unable to leave his bed. Euphemia is more than capable of standing in for her husband, and with the help of Shug Nicolls, a local tough-guy, she relishes the opportunity to do some investigating of her own.

Alice Galbraith works in an exclusive club, which caters mainly for men, although a few women number among its clients. Alice’s preference is for women, but if she is to make a living, she must cater for the men, too, no matter how distasteful she finds it. This is an interesting departure for this author and I liked that he tackled this shadowy world. Alice and Libby are immediately attracted to each other in a more than friendly manner, but the romance between them lacks something when compared to the strong sense of love and affection that exists between Robert and Euphemia, which is funny and sweet, with the kind of light hearted banter between a fairly newly married young couple that is touching and believable.

Characterisation is Stuart Laing’s strong point, especially when it comes to the working class males of Edinburgh, such as Shug Nicolls and Sgt Angus Maclan of the Town Guard. These men are so real and so very amusing, imbued with an earthiness, quick wit and humour, and I found myself chuckling along with their witty repartée.

The Tinker’s Daughter is the tenth in the A Robert Young of Newbiggin Mystery series, and although the books are all related with many of the characters appearing in all ten books, it can be read as a stand-alone. There is a glossary of Scots words/dialect at the beginning of the book and to anyone not familiar with the vernacular it might be necessary to refer to it from time to time, as the story is rich in Scottish slang. There is an element of romance in The Tinker’s Daughter but it is mild and definitely secondary to the mystery which has an interesting twist; one that I did not see coming. Stuart Laing takes us on a guided tour of the filthy alleyways and streets of working class Edinburgh with his graphic descriptions; and his research, scholarship and love for his city and its people shows in every word.

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.

The Salt Hendon Collection by Lucinda Brant

salt hendon collection

This special edition brings together two of Lucinda Brant’s best-loved books, Salt Bride and its sequel Salt Redux. For this comprehensive edition we listened to reader requests; the original prologue to Salt Bride has been reinstated and the first edition cover art has been added. Also included is a 20,000-word bonus novella, Salt Angel, a new extended version of Fairy Christmas (previously published in A Timeless Romance Anthology: Silver Bells Collection) featuring well-loved characters from the Salt books. The Salt Hendon Collection is a great introduction to Lucinda Brant’s unique storytelling and her richly romantic 18th century world.

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Publisher and Release Date: Sprigleaf Pty, June 2016
Place and time: England, 1760s
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

This is the second read for me of Lucinda Brant’s Salt Bride and its sequel Salt Redux, this time with the added bonus of the original prologue to Salt Bride having been reinstated and with the inclusion of a novella which was originally published as Fairy Christmas in an anthology and which has been newly extended for its addition to the set. The novella, light and sweet – neatly ties off the complete boxed set. The Salt Duo was my first foray into Lucinda Brant’s gorgeously sumptuous Georgian world and I am now an addict of this author’s work and devour everything she has written and wait with eager anticipation for future work. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories – probably even more than I did initially – especially as I now fully appreciate the extensive research and work Ms. Brant undertakes on each and every book on her fabulous backlist.

The added prologue, which had already been removed when I read Salt Bride (due to some controversy over its content), was not as shocking as I had expected. It tells the story of Miss Jane Despard’s miscarriage and, in my opinion, is very sensitively handled, with just the right amount of information revealed. However, having read the book with and without said prologue, I do not believe the story lacked anything by its absence. Ms. Brant very successfully drip feeds the circumstances of Jane’s miscarriage throughout Salt Bride; and on reflection, I would conclude that I preferred the edition without the prologue as the gradual revelations of past events add an element of mystery to the story.

Both Salt Bride and Salt Redux feature one of the most memorable female villains I have ever encountered. Lady Diana St. John, Salt’s cousin, is truly an exceptional bad-girl, highly intelligent, but criminally insane, she operates in such a rational, self possessed manner that her madness is hidden beneath her cloak of self-assured entitlement. She features, highly in both of the novels, and the prologue, already mentioned, and completely steals the show with her machinations and downright, badness. The lengths she goes to to achieve her objectives are truly mind boggling but so expertly does Ms. Brant develop Diana’s character that she manifests as alarmingly believable. I wondered how the author would give Diana the comeuppance she deserves and when it came, I was not disappointed.

I loved the character of Magnus Sinclair, Earl of Salt Hendon. He’s an utterly gorgeous man who has been raised to feel completely comfortable in his own skin and fully accepts his powerful position. But he is finally knocked off his pedestal and brought down to the level of a mere mortal by the love and devotion of the serenely beautiful Jane Despard. The first book is very much about the traumatic events leading up to their forced marriage (a premise I love in HR) and the development of their romance; it is already in its infancy when they marry, but they have some way to go. And we see Salt finally becoming a more human, down-to-earth man and a loving husband and future father. The second book features Salt and Jane with a growing family but highlights Salt’s best friend, diplomat, Sir Anthony Templestowe who has recently returned from St.Petersburg where he was the darling of the Russian court. Salt’s little sister Caroline (Caro), and Antony (Tony) have loved each other for a while, but a high profile incident at the end of Salt Bride sent Tony into virtual exile to Russia. He now returns in order to help find a solution which will immobilise his diabolical sister, Diana, once and for all, but also to hopefully mend some fences with Caro. Anthony is a darling man but also a self-confessed alcoholic and I loved that Lucinda Brant tackles this very real problem in a pragmatic and practical manner, making it perfectly clear along the way that it can’t ever be resolved. Anthony has faced that – as alcoholics must – but more importantly, he has accepted that the fight with his addiction is an ongoing one. He is a lovely man and his vulnerability just serves to make his character more real and compelling. Caroline, too, has confessions to make before they can reach their HEA and the two make an interesting and charismatic couple.

Lucinda Brant expertly brings all of her primary characters together to bring Diana down – no mean feat – and I wondered, more than once, how she managed to keep her intricate plotting and placing of characters clear in her head. There is so much going on, especially during the dramatic culmination, that I had to think twice about where everyone was at any given time. Lucinda Brant doesn’t just write spine tingling romance – she always throws in an element of clever plotting and mystery and it is one of the aspects of her writing that I love; she keeps us guessing.

The novella is a nice addition and as I said, brings the whole series to a neat conclusion with not one but two delightful romances. Three of the characters appeared in the Salt Duo as secondary characters and the third, Prince Timur-Alexei Nikolai, makes his first appearance in the novella. Lucinda Brant has a pleasing way of including every age group in her romances; we are never too old for love and the elderly Russian Prince is an absolute sweetheart. His addition to the Fairy Christmas a delightful touch and his love story makes for a perfect ending to a terrific series. I loved the Salt Hendon collection and if you have never read a Lucinda Brant historical romance or mystery, this is a good place to start. Highly recommended.