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

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

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

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

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

Review by Lady Wesley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

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England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Publisher and Release Date: Harper Perennial, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1815
Genre: Historical/Time-Travel Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

I liked The Jane Austen Project. The premise – that two time travelers go back to 1815, and insinuate themselves into Jane Austen’s life – is fascinating and intriguing. Austen acolytes will no doubt love this fictional interpretation of her. Other readers (me) who find her less compelling – even in this flattering iteration – may be less enthused. Therein lies my difficulty with the grade and why I’ve only given the book four stars. It’s smart, well written and the premise is entertaining… but if you don’t believe the minutiae of Austen’s life makes for fascinating reading (me again), it’s also slightly dull.

Told exclusively in the point of view of Doctor Rachel Katzman, The Jane Austen Project explores the idea of time travel, and the ability of time travelers to affect changes in the future by altering past events in the context of one year in Jane Austen’s life. Rachel, a globe-trotting physician and Austen devotee, is one of two people specially selected by the The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics to travel back in time to 1815. The mission? To befriend the Austen family and obtain (steal) lost correspondence between Jane and her sister Cassandra, and bring back (again, steal) a copy of The Watsons, a novel she wrote and never published. Researchers believed The Watsons unfinished, but new information indicates Ms. Austen completed the novel and subsequently destroyed it. If Rachel, with her medical expertise, can also deduce why Ms. Austen died prematurely at the relatively young age of forty-one… even better.

Prior to their departure, Rachel and her traveling partner, actor-turned-academic Liam Finucane, spend a year together rigorously training and meticulously planning for the trip. Their backstory, that Doctor William Ravenwood and his spinster sister, Mary, have returned to England from Jamaica after selling their coffee plantation and divesting themselves of slaves, is specific enough to satisfy the mildly curious, but vague enough that any further inquiries about them would require time and effort to pursue.

When the book opens, Rachel and Liam have jumped back to 1815 from the future (it’s never specified when) and landed disheveled and disoriented in a field on the outskirts of the town of Leatherhead in Surrey. After a quick survey to ensure they haven’t suffered any adverse effects from the trip and that the large volume of counterfeit banknotes concealed in their clothing remains in place, they set off for a nearby inn. Unfortunately, the innkeeper is suspicious about their appearance when they arrive without any visible transport (if he only knew!) and without any bags, and declines to give them a room. When Liam flashes him a gold coin, he’s more than willing to arrange a post chaise to take them to London.

Once Rachel and Liam arrive in town, they set about securing themselves an entrée into the Austen family via Henry Austen, a banker, and Jane’s favorite brother. Posing as distant Austen relatives, Liam easily finagles a meeting with Henry and it isn’t long before Henry invites Doctor Ravenwood and his sister to dinner at his home. The evening is Rachel’s first opportunity to meet Henry and when she does, he’s everything she expected: handsome, charming, and friendly. He’s also flirtatious and clearly interested in her. Following the dinner the pair is welcomed into Henry’s circle of friends, and when Henry falls ill, Liam (as Doctor Ravenwood) is perfectly situated to offer him care and further insinuate himself in Henry’s life. The illness provides context for regular visits and, more significantly, opportunity for the Ravenwoods to meet Henry’s extended family. Shortly after Henry falls ill, Jane arrives, and when he doesn’t appear to improve, she summons the rest of the family to join her.

Though Henry is enthusiastic about the Ravenwoods, his family is less so. Cassandra is welcoming but remote; Jane is curious but guarded. Their relationship with Henry and his obvious affection for Rachel helps, but it isn’t until Rachel and Liam travel to the countryside with the family that a more profound friendship develops between them and Jane. But their deepening friendship also alters Rachel’s perspective on the mission. What kind of friend is she to admire and like Jane, all the while lying and plotting to steal from her? As the book progresses, Rachel and Liam struggle to reconcile their mission with their 1815 personas and relationships with the Austen family. When the book ends, I’m not sure Ms. Flynn ever satisfactorily answers those questions. Liam and Rachel are torn by their feelings about the mission and Jane, but the mission rapidly spirals out of control shortly before their planned departure date, and their hasty retreat robs them of any choice in the matter.

Rachel and her insightful point of view are particularly well done. Though her affection for Jane borders on creepy, I loved the contrasts between her various identities: past (spinster sister), present (bohemian physician), and future (murky). Frankly, she’s a much more interesting character than Ms. Austen. She struggles with her friendship with Jane, but also with her role on the mission. Single, independent, educated, and sexually liberated – Rachel is a model of modernity when she jumps through time. Forced to watch Liam ‘treat’ his patients, Rachel is a patient and curious doctor/coach. Though it’s obvious she longs to ask the questions Liam doesn’t think to ask, I thought she did an admirable job letting him lead. If I have any complaint about her, it’s that perhaps her transition to a woman’s life in 1815 happens a bit too easily. When she makes mistakes, they’re easily explained away by her experiences in Jamaica, and I never felt her identity – or their subterfuge – was at risk. I was more interested in the ways Rachel’s inherent goodness and some of her more impulsive decisions impacted the future.

As well developed as Rachel is, Liam remains an enigma from start to finish. Rachel’s impressions of him – so specific, so admiring during their time together – coupled with Ms. Flynn’s descriptions (he’s slightly obsessed with his clothing and vague about his past), made him a particularly curious and intriguing character. I think I like him?

Time travel is a curious business. On the one hand, it provides the traveler with a past – or future – they can live and experience themselves. On the other hand, it provides the traveler with the opportunity of altering events in ways they can’t predict or prevent. Ms. Flynn touches on these bigger picture issues, but she doesn’t offer any easy answers. The final chapter of the book – after such a terrific premise for the story – left this reader unsatisfied with the answers she does provide.

If it sounds like I really liked this book, you’re right – I did! But I suspect the difference between liking and loving The Jane Austen Project is less about the story and the quality of Ms. Flynn’s writing (both good), than a simple question of just how interested in Jane Austen’s life you are. I’m not especially, and though Ms. Flynn’s fictionalized version of Jane is appealing, I didn’t find her nearly as compelling as most every other character in this story. Perhaps her brilliance was too subtle for me?

The Jane Austen Project is good or great depending on how you feel about Jane Austen. For me, it’s good – just not great.

AUDIO REVIEW: Fair, Bright and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2) by Elizabeth Kingston, narrated by Nicholas Boulton

fair bright and terrible

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Wales is conquered, and Eluned has lost everything: her country, her husband, her hope. All that remains is vengeance, and she will stop at nothing to have it.

When Robert de Lascaux is asked to marry the woman he has loved for eighteen years, he never hesitates. No wealth has ever mattered to him as much as Eluned has. But she, it seems, does not want him at all. Trapped in a web of intrigue, revenge, and desire, they cannot forget their past – but can they dare to share a future?

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Publisher and Release Date: Elizabeth Kingston, April 2017

Time and Setting: Wales, 1282
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content; 5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

In my opinion, Elizabeth Kingston is one of the best – if not THE best – newly published author writing in the historical genre. Fair, Bright and Terrible, the second in her Welsh Blades series ticks every single box on my list of requirements for a stimulating, entertaining and engrossing read/listen. With narrator Nicholas Boulton added into the mix I was quite literally in book heaven – enthralled from beginning to end. This story follows directly on from The King’s Man and covers the true and bloody period in Welsh/English history where the last Welsh Prince Llewelyn is ruthlessly disposed of in the most barbaric of medieval methods.

In book one of the series, we met Eluned of Ruardean who was a strong driving force in the life of her daughter, Gwenllian whom she relentlessly controlled. I disliked Eluned intensely and she didn’t grow on me one iota, so when I realised that Fair, Bright and Terrible was Eluned’s story, I approached it with trepidation and some pre-conceived prejudices. I carried on disliking her, especially after she marries the compellingly likeable and adorable hero of the story, Robert de Lascaux. How, I wondered, could this gorgeous man have loved this woman for eighteen years? And this is where Elizabeth Kingston shows her immense talent for character development – because by the end of the story I understood, respected, and actually liked and admired Eluned.

As the story begins, Eluned’s dreams of a successful uprising to bring independent sovereignty back to Wales is in tatters following King Edward I’s ruthless suppression of the recent rebellion. Coming hard upon the heels of this defeat is the news that her long absentee husband has died in the Holy Land and her son is eager for her to remarry in order to augment his lands and standing. Her husband-to-be is none other than Robert de Lascaux, with whom she had a passionate affair some eighteen years earlier. She put this behind her long ago, but Robert is delighted and immediately agrees to the match, hoping to take up where they left off. Throughout the story, Eluned appears as a woman who does nothing without good reason; she always comes across as cold, calculating and controlling, and her marriage to Robert is no different. Overjoyed at being re-united with his former love, he is destined to be disappointed as he quickly realises that the love he has nurtured is not returned. It quickly becomes apparent that Eluned has a hidden agenda, her goal being admittance to the court of Edward and his inner circle.

I continued to dislike Eluned, especially as she treats the sweet natured and utterly honourable Robert with such cold disdain. But, slowly and cleverly over the course of the story, Ms. Kingston peels away, layer by layer, Eluned’s prejudices and shows her reluctant and hidden love for Robert, well buried under the baggage her life has acquired over the past eighteen years. Ironically it is the appearance and actions of her despised Norman son-in-law, Ranulf (The King’s Man), which finally knocks down the walls she has erected and we are finally allowed to see the woman she really is. Bravo Elizabeth Kingston – what a compelling, clever story and the fact that you persuaded me to like and admire this woman whom I had disliked for the best part of two books is quite remarkable.

As to the narration – what can I say other than that as usual, Nicholas Boulton gives a faultless performance and shows what a first rate actor he is? His voice is smooth, pleasing and utterly addictive to the listener; anything with his name on it is always going to get my attention. My initial dislike for Eluned was perpetuated by the exceptional manner in which he portrays her cold disdain, the emptiness and hopelessness she feels and can’t change… but then, as her defences begin to crumble, he effects a subtle softening of tone; her voice still recognisable but transformed from cold disdain into loving warmth. Mr. Boulton is one of only a handful of narrators who is equally good at portraying men and women. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Robert – at first buoyant and happy as he meets his beloved after eighteen years apart, but then as he realises his love is not returned, quiet, wary and subdued. And of course, a particular favourite of mine is the fierce Norman lord, Ranulf Ombrier – a fierce man brought to his knees by the love of his warrior wife, Gwenllian and their two little boys. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I hope that this isn’t the last in the series. Hopefully we may get to see what happens to William, Eluned’s sixteen year old son.

Fair, Bright and Terrible is an exciting, heart warming piece of historical fiction with a beautiful romance at its centre and is strongly recommended.

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

the star in the meadow

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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.

AUDIO REVIEW AND GIVEAWAY: A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley, narrated by Alex Wyhdham

splendid-defiance-audio-cover

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For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance… but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

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Published and Release Date: Stella Riley, December 2016

Time and Setting: Banbury, Oxfordshire, England 1642-4
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction/ Audiobook
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content, 5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

If you are a fan of historical fiction or historical romance, then you must, must, must, read or listen to Stella Riley’s work, and a good place to start is A Splendid Defiance. (Our review of the book is HERE.) It was this story and another of the author’s books – The Marigold Chain – that initially piqued my interest in this turbulent period in England’s history. Both are superbly researched standalone stories and each is eminently enjoyable. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible to improve upon my enjoyment of the print version of A Splendid Defiance but by employing the superbly talented Alex Wyndham to narrate her powerful story, Ms. Riley has done just that, because Mr. Wyndham brings her exciting, wonderfully romantic feast of a book to multi-dimensional life.

Captain Justin Ambrose is moodily kicking his heels at the Royalist controlled garrison of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire owing to having made an ill-judged remark about one of the King’s favourites. A career soldier of considerable experience, he has earned a formidable reputation and naturally he feels resentful at being stuck in such a backwater. His generally acerbic and sarcastic tongue is even more prominent as the prolonged inactivity begins to take its toll on his temper.

Abigail Radford is a young, sweet, and innocent seventeen year old when this story begins. She lives and works in the home and drapery shop owned by her older brother, Jonas, but this is no happy household, for Jonas is an autocratic, over-bearing bully of a man whose hatred of the Cavaliers at the castle is topped only by his religious fanaticism.

Justin is a man of integrity, honesty and honour and a Royalist to his bones – completely and unwaveringly dedicated to his King and cause; and a man who has sworn off love and marriage. At his first encounter with Abby – during which he saves her from being ravished by a couple of his subordinates – he doesn’t really see her as anything more than a terrified girl. It takes time and several more unplanned meetings before he notices that beneath the extremely plain clothing and white puritanical cap, there is a rather attractive young woman. Any possible furtherance of their acquaintance is delayed by the arrival in Banbury of a large Roundhead contingent, the senior officers of which take up residence at the Radford home. And the first siege of the castle begins. I admire the way Stella Riley grows her love stories in all of her novels but particularly in this one; understated and plausible, it is entirely in keeping with unfolding events. After the first siege is over, the Roundheads ousted and on the run after Royalist re-enforcements arrive, the garrison can breathe again and life returns to some semblance of normality. Ms. Riley then continues to develop the growing attraction between Justin and Abby, throwing them together in various situations which further advance their apparently ill-fated friendship. For how can two people on opposing sides of a civil war ever have a chance at happiness?

Justin is a multi-layered character with many deep dark secrets; even his closest friends know little about him other than he has a well-deserved reputation with the ladies. His is such a believable character, especially when one finds oneself getting cross with him because he’s given Abby an undeserved tongue lashing, upsetting her to the point that it feels as though he’s kicked a puppy. But then, conversely, one finds oneself going all gooey over him when he’s being particularly charming – and by God he certainly can turn it on when he chooses! Abby’s character grows over the course of the story from the timid girl we meet at the outset to an attractive young woman with a lot more oomph than she had to begin with. Justin sets out initially – not entirely altruistically – to help her stand up to, and defy his nemesis, the odious Jonas. But in the end, he’s hoist by his own petard, finding himself drawn more and more to her quiet, unassuming and undemanding presence. Eventually Justin realises that she is the only person in his life who has ever cared for him or gives a damn what happens to him, and their eventual acceptance of the love between them is heartwarming, tender and all the better for the waiting. And as is the norm with Stella Riley, she doesn’t need to resort to explicit love scenes – instead sensuality and tenderness is the order of the day and I was left with a warm glow as she eventually brought these two lovely characters together against all of the odds.

Alex Wyndham’s performance is stupendous. There are few performers who could have tackled such a varied and wide cast of characters and fool the listener into feeling as though they are listening to a rather superior radio play with numerous actors rather than one man’s narrative of a story. As this is a story set in time of war, it features a large number of male characters, but this poses no difficulty as Mr. Wyndham switches effortlessly between a variety of accent, tone and timbre to give each of them a distinct interpretation. I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough because it has everything that I look for in an historical romance. Filled with atmospheric, superbly researched historical content and a spine tingling romance, A Splendid Defiance has to be awarded a straight 5 star rating for both content and narration, although quite honestly that doesn’t seem high enough. But whatever the star rating, this is another winner for this phenomenal writer/narrator team.

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The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge by Elisabeth Hobbes

the saxon outlaw's revenge

At the mercy of her enemy!

Abducted by Saxon outlaws, Constance Arnaud comes face-to-face with Aelric, a Saxon boy she once loved. He’s now her enemy, but Constance must reach out to this rebel and persuade him to save her life as she once saved his

Aelric is determined to seek vengeance on the Normans who destroyed his family. Believing Constance deserted him, he can never trust her again. Yet, as they are thrown together and their longing for each other reignites, will Aelric discover that love is stronger than revenge?

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, December 2016

Time and Setting: England, 1068
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Heather C.

The Normans have recently defeated the Saxons and the bad blood is still brewing between those in charge and those who are subjugated. Aelric, a Saxon, lost his whole family when they were hung as traitors by the local baron, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of Constance, the girl with whom he is in love. Aelric subsequently goes on the run and his relationship with Constance abruptly ends, but years later when they have a chance encounter they have to work through their feelings to determine what – if anything – still remains between them.

There is not nearly enough historical fiction, romantic or otherwise, set around the time of the Norman invasion of England, a time full of so much upheaval and change that it is ripe for storytelling. Hobbes takes advantage of this upheaval and uses it to create the conflict between the main couple in this story. They are from two very different worlds and the place they live in is still very volatile and they must tread carefully.

Aelric and Constance have not seen or heard of each other for eight years.  While they remember the youthful love they shared, so much has changed in the time they have been apart; they have grown up and lived through many life experiences.  Can they get past all of the hurt and the secrets that have built up over time? Constance and Aelric are well-crafted characters; they are multidimensional and one can feel their emotions, the hurt and anger most keenly, and it’s easy to understand how difficult it will be for them to put the past behind them. For what they went through it would be very difficult to put the past behind them. I can’t say that I could identify with either of them exactly, but I found them realistic and interesting. The author has chosen to give Constance a physical disability, but while that makes the character unique,  I would have liked it to maybe have had more of an importance given that it was pointed out extensively early on. The peripheral characters are not as well fleshed-out as the two princials, but there are enough details to give the reader a sense of who they are, which was enough to enable me to keep track of who’s who.

The romance is primarily an emotional one as the Constance and Aelric rebuild their relationship and determine what they mean to each other. Although there are a couple of sex scenes – which have vastly different tones from each other – sex definitely takes a backseat in this novel. Beyond the romance, this story is chock full of drama right from the first scene. There is an ambush, a hostage situation, a mass execution, some spying, and a foiled plot that unfolds in an awesome way. The best part is that none of this felt out of place; the characters still acted very much the way I would expect them to for the time in which they live.

If you are looking for a book that is more of the action packed variety and lighter on the romance, or if you are looking for something set in an oft overlooked setting, The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge this might be one to consider. It kept my attention all the way through and I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

Miss Millie’s Groom by Catherine E. Chapman

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Purchase Now from Amazon – also available through Kindle Unlimited

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.

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.

The Tinker’s Daughter by Stuart S. Laing

tinkerThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

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.