Tag Archive | Historical

A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock #1) by Sherry Thomas

A Study in scarlet women

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With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, October 2016

RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a hint of romance to come
Time and Setting: 1886, England
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Sherry Thomas is one of the best historical romance authors of the past decade, so I had no concerns that she could write a good historical mystery. But Sherlock Holmes? As a woman? Even though I am a long-time Sherlockian, I am not fanatical about the sanctity of Conan Doyle’s canon – so why not? I can enthusiastically report that Thomas has pulled off this challenge in a first-rate manner.

It is very easy to see Sherlock in Charlotte Holmes’s personality, mannerisms, and intellect. Conan Doyle never showed us the very young Sherlock, so Thomas is free to experiment here. Charlotte is the youngest of four daughters born to the unhappily-wed Sir Henry and Lady Holmes. Henrietta, the eldest, has modeled herself after her unpleasant mother, and is married to a Mr. Cumberland. It remains to be seen whether she has adopted her mother’s habit of slapping hapless servants and unruly daughters. The next sister, Bernadine, is so withdrawn that she is no longer taken out in society; today we probably would diagnose her as autistic, perhaps epileptic, and anorexic to boot. Sister Livia, Charlotte’s only friend, has had eight unsuccessful Seasons and is prone to depression. She at least takes pleasure from writing incessantly in her journal.

Charlotte is her father’s pet and her mother’s despair. She is sharply intelligent and blessed with an amazing memory as well as powers of observation and deduction. She is forthright to the point of rudeness and so completely uninterested in getting married that she has turned down several proposals. She is quite beautiful and has allowed her mother to dress her in the height of fashion, but underneath the veneer Charlotte is a determined non-conformist.

Although they play relatively minor roles in the book’s plot, I mention Charlotte’s family because Thomas paints a particularly affecting portrait of them in the first few chapters. It wasn’t really necessary, but it sets up the story very nicely. Such is the mark of an extraordinary writer. Moreover, this part of the story is written from Livia’s point of view and suggests that Livia may be the chronicler, i.e., a sort of Watson to Charlotte’s Sherlock.

Charlotte’s ambition is to become headmistress of a girls’ school, which is really quite silly, as she has never been to school, but that seems to be the only professional option available to a gently-bred young lady. Her father encourages Charlotte’s aspiration, but as the book opens Charlotte is infuriated to see that he is succumbing to his wife’s pressure to marry her off.

Although Charlotte is supposedly very smart, she embarks on a farcical scheme to get herself ruined (by a carefully selected married man) and thus made ineligible for marriage. The scheme goes spectacularly awry, and Charlotte flees her home and reckons she can find some type of respectable employment, although with no references and no experience, she finds it rough going. Until, that is, she meets and instantly feels an affinity for a colorful, older lady whose army officer husband died in Afghanistan. This Mrs. Watson is a comfortably wealthy but lonely former actress who has unsuccessfully been looking for a paid companion. She is intrigued by Charlotte’s special talent for solving mysteries, and when she offers Charlotte the position as her companion, the reader can see that she envisions them as partners in adventure.

Aside from her sweet sister Livia, Charlotte has one other friend: Lord Ingram Ashburton, to whom she has been close since childhood. Indeed, when Lord Ingram enters the plot, it is clear that he and Charlotte are in love with one another. Not that they would admit it, for he is unhappily married and far too honorable to act upon his improper feelings. Lord Ingram, a gentleman archeologist, has served as a go-between for Charlotte and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Treadles (ah, we have our Lestrade) where Charlotte’s talent has helped solve a few cases. Treadles, however, does not know that Charlotte is Sherlock; he thinks she is Sherlock’s sister.

This, then, is the set-up for the mysteries that confront Inspector Treadles when Sherlock Holmes publishes a letter connecting three, apparently unrelated and apparently natural, deaths:

It has come to my attention that Mr. Harrington Sackville’s death, by apparent overdose of chloral, may not be an isolated incident: Lady Amelia Drummond preceded him in death by a week and a half; the Dowager Baroness Shrewsbury followed a mere twenty-four hours later. Lady Amelia was first cousin to Mr. Sackville’s elder brother by the same father, Lord Sheridan, and godmother to one of Baroness Shrewsbury’s children.

With this shocking announcement – and how could I resist saying it? – the game is afoot. I found this book to be quite as good as any Conan Doyle mystery (and I have read them all many times). The characters are intriguing and well-drawn, and the pacing is excellent. As with any mystery, not everyone is completely honest, but neither did I notice anything so misleading as to be considered unfair. Although this book is not an historical romance like many of Sherry Thomas’s other books, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries in a historical setting. I can’t wait for the next book, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, due out in September 2017, where Charlotte’s client is looking for her missing lover. And that client is none other than Lord Ingram’s wife!

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

a-most-extraordinary-pursuit

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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.

Beauty: An Everland Ever After Tale by Caroline Lee

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A faded matron and a blinded musician… but which is the Beauty and which is the Beast?

Twice-widowed Arabella Mayor has made a place for herself and her son in Everland, selling and lending her beloved books to other bibliophiles in the sweet town. But she’s running out of money, and ten-year-old Eddie is giving her fits, and their future is uncertain. Re-marriage might have once been an option, but Arabella knows she’s past her prime, and isn’t the Beauty she used to be. And as her beauty faded, so did her worth. What does she have left?

World-renown violinist Vincenzo Bellini is at ease with his carefully cultivated reputation of a beastly recluse. After all, the fewer people looking at his hideous scars, the better. Ready to retire, he’s trying to hide in Everland, but doesn’t count on the townsfolk being so curious… especially a particular bookseller who reminds him of the life he abandoned long ago. Can he teach her that worth isn’t tied to their appearances, or will he have to abandon his plans for a future here in Everland?

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Publisher and Release Date: Caroline Lee, May 2016

Time and Setting: Wyoming Territory, 1876
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Review Rating: 3 stars

Review by Sara

There is something special about the boom town of Everland. Author Caroline Lee has populated the community with characters straight out of the fairy tale books but given them a distinctly American spin. You won’t find cursed princes or magical talking housewares in this story, but if you look closely you may see a little magic at work in Beauty: An Everland Ever After Tale.

The gossips of Everland are all clamoring to discover more about the mysterious stranger who has settled there. The large home on the outskirts of town shows that their new neighbor is a man of means but he’s been quite reticent to welcome anyone who has tried to meet him. The only thing they know about Signore Bellini is of his fame as a concert violinist and rumors of his beastly appearance.

Unfortunately Arabella Mayor has no time to discuss the curiosities of the newest townsperson. She is barely making ends meet after her second husband’s death left her alone to raise her son and work the bookshop in town. As Arabella’s resources have dwindled she’s had to make many sacrifices and is now at the point of renting out her own apartments above the store to bring in more money. Of course none of her friends are aware of her circumstances as it would break the rules of decorum her late husband all but drilled into her head. The appearance of success and a beautiful family was all that he desired from her, and to survive her marriage for her son’s benefit Arabella adopted those desires as her own.

Arabella is quite shocked when Bellini’s manservant appears in her store requesting her services to bring books and read them out loud to him. Upon arriving at the man’s home it becomes clear to Arabella why Signore Bellini has hidden himself. The musician is terribly scarred across his face and head, with the worst wounds having destroyed his eyes. Arabella is horrified by Bellini’s appearance and can only think about what her former husband would say about the worth of a man who cannot function in regular society. Her attitude towards Bellini begins to change when she catches him in a private moment playing his violin and the man’s true talent moves her to tears.

Vincenzo Bellini has survived for years by allowing people to know him only for his appearance or by the music he loves to play. His plan upon moving to Everland was to quietly retire from the public eye and settle in a community that might let him keep to himself. He didn’t count on inviting the local bookstore owner into his home and finding her company so entertaining. Talking with Mrs. Mayor about books or sharing his music with her and her son awakens emotions that Vincenzo had thought lost forever, just like his sight. Mrs. Mayor becomes special to Vincenzo within a very short period of time and his heart slowly opens to a hope that their relationship could change from friendship to something more; however a shocking revelation about her past puts that hope to the ultimate test.

Beauty: An Everland Tale spins the standard Beauty and the Beast story by asking the reader what a true beast is made of. Is it a visual thing or can it be something soul deep? Arabella may be a beautiful woman on the outside but her husband’s “rules” about appearance and behavior have turned her ugly on the inside. Vincenzo may have been forced to live with an unfortunate disfigurement but he creates beautiful music and opens his heart to the widow and her son when they need him. Arabella that has closed herself off from feeling true emotions or letting someone know the real person underneath all the ugliness. In being with Vincenzo, trusting him with her secrets and letting him know her son, she begins to understand what is truly important in life. Beauty can fade, but true love can endure.

I enjoy the clever ways Ms. Lee makes old fairy tales unique in the unusual town of Everland. There are fairy godmothers but they act in more mundane ways than transforming people or things. The people have characteristics of their literary namesakes, yet they feel like real small town neighbors all coming together to form a community on the frontier. Curses don’t change people but the aftermath of the Civil War does hang heavy on those it affected. There is a lot of charm in the Everland Ever After series and each book has been quite fun to read.

Upon Your Return by Marie Lavender

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Fara Bellamont has been back in society for a year after leaving Cluny Abbey, where her uncle sent her long ago. When he chooses a suitor for her for marriage, she fears that she will be forced to marry a stranger and live a miserable life.

But, Fara finds herself thrust into an adventure of a lifetime when unforeseen circumstances cause her to place her trust in a strange man for protection. His intervention not only saves her, but puts her in an even more compromising position.

Grant Hill, a trading captain, is enchanted by the young heiress not only because of her beauty, but because she is hardly conventional. Underneath her ladylike exterior lies a tigress. Grant cannot help but offer his protection as she is in need and he is far from immune from her charms.

Fara just never bargained on the passion that she feels for Grant Hill. As events unfold, she must decide whether her desires and the dictates of her heart should trump the rules of society in this exciting tale.

Publisher and release date: Solstice Publishing, 13 February 13 2013

Time and Setting: France, 1860’s
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 Stars

Review by Diane Owens Prettyman

When Fara Bellamont was only nine years old, she lost both of her parents when the ship they were traveling on was overtaken by Turkish pirates. French law leaves her in the custody of her uncle, who promptly proceeds to enroll her in Cluny Abbey in Burgundy for her schooling. The story begins after she completes nine years of education with the French nuns.

Like most orphans, she is fated to concede to the wishes of someone else, someone with money and position. Her uncle wishes her to marry and arranges a marriage while she is away at the abbey. But Fara boldly refuses the man. The announcement of their engagement ends badly. Then, Fara receives a note from the insulted “fiancé” asking her to meet him at the harbor.

It is at the harbor, where Fara is rescued from the “fiancé’s” vengeful ploy. A handsome ship captain intervenes and protects her from the dangers of the wharf at night. From this point on, Fara’s life is impacted by this chance encounter. Throughout the novel, Fara is faced with a painful dilemma — the choice between love for a man and love for her country. France is at war, and Capitaine Hill, a ship captain accused of treachery, is her lover.

In a well-developed plot linked to the captain’s involvement in the war and possible treachery, Marie Lavender creates a believable and historically accurate world. Upon Your Return is set in the rich setting of France and Marseille in the 1860’s. The author depicts the era accurately through the use of historical details and descriptions. She uses just enough French phrasing to make the book authentic but not overbearing. At times, though, the interruption of French disrupts the flow of the narrative particularly in the dialogue when the use of “merci” or “chere” seem overused.

Marie Lavender writes passionate and tasteful love scenes. Heart-filled passages convey the genuine emotions of both hero and heroine revealed from each character’s point of view. Descriptions throughout the novel engage the reader. Marie Lavender writes, “As she glanced at the morning fog that enveloped the docks in a lazy, white cloud embrace, she remembered the night they’d met at the harbor in La Rochelle. The night she’d met the man who both haunted and enticed her….”

The characters are well developed. For example, after Fara’s uncle dies and she becomes an heiress, Fara struggles with her position as the servants’ superior. As she sees the servants in her own house, she demonstrates kindness to the staff. With these touches, Marie Lavender creates a character we can connect with and relate to, even though she lived two hundred years ago. Capitaine Hill is also a complex character. His involvement in the war and his love for Fara entertwine to create a hero much more than a cardboard cutout.
With her compelling story line and solid historical base, Marie Lavender has created a fine debut novel. And while the story is no richer for its prologue, it doesn’t detract from the book.

McKenna’s Honor by Suzan Tisdale

McKenna's Honor

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Blurb:

Dark times have fallen upon Scotland. King David II is a prisoner of England. Angus McKenna, revered chief of Clan MacDougall, and his son-in-law Duncan McEwan sit in a dungeon in Edinburgh, accused of crimes against their king and country. Their wives are missing. Can devotion, honor and fealty light a candle in the darkness? Invoking the Bond of the Seven Clans, Nial McKee, son-in-law to Angus McKenna sets out to discover the truth behind the charges. While he enlists the help of his good friends Caelen McDunnah and Rowan Graham, his lovely wife Bree appeals to friends of her own for a much different kind of assistance. But time is running out for Angus and Duncan. Friendship and love of family alone might not be enough to save McKenna’s Honor.

Publisher and Release Date: CreateSpace, 25 July, 2013
RHL Classifications:
Time and Setting: Edinburg, Scotland 1347
Genre: Erotic Historical Romance novella
Heat Level:0
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lee Anne

“Angus hangs at dawn.” Four words that will chill anyone to the bone. Well, anyone reading the Clan MacDougall series by Suzan Tisdale. These words lead us into a world of intrigue, deception, and deadly games.

Angus and Duncan have been accused of treason. When the charges are read, both Angus and Duncan plead guilty. But why? Everyone knows they would never betray Scotland. But with their pleas, they are set to hang.

While McKenna’s Honor is not a romance in its strictest form, it’s still a story about love and devotion. It’s about the love Angus has for his clan and his wife. It’s about the love a man has for his wife, his clan, his country, his king and about the love a woman has for her husband, her clan, her country and her king.

And let me tell you, these are some serious kick-butt women! They do us proud 🙂

Although this is a novella, there is quite a bit going on in the story. It does a beautiful job of introducing new characters I hope we get to see in later stories and it brings us a little more information about the world inhabited by the Clan MacDougall.  It definitely makes the other stories richer as it brings a new light and angle on some of the past events.

I’m so ready for the next Suzan Tisdale book. They just keep getting better and better!

**At the time of the review, this book was available from Amazon for $1.99**

ABOUT LEE ANNE:

I am a happily married mother of three very busy children.  Most of my time is spent chauffeuring my kids to their various activities. I cram reading into any spare moment I have. Some days I can have an hour or two and others I’m sneaking in quick reads while waiting on the kids to finish their soccer or gymnastics practice. I like to read a wide variety of genres but I definitely prefer romance. I can’t really pinpoint a favorite author as it changes on a regular basis. I absolutely love finding new authors and giving their stories a chance to be heard. We all have a voice in our heads writing stories and those voices should be given a chance to be heard.

Baring it All by Megan Frampton

Baring it All

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Blurb:

It is with great discretion that this columnist discusses the sensitive topic of undergarments. Some ladies, it seems, do not pay strict attention to what they wear under their gowns. A crucial error, my ladies.

Lady Violet knows Lord Christian Jepstow is interested in women. The problem is, he hasn’t seemed to realize that Violet is a living, breathing woman—a woman with needs. Which is a huge problem, considering the fact that Violet and Christian are betrothed. Violet has no intention of saying her vows without knowing if her husband has the capacity to love her properly, so she does what anyone would do in her situation—she steps into his study and offers to take off her clothes. What happens next could be an utter disaster . . . or it could be surprising, seductive, and sizzlingly sexy.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, 24 June, 2013
RHL Classifications:
Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Erotic Historical Romance novella
Heat Level:3
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Lee Anne

Baring it All is the short story of Christian and Victoria. They’re betrothed but lacking in the passion department. Christian has decided that passion is a distraction, so he plans to compartmentalize his life and passion does not belong in his marriage.

Victoria has loved Christian for years. But not matter what, she wants passion her life. She has a plan to see if passion can exist between her and Christian. If there can’t be any passion, she’ll not marry him. She would rather be alone and without the man she loves, than have a passion less marriage.

Victoria is risking it all in order to find out if they have what it takes to have a passion filled marriage. She’s risking scandal, disgrace, and her future. All to find out if there’s passion.

This is a short story, but definitely intriguing. Christian is more of a scholar than anything. He’s always stuck in books and philosophy. He barely notices things around him. Victoria is very observant. She understand Christian, but at the same time she wants more from him. She’s definitely a risk taker!

It’s a fabulous story and well worth the time to read!

**At the time of the review, this book was available from Amazon for $0.99**

ABOUT LEE ANNE:

I am a happily married mother of three very busy children.  Most of my time is spent chauffeuring my kids to their various activities. I cram reading into any spare moment I have. Some days I can have an hour or two and others I’m sneaking in quick reads while waiting on the kids to finish their soccer or gymnastics practice. I like to read a wide variety of genres but I definitely prefer romance. I can’t really pinpoint a favorite author as it changes on a regular basis. I absolutely love finding new authors and giving their stories a chance to be heard. We all have a voice in our heads writing stories and those voices should be given a chance to be heard.

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith

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From the author of A Rose for the Crown and Daughter of York comes another engrossing historical novel of the York family in the Wars of the Roses, telling the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the final and favourite mistress of Edward IV.

Jane Lambert, the quick-witted and alluring daughter of a silk merchant, is twenty-two and still unmarried. When Jane’s father finally finds her a match, she’s married off to the dull, older silk merchant William Shore—but her heart belongs to another. Marriage doesn’t stop Jane Shore from flirtation, however, and when the king’s chamberlain and friend, Will Hastings, comes to her husband’s shop, Will knows his King will find her irresistible.

Edward IV has everything: power, majestic bearing, superior military leadership, a sensual nature, and charisma. And with Jane as his mistress, he also finds true happiness. But when his hedonistic tendencies get in the way of being the strong leader England needs, his life, as well as that of Jane Shore and Will Hastings, hang in the balance.

This dramatic tale has been an inspiration to poets and playwrights for 500 years, and told through the unique perspective of a woman plucked from obscurity and thrust into a life of notoriety, Royal Mistress is sure to enthrall today’s historical fiction lovers as well.

RHL Classifications:

Time and Setting: Medieval England
Heat Rating: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Despite the fact that few details of the private life of Jane Shore are actually known, she has nonetheless been the subject of a number of plays and historical novels, including The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy, and now this, the latest novel from Anne Easter Smith.

Born Elizabeth Lambert, Jane was born into a reasonably well-to-do merchant’s family, and was married to William Shore, who was – like her father – a mercer by trade (and not a goldsmith as had been believed until fairly recently). She is reputed to have been very beautiful and both her father and her husband were not above exploiting this fact in order to gain custom; she was also intelligent, witty and well-mannered, her daily life in the running of her father’s business having brought her regularly into contact with well-born ladies whose behaviour and deportment she was able to observe.

Royal Mistress tells Jane’s story from just before the time of her marriage until almost the end of her life, taking as its final event, the true story of a chance meeting between Jane – now in her sixties – and Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII.

Jane is an attractive character and her story is told in a very straightforward manner. She is vivacious, generous and down-to-earth and does not take the decision to become King Edward IV’s mistress at all lightly. During her time with him, Jane earned herself the name of The Rose of London for her kindness and generosity towards those who asked for her help and the fact that she never forgot her origins or used her status as the King’s mistress to enrich herself or to ride roughshod over the people of her own class.

If there was one thing about this fictionalised version of Jane that didn’t ring true however, it was her nine-year infatuation with Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son, Tom Grey. The author has him and Jane literally bumping into each other in the street at the beginning of the book; having then arranged a secret assignation in order to seduce Jane, Tom realises she is expecting declarations of love and a proposal – and he confesses that he is already married. They see each other only a very few times over the course of the book and yet Jane – even when she is happily sharing Edward’s bed – is still fixated on Tom. It’s true that Jane did become Tom Grey’s mistress after Edward’s death; and although I imagine the torch Jane carries for Grey is the author’s invention, I did find that Jane’s constant hankering for him became annoying very quickly.

Jane’s relationship with Edward seems to have been one of mutual affection. She appears to have conducted herself modestly and gained the respect of much of the court for her common sense, wit and good manners. But although Jane has always known her position to be a somewhat precarious one, it is only when Edward becomes ill suddenly and dies – aged only forty – that she realises just how precarious it is. For me, this was when the book really started to come to life as Jane’s life is turned upside down and she becomes unwittingly involved in a Woodville plot to wrest the Protectorate from Edward’s brother Richard.

It was at this point – around half-way through the book – that I thought things moved up a gear and I began to feel a greater engagement with the story than I had up until then. The pacing picks up as Jane is swept up in events she does not fully understand, and I thought the scenes in which she and Hastings say farewell for what will turn out to be the last time, were truly heartfelt.

On a personal level, I was pleased to discover that the narrative is written in the third person omniscient rather than the first person as seems to be the favoured viewpoint for so much of the historical fiction being written today. This means that the author is able to include scenes depicting events of which Jane could have no knowledge without having to resort to too much of the “as you know, Bob”, style of dialogue in having someone later recount to her in order to keep the reader informed. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen in the book – it does. But it’s not as frequent or intrusive at it might otherwise have been.

I imagine that authors of historical fiction have a difficult line to tread when it comes to deciding on the level of detail to include. Is your audience likely to have a reasonable background knowledge of the period about which you are writing, or do you assume it knows next to nothing? I venture to suggest that if you fall into the latter category, you will find Royal Mistress to be engaging and informative; but if, like me, you are in the former group, you might find it to be somewhat simplistic in tone with a little too much repetition as to who everyone is, what is their position at court, to whom they are related and so on.

That said, I think the book does have plenty to recommend it. I found it enjoyable overall; the story is well-told, Jane is an attractive and sympathetic protagonist and some of the secondary characters – such as William Hastings and Thomas Lyneham – are very nicely drawn indeed. The historical detail has been well-researched, and even when I didn’t completely agree with the author’s interpretation of some of the historical figures (Richard of Gloucester was frequently presented as a po-faced killjoy, for example) I could understand why she had made those decisions.

I’m not sure that Royal Mistress is a book I will re-read in the near future, but I would certainly say that it is worth reading if you are interested in the tumultuous events of the latter part of the fifteenth century and in the lives of the last two Plantagenet monarchs.

About me

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too. I post all my reviews at Caz’s Reading Room and at my Goodreads page, so please come and say hello!

The Black Madonna by Stella Riley

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By July 1639, unpopular taxes, religious differences and no Parliament in a decade have turned England into a simmering cauldron of discontent. Less concerned by this than by his ailing finances, King Charles seeks ways of filling his empty treasury. Enter Luciano Falcieri del Santi – master-goldsmith and money-lender; a man known to London as the Italian … and possessed of a hidden agenda.

As the cauldron slowly boils over into Civil War, the changing times are reflected in the lives of the Maxwell family. From his seat in the Commons, Richard Maxwell watches the escalating quarrel between the King and John Pym – and, in Oxfordshire, his wife cares for the estate and their five children. Their eldest son, Eden, struggles to save his marriage to Royalist-bred Celia whilst taking up his sword for the Parliament; and eldest daughter, Kate, vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead, should the need arise.

After six months in the Queen’s household, Kate Maxwell takes most things in her stride. A spirited red-head, she deals with the financial demands of the Royalist garrison in nearby Banbury, the constant carping of her sister-in-law and the Puritanical zeal of second-cousin Nathan. The only thing she finds utterly impossible to handle, is her involuntary and growing attraction to sardonic, irresistibly magnetic and diabolically beautiful Luciano del Santi.

The paths of Richard Maxwell and the Italian cross by chance one dark night in a filthy backstreet – and a friendship is born. It is some time, however, before Richard learns the truth about this clever, icily restrained young man. On the surface, Luciano merely operates his businesses from Goldsmith’s Row on Cheapside. In reality, he has a much darker purpose. He is in England to discover the truth behind his father’s execution as a traitor and, if possible, to avenge it. This, with the country becoming a battlefield and scant information to go on, is both difficult and expensive – but it is not Luciano’s only problem. He must also accumulate sufficient capital to repay his uncle in Genoa the massive loan which has financed his venture – for failure to do so will result in ruin. Soon, he also begins to realise that – unless he is both careful and lucky – the revenge quest may cost him his life.

His own safety and that of everyone he cares about rests on success. Only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna, the symbol of his heritage which has made his vendetta possible. And only success will allow him to offer his heart to the girl he loves.

From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is a historically detailed and richly-woven tale of passion, intrigue and love in a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.

RHL Classifications:

Setting: England, 1636-42
Heat Rating: 1-2 (more than kisses, less than moderate detail!)
Reviewer Rating: 5 Star Top Pick

Review by Caz

Originally published in 1993, this title has now been revised and republished in ebook form by the author.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stella Riley’s work, so anyone reading this could be forgiven for thinking that the five star rating was a foregone conclusion. And perhaps it was – I’ve always found her writing, characterisation and storytelling to be of consistently high quality, and The Black Madonna is no exception. But in fact, I’d venture to say that she’s set an even higher bar with this book because it is, without doubt, a really superb example of how to craft a compelling piece of historical fiction.

The events of The Black Madonna take place between 1639 and 1646, in the run up to and during the events of the “first” English Civil War.

In it, we follow events as seen through the eyes of the members of the Maxwell family and their friends and acquaintances; and along the way take in romance, politics, family dilemmas and a years old mystery and quest for vengeance.

Richard Maxwell and his wife, Dorothy are a happily married couple with five children (and how lovely it is to read about an older couple who are still very much in love and attracted to each other). Richard is a member of the Commons, and while he is frustrated by the King’s actions in (among other things) levying taxes to fill his coffers without the support of Parliament, he does not adopt an anti-royalist stance either. Rather, Richard is a good, honest man who wants the best for his family and his country; and who doesn’t want to take sides, but eventually finds he cannot do otherwise.

Running alongside the momentous political events of the time, we are drawn into the life of the Maxwells and all the ups and downs that family life entails. Eden, the eldest son, falls in love with a woman who is completely wrong for him; Amy the middle daughter is an inveterate flirt who is going to get herself into trouble if she’s not careful and Kate, the eldest daughter is sometimes far too forthright and clever for her own good.

Add in to all that the mysterious Italian goldsmith and usurer, Luciano Falcieri del Santi – a man with the face of an angel, a mind like a steel trap and a tongue like a razor-blade – and the stage is set for a truly gripping read.
The fate of the Maxwells becomes bound up with that of del Santi when Richard and Eden Maxwell rescue Luciano from a severe beating one night in the murky backwaters of the City of London. Thereafter, Richard and Luciano strike up an unexpected, yet very genuine friendship, which is one of the joys of the book; and which brings the latter into closer contact with Richard’s family. The youngest son Toby, is riveted by the goldsmiths’ art and wants to be apprenticed to del Santi, while Kate, finding herself utterly fascinated and reluctantly drawn to him, is trying desperately to resist what she thinks can only be a stupid, girlish infatuation.

Luciano, however, is not the man for her (as he tells her several times) – he has no room for emotional entanglements in his life. He is, of necessity, focused on his business and, as we later discover, on finding the person responsible for his father’s execution for treason several years earlier. He knows his quest is a dangerous one and is therefore reluctant to involve anyone else in it, although he eventually admits to himself that he needs help and therefore confides in Richard.

It is, however, impossible for Luciano to avoid the growing unrest in England and the tensions between King and Parliament erupt into Civil War.

Stella Riley handles her large cast of characters with aplomb once more and again skilfully integrates her fictional storylines and characters with actual events and historical figures.

Her research is impeccable; and although I will admit that, especially in the first few chapters, I felt a bit overloaded with background detail to the extent I felt the need to go and look up a few things! – once the setting has been established and we have been introduced to the Maxwells, the Langleys, del Santi and assorted other characters, things take off and the book became hard to put down.

The multiple plot strands are woven very skilfully together. The war progresses, initially in the King’s favour, but inescapably, the tide begins to turn; Luciano begins to close in on his quarry and becomes a target; and the Maxwells are plunged into danger and tragedy. Amid all this is the slow-burning romance between Kate and Luciano, an attraction they are both desperate to deny. Their exchanges throughout the first part of the book are ascerbic and sometimes deliberately hurtful as Kate, desperate to hide her feelings, tries to repel him; and Luciano, who isn’t the least bit fooled, tries to warn her off. But the thing is – the more the reader sees of them – apart and together – the more it becomes apparent that these two are a matched pair; intelligent, quick-witted, passionate and – in their own ways – unique.

Luciano’s reluctance to become involved with Kate is as much due to the fact that he has to focus all his attention on his business in order to repay a massive loan from his uncle as it is about his fears for her safety. In the original version, there are hints that he feels more for Kate than he lets on, but for the most part, he plays his cards very close to his chest. In the ebook version, the author has made a number of small changes and added some new scenes which give the reader more of an insight into how Luciano is thinking and feeling that I think are a truly valuable addition to the romance and to the story as a whole.

On a side note, I particularly enjoyed seeing glimpses of some of the characters featured in Ms Riley’s earlier novel A Splendid Defiance – the thirteen year-old Abigail Radford near the beginning, and later, members of the Banbury garrison and Captain Justin Ambrose.

As the Maxwells story continues, the war escalates and the King’s fortunes begin to worsen; and things come to a head for Luciano and Kate at the ill-fated siege of Basing House. The Black Madonna has it all – adventure, romance, heartbreak (I don’t mind admitting that there were a couple of real “lump-in-throat” moments), tenderness and humour. It’s a real page-turner and I honestly didn’t guess the identity of the bad guy until fairly close to the end.

I’ll finish by saying that I’ve waited over twenty-years to get my hands on a copy of this book, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.

Brava!

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

A Spear of Summer Grass

Paris, 1923

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

RHL Classifications:

1920s
Heat Rating: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

I’ve read and enjoyed Ms Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey books, so when I saw she’d written a story set in the 1920s, I was intrigued and at the same time a little apprehensive. Not only was the author treading new ground, but so was I – my taste in historicals tends to run to the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Maybe because I was born and grew up in the second half of the 20th Century, it’s still a little too close for me to really regard it as “historical”!

Fortunately, however, my apprehension was quickly proved groundless, because A Spear of Summer Grass grabbed me from the start.

Delilah Drummond is presented as the epitome of the 20s good-time girl. She’s rich, spoiled, does exactly as she likes and doesn’t care who she shocks or upsets along the way. She’s been married three times (widowed twice, divorced once) regularly takes lovers (including her ex-husband on occasion) without a second thought and has a taste for all the good things in life.

At the beginning of the book however, she has caused one scandal too many for the liking of her family, and she is sent to rusticate in Africa until such time as the gossip has died down and she can return to Europe.

Even in Africa though, she continues to ruffle feathers, mostly because of the fact that she treats the natives as people and takes upon herself the traditional duties of the ‘lady of the manor’ in treating their illnesses and making sure her workers are adequately fed and well-treated. She is immediately adopted by the local ex-patriots, who are real bunch of misfits, having nothing in common other than their presence in Africa and a thinly veiled dislike of each other.

One of the first of these ex-pats encountered by Delilah is Ryder White, who makes his living principally from safari-guiding. He’s sort of a cross between Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain (I can’t help wondering if J. Ryder White is an hommage to H. Rider Haggard) although rather more promiscuous than either of them. But he’s a compelling character; ruggedly masculine, with a good sense of humour and an air of vulnerability and fatalism about him that sometimes belies the steely exterior. Ryder escorts Delilah to Fairlight, the estate owned by her stepfather. To her dismay, it’s a mess – but being Delilah she doesn’t let it deter her and with the help of her cousin and companion Dora, and local workmen, she sets about putting things to rights.

I’ve seen a number of comments from other readers pointing out the similarities between this story and Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. I confess I’ve not read her book, and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen the film, so I don’t want to comment on that. All I’ll say is that if that is the case, it didn’t stop me enjoying Delilah’s story.

In Delilah Drummond, Ms Raybourn has created a character that, to quote Jane Austen (on Emma) “no one but myself will much like”. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like her all that much in the beginning, but like her or not, she’s ballsy, courageous and outspoken, and isn’t afraid to admit to her own shortcomings – well, some of them. Of course, behind the highly polished exterior lies a wealth of pain and doubt, a woman who has experienced more than her fair share of loss and heartbreak. As she says to her lover, Kit – “Like every bad thing that’s ever happened to me, I lock it up and don’t think about it.”

In terms of the love story in the novel, I think there are actually two. The relationship between Delilah and Ryder develops slowly to start with. There’s a strong current of mutual attraction and antagonism between them, and the sexual tension fairly crackles as they play a game of one-upmanship as to who will seduce whom. But alongside the human romance is the story of how Delilah is seduced by Africa; the sights, the sounds, the smells, the customs and kindness of the people, and how she is changed by it.

My one complaint is that the romance between Delilah and Ryder could have been better developed. It was clear that they wanted each other physically and that they bonded through an understanding of the life and customs of the country. But these were two emotionally prickly people, and I felt there needed to be more said between them. I’m not really a fan of the plotline in which one of the protagonists has to be alerted as to how the other feels about them by a third party; and Ryder’s actions at the end of the book when he ploughs everything he owns into Fairlight for Delilah’s sake but without any certainty of her reciprocation seemed rather out of character for the man we’ve encountered throughout the rest of the novel.

Those reservations aside however, A Spear of Summer Grass has much to recommend it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s superbly written and well-paced, the characterisation is excellent throughout and Ms Raybourn’s descriptions of the scenery and landscape are simply ravishing.

(Incidentally, more of Ryder’s backstory is revealed in the prequel novella Far in the Wilds, and I don’t think it has to be read before Spear. I read it afterwards and enjoyed getting the full story of some of the events alluded to in the novel in retrospect.)

I should point out that although I have indicated there is only mild sexual content in the book, there are frequent references to sex, but no explicit sex scenes.

With thanks to Harlequin/MIRA and NetGalley for the review copy.

About me

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too. I post all my reviews at Caz’s Reading Room and at my Goodreads page., so please come and say hello!

The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff

ambas

Paris, 1919.
The world s leaders have gathered to rebuild from the ashes of the Great War. But for one woman, the City of Light harbours dark secrets anddangerous liaisons, for which many could pay dearly.
Brought to the peace conference by her father, a German diplomat, Margot Rosenthal initially resents being trapped in Paris where she is still looked upon as the enemy. But returning to Berlin means a life with the wounded fiancé she hardly knows any more.
Bored and torn between duty and the desire to be free, Margot strikes up unlikely alliances: with Krysia, an accomplished musician with radical acquaintances and a secret to protect; and with Georg, the handsome,damaged naval officer who gives Margot a job and also a reason to question everything she thought she knew about where her true loyalties should lie. Against the backdrop of one of the most significant events of the century, a delicate web of lies obscures the line between the casualties of war and of the heart, making trust a luxury that no one can afford.

RFHL Classifications

Romantic Historical Fiction – post WW1

Heat level – 1 (not even that, really!)

Review rating – 3 stars

Review by Caz

I tend to prefer to read historical fiction set before the twentieth century, but as I’m very interested in the events of the First World War, I was intrigued by the premise of this story, which takes place in 1919, shortly after the armistice.
Professor Rosenthal is a respected academic who has been asked to attend the peace negotiations in Versailles. His daughter, twenty-year-old Margot, accompanies him; principally because she does not want to go home to Berlin where her wounded fiancé awaits her.

Jenoff does a good job in creating the atmosphere of post-war Paris, but I had hoped there would be a little more historical insight especially about the drawing up of the famous treaty and its likely effects. And while I did enjoy the story, I have to admit that it was hard going for the first 50 or 60 pages. The narration is first person in the present tense, which is not a favourite with me; I frequently find it limiting and in this case, as Margot is quite a solitary person, there is a lot of description and not much happening. But the story begins to pick up once Margot becomes acquainted with Krysia, a Polish musician who encourages her to think about who she is and what she wants – and Captain Georg Richwalder, the young German naval officer who gives her a job.

Margot is very naïve and frequently seemed to be drifting from one mistake to the next without asserting any control over her life. She has allowed herself to become engaged to a man she has known since childhood but does not love mostly because she feared the disappointment she would cause to others by saying ‘no’. When she finds real love with Georg, she is too weak to break off her engagement (although as it turns out, it’s more complicated than that). Because of a careless word in the wrong place, she opens herself up to blackmail by what she believes to be a Communist group that wants her to pass on the information she is able to acquire about the German military through her work with Georg.

There was real potential in the story and in the premise – especially given that the central characters were German and having to deal with the way they were perceived after the war, with how their world was changing and with the terrible problems of poverty and anarchy that were rife throughout their country. There was a thread touching on Margot’s identity as a Jew and her discomfort with the move towards assimilation being taken by some members of her family, but neither issue was fully examined.

In fact, there are many different plot strands weaving in and out, but few of them are fully explored or developed. We discover that Margot’s father has deceived her about her mother; her friend Krysta also deceives her; Margot lies to Stefan and to Georg; there is the fact that Margot is Jewish, yet by the end of the book Georg is beginning to sympathise more and more with the National Socialists. To have dealt with all these strands satisfactorily would perhaps have required a longer book; or that the author had tried to cram less into this one.

There were a lot of anachronisms, too. For instance, there is a reference to women having stopped wearing crinolines ‘recently’ and to ambulances having ‘sirens’ (surely they would have had bells?) There are a lot of expressions that feel too modern and those oft-used Americanisms, “fall” and “sidewalk”. Then there is the fact that Georg, while suffering from pneumonia is up and about a mere couple of days after being taken to hospital, and Margot’s father is sent home a few days after having had a heart attack.

Having said all that, however, I didn’t hate the book. I dislike the wasted potential, but even as I was noting what I perceived to be problems, I was intrigued by the story and wanted to know how things would turn out. In fact, I have discovered since reading it, that The Ambassador’s Daughter is a prequel to one of Jenoff’s earlier novels – The Kommandant’s Girl, and despite the reservations I have expressed here, I have decided to read it at some point.

By the end of this book, Margot is finally beginning to stand on her own, and the story is open-ended – will she return to Germany and to Georg or will she make a life for herself elsewhere without him?

Overall then, I have mixed feelings about this novel. Would I recommend it? If you’re looking for a fairly quick read set in a time period which is not often featured in romantic HF and are in a forgiving mood, then yes. But if you want something that is meatier when it comes to the historical detail, then this is perhaps not the book for you.

With thanks to Harlequin/Mira and NetGalley for the review copy.

About me

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too.