The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Louisa Jane Underwood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

At the exclusive Burning Cove Hotel on the coast of California, rookie reporter Irene Glasson finds herself staring down at a beautiful actress at the bottom of a pool. The dead woman had a red-hot secret about an up-and-coming leading man, a scoop that Irene couldn’t resist. Seeking the truth about the drowning, Irene finds herself drawn to a master of deception.

Once a world-famous magician whose career was mysteriously cut short, Oliver Ward is now the owner of the hotel. He can’t let scandal threaten his livelihood, even if it means trusting Irene, a woman who seems to have appeared in Los Angeles out of nowhere four months ago. With Oliver’s help Irene soon learns that the glamorous paradise of Burning Cove hides dark and dangerous secrets. And that the past – always just out of sight – could drag them both under.

Rating: Narration – C-; Content – D+

Anyone who has read or listened to even a small number of Amanda Quick’s historical mysteries will have realised that her books tend to be somewhat formulaic. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing; Ms. Quick’s particular formula – independent heroine meets mysterious, slightly dangerous hero and they solve a mystery while falling in love (and have their first sexual encounter anywhere else but a bed!) – is a popular and successful one, and I have no problem with formulaic when it’s done well. I wanted to listen to The Girl Who Knew Too Much mostly because the setting of 1930s Los Angeles is a departure from the author’s usual setting of 19th Century England, and being a bit of an old movie buff, I was looking forward to a noir-ish mystery with a touch of good old Hollywood glamour. Sadly, however both the noir and the glamour were missing and the mysteries – there are two of them – were very predictable.

Adding to my disappointment was the narration by Louisa Jane Underwood, which did nothing to help an already lacklustre book and in fact, made listening to it a chore rather than a pleasure. Had I not been listening for review, I’d have DNFed and returned it to Audible.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Julie McKay and Dara Rosenberg

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Jazz Age comes alive with a love story for the ages: a rugged Prohibition agent and a saucy flapper from one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootlegging families…
Manhattan, present day.

Ella Hawthorne thinks she’s going crazy when she hears strange noises coming from the walls of her new apartment late at night. When she discovers that it used to be home to a speakeasy during the Jazz Age, she’s determined to discover the building’s secrets.

Manhattan, 1924.
Geneva ‘Gin’ Kelly, a smart-mouthed, red-haired flapper, reluctantly agrees to help rugged Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson catch her stepfather, a notorious bootlegger. But the truth will shake Manhattan society to its foundations….

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

The Wicked City tells the story of two very different women who live in New York City at very different times. In 1998, Ella Gilbert has just left her husband, and in 1924, Geneva Rose Kelly – known to her friends as Gin or Ginger – is a bright young thing who can be found most evenings at Christopher’s the speakeasy next door to the apartment building where she lives. While I enjoyed both stories, the book isn’t equally split between the two; it seemed to me as though we spent about 65% of the time with Ginger and 35% with Ella, but because both storylines were equally interesting, I didn’t find myself getting impatient with one while waiting to get back to the other. That said, there are a few pacing issues in Ginger’s sections of the story, places where an overabundance of descriptive prose impedes the progress of the narrative, but this becomes less frequent as the story progresses – or I just didn’t notice it as much.

When Ella caught her husband of six years having sex with a prostitute in the stairwell of their apartment building, she was devastated and left him that very evening. She has just moved into a new place in Greenwich Village and is trying to get her bearings, pull herself back together and decide what to do next, whether to attempt to reconcile or to start divorce proceedings. Deciding to do her laundry early on a Saturday morning because she thinks it’s likely the machines will be free and it’s unlikely she’ll meet anyone else down in the basement, she is startled and a bit miffed to discover that not only are all the machines in use, but that she’s not alone.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

a-most-extraordinary-pursuit

This title is available to purchase from Amazon.

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…

Rating: B

Having previously enjoyed Juliana Gray’s historical romances, I was intrigued when I learned she would be venturing into the sub-genre of historical mysteries with her latest series. It is connected to her Princess in Hiding books by virtue of the fact that the plot of A Most Extraordinary Pursuit revolves around the search for the new Duke of Olympia and that the son of the Duke of Ashland (How to Tame Your Duke), Freddie, Lord Silverton, is one of the protagonists. I was expecting an historical mystery – but when, in the first chapter, the heroine, Miss Emmeline Truelove, has a conversation with the late Queen Victoria, I realised I was going to have to adjust my expectations somewhat.

It’s 1906, and the imposing, silver-haired, Machiavellian colossus that was the Duke of Olympia is dead at the age of eighty-six, having expired while quietly fishing for trout. (Or so it seems.) His heir is his grandnephew, Maximillian Haywood who spends most of his time on archaeological expeditions outside England, but who is now expected to return to assume his responsibilities and title. The trouble is that nobody has heard from Max for some months; his last communication arrived shortly before Christmas nearly three months earlier, and he is not where he is supposed to be (at a dig at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete).

Miss Emmeline Truelove acted as the duke’s personal secretary for the past six years, having taken over that position after the death her father (actually, her step-father) who had previously fulfilled that role. She is practical, efficient and utterly no-nonsense, performing her role admirably – notwithstanding her tendency to see dead people.

Her late majesty has warned Miss Truelove that the dowager duchess is going to ask her to perform a certain task which she, Emmeline, must under no circumstances accept. But when the dowager’s request turns out to be that she track down the new duke and bring him home, Truelove doesn’t see how she can possibly refuse – although she knows a moment’s hesitation when she learns she will be accompanied by the unspeakably gorgeous Marquess of Silverton, who, at first glance, seems to have barely two braincells to rub together.

But the duchess has everything planned out, and within the hour, Truelove finds herself, Silverton at her side, being driven to Southampton where they will board the duke’s yacht for their journey to Crete.

Stopping off in Athens, the pair pay a visit to Max’s flat near the Acropolis. There is no trace of Max, but the place has clearly been ransacked; and this, together with the mysterious death of a government official with whom Max was associated, followed by an attack on them at their hotel, convinces Truelove and Silverton that there is more to Max’s disappearance than meets the eye. Silverton insists they return to the yacht and make for Crete and the archaeological site of Knossos, where they hope to make contact with Max’s assistant. While there, they stay at a villa on the site where Silverton proceeds to charm the attractive young housekeeper into giving them some useful information, much to Truelove’s chagrin. She has already worked out that Silverton is far from the buffoon he pretends to be, but realising he uses his charm and obvious physical attractions to seduce information out of women doesn’t sit at all well with her. Not that she’s jealous. No. Not at all.

The story shifts from Crete to Naxos (and as a side note, I have to say that I liked this aspect of the story, as it brought back memories of my own island-hopping holidays!) as Silverton and Truelove continue to follow Max’s trail while trying to stay at least one step ahead of whoever is following them. I can’t say much more without going into spoiler territory; suffice to say that when they do eventually catch up with Max, it leads to a momentous and fantastical discovery that I assume is going to be addressed in future books in the series.

I said at the beginning of this review that I had to adjust my expectations somewhat after the first couple of chapters, because A Most Unexpected Pursuit is not exactly the ‘straight’ historical mystery both the cover and the book blurb suggest. Not only does Truelove have conversations with the late Queen Victoria, she has them with her late step-father as well; strange artefacts, time-travel and mythological beings all make an appearance (kudos to Ms. Gray for the Downton Abbey reference!) and although the principal storyline – the discovery of Max’s whereabouts – is concluded here, the book throws up more questions than it answers. While I accept that is normal for the first book in a series that will feature ongoing plotlines, I would have liked answers to perhaps one or two more questions in this one.

There are romantic elements to the story, but they’re not the main focus. There’s a nice frisson of attraction between Truelove and Silverton which definitely has the potential to turn into something more down the line, but there’s not so much as an HFN in sight by the end of this book. They work well as a team, however and play to each other’s strengths; and while Truelove is perhaps a bit overly prim and proper, I liked them both as individuals and as a working couple. Silverton is smart, funny and protective, and although we get the odd glimpse of a darker side to him, it’s fleeting, and for the most part, he’s the perfect gentleman spy – hiding the fact that he’s a clever strategist and lethal killer behind a foppish, Bertie Wooster-ish exterior. Truelove is straightforward and supremely capable, forever quashing Silverton’s attempts to flirt with her in the attempt to deny that she’s well and truly smitten. Her exchanges with her late majesty are quite funny at times – but we’re not told whether these are hallucinations or something else, which made it a bit difficult to get a good handle on her as a character.

I did enjoy reading A Most Extraordinary Pursuit and it has certainly whetted my appetite for future stories, but I can’t deny that I was almost as much in the dark about some aspects of it at the end of the book as I was at the beginning! It’s fun, quirky and perhaps a bit silly, but it’s beautifully written and Truelove’s narrative voice is rather unique; somewhat starchy but dryly humorous and insightful. I was most definitely entertained and will be reading the next book, but I’d just remind anyone thinking about picking this one up that it’s not your conventional historical mystery. Once you’ve accepted that, however, enjoy the banter, embrace the quirkiness, picture the lovely locations and go with the flow!

A Lady Unrivaled (Ladies of the Manor #3) by Roseanna M. White

a-lady-unrivaled

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lady Ella Myerston can always find a reason to smile–even if it’s just in hope that tomorrow will be better than today. All her life everyone has tried to protect her from the realities of the world, but Ella knows very well the danger that has haunted her brother and their friend, and she won’t wait for it to strike again. She intends to take action . . . and if that happens to involve an adventurous trip to the Cotswolds, then so much the better.

Lord Cayton has already broken two hearts, including that of his first wife, who died before he could convince himself to love her. Now he’s determined to live a better life. But that proves complicated when old friends arrive on the scene and try to threaten him into a life of crime. He does his best to remove the intriguing Lady Ella from danger, but the stubborn girl won’t budge. How else can he redeem himself, though, but by saving her – and his daughter – from those dangerous people who seem ready to destroy them all?

Rating: B

A Lady Unrivaled is the final book in the Ladies of the Manor trilogy, set in the years immediately preceding the First World War, and which sees a group of young aristocrats involved in the search for some extremely valuable red diamonds.  The romantic storylines are concluded in each book so there is no cliffhanging will-they, won’t-they?; but the mystery plot is overarching and because I haven’t read the previous books, I have to confess to feeling rather adrift for quite a large portion of the first few chapters of this one.

I gleaned that someone was out to acquire the “Fire Eyes”, as the diamonds are known, by whatever means necessary; that the hero of this book had been associated with some Rather Bad Men in the past and that the heroine is a determined to eliminate the threat to her family and friends by finding the diamonds and then – well, she’s not quite sure what to do with them, but whatever it is will be better than letting them fall into the undeserving hands of whoever is looking for them.

The author is thoughtful enough to have included a list of dramatis personaeat the beginning, so I was at least able to work out who was who and was related to whom without too much trouble.

Lady Ella Myerston is the sister of the Duke of Nottingham (hero of book two, The Reluctant Duchess) and is currently staying with her friend Brook, Duchess of Stafford (The Lost Heiress) at the Staffords’ country seat in the Cotswolds.  Brook is not best pleased when she discovers Ella reading up about the red diamonds and the curse that surrounds them;  being around them put Brook into serious danger in the past and she doesn’t want the same fate to befall her friend.  But Ella won’t be put off so easily and continues with her reading in secret.

James Azerly, the Earl of Cayton, earned Brook’s enmity when he unceremoniously jilted her cousin in order to marry an heiress. She still dislikes him intensely, but he’s her husband’s cousin, so it is impossible to cut ties completely, and besides, Stafford and Cayton have begun to reconcile since the death of the latter’s young wife in childbed just nine months earlier. Cayton carries a bucket-load of guilt over having broken the hearts of two women – one of them his wife – neither of whom he loved, over his mercenary motives for marriage, and over the fact that he failed to alert anyone to the plot to kidnap Brook in order to obtain the diamonds that was perpetrated by his friend Rushworth. But he is devoted to his little girl, and is determined to become a better man, even though he is continually plagued by doubt.

While it took a while for things to get going in the story – and for me to get into it – once I understood the background I started to enjoy it, and in the end found it a quite compelling read. Ella and Cayton are glass half-full/glass half-empty types; she is perpetually cheerful and optimistic, where he’s rather endearingly grumpy, and their interactions are definitely the highlight of the story. Ella refuses to accept James’ moodiness and sees the man he is trying to become rather than the man he was, showing him that she has faith in him and in his transformation in a way that humbles him. Their romance progresses steadily as Cayton gradually comes to believe that redemption and forgiveness are possible and their eventual HEA is easy to believe in. The one issue I have with them as a couple is that Cayton is so often weighed down by doubt that he is almost paralysed by it. Ella is the driving force for the events of the book until near the very end, and I would have liked James to have taken a more proactive role. Apart from that, however, he’s a well-developed character with an artistic soul and an attractive vulnerability that makes him all the more human.

The story surrounding the mysterious diamonds is nicely wrapped up, but not before Cayton is blackmailed into betraying his friends and the woman he is coming to love. Ella is firmly in the sights of the unstable Lord Rushworth, a dangerous man who will go to any lengths to secure the diamonds – but her belief in Cayton spurs him on and together, they work to keep each other and their loved ones safe while foiling Rushworth’s plans.

There are a number of secondary plotlines interweaving with the hunt for the diamonds and the developing romance between Ella and Cayton, but they don’t get in the way of the main storylines and add further background interest. The secondary characters are generally well-drawn, although Rushworth is rather a two-dimensional villain, as is his valet-cum-henchman. The dénoument is suitably tense, although I would suggest that it’s probably not the best idea to take a heavily pregnant woman with you on a rescue mission.

As this is an Inspirational Romance, there are a number of references to faith and spirituality, most of which feel suitably in keeping with the characters and the setting. I have to admit though, that there were a couple of times I found it just a tad heavy-handed, but that is probably just a matter of personal preference. It was certainly nothing that took me out of the story or detracted from it.

Ms. White writes extremely well and I enjoyed the way in which she developed all her different plotlines and brought them to satisfying conclusions. A Lady Unrivaled is an entertaining story featuring engaging, well-rounded characters that strikes a good balance between romance and plot. I’d certainly recommend it to others, but if you like the sound of it, you might want to consider reading the other books in the series first.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroom 2This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Yorkshire, England, 1911: After a moment of defiance at the factory where she has worked since she was a child, Ella Fay finds herself an unwilling patient at the Sharston Asylum. Ella knows she is not mad, but she might have to learn to play the game before she can make a true bid for freedom. John Mulligan is a chronic patient, frozen with grief since the death of his child, but when Ella runs towards him one morning in an attempt to escape the place where he has found refuge, everything changes. It is in the ornate ballroom at the centre of the asylum, where the male and female patients are allowed to gather every Friday evening to dance, that Ella and John begin a tentative, secret correspondence that will have shattering consequences, as love and the possibility of redemption are set against one ambitious doctor’s eagerness to make his mark in the burgeoning field of eugenics, at all costs.

Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, at a time when England was at the point of revolt, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Rating: B+

The Ballroom is a beautifully written, haunting tale that takes place during the summer heatwave of 1911 and is set in a large asylum near the Yorkshire moors. It’s a story that is by turns brutal, uplifting, heartbreaking and chilling, showing how easy it was to commit someone back then; anyone regarded as different, believed likely to be troublemakers or who were just plain unwanted – asylums were a regular ‘dumping ground’ for those who were considered ‘unfit for society’. The novel also very cleverly poses questions as to the nature of insanity and, more importantly, just who gets to decide what is sane and what is not.

The story is told in the third person through the viewpoints of three different people. Ella Fay is a young woman who has worked in factories since she was eight years old. She now works as a spinner and over the years, she has become more and more affected by the lack of daylight – the windows are painted over and dirty – and fresh air in the room, and finally snaps, breaking a window to let in the light and air. We would today recognise someone in the grip of depression, but in 1911, Ella is regarded as a troublemaker and accused of damaging the machinery at the factory. She is confused and distressed when she is committed to the asylum, and at first, tries to escape. But after an unsuccessful attempt, she decides instead that the best thing to do is to keep her head down and her nose clean; to work hard and hope that she will soon be released.

Irishman John Mulligan is one of the ‘chronics’ – the patients classified as suffering from long-term illnesses and who are unlikely to ever leave the asylum. Sent there for the treatment of the melancholia which descended upon him following the deaths of his wife and child, he is articulate, intelligent and kind, and is trusted enough to work outside either on the Sharston farm or – less pleasantly – digging graves which will eventually be occupied by deceased inmates. It’s on one of the grave-digging days that John sees Ella, running as though for her life – and even though she is caught and taken back to the asylum, she becomes associated in his mind with the idea of freedom.

The third protagonist is Doctor Charles Fuller, a young man who failed to live up to the expectations of his father, a prominent surgeon.  His real love is music, and one of his duties is as bandmaster to the small group of staff members who play in the band that provides the music for the dance held every Friday for the asylum’s inmates, which is the one time each week when the male and female patients are allowed to mix.  Charles is interested in the Eugenics movement, which was popular among a number of scientists and politicians – notably one Winston Churchill – at the time.  Charles doesn’t completely subscribe to the view that the ‘feeble minded’ should be sterilised to prevent breeding, and instead wants to explore the benefits of music as therapy.  He’s a complex character, and possibly the most interesting of the three narrators; he wants to do the best for the people in his care, and hopefully make a name for himself along the way, but as the story progresses his desperation to prove himself and his conflicted feelings about his sexuality lead him to a dangerous obsession which clearly illustrates how easily the line between sanity and insanity can blur.

Ms. Hope does a splendid job of depicting the lives of the inmates and staff at the asylum and of creating an atmosphere of darkness, apprehension and uncertainty.  The days are monotonous, and the weeks would merge into one another were it not for the Friday night dance held in the beautiful ballroom.  The inmates look forward to this one chance to snatch some sort of normality in their lives, and it’s here that Ella and John finally meet.  Their illicit friendship and romance is carried on through letters which they exchange whenever they can.  John’s is a poetic soul and his letters are beautiful, but Ella, to her shame, cannot read, and gets her friend Clemency Church to read them to her and then write her responses.  Clem is a private patient at Sharston, sent there by her well-to-do family as the result of a suicide attempt and diagnosed as having ‘hysteria’ – in reality a convenient label for a woman who didn’t do as she was told or didn’t fit the pattern as to what society dictated a woman should be.

The Ballroom was inspired by the author’s discovery that her great-great grandfather had been an inmate at the West Riding Mental Hospital, upon which Sharston Asylum is loosely based.   But at its heart, it is a compelling, touching story about keeping hope alive and seeking light in dark places.  The novel is perhaps a little slow to start, but that is really my only criticism; once it got going, I became completely engrossed in the world within the walls of this harsh institution and in the slowly unfolding lives of the characters.  The writing is superb and often poetic, and the ending, while bittersweet, is moving and emotionally satisfying.  This is a book to be savoured and one I’d heartily recommend to fans of evocative and well-written historical fiction.

TBR CHALLENGE: Her Best Worst Mistake by Sarah Mayberry

Her best worst mistake

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She thinks he’s stuffy. He thinks she’s spoilt. Then the gloves come off and so do their clothes!

For six years Violet Sutcliffe has known that Martin St Clair is the wrong man for her best friend. He’s stuffy, old before his time, conservative. He drives Violet nuts – and the feeling is entirely mutual. Then, out of nowhere, her friend walks out just weeks before her wedding to Martin, flying to Australia on a mission of self-discovery. Back in London, Violet finds herself feeling sorry for suddenly-single Martin. At least, she tells herself it’s pity she feels. Then he comes calling one dark, stormy night and they discover that beneath their mutual dislike there lies a fiery sexual chemistry.

It’s crazy and all-consuming – and utterly wrong. Because not only are they chalk and cheese, oil and water, but Martin once belonged to her best friend. A friend Violet is terrified of losing. What future can there be for a relationship with so many strikes against it?

Rating:A-

It’s always a bit of a scramble for me to find a contemporary romance for this prompt, because I don’t read them very often and don’t own many. And I like to choose my challenge books from books I already have, as buying something new rather defeats the object of the exercise! Fortunately, I found Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake among my Kindle books; I know she’s a popular and highly-rated author, so that was it, job done and choice made.

The story is pretty much a classic enemies-to-lovers one, which is a trope I enjoy when it’s done well – and that’s certainly the case here. But even in a relatively small page count (170 pages), the author has done more than simply write a couple that gripes, snipes and then falls into bed with each other; she’s fleshed out both protagonists in such a way that it’s easy to see why these two people who, at first glance, are completely and utterly wrong for each other are actually so perfect together.

Violet Sutcliffe really can’t understand what her best friend Elizabeth sees in Martin St. Clair, the man to whom she’s been engaged for a number of years and is on the verge of marrying. In Violet’s opinion, Martin is old before his time; a stuffy stick-in-the-mud, he’s leeched the life out of Elizabeth, who seems intent on becoming the perfect corporate wife. Violet supposes Martin must make her friend happy on some level, but even after six years, isn’t able to tamp down the strong reactions he evokes in her or curtail her persistent need to provoke him. She tries, for Elizabeth’s sake… but rarely succeeds. Violet is a free spirit, a “wild-child” type who often says and does outrageous things as well as dressing, in Martin’s opinion, like a cheap tart. He’s as antipathetic towards her as she is to him, but plays nice for Elizabeth’s sake, knowing that Violet is like a sister to her.

But with six weeks to go before the wedding, Elizabeth makes a discovery that changes the course of her life. She calls everything off, breaks up with Martin and flies out to Australia in order to find the father she never knew – leaving Violet inwardly cheering at her decision to take charge of her life. But even though Violet has never liked Martin, she can’t help feeling sorry that he was dumped so summarily and maybe feels just a bit guilty for the fact that she’s happy about it; so for reasons she doesn’t really understand, she turns up at his office some weeks later with a peace offering – a bottle of the peach schnapps she’s remembered he particularly likes – wanting to make sure he’s okay.

True to form, they snap and snarl at each other, and Violet storms off (although she leaves the bottle anyway), but it’s only later when he’s back at home that Martin starts to wonder why exactly she brought him that particular drink:

He didn’t usually have a sweet tooth, but when he’d tried schnapps for the first time at a West End bar last year he’d discovered that there was something about the sweetness of the peach and the heat of the alcohol that appealed to his palate.

He lifted the glass to his mouth again, then stilled as it occurred to him that Violet had been there that night, too, lolling against the bar in a purple sparkly dress that had been too short and too tight and too bright.

And when she’d gone looking for a pity gift for him, she’d bought him peach schnapps, out of all the options open to her at the off-license.

Which meant it was either a coincidence… or she’d remembered that night and how much he’d enjoyed the schnapps.

At which point he is suddenly assailed by all sorts of memories of Violet – and realises he’s in trouble. Half drunk on the schnapps, he heads over to her flat and – in a scene little short of a masterclass in how to write sexual tension – demands to know why she bought it for him:

“So? I remembered you liked the peach schnapps. It’s not a big deal.”

“Isn’t it? I remember that you hate escargot. And that you refuse to watch any movie with Kate Beckinsale in it. And that you have every George Michael album ever made.”

She blinked. “Why would you remember all of that?”

“I don’t know. I used to think it was because you annoyed me.” He took a step towards her. “I used to think it was because you were always wearing short skirts and low cut tops and laughing too loud. I used to think it was because your perfume would get in my clothes and stay with me for days afterward, even though I’d barely brushed up against you.”

He took another step toward her and something powerful and undeniable thudded in the pit of her stomach.

“You hate me,” she said staring at him, knowing she should put some distance between them before this became something it shouldn’t.

“Do I?”

One thing leads to another and they end up having hot, explosive sex on the couch. Afterwards, while Martin curses himself for making such a colossal mistake, Violet hides in the bathroom until he leaves, absolutely drowning in guilt for having had sex with her best friend’s ex-fiancé.

The story continues predictably but enjoyably as Violet and Martin try to keep away from each other but fail miserably as the bewildering attraction between them only gets stronger and stronger. The chemistry between them is off the charts and the sex is hot, but there’s more to the book than that. Both Martin and Violet gradually begin to realise what they had believed was dislike was really anything but, and as they spend time together and start getting to know each other properly, what started out as an intense, physical impulse evolves into a real relationship.

Martin turns out not to be Mr. Stuffed-Shirt at all, of course. He’s funny and sexy and decent through and through, and I loved the care and consideration he shows Violet. When he realises that there’s more going on between them than just sex, he isn’t slow to admit it and to want to take things further; and even though he isn’t quite sure how the flamboyant, outgoing Violet is going to fit into his life, he knows he doesn’t want to give her up. He sees past the barriers she erects to protect herself to the hurt, tender person she is underneath, and one of the things I loved about the story is the fact that they’re both willing to compromise to make their relationship work.

In fact, there’s a lot to love about the book, but there is one thing that really bugged me, which is Violet’s inability to tell Elizabeth that she’s in a relationship with Martin. Even when “E” tells her that she’s met someone else (that story is told in the companion book, Hot Island Nights), Violet is still consumed with guilt, and of course, the longer she leaves it, the harder it gets. It’s frustrating to read, but it’s also very much in character; having been kicked out of her family home when she was nineteen, Violet is naturally scared of losing Elizabeth – who is the closest thing she has to a family – as well. And just as importantly, Violet is so caught up in her own deep-seated insecurities – thinking she’s unworthy of friendship, or of love; her fear of fessing up to Elizabeth is a manifestation of her misconceptions about herself as much as it is about guilt.

But in spite of that reservation, Her Best Worst Mistake is a terrific, sexy read that is much more than a simple “opposites-attract-and-have-lots-of-hot-sex” story. Okay, yes, there is plenty of hot sex, but what starts out as a “crazy sex thing” turns into so much more and there’s a strong emotional connection between the central characters. I devoured it in one sitting; it’s short, cute and steamy but doesn’t lack depth or insight, and even if, like me, you don’t read many contemporaries, I’d encourage you to give this one a try.

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Lost Among the Living

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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