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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TBR Challenge: The Unsuitable Secretary (Ladies Unlaced #4) by Maggie Robinson

the unsuitable secretary

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harriet Benson takes her work at the Evensong Agency seriously, but lately, between convalescing from an illness and tending to her father and two young brothers, she’s had to shorten her hours. So when a promising position opens up for part time work, she immediately accepts, despite the fact that her new boss is scandalously indecent—and dangerously appealing.

Though his reputation paints him as a scoundrel, Sir Thomas Featherstone is more proper than anyone would guess. But Harriet’s wit and luscious curves are driving him to distraction. She’s the perfect woman to fill his office requirements, and other desperate needs he’s been ignoring…

Harriet has always held firm to the rule that a secretary must never fall in love with her employer. Only Thomas is determined to win her affections—and he’s willing to risk any cost to make her his…

Rating: C+

This month’s prompt for the TBR Challenge is a “recommended read”, so I headed for my Goodreads recommendations page to see what my friends there had sent me.  Sometimes when fulfilling this prompt, I’ve already had a book in mind, but I didn’t this time, so it was a case of scrolling through the pages to find something that matched up with a book I already owned.

The Unsuitable Secretary, the fourth book in Maggie Robinson’s Ladies Unlaced series set in Edwardian England fit the bill; it was rec’d to me by Lyuda and I’d bought it having read and enjoyed the first two books in the series (In the Arms of the Heiress (review here and In the Heart of the Highlander) For some reason I hadn’t got around to reading it, so it was sitting on my Kindle waiting patiently for me.

It’s a light-hearted, character-driven romance between two people from disparate backgrounds that is often funny and rather sweet; but which, while enjoyable, is ultimately an insubstantial piece of fluff.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a place for well-written fluff and this is certainly a book that fits that description.

Readers of the previous books will recall that the stories are linked together by the Evensong Agency, a reputable and highly regarded employment bureau which, besides supplying the best quality staff to those that require them, has a nice sideline in discreet investigation and problem solving.  This book opens as Sir Thomas Featherstone, man-about-town, ladies’ man and regular subject of the gossip columns, is discussing his requirements in a secretary with the formidable Mrs Evensong.  Sir Thomas is widely known among the upper classes and in artistic circles as a philanthropist and passionate patron of the arts, but the breadth and sheer volume of his ideas often outstrips his organisational capabilities.  He needs someone to ground him and organise him, and his latest project –the establishment of a small artists’ colony where his protégés can work without having to worry where their next meal is coming from – is very close to his heart.  Hence, his need for a secretary, someone to look after the nitty gritty while he gets on with such things as finding premises and selecting inhabitants.

Mrs Evensong has just the person for the job.  Miss Harriet Benson is twenty-eight, intelligent, organised and efficient, but Thomas isn’t sure he wants a female secretary.  He needs someone to rein him in when necessary and doesn’t think a woman capable of doing that, especially one whom, he learns, has recently been ill and is not able to work more than a few hours per day.

Harriet Benson lives in Shoreditch with her father, a bank clerk, and her two twin half-brothers, who are just fifteen years old.  Even though her father knows his small salary isn’t sufficient to support them and pay the boys’ school fees, he is not at all happy about Harriet going out to work and doesn’t scruple to say so whenever he can.  But needs must, and even though she is still recovering from a recent appendectomy, finding herself unable to keep from napping during the afternoons, Harriet needs to earn money.  She has always been self-conscious of her appearance, being rather tall and built on statuesque lines, but is now even moreso thanks to the ugly scar left by her operation.

But while Harriet sees herself as large, plain and unattractive, Thomas sees a Junoesque goddess, albeit one dressed in a horrible, bad-fitting brown suit and dreadful hat.  Being a tall, lanky fellow himself, Thomas has always felt clumsy around petite society beauties, but Miss Benson… well, here’s a woman he wouldn’t need to worry about breaking in bed. He falls immediately into lust with her, and even though he knows her working for him is a terrible idea, he engages her anyway.

That’s basically the set up, but for one important detail.  Thomas, at twenty-seven, and despite his rather rakish reputation, is still (technically) a virgin and has reached the stage where it’s too embarrassing to admit or to ask one of his more bohemian lady friends to relieve him of it.  Realising that Harriet is attracted to him, he decides that she is the ideal solution to this problem, too.  That he wants her very badly is an added bonus, but seeing as she is also (probably) a virgin, she won’t know what she’s doing in bed either, so if she will agree to become his mistress for a while, they can learn what’s what together and enjoy themselves in the process.

Knowing that the difference in their social stations precludes theirs being anything more than a brief relationship, Harriet decides to take Thomas up on his offer. After all, she’s not getting any younger,  marriage is highly unlikely and Thomas is kind and obviously likes and desires her, in spite of her own misgivings about her attractiveness.  She can’t afford to let herself get too emotionally invested, so she insists that they put a limit on their time together – they’ll be lovers for a week – and after that, all the “finkydiddling” between them will be at an end.

Thomas and Harriet are both well-drawn characters who, it is quickly apparent, complement each other hugely.  Harriet provides just the sort of steadying influence Thomas needs, while Thomas shows Harriet the sort of kindness and tenderness she has never known.  Ms Robinson does a good job in looking at the difficulties inherent in a relationship between two people from such different social classes, although I can’t deny that I did get a little tired of Harriet’s constantly insisting that she and Thomas can’t be together when he really doesn’t give a fig for his social position.

Thomas is the real star of the book.  Handsome, charming, indecently wealthy and quite ridiculously endearing, he is often mistaken for a bit of an air-head with more money than sense, but in reality he has a shrewd eye and an instinct for nosing out artistic talent. Unfortunately, however, his sweetness and consideration for Harriet make it even harder to believe in her reasons for rejecting him, which in turn make the ending seem rushed and too conveniently resolved.

That said, I didn’t dlslike The Unsultable Secretary , which is an enjoyable piece of fluff with plenty of humour and some nicely steamy love scenes.  Its being rather insubstantial means it won’t suit everyone, but it’s definitely a book to bear in mind next time you’re looking for an easy, fun read.

A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂