Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Rating: B

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645 in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country as the King heads south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.

Cask Strength (Agents Irish and Whiskey #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Professionally, the FBI team of Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker is as good as it gets, closing cases faster than any team at the Bureau. Personally, it’s a different story. Aidan’s feelings for Jamie scare the hell out of him: he won’t risk losing another love no matter how heart-tripping the intimacy between them. And loss is a grim reality with the terrorist Renaud still on their trail, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake.

Going undercover on a new case gets them out of town and off the killer’s radar. They’re assigned to investigate an identity theft ring involving a college basketball team in Jamie’s home state, where Jamie’s past makes him perfect for the role of coach. But returning to the court brings more than old memories.

As secrets and shocking betrayals abound, none may be more dangerous than the one Jamie’s been keeping: a secret about the death of Aidan’s husband that could blow his partner’s world apart and destroy forever the fragile bonds of trust and love building between them.

Rating: B+

Note:  Because this is the second book in a series with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the previous book, Single Malt in this review.

Cask Strength, the second book in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey series picks up a few months after the events of Single Malt.  At the end of that book, Aidan Talley and Jameson Walker were instrumental in foiling a terrorist plot – and Jamie’s investigations into the car crash that killed both Aidan’s husband and his FBI partner have revealed that both the deceased were somehow connected to the very same terrorist, Pierre Renaud.  He is sworn to secrecy by their boss – who is also Aidan’s sister-in-law – and even though he hates deceiving the man he loves, Jamie agrees to keep what he knows under wraps until he can find out more.

As Cask Strength opens, Aidan and Jamie are in a good place professionally and are celebrating their position at top of the FBI’s clearance board.  Personally, however, things are far from perfect.  They’re lovers;  they enjoy each other’s company and the sex is great, but Jamie wonders how much longer he can keep what he knows from Aidan, and Aidan continues to be reluctant to commit to Jamie for fear of once again losing someone he cares for.  At the end of the previous book they agreed to keep things casual between them – or rather, Aidan decided he didn’t want to embark on a serious relationship and Jamie went along with it, willing to do whatever it took to keep Aidan in his life and in his bed.

But it’s getting harder and harder for Jamie to pretend he doesn’t want more, especially as part of “keeping it casual” for Aidan means he dates other men.  Aidan’s desperation to keep himself emotionally closed off is – perhaps – understandable, but it’s still frustrating to watch as he continually pushes Jamie away, even though deep down, it’s clear that he’s in denial about his true feelings for Jamie – and yet he persists in hurting him anyway.

Jamie’s investigations into Renaud lead him and Aidan to question the two detectives who worked the case of the crash that killed Gabe (Aidan’s late husband) and his FBI partner Tom Crane – and not long after that, those detectives are gunned down in the street.  Judging it best to get Aidan and Jamie out of the spotlight for a while, their boss sends them to North Carolina – Jamie’s home state –  to look into accusations of match fixing, illegal betting and identity theft involving a college basketball team.  Jamie goes undercover as himself – Jameson “Whiskey” Walker, former star college and NBA player who is joining the team as assistant coach, while Aidan poses as his agent, Ian Daley.  Jamie is thus best placed to work out who – if anyone – among the players could be suspect, and Aidan can do the same among the department and administrative staff.

Once again, Ms. Reyne has crafted an intriguing and exciting suspense plot which kept me eagerly turning the pages, and which at the same time throws more light on the personalities of our two protagonists and further develops their relationship.  Jamie is practically floored by lust the first time he sees Aidan in all his red-headed Irish glory as Ian – and green-eyed with jealousy at the flirtatious – albeit fake – relationship Aidan embarks upon with the college’s athletic director in order to get closer to the criminal operation.  But the jealousy isn’t all one-sided; Jamie’s former lover, Derrick Pope, is back on the scene, and makes clear – in no uncertain terms – his interest in picking up where they left off.

Given Aidan’s insistence that there’s no long-term future for them, Jamie starts to question his past decisions and wonder if he did the right thing eight years ago, getting out of professional sports.  His brief stint as assistant coach at CU shows him that he’s got a real aptitude for working with players off the court, and I enjoyed seeing that side of him, briefly unencumbered by terrorist threats or FBI cases, and just wanting to do the best by his team members; it’s a glimpse of what “Whiskey” Walker might have been had he not left the game.

There’s a lot going on in this story, what with the identity theft case, the search for Renaud and the development of the romance, but I never felt as though things were moving too fast for me to take everything in.  The balance between the different plot elements is just about right; there’s plenty of nail-biting action mixed in with moments of tenderness, humour and scorching sex scenes (*cough* pool table *cough*) and Ms. Reyne skilfully drives everything along to a highly suspenseful conclusion that ultimately forces both protagonists – Aidan especially – to confront the truth of their feelings for each other.

The sexual chemistry between the two men is intense, but the author does a great job of creating emotional closeness and intensity between them, too, so there’s never any doubt in the reader’s mind that these two need and care very deeply for each other.  There’s a well-drawn secondary cast (I hope we’ll see more of Nic and Cam, Jamie’s best friend) and I once again enjoyed the glimpses of the strong familial ties between Aidan and his younger brother Danny, who, it seems, is now dating Mel Cruz, Aidan’s boss and sister-in-law.   The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, as Jamie and Aidan wrap things up at CU and are set to head home when Aidan’s brother Danny appears with potentially devastating news, setting the stage for what I imagine are going to be some pretty explosive developments in the final book, Barrel Proof.

Cask Strength is a riveting read, and one I’d strongly recommend to fans of romantic suspense. One word of caution; it doesn’t really work as a standalone, so I’d advise reading Single Malt first.

Single Malt (Agents Irish and Whiskey #1) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Eight months after the car crash that changed everything, FBI agent Aidan Talley is back at work. New department, new case and a new partner. Smart, athletic and handsome, Jameson Walker is twelve years his junior. Even if Aidan was ready to move on—and he’s not—Jamie is off-limits.

Jamie’s lusted after Aidan for three years, and the chance to work with San Francisco’s top agent directly is too good to pass up. Aidan is prickly—to put it mildly—but a growing cyber threat soon proves Jamie’s skills invaluable.

Jamie’s talents paint a target on his back, and Aidan is determined to protect him. But with hack after hack threatening a high-security biocontainment facility, time is running out to thwart a deadly terrorist attack. They’ll have to filter out distractions, on the case and in their partnership, to identify the real enemy, solve the case and save thousands of lives, including their own.

Rating: B+

Single Malt is the first book in début author Layla Reyne’s trilogy of romantic suspense novels featuring Agents Irish and Whiskey – Aidan Talley and Jameson Walker – two FBI agents whose unexpected  pairing in the field translates into a superlative working relationship … and into a more romantic partnership off the clock.

Eight months after the car crash that killed both his husband and his FBI partner, Special Agent Aidan Talley is cleared to return to work.  The night before his first day back, his sister-in-law – who is also his boss, Special Agent in Charge, Melissa Cruz – tells him she believes the accident was no accident and gives Aidan a flash drive that she was sent anonymously after the crash.  The information it contains is heavily encrypted, but she gives Aidan permission to start digging and tells him he must keep his investigations under the radar.

Melissa also tells Aidan that he’s been assigned a new partner, former basketball star, now one of the FBI’s most able cybercrime agents, Jameson Walker.   Mel wants Aidan to assess Walker’s capabilities in the field, but Aidan is not wild about the idea of mentoring the younger agent.  For one thing, he’d worked with his former partner for fifteen years and it’s bound to be difficult to adjust to someone else and for another, he’s not sure he wants the responsibility just as he’s returning to work after such a long absence.  And, as Aidan discovers on his first day back, there’s another problem.  Ten years in a committed relationship and he’s never looked at another man – until he’s confronted with the almost six and a half feet of handsome, blue-eyed Southern charm that is Jameson Walker in the flesh.

Shortly after working their first case together, Aidan and Jamie are assigned to work with colleagues in Galveston to investigate a series of security breaches at the Galveston National Laboratory Biochemical facility.  The suspense plot is intriguing and fast paced, sometimes moving at breakneck speed as the revelations come thick and fast and our heroes race against time to work out who and what is behind the emerging threat.  At the same time, the initial frisson of attraction between Aidan and Jamie is slowly developing into a strong emotional connection as the two men establish a solid working relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.  Aidan decides he trusts Jamie enough to reveal the truth about his off-the-record investigation into the accident, and while they work to find out the truth of what is happening at the lab, Jamie also begins to work his magic on the encrypted data.

The dénouement is high-stakes and exhilarating – and while the case is solved and the threat averted, there’s more to come after Mel drops an almighty bombshell about the identity of the terrorist behind the threat they’d been working to avert, and his connection to the crash that killed Aidan’s husband and partner.  Swearing Jamie to secrecy, she provides him with information she hasn’t given to Aidan and tells him to keep on with his investigation.

Single Malt is a terrific series opener, and Ms. Reyne does a great job setting up the story arc that will run throughout the series as well as establishing her main characters and how they all relate to one another.  The chemistry between the two leads is off the charts, and their slow-burn relationship is very well done, but they both have emotional baggage to deal with before they can really move forward together.  Aidan is naturally cautious about entering a new relationship, but it’s more than that – he’s terrified of falling in love again and opening himself up to another devastating loss at the same time as he recognises that it’s probably too late and he’s already in too deep.  Jamie’s had a thing for Aidan for years, but respected his marriage and never made a move – but he’s also learned caution as a result of his past as a celebrity athlete.  He’s not in the closet, but he doesn’t advertise his sexuality either, having had more than his fair share of media intrusion back in the day and knows that even now, his sexual orientation is likely to be gossip fodder.

Both characters are attractive and likeable; Aidan, a bit on the grumpy side but incredibly efficient and Jamie, open-hearted, brilliant and like Tigger on speed when he’s on a coffee-high after pulling an all-night hacking job.  Their professional skills complement each other and very soon, they’re operating like a well-oiled machine, able to anticipate the other’s thoughts and needs; and that carries over into their personal relationship as we witness their teasing banter and their obvious care and affection for one another.

My one complaint about the book is that all the acronyms and jargon (or “technobabble” as Aidan would put it) employed in the early stages made it quite difficult to read.  Maybe it’s because – as a non-American – I’m not familiar with all the different agencies and their initials, and I admit that sometimes all the hacker-nerd-talk went straight over my head.  But that’s probably just me – and otherwise, Single Malt is definitely a book to check out if you’re a fan of fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat romantic suspense.

The Bad Luck Bride (Cavensham Heiresses #1) by Janna MacGregor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

IS MARRIAGE A BLESSING OR A CURSE?

A man of honor, Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, will not rest until he exacts revenge on the man who destroyed his family. Just one more piece must fall into place for him to succeed he needs to convince his enemy s fiancee, the tragically beautiful Lady Claire Cavensham, to marry him instead.

Lady Claire s curse has always left her one misstep away from social ruin her past three engagements have gone awry, and now her fourth is headed in the same direction. . .until Alex, a man she barely even knows, shocks the ton and Claire by announcing their engagement. What begins as a sham turns into something deeper, and more passionate, than either Claire or Alex could have imagined. But when their secrets are revealed, will the truth behind their union scandalize them both or is their love strong enough to break the curse and lead them toward their happily ever after?

Rating: C+

The first twenty-five percent or so of Janna MacGregor’s début novel, The Bad Luck Bride, had me eagerly turning the pages, so thoroughly drawn was I into the story of a man who was so bent on revenge upon the former friend he held responsible for the death of his sister, that he would go to any lengths to completely ruin him, even going so far as to steal his fiancée. Unfortunately however, at around that point, the first of what turned out to be several rather flimsy misunderstandings made its appearance and although I was still interested to discover where the story was headed, my former enthusiasm had waned. There were also a number of issues – choppy writing, odd word choices – that took me out of the story on several occasions, as well as inconsistencies in the characterisation of both principals that were impossible to ignore and which have affected my final rating.

Alex Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke is distraught with grief over the suicide of his beloved sister, and is determined to exact rather more than a pound of flesh from the man he believes fathered the child she carried and was thus responsible for her final desperate act. When a friend prevents Alex issuing a challenge to Lord Paul Barstowe, he turns instead to a far more devious manner of engineering the man’s downfall. Knowing that Barstowe is deeply in debt as a result of his liking for high-stakes gaming, Alex secretly arranges for him to receive all the credit he asks for and then buys up all his debts, putting the other man completely at his mercy. The final humiliation is that Barstowe must break his betrothal to a wealthy heiress, Lady Claire Cavensham, the daughter of the late Duke of Langham, a young woman whose “bad luck” in having suffered three broken betrothals (for good reasons) has made her … if not quite a laughing stock, then someone who is frequently a subject of gossip among the ton.

Alex plans to marry the lady himself, but knows he’s got his work cut out for him given that Barstowe will be ex-fiancé number four. But, well, Alex is tall, dark, handsome and wickedly charming, so I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that he manages things to his satisfaction, although not without a hiccup or two along the way. Up to this point, I was fully engaged with the story, wondering when and how the cat was going to be let out of the bag and what angsty twists and turns would follow. But then, during a discussion just a couple of days before the wedding, when Alex jumps to a not completely unreasonable conclusion about Claire – a misunderstanding which is quickly corrected, I might add – she decides that he doesn’t trust her and that she can’t marry him. Having some inkling that she might try to bolt, Alex unfortunately compounds his mistake by laying a wager under a false name (sort of) which backs Claire into a corner and gives her no alternative but to go through with the wedding.

After the ceremony, the newly-weds travel to Alex’s estate, which is close to Claire’s old home.  She’s aloof and off-hand with him for a few days, but it’s not long before Claire begins to soften towards her new husband and to enjoy the time spent in his company. It’s the same for Alex.  Even as he was preparing to marry Claire as part of his revenge upon Barstowe, he couldn’t help but recognise that he was attracted to her and that he actually wanted to marry her for herself. They find themselves bonding over the care of the tenants and villagers, and Alex is delighted with the way his bride settles into her role as his marchioness and lady of the manor.  Of course, it’s just a matter of time before the serpent is introduced into Eden in the form of Claire’s discovering the truth about Alex’s manipulations, and, quite naturally, wanting nothing more to do with him.

While I think The Bad Luck Bride has the makings of a good historical romance, the execution is messy and overall, the story lacks focus.  There are too many different plot-threads thrown in and the motivations of the characters are not always clear.  But as I said at the beginning, the biggest stumbling block(s) relate to the flimsiness of the devices used to create the conflict between the hero and heroine.  We already have the fact that the truth of Alex’s machinations is hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, but the author has to throw in the misunderstanding I mentioned earlier, AND give Claire a tortured past which involved witnessing the deaths of her parents in tragic circumstances, plus three broken betrothals, all of which have made her believe she is under some sort of curse.  Despite several attempts early on to have it seem as though Claire is dismissive of it, it’s clear she actually believes she’s cursed, and that was a stretch too far for me.

The characterisation is inconsistent, too.  There’s no question that Alex is manipulative, and that he would of course show his most attractive, charming side to the woman he is wooing, but apart from at the very beginning, he never really gives off a ruthless or dangerous vibe. Sure, he’s the hero and not the villain, but there’s never any doubt that he’s honourable and protective and all the things readers expect of a romantic hero.  One of the reasons I picked this book up for review was because I like a redeemed bad-boy and had hoped that that was to be Alex’s journey; but there’s absolutely no ‘edge’ to him and he’s fairly bland when it comes down to it.  And Claire… well, among the things that attract Alex so strongly are her dignity and inner strength, yet for much of the book she doesn’t appear to possess either of those things.  I couldn’t really connect with either character – never a good thing in a romance – and at times their behaviour made little to no sense.

With all that said, however, I do think that Janna MacGregor shows promise as an author of historical romance.  She needs to smooth out her prose – the sex scenes in particular are very “He did this.  Then he did that.  Then she did this.” – and take a bit more care with some of her word choices and phrasing. The novel would also have benefitted from a firmer editorial hand to help weed out some of the extraneous plot developments and craft stronger and more plausible motivations for the characters. I’m certainly going to keep an eye out for more of Ms. MacGregor’s work  – although I might wait until she’s got a few more books under her belt before I pick up another one in the hope that she’s been able to iron out the first time bugs.  Anyone looking to try a new author might like to give The Bad Luck Bride a whirl, but should be advised that while it’s not the worst historical romance I’ve read this year, it’s not the best, either.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: A

Confession time.  When I picked up The Jane Austen Project for review, I really didn’t expect it to be a book I couldn’t put down.  I thought the premise – two time travellers go back to 1815 to meet Jane Austen and secure a previously unpublished manuscript – was interesting (which was why I chose it) but also fraught with potential pitfalls in terms of tone and characterisation. I’m happy to admit that my scepticism was quickly laid to rest and to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining, compelling and unusual story that hooked me in from the first page and kept me glued to it throughout.

Doctor and Austen devotee Rachel Katzman and Professor Liam Finucane, an actor turned academic, were carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics for one particular mission – to go back in time to 1815, meet Jane Austen and locate the manuscript for The Watsons, a novel previously thought unfinished but which a newly discovered letter indicates was actually completed and subsequently destroyed by the author.  Rachel and Liam are charged with bringing back The Watsons and also more of Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, documents which later proved incredibly valuable in piecing together details of the author’s life, and of which only a few survive.  If Rachel can also figure out what caused Jane’s premature death at the age of forty-one, well, that would be a bonus.

The pair arrives, bedraggled and disoriented in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey with a small fortune in forged money hidden under their clothes and a cover story that they are Doctor William Ravenswood and his spinster sister, Mary, recently returned from Jamaica where they have sold off the family coffee plantation.  Unable to secure rooms at the local inn owing to their having no luggage and looking somewhat suspicious besides, they instead hire a post chaise and head to London where they take up residence in a fashionable town house and formulate their plan to get to know Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, who is, at that time, a successful banker.

Posing as acquaintances of a distant Austen relative, they wrangle an introduction to Henry who is everything they expect from what they know of him: good-looking, charming and gregarious, it’s easy to see why Jane referred to him as her favourite brother.  Over the next few weeks, they become part of Henry’s intimate circle and eventually, as planned, are introduced to his sisters and other family members when they visit London.  Cassandra Austen is brusque and most definitely suspicious of her brother’s new acquaintances while Jane is quiet and circumspect, clearly not a woman who allows people to get to know her easily and who doesn’t rush headlong into friendships.  The portrayal of Jane Austen is one of those potential pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say that this is a very credible portrait of her in which she comes across exactly as I’m sure many of us imagine her to have been – intelligent, witty, considered and insightful.

Once the shock of finally meeting her idol has begun to wear off, and what had begun as a slightly uneasy relationship develops into a genuine friendship, Rachel is faced with a dilemma she hadn’t before envisaged.  Back in her own time, and in the early days of the mission, having to search Jane’s home for the manuscript and letters was just a job, and the idea of making a great literary discovery was thrilling.  But several months down the line, Rachel is faced with the prospect of stealing from someone who has become a close friend, which is a different matter entirely.

The other major concern on my initial list of potential pitfalls was to do with the characterisation of Rachel.  Would she be too obviously modern for 1815, continually asserting her rights and chafing against all the things she wasn’t allowed to do? The answer – fortunately – is no; Ms. Flynn gets it right, having Rachel know full well that there are things she simply cannot do.  She doesn’t like it, but accepts it’s necessary to conform in order to maintain her persona.  In her own time, she’s a doctor, but in this period, all she can be is William Ravenswood’s spinster sister, carefully coaching Liam to play the part of a doctor while she watches from the sidelines, sewing shirts and wondering how intelligent women of the time didn’t end up going round the bend.  Admittedly, she slips up from time to time, but is mostly able to explain it away because of her Mary’s non-traditional upbringing in Jamaica.

Time travel fiction is always going to have to address one big problem – how do people go back in time without somehow affecting their future? Here, Liam and Rachel are given specific instructions NOT to do anything which could have ramifications for their own time, but, as they soon come to realise, that was impossible from the moment they arrived, and they have probably altered things without even meaning to. And as they get to know Henry and Jane as real people rather than as historical figures they’ve only read about, they find it impossible not to want to help them in some way; by preventing Jane’s early death and the ruin of Henry’s business. It’s tempting – but dangerous. There comes a point where they both have to wonder if perhaps the tiniest thing they’ve done during their lengthy stay might have changed their own world/time out of all recognition and even to question if  they want to risk returning to it or stay in one that has, over the months, become more real to them than they could ever have thought possible.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Jane Austen Project, not least of which is the sweet, sexy romance that develops between Liam and Rachel in which Rachel – in the manner of all Austen’s heroines – comes to examine her own thoughts and feelings and to draw some new and unexpected conclusions about herself.  Ms. Flynn carefully crafts a realistic portrait of life as led by the middle class during the Regency period, and there’s a terrific sense of time and place throughout. Having two fish-out-of-water protagonists act as the reader’s window into that world works extremely well to bring home the emphasis placed on the importance of correct behaviour and propriety, the position of women in nineteenth century society and the great inequalities and hardship that existed between the different social strata.

The Jane Austen Project is a creative and entertaining novel that addresses some interesting ideas while at the same time telling a cracking good story.  My only criticism really is that the ending is a bit abrupt and inconclusive. While I understand the book is not categorised as a romance, I won’t deny that I’d have liked things to have been more obviously settled at the end, which maybe – just – sort of – points towards a HEA somewhere along the line (if you squint). But that aside, this is an impressive début novel, a terrific read and a book I’d definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys something a bit out of the ordinary, whether they’re an Austen fan or not.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

One of the things the author does very well is to chart the very uneasy relationship between Alice and Matthew; there’s a real sense that Alice is permanently treading on eggshells around him, expecting at any moment for him to look at her and work out that she is defying him in small ways, by visiting her mother-in-law, whom he has forbidden her to see, or in trying to help the women who are being accused.  She paints an intriguing picture of Matthew through Alice’s eyes, as Alice recalls various incidents from their childhood, remembers the boy he was and then, in an attempt to understand his motivations, begins to delve into long-buried family secrets which could threaten her own life and liberty.

There is definitely an air of subtle menace pervading the book, which is as it should be, given the subject matter.  But while I enjoyed reading it, it was slow to start and Alice’s frequent reminiscences in the first half tended to interrupt the flow of the present day story being told.  These passages do help to build a picture of Matthew as Alice had known him, and also to give some insight as to the actions and events that have made him into the man he is, but there’s no denying that their positioning affects the pacing of the novel in an adverse way.

But with that said, there’s no doubt that Ms. Underdown’s research into the period and her subject matter has clearly been extensive, because her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of 17thcentury England are very evocative, enabling the reader to really put themselves in the middle of those muddy streets and swirling mists or sniff the smells of roasting meat and hoppy ale.  She does a splendid job of creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as the accusations spread and shows just how dangerous it was to be a woman in those times, when the most innocent look or word could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone who wished you ill; and the scenes and descriptions of some of the ‘tests’ the accused women are put through are harrowing in their matter-of-factness.

I enjoyed the story, but there were times I wanted just a bit… more.  I found it quite difficult to get a handle on either Matthew or Alice, and this is, I suspect, in part due to the fact that Alice is mostly a passive narrator, a witness to events or on the periphery of them, which creates a degree of emotional distance between the characters and the reader.  I felt for Alice and what she went through and admired her determination to do something to help those she believed were unjustly accused. She’s the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive piety, but she’s also a woman alone with no-one to turn to and faces some very difficult choices.  Her decisions aren’t always the best, but they are human and it’s easy to understand why she makes them.

The last part of the book is the strongest, as this is where Alice finally – and unwillingly – starts to take part in the events she describes.  This brings an immediacy to the narrative which was lacking before, and serves to ramp up the tension and to thicken the all-pervasive atmosphere of oppression.  The ending is suitably shocking – and I give substantial props to the author for the last line, which is an absolute zinger.

This is Ms. Underdown’s début novel and is, all in all, a well-researched piece of historical fiction told in an engaging way.  It wasn’t a book I found difficult to put down, but the subject matter is intriguing and the author has constructed a perfectly plausible account of Hopkins’ life given the paucity of available material.  I’m going to give The Witchfinder’s Sister a qualified recommendation; if you’re not familiar with this particularly dark period of English history and are interested in learning more, it’s not a bad place to start.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian

the-soldiers-scoundrel

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A scoundrel who lives in the shadows

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life-one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is only matched by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men only meant for each other.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance is a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely accomplished piece of work that sees a prickly former-thief-turned-investigator working with the son of an earl to establish the identity of a blackmailer and falling in love along the way. This is no light-hearted romp, however; during the course of the story, the author explores the realities of the class differences lying between the two men and takes a look at the inequalities inherent in a justice system which really only operated in favour of the wealthy and influential.

Former valet, former thief and former perpetrator of various other illegal activities, Jack Turner now runs his own business working as an investigator and righter of wrongs for those in society – the poor and women – who have little or no recourse to justice via normal means. His life on the wrong side of the law and then as a servant has only served to reinforce his own opinions about the ‘nobs’, the gentlemen of the nobility who largely regard themselves as untouchable and if his work gives him the opportunity to even the score a little, then he regards it as a job well done.

So Jack isn’t best pleased when Mr Oliver Rivington – second son of the Earl of Rutland – bursts into his office one day, demands to know why his sister recently paid Jack a large sum of money, and refuses to leave until he gets an answer. Realising he can’t get rid of the man without causing a scene, Jack allots Rivington a seat in a dark corner while he interviews his latest client, a young, married lady who is being blackmailed over a series of letters exchanged with a former beau.

A serious leg wound after a decade in the army has led the former Captain Rivington to sell his commission and he has returned home eager to embark upon a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos and frequent lawlessless of the army. His experiences with the sort of riot and mayhem wreaked by a victorious force following a battle have made him determined to uphold the law and respect due process, so the idea that Jack Turner could have employed less than legal means in order to help Charlotte sits badly with him, no matter that whatever Jack actually did has kept her drunken, abusive husband away overseas for the last two years.

Both men are rather surprised to recognise the sudden sexual attraction that crackles between them, and both ruthlessly tamp it down. Jack doesn’t want anything to do with aristrocrats, no matter how pretty they are, and Oliver is most certainly not going to become embroiled with a criminal. Realising that Jack is probably going to resort to law-breaking in order to help Mrs. Wraxhall, Oliver is determined to find a way of getting the lady’s letters back without using illegal means to do so, and begins making inquiries of his own.

When it seems that a journey to Mrs. Wraxhall’s former home in Yorkshire will be needed to dig up more information on the lady’s past, Jack very reluctantly agrees to accept Oliver’s help. After all, a prettily behaved, good-looking gentleman like him will be able to open doors that are closed to Jack, and Oliver will probably be able to charm people into revealing confidences that Jack’s gruffness would be unlikely to encourage. And while his intense fascination with Rivington irritates him, the attraction is obviously mutual and also impossible to ignore, so Jack decides that he might as well indulge himself while he can. It’s not something he does very often; he doesn’t do emotional entanglements and the only people in his life he trusts are his brother and sister, but he’s certainly not averse to taking Oliver to bed.

Oliver is similarly captivated by Jack – a man he is coming to know as having his own code of honour that he lives by, no matter how strongly he might deny it. Oliver recognises that Jack’s gruffness is his way of keeping people at arms’ length and he very much wants to break through that barrier and show Jack that he’s worth caring about.

Cat Sebastian has crafted a very well-balanced tale in which the relationship between the protagonists takes centre stage, while also offering an intriguing sub-plot about the blackmail investigation. As I said at the outset, she takes a look at the inequality in a justice system that permitted the upper classes to – sometimes literally – get away with murder while it would hang a starving man for stealing a crust. And worse, a system that would turn a blind eye to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage or a woman being threatened in the vilest terms. But there is no heavy-handed sermonising or info-dumping; her observations are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, adding richness and colour to an already readable and entertaining story.

But there’s no question that Jack and Oliver’s romance is at the heart of this book, and it’s by turns funny, tender, sexy, and wonderfully romantic. The two men complement each other in terms of their personalities and outlook; Jack is all rough edges, where Oliver is polished politeness and charm; Jack is outspoken where Oliver is more considered – and they make a terrific couple. I particularly liked their playfulness with each other, and the sense that, in spite of the class difference, they are equals in the relationship. I’ve not read m/m romance very widely, but in some I’ve read there is one experienced character and one who is less so or perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his sexuality. It’s refreshing to see that isn’t the case here, and I really liked how, despite his blushes, Oliver is shown to be every bit as comfortable with himself and his preferences as Jack – and, when called for, just as naughty 😉 Even though they hide things from each other to start with, once they get to know and accept one another, there’s a lovely honesty to their relationship, a true caring that goes deeper than lust or attraction, and Ms. Sebastian has done a superb job in conveying that depth through their words and actions.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel captivated me from start to finish and is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central romance is wonderfully portrayed, the characterisation is excellent and I loved Oliver and Jack to bits. I can’t wait for more from Ms. Sebastian and am eagerly awaiting her next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – next year.