The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig & Karen White (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley, Vanessa Johansson & Saskia Maarleveld

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

May 2013

Her finances are in dire straits, and best-selling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history.

Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced member of parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe….

April 1915

Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, preoccupied with business…and something else on which she can’t quite put a finger. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect – but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander and take charge of her own life….

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the US, and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems….

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives…and history itself.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

Three authors, three main characters, three narrators; The Glass Ocean is a dual timeline story from the pens of the 3Ws – Williams, Willig and White – that weaves together interconnecting stories featuring three very different woman in two different time-periods almost a century apart. I have no idea which author penned which character – and apparently it’s a very closely guarded secret – but the narration is clearly assigned, with Vanessa Johansson reading the chapters told by Sarah Blake, and Brittany Pressley and Saska Maarleveld reading those from the points of view of Caroline Hochstetter and Tess Schaff respectively.

Five years earlier, Sarah Blake wrote a very successful book about the mid-nineteenth century Irish Potato Famine. For a year she was feted, interviewed, sought after for book signings and events… but when inspiration for a follow-up book failed to arrive, she more or less fell off the radar, and now, even her agent hardly ever calls her. She’s struggling – both creatively and financially – and in desperation, turns to an old family heirloom, breaking her promise to her Alzheimer-stricken mother and opening the chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she finds there leads her to travel to England to request access to the archives of the Langford family in the hope that the documents contained within it will help her to find answers to the questions raised by her great-grandfather’s papers. The problem is that getting permission to view the Langford family’s documents is going to be difficult. John Langford MP has recently become unwillingly entangled in a scandal involving his ex-wife and is lying low in an attempt to dodge the paparazzi stalking him, so Sarah is going to have to approach him carefully – and probably using subterfuge – if she’s to stand any chance of getting him to agree to her request.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Henchmen of Zenda by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Antony Ferguson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan – and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends – which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

Rating: Narration – C+ : Content – A-

A retelling of Anthony Hope’s 1894 classic adventure story The Prisoner of Zenda from a different point of view, K.J. Charles’ The Henchmen of Zenda introduces us to Jasper Detchard, a disgraced and debauched former army officer who unrepentantly fights and fucks his way around Europe, making his living as soldier of fortune. He’s approached by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau (from the small European kingdom of Ruritania) to join his trusted bodyguard – known as “the six” – and take part in the overthrow of Michael’s half-brother, the country’s new king, Rudolf V.

The original novel is narrated by one Rudolf Rassendyll, an English gentleman who bears an uncanny resemblance to King Rudolf, and who is holidaying in Ruritania when he is approached by the king’s closest advisers and asked to impersonate the monarch during his upcoming coronation because he’s falling down drunk and unlikely to be sober in time to attend. When Michael’s men kidnap the king, things get even more complicated; Rassendyll falls in love with the king’s betrothed, the Princess Flavia, and all ends well after Rassendyll rescues the king and then honourably bows out, leaving Flavia to do her duty to king and country. It’s a “Boy’s Own” swashbuckling adventure, a piece of Victorian pulp fiction complete with all the clichés and conventions demanded by the genre; an altruistic, honourable hero, a damsel in distress and a black-hearted villain… or two. K.J. Charles does a superb job of turning these conventions on their heads, inside out and backwards to create a story that immediately takes on a life of its own separate from the source material, and of turning the characters into fully-rounded individuals rather than the rather two-dimensional cyphers they are in Hope’s tale.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTE: NOT AVAILABLE DIGITALLY IN THE US. The book is being published in the US in June 2019 under the title The Poison Thread

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth.

Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted to have the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Rating: B

Laura Purcell first came to my attention as the author of a couple of very fine pieces of historical fiction, and earlier this year, I awarded her fabulous, spooky supernatural/gothic mystery The Silent Companions DIK status at AAR  and gushed about it to everyone who crossed my path!  I’ve been waiting eagerly to read her next novel The Corset, another mystery set in Victorian England, this time, featuring two very different women who are brought together in the gloomy surroundings of a London prison.

Dorothea Truelove is pragmatic, intelligent and privileged.  She is heiress to a considerable sum, but continually resists her father’s attempts to find her an eligible husband, preferring instead to concentrate on her scientific interests and the young, most definitely ineligible policeman with whom she is in love.  Dorothea has become fascinated by phrenology  – a pseudoscience that posited that a person’s character could be determined by the measurements of their skull and that personality, thoughts and emotions were located in certain specific regions of the brain – and is furthering her knowledge by visiting female inmates at Oakwood Gate Prison.  She is keen to meet the latest new arrival, a sixteen-year-old girl called Ruth Butterham who has confessed to the murder of her employer and several other people, and to study the size and shape of her skill, believing her research could help “devise a system to detect, scientifically, without a doubt, all evil propensities in the young” and thereby a way of preventing them from becoming criminals.

Ruth Butterham couldn’t be more different to Dorothea.  A talented seamstress, Ruth’s life has been blighted by tragedy, poverty and horror; when her father commits suicide, she and her sick mother are forced to seek help from Mrs. Metyard, a popular modiste for whom Ruth’s mother often does piece-work.  In desperation, Ruth’s mother more or less sells Ruth to Mrs. Metyard, believing that a roof over her head and regular meals will be better for Ruth than anything she can provide, which is why, aged just twelve, Ruth finds herself subjected to abuse and exploitation alongside four other girls, all of them terribly mistreated, half-starved and regularly beaten.

The story is told from both Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, the latter in the form of the tale she is telling Dorothea and her thoughts and feelings upon it.  Ruth tells how she came to believe that she had the ability to impart her feelings through her needle and into her work, and how she has been able to cause harm to those who harmed her by weaving her hatred and anger into her sewing.  Dorothea is at first fascinated and excited at the prospect of being able to examine the head shape and size of a murderess, but soon becomes annoyed and frustrated; what she is hearing from Ruth’s lips and learning from her skull shape and measurements don’t match up at all, because her centres of morality and memory are too well developed for someone who is clearly telling so many lies.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Dorothea’s narrative is somewhat less engrossing than Ruth’s.  She doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or whether dropping this plate or that candle will result in a vicious beating (which happens in Ruth’s story); her problems are trivial by comparison, as she fumes about the fact that her father is planning to marry a woman she dislikes intensely, and over his attempts to force her into marriage. That said, the parallels the author draws between the women in relation to how little control either has over their lives is relevant and nicely done, showing clearly that gender was a great leveller, still the biggest obstacle to a woman having choices, no matter her social or financial status.  The corset is certainly an interesting metaphor, applied just as well to the garments that restricted women’s movement as to the rigid conventions that restricted their behaviour and opportunities.

As is the case with the other books I’ve read by Laura Purcell, The Corset is beautifully written, and her research has clearly been impeccable.  The descriptions of what Ruth goes through – the poverty, the despair, the cruelty – have a visceral impact and make Ruth an easy figure to sympathise with, but they were also a little too gory at times for my taste, and there were elements of unnecessary repetition that didn’t enhance or further the story.  And here I have a confession to make; the reveal that came around the half-way point was so daft that it actually made me want to snort with laughter rather than hide behind the sofa.

I find I can’t write about The Corset without reference to Ms. Purcell’s previous novel, The Silent Companions, which is one of the best modern gothic novels I’ve read.  Deeply atmospheric and seriously creepy, it worked so well because there was genuine doubt as to what was really going on; was the heroine subject to supernatural forces or mere human evil?  Whatever the answer arrived at by the reader, both options were equally terrifying.  In this novel, however, there is no real horror (unless you count the account of the birth of Ruth’s sister, or the gloopy slime of the decaying fish one of the other girls put into Ruth’s work-basket), or sense of the unexpected. I was never really convinced by Ruth’s belief that she could somehow sew malevolence into the garments she made and embroidered, which always seemed to me to be something latched on to by a girl so traumatised by loss and despair that she would believe anything if it meant she was able to exercise even the smallest amount of control over her circumstances.

The characterisation of both leads is extremely strong, Ruth’s naïve, trusting nature tempered by an incredible resilience and endurance while Dorothea, ostensibly a good young woman with a penchant for doing good works, turns out to be something of  a self-righteous prig.  Ms. Purcell interweaves their narratives skilfully and in such a way as to give the reader time to reflect upon their reliability, and the final chapters and slowly evolving revenge plot are incredibly well done; for my money, the final twenty percent of the novel is easily worth the price of admission alone.  But for all the great things the book has going for it, I wasn’t as drawn into it as I’d hoped to be, which I freely admit may be because I had such high expectations and had hoped for more of what I found in the author’s previous novel.

The Corset nonetheless earns a solid recommendation courtesy of its superb writing, strong characterisation and intriguing storylines.  The novel’s flaws don’t outweigh its strengths by any means, and anyone looking for a gritty, well-written and well-researched gothic mystery could do worse than give it a try.

The Hollow of Fear (Lady Sherlock #3) by Sherry Thomas


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

Rating: A

It seems that my reaction, whenever I finish one of Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock books, is forever destined to be one of complete awe as I sit stunned, with my brain trying to catch up while I’m also trying to scrape my jaw up off the floor. I’m not sure I’m capable of forming whole sentences just yet, because DAY-UM, but the woman has a devious mind!

The Hollow of Fear is the third in the series, and it opens exactly where book two – A Conspiracy in Belgravia – left off. So be aware that what I’m going to say next is a spoiler for that book, and that there are most likely to be spoilers for the other books in this review. Readers should also know that while there is information dotted throughout that supplies some of the backstory, I’d strongly recommend reading all the books in order so as to gain a greater understanding of all the relevant events.

The plotline of Conspiracy concerned the search for one Myron Finch, who is Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother. In a surprise twist tight at the end of the book, we learned that Finch has actually been hiding in plain sight all this time, working as the Holmes family’s coachman, and this conversation continues at the beginning of Hollow. Finch explains that he’s in hiding from Moriarty because he – Finch – has something belonging to his former master and knows that death will be his punishment should Moriarty ever find him. After a daring escape – made with the aid of Stephen Marbleton (whose mother was married to Moriarty at one time) – Charlotte is making her way back to the house she shares with Mrs. Watson when a carriage draws up beside her, the door opens – and the gentleman inside gives his name as Moriarty.

Skipping ahead a few months, we find Charlotte and Mrs. Watson comfortably settled in a cottage situated not very far from Stern Hollow, the country estate of Charlotte’s closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton.  The two have known each other since they were in their teens and it’s been very clear from the moment readers were introduced to Lord Ingram – Ash – that there’s more lying between him and Charlotte than friendship.  But he is married (albeit very unhappily) and Charlotte is… an unusual woman, to say the least, one who does not “understand the full spectrum of human emotions”, or rather, whose own reactions to those emotions are not always those that are desired or easily understood by others.  Lord Ingram and Charlotte know and understand each other on a deep, instinctual level, and their relationship is both beautiful and frustrating; the complementary way their minds work is wonderful to see – when it comes to logic and investigation, their thoughts mesh seamlessly – but their emotional connection is far more complex and Lord Ingram, fully aware of the nature of his feelings for Charlotte, is just as fully aware that they may never be returned as he would wish.

However, the reason Charlotte and Mrs. Watson are sojourning near Stern Hollow is not Lord Ingram, but Charlotte’s sister, Olivia, who is staying close by, at a house party being hosted by their father’s cousin, Mrs. Newell.  Given that Charlotte was disowned after her disgrace (A Study in Scarlet Women), she cannot openly contact Livia and hopes she will be able to see her while she is in the vicinity.  It looks as though fate is against them when Mrs. Newell’s home is flooded and it seems the party must be broken up, but Lord Ingram steps in to offer the hospitality of Stern Hollow to the displaced guests.  Livia’s enjoyment of her new surroundings is slightly marred by the presence of  two of society’s pre-eminent gossips, who have alleged that Charlotte and Lord Ingram are lovers and are trying to prove it.  Lady Ingram’s continued absence – the story is that she has gone abroad for the sake of her health; the truth is that she was divulging state secrets to Moriarty, and was allowed to leave the country before she could be arrested – produces even more juicy speculation on the part of the two ladies, who are now putting forth the rumours that Lord Ingram may have done away with the wife from whom he was known to be estranged in order to marry Charlotte.  When, a day or so later, Lady Ingram’s dead body is discovered in the ice house, Livia knows it will look as though those rumours are true – and that there’s only one person who will be able to prove Lord Ingram’s innocence.

Gah!  There’s so much more I could say about this book, but I don’t want to give too much away.  The bulk of the story is devoted to the investigation into Lady Ingram’s death – but it’s far more complicated than that, and we’re gripped by the various twists, turns and discoveries as Sherlock’s ‘brother’ – Sherrinford Holmes – helps Lord Ingram to ferret out and piece together the evidence needed to exonerate him. There’s no question the stakes are high; this is the first time we’ve seen Charlotte even the slightest bit rattled, and the pervasive sense of fear running throughout the story is palpable.  For three-quarters of the novel, Ms. Thomas lulls readers into the belief that this is the story – only to rip out the carpet from under our feet and show it’s been about something else all along, revealing that while Ash’s life really IS on the line, he and Charlotte are facing a very dangerous, devious foe and they’re out to do much more than bring a murderer to justice.  That’s not the only twist in the tale however – a couple of chapters later I was reeling from yet another unexpected reveal that had my husband wondering what on earth I was swearing aloud about!

One of the (many) things that marks the Lady Sherlock series out as superior to so many other historical mysteries is the incredible amount of character development going on.  More layers of Charlotte’s complex personality are peeled back here, and we learn a lot more about Lord Ingram and his unpopular wife; but most importantly, with Ash and Charlotte together for almost the entire book we get to see the reality of their messy, complicated relationship and to gain a deeper understanding of why things between them are the way they are.  Their scenes together are electric, the sexual tension so thick it could be cut with a knife; the author wasn’t kidding when she said – “this is the one in which the romance between Charlotte Holmes and her good friend Lord Ingram really picks up steam”, so it’s not a spoiler to say that there are some interesting developments between them, but there is still much to hope for in future instalments.

Even with the high-stakes plot and the character and relationship development, there’s still time to shine a light on Charlotte’s family situation; on her plans for Bernadine, the older sister whose mind has never progressed beyond early childhood and on Livia, prone to melancholy and fearful for the future, but fiercely devoted to Charlotte – and, it seems, in love for the first time.  Inspector Treadles, who has been struggling ever since discovering Sherlock Holmes’ true identity, his judgement strongly coloured by his – probably typical for the time – misogynistic views as to what a woman should and shouldn’t be, proves a trustworthy ally, and by the end of the book – thanks to Charlotte – he’s realised the need to let go of this preconceived ideas.

The story is very cleverly constructed, making excellent use of flashbacks in the latter part to complete the bigger picture and fill in some of the information the reader almost doesn’t realise has been withheld. That’s not to say that I felt cheated at any point – I didn’t.  But I was able to figure out some things and not others, meaning that there were still plenty of surprises in store, and I loved that.

The Hollow of Fear is yet another tour de force from Sherry Thomas – and long may she continue to deliver them. A mystery filled with as many twists and turns as any Conan Doyle fan could wish for, a fascinating character study, and an unusual romance, it’s easily the best book of the series (so far) and my only complaint is that I have to wait until next year for another helping.

Treacherous is the Night (Verity Kent #2) by Anna Lee Huber

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.

Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .

Rating: B+

Treacherous is the Night is the second book in Anna Lee Huber’s latest series of post-WW1 historical mysteries featuring former secret service agent Verity Kent.  The events of this story unfold just a few weeks after those of the previous book, This Side of Murder, and if you’ve not read that, look away now, because there is a massive spoiler for the twist in that story in the next paragraph of this review.

For fifteen months, Verity believed herself to be a widow, the husband she’d married on the eve of the war having been killed in action in 1918. But during her investigation into the murders of some of Sidney’s former comrades, she made a game-changing discovery; namely that Sidney wasn’t dead at all, but had allowed everyone to believe him to be while he pursued an investigation of his own to uncover the identity of the traitor among the officers of his battalion.

After Sidney finally revealed the truth, Verity was – and still is – is a mass of conflicting emotions; relief that he isn’t dead; fury that he’d allowed her to mourn for so many months; guilt at some of things she’d kept from him during their brief reunions during the war –and their relationship is still in a state of flux when we rejoin them at the beginning of Treacherous is the Night.  They have decided to work at their marriage to see if they can make a go of it, but it’s not going to be easy for either of them.

The story opens when Verity’s good friend and former War Office colleague, Daphne Merrick, asks Verity to attend a séance with her.  Spiritualism saw a huge increase in popularity after the First World War as devastated relatives and friends of the fallen sought comfort in the idea of being able to speak to their loved ones one last time.  Verity is sceptical of the whole thing – even more so after a cruel trick that was played on her at the house party she attended in the previous book – but she knows Daphne is desperate to contact her brother, Gil, who lost his life in the early days of the war, and reluctantly agrees to accompany Daphne to the session at Madame Zozza’s.

When they arrive, Verity is surprised to see Max Westfield, the Earl of Ryde also in attendance.  They exchange friendly greetings during which Verity recalls their unexplored – interrupted – burgeoning attraction, and then Max goes on to explain that he has accompanied his aunt, Lady Swaffham to the séance.  When the proceedings get underway, things go mostly as Verity had expected – until the medium greets Verity – “ma compatriote, where are you?”- and tells her that she is the spirit of Emilie, a spy and courier with whom Verity had worked on several occasions on her various missions into France and Belgium during the war.

 

Verity is flabbergasted and furious at the medium’s audacity at using both Emilie and her own past as part of a cheap trick, but is determined to find out exactly why the woman should have pretended to channel Emilie in order to deliver a cryptic message – “Beware the man hiding behind the mask.”  But Madame Zozza’s assistant whisks her away before Verity can approach her, so Verity determines to pay the woman a visit the following morning to find out what she knows.  But that proves impossible; she and Sidney arrive in time to witness her house going up in flames, and learn that Madame Zozza perished in the fire.

There’s nothing for it now but for Verity to look into the matter herself – and she can’t deny that she’s been looking for a way to avoid having to think too hard about the state of her marriage and the ways in which both she and Sidney have become different people – people who might no longer be capable of sustaining a relationship. She needs to find Emilie and answers to the numerous questions the medium’s ‘summoning’ has posed, and in order to do that, she must return to Flanders and track down the members of La Dame Blanche, the network of intelligence gatherers and couriers of which Emilie was a member.

Ms. Huber very skilfully balances the novel’s plot – the uncovering of a deadly scheme for revenge as Verity and Sidney search for Emilie – with the gradual peeling away of the various layers of self-protection that Verity and Sidney have erected around their emotions and the exploration and development of their relationship . They’re different people now, they’ve experienced hardship, danger and the horrors of war in different ways, and they’re cagy and reluctant to reveal the extent of their sorrow, anger, doubt and broken-ness to one another.  Verity is keeping a particularly guilty secret (which has been alluded to before) and is also unsure of how her husband will react when he learns the true extent of her work as an agent for the secret service.  Will he be appalled that his little wife wasn’t home sitting quietly by the fire knitting socks?  Will he ever be able to accept that she’s no longer the starry-eyed young woman he married?

Because the story is told through Verity’s eyes, we never get inside Sidney’s head, but Ms. Huber does a pretty good job of showing readers his feelings and reactions through his dialogue and what Verity observes of his facial expressions and body language.  We see him coming to understand, appreciate and admire the determined, independent woman Verity has become, and experience his gradually reawakening trust as he allows himself to reveal more of his own fears and insecurities just as Verity reveals hers.  Their internal struggles feel very real, and their rapprochement is gradual and not always easy, but it’s superbly done and I became fully invested in their relationship and was rooting for them long before the end.

If you’ve read This Side of Murder, you may be wondering about Max, who was clearly set up as a potential love interest for Verity in that story – which obviously couldn’t go anywhere once Sidney was revealed to be alive after all.  Max makes a couple of brief appearances in this story, and has an important role to play in the finale; there is still a frisson of attraction between him and Verity, and Sidney is obviously jealous of their friendship, but with Verity’s commitment to making her marriage work, the attempt to create some sort of uncertainty falls flat, and I’m not quite sure why it was included.

Ms. Huber’s eye for historical detail is excellent, and she makes some shrewd social observations with a light touch, about the about the glamourisation of war, the treatment of its veterans and how the women who had taken men’s roles during it were suddenly expected to go back into their ‘womanly’ boxes and act as if they’d never had that taste of independence and freedom.

Treacherous is the Night is entertaining, well-researched and well-written, and I enjoyed it very much.  I was as caught up in the exploration of the Kents’ troubled marriage as I was intrigued by the mystery plot, and would definitely encourage fans of well-written historical mysteries to consider giving this series a try.

The Fire Court (Marwood and Lovett #2) by Andrew Taylor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

Rating: B+

The Fire Court is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, an historical mystery that opened dramatically during the Great Fire of London and then proceeded to unravel a tale of murder and betrayal stretching back decades, to the reign of Cromwell and Charles I.  This novel reunites the protagonists of the earlier book – James Marwood and Cat Lovett – as they become entangled in the complicated business of the Fire Court, a body set up to oversee and settle any disputes that arise as a result of the rebuilding of the city after the fire.  With so many buildings damaged or destroyed, Parliament is eager to rebuild as soon as possible, and the Fire Court is charged with helping that along by settling legal disputes about leases, land boundaries and other matters pertaining to property ownership.  With greed and corruption snaking through the business of the court, the stakes are high for many – and for some, are high enough to commit murder.

Seven months after the events of the previous book, James Marwood is comfortably settled and is prospering financially in his posts as clerk to Joseph Williamson (Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington) and clerk to the Board of Red Cloth, a department attached closely to the king’s household.  He is still caring for his elderly, mentally unstable father, but early in the story, Mr. Marwood senior dies in an accident leaving his son with little other than some confused ramblings about his mother, the rookeries and a woman decked out like a cheap whore in a yellow dress.

Cat Lovett, who ran from her well-to-do family in order to avoid marriage to her smarmy cousin (who raped her) is still in hiding and has adopted the name and persona of Jane Hakesby, cousin and servant to Simon Hakesby, a well-respected architect.  Cat is a talented draughtsman herself, although as a woman, the profession is barred to her, but Hakesby – who is not in the best of health – allows her to assist him on occasion and to make her own designs under his auspices.  At the beginning of the novel, she is attending the proceedings of the Fire Court, partly to take notes (and to practice her newly learned shorthand) and partly to attend her master, who is there to watch out for the interests of one of that day’s petitioners.

Marwood and Cat have not encountered each other in the intervening months and don’t expect to do so, as they move in very different circles.  But they are drawn together again after Williamson instructs Marwood to accompany him to view the body of a woman found dead in the ruins of what seems to have been the cellar of a house.  The woman’s garish clothing suggests she may have been a whore, but that isn’t the case; she’s identified as a wealthy widow, which explains the government’s interest in the woman’s fate.  Charged with finding out as much as he can about the murder, Marwood is suddenly reminded of his late father’s last ramblings – which it seems may not have been ramblings at all.  But while Williamson wants answers, Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Private Closet (and Marwood’s other employer) wants things left alone; but Marwood is already too involved to stop looking for answers – which come at a very high personal cost.

As in the previous book, Marwood’s portions of the tale are told in the first person, while Cat’s are in the third, and I had no problems whatsoever with the juxtaposition of styles.  We find out a little more about both characters here, as they do about each other; in The Ashes of London, they encountered each other only briefly although their stories intersected frequently, and in the dramatic climax of the story, Marwood saved Cat’s life. It’s this that prompts her to go against Hakesby’s wishes when Marwood asks for her help, and leads to her being drawn into intrigue and danger as she, too, becomes involved in the investigation into the murder.

My one criticism about The Ashes of London was that I didn’t quite feel as though I got to know either Cat or Marwood, but here, they’re starting to feel more fleshed out.  Marwood is a pleasant young man who just wants to live a comfortable, quiet life as he tries to live down his father’s reputation as a radical and former Fifth Monarchist. I sympathised with his conflicting feelings for his difficult, sometimes demanding father,  and with the dilemma of his divided loyalties and the need to make a choice between his two employers.  Cat continues to be prickly and defensive, but her position is a precarious one; she cannot risk being found by her family or she will be forced into an unwanted marriage.  She’s observant and sharp-tongued, brave and loyal, and I was pleased to see the slowly developing trust between her and Marwood.

Although I found the book a little slow to start, I was hooked within a few short chapters and eager to see where things were going.   Mr. Taylor’s research is impeccable and has clearly been extensive; his descriptions of post-Fire London are incredibly evocative, and he paints a wonderfully vivid picture of a city in a state of flux, where poverty is rife and life is a daily struggle for many.  It’s not essential to have read The Ashes of London in order to enjoy and understand this novel, although I’d recommend it in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the historical context and of the evolution of the relationship between Cat and Marwood.  The Fire Court is a complex, absorbing read, full of political and legal intrigue, high-stakes situations for our two protagonists, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fans of intricate, well-written historical mysteries will find much to enjoy, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for Marwood and Lovett in the next book in the series.

 

Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by Laura Spinella

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

Rating: B+

The first two books in Laura Spinella’s Ghost Gifts trilogy of paranormal mysteries introduces readers to Aubrey Ellis, a woman who has been able to communicate with the dead since she was a child.  These novels centre around Aubrey and her husband, a hard-nosed investigative reporter, but in Echo Moon, the final book in the set, the focus shifts to Aubrey and Levi’s son, Pete, a talented photojournalist who spends his life reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous places.  It’s an intriguing story that, after a slow start, becomes a compelling one, as the author skilfully weaves together two interconnected stories – one, the story of a young singer in the early part of the twentieth century, and the other concerning Pete’s search for the truth about a shattering event that took place shortly after the end of the First World War.

Aubrey Ellis’ psychic gifts – or her curse – have been passed to her son, who has, for as long as he can remember, been aware that he has lived a past life.  He has memories and/or visions of events from the early part of the last century and remembers fighting, and then documenting events as a war photographer, in World War One.  Pete also lives with a massive burden of guilt, knowing that he killed the woman he loved – whom he knows only as Esme – in that past life, and that weight is so heavy that it often threatens to consume him utterly.  The images of war that haunt him day after day and night after night are so disturbing that he can’t bear the idea of spending more time with his memories and trying to find out the truth about Esme; and the violent outbursts that inevitably follow his visions make him even more determined to leave his past in the past.  Being around his mother seems to intensify his ‘gift’ and increase the number and vividness of his recollections; and when Echo Moon opens, Pete has just returned home after two years spent embedded with troops in the Middle-East and other war-torn places. He spends his life searching for numbness by way of twenty-first century wars, running from his past life by throwing himself into untold dangers in this one.

Aubrey is naturally concerned for her son, and can see the toll his way of life is taking on him.  She knows he is haunted by the belief he was a murderer in his past life, and wants him to seek help in the form of regression therapy, but Pete is dead set against it.  But when, for the first time ever, he feels Esme’s spirit reaching for him in his present life, he starts to realise that something is changing, as his past and present lives have never intersected before.  When he offers to go to Long Island to check out a property that Aubrey has recently inherited from her grandmother, Pete is staggered to discover yet more connections between his family and his past life.

With the help of Ailish Montague – a young actress who is the niece of Zeke Dublin (an important character in the previous book, Foretold) – Pete begins to make connections between seemingly random objects he finds in the house, his previous life and Esme – but it’s not until he is brought to the stark reality that he stands to lose those most dear to him if he continues to avoid facing up to the past that he finally decides it’s time to stop running and start putting the pieces together.  Only once he’s done that will he be free to live his own life, free from his horrific memories and the burden of guilt.

Laura Spinella pulls her disparate storylines together very cleverly and together, they make for a captivating read.  Sections set in 1917 follow Esme as she falls in love with Phin Seaborn, a young artist and photographer, while those set in the present follow Pete’s discoveries as his past life is gradually revealed and its connections to his present one prove to be stronger than he could ever have imagined.  The author does a great job in depicting the difficult family dynamics in the Ellis/St. John household; both Aubrey and Levi are desperately worried about Pete and don’t quite know how to help him, while Pete is distancing himself from the parents he loves, knowing he’s hurting them but with no idea what to do for the best.

My one criticism – which may well be more to do with me than with the book – is that I found it a little difficult to get into at first, and wondered if not having read the previous novels had placed me at something of a disadvantage.  Fortunately, Ms. Spinella’s writing is confident and engaging; she brings the past vividly to life and creates satisfying emotional connections between her principal characters, so it didn’t take long for me to become invested, and I’m happy to say that Echo Moon works fairly well as a standalone, so potential readers needn’t worry about picking it up on its own.  In fact, I enjoyed its terrific blend of mystery, suspense and paranormal (with a bit of historical fiction and romance thrown in for good measure), so much that I intend to go back to read the other books in the series.