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.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, 1813.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder—and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished. Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm.

Rating: A

When it comes to C.S. Harris’ long-running series of historical mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, I arrived rather late to the party. With eleven books already available, I wasn’t going to be able to catch up on them all in print, so, as I often do in such cases, I turned to the audiobook editions instead, and have been catching up with Sebastian’s adventures that way, and enjoying them hugely. I couldn’t resist the temptation of picking up book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, when it came up for review, and was completely hooked, right from the first page.

As I said, this is the twelfth book in the series (so there may be spoilers for the others in this review) and Ms. Harris shows no sign of running out of steam – or of ideas. As fans will know, the main mystery plot in each book is self-contained (although occasionally, some elements do turn out to have a bearing on a future story), and there’s no doubt that the author is a master of her craft when it comes to constructing a tightly plotted, gripping and atmospheric tale in which all the pieces are laid out and skilfully drawn together as the book hurtles towards a nail-biting finish. But what draws me back to the books over and over is the overarching storyline concerning Sebastian himself, as he continues to make discoveries about his own past and gradually, over the course of the series, has come to realise that many of the things he has believed about himself are untrue. He is having to adjust his perceptions about himself and those around him, and the revelations he uncovers and the way he handles them over time are just as engrossing as the individual mysteries.

In the three years since he investigated his first murder, Sebastian’s life has undergone significant change. Most recently, he has become a father, and even though he continues to be haunted by some of the things he experienced when he was a soldier fighting on the continent, he is a much more settled individual than when we first met him, and is enjoying a passionately happy marriage with Hero, the daughter of the powerful Lord Jarvis… who just happens to be Sebastian’s deadliest enemy.

When the body of a teenaged boy is discovered in a shallow pit on the grounds of a disused factory in Clerkenwell, the local magistrate sees it as just one more death of a worthless street-child, taking no account of the fact that the body bears the marks of whips, knives and ligatures – which indicate the boy had also been horribly tortured. When an enterprising constable has the body sent to Paul Gibson, surgeon, anatomist and long-time friend and colleague of Sebastian’s, it’s a only a matter of time before Sebastian interests himself in the case and determines to root out the person responsible for such a depraved, gruesome act of violence.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated, and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

Rating: B+

The Ashes of London is an absorbing, intricately plotted historical mystery set in Restoration London in the aftermath of the Great Fire; indeed the book opens with one of the main characters – lowly clerk, James Marwood  – standing amid the crowds one night in early September 1666 watching in horror as St. Paul’s Cathedral is burned almost to the ground.  He saves the life of a boy by dragging him away from the flames, only to discover that “he” is a “she” when she struggles, bites his hand and then makes off with his cloak.  It’s a seemingly innocuous encounter, but one that will very soon start to assume importance for Marwood as it becomes clear that the young woman may somehow be linked to a series of murders.

The story takes place over the few months following the fire, and is told through two different viewpoints.  We meet James Marwood first of all, a young man eking out a living as a clerk in the employ of Master Williamson, the editor and publisher of The London Gazette – a man of influence whose position gives him access to governmental circles.  Marwood is caring for his ailing father, a staunch supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth who refused the new king’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result.  After several attempts, Marwood managed to have his father released – on condition that he lives quietly away from London.  Marwood senior is becoming ever more confused and subject to the wandering of his wits (we would probably today recognise this as dementia), making it sometimes very difficult for his son to make sure he adheres to the terms of his release.

The other narrator in the story is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, the niece of Henry Alderley, one of the wealthiest men in London.  Her name is tainted in the same way as Marwood’s; her father is a Regicide – one of the men who had been directly instrumental in the execution of King Charles I – and a wanted fugitive.  Catherine – Cat – is just seventeen and dreams of becoming a draughtsman or architect and is desperate to avoid the marriage her uncle has arranged for her with a man much older than herself.  It seems, however that there is no way out – until one night, her cousin Edward forces himself upon her, and, after attacking him with a knife, Cat flees the house with the help of her father’s most trusted old servant, Jem.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

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

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

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Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance…but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Anyone who – like me – appreciates Historical Romance that has a firm emphasis on the “Historical” will find a great many things to enjoy in this new audiobook version of Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance.  Set during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, the novel tells the true story of the small garrison of around three hundred and fifty men who held the strategically important Royalist stronghold of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire in the face of overwhelming odds, and many of the characters who grace its pages are people who actually existed.

Skilfully interwoven with the story of the castle and its defenders is the glorious (but fictional) slow-burn romance between Justin Ambrose, a cynical, acerbic captain in the King’s army and Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas, is a leader of the local community and a die-hard Puritan.  The romance starts very slowly – so anyone who expects the first kiss between the hero and heroine to happen in chapter three is going to be disappointed – but builds steadily throughout and is all the more believable as a result.  Justin and Abigail begin the story as strangers and the author allows their relationship to develop in a manner that feels perfectly realistic, considering he’s a serving army officer with duties to perform and Abby lives a very restrictive life controlled by her harsh zealot of a brother.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Why Mermaids Sing (Sebastian St. Cyr #3) by C.S. Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

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This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Murder has jarred London’s elite. The sons of prominent families have been found at dawn in public places, partially butchered, with strange objects stuffed in their mouths. Once again the local magistrate turns to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help. Moving from the gritty world of London’s docks to the drawing rooms of Mayfair, Sebastian confronts his most puzzling – and disturbing – case yet.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

C.S. Harris’ series of mysteries set in Regency England featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is one I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for ages, but with the series now comprising eleven books with more on the way, I shifted it from my TBR to my TBL pile earlier this year. I enjoyed book one, What Angels Fear, a great deal and as a result, decided to carry on with the series in audio format.

I’m now up to book three, Why Mermaids Sing. While the central mystery in each book is self-contained and resolved by the end, there are plot threads and character relationships that are carried across from book to book, so there will undoubtedly be spoilers for books one and two in this review.

Sebastian St. Cyr is in his late twenties and was, up until recently, in the army fighting on the Continent. The youngest of the Earl of Hendon’s three sons, the deaths of his older brothers mean that he is now his father’s heir, Viscount Devlin, but the relationship between the two men is strained.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.