The Perfect Stranger (All the Missing Girls #2) by Megan Miranda

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own?

Rating: B

Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is billed as being a sequel to her highly successful All The Missing Girls – although as far as I can tell, there are no common characters or plot threads, unless one counts the fact that one of the characters in The Perfect Stranger is a “missing girl”! So if, like me, you haven’t read the earlier book, you won’t have any problems getting into this one, as it’s a standalone, and is a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing read that asks some interesting questions. How well we can ever know another person? How honest and accurate are our self-perceptions? Just how far would you go for a friend who’d done a lot for you?

Leah Stevens worked as a journalist in Boston until a story blew up in her face. She had been investigating the deaths – seemingly suicides – of four young college students which she was convinced were murders, but when she refused to reveal a key source, she was slapped with a restraining order and the paper threatened with a lawsuit. Betrayed – it was her boyfriend who tipped off their editor – with no job and nowhere to go, Leah is relieved when she runs into Emmy Grey, someone she’d lived with shortly after leaving college some eight years ago.

Over several drinks at Emmy’s place, Leah gathers that her friend has just come out of a bad relationship and is keen to get out of Boston, too, so they stick a pin in a map and settle on Western Pennsylvania as the place they can both make a fresh start. Leah gets a job as a school teacher (and I have to say, the author’s comments about various aspects of the profession struck a real chord with me!) while Emmy drifts about, cleaning houses, working at a local motel… and because their schedules are so different, with Emmy often coming home as Leah is going out, they rarely see each other. Even so, Leah gets the impression that all is not well with her friend; she’s tense and on edge and it’s like she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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 Wallflower Duchess by Liz Tyner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams – and Edge is determined to make her his!

Rating: C

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.

For Deader or Worse (John Pickett Mysteries #6) by Sheri Cobb South

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After a modest wedding ceremony, Bow Street Runner John Pickett and his bride Julia, the former Lady Fieldhurst, set out for a wedding trip to Somersetshire, where Pickett must face his greatest challenge yet: meeting his in-laws.

Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon are shocked at their daughter’s hasty remarriage–and appalled by her choice of a second husband. Pickett, for his part, is surprised to learn that Julia once had an elder sister: Claudia, Lady Buckleigh, disappeared thirteen years earlier, leaving no trace beyond a blood-soaked shawl. When Sir Thaddeus confides that his wife is convinced Claudia’s spirit now haunts her childhood home, Pickett sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Julia’s family. He agrees to investigate and, hopefully, lay the Runyon “ghost,” whoever–or whatever–it is.

Matters take a grisly turn when Sir Thaddeus’s groom is discovered with his throat slit. The timing could hardly be worse, for the whole village is aflutter with the news that Lord Buckleigh has brought home a new bride, just when Major James Pennington, the vicar’s son who was Claudia’s childhood sweetheart, has returned on leave from war in the Peninsula. The major was apparently the last person to see Claudia alive, and Pickett is convinced he knows more about her disappearance than he’s telling. Suddenly it seems the distant past is not so distant, after all. It may not even be past . . .

Rating: C+

For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.

Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.

As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.

On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.

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.

The Paid Companion by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Bianca Amato

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The Earl of St. Merryn needs a woman. His intentions are purely practical – he simply wants someone sensible and suitably lovely to pose as his betrothed for a few weeks among polite society. He has his own agenda to pursue, and a false fiancée will keep the husband-hunters at bay while he goes about his business. The simplest solution is to hire a paid companion. Finding the right candidate proves more of a challenge than he expected. But when he encounters Miss Elenora Lodge, the fire in her golden eyes sways him to make a generous offer. Her sorry financial circumstances – and dreams of a life of independence – convince her to accept. But St. Merryn appears to be hiding a secret or two, and things seem oddly amiss in his gloomy London home. Elenora soon discovers that this lark will be a far more dangerous adventure than she’d been led to believe. And the Earl of St. Merryn will find that the meek and mild companion he’d initially envisioned has become a partner in his quest to catch a killer – and an outspoken belle of the ball who stirs a bothersome passion in his practical heart.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This recording of one of my favourite of Amanda Quick’s books – The Paid Companion –  came out in 2014, but I didn’t immediately snap it up, because I already own a copy of the recording narrated by Michael Page that was produced in 2004, and I wasn’t sure if I really needed another version. While it’s commonplace to find more than one version of older, “classic” books (as I discovered when listening and writing my Caz’s Classics Corner posts for AudioGals last year), it’s unusual for more modern books to be re-recorded, so I was surprised when this one appeared. But having really enjoyed listening to Bianca Amato in A Dangerous Beauty, I gave in and decided to give it a whirl.

In the prologue, which takes place around a year before the beginning of the story proper, we meet Arthur Lancaster, the Earl of St. Merryn on the night his lovely young fiancée elopes with another man. He’s at his club, and is surprisingly – or perhaps not so unsurprisingly, given that those who know him regard him as rather a cold fish – unmoved by the news that his intended has left him, and doesn’t make a move to go after the couple. He gives it as his opinion that the next time he considers matrimony, he might as well seek a bride from an employment agency such as those that exist for paid companions, given that the qualities exhibited by the ideal companion – they are well-bred, well-educated, possessed of a sterling reputation, steady nerves, and a meek and modest manner – are exactly the same as those a man would want in a wife.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Four Weddings and a Sixpence (anthology) by Julia Quinn, Laura Lee Guhrke, Elizabeth Boyle and Stefanie Sloane (audiobook) – Narrated by Mary Jane Wells

four-weddings-audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Beloved authors Julia Quinn, Elizabeth Boyle, Laura Lee Guhrke, and Stefanie Sloane deliver the stories of four friends from Madame Rochambeaux’s Gentle School for Girls who find an old sixpence in their bedchamber and decide that it will be the lucky coin for each of their weddings…

“Something Old”
Julia Quinn’s prologue introduces her heroine Beatrice Heywood and the premise for Four Weddings and a Sixpence.

“Something New”
In Stefanie Sloane’s unforgettable story, an ever-vigilant guardian decrees that Anne Brabourne must marry by her twenty-first birthday. But love finds her in the most unexpected of ways.

“Something Borrowed”
Elizabeth Boyle tells the tale of Cordelia Padley, who has invented a betrothed to keep her family from pestering her to wed. Now she’ll need to borrow one to convince them she’s found her true love.

“Something Blue”
In Laura Lee Guhrke’s story, unlucky Lady Elinor Daventry has her sixpence stolen from her and must convince the rake who pilfered the coin to return it in time for her own wedding.

“… and a Sixpence in Her Shoe”
Julia Quinn finishes with the story of Beatrice Heywood, who never believed that the sixpence was anything but a tarnished old coin-until it led all of her friends to true love. But her faith in the coin is tested when it keeps sending her to the wrong man!

Rating: Narration – A- ; Content – C-/C/B+/B

I’m not a big fan of anthologies or novellas in general, because I find there are few authors who really understand how to use the shorter form to greatest effect, and I most often come away from them feeling a bit disappointed. And anthologies tend to be uneven; there will usually be one really good story and the others will be of lesser, variable quality. So why did I listen to this one? A look at the narrator’s name will answer that question. Mary Jane Wells can make even average material enjoyable to listen to, and while two of the stories here do fall into the average category, the other two – from Julia Quinn and Laura Lee Guhrke – definitely transcend that qualification. Each story in Four Weddings and a Sixpence features one of a group of four friends who, while at school, find an old sixpence in a mattress and, based on the words of the old rhyme:

Something old, something new

Something borrowed, something blue… and a silver sixpence for your shoe

– decide to keep the sixpence on the chance that it may lead them to true love.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.