The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This audiobook may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Miss Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Miss Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Miss Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is one of those books that defies categorisation. Part sci-fi/fantasy, part paranormal, part mystery, it’s what might have resulted had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got drunk one night in company with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett – slightly bonkers, devastatingly witty and wholly entertaining – and I was utterly captivated by all ten-and-a-half hours of it. Alexis Hall is a supremely talented wordsmith, and if I were to give examples of all the turns of phrase that had me grinning like an idiot – hand-curated whelks, anyone? – laughing out loud or simply marvelling at the elegance of the prose or the precision of the well-aimed barbs, I’d be here all day. So to spare you that, I’ll do my best to encapsulate this wonderfully weird story in a thousand words or thereabouts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Art of Theft (Lady Sherlock #4) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Rating: A-

The Art of Theft is the eagerly awaited fourth book in Sherry Thomas’ superb series of historical mysteries starring Charlotte Holmes, a most unusual young woman whose keen, logical mind and incredible deductive skills would have been completely disregarded in Victorian England had she not invented the infirm but brilliant brother Sherlock who is – in name only of course – the greatest detective the nation has ever seen.  While each book in the series has a central mystery that is solved by the end, there are a number of overarching plot-threads and recurring characters which mean it’s probably not the best idea to pick up The Art of Theft without having read the other novels in the series; readers will get much more out of the wonderfully intricate characterisation and the various relationships between the characters by starting at the beginning with book one, A Study in Scarlet Women.   Because of the way the books are interlinked, there will be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.

The aftermath of the tumultuous events of The Hollow of Fear sees Lord Ingram Ashburton in the country looking after his children, Mrs. Watson in Paris with her niece, Miss Olivia Holmes nearing the completion of her Sherlock Holmes story, and Miss Charlotte Holmes helping to settle her eldest sister, Bernadette, whom she removed from a home, into her new surroundings.  It’s a brief period of quiet that is broken when Charlotte receives a request for help from someone identifying  themselves only as A Traveler from Distant Lands.

Deciding she needs a distraction – from caring for her sister and from pondering the shifting nature of her relationship with her long-time friend (and now, former lover) Lord Ingram – Charlotte arranges to meet this traveler, correctly assuming the request for help to have come from a woman in need.  Her visitor proves to be none other than an Indian maharani, who also turns out to be the first client ever to decline to use Sherlock Holmes’ services.  Charlotte immediately deduces that this is because the maharani needs someone who is able to do more than investigate; and her supposition is borne out not long afterwards when she and Mrs. Watson – who has confessed to Charlotte that she and the maharani had been lovers once upon a time – visit the maharani at her hotel to offer their assistance.

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

A Grave End (Bodies of Evidence #4) by Wendy Roberts

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A woman died years ago, and the body’s still missing.

Julie Hall’s conscience tells her she needs to use her skills to help a grieving family find their daughter’s long-missing remains. The problem is, Alice was last seen in Julie’s hometown—a place so full of traumatic memories, the very idea of returning there nearly paralyzes Julie.

Clear boundaries help Julie overcome her fears and take the job. She’ll go all out with her search, but only for one week. An end date in sight will ease the anxiety she and her FBI boyfriend have about the price she’ll have to pay to do the right thing.

Despite a growing sense of foreboding as she hits one dead end after another, Julie is driven to keep looking for Alice. But after receiving vile threats and with her self-imposed deadline looming, Julie realizes she was right to be afraid—and she worries she may not survive this case.

Rating: B-

A Grave End is the fourth – and possibly final? – book in Wendy Roberts’  series of suspense novels featuring Julie Hall, a young woman who has the ability to locate dead bodies using a pair of dowsing rods.  Julie is a complex, prickly character; an alcoholic in recovery, she’s the survivor of a particularly brutal childhood during which she suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her grandmother.  She got away from her small home town of Blaine, Washington, as soon as she possibly could and simply the thought of going back there is enough to send her into a tailspin – but she now finds herself unable to refuse a request from a dying man desperate to find the remains of his daughter-in-law, a former schoolmate.

Julie is very much in love with her boyfriend, FBI Agent Garrett Pierce, whom she met in the first book in the series.  They live together and are committed to each other – and at the end of the previous book, A Grave Peril, they exchanged rings, although Julie is adamant she doesn’t want to get married, and Garrett – who is a widower – respects that decision.  Julie is, however, still struggling with the demons of her past, and six months before A Grave Endbegins, went on a bender one night when she’d gone to a bar to meet with an informant.  If the guilt over falling off the wagon wasn’t bad enough, somehow she managed to lose her ring, which is one of a matching pair and irreplaceable – and to make things even worse, she has no real memory of that night, other than of meeting a man with striking green eyes and going outside with him… and she can’t be sure she didn’t betray Garrett in the worst way possible.

So Julie isn’t in the best of places when she receives the request to find Alice Ebert’s remains.  But back when they were in school, Julie realised that, even though she and Alice didn’t have a lot to do with one another, one thing they did share was the fact that the adults in their lives were physically abusive, and Julie felt that made a kind of bond between them.  So she feels she owes it to the other woman to try to find out what happened to her and to at the very least, ensure that her body is at last laid to rest.  Her first step is to travel to the Ozette Correctional Center to visit Alice’s husband, Roscoe, who was convicted of her murder.  Roscoe has always protested his innocence, in spite of the fact that Alice’s blood was found in his truck, and after hearing again the story of the night Alice was killed, Julie agrees to think about taking on the task.

Leaving the facility, Julie heads towards the home of a woman who had contacted her via her website asking for help in locating her daughter, who recently disappeared.  As the weather worsens and the rain starts to fall in torrents, Julie’s rods – which are next to her in the passenger seat – take a violent swing to the side, and she knows there’s a body around there somewhere, most likely in the deep ditch by the side of the road. Another motorist pulls up and offers to help, introducing himself as Raymond Hughes as Julie prepares to head down into the ditch to investigate.  Sure enough there’s the body of a young woman down there, and after Julie has called it in, Ray, who is rather too friendly and enthusiastic for her peace of mind, tells her that he’s a psychic and that he’d actually recommended the missing girl’s family get in touch with her to see if she could help.  He goes on to suggest that maybe he and she could work together sometime, but by then, all Julie wants to do is to get home.  Before she can leave, however, she’s severely rattled when, after shaking hands, Ray tells her something he can’t possibly know, something about the night she fell off the wagon.

Julie decides she’ll give herself a week to come up with a solid lead as to what happened to Alice, and if after that, her investigation is going nowhere, she’ll accept defeat.  Going back to Blaine is hard, but the conflicting picture she’s getting of Alice and the veiled hostility of many in the community convince Julie that the generally accepted story concerning Alice’s death is the wrong one and make her even more determined to find Alice and bring her some peace.

I enjoyed A Grave End, and especially liked the way Julie’s character has evolved.  She’s still abrasive and not the easiest person to warm to, but she’s making good progress in dealing with her issues; she has regular sessions with a mental health professional, she has developed a strong relationship with her friend Tracey (who is her complete opposite!) and Garrett is her lodestone (although we don’t see very much of him here, he’s rarely far from Julie’s thoughts).  The fact that she is finally able to return to her home town is a big step; she probably wouldn’t have been capable of it before now, and the way she is able to deal with the way some of the townsfolk treat her shows a lot of determination and strength.  The plot is well-put together, but the secondary plotline – in which Julie falls victim to a whack-job who put me in mind of Norman Bates – just didn’t work for me.  I’ll admit that there’s one surprise I hadn’t forseen, but otherwise, it’s a bit clichéd and the identity of the villain is pretty obvious.

Still, the central mystery is intriguing and the author does a great job when it comes to creating that slightly creepy, everyone-in-everyone-else’s-business atmosphere typical of small towns.  I knocked off half a grade point for the weak sub-plot, but if you’re following the series, then A Grave End leaves Julie and Garrett in a good place, and the whole series is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for suspense novels featuring a different kind of heroine.

TBR Challenge: The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway

‘This is madness, my lord. Here we are, riding in the Park, and you are calmly discussing whether it would be advisable to seduce me, your wife. I should also say it does not sound very impulsive.’

‘I do not know about “advisable”, I was thinking more “desirable”. I have the advantage of you, my dear. You have no experience of seduction, and I have a lot.’

The Honourable Catherine Elford – Kitty – is presented with an awful choice.

Either she is cast off, penniless, by her penny-pinching step-brother, or she marries the handsome Earl of Ledbury, who would be perfect were he not a serial womaniser, and the very man Kitty idolised when she made her debut in Society; idolised right up until she found him in a compromising situation with a married lady.

Ledbury has only ever courted other men’s wives, and does not want a wife of his own.

However, Kitty’s generous dowry, which will keep him from selling his beloved racehorses, proves too tempting.

Following a swift ceremony and a disastrous wedding night, Kitty believes her only chance of survival is to make her head rule her treacherous heart.

If she doesn’t fall in love with Ledbury, his waywardness cannot hurt her. For his part, Ledbury has spotted a spark in his ‘dab of a wife’, especially when he discovers their mutual love of horses, and sets out to woo her in the only way he knows.

As Kitty begins to succumb to his seduction and believe that they have a chance of happiness together, Ledbury’s past starts to catch up with them.

Kitty feels that all of London is watching her, gossiping about her, pitying her. Meanwhile, as Fate conspires to keep the couple from love and a proper consummation, Lord Ledbury becomes ever more frustrated and desperate, and his temper worsens. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Rating: B

The “historical” prompt in the TBR Challenge always used to be something of a busman’s holiday for yours truly, because in the past, I read historical romance almost exclusively.  But the scarcity of really good HR on offer over the past couple of years has seen a bit of a change in my reading habits, and I’ve turned more and more often to other sub-genres to find what I crave from romance novels.  Still, HR remains my first love and when looking through my Kindle for likely prospects, I decided on a relatively new release, Sophia Holloway’s The Devil You Know from 2017, which, while having a few flaws and treading a well-worn path, was nonetheless an enjoyable read from an author with a distinctive voice and a deft touch.

Kitty Elford, half-sister of Lord Bidford, is furious when her brother announces he’s basically sold her hand in marriage to a notorious rake because his – Bidford’s – betrothed refuses to set foot in the house until Kitty leaves it.  Kitty is given no choice in the matter, and reasons that marriage to George Anstruther, Earl of Ledbury, is preferable to remaining under her obnoxious, penny-pinching brother’s roof, so when the prospective groom arrives to make his offer, Kitty makes no bones about accepting.

“I do not consider myself a romantic, my lord.  I do not think that rakes reform, so I am unlikely to be shocked by your behaviour, however disappointing.”

Ledbury isn’t completely sure how he ended up conversing with Bidford and agreeing to offer for the man’s half-sister – having  been a little foxed at the time – but he needs an heir and the lady’s generous dowry is certainly not something to be sneezed at. He has to marry someone, so why not the Honourable Catherine Elford?  Being married won’t change anything much; he can continue to cut a swathe through the beds of the married ladies of the ton and “a sensible woman who would let him continue in his way of life without fuss” will be just the thing.

The bulk of the story deals with how these two complete strangers set about navigating the waters of their marriage, and it’s charming for the most part, watching Kitty and Ledbury forge the beginnings of a relationship.  After a disastrous wedding night (which is simply referred to – this is a ‘closed door’ romance) – for which Ledbury is brought to see he should take most of the blame, seeing as his bride is (or was) a complete innocent – Ledbury determines to try to do better, determining that if he’s to have that ‘comfortable’ marriage he’s envisaged, he should perhaps try to be friends with his new wife.  In order to do that, however, he’ll need to approach Kitty in a completely different manner to all the other women who have fallen under his spell and into his bed.

Kitty is indeed a sensible young woman, but is also well aware of how easy it would be to fall in love with for her handsome, charming husband, and of what a disaster it would be were she to let that happen.  She could only ever be a temporary diversion for him before he returns to his philandering ways, and she’s determined not to let him break her heart.  She’s quick-witted, poised, competent and possessed of considerable insight; she says what she thinks, often with comical results, but sometimes goes a little too far, especially when her instinct for self-protection kicks in, and steers her towards making the wrong assumptions.

The author does a terrific job of showing Kitty and Ledbury gradually falling for each other – even if, on his part, Ledbury has no idea that’s what’s going on.  They talk, they take long rides together and they’re both refreshingly honest with each other; Ledbury knows he can’t erase his past and Kitty knows it would be unfair of her to hold it against him, but he understands how society works and is at pains to ensure that Kitty is able to hold her head up as she takes her place as his countess.  Sometimes in stories like this one, the heroine can be too good to be true, but that’s not the case here, because while Ledbury can be self-centred and ill-tempered (and is very well aware of both those traits), Kitty has her faults, too.  Sometimes, her witticisms are barbed and too waspish and, in the later part of the book especially, she can be somewhat ‘holier-than-thou’.  But these faults just make both of them that bit more human and endearing.

The tone of the book is fairly light and breezy – dare I say that there’s an almost Heyeresque quality to it overall?  The dialogue sparkles, the characters are engaging and the author imbues the novel with a strong sense of time and place, but I found myself knocking grade-points off for a late-book plot-point that felt overly contrived and really out of place.  There’s also a scorned former mistress out to make trouble – she made quite a juicy villain, actually – and her machinations, together with Ledbury’s tendency to over-react at times would have been enough on their own to create the tension needed to keep moving the story forward.

The fact that there are no sex scenes in the book may be off-putting for some, but I honestly didn’t miss them, because Kitty and Ledbury have great chemistry and the heated moments they share (while fully clothed!) are nicely done and provide just the right sort of frisson to fit the story.  In short, The Devil You Know was an entertaining read in the vein of the Traditional Regency and I’d certainly recommend it.

Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5) by Melinda Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?

Rating: B

This fifth book in Melinda Leigh’s series about defence attorney Morgan Dane, her partner – PI Lance Kruger – and his boss and their mutual friend Lincoln Sharp, focuses on a tautly written mystery plot involving a murder and a missing teen while also taking an insightful look at the challenges of parenting young children and finding a practicable work-life balance.

When Secrets Never Die opens, we meet sixteen-year-old Evan Meade as he’s returning home – later than he should be – from an evening out with a friend.  He’s surprised to see there are no lights on inside the house; his mother, a nurse, is still at work and his stepfather, Paul, a retired sheriff’s deputy, always leaves a light on for her – but the place is in total darkness.  Cautiously – and still feeling guilty for being out late and having ignored Paul’s concerned texts earlier – Evan is making his way through the house when he hears a loud pop he thinks must be a gunshot.  He stands in the doorway of the den, frozen in terror at the sight of Paul lying on the floor, covered in blood, as a large man carrying a gun stands over him and shoots him again, this time between the eyes, execution style.  As Evan watches, horrified, he sees the man is wearing a gold badge clipped to his belt and he’s wearing gloves – is he a cop?  After that final shot, the killer’s eyes fix on Evan – who turns and starts running for his life.

Morgan and Lance have had a particularly difficult and exhausting few days.  Morgan’s three daughters  – all aged six and under – have been ill which has meant disturbed nights for both of them (something I’m sure all parents will be able to identify with!) and they’re both running on empty when Lance gets a call in the early hours from Tina, Evan’s mother, who tells him she returned from work to find her husband shot dead and her son missing.  Lance, an ex-cop turned PI, also coaches a hockey team of at-risk youths, which is how he knows both mother and son.  He and Morgan think it’s a bit strange that Tina has called them before dialling 911, but they nonetheless head over to the house, arriving at the scene before the County Sheriff and his team, which gives them a chance to look over the house for evidence before they’re told to butt out.

When Sheriff Colgate does arrive, it’s clear he’s not pleased to see Morgan and Lance already there, but accepts their explanations that they’re friends of the family and allows them to remain while he and his team start documenting the crime scene. The discovery of blood on the handle of the back door and on the cell phone they find on the other side of the back fence indicates that Evan must be injured, although it’s impossible to tell how badly.

But it rapidly becomes clear to Morgan and Lance that there are things the sheriff isn’t telling them, and that he is pursuing his own agenda. They know Evan is innocent of the murder of his stepfather but with him still missing, his past history of being in trouble with the law and evidence pointing to his relationship with Paul having been an acrimonious one, the difficulty is going to lie in proving it.

Long buried secrets, police corruption, a crimelord recently released from prison… author Melinda Leigh skilfully interweaves her various plotlines and clues into a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery that credibly combines the suspense elements with a look at the day-to-day difficulties of parenting young children alongside having a demanding and sometimes dangerous job. Morgan and Lance are engaged now – although Morgan has become a little skittish and has so far refused to set a date – but there’s no big melodrama involved, and they act like sensible, mature adults and talk things through so that by the end of the book, things are back on track. There’s only a whiff of romance in this one, though, which is provided by Lance’s boss, Sharp, whose reluctant crush on reporter Olivia Cruz (who helped out with the investigation in the previous book, What I’ve Done) hasn’t abated. I always like a romance between older protagonists (Sharp is fifty-three, Olivia is in her forties) and Olivia is a great addition to the cast; she’s funny, she’s clever, she’s vivacious, and she’s got Sharp’s number – plus, I can never resist characters who lob quotes from The Princess Bride at each other ;). Olivia proves herself to be one tough cookie when she and Sharp find themselves in a perilous situation when they follow up on a new lead – and I hope to see more of her in the next book.

This novel works perfectly well as a standalone, although one of the real strengths of the series is the closely knit ‘family’ of characters the author has built up around Morgan, all of whom have important parts to play in her life and the stories. It’s not necessary to have read the previous books in order to enjoy this (I’m still working my way through them), but doing so will definitely provide a little more insight into the various characters and their relationships. Secrets Never Die is an intriguing mystery that grabs the attention from the opening chapter and keeps you turning the pages through the twists, turns and life-or-death situations until the very end.

TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

TBR Challenge: Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It could happen to you!

A CHRISTMAS WISH…

For Sophie Beckwith, Christmas this year means having to face the ex who dumped her and then married her sister! Only one person can help—her best friend Bram.

A YULETIDE PROPOSAL…

Bram used to be engaged to Sophie’s sister. Now, determined to show “the lovebirds” that they’ve moved on, he’s come up with a plan: he’s proposed—to Sophie!

A MISTLETOE MARRIAGE!

It’s crazy, but it would be only pretend…wouldn’t it? Now their wedding day is here and Sophie’s feelings for Bram have drastically changed. Her deepest wish now is for Bram to say “I do”—for real!

Rating: B

Time constraints meant I needed a quick read for this month’s TBR Challenge, and Jessica Hart’s Mistletoe Marriage (from 2005) proved to be just the thing.  It’s a charming, well-written and absorbing friends-to-lovers story set in the weeks before Christmas featuring a couple of engaging principals and a bit – not too much  – angst. I lapped it up in a couple of sittings one afternoon and came away from it with a happy sigh.

Bram and Sophie have been friends forever and are still besties, even though Sophie now lives and works in London and Bram works his small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors.  Sophie’s parents own a neighbouring farm, and she’s visiting for the weekend – taking the chance to do so knowing her sister Melissa and her new husband, Nick, are away so she won’t run into them.  Sophie and Nick had been engaged before she introduced him to Melissa – and even though she doesn’t resent her sister – or Nick – for falling in love, Sophie hasn’t been able to forget the way she’d felt when she was with Nick or move on. She also finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her conversations with Melissa always end up revolving around her guilt for ‘stealing’ Nick, and usually leave Sophie exhausted from the effort of trying to make her sister feel better.

With Christmas approaching, Sophie’s mother is pressuring Sophie to come home for the festivities and to see Melissa and Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding.  Sophie never told her parents about Nick, so they have no idea of the truth of the situation, and with it being her father’s seventieth birthday a couple of days before Christmas her mother is really turning the emotional thumbscrews to get Sophie to agree to visit and stay with them. Feeling guilty, tired and miserable, Sophie heads up to Haw Gill Farm to see Bram to pour out her woes. He’s always been easy to talk to, and his steady, dependable presence has never failed to bring her comfort.

During the course of a conversation in which they commiserate about the state of their love-lives (and the lack thereof), Sophie jokingly says she wishes she could marry Bram – and to her shock, he says that it’s not a bad idea.  They know each other better than anyone else, Sophie understands the rhythms of life on a farm and Bram needs help; it might not be a grand passion but they’d have friendship, comfort and companionship and they’d both know where they stand.

Surprised, Sophie finds herself actually considering the idea – before rejecting it, telling Bram he deserves someone “who believes in you and loves you completely for yourself” and that he shouldn’t settle for second best.  Bram can’t disagree with her – but is somewhat taken aback to realise he’s actually disappointed at her refusal.

Not long after this, when Sophie is back in her poky flat in London, she’s on the phone to Melissa, suffering through yet another of her sister’s guilt trips when the conversation turns to Bram and the possibility that he might be seeing an old acquaintance who has recently been dumped by her fiancé – and it’s too much for Sophie.  What with having to try to tiptoe around her sister’s upset and her own strangely conflicting feelings about Bram, she snaps and tells Melissa that she and Bram are getting married.

Oops.

Okay, so this story isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fine example of a fake relationship/friends-to-lovers tale.  The characters are swiftly and skilfully drawn, and the author makes it easy to believe in the long-standing friendship between Bram and Sophie; their affection for one another and deep mutual understanding just leaps off the page. The book does have flaws – Nick is such a prick that it’s difficult to understand exactly why Sophie was so much in love with him, and there’s just a teeny bit of the martyr about Sophie in her tendency to give way to Melissa and believe herself to be somehow second-best – but those are really minor concerns.  The big thing for me in any friends-to-lovers story, is the way the author handles the Key Moment –the one where the friends realise they’re seeing each other as if for the first time and that he/she is gorgeous – and Jessica Hart does a great job with that, showing readers several small moments of realisation and growing attraction, as Bram and Sophie start to realise they’re seeing each other in a new light.  It’s a quiet, character-driven story; there’s no drawn-out Big Mis or unnecessary angst – the tangled relationships between Sophie, Melissa, Nick and Bram (a decade earlier, Bram and Melissa had been briefly engaged and Sophie worries he might still be carrying a torch for her sister) create enough tension to propel the story – and thankfully, Bram and Sophie are sufficiently mature and attuned to each other to not allow their niggling doubts to go unaddressed for too long.

Mistletoe Marriage is a quick, but satisfying read, Bram and Sophie are very likeable principals and their romance is easy to invest in.  It proved to be an excellent way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter’s afternoon.