Fatal Mistake (White Knights #1) by Susan Sleeman (audiobook) – Narrated by Rachel Dulude

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

An FBI agent must protect the woman who can identify a terrorist bomber in best-selling author Susan Sleeman’s riveting romantic suspense novel.

Each day could be her last…but not if he can help it.

Tara Parrish is the only person ever to survive an attack by the Lone Wolf bomber. Scared and emotionally scarred by her near death, she goes into hiding with only one plan – to stay alive for another day. She knows he’s coming after her, and if he finds her, he will finish what he started.

Agent Cal Riggins has had only one goal for the past six months – to save lives by ending the Lone Wolf’s bombing spree. To succeed, he needs the help of Tara Parrish, the one person who can lead them to the bomber. Cal puts his all into finding Tara, but once he locates her, he realizes if he can find her, the Lone Wolf can, too. He must protect Tara at all costs, and they’ll both need to resist the mutual attraction growing between them to focus on hunting down the bomber, because one wrong move could be fatal.

Rating: Narration – C : Content – D-

I wasn’t even fifteen minutes into Susan Sleeman’s romantic suspense novel, Fatal Mistake, when I realised I’d made a catastrophic mistake in deciding to listen to it. I’m a fan of the sub-genre and am always on the look-out for authors to add to my “must read/listen” list, but instead, I’ve found one to add to my “must avoid” list. The storyline is trite, predictable and filled with stereotypical characters, info dumps, hackneyed dialogue and more introspection and internal monologuing than one can shake a stick at. The principals seem to have aced “Jumping to Unfounded Conclusions 101”; there’s way too much telling and not enough showing, which means that characters make huge leaps of logic and arrive at conclusions for no reason that is made clear to the listener, and the author completely fails to create even the vaguest sense of sexual attraction between the principals. Reviews the novel are overwhelmingly positive, and the blurb promised a “riveting” read… but all I was riveted to was my watch as I kept checking to see how far I was from the end.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Dead Girl Running (Cape Charade #1) by Christina Dodd


This title may be purchased from Amazon

I have three confessions to make:
1. I’ve got the scar of gunshot on my forehead.
2. I don’t remember an entire year of my life.
3. My name is Kellen Adams…and that’s half a lie.

Girl running…from a year she can’t remember, from a husband she prays is dead, from homelessness and fear. Tough, capable Kellen Adams takes a job as assistant manager of a remote vacation resort on the North Pacific Coast. There amid the towering storms and the lashing waves, she hopes to find sanctuary. But when she discovers a woman’s dead and mutilated body, she’s soon trying to keep her own secrets while investigating first one murder…then another.

Now every guest and employee is a suspect. Every friendly face a mask. Every kind word a lie. Kellen’s driven to defend her job, her friends and the place she’s come to call home. Yet she wonders–with the scar of a gunshot on her forehead and amnesia that leaves her unsure of her own past–could the killer be staring her in the face?

Rating: D+

I enjoy a good mystery or romantic suspense novel and have been lucky enough to find some fantastically good authors in the genre who are now on my ‘must read’ list.  I’m always on the look-out for the next addition, so I eagerly picked up Christina Dodd’s Dead Girl Running, the first book in her new Cape Charade series, hoping for an intense, exciting and complex read – aaaaaand, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be adding Ms. Dodd to that list of ‘must read’ authors on the strength of it.  The book turned out to contain a myriad of hackneyed tropes and plot points (and plot holes) that made it seem as though the author had too many ideas and, instead of undertaking some judicious pruning and concentrating on the one or two strongest ones, decided to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck.  What we end up with is a classic ‘base-under-siege’ type plot, a too-good-to-be-true, dull heroine, a lot (dare I say – too many) of barely two-dimensional, stereotypical secondary characters, and writing so clichéd in places that it made me wince – or laugh, which I’m sure wasn’t Ms. Dodd’s intention.

Kellen Adams was a captain in the army and served in Afghanistan before returning to the US.  She has recently taken up a position as assistant manager at the Cape Charade resort in coastal Washington state and is determined to make it her home.  When the resort owners – the elderly Leo and Annie di Luca – decide to take a holiday for the first time in ages, they leave Kellen in charge, confident in her ability to keep things running smoothly.  It’s a quiet time of year, there are not many guests booked in, so it’s just a case of keeping things ticking over until the di Lucas return.  That is, until some decomposing human remains are discovered on the grounds, which are identified as belonging to the previous assistant manager, Priscilla Carter, who disappeared without explanation less than six months earlier.  It’s impossible to keep something like that a secret from the staff and guests, and the atmosphere at the resort becomes one of fear and suspicion; everyone is a suspect and Kellen isn’t sure who she can trust.

We learn early on that Kellen isn’t actually who she says she is; she’s an abused wife whose husband tried to murder her (and died in the attempt), and who is still looking over her shoulder for any sign that her his family might be catching up with her.  She’s also the survivor of a gunshot to the head – something I found hard to credit – which caused her to lose a year of her life; she was in a coma for all that time, and after waking up confused and fearful, ran from the hospital and to an army recruiting office. We’re asked to believe the shot to the head is the reason she now has a unique mental ability to acquire, store, process and recall information, but I’m still wondering how it didn’t simply blow her brains out…  Whatever the case, having both incredibly traumatic and dramatic events happen to the same person seemed to me to be taking things a bit too far. I understand that this is the first book in a series, but in spite of all the things that have happened to her, Kellen is not a well-defined or interesting character, and I couldn’t warm to her or find anything to draw me in.

The same is true of the secondary characters, of whom there are a lot; they’re poorly defined and stereotypical, and there’s no time for the author to flesh any of them out or give them actual personalities. We’ve got a former movie star, an upbeat, preppy personal trainer of the type you want to strangle, a bitchy hostess who is bitter that she was passed over for Kellen’s job, an enigmatic (though hot) guest who says he’s an author (he isn’t) and a handful of Kellen’s army buddies now employed at the resort – and that’s less than half the list.  There has to be a fairly large pool of suspects to make the identity of the villain hard to guess, but given that there are no clues pointing to that person, I can’t see there was much of a point. In any case, the reveal comes out of the blue, but not after Kellen jumps to a completely wrong conclusion as to his identity so fast it made me wonder if I’d skipped a few pages.

The mystery plot, concerning the smuggling of valuable artefacts off the coast near the resort is interesting, and when the book concentrates solely on this aspect of the story, it’s a good read and I was eager to keep turning the pages.  But that doesn’t really happen until well into the second half of the book, and doesn’t last for long; after that, we’re back in the land of the clichéd and utterly ridiculous, which then culminates in a completely unbelievable plot twist that contradicts something explicitly stated earlier on in the book.

I’m not sure whether to categorise Dead Girl Running as ‘mystery’ or ‘romantic suspense’ because it doesn’t really fit either.  If it’s a mystery, it’s very simplistic and quite clumsily done; if romantic suspense, there’s pretty much no romance and not much suspense, so that doesn’t fit either.  The writing is generally solid, although there is a LOT of telling rather than showing, and this is especially evident in the way we’re shown Kellen’s supposedly unique mental ability working.  Whenever she meets someone, we get a ‘note card’ of what is supposedly going through her head, which lists background data on that person and her feelings about them  – which is, I suppose, an easier way of disseminating that information than actually spending time on developing that character and letting the reader get to know them; it smacks of lazy writing.

In short, Dead Girl Running is deader than a dead duck dead in the water.  Give it a miss and pick up something by Rachel Grant or Loreth Anne White instead.

TBR Challenge – Some Brief Folly (Sanguinet Saga #1) by Patricia Veryan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Napoleonic wars are at their height on the Continent when Miss Euphemia Buchanan, young, much sought-after, and unattainable, decides to journey from London to Bath with her brother Simon and her young page Kent to spend the Christmas holidays with Great Aunt Lucasta. Along the way, she entreats Simon to detour past the imposing lines of Dominer, the palatial country estate of Garret Hawkhurst, the appallingly dangerous rake responsible (or so it is rumored) for the deaths of his own wife and child.

But disaster strikes in the form of a landslide, and the Buchannan’s coach is overturned and brought within inches of complete destruction. It is only through the bravery and immediate efforts of a passing gentleman that Euphemia and her wounded brother and page are rescued at all. But Euphemia’s grateful thanks turn to horror when she realizes her rescuer is none other than the infamous Garrett Hawkhurst, and that she has no recourse but to help Simon and Kent convalesce within the walls of Dominer itself…

Rating: B+

Patricia Veryan wrote around thirty-five historical romances set in the Georgian and Regency periods between 1978 and 2002, and until recently, they were all out of print.  Fortunately, over the last few years, many have been made available digitally, and I read The Wagered Widow for one of last year’s TBR Challenge prompts.  Ms. Veryan’s books are often compared to Georgette Heyer’s, and on the strength of the couple I’ve read, I’d certainly say they’re worth checking out if you’re a Heyer fan.  Ms. Veryan seems to have had a similar gift for writing observational humour and sparkling dialogue, and for creating interesting characters who operate within the societal norms of the period. But while the vast majority of Heyer’s books are set in the Regency, many of Patricia Veryan’s take place in the Georgian era ; two series  – The Golden Chronicles and Tales of the Jewelled Men – are set in the early-mid 18th century, and I certainly plan on reading those as soon as I can find the time.

My choice for March’s Prompt of Sugar or Spice was Some Brief Folly, which IS set in the Regency and is the first (loosely linked) book in the author’s Sanguinet Saga.  It’s one of those rake-of-blackest-reputation-meets-spunky-heroine stories, and there’s definitely a more than a little of Venetia’s Damerel in our hero, Garret Hawkhurst, and The Grand Sophy’s titular character in our heroine, Miss Euphemia Buchanan. But that isn’t to call Some Brief Folly derivative – I think most of the cynical rakes in historical romance owe something to Damerel anyway – because it’s definitely got a life of its own, and one of its storylines takes a particularly unusual direction.

Euphemia – Mia – Buchanan is delighted when her brother, Lieutenant Sir Simon Buchanan comes home on a long medical leave, owing to a serious shoulder injury sustained while fighting with Wellington’ forces in Spain.  With Christmas approaching, they make plans to travel to Bath to spend the festive season with their Aunt Lucasta and other members of their family, but what is supposed to be a brief detour to take a peek at Dominer, the grand residence of Garret Hawkhurst – an infamous rake widely believed to have killed his wife and son – leads to a serious accident in which their coach is overturned.  Fortunately, help arrives quickly in the form of the dangerous Hawkhurst himself and his servant, but while Euphemia and Simon are quickly dragged from the wrecked carriage, Euphemia’s page, Kent (whom she had rescued from a cruel chimney sweep some months earlier) has been thrown over the edge of a steep cliff, and is barely hanging on for his life.  To Euphemia’s astonishment, Hawkhurst immediately sets about a rescue, endangering his own life by climbing down the cliff at the end of a makeshift rope to bring the boy back up – and then offers them hospitality at Dominer.

Mia knows the rumours about Hawkhurst – Hawk – of course, and over the course of her stay at Dominer gleans further information about his past, but she has already realised that the rumours and the reality of the man she sees every day are vastly different.  For sure, Hawk is quick tempered and intensely cynical, but beneath that is a compassionate, honourable man who cares deeply for his family and who possesses a sharp, sometimes wicked sense of humour, and Euphemia – whose string of admirers have nicknamed her “The Unattainable” – can’t help falling for him.

The rumours surrounding the death of Hawk’s wife and son are so heinous that any attempts to refute them proved so impossible that he eventually gave up trying and retreated to his country estate, where he now lives with his two aunts, his cousin (who is his heir) and his younger sister, Stephanie.  Euphemia is unlike the women who so often set their caps at him – or rather, at his wealth; she’s funny, down-to-earth and doesn’t flinch at his bad moods and sharp tongue.  She used to follow the drum with her father, so it takes a lot to faze her; a characteristic which proves invaluable, especially in the later part of the story.

Their relationship is nicely done – they have cracking chemistry and their verbal exchanges are effervescent, simply bubbling with wit and attraction, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  Hawk’s name is mud and he has no wish to bring Mia down into the dirt with him – and it seems that while both admit they have finally found the love of their life, Hawk’s intransigence on this point looks set to part them.

Some Brief Folly is an enjoyable read that fairly bowls along and boasts an engaging cast, an interesting secondary romance and two very well suited central characters, but it’s a book of two halves.  The first – which concentrates on the romance – is wonderful, as Hawk and Mia strike sparks off each other and his true nature is revealed.  He’s still a bit of a grouch – with good reason, as we learn later – but it’s clear that it’s a surface crustiness and that underneath is a warm and caring man who has been dealt a tough hand.  The second half, though, is devoted more to solving the mystery of who is trying to kill Hawk and why, and while it’s well done, it’s a bit too busy, and there’s one plot point that’s been foreshadowed throughout which is perhaps a stretch of credulity too far.

The secondary characters in the story are very well drawn; scatty, accident-prone Aunt Dora is a hoot, Stephanie is a sweet, kind girl with a steel backbone, Colley (the heir) is a young man trying to find his place who worships his cousin even though they are frequently at odds, and Simon is a decent man caught between a rock and a hard place who has to make some hard choices.  His is the interesting direction I mentioned earlier; he’s married to a woman who married him for money and status who, when the book opens, has just given birth to a second child Simon can’t have fathered.  He wants a divorce and she won’t give him one – although the author has tripped up here, because I believe that at this time, if a man wanted to divorce his wife and had sufficient money and influence to do so, he didn’t need her to agree to it.  I won’t spoil the story, but Ms. Veryan doesn’t follow the obvious path here, and while that plotline isn’t completely successful, I nonetheless appreciated the attempt to do something a bit different.

Had the book continued along the lines of the first half, Some Brief Folly would have been an easy A grade/DIK, but the change of direction in the second half pulls it back somewhat.  Even so, it’s well-written and engaging, and certainly something I’d recommend to historical romance fans who don’t mind sacrificing steam in favour of witty banter and good ol’ sexual tension.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . .

When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure–a silent companion–that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of The Bridge are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition–that is, until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.

A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, this is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect–much like the silent companions themselves.

Rating: A-

Laura Purcell is the author of two excellent pieces of historical fiction set in Georgian England, one, Queen of Bedlam, about Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and the other, Mistress of the Court, a fictionalised account of the life of Henrietta Howard, who became the mistress of Prince George (later King George II).   Both are excellent and eminently readable; they’re incredibly well-researched, well-written and informative without being dry.  Her latest novel, The Silent Companions, is thus a bit of a departure, a mystery/horror story in the gothic tradition that is hauntingly atmospheric and downright unsettling; if it had been a film, I suspect I’d have been watching at least part of it from behind the sofa!

When we first meet Elsie Bainbridge, she’s a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane, and is widely believed to be a murderess.  Having been badly burned in a fire at The Bridge, the old country house she had inherited from her late husband, Rupert, she is still recovering from her injuries, and is unable to speak or remember much of what happened.  Her new doctor, Dr. Shepherd, is young, sympathetic and more progressive than some of the others who have attended her, and he encourages her to tell her story by writing it all down.  He believes that her inability to speak or remember may be the result of suppressed trauma, and that if she can tell her story in a detached way, as if speaking of someone else, it may help him to understand her better and ultimately, find ways to help her.

So Elsie, who is exhausted, worn-down and wants nothing more than to escape from the pain and awfulness of her life into laudanum induced numbness, begins to write her story, which opens in 1865, shortly after the death of the husband.  She married Rupert Bainbridge partly in order to help her brother’s struggling match factory, but found happiness in her short-lived marriage of convenience, and is now expecting Rupert’s child.  Having received news of her husband’s death, Elsie is travelling to Rupert’s family home, The Bridge, accompanied by Sarah, a poor relation of Rupert’s who came to live with them following the death of the elderly lady to whom she was a paid companion. Truth to tell, Elsie doesn’t think that much of Sarah and finds her insipid, but they are drawn together as the story progresses and the pair eventually come to depend upon and trust one another.

As they travel through the nearest village of Fayford, Elsie can practically feel the hostility coming from its inhabitants, who are, she learns later, so fearful of The Bridge – believing it was once inhabited by a witch, and that its history is littered with strange accidents and unexplained deaths –  that none of them will set foot in the place.  The few servants who work there are not locals, and are very disgruntled at the appearance of a new mistress because, Elsie suspects, it means the end of the easy life they’ve enjoyed up until now.

Exploring the house with Sarah, Elsie finds some unusual objects in the attic, several life-sized figures painted on wood and cut to shape with bevelled edges to give the impression of depth. Known as Silent Companions (or dummy boards), Elsie is initially amused by them and has a few of them moved into the house, but when they start to appear in places other than where they have been put, and more than were originally brought down are found in various locations throughout the house, both Elsie and Sarah become convinced that they represent something sinister and eventually to believe that their lives may be in danger.

The other part of the story is told through the pages of the diary of Sarah’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived during the time of King Charles I.  Anne and her husband are to be honoured by a visit from the king and queen, and Anne is shopping in the village when she notices some unusual items in one of the shops – large, cut out figures that look very lifelike and which she purchases in order to provide a whimsical diversion during the planned royal visit.  Josiah and Anne Bainbridge have a good marriage, three strapping sons and a young daughter, Hetta, who was born mute – but it quickly emerges that Anne is haunted by the circumstances under which Hetta was conceived.  Having lost her beloved sister and best friend, Mary, over a decade earlier, Anne was so desperate to have another female in her life, someone to trust and confide in, that she drank a special tisane or potion in order to make sure she conceived a girl.  But now, Anne is haunted by her actions – which could bring an accusation of witchcraft – and her husband takes care to distance himself from Hetta, expressly excluding her from the events that will take place during the king and queen’s visit.

Ms. Purcell does a terrific job of balancing the telling of the story through both timelines, and the way she shows Elsie disintegrating before our eyes is uncomfortable and masterful all at once.   She keeps us constantly on our toes, making us doubt our narrators, playing with our perceptions and questioning whether those things we have just discovered or been told are real or imagined.  If I have a criticism, it’s that the story is perhaps a little slow to start, but once it really gets going it quickly becomes gripping and completely un-putdownable – and even now, hours after finishing it, I’m still getting that feeling of breathless chills as I think back to it.  The story is permeated by feelings of unease and foreboding, and the author really knows how to ramp up the tension; the latter part of the story is a rollercoaster ride of creepiness of all kinds – and I’ll say here that there are a few descriptions that don’t spare any of the gory details and aren’t for the faint-hearted.  But without question, the book is beautifully written and the descriptions of the depressing atmosphere inside the run-down house and the dreariness of the surrounding countryside are incredibly evocative and put the reader right in the middle of those dark, oppressive corridors and damp, mist-shrouded fields; this is no idyllic English village or beautifully kept beloved family home.

We’re left with as many questions as answers by the time the story closes, and the ending is a real kicker – utterly brilliant and something I most definitely didn’t see coming.  If you need explanations and closure in your books, then you might find the final ambiguity here a little frustrating, but honestly, the last lines fit the tone of the rest of the book so perfectly, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

If you’ve been looking for a heartily unnerving, chilling gothic ghost story, then look no further.  Just make sure you read The Silent Companions with the lights on.

TBR Challenge: A Song Begins (Warrender Saga #1) by Mary Burchell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unknown benefactor had sufficient faith in Anthea Benton’s singing voice to pay for her training under the celebrated operatic conductor, Oscar Warrender. She was ecstatic, but her joy was short-lived when she came face to face with the great man. Cold and forbidding, he proved to be a hard taskmaster. She felt her dreams can be coming true… but would she be tough enough to work under such and exacting taskmaster?

Rating: B

A Song Begins is the first in Mary Burchell’s thirteen-book Warrender Saga, which was originally and published between 1965 and 1985.  All the novels in the series take place in the high-pressure world of the classical concert hall and opera house circuit; many of the characters are top-flight musicians – singers, pianists, conductors – and it’s very clear, even though I’ve as yet read only this opening entry, that the author really knew her stuff.  As someone who worked in the classical music business for a number of years, and as an opera lover, I really appreciated Ms. Burchell’s attention to detail, her knowledge about and obvious love of the music itself and her insight into what it takes to sing those roles and make it in such a fiercely competitive arena.

The story is a fairly simple one.  Anthea Benson is an aspiring singer who lives in a small, provincial town, and when the story opens, has been told by her teacher that she has learned everything she can and now needs to go to London to train with someone who can take her further and help her embark upon a professional career.  Moving to London and all that it entails requires money Anthea doesn’t have; but when she learns that the local TV company is mounting a talent competition at the Town Hall things start looking up.  The winner will receive a cash prize – enough for Anthea to go to London  –  and she is optimistic about her chances. She’s not conceited but she doesn’t suffer from false modesty, either; she knows she has a great voice but also realises she’s got a lot to learn. That sort of self-awareness and confidence is essential in someone trying to make it as a performer, and  Ms. Burchell gets that aspect of her character just about right – it’s one of the things I most liked about Anthea as a heroine.

Anthea makes it to the last four entrants – only to have her hopes dashed by the arrogant, world-renowned conductor, Oscar Warrender, who pretty much forces his fellow judges to choose a different winner.  Anthea is furious at his high-handedness and deeply upset; she berates him to a close friend, calling him an arrogant, self-satisfied beast who doesn’t really care about art or music or artists or anything but himself.

A few days later, however, Anthea is stunned when her teacher receives a letter from Oscar Warrender informing her that he has been asked to undertake Anthea’s training by someone who heard and was impressed by her at the competition.  Anthea can’t believe it – Warrender is widely accounted a musical genius and she can’t help but wonder what could have induced him to want to take her on.  He’s also odious, but ultimately, there’s no denying he knows what he’s doing and that studying with him will provide the best possible start to Anthea’s career.

Apprehensive and excited, Anthea travels to London and to her appointment with the great man.  Here, he tells her that he had deliberately prevented her winning the competition because if she had, she’d have found herself in the spotlight for a few years during which she’d ruin her voice and that he had determined to prevent it.  Naturally, Anthea fumes at his assumption that she would have taken that path even as she is focusing on his description of her as having a splendid lyric [soprano] voice.

This scene more or less sets the tone for their interactions throughout the book.  Warrender is overbearing and brutally honest, but just avoids being an alpha-hole because there’s the sense that he’s asking nothing of Anthea that he hasn’t done or wouldn’t ask of himself.  In the style of many an older romance, this is very much the heroine’s story; she’s our narrator and we never get the hero’s PoV, yet Mary Burchell is able to define Warrender so well by his words and actions; she conveys his passion for music and for his craft through the intensity of his manner, and very skilfully shows the truth of his feelings for Anthea  in the things he says and does that she doesn’t quite notice or interpret correctly.   He’s an odd mix of Simon Cowell and Svengali (!) – although he reminds me most of Boris Lermontov, the character played by Anton Walbrook in the film The Red Shoes.  The heroine in that was a ballerina rather than an opera singer of course, but many of the dictats issued by Oscar Warrender reminded me of Lermontov; there’s a scene in which he drags Anthea away from a late night out, admonishing her that “… a singer’s life is a strict and dedicated one.  Late hours and nightclubs are not for you and the sooner you learn that fact the better.“  But he also – on occasion – shows a surprising tenderness and concern, heaping yet more confusion upon Anthea, who finds attraction creeping up on her; his strong hands fascinate her, his touch sets her pulse a-flutter…  and his completely unexpected kisses are utterly bewildering.

It would have been easy to have depicted Anthea as a bit of a doormat, cowering at the great man’s words and suffering for her art, but she is nothing of the sort.  It’s true that she does mostly end up going along with Warrender’s ‘instructions’, but she does it out of a recognition that no matter that he’s being high-handed, everything he does is because he wants to nurture her talent and develop her as an artist – which is what Anthea wants most in the world.  She questions him and challenges him and makes clear what she thinks of him – but he also inspires and enthuses her in a way no-one ever has, and his imperious manner only makes her all the more determined to prove herself.

Yet this is more than a romance between master and pupil.  In a truly lovely moment near the end, the author fully brings home Anthea and Warrender’s ‘rightness’ for one another in a wonderful moment of emotional bonding and mutual need; and the final scene clearly shows readers that this is a couple whose relationship is built on very strong foundations.

I could say so much more about the workings of this story – as I said at the outset, I’ve experienced the world of classical music and musicians first-hand – and while this book was written some thirty years before I entered that world, so much of it felt familiar.  I’ve sometimes been a little wary of reading romances featuring music and musicians – in some books I’ve read, the authors just haven’t known how to go about it properly – but that isn’t the case here because Ms. Burchell’s love for and opera and understanding of what it means to be an artist shines through on every page.

I enjoyed A Song Begins very much, in spite of some niggles over the hero’s behaviour – which was probably not unusual for romances written in the 1960s.  At least he’s an alpha because he’s hugely talented, highly competent and well respected, and not because he’s handsome (which he is), built like a male model and has slept his way through half of Europe!  And as I said earlier, I never doubted his feelings for Anthea and by the end, their relationship has definitely evened up somewhat. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more books in the series.


As an aside, I did a Google search to find out a bit more about Mary Burchell (a pen name for Ida Cook) and discovered many interesting things about her life, not least of which was how the great love of opera she shared with her sister led to both ladies being among the most effective British transporters of Jews out of Germany between 1937 and the outbreak of war. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, July 2007 – Rescue Mission by Louise Carpenter.)

Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (Audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham, Billie Fulford-Brown, Morag Sims, Gary Furlong, Derek Perkins, Greg Wagland, Antony Ferguson, Jane Copland and Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes – as everyone does – that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafés of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently….

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict – but how? – and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war, he also faces personal battles back home, where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears – and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris – a cherished packet of letters in hand – determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Last Christmas in Paris is a beautifully written, superbly narrated epistolary novel which centres around the correspondence exchanged between three friends during the years of the First World War. I suspect the degree to which any listener will enjoy the story will depend on whether one enjoys novels that consist entirely of letters; personally, I’m a big fan of that literary device, so that, added to the fact that I have a particular interest in the history of the period, plus the list of excellent narrators attached to the project pretty much ensured my enjoyment of this audiobook. And enjoy it I did, although ‘enjoy’ seems rather a feeble word to describe how I feel about it now that I’ve finished listening to it. I was so caught up in this story of friendship, emancipation, love, loss, tragedy, hope, despair… a real gamut of emotions, that I couldn’t bear to set it aside; I listened to it in only two or three sittings and, when I finished it, felt that strange sense of emptiness that always seems to descend when I’ve finished reading or listening to something really good – that feeling of “what do I do now?”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Previously titled Pistols for Two, this collection includes three of Heyer’s earliest short stories, published together in book form for the very first time. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

Rating: B

If you’re already a fan of the great Georgette Heyer – the author who pretty much invented the Regency Romance single-handedly – then it won’t take much persuasion from me to send you in the direction of this newly re-issued collection of the author’s short stories, most of them written for and published in prestigious women’s magazines of the 1930s. There are fourteen in this collection, of which eleven were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two; Snowdrift features those plus three that have been newly discovered by the author’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester. Is it worth obtaining this new collection to read those new stories? On balance, I’d say that yes, it is, especially as one of the new stories (Pursuit) turned out to be one of my favourites of the set.

I don’t plan on reviewing each individual story here, as that would take more space than I have, so instead I’ll cherry pick as, like most anthologies, there are some excellent stories and some not quite so good ones. Each one features character types and plot elements that will be familiar to regular readers of historical romance; cross-dressing heroines, elopements, mistaken identity, dashing military men, second-chance romance, duels, high-stakes card games, regency-slang and, best of all, those handsome, authoritative heroes and their intelligent, witty heroines. Fans of the author’s will no doubt recognise the seeds of some of the plots and characters who later appear in some of her full-length novels here, too. I’ll also add a couple of words of caution. While very enjoyable, this is an anthology best dipped in and out of rather than read all at once; and these are short stories, so some of the romances are fairly perfunctory and in many cases, rely on insta-love. I’m not a fan, but in this case, it’s mostly forgivable due to the short length and the fact that the stories are beautifully written and enjoyable for so many other things besides the romances, so full are they of Heyer’s trademark laser-sharp social observation, sparkling dialogue and clever characterisations.

And so to the cherry picking. Pistols for Two is a rather unusual story in that it turns a frequently used trope on its head. Two lifelong friends discover that they are in love with the same young woman – another childhood friend who has grown into a beauty – and through misunderstanding and mischance, end up facing each other on the field of honour. Told through both their points of view, the young lady in question is a peripheral character and the author does a terrific job of describing the prickly, adolescent pride of the two young gents.

In A Clandestine Affair, we have an older hero and heroine who clearly share some sort of romantic history. Elinor Tresilian’s niece, Lucy, wants badly to marry the man she loves, Mr. Arthur Roseby, who happens to be the cousin of Lord Iver – who is vehemently opposed to the match. As it happens, Miss Tresilian is not overly in favour either, but headstrong Lucy is determined to have her way. When the couple elopes, Elinor and Lord Iver set off in pursuit, bickering and sniping along the Great North Road until… they aren’t.

A Husband for Fanny sees the young widow, Honoria Wingham, shepherding her lovely daughter, Fanny through the Season and hoping to secure the best and wealthiest husband for her. The Marquis of Harleston is certainly most attentive and would be an excellent match… so why does Honoria feel just the tiniest pang of jealousy when she sees how well the marquis and her daughter get along? You can see the twist in this one coming a mile off, but it’s an engaging story nonetheless.

To Have the Honour. Newly returned from war, young Lord Allerton discovers he has inherited a mountain of debt along with his title. His mother, however, is still spending money at the old rate, because Allerton has all but been betrothed to his cousin Hetty since the cradle; as she is a great heiress, once they are married their money woes will be over. But Allerton dislikes the idea of marrying for money and tells Hetty that he will not hold her to the arrangement between their families and she is free to choose for herself. Some timely scheming behind the scenes means that all ends well.

Hazard is one of my favourites; in it a young woman is staked in a game of chance by her weaselly half-brother, and is ‘won’ by the very drunk Marquis of Carlington. Foxed though he is, Carlington admires Helen’s spirit and insists they leave for Gretna Green right away. Helen is remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and I loved the way she issued a little payback to her not-swain the next day. Their dash to Scotland is fortuitously interrupted – by Carlington’s fiancée, no less…

Of the three new stories, Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road, the first is my favourite, being another elopement story in which an older couple once again takes centre stage. Mary Fairfax and the Earl of Shane are pursuing his ward (and her charge) Lucilla, who has eloped with the man she loves, Mr. Monksley, who will shortly be shipping out to the Peninsula with his regiment. In Runaway Match, the lovely Miss Paradise convinces her friend, Rupert, to elope with her so she can foil her father’s plans to marry her to the old, odious Sir Roland. She has never met her intended, but is horrified to realise he has followed them all the way to Stamford. Or has he? And in Incident on the Bath Road, the handsome, wealthy but ennui-laden Lord Reveley (always courted, never caught) is on his way to Bath when he encounters a chaise accident and takes up the young Mr. Brown who explains that he has urgent business in the city. This urgent business turns out to be going to the aid of the lovely Miss X, who is going to be forced into a distasteful marriage… and Reveley’s life turns out not to be quite so boring after all.

While Georgette Heyer’s full-length novel allow her strengths – tightly-written plots, characterisation and witty banter – to shine fully, there are enough glimpses of all those things in these short stories to make them well worth reading, whether you’re a long-time fan (as I am) or a newcomer to her work. Snowdrift and Other Stories is just the book to have on hand when you don’t have time to settle into a full-length novel and want a quick romance fix.