A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in USA Today bestseller Sherry Thomas’s Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Rating: A

Reviewing mysteries is always a challenge as anyone who’s tried it will know.  And with one of this calibre, it’s even more difficult, because I want to tell you just how GOOD this book is, but I can’t tell you too much for fear of giving too much away and spoiling your enjoyment.  I could just say a) “Sherry Thomas is a genius – go buy this book!”, or b) “Don’t waste time here – go buy this book!”,   but that isn’t much of a review, so I will attempt – somehow – to do justice to this terrific story and author… and will no doubt fail miserably, at which juncture you should simply heed the advice given in points a) and b).

Note: I think it would be possible to enjoy this as a standalone, but I really would recommend reading A Study in Scarlet Women first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up on the day after the events that concluded the previous book.  Charlotte Holmes, ably assisted by her closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, and Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard, has solved the Sackville murder case and learned of the existence of an infamous criminal mastermind by the name of Moriarty.  In addition, Charlotte worked out that that Lord Ingram – Ash to his friends – had pulled strings behind the scenes in order to make sure she wasn’t left alone on the streets after she ran from her father’s house, and orchestrated her meeting with the army widow and former actress with whom Charlotte now resides, Mrs. John Watson.  Charlotte doesn’t like being beholden to Ash, especially not as their friendship, while generally strong, has been sometimes strained since his ill-advised marriage six years earlier.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson have formed a working partnership as investigators, using the identity of Sherlock Holmes as a front for their operation.  Holmes suffers from a debilitating illness, so clients meet with his ‘sister’ – Charlotte – while the detective listens to the conversation from the next room.  It’s with some surprise that Charlotte identifies their latest prospective client, Mrs. Finch, as Lady Ingram, Ash’s wife.  Mrs Watson is concerned about accepting the lady as a client given their friendship with her husband, but Charlotte believes her need must be very pressing if it has driven her to seek Holmes’ help, and agrees to the meeting – although as Charlotte cannot afford to be recognised, the part of Sherlock’s sister will be taken by Mrs. Watson’s niece, Penelope Redmayne.  ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that she is seeking information regarding the man she fell in love with before she married Lord Ingram, a young man deemed unsuitable by her parents, whose financial situation demanded she marry someone wealthy. While she and her erstwhile love agreed not to meet or write to each other once she was married, they planned a yearly assignation – on the Sunday before his birthday, they would both take a walk past the Albert Memorial at 3 pm, so they could each see that the other was alive and well. This year, however, her sweetheart did not keep the appointment, and she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out why. Penelope asks Lady Ingram for as many details as she can provide, but when she identifies the man in question as Myron Finch, Charlotte is stunned. Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.

While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson set about looking into the disappearance of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is also mulling over the proposal of marriage she has received – the second one, in fact – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, Lord Ingram’s older brother. Charlotte is fully cognizant of the benefits marriage to him would bring. It would rehabilitate her – to an extent – in the eyes of society and would soften her father’s stance towards her; she could care for her sister, Bernadette (who has some sort of mental disability) and could openly spend time with her other sister, Livia and generally return to the life to which she had been born. But even though Bancroft recognises and respects Charlotte’s keen intellect, he clearly expects her to discontinue her investigations as Sherlock Holmes, and she’s not sure that’s something she’s willing to give up.

As an inducement, Bancroft gifts Charlotte with a set of puzzles, which includes a message encoded using a Vignère cipher, a fiendishly difficult code that takes Charlotte some days to decipher. Once decoded, the message leads her to an address in Hounslow, North West of London, where she and Lord Ingram unexpectedly encounter Inspector Treadles. A man has been murdered – and appears to have named his killer before he died. Could he perhaps be the missing Mr. Finch? Or could he somehow be tied to Finch’s disappearance? Or, worse still, are Finch and the murder victim somehow tied to the mysterious Moriarty, a name which seems to inspire fear in those who know it, and someone of whom even the unflappable Bancroft seems to be wary?

Well… I’m not saying. As is clear, though, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I admit that I sometimes had to refer to the numerous highlights I’d made on my Kindle to refresh my memory about something, but for the most part, the story rattles along famously as Sherry Thomas skillfully pulls the disparate mystery threads together and then unravels them, bringing events to a climax I most certainly didn’t see coming. Just as impressive as her plotting is the way in which she continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them, building on what we know of them from the previous book and rounding them out even more. We don’t see as much of Treadles in this story, but it’s clear that he’s been upset by the discovery of the deceit practiced by his good friend Lord Ingram (over Holmes’ true identity) and isn’t sure what to make of Charlotte any longer. There’s a romance in the offing for Livia, who is charmed by a mysterious young man who seems to see and appreciate her for who she is and doesn’t talk down to her or dismiss her interests; and we get to know a little more of the circumstances which led to Ash’s marriage to a society beauty he later learned had married him only for his money.

Anyone with any knowledge of this author’s work will already know that her work is highly creative and imaginative; she fashions strong, well-developed and engaging characters, crafts complex interweaving plots, and her historical romances are among the best in the genre. I should, however, warn anyone hoping for romantic developments between Charlotte and Ash that things between them don’t progress a great deal (if at all). The author sheds more light on Ash’s feelings towards Charlotte, showing he knows her better than anyone (and there’s a nice touch at the end where Charlotte both acknowledges this and admits she’s glad it’s Ash who knows her so well) and Charlotte… well, she doesn’t necessarily wish Ash had married her, she would just prefer he hadn’t married at all. She’s someone who relies on observation and logic and doesn’t have room for sentiment; yet in the face of all the logical reasons she should marry Bancroft, a small part of her can’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t find him attractive while his brother… is a different matter entirely.

There’s so much more to A Conspiracy in Belgravia than I can possibly say here. The characters, the relationships, the mystery … all are richly detailed and superbly constructed, making this a truly compelling, un-put-downable read. I stand by my original points a) and b). Just go and buy it.

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The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – C-

I’ll confess straight off that I’m not what I’d call a Sherlock Holmes “aficionado”. I’ve read some of the books and stories, and have enjoyed his various celluloid iterations, from Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sherry Thomas’ re-imagining of Sherlock as Charlotte in A Study in Scarlet Women was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of last year. But I can’t quote chunks of text or even remember all the plots of the stories I’ve read, so I’m most definitely not a card-carrying member of the Sherlock Fan Club.

But I was definitely up for the idea of a story featuring The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, although now I’ve finished it, I can’t say if it’s the sort of book that will appeal to diehard Sherlockians or to the relatively uninitiated. Speaking as a member of the latter group, I’m not sure whether the style adopted by author Leonard Goldberg is akin to Conan Doyle’s or if it was his intention for the entire book to seem like averagely-written Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Reviews of the book on Goodreads certainly indicate that those more familiar with Conan Doyle’s work appreciated the writing in this, but I found it plodding and unimaginative.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Secret of the India Orchid by Nancy Campbell Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Anthony Blake is in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot. But his plans to court her are put on hold when he is forced to resume his role as an undercover spy for the Crown. A secret document listing the names of the entire network of British spies-including his own-has been stolen. To protect Sophia, Anthony cuts off all ties to her and exchanges his life as an honorable earl for the façade of a flirtatious playboy.

Heartbroken and confused, Sophia travels to India, hoping to find healing in one of the most exotic regions of the British Empire. But the exotic land isn’t as restful as she had hoped. Instead, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery of a missing sea captain, a possible murder, and a plot that could involve the prince of India. And when Anthony appears at the British Residency, asking questions and keeping his distance from her, she is stunned.

She still loves him, and, in her heart, she knows he loves her too. But how can she rebuild her relationship with him if he won’t confide in her? Does she dare offer her heart to him a second time, or will their love be lost under the India sun?

Rating: D+

Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Secret of the India Orchid appealed to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, much as I enjoy historical romances set in Europe, I’m always happy to see ones sent in more far-flung locations; and secondly, the premise of a dashing spy forced to conceal his true nature and purpose beneath the façade of a wastrel in order to protect his nearest and dearest is a trope that I enjoy when done well. Sadly, however, neither of those elements is particularly well-executed, and, together with weak characterisation and poor plotting, made for a plodding, insipid read overall.

Anthony Blake, Earl of Wilshire has been in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot, for some time and is about to ask for permission to court her when his former boss and spymaster, Lord Braxton tells him that he must undertake one, last mission. Anthony, who was relieved to get out of the spying game a couple of years earlier upon assuming his title, is not best pleased at being drafted back into service, but when Braxton tells him of the theft of the Janus Document – which contains sensitive information about British agents, their families, their habits and every aspect of their lives, any of which could potentially be used as leverage against them – Anthony reluctantly agrees to retrieve it.

Two years later, still heartbroken over Anthony’s sudden departure and wanting to get away from her memories of him in England, Sophia lands in India, intending to spend some time there under the sponsorship of Lady Pilkington. She is, however, destined not to be able to use distance to lessen her attachment to Anthony because he’s recently arrived in Bombay on the next leg of his tour of carefree fun and frolic (as she thinks), and in reality still on the trail of the Janus Document. All Braxton could tell him about the theft was that he believed it had been perpetrated by someone who worked for him, Harold Miller. Anthony has received word that Miller’s uncle, a sea captain, is a guest of the Pilkington’s, hence his presence in Bombay. He believes the nephew may have passed the document to Captain Miller and intends to meet with him and interrogate him, but before he can do so, the captain is murdered and the contents of Lord Pilkington’s safe mysteriously disappear.

With the help of his friend, Captain Dylan Stuart of the First Light Cavalry, Anthony now has to find a murderer as well as the missing document, but in order to maintain his cover as a carefree wastrel, has to make it seem as though Stuart is conducting the investigation and he’s just along for the ride, which annoys him no end. Almost as much as it annoys him to see Sophia singled out for attention by other men.  And Sophia, who was deeply hurt by Anthony’s assertions (in his “Dear John” letter) that he viewed her as nothing more than a sister and good friend, twists the knife further when she asks him to help her to select a husband from among her admirers.

*sigh*

The problems with The Secret of the India Orchid are many, and add up to this; it’s a clichéd, dull book with no action, no sense of time or place and no romance to speak of.  Anthony and Sophia are in love from the beginning and stay that way; there is nothing in the writing to suggest their attitude towards each other has changed during their two year separation apart from Sophia’s slightly sarcastic responses to him when they meet again, and their relationship is pretty static.  All that happens is that Anthony finally tells her the truth (and I confess I did rather enjoy it when Sophia refuses to believe him at first) and they return to their former lovey-doveyness; and as characters, they’re bland and too good to be true.  In terms of the setting, other than the mention of curry, the odd Indian custom and the use of Indian names, there’s nothing to suggest the location and quite honestly, the book could have been set anywhere.  The mystery is weak and its solution depends on an overheard conversation; the identity of one of the perpetrators seems to be the result of drawing names from a hat, and the other is telegraphed from a mile away.

Ms. Campbell Allen’s writing is decent, but that can’t compensate for the books’ other deficiencies.  I read it so you don’t have to – give it a miss.

Murder on Black Swan Lane (Wrexford & Sloane #1) by Andrea Penrose

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Rating: B+

Murder on Black Swan Lane is the first book in a new series of Regency-era historical mysteries by Andrea Penrose (who also writes as Andrea Pickens and Cara Elliot), which sees a satirical cartoonist teaming up with a scientifically-minded earl to investigate a couple of gruesome murders. The mystery is well-put together and includes some fascinating detail about the chemical sciences as they were understood at the beginning of the 19th century – the author has clearly done her homework – and we’re introduced to an engaging set of characters who will, I hope, continue to appear throughout the series.

The Earl of Wrexford (who doesn’t appear to have an actual name, just a title) has recently been publicly denounced as the worst kind of dissolute rake by the pompous, puffed-up Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and the sort of man whom boredom inspires to ever more reckless behaviour, Wrexford responds to his accuser by unleashing his razor-sharp wit in a clever rebuttal, which is printed in the Morning Gazette. An increasingly vitriolic and very public argument ensues between the two men which is eagerly documented every step of the way by the popular satirist A.J Quill, whose cartoons persistently skewer those at the highest levels of society, shining a light on the darkest misdeeds on the rich and powerful.

When the Reverend Holworthy is found dead in a church on Black Swan Lane, almost decapitated, his face disfigured by some sort of chemical, suspicion immediately alights upon Wrexford, whose rather eccentric interest in chemistry is widely known. With Quill’s uncannily accurate drawings and pithy captions stirring up public opinion against him, Wrexford decides it’s time to find out where the cartoonist is getting his information.

A talented artist, Charlotte Sloane picked up her late husband’s pen after his death some eight months earlier and has continued to produce satirical cartoons using his pseudonym, A.J Quill. She guards her identity judiciously, knowing that if it’s discovered that the scourge of the ton is a woman she will be completely ruined and unable to earn a living. So the last thing she wants or expects is to discover the Earl of Wrexford on her doorstep demanding to see A.J Quill. Charlotte’s attempts at deflection become increasingly desperate, at which point the earl realises the truth and offers her a deal. If she will agree to share such information as comes her way regarding the investigation, he will keep her secret and pay for the information. Charlotte is furious at being backed into a corner, but she has no alternative. She is living from hand to mouth as it is, and can ill afford to turn down the money the earl offers or risk being exposed as A.J Quill, so she takes the deal.

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

Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

This title may be downloaded from Audible via 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: Narration – A-; Content – A

It’s the rare author who can reach the twelfth book in a long-running series and still keep coming up with fresh ideas and interesting developments, but C.S. Harris manages to do both those things and more in her latest Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, Where the Dead Lie. In this new instalment, our aristocratic sleuth becomes involved in the search for the perpetrators of the most horrible crimes upon the weakest, most vulnerable members of society – London’s street children. It’s a disturbing listen at times – as it should be, given the subject matter – and Ms. Harris doesn’t pull her punches when describing the plight of these often very young children who have been left parentless and homeless through no fault of their own, and how they are repeatedly betrayed by those privileged few who should be helping rather than taking advantage of them.

This is one of those series where the books really need to be listened to in order, and I would imagine it’s difficult to just pop in and out, reading some books and not others. Each of the mysteries is self-contained and reaches a satisfying ending, but just as compelling as those individual tales is the overarching story of Sebastian’s search for the truth about his birth and what happened to his errant mother, his difficult relationship with his father, the Earl of Hendon, and the intense animosity lying between Sebastian and his father-in-law, Lord Jarvis, cousin to the Regent and the power behind the throne.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

One of the things the author does very well is to chart the very uneasy relationship between Alice and Matthew; there’s a real sense that Alice is permanently treading on eggshells around him, expecting at any moment for him to look at her and work out that she is defying him in small ways, by visiting her mother-in-law, whom he has forbidden her to see, or in trying to help the women who are being accused.  She paints an intriguing picture of Matthew through Alice’s eyes, as Alice recalls various incidents from their childhood, remembers the boy he was and then, in an attempt to understand his motivations, begins to delve into long-buried family secrets which could threaten her own life and liberty.

There is definitely an air of subtle menace pervading the book, which is as it should be, given the subject matter.  But while I enjoyed reading it, it was slow to start and Alice’s frequent reminiscences in the first half tended to interrupt the flow of the present day story being told.  These passages do help to build a picture of Matthew as Alice had known him, and also to give some insight as to the actions and events that have made him into the man he is, but there’s no denying that their positioning affects the pacing of the novel in an adverse way.

But with that said, there’s no doubt that Ms. Underdown’s research into the period and her subject matter has clearly been extensive, because her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of 17thcentury England are very evocative, enabling the reader to really put themselves in the middle of those muddy streets and swirling mists or sniff the smells of roasting meat and hoppy ale.  She does a splendid job of creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as the accusations spread and shows just how dangerous it was to be a woman in those times, when the most innocent look or word could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone who wished you ill; and the scenes and descriptions of some of the ‘tests’ the accused women are put through are harrowing in their matter-of-factness.

I enjoyed the story, but there were times I wanted just a bit… more.  I found it quite difficult to get a handle on either Matthew or Alice, and this is, I suspect, in part due to the fact that Alice is mostly a passive narrator, a witness to events or on the periphery of them, which creates a degree of emotional distance between the characters and the reader.  I felt for Alice and what she went through and admired her determination to do something to help those she believed were unjustly accused. She’s the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive piety, but she’s also a woman alone with no-one to turn to and faces some very difficult choices.  Her decisions aren’t always the best, but they are human and it’s easy to understand why she makes them.

The last part of the book is the strongest, as this is where Alice finally – and unwillingly – starts to take part in the events she describes.  This brings an immediacy to the narrative which was lacking before, and serves to ramp up the tension and to thicken the all-pervasive atmosphere of oppression.  The ending is suitably shocking – and I give substantial props to the author for the last line, which is an absolute zinger.

This is Ms. Underdown’s début novel and is, all in all, a well-researched piece of historical fiction told in an engaging way.  It wasn’t a book I found difficult to put down, but the subject matter is intriguing and the author has constructed a perfectly plausible account of Hopkins’ life given the paucity of available material.  I’m going to give The Witchfinder’s Sister a qualified recommendation; if you’re not familiar with this particularly dark period of English history and are interested in learning more, it’s not a bad place to start.

The Vicar’s Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cassie, the youngest of six daughters in the Wilton family, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There’s only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn.

Evan Glenside, a soft-spoken, East London clerk, has just been named his great-uncle’s heir and, though he is eager to learn all that will be required of him, he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position.

A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. But then Evan begins to court Lenora, thinking she is the author of the letters.

As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar’s daughter be able to reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

Rating: C

The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.

It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.

When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.

Evan worked in London as a clerk and lived in Mile End with his mother and sisters until the sudden deaths of a couple of distant relatives made him the heir to a considerable property and propelled him into the ranks of the landed gentry.  He has recently moved to Bedfordshire in order to begin to learn about the estate he will inherit and to help his uncle to run it, but while his experience as a clerk has given him the necessary organisational and numerical skills to enable him to pick up the administrative side of being a landowner fairly easily, his background and upbringing as the son of a working man has not equipped him to be able to navigate the perilous waters of good society.  But even he, with his patchy knowledge of what is done and not done, suspects that exchanging correspondence with a young, unmarried lady is not the done thing, yet he cannot be other than intrigued and captivated by Miss Lenora Wilton’s engaging and sympathetic manner.  Before he really knows what is happening, he is engaged in a real correspondence with the lady, and feels he is coming to know her through her letters, even though in public, she is still extremely shy and reserved.

It’s going to come as no surprise to say that Cassie and Evan fall in love without his knowing the true identity of the young lady with whom he has been sharing his inmost thoughts and dreams.  But truth will out, and when it does, both of them have to face the consequences of their actions even though, as Cassie readily admits, Evan was the innocent party.  She hates to think that he and his mother and sisters will be the subject of gossip because of something she did, and makes a concerted effort on behalf of the ladies to ensure that they will be accepted by local society.  This act is one of the first on Cassie’s journey towards a greater self-awareness and towards her understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness.  It’s in this part of the story that she really begins to exhibit the personal growth I mentioned earlier, and it certainly does go a long way towards making her into a more likeable character than the somewhat impatient, selfish young woman she was at the beginning of the book.  If The Vicar’s Daughter had been billed as one young woman’s ‘coming of age’ story, then Ms. Kilpack has done a very good job.  But it’s not – the synopsis points toward this being a romance, and unfortunately, it’s sadly lacking in that area.  For one thing, we’re asked to believe that Cassie and Evan have fallen in love through their correspondence, but there’s nothing in their letters to suggest that they are doing anything more than becoming friends.  And for another, they don’t spend a lot of time together in the first half of the book, and in the second half, their interactions are practically non-existent.  We’re told they’re in love, we’re told they’re yearning for each other, but I didn’t feel any of it.  There’s no chemistry and no real emotional connection between them, and while Evan’s situation as a working class man who has suddenly been elevated to a completely different station in life is intriguing and handled quite well, he’s otherwise little more than a cypher whose presence in the novel is designed to kick-start the heroine’s journey of self-discovery.

I was also bothered by the fact that I have no idea when this story is supposed to take place. I’m assuming, given the references to the conventions and social mores of the day that the story is set some time in the 19th century, but other than that, I have no clue.  At one point, a lady is said to be playing piano pieces by Tchaikovsky (who was born in 1840), yet later, another lady refers to Franz Schubert as a “new” composer.  He was born in 1797 and died in 1828. Unless one of them had a time machine, then I’m stumped.  And honestly – how hard is it to look these things up?!

I didn’t actively dislike reading The Vicar’s Daughter, and I did become engaged with Cassie’s predicament and invested in the final outcome, but I can’t recommend the book as a romance.  I should also point out that given that the heroine is the daughter of a vicar, there are some Christian messages within the tale as Cassie ponders the nature of repentance and forgiveness, but these are not heavy-handed or obtrusive.  If you enjoy stories which focus more on the heroine’s personal growth than on her personal relationships, then you might like this book.  But if you’re looking for a well-developed and emotionally satisfying romance, then I don’t think it’s for you.