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.

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

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.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTE: NOT AVAILABLE DIGITALLY IN THE US. The book is being published in the US in June 2019 under the title The Poison Thread

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth.

Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted to have the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Rating: B

Laura Purcell first came to my attention as the author of a couple of very fine pieces of historical fiction, and earlier this year, I awarded her fabulous, spooky supernatural/gothic mystery The Silent Companions DIK status at AAR  and gushed about it to everyone who crossed my path!  I’ve been waiting eagerly to read her next novel The Corset, another mystery set in Victorian England, this time, featuring two very different women who are brought together in the gloomy surroundings of a London prison.

Dorothea Truelove is pragmatic, intelligent and privileged.  She is heiress to a considerable sum, but continually resists her father’s attempts to find her an eligible husband, preferring instead to concentrate on her scientific interests and the young, most definitely ineligible policeman with whom she is in love.  Dorothea has become fascinated by phrenology  – a pseudoscience that posited that a person’s character could be determined by the measurements of their skull and that personality, thoughts and emotions were located in certain specific regions of the brain – and is furthering her knowledge by visiting female inmates at Oakwood Gate Prison.  She is keen to meet the latest new arrival, a sixteen-year-old girl called Ruth Butterham who has confessed to the murder of her employer and several other people, and to study the size and shape of her skill, believing her research could help “devise a system to detect, scientifically, without a doubt, all evil propensities in the young” and thereby a way of preventing them from becoming criminals.

Ruth Butterham couldn’t be more different to Dorothea.  A talented seamstress, Ruth’s life has been blighted by tragedy, poverty and horror; when her father commits suicide, she and her sick mother are forced to seek help from Mrs. Metyard, a popular modiste for whom Ruth’s mother often does piece-work.  In desperation, Ruth’s mother more or less sells Ruth to Mrs. Metyard, believing that a roof over her head and regular meals will be better for Ruth than anything she can provide, which is why, aged just twelve, Ruth finds herself subjected to abuse and exploitation alongside four other girls, all of them terribly mistreated, half-starved and regularly beaten.

The story is told from both Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, the latter in the form of the tale she is telling Dorothea and her thoughts and feelings upon it.  Ruth tells how she came to believe that she had the ability to impart her feelings through her needle and into her work, and how she has been able to cause harm to those who harmed her by weaving her hatred and anger into her sewing.  Dorothea is at first fascinated and excited at the prospect of being able to examine the head shape and size of a murderess, but soon becomes annoyed and frustrated; what she is hearing from Ruth’s lips and learning from her skull shape and measurements don’t match up at all, because her centres of morality and memory are too well developed for someone who is clearly telling so many lies.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Dorothea’s narrative is somewhat less engrossing than Ruth’s.  She doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or whether dropping this plate or that candle will result in a vicious beating (which happens in Ruth’s story); her problems are trivial by comparison, as she fumes about the fact that her father is planning to marry a woman she dislikes intensely, and over his attempts to force her into marriage. That said, the parallels the author draws between the women in relation to how little control either has over their lives is relevant and nicely done, showing clearly that gender was a great leveller, still the biggest obstacle to a woman having choices, no matter her social or financial status.  The corset is certainly an interesting metaphor, applied just as well to the garments that restricted women’s movement as to the rigid conventions that restricted their behaviour and opportunities.

As is the case with the other books I’ve read by Laura Purcell, The Corset is beautifully written, and her research has clearly been impeccable.  The descriptions of what Ruth goes through – the poverty, the despair, the cruelty – have a visceral impact and make Ruth an easy figure to sympathise with, but they were also a little too gory at times for my taste, and there were elements of unnecessary repetition that didn’t enhance or further the story.  And here I have a confession to make; the reveal that came around the half-way point was so daft that it actually made me want to snort with laughter rather than hide behind the sofa.

I find I can’t write about The Corset without reference to Ms. Purcell’s previous novel, The Silent Companions, which is one of the best modern gothic novels I’ve read.  Deeply atmospheric and seriously creepy, it worked so well because there was genuine doubt as to what was really going on; was the heroine subject to supernatural forces or mere human evil?  Whatever the answer arrived at by the reader, both options were equally terrifying.  In this novel, however, there is no real horror (unless you count the account of the birth of Ruth’s sister, or the gloopy slime of the decaying fish one of the other girls put into Ruth’s work-basket), or sense of the unexpected. I was never really convinced by Ruth’s belief that she could somehow sew malevolence into the garments she made and embroidered, which always seemed to me to be something latched on to by a girl so traumatised by loss and despair that she would believe anything if it meant she was able to exercise even the smallest amount of control over her circumstances.

The characterisation of both leads is extremely strong, Ruth’s naïve, trusting nature tempered by an incredible resilience and endurance while Dorothea, ostensibly a good young woman with a penchant for doing good works, turns out to be something of  a self-righteous prig.  Ms. Purcell interweaves their narratives skilfully and in such a way as to give the reader time to reflect upon their reliability, and the final chapters and slowly evolving revenge plot are incredibly well done; for my money, the final twenty percent of the novel is easily worth the price of admission alone.  But for all the great things the book has going for it, I wasn’t as drawn into it as I’d hoped to be, which I freely admit may be because I had such high expectations and had hoped for more of what I found in the author’s previous novel.

The Corset nonetheless earns a solid recommendation courtesy of its superb writing, strong characterisation and intriguing storylines.  The novel’s flaws don’t outweigh its strengths by any means, and anyone looking for a gritty, well-written and well-researched gothic mystery could do worse than give it a try.

The Matrimonial Advertisement (Parish Orphans of Devon #1) by Mimi Matthews

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

Rating: B-

Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books.  The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme.  I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured.  Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.

Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up.  He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game.  After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.

Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:

“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum.  A woman I can bed on occasion.”

– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife.  She’s stunningly beautiful and is obviously well-bred – and right from the off, he can tell she’s hiding something; why else would such a lovely young woman want to bury herself in the middle of nowhere and marry a complete stranger?  When he asks her that question, she calmly tells him that she’s been told he knows how to keep a woman safe; which tells him she’s clearly frightened of someone or something, but a first meeting isn’t the place to enquire.  Besides, Justin finds he wants Helena very badly.  And, he reflects, she isn’t the only one keeping secrets.

Helena  was desperate to get away from London, and knows that marriage is just about the only way she can protect herself.  A married woman belongs to her husband in every respect, and Ms. Matthews does an excellent job of drawing attention, through Helena’s character, to the very limited options and freedom of woman at this period of time, and commenting on the unfair laws that stripped married women of all rights and property and opened them up to all sorts of abuse.  The solicitor in London with whom she’d communicated briefly has assured her that Justin is a good, decent man who will be able to protect her, and now she has met him, Helena can judge for herself that those statements were true.

The first part of the story is beautifully done, showing the gradual development of love and trust between Justin and Helena as they bond over shared interests and gradually come to realise that their marriage of convenience has the potential to be something far more than either of them expected.  They agree fairly early on that there should be no secrets between them, something I really appreciated, and both their stories are heart-breaking; Helena has been betrayed in the worst way by those who should have cared for her, while Justin carries wounds, both physical and mental, as the result of the torture he suffered in India, and his own survivor’s guilt.  The author’s research is impeccable and she incorporates both characters’ backstories seamlessly into the narrative. She also makes excellent use of the remote coastal setting, creating a brooding atmosphere reminiscent of the gothic romances of the time with her evocative descriptions of the remote clifftop house, the crashing waves and the incessant rain flooding the roads which isolates the Abbey even further.

The romance that develops between Justin and Helena is sweet and tender, and it proceeds at a gentle pace, thankfully devoid of the excessive mental lusting that appears in so many romances.  There’s a strong attraction between them, yes, but they’re attracted to each other for more than looks; Helena’s quiet inner strength and resilience, combined with a sensibility that seems appropriate for a young woman of her station makes her feel very much of her time, while Justin’s crusty exterior hides a decent, kind man, and together, they’re a couple it’s easy to root for.   Love is uncharted territory for both of them, and Ms. Matthews does a splendid job of showing, through their actions and words, that they’re falling hard for each other.  But then, just after the half-way point, things come to a stuttering halt, and all the tension the author has built up in the first part of the book just disappears.  The focus shifts, pushing the romance into a secondary role while Justin and Helena are forced to return to London in order to save their marriage and save Helena from the clutches of those out to harm her.  But the thing is that they don’t really do anything; they have to show themselves in society to quash some of the rumours that have been circulating about Helena, but otherwise they pretty much wait around for things to happen, and the whole thing is very sedate with hardly any plot development.  And then, despite their agreement that there should be no secrets between them, Justin pulls the ‘I am not worthy’ card – which is one of my least favourite plot devices of all time.

I enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement, and had the story continued as well as it began, I’d have awarded it a solid B, maybe a B+, but as it is, I can only offer a qualified recommendation.  It has a lot to offer – excellent research, strong period feel, a tender romance and two well-rounded principals – but the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, and in spite of all the things the book has going for it, I came away from it feeling a little  disappointed.