Lord of the Last Heartbeat (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.

Rating: B-

May Peterson’s début novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is an intricately constructed gothic fantasy with an intriguing storyline, set in a world that reminded me somewhat of eighteenth century Italy where dark secrets lurk behind the scenes, political backstabbing is rife and influential families jostle for power.  Adding to that particular vibe is the fact that one of the main characters is an opera singer, and I loved the way his vocal talent is incorporated into the fabric of the world the author has created.  In fact, I liked almost all the different elements that went to make up the novel – the worldbuilding, the characters, the plot – but ‘almost’ is the key word there, because there are two fairly major problems I couldn’t overlook.  Firstly, Ms. Peterson’s writing style just didn’t work for me – which I recognise is entirely subjective – and secondly, the romance isn’t well-developed; it springs almost fully formed out of nowhere and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between the leads.

Mio is the son of Serafina Gianbellici, a powerful witch whose ambition is to control the government of the city of Vermagna, which she does by learning the secrets of its members and using that knowledge to keep them in line. In this world, a mage’s magical power lies in a specific part of the body, and Mio’s lies in his beautiful voice, which he can use to enter someone’s mind and soul to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets – which his mother then uses against them. Mio hates doing what amounts to mind-rape, and hates himself for helping Serafina, but he does it nonetheless, partly because he fears her power and partly because, well… she’s his mother.  On the night the story opens, Mio is pretending to be a footman at the house of Pater Donatelli, Serafina’s latest target, waiting until she calls him inside to sing, when he is accosted by a drunken guest (who mistakes him for a pretty girl) who tries to drag him away.  Mio has barely begun to try to free himself when the man is pulled off him and dunked into a nearby fountain by a large, dark gentleman Mio quickly realises must be a moon-soul, someone brought back from the dead and invested with the spirit of a noble beast (in this case a bear).  Once upon a time, these shape-changing elite had been numerous but now, they are very small in number and coming across one is rare. Feeling unexpectedly comfortable in the man’s presence, Mio decides to take a chance to escape his mother’s machinations once and for all.  Before he is summoned inside, he presses a note into the man’s hand which says just three words: Stop me. Please.

From that intriguing beginning unfolds a story of mystery and magic that builds slowly and kept me guessing as it moved towards a shattering climax.  When Mio finally breaks free of his mother’s control, he runs to the one person ever to make him feel safe  – Rhodry, the moon-soul, who bears a terrible curse he can never escape.  Twists and turns abound as Mio and Rhodry gradually begin to understand the nature of the curse and the dark forces at work in Rhodry’s home; it’s an engrossing story and unlike anything else I’ve read recently.  I liked Mio’s strength and determination – even in the face of his greatest fears – and Rhodry’s dry (sometimes naughty) sense of humour.  I even liked (well, liked to hate!) Mio’s mother, a complex character intent on dominating a world set against her kind who is prepared to use her children while also loving them quite fiercely.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book has a lot going for it.  The worldbuilding, (even though it’s a bit shaky in some areas) the plot, the characters, and the inclusion of a non-binary, femme character in a main role and Rhodry’s unconditional acceptance of Mio for the person he is. But I had problems with the prose, which was overly flowery for my taste; so much so that it often got in the way of the story and the storytelling.  And…er… then there was this:

He fondled my chest, as if feeling the shape of my muscles. Maybe it was good to be so firm. Speaking of firm—he jumped slightly as I took a liberty. Heavens, did he have a bouncy little plum. Sweet cleft, muscle tensing under my grasp—damn, I could hold on to that forever.

bouncy little plum?!  (I’m sorry, but once an author has made me laugh (and not in the good way), during a love scene, they’ve lost me.)  Not only is it ridiculous, it’s so out of character for Rhodry; he’s a big, dark, brooding presence who knocks back whisky like it’s water and swears like a trooper… and he takes “a liberty” and thinks “Heavens!” ?  But it’s also an illustration of the point I was making about language getting in the way and obscuring meaning.  What exactly is Rhodry grasping?  Is the bouncy little plum in question Mio’s arse?  Mio’s cock? A nearby  fruit bowl?

And then there’s the underdeveloped romance. There’s no doubt that by the time Mio and Rhodry are on the same page romantically they care for each other deeply and that they’re both prepared to make extreme sacrifices – their lives if need be – in order to keep the other safe.  But the movement from initial attraction to full-blown love was weak; it’s pretty much insta-lust/love and there was no real build-up of romantic and sexual tension.

Writing this review and grading this novel has been difficult.  Lord of the Last Heartbeat has a lot to offer, and I fully admit that the problem I had with the prose is very subjective.  Ultimately, however,  I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly and honestly recommend a book in which the writing so often gets in the way of the story – although I’m sure there are many readers for whom Ms. Peterson’s writing style will work better than it did for me.

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.

 

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 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.

A Drop of Ink by Megan Chance (audiobook) – Narrated by Taylor Ann Krahn and Tim Campbell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Penniless and disgraced, Adelaide Wentworth is feeling rather desperate. With nothing left to lose, she and her sister, Louisa, flee to Lake Geneva with Adelaide’s lover, the infamous poet Julian Estes. There, Louisa hopes to persuade Bayard Sonnier—celebrated writer and her former lover—to advance Julian’s career. He is their last hope for salvation.

At the Villa Diodati—the place that inspired the writing of Frankenstein sixty years earlier—Louisa plots to rekindle her affair with Bayard, while Adelaide hopes to restore her fading love for Julian by being the muse he needs.

But soon, secrets are revealed, passions ignited, and hidden talents discovered. Adelaide begins to imagine a different life. Confused, she turns to Giovanni Calina—Bayard’s assistant and a man with his own secrets and deep resentments—and the two form a dangerous alliance. No one leaves unscathed in this richly imagined, emotionally nuanced tale of passion, ambition, inspiration, and redemption.

Rating: Narration – C/B; Content – B+

In 1816, a group of five writers lived for a few months at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. One night, during a particularly virulent storm, they sat around telling each other ghost stories, and then one of their number issued a challenge that they should all write one … and the rest is history because one of those stories was eventually published as Frankenstein. The writers were, of course, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and his wife, Mary, her step-sister Claire (and Shelley’s some-time lover) and Byron’s friend and physician, Dr. John Polidori, whose own effort, The Vampyre, was written several decades before Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In A Drop of Ink, Megan Chance re-imagines this story some sixty years later, in 1876. Author Bayard Sonnier is as famous for his romantic liaisons as for his writing, and, as was the case with Byron, he’s the equivalent of a rock star in terms of his fame and the interest that is generated by anything and everything he does. Following the ending of his most recent, scandalous, love affair, Bayard has left England in the attempt to find some anonymity and time to work on his next book, which is already overdue. He is accompanied by his secretary, Giovanni Calina who, in spite of his Italianate name, hails from Bethnal Green in the East End of London. The son of a cobbler, Giovanni – usually referred to in the book as ‘Vanni’ – has been well educated and managed to land the job as Bayard’s secretary, in part because of his skill with languages – a definite plus, given Bayard’s intention to travel. Vanni is also an aspiring writer, and hopes that perhaps he will be able to learn something about the craft by working closely with the renowned author.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Secrets in the Mist (Gothic Myths #1) by Anna Lee Huber

secrets-in-the-mist

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1812. Since the death of her mother and brother, Ella Winterton’s life has been consumed by keeping her drunkard father out of trouble and the roof of their crumbling cottage over their heads. But even isolated deep in the Norfolk broads, Ella has never been afraid of the marshes surrounding her home, despite their being riddled with treacherous bogs and local smugglers. Until one night a man masquerading as a Lantern Man—a frightening figure of local legend—waylays her in the marshes near her home, and her world suddenly begins to spiral out of control.

Ella can tell her friends and the local villagers are all hiding something terrible, something they refuse to share, and she can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the Lantern Man and his secret activities in the shadows of the seemingly quiet broads. But when Ella’s father is caught with smuggled brandy by the authorities and levied a crippling fine, she is forced to turn to the stranger for help, despite her distrust and his alarming ability to kiss her senseless.

Now she must unravel a twisted trail of deception and secrets, and uncover once and for all whether the Lantern Man is friend or foe. Or else risk being dragged down into the marshes, like the victims from the myth, and buried in a watery grave.

Rating: B+

Taking a break from her Lady Darby historical mysteries, Anna Lee Huber has embarked upon a new series entitled Gothic Myths, a set of linked but standalone gothic romances. The first of these, Secrets in the Mist, is an enjoyable and well-developed story of mystery and suspense in which the author makes the most of her chosen location – the East Anglian Fens – to create a splendidly eerie atmosphere of danger and unease.

Ella Winterton lives an isolated life in a run-down cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads. Since the death of her mother and brother, she has faced an increasingly difficult struggle to keep her alcoholic father out of trouble and to keep them fed and housed. Her one real friend is Kate Rockland, the sister of the young man Ella had, at one time, hoped to marry, and it is concern for Kate that prompts Ella to venture out late at night, in spite of the treacherous marshland that riddles the local terrain, and the stories of the mysterious Lantern Men who haunt the Fens. Kate is seriously ill and Ella, who is nursing her, needs to return home to gather some medicines and remedies, desperately afraid that without them, her friend might not last the night.

I was old enough and educated enough to recognise the legend of the Lantern Men for the fiction it likely was – a story meant to convince curious and unruly children to behave, an anecdote to explain the unexplainable. But I had also seen the lights – the will-o’-the-wisps, as they were called – mysterious glowing balls that sometimes hovered over the marshes, seeming to defy all logic or explanation.

When Ella spies the balls of light glowing through the fog, she tries to convince herself that they are nothing but a mirage, summoned up by her housekeeper’s warnings and the swirling mist. But even so, she hurries on her way, suddenly intensely aware that she is being followed. She tries to evade capture only to crash into a solid, dark shape that grabs and holds on to her – a shape clad in darkness from head to foot with a pair of piercing dark eyes and an air of menace that shakes her profoundly.

Ella manages to escape and carries on towards her destination, trying to tell herself there is a rational explanation for the presence of the lights and of the – man? – she encountered on the marshes. His presence, and Ella’s increasing awareness that all is not well in the locality only add to her unease as she tries to cope with her father’s mood swings, the presence of an unwelcome visitor, and the fact that she finds it more and more difficult to stop herself seeking out the Lantern Man, whose enigmatic presence makes her feel alive in ways she’s never before experienced.

When her father’s fondness for French brandy draws the attentions of the Customs Men and a massive fine is imposed upon him which they can’t pay, it’s to the Lantern Man that Ella turns for help. In spite of her attraction to him she isn’t completely sure she can trust him; but desperate times call for desperate measures – and things turn very dangerous indeed when Ella finds herself embroiled with a treacherous smuggling ring that threatens to do more than simply provide illegally imported luxury goods to those who can afford to pay for them.

Right from the start, Anna Lee Huber skilfully creates an atmosphere of foreboding with her superb descriptions of the bleak landscape and her evocation of the supernatural by means of the legend of the Lantern Men.  As an accomplished writer of historical mysteries, it’s a given that her plotting would be sound and that she would also incorporate an interesting and well-described historical background – but she also does a great job with the more character-driven side of the story too, thoroughly exploring Ella’s circumstances and her thoughts and feelings.

I cut my gothic-reading teeth on the novels of Victoria Holt back in the 1970s, and one of the things I continue to enjoy about those books is the way the author takes the time to set the scene for her stories and gradually familiarise her readers with her characters and their backgrounds. Ms. Huber has taken a leaf out of that book, so to speak, and almost the entire first half of Secrets in the Mist is set-up.  I will admit that I found it a little slow to start, but it wasn’t long before I was completely immersed in world the author has created, and in particular her descriptions of Ella’s daily life and complicated relationship with her father, which is brilliantly depicted.  The emotions Ella experiences – anger, shame, fear, disgust, love – are all palpable, and I really felt for her as she tried to come to terms with all her conflicting feelings about the parent who has become such a disappointment to her.  Ella is an extremely well-developed character; a young woman who has been repeatedly let down by those around her, yet who continues to soldier on in spite of it and whose realistic responses to her father and to others around her make her a heroine who is very easy to relate to.

Equally well-done is the growing relationship between Ella and the mysterious Lantern Man.  Gothic romances tend to be heroine-centric with the hero being almost a secondary character, but this is one of the better-developed romances of its type I have read. While the story is told from Ella’s point of view, the attraction between the couple is there right from their first meeting, and although we are never in the Lantern Man’s PoV, it’s completely clear that he is smitten from the start and he is a strong presence throughout the novel.

Secrets of the Mist is one of those books that creeps up on the reader in that it starts fairly slowly but quickly transforms into a book that is difficult to put down.  Ms. Huber’s writing is intelligent and assured, and her descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere are highly evocative, putting the reader right in the middle of those mist-filled marshlands, watching the mysterious lights bobbing around through the fog.  Fans of historical mysteries and gothic romances should definitely consider checking this one out, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Lost Among the Living

This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1921. Three years after her husband, Alex, disappeared, shot down over Germany, Jo Manders still mourns his loss. Working as a paid companion to Alex’s wealthy, condescending aunt, Dottie Forsyth, Jo travels to the family’s estate in the Sussex countryside. But there is much she never knew about her husband’s origins…and the revelation of a mysterious death in the Forsyths’ past is just the beginning…

All is not well at Wych Elm House. Dottie’s husband is distant, and her son was grievously injured in the war. Footsteps follow Jo down empty halls, and items in her bedroom are eerily rearranged. The locals say the family is cursed, and that a ghost in the woods has never rested. And when Jo discovers her husband’s darkest secrets, she wonders if she ever really knew him. Isolated in a place of deception and grief, she must find the truth or lose herself forever.

And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…

Rating: B

Simone St. James may only have five published novels to her name (so far) but I was so taken with her very first book – The Haunting of Maddy Clare – that she pretty much immediately became an auto-buy author. In recent years, she has brilliantly revitalised the historical/gothic mystery, producing superbly-written, well-crafted and spine-tingling stories that have often kept me reading until well past my bedtime!

Lost Among the Living is set in 1921 and as the book opens, we meet Jo Manders, a young widow whose husband, Alex, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane was shot down in 1918, but his body was never found, meaning that Jo is not officially a widow and is therefore unable to claim a widow’s pension. With no other means of supporting herself and her mother – who is mentally ill and lives in an asylum – Jo has found employment as companion to Alex’s wealthy, aristocratic aunt, Dottie Forsyth. Dottie is opinionated, demanding and often rude, so working for her is no picnic, but she is also Jo’s one last link to Alex, so Jo sticks it out.

Jo’s assignment with Dottie was only supposed to last for the few months Dottie spent touring the Continent buying art from people and families driven to financial ruin by the war, so she is surprised when Dottie asks her to accompany her back to England. On arriving at Wych Elm House, however, Jo begins to question her decision. The house is a desolate place that is permeated by an atmosphere of grief and loss; the local villagers whisper about mysterious deaths that happened before the war and vicious ghosts roaming the woods; Dottie’s husband is a coldly calculating, raffish womaniser, their son, Martin, has returned from the war an invalid who seems headed for an early demise, and their daughter, Frances, died in mysterious circumstances. But the more Jo learns about that past tragedy, the more determined she is to discover the truth behind it, refusing to be intimidated by the footsteps that follow her or by the stories that circulate about a mysterious beast roaming the woods.

And on top of all this comes Jo’s dawning realisation about how little she knew about the man she married; she hadn’t known that Wych Elm House had been Alex’s home or that he had grown up with Dottie’s children… and certainly hadn’t known he visited the house on his last leave before he was shot down.

Lost Among the Living is a great blend of ghost story, mystery and romance, and the writing is superb. Ms St. James is a master at creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty, and her descriptive prose is often beautiful:

To my right and left, the roof of Wych Elm House fell away, as if I were the mermaid on the prow of a ship, sailing into the woods. Before me spread the tops of the trees, the closest ones visibly rippling and shimmering in the wind, the father ones mere ribbons of black and pewter and dusky silver, blending into a mass that spread for miles.

But while I enjoyed the book overall, there are a couple of things about it that didn’t work for me, and which prevented my rating it more highly. First of all, there is a massive spoiler in the publisher’s blurb which kind of skewed my reading of it. It’s difficult to describe without giving too much away, but the blurb says this: And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House. I was 99.9% certain I knew who this person was going to be, and as a consequence, I got frustrated when he failed to appear until around the final third of the book. Would I have read the book differently had I not read that spoiler? It’s difficult to say, but there are enough pointers towards this event in the book itself to have made it likely that I wouldn’t. My other big issue with the story was the rapidity with which Jo accepted the presence of the ghost and knew immediately who it was. To me, it felt as though the author was taking a bit of a short-cut; readers know what to expect from her books, they will be quick to accept the presence of a ghost and so Jo accepts it quickly, too.

But even with those reservations, Lost Among the Living is an intriguing and beautifully-written story in which the tension leaps off the page and the characters are complex and interesting. It isn’t my favourite of Ms. St. James’ books (that would be The Other Side of Midnight), but it’s certainly well worth reading if you enjoy mysteries and ghost stories with a touch of romance.

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