The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig & Karen White (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley, Vanessa Johansson & Saskia Maarleveld

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

May 2013

Her finances are in dire straits, and best-selling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history.

Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced member of parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe….

April 1915

Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, preoccupied with business…and something else on which she can’t quite put a finger. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect – but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander and take charge of her own life….

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the US, and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems….

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives…and history itself.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

Three authors, three main characters, three narrators; The Glass Ocean is a dual timeline story from the pens of the 3Ws – Williams, Willig and White – that weaves together interconnecting stories featuring three very different woman in two different time-periods almost a century apart. I have no idea which author penned which character – and apparently it’s a very closely guarded secret – but the narration is clearly assigned, with Vanessa Johansson reading the chapters told by Sarah Blake, and Brittany Pressley and Saska Maarleveld reading those from the points of view of Caroline Hochstetter and Tess Schaff respectively.

Five years earlier, Sarah Blake wrote a very successful book about the mid-nineteenth century Irish Potato Famine. For a year she was feted, interviewed, sought after for book signings and events… but when inspiration for a follow-up book failed to arrive, she more or less fell off the radar, and now, even her agent hardly ever calls her. She’s struggling – both creatively and financially – and in desperation, turns to an old family heirloom, breaking her promise to her Alzheimer-stricken mother and opening the chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she finds there leads her to travel to England to request access to the archives of the Langford family in the hope that the documents contained within it will help her to find answers to the questions raised by her great-grandfather’s papers. The problem is that getting permission to view the Langford family’s documents is going to be difficult. John Langford MP has recently become unwillingly entangled in a scandal involving his ex-wife and is lying low in an attempt to dodge the paparazzi stalking him, so Sarah is going to have to approach him carefully – and probably using subterfuge – if she’s to stand any chance of getting him to agree to her request.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig (audiobook) – Narrated by Barrie Kreinik

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: He’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor house in England, they had a fairy-tale romance in London, they have three-year-old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and named it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors, and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball; Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned; and the papers go mad.

Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to try to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

Rating: Narration – A+: Content – B+

I’ve read and/or listened to a number of the books in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, but for some reason haven’t yet read or listened to anything she’s written since. Nothing against the author – it’s my fault for having so little time to partake of books I’m not reviewing! – but the buzz about her latest novel, The English Wife, and good reports of it from friends whose opinions I trust, made me determined to experience it in one format or another, so I was pleased when I saw it would be coming out in audio and that Barrie Kreinik was on board as narrator. I’ve only listened to her once or twice before, but I remember being impressed with the quality of her performance in general and her English accent in particular, so that was a win-win.

The book opens on the night of the Twelfth Night ball being given by Annabelle and Bayard van Duyvil, in January 1899. The van Duyvils are a golden couple, he the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she a daughter of the English aristocracy, and they seem to have everything – good looks, a pair of lovely children (twins), wealth and social position. But secrets lurk beneath the surface; rumours abound about the close relationship between Bay and his cousin Anne, and there is much gossip about affair rumoured to be going on between Annabelle and David Pruyn, the architect who has spent the last eighteen months overseeing the work on the van Duyvil’s new house, a grand reproduction of Annabelle’s stately home in England.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.

(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

The Lure of the Moonflower (Pink Carnation #12) by Lauren Willig

the lure of the moonflower

Portugal, December 1807. Jack Reid, the British agent known as the Moonflower (formerly the French agent known as the Moonflower), has been stationed in Portugal and is awaiting his new contact. He does not expect to be paired with a woman—especially not the legendary Pink Carnation.

All of Portugal believes that the royal family departed for Brazil just before the French troops marched into Lisbon. Only the English government knows that mad seventy-three-year-old Queen Maria was spirited away by a group of loyalists determined to rally a resistance. But as the French garrison scours the countryside, it’s only a matter of time before she’s found and taken.

It’s up to Jane to find her first and ensure her safety. But she has no knowledge of Portugal or the language. Though she is loath to admit it, she needs the Moonflower. Operating alone has taught her to respect her own limitations. But she knows better than to show weakness around the Moonflower—an agent with a reputation for brilliance, a tendency toward insubordination, and a history of going rogue.

Rating: B+

It’s always a sad day when a long-running series comes to an end, especially one I’ve enjoyed as much as Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, but I suppose all good things must come to an end. And with The Lure of the Moonflower Ms Willig has done her fans proud and brings the series to a close on a high, with a fast-moving storyline featuring the Pink Carnation herself, now working alone and undercover in Portugal.

Jane Wooliston is an intelligent and determined young woman, who has cleverly run her network of spies and agents from Paris, under the noses of the French, for several years. But everything fell apart when (in The Passion of the Purple Plumeria), her younger sister Agnes went missing in the company of a schoolmate, Lizzy Reid, and Jane and her chaperone/second-in-command, the formidable Miss Gwen had to return to England in order to find the girls. Their disappearance was linked to the Jewels of Berar which had been sent to Lizzy by her brother, Jack – who was thus the unwitting architect of Jane’s downfall and her subsequent decision to wind up her operations in Paris and go it alone as a British agent.

She is sent to Portugal in late 1807 in order to trace Queen Maria, who was supposed to have left the country with her family, but who has instead been spirited away by a break-away group of loyalists who intend to use her as a figurehead to rally resistance to Napoleon’s forces. The queen is elderly and quite, quite mad – but with French troops scouring the Portuguese countryside, time is running out and Jane must find her first and get her to a place of safety.

Having no first-hand knowledge of the country or the language, Jane is going to need help, so an agent is assigned to her, one with a reputation for unorthodox methods, insubordination, brilliance – and a history of working for both sides.

Jane’s contact – the Moonflower – is none other than Jack Reid, stepson of her former companion (information she decides to withhold) and the man she holds responsible for her current situation. He isn’t wild about the idea of being paired with a woman, and least of all the Pink Carnation herself, but he quickly realises that regardless of her experience of running missions and of intelligence gathering, Jane is out of her depth when it comes to the unpleasant realities of moving through difficult, inhospitable terrain in the depths of winter – and that she needs his help.

As they travel, Jane and Jack develop an – at first grudging – appreciation for each other’s talents and skills. Both are used to working alone, Jack literally, and Jane because as the head of her organisation, she answered only to herself; so there are adjustments to be made on both sides and I enjoyed watching their relationship progress from that initial reluctance to work with anyone else through admiration and understanding to attraction and something more.

Both protagonists are well-defined and I particularly enjoyed finally being able to get into Jane’s head given that she has been so enigmatic throughout the series. She has to learn that sometimes two heads ARE better than one, and I loved watching her growing awareness of Jack and the way she finds herself unable to maintain her customary sang-froid around him. And Jack is a delicious hero – extremely capable, slightly grumpy and down to earth, he comes to see Jane as an equal and recognises that sometimes it’s necessary for her to put herself in the firing line if they are to succeed in their mission and doesn’t come over all “I’m the man therefore I must take all the risks”. The fact that he is of mixed race (his mother was an Indian princess, his father, Colonel Reid, is a Scot) means that Jack is, as he himself says, “neither flesh nor fowl”; his parentage barred him from occupations open to the British, while also exiling him from his mother’s family. Ms Willig makes an interesting comparison between Jack’s “invisibility” because of his ethnicity and Jane’s – because she’s a woman.

I found the ending to be a little weak in terms of the espionage plot, although I did enjoy reading the beginnings of Jack’s reconciliation with his father, and the epilogue which gives us a glimpse of what lies in store for Jane and Jack as the Mr and Mrs Smith of the Napoleonic era!

In the modern day portion of the story, former grad-student Eloise is about to marry her fiancé, Colin Selwick, and on the day before the wedding, everything is completely manic. The pace is befittingly frantic and I found myself giggling frequently at the outlandish pronouncements of some of Eloise’s relatives and her own ironic asides. The inclusion of an improbable kidnapping plotline in this portion of the story was perhaps a little over the top, but it didn’t get in the way of my overall enjoyment.

It’s all too easy, when you read a book as fast-paced, engaging and funny as this, not to fully appreciate the huge amount of research that has gone into it. But making it look effortless is a great skill and one that this particular author has demonstrated time and again. While this is the final book in the series (for now, at least!) and most of the plot threads are tied up, there are a few things left hanging that Ms Willig discusses in her comprehensive and entertaining notes at the end. If she ever finds the time to return to the world of the Pink Carnation and to actually write some of the stories she mentions having ideas for, then I have no doubt of her finding an excited and very appreciative audience.

A 2014 Retrospective

I was going to write a “favourite books of 2014” or “best books of 2014” post or something of that nature, but then realised that I’ve written and contributed to a number of those, so I’m doing something different here.

cat_asleep_on_bookSo instead, I’m stealing an idea from the lovely Wendy the Super Librarian and have been looking through my Goodreads Stats to see how my ratings panned out across the year. Because I review a large number of new and current releases, the majority of the books I read in 2014 were published in 2014, but I managed to squeeze in a few others. And because Goodreads counts print/ebooks and audiobooks of the same title as two different books, while my total for the year was 231, it’s probably closer to 180 different books.

Looking through my stats (and if I’ve counted correctly!) the majority of my reading and listening fell within the 4/5 star bracket, which is pretty good going.

I gave 34 books and 19 audiobooks 5 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded up) A/A-
I gave 63 books and 32 audiobooks 4 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded down) B+/B
I gave 43 books and 15 audiobooks 3 stars (some will have been 3.5 stars rounded down) B-/C+/C
I gave 14 books and 2 audiobooks 2 stars C-/D+/D
I gave 3 books and two audiobooks 1 star (one of the books was a DNF, as was one of the audiobooks, because the narration was utterly dire.)

Putting together the list of books to which I gave a 5 star/A rating, it’s interesting to see that I’ve rated as many audio books at that level as I have printed books. Obviously, when rating an audiobook, I take the narration into account too – and if you look closely, you’ll see there are three names that crop up repeatedly as the narrators on those audiobooks; Nicholas Boulton, Rosalyn Landor and Kate Reading, who are, quite simply, three of the best narrators around when it comes to historical romance. In many cases, these are audiobooks where I may have rated the story at a A- or B+, but the narration is so good that the overall rating is bumped up. Of course, even the best narrator can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so even in those audios where the story isn’t quite at the five star level, it’s not going to be a dud!

The reviews are linked to the titles below the images.

5 star books:


Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh
Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne
Douglas: Lord of Heartache by Grace Burrowes
The Captive and The Traitor by Grace Burrowes
Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler
Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase
At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran
Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran
Mr (Not Quite) Perfect by Jessica Hart
Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla Kelly
Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
The King’s Falcon by Stella Riley
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain
Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart
The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

5 star Audiobooks:

The Escape by Mary Balogh & Rosalyn Landor
The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
Captives of the Night by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Lord of Scoundrels Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare & Carolyn Morris
Arabella by Georgette Heyer & Phyllida Nash
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer & Georgina Sutton
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer & Daniel Philpott
Venetia by Georgette Heyer & Phillida Nash
The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain & Michelle Ford
Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James & Mary Jane Wells
His at Night by Sherry Thomas & Kate Reading<
The Mask of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig & Kate Reading

Honourable Mentions:

– go to books and audios I’ve rated at 4.5 stars/A-/B+, but which I’ve rounded up to five because while there might have been something that niggled at me, it was a damn good book and felt closer to 5 stars than 4. Or just a book that, despite a few flaws, I really enjoyed.

The Boleyn Reckoning by Laura Andersen
The Laird by Grace Burrowes
The MacGregor’s Lady by Grace Burrowes & Roger Hampton
Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Firelight by Kristen Callihan & Moira Quirk
When the Duke Was Wicked by Lorraine Heath
The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt
A Grave Matter by Anna Lee Huber
Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner
It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden
Till We Next Meet by Karen Ranney
Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn
The Devil’s Waltz by Anne Stuart
The Perilous Sea by Sherry Thomas

I think it’s fair to say I had a pretty good year, reading-wise, with a high proportion of books I’d describe as good or better, and not too many “meh” or dire ones. (Although where would we be without the odd turkey to snark about?)

The first crop of 2015 releases looks promising; I’m taking part in a few challenges next year as well, which I’ll post about soon so I can keep track and I’m looking forward to my next year of reading, listening and reviewing.

How did you do last year?

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading


In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.

Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.

Rating: Narration A; Content: A

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is the penultimate in Lauren Willig’s highly entertaining Pink Carnation series, and, as with the books that precede it, has a dual storyline which switches between the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries as American grad student Eloise pursues her research into the life and times of the Pink Carnation as well as her relationship with her English boyfriend, Colin. While this book perhaps deviates somewhat from the series’ roots in the tales of the espionage and counter-espionage being practiced by the English and French during the Napoleonic Wars, it’s nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable story which is brought vividly to life by the utterly splendid Kate Reading.

We first met Sarah – Sally – Fitzhugh in The Mischief of the Mistletoe, (Book 7 in the series). She is now in her second season, and the story opens at a soirée being held at a house next door to that of the Duke of Belliston – who, rumour has it, is a vampire.

Sally is a wonderfully no-nonsense young woman, and pooh-poohs that suggestion instantly. Since the publication of The Convent of Orsino, a gothic novel written by Lizzie’s stepmother (formerly Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, confidante of the infamous Pink Carnation), London has been overtaken by vampire fever, and even being a duke is not enough to avoid suspicion and gossip. Bored by the party – and by the season as a whole – Sally takes up her friends’ challenge to beard the supposed vampire in his den, and makes her way into the garden next door – only to be immediately accosted by the purported creature of the night himself. And the sparks start to fly.

“I am not trespassing,” Sally said haughtily. “I was simply admiring your foliage.”

The Duke of Belliston arched one brow. “Has anyone warned you that strange plants might have thorns?”

If she had wanted a lesson in horticulture, she would have consulted a gardener. “Has anyone ever told you that it is exceedingly annoying to speak in aphorisms?”

For a moment, a flicker of something that might have been amusement showed in his dark eyes. Amusement, or merely the reflected light of the candle. “Yes,” he said. “It tends to truncate conversation quite effectively.”

Sally wasn’t accustomed to allowing herself to be truncated.

Ms Reading’s delivery in passages such as this is one of the many highlights of her performance. She has a wonderful way of delivering dead-pan utterances without overdoing it, which is an excellent match for Ms Willig’s clever humour.

The duke is quite aware of his reputation and appears unaffected by it. But Sally is annoyed at the cruel gossip she continually hears being circulated about him, and is determined not only to learn more about him but to champion him.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston doesn’t want a champion, or even to integrate himself back into the society from which he fled twelve years ago. He has returned to England from Louisiana, where he has been living with his mother’s family, determined to discover the identity of the person who murdered both his parents when he was a boy. Dogged by gossip and haunted by his past, he’s a troubled young man who has finally come to realise that it’s time for him to stop running, find out the truth and bring the murderer to justice.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig


Colonel William Reid has returned home from India to retire near his children, who are safely stowed in an academy in Bath. Upon his return to the Isles, however, he finds that one of his daughters has vanished, along with one of her classmates.

Having served as second-in-command to the Pink Carnation, one of England’s most intrepid spies, it would be impossible for Gwendolyn Meadows to give up the intrigue of Paris for a quiet life in the English countryside—especially when she’s just overheard news of an alliance forming between Napoleon and an Ottoman Sultan. But, when the Pink Carnation’s little sister goes missing from her English boarding school, Gwen reluctantly returns home to investigate the girl’s disappearance.

Thrown together by circumstance, Gwen and William must cooperate to track down the young ladies before others with nefarious intent get their hands on them. But Gwen’s partnership with quick-tongued, roguish William may prove to be even more of an adventure for her than finding the lost girls…

Rating: A

I absolutely loved this book. I’m woefully behind on the Pink Carnation series, but I jumped at the chance to review this one, not least because it has rather a USP (Unique Selling Point) in the genre – namely that the hero and heroine are of more mature years (he’s fifty-four, she’s forty-five). That certainly wasn’t the only reason, however. Ms. Willig’s writing is intelligent and frequently humorous, her characters leap off the page and she spins a superb yarn.

For anyone not familiar with the series, most of the Pink Carnation novels follow a similar format : the modern-day story of American grad-student, Eloise Kelly, and her research into the network of nineteenth century British spies under the direction of the Pink Carnation, runs alongside the (fictional) historical events that make up the bulk of the narrative.

I can’t deny that the format has its frustrations. I’d get to a point in the story set in 1805 where I was desperate to find out what happens next – and suddenly it was 2004 and I had to take a quick break from the characters I was coming to love in order to catch up with what was going on in “the other” story. Fortunately, however, Ms. Willig never makes her readers wait too long to get back to the action.

In 2004, Eloise is moping about the fact that she will be returning to the US in two months. This is what she’s long planned to do, except that she’s now in a long-term relationship with Colin Selwick, a descendant of the families she has been researching. They are living at Selwick House in Sussex and Eloise’s research into the exploits of the Pink Carnation has stalled as she seems suddenly to have vanished from the face of the earth. There is no correspondence, there are no mentions of her in documents; so Eloise becomes sidetracked by the search for the Jewels of Berar, known to have disappeared during Wellington’s wars in India, and rumored to have been hidden at Selwick.

In 1805, the Pink Carnation – otherwise known as Miss Jane Wooliston – receives the news that her sister, Agnes, has disappeared from school in the company of a schoolmate, one Lizzie Reid. Jane and her companion, Miss Gwen Meadows, a formidably sharp-tongued spinster, are living in Paris from where Jane runs her network of agents. Gwen has appeared in a many of the previous books and has a fearsome reputation for speaking her mind and not caring what anybody thinks of her. She’s prickly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, yet she cares deeply for Jane and is committed to their cause of messing with Napoleon as often as possible.

Jane believes it possible that Agnes may have been kidnapped by someone with a desire to neutralize the Pink Carnation, so she and Gwen return to England to discover what they can and try to find the girls.

Also recently arrived in England is Colonel William Reid, late of the East India Company and Lizzie’s father. He has no idea that his daughter has gone missing until he arrives at her school in Bath. He is distraught and guilt-stricken – he hasn’t seen Lizzie for ten years, when he set her and her older sister, Kat, on the boat to England in order to protect them from harm in India – and he feels terrible that he has let so many years pass before seeking her out. Despite his seeming neglect, however, William loves his children dearly. Believing his daughters to be safe and secure in England, he remained in India for longer than he had intended, making do with the infrequent correspondence that was all there was to be had between England and India at the time. It doesn’t speak especially well of him, it’s true, and yet he is not a man to be anything other than brutally honest with himself once he realizes he has failed in his duty towards them, and I doubt that anyone could have blamed him to any greater degree than he blamed himself for their respective situations.

While Gwen doesn’t take to William at first, it’s easy to see that it’s not because she actually dislikes him. Far from it. She’s unsettled by him – he doesn’t react to her by scurrying away with his tail between his legs as do so many men who have been on the receiving end of her scorn, but more than that, he pays attention toher rather than just suffering her company as the unfortunate consequence of wanting to associate with the beautiful Jane.

Grudgingly, Gwen agrees that they should work together in order to find the girls, and they depart Bath for Bristol, to see what they can find out about their disappearance. It gradually becomes clear that there is more to this than the abduction that Jane had feared, and I think that this is where the modern-day story of the search for the Jewels of Berar worked best. By keeping the jewels to the forefront of the reader’s mind every few chapters, Ms. Willig was able to hint at their importance without overshadowing the story of the search for the missing girls, the potential threats to Jane at the hands of the mysterious French spymaster “The Gardener,” and the romance that was developing between William and Gwen.

The sparks fly between them from the moment they meet, although Gwen tries to keep her distance with coolness and hauteur. But all the while, William is gradually wearing down her resistance, proving himself to be courageous and honorable as well as to have a wonderful sense of humor and no small degree of charm.

Their relationship was the absolute star-turn of the book and shows that it is perfectly possible to craft a truly charming and engaging romance from a more mature standpoint. Both protagonists bring a trolley-load of emotional baggage with them, but theirs is a story about second chances, and very well deserved they are. Gwen’s back-story is particularly heart wrenching, but goes a long way toward explaining how and why this vital and intelligent woman became a waspish old-maid, her true self hidden beneath a veneer of testiness. There’s one point towards the end of the book when William is watching Gwen with her friends and family at dinner, which I thought was wonderfully observed:

It was as though she had retreated into a plaster mold of herself, all the life, all the animation that had so captivated him, buried beneath a cold and brittle shell. That tremendous zest he had seen again and again diverted itself into haughty comments and cutting asides. And no one, no one in the room, seemed to find anything out of the ordinary in this. They smiled at one another and rolled their eyes as she cracked her wit at them, but not one of them noticed the pain beneath it.

To anyone having difficulty imagining a romantic hero is in his fifties – is there anyone out there who can deny the obvious attractions of, say, George Clooney or Robert Downey Jr.? William Reid is not only a very handsome man, he’s a terribly attractive character, too – determined and strong but with a sweetness and vulnerability about him which only serve to increase his appeal. He’s far from perfect; he’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his daughters and about the state of his relationships with his three sons, but as Gwen realizes, she’s never met anyone who cares so deeply for others.

The romance between Gwen and William is just one thread in a multi-faceted story which also features hints of a romantic relationship between Jane and her archenemy as well as the hunt for the jewels and the deepening emotions between Colin and Eloise in 2004. I thought it was a nicely humorous touch for each chapter to begin with a quote from Miss Gwen’s oft-mentioned gothic novel, The Convent of Orsino which eagle-eyed readers will recognize as a spoof of such stories as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto (and which, indeed Ms. Willig acknowledges as her inspirations in her author’s note). Each of the excerpts mirrors the action of the story, as the heroine, Plumeria and her companion, Sir Magnifico, seek to discover the whereabouts of his daughter, the lovely Amarantha.

I was thoroughly caught up in the story of Gwen and her William and didn’t want it to end, even though I wanted them to get their HEA. I know there are a couple more books to come in this wonderful series, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we’re going to see of this pair.