Reading my umpteenth Kearsley novel, I noticed something in her narrative I hadn’t beforehand: a common emotional trajectory that may be characterized as melancholy mood to joyful conclusion. Because they are the most historical of historical romances, their melancholy comes from Kearsley’s initial presentation of her characters as trapped by history. But she builds their strength, intelligence, and virtue and proves to us how these qualities can sometimes defeat history’s choke-hold. She writes about ordinary people (when considered through the lens of big-name, big-battle, big-power sweep) but extraordinary in how they wrest happiness out of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles determined by history and its cruel, expedient masters, men of power over honour. At their centre are women and child characters who are victimized but not victims, exercise agency within constricting circumstances and yet are often trapped by forces beyond their capacity to fight back. In the end, characters escape to a happy life by circumventing evil using wiles without losing their essential goodness. The Vanished Days‘ Lily Aitcheson and her helpers are such. Her story is told in a dual-timeline alternating between childhood/youth and the novel’s “present-day”, the early 1700’s. Her story is narrated by one Adam Williamson, who is tasked to investigate Lily’s claim for compensation as the widow of a man who perished in Scotland’s 1698-Darien-colony-bound fleet. The blurb fills in historical detail further:
I wanted to read, not necessarily Awakening His Shy Cinderella, but Sophie Pembroke because Wendy the Superlibrarian loved one of her books. Pembroke’s writing and some scene setting can be lovely, but her “awakening Cinderella” was uneven. It started out great and I was excited to find a new category author to follow. Here is the blurb to set us off:
Can a festive flirtation last…
After the final cracker has been pulled? Damon knows Rachel’s always prioritized her family’s needs above her own. But one close encounter between them changes everything… It’s time for Rachel to step out of her comfort zone! Damon usually steers clear of commitment, but neither can resist indulging in a very temporary affair! Only, when the time comes, can he walk away from the captivating woman he’s discovered?
There are way too many question and exclamation marks in the blurb, offering a tenuous description. Damon Hunter and Rachel Charles have known each other for years. Rachel is Damon’s older sister’s BFF. Their lives have intertwined, but Rachel, who’s carried a torch for Damon, is plain-Jane curvaceous to his player good looks. In the background are Rachel’s family, her step-mother and -sisters, putting her down, giving her the lowliest tasks in the world-famous department store family business, her ineffectual father doing nada to help her. This made Rachel into a hard-working mouse of a woman, toiling but never asserting or asking for anything for herself (hence, the Cinderella title). (more…)
Caro Carson is a new-to-me romance author and her For This Christmas Only, though flawed, is engaging, well-written, and may have given me that category kick I’ve sought this summer. She reminded me of the gentle, funny, emotionally-savvy Marion Lennox, who also tells about the road to love of two people who are sad when the story opens. In Carson’s case, in For This Christmas Only‘s case, sad are E. L. Taylor (Erasmus Leonardo!) and Mallory Ames; he, a venture capitalist who made millions and recently wrote a bestselling how-to-entrepreneur book, the reading of which gave Mallory the impetus to take a stand against her exploiting family and return to Masterson University, at 29, to finish her business degree. The blurb offers us a few more details
After nearly dying in a plane crash, financial guru Eli Taylor wants to find meaning in his life. A chance encounter at a small town’s Yule log lighting leads to an evening spent as the fake boyfriend of his superfan Mallory Ames. When she finds herself homeless for the holidays, he invites her to stay with him as his fake girlfriend so he can show his siblings what a loving partnership should look like. The arrangement will end when the new year begins…or will it?
Hmmm, that chance encounter is an extended scene that brings us to the 65% point in the e-book. The blurb’s latter half takes place in the last 10%. That extended scene showcased Carson’s romance-writing chops, to my great pleasure, and also bogged the narrative down, to my reading consternation.
I am nearing the finish-line to the Ruth Galloway series, with only the most recent left to read, the June-released Nighthawks, before I join the thousands of readers awaiting the next installment. Chatting with a fellow-reader in church today, we agreed it’s time for Dr. Galloway and DCI Nelson to be together, pretty please, Ms Griffiths …
Like the previous eleven, The Lantern Men sees the familiar team, this time initially separated by choice or circumstance, come together to find a serial killer’s missing and murdered women (the women are long-buried and I can vouch, for the squeamish, that nothing gross, or violent appears in the novel; sentiments are terrible, but descriptive physical detail is at a minimum). Here are further details from the publisher’s blurb:
Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway changed her life—until a convicted killer tells her that four of his victims were never found, drawing her back to the place she left behind.
Everything has changed for Ruth Galloway. She has a new job, home, and partner, and she is no longer North Norfolk police’s resident forensic archaeologist. That is, until convicted murderer Ivor March offers to make DCI Nelson a deal. Nelson was always sure that March killed more women than he was charged with. Now March confirms this and offers to show Nelson where the other bodies are buried—but only if Ruth will do the digging.
Curious, but wary, Ruth agrees. March tells Ruth that he killed four more women and that their bodies are buried near a village bordering the fens, said to be haunted by the Lantern Men, mysterious figures holding lights that lure travelers to their deaths.
Is Ivor March himself a lantern man, luring Ruth back to Norfolk? What is his plan, and why is she so crucial to it? And are the killings really over?
After that at best forgettable romantic suspense, it was great to be back with Ruth, Kate, DCI Harry Nelson and his team, and the delicious complications of their personal lives amidst a series of crimes, a decades-long missing child, the murder of a King’s Lynn eccentric, and thank the reading gods after the last book’s Italian setting, Norfolk-set in the fog, rain, and cold.
The Stone Circle is definitely a Ruth Galloway which sees the past impinge on the present like the tides that rise near Ruth’s cottage, both in terms of the crime and the lives of its detecting figures. The publisher’s blurb will provide further detail:
DCI Nelson has been receiving threatening letters telling him to ‘go to the stone circle and rescue the innocent who is buried there’. He is shaken, not only because children are very much on his mind, with Michelle’s baby due to be born, but because although the letters are anonymous, they are somehow familiar. They read like the letters that first drew him into the case of The Crossing Places, and to Ruth. But the author of those letters is dead. Or are they?
Meanwhile Ruth is working on a dig in the Saltmarsh – another henge, known by the archaeologists as the stone circle – trying not to think about the baby. Then bones are found on the site, and identified as those of Margaret Lacey, a twelve-year-old girl who disappeared thirty years ago.
As the Margaret Lacey case progresses, more and more aspects of it begin to hark back to that first case of The Crossing Places, and to Scarlett Henderson, the girl Nelson couldn’t save. The past is reaching out for Ruth and Nelson, and its grip is deadly.
The bearing the past has on the present is treated in a more reflective fashion than the blurb’s somewhat sensationalist final sentence. Ruth often ruminates how the past plays its role in the present, how it should be studied and respected. Griffiths’ themes are always about solving a crime to put the past to rest, offer restitution to lives lost unjustly, and let their rest-in-peace give way to the living being able to carry on, even thrive. (more…)
I continue in my nostalgic pursuit of finding category romance. In this case, I read Nicole Helm, an author whose longer-form contemporary romance I enjoyed. And … nope. It wasn’t terrible, except for one puerile bit, but it also isn’t going to send me running to read more of this category. It didn’t help that I came in at #6: there were A LOT of previous book couples, with convoluted family histories, fostered, biological, and adopted, AND, it appears, six? seven? brothers from one ranch marrying the various sisters from the neighbouring one. Yeah, it was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers without the humour, music, or, well, the fun. Without overburdening my poor readers with the endless backstory, let’s give it over to the blurb for some plot and character filler:
Dev Wyatt’s worst fear has come true. Someone from the Wyatts’ dangerous past is stalking his family—and his best friend, Sarah Knight. When she asked Dev to help her have a child, Sarah did not expect her pregnancy would place her in danger, but now Sarah must take shelter on the Wyatt ranch. As she and Dev battle escalating threats, will they survive long enough to become a family?
Um, blurb-foiler: this sounds like it has forced-proximity potential. Au contraire, the Wyatt ranch is peopled with a gazillion brothers, their wives, children, and pets. The sexy times, given Sarah is nine months pregnant (not what we see on the cover), days from her due date, are strictly closed-bedroom-door and sparse, which is a-okay by me. As for the mini-village living together, with a grandmother to boot, I did not even try to figure out who’s who and who’s with who, or who begat who. (more…)
If there’s one thing I love about being on summer break, it’s catching up on my favourite contemporary mystery series, Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway. If you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for when you can have the perfect combination of archaeological (bones!) detail, northern England coastal descriptions, a wonderful, smart, funny heroine, a broody, old-fashioned-copper hero, his engaging team, and literary allusions, wonderful writing, great pacing? With every mystery, Griffiths intertwines it with parallel literary references; needless to say, I love this. In The Chalk Pit, Ruth’s daughter, Kate, has a tiny part in an Alice In Wonderland production. Alice, with its subterranean nightmarish surrealism, reflects Ruth’s recent excavations in Norwich’s chalky tunnels, the world of people who “sleep rough”, lives swept under the rug by society, and DCI Harry Nelson’s pursuit of those who are murdering them and snatching, “disappearing”, Norfolk’s women. The blurb provides further details:
Far below Norwich is a maze of old mining tunnels. When Ruth Galloway is called to examine a set of human remains in one of them, she notices the bones are almost translucent, a sign they were boiled soon after death. Once more, she’s at the helm of a murder investigation. Meanwhile, DCI Nelson is looking for a homeless woman who he hears has gone “underground.” Could she have disappeared into the labyrinth? And if so, is she connected to the body Ruth found? As Ruth and Nelson investigate the tunnels, they hear rumors of secret societies, cannibalism, and ritual killings. And when a dead body is found with a map of what seems to be the full maze, they realize their hunt for the killer has only just begun—and that more bodies may be underfoot.
While this description does credit to Griffiths’s mystery, it doesn’t capture what the series’s fans enjoy as much: the complex relationship between Ruth and Harry, Griffiths’s shifting perspectives as investigations occur, making the mystery more compelling, the likeable secondary characters with fully-formed personalities, including the children, and Griffiths’s ability to create fascinating, multiple settings, whether police headquarters and its interview rooms, Ruth’s isolated coastal cottage, a school-playground, a cathedral, a homeless drop-in centre and shelter, a hospital waiting-room, and a narrative seamlessly immersive in action and introspective in the glimpses we get of the characters’ inner lives. (more…)
What the Devil Knows is C. S. Harris’s 16th Regency-set Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. Always leery of a series losing its reading-lustre, I’m amazed how each one keeps me in thrall for the one or two days in which I devour it. Part of it is thanks to Harris’s rich historical setting, focussed on the injustices of a society where the privileges of wealth and birth are in turn the exploiters of the poor, vulnerable, and low-born. Most of it, however, is due to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin; wife, Hero (adorable son, Simon), a slew of sleuthing-helpers (among my favourites, Irish surgeon Paul Gibson and Sebastian’s “tiger,” Tom) who care: they care about justice being done, they care about the downtrodden; they care about the precarious lives of the ordinary people who make up Regency London. If you come looking for the verve and froth of Bridgerton‘s London (I loved it, but this is a different animal), you won’t find it. Instead, the steadiest, most loving of couples and Harris’s meticulously researched world, more in service of great fiction than exactitude (always read the author’s note). In What the Devil Knows, London’s port and the publicans who serve her is her setting; past murders and mysteriously connected new ones set Sebastian on the path to untangling past and present:
It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.
In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect–a young seaman named John Williams–was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.
Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question–who was and why are they dead set on killing again? (more…)
An Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:
January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.
That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. (more…)
I hoard C. S. Harris’s Regency-set St. Cyr mysteries like a squirrel her winter-nut-stash. But every time, when I have time off, I crack one open to enjoy without interruption. Given it’s a pandemic-summer and stay-home is still the best way to go, I’m happy to say I have TWO St. Cyrs to enjoy! Number fourteen sees Sebastian St. Cyr and wife Hero’s sleuthing hit close to home as Sebastian investigates the murder of his beloved niece’s husband, Lord Ashworth, dissipated, privileged, arrogant, and, as Sebastian suspects, a murderer and defiler of women and children. No one will mourn Ashworth, least of all his wife, Stephanie, who suffered at his hands, but his murder becomes personal when Stephanie is suspected. Like all of Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries, it’s a wild ride: a Russian delegation arrives in London to foil the Anglo-Dutch alliance sprung out of Napoléon’s dwindling/defunct powers. Russian and English nobles, London’s poor and destitute, one notch above-impoverishment servant class mix and mingle in Sebastian and wife’s, Hero’s, attempts to discover who killed the vicious Lord Ashworth. The narrative moves towards a confrontation between Sebastian, with his preternatural detecting powers, and evil. There is, in this volume, evil in Biblical proportions and Seb, more than ever, aware of human frailty, as the people he loves are caught in Ashworth’s depraved vortex. (more…)