Monday, January 22, 2018

Review: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

From the Back Cover:

Victorian class lines are crossed when cook Kat Holloway is drawn into a murder that reaches all the way to the throne.

Highly sought-after young cook Kat Holloway takes a position in a Mayfair mansion and soon finds herself immersed in the odd household of Lord Rankin. Kat is unbothered by the family’s eccentricities as long as they stay away from her kitchen, but trouble finds its way below stairs when her young Irish assistant is murdered. 

Intent on discovering who killed the helpless kitchen maid, Kat turns to the ever-capable Daniel McAdam, who is certainly much more than the charming delivery man he pretends to be. Along with the assistance of Lord Rankin’s unconventional sister-in-law and a mathematical genius, Kat and Daniel discover that the household murder was the barest tip of a plot rife with danger and treason—one that’s a threat to Queen Victoria herself. 

My Thoughts:

Given the popularity of contemporary food-themed mystery series, it's about time someone brought that trend to historical fiction. As a big fan of Jennifer Ashley's MacKenzie & McBrides historical romance series, I had high hopes for Death Below Stairs, and I was not disappointed!

I do recommend you begin with the novella that kicks this series off, A Soupcon of Poison. Originally written as a stand-alone for a historical mystery anthology, it perfectly introduces our heroine, London chef Kat Holloway, and her love interest, the mysterious and charming Daniel McAdam. Though the mystery is rather mediocre, this novella does an excellent job at establishing Kat's history and the romantic tension and definitely enhances the undercurrents in Death Below Stairs.

Kat Holloway may be new to Lord Rankin's staff, but she is the queen of her kitchen and all who enter it, and when her pretty, young assistant is taken advantage of, Kat vows to prevent it from happening again. But before she has the chance, her assistant is found dead. Saddened at the senseless loss of life and naturally curious by nature, with a noble conscience and a can-do attitude, Kat is immediately drawn into the mystery and determines to do all she can to help find the killer. Alongside Daniel, she finds help in unexpected places and eventually becomes part of a mystery-solving crew, discovering that the murder of a housemaid was just the tip of the iceberg in a far-reaching plot to commit the ultimate act of revolution. A dangerous journey ensues and ends in a heart-pounding climactic scene. There's a hearty dose of history, including Irish terrorism and engineering disasters, and also a very emotional subplot involving Kat's young daughter. Kat's position allows us a wonderful glimpse into a Victorian kitchen and the hierarchy of servants and the lower societal classes, and that really sets this series apart.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Guest Post: The Circumstantial Enemy by John R. Bell

Please join me in welcoming John R. Bell to Let Them Read Books! I'm thrilled to have John here today discussing the inspiration behind his debut historical fiction novel, The Circumstantial Enemy, based on a true story!

When Croatia becomes a Nazi puppet state in 1941, carefree pilot Tony Babic finds himself forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to Tony, his sweetheart Katarina and best friend Goran have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome are soon to discover that love and friendship will not circumvent this war’s ideals. Downed by the Allies in the Adriatic Sea, Tony survives a harrowing convalescence before being shipped to a prisoner of war camp in America.  But with the demise of the Third Reich, he considers the kind of life that awaits him in the homeland under communist rule. Will he be persecuted as an enemy of the state for taking the side of Hitler? And then there is Katarina; in letters she confesses her love, but not her deceit… Does her heart still belong to him?

The Circumstantial Enemy is an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust and revenge. Rich in incident with interludes of rollicking humor, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love and forgiveness.

The Circumstance behind The Circumstantial Enemy

The Circumstantial Enemy was released in October 2017. There is a twist to the title; the novel happened to be written by a circumstantial author. Why do I categorize myself that way? For starters, I’d never felt a burning desire to write a book. That all changed with one potent statement from my daughter. Seventeen years ago she said, “If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever.” I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. Though in good health, Grandad was 80 years old at the time and he wasn’t about to be the first human being to live forever. The family had heard his tales over and over again – trials and tribulations of a young Croatian pilot coerced onto the wrong side of WWII.

My daughter made it clear that she wasn’t requesting a book; a record of the events stapled together would suffice. I reasoned that I was not a writer; that defense was feeble, partly because I had the time to write. My career as a CEO of a large company had ended, and I had embarked on consulting work that required a heap of travel and plenty of lonely nights in hotels. I also had to admit that preserving Grandad’s captivating story for his descendants was incredibly compelling. So began my journey as an author.

Thrilled by the opportunity, Grandad agreed to a host of interviews. I was no longer a passive listener. Rather, I treated our exchange as might a journalist – probing for details and questioning events that seemed overstated. The most interesting revelation was his frankness. He soon forgot the recorder was on, revealing more than ever before – some of it both shocking and disturbing. Between the sessions, I checked his facts to ensure the timelines were correct and life in POW camps on US soil were as he described. Simultaneously, I was reading relevant nonfiction books to better understand time, place, and prisoner predicament. 

When I began writing, I found myself thinking as might a novelist – the notion that fiction hinges on the characters and what they want. Grandad’s motivation was freedom from repression. A year later, I had completed his biography. With enough copies printed for the family and a few generations to come, I thought I was done as an author. Not so. I’d been infected by that burning desire to write.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Blog Tour Review + Giveaway: The Lost Season of Love and Snow by Jennifer Laam

From the Back Cover:

The unforgettable story of Alexander Pushkin’s beautiful wife, Natalya, a woman much admired at Court, and how she became reviled as the villain of St. Petersburg.

At the age of sixteen, Natalya Goncharova is stunningly beautiful and intellectually curious. But while she finds joy in French translations and a history of Russian poetry, her family is more concerned with her marriage prospects. It is only fitting that during the Christmas of 1828 at her first public ball in her hometown of Moscow she attracts the romantic attention of Russia’s most lauded rebel poet: Alexander Pushkin. 

Enchanted at first sight, Natalya is already a devoted reader of Alexander’s serialized novel in verse, Evgeny Onegin. The most recently published chapter ends in a duel, and she is dying to learn what happens next. Finding herself deeply attracted to Alexander’s intensity and joie de vivre, Natalya hopes to see him again as soon as possible.

What follows is a courtship and later marriage full of equal parts passion and domestic bliss but also destructive jealousies. When vicious court gossip leads to Alexander dying from injuries earned defending his honor as well as Natalya’s in a duel, Natalya finds herself reviled for her alleged role in his death. 

With beautiful writing and understanding, Jennifer Laam, and her compelling new novel, The Lost Season of Love and Snow, help Natalya tell her side of the story—the story of her greatest love and her inner struggle to create a fulfilling life despite the dangerous intrigues of a glamorous imperial Court.

My Thoughts:

I knew nothing about Alexander Pushkin other than that he was a famous poet, I knew nothing about his wife or that he died in a duel defending her honor, so of course once I saw the blurb for The Lost Season of Love and Snow, I had to read it. What a subject for a novel!

Despite being bound by the constraints of historical fact, this is very much a character-driven story. In the prologue, I was a bit put off by Natalya. Her husband has literally just breathed his last breath and all she can think about is how she is going to repair her reputation. But I told myself that I did not yet know what had happened to make this her first reaction, and as her past unfolds, the way her light is dimmed by the expectations of marriage and society, the way she bears the blame for the transgressions of others, the way she is robbed of her own destiny, witnessing her despair and regret, I could not help but feel for her.

We first meet young Natalya as an idealistic sixteen-year-old whose love for romantic novels shapes her expectations of love and courtship. A celebrated yet humble beauty with writing aspirations of her own, she catches the eye of Russia's favorite poet shortly after her introduction into society and quickly weaves grand dreams around a life with him. Eventually she will get that life, and though it will bring her passion and love, it will also bring her disappointment and heartbreak. The pressure of being Russia's greatest poet often takes a toll on Alexander, and Natalya often finds herself putting her husband's needs above her own. Never achieving the success she hoped for with her own attempts at writing, she begins to indulge in what she thinks are innocent pleasures where she can find them, mainly amidst the glittering and "courtly love" atmosphere of St. Petersburg society, where she has become the belle of the ball. But she unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that will forever alter not only her own life, but the landscape of Russian literature.

Monday, December 18, 2017

From My Family to Yours, Merry Christmas!


I would like to wish all of you a very happy holiday season filled with loved ones, laughter, and, of course, good books!

I'll be back in action on January 8, 2018 with a review of The Lost Season of Love and Snow by Jennifer Laam.

Until then, happy reading!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Holiday Review: Dashing All the Way

From the Back Cover:

Best-selling and critically acclaimed historical romance authors Celeste Bradley, Eva Devon, Elizabeth Essex and Heather Snow heat up this Christmas with four never-before-released novellas guaranteed to make your holiday season merry and bright.

“A Rake for Christmas” by Eva Devon
Lady Evangeline Pennyworth is done with being a wallflower and turns to London's most notorious rake, demanding he teach her how to be desirable. After witnessing the love of his parents devolve into pain and anger, Anthony Basingstoke has vowed never to be swept away by passion, even if he finds himself taken by this wallflower in a way he’s never been before. Only a Christmas miracle will make true love a gift that will last forever.

“Up on the Rooftops” by Elizabeth Essex
Mischievous widow Caledonia Bowmont longs for London’s Christmas cheer, but a string of jewel thefts has brought the festive season to a standstill—and Society accuses the Scottish Wraith, Tobias McTavish. Toby is determined to clear his name and reclaim the life he’s built, so with Cally’s help, he heads up on the rooftops to trap the thief. Will they stop the high-carat crime, or find the hidden gem of lasting love instead?

“The Very Debonair Lady Claire” by Heather Snow
When Claire Barton’s twin is murdered, she takes his place in the War Department to flush out his killer. Her ruse works perfectly—until the man who once broke her heart becomes her new spymaster. The worst mistake of Andrew Sedgewick’s life was walking away from Claire that Christmas six years ago. Now that he’s found her again, he doesn’t intend to let her go—if they both survive this holiday season.

“A Liar Under the Mistletoe” by Celeste Bradley
Fearless Amie Jackham doesn't attend balls to dance, she's there for the thrill of robbing the lockboxes of the unscrupulous. With the notorious Vixen still at large, Liar's Club spy Lord Elliot Hughes is taking the opportunity to clean out a few lockboxes for the good of Crown and Country—and leaving the Vixen's trademark lacy handkerchief behind. Thief and spy can’t resist each other in this sexy, catch-me-if-you-can Liar’s Club holiday novella. 

My Thoughts:

I'm loving these Christmas anthologies because I get to try a bunch of new-to-me authors, and with my reading time growing scarcer, I can manage a novella at a time while getting in the holiday spirit!

Dashing All the Way features four extremely well written and satisfying Regency novellas. I will offer my thoughts on each story and then on the collection as a whole.

A Rake for Christmas: Two people feeling the lack of that "something more" in their lives find it in each other when they least expect it.Could have used more room to explore their backgrounds since their experiences have played heavy tolls on them both, but they are both very likable leads, and this is a sweet and emotional love story that's also and nice and Christmassy. No sex scenes.

Up on the Rooftops: Sparks fly between a bored widow and a reformed thief in this tale that features wonderful banter, a playful relationship, and possibly the hottest carriage sex I've ever read! Though the climactic scene takes place during a masquerade ball, Christmas is only mentioned in passing with no depiction of traditions or holiday ambiance.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Holiday Review: Christmas in Kilts

From the Back Cover:

Tis the season to fall in love! These five bestselling authors bring you great tiding of highlanders and romances this holiday season!

A HIGHLANDER'S HOPE by Terri Brisbin
A village harlot who would never dream she could have a different life meets a Highlander visitor for the holidays who brings with him an offer and hope!

A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS WAGER by Lecia Cornwall
When a snowstorm forces a charming lass hiding a broken heart to take shelter in a castle with three fine Highland lairds just days before Christmas, there’s a game afoot—who will be the first to win a kiss and maybe her heart.


A SCOT FOR CHRISTMAS by Bronwen Evans
She's ready to embrace her life and future as a spinster, he's trying to have one last hurrah before he gives into his family's wishes and proposes marriage to his neighbor, but fate has other ideas when the lady and the Scot meet at a holiday house party in the wilds of Scotland.

MISTLETOE by Lavinia Kent
What happens when a highlander finds himself stranded, maybe kidnapped, with an English lady around Christmas... maybe the mistletoe will help answer that question.

SWEET HOME HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS by May McGoldrick
A chance encounter between a ship's captain and a desperate aunt trying to keep custody of her young niece leads to a little magic during the holidays.

My Thoughts:

I like Christmas anthologies because the novellas tend to focus solely on the holiday rather than it just being a backdrop or only figuring into a few scenes in a full-length novel. Plus it gives me a chance to try out authors that are new to me, as all of these are. And five Christmas historical romances set in Scotland? Yes, please! Here we have five different stories in locations ranging from the Highlands to the Lowlands, and from the 14th century to the 19th. I'm giving you a brief rundown of my thoughts on each story along with my thoughts on the collection as a whole.

A Highlander's Hope: DNFed. I don't think a novella allows for enough time to have a satisfying arc for a heroine who is a courtesan. I just found the premise really unbelievable: An older soldier still grieving the death of his wife five years earlier, lonely, being pushed to remarry by his clan, suddenly decides that the perfect wife for him is the prostitute he visits once a year when he visits another clan? A prostitute who is still working? I just couldn't buy it. Added to that was choppy writing and a complicated backstory dump with too many people to keep straight from previous books in this author's series, and I just didn't have any interest in continuing past the second chapter.

A Highland Christmas Wager: At first I worried this was going the way of the first with an extremely unlikable male lead, but it turned out there were three different men in this tale, snowed in with an unwed beauty from a powerful clan, all vying for her physical attentions and her hand in marriage, but only one of them wants her heart. Some over-the-top moments and a silly misunderstanding, but the romance is sweet.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Q&A + Giveaway with Elizabeth Jane Corbett, Author of The Tides Between

Please join me in welcoming Elizabeth Jane Corbett to Let Them Read Books! Elizabeth is touring the blogosphere with her debut novel, The Tides Between, and I recently had the chance to ask her some questions about her inspiration for this novel, Welsh fairy tales, and writing historical fiction. Read on and enter to win a signed copy of The Tides Between!

She fancied herself part of a timeless chain without beginning or end, linked only by the silver strong words of its tellers.

In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairytales to the far side of the world.

When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark double meaning.

As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairytales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.

Odyssey Books | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo


Hi Elizabeth! Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by Let Them Read Books!

Thank you so much for hosting me and for creating such an interesting list of questions.

What a fascinating premise The Tides Between has! What inspired you to write this novel?

The process started with a mid-life crisis. I decided I’d better attempt the long-cherished dream of writing a novel before it was too late. My initial aim was to write an Aussie immigration saga spanning several decades (so I could have easy access to reference materials). As I researched Australia’s early immigration system, a young girl entered my mind. I called her Bridie. She’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. I envisaged my novel would start with Bridie’s voyage to Australia and follow her life in early Melbourne. Due to my mum’s heritage, I made the fateful decision of including a young Welsh couple in my mix of immigrants. I had this idea they would help Bridie come to terms with her loss. But how to make that happen? Some quick research told me Wales had a strong bardic heritage. Hmm…maybe my Welsh couple could be storytellers? I read the Mabinogion and host of other Welsh fairy tales. Wow! Like wow! These stories were my heritage and I hadn’t even known they existed.

I’d never written a novel before and frankly I found how-to-write-a-novel books overwhelming. I thought if I take into account everything I need to know before writing this novel, I’ll be too scared to start. I basically just gave myself permission to write. As my fictitious ship set sail, I realised my Welsh couple had secrets. Bridie faced conflict on a number of levels. I kept writing. Somewhere around the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Do I follow this story where it is leading? Or pull back and write the saga I’d initially intended. I chose the latter. I still haven’t written the saga.

Reading all of those Welsh fairy tales as you wrote must have been fun. Which is your favorite?

Ooh! That is tricky. Perhaps, the Lady of the Lake? I am haunted by those three causeless. That is so like life, isn’t it? We don’t always realise the consequences of our actions until it is too late. I can’t count the times I’ve thought: I wish I hadn’t said/done that?

While researching The Tides Between, I spent seven months living in Wales. While there, I was fortunate enough to attend a number of lectures on the Mabinigion. I also went to a talk on Fairy Tales by a man who I suspect really was a fairy. In his version of the Lady of the Lake, the three causeless blows were made with a piece of iron. This caused a degree of panic. Had I got the whole thing wrong? Would I need to re-draft yet again? To my relief, I found there were a number of possible variations, as is often the case with folk tales.