Review of Caro Peacock’s “Fool’s Gold”

The novel “Fool’s Gold,” by Caro Peacock, is a very rambling and confusing book. The 8th in the Liberty Lane series about a Victorian era female private detective, it has layered plots, one of which involves a threatened kidnapping and the other stereotypical bad guys and buried treasure.

Without being a spoiler, I can say that the story opens with Liberty, AKA Mrs. Carmichael, since she is now married to Robert, on her honeymoon on a borrowed yacht near the Greek Island of Cephalonia. She and Robert are invited to go on land to have dinner with a Mr. Vickery, his right-hand man Jolly, his friend Geoffrey Panter and Geoffrey’s wife Emilia and Vickery’s teenage ward George.

Liberty learns that George is, allegedly, the illegitimate son of the late British Poet Lord Byron. Given the weather is bad, they end up staying the night in Vickery’s rented villa. Just before returning to the boat, however, they find George distraught because he had been swimming with Geoffrey who has gone missing and is assumed to be drowned.

Born blind, George believes he is cursed because many people have bad luck or die who are near or connected to him. And, now Geoffrey appears to have drowned and George blames himself for not being able to save him.

Mr. Vickery later moves George to London, where Liberty meets up with him again.  Vickery also rents an estate near London, referred to as Muswell Hill, and wants to move George there. He also wants Liberty to stay at Muswell Hill to ensure George is not kidnapped.

Why would George be kidnapped? Apparently there is a legend that Lord Byron buried treasure before his death and many assume George would know where that treasure is hidden.

When the action between London and Musell Hill starts in earnest:

  • We meet a woman by the name of Helena, who claims to be George’s mother.
  • Then, Helena’s body is found, not in London, but in the far edges of the property at Muswell Hill.
  • While Vickery is convinced of a kidnap plot gone wrong, Liberty must find out what Helena had to do with such a plot.
  • Vickery, Jolly and his crooked lawyer friend bury Helena’s body in the garden.
  • The police find out about the death and arrest Vickery and charge him with the Helena’s murder.
  • Liberty discovers more about Helena and that, as a poverty-stricken actress, she was likely trying to get out of the kidnapping plot when she was killed.
  • George then runs away with one of his tutors because another death has occurred near him.
  • Because Vickery is in jail, Liberal is the only one who can look for George.
  • While looking for George, Vickery’s crooked lawyer is found dead.
  • The police know it couldn’t have been Vickery since he was in jail.

Of course, the police were confused. And, obviously so was George and his tutor. So was I. In fact, I would say, that this novel went from a 4 or 5 star book to a 3 because it was so confusing. Buried treasure was just too simplistic and, frankly, unbelievable. And, not surprising, we eventually find out that Geoffrey didn’t really drown and Emilia was not really his wife.

But, even telling you all these points, I don’t believe I am spoiling the story. As a result of that packed plot, I personally think that this story would have been more realistic had Peacock used another reason to be at the root of all the death and destruction other than the belief that there was buried treasure.

My rating for this book is 3 stars out of 5.

Severn House Publishing 2017 (218 pages).

 

Review of “Someone to Love” by Mary Balogh, the first in new Westcott series

Without a doubt, Mary Balogh’s “Survivor Series” was one of my favourites, although I have never done a book review on any of them. So, I eagerly read “Someone to Love,” the first in the “Westcott Family” series. It is essentially an intellectual type of Cinderella rags to riches story within a Regency romance between a Duke and someone raised as a poor orphan.

Just imagine growing up poor in an orphanage in Regency England, not knowing who you really are or why you were abandoned in the first place at the young age of 4. Regency England was not a kind time or place to be poor, let alone considered a bastard.

Yet, right from the first paragraph, you do not sense any anger or pity in Anna Snow. Yes, of course, she wondered whether she had any siblings. But, she most definitely does not pity herself. She believes that, because the orphanage is a private charity, and that someone paid for her care all through her life, there has to be someone who knows her story.

We first meet Anna at the orphanage and get a picture of her life and friends here. Then we meet the wealthy Westcott family. The master, Humphrey Westcott, the Earl of Riverdale, has just died. We meet them in their London home making arrangements with Josiah Brumford, the family lawyer, on when to read the Earl’s will.

What we learn is that the Earl’s wife and Countess, the former Viola Kingsley, wants Brumford to locate a young woman who she believes to be Humphrey’s bastard daughter — for the purpose of paying her off. Apparently, the Countess has known all along that her husband had been supporting a child, but she didn’t know any more than that. Her rationale is that her son, Harry, now the heir to the Earldom, won’t have to be bothered by the young woman at a later date.

Little did they know Anna because she wouldn’t have bothered them in any event. As it turned out, however, it is not Anna who is the bastard. And, no I am not spoiling the story. All this happens in the first quarter of the book. Anna is as surprised as the everyone else at the reading of the will and does manage to step into the role of Lady Anastasia Westcott fairly quickly.

One complication is Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby. Asked by Lord Humphrey prior to his death, to be guardian to Harry, Avery is present when the will is read. He is immediately attracted to Anna simply because she is not affected like most young women he knows. For one thing, she speaks her mind. While Anna is immediately intrigued by Avery, particularly since he is very handsome, his aloofness keeps her an arm’s length — for awhile at least.

There are many twists and turns in this story, some involving Avery and others involving a search for her biological grandparents.

In many ways, the book reminds me of Journey of the Hero” myth written by Joseph Campbell — facing a life change or mountain to climb, the struggle to get to the top or through the twists and turns resulting from the change, and then coming to a natural conclusion — before moving on to the next change or adventure. When I was an academic, I often used this myth to describe the process of learning, be it a new degree program or a new skill.  Or, should someone, unexpectedly, find themselves a widow or divorcee. Everything that was their life before — changes.

So, this book is fun to read because, like the Survivor stories, there is a struggle to overcome challenges and a good ending. And, yes, Balogh does provide a good ending in this one but in a way that makes you yearn for the next story in the series — which is “Someone to Hold.”

I give this book 5 stars out of 5 because I enjoyed it so much.

Review of “Devil in Spring” by Lisa Kleypas

Click for Lisa Kleypas website.

I like everything Lisa Kleypas writes but this 3rd book in the Ravenel series, “Devil in Spring,” is especially fun. Readers of this series will remember the unexpected and erotic romance of the former Lord St. Vincent, Sebastian, now the Duke of Kingston, and his Duchess Evangeline (Evie). The new Lord St. Vincent in this book is their oldest son and heir, Gabriel.

Like his father before him, Gabriel is a bit of a “devil” and has a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man. At a posh event he comes across a young lady, Pandora Ravenel, in an awkward situation in a summer house. As far-fetched as it sounds, she was seeking a lost an earring and in attempting to find it ended up stuck in the woodwork of the settee. Gabriel hears her distress and comes along and attempts to help her out of the situation. Unfortunately, someone else comes along and finds them in what appears to be an erotic situation.

Of course, being found alone with a male in the late 1880s, let alone in a summer house, was enough to mean a marriage proposal. In this case, Pandora simply wasn’t interested in marrying Gabriel. In fact, she didn’t want to marry anyone.

A feminist long before her time, Pandora wants to be independent and manage her own business, which is designing, manufacturing and marketing a board game.  The thing is, while middle and lower class women had to work in in 1876, upper class women not only didn’t but were ridiculed if they did.

In that kind of environment, free time was spent on such activities as house parties and balls. With the result that there were always activities needed to keep everyone happy and busy. And, board games fit that need — particularly for rainy days.

Anyway, the plot in this novel is three-fold:  Gabriel trying to change Pandora’s mind to marry him and Pandora’s quest for financial independence. The third thread is about Gabriel loving Pandora precisely because she was “different.”

If I have any complaints about this novel, which are not serious ones of course, it is that Gabriel’s fight to win Pandora’s hand went on a bit longer than I felt necessary. Since the cover of the book shows a young woman in a wedding dress, readers can guess the outcome.

And, so, to my mind, regardless of the outcome, what is important about this book is to what extent Pandora had to struggle to be her own person — something we take for granted now. At that time, in the late 19th century, when a woman married, absolutely everything went to her husband. Everything. She “owned” nothing. What Gabriel does, and I found especially interesting, is just how far he had to go legally to give his wife some control over her own money. Kleypas did an excellent job in covering the common laws that he and Pandora would have to work around.

I highly recommend this historical romance, which I was able to borrow from my local public library, and give it 4 stars out of 5.

Published by Avon in February 2017
(275 pages minus Author’s notes).

Review of “The Road to Enchantment” by Kaya McLaren

I very much enjoyed the somewhat “new age” novel “The Road to Enchantment” by Kaya McLaren once I got into it, although I almost didn’t read it. It was sitting on the “new book” shelf at my local library and I nearly passed over it. Why?  Because I found the title “The Road to Enchantment” somewhat unrealistic.

As it turned out, however, the emotional and physical journey the main character, Willow, is forced to take was inspiring and, certainly, the New Mexico scenery where most of the novel takes place, is enchantingly described.

The other reason I almost didn’t read this novel was because a blurb at the back described it as a “coming of age” novel. Given I am of retirement age, that didn’t inspire me. But, I signed it out nonetheless and I am glad I did.

The main character is Willow and, given that she is 40 years old, it most certainly is not a coming-of-age novel given that term usually means someone around 18 or 20. From my vantage point, the story is more about a mid-life evaluation. Each of us goes through it, one way or the other. You are half way through your productive life and have to decide if you want to continue doing the same thing or if you want to make a major change in how you spend the next twenty-five to thirty years.

The story essentially begins when Willow comes home from school one day and finds her mother burning her father’s mattress, roasting wieners and marshmallows. We learn that he has walked out on the family for another woman, an across-the-street neighbour and one of Willow’s teachers. With barely time to get a second breath and take it all in, Willow is packed into the family car and her mother drives nearly non-stop from Washington State to deep into New Mexico Apache country.

Life is a struggle for years thereafter, particularly at school. But, Willow makes a lifelong friend of Darrel, an Apache who lives down the road with his grandparents. Eventually, however, when she does come of age, Willow moves to Los Angeles to get away from it all and finds work as a background cello musician. She also has a three-year relationship with a fellow musician by the name of Ian, who breaks up with her the same day she gets a telephone call from Darrel, that her mother died suddenly after falling off a horse. Willow drops everything and heads to New Mexico to settle her mom’s affairs.

Once back at the DeVine Winery and Goat Ranch, however, Willow has to face what to do with the farm animals and the farm itself, since it has fallen into disrepair and is about to be foreclosed. Willow also learns she is pregnant.

I will leave the rest of Willow’s story so as not to spoil anything for those who haven’t read it yet. What I can say, however, is that what is enchanting about the book relates to how and why age 40 is different from age 20 in how ready many of us are to undertake major changes in our lives.

If I have any complaints about the book it is the way McLaren alternated chapters between the past and the present. At times, I found the transitions were jarring. Regardless, it is a book that I will think about for a long time — which is a sign of an excellent book. In fact, I liked it so much I am going to read more of what McLaren has written.

My rating for this novel is 4 stars out of 5.

Paperback published by St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, January 2017. (342 pages)

Enjoyed “The Guests on South Battery” by Karen White

The Guests on South Battery” is the fifth Tradd Street novel for those who have read about Melanie Trenholm and her many adventures with other worldly spirits who have not moved on to, as Karen White writes, the light. I love this series, although this is my first review, because the plot ideas are fun and quirky but always include significant human interest stories, be those stories be about the living or dead.

The setting for South Battery, as with White’s other books in this series, is Charleston, South Carolina. Melanie is just returning to work at her real estate sales job a year after the birth of her twins with her new husband, novelist Jack Trenholm.

On her first day back at work, a Jayne Smith shows up wanting to see Melanie because she has just inherited a local historical house and she had heard that Melanie specialized in selling such houses. Of course, that house is on South Battery Street and reflects the title of the book.

The problem is that Jayne knew nothing about the previous owner, Caroline (Button) Pinckney, a former friend of both Melanie’s mother Ginette Middleton and her mother-in-law.

Needless to say, that house has spirits in it and Melanie does her best to shield Jayne while it is being renovated prior to putting it on the market. The problem is that one spirit is unfriendly and tries to block Melanie, while the other is just the opposite.

For example, there is an incident where Jayne is pushed down the long staircase but she isn’t seriously hurt because she said it felt like something was cushioning her fall.  However, beyond this description, I am going to stop talking about the plot because to write anything else could act as a spoiler for anyone who has not yet read the book.

What I like about this series is the way White weaves the stories around real people and their problems and foibles. In previous books, for example, Melanie’s parents, who have been apart for many years, reconcile and get back together in a way that is realistic and believable. They both admit the mistakes they made and try to change.

In this book, Jayne Smith is an interesting character. Left on the steps of an orphanage as a new-born, she grew up with the name Smith because no one knew who she was or where she came from. One thing she did always know, however, is that she was psychic. Which makes Melanie’s attempt to shield her all the more amusing. They are each trying to shield the other from the criticism of being “different.”

If I have any complaints about this novel, it is that White made Melanie an obsessive compulsive, wanting to label everything in the house and using spreadsheets to keep track of what her kids did. If she was that way in previous books, I don’t recall it but it sticks out in this narrative. Also, the Melanie in this book is very insecure about her relationship with her husband, again an emotion I don’t recall from previous books. He has to continually prove his love for her which was jarring at times.

Yes, I began to guess the ending about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through the book but my suspicions didn’t adversely affect me when I found out I was right. Nevertheless, all that said, I enjoyed this book very much and was sorry when it ended. I also look forward to the next book that I know will include a story line that starts early on in South Battery as you could see Karen White laying the preparations for a sequel from the start of “The Guests on South Battery“.

I rate this novel 4 stars out of 5.

Published by Berkley, January 2017. (338 pages)

Review of “The Spice Merchant’s Wife” by Charlotte Betts

Although I missed “The Spice Merchant’s Wife” by Charlotte Betts when it came out in January of 2013, it is well worth the read at any time. Categorized in the historical genre, it is also an historical romance. Moreover, there is a good deal of mystery in it as well.

The story opens in 1666 just before the great London fire and goes on for a few years until 1670. The setting is primarily London but, at times, also includes some rural locations as well and all within horse riding distance of London.

The main characters are Kate Finche and her husband Robert and Gabriel Harte and his wife Jane. Of course, there are many other secondary and important characters but these four take us through the entire book alive or dead.

Kate meets Gabriel right after the story opens in Chapter One. She sees that he is about to be run down by a coach being driven wildly down the street. Kate is momentarily confused because she can see that the young man is about to be run down and likely killed but seems frozen to the spot in the middle of the road.

However, just in time, Kate manages to push him out-of-the-way. It is when she is helping him get himself together that she realizes the reason he didn’t know what was about to happen was because he was blind. At the time of this awkward meeting, both are married to other people and they frequently meet socially. Gabriel is a famous perfumer and always seems to know when Kate is nearby.

In Chapter 3, we experience the London fire, which went on for days because of a horrendous wind. Kate and thousands of others end up in a field, where they find out they and Robert’s parents have lost everything.

What is different about this book is that the author doesn’t just gloss over the consequences of the fire. She takes us through every single day and what happened to those, like the Finche’s, who lost everything. Robert Finche’s parents, for example, end up in debtors’ prison, where his father dies, because their successful spice warehouse was burned to the ground. While Gabriel did not lose his home and studio, he did lose all the landmarks he used to get around and which everyone, previously, took for granted.

Obviously, there was no such thing as fire insurance in those days, and the hardship must have been incredible. In the book, we meet young women and girls left destitute, who had no choice but to sell their bodies as there simply weren’t any jobs until the city was rebuilt. Kate was able to do contract sewing, which of course, was all done by hand.

Yes, Kate and Gabriel do eventually realize they love each other, but even with both their spouses deceased, as with everything else in Kate’s life, happy ever after may not be possible. Readers will have to read the book to find out why.

I would highly recommend this book. Yes, it is unsettling in places, particularly when we are faced with the role of women in the 17th century and what they had to do to survive. There is also a murder and an attempt at murder. But, there are upbeat moments as well and Betts does have some surprises that will make you smile.

My rating for this novel is 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

Published by Piatkus — First printed in January 2013, Reprinted in Paperback January 2014 (381 pages)