Book Review: A Pearl for my Mistress by Annabel Fielding

I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for A Pearl for my Mistress by Annabel Fielding and to share my review of this compelling historical novel set in the turbulent years of the 1930s.

APearlForMyMistressAbout the Book

England, 1934. Hester Blake, an ambitious girl from an industrial Northern town, finds a job as a lady’s maid in a small aristocratic household. Despite their impressive title and glorious past, the Fitzmartins are crumbling under the pressures of the new century. And in the cold isolation of these new surroundings, Hester ends up hopelessly besotted with her young mistress, Lady Lucy. Accompanying Lucy on her London Season, Hester is plunged into a heady and decadent world. But hushed whispers of another war swirl beneath the capital… and soon, Hester finds herself the keeper of some of society’s most dangerous secrets…

Format: eBook (384 pp.)                 Publisher: HQ Digital
Published: 9th August 2017            Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

A Pearl for my Mistress is the story of the intense relationship between two women from very different social backgrounds – Lady Lucy Fitzmartin and Hester Blake, her lady’s maid. However, the book also immerses the reader in the turbulent political situation of the 1930s, with the rise of pro-Fascist organisations like that led by Sir Oswald Mosley and other pro-German movements.

Lady Lucy’s life is one of relative privilege but constrained by the social norms of the day and the limitations on her freedom imposed by her parents. She desperately wants to break free of these confines, exert her independence and make a name for herself. Misguided sympathy for the aims of Mosley’s movement and her talent for writing, provide her with the possibility of achieving her ambitions. Lucy has also become adept at listening from the shadows, picking up nuggets of conversation and information. As the story unfolds, the reader sees that her desperation for freedom makes her ripe for manipulation by others who have few qualms about how to achieve their aims. Having started down a path, Lucy finds herself having to face hard and unwelcome moral choices. Indeed, one of the many interesting themes the book explores is what people will do and who and what they will betray in order to protect themselves.

Although Hester does not share her mistress’s political views, her loyalty and love for Lady Lucy find her conflicted, especially when events threaten to come close to home. Having been central to the book initially as her relationship with Lady Lucy develops, Hester does recede into the background in the latter part of the book.

A theme of the book I found really interesting was its exploration of the power of words to inspire, persuade and, yes, even manipulate.

Words had colours, even textures, and she could faintly sense it, rolling them around in her thoughts. Some words were soft and languid, like silk. Some clinked, like iron. Some were fresh and crisp, like green apples. It was a trick of which words to use to invoke, for example, elegance and dream, or fire and iron.’

In fact, stories and writing play an important part in the development of the relationship between Lucy and Hester. Having had to keep her writing secret, Lucy finally has someone she can share it with. Lucy’s stories are her gift to Hester and Hester’s appreciation of them is her gift to Lucy.

‘The tale caught her in its grip, like a pot of honey could catch a careless fly. The longer she read, the more she was beguiled by the sweetness of the passages, the lushness of the sentences, the tribulations of the plot. It was as if the mere lines in front of her eyes, black ink on white paper, were transfiguring into something else.’

Later, Lucy’s writing ability becomes a possible route to independence for her but also a valuable asset for those seeking to advance the aims of the National Socialist government in Germany. So, she learns, is her position in society and her ear for gossip and information. The cold, hard truth of the art (science?) of manipulating people in positions of influence is revealed.

“‘What can we give him that he craves? A sense of belonging? A sense of rebellion? A sense of doing justice? A dream of glory? A dream of peace? Protection of his commercial interests on the Continent? It’s important to unearth these needs, these reasons. Then you can do anything.”

The author creates a really believable picture of the period which is clearly based on considerable research. There are walk-on parts for many of the key personalities of the period: politicians, the nobility, society hostesses and diplomats. I found the political machinations behind the scenes and some of the views expressed by those in the pro-Fascist movements positively chilling and, at times, worryingly reminiscent of contemporary debates around discrimination, migration and ‘fake news’.

I really enjoyed A Pearl for my Mistress and thought it a compelling and accomplished debut by a clearly talented author.  I received a review copy courtesy of the author and publishers, HQ Digital, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Compelling, intimate, well-researched

Try something similar…Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

AnnabelFieldingAbout the Author

Annabel Fielding describes herself as ‘a novelist, a history geek and an international woman of mystery’. She has long since pledged her allegiance to travel, tea and books. A Pearl for my Mistress is her debut novel.

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Blog Tour/Review: Whiteout (Dark Iceland #5) by Ragnar Jónasson

I’m thrilled to be one of the hosts of today’s stop on the blog tour for Whiteout, the latest in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series. Translated by Quentin Bates, Whiteout is another great crime mystery published by Orenda Books. You can read my review below.  (Be sure to check out the review by today’s co-host, Sharon at Shaz’s Book Blog.)

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Whiteout_New_CoverAbout the Book

Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of the deserted village of Kálfshamarvík. Did she jump, or did something more sinister take place beneath the lighthouse and the old house on the remote rocky outcrop? With winter closing in and the snow falling relentlessly, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s mother and young sister also lost their lives in this same spot, twenty-five years earlier. As the dark history and the secrets of the village are unveiled, and the death toll begins to rise, the Siglufjordur detectives must race against the clock to find the killer, before another tragedy takes place.  Dark, chilling and complex, Whiteout is a haunting, atmospheric and stunningly plotted thriller from one of Iceland’s bestselling crime writers.

Format: Paperback (276 pp.)         Publisher: Orenda Books
Published: 1st November 2017      Genre: Crime, Mystery

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My Review

I’ve not read any of the previous books in the Dark Iceland series and, although there are references to events in earlier books (and some suggestions of possible future storylines), I didn’t consider it affected my enjoyment of Whiteout at all.  I felt the translator, Quentin Bates, managed the difficult task of delivering the author’s intention of keeping the reader guessing at certain points: glances toward unidentified persons or possibly significant reactions to conversations. The downside of this, of course, is to remind us that we’re not an actual witness to the scene, only readers of a book with a deliberately obscured view of what is taking place.  However, these little ‘tricks’ certainly keep the reader guessing when it comes to working out what might be the solution to the mystery.

There’s nothing revolutionary about the plot of Whiteout or the motives of those involved when finally revealed but it’s certainly a very accomplished mystery with a limited number of suspects. Like this reader, you’ll probably suspect just about each of them at some point and, like detectives Ari Thór Arason and his boss, Tomas, also wonder if perhaps the death of the victim isn’t suicide rather than murder after all. I’m certainly not going to spoil it by telling you anything more…

The author has created an interesting character in Ari Thór Arason and I liked learning about his personal back story and the intriguing hints about events in previous books. Whiteout is set shortly before Christmas and I particularly enjoyed learning about Icelandic traditions and customs such as broadcasting seasonal messages of goodwill to friends and family on the radio and – proving they are indeed a most civilized nation – the exchanging of books on Christmas Eve which, for Icelanders, is the important day of the Christmas period.

Another element I really enjoyed was the authentic sense of place created by the author. The reader really gets a feeling of the cold, the harsh snow-covered landscape and the remoteness of a small community. The perfect location, in fact, for secrets and events from the past to come to light…with devastating consequences.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers Orenda Books, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

In three words: Atmospheric, mystery, crime

Try something similar…Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl (click here to read my review)

Ragnar JonassonAbout the Author

Ragnar Jónasson is author of the international bestselling Dark Iceland series. His debut Snowblind went to number one in the kindle charts shortly after publication, and Nightblind, Blackout and Rupture soon followed suit, hitting the number one spot in five countries, and the series being sold in 18 countries and for TV.

Ragnar was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he continues to work as a lawyer. From the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic. He has appeared on festival panels worldwide, and lives in Reykjavik with his wife and young daughters.

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Blog Tour/Review: Illusion by Stephanie Elmas

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I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Illusion by Stephanie Elmas. I really enjoyed this accomplished historical mystery and you can read my review of Illusion below.

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Illusion 2About the Book

London, 1873. Returning home from his travels with a stowaway named Kayan, Walter Balanchine is noted for the charms, potions and locket hanging from his neck. Finding his friend Tom Winter’s mother unwell, he gives her a potion he learned to brew in the Far East. Lucid and free from pain, the old woman remembers something about Walter’s mother. Walter is intrigued, for he has never known his family or even his own name – he christened himself upon leaving the workhouse.

Word soon spreads of his healing and magical abilities and he becomes a sought after party performer. During one of Walter’s parties, Tom is approached by Tamara Huntington, who reveals she is being forced to marry a man she does not love. Will he and Walter come to her rescue? With secrets beginning to emerge, Walter finds his mother may be a lot closer to home than he realised…

Format: ebook (285 pp.)                     Publisher: Endeavour Press
Published: 21st May 2017                   Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

‘Walter Balanchine was still the most unusual looking individual that most people had ever seen.’

The author has created a wonderful character in Walter Balanchine. He’s like a young Sherlock Holmes with his acute powers of observation, mastery of disguise and gift for turning up at exactly the right moment – but with a touch of the exotic East thrown in.  He’s a magician as well but is it ‘real’ magic or merely clever illusion? As he says himself: “Magic? There’s no such thing. Not in the literal sense anyway. Only illusion, my friend.”  Walter certainly knows how to stage tricks that we know are just sleight of hand or intricately worked out illusions. But some of the other things he’s able to do? Well, the novel cleverly leaves it to the reader to decide if his powers extend to the supernatural.

I also loved the other main characters – Tom, Tamara and the saintly Sally – and the author has created a formidable “boo hiss” villain in Cecil Hearst. The novel’s plot and style expertly capture the spirit of a Victorian mystery making this reader think of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White with a touch of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. As well as the central plot concerning Tom and Walter’s attempts to rescue Tamara, there are other mysteries to be unravelled, including the truth about Walter’s parentage.

The author certainly captures the atmosphere of Victorian London.

‘They made their way to Limehouse, a quarter with streets so narrow that the houses seemed almost to touch in the middle. It was snowing now. A confetti of snowflakes filtered through between the narrow gaps in the gables above and floated, innocent and feathery, into the grime beneath their feet….Soon they fell upon Narrow Street, where chandlers sold their wares and the smell of spices and chops and old barnacled ropes filled the air.’  

And there’s a suitably Gothic feel when the action moves to Cecil’s country seat. Definitely a touch of The Fall of the House of Usher there!

I really enjoyed Illusion with its engaging mix of atmospheric period setting, intricate mystery and sprinkling of magic.  I would love to read more from this author in the future.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Endeavour Press, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

In three words: Atmospheric, mystery, lively

Try something similar…The Thirteenth Gate by Kat Ross (click here to read my review)

Stephanie Elmas 2About the Author

Stephanie Elmas was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Czech mother but spent most of her childhood in Bristol. She studied English at university in London. Having worked as a head hunter, she taught English in Japan before returning to university to complete an MA in Victorian fiction. It was here that she developed her interest in the dark dangerous world of Victorian sensation writing. After the success of her first novel, The Room Beyond, Elmas has returned to write the tale of the early life of East End mystic and illusionist Walter Balanchine. When she is not writing, Elmas teaches secondary school English and juggles a chaotic household in Surrey.

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Blog Tour: District VIII by Adam LeBor

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I’m delighted to host today’s stop on the blog tour for District VIII, by Adam LeBor and to bring you a fascinating article by Adam about the inspiration for the book, the first volume in his ‘Budapest noir’ crime series.

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Life’s tough for a Gypsy cop in Budapest. The cops don’t trust you because you’re a Gypsy. Your fellow Gypsies, even your own family, shun you because you’re a cop.

The dead, however, don’t care.

Balthazar Kovacs of the Budapest murder squad is in the middle of his first cup of coffee when a mysterious text message arrives. There were three words: ’26, Republic Square’, and a photograph. The photo shows a man in his early thirties, lying on his back with his eyes open, half-covered by bricks and dust. The address, the former Communist Party headquarters, was once the most feared building in the country. But when Kovacs arrives at Republic Square, the body has gone and his only lead is the word of a Gypsy kid who saw the corpse bundled into an unmarked van…

Kovacs’ investigation will take him deep into Budapest’s shadows, an underworld visitors never get to see: the gritty back-alleys of District VIII; the people smuggling networks around Keleti Station; the endemic corruption of a country still haunted by the ghosts of history. And when the leads point to the involvement of his brother Gaspar, the city’s most powerful pimp, Kovacs will be forced to choose between the law and family loyalty.

Format: eBook (305pp.), Hardcover (400pp.)   Publisher: Head of Zeus
Published: 2nd November 2017                           Genre: Thriller, Crime

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Guest Post: ‘The roots of District VIII’ by Adam LeBor

I started writing District VIII, the first volume of my Budapest noir crime series featuring Balthazar Kovacs, a Gypsy detective, a couple of years ago. But the book’s roots go much deeper. I have reported on Hungary and its neighbours since 1990 when Communism collapsed across central and Eastern Europe. I have always been fascinated by the Roma and the near parallel society in which many live, alongside wider society but not fully part of it. Centuries of prejudice and exclusion have forged fierce bonds of blood and family that united them against a frequently hostile outside world.

Hungary and its neighbours are now part of the European Union and theoretically committed to providing equal rights and opportunities for all their citizens. But from the Baltics to the Balkans, many Roma families live in extreme poverty, in settlements on the outskirts of towns and villages with no proper water or electricity or sewage systems. Roma children are often wrongly classified as being mentally handicapped and so are deprived of a proper education. I reported on a wall in a town in the Czech Republic that served no purpose other than to divide Roma people from their neighbours. I travelled to a remote area in eastern Slovakia and interviewed young Roma women who told their heart-rending stories of being sterilised against their will. I reported on the horrific series of murders in Hungary in 2008 and 2009, while six Roma people, including a five year old child, were killed in a series of highly organised and planned racist attacks. I learnt Roma history and how, during the Second World War, the Roma too suffered a Holocaust which they call the ‘Poraymus’ or ‘Devouring’. In the camps parents refused to be separated from their children. They fought so hard to stay together that the Nazis allowed them their own section at Auschwitz, called the ‘Zigeuner Lager’, or Gypsy camp. The Gypsy camp existed for seventeen months until 1944 when its residents were gassed.

Nowadays there is good news as well. A new generation of young Roma people is passing through the education system, finding its voice as activists and politicians or simply as professionals – including the police. The Balthazar Kovacs series was also inspired in part by a reception I attended some years ago at the British embassy in Budapest, in honour of the Hungarian Roma Police Union. There I met several Roma police officers who told me their personal stories. It’s not easy being a Gypsy police officer. Friends and relatives – especially those who live on the margins of legality – are suspicious of the authorities. Other police officers can be wary of their Roma colleagues.

District VIII opens in the summer of 2015 when Hungary was the epicentre of the refugee crisis. District VIII is the area of Budapest with the city’s largest Gypsy quarter. A Syrian refugee is murdered at Keleti station and his body disappears. As Balthazar investigates, and discovers that his brother Gaspar is somehow connected to the killing, he is soon pulled between two worlds: his duty as a police officer and his loyalty to his family. Those bonds of family and of blood, Balthazar realises, may have to be broken. Unless he can find a way out.

2017.05.25. Adam LeBor portraitAbout the Author

Adam LeBor is a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered Hungary and Eastern Europe since 1990. He is the author of thirteen books, including Hitler’s Secret Bankers, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and City of Oranges. He writes for the Economist, Financial Times and Monocle. He divides his time between Budapest and London.

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Blog Tour: Becoming Mrs. Smith by Tanya E Williams

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I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Becoming Mrs. Smith by Tanya E Williams. Below you can read an extract from this novella that will give you a sense of a story described as ‘Wonderfully emotional and beautifully written’ (Kelsey Gietl, author of Across Oceans).

WinPlus…there’s a giveaway with a chance to win an ecopy of Becoming Mrs. Smith. To enter, visit the tour page by clicking here and scroll to the bottom.

You can also view the terms and conditions of the giveaway and check out the other bloggers on the tour.

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Becoming Mrs SmithAbout the Book

Not all of war’s destruction takes place on the battlefield.

Violet’s heart flutters from the scarlet fever she survived as a child, and it beats faster at the sight of John Smith, the man she plans to marry. America is entrenched in WWII, and when John enlists, Violet is certain she won’t ever forgive him for dashing their dreams. As the realities of war slowly overtake her life, Violet’s days are filled with uncertainty and grief. She struggles to maintain her faith in John, as the world as she knows it, crumbles.

Becoming Mrs. Smith is the inspiring, and at times, heartbreaking story of a woman’s struggle to reclaim what she lost. War stole the man she loves, and childhood illness weakened her heart—perhaps beyond repair. While guns rage in Europe, the war Violet faces at home may be even more devastating

Format: eBook, paperback (100pp.), audiobook
Publisher: Rippling Effects Writing & Photography   Published: 10th October 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Extract from Becoming Mrs. Smith by Tanya E Williams

Her gaze lowers to the envelope as the door whispers closed. A dampened jingle from the bell shivers over the room.

A tear slides down her face and meanders along contours of her laugh lines. “I had a bad sense about today.” Her shoulders give way to a sob that crumples her body in half. I watch in slow motion as grief fills the space where worry used to live.

Tears spring to my eyes as I round my desk to embrace her now fragile body. She trembles in my arms and lets out a low, guttural howl – a sound that will haunt me forever. This frightens me, what death can do. It can transform a person into an empty shell so they feel nothing and everything at the same time.​

Tanya WilliamsAbout the Author

A writer from a young age, Tanya E Williams loves to help a reader get lost in another time, another place through the magic of books. History continues to inspire her stories and her insightfulness into the human condition deepens her character’s experiences and propels them on their journey. Her favourite tales speak to the reader’s heart, making them smile, laugh, cry, and think. Becoming Mrs. Smith is Tanya Williams’ debut historical fiction title and the first in a three book series.

Breathe, an inspirational & photographic journey, was Tanya Williams’ first publication. Dipping her toe in the waters of book publishing, Tanya chose a project inspired by both her appreciation for her own meditation practices & her husband’s love of photography. With the focus of being in the moment, Tanya’s words uplift, inspire, & motivate readers as they immerse themselves in beautiful & diverse images captured by David Williams.

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