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: 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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Book Review: The Secret of Vesalius by Jordi Llobregat

TheSecretofVesaliusAbout the Book

Daniel Amat has left Spain and all that happened there behind him. Having just achieved a brilliant role in Ancient Languages at Oxford University and an even more advantageous engagement, the arrival of a letter – a demand – stamped Barcelona comes like a cold hand from behind.

He arrives back in that old, labyrinthine and near-mythic city a few days before the great 1888 World Fair, amid dread whispers of murders – the injuries reminiscent of an ancient curse, and bearing signs of the genius 16th century anatomist, Vesalius. Daniel is soon pulled into the depths of the crime, and eventually into the tunnels below Barcelona, where his own dark past and the future of science are joined in a terrible venture – to bring the secret of Vesalius to life.

Format: eBook, Hardcover (582pp.)         Publisher: riverrun
Published: 16th November 2017                Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

I can see why this thrilling historical and accomplished historical fiction has been compared to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (they’re both set in Barcelona) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (they share the Gothic horror atmosphere). In fact, for me it had distinct touches of Edgar Allen Poe with a bit of Jack the Ripper and The Hound of the Baskervilles for good measure. In other words, it’s got just about everything you want (well, at least, what this reader wants) from a compelling historical mystery.

I adored the atmospheric period setting and the author’s descriptions that really made turn-of-of-the century Barcelona come alive.

Exiting the alleyway, Fleixa came out onto Las Ramblas, which teemed with people. Fruit and vegetable carts, headed for La Boqueria market, vied with horses and traps. Along came the Catalonia Line tram, handbell ringing out. Match sellers, newspaper vendors and florists cried their wares as the housekeepers hurried past, and well-to-do ladies and gentlemen strolled by. Fleixa dived through the mass of people, crossed to Calle del Pi and, after a few minutes’ walk, arrived at the newpaper offices.’

If you’re familiar with Barcelona, you’ll enjoy spotting the different places mentioned and if you’re not, then The Secret of Vesalius would be the perfect appetiser for a visit to that city.

I also loved the intriguing cast of characters, such as Bernat Fleixa, the rather down-at-heel journalist whose scruffy exterior hides an unrelenting passion for the truth and a unexpectedly soft heart.  It has to be said, though, that the author does rather put his main characters through the mill!

The plot is as labyrinthine as the tunnels beneath Barcelona and the author kept me guessing about the solution to the mystery all the way through the book. And I’ll admit to having a ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that moment’ towards the end.   Along the way, the action is dark, violent and, at times, a little gruesome (but then I’m squeamish) and this is a Gothic thriller after all. There’s one bit that made me shudder…well, I’ll leave you to read the book and guess the bit I’m referring to!

As well as being utterly entertaining, I found the oppositions explored in the book really interesting:

  • Ancient versus modern: the works of a 16th century anatomist and the historic catacombs beneath the city juxtaposed with new technology being displayed at the World Fair.
  • Darkness versus light: the pitch black, rat-infested of the tunnels beneath Barcelona contrasted with the brightness of the streetlights powered by the newly-constructed electricity power station.
  • Rich versus poor: the nobility and power brokers of the city sipping fine wines at the theatre or in their lavish mansions at the same time as the poor of Barcelona inhabit rundown hovels in dark, rubbish strewn streets.
  • Truth versus lies: the determination of Daniel and his companions to reveal the truth behind the dreadful murders taking place in the city, whilst others try their best to protect their own positions by suppressing information and spreading false rumours.
  • Science versus superstition: the latest surgical advances being studied whilst, elsewhere in the city, people believe there is a Black Hound from Hell stalking the dark streets, inflicting terrible wounds on its victims.

If you like your historical mysteries to have an atmospheric period setting, a cast of colourful characters and be replete with murder, passion and intrigue, then The Secret of Vesalius will thrill you as much as it did me. An impressive debut.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers riverrun in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Atmospheric, suspenseful, mystery

Try something similar…The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Jordi LlobregatAbout the Author

Jordi Llobregat began writing at the age of twelve after watching the film The Man from Acapulco with Jean Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset. He currently combines writing with his work as head of a company that works on community development in cities. His work has been included in several short story anthologies and he is a member of the writing group, El Cuaderno Rojo. He is director of the noir fiction festival, Valencia Negra. The Secret of Vesalius is his first novel and has been published in eighteen countries worldwide. He lives in Valencia, Spain.

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Blog Tour: Becoming Mrs. Smith by Tanya E Williams

Becoming Mrs. Smith_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL

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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Blog Tour/Q&A: The Lido Girls by Allie Burns

The Lido girls Blog Tour Banner

I’m delighted to co-host today’s stop on the blog tour for The Lido Girls by Allie Burns. And I’m thrilled that Allie has agreed to talk about the book, its inspiration and her approach to writing.

WinThe Lido Giveaway PrizesPlus there’s an absolutely fantastic giveaway with a chance to win a fabulous prize consisting of a Boden beach towel, St Tropez fake tanning face bronzer and a signed postcard – worth £40.  To enter click here.

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The Lido GirlsAbout the Book

Escape to the inter-war years in this emotional story where opportunity can be found at the pool-side in your local lido… Perfect for fans of Pam Evans and Gill Paul

Change is in the air… London, 1930s: Natalie Flacker is tempted by the glamour of the new keep fit movement, but when she is dismissed from her prestigious job in PE she loses the life she so carefully built. Echoes of the war’s destruction still reverberate through her life, and now she is homeless, jobless and without prospects.

But connections made on a summer holiday, with her best friend Delphi, create opportunities. When Natalie is offered a summer job at a lido at the seaside, she jumps at the chance. But is she up to the challenge of taking on a group of unfit women in need of her help?

Set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the pioneering keep fit movement; this is a feel-good reminder of just what’s possible when you find the courage to follow your heart.

Spend a very British summer with The Lido Girls!

Format: eBook (384 pp.)                 Publisher: HQ Digital
Published: 2nd October 2017         Genre: Historical Fiction

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Interview: Allie Burns, author of The Lido Girls

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Lido Girls?

The Lido Girls is a heart-warming story of friendship set in the interwar years. Natalie gets caught up in a scandal at her prestigious physical education college and loses her job as a PE teacher. She goes to the coast with her best friend Delphi and when she takes on the Lido Girls she has high hopes for a fresh start. But first Natalie must find the courage to face up to her own fears and realise what she truly wants in life.

Where did you get the idea for the book?

I had some lessons to overcome my fear of going underwater and before I knew it I was swimming all of the time and reading anything and everything about swimming. There was one book, Waterlog by Roger Deakin, that had a section on lidos in Britain in the 1920s and 30s and there was just something about that period and the heyday of the British seaside resort that really captured my imagination.

The Lido Girls is set between the wars. What were the challenges in creating an authentic picture of life in that period?

There was a real divide between the rich and poor at the time. My main characters are middle class and comfortably off so I wanted to get across that whilst parts of the country were strolling along the promenade and cutting loose in the dance halls, in other parts of the country people were experiencing poverty and high unemployment.

How did you approach the research for the book? Do you enjoy the process of research?

This was the first time I’d written historical fiction, or carried out a research project, and so I think I got carried away and probably did more research than I actually needed to do. I read and learned so much that didn’t make it into the book, but I was fine with that because I was fascinated by so much about the era .

I visited quite a few museums and archives and I found talking to the volunteer historians the most rewarding aspect of the research because they were so passionate and knowledgeable about their specialist areas.

If The Lido Girls was to be made into a film, who would you love to see play Natalie and Delphi?

I tried to imagine who could play Natalie and Delphi in a film while I was writing the novel and I really struggled. The closest I could manage was a younger Cate Blanchett for Delphi, but I really couldn’t think who could play Natalie. Instead, for my inspiration, I cut out some photos from old magazines of two women who looked close to how I’d imagined them to look.

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

I have a desk, but I tend to move around the house while I write. The dents in the sofa are probably a big clue as to where I do most of my writing. If the weather is nice I like to write in the garden, but the glare from the screen makes it quite hard to see what I’m writing. In terms of rituals, the only one I have is that I need to write in silence because I get too distracted by background noise.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I don’t think I ever really believed I could become an author and so for a long time I enjoyed writing just for the sake of writing. When I did decide to take it seriously and try to write a novel I spent quite a long time going on courses and improving my craft and then even more time making false starts with novels. It was worth persevering and ignoring the pessimist on my shoulder though.

Which other writers do you admire?

I really enjoy Lionel Shriver’s stories, characters and prose and I love the way she’s her own person and does and says what she likes. I’m also a huge fan of Anne Tyler – I love the relationship dynamics she creates.

What are you working on next?

I am currently working on my second book which is due out with HQ Digital next August. It’s also an interwar years novel, set at the close of World War 1. This was such a difficult time for the country, and for many women who suddenly lost their new-found freedoms and jobs to make way for the returning men.

Finally, if you had to sum up The Lido Girls in three words, what would they be?

Uplifting, friendship, fitness.

Allie BurnsAbout the Author

Allie lives in Kent with her family and two tortoises.

When she’s not writing for business or penning her Women’s Historical Fiction, Allie enjoys swimming and yoga. She has an MA in Professional Writing from Falmouth University and The Lido Girls is her debut novel.

She is currently working on a second interwar years novel, which is due for publication in the summer of 2018.

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The Lido Girls Schedule Graphic