An Officer’s Vow by Penny Hampson

An Officer's Vow (Gentlemen Book 2) by [Penny Hampson]

Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath.
Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin.
All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.

Tipping Point by Michelle Cook

Eighteen-year-old Essie Glass lives in not so distant future, only fifteen years from now, but it is a world transformed by ecological, political and societal breakdown. A couple of years ago her family were killed in a terrorist attack. Essie’s fresh-faced image and her grief were hijacked by right-wing propagandists blaming immigrants and liberals for the atrocity. Two years later, Essie regains control over her beliefs and her direction in life. She joins anti-establishment rebels going by the name Change Here. An environmentally-friendly energy-generating invention falls into their lap. It is an invention that could stall or even reverse the progress of climate change, but forces more powerful and influential than Change Here stand in the way of saving the planet. Short term commercial and political considerations seem to matter more that the survival of humanity. But Essie and her co-conspirators are not easily deterred. Cook has created an assembly of wonderful characters. I loved the way she mapped out Essie’s emotional growth in response to rapid plot developments. I enjoyed Essie’s feistiness and determination, and I rooted for her all the way.

The setting for the story is convincing and disturbingly plausible. Climate change creeps into everyday life and into the landscape. The rise of the authoritarian police state with its corruption, false propaganda and open disregard for basic human rights is shown without exaggeration or hysteria – it is what it is because we have made it possible. But there is also hope and redemption in this story. It is more of a warning than final reckoning.

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by Terry Tyler

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by [Terry Tyler]

I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.

I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.

There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.

“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.

Plague by Julie Anderson

Plague by [Julie Anderson]

Cassandra Fortune (Cassie) is a civil servant moving in the high echelons of political elites. She carries about the burden of her previous, badly imploded, career and tries to rebuild it in her new role at the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. It is at this point that she uncovers a body of a young Polish man among the remains in one of London’s old “Plague pits”. Another body, this time of a young Spanish man, is found together with Cassie’s pass to the Palace of Westminster. Links begin to form between the deaths, Cassie, the Whitehall and commercial lobbies.

Cassie embarks on an investigation alongside Detective Inspector Andrew Rowland.

Plague is a tight, fast-moving and absorbing crime drama. The theme of the resurging plague is particularly relevant in today’s reality as is the exploration of political power and influence, corruption and dodgy dealings. Cassie’s romantic interest in Andrew Rowland (which doesn’t quite take off) adds that extra human touch to the story, which is both believable and nuanced. The plot picks up pace as it moves towards the dénouement and becomes quite impossible to put down.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once by Cat Hickey

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once by [Cat Hickey]

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once is a cracking crime mystery set in an exotic location, featuring a cast of colourful and diverse characters and presenting the reader with a puzzling case to solve.

Chloe is an American lass on a solo holiday in Costa Rica. Things start going terribly wrong with firstly just one overzealous bellboy from Chloe’s hotel going missing, soon followed by another two. Chloe is the only person to have witnessed his bizarre disappearance. One minute he was there waving to her, the next he sauntered into the jungle. He had made a nuisance of himself prior to his vanishing act, and consequently suspicion falls on Chloe. You feel for her. She is in a foreign country and quite out of her comfort zone. But she is one feisty gal, determined and smart, and she has some allies, such as Juan as well as the charming Mateo, until he too is gone, that is.

Apart from the relatable and likeable characters, the setting also plays its part in the story. The deep and dangerous Costa Rican jungle, the heat and the beautiful but precarious crossings create a thrilling ambience. Amulets and accessories featuring mysterious local deities add more mystery. Little hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you dive into that world with Chloe.

Although there is humour and adventure, there is also an element of grim, brutal reality and pure unrepentant evil. You certainly wouldn’t want to send your child on a holiday where they could end up just like those missing bellboys.

A thrilling and clever book. Highly recommended.

Hunter’s Blood by Val Penny

Hunter's Blood (The Edinburgh Crime Mysteries #4) by [Val Penny]

Penny slams on the accelerator from the start. You are introduced to ordinary people going about their ordinary lives: Tim, Aisla and their friends travelling to a farm for the weekend, Linda dropping Bob at work on her way to her next parcel delivery, Charlie fussing about grumpily at the police station, Frankie engrossed in domesticity.

In and out of that everyday bustle, a van comes off the road. It is driven by Linda. She only tries to avoid a rabbit. A parcel breaks open and white powder spills out. Passing motorists call 999, and yet nobody seems to come to Linda and Bob’s rescue.

People go on with their lives. Tim & Co arrive on the farm and have a mighty good time. Then again, a girl runs away. She is scared. She too calls 999, and vanishes.

Hunter is the title character, the detective inspector who has to piece everything together. He is wonderfully fleshed out as a character. Empathetic, patient and caring about his aunt Sandra. I instantly warmed up to him.

Penny has written a fast-paced, gripping mystery, full of twist and meanders. I devoured it within 2 days.

Ribbons in Her Hair by Colette McCormick

With her mousy brown hair and chubby cheeks, Susan is the rant of the litter. Her two older sisters are tall and pretty blondes. Their lives seem to dutifully follow the well-trodden tracks of respectability. And respectability is key to the girls’ mother, Jean. She is about maintaining appearances to the extent that she is unable to show love or tenderness to her children. Intimacy is a cross to bear, in her view. Jean doesn’t do touchy-feely. She does however mean well in her own special way and doesn’t wish for Susan to make the same mistakes she made (or what she perceives as mistakes). She has the path of good education mapped out for Susan whom she doesn’t suspect of being able to attract “trouble”. And yet, trouble is exactly what befalls Susan when she finds herself pregnant by an undesirable young man, and absolutely determined to have her baby.

Ribbons in Her Hair is a powerful read. It raises lots of crucial issues, such as mother-daughter relationships, respect and morality, motherhood, or the oppressive effect of our societal rules of conduct. McCormick tackles these issues with great sensitivity and authenticity. Her prose is simple and convincing. The themes hit a nerve. She is able to write with equal ease from the point of view of both Susan and Jean.

This is a thought-provoking and inspiring story that lends itself to debate about so many issues that it would make a fantastic book-club read. Highly recommended.

The Summer of Taking Chances by Lynne Shelby

The Summer of Taking Chances: The perfect, feel-good summer romance you don’t want to miss! by [Lynne Shelby]

The Summer of Taking Chances by Lynne Shelby has it all: a picturesque and tranquil seaside village of South Quay, the height of hot summer, a handsome heart-throb and an emotionally intelligent heroine, Emma, who relays to us this romantic tale.

It is a tale of two people, Emma and Jake, who were once intimately close and now have a second chance to fall in love. They have plenty in common. Acting is one thing that binds them. Emma plays the part of Juliette in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliette. Jake is a fully-fledged film star. She is single. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend. He doesn’t seem heartbroken or on the rebound. Old school friends, the two of them are relaxed and at ease with each other. Particularly charming are their exchanges where they aptly use Shakespearean quotations to quibble with each other and laugh at their very own, inside jokes. All other young and eligible ladies in South Quay are swooning over Jake, but he seems to only have eyes for Emma.

Yet, not everything is as it seems. While we take a stroll on the beach with Emma and Jake or join them at a party, watching them grow closer and closer, we also learn about their common past. Shelby reveals small bits of their history, one at a time, through Emma’s eyes. We discover height of emotion and depths of pain, and we wonder: will that past be an obstacle to their future?
The Summer of Taking Chances is beautifully written and absorbing. It has depth and many three-dimensional characters not limited to Emma and Jake. It is a poignant and absorbing read. Highly recommended.

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose: Beware the She-Wolf from Provence ... (The Rose Trilogy) by [Carol McGrath]

The Silken Rose begins on a genteel note: thirteen-year old Ailenor of Provence arrives on the shores of England to be married to king Henry III. We join Ailenor on the journey of discovery of the alien and most fascinating world of 13th-century England. Guided by McGrath, tentatively at first, we dip our toes in the medieval customs, mentalities and sensitivities described with flourish and attention to detail. Soon we find ourselves fully immersed in a time-space bubble.

Ailenor may only be a young girl, and on many levels she acts like one: she enjoys beautiful things in life, the company of her ladies, lavish feasts,

poetry and embroidery. She is eager to please her king and fantasises of becoming Guinevere to his Arthur. She is beginning to awaken sexually. But we soon learn that one mustn’t be fooled by her young age and romantic fantasies. Ailenor is a she-wolf (a term she violently resents). She is ambitious, perceptive, even manipulative. She loves her king romantically but she also has more pragmatic objectives: she must give him an heir and sway his favours to secure her interests. She makes true friends (such as Nell, the king’s sister). She loves them dearly and supports them. But she also knows how to convert friendships into political alliances. She confidently navigates her way among the hostile barons and treacherous rivals. What started as an idyllic fairy tale of a royal wedding and giggling maidens soon becomes a darker, faster-paced tale of intrigue, assassination, betrayal and flights of blinding rage.  In order to survive and protect her children, Ailenor hardens and perfects the art of factional war and smart diplomacy.

MacGrath’s tale has the flowing quality of a powerful river which, once you’ve dipped your toes in, sweeps you off your feet and carries you with the currents, rapids and waterfalls of power struggle and survival.