Tag Archives: aristocracy

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

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Third Son’s a Charm (The Survivors, Book 1) by Shana Galen

Ewan Mostyn, the third son of the Earl of Pembroke, fought for the British in the Napoleonic Wars. His company, composed of other non-heirs, started out with thirty but only twelve survived the suicidal missions, now known as Dravens Dozen. Mostyn, referred to as The Protector, split his time as a bouncer at Langley’s Gaming Hell and hanging out at Draven’s Club with his wartime comrades. His reputation as a tough, no nonsense guy attracted the attention of the Duke of Ridlington who had need of Ewan’s services. The Duke’s daughter, Lady Lorraine Caldwell, had convinced herself she was in love and in her willful, head strong manner, had attempted to elope. Luckily her love interest refused the honor if it meant his “beloved” would be cut off without funds.

Moysten had no interest in being bodyguard to a spoiled heiress until he discovered her beau was none other than his despised cousin Francis. Francis, a favorite of his father, had been the bane of Ewan’s existence since his mother’s untimely death. Francis used his uncle’s favor to get away with hurtful bullying which always seemed to result in a punishment for Moysten instead of the perpetrator. The Earl’s disdain for his youngest son stemmed from his inability to read (most likely due to dyslexia) and his failure at schooling. Ewan’s stuttering and insecurities contrasted with the slick manner of Francis whose good looks and charm were assets his cousin lacked. The Protector knew that Francis was more attracted to Lorrie’s dowry than he was to her beauty and it would be his pleasure to thwart his nemesis plans.

Lorrie’s long winded babbling was in sharp contrast to the quiet reticent Mostyn who took his bodyguard duties seriously. Despite her youthful ways, Lady Lorraine had a kind heart and was simply looking for an outlet for her passionate nature. Opposites attract and soon Mostyn found it difficult to resist giving his “client” a taste of what she’d be missing if she ran off with Francis. While just a kiss, he was appalled for overstepping societal boundaries and attempted to keep his distance while still fulfilling his duties, but the young debutante was having none of it and the two found themselves in close proximity as they each helped the other work through their personal issues. An additional subplot involved the Duke rekindling a romance with his still lovely wife after years of growing apart.

While Third Son’s a Charm by Shana Galen had a lot of potential, it was just a bit too long for the content. The crush on Francis continued way past her inamorata with Ewan and the plot climax came a little too late to save the day. Galen does, however, know how to write a passionate sexual interlude which will keep the readers hot and bothered. I especially liked the repartee between the secondary characters who will be the subject of other Regency Romances in The Survivors series. Hopefully the plot line of these future books won’t drag in the middle like this one. Three stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Too Sinful to Deny (Scoundrels and Sinners, Book 2) by Erica Ridley

Susan Stanton loves gossip, so much that when she overhears a juicy bit from a wife cuckolding her husband, she finds herself on the wrong side of The Ton, despite the truth to her words. Her mother’s attempt to marry her off to a morally questionable but well off gentlemen was destined to fail (see Too Wicked to Kiss) so she ends up confined to her room until further notice. Yet Susan was determined to attend The Frost Fair in celebration of the Thames freezing over, a rare occurrence. Who knew that despite her stealthy attempts to sneak out, she was discovered when she fell through the ice and drowned. Luckily she was rescued and brought back to life, but only to be banished from her beloved London – packed up and sent to the end of nowhere at Moonseed Manor in Bournemouth, to stay with her cousin Lady Beaune with the closest center of civilization the town of Bath.

The situation is even worse that Susan expected when there is no Lady Beaune to greet her and she is “welcomed” instead by her cousin’s creepy husband, Ollie. The town folks don’t cotton to her overtures of friendship, especially the owner of the dress shop who resents her popularity with the only decent men around including Gordon Forrester, the local magistrate. Susan’s only interest, though, is to find a way home again, if only she can discover a way to get to the closest town where her recognizable family name will provide the means of the necessary escape. Things are looking up when Forrester offers to accompany her to the upcoming Assembly in Bath, occurring in about two weeks, but Susan is not sure she can wait that long. It seems that there have been a series of recent deaths, and the lingering ghosts can’t rest until she does them each a favor. Seeing and hearing spirits seems to be a new but unwanted talent she has acquired after her near death experience and she’ll do anything to shut them up. Of course, these are ghosts of the recently departed, so who exactly is the murderer? There is a plethora of suspects which only a Bow Street Runner could untangle. Then there is the question of her missing cousin. Is she buried under that unmarked grave or is it that freshly dug mound of earth the resting place of some other hapless soul? Nobody’s talking.

Complicatiog her life is Ollie’s friend, Evan Bothwick, a devastatingly handsome rogue tinkering in the Pirate business and bent on making her his latest conquest. If only she could trust him, but she worries that he will not only keep her from escaping, but also steal her heart. Her focus is to keep her eye on the prize – someone from The Ton who loves London as much as she does, ready to marry a chaste and pure innocent, a dream threatened by Evan’s carefree ways.

Too Sinful to Deny, Book 2 in the Scoundrels and Sinners series, never seemed to end. While Erica Ridley tried to capture a sense of gothic all she exceeded in doing was to create a horrifying scenario filled with mean spiritedness and senseless violence which could not be compensated for by the rest of the trappings of a Regency Romance. The ghosts actually provided a bit of levity, if you can believe that. While the love interests had a somewhat decent sensibility, the townsfolk were a horrid unredeeming bunch who I’d just as soon not meet again. The only scene which brought a smile to my lips was when the heroine buys a seemingly endless round of drinks resulting in a packed bar with a tab she can never hope to pay unless her parents cough up her allowance.

If you are a fan of the Saw movies, this one is for you, but if you avoid fare such as chainsaw massacres, then find another book to read. Two and a half stars.

This ARC was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Too Wicked to Kiss (Scoundrels and Secrets, Book 1) by Erica Ridley

Miss Evangeline Pemberton has a gift or perhaps it’s better to describe it as a curse. The daughter of a gypsy, she has inherited the ability to see “visions”, whether from the past, present, or future, just by touching another. Her mother, forced to marry in the face of disgrace, has died at the hands of her sadistic husband, forcing Evangeline to run away or face the cruelty of a stepfather that feels he owns her and her power. Unfortunately the woman she has turned to in desperation is also quite despicable and she finds herself at a house party in a creepy mansion owned by Gavin Lioncroft, a known killer, with the task of helping compromise her friend Susan, Lady Stanton’s daughter, into matrimony to that very owner of Blackberry Manor. Little does Evangeline expect to develop feeling for the handsome, gruff man who has a tendency to react with his fists, nor does Gavin know how to combat the instant attraction they feel towards one another.

Also at the gathering is Lioncroft’s sister, Rose, with her husband, Lord Hetherton, and their children, as well as Rose’s brother-in-law, Benedict Rutherford and his wife Francine, plus their cousin Edmund. An elderly, doddering gentleman, Mr Teasdale has also been invited (targeted) as a prospective husband for Rose’s eldest daughter Nancy. Hetherton turns out to be a real piece of work so when he turns up dead nobody, except perhaps his children, seem upset. His insulting behavior gives everyone a motive, but the prime candidate is the host who publicly threatened to kill his brother-in-law after witnessing the results of his spousal abuse. Somehow Evangeline’s gift has been revealed, although she claims her insight is because she hears messages from God, and she sets out to discover the truth, hopefully proving Gavin’s innocence. Mayhem ensues. While everyone wants to leave ASAP, it is Jane’s thirteenth birthday and she has been promised a party so they all stay to celebrate resulting in the best day of her life (despite her recent father’s murder), giving Evangeline time to discover the identity of the true murderer.

While this started out as an enticing read Too Wicked to Kiss by Erica Ridley turned out to be long winded with internal repetitive narratives which distracted from the whole. Disguised as a Gothic story, instead of being mysterious, much of this Regency Romance is nonsensical. While there were some potentially interesting characters, none of the secondary cast of players was fully developed. The reason Miss Susan Stanton (one of the better defined individuals) was banned from society and thus reduced to entrapping a husband, was lame and the reader is at a loss for the irrational behaviors of her mother. Edmund was constantly drunk which was perhaps a reason for his inappropriate crudeness which would never have been tolerated at a house party, and the other guests were just as one sided in their descriptions. The children, however, were a delight, and injected some light heartedness into a dark theme. I also couldn’t understand why the Lioncrofts blackballed their brother after their parents death since it was all obviously an accident. Under all the handwringing there was a decent plot, but you had to search to find it. This is Book 1 of the Scoundrels and Secrets series.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.

The Forbidden Duke (The Untouchable Series, Book 1) by Darcy Burke

There are good guys and bad guys in The Forbidden Duke by Darcy Burke. The bad guy is Lord Haywood, a Duke who takes advantage of a debutante thereby ruining her reputation, sentencing her to a life of ostracism out in the country while he merely gets a slap on the wrist, allowing him to continue in his rakish ways. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Lockhart, after nine years of this seclusion, suddenly finds herself with no place to live when her father loses his funds in a risky scheme and is forced to sell their home and move in with his sister. The invite does not include her, nor can she stay with her sibling as her sister’s husband, a rector, refuses to house a proven “harlot”. Left to her own devices she applies for the role of companion and lands a position with Lady Satterfield, a Countess who doesn’t seem to mind Nora’s past, blaming it on the vagaries of The Ton. It doesn’t take long for Lady Satterfield to realize Miss Lockhart’s worth, deciding to give her a second chance by sponsoring her for another season with the express hope that Nora can find a husband who will provide comfort and security. Lady Satterfield, one of the good ones, has a stepson, Titus St John, Duke of Kendal, who she adores. Every year she features a Ball and his Lordship dances the first dance with one favored female partner. Her Ladyship appeals to Kendal to pay particular attention to her housemate to give Nora the opportunity to start out on the right foot. The Duke, always aiming to please his beloved stepmother, agrees despite his reticence to appear in public.

Titus has troubles of his own. A wild one in his youth, he has determined to change his ways, shunning most of society and keeping to himself, thus earning the title, The Forbidden Duke. Feelings of guilt for his part in Nora’s ruin (influencing others to run amok) as well as the anguish he caused his now dead father weigh heavily on his conscience. Yet he finds Miss Lockhart a bright light who attracts his attention despite his reticence to get involved with the opposite sex (beyond his carefully selected mistresses). Their lives become entangled as the season progresses and feelings of doubt cloud both their minds as Nora is courted by some likely future husbands. Lady Satterfield stands back and let’s events unfold, only wanting what is best for her sweet protégée but also hoping for a happily ever after for her cherished stepson.

There are some highlights of this Regency Romance, including the marvelous cast of secondary characters from the delightful, benevolent hosts, Lady Satterfield and her husband, to the supportive Lady Dunn who also gives a nod of approval to the heroine. I wouldn’t be surprised if these individuals turn up in future novels of the Untouchable Series. The major drawback of this particular book is the dry dialogue (although there are a few gems such as the interaction between Titus and his mistress) and the continued repetition of the main characters’ reflections including a tendency to repeat the same information in their conversations. This was a short one, only a little over 150 pages (more of a novella), negating any excuse for all the filler. Granted not much happens, but it should have been a sweet little romance. However, there was nothing candy-coated about the steamy sex scene between the two lovers designed to titillate the reader. I just wish the author hadn’t taken one of the seemingly nice suitors and turned him into such as cad. There had to be some other way to bring the two love birds together. Still, worth a quick read. Three stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Chaperone’s Secret by Donna Lea Simpson

Amy Corbett, governess to the Donegal family in Ireland, was upgraded to the role of Chaperone to their 18 year old daughter Bridget who publicly eschewed marriage, but changed her mind when confronted with the love of a handsome young English Gentleman who could afford to keep her in a lifestyle in which she would be more than happy to become accustomed, resulting is a swift marriage. The Donegals, tooting Amy’s success, attracted the attention of Duke Sylverton who was having difficulty getting his spoiled youngest daughter to accept a proposal, and suddenly Miss Corbett found herself in the whirl of the London Ton attending all the entertainments offered during The Season. Her charge, Lady Rowena Revington, was amazingly beautiful, but also willful and not inclined to give up her personal pleasures for life as a wife to some stuffy aristocrat. Rowena made a habit of enticing gentleman to declare their love then handily rejecting them, all while maintaining an air of impeccable decorum. This worried Amy, not just for the hurt feelings of all these lovelorn men, but also her own personal fate if she failed at her task, as she had little funds and no where to go. However, if successful, the promised bonus would allow her to live a modest lifestyle out in a little cottage in Kent, perhaps using her talents as a seamstress to meet her basic needs.

Lord Dante Pierson, a viscount who was considered a rogue and a rake by polite society, sees Lady Rowena’s visage as she travels by in her carriage and decides that this is the angel who can bring about his transformation. His heavily mortgaged home of Delacorte needs attention especially since the land steward, Mr Lincoln, has disappeared with the quarterly earnings of the staff. Unfortunately, Pierson has been in the habit of ignoring his problems through a haze of drink and gambling. In fact, when he sees this transforming vision, he is too drunk to walk unaided, relying on two women of the night to assist him to his home. To add insult to injury, Rowena is having a good laugh at his expense when her carriage splashes the Viscount as it passes.

Somehow Lord Pierson, with the assistance of his best friend, Lord Bainbridge, must find a way back into the good graces of society so he can properly woo this prospective lady love. When Rowena learns of his naughty past, she seems interested, so Amy encourages the relationship. Pierson tries to get in Miss Corbett’s good graces so she’ll allow the outings necessary in a proper courtship, and Amy earns the confidences of the viscount as he vows to make improvements to his home so his heirs will have something worthwhile to inherit. Bainbridge also shows her some courtesy as he watches out for his friend’s interests. With the advice of the more experienced Chaperone, Mrs Bower, Amy tries to do the right thing for all parties concerned, ignoring her own growing feelings towards the kind hearted Pierson.

There are a few twists and turns in The Chaperone’s Secret by Donna Lea Simpson leaving one wondering who, if anyone, will end up together in the end. Simpson also delves into the topic of the life of the lower classes during the Regency Era and how they are dependent on the largesse of their employers who expect long hours of work for little pay with the constant threat of being kicked out without a reference leading to a life on the streets.

Originally published in 2004 as Lord Pierson Reforms, Simpson presents an Interesting premise with likable characters (even the unredeemable daughter seemed to have a heart) and while there is a bit too much repetition, it is not overwhelming. Perhaps a little more show and a little less tell would make this a better read.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

A Lady’s Choice by Donna Lea Simpson

Donna Lea Simpson continues the Saga of the Neville family in her Regency Romance A Lady’s Choice. In the first book, Lord Haven’s Deception, Lord Haven finds true love with Miss Jane Corbett, and in the second book, The Debutante’s Dilemma, youngest sister Pamela lands a husband who loves her despite her hoydenish ways. Now it’s Rachel’s turn to discover her future path in life. At Pamela and Lord Strongwycke’s wedding breakfast she sits beside her fiancé, Lord Francis Yarnell, who scorns the behavior of her family and friends. There’s Grand, an outspoken, often lewd grandmother whose inappropriate innuendos on married life make Rachel cringe. Even family friend Colin Varens embarrasses her when he calls for the newly married couple to share a kiss.

Yet once Pamela is on her honeymoon, Rachel feels lost. Despite their differences, she had recently begun to rediscover their childhood connection and now feels the loss despite her own future as a wife to a Marquis. Yet here she is in London, finally able to enjoy all the pleasures of a Season. If only her stiff and proper fiancé weren’t so domineering. Rachel begins to wonder what married life will offer as she deals with an overbearing future mother-in-law who even has plans to accompany them on their honeymoon. Her betrothed seems to make all the decisions expecting her to acquiesce to his whims while ignoring her wishes. His once admirable autocratic qualities dim as he continually criticizes her friends, wishing to ban her from socially interacting with those he considers culturally inferior, including Grand. Suddenly a marriage of convenience doesn’t look so promising.

In the wings is Colin Varens, a country gentleman from back home, and his sister Andromeda, a nonconformist with a large heart. The two are house sitting for Lord Strongwycke taking care of his niece Belinda, a true rebel who consistently finds herself in trouble. Rachel takes comfort in their presence, despite the censure of her husband-to-be. Colin has been in love with his beautiful neighbor for years, continuing his courtship even while anticipating her inevitable rejection, but has now come to accept their new status as friends. To work out his frustrations he has focused his attentions on pugilism, winning acclaim as the local boxing champion. In London he finds a mentor, Sir Parnell Waterford, to teach him the ropes so he can try his hand with the London crowd. Andromeda is horrified by her brothers “hobby” and does everything she can to deter him, even appealing to Sir Parnell. Rachel supports Andromeda’s endeavors but is fascinated by the sight of the muscular, bare chested Colin as he exhibits his talents in the ring.

As the Regency Romance progresses, Rachel’s former icy interior begins to melt and she discovers a new depth of character to counter her former superficiality. In the end she finds a path which meets the needs of all concerned.

Originally published as Rachel’s Change of Heart in 2003, this novel starts out strong with some wonderful characterizations and witty dialogue. There are even some interesting incidents, just not enough to carry an entire book. Except for an obnoxious mother of the groom, there really aren’t too many obstacles to provide tension, despite the tale of two romances and secondary issues dealing with boxing and slavery. With quite a bit of tell and not enough show, the story contained an excess of repetition with an emphasis on the main characters’ inner contemplations. A shorter, tighter story, perhaps a novella, would have been more pleasing. A pity!

Two and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.