Category Archives: Romance

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Avon | 2021 (30 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector's Daughter by Gll PaulEvelyn’s long life has been extraordinary. The daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she grew up at Highclere Castle, but, just like her father, Lady Evelyn Herbert had no interest in high society. Her dream was to travel and be an archaeologist, a dream that came true when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun while working for Lord Carnarvon. Evelyn was the first person to crawl inside the tomb. It was the defining moment of her life, the greatest moment. But it was followed by a series of tragedies that would shape the rest of Evelyn’s life, despite her long and happy marriage to Brograve Beauchamp. And now, over fifty years later, Egyptian academic Ana Mansour is determined to discover what really happened all those years ago in the tomb and what it is exactly that Evelyn has determined to forget.

I am a huge fan of Gill Paul’s novels. I adore them. She manages to focus on women at the heart of events that are irresistible to me and now, with The Collector’s Daughter, she’s done it again. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is so utterly fascinating, glamorous, dangerous – I could not wait to read it! Eve Beauchamp is a wonderful character, in the scenes where she’s young and in those chapters where she’s old and ill. This is the story of her life and the people she filled it with, both living and dead, and they are all so vividly portrayed along with the world in which they lived.

There is a darkness to the novel. We are aware of the curse and Eve was closer to it than most and the character of Ana Masour haunts the pages. She haunts Eve. It’s as if she’s there every way Evelyn turns. The past is not escapable. It doesn’t die. It just decays like Tutankhamun in his desert tomb. The atmosphere is constant and heavy. You can feel the heat of Egypt, the mustiness of the tomb, the light of Highclere Castle, the love in Evelyn’s heart.

The Collector’s Daughter is completely engrossing. As always, Gill Paul combines absolutely fascinating historic events with the most interesting and fully realised people, adding an air of mystery, a hint of something menacing, a curse, as well as the joy of living.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband

Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’

The Lost Daughter
The Second Marriage

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Island at War by Deborah CarrIt is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.

I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.

Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.

I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.

An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

HarperCollins | 2021 (27 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbClara and Madeleine Sommers were once the closest of sisters but their differences have driven them apart. But now they must come together to fulfil the final wishes of their much loved and dying grandmother, Violet, who has asked them to travel to Europe from their home in America to deliver letters to three people who changed Violet’s life in her own travels across Europe 40 years before, a journey inspired by the great explorer, journalist and close friend Nellie Bly. But the year is now 1937 and Europe is a very different place. As Clara and Madeleine embark on the Queen Mary for Paris, Venice and Vienna, they will find a Europe slipping into the darkness of fascism. There is much for the two sisters to experience before they can return back to New York City aboard the Hindenburg.

I am such a huge fan of historical romance set during the earlier decades of the 20th century and, after reading the authors’ fantastic Meet Me in Monaco, I couldn’t wait to read Three Words for Goodbye. I am fascinated by the 1930s and this novel does such a good job of exploring the culture of the time in the three great cities of Paris, Venice and Vienna, while subtly portraying the sinister menace and threat of Nazism, which increases as the sisters move from France to Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Austria. The sisters travel in luxury and style, heightening the contrast between their experiences and those of the local people, whose freedoms are being threatened. They are shocked by the violence they witness and the rumours they hear. But the focus, though, is on relationships, both old and new.

The novel is effectively divided into three as the sisters progress across Europe and deliver each of the three letters, discovering more and more about their grandmother’s life when she was a young woman, while also learning about each other and what they both want from life. Clara, in particular, has some significant decisions to make. The chapters alternate between the two women and it works so well.

I loved Three Words for Goodbye. It’s romantic but not sentimental and tells a wonderful story about families, growing up, finding and losing love, being an independent woman at a time when this was not easy, especially if from the kind of background that Clara and Madeleine are from. It also has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg…. Hazel Gaynor (one of my very favourite authors) and Heather Webb are a collaborative tour de force and I can’t wait, and hope, for more.

Other reviews
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco
Hazel Gaynor – The Bird in the Bamboo Cage

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

One More Chapter | 2020 (ebook and audiobook: 17 September, Pb: 10 December) | c.300p | Review copy and Bought audiobook | Listen to the book | Buy the book

Before the Crown by Flora HardingIt is 1943 in Windsor Castle when the young Princess Elizabeth meets dashing Royal Navy officer Philip, a near penniless prince of the exiled Greek royal family. Elizabeth falls in love at first sight and, as the years and the war pass, Elizabeth and Philip must prove to her parents, the King and Queen, that they will make a suitable match despite the obstacles. And there are plenty of those, not least of which are Philip’s sisters with their Nazi husbands. Philip himself faces other hurdles. As a man about town, does he really want to tie himself down at such a young age and to a woman who would always be his superior and who, to be honest to himself, he hardly knows? And how far is Elizabeth prepared to go against her beloved father’s wishes and against her overriding motivation – her sense of duty?

I’m such a massive fan of The Crown, especially the first series, and so I couldn’t resist Before the Crown by Flora Harding. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a very familiar story but, even so, it’s well worth the re-telling and I like the way that the author does it. The narrative moves between Philip and Elizabeth’s perspective and so we see both sides of the story throughout the courtship, which does not run smoothly.

Elizabeth is not an easy person to know and through this structure we can see how Philip struggles to understand her. Is this a marriage of convenience or one for love? Philip really has no idea. The same is true of Elizabeth. She doesn’t know what Philip feels about her and she can barely understand her own feelings. This is an age of innocence, despite the bombs falling, in which people like Elizabeth and Philip can barely talk about these things, let alone share a kiss. It’s a dance, watched over by a very judgmental King and Queen, and it’s very entertaining to read about.

There are some moments that really made me laugh, especially a very long-suffering Philip’s time at Balmoral, being dragged up and down mountains by the King’s gillie. It all sounds absolutely horrendous. I must admit to preferring Philip’s sections of the book. The scenes with his sisters in Germany are wonderful as are the times he spends with his mother. Philip’s family history is fascinating and that is captured very well in the novel.

I listed to the audiobook of Before the Crown. It’s very good, not least because there are two excellent narrators for Philip and Elizabeth: Edward Killingback and Imogen Wilde. They do a brilliant job.

I think my only issue with Before the Crown is its sudden ending. I wish it had taken us right up to the altar. Nevertheless, it is a very entertaining romantic tale and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Second Marriage by Gill Paul

Avon | 2020 (17 September) | 464p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

The Second Marriage by Gill PaulIt is the late 1950s and Maria Callas is the most adored and magnificent diva of the century when she captures the eye of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Both Maria and Ari are married when they embark on their glamorous affair, mostly aboard the stunning yacht Christina and also around Europe where Maria performs on the greatest stages. This is a life of riches and champagne and Maria successfully hides behind it. Her reputation of being demanding is a mask for the reality of insecurity, a commitment to training and maintaining her peerless voice, a deep desire to have a child. Across the Atlantic, Jackie Kennedy would also seem to have it all. Married to the charismatic Jack Kennedy, a member of America’s most glamorous political family, elegant and beautiful, and on the path to the White House. But Jackie, too, is insecure, not loved as she should be, and destined for tragedies. When she needs support, it is Aristotle Onassis, a man drawn to beautiful and influential women, who provides it.

I love Gill Paul’s writing and I love the way that she invests so much feeling in her characters, bringing to life people that we may know well from history but bringing so much more to their portrayal. I knew a little of the love triangle of Maria, Ari and Jackie but I hadn’t thought about the real people behind it, just suspecting the motives of Jackie for marrying one of the richest men in the world. But in The Second Marriage, Maria, Ari and Jackie are vividly real and complex, displaying the author’s incredible insight into their natures and motivations.

Jackie is just as I imagine her but more intensely so, while Ari is charismatic, powerful and attentive. He is seen through the eyes of Maria and Jackie. We see how duplicitous he is, how much he hides from each but also how protective he is, how much he gives, emotionally as well as materially. We also wonder about his actions behind the scenes, what he might be doing that Maria and Jackie might not be aware of.

But the triumph of this outstanding novel is Maria Callas who, appropriately enough, dominates its stage. She is a tour de force of a character and personality, extremely complicated, full of intense feeling, dramatic, capable of such love. I absolutely adored her. Her relationship with Ari is intense and fiery. Her devotion to her craft is staggering and so fascinating to learn about. Maria’s relationship with her voice is a central theme of the novel. She is a glorious star, and we witness that side of her, but we also see her off stage and she is fabulous.

The novel moves between Maria and Jackie over a period of many years. We witness the big events of their lives, some well-known, others less so, and it is mesmerising as well as dramatic. It is also at times extremely sad and I cried and cried over bits of this novel. When I finished it, I felt bereft, that I’d been part of a great story with astonishing people and I was so loath to leave them behind.

I listened to the audiobook. I am in awe of its narrator Lisa Flanagan. The voices of Maria and Jackie are incredible and made me feel even closer to these women.

The Second Marriage is most definitely a contender for my top book of 2020.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband
The Lost Daughter

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

William Morrow | 2019 | 358p | Gift | Buy the book

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbIn May 1955 Grace Kelly attends her first Cannes Film Festival on the French riviera. With the paparazzi hot on her trail, she takes shelter in the parfumerie of Sophie Duval. Sophie has inherited her perfume business from her father but it is a struggle to keep it afloat, and there are some who wish to buy her land, where her flowers grow and her scents are created. And there is a wealthy male friend in her life who wishes to be much more than a friend, to take her from this life. But Sophie is determined to succeed and when Grace Kelly enters her shop and falls for her perfumes, she has hope that her business can survive and that she can create her own perfumes, which will tempt a Hollywood princess.

James Henderson is a press photographer and he is on the trail of stars. When he follows Grace Kelly through the streets of Cannes, he encounters Sophie Duval and realises his life is about to change. He is there to witness the first and arranged meeting of Grace Kelly with Prince Rainier of Monaco. It seems unspectacular, uneventful to James but history is about to show James just how wrong he can be. As the preparations for the marriage of the year get underway, Sophie and James will find themselves drawn closer and closer to each other. But will their love story have the same happy ending?

I am a huge fan of Hazel Gaynor. She writes beautifully, as anyone who’s read The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter will attest, and I was drawn so strongly to Meet Me in Monaco. I have become such a reader of historical romance or ‘women’s fiction’, especially when it’s set during the 20th century and features real women that I have an interest in. Here we’re given Grace Kelly and she is captivating. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb bring this charismatic and slightly mysterious, perhaps unknowable figure to life and I loved watching her experience Cannes and the other wonderful locations of this novel. It is fascinating to see the origins of her relationship with Rainier but I also loved all of the descriptions of Grace, her clothes, her style and her manner.

There is more to this lovely novel than Grace Kelly. At its heart is the growing romance between Sophie and James. These are very different people, one a French parfumer and the other an English newspaper photographer but there is more to both than initially meets the eye and it’s wonderful getting to know them. I enjoyed learning about Sophie’s perfume business and her relationships with her mother and father but I think James, or Jim, is my favourite character. We explore his background, his family and his friendships as well as his past. I think he’s a fantastic character.

Meet Me in Monaco is a gorgeous novel. It is filled with the glamour of Cannes and Hollywood in the 1950s, it has the intrigue of Grace Kelly’s rushed and curious romance, and it tells the involving story of Sophie and James. The pages are filled with the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. I read the novel in just one day. It’s a light, enchanting read and the pages flit through the fingers.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 February) | 637p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Grown Ups by Marian KeyesThe Caseys are a glamorous family. The three brothers, Johnny, Ed and Liam, and their beautiful, talented wives and their lively and entertaining children – the bunnies – meet up regularly, usually at events powered by Johnny’s energetic rich wife, Jessie, a tour de force if ever there was one. To the world they would appear to be enviably close but, when Ed’s wife Cara suffers a concussion and can’t help herself from blurting out painful truths at Johnny’s 49th birthday party, everything falls to pieces. It’s during the fall out that the adults, and not just the adults, must re-evaluate their lives and relationships. Perhaps now it’s time to grow up.

Grown Ups is the first Marian Keyes novel that I’ve read. Marian Keyes is one of those authors that I’ve thought for a fair old while that I really should read and when Grown Ups was published, with its gorgeously stripey sprayed edges, I couldn’t resist it. I bought it as soon as it was published and started reading it straight away. It’s a mighty tome at about 650 pages but it’s not the sort of book that makes you worry about its length. It never feels too long or too wordy. It’s one of the most compelling reads that I’ve had in quite a while.

The novel is purely character driven and it succeeds because the characters are glorious. I have discovered what other readers already knew, that Marian Keyes is a genius when it comes to putting living and breathing people on the page. It’s especially an achievement here because there are so many characters and each of them is distinct. Their voices are as different as their lives and over the course of the novel I fell for many of them while there were a couple, particularly one, that I grew to detest. In a good way. It’s the wives that hold these brothers together. Jessie, Cara and Nell are absolutely fabulous. I loved all three of them but my heart belonged most of all to Cara, whose life is revealed to be such a struggle. Her relationship with husband Ed was my favourite of the novel. There’s something very wonderful about Ed. Jessie is the most dominating of the characters and, although she is exhausting, her heart is so firmly in the right place. And then there’s the kids. I loved the bunnies so much, with their strange little ways.

As the novel moves between the characters, jumping back in time to the months and weeks proceeding the infamous birthday dinner, we see the secrets that lurk underneath, the histories that can’t be forgotten, the lies, the deeply felt love. Marian Keyes is a perfect and witty observer of life. There are no great dramas here, instead a series of events, mostly organised by Jessie, and they are at times so funny. They’re all wonderfully described and feel so real, as do the characters. They’ll stay with me for quite a while. I’ve found another author to love.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2015 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Letters to the Lost by Iona GreyOne cold February evening, a young woman runs through the London streets, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t even have shoes on her feet. Jess escapes down a small and quiet street and there she finds a house that is clearly not lived in. As Jess tries to make herself as comfortable as she can, a letter arrives in the morning post, which hints at a mystery in the past, a love affair from over seventy years before. Jess finds more letters and soon finds herself caught up in the great love affair of Stella, a clergyman’s unhappy wife, and Dan, a US bomber pilot. Jess, along with Will, a young man who enters Jess’s life, becomes obsessed with finding out who these people were while playing out her own story.

I recently read The Glittering Hour, Iona Grey’s latest novel, and I was enchanted. It is such a beautiful tale of love and loss set in the 1920s and 1930s and so, not surprisingly, I immediately sought out its predecessor, Letters to the Lost. Letters to the Lost is every bit as wonderful. It’s not quite as devastatingly sad but it is such a beautiful story and, once more, features some wonderful characters.

This time the novel is split between the present day(ish) and 1942 and 1943. The blitz is over but London and its citizens are scarred by it. With many people away fighting on the frontline in Europe and North Africa, for those left at home, this is a time of worry, of terrifying telegrams, of food shortages and sometimes even boredom as so much of life is curtailed by the restrictions, hardships and blackouts of war. This is a time of hasty marriages and Stella has made one to a clergyman with whom she must settle in a small village where her business is everybody else’s. It is a disaster from the outset and for much of the novel we feel intensely for this young wife. The romance with the bomber pilot Dan is exquisitely portrayed but it is tinged with tension, guilt and fear. So few pilots survived the war. This is a time when you had to grab what moments of happiness you can, in the face of twitching net curtains and nosey neighbours. Iona Grey captures this perfectly and I was engrossed in this gorgeous love story.

Stella and Dan’s story alternates with that of Jess and Will in the present day. For much of the time, we’re so caught up in Stella and Dan that the later story of Jess and Will plays out in its shadow but by the end it is just as compelling and the parallels between the two are cleverly made. I loved Jess, perhaps even more than Stella, and Will is an unusual young man. My heart, though, belonged to Dan.

Iona Grey writes beautifully. The words dance and dazzle across the page. Both past and present are depicted so vividly and I loved the way that the story moves between London with its bombed out churches and tea dances and the Cambridgeshire countryside with its fetes and squabbles and where tinned peaches can cause such excitement. Letters to the Lost is an enchanting, emotional read and I loved every page.

Other review
The Glittering Hour