Category Archives: Romance

Review: The Midnight Quill Trio by Emily Larkin

We all know I’m a Larkin fan, having previously gibbered excitedly about the books in her Baleful Grandmother series of regency romances with a magical element.

I’ve discovered I can always count on Emily Larkin for partnerships of equals: honourable men with heart and brains, and vulnerabilities of their own; women of humour, intelligence and courage, with determined agency even when they’re restricted by society and economic dependence. If I’ve had a rough week, I’ll always reach for Emily Larkin or Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Larkin’s non-magic regency romances are just as delightful, and I recently devoured the novel and two novellas in the ‘Midnight Quill’ series.

The Countess’s Groom

The series begins with a novella set in 1763, The Countess’s Groom, in which a terribly abused young wife is falls in love with her groom, Will Fenmore, who is trying desperately to save her from her brute of a husband without ruining her. The Countess, Rose, is just as imprisoned in her vile husband’s absence by her maid Boyle.

It’s not all down to Will, however. Rose finds courage and determination, and slowly learns to trust the giant but gentle Will. She learns from him, too, that love, and making love, can be tender and joyful.

Larkin always paces her stories perfectly, with just enough detail, just enough danger, to keep the heart racing, even though you know love will win.

Throughout her trials, Rose keeps a diary of her experiences, from the abuse at the hands of the Count, to her blooming under Will’s loving touches. She keeps quite explicit details, and it’s this diary, hidden away in the walls of her room, which is found and made good use of in the novel-length story of the trio.

The Spinster’s Secret

Set in 1815, The Spinster’s Secret sees Edward Kane returning from war, his face and hand disfigured from his wounds at Waterloo. He comes to the grim Creed Hall to return the worldly goods that belonged to his dear friend Toby, Strickland who died before his eyes in the battle.

Circumstance leads Edward to make a rash promise to Sir Arthur Strickland – Sir Arthur has found that a scurrilous author lives in his town! Disgusted, he wants the perpetrator found, exposed and driven from the too-appropriately named Soddy Morton. He thinks the poor writer, whoever it is, should be left in peace (and after all, the Cherie stories do no harm) but he’s honour-bound now.

Which is awkward, considering who it is.

Sir Arthur’s niece, Matilda Chapple, is Toby’s beloved cousin. She’s considered too tall, too rangy and too plain to be a catch for anyone. Her natural wit, warmth and intelligence oppressed by the puritanical strictures of the household, she has a plan to earn enough money to set up an orphange school and escape. And she’s doing it with the aid of the diary of the former Countess and its explicit content.

In fact, Mattie is anonymously writing the very popular and very sensual ‘memoir’ of Cherie. The fact that Mattie’s a virgin matters not at all, as between the diary and one or two other saucy books, she’s making it all up very nicely. That is, until her publisher asks her to write the story of how the fictional Cherie lost her virginity to her dear, late husband.

Matilda is a clever, resourceful, strong willed and determined young woman, so never doubt she’ll find a way.

Larkin, as always, weaves a wonderful story with characters of depth and charm. Edward and his friend Gareth, who lost an arm at Waterloo, are both dealing with what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress as a result of the horrors of that battlefield.

One thing I always appreciate about Larkin’s books is that her women may be strong or soft, frightened or bold, sporty or delicate, but they are never less than whole people, just as her heroes aren’t all alpha, and have their own fears and doubts as well as strengths and courage.

Both Edward and Mattie have their difficulties to bear, their obstacles to overcome. As the reader, you fear Mattie’s discovery as the writer of these erotic fictions, and want her to succeed in completing her manuscript so that she can fulfil her ambitions of independence. Butyou also want the love that’s growing between her and Edward to find expression without any dishonesty between them.

Larkin brings an ending which is true to both those things, and made me very happy with the balance.

I actually read The Spinster’s Secret before The Countess’s Groom, and neither suffered from being read out of order. (Larkin says in the trilogy forward that many people read them this way.) However, the third book in the series should definitely be the last to read, as it has spoilers in it for The Spinster’s Secret.

The Baronet’s Bride

The last story in the series is the novella, The Baronet’s Bride, dealing with the wedding night of two of the secondary characters from The Spinster’s Secret.

Gareth Locke lost his arm at Waterloo, and he’s still struggling to cope with the loss as well as the ongoing pain. But he’s determined to show no pain, no doubt, no weakness to his new bride, Cecily, whom he met at the dire Creed Hall. Cecily has been married before, which is a relief. That should make things easier.

Cecily, who was married for two weeks before her husband died in an accident, so her experience really isn’t what Gareth thinks it is. Cecy’s general view is that sex is a painful, messy, unpleasant thing that you endure for the sake of the man you love (who seems to enjoy the messy experience) and to have babies.

Those two attitudes are going to meet head-on in the most awkward wedding night ever.

Larkin of course can be trusted to write them out of the awkwardness towards gentler understanding and then a night of caring, loving, joyful passion. The whole night takes nine chapter but, oh, what chapters they are!

The three stories are available separately or bundled as the Midnight Quill Trio. I highly recommend all three if you like smart, funny regency romance full of well-rounded characters and charm.

Buy Midnight Quill Trio


Melbourne Music: 2009

Over on my Patreon, the Duo Ex Machina novella Sacrifice is being released in fortnightly chapters. It’s all scheduled and the cover will be revealed later in March.

In the meantime, I’ve started work on the brand new book in the series.

The next Duo Ex Machina novel, Number One Fan, will be set in Melbourne in 2009, five years after the end of Sacrifice.

One of the things I’ve been looking up is when various music venues began operating. I don’t want to have them popping up in one of those little, intimate music venues doing secret show if that venue wasn’t open yet!

I’m still deciding which real life venue I might use (if I decide to use a real one) for a particular sequence – partly because I’m still deciding what kind of music one of the boys is doing for a side project.

Cherry Bar (pictured, featuring my niece’s band Bronze) is one obvious pick. It’s been around since 2000 and has a great reputation for (and history of) nurturing local talent as well as hosting intimate events for big name acts, after parties and – once – saying no to Lady Gaga rather than oust a local band who’d booked the stage. Wikipedia claims that Noel Gallagher liked the venue so much he offered to buy it in 2002.

The building above it caught on fire in 2008. Cherry Bar only suffered water damage but it took six months to get the wiring fixed. However, it was definitely open and rocking again by 2009.

It’s such a classic Melbourne venue too – down an alleyway called AC/DC Lane. It got that name in 2004, in plenty of time for the setting of this novella, after being burdened with the tedious ‘Corporation Lane’ for most of its named life.

Another possible location for the scene is The Toff in Town, a venue on the second floor of a well-known ‘vertical laneway’, Curtin House on Swanston Street. (Curtin House is also home to Cookie Bar, the Metropolis bookstore, boutique fashion and a rooftop bar that’s a cinema in summer.)

The main bar features railway carriage-style booths, from which you can press a buzzer to summon a waiter for your order of sharing plates and excellent wines. The music venue is on the other side, featuring live music, DJs, album launches and the occasional comedy show. It would be perfect for a soft launch of the proposed joint project, especially is the music is a bit more alternative and distanced from Duo Ex Machina’s pop oeuvre.

The Toff, by the way, is named for the detective in John Creasey’s books from the 1930s-70s. The Toff was the Honourable Richard Rollison, the high-born amateur detective who mingles as easily with the rough types as with the gentry. Since Milo and Frank keep falling into crime plots very much against their will, there’s something very pleasing about using this venue as a location. (The Toff pictures here, by the way, are all publicity photos provided by the venue for my old Melbourne Literary App, which is no longer available.)

I have one more nominee for a 2009 location for a music event, and that’s The Blue Diamond Club. Designed to look like a Manhattan speakeasy but run on the 15th floor of a Queen Street office building, it had a lot of pizzazz and a sense of the theatrical. I actually used it in a scene in Walking Shadows, where various vampires converge, Gary proves not to be completely useless in a fight, and a vampire falls off the balcony. Good times.

The Blue Diamond was created in 2006 by Henry Maas, famous in Melbourne as the owner of the Black Cat cafe in Fitzroy, its companion music venue the Night Cat, and as the lead singer of jazz-funk-salsa band The Bachelors From Prague.

The Blue Diamond had a big blue (fake) diamond on a turning pedestal as you stepped out of the lift, and you always had the feeling that if James Bond wasn’t seducing secrets from Russian spies in one corner, then surely The Saint was insouciantly plotting somewhere to steal a lot of boodle.

Over time the Blue Diamond became less smooth and stylish speakeasy, where you had to be a member to get in (which we were), where everyone dressed up in the groove, and the mood was mellow, to a broader, less distinctive and much less atmospheric venue. I suppose a theatrical demeanour can only make so much money.

I’m at the end of this 2009 music reminiscence and I think I’ve now answered my own question.

Look out for a scene in Number One Fan set at The Toff in Town. Who knows, we might even get an action sequence out of that rooftop bar.

[A version of this post first appeared in my Patreon on 16 February 2018]