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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

 

Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

Real life is often an inspiration for fiction. Some real events resonate so strongly they inspire a lot of different ways to filter and explore the event, its social context and its repercussions.

The 1930 Melbourne murder of schoolteacher and aspiring writer, Mary “Molly” Dean, is one such event. It’s referenced in George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, in the memoir of Betty Roland, who knew Dean, and in the 2002 play Solitude in Blue.

Poignancy and a mysterious fascination were lent to Dean’s grisly death by the fact that it remains unsolved, and that she was in a relationship with local artist, Colin Calahan, and had been the subject of two of his paintings.

I knew none of this when Echo Publishing sent me a copy of Katherine Kovacic’s The Portrait of Molly Dean, except for the fact it was based on a true event. I resisted any research in favour of just taking in the story as presented.

Kovacic’s debut novel is a marvellous blend of history and invention and uses the notions of art restoration as an effective narrative device to reveal her invented version of the truth.

It begins in 1999 when art dealer, Alex Clayton, buys the Colahan portrait of Molly Dean at an auction. Clayton specialises in finding artworks that have been obscured or underappreciated, buying them cheap, restoring them and proving their provenance, and re-selling at a considerable profit.

Her initial aim to research a little about Molly Dean’s death to make the picture more attractive to buyers (everyone loves a good murder mystery) becomes almost a compulsion. Shocked to learn the trial for the only suspect was abandoned on the day it was due to begin, she starts to investigate the 70 year old mystery herself.

While her friend John Porter begins to slowly clean the portrait and bring long-lost Molly back into the light, an unknown person is trying to obtain the painting from her.

Clayton’s investigation, told in the present tense, is interleaved with the story set in the 1930s, of Molly’s constrained life at home with her mother, her ambitions to become a journalist and novelist, and the night of her murder.

This 1930s story is, like the portrait in 1999, is slowly revealed, with care and attention to detail.  As Alex explores the case and potential killers, the details of Molly’s life are slowly revealed. It’s an elegant little leapfrog progress, where each woman’s narrative reveals just enough to fuel the next act.

Modern Alex’s independence, backed by John and her dog Hogarth, is a complement to and a contrast with doomed Molly’s determination to break free from her awful mother’s house and assert her own independence.

The two women are very different but they have a kinship, and it’s easy to get emotionally connected to them both. While there’s nothing to be done about Molly’s fate, Kovacic cleverly entangles the reader into concern for Alex, whose investigations are of clear concern to someone from the past.

Kovacic’s style is clean and well-paced, and she manages to give the 1930s and the 1990s each a different feel without being jarring or sacrificing clarity or pace. There’s texture and pathos in this story, as well as courage and surprises.

Kovacic is careful to point out in the afterword of The Portrait of Molly Dean that her resolution to the mystery is her own invention. But it’s a good one, in a well-told story, and a very satisfying read.

Buy The Portrait of Molly Dean

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