The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

the-phantom-treeI have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction.  The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.

The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back.  We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas.  Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew.  Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s.  To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend.  Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?   

The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective.  Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time.  Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.  Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall.  This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.         

Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story.  Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true.  She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’). 

The present day story was enjoyable too, though.  I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.   

The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here.  I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

 

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

the-red-sphinx Well, it may be only January but I think I already know one book which will be appearing on my books of the year list this December! Having read and enjoyed all of Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan novels over the last few years (beginning with a re-read of The Three Musketeers and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask), imagine my delight when I discovered that Dumas had written yet another Musketeers sequel – The Red Sphinx, which is being made available in a new English translation this month. Bearing in mind that this is a later Dumas novel, written towards the end of his career on the urging of his publishers, I was pleased to find, almost as soon as I started reading, that it was living up to my expectations!

I don’t think it’s at all necessary to have read The Three Musketeers first; The Red Sphinx is set in the same world – that is, in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIII of France – but it also stands alone and if you’re hoping to be reacquainted with d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, you’ll be disappointed as the four friends don’t appear at all in this book. However, it does contain many of the same elements that made the original novel so much fun to read. There are dashing young heroes and beautiful heroines; duels, battles and sieges; spies and smugglers; secret messages, clever disguises, letters written in code – and political and romantic intrigue in abundance.

Beginning only a few weeks after the events of The Three Musketeers ended, the novel opens in Paris at the Inn of the Painted Beard where a hunchbacked marquis is trying to persuade swordsman Etienne Latil to assassinate a rival. When Latil hears that the man he is required to kill is the Comte de Moret, illegitimate son of the late King Henri IV, he refuses to accept the mission and a fight breaks out during which both Latil and the marquis are injured. As fate would have it, upstairs in the inn at that very moment are the Comte de Moret himself and one of the Queen’s ladies, who have met in disguise to arrange for Moret to attend a meeting with the Queen.

cardinal-richelieu
Cardinal Richelieu

At the meeting, Moret, who has only recently returned to France from Italy, delivers some letters to the Queen, Anne of Austria, the King’s mother Marie de’ Medici, and the King’s brother, Gaston d’Orleans, and learns that they are plotting the downfall of Cardinal Richelieu, the Red Sphinx of the title. Now, in The Three Musketeers, the Cardinal is portrayed as a villain; in The Red Sphinx, he is very much a hero. With an intelligence network stretching across half of Europe, he is shown to be a formidably clever man but also a loyal one who always acts with France’s best interests at heart – and although he’s accused of having too much influence over the king, it’s evident that he is trying to use his influence for the good of the country.

I can’t possibly describe the plot of this novel in any more detail; it’s so complex that I wouldn’t know where to start. I think it’s enough to say that most of it is devoted to the power struggle between Cardinal Richelieu and his allies on one side and the two queens and Gaston d’Orleans on the other, with the ineffectual young king caught in the middle. Dumas spends a lot of time introducing us to each character who plays a part in the story, even the minor ones, and although this makes the book longer than it probably needed to be, I didn’t mind because the amusing anecdotes he provides about them are so entertaining. He also includes whole chapters dedicated to explaining the political situation in France and across Europe or to describing the progress of key battles – and I’ll confess to not finding these very interesting. In general, though, I thought the balance was right and despite the length of the book it held my attention from beginning to end.

One important thing to know about The Red Sphinx is that it was never actually finished! In his introduction to the new edition, Lawrence Ellsworth (who is also responsible for the wonderful translation) suggests that maybe Dumas struggled to write an ending because he had already done this in an earlier work. This means that the novel comes to a rather abrupt end with several plot points left unresolved. Annoying – but not as annoying as it could have been, because Ellsworth comes to the rescue by pairing The Red Sphinx with another little-known Dumas work, The Dove. This is a short story (actually more of a novella) which continues the adventures of two of our main characters, the Comte de Moret and Isabelle de Lautrec, and brings at least some of the threads of the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The Dove was written earlier in Dumas’ career than The Red Sphinx and has a very different feel, being told in the form of letters carried by a dove. It’s an unashamedly sentimental story, but I loved it. I found it beautifully romantic and perfectly paced, with the suspense building and building from one letter to the next.

I will, of course, be reading more by Dumas – I have an upcoming re-read of one of my favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo, planned – but I was also so impressed by Lawrence Ellsworth’s translation that I’ve had a look to see what else he has done. It seems that he has also edited The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, which sounds very appealing. One to add to the wishlist, I think!

Thanks to Pegasus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Two books by Marjorie Bowen…or should that be Joseph Shearing?

marjorie_bowenMargaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long (1885-1952) was a British author who wrote many different types of book – ranging from crime and horror to historical fiction and biography – under several different pseudonyms, the most popular being Marjorie Bowen. In December, in an attempt to get up to date with my NetGalley review copies, I read two of her recently reissued books which were originally published under the name Joseph Shearing. Apparently the true identity of Joseph Shearing was unknown for a long time and there was speculation that it might have been another female author, F Tennyson Jesse. The Shearing novels, which it seems were usually inspired by true crimes, do have a different feel from Bowen’s straightforward historical novels (I’ve read a few of those over the last year or so) and I can see why readers at the time might not have made the connection.

nights-dark-secretsNight’s Dark Secrets (first published in 1936 as The Golden Violet, The Story of a Lady Novelist) was the first of the two books that I read. The novel opens with the marriage of Angel Cowley, an author of romance novels, to Thomas Thicknesse, the owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Angel has been busy preparing her latest novel, The Golden Violet, for serialisation in a magazine, but this has to be postponed when Thomas insists that the newly married couple leave England and return to his plantation, Venables Penn.

As soon as they arrive in Jamaica, Angel discovers her husband’s true nature and begins to wonder whether she has made a terrible mistake. Struggling to adapt to life in an unfamiliar country, with a husband she can’t trust and barely sees, and with trouble brewing in the island’s slave community, Angel turns to her neighbour, John Gordon, for the love and friendship she longs for. But is John really all he appears to be or is he also hiding secrets?

Night’s Dark Secrets could have been a great book. The descriptions of the island are wonderful and the historical setting – around the time slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the early 19th century – is an interesting one. However, the level of racism, even for a book from the 1930s, made me feel quite uncomfortable. I’m aware, of course, that it wasn’t necessarily Marjorie Bowen who was racist, but rather the characters, and that the way Angel and other Europeans reacted to the sight of the black slaves on the island would have been consistent with the reactions of many white women who had never seen or spoken to someone with a different skin colour before. Still, Angel’s sheer nastiness, in addition to her general silliness, made it impossible for me to have any sympathy with her situation.

forget-me-notHaving said all of that, I did still find the story itself compelling and kept reading to the end. And I was happy to go on to try a second Shearing novel, Forget-Me-Not. This novel, published in 1932, also appeared under the title The Strange Case of Lucile Clery, and Bowen claimed it was based on true events which led to the downfall of Louis Philippe I, King of the French, in the revolution of 1848.

The novel is set in France and follows the story of Lucille Debelleyme, a young woman who takes a position as governess in an aristocratic Parisian household. Lucille has never lasted long in any job, but she’s determined that this time things will be different. Unfortunately, although she quickly wins over her new employer, the Duc du Boccage, she is less successful with his wife, Fanny. As the governess and the Duc find themselves falling in love, Fanny’s jealousy intensifies and she makes plans to have Lucille removed from her position. Lucille, though, will not go without a fight. As a Bonapartist who was opposed to the return of the monarchy, she longs to see Louis Philippe toppled from his throne – and the events which occur during Lucille’s stay in the du Boccage household play a part in the eventual revolution.

Forget-Me-Not is an unusual story – part romance, part suspense, part historical fiction and part crime. Again, the main character is not very likeable, but she’s obviously not supposed to be. I found her intriguing as I was never really sure exactly what she wanted or what she was trying to do. I’m not very familiar with the period of French history covered in the novel so I didn’t fully understand how Lucille’s actions affected the monarchy, but that didn’t matter too much as the real focus of the story is on her relationship with Fanny and her husband.

Of these two books, I definitely preferred Forget-Me-Not. I’m not sure whether I would want to read any more of Joseph Shearing’s work, though – if I do read more novels by this author, I think I’ll stick to the ones that were published under the name of Marjorie Bowen or George R Preedy (I loved one of her Preedy books, The Poisoners).

Have you ever found that where an author has used pseudonyms, you’ve liked the books written under one name more than another?

Howards End by E.M. Forster

howards-endThis is only the second book I’ve read by E.M. Forster – the first one being A Room with a View. With plenty of his books left to choose from, I decided that the next one I read would be Howards End, which was recommended to me by almost everyone who commented on my review of A Room with a View back in 2013!

Howards End is the story of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and their relationship with the Wilcox family. At the beginning of the novel, Helen – the younger and more impulsive of the two – accepts an invitation to visit Howards End, the Wilcox country home, where she becomes romantically involved with the younger son, Paul Wilcox. Although their romance is quickly broken off, the two families stay in touch and the elder Schlegel sister, the more practical and sensible Margaret, becomes good friends with Paul’s mother, Ruth.

Ruth Wilcox longs to show Margaret Howards End, feeling that her new friend will appreciate the house more than her own children do. Margaret never gets a chance to visit while Mrs Wilcox is alive, but when she dies, early in the novel, she tries to bequeath Howards End to Margaret. However, the rest of the Wilcox family choose not to inform Margaret and burn the note which describes Ruth’s dying wish, leaving Margaret none the wiser. As time goes by, Margaret gets to know Ruth’s widowed husband, Henry, and a friendship forms which soon develops into something more. Could Margaret end up living at Howards End one day after all?

Meanwhile, Helen has also made a new friend: Leonard Bast, a young insurance clerk who is married to an older woman, Jacky. Acting on advice from Henry Wilcox, the Schlegels warn Leonard that the company he works for is in trouble and that he should look for another job. Leonard follows this advice, but when things go wrong and he ends up with nothing, Helen blames Henry for his misfortunes.  Will she ever be able to forgive him?

Published in 1910, Howards End explores the relationships between these three families, each occupying a different position in the British class system. The Wilcoxes are wealthy, materialistic capitalists who have made their money from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels, who are half German, are cultured, intellectual and idealistic, and apparently based on the real-life Bloomsbury Group. Finally, the lower-middle class Leonard Bast has found himself impoverished and stuggling to get by, but is trying to improve his lot in life by exposing himself to music and literature.

Class is obviously an important theme in this novel, then, but there are others too, such as gender roles and feminism. With such a variety of characters, we get a variety of views ranging from Henry Wilcox saying that “the uneducated classes are so stupid”, Mrs Wilcox’s opinion that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men”, and Margaret thinking to herself, “Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants – the whole system’s wrong.” It’s interesting to think that within a few years of this book being published, the outbreak of war in Europe and also the progress of the women’s suffrage movement would bring social change to Britain and the world Forster is describing would no longer exist.

Howards End is a beautifully written novel and a fascinating and thought-provoking one. However, I don’t think I can say that I loved it, partly because I found so many of the characters difficult to like and care about.  Although Forster himself writes about each character with warmth and empathy, I didn’t feel that I was forming a very strong connection with any of them.  I preferred A Room with a View, but I’m probably in the minority with that as so many people have told me that this one is their favourite by Forster. I’m still looking forward to reading more of his novels, though, and I think A Passage to India will be next.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge

strangers-in-company Published in 1973, Strangers in Company reminds me of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, or maybe M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. It is set in Greece and follows the story of Marian Frenche, who is looking for a new job after finding herself at a loose end when her children move away to live with her ex-husband. Marian finds work with an agency who arrange for her to accompany a troubled young woman called Stella Marten on a coach tour of the major Greek archaeological sites. She is given very little information about Stella and her background, apart from a warning that she should be left on her own as little as possible, but after only a few hours in Stella’s company, Marian finds her to be rude, angry and irritable. It’s going to be a difficult trip!

As they set off on their tour, Marian’s time is divided between dealing with Stella’s moods, seeing the sights of Greece and getting to know the other people on the bus. Their fellow passengers include several young schoolteachers, a classics professor, an oddly-matched honeymoon couple and a handsome Greek tour guide. On the surface, they’re just a group of people hoping to enjoy a holiday in the sun and possibly learn something new along the way, but when accidents begin to befall members of the party – too many to be a coincidence – Marian is forced to accept that there could be someone on the tour who is not as innocent as he or she appears. Worse still, it seems that Marian herself could be the next target…

My first introduction to the work of Jane Aiken Hodge came a few years ago when I read and enjoyed Watch the Wall, My Darling, a gothic novel set in 19th century Cornwall. Strangers in Company feels very different, having a contemporary setting, but I enjoyed this one even more. I loved the descriptions of Greece and its ancient historical sites, and with the benefit of Google to find pictures of the less famous places the characters visit, I almost felt as though I’d been on the tour myself! I did become very aware of my limited knowledge of more recent Greek history, particularly the period following the civil war of the 1940s, but although I wished I’d read up on this before starting the book, it wasn’t really a problem at all.

I’ve said that this book felt similar to a Mary Stewart novel (some of hers have a Greek setting too) and I think I was right to make that comparison because halfway through the book there’s a scene where Marian spends an afternoon relaxing with a copy of Stewart’s My Brother Michael! I don’t think Jane Aiken Hodge’s writing is as good as Stewart’s, however, and the characters are not as likeable or as well drawn (I found it hard to tell some of the members of the tour group apart). I was also slightly disappointed with the final few chapters of the book – I felt that, as the mystery began to unfold and revelations were made, the plot became very far-fetched and difficult to believe. Otherwise, though, I thought this was a great read!

I have another of Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels, Red Sky at Night, on my shelf still to be read. Has anyone read that one – or any of her others?

Historical Musings #22: Books to look out for in 2017

Historical Musings

As I mentioned last week, I’m beginning 2017 with no real reading plans or targets for the year ahead. I’m sure I’ll be reading plenty of historical fiction, though, and as usual I would expect to be reading a mixture of older books and new releases. For my first Historical Musings post of the year, I thought I would highlight some books being published in 2017 which have caught my attention.

The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK only and may be subject to change.  The dates for other countries could be slightly different – maybe you’ve already had the opportunity to read some of these!  I haven’t provided a synopsis for each book, but the ‘find out more’ links will take you to Goodreads or other sites where you can find more information.

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the-good-people

The Good People by Hannah Kent (UK publication date: 9 February 2017) – Find out more

I enjoyed Hannah Kent’s first novel – Burial Rites – so I was pleased to see that she has another book coming out soon.  As with Burial Rites, her new one is inspired by real historical events but otherwise it sounds quite different, being set in Ireland in 1825.

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the-coroners-daughter

The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes (UK: 23 February 2017) – Find out more

A few years ago I read Andrew Hughes’ debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. I loved it enough to give it a place on my list of top books of 2014 and have been eagerly awaiting his next book. Like the first one, this new book is set in 19th century Dublin and sounds like another dark and mysterious read.

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the-witchfinders-sister

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (UK: 2 March 2017) – Find out more

Set in the 17th century, this is a novel about Matthew Hopkins, who was known as the ‘Witchfinder General’.  I’ve had a review copy of this one for a while but have been waiting until nearer the publication date to read it.  I’m looking forward to it!

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the-confessions-of-young-nero

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George (UK: 9 March 2017) – Find out more

I’ve only read one of Margaret George’s historical novels so far – Elizabeth I – but I did enjoy it and have been wanting to read more of her work. Her new book is about the Roman Emperor, Nero, and should be fascinating.

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crimson-and-bone

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato (UK: 18 May 2017) – Find out more

This dark tale by Marina Fiorato is set in London in 1853 and is being compared to Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s previous novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

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anne-boleyn-a-kings-obsession

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir (UK: 18 May 2017) – Find out more

Following last year’s Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, Alison Weir continues her Six Tudor Queens series with a novel about Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. I have read about Anne many times before, but I found the first book in this series interesting and I’m curious to see how Weir approaches Anne’s story.

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The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett and King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (UK: September 2017; No cover images available yet) – Find out more

Great news for Dorothy Dunnett fans and for those yet to discover her work – Dunnett’s six-volume series, The Lymond Chronicles, and her standalone, King Hereafter, are being reissued in September with her other series, the House of Niccolò, to follow in 2018.  A TV deal with Mammoth Screen has also been announced, although I’m not sure how I feel about that!

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China by Edward Rutherfurd (UK: 7 September 2017; No cover image available yet) – Find out more

Each of Edward Rutherfurd’s novels tells the story of a particular country or city over a period of time.  I loved his earlier books, which include London, Sarum and Russka, but had mixed feelings about his more recent ones such as New York and Paris. I’ve been wondering since finishing Paris where his next book was going to take us and now it has been revealed that it’s China!

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a-column-of-fire

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett (UK: 21 September 2017) – Find out more

This will be Follett’s third novel set in the cathedral city of Kingsbridge, this time moving forward by several centuries to the Elizabethan period.  The first in this series, The Pillars of the Earth, seems to be the sort of book people either love or hate, but I’m one reader who is already looking forward to book three!

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What about you?  Are you excited about any of the books I’ve mentioned above?  Are there any other new historical fiction releases or reissues you’re looking forward to in 2017? 

The Shadow Sister by Lucinda Riley

the-shadow-sister-lucinda-rileyThis is the third book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster. There will eventually be seven novels each telling the story of one of the adopted daughters of an enigmatic millionaire known as Pa Salt. The girls, who are all from very different backgrounds and who grew up together in Switzerland on Pa Salt’s Lake Geneva estate, are named after the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which has not yet been revealed only six girls were adopted rather than seven.

The first book in the series, The Seven Sisters, tells Maia’s story, while the second, The Storm Sister, tells Ally’s. In The Shadow Sister, we get to know more about the third sister, Star. This novel works as a standalone, but it also follows a similar pattern to the first two, beginning just after the sisters learn of Pa Salt’s death and each receive a set of clues which he has left behind to help them discover the secrets of their origins. Star’s clues include a black panther figurine and the address of a bookshop in London. As fate would have it, she is about to move into a new London apartment with her sister CeCe, who is due to begin an art course at college. Star, who is a shy, quiet person, would prefer to live a simple life in the countryside, but she and CeCe have always done everything together – which usually means doing whatever CeCe wants.

In London, it’s not long before Star’s curiosity gets the better of her and she finds herself pushing open the door to Arthur Morston Books ready to take the first step towards uncovering the truth about her past. As Star begins to investigate, she learns of a possible connection with Flora MacNichol who grew up at Esthwaite Hall in England’s Lake District in the early 20th century and became a friend of the children’s author Beatrix Potter. With the help of Orlando Forbes, the eccentric owner of Arthur Morston Books, and his brother, the intriguingly named Mouse, Star attempts to piece Flora’s story together and in the process finds the courage to step out of CeCe’s shadow and take control of her own destiny.

I have enjoyed all three books in this series so far, but I think this one is my favourite. How could I not love a book that’s set (at least partly) in a bookshop? The characters Star meets on her journey of discovery are wonderful too – they are all so well drawn, from the melodramatic Orlando and the troubled Mouse to their artist cousin Marguerite and her little boy, Rory, who loves Superman and making chocolate brownies. I couldn’t work out, at first, exactly how Star could be linked to these people, but I wanted, desperately, for her to find a place within this family – and the relationships do all become clear eventually, with a few surprises along the way!

Flora’s story is a fascinating one too, filled with love, betrayal and deception and encompassing some of the most prominent figures in Edwardian society, including King Edward VII himself, and his mistress, Alice Keppel. I was as engrossed in Flora’s storyline as I was in Star’s; usually when a novel is set in more than one time period I find that I prefer one over the other, but with this book I enjoyed reading about both periods equally.

I was sorry that we saw nothing of Maia, Tiggy or Electra in The Shadow Sister, but it was nice to see a few appearances from Ally, the heroine of the previous novel, and to briefly pick up some of the threads from her story again. The title of book four will be The Pearl Sister and it will focus on CeCe. I was intrigued by CeCe’s character in this book – while I initially found her bossy and controlling, I can see now that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye and I’m looking forward to getting to know her.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.