Friday, June 30, 2023

Book Review: Appointment in Bath by Mimi Matthews

A chance meeting between the sheltered daughter and the forward-thinking son of rival Victorian families sparks a forbidden romance in USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews’s fourth book in her acclaimed Somerset Stories series. 

Shy and stammering Meg Burton-Smythe has spent the whole of her life living on the fringes of local society. She’s more comfortable with her daydreams than she is with people. But when a dashing, golden-haired hero rides to her rescue one morning, she dares to hope that her dreams might finally come true. There’s only one problem: her handsome rescuer is the son of her father’s sworn enemy. 

Ivo Beresford doesn’t believe in clinging to the past. Freshly returned from a lengthy grand tour, he’s looking to the future, eager to spearhead the building of a new railway extension in Somersetshire. But an unexpected encounter with Meg Burton-Smythe, the isolated only daughter of his parents’ oldest foe, sets the past and the future colliding. 

Resolved to put ancient grudges to rest—at least where innocent young ladies are concerned—Ivo encourages lonely Meg to embark on a secret friendship. After all, what harm can a friendship do? It isn’t as though there’s any danger of the two of them falling in love…

Within Mimi Matthews’ fourth title in the Somerset Stories series, readers will find the shy, faltering and beautiful Margaret “Meg” Burton-Smythe. At the youthful age of eighteen she is untried in the ways of the world, yet she is eager to make her debut in society as a gentleman’s daughter. As a sheltered young woman, she has a lively imagination, fueled by copious reading while living a quiet life on her father’s country estate. This fosters a longing for success not only on England’s marriage mart, but also for success in finding a chivalrous hero with whom she would fall in love. She faces several relational challenges in this diverting narrative, not the least of which is the veritable Shakespearian rivalry between her father and the nearby Beresford family. This decades-long feud is not unwarranted, but is a festering wound within the community. Meg befriends one of the Beresford sons, which leads to emotional confrontations on both sides.

Although Appointment in Bath is the fourth title in the Somerset Stories series, this reviewer has not read the previous two volumes. Thus far I have enjoyed Matthews’s title The Work of Art, the opening novel of this collection. With the publication date of Appointment in Bath occurring the week of this writing, I wanted to be a part of promoting this latest story. Although it was a bit of a risk to temporarily skip over Gentleman Jim and Return to Satterthwaite Court, I was nonetheless rewarded with a delightful tale. There are some references to those prior works, but Appointment in Bath works quite well as a standalone.

Mimi Matthews’s work is a pure delight. Her writing skill enables her to craft a compelling story, present well-drawn characters and avoid predictability in her choices. While much of her writing is firmly set in the 19th century, she presents characters who are relatable and accessible. The protagonists are likable, and the villains earn this reader’s disdain. She doesn’t avoid addressing difficult and gritty issues, but the content is not salacious or gratuitous. Mature themes are addressed in a realistic yet modest way. The romantic moments are simply delicious and leave the audience wanting more without drawing us deep into the minutiae of bedroom scenes. I loved the friendship of Meg and Ivo, and my heart broke for her as she yearned for more love and affection from her father. 

While Appointment in Bath does offer a satisfying, realistic conclusion, not every difficult issue is tied with a neat little bow. Characters face challenges that are common to many in our non-fictional, modern existence. Some readers may easily identify with Meg’s stuttering problem, her struggles with anxiety, and her growth as a young woman. Others will relate to Ivo as he works to improve his community in the face of a local township that is resistant to modernization. Between the characters’ ambitions, family conflicts, desires for reconciliation and romantic endeavors, Appointment in Bath offers an absorbing narrative that was thoroughly enjoyable. Due to Matthews’ excellent work in this as well as the opening novel The Work of Art, I look forward to retracing my literary steps in order to also read the other books in this series, Gentleman Jim and Return to Satterthwaite Court. A fifth title, A Lady of Conscience is also due for publication in June of 2024. Mimi Matthews continues to show herself to be a reliable and entertaining author, one who consistently earns my hearty endorsement.  

Hollywood Casting

As I read Appointment in Bath, I kept in mind several actors who could play the parts of Mimi's characters. While I didn't "cast" everyone in the novel, these mental images help me organize some of the personalities in my head.  Regardless of their current ages or nationalities, my imagination placed them at their ages in the story, with corresponding cultural accents when they spoke.

Would you like a sample of Appointment in Bath? Click HERE to read Chapter One!

About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in
Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

The Somerset Stories Series










Saturday, June 17, 2023

Book Review: A Shadow in Moscow by Katherine Reay

In the thick of the Cold War, a betrayal at the highest level risks the lives of two courageous female spies: MI6’s best Soviet agent and the CIA’s newest Moscow recruit.

Vienna, 1954

After losing everyone she loves in the final days of World War II, Ingrid Bauer agrees to a hasty marriage with a gentle Soviet embassy worker and follows him home to Moscow. But nothing within the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime is what it seems, including her new husband, whom Ingrid suspects works for the KGB. Inspired by her daughter’s birth, Ingrid risks everything and reaches out in hope to the one country she understands and trusts—Britain, the country of her mother’s birth. She begins passing intelligence to MI6, navigating a world of secrets and lies, light and shadow.

Moscow, 1980

A student in the Foreign Studies Initiative, Anya Kadinova finishes her degree at Georgetown University and boards a flight home to Moscow, leaving behind the man she loves and a country she’s grown to respect. Though raised by dedicated and loyal Soviet parents, Anya soon questions an increasingly oppressive and paranoid regime at the height of the Cold War. Then the KGB murders her best friend and Anya chooses her side. Working in a military research lab, she relays Soviet plans and schematics to the CIA in an effort to end the 1980s arms race.

The past catches up to the present when an unprecedented act of treachery threatens all agents operating within Eastern Europe, and both Ingrid and Anya find themselves in a race for their lives against time and the KGB.

Beginning with her 2013 debut novel Dear Mr. Knightley, author Katherine Reay’s work was firmly planted in the Austenesque community for some time. She showcased her love for and knowledge of Jane Austen’s characters with several winsome titles which delighted many. In recent years I noted that she began branching out into other areas of storytelling with much continued success. Her latest novel, A Shadow in Moscow held an intriguing premise, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it for its Austenprose blog tour. 

It has been the better part of a decade since I’ve read a Reay title and in that time she has thoroughly honed her craft. As such, my experience with A Shadow in Moscow felt very fresh and was very different from my time with Dear Mr. Knightley. While there are a few minor references to Austen in the novel, this is a Cold War spy novel, through and through. Told with dual timelines, readers are taken into the secret and complex lives of two female spies as they navigate the intricacies of life under the gaze of the KGB. Ingrid and Anya love the land in which they live, but want more for the people of Russia than the oppression under which they are living. As cogs in an elaborate machine working to make the world a better place, these strong women make similar decisions while living in separate generations. Eventually their storylines begin to merge, but in general the plot alternates between the narratives of the two women to delicious effect. 

Katherine Reay’s research and dedication to the subject matter of Soviet history and spycraft is deep and meticulous throughout A Shadow in Moscow. The level of expertise she exhibited in her writing was truly impressive, and the education she most certainly received while preparing for this work can be respected at the highest levels. While I am no Russian historian or specialist in the world of espionage, the level of realism that Reay captured was astounding. Immersive and seemingly accurate, A Shadow in Moscow also features extremely well-drawn characters, a compelling plot and satisfying conclusion. The adult material that must be addressed when dealing with this time period and culture is handled carefully, yet difficult scenes and topics are not avoided. Reay’s writing is skillful enough to convey heartbreaking tragedy and mature themes without gratuitous detail. I not only appreciated her discretion, but also her willingness to address the dark underbelly of the world in which her characters inhabited. 

The only slight “hiccup” I had in reading A Shadow in Moscow came through the alternating timeline. As the focus alternated between the characters of Ingrid and Anya, this aided in keeping my attention for the most part. However, there were a few times wherein their similar struggles as spies in the Russian culture were similar enough that I occasionally lost track of which plot points had occurred with which character. This was not a huge problem, and does not detract from my hearty endorsement of the book. 

I came to read A Shadow in Moscow because of the delightful Katherine Reay, but also due to the premise of the novel. The expectations of an intriguing, exciting and satisfying story were well met. I loved the occasional references to authors such as Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy and Harper Lee, which have made me want to pull out my copies of works like Anna Karenina all over again. 

Tidbits of philosophy were also woven throughout the narrative, and one thought in particular has truly resonated with me. Many of the characters in A Shadow in Moscow were dealing with immense oppression. Ingrid does her best to rise above her situation not by escaping it, but by changing her attitude towards it. This alters her “internal landscape”, and through that adjustment she is able to face even the harshest trials. She carries a human dignity which she endeavors to share with the world. Like Ingrid, Anya also holds admirable ideals when she says in chapter fourteen, “I wanted to do everything I could to make the world a better place, one that honored the dignity of humans and allowed each and every person to thrive.” (p. 176) That is the essence of A Shadow in Moscow in a nutshell. It is certainly a Cold War spy novel, but it also conveys a message of resilience and hope to humanity in search of Light. Author Katherine Reay has crafted a fine work and should be congratulated for her achievement.

About the Author

Katherine Reay is a national bestselling and award-winning author who has enjoyed a lifelong affair with books. She publishes both fiction and nonfiction, holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, and currently lives outside Chicago, Illinois, with her husband and three children.


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