Summer at Willow Tree Farm by Heidi Rice

Is home always where the heart is?
When Ellie spent a summer with her mum on a Wiltshire commune in the 90s it was a bigger disaster than Leo DiCaprio’s trip aboard the Titanic – so fleeing to America seemed a perfect plan.
But now, with her marriage falling apart, running back to her mum seems like the only option for her and her son Josh.
She wasn’t expecting Art, the boy she once had a crush on to still be working at Willow Tree Farm…And still be as hot and bothersome as he was when they were teenagers.
Ellie came to Willow Tree Farm for a fresh start. But is she ready to risk sailing her life – and her heart – into another iceberg?

 

 

I bought this on impulse when I saw it in a supermarket. I was about to go on holiday and it seemed like the perfect read, although I’d never read anything by Heidi Rice before.

Well, I have to say, I was hooked! This story absolutely sizzles with passion. The simmering sexual tension between Ellie and Art practically scorches the pages. And Art is seriously hot …

This is the story of two people who met many years before and had a rather uncomfortable relationship, and that’s putting it mildly. Ellie developed a crush on Art. Art was mean to her. Ellie moved away from Willow Tree Farm and never saw or heard from him again. Until now. Separated from her husband, she’s returned to the farm along with her son, Josh, to visit her mother, and a whole lot of memories are being stirred up, along with a most unwelcome lust for her former crush.

Art is the strong, silent type. He doesn’t say a lot, and whatever is going on in his head he keeps it well hidden away. He’s done a lot of growing up since Ellie left, becoming a father himself. Being dad to a young daughter, Toto, is proving tricky. He’s devoted to her, but doesn’t always have the best handle on parenting. He gives Toto a lot of freedom, which leads to more clashes with Ellie, whose parenting style is the opposite of his. As Josh and Toto strike up a friendship, this leads to some difficult scenarios to negotiate, and brings the two into ever closer contact.

As Ellie strives to rebuild her relationship with her mother, she throws herself into life at Willow Tree Farm, and battles to keep her growing desire for Art at bay. But it soon becomes obvious that his desires for her are just as great. The problem is, they have such a troubled history, and don’t even seem to like each other, so their mutual attraction is inconvenient, to say the least.

As the summer goes on, Ellie and Art face up to some unpleasant truths about their respective pasts, their present-day situation, and the realities of their relationship. There’s a whole lot more at stake than their pride, but do they have the courage to do what’s necessary to save the place they love and secure a future for everyone at Willow Tree Farm?

The setting for this book was just gorgeous. Willow Tree Farm is so beautifully described, and there’s a lot of sensual description in the novel that puts the reader right there with the characters. I loved all the characters, and found them well-drawn and believable. Josh and Toto were just adorable.

The relationship between Art and Ellie is pure passion, and throughout the book I was absolutely aching for them to finally get it together. I notice some reviewers feel that the book has too much action in the bedroom. Well, it certainly has some racy scenes, but it’s not exactly erotica. The love scenes are very much part of the story and essential to the characters’ overall development, so I have no problem with that at all. Plus, it’s well-written and, by the time I got to that part of the book, I was just so relieved that it finally happened!

Overall, I absolutely loved this book, and will definitely be reading more novels by this author. 5/5 from me.

You can buy Summer at Willow Tree Farm here.

The Little Cottage on the Hill by Emma Davies

There’s blossom in the trees and daffodils as far as the eye can see. Maddie is looking forward to a fresh start in the countryside, but there’s just one little problem…

Following a scandal at her high-flying PR agency, twenty-six-year-old Maddie flees London to help promote what she thinks is going to be a luxurious holiday retreat in the countryside. Everything is riding on her making a success of this new job…

Yet when she arrives, Maddie is horrified to find a rundown old farm in a terrible state. The brooding and secretive owner, Seth, spent all his money on leasing the land when he fell in love with the beautiful, dishevelled farm cottages and the very romantic story behind them.

When Maddie discovers an old oil painting by the original owner’s wife, she unlocks the secret of the farm’s history and quickly realises she must start getting her hands dirty if this very special place is going to have any chance of survival. As she and Seth begin working together, the stunning view from the top of the hill is not the only thing that’s leaving her breathless…

After weeks of hard work the dream looks like it might become a reality, until a secret from Maddie’s past threatens to snatch it all away again. Can Maddie find a way to save the business and herself? Will she finally find a place to keep her heart within the crumbling walls of the little cottage on the hill?

This is the first book by Emma Davies that I’ve read, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Emma manages to create a beautiful setting for her novel, with such vivid descriptions that you feel as if you’re actually there with her characters. Joy’s Acre comes to life under the deft touch of the author, and I totally fell in love with the farm, complete with cottages, farmhouse and gardens.

I quickly became absorbed in the story, intrigued by Maddie and what, exactly, someone like her was doing in a place like that. I wondered how she would fit in, how her ideas could ever be reconciled with those of the owner of Joy’s Acre, Seth. It seemed that, from their very first meeting, they were destined to disagree, to clash swords over the future of the farm. I needn’t have wondered, because Emma Davies handles the storyline perfectly, pacing it beautifully and carefully edging Seth and Maddie towards common ground, an understanding of each other’s viewpoint, and onto so much more.

The characters were appealing – even if Seth did come across as pretty unforgiving and unapproachable at first. As layers of his personality were revealed, bit by bit, I grew to like him very much. I may even have developed a bit of a crush on him, actually.

Every single character in the book is interesting and likeable – with the possible exception of Agatha, although even she has her reasons for her behaviour. I was intrigued by Tom the thatcher. He clearly has issues and I’m wondering what the author has in store for him. Maddie is a likeable heroine, and Trixie and Clara are the sort of women you’d want to be friends with. The whole set-up at the farm, with the five adults working together to create something absolutely magical, was most enjoyable and made for a delightful read.

I’m happy to see that there is a forthcoming sequel to this novel, and I’ve already pre-ordered it, so that says a lot.

Overall, it’s definitely a winner, and I’m happy to give it five stars.

You can buy The Little Cottage on the Hill here.

That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel by Adrienne Vaughan

Mia Flanagan has never been told who her father is and aged ten, stopped asking.

Haunted by this, she remains a dutiful daughter who would never do anything to bring scandal or shame on her beautiful and famously single mother.

So when Archie Fitzgerald, one of Hollywood’s favourite actors, decides to leave Mia his Irish estate, she asks herself – is he her father after all?

That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel is a tale of passion, jealousy and betrayal – and the ghost of a secret love that binds this colourful cast yet still threatens, after all these years, to tear each of them apart.

 

The cover sets the tone for this book. A young woman, her back to us, drifts along a beautiful beach, evoking the image of a dream, or perhaps a memory …

Memories play a huge part in this story. Something happened at The Seahorse Hotel. Something that no one involved in the event will talk about, even to each other, and certainly not to Mia. Mia knows that the people she grew up with know the truth about her father, but she has stopped asking. Instead, she contents herself with her “family”: her mother, glamorous actress, Fenella; her mother’s childhood friend, Bernice; housekeeper/friend/mystic Leela; and, above all, Archie – Fenella’s dear friend, actor, playwright, brother to Bernice, and all-round gorgeous human being. Rumour has it that Archie might – just might – be her father. Mia has often wondered herself, and when she discovers that Archie plans to leave her his estate in his will, she has even more cause to ponder on the truth about her parentage.

Galty House, codename The Seahorse Hotel, is Archie’s beloved home on the Irish coast. A safe haven from the world, no one ever says goodbye there, because they all know they will see each other again. But Archie’s time is running out – a sad fact that brings the Galty House family together again. Fenella is desperate to know that Archie won’t break his promise to her, and reveal her secrets to her daughter. Bernice is desperate to know the contents of her brother’s will. The Seahorse Hotel is her home, and she has no intention of handing it over to anyone else – even the young woman she has loved, almost like a daughter, since the day she was born.

As the family spend their days with Archie, making the most of the time they have left with him, they are joined by two newcomers to the area. American hotel owner and businessman, Ross Power, and his young niece, Pearl, find themselves drawn to the flamboyant and unusual people at Galty House, and their lives become entwined. Ross has business worries that are wearing him down, and Pearl is feeling insecure and unsure. Discovering Mia on the beach, she becomes convinced that her new friend is a mermaid, and the two of them form a bond. Mia can relate to the little girl who has no relationship with her father and rarely sees her mother.

The days of summer are spent as much as possible at The Seahorse Hotel, revelling in Archie’s company, sailing his grand new boat, and visiting the island that lies just off the coast – abandoned, mysterious, nursing its own secrets.

By summer’s end, there will be partings, reunions, and revelations, as The Seahorse Hotel and its occupants finally begin to let go of the past and open up to the future, with all its glorious possibilities.

I’ve loved all of Adrienne Vaughan’s books so far. She has a way of drawing you into a story, wrapping you in glorious scenery, fabulous characters, and a delicious narrative. Sometimes, it seems there are so many people you wonder how you keep track of them all, but somehow you do. With great assuredness, Adrienne Vaughan weaves her spell and leads you, like some bewitching spirit guide, through the tangled threads of her tale, making sure you are never left behind and always enticing you on, so all you can do is follow the path, desperate to see where it leads next. Much like the girl on the cover, you want to go where she goes, find out where she’s heading, what’s going to happen.

Adrienne never lets you down. The pace never slackens, the spell never fades. I loved Mia, who was a wonderful protagonist. I adored Pearl, and I absolutely one hundred per cent fell for Ross. But Archie – ah, my heart belongs to Archie. What a character! What a fabulous story.

This is, without doubt, my favourite of Adrienne’s books so far. Her  gift for storytelling just seems to get better with each one, and I’m kind of sad that I’ve finished That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel. I hope it won’t be too long before there’s another of her books to read! Just wonderful. 5/5

You can buy That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel here.

A Little Christmas Faith by Kathryn Freeman

Is it time to love Christmas again?
Faith Watkins loves Christmas, which is why she’s thrilled that her new hotel in the Lake District will be open in time for the festive season. And Faith has gone all out; huge Christmas tree, fairy lights, an entire family of decorative reindeer. Now all she needs are the guests … 
But what she didn’t bank on was her first paying customer being someone like Adam Hunter. Rugged, powerfully built and with a deep sadness in his eyes, Adam is a man that Faith is immediately drawn to – but unfortunately he also has an intense hatred of all things Christmassy.
As the countdown to the big day begins, Faith can’t seem to keep away from her mysterious guest, but still finds herself with more questions than answers: just what happened to Adam Hunter? And why does he hate Christmas?

I’m slowly catching up on my Christmas reading – having been too busy to read all those festive novels before the big day. I may even have read them all by Easter, who knows? Anyway, this week it was the turn of A Little Christmas Faith, a book with a gorgeous cover that really made me want to investigate further. I’m very glad I did, because I really enjoyed this novel.

Faith is a big fan of Christmas, and her new hotel in the Lake District is practically Christmas Hotel. She’s decorated it to within an inch of its life, and she’s looking forward to sharing the big day with her loving family – her very supportive mum and dad, her two sisters, Hope and Charity (yes, really!) and their husbands, and her beautiful baby nephew, as well as teenage niece, Chloe.

Chloe has been roped in to help out at the hotel in the run-up to Christmas, as her mum is worried about her recent attitude and hopes that a bit of hard work will sort her daughter out. Unfortunately, Chloe’s attitude continues to cause problems for Faith, as she is hardly the most welcoming face on the reception desk, and she makes a very bad impression on the hotel’s first paying guest, Adam Hunter.

Adam is the opposite to Faith. He hates Christmas and is determined to spend it alone. No big, happy family for Adam. Just a hotel room and some solitude. He is appalled by the over-the-top decorating scheme at the hotel, and seems fixed on ignoring the festive period entirely, his entire focus being on keeping fit at the gym. Sadly, even the hotel gym fails to please him, and he is forced to go further afield to continue his training.

Despite their obvious differences, there is a huge attraction between Adam and Faith. Sparks positively fly whenever they are together. But Adam is only staying until just after Christmas, so Faith can’t risk getting involved with him. And Adam is so solitary it’s a wonder he’s not wearing a big “Keep Off” sign around his neck.

Against all odds, Faith and Adam are drawn together, and, much to their own surprise, find they are falling for each other. But Adam is clearly carrying a huge burden, and he is unwilling to share it with Faith. His past – shrouded in mystery – is ruining his present, and threatening his future. Faith, it seems, has no choice but to accept their relationship for what it is – strictly temporary. Christmas will soon be over, and so will her relationship with Adam.

Or maybe the two of them just need a little Christmas faith …

This is a lovely festive story. There’s lots of sizzling passion between Adam and Faith, a beautiful setting, a gorgeous hotel, plenty of romance and some mystery, too. The secondary characters are well-drawn. I particularly loved the storyline about Chloe, and really took to the troubled teen.

Christmas may be over for another year, but I’d still recommend this book to give you a much-needed shot of festive cheer. Just the thing to help you cope with a dismal January!

You can buy A Little Christmas Faith here.

Christmas at the Little Village School by Jane Lovering

A teacher’s life is never easy … especially at Christmas!
Working at a tiny village school in rural Yorkshire has its own unique set of challenges – but when teachers Lydia Knight and Jake Immingham are tasked with getting the children to put on a Christmas play for the local elderly people’s home, they know they’re in for a tricky term! 

But in between choreographing sugar plum dance routines, reindeer costume malfunctions and trying to contain Rory Scott’s wannabe rap star aspirations, Lydia realises that, even as a teacher, she isn’t past being taught a couple of things – and one of those things is a much-needed lesson in Christmas spirit. 

 

 

I always enjoy Jane Lovering’s books, and this was no exception. The setting is just gorgeous – a North Yorkshire rural village, deep in snow as Christmas approaches. Perfection.

The story centres around a little school – the clue’s in the title, I suppose! Lydia is a teacher at the school, and she’s charged with putting on a Christmas play to entertain the residents of the local nursing home. Luckily, she has fellow teacher, new arrival Jake, to help her. Or is that, unluckily? Because Lydia is quite smitten with Jake, and that’s bad news for her, since she doesn’t date men. Or make friends with them, come to that. Or even make civilised conversation, most of the time. Men are strictly out of bounds, because Lydia has a self-defence system that ensures they keep well away from her. Except, it doesn’t seem to be working on Jake. He just keeps coming back for more. He’s clearly determined that the two of them will work well together and will be friends. For confused Lydia, that’s what she wants more than anything, and also what she wants least of all.

I really enjoyed the way we only discovered the reason for Lydia’s behaviour halfway through the book. By that time, I’d already got to know her and care about her, and maybe (shamefully) I’d have had a different view of her if I’d realised at the beginning. As it was, by the time her reasons were revealed, I was totally with Jake, and felt pretty much as he did. I don’t want to say any more about that, because I don’t want to give away the twist.

As always with Jane’s books, there’s lots of humour, and I loved the classroom stuff, with the preparations for the play, and the “telling it like it is”, and the fun of the dodgy costumes and wangling for more lines – and that’s just Jake.

This is a fairly short book, easy to read, and a real treat that you can devour quicker than a box of Christmas chocolates – unless you’re like me, in which case you could probably eat the chocolates much faster. But at least there are no calories in this, and it will leave you feeling all happy and festive and contented, whereas the chocolates will just leave you feeling guilty and probably a little bit nauseous. So ditch the chocs and buy this fabulous little book instead. It’s another winner from Jane.  5/5

You can buy Christmas at the Little Village School here.

Away for Christmas by Jan Ruth

Jonathan Jones has written a novel. Losing his job a few days before Christmas means the pressure is on for his book to become a bestseller, but when his partner drops her own bombshell, the festive holiday looks set to be a disaster.
When he’s bequeathed a failing bookshop in their seaside town, it seems that some of his prayers have been answered, but his publishing company turn out to be not what they seem, and when his ex-wife suddenly declares her romantic intent, another Christmas looks set to be complicated.
Is everything lost, or can the true meaning of words, a dog called Frodo, and the sheer magic of Christmas be enough to save Jonathan’s book, and his skin?

This book was an impulse buy, bought after reading a glowing review on Anne Williams’ fabulous blog, Being Anne. It sounded just my cup of tea, and so I rushed over to Amazon and downloaded it. The very next day, full of cold and feeling a bit sorry for myself, I settled down on the sofa, switched on my Kindle and began reading.

Oh, how I loved this book! It was exactly what I needed to take me out of myself for a few hours. It’s definitely festive, without being overloaded with sugary sweet seasonal gushings.

Jonathan Jones is hardly usual hero material. In fact, at first, it was hard to like him, as much as I could sympathise with him. That, however, added to the pleasure of the story. Jonathan is flawed. He’s quite self-obsessed and selfish, and seems oblivious to the needs of the people around him who love him, and deserve his attention.

Jonathan is a writer. I can just imagine my husband rolling his eyes and saying ’nuff said. I confess, there was a part of me that prickled with unease, as I read about Jonathan’s total preoccupation with his imaginary world, and his habit of opening his laptop or checking Facebook on his mobile phone when he really should be paying attention to the people around him. Sorry, family!

The thing about Jonathan is, he’s just secured a three-book publishing deal with Tangerine Press, and he’s convinced that fame and acclaim are just around the corner. His books are going to fly, and he will be hailed as a literary genius, thanks to the wonderful crime fiction that he spends every waking moment either working on or thinking about.

He’s so absorbed in his own little world that he doesn’t notice that his relationship with his live-in partner, Catherine, is being badly affected, and he doesn’t dwell too long on the dismal state of his long-distance relationship with daughter, Lizzie, who lives with his ex-wife and her rich and successful second husband in London.

Everything not connected with writing is a chore to Jonathan, and even losing his job as an accountant doesn’t bother him too much, although he decides it’s probably best to keep that news from Catherine until after Christmas. Then Catherine drops her own little bombshell, and Jonathan’s life starts to unravel …

Told over three Christmases, this novel explores the harsh realities of the writing life and the publishing world, with such compassion and humour that, slowly, I started to feel sorry for Jonathan, whose idealism is soon crushed as he awakens to the fact that maybe Tangerine Press aren’t going to help him fulfil his literary dreams after all.

Against a backdrop of the slightly sad, faded Welsh seaside town of Rhos-on-Sea, we follow Jonathan as he comes to terms, not just with his failing writing career, but with his realisation that other things in life matter just as much, if not far more, and that it’s time he stopped neglecting them and began to focus on what really matters.

I loved everything about this story. The touching plot about Catherine’s grandparents, with Gwilym’s dementia and how that impacts on Jonathan’s future, is lovely. The setting of Beachside Books is inspired. I could picture the failing bookshop so clearly in my mind, and I loved the way the shop reflected Jonathan’s life as a whole, beginning as an empty building that no one cared about, and ending with a packed room, full of people who care, promising a hopeful future. I really enjoyed the image of the cosy Christmas window display, complete with fairy lights and a rocking horse, that the author painted. The arrival of little dog, Frodo, is a bonus. He’s quite a character, and gives added warmth to Jonathan’s story, showing another side to the man. I especially loved the relationship between Jonathan and his daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and I found her to be a charming character.

Mostly, I think I enjoyed the fact that, although this story has love and romance running through its pages, it’s far from conventional.  Throughout the book, I was never certain how the story was going to end, and who Jonathan would end up with. The finale was thoroughly satisfying, and left me feeling really contented and thrilled for everyone concerned. It proved that Jonathan had been on a huge journey, and had finally realised what mattered most of all. He deserved his happy ending!

This is quite a short book, but it’s certainly not rushed, and the story plays out at just the right pace. It brightened my morning, and I definitely want to read more books by Jan Ruth. 5/5

You can buy Away for Christmas here 

Warwick’s Mermaid by Ellie Gray

Having escaped an abusive relationship, Chloe MacGregor is determined to put the past behind her. The little cottage high up on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful North Yorkshire town of Whitby is her safe haven, somewhere she is free to be herself.

When the arrival of her new neighbour and boss, Luke Warwick, threatens her peaceful, sheltered life, Chloe is forced to confront her past and to re-evaluate who she really is. Falling in love with Luke is not part of her plan but, to her surprise, Luke is falling for her too. The only thing preventing their happy ever after is Chloe herself. Will she ever truly learn to leave the past where it belongs?

I’ve loved both of Ellie’s previous two novels, Beauty and the Recluse and Love on the Nile, and I had high hopes for this one. After all, it’s set in one of my favourite places, Whitby in North Yorkshire, a place I’ve visited on many occasions.

Luckily, Warwick’s Mermaid lived up to my expectations. Like Ellie’s other books, it’s unashamedly romantic, sweeping the reader along on a tide of passion, drama and sexual tension.

Chloe, the heroine, is undoubtedly damaged. She’s had a terrible time with her ex-boyfriend, putting up with dreadful abuse – both mental and physical. Breaking free from him, she is still a prisoner of her own low self-esteem – held there, in part, by the drip drip of negative comments she has endured from her own mother all her life. Chloe’s mum has suffered at the hands of a man, and she’s determined that Chloe won’t have the same fate. Unfortunately, all her efforts to convince her daughter to stay away from men have ensured that Chloe is a mass of insecurities and doubts.

When she meets Luke, Chloe experiences an overwhelming attraction that astounds and scares her. But with her heart telling her one thing, and her head another, she is paralysed to move forward with her life and take a chance on this handsome man who has come to her rescue.

For Luke, his feelings for Chloe are a bolt from the blue, and she’s not the only one who’s scared. Falling in love was not part of his plans, and he tries his best to stay away from this intriguing creature, who seems very prone to getting herself into bother.

But when the two of them are thrown together, sparks fly and there is no denying their feelings for each other. With troubled pasts and a mutual suspicion of relationships, can they ever put aside their fears and make a fresh start together?

Warwick’s Mermaid is a passionate love story that will carry you along on waves of emotion as you follow Chloe’s and Luke’s journey back to happiness. Ellie has written another winner here, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next. 5/5

You can buy Warwick’s Mermaid here.

Charlee and the Chocolate Shop by Jessica Redland

It’s impossible not to be drawn to this book, just by the title and the gorgeous cover. It’s Christmas, and it’s chocolate! Win-win.

When we first meet Charlee, the heroine of this story, she’s at a low ebb, having recently lost her beloved nanna – the woman who raised her after her mother left her. Charlee has inherited Nanna’s house, but she feels uncomfortable living there, especially with amorous boyfriend Darren. Darren’s got a new job, and is heading off to Whitsborough Bay, and he wants Charlee to sell up and come with him. But Charlee has her best friend, Jodie, to think about, and her job working with master chocolatier Pierre.

As events take an unexpected turn, Charlee finds herself heading to Whitsborough Bay after all, and is soon on the hunt for premises. Because Charlee has decided to open her own chocolate shop, and she soon finds the perfect location – Castle Street, home of many of the little businesses readers of Jessica Redland’s previous books will already have become acquainted with, such as Flowers and Gifts, Bear with Me and Carly’s Cupcakes.

As Charlee settles in to her new life, she throws herself into preparing her chocolate shop, ready for business, and tries not to dwell on the fact that Darren is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. When a catastrophe occurs, it’s lucky for Charlee that Matt the plumber is on hand to rescue her. Not that Charlee’s interested in him. Of course not. She’s happy with Darren. Isn’t she?

Suffice it to say, Christmas for Charlee that year is hardly something to celebrate, despite her new home and new business. Charlee can hardly imagine being happy again.

As Christmas comes around again, the following year, can Charlee make it the time when all her dreams finally come true, or will it be another lonely Christmas?

This is a lovely story of two Christmases, and what can happen in one year. It’s a tale of friendship, love, and hope. With a subplot involving Charlee’s errant mother, and the truth about her birth and childhood, it’s also more than just a frothy seasonal story.

Sometimes, we don’t realise who really matters to us, even when the truth is sitting right in front of our eyes, and this story reminds us that families come in all different shapes and sizes, but it’s the love at the core of them that makes them real, not blood or birth certificates.

As the year comes to a close, Charlee discovers that she’s not so alone, after all, and she never has been …

This is a really gorgeous festive novel, full of Christmas spirit and lots of chocolate. You will get hungry though. The chocolate is so well described and the images the author creates are enough to make your mouth water. If you’re on a diet, you may need to save some extra calories for when you read this!  5/5

You can buy Charlee and the Chocolate Shop here

 

Girl in the Castle by Lizzie Lamb

Her academic career in tatters, Dr Henriette Bruar needs somewhere to lay low, plan her comeback and restore her tarnished reputation. Fate takes her to a remote Scottish castle to auction the contents of an ancient library to pay the laird’s mounting debts. The family are in deep mourning over a tragedy which happened years before, resulting in a toxic relationship between the laird and his son, Keir MacKenzie. Cue a phantom piper, a lost Jacobite treasure, and a cast of characters who – with Henri’s help, encourage the MacKenzies to confront the past and move on. However – will the Girl in the Castle be able to return to university once her task is completed, and leave gorgeous, sexy Keir MacKenzie behind?

It was the first paragraph that did it. Honestly. A ghostly lament, images of an ancient Scottish castle above a loch, swirling mists and – yes, I admit it – the word Sassenachs. Hey, I’m a huge fan of Outlander. How could I resist?

Seriously, the beginning of this book is beautifully written and the pace is perfect. The reader is drawn in immediately. From page one, I wanted to know, who was this woman travelling alone on a train? Where was she heading? Why was she on her own, journeying through the Highlands of Scotland on that misty autumn evening?

So, the stage is set, and the story tantalisingly unfolds, taking the reader on a journey of thrills, mystery and passionate delight. A castle on an island in the middle of a loch is some setting, and its interior is so well described you feel as if you’re actually exploring it with Henri. The characters are fantastic: the irascible, irresponsible laird, Malcolm MacKenzie; the dour and grim Lachlan; the wonderful and kind-hearted Alice. All beautifully drawn and intriguing. What are these three people doing in this castle? What has happened to change the family’s fortune and leave them practically penniless? What is the great sorrow that hangs over them all?

As if all that wasn’t enough, we are then introduced to the laird’s heir: Keir MacKenzie. Oh. My. Word. Look, I’ve loved all of Lizzie Lamb’s books, and I’ve loved every one of her heroes, but Keir … Och, he’s one on his own! I feel terribly disloyal to Ruairi Urquhart, hero of Tall, Dark and Kilted, but I think I have to admit that Keir is my new favourite of Lizzie’s leading men.

Burdened with guilt, and grief that hasn’t been allowed expression for so many years, Keir battles with his father’s lack of love, not to mention the laird’s penchant for living the good life, all paid for by selling off Keir’s inheritance, and leaving the castle bare and forlorn. Things are so bad with the estate, that it’s expected that Keir will do his duty and marry Ciorstaidh – a cousin of sorts – who belongs to the rich side of the family. The fact that a similar expectation had once fallen upon the laird himself, but had been ignored when he met and fell in love with Mary, Keir’s mother, is neither here nor there in the laird’s eyes. Keir must save the castle, and Ciorstaidh is very vocal about making sure Henri knows that the laird’s heir is hers, and Henri had better not get any ideas.

Henri has no interest in Keir MacKenzie – not after their introduction, which is off-putting to say the least. Although, given the reason for her arrival at the castle, and the laird’s track record with young women, it’s not surprising that Keir has gained the wrong impression about her and formed an unfavourable opinion. Even lovely Alice takes some persuading that she’s not interested in seducing the laird, and has no plans to sell off even more of Keir’s inheritance.

As the weeks pass, Alice and Henri form a bond, and Henri discovers more about Keir, the history of the castle, and the sad events that have broken the family into these fragments. As Keir himself begins to trust Henri and opens himself up to her, their relationship deepens, threatening Ciorstaidh’s and the laird’s plans, and jeopardising the future of the castle. Henri, meanwhile, has her own battles to face – her own life to shape. She has to figure out exactly where her future lies, and what sort of future it will be.

With the bank running out of patience and pressure closing on all sides, Keir and Henri find sanctuary within the castle walls, shutting out the world. But real life keeps intruding, leaving them wondering exactly how they can resolve their respected problems.  Can an ancient legend be the answer? And can the lament of the ghostly piper be the key to saving them all?

I loved this book. I loved everything about it. I loved the atmospheric setting, the sprinkling of gaelic, the fabulous insults hurled by Alice, as she berates Lachlan, and the fascinating insight into the world of academia. I loved the magnificent Castle Tearmannair – a character in itself. I loved the glimpses of Highland traditions, the tales of Highland history, the descriptions of the clothes and celebrations, and even the fact that I learned what a clootie dumpling is and how it’s made!

Most of all, I loved the relationship between Keir and Henri. It’s quite beautiful. Passionate, tender, all-consuming. When Keir tells her, “Is tu an solas na mo bheatha” (You are the light of my life) I nearly stopped breathing. Gaelic endearments sound soooo much more romantic than anything murmured in English! And the description of him in his Highland dress – kilt and all – at the Samhain gathering, well …

You’ll have to read it for yourself to know what I mean, and you definitely want to do that. I guarantee you a thoroughly enjoyable, gripping, highly romantic few hours. Lizzie Lamb has surpassed herself with this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 5/5

You can buy Girl in the Castle here.

Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes by Jessica Redland

Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes is a lovely, heartwarming story, centred around a cake shop in Castle Street, Whitsborough Bay. Carly is a kind-hearted and patient woman, who loves her younger sister Bethany so much that she is prepared to overlook Bethany’s disastrous inability to produce a decent cupcake. This is problematic, since Bethany works at Carly’s Cupcakes – having been employed by Carly after a string of previous jobs failed to work out.
Bethany’s confidence is at a low ebb, in spite of the love and devotion of her fiance, and she’s feeling so low that even the excitement of their imminent wedding can’t seem to lift her mood. Carly keeps giving her sister further chances, in spite of warnings from various friends that she should sack her, as Bethany is costing the business money. When Bethany realises what a liability she is to her sister, it’s the final straw. This revelation, combined with the obvious disapproval of her soon-to-be mother-in-law and the stress of organising a wedding, proves too much for her.
Carly must somehow find a way to restore Bethany’s faith in herself, without bankrupting her own business. But how?
And Carly has enough of her own problems to deal with. On top of trying to rectify Bethany’s mistakes, she is trying to pluck up the courage to tell her best friend Liam how she really feels about him. Liam was her staunch ally against the dreaded Biscuit Bunch, back in the days when the two of them were at the mercy of the school bullies. Both Carly and Liam have blossomed, and have good careers, but the insecurities are still there. Carly is too afraid of rejection to tell Liam the truth.
With Christmas fast approaching, Carly has to face up to her own past, in order to build the future she really craves. Is she strong enough to do it?
Cupcakes, love, a romantic wedding, and the beauty of a white Christmas. The perfect recipe for a delicious festive treat. 5/5

You can buy Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes here.