books

Alissa Johnson

Books

The Thief-Takers: A Talent for Trickery (2015), A Gift for Guile (2016), A Dangerous Deceit (2017)

The Providence Series: As Luck Would Have It (2008), Tempting Fate (2009), McAlistair’s Fortune (2009), Destined To Last (2010)

Haverston Family: Nearly a Lady (2011)

 

The Thief-Takers

 

A Talent for Trickery (2015)

A-Talent-for-TrickerySet in England in 1872

I somehow missed writing this one up last month, so here it is now.

I am not sure about the accuracy of the term “Gentleman Thief Taker” since the thief-takers were replaced by Bow Street in the mid 1700s, and Bow Street was absorbed into the Metropolitan Police by 1839. Would someone really have dredged up a term over 200 years old to describe the hero?

Regardless, that is pretty much the only qualm I have about the story, and it’s a minor quibble, since this is fiction.

Owen, Lord Renderwell received his title for rescuing a kidnapped Duchess, except that he had been working with the notorious thief, Walker, and it was Walker who had done the actual rescuing.

Walker is a man of morals, who works for the crown and does what he believes to be right according to his ethics.

I quite liked him.

Owen recognized his incongruent feelings as the same he’d experienced at age nine, when his sister Eliza had convinced him it would be great fun to hurl a stone at a wasp’s nest. It was the delicious thrill that came from succumbing to the allure of a very bad idea.

Charlotte (Walker) Bales has been keeping her family together since her father’s death forced them to change their name and relocate to the countryside. Charlotte and her sister Esther have done everything they could to protect their brother Peter, who had been only four when their father died, from his legacy. So the appearance of Owen and his men threaten to spill all their secrets.

“God help us, he is the fattest of pigeons. A nearly perfect mark— well-heeled, trusting, and too proud and forgiving to make a fuss when he discovers the knife in his back.”

“Peter is not stupid. Nor is he an angel.”

“Not at all. Lord knows, there’s no one less pleasant to be around than Peter in a temper. But his general nature is one of generosity. He loves without reservation. If you tell him the truth now, when he falls madly in love with some little twit at sixteen, he won’t be able to stop himself from sharing every single secret in that enormous heart of his. And then it’ll be blackmail and threats. Men and women pounding on our doors demanding the money father stole from them.”

I also really liked Charlotte, who had very complicated feelings about both Owen and her father.

Though she deeply resented the work her father had done, she didn’t resent her memories of him.

But what I liked best about the story was the theme of redemption.

He had given no thought to the possibility of redemption for her father, no credit to the notion a person might change for the better. Will Walker had been a black-hearted scoundrel and, really, what else was there to say?

Charlotte desperately wants to the redemption of her father, but fears that she does not deserve the same, for the work she did for her father.

And that father was complex and fascinating–I liked the slow unveiling of his actions and character and how he may have loved his children, but that didn’t stop him from using Charlotte.

He took hold of her hand gently and turned it over to study the wrist. His thumb caressed the palm of her hand. “Has this happened before?”

“Manacles? Yes, but—”

“No, not manac—” His head snapped up. “Wait. Yes? Yes? Who the hell put you in manacles?”

“My father. He felt it was important I know how to get out of them.

The unfolding story and history were also fascinating, as the characters discovered the various things they had kept hidden from each other.

It was a pleasant read, and I look forward to the next book.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

Re-Read: August 2017

Set in England in 1872

Owen Renderwell is the Gentleman Thief-taker. The rescue of a kidnapped duchess made his name–and the names of his companions, who soon quit to become private investigators.

Charlotte (Walker) Bales is the daughter of one of the most talented thieves and scoundrels in London, but after her father’s death, fled with her sister and young brother to the country, where no one knew them, to try and rebuild their lives as the Bales family.

Eight years and not a thing has changed,” she drawled. “I vow, I feel a young woman of two-and-twenty again.”

Things had changed. Drastically, in his mind. They’d been friends once. But her father’s death had shattered her world, and for that, it seemed she would never forgive him.

Several thefts and a murder have brought Owen back to Charlotte, because she was her father’s aide in encryption and… other things.

One of the many excellent things about this story is how Peter, the younger brother is portrayed.

Peter was fourteen. He still secretly (he thought) slept with the small embroidered blanket she’d purchased during his infancy, and he ogled girls like a randy old man. He was a good boy. He truly was. But sometimes he raged over nothing or seemed to become indignant over everything.

Exactly like a fourteen year-old boy.

Another thing I especially like is that although there are serious misunderstandings between Owen and Charlotte, they aren’t stupid misunderstandings, and when it’s realized that they are misunderstandings, things are cleared up and that stupidity is past. It doesn’t mean either trusts easily, but that lack of trust is easily comprehended.

It was a distressing predicament to stand at the crossroads of justified fury and complete remorse with no clear sense of which direction one ought to step.

And they’re fun together, especially when she’s still mad at him.

“Insightful of you,” she said with a glance over her shoulder.

He stepped up beside her. “You needn’t sound stunned. Some people consider me a man of exceptional insight.”

Other people considered him a barbaric reprobate and a disgrace to titled gentlemen the world over. She looked at him with great pity. “Might these people be your mother?”

His mother belonged in the category of “other people,” but he appreciated the barb nonetheless.

Also, she’s not stupid.
(H)he looked at her, expression cool and unyielding, and mouthed the word, Stay.

Which was both insulting (she wasn’t a hound to be ordered about) and unnecessary. Of course she was going to stay. Where was the sense in going downstairs?

I quite liked this–despite the boinking.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

A Gift for Guile (2016)

A-Gift-for-GuileSet in London in 1872

This is the second book in the Thief-Takers series, and follows the second sister, Esther, and the private investigator, Samuel Brass.

Esther has sneaked into London, and is caught at underground by the Samuel Brass, who ruins the meeting she was getting ready to have.

Samuel Brass sees it as his personal mission to keep Esther safe, because, he tells himself, she is the sister of the wife of one of his best friends.

“Anyone who goes into places like Spitalfields when they have a choice otherwise is an idiot.”

“That is unfair. There are decent, honest, hardworking people who live there.”

“A great many. But their combined innocence does not render the cutthroats less vicious.

One of the things I particularly like about this story is how sensible Esther is, and how it always takes Samuel (and the reader, to be honest) aback when she is reasonable and sensible.

She set the book aside and frowned at him thoughtfully. “Out of curiosity, why haven’t you stationed guards outside my door?”

“Do you think you need them?” She shook her head.

“Do you?” It wasn’t so much that she needed them as that he wanted them for his own peace of mind.

She shrugged when he didn’t immediately answer. “I wouldn’t make a fuss over it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If it would make you feel… I don’t know”— she began to wave one hand around as she searched for the right words—“ like a properly responsible gentleman, seeing to the safety of the helpless lady”— she waved her hand some more—“ or what have you, then, by all means, hire a guard or two.”

But that’s not the only reason I like Esther. I like her because she has struggled in the past, but is slowly becoming, as she puts it, more.

No one person’s good opinion should mean so much that another person should feel compelled to change who they are to obtain it.”

She ignored the voice, long since accustomed to the fear that she wasn’t really wanted, wasn’t quite good enough for anyone. That fear had been at the heart of her determination to work with her father and her terrible need to seek out the approval of others. She’d been so desperate to prove the nasty little voice wrong.

But, it’s also a fun little romp.

Samuel and Esther stepped closer to investigate the admittedly rather large, but definitely very dead, rodent.

Samuel glanced over his shoulder. “You screamed because of a dead rat?” The girl was a Londoner. This couldn’t possibly be the first one she’d come across.

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I stepped on it a bit. In me bare feet.”

Next to him, Esther gave a little shudder. “Ew.”

“Aye, mum.”

These are just fun stories, even if they do have boinking.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

Re-Read: August 2017

Set in England in 1872

The second book in the Gentleman Thief-takers series tells Esther’s story–that of a girl who was used by her scoundrel father as dainty and surprising henchman, and who kept her secrets from everyone–including her sister.

Now she is looking for her father–her true father rather than the man who raised her. The man whom her mother ran off with for several months prior to Esther’s birth.

Samuel Brass was labeled the Thief-Taker Almighty by the press in the case that made his name and led to the death of the man everyone thought of as Esther’s father–and cause Ester and the rest of her siblings to change their names and hide in the country.

For all his many, many unfavorable qualities, he remained a clever, well-connected gentleman accustomed to working in secrecy. And he was a man she could trust. Not unequivocally— she didn’t trust any man unequivocally— but she was fairly confident that he was, in a general sense, a reasonably decent human being. It was more than could be said of most people.

They also get on each others nerves, as Esther thinks Samuel disapproves of her past and wants to control her, and Samuel feels an overwhelming need to protect a woman who refuses to listen to his advice.

“I’ll not take orders from you.” She didn’t take orders from anyone. “You may give orders, if you like, but I’ll not promise to follow them.”

“Orders that don’t have to be followed are called suggestions,” he replied in a bland tone.

“Then I shall agree to take your suggestions under advisement.”

“I don’t see why this should be a point of contention,” she said, reaching for her wine. “You walk about London openly every day. There must be dozens of men who would like your head on a platter. Why is it you are allowed to thumb your nose at danger, but I am not?”

“It’s different.”

She took a long sip of her drink and set the goblet down slowly. “Is that a euphemism for ‘because you are a woman’?”

“No.” Possibly. He might give it some thought later.

Samuel is not good at words. No, that is an understatement. He is laconic because he quite frequently manages to say the wrong thing. Like noting to Esther that he hadn’t realize she hadn’t kissed before, and failing to understand why that upset her. I love this bit.

“Honestly, there isn’t a right or wrong way to kiss.” He reconsidered this. “Apart from a few obviously ill-advised techniques, but—”

“Such as?”

Bloody hell, he should have known she would ask. “I don’t know,” he muttered and wracked his brain for an example. Any example. “Don’t recite the alphabet. Don’t hop on one foot. Don’t spit.”

“Don’t hop on one foot and spit?” Gone was the blush of embarrassment, the averted gaze. She goggled at him, all astonished amusement. “You’ve found this to be a common mistake amongst the kissing population, have you?”

“Of course not—”

“Because if that is the sort of kissing you’ve been experiencing, you really ought to have given me a standing ovation.”

“It is not—”

“All the way back to the hotel.”

“I haven’t—”

“Three curtain calls worth at least.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“And tossed roses at my feet,” she continued.

I really like Esther.

But I also like that they’re open about their foibles and willing to talk about things.

“Have I been clumsy again?” he asked.

She was beginning to wonder. “Maybe.”

“Ah.” He scratched his jaw and eyed her cautiously. “Are you perhaps taking offense where none was intended?”

“Possibly.” That was always a possibility.

“Right. And do you suppose you could tell me what I might have done wrong so we can decide together if I need to fix it?”

Not without humiliating herself. But she couldn’t see any way around it.

But what I like best about Esther is that she recognizes her weaknesses but doesn’t allow that to stop her when she is threatened–she fights back and does her best to get herself out of her situation rather than waiting for Samuel to come rescue her.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca

A Dangerous Deceit (2017)

That was completely unexpected. In a very good way.

Gabriel Arkwright is the third Gentleman Thief-taker, and like Samuel, he has a past he doesn’t talk about. He’s also glib and very good at becoming who he needs to be for each case.

Jane Ballenger lives in an isolated country house hiding both her disability and her past.

She wasn’t a clumsy woman. Her faults were legion. She was easily distracted. She was rude. She lacked a proper sense of humor. She was hard of hearing. According to some, she was a proper idiot. But, as a rule, she could put one foot in front of the other without making a spectacle of herself.

For as long as Jane had been aware there was something wrong with her, secrecy had been her one and only consideration. The need to be honest had never presented itself.

And that is what made this story. Yes, the mystery was interesting, but Jane’s hearing problems were fascinating, as were the way she was treated because of those problem. Let me be clear, she isn’t deaf, not really. Here is part of the author’s note at the start of the book (so I’m not giving anything away).

When I set out to write the character of Jane Ballenger, a woman with central auditory processing disorder, I knew I was going to run into some interesting obstacles.

Although it has gained some attention in recent years, CAPD is still not a particularly well-known disorder. It’s also not something I could give a name to in a book set in Victorian times, when the condition was not recognized.

Jane’s reasons for hiding this problem from Gabriel are well-founded, but they also place the both of them in significant danger multiple times.

She looked from Gabriel to the tied mare. “This horse isn’t for me to ride, is it?”

“No, cheese fork amen to furlough.”

She whipped her gaze back to his. Cheese fork? Surely not. “I…”

But there is far more to Jane than that, of course. First and foremost is her love for the couple that has taken care of her since she was ten. There is also the fact that her fears are completely justified, given both her past and society at the time. So although she knows her problems are placing her in greater danger, just glibly giving up her secrets is not an option.

Which is what makes me like the story so well. Gabriel, of course, has his secrets, which are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Jane. Which is both a strength and a weakness in the story, since Gabriel’s issues feel almost tacked into the story to provide some parity. But I didn’t really care because I found Jane so interesting.

I highly recommend this book, and you do not need to have read the first two books to enjoy this one.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by the author

 

The Providence Series

 

As Luck Would Have It (2008)

Set in England in 811

Miss Sophie Everton has spent years overseas following the death of her mother and sister, but has decided to return to London to experience the Season. Unfortunately, the cousin her father left in charge of their properties and monies has not done a good job of such. So she takes on an offer to look into whether her cousin;s friends are involved in treason.

Alex, Duke of Rockeforte, has been working for the War Department, so when William Fletcher asks him to look into the circumstances around a newly arrived young woman (and if her cousin has been involved in treason).

Alex stopped and glanced down at his feet. He couldn’t help it. Surely to God there was some visible evidence of the hole he was digging himself into. “You must understand, I had a duty—”

“A duty,” she repeated ominously.

How deep was it now? Three feet, maybe four?

I do like Sophie.

Sophie was inordinately pleased that her food arrived just then. Grabbing a scone, she took the very largest bite she could manage without embarrassing herself, or choking. Mrs. Summers set down her teacup and waited quite pointedly for a response. And waited . . . and waited . . .

“Eventually, Sophie, you will have to swallow.”

“Good Lord, you are a natural-born barrister.”

“Yes, becoming a barrister was my second choice after ambassador. Sadly, both professions remain elusive to me.

Alex is fine, but I really like Sophie. I also enjoy the secondary characters in the story, each of whom has their own distinct personality.

“Men who dance with the least popular girls do so for one of two reasons. The first being that they are compassionate enough to realize that every young girl longs to dance, even if she is trying her utmost to appear disinterested. Those are the very best and sadly, rarest, of gentlemen. The second reason gentlemen dance with wallflowers is because their mothers have pressured them into that particular act of chivalry, and there is much to be said for a young gentleman who will dance with a wallflower just to please his mama.”

There is also a delightful scene towards the end of the book, where a criminal gets his comeuppance from the ruffians he has hired.

The portly man was struck dumb for a moment with shock and fury. Finally, he found his voice and began bellowing. “You’re common criminals, thieves, murderers—!”

“I ain’t newer killed no one in my life,” the first man stated promptly.

“I have,” Sam admitted sadly. “But it were in the army. I suspect the good Lord might see fit to forgive me for it, if I spend my days repentin’ for what I done.”

The first man gave his friend a reassuring pat on the back. “True enough, Sam, true enough.” He turned a hard eye on the portly man. “He can’t rightly maul a girl and atone for what he done at the same time, now can he?”

“You kidnapped her!”

“Aye, we did,” Sam replied in that same resigned tone. “Got mouths to feed at home, don’t we? ‘Spect God’ll see fit to forgive me that too.”

“Some of those mouths be wives,” the first man commented pointedly.

“And daughters,” Sam added, “and sisters.”

That whole scene is delightful.

To be clear, the premise and machinations behind everything the two are thrust into is completely and utterly ridiculous. But it’s so fun and amusing I don’t care in the least.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Stonesong Digital

Tempting Fate (2009)

Set in England in 1813

Whittaker Cole, Earl of Thurston, and Miss Mirabelle Browning have fought and argued with each other since they were young. Whit’s mother, however, has had enough and orders him to bury the hatchet and behave themselves, for it’s possible his attitude towards Mirabelle has kept her from finding a match. As Whit has tried his best to be honorable and respectable, the thought that he might have damaged Mirabelle is enough to make him regret their years of fighting.

The “secret” from the first book is known the the reader now, but the young people don’t know what’s happening, and that’s fine.

William Fletcher appeared from the library looking harassed, followed by Lady Thurston who looked to be doing the harassing.

Mira is a very interesting character, and someone who is doing the best she can with what she has. Seeing how things are for her at her Uncle’s house is both horrifying and mortifying, but also what could easily happen to a woman who had no control over her life.

It was another fun and enjoyable story.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Stonesong Digital

McAlistair’s Fortune (2009)

Set in England in 1814

Evie Cole has lived with her cousins since she was a young girl. After her father’s death in a carriage accident, her mother was unwilling to care for her, so the injured child moved to Haldon Hall and remained there with her cousins.

McAlistair worked for the war department as an assassin, but after quitting has spent years hiding out in the woods of Haldon Hall. Whit is fine with this, since it allows the man to recuperate and also provides extra protection for his family.

First, Evie. She has a scar and a limp from her childhood injury. Although she is self-conscious of this, her adopted family has never allowed her to see herself as permanently damaged the way most young women would have been.

The trouble with having a limp was that it was nearly impossible to execute a proper stomping. That wasn’t the only trouble, of course, but it was the inconvenience that most vexed Evie at present.

The fact that she has permanent injuries but doesn’t believe herself to be less is marvelous. Would it have been likely for the time? Probably not, but I’m ok with that.

It wasn’t until Lady Thurston had brought her to live at Haldon (an offer Mrs. Cole had accepted with great relief) that the worst of her shyness had begun to ease. She’d been so quickly accepted, so openly loved by her aunt and cousins that, over time, she regained some of the confidence she had lost.

McAlister is far more damaged, from both his childhood and his time spent as an assassin. He feels himself ruined and undeserving of happiness.

“Act in haste, repent in leisure,” his dear, departed, and no doubt often repentant mother had been fond of saying. An interesting bit of advice from a woman who’d birthed six bastards.

A couple of other notes. When in danger, Evie does not faint or wait to be saved, she acts. (I love the fact that Sophie (from the first book) taught all the young women the basics of self-defense.))

I also appreciated that after paying a price for her stubbornness (riding a horse all day without break leads her to be unable to use her leg when she gets down) although she hates her weakness, she doesn’t make the same mistake twice. She also, although willing to defend herself, doesn’t act stupidly.

Also, this:

“Do you think me capable of—”

“No.”

“Then I fail to see why you’re angry with me.”

A muscle worked in his jaw. “He’s a rake.”

She gestured impatiently at the door. “Well, go lecture him, then.”

I am definitely enjoying this series.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Stonesong Digital

Destined To Last (2010)

Set in England in ~1814

Lady Kate Cole was, by most accounts, a young woman of exceptional beauty, extraordinary talent, and notable charm. She was also, by all accounts, a woman so remarkably prone to accidents that it was generally considered wise to back away if she happened to be standing next to a steep hill, a large body of water, an open window, or any sort of material that might cut, discolor, burn, spill, break . . . It was probably best if one simply kept a bit of distance from the girl whenever possible.

Kate also is a composer–although no one will publish her works under her own name, since obviously a woman can’t be taken seriously as a musician.

Andrew Hunter has risen to great wealth from absolutely nothing, and it is only his wealth that gains him entry into society. He has known the Cole family for years, and has decided that Kate would be the perfect wife for him.

“I am aware of my flaws,” he replied dryly, “thank you.”

“Are you?”

“Certainly. Did I argue when you called me unpatriotic and selfish?”

He hadn’t, nor did he look at the moment as if he was at all unsettled by the idea of being considered both. “It’s true that others would consider those flaws. Do you?”

There was a brief pause before he answered. “No.”

Hunter sees a chance to put his plan into play when they are sent to a house party–Hunter as part of a team looking into a counterfeiting operation.

Lord Brentworth’s house parties were not fashionable events. Unbeknownst to the host, they were not merely dull, but famously dull. Most notably for the ladies in attendance. A widower of many years, Lord Brentworth apparently had no notion of how to go about entertaining a houseful of women, and clearly had, at some point, decided that the best solution was to leave them to their own devices while the gentlemen did . . . something else.

I like Kate. She is accomplished and unwilling to hide her skills and strengths. She also is well-aware of her weaknesses, and makes sound decisions based upon that awareness. As a klutz myself, I deeply appreciate that.

This is a boinking series, but I did enjoy it despite the boinking, because I very much liked the character, and the the women in the series were smart and strong.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Stonesong Digital

 

Haverston Family

 

Nearly a Lady (2011)

Set in England during the regency.

Freddie Blythe and Lilly Ilestone have been barely surviving in Scotland after the death of Freddie’s father and the promise by Lord Haverston to care for his Freddie.

Gideon and Lucien Haverston are trying to set their inherited estates to rights after discovering that their step-mother absconded with a large sum of money after their father’s death (as well as during his life). When they discover their father had a ward, who was left to languish in Scotlan, Lucien sends Gideon up to repair the damage–and, Lucien hopes, repair some of the damage done to him by the war.

Gideon had made one promise and one promise only.

Never again would he be responsible for the well-being of another person.

In the two years since he’d left the Perseverance, he’d managed well enough. He’d sworn off marriage, bucked tradition and eschewed the services of a valet. He’d even refused to have live-in staff at his town house, preferring to eat at his club and relying on a maid to come during the day.

First, Freddie is marvelous. She’s been surviving for years, and although she appreciates the Haverston’s willingness to try to repair the damage dine to her, she doesn’t have much need for London.

What the devil would I do with a London season?”

“Find a husband, I imagine,” was Gideon’s reply.

It only served to mystify her further. “What the devil would I do with a husband?”

“Obtain long-term financial stability,” Lilly told her. “Something more reliable than sheep that can fall ill or crops that can fail.”

I also loved the relationship between Freddie and Lilly, two young women who were left in poor circumstance, and came not just to reply upon one another, but to love each other like sisters.

It wouldn’t be so dreadful, she thought, to wear something that felt like this. “Is it for London?” she asked.

“No, it is for you to wear here.”

She snatched her hand back as if she were burned. “You can’t be serious. We’ve weeks before we leave. What if I ruin it?”

“Then you’ll be publicly flogged and left to languish in the stocks.”

But most of all I adore the humor and sense of fun that both characters have, despite all their issues.

Lilly was the only person in residence proficient at the piano, and so Bess had been recruited as a dance partner for Winnefred. Unfortunately, Bess’s familiarity with popular dances was only slightly more extensive than Winnefred’s, and because the poor girl had no experience at all when it came to dancing in the role of a gentleman, she and Winnefred had spent the last hour bumping into, tripping over, and stepping on each other and the furniture.

Winnefred couldn’t remember ever having so much fun.

But what I liked best is that the struggle to their HEA was due to their personal difficulties but NOT to foolish misunderstandings. They talk to each other. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always make things clear, but they tend not to harbour foolish ideas of what should be versus what is.

“Oh, it’s so lovely . . . I shouldn’t accept this. I shouldn’t accept any of your gifts.”

“Why do you, if it bothers you?” “Because . . .” She shifted her feet and bit her lip.

“Because they’re lovely, and . . . Do you know how many sheep I could buy with this? And the garnet bracelet? It could see Murdoch House through a drought, and . . . And I can’t say no.”

I really liked both characters, that they were good people despite their flaws and issues, and did obviously care for one another.

It really was quite a lovely story, even if it was a boinking book.
Rating: 9/10

Published by the author.