Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Winter Garden

The Winter Garden
  The Winter Garden
Author:  Nicola Cornick
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2022. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1525811460 / 978-1525811463

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They awoke that morning to snow."

Favorite Quote:  "It cannot always be a fight. Sometimes we must be content to bide a little and wait for our time to come around again."

As with Nicola Cornick's other books, The Winter Garden is a story of multiple time periods and the women of the time struggling, fighting, and making their own way. In the present day, Lucy has lost her career and her way of life to a disease. She is at a crossroads because everything she worked for her whole life and everything she dreamed of is gone. She retreats to her aunt's home in Oxfordshire to rest and recover physically and emotionally. The home has its own history, and a project is underway to restore and recover part of that history - a garden lost to time.

The history of the past is of the 1600s. The Catholics of the region felt persecuted by the Protestant kings and queens. There was religious strife which led to political strife. "Matters of religion were a thorny thicket for a man - or woman - to discuss with their fellows. The past fifty years had made us wary. Wars had been waged, men of conscience killed, families such as ours split apart, imprisoned, robbed of our fortunes." Robert Catesby was a Catholic landowner and a ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed plan to blow up the King and other nobleman on the opening day of Parliament. The holiday called Guy Fawkes (another of conspirators) Night or Bonfire Night still celebrates the failure of this plot.

In the story, Lucy's aunt's home once belonged to Robert Catesby. For the book, the main character of the past is Robert Catesby's mother although the garden is question was actually created at the request of his Protestant wife. Robert Catesby's wife plays a major role in the book, and yet it is not her story that is told. 

The book proceeds somewhat like an archeological dig with a visiting ghost and visions and some of romance added. As Lucy experiences visions of the past and gets involved in the restoration project, her visions and discovery lead to that layers of the story of the past. The story of the present is one of healing; the story of the past is one of destruction. The anchor of the book is very much Lucy's story of grief and healing. The romance in the book is a sweet one and enough in the background to allow the story to remain focused on the history and its ramifications into the present.

This book, yet again, does what I love about historical fiction. It teaches me something new in history. I read the story and am off to search nonfiction sources for the actual history. I have, of course, heard of Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. However, I had never before heard of Robert Catesby and his role in this history. The fact that the fiction is from the perspective of the women leaves me wondering of the actual women of this history and if anything is written of their roles and contributions.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Summer Swap

The Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan
  The Summer Swap
Author:  Sarah Morgan
Publication Information:  Canary Street Press. 2024. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1335474943 / 978-1335474940

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Running away from her life wasn't something she was proud of, but with a view this good it was hard to regret the decision."

Favorite Quote:  "The strange thing is we know better than most that life is fleeting and can change in an instant, but still we sometimes forget that. I'm not going to forget it again..."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


A beautiful Cape Cod setting. The beach. Family drama. Women reckoning with their pasts, the expectations placed on them, and their choices to make room for the future. Relationships old and new. This book has all the makings of a summer beach read.

Cecilia Lapthorne is in her seventies with a lifetime of memories and secret and a life still to live. How long can she keep the secrets for the sake of her children and her husband's reputation? What price has she paid to keep those secrets? What is possible now? "Secrets made you lonely, she realized. There could be no deep human connection without honesty, and she'd hidden too much ... to expect them to understand her. It created a distance because there was so many things she knew that they didn't."

Lily is on the cusp of a career when she walks out on medical school and her family's expectations. She also runs away from an unrequited love. This summer is about focusing on herself, her place in the world, and what she sees as her path forward.

There is also Kristen, Cecilia's daughter. She has always been daddy's girl and is lost after her father's death. She has a successful husband and adult children. From the surface, a charmed life. But is it? What is lacking, and what will Kristen to fill that gap.

Among the stories of the women are stories of careers, careers given up, loves, loves given up, romances, compromises, children, and all the myriad of things that make a life. I appreciate that the three women are at different points in life and bring the differing perspectives that come with age. "When you were young you though life was something you could control, and it was only later that you discovered that life often had a plan of its own that didn't coincide with yours, and that control was an illusion."

This book does what you expect in a beach read. The story progresses as expected. I guessed the secret of the painting very early in the book. So, the big reveal was not much of a reveal. The story also ends as expected. As you might expect, there are romances. However, the focus remains the three women. Each of them, in their own way, find their voice, their truth, and their path forward. 

Sometimes, I need a feel-good story that goes where you expect it does and ends where you expect it to. All the boxes get checked. All the loose ends get tied up. All the stories work out. This book fits that bill completely. The Summer Swap is a lovely summer escape and a perfect casual beach read.

About the Book

A recent widow’s plan to spend the summer in Cape Cod hiding from her interfering family is upended when she discovers her beach house has an unexpected guest, and the secret she's been keeping about her marriage threatens to be exposed. Perfect beach reading for fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid and Emily Henry.

70 year old widow Cecilia Lapthorne can’t bear the prospect of a family party to celebrate her birthday and the memory of her husband, famous artist Cameron Lapthorne. They had a toxic marriage but stayed together for the children, and bound by a big secret. She runs away to the Cape Cod seashore cottage she owned with Cameron--it’s where they first fell in love--but she hasn’t returned since she discovered him cheating on her there (for the first time). No one in her family knows about it, so she will be perfectly, delightfully alone for the summer.

Except struggling artist Lily has been secretly crashing on the sofa of the seashore cottage for the last couple of weeks. Unable to make rent after dropping out of medical school to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist and working as a housekeeper in Cecilia's Cape Cod enclave, she’s been illicitly camping at the cottage. Which isn’t a problem as it’s been unoccupied for years…until Cecilia unexpectedly shows up.

After the drama of discovering she has an unexpected house-guest has faded, Cecilia decides she’ll get along just fine with Lily for the summer. They form a tentative and powerful bond, based on shared love of art, but also the vulnerabilities they both share with each other. And when Todd, Cecilia’s beloved grandson (and the man who broke Lily’s heart in college) tracks her to the cottage, the three of them settle in for a summer of self-discovery, self-belief and second chances.

About the Author

Sarah Morgan is a USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of contemporary romance and women's fiction. She has sold more than 21 million copies of her books and her trademark humour and warmth have gained her fans across the globe. Sarah lives with her family near London, England, where the rain frequently keeps her trapped in her office. Visit her at


Excerpted from The Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan. Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Morgan. Published by Canary Street Press.

Running away from her life wasn’t something she was proud of, but with a view this good it was hard to regret the decision.

Lily tightened her grip on the handlebars and pedaled harder. Here on the northern tip of Cape Cod while the rest of humankind were still sleepy and had barely reached for the coffeepot, the place was hers alone.

All around her were sand dunes and the ocean stretching as far as she could see. She cycled the same route every day, and every day was different. Today the sky was a deep kingfisher blue, but she’d seen burnt orange, flame red and smoky silver.

It was a place favored by migratory birds and tourists, and generally she preferred the first to the second. The day before, she’d seen a blue heron and two snowy egrets. As far as she was concerned the fewer humans the better, but she owed her current job to the influx of summer people, so she wasn’t complaining.

She breathed deeply, letting the salt air fill her lungs and her mind. She felt free here on this windblown, sunbaked strip of seashore. For the first time in months, she felt better. Stronger. As if she might survive after all. The pressure had eased. She no longer woke at two in the morning drenched in sweat and panic, trapped in her life and hating every moment.

She felt something close to happiness, and then her phone buzzed and the feeling left her in a rush.

She pedaled faster, trying to outrun its insistent demand. She didn’t have to look to identify the caller. It was ten in the morning exactly. Only one person called her routinely at that time.


Guilt and an unshakable sense of duty made her squeeze the brakes and she pulled over, breathless, and dug out her phone. If she didn’t take the call now, she’d be taking it later and the thought of it looming in her future would darken the skies of an otherwise cloudless day. This was the price she had to pay for running away. You could run, but with today’s technology you couldn’t really hide.

“Lily, honey? It’s Mom.”

She closed her eyes briefly.

She’d been expecting this call, ever since she’d declined their invitation to come home and “talk things over.” As if talking it over yet again would change the outcome.

Every time she saw her mother’s name pop up on her phone screen her stomach churned. Guilt sank its fangs into all the soft, vulnerable parts of her. Her parents had made huge sacrifices for her, and she’d as good as slapped them in the face. And she hadn’t even given them a reason. At least, not one they could understand.

They deserved better.

“I’m on my way to work, Mom. I can’t be late.” Never had dirty pots and pans and other people’s laundry seemed more appealing. She’d rather deal with that any day than talk to her mother. Every conversation dragged her backward and left her so twisted with guilt she lost all confidence in her chosen path. “Is everything all right?”

“No. We’re worried about you, Lily.” Her mother’s tone was shaky. “We don’t understand what’s going on. Why won’t you tell us?”

Lily tightened her grip on the phone. “Nothing is going on. And you don’t need to worry.” She repeated the same words she’d said hundreds of times, even though they never seemed to settle.

“Can you blame us for worrying? We have a bright, brilliant daughter who has chosen to throw away the life she worked hard for. And with no reason.”

No reason? As if it had been a whim. As if she’d woken up one morning and decided to waste all those years of hard work just for a laugh.

“I’m fine. This is what I want.”

It wasn’t that her parents weren’t wonderful people, but communicating with them was impossible.

“Are you eating? Have you put on some weight? You were skin and bone when you left here.”

“I’m eating. I’m sleeping. I’m good. How are you and Dad?”

“We miss you, obviously. Come home, Lily. We can cook for you, and spoil you and look after you.”

Anxiety settled on her like a cloak, blocking out sunshine and her hopes for the day.

She knew what going home would mean. She loved her parents, but they’d hover over her with frowning concerned faces until she’d end up worrying more about them than herself. And then she’d do things she didn’t want to do, just to please them.

And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried staying at home. She’d done that in the beginning (mostly because her options were limited) and the pressure of pretending to be okay had been exhausting.

“I’m happy, Mom. I just need some space. It’s beautiful here. You know I always loved the ocean.”

“I know. I remember when you were six years old, and we couldn’t drag you away from the sandcastle you’d built.” There was a pause. “Honey, Dad made some calls. He thinks it’s not too late for you to go back to medical school if you want to.”

Lily’s heart started to pound. The sweat of anxiety threatened to become a full-blown panic attack. Her chest tightened. Her hands shook so badly the phone almost slipped from her fingers.

Interference, even well-meaning interference, should be designated a crime.

“I don’t want to. I know you and Dad are disappointed—”

“It’s not about us, it’s about you. We tried so hard to give you all the opportunities we didn’t have.”

Lily stared at the ocean and tried to find her inner calm, but it had fled the moment the phone had rung.

They’d made huge sacrifices for her, and she’d thrown it in their faces. She felt terrible. But staying would have made her feel worse.

“This is difficult for me, too, Mom.” The lump in her throat made it difficult to speak. “I know I’m hurting you and I hate it, but this is where I want to be. I can’t be a doctor. I want to be an artist.”

“You say that, but you’re cleaning houses.”

“To earn money while I try to find a way to do something I love.” While she tried to loosen the knots of stress in her body and untangle the mess in her head. “There’s nothing wrong with cleaning houses. I like it. And it’s a respectable way to make a living. You did it.”

“Because I didn’t have the opportunities you had.”

Lily felt guilt overwhelm her.

Her mother sighed. “Do you need money? We still have some savings.”

And she knew just how hard it would have been for her parents to pull that together after everything they’d already spent on her. She’d vowed never to take another cent from them.

“I don’t need money but thank you.” She didn’t want to think about the dire state of her bank account. She was determined to manage on her own now, no matter what.

“Lily—” her mother’s voice was gentle “—your father would kill me for asking because I know I’m not supposed to ask, but did something happen, honey? Did someone hurt you? Your dad and I always thought you’d make a wonderful doctor. You’re such a kind, caring person.”

“Nothing like that.” Lily’s throat burned. She badly wanted this conversation to end. “Could we talk about something else?”

“Of course. Let me think…not much has happened here. Your father has been busy in the garden.” Her mother spoke in a cheery I’m changing the subject to a safe topic voice. “The hydrangeas are beginning to bloom. They’re going to be stunning. I made the most delicious orange cake last week. No wheat. You know your father. Ground almonds instead of flour.”

“Sounds yummy.” She imagined them at home together and felt a pang. Despite everything, she missed them. Part of her just wanted to run home and be looked after but she knew that feeling would dissipate the moment she walked through the door. Within minutes the bands of pressure would tighten, and she’d be gasping for breath.

“I’m sure there was something I wanted to tell you.” Her mother paused. “What was it? Oh, I remember—I bumped into Kristen Buckingham last week. She’s always so charming and friendly. So normal.”

The last person Lily wanted to think about now was anyone with the name Buckingham.

“Why wouldn’t she be friendly and normal, Mom?” Lily knew how self-conscious her mother was around her friends and she hated it. It reminded her of being back at school and feeling like an imposter.

Her parents had scrimped and saved and worked multiple jobs in order to send her to the best school. They’d believed she’d have a great education and make influential friends. She would absorb their greater advantages by osmosis. It would be her ticket to a better life. They imagined her living her life in a bubble of success, mixing with people whose parents owned mansions and yachts and jets. People whose fridges were loaded with food and never had to worry about making it stretch to the end of the week. People who had drivers, and housekeepers, and staff who cleared the snow from their yard.

And she had met people like that, but most of the time Lily had felt like a stray dog that had somehow wriggled its way into a litter of pedigrees. She’d been afraid to reveal anything about her background, because she knew it was different from theirs. She’d masked her true self because she’d known that she didn’t fit. Despite her attempts to blend, she’d been badly bullied. To make things worse she’d also felt crushed by the pressure of work and parental expectation. To fail would have been to let them down, these people she loved so much and who loved her back. They’d half killed themselves to give her the opportunity. She couldn’t let herself fail.

Panic had hovered close to the surface the whole time, threatening to suffocate her. The only thing that had driven her from her bed in the mornings was the knowledge of her parents’ sacrifice and their pride in her. She hadn’t felt able to tell them how unhappy she was, or that locking herself in a cubicle while having a panic attack didn’t feel like success to her.

She’d been thoroughly miserable until the day Hannah Buckingham had rescued her from a bully who was trying to remove her ponytail with a pair of scissors. After that, everything changed.

Hannah was the granddaughter of the famous artist Cameron Lapthorne. She was a champion of the underdog. She had a fierce urge to protect anything threatened. She wanted to save the whales, and Sumatran tigers, and Antarctica. Lily was added to the list, and they’d become best friends from that moment. Hannah had said Lily was the sister she’d never had. Hannah hadn’t cared about the differences between their household incomes. Hannah hadn’t cared that Lily didn’t have her own bathroom, or a housekeeper to keep her room tidy, or tutors to make sure her grades were the best they could possibly be. Hannah had found Lily interesting. Hannah had wanted to know everything about Lily. She’d wanted to access her every thought. For the first time in her life, Lily had been able to be herself.

They’d been inseparable. Protected by Hannah, the bullying had stopped and Lily had flourished. With Hannah as her friend, her confidence had grown. She’d no longer felt like a misfit.

They’d gone to the same college where they’d both studied biological sciences and then they’d applied to the same medical school. When her acceptance letter arrived, Lily’s parents had cried. They’d been so proud and thrilled. It was the happiest day of their lives.

Lily had been happy and relieved that she’d achieved their goals. That she was everything her parents wanted her to be. That she hadn’t let them down. For a brief moment she’d believed that maybe she could do this.

But medical school had turned out to be a thousand times worse than school. She was surrounded by people who were brilliant, ambitious and competitive.

When the pressure started to crush her brain again, she tried to ignore it. She was going to be fine. She’d survived this far. There were many different branches of medicine. She’d find one that suited her.

It didn’t help that Hannah had no doubts at all. She’d known from the start that she wanted to be a surgeon like her father, Theo. Hannah wanted to save lives. She wanted to make a difference.

On the few occasions she’d met him, Lily had found Theo to be terrifying or maybe it was more accurate to say that she found his reputation terrifying.

Hannah’s mother, Kristen, was equally intimidating. She was an art expert, a whirlwind of brisk efficiency with a life so busy it was a wonder she fitted in time to breathe.

And then there was Hannah’s older brother, Todd, who was smart, handsome and kind, and the object of lust among all Hannah’s friends. Lily was no exception. Teenage Lily had fantasized about Todd. Twenty-three-year-old Lily had kissed Todd in a dark corner during a school reunion.

Lily was in love with Todd, but now Todd was dating Amelie.

Lily had trained herself not to think about Todd.

“I just mean that Kristen is very important, Lily, that’s all,” her mother said. “But she always takes the time to talk to me when I see her.”

“She’s just a person, Mom. A person like the rest of us.”

“Well, not really like the rest of us,” her mother said. “Her father was Cameron Lapthorne. I don’t pretend to know anything about art, but even I know his name.”

Hannah had taken her to the Lapthorne Estate once. It had been the best day of Lily’s life. She’d gazed at the paintings hungrily, studying every brushstroke, in awe of the skill and envious of anyone who could build a life as an artist. Hannah had given her a book of her grandfather’s work, and it had become Lily’s most treasured possession. She’d thumbed the pages, studied the pictures and slept with it under her pillow.

Ever since she was old enough to hold a paintbrush, Lily had loved art. She’d painted everything in sight. When she’d run out of paper, she’d painted on the walls. She’d painted her school bag and her running shoes. She’d said to her parents I want to be an artist, and for a while they’d looked worried. They’d told her no one made money that way and that she was smart enough to be a doctor or a lawyer. Lily knew how much they wanted that for her, and she knew how much they’d sacrificed. She couldn’t bring herself to disappoint them. And so she had dutifully gone to medical school, underestimating the toll it would take on her.

“Lily? Are you still there?”

Lily tugged herself back into the present. “Yes. So how was Kristen?”

“Busy as ever. She was in the middle of organizing a big event at the Lapthorne Estate. Celebrating her mother’s birthday and her grandfather, the artist. It’s happening today, I think. Todd will be there with his fiancée—I forget her name. Amelie, that’s right. And Hannah will be there of course. Kristen invited us, and you, which was generous of her.”


Lily started to shake. “Todd is engaged?”

“Yes. A bit of a whirlwind according to Kristen. They’d only been dating for a few months, and she thought it was casual. Had no idea it was serious and then suddenly they announce that they’re getting married. I’m sure that wedding will be quite an event. Kristen said it was yet another thing for her to organize, although I don’t understand why the responsibility would fall on her. She’s such an impressive woman.”

Lily wasn’t thinking about Kristen. Lily was thinking about Todd.

She imagined Todd in the gardens of Lapthorne Manor with a glass of champagne in his hand, and Amelie gazing up at him with that flirtatious look that fused men’s brains and made them do stupid things, a large diamond glinting on her finger.

Amelie had been the most popular girl in the school. She’d had the highest marks, the fastest time on the running track and the biggest smile. Amelie was the girl most likely to succeed. She was also the girl who had tried to cut off Lily’s ponytail with a pair of scissors. And now she was marrying Todd. Kind, funny, clever Todd.

Todd had broken Lily’s heart, and he didn’t even know it.

Her palms felt sweaty as she tried to focus on the call. “Are you going to the party?”

“No, of course not. Your father wouldn’t know what to say and I wouldn’t know what to wear. They’re your friends really, not ours. Kristen mentioned that Hannah is enjoying her clinical rotation, but you probably know that as she’s your best friend.”

Lily didn’t know that. Lily and Hannah hadn’t spoken since that terrible fight on the night Lily had packed her bags and left medical school for good.

Every time Lily thought of Hannah she wanted to cry. They’d sworn that nothing and no one would ever come between them, and they’d truly believed that.

They’d been wrong.

“I must go, Mom. I’ll be late for work, and I don’t want to let people down.” She winced as she said it, because she was all too aware that she’d let her parents down. “Don’t worry. I’m happy. I like my life.”

“We don’t want you to waste your talents, honey, that’s all. You’re capable of so much. You could be curing cancer—”

Curing cancer? No pressure, then.

“I hated medical school.” The words spilled out of her. “It wasn’t for me.” And the pressure of trying to keep up had almost broken her. She didn’t expect them to understand. They believed that if you were smart enough to be a doctor, why wouldn’t you be one? And she couldn’t figure out how to make her parents proud, but still live the life she wanted to live. “I want to be an artist, Mom. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. You know that.”

“I know, but where’s the future in that? Your dad and I just don’t want you to struggle financially as we did. Life can be hard, Lily.”

Lily closed her eyes. She knew that. She knew how hard life could be.

“I’m managing fine. And I’m going to pay you and Dad back.”

“That’s not necessary, honey. We love you and remember there’s a home and a welcome here whenever you need it.”

Lily’s throat felt full. It would be easier to disappoint them if they weren’t so decent. If she didn’t love them so much. “Thanks. Give my love to Dad.”

She ended the call, wondering why big life decisions had to feel so difficult and wondering why, when there were so many people her mother could have bumped into, she’d had to bump into Kristen Buckingham.

Her little bubble of happiness had been punctured.

Todd was engaged. He was going to marry Amelie, and no doubt they’d have two perfect children and a dog and live a long and happy life with not a single bump in the road.

But she wasn’t going to think about that now. And she wasn’t going to think about Hannah. Twice in the last few months she’d almost texted her. Once she’d even typed out a message, but then she’d deleted it. Hannah had been furiously angry with her, and Lily had been angry with Hannah. They’d both been hurt, and Lily had no idea how to move past that hurt. Given that she hadn’t heard from Hannah, presumably she didn’t know, either.

The friendship that they’d believed could never be damaged, had been damaged. Broken. Amelie might as well have taken her scissors to it.

But that was in the past now.

Hannah was living in the city, and Lily was here on the Cape, and even though she’d brought all her emotions with her it was still preferable to being in the smothering atmosphere of her parents’ home. And at least it had been her decision to come here. For the first time ever, she was living the life that was her choice.

She just wished it felt easier.

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Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Book of Thorns

The Book of Thorns by Hester Fox
  The Book of Thorns
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2024. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1525831569 / 978-1525831560

Rating:   ★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I can feel Betsy watching me from the doorway."

Favorite Quote:  "But beware, a garden cannot be planted and expected to thrive if it is not watered. Once declared, you must tend to your love if it is to flourish. And I beg of you, remember you yourself are worthy of your own love, and if a romance cannot blossom without tending, then your own character - nay, even your soul - can likewise not grow wit ought true introspection and the courage to change when circumstances demand it."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The first three Hester Fox books, The Witch of Willow Hall, The Widow of Pale Harbor, and The Orphan of Cemetery Hill follow the theme of CHARACTER of LOCATION. All three main characters are women with an unusual history. All three are set in New England. All three are gothic with witches and powers and conduits to the beyond. Beyond that, each one has been unique. The Witch of Willow Hall is about a young woman finding her voice. The Widow of Pale Harbor is more romance than anything else. The Orphan of Cemetery Hill is about grave robbing, "scientific" experimentation, and actual villains dubiously named Resurrection Men. The fourth book, A Lullaby for Witches is more romance than anything else following a two time period narrative, with a bridge and connection from past to present. It also features for a brief moment Pale Harbor.

This fifth book follows neither paradigm. The subtitle of the book states, "an enchanting tale of two sisters connected by magic." However, the story is not really about the magic. It is about two women in desperate situations. Yes, they are sisters, but that seems incidental to most of the story. Their individual tales are about survival, including magic, romance, abuse, and opposites sides of a war. The connection and the "key to the source of the power that connects them" again seems almost incidental. For most of the book, their stories progress independently, making me forget that the description states they are sisters.

The romance in the group gets graphic at times, including threesomes. To each their own preference. However, I am typically not the reader for books that include graphic descriptions of any sort. With a story strong enough, these can sometimes fade into the background. Unfortunately, in this book, these descriptions are more memorable than the connection between the sisters or the magic.

I was intrigued by the promise of the magic - the fact that flowers speak to the sisters. As a gardener, I appreciate the power of losing myself amongst my plants and the joy they can bring. I expect a story similar to the first three Hester Fox books where the powers of the main character are a key feature of the book. However, that ends up a relatively minor part of most of the book. Even at its conclusion, the manifestation and use of this power is not what I expect from a tale put forth as "enchanting." This is a dark story of war, abuse, survival, murder, and vengeance, not a story of sisters united across time and place because of a shared gift.

I walk away, sadly not the reader for this story.

About the Book

An enchanting tale of secrets, betrayal, and magic…

Penniless and stranded in France after a bid to escape her cruel uncle goes awry, Cornelia Shaw is far from the Parisian life of leisure she imagined. Desperate and lacking options, she allows herself to be recruited to Napoleon’s Grande Armée. As a naturalist, her near-magical ability to heal any wound with herbal mixtures invites awe amongst the soldiers…and suspicion. For behind Cornelia’s vast knowledge of the natural world is a secret she keeps hidden—the flowers speak to her through a mysterious connection she has felt since childhood. One that her mother taught her to heed, before she disappeared.

Then, as Napoleon’s army descends on Waterloo, the flowers sing to her of a startling revelation: a girl who bears a striking resemblance to Cornelia. A girl she almost remembers—her sister, lost long ago, who seems to share the same gifts. Determined to reunite with Lijsbeth despite being on opposite sides of the war, Cornelia is drawn into a whirlwind of betrayal, secrets, and lies. Brought together by fate and magic at the peak of the war, the sisters try to uncover the key to the source of the power that connects them as accusations of witchcraft swirl and threaten to destroy the very lives they’ve fought for.

“The Book of Thorns is a gentle, magical tale of hope and healing in the midst of war. Fox does not hide from the fact that for all the romance surrounding Bonaparte’s exploits, nobody who fought at Waterloo came out unscathed, whether they were breathing by battle’s end or not. But Fox also reminds us that, even in fields tilled by cavalry charges and fertilized with gunpowder, flowers can grow.” –BOOKPAGE

About the Author

Hester Fox is a full-time writer and mother, with a background in museum work and historical archaeology. She is the author of such novels as The Witch of Willow Hall, A Lullaby for Witches, and The Last Heir to Blackwood Library. When not writing, Hester can be found exploring old cemeteries, enjoying a pastry and seasonal latte at a café, or scouring antique shops for old photographs to add to her collection. She lives in a small mill town in Massachusetts with her husband and their two children.


Excerpted from THE BOOK OF THORNS by Hester Fox. Copyright © 2024 by Hester Fox. Published by Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.


BEGONIA: a favor repaid, a warning foretold, a promise delivered in darkness.

Sussex, England, February 1815

I can feel Betsy watching me from the doorway.

She hovers like a bee, rehearsing some small speech in whispers. I pretend not to notice her fidgeting and instead focus on the vase of narcissi before me, the weight of my pencil in my hand. Betsy clears her throat, twice, but I am already arcing out the path of the dainty stems and unfurling petals. There is something calming about reducing the flowers to splashes of grays and blacks, finding beauty in the absence of light.

Betsy lets out a throaty cough. “You might as well come in and be done with it,” I tell her without looking up.

“Yes, miss.” She drops a curtsy, her gray ringlets bouncing under her cap. “It’s just that there’s a man in the drawing room with your uncle, miss, and your uncle asks that you join them.”

I continue sketching, watching the frilly petals take shape on my paper. “Please make my excuses,” I tell her. Uncle likes to bring me out when he has business meetings, the same way he sets out the good claret and crystal goblets with the old family crest. With no wife and no children of his own, I make a pretty addition and bring a touch of softness to his otherwise hard demeanor. “There’s a cake in the kitchen and cold ham as well that you might bring them,” I add as an afterthought.

But Betsy doesn’t leave. She wrings her hands and tuts about like a fussing hen. “No, miss. He’s for you.”

I carefully set aside my pencil. This is what I was afraid of. Closing my eyes, I rub my temples, wishing that it was anything else besides this. My time is not even my own, and I hate being pulled out of my work just to oblige Uncle.

“Very well.” I dismiss Betsy and take a moment in front of the mirror in the hall. Uncle’s friends and associates are mostly stodgy old men, but there is always the possibility that it could be someone young, someone exciting. I pinch roses into my cheeks and tease out a few of my yellow curls. If have control of nothing else in this house, I at least can take pride in my appearance.

I take a deep breath and let myself into the drawing room. “Betsy said you wanted me, sir?”

Uncle stands and tugs at his waistcoat. “Cornelia, come in.”

Though not more than fifty years in age, his poor temper and taste for rich food and drink has left my uncle with a ruddy complexion and portly figure. He is not a healthy man, and his jowls are loose, his complexion jaundiced. What he lacks in polished comportment, though, he makes up in his wardrobe, opting for elaborate cravats and showy brocaded waistcoats that never quite fit him but speak of money and an account in good standing at the tailor. Uncle waves me over, impatient. “Come meet Mr. Reeves.”

Obedient, I come and position myself near the window where I know the soft gray light is especially flattering to my fair complexion. The man unfolds himself from his chair. He is tall and spare, his black frockcoat well-cut and his boots shined. He looks familiar, perhaps from church or one of Uncle’s interminable business dinners. I suppose some might consider him handsome, but there is an intensity in his dark eyes that is more predatory than charming. “Miss Cornelia,” he says, taking my hand and bowing over it, “a pleasure.”

“Mr. Reeves.” I withdraw my hand. “I hope my uncle is not boring you with land yields and livestock accounts.”

He shares a confidential look with my uncle. “On the contrary. Our conversation has been on the most enjoyable of topics.”

“He’s here to see you,” Uncle says, plowing straight into the heart of the matter as he always does. “Mr. Reeves comes as a suitor.”

Uncle makes the outcome of this meeting perfectly clear in the sharp downturn of his lips. His patience with the matter of my marital status is wearing thin.

Well, that makes two of us.

I don’t fancy marriage, but I certainly don’t fancy spending one more day than I have to under my uncle’s roof, either. My dreams of publishing a book remain foggy and out of reach, and the money from my illustrations published in a French newspaper under a nom de plume pays only a pittance. It is not enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a young woman who enjoys fine things and an easy life. A husband would solve at least two of my problems, but it would create a host more.

“I’ll leave you two alone to talk,” Uncle says, cutting me with a look that says there will be hell to pay if I emerge from this room without securing an engagement.

The air usually lightens, the room sighing a breath of relief, when Uncle leaves, but Mr. Reeves’s presence prickles me under my stays, makes me fidgety.

Betsy is posted outside the door, her needles softly clacking as she knits some horrid bonnet or muffler. Outside, a fine mist has rolled over the gentle Sussex hills. A smile spreads over Mr. Reeves’s sharp features. “Your uncle says you’re a spirited filly. That you need a strong hand to break you.”

Ah, so it is to go like that, then. I pour a cup of tea, ignoring my guest’s outstretched hand, instead lifting the cup to my lips. “That does sound like the sort of nonsense my uncle would say.”

Mr. Reeves regards me, his dark eyes calculating. “Your uncle was right, but I think he also underestimated you. I can see you possess some wits, so I’ll not mince words.” He crosses his long legs. “I am looking for a wife, and your uncle is looking to expand his landholdings to the south of the county.”

If the man who has sat down across from me was meek, pliable, then perhaps I would have more patience in hearing his suit; I don’t need someone who will get underfoot or try to handle me. Even some doddering old lord who might die quickly and leave me a widow would be acceptable. But Mr. Reeves is irritatingly young and looks to be in good health.

“My uncle was mistaken. I am not in need of a husband.” I offer him a cold smile, my mind already back on my flowers, my fingers itching to hold my pencil. The light has shifted with the gathering clouds, and I will have to rework my shading.

He pours himself a cup of tea. “Come, wouldn’t you like to have a fine house? Be mistress of a whole host of servants? I can see that you enjoy some degree of freedom, and I can give you that. You will have a mare and a generous allowance.”

“I should think it would be terribly lowering to have to lure a wife into one’s home with promises of horses and gowns. Shouldn’t you rather wish her to come of her own volition because she holds you in some esteem?”

“You are naive if you think that marriage is anything other than a business transaction. You are a young woman of beauty and some small means but a drain on your guardian. I am an enterprising man, with successful business dealings and a good bloodline looking for a wife who will elevate his status and ornament his home. I hold a commission in the army and anticipate traveling to the Continent shortly. It is a good deal for you, and you would be hard-pressed to find a better one, especially with your lack of polish and manners.”

“It’s a little late to be going over to the Continent, isn’t it? I believe we quite vanquished Napoleon.”

Irritation animates his dark eyes before he glances away, taking what I suspect is an intentionally long sip of his tea.

I study him over the rim of my cup, imagining the way I would draw the sharp angle of his chin, the aquiline nose, before finally placing where I’ve seen him. “You were married before, were you not?”

There is an almost imperceptible stiffening of his body. “Yes, I make no secret of the fact that I am a widower,” he says shortly.

“And how, exactly, did your first wife die?” The roses in the vase on the table beside me are vibrating, warning me. I pretend not to notice, pretend that I am a normal young woman who does not receive messages from flowers.

His lips thin. “An unfortunate fall.”

“Mm. She did not bear you any children, did she?”

“Barren.” He tugs at his cravat, irritated. “You would do well not to let your ear wander to every housemaid that has a piece of gossip to peddle,” he says coldly.

“In any case, I am not interested.” I move to put my cup down, but a hand closes around my wrist, hard. I look up to find that he has leaned in close, his breath hot on my neck.

“Perhaps you’ve also heard that I have certain…proclivities.”

The roses in the vase strain toward me, singing, setting my teeth on edge. My fingers begin to tremble, but I do not let him see it. “Why would you tell me that?”

“Because I think, dear girl, that you are under the impression that I would use you poorly.” He leans back, but only slightly, the air around him still charged and menacing. “I can be a very hard man when I’m tested, but I can take my pleasures elsewhere, so long as my wife is obedient.”

His gaze is sharp, his grip painful, and I realize that here is a dangerous man, one who is not just a brute but also clever. He cannot be fobbed off with witty barbs or batting eyelashes.

“This conversation bores me,” I tell him, standing. “I will not be your wife. I’m sorry that you wasted your time in coming here.”

But he makes no move to stand, his cool gaze sliding over me in a way that leaves me feeling horribly exposed. “I’ve seen you often, Cornelia. In church, sitting so demurely with your hands folded in your lap. You may think to have everyone else fooled, but I see the spirit in your eyes. A woman like you can never be satisfied with the life of a spinster, put on a shelf here in Sussex. I can offer you fine things, take you to exciting places abroad with me.”

And I’ve seen you, I think. I’ve seen how cruelly you used your first wife, the bruises on her pretty face. The way she faded little by little every week in church, until she was just a ghost in a dress, her final service that of her funeral. That will not be me.

“Surely there are other young ladies that would be flattered by your attentions,” I tell him.

“None so beautiful, none that I would take so much pleasure in breaking. The more you deny me, the more determined I am. Ask your uncle. I am a man who gets what he wants, one way or another.”

All the promise of gold or Continental trips would not be enough to tempt any marriage-minded mama to let her daughter enter into an arrangement with a man like Mr. Reeves. But of course, I have no mama to arrange such matters for me, to keep me safe.

“Then, perhaps it was time you lose for a change. Do you not find it dull to always get what you expect?”

He stands, drawing close and jabbing a finger into my bodice. It takes some great force of will to stand my ground and not let him see my fear. “You may think yourself clever, but this visit was just a courtesy. Your uncle and I have all but drawn up the contract already.”

He storms out, and the room grows quiet in the wake of the front door slamming. Betsy startles from her seat where she had fallen to dozing. I close my eyes, take a breath, wait until my heartbeat grows even again. Then I return to my waiting drawing in the parlor.

If I work quickly, I can still finish it and have it ready for tomorrow’s post. But for now, there is no waiting publisher, no silly French pseudonym; it is just the light and the shadows and me, a silent dance as I commit them to paper. Mr. Reeves and his odious proposal quickly fade away from my mind.

But then a raised voice shatters the silence, breaking my concentration, and there is the thundering velocity of Uncle coming down the hall.

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