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A Painter in Penang by Clare Flynn #Review

A Painter in Penang Clare FlynnI have read another couple of books by Clare Flynn and always enjoyed them so I looked forward to the chance to read and review this new release. Sixteen year old Jasmine is unhappy with her adopted parents in Kenya, and longs to return to her childhood home of Penang. By coincidence her old teacher needs help with her new baby, so Jasmine returns to Penang, unaware of all the changes that have happened whilst she was away. Jasmine is soon out of her depth, with confusing love interests, a country that has underlying tensions she doesn’t understand, and her own insecurities about her family.

The novel is framed as a romance, with a couple of love interests along the way – handsome Howard Baxter, an ex-pat employee in the rubber plantations, and Bintang, an enigmatic Malayan who has suffered atrocities at the hands of the Japanese and is deeply suspicious of the Brits and their motives for ‘helping’ Malaya.

The novel is more than just a romance though, with attention paid to the historical background and the unfolding difficulties of a colonising force attempting to solve another country’s problems, along with all the uncertainties and dilemmas that brings. Penang at this time is home to a seething melting pot of conflicting interests, including the British who want their rubber and natural resources, and the Chinese, including the Triads, who want to wrestle away that control. All this is well-detailed by Clare Flynn, who does a great job of giving us all the background without overwhelming the reader.

The book starts slowly but builds into a gripping climax once the fuse of rebellion is lit and the Chinese shoot the ‘tuans’ or masters of the plantations in a co-ordinated attack. This novel has a bit of everything – a coming-of-age romance, adventure, immersion in another culture, and you don’t need to have read the other books in the series to enjoy it. If you like well-researched historical sagas with depth, you will enjoy this.

Heartily recommended.

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ABOUT CLARE FLYNN

Clare Flynn is the author of twelve historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer.

Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveller, her books are often set in exotic locations.

Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, Novelists Inc (NINC), ALLi, the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association, where she serves on the committee as the Member Services Officer. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano. She continues to travel as widely and as far as possible all over the world.

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The Bridled Tongue by Catherine Meyrick – Review

The Bridled Tongue Elizabethan Historical Fiction

Set in Elizabethan England in 1536 this is a well-written and absorbing romantic novel. Alyce Bradley, returning home after being a lady’s maid in a grand house (which turns out to have been not so grand) comes into conflict with her father over her future. His father’s journeyman has ambitions to marry her but Alyce cannot bear him. (And neither can the reader!) Instead she opts for a more dangerous choice, Thomas Granville. Thomas is an older more worldly man, and has a reputation of a man with an eye for the ladies, and as a privateer. At first wary, the pair start to develop a relationship of mutual respect, against the jealous ill–will of Alyce’s sister Isabel, who wants to keep Alyce at her beck and call during her pregnancy.

Alyce’s grandmother was accused of witchcraft, and when Thomas has to go away, these accusations come flooding back. Alyce has always been outspoken, and though this makes us warm to her as a reader, it gets her into a lot of trouble.

I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say there is a wealth of historical background here, of Spain’s Armada, and of the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Conditions for women at the time are faithfully rendered, and there are historical notes at the back of the book to add to your enjoyment. If you like to read about the lives of ordinary women in the Elizabethan period, you will find this novel gives you plenty of evocative detail wrapped up in a page-turning plot.

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You might also like:

Low-life of Elizabethan London

Fortune’s Hand – a novel of Walter Ralegh

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Death in Delft by Graham Brack – a #17thCentury murder mystery

This is the first Master Mercurius novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Set in the immaculately detailed setting of 17th Century Delft, Master Mercurius is a character it is easy to warm to.  An undercover priest as well as a protestant cleric, he is keen to do the right thing in the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and has a dry sense of humour that is a good foil for the beastly business of solving murders.

In this case we have a dead girl and some other missing girls we fear for, and it’s a race against time for Mercurius to discover and flush out the kidnapper, before the dastardly murderer kills another.

One of the joys of this book is all the supporting characters we meet along the way. We get an intimate view of Vermeer described as having: an intensity of gaze I found unsettling, as if he really saw all there was to see, open or concealed.

We also get a view of scientists of the time such as the ‘polite’ Van Leeuwenhoek who is just experimenting with lenses to view what lives in our saliva – to Mercurius’s amazement. Of course there are plenty of clues for him to follow and a satisfactory wrap-up to the plot.

A well-researched, tightly-plotted treat. I highly recommend, and will be reading another soon.

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Fortune’s Hand – a novel of Walter Ralegh

 

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 Sir John Everett Millais

I knew nothing about Walter Ralegh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I. Was this legend true? Read more here on History Extra to find out.

In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R N Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Ralegh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. We are shown a thief having his hand cut off, and later we witness a massacre in Ireland, and wince at the way a horse might pick its way across a corpse-strewn field. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. What impresses is that Raleigh experiences these things as part and parcel of his life – to him they are every day occurrences. We are really treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man.

Ralegh is of course obsessed with gold, and we see his ambition and his turbulent relationship with the Queen. Yet his literary ambitions are also on show – the novel includes a whole scene after a tennis match written in blank verse, where the dialogue zips back and forth like a tennis ball as if we are in a Shakespeare play. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.

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Two books with #WW2 connections

Of Darkness and Light is an engaging mystery of art and artists set in WW2 Norway. Heidi Eljarbo has certainly given herself a challenge – to write two historical periods in one novel which flow seamlessly from one to another, but the narrative works well and the two timelines inform each other beautifully. We begin the story in WW2 Norway where Soli works in an art shop. We see the shock of the invasion of Norway by the German army and what that means for Soli’s close family and friends.

As the book progresses, the art shop where Soli works is frequented by Nazi collectors of fine art, although the owner does his best to hide the most precious works from these men. When a murder happens right outside the shop, Soli finds herself irresistibly drawn into the mystery of who killed her colleague and why, and the puzzle deepens when Soli discovers that the victim, who she thought she knew well, is also known by another name.

At the same time a painting is missing from auction and Soli must uncover what has happened to it before the Nazis do. I can’t reveal too much of the plot without revealing all the twists and turns, but suffice it to say, Soli and her Art Club are drawn into the Resistance in their bid to save the art world’s cultural heritage from being stolen by the Nazis. Soli is an engaging protagonist, with the skill to tell a real painting from a fake, and the author makes the most of Soli’s ‘eye’ in giving us detailed descriptions of people and places. The reveal of what is inside the walnut and gilded frame is a highlight for me in descriptive writing.

As well as finely drawn detail within WW2 Norway, We are taken back to 17th Century Valetta, Malta, to the studio of Michelangelo known as Caravaggio, and his model Fabiola, again all described in sumptuous detail. If you love the art world and a good mystery, you will really enjoy this well-written book which has plenty of excitement and intrigue to keep you turning the pages.

Find out more about Heidi and her other books.

Endless Skies by Jane Cable is a contemporary romantic novel that harks back to memories of WW2. Archaeologist Rachel Ward’s relationships with men have always been a disaster.  Short-lived, and lacking in commitment. This novel begins to unlock why by gradually letting us into her past. Brought up by her grandmother, Rachel has a natural empathy with Esther, an elderly woman in a care home near where she is working. I really enjoyed the character of Esther, and thought she was drawn well without too much sentimentality.

The men in Rachel’s life are the dreadful, manipulative Ben, one of her students, and Jonathan, who is a property developer. An affair with Ben was always going to be a bad idea, but it also causes Rachel to look back at why she always makes such bad choices. Jonathan asks Rachel to do some work surveying what used to be a local airbase. This links up to Esther’s story, but I won’t give too much away.

One of the delights of the book is the atmospheric setting of the flat Lincolnshire countryside, and the deserted airfield which contributes to the idea that the ghosts of the past still have a bearing on what happens in the present. A thoroughly enjoyable read with multiple interesting strands.

Read more from Jane about the book.

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Recent Recommended Reads Private Lives by JG Harlond and Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

cover193221-mediumWith lockdown in progress, and my new book just finished, I’ve made time for plenty of reading this month. Here are the first two reviews and I’ll be posting the rest of the reviews shortly.

Private Lives by J G Harlond

I read the first of these Bob Robbins mysteries set in WW2 and loved it, so couldn’t wait for more. This is the ultimate cosy read, full of humour, but also hiding some dark and dangerous depths. I think of it as Agatha Christie meets Dad’s Army, but the characters have plenty of depth. The mystery starts from the off, with Bob Robbins witnessing (from afar) what he thinks might be a shotgun murder. But when he searches the spot there is no body to be found, and the person he saw has simply disappeared. Bob is supposed to be on holiday, but of course he can’t help being curious, and is soon sucked into the investigation, forfeiting his longed-for summer break.

A body does eventually appear, but not the man they are looking for, adding to the mystery.

Bob Robbins  is aided in his investigations by raw recruit Laurie Oliver, who has a love of the ladies and of English Literature, and always has an apt quotation to hand. Fun is added by the setting which includes a chintzy seaside boarding house with a group of thespians preparing to entertain the holidaymakers. Nearly all of them have something to hide, and give Bob a run for his money. The vivacious  actress Jessamyn Flowers (who incidentally has several other names) who runs the lodging house is especially enjoyable. Anyone who does ‘Am Dram’ will recognise this world, and appreciate it. The background of wartime England is accurately and evocatively drawn, with preparations for ‘D Day’ going on all the time. Settle down with your cocoa for this ideal slice of entertaining escapism.

 

Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

71wUcBYYImLI love to read anything set in India and was really impressed by the sense of place in this book. Right from the beginning, McGivering shows us the heat and colour of India then contrasts it with the chilly Yorkshire Dales, where Isabel must spend the holidays at boarding school and then away from her family and her beloved India. These early parts, seen through childhood eyes, add to the feeling of India as a place of golden memory. Later we are treated to the smells and sounds of Delhi, and then the Andaman Islands – a place I had never even heard of, in the Bay of Bengal. I feel now I have a picture of these places in my imagination.

The two main protagonists, Isabel, born into Colonial luxury of the British Raj, but always feeling an outsider, and Asha, a hindu, are both courageous women. From the cover, I thought this might be a light romantic read, but it is a hard-hitting exploration of attitudes during the final days of the Raj, when India looks for self-rule and the Raj looks to maintain control. The politics are well-researched and sensitively handled, the male characters real people not just ciphers. The book deftly explores the difference between what some call murderers and some call freedom fighters. If you want a book that will take you to a different time and place, that will surprise you, shock you and move you, then this is very highly recommended.

 

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Recommended Historical Reads for wet Tuesdays #TuesdayBookBlog

The Silken Rose Final VisualThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath
Married at only thirteen years old to a King she has never met, Ailenor of Provence has to learn quickly what it is to be a Queen, and how to manage her relationship with her husband Henry III during the turbulent world of the thirteenth century – a world of rival barons and religious Crusades. Carol McGrath’s new novel explores how a woman might cope in this situation – how she manages to gain her husband’s respect despite her very different upbringing, and how motherhood is balanced with the needs of public life.
McGrath takes Ailenor’s courtly pursuits, such as embroidery and literature, and contrasts that with the world of the political machinations of the Barons who are vying for power. In this book there are in fact three women with contrasting personalities – Ailenor the strong-minded she-wolf, Nell her sister-in-law who has taken a vow of chastity, and Rosalind the embroiderer to whom Ailenor gives patronage. When Henry and Ailenor become embroiled in an unpopular war to protect Gascony, it brings them into conflict with  Simon de Montfort, who is both the King’s steward, and the love interest of Nell.
Between the three women there is plenty going on in the plot, and we get a well-rounded look at women in this society. The novel is a feast for the senses, with the intricate domestic details of life at court particularly well evoked, and sumptuous descriptions of embroidery and textiles. If you know nothing about this period, this is a great place to start, and this novel will immerse you in the medieval court and keep you enthralled. Highly Recommended.
Du LacThe Du Lac Chronicles  by Mary Anne Yarde
I have a bit of a thing for the Arthurian Legends, so this series has been on my list for a long time. Set in the Dark Ages of 5th century Britain, The Du Lac Chronicles, the first of a long series, centres on the sons of Lancelot and in particular, Alden du Lac. When the novel opens, Alden is tied to a stake and has been brutally whipped. His unlikely rescuer is Annis, the daughter of Cerdic of Wessex, who has taken Alden’s kingdom of Cerniw (Cornwall). We find out more about the couple as the story progresses, and how they met at a wedding. Annis is a strong active protagonist from the start, who drives the narrative forward in the sort of rescue scenario usually reserved for men.
The romance between Annis and Alden, on opposing sides of a power struggle,  is interesting from the outset, and I was keen to follow them as they flee the court.  Naturally, Alden is determined to regain his land, and seeks the help of his estranged brother Budic, now the King of Brittany. But Budic is a nasty piece of work, and… well, I won’t spoil it! When Annis and Alden get to France, one of the most endearing characters for me was Merton, Alden’s younger brother, and I loved his contribution to the humour of the book. This is a very well-researched novel with a wealth of detail that never overwhelms the pace of the action. It has won a number of awards, and deservedly so. It would be equally suitable for adults or young adults, and keep you turning the pages to find out what will happen.
Both these books will take you to another time and place. Happy reading!
My latest release Entertaining Mr Pepys
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A Place in the World by Amy Maroney – review

Amy dfw-am-tgfo-cover-large-e1518548826385 Amy dfw-am-mw-cover-large-e1518565812648This is the last in the series and I’m sad to see it end. I thoroughly enjoyed this dual time-line narrative that takes us back to the sixteenth century, and Mira, a female artist trying to find her place in the world. On the trail of this artist is Zari, an art historian who is confounded at every turn by other less well-informed (and male) historians of the establishment. Dottie Butterfield-Swinton was a partucularly cringe-making character!

Both women are looking to make their mark, and both have long journeys to find their niche. For Zari it is a fight to prove that Mira’s paintings were not painted by a better known male artist. For Mira there is a more life-threatening adventure as one of her old enemies seeks to wreak revenge. The plot of both time-lines keeps the reader turning the pages anxious to find out what will happen next. We find out in this story that Mira is pregnant, but having lost one adopted child, she is understandably protective when the new baby comes, and the fact she must protect this vulnerable child adds to her difficulties. I enjoyed the different characters – the kind and practical Nekane, and the manipulative Amadina who was intent on destroying the lives of Mira and her husband Arnaud.

Amy GUEST_5a901e23-39c0-4de1-9d59-f91e827d1618The settings in this book are beautifully drawn, the convents, the rich merchants’ houses, and the landscape around Bayonne. I also enjoyed reading about Zari’s journey to Basque country, and her encounter with her distant relatives in her search for her own identity.

There is much more in these books than a brief review will allow. If you haven’t read the others, do start from the beginning. All three are excellent reads and I highly recommend all three for art and history lovers and anyone who wants a well-written, thoughtfully crafted book.

You can BUY THE BOOK here UK or here US

Discover the series on Amy’s Website and get a free book!

 

 

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July’s Recommended Historical Fiction

Now my next two novels are with their publishers I’ve had more time for reading, and so here are two books that are well-worth your time and money.

Tower 36337228._SY475_The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth StJohn

I’ve a massive interest in the seventeenth century and have written nine books set in that period, so this was always going to be on my list. The novel is based on documents and diaries from Elizabeth StJohn’s family. As such, it could have been another dry memoir or lacking in drive and drama. But this is a well-structured book full of detail and interest. Each chapter begins with extracts from herbal recipes; recipes which relate to the events to follow, and set the atmosphere of the period well. Lucy Apsley was apparently a skilled herbalist who used her knowledge to treat those incarcerated in the Tower of London. Lucy is fortunate in that she moves in court circles and so those she encounters in her life inhabit the larger stage of the court. Here we see the influence of Buckingham on the King, the burgeoning unrest in Parliament, and the young men at court who see breaking hearts as a right and as a game. When Lucy’s own heart is broken, we see her as a woman who doesn’t buckle to fortune but has a certain degree of pragmatism, so that the difficulties that surround her never quite manage to sink her spirit.

My favourite parts of the book are the descriptions of life in the Tower of London. Elizabeth StJohn describes it in such vivid detail; the fact that although it is a prison, those of the upper classes still entertain in lavish style. Those living in the tower must witness the last days of those who are to be executed, and this is well-used in the novel with Walter Raleigh’s fate. All in all, this is a fabulous book, and essential for anyone interested in the Stuart period. The novel is beautifully written and produced, and those who meet Lucy will certainly want to follow her through the next tumultuous years of the Civil War.

Greenest 40331955._SY475_The Greenest Branch by P K Adams

Hildegard von Bingen was a remarkable woman for her time, and although we know she was put into a convent at an early age, gifted by her parents to the Church as many daughters were, we know very little of these early years. P K Adams has brought this medieval period to vibrant life, and made a convincing case for a plausible history of Hildegard’s early years – one which explains her love of music and the fact that she became so well-known as a physician. The ascetic tradition of St Jutta, which involves severe penances such as mortification of the flesh, is what was expected of new converts to the monastery of St Disibod. Hildegard escapes this stultifying atmosphere by finding a way out into the forest. There she reconnects with nature, and meets Volmar, a young man who will become increasingly important in her life, but also provide the greatest challenge to her vows.

Hildegard is thirsty for knowledge and becomes apprenticed to Brother Wigbert in the monks’ infirmary, using herbs gathered from the forest and garden rather than the traditional invasive treatments of bloodletting and surgery. Early success with her methods leads her to gaining more responsibility, especially as her mentor ages and becomes unwell. Hildegard has both friends and enemies within the convent – Prior Helenger does not want the fame of the women’s convent to overshadow that of the men. After Jutta’s death, when Hildegard is the natural choice to lead the nuns, Helenger is determined to stop her.

You may think that life in a convent would be dull, but PK Adams reminds us that monasteries were often targets for thieves who wished to take the treasures from the churches, and that bad relationships often fester within such a small community – leading to violent antagonisms.

In the 12th Century, where a woman who wished to become educated had few options, the contradictions of monastic life were many, and these were quietly explored in this thoughtful and well-written novel. This is a lyrically-written journey into a hidden world, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Severed Knot : Ingenio – Sugar in 17th Century Barbados

Cryssa fullsizeoutput_5c0

Congratulations to Cryssa Bazos on the release of her romantic thriller, Severed Knot.

The novel is set mostly on a 17th Century sugar plantation in Barbados. Here’s Cryssa to tell us more about what the manufacture of sugar involved.

Ingenio

We have a complicated history with sugar. For some it’s an indulgent weakness while others ruthlessly purge it from their diets. Since the seventeenth century, the demand for sugar has been responsible for expansion and colonization of the West Indies. But where does it come from and how is it produced? There is a science to convert liquid cane juice into sugar. In the seventeenth-century, all the equipment used for sugar production was referred to as the ingenio, which included the crushers and coppers, as well as the buildings where the sugar was processed.

Cutting and Crushing

Through experimentation, seventeenth-century planters found the best yields were achieved by harvesting cane between twelve to fifteen months. Field workers would cut the sugarcane by hand and pile the stalks vertically into ox-drawn carts. Once the wagon arrived at the crushing mill, they tipped back the cart to offload the stalks neatly where they could be quickly gathered and taken to the mill. It was important for the sugarcane to be crushed within hours of being cut in order to maximize the yields. The cane passed through the rollers in the crushing mill and the sap was separated and collected into a series of pipes that ran downward from the crushing house to the boiling house.

cryssa fullsizeoutput_f71Processing

In the boiling house, the juice passed through a series of seven large coppers. As the juice went through a first boiling, it would then pass to a second copper and from there to a third, fourth and fifth. Through each pass, the impurities would be removed and the sap would grow more concentrated. The skimmings from the last three boiling coppers would be diverted to the still house and used to make rum. The last two coppers were used to cool the syrup. The entire process would take about six days, and the furnaces in the boiling house would be working non-stop, day and night.

After the thickened syrup was sufficiently cooled, the mixture would be transferred to clay containers that were stored in the curing house. A large plantation with a couple of hundred acres devoted to sugarcane would need a large enough curing house. Such a structure was designed to hold  approximately eighteen-hundred tapered pots. The shape of the pots allowed the molasses to collect at the bottom of the vessel, making it easy to siphon off.

Curing

Brown muscovado sugar took approximately a month to fully cure, whereas refined white sugar needed four months and additional processing to draw out all the molasses. In order to draw out most of the molasses, a plaster of clay and water would be mixed and poured over the tops of the pots and left to harden. After the four-month curing period, the clay containers would be broken open revealing a sandwich of sugars: top and bottom were muscovado sugar while the middle would be white sugar.

Sugar was an extremely valuable commodity and the refined white sugar even more so. Around mid-seventeenth century, white sugar could fetch about 20 pence per pound in London. To put this in perspective, a labourer’s wages during the Stuart Age this time was approximately 12 pence. A labourer would have had to work a little more than a day and a half to afford one pound of sugar.

Sugar was truly a luxury item.
REVIEW OF SEVERED KNOT

I really enjoyCryssa Severed Knot eBook Cover Largeed this tense and romantic thriller and highly recommend it if you want a page-turning read that will leave you enthralled and breathless. Set in the 17th Century after the King has been exiled, it tells the story of Iain and Mairead, one Scottish, the other Irish, when they are captured, shipped to Barbados, and taken into forced servitude. A bleak and brutal life awaits them on a sugar plantation, where people are expendable and treated as beasts of burden. The plot moves swiftly from one set piece to the next, as the newly-arrived exiles try to find their feet in a horrific new world of slavery and repression. Iain’s clan of supporters are all individuals, and Cryssa Bazos’s gritty dialogue adds to the building tension in this powder-keg of servants versus masters.

However, although the central lynchpin of the plot is the unfolding relationship between Mairead and Iain, this is not just a romance, the history is extremely well-researched, and the author gives us authentic detail about sugar manufacture, the war with the Dutch, the plight of the Irish under the Commonwealth, and much more besides. The writing is smooth, with plenty of historical references to keep the reader anchored in the past, and there are enough battles to make this a story to be savoured by those who like plenty of action. Mairead is a character  you’ll love to root for – determined and stubborn, she never gives up on her quest for freedom and the man she loves.

A brilliant book, well worth your time and money.

More about Cryssa Bazos:

Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and 17th-century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, was the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award (historical fiction), a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards (historical romance) and the RNA Joan Hessayon Award. Her second novel, Severed Knot, was longlisted for the Historical Novel Society 2018 New Novel Award.

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Buy The Books : Traitor’s Knot  Severed Knot 

About Severed Knot

Barbados 1652. In the aftermath of the English Civil War, the vanquished are uprooted and scattered to the ends of the earth.

When marauding English soldiers descend on Mairead O’Coneill’s family farm, she is sold into slavery. After surviving a harrowing voyage, the young Irish woman is auctioned off to a Barbados sugar plantation where she is thrust into a hostile world of depravation and heartbreak. Though stripped of her freedom, Mairead refuses to surrender her dignity.

Scottish prisoner of war Iain Johnstone has descended into hell. Under a blazing sun thousands of miles from home, he endures forced indentured labour in the unforgiving cane fields. As Iain plots his escape to save his men, his loyalties are tested by his yearning for Mairead and his desire to protect her.

With their future stolen, Mairead and Iain discover passion and freedom in each other’s arms.  Until one fateful night, a dramatic chain of events turns them into fugitives.

Together they fight to survive; together they are determined to escape.