Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A No-Nonsense Heroine with a Soft Center

A Kat Holloway Mystery # 2
Jennifer Ashley
Berkley Books
July 3, 2018

Intrepid Victorian cook Kat Holloway is drawn into a second investigation; this time occurring among the aristocracy "above stairs."  The young woman of the house where Kat works, Lady Cynthia, is very concerned about a close friend. Valuable paintings have gone missing in the friend's house, and her husband is blaming her for it. The friend has a gambling problem, and the husband thinks she has sold them to cover the debts. Lady Cynthia wants Kat to help clear her. While visiting the friend's home, Kat discovers that there have been several houses where other objet d'art have been stolen, as well as valuable museum-grade antiquities. It is no surprise that the enigmatic Daniel McAdam is involved in some way in the investigation of the antiquity thefts. In this second full-length novel, a few of the layers of Daniel McAdam are peeled away, and an appealing new character is introduced; Tess, Kat's new assistant in the kitchen. Tess has her secrets, just as Kat and Daniel do, but she has promise, both in the kitchen and out. The investigation proceeds at a somewhat leisurely pace this time with many twists and turns. 

The Kat Holloway Mysteries are well researched and populated with likable characters. Kat has carved out a place for herself in the world despite coming from humble circumstances. She is so accomplished in her career that she is free from the fear of losing her job and is granted much agency by her employers. She knows that she can find another position with no problem. It is fascinating to see just how much work was involved in running a Victorian kitchen and producing the large multi-course meals the aristocracy demanded. Kat is intelligent, no-nonsense, but has a soft center. 

Thanks to FIrst to Read for an advance digital copy of Scandal Above Stairs. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries with a dash of romance.

RATING- 4 Stars

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Beneath the Surface

Catherine Steadman
Ballantine Books
June 5, 2018

Mark and Erin have what appears to be a perfect life; madly in love, together four years and proud owners of a beautiful home. Their upcoming lavish wedding and three-week honeymoon at a five-star resort in Bora Bora will be the icing on the cake, right? Cracks begin to appear when Mark, a previously successful London investment banker loses his job and can't find another. Meanwhile, Erin's career as a documentary film-maker is on the upswing. She has secured funding for a documentary following three prisoners who are due for release. One of the prisoners, Eddie, is an old-style London gangster who is a legend. Erin's interviews with the charming and charismatic Eddie will just about guarantee success for the project. The couple agrees to downscale the wedding and shorten the honeymoon, not without some rancor coming to the surface. The honeymoon is idyllic until they are scuba diving and find "something in the water," something that will lead to a terrible decision, followed by more bad decisions and reckless behavior. Erin, in particular, begins to rely on Eddie, still in prison, for advice and help.

I am not going to say much more about the plot because Something in the Water is so plot-driven. Steadman does not neglect character development in the pursuit of the plot, however. All of the characters, from Mark to Eddie, and the two other prisoners featured in the documentary, to family and friends are well fleshed-out. However, Erin is the first-person narrator, and we get to know her the best. Something in the Water is an extraordinary debut novel with a prologue that grabbed me from the first sentences. There was a loose end or two at the end, but perhaps they could have no answers.

Thanks to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. I look forward to more of Catherine Steadman's work in the future. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Working Woman in WWII

Sarah R. Shaber
Severn House Publishing
January 1, 2011

Louise's War is the first in a six-book series from North Carolina author, Sarah R. Shaber. The "Louise" of the title is Louise Pearlie, a young widow from North Carolina who left home to work as a file clerk at the OSS, precursor of today's CIA in Washington, DC. Louise has been concerned about a college friend, a young Jewish woman living in France. When Louise runs across a document concerning the friend's husband, she becomes determined to get her and her family out. The husband has skills that America can use in the war effort. She enlists the help of a colleague, but he is murdered, and the document goes missing. Louse is determined to uncover the murderer, but more importantly, get her friend out. In doing so, she meets some rough customers and gets into danger herself.

I had a particular interest in this series because my own mother was roughly the same age in North Carolina in 1942. She was not a widow but had a young husband already enlisted in the Marines at the time. The war years always seemed very present to her, even long after. Shaber has done her research on the period and setting, evoking a steamy and muggy summer DC. The attitudes and limitations towards being a working woman at the time are an essential part of the novel. We have come a very long way, but there is still a long way to go! I did find the ending a bit rushed, but perhaps the government moved more quickly in wartime.

I received an audiobook version of Louise's War courtesy of the author. The opinions are my own. 

RATING- 4 Stars

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dark Clouds Gathering in 1920's Europe

Russell and Holmes #15
Laurie R. King
June 12, 2018

It's 1925, and Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are still recovering from the events of The Murder Of Mary Russell and the loss of their longtime friend and housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Her departure forces Russell to undertake domestic duties with frustrating and less than stellar results. One evening Russell receives a call that will upturn their lives and take them into the fledgling fascist state taking shape in Italy. Her friend Ronnie Beaconsfield's aunt Lady Vivian Beaconsfield has disappeared from a family gathering, along with her nurse. Lady Vivian, still young in her early 30's, has been in and out of asylums most of her adult life. Her most recent home is Bethlehem Hospital, the notorious "Bedlam." Bedlam is a far cry from the nightmare it was in previous centuries, and Vivian is now voluntarily committed, having been placed there by a less than sympathetic half-brother. Ronnie is unable to help in the search as she is still a recent widow, in straitened circumstances with a toddler to raise on her own.

As their investigation proceeds, Russell and Holmes discover that there is more than there appears to be to Vivian and her half-brother. Vivian is not mad, and her brother may be more sinister than the average upper-class twit. They are lead to believe that Vivian fled on her own, with the aid of her nurse, and may be hiding among the louche expatriate society which congregates on the Lido in Venice in summer. Sherlock's brother Mycroft importunes him to investigate what is going on in Italy, in the fear that fascist ideology is gaining a foothold in England. Russell and Holmes encounter Black-shirted brutality on their first evening in Venice and learn to steer away from the thugs. Both Elsa Maxwell (who I actually remember from the ancient TV show, Whats My Line?) and famous songwriter, Cole Porter, play a part in the search for Vivian. Both Russell and Holmes are playing roles; Russell as a rich party girl and Holmes as an itinerant violinist

I was not on board with the Russell-Holmes series in the beginning. The idea that Holmes might have an adolescent girl as a partner and later wife seemed absurd. It only took reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice to win me over, however. Ms. King has a beautiful knack for bringing places in particular and history into focus. We have traveled all over the world with Holmes and Russell; Palestine, France, Japan, San Francisco, and more. Each place is so well-described that I felt I had visited there myself. Actual historical figures who appear in the books are always accurately represented, even though they are placed in fictional situations. There is a broad vein of feminism running through all the books and political commentary on the times. Ms. King makes a tongue in cheek disclaimer in her afterword about the book "not being political." It is hard to not draw parallels to our own times, with the rise of right-wing politics, intolerance for homosexuality and attempts to roll back hard-won women's rights. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys the Holmes oeuvre and historical fiction. I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series to get the full enjoyment. Thanks to Bantam Books and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING 4.5 Stars

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Mid-Century Matrimonial Agency in Flaxborough

The Flaxborough Chronicles # 4
Colin Watson
Farrago Books
April 5, 2018

It suddenly occurs to Flaxborough butcher, Arthur Spain, that he hasn't seen his recently widowed sister-in-law, Lillian Bannister, in a while. Upon visiting her residence, he is even more alarmed. Everything seems as usual until he goes around the back and finds ranks of milk bottles that have been delivered, but never retrieved. Inspector Purbright is also alarmed because a spinster of the town, Miss Martha Reckitt, has disappeared under much similar circumstances.

Inspector Purbright and his trusty Sargeant Love spring into action. I say "spring" but really, in Flaxborough, things proceed at a much more leisurely pace. As they search through the backgrounds of the missing ladies, they discover that both had contracted with a matrimonial agency, Handclasp House. Both ladies had also dropped hints of significant changes in their lives. At the same time Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, is en route to Flaxborough. She is a very different lady though, fashionable, sophisticated, and self-possessed. She also registers with the agency, but why?

I have really enjoyed reading The Flaxborough Chronicles, and Lonelyheart 4122  is my favorite so far. Colin Watson had a very witty and somewhat wicked sense of humor that shines in these mysteries set in late 50's, early 60's England. He always stumps me with a word or two, such as "flocculent" to describe the bottles at the back door. There are always plays on words and descriptions that tickle me. Purbright, upon peering into a keyhole and seeing an eye, then gaining admission, describes it, "He looked at their owner's face and saw his old friend the eye, now revealed to have an associate." Social commentary is an essential component in these highly readable shortish novels.

Thanks to Farrago and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING-4 Stars

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Captivating Magical Mystery Tour

Jess Kidd
Atria Books
May 1, 2018

Cathal Flood lives alone in a mansion filled to the rafters with the detritus of a long lifetime; many lifetimes, in fact. Irascible, cadaverous, and perhaps even dangerous, he had threatened his most recent visiting caregiver. The house is packed with grotesque curiosities, cats, garbage, and even a semi-tame fox. His son Gabriel has given him an ultimatum: get the place cleaned out or be put in a care home, forcibly if need be. Enter Maud Drennan, a psychic young woman with a stubborn streak a mile wide and a nose for mystery. Maud also has a group of patron saints who follow her around and a family mystery of her own. Her sidekick in the investigation is her agoraphobic transgender landlady, Renata. Of course, Renata can only join in from a distance. Mr. Flood's life has been tragic; the accidental death of his wife, the loss of a child, a missing girl, and a seemingly unaccountable animosity for his son. Maud doesn't like Gabriel much either. Maud's sister disappeared years before, and Maud's memories of the events surrounding the disappearance also play a part.

Mr. Flood's Last Resort is impossible to categorize, part mystery, traditional gothic, ghost story, and family history. Reading the novel is much like stepping into a brilliant kaleidoscope, continually shifting and changing. The writing and characterization are top notch. Maud's colorful landlady is particularly well-drawn and affecting. Mr. Floodl is funny, heartbreaking, and horrifying by turns. I haven't read a novel in a long time that captivated me to such a degree. Kidd's first novel, Himself, was a critical success. As I haven't read it yet, I can't make comparisons, a situation that I plan to remedy.

Many thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 5 Stars

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Adventure and Murder in St.Giles

Captain Lacey Mysteries # 13
Ashley Gardner
JA/AG Publishing
April 10, 2018

Over the course of this now thirteen book series set in Regency England, the Captain Lacy mysteries have become a personal favorite. When we first met Gabriel Lacey, he is a half-pay officer living in reduced circumstances in a dodgy London neighborhood. Gravely wounded in the Peninsular Wars, he suffers both physically and mentally. Since then he has reconnected with his daughter who was taken from him by his then-wife, who ran away with a French officer, acquired some significant friends, both in Society and in the criminal underworld. He has also married a titled widow with bottomless pockets. The marriage is a love match and he and Donata, Lady Breckenridge, have a daughter of their own.

Gabriel returns home one evening to a household in an uproar. Donata's relatives from her earlier marriage have come and want to take her 7-year old son, Peter. Donata is very well aware that their real interests lie in Peter's future fortune and title. In the midst of this confrontation, Brewster, Gabriel's "bodyguard" supplied by the enigmatic underworld figure, Mr. Denis, arrives needing Gabriel's help. A murder has taken place in the dangerous slum of St. Giles. Brewster's wife fears that Brewster will be blamed. Gabriel is torn, but since he literally owes his life to Brewster, he leaves Donata to deal with the grasping relatives. Luckily, Donata is more than capable of doing so, one way or another.

The investigation takes Gabriel and Brewster into the darkest corners of St. Giles and even to the infamous "hulks" on the Thames, where prisoners are kept before being transported. The usual characters make an appearance: Grenville, Marianne, the Bow Street Runners, and Magistrates. Of course, Mr. Denis, who actually seems to be thawing a bit, has a part to play in the adventure. I always appreciate the research that goes into this portrayal of this most exciting part of British history.

I highly recommend The Captain Lacy Mysteries. It occurs to me that the series would make a perfect beach/binge read for the summer.

RATING-4.5 Stars