Friday, February 9, 2018

Charles Lenox as a Fledgling Detective

Charles Lenox Series #11
Charles Finch
St. Martin's Minotaur
February 20, 2018

In the most recent Charles Lenox series entry, author Charles Finch has provided a prequel set in 1850 detailing Lenox's first important case. Lenox, second son of a baronet, is newly "down" from Oxford and establishing a household of his own for the first time. His ambitions, either to open a detective agency or to travel, have met with a decidedly lukewarm reception from his father and derision from the society he moves in. He and his former scout at Oxford, Graham, spend their mornings combing through the broadsheets for crime news. When he discovers a letter in one of the papers boasting of a "perfect murder" he thinks he has found a connection to the case of an unknown woman found inside a trunk, floating in the Thames. He presents his theory to Scotland Yard, where it is met with some grudging support and more resistance. When a second woman is found on the bank of the river, the Yard and Lenox embark on a chase for the madman responsible. Charles is also dealing with the reality of his father's impending death, predicted to be within six months, and a case of unrequited love.

I have always admired the Charles Lenox series for the quality of Finch's writing, the settings, and the many interesting facts about the period that Finch drops effortlessly into the narrative. My favorite this time is the origin of the name of Great Scotland Street. I can't say that I ever connected with Lenox on an emotional level, or understood why he wanted to be a detective. The Woman in the Water changes that by introducing the 23-year-old Lenox with all his fears and insecurities. His interactions with his dying father, his mother, his brother are very revealing and emotional, without tipping into maudlin. We also get glimpses of long-time series characters; McConnell, a four-year-old John Dallington, and of course, the estimable Graham, and Lady Jane. Lenox makes several rookie mistakes in the investigation which might threaten his nearest and dearest. But even Scotland Yard reluctantly recognizes that he is more than a dilettante. Even his unwanted and disapproving housekeeper, Mrs. Huggins comes to a detente with Charles, providing some comic relief.

I highly recommend The Woman in the Water to both old and new readers of the series. Thanks to NetGalley and Minotaur for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Persuasion in Academia

Julia Sonneborn
Gallery Books
February 6, 2018

Anne Corey is a 30ish professor at a small liberal arts college in California. She has little to no time for a personal life, teaching a full schedule and trying to get tenure with the publication of an academic work on 19th-century women writers. Without a book contract, Anne is out of a job. If not for her friend, Larry, a colleague and best friend, she would have no life at all. It's the beginning of the year when she discovers that the new president of the college is Adam Martinez, a former classmate at Princeton and ex-fiance. The two dated throughout their university years and only broke up the day before graduation. Anne was feeling pressure from her judgemental father who wants her to be a lawyer, harpy of a sister, and college mentor to skip marriage in favor of a career. The argument was a silly one, but Anne used it to break up with Adam, and he, out of pride, let her do so. She is conflicted, having never really gotten over Adam. Adam is cooly friendly, but the two have little to say to each other. The writer-in-residence at the college for the year is a multi-award winning journalist and novelist who shows an interest in Anne. The two plunge into an affair quickly, but thoughts of Adam are never far from the surface.

By the Book is a thoroughly enjoyable read that gave me lots of laughs and even a few tears. The process of being published is represented by a series of rejection letters that range from hilarious to brutal. My favorite was one stating that her manuscript about 19th-century women writers would be significantly improved by the inclusion guessed Based on Jane Austen's Persuasion, By the Book is a delightful updating of that classic. Anne's sister, Lauren, turns out to be not such a harpy, as the two sisters bond in shared grief. Larry, Anne's gay colleague, and friend is exceptionally supportive and often hilarious. Anne discovers that "all that glitters is not gold" but will she and Adam have their "happy ever after.?" 

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

RATING- 4 Stars

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Yukon Wilderness Guessing Game

Rockton Novel #3
Kelley Armstrong
Minotaur Books
February 6, 2018

The third novel in Kelley Armstrong's Rockton series, after City of the Lost and A Darkness Absolute, begins with an unexpected arrival on the landing strip that services an isolated settlement. Rockton, in the Canadian Yukon, is inhabited by people who are running away from their pasts. There is no internet, no electricity, no cell phones, no mail, and no way of getting out. Rockton is surrounded by wilderness, and the only people living outside the town are even further off the grid. The mysterious town council, who operates outside the settlement itself, makes all decisions regarding who is admitted. This time, the council has dropped a significant problem for Town Sheriff Eric Dalton and Detective Casey Duncan. The new arrival is Oliver Brady, and they are told he is a serial killer. The town is supposed to keep him secure for several months, after which his wealthy stepfather will make other arrangements. That's a tall order for Eric and Casey, with a one cell jail, one other deputy, and townsfolk who are supposed to be kept in the dark about their prisoner. News travels, though. Very quickly, factions form; those who believe Brady should be disposed of and those who think he is being deprived of his fundamental civil rights. When he escapes, with what could only be assistance from the inside, and people start dying, Eric and Casey must find him. The fact that the council stands to be paid a considerable sum for a successful resolution (whatever that might be) is not the primary consideration, but the safety of Rockton.

I am a fan of all of Kelley Armstrong's series, from Otherworld, Nadia Stafford, and Cainsville to Rockton. She writes characters that stick with me and has a gift for original settings and stories. I liked This Fallen Prey, but not as much as the first two. The action was well-written but Eric and Casey seem to bounce from one crisis to the next. The question of Brady's innocence or guilt was ongoing and kept me guessing. This Fallen Prey is a transitional book, setting up for new developments and ending with a bit of a cliff-hanger.

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

RATING- 3 Stars

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Flavia is Back in England and Brilliant as Ever

Flavia de Luce # 9
Alan Bradley
Bantam Books
February 6, 2018

Flavia is home in 1952 England after her time in Canada in school. The unexpected death of her father has everyone plunged into grief, and the strife between Flavia and her older sisters Ophelia and Daphne (Feely and Daffy) has only escalated. To make things worse, her father's sister, Aunt Felicity, is down from London and making decrees about the future of the girls. Among the decrees is that the beloved family home, Buckshaw, must be sold. Never mind that Flavia is now the sole owner of Buckshaw, thanks to her mother's will. Flavia is "only" twelve, so possibly she will have little input. Flavia de Luce is a twelve-year-old like no other, however. In an attempt to "smooth the waters" long time servant, Dogger, suggests a trip down the river; days of paddling followed by nights at country inns. Upon approaching St. Mildred's-in-the-Marsh the trip takes an unexpected turn. Flavia is trailing her hand through the water and snags a corpse floating just under the surface. St.Mildred's is notorious because it's vicar, Canon Whitbred, was hanged for the poisoning of three parish women, at the Communion rail. The body in the river turns out to be the son of the "Poisoning Parson." What is an intrepid adolescent chemist/ sleuth to do but ferret out the solution to this mystery?

Describing the plot of a Flavia de Luce novel is always tricky, because of their sheer inventiveness and one might even say unbelievability. How does a twelve-year-old get involved in all these odd situations? The answer is that Flavia has one of the most original voices in fiction; brilliant, funny, and ultimately, touching. I sometimes forget between books how much I enjoy her until I am in the midst of the story again. Flavia's "cases" are often ghoulish but always offset the ghoulishness with humor. The loyal Dogger takes center stage along with Flavia in The Grave's a Fine and Private Place. Dogger is still suffering from the effects of his captivity in a WWII POW camp in Burma. Flavia's father and Dogger were captives together and formed an unbreakable bond. That bond is now transferred to Flavia and her sisters. Dogger shows signs of coming to terms with his hideous memories and the two make a formidable team. Flavia is growing up and the relationships among the sisters settling down at least somewhat. A slightly rushed ending is my only caveat but it didn't detract from my enjoyment.

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

RATING-5 Stars

The West End Comes to West London

A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery # 3
Vicki Delany
Crooked Lane Books
February 13, 2018

It's summer on Cape Cod, and everyone in West London is excited about the opening production of The West London Theater Festival. The play will be The Hound of the Baskervilles and a famous star, Sir Nigel Bellingham, has been hired to play the lead. Gemma Doyle, the proprietor of The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop, is looking forward to all the new business that will be brought into the shop. Gemma's business partner, Jayne Wilson, is excited by the chance to cater the tea given for the stars, volunteers, and ticket-buying public. Jayne's mother, Leslie, was a minor actress on Broadway in her youth, so she is a volunteer for the event. Sir Nigel, however, turns out to be over the hill as far as acting is concerned. Not only that, he is a nasty, abusive drunk, who goes out of his way to offend everyone. When Gemma discovers Sir Nigel's body after the tea, and a clue which might implicate Leslie, she once again starts to investigate on her own. Detective Ryan Ashburton, a former flame of Gemma's, and his partner, Louise Estrada warn her off. Gemma, of course, pays no attention. There are plenty of suspects;  the ambitious understudy, a fading actress, and Bellingham's downtrodden personal assistant. But the police are homing in on Jayne's mom.

The Cat of the Baskervilles is another enjoyable installment in prolific Vicki Delaney's series. Gemma is a likable character, despite her bluntness and stubborn determination to go her own way no matter what. The mystery is well-crafted and kept me guessing with plot twists.
The Cape Cod setting in summer, the characters, and the romance between Ryan and Gemma, which seems to be heating up again, make for an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 3.5 Stars rounded up to 4

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Cursed Expedition, a Missing Diadem and Mayhem

Veronica Speedwell # 3
Deanna Raybourn
Berkeley Books
January 16, 1918

It's 1888 London, and Veronica Speedwell and her piratical-looking colleague, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker) are still working on cataloging the vast collection of Lord Rosemorran. All London is talking about the upcoming exhibition of Lord Tiverton's latest Egyptological dig. After years of fruitless expeditions, Lord Tiverton has finally struck gold with the discovery of the tomb of an obscure Princess. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a diadem of precious metals. However, the dig's photographer, John de Morgan, and the diadem have gone missing under strange circumstances. De Morgan's wife is prostrate and in seclusion. Veronica and Stoker become involved because the photographer was the "friend" who left Stoker for dead in the Brazilian jungle, and his wife, Stoker's ex-wife. The ex-wife who returned to England and destroyed Stoker's reputation with lurid tales of his cruelty to get a divorce. Stoker will be the logical suspect if John de Morgan is not just missing but dead. After years of rebuilding his reputation, Stoker and Veronica are not about to let that happen.

I have been a fan of Deanna Raybourn's work since the first lines of her first novel, Silent in the Grave:" To say that I first met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." Now, that is an attention-grabbing beginning. When the adventures of Lady Julia Gray came to an end, I was eager to see what would happen next. She has followed it up with the adventurous, unconventional, intrepid lady lepidopterist, Veronica Speedwell, who also has a fascinating family history; and the irascible, mysterious natural scientist, Stoker. Their two previous adventures, A Curious Beginning, and A Perilous Undertaking introduced two even more fabulous characters. A Treacherous Curse is a delight from beginning to end and moves the somewhat glacial progress of the romance between this perfectly matched pair satisfactorily. Who knew that Stoker was a closet romantic?

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

RATING- 5 Stars

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

From the stench of St. Giles to the highest Society Drawing Rooms

The Detective Lavender Mysteries #4
Karen Charlton
Thomas & Mercer
January 11, 2018

It's 1812 and Principal Officer of the Bow Street Station, Stephen Lavender, and his fiery Spanish wife, Magdalena, are two years married and happily living in London. They would be happier, however, if Stephen were not called away on cases so often. Government funding is always scarce for Bow Street, so they supplement their income by sending Runners out on private investigations. As a Principal Officer, Lavender is much in demand.

Upon returning to London, Lavender is back to work immediately. Highwaymen are roaming the nearby countryside, vicious gangs are on the prowl in the city, and there are not enough Runners to cope. Added to the general disarray is the construction of a new cell block at Bow Street, built over medieval plague pits. The construction is further delayed by the discovery of many bones of the plague victims, and the addition of the freshly dead body of a peer in the pit.What really interests Stephen is a boot found in the Thames with a severed human foot. Forbidden by Magistrate Reed to further investigate the boot, he and his favorite Horse Patrol officer look into the matter anyway.  Assigned to the surveillance of a discontented man who has been pestering Members of Parliament, Lavender wonders what can happen next when rumors reach his ear of a new criminal "mastermind" in the city. Can all these events be connected somehow?

The Detective Lavender Mysteries are favorites, and I always look forward to them. Loosely based on a real historical figure, Stephen Lavender was somewhat of a celebrity in his day. Stephen is not at all what one expects from a Bow Street Runner. Meticulous, educated, bookish and a bit introverted, he is an officer in a new mold. The supporting characters are extraordinarily well-drawn, especially Horse Patrol Officer, Ned Woods, his wife, Betsy, and their large family; and Magdalena's maid, Teresa. Plague Pits and River Bones is somewhat darker than preceding stories, with a "Moriarty" like character who is obsessed with Lavender and his wife. The slave trade (outlawed at the time) and assassination at the highest levels of government play a part in this story. Of course, there is Magdalena, a woman in a million! The environs of 1812 London are vividly described from the stench of St.Giles and the Thames, to the peaceful calm of Greenwich and the drawing rooms of the highest society.

I highly recommend Plague Pits and River Bones for those who enjoy historical mysteries. It is not necessary to read the series in order, but I do recommend starting with the first, The Heiress of Linn Hagh.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for an advance copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars