Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Poisoned Island: Splendid Mix of Fact, Mystery and Fantasy

Lloyd Shepherd
Atria Books
January 2014

The Poisoned Island opens in 1769 on the South Pacific Island of Otaheite (Tahiti) with a young Joseph Banks chasing and ravishing an island princess. This encounter sets off a series of events which come to horrific fruition in 1812 England. Now Sir Joseph, eminent botanist and friend to royalty, Banks has financed a second expedition aboard the Solander to Tahiti. The ship has brought back many specimens; one of which has the potential to destroy the growing Empire. The island has long captivated the imagination of the English, but interaction has brought only death and destruction to the islanders through disease, alcohol, firearms, and civil conflict. Thames River Police Constable Charles Horton is called in when six of the Solander crew are found brutally murdered, all with fixed smiles on their faces. Meanwhile at Kew Gardens, frightening changes are taking place in one of the specimens, both alarming and elating Banks.

Though entirely fictional, The Poisoned Island features many historical figures and events, even references to the Bounty mutiny. One of the things I enjoy most about historical fiction is that it often challenges me to refresh my memory of half-remembered facts such as the career of Banks and my college courses in Botany. There is a wealth of information on life in Georgian England, especially maritime life, empire building and policing. My only difficulty with The Poisoned Island lies in the fact that I have not read The English Monster, which introduces Charles Horton. He is a compelling character whose motivations and tensions I would like to understand better so a reading of the previous book is a must, at least for me. The Poisoned Island can certainly be savored as a stand-alone, however.

I highly recommend The Poisoned Island to lovers of historical fiction with mystery and a dash of the unexplained. Thanks to Atria and for a digital advance copy.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Rousing Finale in The Baskerville Affair

Emma Jane Holloway
Random House LLC
December 31, 2013

A Study in Ashes brings to a close the new steampunk trilogy starring Evalina Cooper, niece to Sherlock Holmes and powerful magic user. The Empire has been taken over by ruthless "Steam Barons" who have the populace by the throats, controlling everything by sheer might and their strangle hold on all power sources. The use of magic is a burning offence- or even worse, being sent off to what are known as laboratories for experimentation. Evalina has spent her young life hiding her abilities and trying to become part of the aristocracy. When A Study in Ashes opens, she has been forced into the the service of the "Gold King", Jasper Keating, in order to save herself and her friends and family.

Rebellion in the form of aristocrats, plain working men and women and pirates who follow a hitherto unknown heir to the throne is brewing and comes to fruition in A Study in Ashes.  Fantastic steampunk machines, characters that leap off the page and rousing battle scenes make A Study in Ashes an absorbing read. As with the first  two books in the trilogy I feel that at almost 700 pages it is nearly too much of a good thing. The secondary story involving Evalina's friend Imogen seemed to be an intrusion into the story. Way too many pages were spent on Imogen, slowing down the rest of the action. I was much more interested in the rebellion itself and seeing justice done to Keating and the other Barons. The ending was very satisfactory and leaves openings for further books in the same world which I will be looking forward to.

Thanks to and Random House for an advance digital galley.

RATING- 3.5 Airships

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A visit to one of the most charming (and murderous) villages in England

PAGAN SPRING (A Max Tudor Mystery #3)
G.M. Malliet
MacMillan/Minotaur Books
October 2013

Max Tudor, vicar of St. Edwold's (and ex MI5 agent), is enjoying his life in the picturesque village of Nether Monkslip. Church attendance is up and even better, his relationship with Awena Owen, proprietress of the new-age shop in the village, is prospering. At long last the attractive Max has met his soul mate in Awena. His only  real problems are getting his Easter sermon written and the murderous streak which has cropped up in the village since his arrival. Max has been involved in the investigation of two murders in rapid succession.

All seems to be going well until Max's invitation to a village dinner party attended by several newcomers to the village. They are the odious Thaddeus Bottom and his downtrodden wife, Melinda; and Gabby Crewe, a popular hairdresser in the village salon. When one of the attendees is murdered with an exotic poison, Max is once again plunged into the investigation. We learn that the roots of the murder extend as far back as WWII France. The "victim" has a long history of victimizing others and the killer has a motive that I think any one could sympathize with. 

Pagan Spring is, in my opinion, the best of the series so far. As always, the characterization is excellent and the mystery well-plotted. I did know "whodunnit" well before the end, but hoped that I was wrong. There is quite a surprise at the end for Max and Awena; one that will no doubt give Max's Bishop fits, but I am confident all will be well. I recommend Pagan Spring highly for fans of the traditional British "village" mystery.

RATING- 4 Stars