Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Scandal and Murder among the "400"

MURDER AT BEECHWOOD (Gilded Newport #3)
Alyssa Maxwell
Kensington Books
May 26, 2015

Murder at Beechwood is the third book of a historical mystery series set in Newport, RI, during the 1890s, the "Gilded Age" when the richest Americans retired to their "cottages" (read "mansions") by the sea. Names like Vanderbilt, Astor and Fish were common among the summer residents. These  were lavish and ostentatious homes and the parties more so. All of New York's "400", so named after the number of people who could fit into Mrs. Astor's New York City ballroom traveled to Newport on a regular basis.

Emma Cross is a year round resident of Newport and a Vanderbilt poor relation. She is neither a real insider nor an outsider. Her Vanderbilt relations are fond of her so she moves on the fringes of Newport society and is invited to the parties. That's very handy since she is a reporter for the local newspaper and can cover the social events. After all what is the point of the lavish parties if the public doesn't get to read about them and marvel? She is somewhat of an anomaly in other ways as well: she supports her household on her own, has no real interest in marriage and has a reputation for taking in unfortunate young women and giving them a new start in life. Not many of the upper crust of Newport think that is an admirable pursuit, however.

Murder at Beechwood begins with Emma's discovery of an infant boy left on her front porch. Rather than simply turning him over for the authorities to deal with she is determined to find the mother. The only clue is a fine handkerchief with distinctive lace left with the baby. Very soon, bodies start turning up in Newport and Emma is sure that they are linked to the child and one of the eminent families. Someone is trying to stop her questions and she finds herself in real danger. Scandal, financial impropriety and madness lie beneath all the glitter of Newport.

Alyssa Maxwell bases many of the events of Murder at Beechwood on reality.The grand party at Beechwood that is so richly described really did take place in 1896. It's clear that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of Newport and the families. I wish that I had known that this was the third book so that I might have had a better understanding of the characters involved. That is easily remedied by downloading the previous books which I plan to do in short order. I would recommend it to readers who like historical mysteries with accuracy and somewhat unconventional heroines.

Thanks to Kensington and for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 3.5 stars

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fast Paced Historical Urban Fantasy from the authors of Vampire Empire

Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith
Del Rey Books
June 2, 2015

The Shadow Revolution is the first of a new urban fantasy trilogy from the talented pens and imaginative minds of Clay and Susan Griffith. Set in a steampunkish fog-bound Victorian England, it introduces us to a world of spell-casting magicians; the only ones with the power to battle a new supernatural threat. Simon Archer is a talented scribe, a magician whose spells are written on his body in the form of tattoos. He is also somewhat of a charming playboy who cuts quite a swath through London Society. He and his mentor, Nick Barker, are feeling new powers stirring. When they witness the brutal death of a former mistress of Simon and almost lose the ensuing battle with the monstrous werewolf who killed her, they know that their playboy days are over. At least Simon does but Nick seems to want to stay out of it.

The other players in this battle against darkness are Malcolm MacFarlane, a deadly Scottish monster hunter, and Kate Anstruther, an alchemist whose sister is being targeted by lycanthropes. What follows is a rocket ride of battles with lycanthropes, mad scientists, and creepy homunculus; all centered around the legendary Bethlehem Hospital, "Bedlam".  The three unite to stop London from being taken over by a werewolf hoard and to rescue Kate's sister. 

Parts two and three of Crown and Key are being released in rapid succession this summer and I am looking forward to both The Undying Legion and The Conquering Dark, thanks to net.galley and Del Rey. While I didn't find The Shadow Revolution quite up to the standard of Vampire Empire, I still quite enjoyed it. The worldbuilding and characterization of Vampire Empire are so extraordinarily fresh. The Shadow Revolution covers much more familiar territory at least to a steampunk fan like me and sometimes tips into the horror genre. It is, all in all, a very good read.

RATING- 3.75 Stars

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Fun New Series from Marty Wingate

THE RHYME OF THE MAGPIE (Birds of a Feather)
Marty Wingate
Random House Alibi
June 2015

I have been a fan of Marty Wingate since the first of the Potting Shed Mysteries, The Garden Plot, and was delighted to have the opportunity to read the first book in the Bird of a Feather mysteries. I have always said that her books are "almost" as good as a trip to England. The Rhyme of the Magpie proved to be no exception.

Julia Lanchester's life has been in disarray since the remarriage of her famous birder father, Rupert. Not only did her father remarry within months of her mother's death but the woman he married was her mother's closest friend. Hurt and angry, Julia quit her job as his assistant on his BBC series and broke off all communication. She relocated and is settling into a new job as tourism director at a historic estate when her father shows up, seeking a reconciliation. Julia refuses but when her father goes missing, everything changes. Along with her father's new assistant, Michael Sedgwick, Julia discovers even more mysteries swirling about her father and his somewhat uncommunicative assistant.

The Rhyme of the Magpie is chock full of birding lore and ongoing environmental concerns about destruction of the English countryside. The characters are strong and likable even though Julia brings new meaning to the word "stubborn". It was a very enjoyable and fast paced read. Thanks to and Alibi for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 4 Stars

Monday, May 4, 2015

Well-told and Intensely Romantic Historical Fiction

Susanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks Landmark
April 7, 2015

A Desperate Fortune  tells a dual story, one set in the present day and one in 1730's France among the Jacobite followers of exiled King James of Scotland. Sara Thomas is a computer programmer and amateur cryptologist who is hired through the recommendation of her cousin to break the code on a diary from the era. The writer of the diary is Mary Dundas, born at the "shadow court"of King James at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She is the daughter of a Scots wig maker to the court and a French mother. When her mother dies her father takes her to live with her French aunt and uncle. He and his sons follow James into further exile.

The diary's owner insists that Sara go to France to work with the diary, a problem for Sara who has Asperger's Syndrome. Sara vastly prefers working and living alone but agrees to the conditions of the job. The first part of the diary is not encoded and Sara is able to break the coded sections to transcribe the story of Mary Dundas. Mary on the whole had a very happy childhood but feels the loss of her father and brothers and yearns for adventure. When her brother, Nicholas, comes to fetch her at last, she is overjoyed. But Nicholas has other plans for her. The Jacobites need her to pose as a man's sister; a man who is being sought by the British authorities. Mary can only see this as one more abandonment by her family, but agrees. So her great adventure begins in the company of an older woman, Madam Roy, the fugitive Thomson and their fearsome bodyguard, MacPherson. Mary is terrified of MacPherson but grows to trust him to keep them safe.

I must admit that I preferred the historical narrative to the contemporary but Kearsley is a master of the dual story line. I never felt annoyed by the switches as I sometimes am with this sort of story. Sara's Asperger's Syndrome and it's effects on her life make her much more interesting and accessible. It is a pleasure to see her open up, finding romance and permanent connections in France. But it is Mary and the wounded MacPherson that are the heart and soul of the story. Their slow growth into trust and love made this a very emotional and sometimes tearful read for me. Mary and Hugh MacPherson are characters I could follow into their future, but the story has to end and it does with a very satisfactory ending.

Susanna Kearsley's research into the period is as always extensive and meticulous. The early part of the book offers the most succinct explanation of the religious and political causes of the doomed Jacobite cause I have ever seen. The author's notes at the the end of the book bring further detail and a twist that I didn't see coming, so don't pass them by! I really had to "sleep" on this review but although the book can be slow moving, I think it surpasses The Winter Sea to become my new favorite Kearsley book.

Many, many thanks to Sourcebook Landmark and netgalley for an advance digital copy of A Desperate Fortune.

RATING- 5 Stars

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Twisted Tale of Money and Madness

Tasha Alexander
St. Martin's Minotaur
November 2014

It is 1897 and Lady Emily and her husband, Colin Hargreaves, are making preparations for their attendance at the premier social event of the season. It is Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire are hosting a masquerade ball in her honor. All is going as usual until Lady Emily is approached by a mysterious auburn haired man who addresses her with half of a line of Homeric poetry which Emily responds to with the line's finish. Rather than continuing the conversation he seems exasperated and quickly leaves. She is puzzled but diverted by another attendee who points out Estelle Lamar. Estelle Lamar is a very wealthy and mysterious world traveler who has not been seen in England or her native France for nearly two decades. When Emily in turn points Estelle out to her friend Cecile, she is outraged. Estelle was a childhood friend and this woman is not Estelle! Cecile and Emily confront her and the woman flees. The next day the woman is found murdered on the riverbank; her name is Mary Bradley, a failed actress and midwife. Colin is more concerned with the murder of Mary but Cecile is distraught over the impersonation. She has received letters from Estelle over the the years but is now afraid that something dire has happened.

The search for Estelle takes Colin and Emily to some of the darkest places in Paris as the mystery deepens. Told in alternating voices, that of Emily and the missing Estelle herself, with references to the works of Dickens, The Counterfeit Heiress is a fascinating story that kept me guessing until the end. Getting into the mind of Estelle was quite a journey and it's ultimate end very poignant. The Lady Emily series has been an on and off pleasure for me. I have enjoyed some of the books and others not so much, but I think The Counterfeit Heiress is the strongest since And Only to Deceive. I recommend it highly for the mystery and the history. If you are at all interested in the historical ball that begins the book there is a wealth of information and many photos by the famous photographer, Lafayette, to be found on the net.

RATING- 4 Stars