Monday, March 28, 2016

Murder, Politics and Pornography in Victorian London

THE INFIDEL STAIN (Avery and Blake #2)
M. J. Carter
George P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin Group)
March 29, 2016

The Infidel Stain opens in London about three years after the events in India that brought William Avery and Jeremiah Blake together in The Strangler Vine. Avery has distinguished himself in the Afghan Wars and sold his commission, returning to England and purchasing a small estate. It seems that even though his reason for returning is ostensibly his wife's pregnancy the marriage itself is unhappy. A summons to London from the enigmatic Blake is most welcome; Avery is restless and bored. He discovers Blake looking disheveled and unwell, working as a private agent for British Intelligence. Two grisly murders have occurred in the notorious slums of London; both men were printers, mutilated and laid out across their presses. The police seem to have no interest in the cases and Blake has been commissioned to investigate. His employer is Lord Allington, a well-known evangelical Christian who is interested in the plight of England's poor. The investigation plunges the two men into a dangerous world of political unrest, murder, blackmail, pornography, hypocrisy and madness.

I was largely unaware of the Chartist movement in England. The Chartists were a political movement which, to the modern mind, had very reasonable demands. They wanted one man, one vote, no property requirement to vote and redrawing of parliamentary districts. The poor in England were suffering tremendous burdens brought on by the Industrial Revolution and laws keeping wages artificially low. However, fifty years after the French Revolution, the reigning establishment saw the Chartists as a danger to the social order. The Chartists eventually failed even after delivering petitions signed by millions to the government. There were Chartists in favor of armed uprisings but more peaceful elements of the movement prevailed. Ironically, the movement seemed to fail in the end because they were so peaceful that the government felt that they could be ignored.

M.J. Carter paints a vivid, almost Dickensian picture of the horrible conditions in the slums of London. There was literally no escape for millions who had no way to improve their lives and a justice system focused on severe, moralistic punishments for the smallest transgressions. I can't help drawing parallels between the Victorian Age and our own "drug wars" as well as the slow dismantling of social programs meant to uplift people. William Avery is still a priggish young man but has his eyes opened wider in the slums of London. The Infidel Stain lacks the "ripping yarn" action that so much characterized The Strangler Vine. It may be that I am so much more familiar with the landscape of the London slums that I was with colonial India. The book is meticulously researched and features real people of the age as well as characters inspired by real historical figures. It is intensely readable historical fiction and I highly recommend it.

Thanks to and Penguin Group for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Muddied Murder

A MUDDIED MURDER (Greenhouse Mystery #1)
Wendy Tyson
Henery Press
March 29, 2016

Megan Sawyer has moved back to her hometown of Winsome, PA to try to save her family's colonial era farm. After her husband's death in Afghanistan and several years of big city lawyering, Megan wants to get back to work that is satisfying. Besides, her 80-something grandmother, Bibi, needs help. Megan's father, Eddie, has gallivanted off to Italy with his new wife, leaving Bibi in the lurch; not that Eddie was much good at farm management. Megan's idea is to convert the farm to all organic methods and to add a cafe to the farm store. She has sunk her savings into the project but someone seems to want her to fail. Namely the town by dragging its' feet on permits and the Winsome Historical Society. Things go from annoying to critical when the battered body of a local zoning commissioner and chief thorn in Megan's side turns up in her barn. It becomes clear that a lot of people in Winsome are interested in getting their hands on the Washington Acres Farm, and even her grandmother is keeping secrets from her.

A Muddied Murder is an enjoyable beginning to a new series from a seasoned author. It has many of the elements I enjoy in a cozy; a developing relationship with a dishy local veterinarian, a well-drawn setting and a puzzle that kept me guessing. There are lots of suspects and secondary characters; perhaps too many as I had a little trouble keeping them sorted. I wished for more depth to some of the suspects, but that is my only quibble. I am looking forward to the second book in the series, Bitter Harvest, coming in 2017.

Thanks to Henery Press and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4 Stars

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Promising Beginning

BRIGHTON BELLE (Mirabelle Bevan #1)
Sara Sheridan
Kensington Books
March 29, 2016

Brighton Belle is a promising beginning in a new series by Sara Sheridan set in the seaside resort of Brighton in 1951. Mirabelle Bevan had a very exciting War working in British Intelligence. Even though she was not a field agent, Mirabelle picked up a lot of investigative knowledge. She also fell in love with her boss, Jack. After the war, she moves to Jack's hometown of Brighton and dreams of future domestic bliss. When Jack dies of a heart attack she is set adrift and grieving intensely for both Jack and her dreams. Mirabelle is financially secure but takes a job at a debt collection agency. Her boss, Big Ben McGuigan, does all the actual collections and Mirabelle takes care of the office work. One day, however, Big Ben claims illness and goes home: something he has never done before. Big Ben goes missing and Mirabelle is thrown into an investigation of both his disappearance and the death of an immigrant mother, supposedly in childbirth. Along the way, she picks up a sidekick, Vesta, another office worker in her building. 

I admit that I don't know much about Britain in the 1950's other than it was dreary. Austerity and rationing made life difficult, along with dealing with social upheaval and the emotional fallout of war. There were a lot of very bad people still around, mostly trying to escape the consequences of their wartime actions. Mirabelle and Vesta run up against a number of these criminals. I can't speak to the accuracy of historical detail in Brighton Belle, but one thing does come across loud and clear. Racial prejudice and a dismissal of women, in general, were rampant in Britain at the time. Another character, Inspector MacGregor of the Brighton Police, exemplifies the dismissal of Mirabelle's abilities. MacGregor is just about the most annoying misogynist I have run across lately (at least in fiction) but he seems to be a character we will meet again.

Brighton Belle was a fast, entertaining read and I liked Mirabelle and Vesta enough to follow their further adventures. I would like a little more historical detail and fewer fortuitous escapes from tight spots by the ladies, both of whom seem incapable of looking before they leap. 

Thanks to Kensington Books and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3 Stars

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Dangerous Journey in Colonial Era India

THE STRANGLER VINE ( Blake and Avery #1)
M.J. Carter
G.P. Putnam's Sons
March 2015

The Strangler Vine opens in 1837 Calcutta. William Avery is a junior officer in the Army of the British East India Company. The youngest son of an impoverished squire, he had few prospects in England and got along badly with his father. A voracious reader, he had read the works of Xavier Mountstuart as a boy and through those writings, became infatuated with the romantic idea of India. Calcutta however, has been a great disappointment: Avery hates the filth and heat, is not encouraged to get to know the natives or culture and sees that his prospects are still limited in the Army. As a result, he drinks, gambles and carouses too much. He has made a single good friend, Frank Macpherson, an upright young officer who tries to keep Avery on the straight and narrow. Avery has been commissioned to deliver a message to Jeremiah Blake, a civilian with connections to the Company. Their first meeting is hardly propitious. Blake is rude, unkempt, uncouth and has obviously "gone native". Avery is even less pleased when he is ordered to accompany Blake on a mission. His literary idol, Xavier Mountstuart is missing in "thugee" territory and the two are to find him. His commander makes it clear that a successful mission will make his career. The flip side, of course, is that failure will ruin it. Avery and Blake, along with their dignified Mohammedan servant, Mir Aziz set off on the mission uneasily. Mir Aziz is kind and helpful, but Blake makes it plain that he thinks Avery less than useless. Blake may be rude and uncouth, but he is also multilingual and can navigate India like no other Westerner. Avery and Blake's mission is both more and less than foreseen by either. Nothing is quite what it seems. The two face hardship and danger together, forming a bond of friendship and respect. 

The Strangler Vine is a gripping story of conspiracy and deceit. It fairly drips with the beauty, glory and contradictions of India in the early Victorian Era. In the past few years, I have read several books that at least touched on the British Colonial Era in India. While the British doubtless did some good there, especially in the early years, corruption soon took over to the detriment of the Indian people. The British East India Company, a quasi-governmental entity is emblematic of that corruption and cynicism. I find it very hard to understand the idea of what was essentially a trading company having it's own Army. A fascinating part of the story concerns the "thugees". Did that culture of thieves and stranglers devoted to the worship of the Goddess Kali even exist or was it a piece of convenient fiction to justify the actions of the Company?

I highly recommend The Strangler Vine. It is a meticulously researched piece of historical fiction and a rip-roaring adventure wrapped up in an irresistible read. The first few chapters move somewhat slowly and I didn't much like Avery at the beginning. After the journey begins, however, it moves along at a remarkable pace. Avery still has a lot to learn but improves as the story progresses. After all, he has no frame of reference for the snakepit he finds himself in. I am looking forward to the next Blake and Avery, The Infidel Stain, which will be published at the end of March 2016.

RATING- 5 Stars

Monday, March 14, 2016

Never Bargain with a Fae

FIRE TOUCHED (Mercy Thompson # 9)
Patricia Briggs
Ace Books
March 8, 2016

I used to read quite a lot of urban fantasy but these days generally confine myself to several favorites. Among them are Jane Yellowrock by Faith Hunter, the Magic series by Ilona Andrews, anything by the immensely talented Jim Butcher, Anne Bishop's Others and the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. All the series mentioned have a common factor I think; believable and relatable characters and situations, despite the inherent nature of books about supernatural characters.

Mercy Thompson is a "walker", a Native American shape changer who takes the form of a coyote. She is also the mate to Adam Hauptman,  the alpha of a werewolf pack in Washington state and a Volkswagon mechanic with a propensity to attract trouble of all kinds. It has been quite a journey for Mercy, brought up in a werewolf pack in Montana. Always an outsider in the pack, she has learned to be fiercely independent but has friends who are vampires and fae, as well as human. The trouble in Fire Touched starts with a troll on a bridge, not one of your internet trolls but a huge, destructive, human-eating troll. The werewolves are "out" to the public, as are the fae, and the police call for assistance. Both werewolves and police are losing the battle until Zee and Tad, two close fae friends arrive with a boy who appears to be about 10 years-old. The boy, Aidan, is actually hundreds of years old. He was lost in faerie "underhill" and emerged with the ability to command fire. His abilities help destroy the troll. The "Gray Lords" want him back, but Adam and Mercy promise him sanctuary. Keeping him safe will be a tall order.

Mercy continues to evolve, growing and changing, but keeping her core of loyalty and commitment to doing what is right for all concerned. She is clearly stepping into the role of second in command in the pack. There are plenty of the usual supernatural politics and action in Fire Touched  but this book is a little more focused on relationships than some of its' predecessors. I highly recommend the Mercy Thompson series but starting at the beginning is imperative with the first novel, Moon Called. I also recommend the audio versions narrated by Lorelei King who has become Mercy's voice for me. I do have to make a comment on the covers of both audio and print versions, though; Mercy has only one small tattoo of a wolf's paw and would never wear a skimpy top to a fight or anywhere else. She is a jeans and t-shirt girl. I know the covers need to stand out but a little more truth in advertising would be welcome.

RATING- 4 Stars

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Visitor, Number 4 in The Graveyard Queen

THE VISITOR ( Graveyard Queen, # 4)
Amanda Stevens
Harlequin MIRA
March 29, 2016

Amelia Gray is a cemetery restorer living in Charleston, SC and restores old graveyards all over the South. Amelia essentially grew up in a graveyard, since her father was a custodian for a large one. Father and daughter have a very strong bond because both can see ghosts. From an early age, her father gave her four rules to avoid being taken over by parasitic ghosts: never acknowledge the dead, never stray far from hallowed ground, never associate with those who are haunted, and never, ever tempt fate. Her meeting police detective John Devlin, however, causes her to break all the rules. Devlin is being haunted by the ghosts of his dead wife and small daughter. Amelia and Devlin have an immediate bond and Amelia must try to free him from his ghosts. He is unaware of them but Amelia knows that they will eventually kill him by siphoning off his life force. All ghosts want is to be alive again. The arc of first three books, The Restorer, The Prophet and The Kingdom  tell the story of her effort to free him and her own very disturbing family background. She is successful but the door to more supernatural beings is thrown wide open.

Amanda Stevens has a real gift for escalating "creep factor". The atmosphere of The Visitor becomes more heavy and cloying as the novel progresses. There are some very frightening beings haunting the graveyard Amelia is asked to renovate. All the members of a cult were either murdered or suicides and were buried together. It becomes plain that someone, maybe human, maybe not, does not want its' secrets uncovered. Devlin, too, has become secretive and distant with Amelia. Evidently he, as well, has some family secrets to hide. 

I am afraid that the long gap in publication between The Kingdom and The Visitor was detrimental to the series. Even though she does a good job mentioning prior events without any information dumps, I have completely forgotten many of them and how they tie in. I also found Amelia lacking in caution and walking into situations that she very well knows she should avoid. The Visitor doesn't even begin to resolve the relationship problems with Devlin and leaves us with a huge cliffhanger. The next book, The Sinner, comes along in September so there will not be such a long wait. I will be reading the next book but I do have reservations about The Visitor.  It is well written, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Thanks to Harlequin and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3 Stars

Monday, March 7, 2016

Reader, I Murdered Him......

Lyndsay Faye
March 22, 2016
G. P. Putnam's Sons

I fell in love with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre when I first read it at about the age of twelve. I loved the language, the masterful portrayal of Jane's inner self and the admittedly not very politically correct romance with Mr. Rochester. Yes, Mr. Rochester was a manipulative so and so, firmly rooted in 19th-century masculinity, but Jane refused to violate her own principles under the influence of his wiles. I confess to many re-readings of the novel over the years along with multiple screen adaptations. I am somewhat allergic to "re-imaginings" of classic novels. Had this been, say, Jane Eyre with Zombies rather than Jane Eyre, serial murderer, I would have run far and fast. I am also a great admirer of Lyndsay Faye's work, from her Sherlockian novel, Dust and Shadows, through her recent historical Timothy Wilde Trilogy, set in Civil War-era New York. If anyone could pull this off, Lyndsay Faye could, and I was not disappointed.

Jane Steele lives in the countryside at Highgate Hall with her French mother, both grudgingly sheltered by her Aunt, Patience Barbary. Jane's favorite novel is Jane Eyre, and her life has some obvious parallels. When Jane's mother dies and Jane commits her first murder, she asks to be sent off to school, unlike the Jane of the novel. Lowan Bridge School equals, perhaps surpasses the brutality of Lowood School, but Jane makes a good friend in a younger girl, Clarke, and gets a good education at least. The situation calls for more murder to save Clark's life, and the two girls run off to London. London is as filthy and magnificent as Dickens ever described. Jane supports herself and Clarke by writing gallows ballads and last confessions of condemned prisoners for scandal papers hawked in the streets. Along the way, she and Clarke part company, and Jane is called to her "accidental avenger" role several times. Jane was always told by her mother that she was the rightful heir to Highgate, so when she sees an advertisement for a governess by the new owner, Charles Thornfield, she must apply for the position. Highgate Hall is much changed. Charles Thornfield is a veteran of the East Indian Company's wars with the Sikh Empire and all the servants are Sikhs. Her pupil is a half-caste girl with a horse obsession, Sahjara. Jane feels an immediate attraction to Charles Thornfield, but there are mysteries at Highgate Hall- why is no one allowed in the cellar for instance? And how can Jane ever let Thornfield know about her past?

Jane Steele is billed as a "satirical romance" and it is all of that. It is very funny, especially the gallows ballads, and the wonderful Dickensian names: Vesalius Munt, Sam Quillfeather, and Mr. Grizzlehurst being just some examples. It is also a window into the Sikh way of life and the disastrous history of East Indian Company machinations. I loved Jane Steele from beginning to end and was quite as well satisfied with the ending as with the original.

Thanks to the Penguin First to Read program for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.