Archive for Historical – Page 2

Tasha Alexander: A Terrible Beauty

terriblebeautyAt this point in Tasha Alexander’s career, now eleven novels in to her Lady Emily series, you’re either all in or all out. I am all in as Lady Emily makes her way around Victorian Europe solving crimes with the help of her dashing husband, Colin Hargreaves. As most loyal readers will know, Lady Emily was widowed in the first novel, And Only to Deceive, falling in love with her husband only after the fact. She ends up mirroring and following his passion for the classical world.

Emily ends up marrying one of his best friends, a true love match, which has produced children and a wonderful series of exploits. In this novel Emily and Colin are on their way to a relaxing vacation at Emily’s Greek villa, partially as an attempt to cheer their friend Jeremy who suffered a trauma in the last novel (The Adventuress), but also an excuse for Emily and her friend Margaret to argue cheerfully about the differences in Greek vs. Roman culture. In happy expectation, they arrive on the island, only to discover that something is amiss.


While this is not technically a spoiler, is revealed on the jacket, and is the incident around which the plot revolves, it was shocking to me that Emily and Colin arrive at the villa to find Emily’s dead husband waiting for them. Apparently, Philip Ashton is not dead and in a series of flashbacks we discover what’s happened to him during the years of 1888-1899. As the past and present threads draw closer, so of course do the suspenseful elements of the story.

To me, however, this book was all about Emily and Colin’s reaction to meeting up with the long thought dead Philip. While the story concerns a number of dangerous characters, after Philip because of an incredibly rare object he may or may not possess, the real emotional heft of the story were Emily’s and Colin’s reactions to meeting Philip again. As civilized human beings some protocols are observed, but what protocol is there when meeting your dead husband, especially one you fell in love with after his death?

This is an especially poignant interlude in Lady Emily’s history, filled with Alexander’s usual bravura hand at adventure, setting and intrigue. With its Greek setting this one reminded me a bit of Mary Stewart’s classic, The Moonspinners, mostly for the setting and the ability of both writers to convey what must be the otherworldly beauty of Greece. Stewart and Alexander are also wonderfully crisp storytellers, and if you enjoy one of these writers but are unfamiliar with the other, I urge you to give the other a try.

I won’t reveal any more about the story other than to say this in an eminently satisfactory read in one of the most enjoyable historical mystery series on the planet.

Maureen Jennings: Dead Ground In Between

deadgroundMaureen Jennings is known far and wide—and deservedly so—for her Inspector Murdoch mysteries, set in Victorian Toronto, But she’s also now written four installments in the equally excellent Detective Inspector Tom Tyler mysteries, set in a tiny Shrosphire village during the heart of the war. One of the books was about Land Girls; one about a munitions factory explosion; one about a hospital for the war wounded. In this novel she has settled deeply into Tom Tyler’s life and his assignment in Ludlow, as he gets used to being divorced and missing the love of his life, who is abroad doing secret war work.

When an old man disappears off a farm and he’s later discovered murdered, the crime brings all kinds of elements to the surface. The farm in question has both a Land Girl on site as well an Italian POW from a nearby camp who helps with milking the cows. The old man had had dementia and was a source of conflict through the family, shaking the fundamentals of the relationship between the working farmer, his wife, and the adult son she’s brought with her into the marriage.

The book begins with Tom sitting through the cases of the magistrate’s court—in 1942 the act of riding a bicycle without a headlight and cursing at the constable were charges brought before the court. Two of the men, obvious poachers, are given to Tyler’s remand and he sets them to work scouring the police station. Two young boys who were forced to leave their native Holland are also before the court for causing a ruckus and possible shoplifting from a local store. They, too, fall under Tyler’s remand.

As the story unfolds, it centers on some British Civil War coins unearthed in a field; the plight of the two young boys; and the developing changes in Tyler’s love life as he attempts negotiating his way through dating. While Jennings’ novels are never light and frothy, she brings enough humanity to her dark stories to leaven them. This one is a dark tale of a country enmeshed in a long and terrible war and the darkness that ripples from it, creating havoc everywhere. Even though the death of the old man is not war related, this is still very much a “war” novel.

Jennings is truly expert at setting a scene, and reading one of her novels is an immersive experience. Looking up from the pages it’s almost jarring to discover your sugar and butter aren’t rationed; you don’t have to line up at the grocers for vegetables; you can turn the lights on after dark. She never is anachronistic, or she doesn’t seem to be; her characters have lives and attitudes that fit the period. In fact, I recently read an Agatha Christie novel where a young woman comes home from the WRENS and the tone of that Christie—actually written at the time of the war—and the tone of Jennings’ novel are identical. I hated for this book to end, and am eagerly looking forward to the next Tom Tyler novel.

Darcie Wilde: A Useful Woman

useful-womanI’ve read other books by Sarah Zettel, a.k.a. Darcie Wilde, but this one is by far my favorite. I loved the setting – (mostly) 1817 London, with a brief prologue in 1812 – and the milieu, to any lover of Jane Austen novels, is a somewhat familiar one, as are the straightened circumstances of the heroine, Rosalind Thorne. Back in 1812, Rosalind comes home dreamily from a dance where she’s almost declared her love for young Devon, only to wake up and find her sister fleeing the house in the middle of the night with their father.

Fast forward to 1817, and the impoverished Rosalind, while maintaining her own tiny household, has lost her mother, Devon is engaged to an old frenemy, and Rosalind’s lot in life is to use her skill set – which now would be seen as that of the efficient event planner or skillful political operative – to secure invitations, make sure the guest lists of balls are correctly populated, and in general, making herself useful to the haute ton, of which she was once an honored member. She has the ear of the highest up and most powerful society matrons as well as the ear of certain members of the press. It’s a useful combination.

As the story opens, society is in an uproar over the possible vacancy on the governing board of Almack’s, a club where many of the important balls of the season are held. (It was the only such club which admitted both men and women). Rosalind is also fielding offers of residence for the “season” – one with Lady Edmund, the mother of the frenemy engaged to Devon; or an offer from her godmother, Lady Blanchard. She ends up accepting Lady Blanchard’s offer, which is immediately complicated when she goes to pick her up at Almack’s one afternoon and not only does she discover the dead body of one Jasper Aimesworth, Lady Blanchard is not far behind. She promptly lapses into hysterics, leaving the capable and practical Rosalind to fend for her.

Jasper is the son of Lady Edmund, as well as a well known gambler and wastrel, but his sister Honoria, Devon’s fiancée, loved him anyway and she asks Rosalind to find out whodunit. Society is reeling – the scandal now attached to Almacks, the death of a prominent son – Rosalind cannot refuse and with her access she has a good chance of finding the answer. Early on she meets the Bow Street Runner assigned to the case and together, they help one another out.

The mystery portion of the novel is clever and the resolution unexpected, but the real delight here are in the characters and setting. Rosalind is a relatable type, a capable woman useful to all, and sensible to boot. Even her reduced circumstances are far more relatable than the grand ballrooms the other characters inhabit. Wilde gives a positively delicious picture of the ins and outs of high society. The book is nicely set up for a sequel, with two possible love interests and another plea at the end for Rosalind’s “help.” How can she say no? And how can any reader refuse to follow her anywhere? This is a completely charming series debut.

Andrew Gross: The One Man

The+One+Man+by+Andrew+GrossThriller writer Andrew Gross has turned his sights to a topic closer to him personally, the Holocaust. While I almost feel I have read, seen and learned everything about the Holocaust, this book provides a fresh look at this hellish time in human history and reminds us that as humans we are capable of devastating cruelty. The balance Gross brings to his novel – a balance between storytelling and what is obviously deeply felt history – is really very well handled. I could not put this book down nor could I stop thinking about it.

Gross takes a simple idea as his central tentpole: what if one of the many thousands of gifted scientists herded into the camps actually held the key to the Atom Bomb? And if that were true, how then could this “one man” be gotten out? Impossible.

Some of the real history laced through the story Gross unspools is sometimes the most unbelievable. There were in fact actually two men who escaped from Auschwitz, and their reports of what was happening circulated at the highest levels of government abroad, up to and including FDR. There was also a man who snuck in and got out the next day with an eyewitness account.

The scheme that takes shape in the book is this: the scientist in question, one Alfred Mendl, is indeed in Auschwitz, merely existing there after the brutal murders of his wife and daughter. In America, a young Jew who escaped Europe at the right time (while leaving his own family behind) has enlisted in the U.S. Army and he’s recruited to sneak into Auschwitz and get Mendl out. This seems impossible.

Gross has many threads to his story; we learn about Mendl’s life, about the young man, Nathan’s; about life in the ghetto; even some about the personal life of one of the Nazi guards. What Gross brings most vividly to life is a depiction of what life inside the camp was like; I was in tears more often than not as I read.

And I read and read. I could not stop reading this very well assembled thriller which takes the impossible and tries to figure a way it might actually be possible. There’s no way to tell a story about the Holocaust that ends well, of course, but for a few of Gross’ characters, the ending is not so terrible. It’s a small redemption, but a welcome one.

I most appreciated the Afterword, detailing some of his research and making clear the bits that were true and the bits he took a bit of liberty with. If you can read this book without your heart in your mouth or finish without a tear in year eye, I’d be very surprised.   This is a wonderful and memorable book, definitely one of the reads of the year.

Barbara Cleverly: Diana’s Altar

51gQbUTiA2LI haven’t picked up a Barbara Cleverly novel in a couple years, despite being a huge fan of the earlier books in this series, which are set in India during the British Raj. Her central character, Joe Sandilands, has since made his way back through Europe and is now back home in London working for Scotland Yard. But enough time had elapsed for me not to compare the books set in India to this one, which is set in Oxford in 1933.

Cleverly has always been a bravura plotter and storyteller; she has twists upon twists and it makes a reader breathless to try and keep up with her facile brain. The opening scene in this novel is a knockout – a young female doctor, bicycling home, is drawn on All Hallows Eve to explore a sinister looking church on the edge of the University campus. She’d been intrigued by a sign she’d seen; but instead of finding some kind of weird cult at work, she finds a dying young man in one of the pews who confesses to his own suicide with his last breath. She’s a doctor so she does her best to save or at least comfort him, and she’s shaken by his death.

Scotland Yard is called in in the form of Joe Sandilands, and the layers of the onion begin to be revealed. In another fabulous sequence, Cleverly establishes that the dead man was a spy for the British government – as is Sandliands. It’s also revealed that the female doctor and Sandilands have a romantic relationship. She’s one of the best characters in the novel and to my disappointment, she was not more front and center though she plays a key role throughout the narrative.

The novel also concerns itself with some goings on at the home of a very wealthy patron of the arts, also a patron the Oxford’s physics department. In 1933, the top project was of course the atom bomb. As Cleverly makes clear (and this part of the book is based on fact) there was a Russian agent working with his British counterparts at the time. The worlds of the arts and science were linked by Oxford social occasions, and the wealthy patron, Sir Gregory Pertinax, is known for having rather scandalous house parties. Joe manages to work his way into Pertinax’s graces and is invited to a party.

The interweaving of the espionage work at the Oxford lab – called the crocodile – and the goings on at the home of Sir Gregory is skillfully done, as is the tracing of Joe’s clever detective work. He’s always a step ahead of this particular reader. I am a firm believer in not reviewing the book I wish had been written – which for me would have focused on the female doctor and her relationship with Sandilands – but once I accepted that I was actually reading a spy novel I settled in for the ride. This is a very well done spy novel and it illustrates a part of 1933 Britain I was not familiar with. There’s a generous afterword at the end that answers some of the questions I had that weren’t answered by the novel itself. I also had to accept that this wasn’t the earlier, almost swashbuckling romantic adventures set in India that lit up the first 4 or 5 novels in this series. There’s still the main swashbuckler at the center of things, however, and Joe Sandilands is a character to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Candace Robb: The Service of the Dead

51LcUKQOdDL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Candace Robb returns with a new series set in 1399 York, featuring a true badass, Kate Clifford. Kate has a rich backstory, fleshed out throughout the book while she veers from crisis to crisis. She’s a widow who moved to York from Scotland for safety’s sake, but as York at that time was a hotbed of political intrigue, nowhere is really safe. She’s lost her twin brother who “talks” to her (kind of like Hamish in Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books) and she’s looking after two wards, her dead husband’s bastards, now bereft of their mother. It’s an uneasy alliance.

She’s most at home with her dogs, Lille and Ghent, and when she has a chance, she starts her morning practicing her archery. Her clothes are made with handy pockets for knives and small axes; and she’s always on the alert. As this book proves, with good reason.

The story opens with the discovery of a body in the bawdy house she discretely rents out to some of York’s most illustrious citizens; not only is this horrifying, she’s expecting a lengthy visit from one Lady Margery the very next day. She manages to get the body cleared away and the house ready, but meanwhile her ward Philip vanishes.

There are several deaths which are surely connected though the connections aren’t clear until the end of the story; what Robb really excels at are action scenes, and there are several sprinkled throughout the narrative. They really make this a rocket powered read. With her sturdy servant Jennet at her side and the scarred baker Berend in her kitchen, she’s always protected, even though York is rough and tumble.

The story of Kate’s brother’s death, threaded through the story, are especially horrific; and Robb ends the novel with the return of one of Kate’s relatives, setting up for a next installment. Candace Robb was part of the wave of historical writers in the early 90s that included Sharan Newman and Margaret Frazer; clear descendants of Ellis Peters, all of them bringing a scholarly take to their writing while also supplying excellent stories and characters. It’s wonderful to have a new novel and character to cherish from this talented writer.

Susanna Calkins: A Death Along the River Fleet

riverfleetThe opening of Susanna Calkins’ new book is a real knockout – her central character, Lucy Campion, stumbles across what she thinks is a ghost rising out of London’s stinky, scary River Fleet as she makes her way home. The year is 1667 and Lucy is relieved to find the apparition is a woman, not a ghost, but the woman is weak, confused, and covered in welts and cuts. She takes her to the the nearest doctor.

As Lucy and the doctor’s irritated maid take the woman’s clothes off and give her something clean to put on, they notice the clothing is high quality and that the woman’s hands are soft, making her a probable member of the upper classes. For this reason the doctor decides to take her in, and his wife decides to lend the woman some of her old clothes.

The doctor also asks if Lucy can leave her job for a week and nurse the woman, with pay. She works as a printer’s apprentice and bookseller and only gets her boss to agree to the time away when she says she’ll write up the incident as a text for a new broadside to sell. So Lucy is off to her odd duty, where the woman she’s tending to has no memory of who she is or where she came from, and she also has frequent “fits” – she has what was called the “Falling Sickness,” and what we know now to be epilepsy.

The doctor’s snobby and snarky assistant, however, seems to recognize the woman and on the strength of that her family is found and summoned to her bedside. As Lucy’s time with the woman wears on it becomes clear she has some memory and that she definitely knows what her station in life is.

Lucy herself is also dealing with a dilemma – she has two suitors: a highborn son of a Magistrate, and a constable. She is very attracted to the Magistrate’s son but is troubled by the disparity in their social class. Calkins doesn’t give her any easy answers. The world of 1667 London was in flux, and so is Lucy Campion, as she struggles to figure out the right path for her life. It’s as interesting as the mystery part of the book.

When the woman’s family arrives it’s clear there is plenty wrong with their family dynamics, and it turns out the woman’s brother is missing. The search for her brother consumes much of the rest of the book and another dead body just confuses everyone. Calkins is excellent at creating the feel and sensory experience of living in 1667, and she’s also excellent with the novelist’s skills of character and plot. This was a fast paced, excellent read and I enjoyed every minute I spent in Lucy’s company. This continues to be a wonderful and beautifully written new series.

Sam Thomas: The Midwife and the Assassin

midwife-assassinThe excellent fourth installment in Sam Thomas’ Lady Bridget Hodgson series finds Lady Bridget bored at her country estate, where she’s fled with her deputy, Martha, and her adopted daughter, Elizabeth. The quiet is disrupted when she receives a message that her nephew Will (and Martha’s fiancée) is at the Tower of London and would they please come? They set out for London at once, eventually making their way to the Tower where they discover an unharmed Will but a demand from Cromwell’s head spy that they work undercover for him.

It’s 1649, deep into Cromwell’s upturning of the English throne and the imprisonment of the King. His head spy, or intelligencer, Mr. Marlowe, secures Lady Bridget’s compliance by telling her will seize her lands and imprison Will if she does not agree to go undercover and spy for him. So Lady Bridget becomes plain Mrs. Hodgson and she’s forced to live in a tenement in Cheapside, where she and Martha set up shop, all the better to keep an eye on the Levelers at the tavern up the road and the tavern’s owner, one Katherine Chidley.

The Levelers were a then radical group who demanded things like equal justice under the law for all and equal rights for women – literally hundreds of years ahead of their time. In 1649, they were alarmingly radical. Bridget quickly finds that she likes Katharine and feels terrible about spying on her, but she is quickly tested for loyalty by Mr. Marlowe. Luckily she passes with flying colors.

Sam Thomas is an actual historian and it shows in the detail he includes in his books, but he’s also a real honest to god novelist, excellent with cliffhangers, suspense and plot twists. I loved the setting and time period of this book, where the world was in complete upheaval with everything being questioned. The centerpiece of the book is the execution of King Charles; coming about half way through, it sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is fraught with surprising violence.

Unusually, Thomas, a male writer, has a central female character; but he’s masculine in the way he doesn’t hesitate to dispatch just about anyone. People perish surprisingly, and things happen with unexpected suddenness. He’s also great at the various birthing scenes Bridget and Martha are called to attend and they give a real energy to his novels.

In the course of the story Bridget finds a measure of personal happiness and finds that the hurly-burly of London suits her. She absolutely blooms where she’s planted. I love these books – I learn some history; I love the characters, and Thomas is an absolutely top notch storyteller. I’ve always thought that if a “regular” book is great armchair travel, an historical novel is even better – you’re also travelling to a different time period with different sights, smells and experiences. This is one of my favorite new series for all the reasons I’ve described, and this is an especially fine entry.

Tasha Alexander: The Adventuress

TheAdventuressThis is a terrific entry in Tasha Alexander’s fabulously entertaining Lady Emily series. In this outing, Lady Emily and her husband are in Cannes for the insanely extravagant celebration of their long time friend Jeremy’s engagement to an American heiress, Amity. As Alexander fills in the reader’s knowledge of Amity by going back in time to India where Amity and her friend Christobel met Jeremy’s brother Jack (and later Jeremy), it seems destiny that the beautiful Amity will become the future Duchess of Bainbridge.

Except. Everything about the engagement celebrations seem a bit off. Amity’s parents are rigid and judgemental as well as suspicious of Emily’s friendship with their daughter’s fiancée; Amity’s brother, Augustus, is definitely strange and it’s unclear if his peculiarity is dangerous or not. When a member of the engagement party commits suicide, it absolutely casts a pall over the proceedings.

So do a series of mishaps mainly affecting Emily and making her look bad to her hosts. While Amity desperately wants to be friends, Emily can’t quite warm up to her. And of course we’ve all known women who only get along with men; Amity seems to be one of these. As the party continues to venture on outings that continue to have an ill fated segment to them, the mood of the whole party becomes uncomfortable.

Alexander skillfully sets a suspenseful tone, playing with reader’s expectations and perceptions, as well as creating some truly stunning character portraits. As things accelerate to the denouement, it was hard to look away. I was gripped by Alexander’s portrait not only of Amity but of her relationship to Jeremy, to Emily, to Christobel and somewhat to Colin.

The apparent suicide was of course a murder and Alexander, while having a deft hand with characterization, is also an excellent mystery writer and this novel did not disappoint in any way. I of course loved the setting and as always, I love Alexander’s brisk storytelling. To me this is one of the strongest entries in a series that’s already one of the best historical mystery series going.

Christine Trent: Lady of Ashes

ladyofashesLady of Ashes is the first in a historical mystery series featuring Violet Morgan, an undertaker in Victorian London. I found myself drawn into Violet’s world from the first pages, and the story held my interest to the end, despite the fact that this isn’t a straightforward mystery.

We know early on there has been a murder as the prologue contains a brief diary confession. But the book immediately shifts to Violet’s home and work lives. Excerpts from the diary appear throughout the book, reminding us about the murderer, long before Violet—or anyone else—has a suspicion that a murder has occurred.

Violet and her husband Graham run Morgan Undertaking. Violet’s marriage was initially “glorious,” but has deteriorated over seven years. Graham has become morose and nearly overwhelmed with hatred for the United States. Graham’s obsession leads him into an illegal, mysterious business with his seafaring brother, a business he attempts to hide from Violet. But this is only one of Violet’s issues with Graham.

Graham has turned into a social climber, and when he’s not ignoring Violet and their business, he’s criticizing her lack of household management skills. This definitely isn’t a light book, but I found the short excerpts from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management rather amusing. A recent gift from Graham to Violet, the book emphasizes important household details for the Victorian wife.

Violet has no interest in anything related to the house, and spends more and more of her time with the undertaking business. Her work introduces her to a variety of interesting characters including a mute young girl she takes home over Graham’s protests.

The book is impeccably researched and dense with details about the characters, their lives, and the news of the times. From descriptions of Violet’s clothes, to the appearance of buildings, to the odd smells coming from her basement, Ms. Trent brings Violet’s world to life. While I can be rather squeamish, I found the details about the Victorian undertaking business fascinating.

The author successfully weaves Violet’s story with real historical events and figures. Graham’s illegal involvement with the U.S. Civil War leads to portions of the book being told from the point of view of Charles Francis Adams, recently appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James by President Lincoln. Violet’s accidental meeting with Prince Albert leads her into the sphere of Queen Victoria.

A lot happens to Violet over the course of the book, but it makes sense as the book takes place over an extended period of time, from May of 1861 to September of 1865.

If you prefer mysteries that focus solely on the solution to a murder or murders, this may not be for you. But if you like a mystery rich in historical details, and with a lead character with a complex life, then I can highly recommend this book. How much did I like this? When I was about one-third of the way through I sent an email to Robin Agnew and asked if she had the second in the series at Aunt Agatha’s. I’m reading it now, and look forward to picking up the third book once I finish. (Guest reviewer Linda Kimmel, customer, book club member, and friend)