May 2024
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Review: The Queen’s Man, Sharon Kay Penman

the queen's manJustin de Quincey has received an excellent education for 12th century England, despite the fact that he’s never known either of his parents. Finally at an age to set off on his own, Justin discovers that his father is actually the benefactor he’d already been familiar with, Aubrey de Quincey, nothing less than the Bishop of Coventry. When leaving, his thoughts clouded with anger and betrayal, he stumbles upon a murder scene, and receives a letter meant for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Angevin Empire is in a bad place, as King Richard has gone missing on his return from the Crusades. Justin’s successful delivery of the letter to the queen leads to his assignment – discovering who had this man killed, why, and who might know what’s happened to King Richard.

Despite having read and adored most of Sharon Kay Penman’s books, I’d never actually read any of her medieval mysteries before this one. I bought all four – because, of course, I knew I would probably enjoy them once I read them – but I’ve had this one sitting on the shelf for almost four years. Historical mysteries have been keeping my interest in the overall historical fiction genre keen, so I decided at long last to see what one of my favourite authors had in store.

The Queen’s Man combines Penman’s exceptional talent for evoking the medieval atmosphere with a mystery that was satisfactory. While I’d never really put this on par with one of her epics, not least for the fact that it doesn’t contain the huge range of pure human emotion and historical detail as those do, her skills are still very obvious in this shorter, faster paced format. The main character, Justin, is sometimes a little bit too obtuse, even for a reader that is as bad at guessing mysteries as I am. He’s obviously inexperienced, but he doesn’t always draw conclusions as quickly as I felt he should. The mystery itself isn’t really one that had my heart racing, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading.

I suppose that “satisfactory” really is the best word for the book; it was a nice way to spend the afternoon, a quick read that sent me back to medieval England which is something I always enjoy. If I’d started here with Penman’s works, I’m not sure I’d have fallen in love with her writing as much as I did with The Sunne in Splendour or Here Be Dragons, but as a fan already, I can tell you that I’ll finish the next three, and I expect I will like them as much as I liked this book. Don’t go in expecting another breathtaking historical epic and you’ll enjoy The Queen’s Man - although it looks like the only place you can currently buy the book is used or on Kindle in the US.


Mini Reviews: One For the Money, Web of Lies

one for the moneyOne for the Money, Janet Evanovich

My mom recently started reading this series on the recommendation of some of her friends, and when I was visiting she lent me this one to give the series a try. Not wanting to disappoint, I did so, and I could pretty easily see why this has become so popular.

Stephanie Plum is a young woman who has got herself into a tough spot. She needs money to pay her rent and bills in her apartment in Trenton, New Jersey, and soon, so when her family tells her that her cousin has a job up for grabs, she goes for it. That job is for a bounty hunter, but the inexperienced Stephanie, lured by the promise of $10,000, decides to go after the most dangerous criminal of them all. He is a man with whom she has a past, and a man she’d very much like to get revenge on.

For me, this had a very typical mystery feel to it – if it had had magic, it could have been the start to an urban fantasy series, which usually starts out with some sort of mystery at the core. It was certainly fun, albeit a bit gory at times, a book I didn’t mind reading and sped through very quickly. My favourite parts were probably Stephanie’s interaction with her oddball family; I think I can see where the series is going with the two potential love interests, too.

I am not really dying to read the second book, but I wouldn’t turn it away if my mom put it in my hands again, either. Like most series, I suspect it gets better as you go along and get more acquainted with the characters and the history of the books, but it’s down to preference; I prefer the variety of mystery that involves either fantasy or history.

web of liesWeb of Lies, Jennifer Estep

Having read and enjoyed the first in this series, I figured I might as well buy the second and keep on going. Urban fantasy is definitely becoming my stress relief reading; whenever I’m not sure what I want to read, one of them jumps out at me with the promise of ever-more-epic storylines, consistently developing characters, and usually a fair bit of romance, too. In short – all of my favourite things, and this series isn’t an exception to the rule. In fact, I found the second one improved on the first as I fell deeper into Gin’s world.

Ostensibly retired from her job as an assassin, Gin Blanco has settled into running her murdered benefactor’s restaurant, the Pork Pit. But trouble won’t leave her alone, and it walks into her restaurant in the shape of two people; Jake McAllister, who attempts to rob her, and Violet Fox, who knows that benefactor and who is in danger. Gin’s own personal lust interest, Donovan Caine, is back, but thrown into the mix is another potential partner this time, as the stakes for Gin are as high as ever.

I liked this book a lot; it was a fast and easy read and I found myself liking Gin a lot better than I did in the first book. I liked that she was a devil-may-care contented assassin before, but I think her heart is coming out a lot here, and she needs to figure out how to operate without Fletcher around at the same time. Probably the only part that I didn’t like was Donovan Caine, the cop who simply won’t let his morals go enough to be with Gin. He doesn’t even seem that interested in knowing her – there is plenty of lust between them, but for him, he’s not curious about her and simply shuts off when he realises she’s going to kill someone else. I much preferred Owen Grayson, the new guy, and I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes next.


Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King

the beekeeper's apprenticeMary Russell stumbles upon the great Sherlock Holmes while rambling in the countryside. He’s retired – supposedly – to take up beekeeping, but her young mind is agile and ready to be challenged. After she proves herself, he takes her on as an apprentice, and the two begin to solve crimes together.

The central premise of this book is the idea that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, and the books and stories featuring him were elaborate fictionalizations of his real-life crime-solving. In his older years, Holmes still solves crimes, but does his best to stay out of the public eye. Still, Mary knows who he is, and as the central narrator, is determined to keep him within her sites. Soon we discover that her intellect is quite up to his as her own skills develop over the course of the novel.

Roughly the first half of this book is set out in episodes. Mary and Holmes set out to solve a couple of crimes together as he begins to train her. After she’s accepted as a fully fledged apprentice, the book gains more speed as the crimes get somewhat more desperate. Naturally, our two central characters also begin to develop a relationship with one another, both a respect for each other’s minds and a whole-hearted affection for each other’s character.

I was surprised by how much I genuinely enjoyed this book. Mysteries in the style of Sherlock Holmes frustrate me more often than not; because so much of the conclusions are derived from information that is never presented to the reader, it can be easy to get annoyed that it’s impossible to guess the conclusion. With this, though, I seem to have developed the ability to ignore that and simply follow the two characters along their journey. I suspect this is because the mysteries, while important to the plot, are not all that holds the book together. The narrative is very well done and the relationships between the characters develop naturally and realistically. About halfway through, I realized I just didn’t want to put the book down; I wanted to continue and find out what happened next.

I’m a bit late to this series, and now there are a number of installments that I’ll need to catch up on. I’ve known of it for quite some time, but never really had the impulse to begin until I was offered the latest book for review. So I’ll be skipping ahead to the last book, but believe me when I say I’ll also catch up on the ones I’ve missed. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a great start to a series I’m very happy to have finally discovered.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.


Guest Review: The Trinity Six, Charles Cumming

Today I’d like to welcome one of my friends, Josh, who blogs at Fortress of Solitude, with a review of The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming.

In The Trinity Six, Charles Cummings picks up on the tradition of authors such as John le Carre in the genre of Cold War British spy novel. The prime innovation is that rather than using a spy as the main character, Cummings uses a professor of Russian history named Sam Gaddis. Gaddis is an academic trope of sorts in that he is an excellent historian, but down on his luck and in his attempt to extricate himself stumbles upon a quarter century old story that could collapse a government.

But I am getting ahead of myself. One of the most famous spy rings in history was the Magnificent Five. Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, Philby and Cairncross were students at Cambridge in the 1930’s when they were recruited by a professor as spies for Russia. At the time of recruitment they were soldiers in the war against fascism in Europe. Each excelled and took posts in the British government, working against fascism, but also passing information to their Russian masters. In the 1950’s when the Americans began to break encryption patterns from World War II, they caught on to Maclean and Burgess and the ring began to collapse. The last of the Magnificent Five, Blunt was not exposed until 1979. But perhaps these five were not alone; perhaps there was a sixth, and that is the discovery from which all of Gaddis’ adventures stem. One revelation leads to another and Gaddis finds himself unravelling one Cold War mystery after another.

Despite the traditional qualifier that all characters are used fictitiously and the story is a product of the author’s imagination, the situation presented of an immensely popular Russian President who was a mid-ranking officer in the last years of the Cold War, but through brutal suppression of opponents of his reign had transformed into a dictator in all but name, smacks of reality. Perhaps incidental, but Cummings reveals a commentary on the Russian state. All the while The Trinity Six is compelling and an easy read. My only critique is that at one or two points the supposedly coincidental events seem to be a stretch. As such they make the story seem somewhat railroaded, rather than a narrative that actually could happen. But it is not the characters or anything that they do, or even the scenario that is unconvincing. Simply put, there was just one too many coincidences.

Anyone who likes thrillers or spy novels ought to give The Trinity Six a read. Cummings is not yet to the level of le Carre, however the best is yet to come and this is a good place to start.

I am an Amazon Associate.


Review: Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

A rare female doctor, trained in Salerno, is recruited to head to England along with two men in order to solve an important crime.  Adelia is a mistress of the art of the death; she “reads” bodies in order to find out exactly what happened to them.  In short, she does autopsies, and her skills are essential to try and find out who has been taking and killing small children in Cambridge.  The Jews have been blamed, of course, despite the fact that they’re obviously innocent, and they have even been killed by townspeople, so they are all holed up in the center of town.  Adelia’s job is to find the murderer, without getting murdered herself.

Sometimes being unfamiliar with mysteries is useful, because I just loved this book.  I mean, I’m probably going to spend this entire review gushing about it mostly because I can’t help myself.  I’ve done what I normally don’t do and read reviews prior to composing my own, and have discovered that quite a few people thought the mystery was too predictable for the book to be interesting.  I suppose that some aspects were predictable – the character who commits the murders is always a suspicious character though I didn’t guess which one – but I never read mysteries for the whodunnit aspect.  I usually don’t even guess.  Taking this solely as historical fiction, I just adored it.

I liked it so much that I didn’t even particularly care that Adelia seemed so anachronistic to me.  After all, there were female doctors trained at Salerno (which I knew, but the author kindly clarifies as well) and it’s not outside the realm of imagination that one would develop as independent a spirit as Adelia does, even if it was unlikely.  As a modern reader, I thought she was fantastic all around, and I loved the romance that developed and her eventual response to it.  I loved even more that it was a romance between two imperfect people who never planned on it happening, but were so drawn in by one another that they simply could not resist.

I also enjoyed all the little medieval details that Franklin sprinkles throughout the narrative.  I really felt the atmosphere, which doesn’t always happen when reading historical fiction.  I was particularly pleased with her depiction of Henry II, who she describes pretty much precisely as I’d imagined him to be, as a clever man with an unfortunate temper that betrays his intellect.  He doesn’t show up often, but when he does he quite steals the show, as I think the king would have done in the Middle Ages.

I can easily say that this is the first medieval novel I’ve read in over a year that I wasn’t ready to pick apart with inaccuracies.  The simple truth is that I enjoyed it far too much.  Since everyone in the novel was fictional, apart from Henry II, I didn’t have to worry that something was wrong and I didn’t know about it.  The case itself was fictional.  Even the small details that Franklin includes which didn’t happen she explains in her afterword – including the origin of her idea for the book, a case which genuinely did occur.

I absolutely can’t wait to get to the next book in this series – I’ve already requested it from the library.  I loved Mistress of the Art of Death and would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction or historical mysteries.

I am an Amazon associate. I purchased this book.


Review: Dark Road to Darjeeling, Deanna Raybourn

dark road to darjeelingLady Julia and Brisbane may have tied the knot, but that doesn’t mean intrigue has absented itself from their lives.  No, even on their honeymoon, there is a mystery which they are compelled to solve. When Julia’s siblings Portia and Plum turn up, asking Julia and Brisbane to come to see Portia’s former lover, Jane, who is pregnant and suspects her husband has been killed, the new couple simply cannot say no.  When Brisbane stays behind and doesn’t immediately go to the estate with Julia, she is distressed but resolves to try and find the murderer out for herself.  What she does find is a strange mix of people both old and new and a mystery she cannot begin to guess how to solve, if there even is one at all.

It’s not a secret that I’m a big fan of this series, so I was thrilled when I found it on Netgalley, saving me the cost of importing the book just to see what happened (although this is one I do intend to purchase a paper copy of).  I was a little worried about how it would go once Julia and Brisbane were actually married.  Although none of the books’ plots have revolved around their romance, it has been a big part of the series and the tension between them has been a main linking factor of all the books; no matter what they’re trying to figure out, these two people have been drawn to one another.  As it turns out, they still are very attracted to each other, although Raybourn fades to black so we never witness any of their more intimate scenes, for which I was grateful.  They have their arguments, but they are still very in love throughout this particular novel, and I didn’t feel the lack of their courtship too keenly.

The mystery itself in the book was an interesting one, with pieces I didn’t put together until the end, but I’m not sure I was meant to.  I often could tell that the real culprit wasn’t any of the people Julia actually suspected but I didn’t guess who it was; I did assume there was a murderer or the book would have ended without any sort of climax.  As it stood, however, quite a few things did happen at the end of the book, few of which were particularly happy, and Raybourn drops us off with a nice cliffhanger that has me ready for the next in the series immediately.

What I liked the most about this book, as I often do in series that earn themselves a place on my favorites list, was the fact that the relationships within the series continue to grow and change with each installment.  I also love that we learn bits about each character as the series progresses.  Bits and pieces of the past come back to haunt them and play a role in each new storyline, so we’re always tied neatly in to the past.  The books themselves have storylines but the whole series is an arc as we learn more and more about each individual character.

I still love this series and I am already anxious for number five!  Dark Road to Darjeeling is a fantastic installment in a series that is just pure pleasure.  If you enjoy historical fiction and mysteries, you will enjoy this series.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for review through Netgalley.


Review: The Baker Street Phantom, Fabrice Bourland

It’s 1932 in London and as a string of brutal murders begin to take place around town, two young detectives set up their own agency in Bloomsbury.  Business is quiet for Singleton and Trelawney until Lady Arthur Conan Doyle – the famous author’s widow – calls on them about a ghost.  Singleton’s father is a famed investigator of spirits, so even though he doesn’t want to take on the case, he’s almost forced to.  But what does a ghost haunting 221 Baker Street have to do with the murders taking place across London?

This was an intriguing book and so much more than I originally took it for.  I admit to starting out dubious, as the book opens with a seance and a declaration that everything was published as it was found – I thought it was going to be a hokey mystery about ghosts.  Instead, it turned into an intriguing literary mystery with an interesting protagonist and curious philosophy, which apparently is completely accurate to the time.  I really enjoyed this book and I can’t say that about too many mysteries.

Undoubtedly my favorite part of the book was its literary bent.  At first, I had no idea how things were connected, but the story came together extremely well.  First of all, there’s a ghost haunting 221 Baker Street, which of course did not exist when Conan Doyle was writing, so all of the characters are perplexed about the existence of the ghost.  It turns out to be a likeness of Sherlock Holmes, but the famed detective was obviously fictional, so how is he a ghost?  And what does he have to do with all the murders?  It’s obvious there’s something going on, and I just had to keep reading because I was very intrigued.

I also really enjoyed learning a little bit about the effort that people made in the 30’s to learn about ghosts.  Bourland doesn’t spare the details and I learned all about ectoplasm and the strange photography techniques people used to create it; in fact, it startled me to learn that some photographs described were actually real and are in archives ready for anyone to look at.  It definitely made me wonder how they were created originally.  The author cites a few books published by the men working on these ideas and I must say I’m curious to read them, no matter how much I disagree with the conclusions made.

If you enjoy mysteries and literature, which I know many of you do, The Baker Street Phantom is an excellent little read.  It kept my attention throughout and didn’t frustrate me once; instead I marveled at the author’s cleverness and look forward to reading more in this series as soon as they’re published in English.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from a publicist for review.


Review: Grave Sight, Charlaine Harris

When she was young, Harper Connolly was struck with a bolt of lightning, and ever since then has had something of a connection with dead people.  She can sense bodies, causes of death, and sometimes even flashes back into that person’s life to witness their death from their perspective.  It’s more than a little stressful, but Harper uses her unusual talent to help people figure out the causes of their loved ones’ deaths, for a fee.  When she and her stepbrother travel to a small town in the Ozarks to try and find the body of a local teenager, they realise that there’s a whole lot more than a suicide going on – and no one wants Harper to figure out the truth.

While this was absolutely nothing like the Sookie Stackhouse series, I still enjoyed it a surprising amount for a mystery.  I don’t normally like mysteries, and I wouldn’t really call this one of my favorite books, but it held its own as a short, enjoyable read for an afternoon or two.  The book is quite dark overall, which makes sense; the very nature of the book means that Harper is pretty much always thinking about death, how people died, and whether or not she’s about to be killed herself.

When I first started reading, I wasn’t really sure I was going to enjoy the book.  Harper is a strange character; she’s very edgy and often wishes she could just be a normal person.  She has a strange relationship with her stepbrother as well; they’re not actually related by blood and seem to do everything together, which feels a little strange.  The whole book also has a dark feel that really suits its status as a mystery.  Harris is never going to win an award for the greatest writing; she still focuses a little too much on mundane details like clothes and when characters wash up, the same as she does in the Sookie series, but her writing does go down easily and the book really sped by.  This is especially so as the mystery began to unravel and I became more curious about each character and where the whole situation was going.

Because the book is so short, I don’t really have too much else to say about it, but for me Grave Sight had all the trademarks of an entertaining read.  I do plan to continue the series; I’m so far not quite as drawn to it as I am to Sookie, but I won’t mind staying in this world a little longer either.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.


Review: Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears

Stealing the back cover description this time because this is so complex:

In his most dazzling novel since the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears tells the story of John Stone, financier and arms dealer, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, industries, and indeed entire countries and continents.

A panoramic novel with a riveting mystery at its heart, Stone’s Fall is a quest to discover how and why John Stone dies, falling out of a window at his London home.  Chronologically, it moves backwards–from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890, and finally to Venice in 1867– and in the process the quest to uncover the truth plays out against the backdrop of the evolution of high-stakes international finance, Europe’s first great age of espionage, and the start of the twentieth century’s arms race.

Like Fingerpost, Stone’s Fall is an intricately plotted and richly satisfying puzzle–an erudite work of history and fiction that feels utterly true and oddly timely–and marks the triumphant return of one of the world’s great storytellers.

I had an interesting time with Stone’s Fall.  I read most of it in a couple of days, then set aside the last 200 pages to be read several weeks later.  I didn’t do it on purpose, I just didn’t feel like lugging such a huge book on a plane with me.  It’s worth noting that I wasn’t particularly compelled to pick it up again, especially as I’d forgotten most of what happened, but I enjoyed the end when I got to it.

Since it’s set in three time periods, it takes a bit of patience to see where this book is going.  At first, everything seems clear.  John Stone and his wife Elizabeth are fairly ordinary as millionaires go; it’s only when Stone falls out a window and Elizabeth invites reporter Matthew Braddock into their home that things get interesting.  Stone has insisted that they find an illegitimate child of his before the will can be settled, but no one can find this child.  And so this twisting mystery begins with a search, but widens into something much more.

Despite its massive length, Stone’s Fall needed every word to pull off its twisting plot.  Even though the story goes back in time, we have no idea what the outcome in the present time is until the full story is told, and that outcome is extremely unexpected.  I can’t imagine anyone guessing the result of this mystery and it’s all the better for it; I like a little unpredictability in my reading.  It’s hard to get attached to the characters, especially as we’re treated to details of their sordid pasts, but they are complex and well-developed in all stages of their lives.  I thought the best character was the man who represented Venice in the book’s last segment.  The city is a character, so it makes perfect sense for it to be manifested as a human being.  This was a nice touch.

If you like long, involved mysteries, I would recommend Stone’s Fall to you.  It would be a great read for anyone else, too, but I do have to suggest not putting it down once you get involved!  It’s hard to pick up the pieces in such a convoluted plot, at least not until it starts to make sense towards the end.  I am still looking forward to An Instance of the Fingerpost by this author, which is sitting on my TBR pile staring at me.


Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

From the back cover:

It is the summer of 1950 – and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home.  A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak.  Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.  Then someone steals a slice of Mrs. Mullet’s unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling on the kitchen window … As the noose tightens, Flavia decides it is up to her – and her fully equipped Victorian chemical laboratory – to piece together the clues and solve a murder.

Mysteries are one of the only two or three genres that I really don’t regularly like.  I thought this was changing, given that I’ve read several mysteries this year and enjoyed pretty much all of them.  That’s why I immediately chose this book from Amazon Vine.  I wanted to test my theory and it sounded great.  While this book has an interesting plot and should have had an interesting main character, I found that it didn’t work for me.

First, Flavia is not as appealing as she should be given the many blurbs about how awesome she is.  In a sense, she is awesome, given her intelligence and ingenuity, but she doesn’t feel like an eleven-year-old girl.  There isn’t much that is girlish about her and I feel that she could have been a boy just as easily.  Her deep passion for chemistry and certainty about her life’s direction do remind me of that weird stage of youth; it doesn’t really occur to her that others think she is strange, she just goes her own way and pursues her own interests.  So as a character, she was a bit hit-and-miss with me.

I read an ARC, and I hope this is corrected in the proper version, but the name of the murdered person changed halfway through the book.  Talk about confusing!  I also thought that there was too much exposition.  Flavia explained how she came to her various conclusions and it all seemed fairly obvious.

I did like the old-fashioned British feel of the book; even if we weren’t told that this takes place in 1950, it would be easy to guess somewhere around the proper time.  I liked all the little bits of information about chemistry and postage stamps and boys’ schools.  And I was interested in the conclusion to the mystery once I’d figured out who the villain was and who the victim was.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie just wasn’t a major success  for me.  It succeeded in small ways, but not enough for me to be interested in continuing the series.