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Review: Tethered by Amy MacKinnon

As an undertaker, Clara spends most of her days in the basement of a funeral home, carefully preparing dead bodies for their final viewing.  In every casket she carefully hides a bouquet of her choice, lovingly selected to emulate their qualities and personality, if she knows them.  One day she sees a little girl, Trecie, alone in the funeral home, who will neither leave or leave Clara alone.  When Mike Sullivan, a policeman who is determined to get to the bottom of a three-year-old murder of another abused little girl, begins asking Clara questions, they realize that the cases may be related.  Clara must choose between isolating herself and saving the life of a little girl who has found her way into her heart.

I surprised myself by liking this book so much.  I have been making an effort recently to read and review the ARCs that didn’t catch me on my first try and eliminate any possible backlog.  I’d categorized this one as a murder mystery, not my favorite, and the description of preparing a dead body for a funeral on the first few pages didn’t do much to peak my interest.  So it sat unread and I felt guilty.  Well, now I don’t feel guilty, and I’m happy because I read a fantastic book.

The one thing that pulled me in this book and wouldn’t let go was the character of Clara.  Clara had a hard, hard childhood, bits and pieces of which are given to us throughout the narrative.  As a result, she’s developed certain coping mechanisms, and one of them is hiding herself from the world, associating with mainly dead people, the two owners of the funeral home, and her garden.  When Mike comes poking around, asking questions about the little girl who she essentially repaired more than she has done for any other human being, Clara’s defensive walls start to crack a little, and they continue to do so over the course of the novel.  It was this slow unveiling which made the book for me.  The other characters are similarly interesting and multi-dimensional; it’s hard to guess at the “bad guy” until clues start coming in thick and fast, because he seems good enough most of the time.  

The only thing that bothered me were the many descriptions of dead people, particularly the one at the beginning where Clara describes what she does to them.  I can’t say I really needed to know that.  I understand to a basic extent what goes into preparing a body for an open casket but I didn’t really need to know all about it.  Clara and various police officers and helpers also routinely go to the houses of dead people to pick the bodies up.  All of these pickups do provide us with plot development, but corpses make me uncomfortable.  It was worth it to get past that, but it is worth noting if this squicks you out.

Overall, I found this to be a great book with a fantastic main character.  I think it would appeal to both mystery lovers and non-mystery lovers like me, because there is enough character development and suspicion to go around!  I’m sorry I didn’t get to this book sooner; it was that great.

Available via IndieBound, Powell’s, Amazon, and Amazon UK.

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[TSS] Review: And Only to Deceive, Tasha Alexander

Lady Emily Ashton married her husband simply to get out of her mother’s house.  When he dies less than six months after their marriage on a hunting trip in Africa, Emily does not know what to feel except perplexed.  Everyone close to her husband assumes that she is mourning him dreadfully and sprinkles her with anecdotes, assuming that she’ll relate.  Emily, however, barely knew her husband and struggles to orient herself in this world.  When she learns that her husband felt a great deal more for her than she did for him, she begins searching for his true character, and in the bargain learns about disturbing fakes at the British Museum.  Could the husband for whom she has begun to feel a posthumous affection be the criminal, or is it one of his friends?

I waited a while to write this review because I was a little perplexed as to how I felt about it.  I still am.  While I was reading the book, my last of the Read-a-Thon, I loved it.  I continued reading after the Read-a-Thon was over because I enjoyed it so much, but towards the end I started to feel a little deflated about it and now that I’ve finished, my feelings are mixed.  I think it has a lot to do with where the plot went.  Emily convinces herself that a specific person is guilty with the coercion of another friend.  I was convinced that person #1 was perfectly innocent while person #2 was definitely guilty.  Sorry, if you’ve read the book, you will know who I mean.  Lo and behold, I was right, but I think her willing ignorance and inability to think for herself – after going in and doing all that research and coming to so many great conclusions – really got to me.  I liked person #1!

I originally went for this book because it reminded me of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries (Silent in the Grave) which I found absolutely fabulous.  Husband very recently dead, later evidence of his suspicious behavior in regards to someone, widow finding her wings while solving a mystery directly involving dead husband.  I think this one suffered a little in comparison, which is unfortunate, especially so because there are things I loved about this book.  I loved Emily’s interest in the Classics, her desire to learn ancient Greek and really get into her research.  The way she went about falling love with her husband after his death was sweet, if a little strange; but the feeling of regret is one that comes through beautifully and is really touching.  She realizes that she could have loved this man if she’d looked twice at him and the fact that she didn’t bother really hurts her.

I think this book is really well-written, too.  I know it completely sucked me in within the first few pages and I can’t say that about many of my more recent reads.  Even though I solved the mystery, I still wanted to know the exact details and I wanted to see what would happen when Emily figured it out.  Like I said, this book kept me reading after the Read-a-Thon was over and I’d spent 12 1/2 of the past 24 reading away and I plan on reading the rest of the series.  Even though it isn’t the best, I would still recommend it if you are looking for more like Deanna Raybourn’s excellent series or, better yet, if you haven’t read them and want to try this genre, which is sort of more historical fiction than mystery but still has both.

Buy And Only to Deceive on Amazon.

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Review: The Apothecary Rose, Candace Robb

When Owen Archer loses the sight in one of his eyes, his military career under the duke of Lancaster is over.  Or so it would seem, until the duke employs him in other ways.  Once the old duke dies, Archer is unsure of his future.  He’s recruited by the Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor, Thoresby, to investigate a pair of murders in St. Mary’s Abbey, just outside York’s city walls.  One of the victims is Thoresby’s ward and Thoresby isn’t content with the cause of death.  He sends Owen to figure out what’s really happened by apprenticing him to the apothecary and giving him an entrance into the world of medieval York.

This may have been the only time in my entire life that I have not needed the map on the first few pages of this book.  I’m absurdly familiar with medieval York and given that my classes are held on top of the former grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey, this book had a special thrill for me.  I loved the medieval atmosphere.  These characters walk through places I go every day and it’s exciting to imagine it as they would have seen it.

I liked those characters, too.  I can see a bit of Owen Archer’s legendary appeal, about which I have heard much.  (I read this on the recommendation of Nan Hawthorne, by the way!)  I enjoyed the ambiguity about many of them, particularly Lucie, and how the truth was eventually revealed.  Even the supporting characters like Bess didn’t fall flat.  The Archdeacon made me feel very uncomfortable, but I think that was the point.

As far as writing goes, I felt it was a bit plain.  I could certainly imagine medieval York, but it’s hard for me personally to say whether I had such an easy time because I’ve tried before and am very familiar with the city or because the author did a brilliant job imagining it.  It’s hard to say, but I do think the prose was the weakest point.  The story was good enough for it to vanish, as should happen, but I found it hard to immerse myself at the beginning before the plot got rolling.

I would recommend this to other people who like their historical fiction set firmly in the middle ages and probably to those who like medieval mystery as well.  As for me, I’m looking forward to the next in the series. Though it is out of print, you can buy The Apothecary Rose used on Amazon.

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Review: Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark, Donna Lea Simpson

When Lady Anne Addison’s friend Lydia writes her, desperately seeking help with a seemingly supernatural phenomenon and with matters of the heart, Anne sets off at once.  When she arrives in Yorkshire, no one is there to meet her and she must make her own way to the manor after the postman acts like he is terrified by her presence.  On the way to Darkefell Castle, she is nearly witness to a horrible crime and the mystery complicates before her very eyes.  Determined to find out the truth, she only has one man in her way, the Marquess of Darkefell, maddening, secretive, and infuriating but somehow so very attractive.  

I expected a romance out of this book, but what I got was a romantic mystery!  I didn’t mind.  I loved that Lady Anne was such a curious, intelligent woman.  She’s determined to get to the bottom of things and even though mysteries proliferate around her and everyone wants to keep their mouth shut, she just does not give up.  I even liked the Marquess of Darkefell, although to be honest I will probably love any character who knows that Edward of Woodstock was probably never called the Black Prince in his lifetime.  In all honesty, though, I liked that he wasn’t nearly so “bad” as he was made out to be by the other characters.  I found him quite endearing after we learned what he did and definitely did not do.

As for the plot, I definitely felt it came together towards the end.  I figured out who had probably caused the murders and I was pleased when I was correct at least in part; some bits are left unexplained, which is okay since I discovered that this is the first of a series.  I certainly never expected the resolution to the werewolf side story.  I also found the parts about slavery infuriating, and more so when their truth was confirmed in the author’s note.  Such barbarity makes me uncomfortable and I still can’t believe that humans could treat each other so abominably.  Certainly made a wonderfully complex character in Osei though and I hope we see more of him.

Overall, I’m looking forward to more from Lady Anne and the Marquess of Darkefell and glad to hear that the next book will be published later this year!  

Buy Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark on Amazon.

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Review: Silent on the Moor, Deanna Raybourn

Determined to find out once and for all what is between her and Brisbane, Lady Julia heads to the moors of Yorkshire with two of her siblings despite Brisbane’s admonitions to stay away at all costs.  She didn’t expect to find the former owners of Grimsgrave still in residence.  Lady Allenby and her daughters Ailith and Hilda are the remains of a proud, old family who claim descent from the Anglo-Saxon kings of England; the kind of family which disdains diluting their blood with lesser mortals.  Neither does Julia expect the mysteries she starts to uncover when she begins cataloging the Egyptian artifacts of the late Allenby heir, Redwall.  All in all, something suspicious is afoot, and Julia once again must get to the bottom of it.

I gushed about the first two novels in this series.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m about to gush about this one too.  Regardless, before you read on please note that you should check out Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary before going near this review!

This book is most intriguing because unlike the first two, there is no murder, only attempted poisoning.  So the victim lives to tell the tale, but I have to say that the mystery here was fascinating.  I was compelled to read on, to figure out what was going on.  You can just ask Keith, who was with me while I was in the thrall of this book, to tell you how much I wanted to get back to it.  It was a constant draw.  The Allenby family is like a car wreck you pass on the highway.  You don’t want to keep looking but you can’t turn your eyes away.  And I don’t like mysteries.  

There is just something I love about this series though.  It may be Deanna Raybourn’s exquisite, witty writing.  It may be the plots that I can actually follow through to conclusion and find myself wrapped up in, not confused by missing hints or sudden conclusions.  It may be the characters who keep developing and growing as each book goes by.  It might be the romantic tension between Julia and Brisbane, or the quirky March family, or the intense atmosphere and setting captured in each book.  Or it could be all of those things.  They combine to make compelling, wonderful reading that I just can’t tear myself away from.

I also really appreciated that this one had something of a resolution at the end.  Deanna Raybourn has said that she will be writing more Julia Grey books, but I’m sure there will be quite a wait.  I’m glad the characters are temporarily static in my mind, and perhaps even more, that I will have the opportunity for a re-read.

Do I recommend these books?  Absolutely.  I think they’re fantastic.  Possibly not for everyone, but if you’re looking for a mixture of mystery and romance with a side of great prose, look no further.  I know that I’ll be buying the next Lady Julia Grey book the instant it hits the shelves.

Buy Silent On The Moor on Amazon.

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Review: Silent in the Sanctuary, Deanna Raybourn

When her brother Lysander marries an Italian, Lady Julia Grey and her brothers are summoned back to the family home, a gigantic former abbey, for Christmas and for a scolding.  The house party, however, consists of not just the large and eccentric family but some unexpected houseguests, including Nicholas Brisbane, who is in line for a title and with his fiancee, a silly widow, in tow.  That isn’t the only shock going at Bellmont Abbey, though, when a body is found in the sanctuary and Julia’s priceless Grey pearls go missing.  Reluctantly teamed up again, Julia and Brisbane must out the culprit and figure out who is behind the crimes.

I was so excited for this book and it didn’t disappoint at all!  I just love when that happens.  The plot may have taken a good 100 or so pages to get going, but I didn’t care, I loved this from the first word.  The scene was carefully set before the murder occurred and I think the book would have suffered without that.  The plot of this book is more complicated than in the first, but I didn’t find it any harder to understand by the end, though I’m sure more clues would reveal themselves on a reread.  I did find myself reading much faster after the murder because I wanted to know what happened, but it was the difference between savoring Raybourn’s writing and desperately wanting to know how it all came out.

I also love the further development of the characters.  Julia is an even sassier heroine than before.  She’s come into her own and embraced her March background, firmly declaring herself her own woman.  Brisbane is, if possible, even more of a mystery the more we learn about him.  He’s an enigmatic, fascinating man, and it’s so easy to see why Julia is obsessed with him.  I’m not into dangerous men, but I can see the appeal in this guy, and I think Julia’s infatuation is more on a level I can understand than, say, Bella’s was in Twilight.  Also, this is a bit of a sidenote, but I adore the fact that these characters read!  Raybourn mentions a stack of books on Brisbane’s nightstand and Julia reads herself to sleep on at least one occasion that I can remember.

Finally, I adore the atmosphere in this book.  The prose is still gorgeous and clever and witty.  I like the immediate contrast between sunny Italy and wintry England.  I love Bellmont Abbey; as much as I deplore the dissolution of monasteries, the existence of these former religious buildings turned houses is fascinating, and such a conversion is much better than letting them go to ruin.  I felt as though I could walk the halls of the abbey, see the ghost, feel the drafts, and just in general live in this novel for a little while.  As soon as I finished, I wanted to go back and live in it a little longer.  I can’t wait to read Silent on the Moor (a book like this set in my favorite part of England?  Yay!) and am currently berating myself for having library books to get to before I can read it.

As you can probably tell, I loved this book.  I really can’t stop gushing about it.  If you love historical fiction, if you love mysteries, if you just love a good book, you should read this.  Start with Silent in the Grave, but then buy this one on Amazon.

(I will be honest, about the only thing I don’t like about my copy of this book is its cover.  Keith thought it was okay, but I really did not like it and think it gave the wrong impression, as do the romance novel covers that grace the current US versions.  What do you think?)

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Review: Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn

Lady Julia Grey and her husband Edward are giving a dinner party when he is suddenly struck with convulsions.  One of the guests, Nicholas Brisbane, immediately rushes to help, but Edward dies later that night.  Julia is unsure what to think or feel, especially when Nicholas comes to her door claiming that Edward feared for his life and that he may have been murdered.  Julia has heard the coroner’s reports and dismisses Nicholas immediately.  One year later, however, she finds an incriminating piece of evidence suggesting that Brisbane was actually telling the truth.  The trail has gone cold, but she enlists his help to determine whether her husband was murdered and if so, who did it.

I loved this book, from the first word to the last, and usually that only happens with my favorite authors.  I picked it up and simply did not want to put it down, ever again.  I think it’s the way that Raybourn writes, very elegantly, carefully, but with a little twist of humor, exactly how I’d envision a Victorian lady thinking.  Or perhaps it just suits me.  Whatever the combination, I was immediately swept into the book and Julia came to feel like a close friend.

I’m not a huge fan of mysteries, but I definitely felt that this one was well within my comfort range.  I always understood what was happening and why characters reached certain conclusions, but I could never have guessed the ending.  In fact, it’s very cleverly done so that the culprit’s name isn’t said in the scene and I actually thought it was the wrong guy!  I was ready to throw the book across the room until I realized who it was, and then I realized that Deanna Raybourn deserves serious accolades for making it so tricky yet so obvious once you “get it”, because then it all makes perfect sense.  I guess I could just be slow (and indeed I am according to Amazon reviews), but I was genuinely surprised.  I enjoyed all the little side plots and the quirky characters, even the sleazy ones, because they really created an atmosphere for the whole story.

In conclusion, fantastic book.  I adored it.  I want to read it again.  It’s so much fun and so enthralling and it has an edge of cleverness which makes it all come together really well.

Buy Silent In The Grave on Amazon.

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