DNF: A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder

A Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and MurderA Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and Murder
by Dianne Freeman
Rating:
isbn: 9781496731609
Series: Countess of Harleigh Mystery #4
Publication Date: October 8, 2021
Pages: 295
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

For Frances Wynn, widow to the late Earl of Harleigh, life has a cosmopolitan flavor of late. No sooner has she sent her mother and daughter off on a shopping trip to Paris than she and her fiancé, George Hazleton, are socializing with visiting members of the Russian royal family. Yet amid this whirlwind, scandal also comes calling when Inspector Delaney turns up outside Frances's house with a young French woman with a shocking claim: she is Mrs. George Hazelton.

As the future Mrs. George Hazelton, Frances assumes the woman is either lying or demented. "Mrs. Hazelton," aka Irena, makes other outrageous statements. Among them, she insists that she is the illegitimate daughter of Russian royalty, that she has been abducted and held for ransom many times, and that someone is sending her threatening letters. When George arrives, he clarifies that he is certainly not married to Irena--though he can confirm her royal parentage. But even as he agrees to investigate whether Irena's life is in danger, her claim proves tragically true. Irena is found strangled in Frances' garden.

To uncover a killer--and clear their own names--Frances and George must determine which of Irena's outlandish stories were based in fact, and who stood to benefit from her death. And as the search reaches a shocking conclusion, they may find that villainy lurks all too close to home...


It’s rare that I DNF a book, and I enjoyed the first three of this series, but I got 45 pages in and … a big fat no.

I’m never going to be able to suspend my belief enough to read about a spoiled rotten by-blow of the Russian royal family who baldly lies about being the MC’s fiancé’s wife so she can blackmail him into investigating someone sending her letters.

In an age where a woman would be sent to a sanitarium for merely reading the wrong book, the idea that this silly child could successfully throw this tantrum and manipulate the main characters is beyond ridiculous.  I don’t care that she does end up dead, it’s a terrible, weak premise.

The Impossible Impostor (Veronica Speedwell, #7)

The Impossible ImpostorThe Impossible Impostor
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593197295
Series: Veronica Speedwell Mystery #7
Publication Date: February 15, 2022
Pages: 327
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

But now a man matching Jonathan’s description and carrying his possessions has arrived at Hathaway Hall with no memory of his identity or where he has been. Could this man truly be Jonathan, back from the dead? Or is he a devious impostor, determined to gain ownership over the family’s most valuable possessions—a legendary parure of priceless Rajasthani jewels? It’s a delicate situation, and Veronica is Sir Hugo’s only hope.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.


Not every book in a series can be equally excellent, and while this one was good, it wasn’t nearly as good as the first 6.  I suppose it was inevitable that a story line about Veronica’s illustrious past came into play, but I think Raybourn could have done a better job than mirroring Veronica’s experiences with Stoker’s so predictably, and I found Veronica stewing in her own guilt and emotional angst unpalatable from such a normally headstrong and independent woman.  I know nobody can get through life without some naval gazing, but it’s not the stuff I generally tend to enjoy reading about.

I also found the ending way too convenient and tidy, and I particularly dislike that Raybourn seems to have plans to play one brother against the other in the next book.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book for the characters and once I got a few chapters in, I lost myself in the adventures, even if I found myself critical of them.  My problems with the story in no way diminishes my enthusiasm for the series nor my anticipation of the next book.

Evil in Emerald (Harriet Gordon Mystery, #3)

Evil in EmeraldEvil in Emerald
by A.M. Stuart
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593335482
Series: Harriet Gordon #3
Publication Date: April 5, 2022
Pages: 347
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

Craving a change of pace, Harriet Gordon, joins a local musical theatre production but when a fellow cast member is brutally killed, Harriet and Inspector Curran must turn the spotlight on murder in this all-new mystery from the author of Revenge in Rubies.

Between working at her brother’s school and typing up Inspector Robert Curran’s police reports, Harriet Gordon has little time for personal pursuits and she has been enjoying the rehearsals for her role in the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society’s latest production – Pirates of Penzance. But Harriet quickly discovers tensions run deep within the theatre company and when the leading man is found murdered, suspicions abound, exposing scandalous behavior as well as some insidious crimes.

Inspector Curran once again turns to Harriet for help with this difficult case, but his own life begins to unravel as a mysterious man turns up on his doorstep claiming to know more about Curran’s painful past than he himself does. And after the one person he has always counted on delivers him some devastating news, the line between his personal and professional life begins to blur. Now, more than ever, Curran needs Harriet’s steadfast assistance, and when another cast member meets a violent end, Curran and Harriet will have to close in on a killer determined to make this case their final curtain call.


In a lot of ways, this series feels like a direct reaction to Little, Brown’s Su Lin series, written by Ovidia Yu: it’s set in British Colonial Singapore (albeit pre WWI as opposed to Yu’s interwar setting); Harriet Gordon, the female lead, though white and British, has a scandalous background and earns a meagre salary by typing reports for the police; Robert Curren is the detective – also with a scandalous past, a shady history, and a very private man with unconventional habits.  The two series are so similar, in fact, that I was prepared to swear that a character in this series – Curran’s love interest – was actually the love interest of the detective in the Su Lin series.  Both series have a Singh on the police force.

There’s a lot of similarities between the two series, but there are also a lot of fundamental differences.  Yu’s Su Lin series feels authentic from the viewpoint of the different Asian citizens of Singapore and Yu’s Singapore feels like the hot, humid, barely tamed jungle it surely was; reading her books is to put yourself in a very exotic setting.  Stuart’s pre-WWI Singapore is undoubtedly authentic too, but it’s definitely from the viewpoint of the colonisers.  Every bit of the story bleeds British, right down to the setting of Evil in Emerald, an amateur production of Pirates of Penzance.  All the primary characters are white (British, Aussie, Kiwi), and Singapore is sanitised.

I was just a touch more than indifferent after reading the first two books, but bought this one last week because I was in the mood for an historical mystery, and I have to say, the author convinced me with this one.  This time around, the characters gelled with me and I was far more interested in them than I was previously.  There’s a more pronounced element of romance in this series and I admit I like the dynamic developing between Gordon and Curran.

The mystery plotting was still average, though Stuart masked what would have felt to me to be a transparent crime by mixing in at least two other crimes involving the mix of the same suspects.  It worked, for the most part.  I wasn’t at all surprised by the murderer, but I wasn’t ever bored with the waiting to find out if I was right or not.

Unfortunately, the author uses this book as a springboard to complications for Curran, and uses the last chapters to setup the direction of the next book. I wouldn’t find this so irritating if I hadn’t bought the book on publication.  As it is, I’m finally interested and now have to wait who-knows-how-long before the next one comes out.

All in all, a developing series with promise if you’re looking for an historical mystery series, and enjoy the British variety – but for an historical mystery series that’s dripping with exotic, authentic Singaporean atmosphere, stick with Ovidia Yu’s Su Lin series.  Me? I like both – double the reading pleasure! I just have to remember who belongs in where.

My … 10 days in reading? Part 2

The first half of my re-reading binge was inspired by Moonlight Reader’s comment in her posts about wanting to get back to reading Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series.  This is a series I’d gotten caught up in years ago, but abandoned for reasons I couldn’t remember.  She put the series back on my radar, and I got to wondering whether I could get caught up in it again, or if I should just mark that series as abandoned, so I had MT pull the 9 books I have down from the shelves and buried myself in 19th century England.

Rather than try to review all of the books again here, I’m just going to list the book and include a thought or two about each one.  Because this is still going to make for a physically long post, I put it behind a ‘read more’. Suffice it to say that the series was very hit and miss for me up through book 9.  I remember the qualities that drove me to set the series aside originally, but there is also a lot to like about them (most of them, anyway).  Will I continue?  I’m still not sure.  Maybe.  At least, I might try one more.

Continue reading My … 10 days in reading? Part 2

The Last Bookshop in London

The Last Bookshop in LondonThe Last Bookshop in London
by Madeline Martin
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9781867231912
Publication Date: June 2, 2021
Pages: 300
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Harlequin

Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, The Last Bookshop in London is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.

August 1939: London is dismal under the weight of impending war with Germany as Hitler’s forces continue to sweep across Europe. Into this uncertain maelstrom steps Grace Bennett, young and ready for a fresh start in the bustling city streets she’s always dreamed of — and miles away from her troubled past in the countryside.

With aspirations of working at a department store, Grace never imagined she’d wind up employed at Primrose Hill, an offbeat bookshop nestled in the heart of the city — after all, she’s never been much of a reader. Overwhelmed with organizing the cluttered store, she doesn’t have time to read the books she sells. But when one is gifted to her, what starts as an obligation becomes a passion that draws her into the incredible world of literature.

As the Blitz rains down bombs on the city night after night, a devastating attack leaves the libraries and shops of London’s literary center in ruins. Miraculously, Grace’s bookshop survives the firestorm. Through blackouts and air raids, Grace continues running the shop, discovering a newfound comfort in the power of words and storytelling that unites her community in ways she never imagined — a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of war-torn London.


(I read this last year, but somehow missed copying over the review to my blog.)

This is what my brain looks like on sleeping meds, and why it’s never a good idea to book shop under the influence.

To be fair, this looked like it should have been a good book for me.  It’s about a bookshop, it’s an historical WWII setting, and it’s not a romance, though I did pause when I saw that it’s published by Harlequin.  And the story does have its compelling moments; enough of them that I didn’t DNF it.

Unfortunately, the writing is not sophisticated and the whole tone of the book could best be summed up as the print version of a Hallmark Movie.  That’s not me dissing Hallmark Movies – they’re just not my personal jam.  Too emotional, too sweet, too earnest, too …too for my overly analytical preferences.

Full credit, however, for the vivid descriptions of the bombing raids on London.  They were almost, though not quite, visceral.  And I throughly enjoyed most of the bookshop scenes as Grace rehabbed a stuffy, dusty bookshop into a social hub for the neighborhood.

The Sanctuary Sparrow (Brother Cadfael, #7)

The Sanctuary SparrowThe Sanctuary Sparrow
by Ellis Peters
Rating: ★★★
Series: Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #7
Publication Date: January 1, 1996
Pages: 216
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Book of the Month Club, Inc.

In the gentle Shrewsbury spring of 1140, the midnight matins at the Benedictine abbey suddenly reverberate with an unholy sound- a hunt in full cry.

Persued by a drunken mob, the quarry is running for its life. When the frantic creature bursts into the nave to claim sanctuary, Brother Cadfael finds himself fighting off armed townsmen to save a terrified young man.

Accused of robbery and murder is Liliwin, a wandering minstrel who performed at the wedding of a local goldsmith's son. The cold light of morning, however, will show his supposed victim, the miserly craftsman, still lives, although a strongbox lies empty.

Brother Cadfael believes Liliwin is innocent, but finding the truth and the treasure before Liliwin's respite in sanctuary runs out may uncover a deadlier sin than thievery- a desperate love that nothing, not even the threat of hanging can stop.


 

Not the best one I’ve read so far.  My favourite part was Liliwin’s sanctuary, and the time he spent with the brothers.  I ended up skimming the whole scene between him and Rannlit because it was all too sweet and twee for me.  Peters seemed to spend a lot more time describing scenery and settings in exhaustive detail, and I’d catch myself half way through thinking alright already.  I was also certain as to who the killer was long before the half-way mark. Sometimes the biggest clue is the way the author draws the character, and such was the case in this book; in trying to write a nondescript character, Peters created the only plausible suspect.  There were details I did miss though that added to the complexity of the plot, and they were well crafted.  The ending was a little eye-rolling, but not so much as the ending of book 6, if I recall correctly.  Peters seemed to like daring escapes, for a bit, at least.

Not a bad book, but not the best of the 7 I’ve read either, by a long shot.

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (Her Royal Spyness, #15)

God Rest Ye, Royal GentlemenGod Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen
by Rhys Bowen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780440000082
Series: Royal Spyness #15
Publication Date: October 7, 2021
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

 

What to say?  This is one of Bowen’s books that has layers.  On the one hand, it’s very Christmassy, so it ticks that box; on the other hand, I was ready to say that the mystery really wasn’t much of a mystery.

The first half of the book focuses on Christmas at Sandringham, with casual mentions of accidental deaths that took place the year before on Boxing day.  Another death occurs half-way through the book that smacks of accidental death, even though readers know it won’t be.  But it’s not until the final 25% that the story gets really interesting.  The author takes the story in a direction I wouldn’t have said most cozy writers had the courage to go, and ends it in much the same way.  I liked it, and it bumped my rating .5 star.

It might have been a higher rating but the book wraps up with cliched character development.  I suppose it’s part of the natural order of things for most people, but I’ve rarely read murder mysteries that make procreation work to the advantage of the series.   I say rarely, but I can’t think of one mystery series that brought babies into the mix that I can do more than tolerate.

The author, as usual, involves a note at the end, detailing the parts of the story that are historically accurate and the parts where she mixed the real people with fictional events – I always appreciate these clarifications, because sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

Jane and the Twelve Days of ChristmasJane and the Twelve Days of Christmas
by Stephanie Barron
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781616954239
Series: Jane Austen Mystery #12
Publication Date: October 1, 2014
Pages: 329
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Soho Press

Christmas Eve, 1814: Jane Austen has been invited to spend the holiday with family and friends at The Vyne, the gorgeous ancestral home of the wealthy and politically prominent Chute family. As the year fades and friends begin to gather beneath the mistletoe for the twelve days of Christmas festivities, Jane and her circle are in a celebratory mood: Mansfield Park is selling nicely; Napoleon has been banished to Elba; British forces have seized Washington, DC; and on Christmas Eve, John Quincy Adams signs the Treaty of Ghent, which will end a war nobody in England really wanted.

Jane, however, discovers holiday cheer is fleeting. One of the Yuletide dies in a tragic accident whose circumstances Jane immediately views with suspicion. If the accident was in fact murder, the killer is one of Jane’s fellow snow-bound guests. With clues scattered amidst cleverly-crafted charades, dark secrets coming to light during parlor games, and old friendships returning to haunt the Christmas parties, whom can Jane trust to help her discover the truth and stop the killer from striking again?


 

My first Christmas read of 2021, and a library loan that was the most reluctant of my choices that day.  I’m wary of books that use real historical figures as the main characters of their novels – they rarely turn out well – and a mystery series involving Jane Austen solving murders felt almost blasphemous, as well as an attempt to cash in on Austen’s popularity.

It was actually pretty good!  I know next to nothing about Austen’s life beyond the basics, so I can’t say her voice was accurate, but it’s definitely an accurate representation of many of her characters’ voices, which could be argued to be, in part, small pieces of herself as well as her observations of others.  There were lines in this book that felt like re-constructions of dialogue straight from Austen’s novels – not quotes or rip-offs, but the author definitely nailed the style, probably from deconstructing dialog from the books.

What I found really intriguing were footnotes in the text – probably not more than 1 or 2 per chapter – from the editor, clarifying historic events, or offering small amounts of historical background, for places, characters and events used in the plot.  I’ve never seen this meld of fiction and non-fiction before and I really appreciated the extra information, and that it was offered judiciously.

The mystery itself was average; the setup was good and the flow of clues and information worked well, it’s just that the murderer, in spite of being very well hidden beneath all the family secrets and political intrigues, was obvious to me from the start, as was at least one familial intrigue.

So, even though the mystery itself was a bit predictable, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the read.  This isn’t the first book in the series – it looks like there are quite a few before this one – but I had no trouble at all following along.  Two allusions were made about previous exploits, and these were footnoted with the titles they came from – the only two footnotes not about historical references.

I’m not sure if my library has any of the others, but I’m definitely interested in reading more of them.

Murder at the Royal Botanic Garden’s (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder at the Royal Botanic GardensMurder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
by Andrea Penrose
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781496732507
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #5
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .


 

I still like this series, but what started out as a string of compelling mysteries is starting to lose its edge.  Blame it on the editor, reader feedback, or change of perspective on the part of the author, but the whole narrative has become entirely too idealistic to be reasonably realistic.  There was an excess of repetitive statements about the family you choose, the power of love, and an awful lot of lamenting over the death of an objectively heinous individual.  All of these ideals are wonderful and worth striving for, but considering the early 1800’s setting, I doubt very much they were worked quite so thoroughly into the mindset of anybody living at the time.  The result was a book that felt entirely too much like a religious genre novel.  Only with murder and (light) swearing.

What I did enjoy was the botanical setting of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the impetus behind the plot being the race for a game-changing medicinal plant that enhances the effect of cinchona, or quinine, against malaria (plant being entirely fictional).  I really enjoyed the name drops of real historical figures, including Alexander von Humboldt – and was tickled to see the author recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature in the story notes.

The plot was going rather well until I neared the end, when the author suddenly felt the need to work in a slave-trade angle that felt like a bolt from nowhere.  Looking at the story as a whole, it felt like the author needed to wrap up some loose ends from the previous book, needing to kill someone off while keeping the current book’s plot going.  I don’t know, but it just felt super clumsy.

I’ll read a 6th, should it appear, because I really do enjoy the cast of characters, but if this idealistic stuff continues to the point of incredulity, I’ll add this series to the “done for me” list.

Murder Most Fair (Verity Kent, #5)

Murder Most FairMurder Most Fair
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781496728494
Series: Verity Kent #5
Publication Date: August 31, 2021
Pages: 384
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

 

I think this book ended up with a 4 star rating because I liked the ending.  Looking back as I write this there were several things that probably put this more at 3.5 stars.

There were some editing issues; I’m pretty sure the German Aunt central to this plot started out being on Verity’s mother’s side (references to her mother’s German family) and then suddenly, she’s Verity’s father’s Aunt.

But mostly the story was just so melancholy.  It fits with the time period – post WWI – and all the books have been tinged with an appropriate air of pain, confusion and recovery, but Huber just piled on in this book.  We have the veterans trying to adjust to life after the trenches, we have Lord Ryder wallowing, passed-out drunk in the uncertainty that his father might not have been a loyal peer of the realm before his death, we have the culmination of a 5 year breach between Verity and her family, and Verity’s inability to confront her grief over the loss of one of her brothers during the war.  It’s all very heavy.

Buried underneath all this depressiveness is, actually, a really good mystery, albeit a very slow moving one under the weight of all the above, about the murder of her German Aunt’s personal maid, during a holiday gathering at the family estate in the Yorkshire Dales.  Huber touches on the bigotry in the aftermath of war, and the inability for some to differentiate between a person and a government.  It was a well-crafted plot, too, in that I should have seen the killer before I did, but missed it.

So, really probably a 3.5 star read, but laziness will keep it at 4.  A good story bogged down by what would be normally be compelling side lines on their own, but taken together felt altogether too depressing for a cozy mystery.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021 and it fits the Country House Mystery square, as it’s set at the family estate in the Yorkshire Dales.