Lady Takes the Case by Eliza Casey

Lady Takes the Case by Eliza Casey caught my eye the minute I saw the cover illustration and read a quick summary of the book.  I’m a huge fan of the traditional “cozy” mysteries and this book, first in the Manor Cat Mysteries series, takes place in rural England during the spring of 1912.

Lady Cecilia Bates spends the majority of her time on the grounds of her family’s estate, Danby Hall, living a life of leisure by assisting her mother, the Countess of Avebury, with parties and other domestic duties.  Her family’s estate is run like clockwork by a household of servants who cater the the family’s every whim.  Cecilia lives here with her brother, Patrick, who is the heir apparent of the estate.  To an outsider, Patrick seems an unlikely heir, as he would much rather be alone with the exotic plants he lovingly cares for in his laboratory.

As Danby Hall has increasingly become more difficult to maintain with the family’s finances, a glimmer of hope arrives in the form of Miss Annabel Clarke from the United States.  She, along with her vast wealth, arrive for a host of parties with the hope of an engagement to Patrick Bates who will become Earl of Avebury in years to come.

Immediately upon Miss Clarke’s arrival, an elaborate dinner party celebrates all that is best of Danby in order to impress the American heiress. What the residents of Danby Hall did not count on was the murder of a guest by poison just as drinks were served!  The victim is a renowned naturalist in between explorations who was making a quick stop at Danby Hall, but it quickly becomes apparent that maybe the poison wasn’t meant for him.

Lady Cecilia, along with Miss Clarke’s maid, Jane and her stowaway marmalade cat Jack, hit the ground running in an attempt to find the culprit and save Danby Hall from further scandal.  With the amateur sleuths finding clue after clue within the house, evidence points to someone close to the family or someone attempting to capitalize on the family’s dwindling fortune.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Takes the Case by Eliza Casey.  Some of the twists and turns were to be expected, but the mystery kept my interest and was a true “cozy” mystery.  My only criticism is that I would have liked the manor cat, Jack, to have more of a starring role.  Maybe he will in the second installment, due in the summer of 2020.

When Less Becomes More : Making Space for Slow, Simple and Good by Emily Ley

Among the numerous books recently published on decluttering, minimalism and general advice on simpler living, When Less Becomes More is the latest entry in a long list of books with techniques and tips to make our lives more meaningful and simple.  I always seem to gravitate toward checking out these types of books, which all have practical information coupled with inspirational advice.  Emily Ley, who began creating planners and has expanded to books, has many helpful stories and antidotes that she has learned throughout her life and now is sharing with her readers.  She divides the book into multiple chapters each dealing with a certain issue and how to take small steps to enjoy things in moderation but without having them first and foremost in your life.  Below I’ve highlighted a few sections of the book and these include Ley’s personal stories peppered in between her advice.  She gleans a lot from her own life and how she built her business and other stories, which is helpful and makes her more relateable to her audience.  My only criticism of the book is that it would be more effective if she included more concrete tips of how to achieve these ideas / themes, no matter your personal situation.

Rush – With all the commitments that women have these days, Ley suggests saying a polite but firm, “no,” to things you are not passionate about and to question where you put your energy and priorities.

Technology  – Ley asks if there is beauty in a more analog existence and provides examples of times you may be able to turn off technology and do more connecting to the world and people around you.

Noise – Not only physical noise, but the noise you create with a busy life.

Wellness – Taking cues from your surroundings and yourself, focusing on what is best for you, both inside and out.

Chasing – Finding contentment with what is already around you and knowing when enough is enough.

As with many of these types of books, some of the suggestions and examples are clearly not for everyone.  In my opinion, these are good ideas but not everyone’s road to a simpler, more meaningful life will be the same.  Some of these tips are not feasible for everyone and some are easier to implement in your life.  When Less Becomes More has some good takeaways, similarly to other books in the genre, and are clearly the author’s take on this timely subject.  Even if you do not choose to do make every lifestyle change, this book is a good introduction to leading a not so hectic life.  If you are interested in jumping on board or if you are already familiar with the concept, When Less Becomes More is more reinforcement!

 

 

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott  transports the reader back to the politics of the Cold War in the 1950s and the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the years immediately following World War II.   At the heart of the story is the secret plan by the United States government to get its hands on Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Doctor Zhivago in order to publish it for the world to read.

The Secrets We Kept is told in alternating chapters with scenes taking place between the United States and The Soviet Union.  Much of the story revolves around the pressure and repercussions on Pasternak of writing a book that is in direct contrast with the government of the USSR and their eventual censorship of his novel.  Pasternak’s struggle is not only with the government, it is also with his long time mistress, Olga Ivinskya, who became his most passionate advocate and sometime publicist.  Olga also has the distinction of being the inspiration for the main character in Pasternak’s novel, Lara.  The Soviet government went as far as imprisoning Olga for numerous years due to her association with Pasternak as an additional form of pressure on him.  Upon her release, she returned and they picked up where they left off with the goal of publishing Pasternak’s book.

Simultaneously, in Washington, D. C., new college graduate Irina is plucked from her secretarial position within the US government and given orders to go undercover to help smuggle a copy of the book out of the USSR.  Along with a few select others, she learns the ropes of becoming an international spy by transferring the manuscript of the book to its final destination.  Inspired by the United States belief that literature can change the world, the hand selected group of US spies assume identities all over the world to ensure the book has a worldwide audience.

When I discovered that this book was centered on the writing of Doctor Zhivago, I was immediately intrigued.  I knew just a little about the writing of the book and its aftermath, but this work of historical fiction is not only an intriguing read, but has me wanting to find out more about this time period and the men and women whose passion for literature brought the novel to a worldwide audience.

Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman

When Malin Ahlberg starts her freshman year at Hawthorne College in rural Maine, she is immediately befriended by a group of freshman who are brought together by chance during their first few days as new students.  Malin, along with Gemma, Ruby, Max, John and Khaled remain a tight-knit group throughout their four years at Hawthorne, but their years together are marked by drama, suspicion, betrayal and, ultimately, murder.  Tell Me Everything  by Cambria Brockman is a psychological thriller with a unsettling and, frankly, disturbing series of events with an ending that is literally jaw-dropping!

Malin tells her story in alternating chapters with gradual glimpses of problems at home with her family,  most notably with her brother who passed away years earlier.  She always stops short of revealing too much,  so the reader is left with more questions than answers as the anticipation grows.  What is she hiding from her past?  She replicates this secrecy with her current group of friends, not letting anyone know the real Malin.  To be honest, Malin is not a very endearing or likeable character.  As I was reading Tell Me Everything, I could tell pretty quickly that something was clearly not right with Malin, but Brockman has a great way of keeping the reader on their toes!

As the years progress, it becomes apparent that Malin is choreographing many of the dramas, misinterpretations and misunderstandings between the group.  While stirring the pot, it becomes clear that she enjoys watching the drama unfold.  The crescendo of both plot lines (family drama as a child and currently at Hawthorne) comes together seamlessly with not only one but two murders that are equally disturbing.

I highly recommend Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman.  I cannot guarantee that you will be a fan of some of the characters, but this is a well-written and suspenseful debut.  I am impressed with Brockman’s first book and am excited to see what she comes up with next!

 

The First Mistake by Sandie Jones

My genre of choice over the last couple of years has been of the psychological and suspense thriller variety.  Each are memorable in their own way with the expected twists and turns.  The First Mistake by Sandie Jones is a standout in this genre for the usual reasons, but the twists and turns at the end had me exclaiming out loud with shock and disbelief by asking myself how this twist could be possible!

The story begins with successful businesswoman Alice who seems to have it all – a great interior design firm that she founded, a gorgeous home outside London, a dedicated husband and two typical teenage daughters.  But Alice’s life had not always been so perfect.  Her first husband’s tragic accident weighs heavily on every aspect of their lives, from the business that Alice and her first husband started, to their teenage daughter that they shared (who was a toddler when her father was taken away).  In her free time, Alice makes time for her best friend, Beth, whose children attend the same school.

Alice is juggling a potential career changing interior design commission along with her home life, when she starts to notice a change in her husband, Nathan.  Distant and secretive, Alice is convinced that he is having an affair.  With evidence that she cannot ignore, Alice confides her suspicions to Beth that something is not right with Nathan.  Alice soon learns that Beth’s background is just a tumultuous.  As secrets are shared, Alice wonders if Beth is all that she seems and if she is hiding something.

If you are a fan of this genre, add The First Mistake by Sandie Jones to your list.  You may think that you have the plot figured out but I am confident that when the final twist arrives you will be exclaiming out loud as well!

Those People by Louise Candlish

Those People  is another standout suspense / thriller novel from Louise Candlish, who expertly crafts domestic  thrillers with neighbors who are not exactly who they seem.  The narrative it told in alternating chapters of past and present, so the reader knows that some future tragedy has taken place but the who, what, where and why has yet to be uncovered.

Candlish’s latest novel takes place just south of London in a tiny enclave which encompasses the picturesque street of Lowland Way.  Comprised of upper class, professional couples whose homes are impeccable and whose children play harmoniously together, the neighborhood is shocked when “outsiders” Darren and Jodie take up residence in an inherited house.  Couples Ant and Em, Ralph and Naomi, Finn and Tess make up the neighborhood, along with recent widow Sissy.

Darren and Jodie are polar opposites of their neighbors.  They play their music loudly at all hours of the night, begin renovations without proper equipment and have a variety of abandoned vehicles on the property.  The residents of Lowland Way quickly lose patience with the new residents and emotions run high on both sides.  The neighbors are plotting among themselves all the different ways they can rid themselves of the new eyesores in the neighborhood.  Within the cluster of friends, alliances begin to form and betrayals begin.  Are they willing to do whatever it takes to bring “their” neighborhood back?

Events take a tragic turn when someone loses their life in the middle of the night.  Accusations fly and neighbors begin to undermine each other wondering who is to blame.  Then, another tragedy occurs and the rumors and speculation intensifies.  Candlish crafts a suspenseful tale where red herrings abound and the group of neighbors wonder who they can trust. Those People  has a tendency to build slowly with careful character development.  Even though the pace can move a little slowly, I recommend Those People as a domestic thriller with a unique twist.

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke

Publishing executive Chloe Taylor has the perfect life in Alafair Burke’s new stand alone thriller, The Better Sister.  Chloe’s career is on an upward trajectory, her husband, Adam, is a successful attorney and their son, Ethan,  is thriving as a high school student.  Splitting their time between New York City and their second home on Long Island, the family is the envy of all their friends.  But, the truth behind the facade tells a very different tale.

In reality, Chloe has had a strained relationship with her family for decades, especially her sister, Nicky, with whom she has been estranged since Ethan was a toddler.   Nicky has long struggled with jumping from men to men and job to job and has continued to make bad choice after bad choice.  Most who know Chloe and Adam would be shocked to learn that Adam was married to Nicky years ago and she is actually Ethan’s biological mother.

Shockingly, Adam is found dead in the family’s Long Island home, the victim of a burglary gone wrong.  Or was the attack more personal and the burglary just a cover?  When police believe the culprit may be someone within the family, the sisters put their past differences aside and come together.  The sisters must face their current troubles by revealing and acknowledging the deceptions in the past.

The Better Sister  is a highly recommended read and is another thrill ride from Alafair Burke.  It would appeal to readers of Ruth Ware, Clare Mackintosh, Gillian Flynn  or Laura Lippman.

 

 

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Single mother and English teacher Clare Cassidy’s days are filled with teaching classrooms full of high school students in The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths.      Luckily for her, she is able to devote one class a year to her specialty, the literary works of Gothic writer R.M. Holland, focusing on his most famous story, The Stranger.  Clare is considered an expert on Holland and as a teacher at Talgarth High, she has access to the private quarters of Holland, who lived in part of the school during his lifetime.

Clare’s world is rocked when a close colleague is murdered and the death becomes more bizarre when a note found next to the body quotes a line from The Stranger.  She is shocked when the police reveal that they suspect someone close to her.  Could it be a fellow teacher?  Maybe someone else who has a fixation on Holland?  Prompted by the police to recall an event with the deceased teacher the summer before, Clare turns to an old diary in the hopes it will spark a remembrance that may prove helpful.  Events  begin to get even stranger when  she begins to find writings next to her own that are in a different handwriting.

Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.

Soon thereafter another body is found, this time in Holland’s old residence in a small concealed room.  The teacher’s body is found with the same note as the previous victim, an ominous sentence from The Stranger.   Is Clare in danger or is she hiding something more sinister?  The discovery of the bodies begins to mimic the plot from Holland’s masterpiece and everyone wonders who will be next?  Will life imitate art?

The Stranger Diaries is a fabulous thriller and suspense novel with a hint of the supernatural added.  The  setting of Talgarth High has just enough of the eerie “haunted house” quality to make the school almost have a life of its own.  If you are a fan of the mystery and suspense genre I highly recommend the latest by Elly Griffiths!

American Duchess by Karen Harper

American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt provides a rich inspiration for this fictionalized novel of her life beginning in the 1890s.  In American Duchess, Consuelo, a member of the privileged Vanderbilt family, is engaged and married, against her will, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.  Overruled by her dominating and controlling mother Alva, she is merely a pawn in Alva’s desire for an even higher social status as well as the Duke’s need to preserve his family’s estate and financial well-being.

We first meet Consuelo on her wedding day to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895.  She is in tears as she is about to marry not the man she loves, but the man her mother has chosen for her.  With her sense of duty to her family’s legacy, she carries on and enters the church to marry the Duke.  It is only after her marriage that we learn that she was actually in love with a man who her parents did not approve of as a suitable match for their daughter.  Alva has her sights set on matching her daughter with British royalty and does everything in her power to play matchmaker.  Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke’s family, is in need of money to maintain the estate and who better to supply the money than the Vanderbilt family with a bride for the Duke?

After the wedding, Consuelo, now the Duchess of Marlborough, attempts to find her place, helping the less fortunate in the surrounding areas and learning more about her new role as head of the household.  Throughout her time at Blenheim Palace, a close ally emerges in her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill, and the two share a close friendship.  As time passes, the relationship between she and the Duke grows more and more strained to a breaking point.  Consuelo finds the strength to eventually follow her heart and make difficult, but necessary decisions.

This novel is a fictionalized account of a fascinating, yet little known historical figure whose life did not start the way she had envisioned.  Throughout her life she  gathered the strength and courage to live her life on her own terms.  Many believe that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is the first American born Duchess but it turns out that over 100 years ago, England welcomed an American Duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt.  This novel gives the reader a good sense of the challenges she faced in her new country.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Author Kristin Hannah has a knack for creating vast sweeping sagas spanning multiple generations in a family’s story.  In The Great Alone, Hannah crafts the story of teenager Leni Allbright who is growing up the the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s.  Leni’s  father, Ernt,  has just returned from the Vietnam War and is struggling with his life back in the United States.  Her mother, Cora, attempts to cope as best as humanly possible, but struggles with trying to navigate a new life with her husband and growing daughter.  Soon after Ernt returns from the war, he is informed that one of his soldier friends, who was killed in Vietnam, has left him a large swath of land in Alaska.  Without much forethought, Ernt announces to his wife and daughter that they are packing their van and heading from Washington state to Alaska.

After arriving in Alaska, the trio quickly realize that living in the wild will not be as easy as they initially thought and they are woefully unprepared.  They befriend a group of folks, some Alaska natives and some with the same dreams as they did upon their arrival, to live on their own terms.  It soon becomes clear that the scars of war are still affecting Ernt and his mental health continues to deteriorate as the dark and cold winter approaches.  Before too long Leni and Cora become isolated, both mentally and physically, by Ernt.  When a small dispute arises with the neighbors and escalates, Leni has to choose sides, with possibly treacherous results.

Although the story is set in the 1970s, many of the issues facing the Allbright family align with events that are current in today’s world.  The Great Alone isn’t always an easy read and the characters face choices that are part necessary and part catastrophic.  In the end, a novel that is well worth the investment.