How did your October reading go? Did you find a historical novel that was especially good?
I read A Perilous Alliance by Fiona Buckley, part of a series of Tudor mysteries featuring Lady Ursula Blanchard. I was a bit reluctant to get started – my To-Be-Read list is never ending and this would have to be squeezed in. However, once I got started, I really enjoyed it. It’s well written with a story that moves quickly and lots of interesting action. This is part of a series – I might just have to add other titles to my TBR list!
Lady Ursula is a widow of independent means and some influence – she is the illegitimate half-sister of Queen Elizabeth. In the past Ursula has assisted the Queen by acting as a spy for her against her enemies, but she has tired of the danger. Hoping to withdraw from public life, she has moved to her country home to raise her little boy and manage her estate. Unfortunately, the public life follows her, with a request from the Queen’s advisors that she marry a French count, strictly for political reasons. Ursula is not pleased with this major life change and only reluctantly agrees to meet the French count.
Almost immediately there are warning signs that the count is not a suitable husband. The Queen insists, saying that the political alliance from the marriage is vital to the safety and future of England and Ursula reluctantly accepts the count’s proposal. However, the entire household is thrown into disarray just hours before the wedding is to take place and Ursula finds herself in a perilous position. Will she be able to untangle the reasons behind the mysterious death of one of her staff? Will she need to return to spying to track down the enemies of the realm? Will she be forced into a loveless marriage that will seriously curtail her independence?
This is a quick and lively read, with lots of details of the lives of ordinary people (well-off but not royalty) during this time. Fun and interesting.
What about you – what did you read in October?
British cook and amateur sleuth Kat Holloway returns in the latest mystery by Jennifer Ashley, taking place in and around London during the early 1900s. Death at the Crystal Palace is the fifth book in the Below Stairs Mystery series which focuses on the “downstairs” staff headed by cook Holloway and the rest of the staff, whose lives intertwine with the “upstairs” aristocratic class and estate owners. Kat and the rest of the below stairs staff keep the manor house running smoothly. Kat spends her days preparing complex delicacies for the aristocratic family for whom she works. Her position within the household makes for long hours in the kitchen, sometimes cooking for dozens of household members and their numerous guests. With all her obligations, she still finds the time to help solve a mystery or two.
Death at the Crystal Palace opens with Kat accompanying one member of the household, Lady Cynthia, to an academic lecture at the Crystal Palace in London. At the conclusion of the lecture, Lady Covington, the widow of a railway owner, approaches Kat and declares that someone in her household is trying to poison her. She is adamant that she needs Kat’s sleuthing skills to help find the culprit. Kat is immediately suspicious of the claim. Is Lady Covington being targeted by someone in household or is it all in her head? Kat makes arrangements with Lady Covington to make a secretive visit to her household under the guise of recipe sharing with the Covington family cook, in order to find out more about the possible plot.
After learning more about the Covington family and their possible motivations for wanting to bring harm to the matriarch of the family, Kat finds herself yet again, at the Crystal Palace for an academic event. With all the Covington family in attendance and able to be observed, Kat discovers another member of the family near death as the result of an attempted poisoning .
While tending to the crisis at hand, Kat’s close confidant, Daniel McAdam, is up to his neck in his own case and recruits Kat to assist him in much larger matters of national security. Toggling between the matter of Lady Covington’s potential poisoning and assisting Daniel with his undercover endeavor, Kat is at risk of having her true identity discovered which could potentially have catastrophic consequences for the future!
This series keeps getting better and better with each book. Author Jennifer Ashley not only gives the reader a complex and intricate mystery to solve, the series is also a great example of historical fiction, detailing the lives and customs of the British at the turn of the last century. Although this book is able to be read as a stand alone mystery, I highly recommend starting with the first book in the series Death Below Stairs.
Fiona Davis has written another masterful piece of historical fiction: The Lions of Fifth Avenue. What hooked me about this novel is that the New York Public Library plays a major part in each characters’ story. Told through the view points of New York in 1913/1914 and New York in 1993, Davis has managed to create a historical novel that weaves together two generations centered around similar themes: book thefts in the New York Public Library.
In 1913 New York, Laura Lyons seems to have the perfect life. Her husband has just been appointed the superintendent of the New York Public Library which means that her family now lives in the library. Tucked in an apartment hidden within the library, Laura, her husband, and their two children make their life together. While Laura should be happy with what she has, she wants more. Confident and sure of what she wants, Laura applies to the Columbia Journalism School and soon finds her respectable life blown apart. Her studies take her all across the city where she meets people she never would have met before.
She is introduced to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of all women who have found a safe space to share their opinions that society frowns upon: suffrage, women’s rights, birth control, among others. The beauty of the Heterodoxy Club is that it is a completely safe space for women to share their thoughts as they are not allowed to tell what is happening to people outside the group. The more Laura attends the Heterodoxy Club, the more she starts to question her life. She wants more than just being a wife and mother. Right as she seems to be getting what she wants, issues surface. Valuable books are stolen from the library. Her family is under scrutiny and their home is threatened, forcing Laura to figure out her priorities or she could lose it all.
Flash forward 80 years to 1993. Sadie Donovan works as a curator at the New York Public Library. Her grandmother is Laura Lyons, the famous essayist. That is an uncomfortable topic for Sadie to talk about given her job as curator. Life is going pretty well until books, notes, and rare manuscripts for the exhibit that Sadie is working on start disappearing from the Berg Collection. This famous collection has limited staff that run it, so the culprits have to be someone she knows. As the investigation ramps up, Sadie works with a private security expert to find the missing items and whoever is stealing. Sadie learns some uncomfortable secrets about her family the more she digs; things that could destroy her current life but that could also solve mysteries from the past.
This book is also available in the following formats:
Set in southern Poland at the turn of the century in 1890, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing , is the first book in a new series by Maryla Szymiczkowa, a pseudonym for two Polish authors. The book offers a unique look at the culture, lifestyle and social climbing of the upper class society in Cracow, which comes alive through our heroine, Zofia Turbotynska. Zofia is the wife of a university medical professor who is looking to strengthen (and elevate) her social status with a variety of charitable endeavors but finds her true calling as a newly minted sleuth.
Her favorite organization of the moment, Helcel House, is a retirement home run by a bevy of nuns who she finds in panic one morning upon the disappearance of an elderly resident, Mrs. Mohr. Mrs. Mohr is finally located dead in an attic room that would be impossible for her to reach in her immobile condition. Zofia starts her own investigation after the police rule the death an accident. Soon thereafter, another resident of Helcel House goes missing and then a third disappears and Zofia is confident that someone is targeting the elderly residents of the home. Investigating the cases with only her cook and one inquisitive nun in her confidence, Zofia is able to solve the complex case near the end of the book while gathering all the parties together at the Helcel House for an unveiling of the real killer.
Its glimpse into the changing landscape of Poland is what initially caught my attention. As mysteries are my genre of choice, the cultural context and hierarchy of their society was fascinating as well. The author provides a nice summary at the beginning of the book that details the complex history of Poland during the 1800s, which includes being partitioned by the empires of Prussia, Russia and Austria. If you like the feel of a cozy mystery with a rich historical glimpse into the past, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing is a great choice.
The recent news that the skeleton of King Richard III of England has been found (under a car park in Leicester) may have you thinking about this seminal figure of English history, a lightening rod for controversy from his lifetime to the present. Was he the cruel, twisted, power mad monster responsible for killing the two Princes in the Tower? Or was he a benevolent, innovative leader, wrongly maligned by history?
Most of us know about Richard through Shakespeare and his scathing depiction of him as an evil hunchback in his play Richard III (it is fact that Richard suffered from severe scoliosis) However, take a minute to remember the ruler Shakespeare lived under – Elizabeth I, direct descendant of Henry VII who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, claiming (rather tenuously) the throne of England. History, as Tey points out, is written by the victors. While we’re unlikely to answer the question definitively, it’s a fascinating question to debate by examining the life of Richard and the times he lived in. Rather than digging through dense academic tomes though, I’d like to point you to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, an excellent detective story that will entertain as well as give you lots to think about.
In The Daughter of Time, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital, recovering from a broken leg. To save off boredom he begins reading history and becomes intrigued by the mystery surrounding Richard III. With the help of a researcher, he applies his investigative skills to study the controversial King’s life and the people around him. Written in the early 1950s, Inspector Grant does not have the advantage of google or wikipedia, instead using old-fashioned observation and deduction. The story builds and the evidence grows; Tey is masterful in creating tension and complex characters true to their time period. By the time Inspector Grant is ready to leave the hospital, he is convinced by his findings – will you be too? Can truth indeed be the daughter of time?
Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead (the first mystery in the Bess Crawford series) has far too much life and vigor for the god-awful cover design it’s been dealt. It’s really a hideous cover: the image, the colors, the fonts, they’re all drab and uninteresting. But if you can look past them, this is an engaging mystery novel with a heroine anyone would love.
Bess Crawford is a gentleman’s daughter and an Army nurse in the Great War (if you’re thinking of Lady Sybil Crawley right now, you’re not alone!). She’s injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk, and during her convalescent leave, she visits the family of Arthur Graham, a wounded soldier she befriended, to deliver the deathbed message he begged her to pass on to his brother. What she finds in the Graham hometown of Owlhurst is a web of secrets and lies that the all-too-British neighbors have happily swept under the rug while they keep calm and carry on.
Bess is in-demand in Owlhurst for her nursing skills, and before long she is pressed into duty caring for a shell-shocked soldier and a possible lunatic. The effect of witnessed horrors and repressed violent memories on the mind is a big part of this novel, which is as much psychiatric as it is suspenseful. In a time when mental health was imperfectly understood, Bess’s intuitively modern understanding of the way our brains work is a mark in her favor.
While you’re waiting (and waiting… and waiting … ) for Downton Abbey to come to US shores next January, this novel can help fill the gap. Its shared setting, dealings with the same issues (the affect of the war on families back home), and the similarities between Sybil and Bess will keep you in the mindset of Downton while you wait for season 3.
In addition to listening to an audiobook while on a long car ride, books on CD are a great way to pass the time while gardening or listening to while cleaning the house, or just about anything else! One of my most recent discoveries is a great mystery with a hint of “chick lit,” Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.
Young, London-based businesswoman Lara Lington has just learned that her 105-year old great-aunt has just passed away – an aunt that she did not even know. While attending Sadie’s funeral, Lara hears voices and catches an occasional glimpse of a young woman dressed in 1920s attire. She then realizes that the young woman is not an illusion but is actually the ghost of Sadie at age 23! Sadie has decided to relentlessly haunt her grand-niece in order to nearly force Lara to help her find her most prized possession, a dazzling, diamond, dragonfly necklace that was stolen before she died. The pair form an unlikely duo that argue, confide in each other and share a friendship in the most unlikely of ways – all while solving the mystery of the missing necklace.
Twenties Girl has a little bit for everyone -mystery, romance, intrigue and comedy. A definite recommended read – you may find yourself circling your block a few dozen times to find out how the book ends!