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Posts Tagged ‘England’

afterthefireA friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.

The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.

womanblueAs a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.

quietneighborsNursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for  Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.

writtenredAnnie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.

keepyouThe dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.

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bordelloIt’s just a few days until Christmas — and P.I. Liz Talbot’s planned wedding to her partner Nate Andrews — when Liz gets a frantic call from bestie and bridesmaid Olivia that she’s stumbled over a body in the parlor of her great aunt’s historic home in downtown Charleston. Oh, and Olivia thinks the dead man is her attorney husband Robert, but y’know it was dark and she didn’t turn on the lights she was so upset. . .  So Liz rushes from nearby island Stella Maris — just a ferry and a couple bridges away — only to find that if there was a body, it’s gone now, and Robert’s very much alive.

But that’s just the beginning of Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bordello (Henery Press, digital galley), the fourth caper in this Southern charmer of a series. The next day, a body does turn up in a nearby park — that of Thurston Middleton, local developer and aspiring politician, as well as a longtime client of Aunt Dean’s high-class house of prostitution. What started as a proper boarding house has evolved into a home where local men keep their “nieces.” Olivia is part-owner of the house and begs Liz and Nate to help investigate, but quickly and quietly. Ha!

Boyer again crafts an entertaining cozy that comes with a supernatural flourish courtesy of Liz’s guardian ghost Colleen. Readers of the previous books will feel right at home, although newcomers might be tripped up by the rush of events — Murder! Wedding! Christmas! Still, a very merry time.

bronteKatherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot (Thomas Nelson, digital galley) is something of a hybrid: literary tribute, romance, travelogue, coming-of-age story, morality tale. Lucy Alling, a Chicago rare book dealer, loves a good story, so much so that she can’t resist telling little white lies. Then her boyfriend James breaks up with her over a big lie, and Lucy realizes that if she wants to emulate the strong literary heroines she so admires, she needs to change her life. The first step is accompanying James’ wealthy and frail grandmother Helen on a two-week antique-buying trip to England, despite James’ disapproval. Helen and Lucy have a lot in common, it turns out, and their mutual reckoning with their pasts proves revelatory as they visit London and then Haworth, the home of the Brontes.  A side trip to the Lake District also proves necessary.

Reay knows England and English lit, so her story is replete with scenic details and appropriate  literary allusions. The main characters — Lucy, James and Helen — are flawed and engaging as they struggle with doubt and moral ambiguity. Will they get the happy ending of a Victorian novel? Reader, I’m not going to tell you.

rufflesThe title character of Nancy Martin’s Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is not a pampered princess pooch despite her fancy moniker. She’s an energetic Texas cattle cur who likes to chase prairie dogs and dig in the garden, as well as snap at the gentleman callers visiting her owner, wealthy widow Honeybelle Hensley. When Honeybelle drops dead of a heart attack, her family, friends and, indeed, all the townspeople of Mule Stop, Texas, are stunned to learn she’s left Miss Ruffles the bulk of her fortune. Honeybelle’s personal assistant and dogsitter Sunny,  cook Mae Mae and butler Mr. Carver will each receive $1 million dollars if they take good care of Miss Ruffles for the next year and then find her a good home.

Sunny, a Yankee newcomer from Ohio, is stunned when she becomes the object of vicious rumors, although she, too, has her suspicions about Honeybelle’s death. But she’s more worried about protecting Miss Ruffles from Honeybelle’s kin, especially her snobby daughter-in-law who was planning on dumping the dog at the pound while she produced her younger sister’s wedding in Honeybelle’s prized rose garden. Then there’s the university president who was hoping for Honeybelle to foot the bill for a new football stadium, and the goodlooking cowboy/attorney who is slated to be the groom in the upcoming rose garden nuptials. When Miss Ruffles is dognapped and held for ransom, Sunny sets out to rescue the rascally canine. Mayhem ensues on several fronts.

Despite some busy plotting and cliched characters, Martin’s tale is an agreeable bit of fluff, wirh lots of bark and a little bite. Miss Ruffles steals every scene she’s in, but it’s lookalike pup Fred who stole my heart.

 

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museumMagic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.

The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.

lostlakeSarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.

poisonedLloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.

mist“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?

starterhouseSchoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!

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I thought I’d be tied up today reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults. But I’ve decided to hold off because the early reviews from people I trust have been tepid, plus I’m not in the mood for a dark comedy of manners that also has been called depressing, dreary and dull.  Oh, dear. The magic is apparently missing, and not just the wands and wizards of Harry Potter but that marvelous alchemy of words, character and story that make you regret coming to book’s end. I want something good. Something Red.

Actually, the title of  poet Douglas Nicholas’ first novel refers to some unseen menace stalking travellers in the Pennines Mountains of west England in the Middles Ages. Young Hob glimpses it in a troubling winter’s night dream, “It was something that was, that was white, that gleamed, it was a gleam of white, and something else, something red.”

Molly senses it, too, in the wind, and wants no part of it. An exiled Irish queen with a gift for music and healing who communes with crows, she first leads her small troupe — her fey granddaughter Nemain, her silent companion and former crusader Jack, the apprentice Hob — to a mountain monastery. It’s a place of refuge from roving bandits for all manner of travellers — a group of masons heading south, assorted pilgrims, horse traders, Norman soldiers, an elderly aristocrat and her entourage. But its peace is shattered by the discovery outside the gates of a murdered monk, his broken corpse like an inexpertly butchered deer.

Molly’s party warily moves on to the warm hospitality of a wayfarer’s inn, singing for their supper and a warm bed for the night. Their journey south is thwarted by a rockslide, a blizzard and something that moves in the shadows and leaves blood in the snow. They seek shelter in the heavily fortified walls of Castle Blanchefontaine, whose Norman lord is a master of the hunt. There’s feasting and storytelling, but Hob awakes in the night to frightful noises. Something is inside the castle walls.

Nicholas’ writes with artful assurance, and Something Red vividly evokes a realistic medieval world with hundreds of small, telling details, from a page’s duties at dinner to the pudding-bowl hairstyles of the Normans. That something otherworldly is abroad in the forbidding landscape makes perfect sense in a world that has not yet discarded magic, where Christian beliefs still mingle with pagan tradition. I suppose Something Red is a fantasy, but it reads like historical fiction akin to Robin Hood’s adventures or Tennyson’s tales of King Arthur. Something memorable. Something legendary. Something good.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Douglas Nicholas’ Something Red (Atria Books via NetGalley), but as soon as it expired, I bought the e-book for my Nook. Rowling can wait.

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I’m not sure why I put off reading Code Name Verity, the new historical novel from Elizabeth Wein that was published last month. I’d heard good things about it, and I’d had the galley for awhile. But a story about two English girls during World War II, one of whom has been captured by the Gestapo, sounded like something that might end in tears, and the cover didn’t help, with its picture of two arms bound at the wrist with twine and “verity” spelled out in blood-red type. So not a beach book.

Then I started reading it Sunday during a rain delay in the French Open finals, and just as well the match was eventually postponed. “I am a coward.”

I couldn’t put it down. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was.”

Really, I think I carried it into the kitchen to get another Diet Coke   “I have always been good at pretending.”

I finished it as the evening news came on. Even then, I half-expected a report on the Nazi occupation of France and RAF missions over the Channel. I was still in 1943 with Verity.

Of course, that’s a code-name. Her friends call her Queenie, because she comes from a family of aristocratic Scots with their own castle. Really, if it hadn’t been for the war breaking down class barriers she’d probably never have met Maddie, whose Russian grandfather has a bike shop near Manchester. The two would never have become best friends, “a sensational team” until a mission to France goes awry, with spy Queenie parachuting early into enemy territory and pilot Maddie crash-landing their plane.

I’m not going to tell you a lot more because it would spoil a plot so cleverly constructed that you race through the book as if running pell-mell through the woods, no time to stop and look at the trees much less picture the forest.

Queenie is writing for her life, confessing “absolutely every detail” to a Gestapo captain and his henchwoman in exchange for no more torture and a few more days before her inevitable fate. She’ll give up codes, locate airfields, detail all the planes Maddie flew. Just keep her in ink and paper — creamy hotel stationery from the chateau-turned-prison, a Jewish doctor’s prescription pad, sheet music from a vanished student. She is alternately terrified, impudent, rebellious and self-deprecating as she writes about herself in the third-person from Maddie’s point of view, mostly because she can’t stand to think about her old self, “so earnest and self-righteous and flamboyantly heroic.”

I’m going to stop now. There are only so many times I can reread certain phrases, like quotes from Peter Pan, or “Fly the plane, Maddie,” or “Kiss me, Hardy!” without scaring the cat with my sobs. And that’s the truth.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion via NetGalley). It’s being marketed as a YA book, but like John Green’s recent The Fault in Our Stars, it should reach a wide crossover audience.

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I was going to wait and save this book as part of a mystery round-up, but then I realized it would be a crime to wait. It’s not that often anymore that I sit down with a book and read it start-to-finish, reluctant to break for meals or other distractions. Thankfully, I finished Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones before Downton Abbey started Sunday evening.

The novel’s set in 1980s England, where private investigator Ray Lovell wakes up in a hospital partly paralysed and fuzzy about the car crash that landed him there. He’s having trouble discerning between memories and dreams — nightmares, really — and so thinks farther back to when Leon Wood hired him to find his missing daughter, Rose, who married into a Gypsy family seven years ago and then disappeared.

Ray doesn’t like missing girl cases (the reason will eventually be revealed), but he’s half-Romany and familiar with the travelers’ culture, although he grew up in “bricks.” The Jankos are a traditional, nomadic  family, living in caravans parked at sites across the English countryside.

J.J. Smith, who narrates alternating chapters, is a 14-year-old member of the small Janko clan, the youngest except for his 6-year-old cousin, Christo, disabled by a mysterious inherited disease and son of the runaway Rose and husband Ivo.

As Ray discovers and J.J. reveals, the Jankos are a historically unlucky bunch at life and love. That they also have dark secrets, even from one another, is no surprise.

I guessed most of the plot twists early on, but that’s what I do. Having a good idea of what was going to happen didn’t stop me from the pleasures of Penney’s atmospheric, myth-tinged narrative. Her writing reminds me a bit of Tana French, who has blurbed the book in glowing terms. She also warns that “you will not get anything else done till you finish the last page of this book.”

My sentiments exactly.

Open Book: I won an ARC of Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones (Putnam) in a publisher-sponsored contest for Shelf Awareness readers. I count myself lucky indeed, and now I’m going to find a copy of Penney’s first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.

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