Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe: An Elizabeth Spy Thriller and Jmistress Jaffrey Mystery by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe: An Elizabeth Spy Thriller. Jmistress Jaffrey Mystery. Kathy Lynn Emerson. Severn House. March 2015. 256 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727884596.

Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey is married but separated from her husband and living independently.  She is wealthy, educated and intelligent as well.  While she has no problem filling her days, she is now drawn into the service of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lady Mary, in London in the year 1582.  However, she’s not there to be a semi-servant to Lady Mary but to be a spy for the Queen’s chief spymaster, Sir Frances Walsingham, a man who knows everyone’s business and shares his knowledge sparingly if at all.  Now Rosamond is to be his ears and listen to the gossip of Lady Mary and her ladies in waiting,  Rosamond is not sure what she is to hear, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it seems someone is trying to arrange the marriage of Lady Mary to the Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, a tyrant whom all fear and few trust.

The mystery deepens when several murderous attempts fall on first Lady Mary and then on Rosamond herself.  Lady Mary is believed to have succumbed to a dreaded disease when in fact she is the victim of poison.  On it goes with events conspiring against Rosamond that look like accidents but occur too frequently to be coincidence.

In the meantime, Rosamond’s husband, who is living in Russia supposedly doing busy with a Muscovy merchant company, has been distracted by the widow of an Englishman who was executed as a traitor.  The Tsar will not let this woman return to England and so she lives in dire poverty and miserable conditions.  Soon Rosamond’s husband is feeling more than pity for this young, attractive woman and he will bear some very harsh consequences for his attendance upon this woman and his plan to free her to return to England.

Rosamond at first has to mentally explore who could be responsible for attempting to harm Lady Mary and why they are trying to make sure a marriage and alliance with the Tsar never comes to pass. As in any well-thought out mystery, each character has some flaw, weakness or political connection that could provide a motive for a plot to harm the Queen’s cousin.  Rosamond herself is betrayed a few times and has to come up with some very rapid reasons for explaining her presence as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Mary.

All in all, Rosamond is a clever, ingenious sleuth who keeps the reader guessing on every page and flipping the pages to relish each engaging misunderstanding, attack, clue-ridden occasional dialogue, and violent scenes occurring to Rosamond and her husband Rob.  A splendid read that is highly recommended for all lovers of well-crafted mystery fiction.

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series #14) by Laurie R. King

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series #14).  Laurie R King. Random House Publishing Group.  February 2015. 352 pp. paperback and e-book. ISBN #: 9780345531797.

Holmes and Russell return to their home anticipating a quiet rest, only to have their maid alert them to a huge rock with a chrysanthemum drawn on it lying within their garden. This quickly leads to a long sea journey to Japan which is far from quiet as they wind up in the middle of what they believe to be a suspicious disappearance of a passenger, the appearance of a blackmailer, the Earl of Darley, and an NYU trained economist, Haruki Sato, who begins to give lessons to the passengers on past and present Japanese language and culture.  

So begins a long, beautiful and dangerous trip through Japan in the 1920s which ends with a phenomenal request from no less than the Prince of Japan, Emperor Hirohito’s son.  But before they agree to seek out a single volume of Basho poetry that the Prince inadvertently gave to King George V, Holmes and Russell must be tested by both Haruki and her father Sato, both trained ninjas.  Now a very suspicious offer is being made by the Earl of Darley to sell the precious book back to the Prince for an exorbitant price.  What is the true value of this volume of poems and why is the Prince desperate to get it back before his father, the Emperor, finds out what happened?

The quest takes them back to England with Russell doing a major part of the footwork and Haruki proving to be more physically vulnerable than she had bragged about earlier. Indeed even during the ninja workouts and training Russell and Holmes had endured earlier in the plot, the latter couple proved to be much more adept at throwing Japanese weapons and swordplay than either Haruki or her father Sato had believed possible. 

The suspense in Dreaming Spies… is perfectly balanced with moments of beautiful calm elicited by the sharing of the Japanese tea ceremony, the serenity of the Japanese landscape, and the partaking of delicate but tasty Japanese dishes they learn to actually love and prefer over heavy Western meals.  The criminal bribers are very clever and appear to have bested the sleuthing couple but once again the Earl and others underestimate the keen minds and skills of their pursuers.

Dreaming Spies, the 14th novel in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, is superb detective/spy/adventure/thriller fiction!  A great read that all lovers of the Holmes and Russell adventures will relish anew!  Highly recommended reading!

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Price of Blood: A Novel by Patricia Bracewell

The Price of Blood: A Novel.  Patricia Bracewell. Penguin Group (USA). February 2015. 448 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525427278.

King Æthelred and Queen Emma rule a divided nation, England, in the year 1066. The King, however, is equally responsible for the chaotic rule within his country as well as the Viking attacks that persist and grow more severe with each passing year.  For the King is tortured by the ghostly image of his dead brother, who seems to appear either before or immediately following the increasing disasters that threaten the nation’s demise.  The King believes this is his just punishment for the death of that same brother but remains hardhearted and determined to control his sons who vie to one day inherit his throne and Kingdom. 

The Queen cannot please the King or his sons, as she is of Norman background and therefore considered a “foreigner.”  Add to that the fact that any son she bears would be the heir to the throne, or would he?  The King married her for political reasons, readily beds her but increasingly disapproves of the influence she bears in his Court.  In his mounting fear and insecurity, any who contest his will become the enemy within or outside of the nation.

Of the many sons of this tyrant, Eadric and Athelstan are most at odds.  The King clearly favors Eadric although he warily watches this conniving son who is harder and crueler than the King himself which is saying quite a lot.  Athelstan and Emma would be lovers were it not for her marriage and the fact that every breath she takes and movement she begins are observed overtly and covertly.  Athelstan would be the better heir but for some reason he is mistrusted at all times by his father. 

Add to the spice the machinations of Elgiva, the daughter of one of the King’s nobles who rules an outlying northern province, has been wed to one of the King’s most hated enemies and now she makes a choice that will hopefully gain her the power she craves so desperately but which may doom England in the very near future.  She is evil personified, wicked and self-centered to the core.

Emma remains the pivotal figure who displays intelligence, beauty, wariness and cunning, as well as a pure heart.  Despite the ill treatment she endures, she remains steadfast in maintaining her own identity and keeping the welfare of England before all else, and that is a phenomenal feat many, many times over throughout this tension-filled, intriguing novel.  Villainous characters abound and the battle between the English and Danes looms closer and closer in every chapter, with dire consequences for the English population! 

The Price of Blood: A Novel is wonderful historical fiction and Emma is carefully depicted in a realistic, endearing fashion that will delight readers familiar with her place in history and those meeting her for the first time.  Highly recommended reading!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I.  Charles Spencer. Bloomsbury Press.  January 2015. 352 pp.  ISBN#: 9781620409121.

King Charles I of England has become a tyrant; but this is not the same England that tolerated such mistreatment or such financial extravagance that would pauperize the government coffers.  This is the story of how Parliament plans and carries out demise of Charles I.  What is fascinating about the pre-trial and trial is that Spencer presents a King who seems innocent (Not!) while Parliament is portrayed as those who willingly or through coercion participate in the accusations of the King who dares to live in conditions beyond his financial allowance and then dares to declare actual, physical war against the “will of the common people” who are represented by members of Parliament. The power of the mob impressed itself upon this reader as all I kept thinking as I was reading was “Why was the King not allowed a team of defense lawyers or supporters at his own trial?”  This is not just 21st Century revisionist history thinking here.  Yet Spencer reveals through Charles’ speech during the trial that he believed he needed no defense since he ruled by God’s divine right and therefore was only accountable to that God.  Spencer as a true historian leaves the reader to reflect and comment on such idiocy, travesty or impressive faith!

King Charles I is beheaded in a riveting scene which Spencer excels at describing throughout the book.  Charles in this version of history elicits mostly support and sympathy.  That same sympathy will also be revealed in the following pages in which Charles’ son, Charles, returns to power after Parliament pursues and destroys other Royalists.  Another interesting facet of this presentation is the role of Oliver Cromwell which never receives the focused attention he deserved in this history; he is always mentioned as influencing other anti-Royalists, Puritans, Parliament members, and soldiers.  Later on his excessive pride and grandiosity when in control are all we learn about this man’s brief exercise of power. One can only surmise that this focus was not the purpose of Spencer’s central thesis.

The rest of the story recounts the demise of almost every single person who was involved in the original Committee planning the prosecution of Charles, including those who actually never participated in the trial or execution of the King, those who did participate in all of the above, all signatures of the death sentence, and even those who were key commanders of the military involved in moving Charles I toward his trial and death.

Spencer manages to add a very human interest side to each Parliamentary or military person targeted for revenge which is all that saves the last three-quarters of this text from being repetitively tedious!

For those interested in this historical period, Spencer offers a very readable, carefully researched and fascinating account of the end of royal abuse and the rise of popular sovereignty in 17th Century England.

New Uses for Old Boyfriends: A Novel by Beth Kendrick

New Uses for Old Boyfriends: A Novel.  Beth Kendrick. Penguin Publishing Group (USA). February 2015. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451465863.

Lila and her mother Daphne know everything worth knowing about fashion design and style.  It’s a world filled with beauty and glamour but a world fraught with uncertainty. Lila painfully discovers how fleeting wealth and success can be.  A TV star of a home shopping cable affiliate in Philadelphia and married to a successful man, Lila hears her husband announce he is leaving her for another woman and she also loses her job.  Boom!  What else can she do but return home to Black Dog Bay and begin anew! 

At first Lila is humiliated as she must confess her demise to all of her past friends, including some guys she dated years earlier.  Then her life is overcome by the discovery that her father death left her mother penniless and that Daphne has charged her way into immense debt.  There are some many funny moments in the exchanges between mother and daughter as Daphne fluctuates between despair about the loss of her fashionable collections, which she never wears by the way, and her new joie de vivant attitude.  Eat those deliciously fattening chocolates and toss back that mood-lifting zesty wine!

Lila, however, comes up with a brilliant plan that grows into a larger vision.  Should she sell Daphne’s home and all of her charged goodies on EBay?  Necessity rules this decision.  The remainder of the story is delightful as Lila and Daphne begin to plan and discover that there’s a huge demand for selling vintage clothing and jewelry.  Thus the rest of the novel awaits the pleasure of readers as the road to running a successful boutique, with the assistance of certain males, continues.

In the process, Lila begins to realize that the men who are pursuing her have different motives.  All in all, the disasters that have molded Lila into the strong woman she is today enable her to perceive what is romantically possible, what should be deemed as friendship and nothing more, and what is truly a romantic connection that is also friendship and delight in sharing “all” of her in mind and spirit as well as body. 

New Uses… is a delightfully clever read that is pure entertainment, with a few eye-openers to add to its punch!  Nicely crafted, Beth Kendrick!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Secrets of a Charmed Life: A Novel by Susan Meissner

Secrets of a Charmed Life: A Novel.  Susan Meissner. Penguin Publishing Group (USA). February 2015. 416 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451419927.

“You said wishing something doesn’t make it come true. Doing it does. Someday I hope you will be proud of me.”  These words were penned by Isabel MacFarland many years ago and which she is now sharing in an interview with American scholar Kendra Van Zant.  While Kendra pictures a perfect world where everything works out for the better, what she hears from Isabel is anything but perfect.  This is the story of choices made out of a determination to shape one’s own destiny, choices that call for desperate decisions affecting more than one’s own future.

Emma dreams of creating bridal dresses.  Her persistence leads to her first job as a seamstress for the owner of a bridal shop.  When Emma shows her own designs to the owner of the shop, Mrs. Crofton hires her immediately and says she may have a connection to help Emma meet with a designer who might be interested in these gorgeous bridal designs.  WWII, however, interferes and Emma and her sister Isabelle are forced as children to be evacuated to the British countryside for safety from the German bombs falling on London and other British cities on a daily basis.  At least that’s what they are told even though the bombings are as yet infrequent.  Emma has no support from her mother; in fact her mother acts as if she resents Emma because giving birth to her meant the end of her mother’s own dreams of a promising future. 

So begins a harrowing story in which Emma returns to London to explore an opportunity.  An act of sisterly betrayal followed by the most intense bombing imaginable causes Emma and Julia to be separated for years.  During those years, Emma will discover the secret behind her real father’s identity, will fall in love and lose it just as quickly.  Years later Emma will receive a letter from her sister that makes Emma realize the stark reality of that choice made so long ago.  In that time Emma has fashioned a completely new identity as well as a very successful business.

Secrets of A Charmed Life: A Novel is title that belies the mystery, danger, and passion behind the quest for a career creating beauty for that one special day in a woman’s life, her wedding!  The catastrophic events of the London Blitz combined with a dysfunctional family reeling from previous mistakes make for riveting reading!  Highly recommended historical fiction!

Crash and Burn: A Novel by Lisa Gardner

Crash and Burn: A Novel. Lisa Gardner. Penguin Group USA.  February 2015. 400 pp. hardback and e-book. ISBN #:9780525954569.

“Where is Vero?” repeats Nicole Frank immediately after a devastatingly brutal car crash in which her SUV landed upright with the front of the car vertically dug in the dirt at the bottom of a deep hill off a main road.  Despite phenomenal injuries, she manages to crawl out of the back of the SUV and up the hill to look for her daughter and get help.  She then blacks out and doesn’t wake up until she’s in the hospital.  Her quiet husband, Thomas, is sitting next to her bed, looking as he’s been through a tornado.  Later Nicole hears him telling the doctor that this is her third concussion in the last year and that she was very sick even before the setback of this horrific accident.  For some reason, that statement makes Nicole furious!

The cause of her TBI or traumatic brain injury is never initially explained except to say she kept blacking out and falling.  Meanwhile, she keeps calling for Vero, so much so that the local police set up teams, including tracking canines, to find a girl who they estimate must be between nine and thirteen years old.  It’s a search that’s in the wrong place for the wrong reasons but no one realizes that until much, much later in the story. Some have doubts about Nicole who had been found reeking of very expensive whiskey, in spite of the fact that her blood alcohol level wasn’t in the criminal zone.  However, she is guilty of driving when she was medically advised not to do so and so may be charged with criminal charges related to DWI.

The story begins to spin faster and faster as a team composed of Sgt. Wyatt Foster and his girlfriend/patrol woman Tessa Leoni, begin to put the broken pieces together of this strange occurrence.  At first they suspect Nicole’s husband, Thomas, of perhaps abusing her but then other characters enter the picture, in the guise of supportive, loving care for Nicole.  The bottom line is someone wants Nicole dead but who and why?
Crash and Burn: A Novel is a great thriller and the reader will never in a million years be able to put the pieces together before Nicole, Thomas, Wyatt and Tessa.  It’s a psychological novel as well as we get to read about Nicole’s thoughts and feelings as her memories very, very slowly return, eventually one significant memory that holds the key to her obsession with “Vero.”  Traumatic brain injury, indeed, has more than one meaning and a potent one at that! Crash and Burn… is a story of passionate, unconditional love that can endure the worst that can happen.  That love teaches Wyatt and Tessa something deep about what really matters and how they can handle their future together.  Nicole and Tom as well must learn to trust again, despite having seen something so, so terrible it could scar her forever!  Grand job, Lisa Gardner – love your novels!!!!