Monday, July 25, 2016

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery.  Deanna Raybourn. Penguin Group (USA). July 2016. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451476029.

It’s the late 19th century and Veronica Speedwell has just buried her aunt.  Veronica is not your ordinary woman of the 1800s; she’s an accomplished lepidopterist, a collector of butterflies.  After her aunt’s burial, she returns to her aunt’s home only to find it has been totally ransacked. Before she can register and ponder her questions about this violation, she is rescued by Baron Maximillian von Stauffenbach who claims he knew her parents and that she is in mortal danger.  He accompanies her to stay at the house of his friend, Stoker.  Stoker seems a grouchy, poor and frustrated scientist but his demeanor is challenged by Veronica who is as sharp as a tack, amusingly so to any reader with an appreciation for challenging wittiness.

After settling in and slowly attempting to help Stoker in his job, Veronica and Stoker are shocked to find that the Baron has been murdered.  At first Stoker thinks Veronica is responsible and many accusations and responses make Stoker alarmed enough to realize they must disappear.  This then is the heart of the story – first dealing with the characters they meet in a traveling circus of freaks (term that was then used for people with unique height, weight, appearance, etc.).  The second aspect is the discovery of who were Veronica’s true parents, a fact of which she is totally ignorant since she spent her childhood with two aunts who were constantly moving.  The reader will have no idea until the very end of this novel how this mystery may be solved – or not.

While Stoker and Veronica initially clash like oil and water, they do come to respect and even love each other. Veronica discovers Stoker has his own secrets which gradually come to light and render him less aggressive and brash.  Veronica is bright, sharp-tongued almost to the point of biting, and compassionate individual who knows how to take care of herself and always manages to stay several steps ahead of the proud, domineering Stoker.  The characters they meet are as conniving as their jobs demand in a competitive society where being on top is the only guarantee of success and the reality that one must use whatever means possible to get to that pinnacle. 

A Curious Beginning… is a delightful, old-fashioned mystery and romance sure to please readers everywhere.  An intriguing, multi-layered mystery that is recommended as a fascinating stand-alone novel even though it is connected to other novels by Deanna Raybourn!

War of the Roses: Bloodline by Conn Iggulden

Wars of the Roses: Bloodline.  Conn Iggulden. Penguin Group (USA). July 2016. 432 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780399165382.

In 1461 three men’s heads are mounted on Micklegate Bar’s entry to York Castle: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury; Richard, Duke of York; and Edmund, the son of Richard, Duke of York.  Queen Margaret of Anjou and her husband, the weak and mentally challenged King Henry VI, have no idea what these murders have elicited from within the hearts and minds of the York clan. 

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and his brothers mourn the loss of their father by vowing unceasing vengeance on the Lancaster enemy.  Edward of March, son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, declares himself King and uses his grief to forge a fierce, dauntingly powerful presence in battle and an equal vow to wipe out the Lancaster forces.

This third novel in this memorable series is chiefly characterized by two major battles and strategies of the York and Lancaster contenders to grasp and hold the Crown of England. While characterization is stereotypical, the plots of both sides is superbly presented and engaging (even if the reader is familiar with the course of English history in this time period).

At the first battle of St. Albans, one can hardly believe that a change in strategy completely changes the tide of victory, a choice brought about by brutal winter weather.  The second battle at Townton is as vividly depicted with its own breathtaking surprises.  The realism of these battles is precisely conveyed by Iggulden in a way that makes the reader practically hold one’s breath from the tension and suspense, from the exhaustion and ferocious killing cycles that seem to go on and on endlessly until victory is won by Edward’s Yorkist troops.

In between these battles, one gradually gets entranced by Warwick’s growing jealousy and anger as Edward credits Warwick as “Kingmaker” but not as the power behind the throne.  Edward takes a wife, Elizabeth Woodville, whose family become contenders who would rid the country of Warwick and his family, an especially evil campaign for power. 

Conn Iggulden has again created a spellbinding, intriguing novel about these two rival families who changed the course of English history!  Stunning historical fiction by a seasoned, skilled writer that is highly recommended!