Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer RyanThe Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 411
Published by Ballantine Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration—even at weddings—in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir.After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.
Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay—the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet's conscription letter. It couldn't have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?
Meanwhile, the local vicar's daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother's gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help—but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.
Before long, Cressida's spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

My Review:

Eustace Westcott was dead, to begin with. And it seems to be a relief for all concerned, especially his family. His deceased presence turns out to be a bigger blight on the lives of everyone who knew him than the war. Even the local pub still boasts “a certain ditty written in the men’s lavatory” proclaiming that “Eustace Westcott should stick his precious checkbook up a certain part of his anatomy.”

His estranged sister, the famous – or infamous in the late Eustace’s mind – fashion designer Cressida Westcott would certainly agree. She only attended his funeral to make absolutely certain the blighter was dead.

But speaking of that war, when the London Blitz takes out both her house and her design house in the same night, Cressida’s not sure where to go or what to do. She’s lost everything except the clothes on her back, the designs in her head, and a reputation in the fashion industry that she’s spent the last 20 years building. Those will see her through – but first she needs a place to live and regroup.

She never thought she’d go back home to Aldhurst. In fact, she’d sworn she wouldn’t. But Eustace is dead and she can at least hope that his two children, now adults themselves, haven’t turned into carbon copies of their not-so-dear old dad. Or that there’s still time for her to help them become functional human beings now that his oppressive influence over their lives has been removed.

What she finds in the old family pile is a second chance. A chance to get to know the village and its people – and become one of them. A chance to find family again by helping her niece and nephew see that their father’s ideas and influence are holding them back from living their own lives instead of repeating all the restrictions of his.

All the restrictions he tried to impose on Cressida and utterly failed at.

Cressida has a chance to explore a bit of the road not taken and let herself have as much of it all as could ever be possible – not in spite of the war but because of it.

Escape Rating A: I was looking for, not exactly a comfort read as most of my comfort reads start with murder, but rather a comfortable read for the end of this week. It’s kind of surprising that led me to World War II, not exactly a comfortable time for ANYONE, but this actually fit the bill quite nicely. I adored one of the author’s previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and was expecting more of the same – interesting characters who grow and change in a heartwarming story of the British homefront during World War II. And I was expecting a female-centric story because, well, the war.

And all of that is exactly what I got. With bells on!

The story revolves around three women, Cressida Westcott, her niece Violet Westcott, and the woman cressida mentors in Aldhurst, Grace Carlisle. All of their lives have been knocked off their original courses by World War II, but the war also gives each of them a chance to change a course that they thought was set. Hopefully for the better.

Cressida’s change is a driving force in what happens, which is fitting because Cressida herself has always been a driving force in her own life. While her return to Aldhurst allows her to see the place with fresh eyes, her trip back home doesn’t change who she has become in all the years between.

She’s still a driven woman, determined to be in the top echelon of fashion design – and succeeding on her own terms. What her return to Aldhurst allows her to do is to open herself up to new experiences and new friendships. She is still who she has always been, but becoming part of the village – something she was not allowed to do when she was growing up – reminds her that in addition to making a living she also needs to make a life.

Violet and Grace are both in their 20s, and each has planned a certain life for themselves based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve been told, what they’ve always believed in the “right thing to do.” Violet is honestly a selfish, self-involved little bitch, an upper class twit who believes that marrying a title is her due and that she’s entitled to all the privileges that come with her family’s wealth and status without ever working for them.

Grace is her opposite, the daughter of the local vicar, selflessly devoting herself to the village and parish work, never asking a thing for herself. She’s been shouldering much of her father’s caretaking of the village in the years since her mother died, and everyone else’s need for her has become her life. To the point that she’s planning to marry a clergyman herself, believing that it’s her best chance of recreating the happy family that raised her before her mother’s death.

Violet just needs to grow up – and for that to happen she needs to break out of a role that is designed to keep her childlike and uneducation. Conscription into war work forced Violet to see herself and the world around her with her own eyes, and it’s the making of her.

But it’s Grace’s transformation from colorless drudge to fashion design apprentice that gives the story its heart and its heartbreak. Her involvement with Cressida begins with her engagement, and her desire to wear her mother’s rather moth-eaten wedding gown on her own ‘special’ day.

It’s not just a wish out of love and nostalgia, it’s a necessity. Under wartime clothing rationing, there is no material available for new wedding dresses. There’s little available for repairing old ones, either. But with Cressida’s vast design experience and Grace’s eye for the best ways of ‘making mend and making do’ there’s a chance to make it happen.

Even though the process of design and exploration finally makes Grace wake up and realize that it shouldn’t happen for her – or at least it shouldn’t happen for her with the man she’s currently engaged to marry.

Whether Grace gets to wear the dress herself or not, out of her mother’s old dress both a new dress and a grand idea, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle of the title, are born. The dress that Violet’s mother gave to Grace’s mother eventually becomes THE dress for many young women of Aldhurst and beyond, in an act of sisterhood that is carried not just around the country, but all the way back home to where it began.

The dress is beautiful on every woman who wears it. And the story of how it came to be is every single bit as lovely.

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl

Review: The Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurlThe Girl with the Emerald Flag by Kathleen McGurl
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Collins on November 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A country rebelling
It’s 1916 and, as war rages in Europe, Gráinne leaves her job in a department store to join Countess Markiewicz’s revolutionary efforts. It is a decision which will change her life forever. A rebellion is brewing, and as Dublin’s streets become a battleground, Gráinne soon discovers the personal cost of fighting for what you believe in…
A forgotten sacrifice
Decades on, student Nicky is recovering from a break-up when a research project leads her to her great-grandmother’s experiences in revolutionary Ireland. When Nicky finds a long-forgotten handkerchief amongst her great-grandmother’s things, it leads to the revelation of a heartbreaking story of tragedy and courage, and those who sacrificed everything for their country.
Inspired by a heartbreaking true story, this emotional historical novel will sweep you away to the Emerald Isle. Perfect for fans of Jean Grainger, Sandy Taylor and Fiona Valpy.

My Review:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” or so claimed both Winston Churchill and Nicky Waters, the late 20th century protagonist of this dual-timeline story about Ireland’s Easter Rising. But another quote about history, from another continent is equally apropos. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The early 20th century heroine of this story, that girl with the emerald flag herself, Gráinne MacDowd, witnessed the bending of that arc from its beginning in the Eastern Rising to what seems like its right, proper and fitting ending in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace – more or less – between the Republic of Ireland and a Northern Ireland still controlled by Britain.

But it all begins, or at least this version of it, with a college student both being rebellious and studying rebellions, and her great-grandmother – who she calls Supergran (best name for a great-grandmother EVER) – who was in the rooms where a lot of a real and significant 20th century rebellion happened.

And has a story that she has been waiting nearly a century for someone to finally want to hear.

Escape Rating A-: Nicky Waters and Gráinne MacDowd are the same age at the opposite ends of their century. It’s only Gráinne’s long life and continued good health and mental acuity that allows this story to happen.

(It’s more plausible than one might think. A friend’s grandmother, not even his ‘Supergran’, crossed the US in a covered wagon with one of the last of the wagon trains and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.)

I digress.

This story is told in two timelines. In 1998, the year that the Good Friday Agreement was, well, agreed to, Nicky Waters is a bit spoiled, a bit selfish, a lot self-indulgent, and trying to stretch her wings at uni. It’s her need for a project on historic rebellions that kicks things off – even though she resents her mother’s suggestion that Supergran’s experiences would make a fantastic springboard for her project.

But then, she resents her mother a lot at this point in her life. They love each other but don’t seem to be sympatico at all. Some mother-daughter relationships just go that way.

The heart of the book, both literally and figuratively, is Gráinne telling her story to Nicky. And telling it to the reader as she does.

Gráinne’s story takes place over an intense period of time from the fall of 1915 when she becomes the right-hand-woman of Countess Constance Markiewicz (see quote and picture above) through the Rising itself in its glory and its inevitable defeat. And its immediate aftermath, the nights when the survivors huddled together in Kilmainham Gaol and the mornings when they heard but could not see their leaders facing one firing squad after another.

Gráinne’s story brings Nicky up short, letting her see that rebellion without good purpose has no meaning. Nicky’s turnaround was a bit abrupt, but the harrowing events that her Supergran lived through make the story shine – even if sometimes with tears.

What makes this story so touching – although that’s nearly a big enough word – is the way that it allows the reader to experience this history making and in some ways history shattering event in a way that brings the Rising and the people who gave their lives for it to vivid life.

Gráinne and her beau Emmett are the only important characters in the story who are fictional. All of the leaders of the Rising are presented as they were, and this event is more than close enough in history that documentation exists for much of what Gráinne saw, heard and felt. Including the heartbreaking jailhouse wedding between Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford. (I honestly expected that to be a bit of literary license but it was NOT.)

Gráinne as a character reads as both plausible and aspirational. Women really did all the jobs she performed during the Rising, and she makes the reader hope that they would have done as well in the same cause. At the same time, her example leads her great-granddaughter to do and be better, by example and not by exhortation.

Any reader who loves historical fiction, or has any interest at all in Irish history and the Easter Rising will fall in love with The Girl with the Emerald Flag as much as I did. This story is terrific, and it’s told in way that both tugs at the heartstrings and practically compels the reader to look for more.

One final note. That arc of history is still bending. In the Good Friday Agreement, the politicians on both sides basically finessed some of long-standing issues through both countries’ membership in the European Union. Brexit brought many of those issues, particularly the economic ones – as well as questions about how to deal with the border – back to life. While this is not exactly part of this story, considering that it ends when it does as a way of attempting to close the circle, it’s difficult not to point out that the circle keeps on turning.

About the Author:

Kathleen McGurl lives near the coast in Christchurch, England. She writes dual timeline novels in which a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. She is married to an Irishman and has two adult sons. She enjoys travelling, especially in her motorhome around Europe and has of course visited Ireland many times.

Social Media Links – 

https://kathleenmcgurl.com/

https://www.facebook.com/KathleenMcGurl

https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl 

 

Spotlight: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden + Excerpt

Spotlight: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden + ExcerptUnder a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #2
Pages: 336
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

Welcome to the blog tour for Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden, organized by Austenprose PR. I’m especially excited to be part of this tour as I’ve already read this book and was absolutely thrilled by it. It’s a dark and compelling historical mystery (and so is Inspector Corravan’s first outing, Down a Dark River). If you’re intrigued by this excerpt, take a look at my reviews of Down a Dark River as well as Under a Veiled Moon to see just what a treat is in store for you!

Excerpt from Chapter 2, pp. 8-10 of Under a Veiled Moon © 2022, Karen Odden, published by Crooked Lane Books 

I knocked twice and inserted my key in the lock.

Even as I did so, I heard the twins, Colin and Elsie, their voices raised as they talked over each other—Elsie with a sharp edge of frustration, Colin growling in reply. Odd, I thought as I pushed open the door. Since they were children, they’d baited each other and teased, but I’d never known them to quarrel. 

Colin sat in a kitchen chair tilted backward, the heel of one heavy boot hooked over the rung. He glared up at Elsie, who stood across the table, her hand clutching a faded towel at her hip, her chin set in a way I recognized. 

“Hullo,” I said. “What’s the matter?” 

Both heads swiveled to me, and in unison, they muttered, “Nothing.” 

They could have still been five, caught spooning the jam out of the jar Ma hid behind the flour tin. Except that under the stubble of his whiskers, there was a puffiness along Colin’s cheek that appeared to be the remnants of a bruise. 

Colin thunked the front legs of the chair onto the floor and pushed away from the table. “I got somethin’ to do.” He took his coat off the rack—not his old faded one, I noticed, but a new one—and stalked out the door, pulling it closed behind him. 

I raised my eyebrows and turned to Elsie. She grimaced. “He’s just bein’ an eejit, like most men.” Her voice lacked its usual good humor; she was genuinely angry. 

Jaysus, I thought. What’s happened?
But I’d give Elsie a moment. “Where’s Ma?”

“Went down to the shop for some tea.” She stepped to the sideboard and moved the kettle to the top of the stove. The handle caught her sleeve, pulling it back far enough that I caught sight of a white bandage. 

“Did you hurt your wrist?” 

She tugged the sleeve down. “Ach, I just fell on the stairs. Clumsy of me.” 

The broken window and Colin’s abrupt departure had been enough to alert me to something amiss. Even without those signs, though, I wouldn’t have believed her. I knew the shape a lie took in her voice. 

“No, you didn’t,” I said. 

Her back was to me, and she spoke over her shoulder. “It’s nothing, Mickey.” 

I approached and took her left elbow gently in mine to turn her. “Let me see.” 

Reluctantly, she let me unwrap the flannel. Diagonal across her wrist was a bruise such as a truncheon or a pipe might leave, purple and yellowing at the edges. 

I looked up. “Who did this?” My voice was hoarse. 

Her eyes, blue as mine, stared back. “Mickey, don’t look like that. It was dark, and I doubt he did it on purpose.” 

“Jaysus, Elsie.” I let go of her, so she could rewrap it. “Who?” 

“I don’t know! I was walking home from Mary’s house on Wednesday night, and before I knew it, twenty lads were around me, fightin’ and brawlin’, and I jumped out of the way, but one of them hit my wrist, and I fell.” 

“What were you doing walking alone after dark? Where was Colin?” 

She gave a disparaging “pfft.” “As if I’d know. Some nights he doesn’t come home until late. Or not at all.” 

Harry’s words came back to me: “Out . . . as usual.” 

I cast my mind back to my own recent visits. Colin had often been absent, partly because he’d been working on the construction of the new embankment, but that had ended in July. So where was he spending his time now? And where had he earned the money for his new coat? 

We both heard Ma’s footsteps on the inside stairs. 

“Don’t tell Ma,” Elsie said hurriedly, her voice low. The bandage was completely hidden by her sleeve. “She has enough to worry about. Swear, Mickey.” 

Even as I promised, I wondered what else was worrying Ma. But as the door at the top of the inner stairs opened, I had my smile ready. 

Ma emerged, carrying a packet of tea from the shop. “Ah, Mickey! I’m glad ye came.” Her face shone with genuine warmth, and she smoothed her coppery hair back from her temple. Her eyes flicked around the room, landing on Elsie. “Colin left?” The brightness in her expression dimmed. 

“Just now,” Elsie replied. Their gazes held, and with the unfailing instinct that develops in anyone who grew up trying to perceive trouble before it struck, I sensed meaning in that silent exchange. But before I could decipher it, Elsie shrugged, and Ma turned to me, her hazel eyes appraising. 

“You look less wraithy than usual.” She reached up to pat my cheek approvingly. “Elsie, fetch the preserves. I’ll put the water on.” 

“I’ll do it, Ma.” I went to the stove, tonged in a few lumps of coal from the scuttle and shut the metal door with a clang. As Elsie sliced the bread, I filled the kettle and Ma took down three cups and saucers from the shelf. 

The tension I sensed amid my family derived from something drifting in the deep current, not bobbing along the surface, driven by a single day’s wind and sun. Something had changed. 

About the Author:

Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. in English from New York University and subsequently taught literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has contributed essays to numerous books and journals, written introductions for Victorian novels in the Barnes & Noble classics series and edited for the journal Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Her previous novels, also set in 1870s London, have won awards for historical fiction and mystery. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and the recipient of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Karen lives in Arizona with her family and her rescue beagle Rosy.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | BOOKBUB | GOODREADS

 

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker

Review: A Matter of Happiness by Tori WhitakerA Matter of Happiness by Tori Whitaker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 364
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A cherished heirloom opens up a century of secrets in a bittersweet novel about family, hard truths, and self-discovery by the author of Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish.
Melanie Barnett thinks she has it all together. With an ex-fiancé and a pending promotion at a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Melanie has figured out that love and career don’t mix. Until she makes a discovery while cleaning her Jordan MX car, a scarlet-red symbol of the Jazz Age’s independent women that she inherited from her great-great-great-aunt Violet. Its secret compartment holds Violet’s weathered journal—within it an intriguing message: Take from this story what you will, Melanie, and you can bury the rest. Melanie wonders what more there is to learn from Violet’s past.
In 1921 Violet Bond defers to no one. Hers is a life of adventure in Detroit, the hub of the motorcar boom and the fastest growing city in America. But in an era of speakeasies, financial windfalls, free-spirited friends, and unexpected romance, it’s easy to spin out of control.
Now, as Melanie’s own world takes unexpected turns, her life and Violet’s life intersect. Generations apart, they’re coming into their own and questioning what modern womanhood—and happiness—really means.

My Review:

Melanie Barnett and her ‘Great Aunt Grape’ were simpatico in a way that Melanie and her judgmental, disapproving and disappointed mother were not. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the late and much lamented Violet Bond left her classic 1923 Jordan Playboy car to Melanie when she died.


1920 Jordon Playboy at Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum

What is surprising is the treasure trove of her personal papers and memories that Violet hid inside the car – just waiting for Melanie to check all the compartments and bring them to light.

As this story opens, Melanie is finally claiming that legacy, wishing that she had taken a look a whole lot earlier. But the time is now, and Melanie discovers the whole truth of Violet’s story just in time to help her decide the path she should take for her own.

In spite of her mother’s constant needling that Melanie’s choices are all the wrong ones. Inspired by Violet’s story, Melanie takes a good hard look at what she’s doing and where she’s going, and figures out that when it comes to the matter of her happiness the choices will have to be her own.

Just as Violet’s did. No matter what anyone else might think.

Escape Rating B+: I picked up A Matter of Happiness because I loved the author’s first book, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish. I liked A Matter of Happiness quite a bit, but it didn’t quite match up to the first book, although I think that the nostalgia of its Cincinnati setting pulled a bit more at my personal heartstrings than this one did. But I think that’s a ‘me’ thing and not a commentary on either book. A Matter of Happiness was definitely worth the read.

Like Millicent Glenn’s story, this one also exists in two time frames – but it is also told by two rather different people. Melanie’s story is set in pre-COVID 2018 (I have a feeling that authors are going to avoid the COVID years a LOT because they were just SO WEIRD). Melanie is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The man she thought she’d marry thought that she would be happy to give up her career for his big promotion. But that promotion was taking him to Silicon Valley, and her career is in the Kentucky bourbon industry, which necessitates that she live, unsurprisingly, in her home state of Kentucky.

And now she’s sworn off men, devoting herself to her career, pursuing a promotion to management at the company she’s been working at for several years. She hopes that if she reaches a management position that her striving, seeking, disapproving mother will finally be proud of her.

But she’s found her great-aunt’s diary in the hidden compartments of that old car. A diary of Violet Bond in the 1920s, in her 20s, at a crossroads in her own life. Going off to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning automobile industry, living on her own by her own wits and on her own wages, pursuing a career and swearing off men – albeit for different reasons than Melanie.

Melanie sees a bit of her own journey in her beloved great-aunt’s story. And we see a bit of our own in both of theirs. And in reading about the choices and the sacrifices that her aunt made in order to live the life she wanted, Melanie finds her own way forward.

Along with a secret that changes her perspective on how both she – and her mother – see their past and their places in a family they thought they knew.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blalock

Review: An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie BlalockAn Indiscreet Princess: A Novel of Queen Victoria's Defiant Daughter by Georgie Blalock
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow & Company on September 27, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the acclaimed author of The Other Windsor Girl and The Last Debutantes comes a brilliant novel about Queen Victoria’s most rebellious and artistically talented daughter, Princess Louise, showcasing her rich life in Georgie Blalock’s signature flair.
Before Princes Margaret, before Duchess Meghan, there was Princess Louise: royal rebel.
As the fourth daughter of the perpetually in-mourning Queen Victoria, Princess Louise’s life is more a gilded prison than a fairy tale. Expected to sit quietly next to her mother with downcast eyes, Louise vows to escape the stultifying royal court. Blessed with beauty, artistic talent, and a common touch, she creates a life outside the walled-in existence of the palace grounds by attending the National Art Training School—where she shockingly learns to sculpt nude models while falling passionately in love with famed sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm.
Although Louise cultivates artist friends, artistic success, and a life outside the palace, she quickly learns that even royal rebels must heed the call of duty. For twenty years, Louise fights to maintain her relationship with Joseph and what freedom she can glean within the strict requirements of Queen Victoria’s court. When a near fatal accident forces her back under Queen Victoria’s iron rule, Louise must choose between surrendering to the all-consuming grief of lost love and dreams that plagued her mother or finding the strength to keep fighting for her unconventional life.

My Review:

Princess Louise in 1881

An Indiscreet Princess is the second book this season to present a fictionalized biography of Queen Victoria’s artistic, iconoclastic daughter Louise. Considering the life that she led, it’s not surprising that Louise has become the focus of more than one such book Instead it’s a wonder why her story hasn’t been told before.

Louise’s mother may have reigned over the sexually repressive regime that bears her name, but even the contemporary rumors about Louise’s behavior give the impression that Louise was anything but repressed – no matter how much her royal mother may have tried to make her toe the line of the straight and narrow.

But Louise, who managed to become known in her own right and in her own time as a talented and even successful sculptor, still had to fight that repression from, at the very least, the day her father Prince Albert died until Victoria herself either mellowed or died – whichever came first.

By all accounts, even though Queen Victoria’s power over her empire had been waning throughout her reign – in part due to her own actions or inactions – her rule over her family was nearly absolute. Especially over the lives of her daughters, who she expected to serve as her personal secretaries until she deigned to decide upon and preside over their marriages. And whose world she still expected to be the very center of for the rest of her – or their – lives.

But the center of Louise’s life was her art. No matter how much her imperial – and imperious – mother tried to restrict every aspect of her life – including how much training she would receive and how much – or how little – space she would be given to practice it. So she rebelled where she could and toed the line when she absolutely had to.

And managed to succeed – if not on her own terms at least on terms that both she and her mother could live with. At least some of the time.

Escape Rating B: Both In the Shadow of a Queen and An Indiscreet Princess fictionalize the life of the very same person. Meaning that the outlines of both stories are pretty much the same. But the way that those outlines are filled in is quite a bit different.

It’s as if the two Princesses Louise are twins who are living out the all-too-common scenario of a “good” twin and a “bad” twin. A scenario that occurs in many families, where one child is rewarded for being dutiful and obedient while the other gets attention the only way that remains to them – by acting out at every turn.

In the Shadow of a Queen told the story of the “good” twin. That Louise pursued her art relentlessly – and did clash with her mother because of it. But she was portrayed as a dutiful if reluctant personal secretary, and more distinctly in comparison with this book, her marriage to Lord Lorne was described as a love match between two people who liked and respected each other and expected to be as happy as their circumstances would allow. That version of Louise’s story also dismissed all of the rumors about her many reputed affairs and never even touched on the rumors that Lord Lorne was homosexual. That book ended just as they married, leaving open the possibility of a happy ever after that did not happen in real life.

An Indiscreet Princess, very much on the other hand, leans into all the salacious gossip and leans into so hard it falls over into more than a few pre- and post-marital beds. (It also explicitly reinforces the worst of the rumors about Queen Victoria’s behavior with her Scottish manservant John Brown) It is, admittedly, a much more fun account of Louise’s life than the other, a feeling that is helped by starting her story later, as she is inveigling her mother to let her attend art school, and a point where Louise has a bit more agency – or at least more awareness of just how little she has – than in Shadow which begins with Prince Albert’s death and glums its way through the worst of Victoria’s mourning years.

While the Princess in Indiscreet is more interesting to read about, because she thinks more and does more, this is also a story about a lot of privileged people being privileged and selfish and generally behaving fairly badly to each other while not considering ANY of the effects on anybody else. What seem like more frank portraits of everyone in the royal orbits is more interesting to read – as tell-all gossips often are – but doesn’t leave the reader with a whole lot of sympathy for much of anyone involved.

All of which is a very different reaction than I had to the author’s previous book about one of the royal family’s other notorious scapegraces, The Other Windsor Girl about the life of Princess Margaret. Which I liked quite a bit better because while the focus in that book was on Margaret, the story is told from an outsider’s perspective which lets us see, perhaps, a bit more clearly than Louise is able to see herself.

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden

Review: Under a Veiled Moon by Karen OddenUnder a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #2
Pages: 336
Published by Crooked Lane Books on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

My Review:


Drawing of a collision between the Princess Alice and Bywell Castle

What happens Under a Veiled Moon is a series of real, historical tragedies. Well, the tragedies themselves, including the Sinking of the SS Princess Alice and the Abercarn mine explosion. But the causes of those disasters were thoroughly investigated at the time. While there was plenty of blame to go around – and did it ever go around – the plots that Inspector Corravan eventually ferrets out are not among them.

But it does blend those real disasters with a fascinating story about the power of the press – its use and particularly its misuse – to change minds and inflame emotions.

Corravan, Acting Superintendent of the Wapping River Police, opens the book by rushing to the scene of an explosion on the river. The SS Princess Alice, a passenger steamer, was rammed by the coal barge SS Bywell Castle near the south bank of the river. The Castle emerged from the collision with minimal damage, but the Alice broke in three and sank almost instantly. (It sounds like it would be the equivalent of an automobile accident with a double-semi crashing into a Smart Car only with more passengers in the tiny car.)

Between 600 and 700 people died in the wreck, and it is still the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident ever recorded.

It takes days to recover everything that can be recovered, including the bodies. The city is reeling from the shock, and everyone official is looking for someone to pin the responsibility on. And that’s where things get interesting, as well as downright confusing, for a whole lot of people – especially Inspector Michael Corravan.

Someone – actually a whole lot of rich and influential someones – seems determined to blame the disaster on the pilot of the Bywell Castle. A man who can’t seem to be found in the wake of the tragedy. And who just so happens to be Irish. Which shouldn’t matter. But is made to matter very much in the press – and is linked, step by painstaking step in those newspapers – to a recent railway disaster, to a mining disaster that occurs in the aftermath of the wreck, and finally to gang warfare in Irish immigrant districts and a three-year’s past terrorist bombing claimed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

It starts to look like an organized effort to blame the Irish for everything currently wrong with the state of Britain – for reasons that do not seem apparent on the surface. Until Corravan, with his roots in the Irish community, his position in the police and his relationships with a surprising number of very helpful and intelligent people – begins to see a pattern.

An insidious pattern that began in a shared tragedy but seems determined to end in a shared explosion of one kind or another – even if the conspirators have to engineer it for themselves.

Escape Rating A+: I think that Under a Veiled Moon is an even better story, both as historical fiction and as mystery, than the first book in the series, Down a Dark River. And I loved that one. This one is so compelling because what happens under that veiled moon takes place at the intersection of power corrupts, the ends justify the means, and there is nothing new under the sun. And it’s absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

We get to know Corravan a bit better in this one. We learn a lot more about where he came from and how he got to be who he is now that he’s in his 30s. The underpinnings of this one, the involvement with the Irish community in London and the various hopes and fears about the possibility of Irish Home Rule set alongside the prejudice and resentment of Irish immigrants really exposes some of what he keeps hidden in his heart.

And he’s just old enough to see his own past and resent his own errors of youth and judgment – and we like him the better for it.

At the same time, the mystery plot is deep and dark and downright frightening. Not just because it’s so easy to see how it might have happened then, but because we can all too clearly how its happened before – for real – and very much how it’s happening again.

It’s also a very smart puzzle with a whole lot of moving parts, most of which don’t seem to fit in the same jigsaw because honestly they don’t. Watching the way that the square peg red herrings are retrofitted to slot into the available round holes makes the mystery that much harder to solve.

I did recognize that the long arm of coincidence couldn’t possibly be as long as it was being made to appear, but the how and why of it is so steeped in the history of the time that it made the revelation and resolution that much more riveting.

This is a series that I seriously hope continues. It combines elements of C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series with Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series along with her William Monk  series. It deals with the issues of its day and the influences of the wider world on its London microcosm with the same depth as St. Cyr while focusing on a character who works for his living as a “copper” as do both Pitt and Monk, at a time period where the world is changing at an ever increasing pace to the one we know. There’s also a bit of an irony there, as Corravan is an Irish police inspector while Pitt ended up being Head of Special Branch, an office whose remit was to deal with terrorism – particularly that sponsored and/or perpetrated by those agitating for Irish Home Rule.

An issue that I expect Corravan to get caught in the middle of, again and again, through the hopefully many future books in this compelling series.

Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue

Review: Haven by Emma DonoghueHaven by Emma Donoghue
Narrator: Aidan Kelly
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 272
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three men vow to leave the world behind them. They set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them. What they find is the extraordinary island now known as Skellig Michael. Haven has Emma Donoghue’s trademark world-building and psychological intensity—but this story is like nothing she has ever written before.
In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find an impossibly steep, bare island inhabited by tens of thousands of birds, and claim it for God. In such a place, what will survival mean?

My Review:

Some books make me think. Some books make me feel. This book made me want to push one of the characters off of a very high cliff. And there are plenty of precipitous crags and rocky outcroppings to choose from on the Great Skellig.

Skellig Michael

(In case the location of this story sounds a bit familiar, it probably is. The Great Skellig is now known as Skellig Michael, and was the place where Luke’s Jedi retreat was filmed in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.)

There really was a monastic retreat on Skellig Michael, and it probably was founded at the time this story is set, the 7th century AD. But probably, hopefully, not like this. Because the monastery at Skellig Michael seems to have had continuous occupation – barring the occasional Viking raid – from its founding through at least the 11th century.

That record of continuous occupation requires a level of both practicality and sanity that is just not present in this story. Haven could be read as a how NOT to do it book.

The opening is not exactly a reasonable start for the 21st century, but would have been for the 7th. Brother Artt, a well-known monastic scholar, has a dream that he and two other monks found a monastery that will be isolated from the temptations of the world. Artt sees those temptations everywhere, including in the safe and well-endowed monasteries of Ireland where he travels.

Artt’s real dilemma, however, is the one that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar so eloquently described a millennium later. That the fault is not in our stars – or in this case Artt’s stars or even his dreams – but in himself.

It’s not even that Artt is a rather extreme ascetic, not merely willing but seemingly desirous of giving up even the relatively spare comforts of an established monastery because they simply aren’t spare enough for his desire to punish himself to death. It’s that he takes two men with him into his remote, deprived and in some ways even depraved exile, and that because of the rules of the church they are sworn to obey him no matter how crazy he gets.

And he gets very crazy indeed. It’s Artt’s descent into madness and Cormac’s and Trian’s diligence and obedience – to the point of their own mental and emotional breaking – that forms the rocks and crags of this thoughtful, sometimes lyrical, but also exceedingly cold story.

Escape Rating C+: One of the things about reading is the way that it gives the reader the ability to step into another’s shoes and see the world as they might have seen it. This is a book that made me wonder just how far out of ourselves we are, or even should be, able to step.

It’s not just that Artt is an arsehole – although he certainly is in the way he treats Trian and Cormac – it’s that his arseholery comes from a place that is so foreign to me that he grates on me every bit as much as Cormac’s endless stories and Trian’s burbling chatter grate on him. (And I’m saying that even though Artt’s reaction to their constant need to make verbal noise would drive me just as far round the twist as it does him.) Howsomever, while I don’t share their religious faith – let alone the almost blind way in which they practice it – I can see both reason and fellowship in Cormac’s practicality, just as I can in Trian’s youthful curiosity. I can walk a bit in their shoes – or sandals as the case may be.

Artt I’d prefer to throw off one of the rocks. But because his outlook on life is so completely foreign to me, I spent an uncomfortable half of the story caught between wondering if that’s because his perspective is so alien – or if he’s just an arsehole and he’d be one in any time and place in which he found himself. But as the situation on Skellig Michael became increasingly dire, and Artt’s response to the direness of those circumstances and his complete, total and utter unwillingness to consider ANY of the practicalities of their inevitable plight I reached the conclusion that he was just an insecure and angry arsehole and that he’d be one no matter what the situation. His arseholery would just manifest differently in other times and places.

So this is not a comfortable story and not just because of the increasing discomfort of the monks’ situation. And that is well beyond uncomfortable. But Cormac and Trian are under the rule of an emotionally and psychologically abusive master and what we witness is their increasing desperation and self-blame as they attempt to reconcile what they’ve been taught to believe with the increasing insanity of what they feel compelled to do.

One of the few shining lights of this story was that I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the text. I probably would not have continued without the audio because this story felt so brutal. But the narrator Aiden Kelly was excellent. I have to particularly call out that he did a terrific job of making the three men’s voices sound so distinct that I could easily tell one from another even when dropping back into the audio after a day or two away from it. His reading elevated the book to that plus in the rating.

In the end, I’d have to say that I’d recommend this narrator unreservedly, and I’ll look for more audiobooks he’s been part of. The book, on the other hand, I’d be guarded about who I recommended it to. The writing, as I said, is lovely to the point of being lyrical, but this story is so very cold. The author is extremely popular, but for someone looking for an introduction to her work I’d definitely choose something else, either The Pull of the Stars or Room.

And if someone is interested in historical fiction about this time period in Ireland in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland at this period in particular, I’d recommend the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne, which begins with Absolution By Murder. These are historical mysteries, featuring a central character who is both part of the church and a practicing lawyer. She’s also, I have to say, someone who Artt would detest on sight, so recommending her instead of him seems like a bit of well-deserved payback.

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King

Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. KingBack to the Garden by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life--with potentially fatal consequences--in this gripping standalone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.
A magnificent house, vast formal gardens, a golden family that shaped California, and a colorful past filled with now-famous artists: the Gardener Estate was a twentieth-century Eden.
And now, just as the Estate is preparing to move into a new future, restoration work on some of its art digs up a grim relic of the home's past: a human skull, hidden away for decades.
Inspector Raquel Laing has her work cut out for her. Fifty years ago, the Estate's young heir, Rob Gardener, turned his palatial home into a counterculture commune of peace, love, and equality. But that was also a time when serial killers preyed on innocents--monsters like The Highwayman, whose case has just surged back into the public eye.
Could the skull belong to one of his victims?
To Raquel--a woman who knows all about colorful pasts--the bones clearly seem linked to The Highwayman. But as she dives into the Estate's archives to look for signs of his presence, what she unearths begins to take on a dark reality all of its own.
Everything she finds keeps bringing her back to Rob Gardener himself. While he might be a gray-haired recluse now, back then he was a troubled young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend vanished after a midsummer festival at the Estate.
But a lot of people seem to have disappeared from the Gardener Estate that summer when the commune mysteriously fell apart: a young woman, her child, and Rob's brother, Fort.
The pressure is on, and Raquel needs to solve this case--before The Highwayman slips away, or another Gardener vanishes.

My Review:

“We are stardust, we are golden” begins the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, from which the title of this book is taken. If you’ve been hearing the words in your head, as I have, the earworm is probably from the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover of the song, which has become a Classic Rock staple in the intervening, OMG 52(!) years.

At the time, the 70s did seem golden, but as SFPD Inspector Raquel Laing is forced to look back at the summer of 1979 – before she was even born – what she sees is a whole lot of naivete through a haze of pot smoke. By 1979 the counterculture movement was already in the rearview mirror.

But during that summer of 1979, so long ago and in many ways so far away, someone placed a dead body in a hole that was about to be filled with concrete, and there it has sat for over 40 years.

Waiting to be uncovered.

The Gardener Estate was once one of the palaces of California’s rich and famous. Then it was turned into an almost equally famous commune by a disaffected heir. So many years later, it’s a tourist attraction, known for its eclectic history, its beautiful gardens, and its collection of feminist artworks by a once-and-future famous artist.

It’s one of those artworks, a statue built from found objects showing the three faces of Eve, that has been hiding the grave. As the statue starts toppling, conservators rush in to save it – and to prevent it from falling on any of those tourists who keep the place afloat.

And that’s where Inspector Laing comes in. She’s working on a cold case that has just become much too hot for several police departments in Northern California. A serial killer operating in the 1970s, who was not only never caught but was never even recognized as anything more than an urban legend.

But “The Highwayman” as Michael Johnson was called was more than real enough for cancer to have caught up with him, and for his need for care to have uncovered his secrets. Now he’s dying, time is running out fast, and Laing has a burning need to get the details of all his victims so that closure can be provided to the families who have been waiting for so many long years.

The body under the Eves might be one of the Highwayman’s victims. It might help close this biggest of cold cases. But it might just open Pandora’s box on a brand new fresh one. It’s up to Laing to find out which. Before the clock runs out. Or before new bodies start piling up.

Escape Rating B+: I pickled this because I adore the author’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. While I certainly knew going in that this book was not a continuation of any of her other series I also knew that I’d get a taut and compelling mystery under the investigative eye of a complex but hyper-competent detective that would weave its way around a fascinating cast of characters.

And so it certainly proved. I’ll also confess that the earworm drove me absolutely bananas for the longest time, as the recognizable line from the song that forms the title of the book is obviously not the song’s title. Without a bit of google-fu I’d have gone completely batty by now.

The story is told in two timelines. The 1970s past and the 2020s present. I was in high school, college and graduate school in the 1970s, so old enough to remember but not quite old enough – or at least not brave enough – to be part of the counterculture movement. Still, the 1970s part of this mystery rings very true.

In the here and now, Laing’s career is hanging by a thread. She’s on probation, working the cold case files with her mentor, while the powers-that-be decide what to do with her and her tendency to bullheadedly follow a case out past the bounds of not just propriety but even straight out into questions of illegality.

Her sister has fingers in some very murky corners of questionably sourced information on the dark web. Using her sister to get information relevant to her cases is a good way to get the case tainted beyond the ability to prosecute. But sometimes she can’t resist because there are crimes that are just so dirty that the ends do seem to justify those means.

Laing is afraid that the Highwayman’s buried victims may be one of those cases, and much of Laing’s part of this investigation is wrapped in her questioning of herself about just how far she should go.

But what makes this story so compelling are the questions about the past. She may not know who was buried under that statue but she does know when it happened. The Eves were raised at the end of the summer of 1979, after a commercially successful folk-rock festival that literally tore the community apart. Thousands visited the community that one event-filled day. In the aftermath, several members of the community left.

As she interviews the remaining community members, a picture begins to emerge of those final, fraught, frantic days. A picture that brings 1979 back to life in all of its rainbow-tinted, drug-hazed glory. And tragedy.

While I came to this for the mystery investigation, what kept me turning pages was the nostalgic recreation of an era that was already gone even at the time it happened. (If this part of the story appeals to you as well, take a look at Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan.) The reader is right there with them, seeing the dream, knowing just how soon it’s going to die. It’s not a surprise that the commune failed. It’s a surprise that it lasted as long as it did. It’s also telling that a big chunk of the reason it lasted was the money that came from the Estate. That they all thought the Estate was a tainted capitalist enterprise that they shouldn’t be benefiting from showed how shaky the foundation really was.

And yet it is clear from the survivor’s recollections that the brief period was the high point of their lives, and that they look back with teary-eyed nostalgia.

But the hand pulling back that curtain of nostalgia isn’t as clear as those memories. Laing is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like we got enough of her to really know her. In contrast, one of the things that makes Mary Russell so compelling is that her character is sharp and distinct from the very first page of her very first adventure in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Laing is a very insular character, as is Holmes. But she doesn’t have enough of a foil, at least not yet, to allow us to see her in fullness through another’s eyes. So far, at least, she reads more as a vehicle than a character. Howsomever, the way that Back to the Garden ends does leave the door wide open for a sequel. If this turns out to be the start of a series, we’ll get to see where Laing’s penchant for obsessing over her cases leads to next.

One final note, as this story’s title teased me with its call back to Joni Mitchell’s song, the story itself evoked pieces of other books as well. I mention Lady Sunshine by Amy Mason Doan as both books have that same sense of looking back at the 1970s through golden-tinted lenses of nostalgia. The state of the Gardener Estate, its checkered history and the perilous state of its finances along with the mystery surrounding its past reminded me of Museum of Forgotten Memories by Anstey Harris. And Laing’s career as a serial killer profiler made me think of the Quinn & Costa series by Allison Brennan.

Depending on which parts of Back to the Garden have the most appeal to you, you should hopefully find something else fascinating to tide you over until the book comes out next week!

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate KhavariA Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons (Saffron Everleigh Mystery #1) by Kate Khavari
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Saffron Everleigh #1
Pages: 262
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Saffron Everleigh is in a race against time to free her wrongly accused professor before he goes behind bars forever. Perfect for fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber, Kate Khavari’s debut historical mystery is a fast-paced, fearless adventure.
London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university's large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin.
Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, having had an explosive argument with Dr. Henry a few days prior. As evidence mounts against Dr. Maxwell and the expedition's departure draws nearer, Saffron realizes if she wants her mentor's name cleared, she’ll have to do it herself.
Joined by enigmatic Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons. Will she be able to uncover the truth or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list?

My Review:

There’s something rotten in the state of London’s University College botany department. The signs, at least in the very broadest strokes, are a bit difficult for researcher Saffron Everleigh to miss. After all, the wife of one of the leading lights of her department has just been struck down – right in front of her – in the middle of a faculty and staff party.

A party to celebrate the fast-approaching departure of many of the department’s most prominent – and/or most ambitious – members for a research expedition to the heart of the Amazon.

Not that Saffron ever had the remotest chance of going on that expedition. Not that she isn’t an excellent researcher with sincere hopes of entering graduate studies in her chosen field. And if she were a man, she’d be well on her way.

As it is, she’s the focus of gossip, innuendo, and even blatant sexual harassment from the head of her department. As the story opens, the only person she’s certain respects her as a scientist is her mentor, Dr. Maxwell, who treats her very much as a daughter.

Because he was a close friend of her late father, who was also a botany professor at the College. But Dr. Everleigh was killed in the Great War, as was the man Saffron intended to marry. So she is following in her father’s footsteps as a researcher instead of living the life she had planned on.

When her mentor is accused of poisoning Mrs. Henry with poisonous plants he brought back from an earlier expedition, Saffron rushes to prove the police wrong. While her amateur detecting nearly results in her own death by poison, she does manage to conclude that the police have leapt to an obvious but incorrect conclusion.

The woman was poisoned, she is in a coma, but her mentor did not commit the deed. But as she waits for the results of her ill-advised experiment to wear off, she learns she has another colleague in finding the solution to the crime.

Alexander Ashton isn’t certain which he finds more alluring – the investigation of the poisoning or the woman who is hell-bent on conducting it. But the deeper they dig into the rot, the more dangerous the situation becomes. If there’s a secret that is worth putting one woman into a coma, it’s all too possible that it’s a secret worth killing for.

But Alexander is determined to help Saffron find it, and not just for personal reasons. After all, if Dr. Maxwell is not the poisoner, someone else in the Botany Department is. And that poisoner might just be part of the Amazon expedition right along with him.

Escape Rating A-: What makes A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons so much fun – besides that wonderfully evocative title – is the way that, as the story goes on, so many of the things we – and Saffron – thought were true turn out to be not quite what we thought they were. Particularly the people. And especially Saffron herself.

At first, Saffron is investigating what she believes is a miscarriage of justice being perpetrated by police detectives who are too interested in the obvious solution and unwilling to put in either the legwork or the brain work to make sure they’ve got the right man – or even the right crime.

Her initial motive for her amateur sleuthing is to clear the name of Dr. Maxwell, who is both a mentor and a father-figure to her. She knows he can’t possibly be guilty of the poisoning, not just because she knows the man but because her logical mind has examined the scene from all sides and knows that it wasn’t physically possible for him to have either poisoned the champagne or the glass it was poured into.

As we follow along in Saffron’s wake, as she and her reluctant fellow amateur investigator Ashton go further and further out on the limb of illegal and illicit activities in her dogged pursuit of the truth and his equally dogged pursuit of her – everything changes.

Mrs. Henry WAS poisoned – but not for any of the personal or scandalous reasons that Saffron originally believed. She may have begun her quest to clear Dr. Maxwell’s name, but she continues to pursue it because she’s caught up in the hunt and can’t resist the puzzle. The more she digs, the more she uncovers, the more there is to find. And the more dangerous her situation becomes.

The more evidence she presents to the police the more she realizes that the enigmatic police inspector is way more savvy than she initially suspected. And the more that Alexander Ashton follows her through thick, thin and thorny bushes, the more she realizes that she might have found a man who is capable of seeing her as both a scientific colleague and as someone to love.

This is a story that starts out seeming like it’s heading down a rather salacious and scandalous path, only for it to twist itself into a much more serious investigation of discovery of both the criminal and the personal kind.

To sum things up, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons is a fun and twisty mystery that has a lot of things to say about women in academia at a time when it was possible but not expected or respected. As the first book in a series, it gives hints that Saffron and Ashton’s relationship will continue to blossom – and probably continue to investigate crimes that the police would prefer they kept clear of.

If you like stories like Saffron’s, she reminded me of several investigating heroines who operate during the same time period, particularly Mary Russell, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. And for a similar story in a much different setting, The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older covers some surprising bits of the same ground of deadly shenanigans in academia under investigation by initially reluctant academicians turned amateur detectives.

But the most on-point readalike for A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons should be the second book in the Saffron Everleigh series, A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality, coming out next summer!