Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine SchellmanLast Call at the Nightingale (Nightingale Mysteries, #1) by Katharine Schellman
Narrator: Sara Young
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Nightingale Mysteries #1
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 14 minutes
Published by Minotaur Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

* Duration: 09:14:29 *
First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, 'LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE' beckons listeners into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement.
With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared.
With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
©2022 Katharine Schellman (P)2022 Dreamscape Media. LLC

My Review:

Prohibition was a noble concept, the execution of which was considerably less than noble. But as a setting for historical fiction, Prohibition and the Jazz Age that it spawned sparkles every bit as much as the spangled dresses that the “Flappers” of the period wore when they went dancing. At the speakeasies where liquor was bought from illegal bootleggers, ignored by cops on the take, and drunk by everyone who came to forget their troubles for a night of drinking and dancing.

Drinking can be a social lubricant even when it’s legal. Illegal booze drunk in barely hidden illegal establishments didn’t just break down individual’s inhibitions, it broke the social inhibitions between races, classes and identities.

Which is why Vivian Kelly dances at the Nightingale every night that she can, in spite of her older sister’s fear and disapproval. By day, Vivian lives in a constrained world. She’s Irish, she’s an orphan, she’s poor and she has a job that barely buys the necessities and has no prospects whatsoever. She and her sister seem doomed to be spinster seamstresses under the thumb of their overbearing, disapproving, autocratic boss until they step over a line or their eyesight gives out. They’re barely scraping by with little hope for better.

So Vivian dances as much as she can. She may not be able to dance away her problems, but she can certainly set them aside for a while when the drinks are flowing and someone is always looking for a dance partner.

Vivian also comes to the Nightingale because it’s where her best friend, Bea Henry, works as a dancer. Vivian may be white, but she’s also poor Irish. Bea is black, but in the poorer quarters of New York City where they live only a block apart, the Nightingale is a place where no one cares that they’re not supposed to be lifelong friends, just as no one bats an eye that the bartender is Chinese and the club’s owner is a woman who clearly prefers other women.

The Nightingale is a place where anyone can belong and everyone can be themselves – a place where people can put down whatever mask the outside world forces them to wear.

The night that Vivian and Bea find a dead body in an alley behind the club all of that is threatened. The police hush up the murder, but the dead man was high society and someone is determined to make the club and its owner, Honor Huxley, pay dearly for the privilege of staying open and keeping the secret.

All the secrets.

Vivian is in it up to her neck. She can’t get the scene out of her head, and she can’t help but gnaw at the few available threads of the mystery. When the club is raided, and Vivian finds herself owing Honor for her bail money, the only way she can pay the teasing, tantalizing woman back is to do a little bit of snooping. Vivian can’t admit to herself that she wants to please Honor, but she also wants to pay back what she owes and more importantly, she doesn’t know how she’ll live without the Nightingale.

But there’s someone wrapped in this mess who seems determined not to let the Nightingale, or Honor Huxley, or especially Vivian, go on living at all.

Escape Rating B: There has been a veritable spate of recent mysteries or fantasies with mystery elements set in the Jazz Age in recent months, all featuring female amateur detectives who are in over their heads so far that they nearly drown. The time period is fascinating because the illicit nature of the speakeasies encouraged a breakdown of social barriers, allowing all sorts of people to mix and mingle in ways that would have been impossible before.

The cover of Last Call at the Nightingale was so evocative of the era and the ambiance that I was hoping that the story would be up with the other recent trips back to the 1920s such as Dead, Dead Girls, Wild and Wicked Things, Bindle Punk Bruja and my absolute favorite, Comeuppance Served Cold.

This was a story where I flipped between listening and reading. I was in a time crunch and I really did want to find out whodunnit and whether I was right about the things I managed to guess in advance. Some books are much better one way than the other, but this turned out to be one where it didn’t matter. The narrator did a good job with the various accents and characters, but the performance didn’t elevate the material above and beyond what was on the page.

Whether in audio or text, I would say that this is a story that I liked more than I loved, and I think that’s down to its protagonist Vivian Kelly. In her mid-20s with no family other than her sister, raised in an orphanage, barely making ends meet, Vivian is poor and Irish and would probably be called “white trash” behind her back if not to her face. It would have to have been a “hard-knock life” as the play Annie put it, and she’d have to have more sharp edges and street smarts than she seems to.

She’s in so far over her head that she should be drowning. Or, she should be more cynical about pretty much everything. Not that she shouldn’t have dreams or be trying, in however messy a fashion, to make them true, but that she misses some of the realities of life that should be obvious.

Or it could be that the intervening century between her time and ours has made us much more jaded than she was. As soon as the public story about the situation with the dead man’s widow, her young sister and her bastard of a dead husband was revealed, it was screamingly obvious what the underlying cause of that part of the mess was – and Vivian didn’t even think it. Which felt off and made Vivian a bit more incongruous than I could quite believe.

Which doesn’t mean that the setup of the story wasn’t fascinating, or that the reveal of both whodunnit and why wasn’t completely earned. In the end, this reads like Vivian Kelly’s coming-of-age story, and sets up the possibility of more to come. If that more doesn’t materialize, this one is absolutely complete in and of itself. It’s just that there’s a door in the back of the bar that could lead into another mystery.

One of the things that I very much did like was the way that we explore Vivian’s world, both the good parts and the bad, as she undertakes her undercover adventure for Honor Huxley. Vivian’s journey travels through the dark places and shines a light on them without being preachy but still showing clearly just how much was wrong and how hugely unequal the many, many inequities were. And that the Nightingale was a haven where those things didn’t have to happen.

By the time we leave Vivian, she is only a tiny bit older, but much sadder and maybe a little wiser. She learns that nothing she thought was true at the beginning was, and that the people we look up to are in position to use us and hurt us the most. And that she’s going to have to be a lot smarter and grow a much tougher skin if she’s going to survive in the world she has chosen to inhabit.

If this does turn out to be the first in a series as both the Goodreads and Amazon blurbs seem to indicate, I’ll be very curious to see how well, or even if, she manages either of those things.

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim Fay

Review: Love and Saffron by Kim FayLove & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: foodie fiction, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 208
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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The #1 Indie Next Pick, in the vein of the classic 84, Charing Cross Road and Meet Me at the Museum, this witty and tender novel follows two women in 1960s America as they discover that food really does connect us all, and that friendship and laughter are the best medicine.

When twenty-seven-year-old Joan Bergstrom sends a fan letter--as well as a gift of saffron--to fifty-nine-year-old Imogen Fortier, a life-changing friendship begins. Joan lives in Los Angeles and is just starting out as a writer for the newspaper food pages. Imogen lives on Camano Island outside Seattle, writing a monthly column for a Pacific Northwest magazine, and while she can hunt elk and dig for clams, she's never tasted fresh garlic--exotic fare in the Northwest of the sixties. As the two women commune through their letters, they build a closeness that sustains them through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the unexpected in their own lives.
Food and a good life--they can't be separated. It is a discovery the women share, not only with each other, but with the men in their lives. Because of her correspondence with Joan, Imogen's decades-long marriage blossoms into something new and exciting, and in turn, Joan learns that true love does not always come in the form we expect it to. Into this beautiful, intimate world comes the ultimate test of Joan and Imogen's friendship--a test that summons their unconditional trust in each other.
A brief respite from our chaotic world, Love & Saffron is a gem of a novel, a reminder that food and friendship are the antidote to most any heartache, and that human connection will always be worth creating.

My Review:

It’s 1962 and the world is about to change. Neither Joan Bergstrom in LA nor Imogen Fortier on Camano Island (in Puget Sound outside Seattle) have any foreknowledge of what the 60s are going to bring, either to the country or to themselves.

They are both writers, and their correspondence begins when 27-year-old Joan writes a fan letter to 59-year-old Imogen about Imogen’s monthly column in a Seattle-based lifestyle magazine, Northwest Home & Life. Imogen is kind of who and what Joan wants to be when she grows up. Joan is Imogen’s chance to help, befriend, advise and share her soul with a woman living on the cusp of change.

They tell their stories to each other in letters over the next four years as the country grieves through the assassination of JFK and watches the Civil Rights Movement come to life. They mourn together, they hope together, and most importantly for their friendship, they explore the cuisines of the world together even though they’re usually eating more than 1,000 miles apart.

But they begin their friendship, their correspondence, and that delicious sharing with Joan’s first letter. It includes both a recipe and a few, precious strands of saffron to make the flavors come to life. And they do.

Joan is the explorer while Immy supports her and cheers her on. Joan starts out wanting to explore the cuisines of her native Los Angeles, and ends up finding the love of her life. Immy shares Joan’s discoveries, her recipes and her saffron, and discovers whole new facets of her husband of over 40 years. Both of their worlds expand because of their friendship with each other.

It all makes for a beautiful story, a sharing of hearts, minds and perspectives. With an ending that will make even the hardest of hearts shed a tear that it doesn’t last forever.

Escape Rating A: This is a bit more Charing Cross Road than Meet Me at the Museum, but it is every bit as marvelous as they are. It’s just that the ending has the bittersweetness of the former more than the hope of the latter. Not that both of those things aren’t part of its story.

I did figure out how this was going to end long before I got there but it honestly didn’t matter. This is one of those stories that are about the journey and not the destination.

More than anything else, what I read was that this journey was all about opening. Joan and Immy begin their journey far apart, in geography, in age, in circumstance. While those gaps aren’t bridged, they cease to matter. Because what they open up to each other are both their minds and their hearts.

They laugh together, they cry together, they share their triumphs, their tragedies, and their innermost thoughts. They inspire and encourage each other to leap and believe that the net will appear – even if the other has to provide that net. It’s impossible not to envy the depth of their friendship.

This is also not a book to read if you’re already hungry. From the very first letter, they share recipes, occasionally actual food and condiments, and encourage each other to explore new tastes and new cuisines at a time when the height of suburban culinary achievement was a fancy jello mold. They encourage each other to live a bigger life than they have been.

Love & Saffron is a very quick read with a lot of heart that kind of sidles up to the issues that were fomenting during the mid-1960s. We’re led into Joan and Immy’s sometimes sideways discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, racial prejudice and women’s rights through the perspectives of two intelligent women who are in the midst of having their eyes opened and their consciousness raised and figuring out where they are going to stand. It was easy to feel with them and for them and this is just a story that I’m very glad I read.

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Blue Diamond by Leonard GoldbergThe Blue Diamond (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #6) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #6
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on June 14, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The fate of the allied forces lies in the hands of Joanna and the Watsons in the next Daughter of Sherlock Holmes mystery from USA Today bestselling author Leonard Goldberg.During a critical stage in World War One, the Governor-General of South Africa journeys to London for a meeting of The Imperial War Conference. Days prior to the conference, the Governor-General is scheduled to have an audience at Buckingham Palace at which time a most precious blue diamond will be presented to King Edward as a symbolic gesture of the colonies’ resolute and never-ending allegiance to England.
The flawless blue diamond, with its magnificent luster, weighs nearly 3000 carats which renders it one of the world’s largest and most valuable gems. On the Governor-General’s arrival, he is ensconced at the fashionable Windsor Hotel under the tightest security, with his entire entourage and formidable security team occupying the entire penthouse floor. All entrances and exits are locked down and closely guarded, and no one is allowed entrance after 6 PM.
Despite the extreme precautions, the famous diamond is stolen from the Governor-General’s suite in the middle of the night, with no clues left behind. With Scotland Yard baffled, Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate the theft and it becomes clear that the crime is not simply the work of a master thief, but one that could greatly aid the Germans and turn the tide of war in their favor. Time is of the essence and the blue diamond must be recovered before it begins its travels which could cause irreparable damage to the allied war plans.

My Review:

Up until this entry of this series featuring Joanna (Holmes) Blalock Watson, the Daughter of Sherlock Holmes of the series title, it has very much seemed as if the books in the series have been as much, or even more, in dialogue with Sherlock Holmes himself and the canon of the elder Dr. Watson’s accounts as they were about the investigations conducted in the series’ present by Joanna Watson with the able assistance of her husband, the younger Dr. Watson, and his esteemed father.

But in this entry in the series, even though it does call back to the codebreaking in her father’s Adventure of the Dancing Men, is finally dealing directly with the important events of her day rather than her father’s famous cases.

That is because The Blue Diamond takes place in 1916, and the criminal activities that Joanna and the Watsons are called in to investigate in London are directly related to the war taking place in Europe – even if that is only a suspicion when they are first called in.

At first, it looks like a series of very high-end thefts occurring at equally high-end hotels. The first prize the clearly expert thieves took was a rare Ming vase worth over 100,000 pounds. The second was an even rarer – and much more highly prized – blue diamond. Hence the title of the book.

But the diamond was stolen from the suite of the Governor-General of South Africa – making the whole mess a political nightmare. Even so, the theft of a rare vase and an even rarer diamond are still property crimes – even if the value of the items represented riches beyond the dreams of avarice – if not beyond the dreams of high-end thieves.

The third item stolen shifted the entire investigation from mere grand theft to treason when top secret papers were extracted from a visiting French Minister’s suite. Those papers, which contained top secret plans for a joint operation between the British and the French designed to draw the German army into a trap and then break them in a pincer movement, elevated the crime to one that would get the perpetrators hung – if Joanna and the Watsons can figure out who they are.

And as much as Scotland Yard wanted Joanna and the Watsons on the original case, MI5 was even more eager to have them discover not just whodunnit, but how and why and especially whether or not those plans had been relayed to the enemy.

The tide of the war depended on those answers. It really, truly did.

Escape Rating B: This series always gives me mixed feelings. Probably because at least within the confines of my own head, it is in dialogue with two other series (Mary Russell and Lady Sherlock) that re-work Holmes and each treats the Great Detective entirely differently. (If anyone knows of a story or even fanfiction that puts Joanna, Charlotte and Mary in the same room for what would be an utterly fascinating conversation please let me know!)

Only the Russell series has fully traveled beyond the original canon by virtue of having Sherlock outlive it. Lady Sherlock is still working her way through it. This is the first case of Joanna’s where she is dealing fully with her own contemporary circumstances and not her father’s.

Rather than being rooted in Sherlock Holmes’ old case, this one is rooted in what we now call history. It’s 1916, the Great War is creating great casualties along with victories that seem like defeats. The U.S. has not yet entered the war, and Germany seems unstoppable. The situation is grim. Those plans have the potential to change the tide of the war – but only if the Germans don’t see them (This eventually happened, the plans referenced in the story were carried out at the Battle of Amiens.)

At first, there are few clues beyond the obvious, that stealing the plans benefits the German High Command. If the plans reach Berlin it gives the enemy knowledge of future military strategy. It has the potential to demoralize the Allies. The uncertainty about whether the plans have been seen and/or tampered with throws up confusion and doubt.

While Germany’s motives are obvious, there don’t seem to be any German agents involved. Instead it all circles back to the South African Governor-General and his entourage. South Africa is a Dominion of the British Empire – an ally. And that’s where the case gets more convoluted.

As Joanna becomes more certain that the thefts were an inside job, the reasons for those thefts becomes that much more elusive. It’s only as the noose tightens around 221B Baker Street that Joanna is finally able to determine who is holding the rope – and why.

There are things about this series that I really like, particularly the portrayal of Dr. Watson Sr. as an intelligent man and a dedicated physician who misses his old friend and finds delight and purpose in helping his friend’s daughter and his own son continue in their footsteps. He’s delightful and he feels both real and right as a character. That he’s well into his 80s at this point in the series and has a heart condition makes me sad. He can’t live forever and there are signs that his time is coming.

I want to say that I find Joanna a bit odd – but she comes by that honestly, considering who her father was. Or does she? That, for me, is the greatest puzzle of the entire series so far, as Joanna seems to have every single one of her father’s habits, quirks and eccentricities to the point where she can seem to be a caricature of a man she never met. That she might have inherited his genius would be entirely possible – but not the whole kit and kaboodle of his personality in all its extremities. Rather than ringing true, this particular bell is ringing cracked.

The case she has to solve here is every bit as contrived and convoluted as any that her father faced. But at least this one is hers, born out of the war the world is facing in her time and not his. This feels like a step forward for the series so I’m glad to see it.

In spite of those quibbles, and all the ways in which this series drives me crazy, I know I’ll be back for the next book in the series. I never can resist a Holmes story.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. Harris

Review: When Blood Lies by C.S. HarrisWhen Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr, #17) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #17
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has spent years unraveling his family’s tragic history. But the secrets of his past will come to light in this gripping new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of What the Devil Knows.
March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.
Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

My Review:

“Able was I ere I saw Elba,” at least according to a palindrome attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte during his later captivity on the island of Saint Helena. But that’s later. This seventeenth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series takes place during the spring of 1815 – with Napoleon’s escape from Elba forming the backdrop – and providing some of the motivations – for St. Cyr’s investigation.

Which is where that title comes in.

The St. Cyr series, from its very beginning in What Angels Fear, has revolved around Sebastian St. Cyr’s search for his own identity. As the series began in 1811, St. Cyr used the tools he learned as an agent of the crown, not just in France during the Napoleonic Wars but in other equally dangerous places, to catch a killer and prove his own innocence into the bargain.

Sebastian was operating from a position of relative privilege – even under an accusation of murder. He was the third son and last remaining heir of the Earl of Hendon, carried the courtesy title of Viscount Devlin, and believed that his mother had died 20 years earlier at sea, attempting to escape her marriage and her family. He thinks his father resents him for his mother’s betrayal and their relationship is strained.

Over the course of the series Sebastian has learned that pretty much none of what he believed at the beginning was true. He is not the offspring of the man he calls father – although they have reconciled. And his mother has been alive all these years. Now that the war between France and England is over, Sebastian is in Paris, along with his wife and two children, to meet his mother and ask all the questions that have been churning inside him since he learned the truth.

Only for his mother to die in his arms, stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant for an equally unknown reason. All his questions still unanswered, but swallowed up in the ones that have just presented themselves.

Who killed the wayward Countess of Hendon, better known in Paris as Dame Sophia Capello? And more importantly, not just for St. Cyr but also for the roiling political pot that is on the boil in both France and England, why was she killed? And why was she killed right then, just as Napoleon is about to sweep into Paris from Elba?

Did her death have something to do with her own recent visit to the exiled emperor? Was she a secret Bonapartist? Or was she a spy for one of the other factions hoping to rule a still fractured and bleeding France?

In his search for the answers to Sophie’s death, St. Cyr runs across a possible answer to a question he’s been asking for 20 years – an answer he’s still afraid to discover.

Was the man whose portrait hangs so prominently in Sophia’s house his real father?

Escape Rating A+: If you are looking for historical fiction that is steeped in its time period to the point where you feel the cobbles under your feet as you walk, then the St. Cyr series absolutely cannot be beat. The series doesn’t just wink and nod at its period, it immerses the reader and the story deeply into what is happening as the hero works his way both through his world and through the mystery that confronts him.

The history in When Blood Lies is about what it feels like to be in the eye of a storm. The storm being France for the past 20something years as the country has careened from absolute monarchy to revolution to near-anarchy to dictatorship and quite possibly back around again. Everyone knows Napoleon is coming back, it’s only a question of when. The restored monarchy seems to have made it their life goal to make the field as ripe as possible for Napoleon’s return by adopting the worst behaviors of their predecessors.

Which doesn’t mean that Napoleon’s return isn’t still going to be awful and bloody and bloody awful. Even if his return is what the French people want, there are too many powers-that-be around Europe who won’t allow him to retake his throne without a fight. (Waterloo, anyone?)

As St. Cyr conducts his investigation, conditions in Paris are breaking down around him. The regime is about to change forcibly – and everyone knows it. Lies and loyalties have suddenly become fluid – as if they’ve ever been solid in the recent decades. He’s desperate to find witnesses and perpetrators before they flee the coming storm or are consumed by it. He’s lost his last chance to question his mother, and his chance to find her killer is rapidly disintegrating.

At the same time, this is, as the series has always been, St. Cyr’s quest for identity. He’s made peace with his legally recognized father, the Earl of Hendon. He is Hendon’s acknowledged heir. The truth about his heritage, even if it comes out, might not change that fact, as his mother was married to the man when Sebastian was born, Hendon acknowledged him as his son, and there isn’t anyone else as Sebastian’s two older brothers deceased long before they had children of their own. His older sister knows his true origins and hates him for them, but she has only daughters and so far her daughters have only daughters so he’s it whether she likes it or not. (If one of her daughters manages to have a son things might get dicey in the legal sense but that hasn’t happened yet.)

But he still wants to know who fathered him. From whom he inherited his distinctive yellow wolf’s eyes and his preternaturally acute senses. On his mother’s wall, there’s a painting of a man who might as well be Sebastian himself in 20 or 30 years. A Scotsman who fought on the French side in the late wars. Who Sebastian might have faced on one or more battlefields.

He clearly needs to know the truth, but now isn’t sure he wants to know it. A truth that he’ll not soon have the chance to discover, as France and England are plunged into war again just as the book concludes.

I came into this series at the very beginning, because the original description of St. Cyr was so fascinating that I had to see what the whole thing was about. Over the course of the series, which consumes four years in book-time and seventeen in the real world, St. Cyr has changed and grown, but he has consistently been compelling and his investigations absolutely riveting, while the depth of the portrait of his life and world has increased in complexity every step of the way.

It’s clear from the way that When Blood Lies ends that there is more yet to come, as France and England are about to be plunged back into the war that still haunts St. Cyr’s nightmares. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, whether he fights or spies – or a bit of both – and how much of himself he discovers along the way.

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa BarrWoman on Fire by Lisa Barr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, mystery, thriller, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Paperbacks on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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From the author of the award-winning Fugitive Colors and The Unbreakables, a gripping tale of a young, ambitious journalist embroiled in an international art art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece--forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth. NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! Actress Sharon Stone set to produce and star in the film adaptation of WOMAN ON FIRE.
After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual--and very secret--assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel's most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan's help to find it. But Jules doesn't have much time; the famous designer is dying.
Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family's millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis's grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux's clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he'll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.
A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

My Review:

Every single woman in this story is surrounded by flame, from Anika Baum, the model for the iconic painting, to Jules Roth, the woman charged with tracking her down and bringing her home. While along the way, Margaux de Laurent is determined to possess the painting at any and all costs, no matter how many people she has to burn along the way.

Including herself.

If the women are fire, the men are ash – the ash left in the wake of those flames. Ellis Baum, Anika’s son, still haunted by his mother’s death; Dan Mansfield, determined to do his old friend one final favor, and Adam Chase, Ellis’ grandson, an artist burned in the web between Margaux and Jules.

Like all the best heist and caper stories – because that’s a big part of what Woman on Fire is, after all – this story starts at what seems like the end. An end where it looks like everything has gone totally pear-shaped.

And then we rewind back to the beginning. The beginning of the caper, at least. It takes a bit of recap to learn how the players of this high stakes game ended up in the positions they were in before we are able to understand why we need to go all the way back to Nazi Germany and the creation of this avant-garde masterpiece, Woman on Fire.

Ellis Baum, the premier shoe designer in the world, is dying. Before he dies, he wants to see his mother one last time. A task that should be impossible and might still be. But Baum has nothing left to lose. His last sight of his mother was of the Nazis humiliating her and then taking her away. Her crimes were falling in love with a Jewish man and bearing his child and serving as a model for the avant-garde painter Ernst Engel. Both crimes were punishable by death.

Somehow, among all the art the Nazis looted, the painting that she posed for, Woman on Fire, survived the decades. Ellis asks his friend, newspaper editor and investigative reporter Dan Mansfield, to help him get it back.

Margaux de Laurent has an equally personal desire to possess the painting. It was one of her beloved grandfather’s favorite paintings. Gallery owner Charles de Laurent owned the painting briefly in the early years of the war, before the Nazis confiscated it from him. Margaux wants it back in his memory, with the hope of finding enough other looted art to save her family’s art gallery from bankruptcy.

Margaux and Ellis may have equally personal motives for acquiring the painting, but Margaux is considerably more ruthless and considerably less ethical. While both bring all the resources that they and their associates can muster to the task of bringing the painting out of the shadows, Margaux doesn’t care who she has to ruin or kill to get what she believes is rightfully hers.

She’s done it before. It’s easy to stay one step ahead of people who believe they are one step ahead of you. If you’re willing to kill every single one of them to get your way.

Escape Rating A: This is a story that started twisting me up from the very first page. I wanted so badly for them to succeed, even with just a few pages of getting into the action. And it was such a horrible let-down of a cliffie when it almost instantly looked like they failed. I knew that couldn’t be the end, but I was pretty desperate to figure out how they got there and how they got out.

Not that all of them do – but more than enough to make this a VERY satisfying read with just the right touch of bittersweet melancholy and righteous resolution.

I also have to admit that although the painting and the artist are not historical figures, I was so riveted and involved in the story that I had to look them up to be certain. It’s that good and it felt that real.

Going into this, I was expecting the early history about the Nazis systematic looting of the great art museums and private collections of Europe, but that initial theft – and theft – and re-theft was horrible and sad but not exactly unknown. What kept me turning pages were the twin searches for the painting, the painstaking research to find its trail from Ernst Engel’s studio through the de Laurent Gallery to its final resting place – and the manipulation and espionage of both parties to find the painting first and freeze out the other side. Each thinks they’re cheating the other and both are determined to win. Each thinks they know the truth about the other, but neither truly does.

And that race to a finish that they each see completely differently is what keeps the reader – or at least kept this reader – frantically turning pages to the very satisfying end.

Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear by Nicola GriffithSpear by Nicola Griffith
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 192
Length: 5 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on April 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

My Review:

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table are myths that we seem to absorb by osmosis, as the stories are told and retold – and have been for centuries. King Arthur is one of those legends that seems to reinvent itself for each new generation, and Spear, with its heroine Peredur, is a fine addition to that long and proud tradition.

As this story opens, Peredur doesn’t even know her own name. She is growing up in complete isolation, with only her mother for company, in a remote valley in Wales. Her mother has two names for the girl, one meaning gift which she uses on good days, while on bad days, she calls her “payment”. Whichever the girl might be, her mother tells her stories of the Tuath Dé, their great treasures and their terrible use of the humans they see as beneath them. Humans like her powerful but broken mother, who has isolated herself and her child out of fear that the Tuath, or at least one of them, will hunt her down in order to take back what she stole from him.

Peredur, like all children, grows up. She finds the valley small and her mother’s paranoia, however righteous, constricting. And she wants to fight. So she leaves the valley and her mother behind and goes out in search of the King and his companions – who she saved once when they wandered into her mother’s secluded valley and found themselves facing more bandits than they planned.

Peredur is searching for a place to belong and a cause to serve. But she has had dreams all of her life of a magical mystical lake and a woman who lives by its side. This is the story of her quest to learn who she really is, what is the true nature of her power, and to find a place where she can belong and can bring her skills to fight on the side of right. To make something, not just of herself but of the place to which she joins herself.

In the court of Arturus at Caer Lyon, Peredur finds a place she wants to call her own. And a king who is reluctant to let her claim it.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. The language is beautiful, and the reading of it by the author gave it just the right air of mystery and myth. It felt like a tale of another world, as all the best variations on the Arthurian legends do in one way or another.

From one perspective, Spear stands on the shoulders of many giants, previous retellings of the “Matter of Britain”, from Monmouth to Mallory to T.H. White to Mary Stewart. In particular, it reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (beginning with The Crystal Cave), not for its focus on Merlin but for its attempt to set the story in a more likely historical period, in both cases sometime in the 5th Century AD, after the Romans abandoned Britain and left a vacuum of power which Arthur did his best to fill.

By setting the story in 5th Century Wales, the author is also able to loop in the stories of the Tuath Dé, or Tuatha Dé Danann, and weave one set of legends with the other, to give Peredur both her origin and the source of her power. That she was then able to link the whole thing back to Arthur through his mad quest for the Holy Grail made for a delightful twist in the story – albeit one with an ultimately sad ending. (If the Tuath Dé sound familiar, it may be from The Iron Druid Chronicles where they play an important part even to the present.)

But Spear is an interpretation for the 21st century, in that Peredur, better known as Percival in many versions of the Arthurian Tales, is a woman who has wants to fight like a man and has chosen to present herself as a man because she lives in an era when women do not become knights, much like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.

This is also a queer interpretation of the Arthur tales, not just because Peredur is lesbian, but because she moves through a world where same-sex relationships and poly-relationships are simply part of the way things are. That includes Peredur’s love of the sorceress Nimüe, but also changes the eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into a quietly acknowledged triad as a normal part of the way things are. Just as quietly acknowledged that the Lance of this Arthurian legend was born with one leg malformed. He’s still a capable fighter, and a veritable centaur on horseback. The world and its heroes are not now, nor have they ever been, made up entirely of straight, 100% able-bodied, white men, and this story acknowledges that heroes are everywhere, everywhen and everyone. As they, and we, have always been.

Spear turned out to be a lovely, lyrical, magical extension of the Arthurian legends that borrows rightfully and righteously, as all Arthurian tales do, from what has come before, from what fantasy writers have added to the period and the interpretation, from the time in which it is set, the time in which it is written, and the author’s magical stirring of that pot into a heady brew.

One of these days I need to pick up the author’s Hild, because it sounds like it will be just as fantastic (in both senses of that word) as Spear turned out to be.

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca MayWild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 432
Published by Redhook on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface. 
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. 
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor. 
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island's extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.

My Review:

The wild and wicked things of Wild and Wicked Things weren’t quite like anything I was expecting.

That may be because both “wild” and “wicked” are in the eyes of the beholder. And there seems to be plenty of both to behold on Crow Island, somewhere mythical and magical just off the coast of England.

Part of the fascination for me in this story was the setup. This is a post-World War I story, but the variation of the Great War that this story is post of isn’t quite the one we know. Because in this version of history, the gas that killed so many in the trenches wasn’t mustard gas.

It was magic. A magic that transformed the soldiers it touched into supersoldiers with no conscience, no morals, no scruples and no fear of death. It’s only hinted at, but it seems as if it was worse than that. It certainly left behind a version of “shell shock” or PTSD that gave the survivors even more regrets and worse nightmares than they suffered in our real history. Which is definitely saying something.

But the war is over. Politically, the powers-that-be that embraced witchcraft when they needed it to prosecute the terrible war are now backing away. Magic has fallen from favor – and from legality – and faces a Prohibition that will probably be just as effective as the real Prohibition was in U.S. history. Meaning not at all.

Still, the “Lost Generation” has even more they want to forget about than in real history. And one of the places they come to do that forgetting – at least among the rich and glittering – is Crow Island, where magic has seeped into the blood and bones of the place and its people.

Annie has come to Crow Island to pack up the estate of a man she never knew. Her absent father. She’s been warned all her life against magic and has no plans to get caught up in the mystery and glamour of the island. But as that old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go astray.

Especially as her best friend, Bea, ran away to Crow Island and married there. Annie feels compelled to find out what happened to the girl she grew up with. And the house that is just down the beach from her rented cottages shines so brightly in the night that she can’t resist exploring, no matter how many times she’s already been warned to stay away from magic in general, and from the residents of Cross House in particular.

Because they practice magic. Also sin, debauchery and perhaps a bit of drug dealing along with the fortune telling. But definitely magic – which is to be avoided at all costs.

But for once in her life as a timid little mouse, Annie doesn’t listen to all those cautioning voices. She finds herself caught in Emmeline Delacroix’ glamorous and glittering web. Only for Emmeline to discover that she has landed a much bigger fish than she expected, and that naïve, innocent Annie has caught her as well.

Or the magic has caught them both.

Escape Rating A-: The lesson of Wild and Wicked Things is to be very, very careful what you wish for, because you might get it at a cost that is not fully revealed until it is much, much too late. Along with a reminder that some gifts most certainly do come at way too high a price.

Initially, the person who got what they wished for was Annie’s friend Bea. But Bea has refused to pay the price for her wish, is refusing to acknowledge that it was her wish in the first place, and seems to be perfectly willing to let Emmeline Delacroix pay the price for it – even if that price is Emmeline’s own life.

Then again, one of the things we learn over the course of the story is that Bea is a user and a bitch to pretty much everyone. As we learn more about Annie and Bea’s shared girlhood, and Bea’s involvement with Emmeline and Cross House, we lose pretty much any sympathy for her and end up wondering why Annie put up with her for so long or why Emmeline didn’t see right through her.

But Bea is just the catalyst for everything that happens and that she refuses to accept any responsibility for. The story is Annie’s. It’s Annie’s story of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of coming into her own and admitting who she really is.

In a way, it’s one of those things that still felt like a mystery at the end. Was Annie a mouse because that was her nature, or was Annie a mouse because so much of her true nature was suppressed? We never do find out, although there are hints.

As Annie gets herself involved in all the things she’s not supposed to be involved in, like magic, witchcraft, murder, raising the dead and falling in love with Emmeline, she breaks out of the straightjacket her life has been contained in. It is, very much on the one hand, the making of her.

And on the other, thinking that raising the dead is a good idea that will solve all the problems they are all already in feels like seriously the wrong way to go about things. As the situation proves.

Considering the period in which this is set, it has a surprisingly gothic feel to it. Cross House has a mind of its own, and it’s a brooding one filled with darkness and secrets. The story also reminds me a lot of Amanda Quick’s Burning Cove series (start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), with the way that the paranormal has been turned so completely dark.

War is dangerous. Witchcraft is dangerous. Love is dangerous. Mix them together and it’s all too easy to end up with a whole big ball of explosive wrong.

However, following along with Annie as she figures out all of the above may not exactly be “right” (for select definitions thereof) but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen Odden

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen OddenDown a Dark River by Karen Odden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #1
Pages: 328
Published by Crooked Lane Books on November 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the vein of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, Karen Odden’s mystery introduces Inspector Michael Corravan as he investigates a string of vicious murders that has rocked Victorian London’s upper crust.
London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.
An Irish former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker from London’s seedy East End, Corravan has good street sense and an inspector’s knack for digging up clues. But he’s confounded when, a week later, a second woman is found dead in a rowboat, and then a third. The dead women seem to have no connection whatsoever. Meanwhile, Mr. Stiles makes an alarming discovery: the shipping magnate’s missing wife, Mrs. Beckford, may not have fled her house because she was insane, as her husband claims, and Mr. Beckford may not be the successful man of business that he appears to be.
Slowly, it becomes clear that the river murders and the case of Mrs. Beckford may be linked through some terrible act of injustice in the past—for which someone has vowed a brutal vengeance. Now, with the newspapers once again trumpeting the Yard’s failures, Corravan must dredge up the truth—before London devolves into a state of panic and before the killer claims another innocent victim.

My Review:

This first book in the Inspector Corravan series begins in the middle in a way that just plain works. For one thing, Corravan is 30 or thereabouts, meaning that he had not just a life but an adult life for years before this story begins. Howsomever, the book does a terrific job of telling the reader enough about his previous life AND his previous cases for us to get a feel for the man as a character as well as how good he is at his job and how often he rubs his superiors the wrong way.

It’s also a bit in the middle when it comes to the circumstances of Scotland Yard and the London Metropolitan Police Department. The situation that the department is in when we first meet Corravan is taken from history. The corruption trial that rocked the Met and still influences the public’s acceptance or lack thereof towards the police really happened. The man who is in charge of the newly formed CID (Criminal Investigation Department) that Corravan serves is a fictional avatar of the real C.E. Howard Vincent who held that position at the time this book takes place..

So the story is grounded in the real a bit more deeply than the usual historical mystery, and that’s part of what makes the story so fascinating. But the truly compelling part of this story is the mystery itself. As it should be.

It all starts with the discovery of a woman’s body floating down the Thames in a lighter, a small boat used to carry cargo along the river. She’s relatively young, blond, pretty and appears to have been well-off if not outright wealthy based on her clothing and her physical condition. She wasn’t raped, but the skirt of her dress was cut open, her wrists were slashed post-mortem and there were flowers in the boat.

Whoever killed her, whyever they did it, the dead woman left behind a fiancé, parents and friends who loved her and are devastated by her death. Corravan begins an investigation, under pressure from his superiors, who are under pressure from theirs. Everyone wants the murder solved before the public loses even more confidence in the police.

A week later there’s a second body. Then a third who the mysterious killer lets go, possibly because she’s pregnant. Corravan is out of his mind, losing his temper, and losing his battle against the demon drink all at the same time.

Because the victims seem to have nothing in common save their gender, station and appearance. He’s not making any headway and the powers-that-be are losing patience – although not as fast as Corravan is.

Just when he’s at his wit’s end – and about to be demoted for it – a key witness steps out of the shadows. He learns just how heinous this crime really is – and just how hard it will be to bring absolutely everyone responsible to any kind of justice.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because I read and enjoyed two of the author’s previous books, A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit, also Victorian-set mysteries. And also books that center women’s stories and women’s lives even though much of the investigation is driven by a male protagonist.

So when I learned this book existed, I was happy to set aside the books I’d bounced off of this week and dive right in. Especially as I was even more tempted by the description of the story appealing to readers of C.S. Harris and Anne Perry, as I loved both authors’ 19th century-set mystery series.

While Down a Dark River resembles C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series in the way that it is so firmly grounded in its time and place, and the way that it borrows from real history using real people as secondary characters, the true resemblance is to Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and her William Monk series. Corravan’s background – and his temperament – resemble Monk, but the time period in which this series is set makes him contemporaneous to the Pitts. A time when the world was obviously changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution, both for good and for ill.

This case, as Corravan himself remarks, feels like a new kind of crime. He’s chasing a serial killer – someone organized but with a deranged mind or at least worldview. Not someone who kills in the heat of the moment, but someone who plans meticulously and seeks out victims who make sense for reasons that exist only in his own head.

The process of the investigation, and the way that Corravan nearly loses not just control of it but control of himself, gives us a window into a fascinating character who does not want to adapt to the times or the circumstances, only to discover that the cost of not doing so is greater than he is willing to pay.

Earlier I said that this book centers women’s stories and lives in spite of its male protagonist. And the way that is worked out in the story made for a compelling twist that carries the reader, the detective and eventually his department along to a stunning conclusion that satisfies in one way but can’t possibly do so in another.

Nor should it, which is what made this so very good.

I expected to like this, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I most definitely did. So I’m very happy that Inspector Corravan’s investigations will continue later this year in Under a Veiled Moon.