Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

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Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer RobsonGoodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—author of Moonlight Over Paris and Somewhere in France—comes a lush historical novel that tells the fascinating story of Ruby Sutton, an ambitious American journalist who moves to London in 1940 to report on the Second World War, and to start a new life an ocean away from her past.
In the summer of 1940, ambitious young American journalist Ruby Sutton gets her big break: the chance to report on the European war as a staff writer for Picture Weekly newsmagazine in London. She jumps at the chance, for it's an opportunity not only to prove herself, but also to start fresh in a city and country that know nothing of her humble origins. But life in besieged Britain tests Ruby in ways she never imagined.
Although most of Ruby's new colleagues welcome her, a few resent her presence, not only as an American but also as a woman. She is just beginning to find her feet, to feel at home in a country that is so familiar yet so foreign, when the bombs begin to fall.
As the nightly horror of the Blitz stretches unbroken into weeks and months, Ruby must set aside her determination to remain an objective observer. When she loses everything but her life, and must depend upon the kindness of strangers, she learns for the first time the depth and measure of true friendship—and what it is to love a man who is burdened by secrets that aren’t his to share.
Goodnight from London, inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author’s own grandmother, is a captivating, heartfelt, and historically immersive story that readers are sure to embrace.

My Review:

Reading this book gave me an unending earworm for the song “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. This is a bit odd in multiple directions – the Broadway musical didn’t premiere until 11 years after the end of World War II, and the setting for the musical, Edwardian London, occurs 30+ years before the start of World War II.

But the book was definitely “loverly”. Or at least lovely. It reminded me of all the reasons why I love Jennifer Robson’s work.

Unlike her previous novels, Somewhere in France, After the War is Over and Moonlight Over Paris, this one does not deal directly with the Great War and its aftermath. Unless, of course, one considers World War II as part of the aftermath of World War I. Which it certainly was.

And for readers hoping to start afresh with this marvelous author, Goodnight from London does not follow the other books directly, as they loosely did with each other. Except, again, in so far as WW2 was a fairly direct consequence of WW1.

Instead, Goodnight from London follows the adventures of young American journalist Ruby Sutton, a self-made woman if there ever was one. After a brief but illustrious stint at an American weekly magazine, Ruby receives an unexpected offer that she can’t resist. Everyone knows that war is coming, and the U.S. is hoping to stay well clear of the mess in Europe.

But England will be right in the thick of it, and one of the London weekly papers is looking for a young, female, American reporter who is willing to come to London and write the war. For Ruby it’s a dream job, she’ll get to be where the action is, and she’ll get to learn her craft while having something important to write about. She has no ties in America, no family, almost no life outside her work, so she’s the perfect writer to send to London.

And in the thick of the Blitz, she finds everything she didn’t know she was looking for. Not just the chance to write important stories, but also the opportunity to find a family, a sense of belonging and home, and finally, love.

But more than anything else, Goodnight from London is the story of an intrepid young journalist who finds herself in the middle of the great story of her times, and runs with it. Sometimes she’s down but never out. She never gives up, she never gives in and she never surrenders.. And she always gets the story.

Even, at last, her own.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I love about this author’s work is the way that she puts her intrepid heroines in fascinating, real-life circumstances and dangers, and then lets them work. The story here is Ruby’s reporting of the war, both on the homefront and eventually on the front lines. It’s also about her involvement in the real life of London during the war, living through the Blitz, losing all her possessions and becoming part of the fabric of life, while London becomes part of her.

We see her work, we experience her triumphs and her tragedies, we feel her setbacks. But the story is about her experience. While this is a historical novel, it is not historical romance, although Ruby does find love in the end.

It feels like the point of the book is the work, and the happy ever after is her reward. The romance is not the point of the story, and it shouldn’t be. The world was in dire straits. Although life went on, her work was too important to put on hold in the hopes that her prince might come. Or however one wants to put that.

This is a story where it felt more realistic that her career came first, and it is one of the few historic periods where that is realistically true.

It helps a lot that Ruby is a very likable protagonist. She’s both self-made and self-motivated. She’s doing her best (and occasionally her worst) to put her past behind her. The secret almost costs her everything, and that was the one part of the story that didn’t live up to how much I loved the rest. Other readers may feel differently.

But that one “bobble” was not enough to dim my enjoyment of the book. I loved the way that Ruby’s personal story interwove with the history that we know. We got to see World War II London and especially the Blitz through her eyes, and the perspective brought this reader right into her world and to the story.

As I read Goodnight from London, it reminded me a bit of The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton, which is also about female World War II correspondents. I liked The Race for Paris but the soap opera of the protagonists’ trainwreck love triangle took a bit out of the story. Goodnight from London is much, much better.

Goodnight from London is, as I said at the beginning, a very lovely book. Read it and you’ll see.

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Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie ChangDragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of Three Souls comes a vividly imagined and haunting new novel set in early 20th century Shanghai—a story of friendship, heartbreak, and history that follows a young Eurasian orphan’s search for her long-lost mother.
That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .
In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.
Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.
Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

My Review:

In a peculiar way, Dragon Springs Road reminds me a bit of Jade Dragon Mountain. Although both stories are set in China, their settings are 200 years apart. But the similarity is in the way that both stories managed to evoke a “you are there” feeling, at least for me. It was more than reading about something, it felt like being drawn into the story in both cases.

There was also a tiny element of The Tale of Shikanoko, even though Shikanoko is Japanese and not Chinese. In both that story and this one, there’s that sense of the mythic bleeding into the real. In the case of Dragon Springs Road, that mythic element is the fox spirit who protects Jialing and her mother during their residence on Dragon Springs Road.

Jialing believes that Fox is real, and she certainly seems to affect real things. But does she? As this story is told through Jialing’s eyes, we see things how she believes them to be, not necessarily how things are.

We also see a world that is in the process of change. Dragon Springs Road is in Shanghai, and the story takes place during the first two decades of the 20th century, through both the World War I years and the contentious early years of the Republic of China, as factions and warlords fought for power and against the rising tide of communism within, and Japanese imperial ambitions without.

As the story begins, Jialing is a little girl, one who has lived her entire life on the fringes of the Fong household on Dragon Springs Road. But things are not going well in the Fong household, and her mother, the concubine of the master of the house, is particularly vulnerable. Jialing is too young to understand any of this. All that she knows is that one day her mother goes away, leaving Jialing hiding in the decrepit outbuilding where they have lived.

And from that inauspicious beginning, Jialing is set adrift. She is very, very young. And she is mixed race, and therefore despised by both the Chinese and the Europeans. The household that moves into the Fong’s former residence take her in out of charity. And so she lives, dependent on the kindness of strangers, and knowing that she doesn’t belong anywhere, no matter how hard she tries.

Through the years, Jialing grows up. She makes friends, and enemies. She is fortunate enough to receive a Western education. But no matter how much she improves herself, all that anyone sees is the lowest of the low, a woman of mixed race.

Her friend, companion and guide through the lost years is the Fox who watches over the compound, and over Jialing. Fox both teaches her about the world outside, and makes her forget inconvenient questions. And Fox prevents others from asking inconvenient questions about Jialing.

The one thing that Jialing longs for above all others is to find her mother, and to discover why she was left behind all those years ago. And she does. Just as her entire world falls apart.

Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely lovely story that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the end. It feels as if you are walking that road with Jialing, and not just reading about it. Stories that do that are rare and precious.

Dragon Springs Road is also a very quiet story. Jialing’s life is not the stuff of an adventure tale. She grows up, she does her best to serve, she watches and waits. Much of the action in this story happens to other people, as Jialing watches a second family overtaken by the bad luck that seems to haunt this one house.

And outside the gates, the world changes. Revolutions come, not just to China, but also to nearby Russia. The world that is coming is going to be very different from what has gone before. And Jialing becomes involved, but in the most unlikely of ways.

One of the threads that permeates this story is the prejudice that Jialing faces from all sides, and the ways that prejudice limits her choices. On all sides she is hemmed about by people who consider her less than dirt because she is neither fully Europeon nor fully Chinese. At a time and in a place where lineage is everything, she has none.

And yet she perseveres, making the best choice available to her. And we’re right there with her.

This is a book I simply loved. I was swept away at the beginning and left bereft at the end, gasping and flailing at my return to the real world. It feels like I was in a dream with the Fox, and she just turned me loose.

Dragon Springs Road is a book to get lost in. I loved it so much I’m having a difficult time articulating that love. Why don’t you pick up a copy and see for yourself!

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Review: Devil Sent the Rain by Lisa Turner

Review: Devil Sent the Rain by Lisa TurnerDevil Sent the Rain by Lisa Turner
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Billy Able #3
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Edgar Award nominee and bestselling author Lisa Turner’s hard-boiled Detective Billy Able returns in this dark Southern mystery about the murder of a dazzling Memphis socialite—and the scandals revealed in the wake of her death
The heart can be an assassin. Detective Billy Able knows that from experience.
Fresh from solving Memphis’ most sensational murder case, Homicide Detective Billy Able and his ambitious new partner Frankie Malone are called to a bizarre crime scene on the outskirts of town. A high society attorney has been murdered while dressed in a wedding gown. Billy is shocked to discover he has a very personal connection to the victim. When the attorney’s death exposes illegal practices at her family’s prestigious law firm, the scandal is enough to rock the southern city’s social world.
In a tale of the remnants of Old South aristocracy and entitlement, twisted by greed and vengeance, Billy must confront the secrets of his own past to have any chance at solving the murder of the girl he once knew. But as he seeks the truth, he’s drawn closer to an embittered killer bent on revenge—and eliminating the threat Billy poses.
 

My Review:

They say that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Well, everyone needs roots. And there’s a lot in this mystery about roots, both the monetary kind and the kind where your family has been someplace forever and ever, and all the old prejudices and all the old rivalries are very, very much still alive and kicking in the present.

This is a murder mystery. In so many mysteries, one of the first principles is to “follow the money” to figure out who had motive for, and probably did, the crime. This one is a surprise in that while there is plenty of money to buy a whole barrel full of red herrings, money may be at the root of all evil but it is not at the root of this murder. Exactly.

Caroline Lee is found murdered in her red Camaro in the middle of a herd of bison, wearing a wedding dress. That would be enough for sensation-seeking media to run with right there, but Caroline is also the daughter of one of the most prestigious families in Memphis, and is a lawyer at her family’s elite law firm. So there’s the lurid possibility of scandal in high society to add to the admittedly bizarre scenario of her death.

There’s a lot of pressure on the Memphis P.D., and especially Detectives Billy Able and Frankie Malone, to solve this case ASAP. Which is the last thing they are able to do. There are too many wealthy and influential people trying to muddy the waters from the very beginning, and too many possible suspects and motives.

That Caroline was Billy’s first love, back when they were teenagers, does not exactly add to his objectivity. And Frankie’s newbie impulsiveness doesn’t help either of them stay out of trouble with the powers-that-be. But they are still the best the MPD has, so they are on the case.

It could be Caroline’s embarrassed ex-fiancee, who had been stalking and harassing her for weeks. It could be the father of her unborn child, who doesn’t seem to have been the ex-fiancee. It could be either her mother or her brother, who are oh-so-obviously covering up something dirty in the wake of Caroline’s death. It could even be something related to the mysterious disappearance of her cousin five years ago. Or none of the above.

It’s up to Billy Able to sort through the tangle of lies, deceit, longstanding grievances and family ties before it all gets swept under the rug – along with his and Frankie’s careers.

Escape Rating A-: I read this in a single evening. Once I started I absolutely couldn’t stop. Devil Sent the Rain is a terrific combination of police procedural with Southern mystery, and was absorbing from beginning to end. Which also came as a nearly complete surprise and had almost nothing to do with anything I expected, yet was still set up within the story. The clues were all there, and I missed them, as did the detectives for most of the book, and for good reasons.

There is so much money floating around in this story that it seems like it must be the motive. It blows the reader away when it isn’t.

little death in dixie by lisa turnerMuch of the story revolves around the detective’s ties to the victim and her family, and his own roots in the area. While it is clear that there are previous stories featuring Detective Billy Able (A Little Death in Dixie and The Gone Dead Train) it is not necessary to have read the previous books to get deeply into Devil Sent the Rain.

I haven’t read them, but after this absorbing mystery, I surely do intend to.

Billy’s ties to the victim and her family all date back to his childhood and adolescence, long before he became a police detective. But investigating the murder of one’s first love has to be right up there as any investigator’s worst nightmare. It clouds his judgment and sends him down a few too many wrong paths, but in a way that drags the reader right along with him.

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Review: The Girl in the Castle by Santa Montefiore

Review: The Girl in the Castle by Santa MontefioreThe Girl in the Castle (Deverill Chronicles #1) by Santa Montefiore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, historical fiction
Series: Deverill Chronicles #1
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

International sensation Santa Montefiore presents the first book in a trilogy that follows three Irish women through the decades of the twentieth century—perfect for fans of Kate Morton and Hazel Gaynor.
Born on the ninth day of the ninth month in the year 1900, Kitty Deverill is special as her grandmother has always told her. Built on the stunning green hills of West Cork, Ireland, Castle Deverill is Kitty’s beloved home, where many generations of Deverills have also resided. Although she’s Anglo-Irish, Kitty’s heart completely belongs to the wild countryside of the Emerald Isle, and her devotion to her Irish-Catholic friends Bridie Doyle, the daughter of the castle’s cook, and Jack O’Leary, the vet’s son, is unmatched—even if Jack is always reminding her that she isn’t fully Irish. Still, Jack and Kitty can’t help falling in love although they both know their union faces the greatest obstacles since they are from different worlds.
Bridie cherishes her friendship with Kitty, who makes her feel more like her equal than a servant. Yet she can’t help dreaming of someday having all the wealth and glamour Kitty’s station in life affords her. But when she discovers a secret that Kitty has been keeping from her, Bridie finds herself growing resentful toward the girl in the castle who seems to have it all.
When the Irish revolt to throw over British rule in Southern Ireland, Jack enlists to fight. Worried for her safety, Jack warns Kitty to keep her distance, but she refuses and throws herself into the cause for Irish liberty, running messages and ammunition between the rebels. But as Kitty soon discovers, her allegiance to her family and her friends will be tested—and when Castle Deverill comes under attack, the only home and life she’s ever known are threatened.
A powerful story of love, loyalty, and friendship, The Girl in the Castle is an exquisitely written novel set against the magical, captivating landscape of Ireland.

My Review:

The Girl in the Castle is one of those big, sprawling historical family sagas that they don’t seem to make anymore. But maybe they should.

This is a big story. While it focuses on one family, the backdrop is large and tumultuous. The story takes place in the first quarter of the 20th century, and gives readers a glimpse into the causes and the effects of the Irish Rebellion. Our main point of view character is Kitty Deverill, a child of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, who feels herself to be Irish to the bone, and English not at all. But through Kitty we see the world around her, her family who both love and hate Ireland, and see that the world they ruled is fading away, while being drenched in blood.

But the Deverills aren’t the only people in their little town Ballynakelly. Kitty’s best friend is Bridie Doyle, the daughter of the Deverill cook. Bridie is the only girl Kitty’s age, and the two become fast friends in spite of their differences in class and religion. The only thing that divides them is that they both love Jack O’Leary, and neither can have him.

As the veterinarian’s son, Jack is too far above Bridie and her poverty stricken family for his family to consider her a good match for him. And aristocratic Kitty is seen as an English interloper, whether she fights for the revolution or not. Her family will see Jack as too far below them.

It’s ironic that a marriage between Jack and Kitty would end an old family curse. A curse that Kitty, gifted with the proverbial second sight, knows is all too real.

But as the Irish Free State rises, the three young friends are forced to scatter. Kitty to glittering salons in London, Bridie to a new life in America, while Jack languishes in prison as a convicted rebel.

It’s only when they all return to Castle Deverill and Ballynakelly that there is hope of healing all the wounds – if they don’t break out afresh over old and new wrongs.

Escape Rating B: This is a book that rewards sticking with it. It’s a big story and it takes a lot of pages to set up the real action. The story begins when Kitty, Bridie and Jack are all children, and it takes a while for them to reach adult age with adult sensibilities.

Not that child-Kitty isn’t very observant, but she lacks adult context that the reader has to piece together. Once the trio are all grown up, both the personal stories and the battlefields heat up.

There is a lot of tragedy in this story, with happiness being difficult for the characters to grasp, even at the end. World War I casts its shadow over much of Kitty’s teenage years, and British treatment of the Irish both during the war and immediately afterwards is as tragic as the loss of life on the battlefields and in the trenches.

Readers who loved Downton Abbey, especially the subplot involving Tom the Irish chauffeur, will find much that strikes the same chord.

The family drama and melodrama are a big part of the charm of this story. This is not a functional family, which makes them much more interesting to read about. Kitty in particular is a high-spirited young woman who refuses to bend to either society’s expectations or her mother’s. While she is capable of doing the right thing, her tendency towards self-indulgence spells trouble for future books in the series.

The other fascinating story is Bridie’s tale of rags to disgrace to riches (and social opprobrium). After her own tragedy, she moves very far from the life she was expected to lead, and becomes something new and different. She also becomes cynical and practical, at least until she returns to where she began, only to discover that not nearly enough has changed.

daughters of castle deverill by santa montefioreThis is the first book in a projected trilogy. The Girl in the Castle was published last year in Britain as Songs of Love and War to rave reviews. It ends with not a conclusion, but an extremely pregnant pause. I’m looking forward to the US release of Daughters of Castle Deverill whenever it makes it to these shores.

Review: The Woman in the Photo by Mary Hogan + Giveaway

Review: The Woman in the Photo by Mary Hogan + GiveawayThe Woman in the Photo: A Novel by Mary Hogan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, library binding, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this compulsively readable historical novel, from the author of the critically-acclaimed Two Sisters, comes the story of two young women—one in America’s Gilded Age, one in scrappy modern-day California—whose lives are linked by a single tragic afternoon in history.
1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow.
Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?

My Review:

In The Woman in the Photo there are two stories. One is the story of Elizabeth Haberlin in the May of 1888 and the critical May of 1889. She’s the wealthy daughter of a doctor. Most important for this story, she’s the daughter of the private physician to all of the rich “bosses” who have their second homes at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on Lake Conemaugh. The dam and the lake are perched ominously, and eventually disastrously, above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Until the fateful day, May 31, 1889, Elizabeth Haberlin led a privileged, if restricted, life. She chafed at those restrictions but didn’t often challenge them, at least not until the flood, when she took a horse and attempted to warn the citizens of Johnstown before the dam gave way. In the face of the disaster wrought by the sheer selfishness and greed of her peers, Elizabeth chose to take up a life of purpose, assisting Clara Barton and her newly established Red Cross in their disaster relief efforts.

Her family never took her back. And she never forgave them for their callous self-centeredness.

In the 21st century, Elizabeth Parker, called Lee by her adopted mother, sees a picture of Clara Barton and an unknown woman who looks like her when her closed adoption file is pried open to give her limited genetic information.

Lee begins a quest through libraries, databases and finally back to the scene of that long ago tragedy, in her attempt to find out who she is and where she came from. Only to discover that while her family history is interesting, she is who she has always been, the daughter of the woman who loved and adopted her.

Escape Rating B-: I don’t believe that I have ever read a story that buried the lede as deeply as the author has in this book.

To “bury the lede” in journalistic parlance is to begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.

Throughout most of the story in the past, Elizabeth Haberlin is a self-absorbed and vain young woman who has nothing better to do than choose which dress to wear and how to escape her mother’s suffocating expectations for her.

And we get to read a whole lot of that, to the point where it drags, in order to get to the incredibly fascinating parts of her life. After the terrible tragedy, Elizabeth becomes an entirely new person, finding joy in purpose and throwing off the expectations of her family. That’s the person I wanted to read about and follow along with, and it is that part of this story that gets the fewest number of pages and the least amount of time. I wanted to see who she became, and how she felt about it. Her life as a debutante was so pointless and boring that it bored even her.

I loved the parts about Elizabeth Haberlin after she chose to become her own person, and that’s what I got the least of in this story.

The 21st century parts also suffered from too much setup and not enough payoff. We get a lot of exposure to Lee’s current circumstances, which pretty much suck. The fascinating part of Lee’s story is her search and eventual discovery of her blood relations, and that is the shortest part of her story with the least emphasis.

I want the book I didn’t get – the story of Elizabeth Haberlin’s life after the Flood. I want to know so much more about the person she became, the life she led, and how she felt about turning her back on her old life and its old expectations. That’s not the book I got. Damn it.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

The publisher is giving away a copy of The Woman in the Photo to one lucky US/CAN commenter:

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Review: The Space Between Sisters by Mary McNear

Review: The Space Between Sisters by Mary McNearThe Space Between Sisters (The Butternut Lake Series, #4) by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #4
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Return to Butternut Lake with the newest from Mary McNear, whose heartfelt and powerful stories have made her a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Here, the complicated bonds of sisterhood are tested, long-kept secrets are revealed, and love is discovered…all during one unforgettable summer at the lake.
Two sisters couldn’t be more different. Win organized and responsible; Poppy impulsive and undependable. Win treads cautiously and plans her life with care; Poppy bounces from job to job and apartment to apartment, leaving others to pick up the pieces. But despite their differences, they share memories of the idyllic childhood summers they spent together on the shores of Butternut Lake. Now, 13 years later, Win, recovering from a personal tragedy, has returned to Butternut Lake, settling into a predictable and quiet life.
Then, one night, Poppy unexpectedly shows up on Win’s doorstep with all her worldly possessions and a mysterious man in tow. And although Win loves her beautiful sister, she wasn’t expecting her to move in for the summer. Still, at first, they relive the joys of Butternut Lake. But their blissful nostalgia soon gives way to conflict, and painful memories and buried secrets threaten to tear the sisters apart.
As the waning days of summer get shorter, past secrets are revealed, new love is found, and the ties between the sisters are tested like never before…all on the serene shores of Butternut Lake.

My Review:

butternut summer by mary mcnearSecond-chance lake strikes again. So far, in all of the books in the lovely Butternut Lake series (Up at Butternut Lake, Butternut Summer, The Night Before Christmas and Moonlight on Butternut Lake) someone in the story gets a second chance at love. In the case of Butternut Summer it’s even a second chance at the same love as the first time around, but hopefully with much better results.

In The Space Between Sisters there are several kinds of second chances that finally come true. For sisters Winona and Poppy Robbins, it’s a second, or possibly one hundredth, chance to bridge their strained relationship, now that they are both, at least theoretically, adults.

Win is a teacher at Butternut K-8. She has the sometimes insane job of teaching social studies to 7th and 8th graders, just as their teenage hormones start kicking in. Win loves her job, and loves living on Butternut Lake in their grandparents’ cabin. But she’s lonely and still grieving the loss of her young husband to cancer after only three years of marriage. Win is nearly 30, and her life has only sort of gone on. In her OCD way (and she is, a bit) she keeps rearranging the mementos of her marriage into little memorials around the house, never letting go.

Poppy is Win’s opposite. Where Win is organized to the point of obsession, Poppy lets everything and everyone slide. Including jobs, apartments and relationships. She drops debris wherever she lands, and seems to expect someone else to pick up the pieces. That someone has usually been Win. But in Poppy’s entire life, there are only two people that she has ever been able to count on. One is Win, and the other is her 16-year-old cat Sasquatch.

Their parents have never been responsible parties. Their dad is a not-very-functional alcoholic, and their mother is such a complete “free spirit” that she neglected the girls and left them to raise themselves. To say that their parents are totally uninvolved with their lives, and always have been, is an understatement of epic proportions.

So when Poppy quits her latest job, she surprises Win by moving in with her at Butternut Lake, dragging all her possessions and Sasquatch up from Minneapolis in the care (and car) of a nice guy she met on her morning coffee breaks when she was still working.

Poppy doesn’t even know Everett’s last name. And Win thinks that Everett agreed to give Poppy a lift because he was interested in her incredibly beautiful sister. But like so many other things that happen in Butternut Lake, nothing about Poppy’s retreat to Win, Everett’s reasons for giving Poppy a lift, or even the truth behind the dynamics of Win’s and Poppy’s relationship, are exactly what they seem.

And the truths that are finally revealed set them both free.

Escape Rating A-: At first, everything in this story seems so obvious, and then it suddenly isn’t. Win and Poppy act out a dynamic that happens so often in real families, one becomes super responsible, and the other becomes super irresponsible. The good girl and the bad girl. One makes messes, the other cleans up. And that seems like a natural response to the way they weren’t brought up. Poppy imitates their parents (minus the drinking) and Win goes 180 degrees the opposite direction. And of course they drive each other bananas.

Win is tired of cleaning up after Poppy and taking care of her messes. Poppy is tired of Win’s obsessive need for order. (When someone starts fuming about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, the reaction of not wanting to help is not a surprise). But Win has a point about Poppy’s fecklessness and Poppy has a point about Win needing to let her grief take its course instead of continuing to create shrines to it.

But they can’t really reach each other until a crisis finally breaks Poppy out of the fog she’s been living in for the last 15 years. Until she lets go of her old traumas, she can’t deal with the new ones that have come barreling toward her.

She falls in love for the very first time. And is too frozen with suppressed PTSD to act on it. And the one person who has always been there for her, dear old Sasquatch, has used up his 9th life.

While the nature of Poppy’s suppressed trauma was all too easy to figure out before the big reveal, once it all finally comes out every character has to reassess their relationship with Poppy, and Poppy has to reassess their relationship with her. It’s only when she lances the boil in the past that she is able to heal and grow into herself in the present.

Both Poppy and Win find love. For Poppy, it’s her need to finally enter into an adult relationship that makes her open up the memories she has ruthlessly (and also rootlessly) suppressed. For Win, it’s a chance to look at her life and what’s holding her back from living it. And she nearly screws it up. Which is what makes them both so human and so likeable.

And poor Sasquatch. He was a good cat, and Poppy gave him a good life. He was there when she needed him, and at the end, she’s there when he needs her to make the hard decision. Particularly for those of us who have had a companion animal at a critical part of their lives, the scenes with Sasquatch and her memories of all the times he was there for her require a box of tissues.

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Review: Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge by Ovidia Yu

Review: Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge by Ovidia YuAunty Lee's Chilled Revenge (Singaporean Mystery, #3) by Ovidia Yu
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Singaporean Mystery #3
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on April 5th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Rosie “Aunty” Lee—feisty widow, amateur sleuth and proprietor of Singapore’s best-loved home cooking restaurant—is back in another delectable, witty mystery set in Singapore.
Slightly hobbled by a twisted ankle, crime-solving restaurateur Aunty Lee begrudgingly agrees to take a rest from running her famous café, Aunty Lee’s Delights, and turns over operations to her friend and new business partner Cherril.
The café serves as a meeting place for an animal rescue society that Cherril once supported. They were forced to dissolve three years earlier after a British expat killed the puppy she’d adopted, sparking a firestorm of scandal. The expat, Allison Fitzgerald, left Singapore in disgrace, but has returned with an ax to grind (and a lawsuit). At the café one afternoon, Cherril receives word that Allison has been found dead in her hotel—and foul play is suspected. When a veterinarian, who was also involved in the scandal, is found dead, suspicion soon falls on the animal activists. What started with an internet witch hunt has ended in murder—and in a tightly knit, law-and-order society like Singapore, everyone is on edge.
Before anyone else gets hurt—and to save her business—Aunty Lee must get to the bottom of what really happened three years earlier, and figure out who is to be trusted in this tangled web of scandal and lies.

My Review:

aunty lees delights by ovidia yuI was introduced to the Aunty Lee series by this book. When I decided to be part of this tour, I figured that book 3 of a series wasn’t so far in that I couldn’t manage to catch up, so I was able to sink my teeth into the first two books in this delicious series, Aunty Lee’s Delights and Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials, and I’m glad I did.

Not that a newbie to the series couldn’t start with Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge. The author does a good job of catching readers up with the setting and cast of characters. But it does add a bit to the fun to see how everyone has changed from the beginning. Also how the writing has evolved. While I enjoyed both of the first two books, this is definitely the best one yet.

Aunty Lee is everyone’s favorite grandmother, although the reality is that she isn’t anyone’s actual grandmother. She was the late MK Lee’s second wife, and he already had two children. Aunty Lee never had any of her own, and her stepchildren have, so far, not managed to give her any grandchildren to spoil.

So Aunty Lee pretty effectively spoils the entire neighborhood, especially through her award-winning home-cooking restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights. Rosie Lee doesn’t need the money, but she needs the work to keep her occupied. And to help her get involved with solving murders.

With a sprained ankle keeping her on the sidelines, Aunty Lee is feeling depressed and slightly useless, until a murder walks into her restaurant.

Not exactly literally. Three old friends, including Aunty Lee’s business partner, are waiting at the restaurant to meet with the woman who is threatening to sue them. But she never arrives. Instead, the police come to say that the woman has been murdered, and the dead woman’s sister shows up a few minutes later, ranting and raving. As she generally does.

While Aunty Lee may be sorry that a woman is dead, and particularly sorry that her business partner is temporarily a suspect, she is energized by the thought of a murder she can help solve being delivered right to her doorstep.

She’s so happy, in fact, that she takes the dead woman’s sister home with her, hoping that in comfort and privacy the woman will reveal some of the secrets she is so obviously keeping. Meanwhile, Aunty Lee dives into the three-year-old incident that brought all the principals to her little cafe.

Back then, her partner Cherril was part of an animal rescue society, along with her friends Brian Wong and Jacqueline DelaVega. The woman who was planning to sue them, a British ex-pat, adopted a puppy from their rescue society. A few days later, when she decided that she didn’t want the poor puppy any longer, she had him euthanized instead of returning him to the shelter, as she had contracted to do. When Allison Fitzgerald went into repeated tirades at the police, the animal rescue society, and anyone else within earshot, she became the quarry of a horde of internet bullies. Not just because she killed a poor, defenseless little puppy, but also because she lied about it, violated a contract, and showed zero remorse. Allison and her family were hounded out of Singapore.

Now she’s back. And she’s dead. And her sister is accusing the animal shelter people she lied to three years ago. And the dead woman’s ex-husband. And anyone else she can think of.

It’s up to Aunty Lee to sort out the truth from layers and layers of lies and deceptions. Building a case is like putting together a new recipe – all the pieces have to fit just right. Aunty Lee is perfectly willing to tinker with all the flavors until they finally — do.

Escape Rating A-: Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge is the best book in the series so far. The recipe for the series has come together in a way that makes this dish especially flavorful. Or especially interesting, since we are, after all, talking about murder.

The title is a play on the old saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The case that Aunty Lee has to solve revolves around figuring out exactly who is getting revenge on whom, because at the outset there are plenty of options. And this was a case where, although I had figured out one part of the mystery, I was as lost as everyone else on who done it and why. But I couldn’t wait to find out.

Allison Fitzgerald, now calling herself Allison Love, sues the animal shelter principals, Cherril, Brian and Jacqueline, because she believes that the internet bullying they encouraged led to her divorce and estrangement from her children. She wants payback.

Allison’s sister Vallerie came to Singapore with Allison. Now that Allison is dead, Vallerie wants revenge on whoever killed her. And she’s certain that the murderers must be those same people. With the possible addition of Allison’s ex-husband.

Cherril, Brian and Jacqueline left the old case behind them long ago. Or did they? Cherril certainly has, she is now happily married and equally happily involved with Aunty Lee’s restaurant. But Brian and Jacqueline, not so much. Even after all these years, Brian is still in love with Jacqueline, and Jacqueline is still in love with…getting herself out of Singapore. She’s decided that Allison’s ex-husband is her ticket to a posh life somewhere far away.

It’s up to Aunty Lee to wade through the mess. She finds her way to a solution by learning about the people, mostly through what they eat, and especially through what they say while they are eating. And by being very, very nosy.

It works. And it works deliciously.

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Review: Reader I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

Review: Reader I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy ChevalierReader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre by Tracy Chevalier, Joanna Briscoe, Susan Hill, Elizabeth McCracken, Nadifa Mohamed, Audrey Niffenegger, Patricia Park, Francine Prose, Namwali Serpell, Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver, Salley Vickers, Emma Donoghue, Evie Wyld, Helen Dunmore, Esther Freud, Jane Gardam, Linda Grant, Kirsty Gunn, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, library binding, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on March 22nd 2016
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This collection of original stories by today’s finest women writers—including Tracy Chevalier, Francine Prose, Elizabeth McCracken, Tessa Hadley, Audrey Niffenegger, and more—takes inspiration from the opening line in Charlotte Brontë’s most beloved novel, Jane Eyre.
A fixture in the literary canon, Charlotte Brontë is revered by readers all over the world. Her novels featuring unforgettable, strong heroines still resonate with millions today. And who could forget one of literature’s best-known lines: “Reader, I married him” from her classic novel Jane Eyre?
Part of a remarkable family that produced three acclaimed female writers at a time in 19th-century Britain when few women wrote, and fewer were published, Brontë has become a great source of inspiration to writers, especially women, ever since. Now in Reader, I Married Him, twenty of today’s most celebrated women authors have spun original stories, using the opening line from Jane Eyre as a springboard for their own flights of imagination.
Reader, I Married Him will feature stories by:
Tracy Chevalier
Tessa Hadley
Sarah Hall
Helen Dunmore
Kirsty Gunn
Joanna Briscoe
Jane Gardam
Emma Donoghue
Susan Hill
Francine Prose
Elif Shafak
Evie Wyld
Patricia Park
Salley Vickers
Nadifa Mohamed
Esther Freud
Linda Grant
Lionel Shriver
Audrey Niffenegger
Namwali Serpell
Elizabeth McCracken
Unique, inventive, and poignant, the stories in Reader, I Married Him pay homage to the literary genius of Charlotte Brontë, and demonstrate once again that her extraordinary vision continues to inspire readers and writers.

My Review:

jane eyre by charlotte bronteJust like it says on the label, this is a collection of short stories “inspired by” Jane Eyre. Before I get into the quality of the stories, I’d like to touch on that “inspired by” bit.

I’ll confess it has been a long time since I read Jane Eyre. And I’ll also say that it will probably be a long time, if ever, before I read it again. While it feels like a progenitor of the Gothic romance school, Jane’s situation as an impoverished governess, and her realistic lack of options just aren’t things that float my boat. I prefer situations where the hero and heroine at least approach equality, or get as close to it as seems remotely reasonable for the time period.

That being said, I approached this collection wondering how and where contemporary authors would take Jane and her story. The results feel mixed to me. Not just in the sense that any short story collection has winners and losers (and readers varying opinions on which are which) but also mixed in regards to their use of Jane Eyre as inspiration. There were stories that felt close to the original, and stories where the inspiration seemed tangential. Sometimes even tenuous.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

But the stories in the collection that stick with me are the ones that hewed closely in some way to some aspect of the original story. The ones that seemed to use Jane as a looser starting point didn’t have the same impact for this reader. They felt like the didn’t fit within the collection unless one squints very hard and tilts one’s head to the proper degree sideways.

The title story by Susan Hill, is a case in point. While it takes off from the famous line, “Reader, I Married Him,” The “I” in this particular story is Wallis Warfield Simpson, and the “him” is Edward, Duke of Windsor, the man who was briefly King Edward VIII. The story felt sad, but then, their lives also felt sad, and possibly just as pointless as they are in this story. The story, while certainly interesting and providing a very different perspective on this famous couple, felt as if it had nothing to do with the theme at hand.

On the other hand, I loved Lionel Shriver’s “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”. Just as in the Susan Hill story, I’m not sure what, if anything it draws from Jane Eyre. On the other hand, I just really liked the story.

As far as those stories that have more a more obvious relationship to Jane Eyre, there were three that haunted me for different reasons, although they all have a slightly creepy factor.

Helen Dunmore gives an angry but resigned voice to one of the secondary characters in the story in “Grace Pool Her Testimony”. It allows us to view the story from a radically different point of view. It is also a “below stairs” story, where we see the doings of the household from the perspective of someone who was always present, but seemingly invisible. And the story provides insights into Rochester as a young man, and gives a surprising origin for little Adele. But it is Grace’s harsh and angry voice that sticks in the mind after the story is complete.

Salley Vickers tells us a story in Mr. Rochester’s voice in “Reader, She Married Me” but while the story is told from his perspective after the end of the novel, it is not the happily ever after one might expect. Instead, from Rochester’s point of view, blind and dependent on Jane as a result of his injuries from the fire, we see Jane quite differently. Instead of a triumphant heroine we see a manipulative woman who only married him because she now has the upper hand in their relationship, and that is what she has been scheming for all along. This isn’t a story about love, it’s a story about power.

Likewise, “The Mirror” by Francine Prose is also a story about power, but in this case all the power is in the hands of Rochester, although like the Vickers’ story The Mirror also takes place after the end of the novel. In this modern re-imagining, Jane and Rochester are in couples’ counseling after their marriage. As the years have gone by, Rochester has become increasingly insistent that his first wife died long before the fateful fire, and that Jane made up all of the incidents related in the story. And most telling of all, that it was a parrot that Jane heard in the attic. While Jane wants to save their marriage, Rochester is increasingly insistent that Jane is unbalanced, and both Jane and the reader see that he is setting her up to be put away in an attic somewhere, just like his first wife. As the net closes around her, Jane questions everything she thought she knew – both about the true condition of the first Mrs. Rochester and about Edward’s own sanity or the lack thereof.

The Mirror is the story that gave me the most chills. I found The Self-Seeding Sycamore to be the most fun. A few of the stories neither felt related to the theme, nor did anything for me as stories. But overall, the collection is interesting and certainly has a couple of bright spots – or brightly creepy spots, as the case may be.

Escape Rating B for the collection as a whole.

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Review: Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials by Ovidia Yu

Review: Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials by Ovidia YuAunty Lee's Deadly Specials (Singaporean Mystery #2) by Ovidia Yu
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Singaporean Mystery #2
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 30th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Rosie “Aunty” Lee, the feisty widow, amateur sleuth, and proprietor of Singapore’s best-loved home cooking restaurant, is back in another delectable, witty mystery involving scandal and murder among the city’s elite.
Few know more about what goes on in Singapore than Aunty Lee. When a scandal over illegal organ donation involving prominent citizens makes news, she already has a list of suspects. There’s no time to snoop, though—Aunty Lee’s Delights is catering a brunch for local socialites Henry and Mabel Sung at their opulent house.
Rumor has it that the Sung’s fortune is in trouble, and Aunty Lee wonders if the gossip is true. But soon after arriving at the Sung’s house, her curiosity turns to suspicion. Why is a storage house she discovers locked? What is the couple arguing about behind closed doors? Where is the guest of honor who never showed up?
Then, Mabel Sung and her son Leonard are found dead. The authorities blame it on Aunty Lee’s special stewed chicken with buah keluak, a local black nut that can be poisonous if cooked improperly. Aunty Lee has never carelessly prepared a dish. She’s certain the deaths are murder—and that they’re somehow linked to the organ donor scandal.
To save her business and her reputation, she’s got to prove it—and unmask a dangerous killer whose next victim may just be Aunty Lee.

My Review:

For a book that uncovers a very serious topic, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials still retains its feel as a cozy mystery. While so much of the trouble revolves around Aunty Lee’s catering business, the case she finds herself in the middle of deals with the very dark side of compensated organ donations and medical tourism.

A lot of the people involved in this case turn out to be really sick, and they didn’t get that way from eating Aunty Lee’s cooking – not that they don’t try to blame the whole thing on her and her catering. Aunty Lee would probably have involved herself anyway – she does that for fun – but attacking her catering business closes out her one method of dealing with loneliness and widowhood – by fixing other people food and fixing other people’s problems.

aunty lees delights by ovidia yu(Word to the wise – just as in the first book in the series, Aunty Lee’s Delights, Aunty Lee cooks a lot, and it all sounds exotic and positively yummy. Even the things that may seem very strange to us, like fried anchovies. Do not read this book when you are hungry – you will find yourself spontaneously raiding your own kitchen, and possibly kitchens for several houses around!)

The story begins with Aunty Lee scouring the newspaper, and having her friend and companion Nina scouring the internet, for news of a suicide victim. A young woman came to Singapore to find her missing fiance, and commits suicide when neither he nor his body can be found. Her young man disappeared after agreeing to come to Singapore to donate a kidney. This type of organ donation for cash is strictly illegal in Singapore, but the young couple needed the money to get married. When he disappears, she is left bereft and pregnant.

While at the beginning Aunty Lee’s nose for trouble seems to be leading her to something unrelated to her own life, as usually happens the case quickly draws closer to home, even though the police and everyone else urge her to drop it – sometimes with threats.

Things start out simple. Aunty Lee caters a party for a family that seem to be movers and shakers in the Singapore upper crust. One of the fun things about Aunty Lee is that while she acts as if she is just a caterer and restaurant owner, she herself is actually a member of that upper crust. And as is often the case, the people who are looking down on her for working are really people that she could buy and sell several times over.

The house party falls apart fairly spectacularly. First a young man gatecrashes the party looking for his missing friend. Then two members of the family are found dead after eating one of Aunty Lee’s more famous dishes, a delight that is notorious for poisoning diners if the dish is not prepared properly. Of course, Aunty Lee always prepares everything properly.

But even as she is cleared of any possible involvement in what now looks like a murder-suicide, the family is still determined to drive her out of business so that she publicly takes the blame for the mess. It seems to Aunty Lee that the family is moving heaven, earth and their powerful social network, in order to suppress any attempt to search for the real killer.

And that’s where Aunty Lee steps in, up to her neck. Her honor is under threat. And she is all too aware that she will be prey to loneliness and depression without her business (and her need to look into everyone else’s business) to keep her occupied.

As they say, curiosity killed the cat. And if Aunty Lee isn’t careful, she might find herself in the same pickle.

Escape Rating B: At the beginning the case, or Aunty Lee’s involvement in it, seems more than a bit shambolic. There are too many suspects, many too many motives, and no clear path to zeroing in on a single one of either. Even Aunty Lee comments to herself, or to the portrait of her late husband that she regularly talks to, that she has all the elements of a case but they aren’t fitting together quite right. This recipe is missing a key ingredient.

Which she doesn’t find for about the first third of the story. At that point, things start making more sense and the pace picks up considerably. We’re still not there yet, but you can feel Aunty Lee closing in on a solution.

Aunty Lee sometimes plays herself for comic relief, pretending to be a confused little old lady when in fact she’s sharp as a tack and surprisingly spry for her age. As well as quite well off. And the police commissioner is an old and dear friend, which always helps when you insert yourself into murder investigations on a regular basis.

But the underlying story in Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials is not funny at all. The world of compensated organ donation is ugly and brutal. While the results in this particular case are ultimately tragic, as well as deadly for too many people who didn’t even know they were on the fringe of this dirty business, the problems that are exposed are dire and have no good solutions. The needs of people who will do almost anything in hopes of a better life are easily exploited by those who have enough money to circumvent the rules. And because it all operates under the table, it becomes a criminal enterprise where even the innocent are at risk.

That part of the case leaves the reader, and Aunty Lee, with no good answers. Only hard questions.