Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Beyond Absolution by Cora Harrison, a mystery of Ireland in 1923

In the politically roiled Irish city of Cork in 1923, Reverend Mother Aquinas’s latest investigation is tragically personal. An old childhood friend, the elderly Father Dominic of the Capuchin Brothers, has been found murdered in his confessional stall at Holy Trinity Church, pierced through the ear with a sharp, narrow blade. In many historical mysteries, the victims have numerous enemies, but this case is more puzzling: nobody can imagine who’d want to kill such a gentle man.

For the sake of Dominic’s grieving brother, Prior Lawrence, the Reverend Mother wants to discover the truth. She contributes information based on her personal connections and extensive knowledge of Cork’s citizenry while her former pupil, Inspector Patrick Cashman of the Civic Guards, examines the crime from an official standpoint. Strangely, on the day before his death, the unworldly priest had been seen visiting an antique shop on Morrison’s Island, upset about a damaged ceramic hawk for sale there.

Every volume in this exceptional series (Beyond Absolution is the third) adds to readers’ understanding about the geography and political history of Cork, and Ireland itself, during the 1920s. Although the IRA is blamed for most killings, Dominic’s murder doesn’t bear their signature, especially since his kindness extended even to Republican sympathizers. The mystery about the hawk is revealed midway through, but the killer’s identity remains unknown until the end. Looking back afterward, however, it’s clear Harrison had been dropping periodic clues to lead to the correct conclusion.

With their shared childhood and contrasting life experiences, the heroine and her elegant cousin Lucy make a wonderful team. Understandably, the Reverend Mother appears noticeably aged and tired in this entry, which shows how anguish can take a heavy physical toll. Let’s hope she and her partners can rally sufficiently to play roles in future books.

Beyond Absolution was published by Severn House on August 1st. By now it should be clear that I'm a fan of this series, which begins with A Shameful Murder and continues next with A Shocking Assassination. I reviewed all three for the Historical Novels Review.  Cora Harrison also writes mysteries set in 16th-century Ireland (the Burren Mysteries) and has recently started a new series about an Irish lawyer in the Tudor court of 1522; the first entry is The Cardinal's Court.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, biographical fiction about an early Canadian settler

One might say Susanna Moodie is to Canada what Laura Ingalls Wilder is to the United States: both were early pioneers who gained renown for books about their experiences. Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), recounting the first seven years she spent in Upper Canada as a young wife and mother in the 1830s, is considered a classic.

With her debut, Cecily Ross imagines Susanna’s personal journal. It’s convincing as a period diary while fulfilling expectations for a satisfying, well-researched historical novel. Notably, it goes where an account published for public consumption simply couldn’t: into the intimate reaches of a woman’s heart. The tone is warm, honest, and spiced with wit.

Ross gives eloquent voice to Susanna’s frustrations with the husband she loves, John Dunbar Moodie, an Orcadian dreamer whose “unquenchable thirst for adventure” leads them into a life full of hardships. She also provides details on the help Susanna receives from indigenous women, and her close relationship with sister Kate (fellow settler Catharine Parr Traill), whose sunny optimism contrasts with Susanna’s somber disposition. We feel Susanna’s confusion and heartbreak as they grow apart.

Susanna begins her diary at age twelve, growing up in Regency-era Suffolk as the non-conformist youngest daughter in the poverty-stricken Strickland family, many of whom have literary aspirations. The considerable time devoted to her English years lets us see firsthand why Susanna, raising a large family amid terrible poverty on their wilderness farm—often without John’s presence—yearned so much for home.

Her story also movingly speaks to the ways women reacted to gender limitations. As Ross illustrates, Canada offers scenes of breathtaking beauty, and there are moments of joy and humor, but pioneer life is consistently hard. “This land is erasing me and beginning to remake me in ways I never anticipated,” Susanna writes, and we’re with her every moment on this transformative and ultimately triumphant journey.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross was published in April by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Canada; the book is also available from US outlets ($16.99, or $22.99 in Canada, 381pp).  This review also appears in August's Historical Novels Review.

Some additional notes:

- A Celebration of Women Writers, hosted by UPenn's digital library, has the complete text of the 2nd edition of Roughing It in the Bush.

- Susanna Moodie isn't well known in the US; the main reason I'd been aware of her before this novel is because I used to be the subject bibliographer for Canadian Studies at my previous library job.  Her story is worth knowing.

- Readers of Jean Plaidy's novels should recognize the name of Agnes Strickland, whose multi-volume Lives of the Queens of England was often listed as a source in Plaidy's bibliographies.  Agnes and her sister Elizabeth (her uncredited, publicity-shy co-author) were also sisters to Susanna and Catharine.  They stayed behind in England and created literary careers for themselves.  All appear in Ross's novel.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Amy Myers' Dancing with Death, a humorous country house mystery set in the Roaring Twenties

Crackling cauliflowers and suffering stockfish! The heroine of Amy Myers’ diverting new country house mystery is a feisty young woman known for her culinary delights and colorful expressions.

In 1925, Nell Drury is the chef at Wychbourne Court, a stately home in the Kentish countryside where the upper-class Ansley family has lived for centuries. The manor has its share of resident ghosts, and Lord Ansley’s sister, Lady Clarice, claims to communicate with them.

A fancy-dress ball brings many of London’s Bright Young Things to Wychbourne, including friends and frenemies of Lord and Lady Ansley’s grown-up children. Nell’s preparations for the evening get complicated when she’s asked to serve a leader for a late-night “ghost hunt.” She’s also caught off guard by an old flame’s reappearance.

When Nell comes upon the stabbed body of a houseguest during the spook-catching exercise, Scotland Yard gets called in, and Lady Ansley, rightly concerned about her family’s reputation, asks Nell to go sleuthing on her own in case the police mess things up.

Nell is entertaining company. Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Nell had trained as the apprentice of a renowned French chef at a fine London establishment. She now occupies a unique position in the household (she’s a chef, not a cook, and will correct anyone who gets it wrong). This helps with her investigations.

The plot and cast list feel overcrowded, and some people’s personalities don’t seem to extend beyond their eccentricities. However, the story picks up steam once the victim’s secrets come to light. Myers does a good job depicting the reckless jubilance of the Roaring Twenties and the darkness lurking beneath the surface gleam. The crime is also resolved more realistically than is typical in mysteries with amateur sleuths.

Dancing with Death, first in a new series, was published by Severn House in May.  Amy Myers has written many crime novels, both historical and contemporary, as well as sagas under her own name and as Harriet Hudson (see her website for more). This review also appears in May's HNR.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Book review: The Sisters of Alameda Street by Lorena Hughes

Which of the four Platas sisters of Alameda Street is Malena’s mother? Lorena Hughes’ debut novel is nonstop entertainment with a warmhearted touch, and the plot moves fast as secrets upon secrets come to light.

In 1962 Ecuador, just after her father’s suicide, Malena Sevilla discovers a shocking note among his things. Malena’s mother had supposedly died in childbirth, but the letter, addressed to Malena’s late grandmother, was written by a woman heartbroken about having given Malena up as a baby—and it’s signed only “A.” Seeing this, Malena abandons her nursing coursework and boards a bus from Guayaquil to the small Andes community of San Isidro, the place of the note’s origin, to find answers.

Arriving at the Platas home on Calle Alameda, she finds her task simultaneously easier (the family affectionately welcomes her, mistaking her for the daughter of a family friend) and more difficult (the sisters’ names all start with A).

Trapped into an unintentional impersonation, Malena gets pulled into numerous dramas and spats as she searches for clues. All four women—motherly Ana, quiet and artistic Alejandra, glamorous widow Amanda, and fragile Abigail, who had died young—had hidden romances in their past, which are movingly revealed in flashbacks. Amanda’s plans to open a nightclub scandalize her conservative community and, seeing this, Malena worries how the revelation of an illegitimate child would affect the family. She also feels attracted to a darkly handsome man who’s already taken, and no good can come from that.

This book is great fun. Scenes involving clandestine late-night excursions, visits to a seedy motel, and Malena’s unexpected tango performances demonstrate the author’s skills in writing comedy—such a rare treat in historical fiction. The many threads are carefully untangled, and the strength of family wins the day. Heartily recommended to saga readers.

Lorena Hughes' The Sisters of Alameda Street was published last month by Skyhorse, and I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  If you're looking for a fun historical novel with an original setting, this is a good choice.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, a tense literary novel about revolution, liberty, and legacy

Historical atmosphere and characterization are top-notch in Dunmore’s (Exposure, 2016) newest work of literary historical fiction. Although there’s little action, considerable tension develops as Lizzie Fawkes awakens to the truth about the man she married and his first wife’s fate—details that readers know from the start.

The setting is 1790s Bristol, England. Revolution is erupting in Europe, and Lizzie’s mother, Julia Fawkes, a writer who “attacked the majesty of kings,” belongs to a group of radicals watching their beliefs take form in nearby France. Lizzie’s husband, building-developer Diner Tredevant, knows that war will crush his ambitions to build a terrace high above the Avon Gorge. Diner has always resented Lizzie’s family and their free-thinking ways, and as money grows tight, Diner’s controlling behavior and paranoia become evident.

The graveyard scene from the novel’s modern-day prelude isn’t picked up again but pays homage to the many women’s lives lost to history. Knowledge of Dunmore’s recent passing, added to her theme of the legacies people leave behind, lends a sad poignancy to the reading experience.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore's final novel, is published this month in the US by Atlantic Monthly (it's been out in the UK since March). Originally it was slated to be published in November, but the release date was moved forward after the author sadly passed away from cancer in June. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist's August issue, which is just out.  It's my first experience reading one of Dunmore's novels, and I'm glad it was assigned to me.  For those who've read her earlier work, I'd be interested to hear about your favorite(s).

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Love and Gravity: a quirky time-slip novel about music, love, and Isaac Newton

Eminent 17th-century scientist Sir Isaac Newton never married, and he reportedly wasn’t romantically involved with anyone. What if that wasn’t true? Sotto, author of Before Ever After, delivers another time-bending romantic adventure with her latest, which imagines a love story between Newton and a modern woman, a gifted cellist, who manages to bridge the 300-plus years through music. The premise is fanciful, but Sotto is reliably good at traveling along life’s offbeat paths.

Andrea Louviere first sees Newton when she’s seven, after a crack in her bedroom wall opens wide enough for her to glimpse a boy about her age. The only person she dares tell is her school friend, Nate, who doesn’t believe her. As Andrea grows up, and her relationship with Nate turns romantic, she and Isaac develop a mysterious bond. When Andrea is seventeen, she begins receiving Isaac’s letters via an elderly messenger who somehow has contact with them both. She determines to unlock the mystery of the shared future Isaac speaks of, but this seems impossible, since the objects they exchange through the time-portal all turn to dust.

Most of the novel is set in the present, with lengthy sections showing Newton’s childhood in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire and his later years at grammar school and at Cambridge. The novel isn’t as substantive historically as it could be, and the secondary characters are mostly vague shadows. Someone like Nate deserves better than the second place to which he’s relegated, too. The time-travel mechanism is clever, though, one that takes into account both parties’ talents, and the story grows significantly poignant in the last third or so. This isn’t The Time Traveler’s Wife, which it clearly emulates, but it’s an entertaining diversion for romance fans open to something different.

Love and Gravity was published as an ebook original ($6.99) in February by Ballantine; this review was written for February's Historical Novels Review.  It's available in paperback in the Philippines, where the author resides.

Back in 2011, I'd reviewed the author's debut novel, Before Ever After, and recommend it.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jennifer Delamere's The Captain's Daughter, an in-depth look at Victorian theatre life

Despite one’s initial impression, this novel isn’t a seafaring yarn. The heroine of Jennifer Delamere’s Victorian inspirational romance is the daughter of a ship’s captain who went missing at sea years earlier. The title also refers to a character from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, a popular musical production that opened on the London stage in 1878. By a fortunate chance, Rosalyn Bernay gets the opportunity to work backstage at the theatre, where she does odd jobs and develops her singing skills… and becomes intrigued by two different men.

Her story begins in different circumstances, though. Rosalyn and her two younger sisters had grown up in a Bristol orphanage founded by Prussian evangelist George Müller. At eighteen, as expected of her, Rosalyn had left to go into service. Seven years later, after being falsely accused of theft by her mistress’s unscrupulous husband, she flees in desperation and finds herself on London’s streets, destitute, alone, and desperate for food and shelter. Although injured soldier Nate Moran sees the danger she’s in and tries to save her, Rosalyn’s natural wariness prevents her from trusting him. He later runs into her again at the theatre where he’s temporarily working as a stagehand.

The Captain’s Daughter presents angles on several little-known aspects of Victorian life, from roles during a Gilbert & Sullivan production – props, lighting, acting, singing, and more – to Müller’s clean, efficiently run orphan houses, which defy the Dickensian stereotype. (History says that Dickens himself went to investigate these orphanages personally and had a positive report.) One interesting fact included in the plotline, about the necessity of staging the followup production The Pirates of Penzance in a small coastal Devon town to preserve its copyright in Britain, is accurate.

Rosalyn is enterprising, courageous, yet somewhat naïve, especially when it comes to a handsome actor named Tony. There are many rags-to-riches sagas that see poverty-stricken young women rise high in their chosen profession, but this novel takes a more realistic approach. Also, through Rosalyn’s experiences on the job, she comes to a new understanding about the performing life, which she’d always been taught was immoral and wicked.

In addition to all the details on the London theatre, other highlights are Rosalyn’s relationship with her sister, Julia, a skilled nurse who’s a bit of a firecracker (her confident outspokenness will make her a great heroine in the sequel); and Nate’s difficult journey toward accepting his broken engagement to another woman. The characters sometimes quote from Biblical passages, but the novel's Christian elements are most clearly shown in their' principles and their kindness towards others in need.

Recommended for inspirational fiction fans interested in career women, Victoriana, and London theatre life.

The Captain's Daughter was published by Bethany House in June; thanks to the author and publisher for sending me a review copy.