Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Body in the Ice

A. J. MackenzieThe Body in the Ice (The Romney Marsh Mysteries)
By A. J. MacKenzie
Zaffre, April 20, 2017

About the Book

Christmas Day, Kent, 1796. On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In its grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond.

It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace in St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate. But with the victim’s identity unknown, no murder weapon, and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task. Working along with his trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared. With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor’s attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.

The Body in the Ice, with its unique cast of characters, captivating amateur sleuths and a bitter family feud at its heart, is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.

My Review

I received a PDF of The Body in the Ice for review and thoroughly enjoyed the story. It releases today in both ebook and hardback editions.

The story’s setting has all the charm readers want in an 18th century English murder mystery. Romney Marsh, on the English coast directly across the Channel from France, is a hotbed of smuggling and French spies as one would expect at this period, which enhances the story’s dark feel and plot complications. The historical details of the period are nicely incorporated, and I appreciated the maps and diagrams at the front of the book that help the reader to envision the lay of the land. A complex network of relationships pulls readers into the story, but also conceals dangerous deceptions and intrigue.

The main character is Reverend Hardcastle, although I didn’t realize that at first. Because Chapter 1 is in Amelia Chaytor’s point of view, I expected her to be the main character and amateur sleuth and was initially disappointed when I realized that she’s for the most part peripheral to the action, at least in this volume. There were several instances of head hopping in the first few chapters as well, mainly to describe Mrs. Chaytor through others’ thoughts. Surprisingly, she remains somewhat enigmatic as what we learn about her is more often through the descriptions of others than through to her own actions and thoughts. In one instance she receives what I would think to be important information but neglects to tell Hardcastle, inexplicably waiting to inform him until he drops by her house days later. This is balanced later by a couple of well done scenes of heart-pounding action in which she acts with a deliberation and determination that live up to other characters’ estimation of her.

These minor objections were easy to overlook due to the story’s strength. I like that both Hardcastle and Amelia are dealing with personal issues that make them appealingly vulnerable. The secondary characters are nicely portrayed with realistic plights and motivations as well. The Body in the Ice is an intriguing murder mystery full of twists and turns that kept me turning pages, wondering what happens next.

According to Amazon, A. J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a married couple who’ve written more than 20 nonfiction and academic titles between them, including works on management, medieval economic history, and medieval warfare. Both The Body in the Ice and the previous volume The Body on the Doorstep (2016), are subtitled “A dark and compelling historical murder mystery.” The series name for book 1 is listed as A Hardcastle and Chaytor Mystery, however, so evidently the series name has changed to Romney Marsh Mysteries. Judging from The Body in the Ice, this series will appeal greatly to fans of both historical fiction and mysteries, and I highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to further installments.

J. M. Hochstetler

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Review: The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin UK, December 2016

About the Book

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better. The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr, who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past. It holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance and the enigma of Alison’s son. But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows.

My Review

Alison Bannestre is born in 16th century England to a family distantly related to the famous Seymour clan. Her entire family dies of an illness, forcing her to the Seymour holding of Wolf Hall. There she meets another survivor, Mary Seymour, daughter of Thomas Seymour and the late queen Katherine Parr. Both girls are beholden to their cousin Edward Seymour as they are without family, money, or social standing. The girls are uneasy companions, Alison fiery and rebellious, while Mary is meek and introverted, but the two find common ground in their loneliness and outsider status.

Alison takes a lover and becomes pregnant. When her son, Arthur, is born, the baby is taken away from her, and she is to be married off to a well-to-do but abusive farmer. Mary, on the other hand, has magical powers, namely she sees past and future events and talks to a spirit guide, Darrell.

When an accident kills a Seymour servant, the girls are bundled off to an obscure Seymour relative at Middlecote House, except Alison will not go quietly. She jumps out of the coach, bent on finding her lost child. Before she goes, Alison asks Mary for a promise: Whatever happens to her, Mary must find out what happened to Arthur and find a way to get word to her. Mary reluctantly agrees before Alison runs off to a tavern, where she stumbles upon a portal to the future.

Now hundreds of years into the future, Alison is trapped, unable to return to the past to find Arthur and unable to find any word from Mary about her son. Alison reconnects with a former lover, Adam, and they make their way to Middlecote House, where a portrait of Mary Seymour holds clues that might show Alison the way back to her son. Alison has thrived in the future, living an independent lifestyle that the past never permitted her, but finding her son means returning to that restrictive past and leaving Adam behind. Can she decipher Mary’s clues? And if she does, will she choose her son over the freedom and love she has finally found?

I confess this book has all my favorite elements: Tudor history period, time travel, strong female characters, and a solid romantic arc. Ms. Cornick expertly contrasts the two women, with Alison’s tale being told in third person (which matches her more external challenges) and Mary’s tale told in first person (which matches her more internal conflicts). The two women are terribly different but find common ground as women have across the ages. Both women struggle and then evolve into their own, finding the love and purpose that is denied them at Wolf Hall. The travel from past to present is also fascinating, as Alison’s 16th century perspective contrasts sharply with modern life. In traveling to the future she gains much but loses some too.

Part coming of age, part bittersweet tale of love and loss, this one has many layers and they are all worth experiencing.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Slender Reeds: Jochebed's Hope




By Michelle Ule

I first read Texie Susan Gregory's Slender Reeds years ago in manuscript form and it has stayed with me. I was delighted to get a copy of the book recently and see if I remembered well.

Gregory's story and meticulous research into Egypt during Pharoah's time was interesting and thorough. Slender Reeds is about Moses' mother, Jochebed, as Pharaoh's rule clamps down on the Israelites.

Jochebed begins the book as an uncertain girl dependent on her mother and puzzled by her fractured friendships with two friends. Her story arc shows maturity and a greater sense that fear does not need to control her life because Elohim can be trusted.

The trauma of crocodiles in the river is what I remembered best--the fear of encountering such a beast while drawing water or washing clothes.

Egypt was more knowable from Gregory's book, and I could better understand--even though this is a novel--what it might have been like to live during that time.

Jochebed is a weaver, which is where Slender Reeds gets its title. Her skill enables her to construct the basket which saved her youngest son's life and, of course, gave us Moses.

The story is woven through with the relationship struggles teenager girls often have. Jochebed doesn't always behave in as mature a manner as I would like--but she was a teenager.

Told from several points of view--including that of the arrogant Pharaoh--the story ties itself as neatly as Jochebed's knots.

We see Jochebed's faith grow with maturity until the very end where her friendships finally complete a full picture of Israelite women on the brink of Moses' life.

I enjoyed it.

Tweetables

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Michelle Ule is the best selling author of six novels and the upcoming biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers. Learn more about her at her website, www.michelleule.com

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: Three Maids for a Crown

Ella March Chase
By Ella March Chase
Broadway Books, August 2011

About the Book

In the second novel from Ella March Chase, we meet sixteen-year-old Jane Grey, a quiet and obedient young lady destined to become the shortest reigning English monarch. Her beautiful middle sister Katherine Grey charms all the right people—until loyalties shift. And finally Lady Mary Grey, a dwarf with a twisted spine whose goal is simply to protect people she loves—but at a terrible cost.

In an age in which begetting sons was all that mattered and queens rose and fell on the sex of their child, these three girls with royal Tudor blood lived under the dangerous whims of parents with a passion for gambling. The stakes they would wager: their daughters’ lives against rampant ambition.

My Review

I enjoyed this author’s writing style and perspective. Normally I would read books like this in a day, or two at the most, but I’ve been pretty busy lately so I haven’t had much time to read. That said, I would definitely recommend this book. I have always found the reluctance of Jane Grey to be appointed queen and being forced to marry at fifteen a bit of a travesty. Women had no rights and were used as pawns back then. And being of royal blood makes the issue that much worse, especially if people wanted you to help their family take over the kingdom. This story was told over time through the perspectives of the three sisters. They all experienced grief and loss. They were all used by their parents to further the family’s ambition and power. None were truly valued for themselves.

At any rate, I found the story tragically beautiful. The love stories of the two remaining Grey sisters, of Lady Mary and Lady Katherine, was emotionally moving. I felt their pain and the denial of true love by the crown. They had to marry in secret and hope to be forgiven, but Elizabeth was not a forgiving queen, at least from the perspective of the “sisters of royal blood”. She always saw them as a threat and kept them imprisoned or in her service. I loved how Lady Mary Grey pitied Queen Elizabeth whose fear put her in a prison of her own making.

Good story and worth the read for the take-away value alone. It made me think about the meaning of true love and commitment to family. I am glad I picked up a copy.

Michelle Szymanoski

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Review: The Mark of the King

Jocelyn Green
By Jocelyn Green
Bethany House, January 2013

About the Book

After being imprisoned and branded for the death of her client, twenty-five-year-old midwife Julianne Chevalier trades her life sentence for exile to the fledgling 1720s French colony of Louisiana, where she hopes to be reunited with her brother, serving there as a soldier. To make the journey, though, women must be married, and Julianne is forced to wed a fellow convict.

When they arrive in New Orleans, there is no news of Benjamin, Julianne’s brother, and searching for answers proves dangerous. What is behind the mystery, and does military officer Marc-Paul Girard know more than he is letting on?

With her dreams of a new life shattered, Julianne must find her way in this dangerous, rugged land despite never being able to escape the king’s mark on her shoulder that brands her a criminal beyond redemption.

My Review

Passionate, vividly written, and thrilling, The Mark of the King is Jocelyn Green’s finest tale to date—and I’ve loved them all.

The story of young midwife Julianne Chevalier is set in a period and place I knew little about—the settling of New Orleans in the early 1700s—which intrigued me for that reason alone. Then I found the characters to be so well-drawn and believable that I quickly identified with them and their plight and came to care a great deal about their fate. The love story that developed as delicately and sweetly as an unfolding rose kept me reading and hoping for their happiness.

I loved the way Green wove her stellar research throughout in such a natural and intrinsic way that I not only learned a lot about this period in America’s history, but it also helped to define the characters and their motivations. Added to that, the plot takes numerous unexpected twists and turns right up to the riveting ending, which made the book exceptionally hard to put down.

All I can say is bravo to the author! Green has raised the bar in historical fiction with this gripping story.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Five Minute Marriage? Or Absurdity?




Publisher's Weekly chose a 1978 reissue, The Five-Minute Marriage by Joan Aiken as one of the most anticipated books of 2017. 


By Michelle Ule


Curious, I ordered it from the library and wound up with the original 1978 edition.

I'm still trying to decide what I think about this Regency novel which struck me as being absurd.

Joan Aiken

Author Joan Aiken, the daughter of a distinguished novelist Conrad Aiken, has a quirky sense of humor which I'd read before.

She's well known for her The Wolves of Willoughby Chase novels for young adults, which I read as a young adult.

I didn't get it at the time, not being a sophisticated enough reader to recognize when my leg was being pulled.

I'm older now and suspect I'd enjoy the book more--because Aiken has a sly and wicked sense of humor.

Several times in reading The Five-Minute Marriage, I paused to wonder if this wasn't like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey--a send up of the genre?

Story Line

Oh, the story line is absurd and convoluted and something happens--usually ridiculous--in every chapter.

The basic premise is the very likeable Philadelphia Carteret manages to visit her elderly great-uncle, whom she has never seen.

She travels on behalf of her ailing mother, long disinherited, in search of some of the funds any reasonable person would have granted the woman years ago.

Arriving at the gloomy old house in Kent, she discovers an imposter has claimed her name and birthright.

But the woman isn't there, the elderly great-uncle may very well die that night and an inheritance is at stake.

With the promise of 300 pounds a year for her mother, "Delphie" enters into a sham marriage.

Except, as you would expect, the great-uncle doesn't die, the marriage turns out to be valid and then there's the new, glowering, unhappy husband.

And secrets to be kept from her mother.

What next?

A rollicking tale that will not disappoint Regency fans. Even if it is ridiculous.

Problems

Written in 1978, The Five-Minute Marriage, I can only assume, uses the writing style of the time--which is awful.

The first two chapters, in particular were difficult to read because of all the "head hopping," and overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

I wasn't sure I could go on, but decided that on an empty night, the novel would entertain-- which it did just fine.

Can I recommend it?

If you like Joan Aiken's sense of humor and Regency novels, enjoy.

It takes a little longer than five minutes to read, but the time will go quickly.

Tweetables 

A regency with a twist and Joan Aiken's wicked humor? Click to Tweet 

Five-Minute Marriage, a fast-paced Regency and funny, too. Click to Tweet   

Bestselling historical novelist Michelle Ule has moved to nonfiction with two books in 2017: In
June, she’ll be an essayist in Discovery House’s Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the Legacy of Oswald Chambers  and as a biographer in Baker Book Publishing’s Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman Behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional (October).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: A Perilous Undertaking

By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley, January 2017

About the Book

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress, Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed....

My Review

Ms. Raybourn returns with her unconventional Victorian heroine Veronica Speedwell for this second book in the Speedwell mystery series. Veronica and Stoker are reunited for another mystery inquiry. This time, none other than Princess Louise (one of Queen Victoria’s daughters) asks Veronica to investigate the murder of Artemisia, a young artist brutally murdered while a few months pregnant. Artemisia’s lover and alleged murderer Miles Ramsforth is now awaiting execution for his crimes, but the princess is convinced of his innocence and orders Veronica to vindicate him. 

Veronica is unsure of the princess’ motives but never backs down from a challenge, particularly when she has something to prove. So Veronica and Stoker enter the dark and secretive world of aristocratic eccentricity—secret grottos, pleasure palaces, bohemian lifestyles, and spouses who are supposed to look the other way. Through opium dens, funeral parlors, and aristocratic homes, Veronica and Stoker rifle through the upper class’ dirty laundry to reach the truth.

Like most mystery series (think Columbo or Sherlock Holmes) the main character(s) far outshine the actual mysteries themselves. That is certainly true here but the main characters are so intriguing, multi-faceted, scandalous, and saucy that you could watch them do practically anything and still be amused. Veronica is not your normal Victorian woman. She is sexually liberated, completely stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic when it comes to societal conventions. A lepidopterist by day, she enjoys putting her scientific mind to work when it suits her interests.

The sexual tension between her and Stoker is an ongoing (if sometimes overdone) theme. Both Veronica and Stoker are so full of scientific logic, sarcastic comments, biting wit, daring feats, and unconsummated passion, that you willingly follow along, not really caring who was murdered or why but convinced that you’ll enjoy the ride. And believe me, you will. The plot hiccups are easily overlooked when you have so much fun simply eavesdropping on their adventures.