Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: A Grave Matter


Anna Lee Huber
A Grave Matter (A Lady Darby Mystery, Book 3)
By Anna Lee Huber
Berkley, July 2014

About the Book

Following the death of her dear friend, Lady Kiera Darby is in need of a safe haven. Returning to her childhood home, Kiera hopes her beloved brother Trevor and the merriment of the Hogmanay Ball will distract her. But when a caretaker is murdered and a grave is disturbed at nearby Dryburgh Abbey, Kiera is once more thrust into the cold grasp of death.

While Kiera knows that aiding in another inquiry will only further tarnish her reputation, her knowledge of anatomy could make the difference in solving the case. But agreeing to investigate means Kiera must deal with the complicated emotions aroused in her by inquiry agent Sebastian Gage.

When Gage arrives, he reveals that the incident at the Abbey was not the first—some fiend is digging up old bones and holding them for ransom. Now Kiera and Gage must catch the grave robber and put the case to rest before another victim winds up six feet under.

My Review

Anna Lee Huber returns with the third Lady Kiera Darby mystery in the series, A Grave Matter. In the two months since her beloved friend’s death, Kiera returns to her childhood home in the Border region of Scotland to grieve. At a Hogmanay ball (New Year’s Eve) at the home of her aunt and uncle, a servant rushes in at the stroke of midnight to announce a murder and a grave robbery at nearby Dryburgh Abbey.

Kiera jumps in to investigate and eventually must call upon inquiry agent Sebastian Gage to assist her once more. When a ransom note arrives for the stolen bones, Kiera and Gage help the deceased’s family members try to identify the culprits. But as more families report snatched bodies, the two investigators uncover a conspiracy that involves some of Edinburgh’s most notorious criminals and a descendant of a particularly notable family. As Kiera and Gage follow the twists and turns of the investigation, Kiera must come to terms with the complicated feelings she has for Gage and let go of the hurt and distrust caused by her late husband.

Suspenseful, full of romantic tension and Kiera’s trademark wit, Huber tells another dynamic story of mystery, intrigue, and love in nineteenth-century Scotland. Kiera and Gage’s relationship is irresistible and adds its own spark to the already precarious positions the two find themselves in. Truly delightful, this is one is impossible to put down. Highly recommended!




Monday, August 22, 2016


We'll always be thankful for our introduction to A Town Like Alice.


By Michelle Ule

Long ago, we watched PBS' Masterpiece Theater religiously. It didn't matter what they produced on Sunday nights, we watched it.

We only had a couple television stations in those days before cable, and we had little money during my husband's early years in the military. Sunday nights at 9 were special.

 We found many programs we loved over the years (Poldark I and II come to mind), but the one that has given us the most pleasure over all the years since then came from a story written by Neville Shute: A Town Like Alice.

An Unusual WWII story

It began simply enough with a London lawyer driving his car through the gloom of a Scotland night to the home of a reclusive bachelor who needed to write his will in the early 1930s.

 A bachelor himself but more modern, narrator Noel Strachan took down the notes and made note of the heirs.

He raised his eyebrows when his client insisted that everything went to his nephew then living in Malaya with his family, but if for some reason the then-schoolboy predeceased his younger sister, the money could go to her--when she was 35!

 Strachan didn't approve, but it seemed so unlikely a thing to happen, he wrote the will, the Scotsman signed it and everything went back to sleepy normal.

 Except a war erupted and the world changed.

 The Scottish bachelor died five or so years after the war and Strachan went hunting for the heirs.

The nephew had died building the railroad as depicted in The Bridge over the River Kwai. The men were sent off to the railway where many died.

 The search changes his life and opened his eyes to so much his staid suits and organized life didn't expect.

Watching Noel grown and change is poignant and wonderful.

Jean


 Jean Paget, then working for a shoe manufacture back in England was the sole heir.

 Noel took  a liking to the lonely thirty year old and saw himself as a man about the world who could introduce her to the great things of life: fine dining, literature, plays and the opera.

Good natured, she went along and enjoyed the outings, one day insisting he join her at a local ice skating rink, where she lets down for a moment, reflecting, "I used to dream about ice skating out there."

Noel may not have realized how lonely he was himself, but asked her to tell him about her life during the war in Malaya.

 Oh, my. What a tale she told.

 Simple?

Unfamiliar with the world?

No, like so many post-war, she had been broken by her experiences and knew far more about life, love, suffering and the joy of giving than Noel had ever imagined.

Joe

When the Japanese forces came up river and seized all the men in the ex-pat community where Jean worked as a secretary and lived with her brother, they separated the British men from the women and children.

Image result for a town like alice The women and children were sent to a Japanese internment camp--but they had to walk there.

 And so began a year-long saga of walking through the Malayan heat and humidity from one Japanese officer to another--constantly being turned away.

 They died, one by one, until just a small band were left and encountered, two Australian prisoners who knew how to drive and repair trucks.

 Joe Harmon was a wiley sort, as he and his mate drove up and down the roads moving supplies for the Japanese.

 He fell for Jean, though he thought her married since she had a "little nipper" with her (the orphaned child of a friend), but he wanted to help the women and stole the items they needed.

They were thin and wracked by malaria.

He snatched food and medicines where he could, siphoned gas from the truck tanks to sell and helped them for some time.

Until one day, he outrageously stole the local commander's prize chickens.

When they found Joe, the Japanese crucified him.

Recognizing her did it to impress her, Jean was crushed.

After the War

Her story shocked Noel.

She told him that night she had decided what to do with her substantial inheritance. Jean wanted to return to Malaya and build a well.

She wasn't old enough to command her fortune.

Would Noel okay the funds?

He heard a little more of the story and why she wanted to build a well for a small fishing village that ultimately sheltered the women and let them work in the rice paddies for the rest of the war--thus saving their lives.

Recognizing at this point the change in his own life if she went, he agreed to see her go--as long as she promised to come back.

Of course she would come back. There was nothing for her other this desire to bless the village which had blessed her.

He saw her off, received wonderful letters of her adventures, and one day Joe Harmon walked into his London office.

The rest of the story?

Glorious and oh, so satisfying.

 Neville Shute 

 My husband and I both love this story and bought the DVD from PBS, which we enjoy just as much.

But we also love all the books by Neville Shute, laughing that they are love stories in which the hero is always an engineer like my guy. (Not always, but mechanical forces often show up).

Our favorite book of his is probably Trustee from the Toolroom, but it's no so famous or easy to find as A Town Like Alice.

 Treat yourself to either the book or the movie.

Love, war, engineering, England, Australia and an immensely satisfying ending.

Oh and that town? Alice Springs is in Australia.

You can view the trailer here.

 Tweetables

A Town Like Alice: love, WWII, the far east and an engineer. What could be better? Click to Tweet

Our favorite WWII love story, the astonishing A Town Like Alice. Click to Tweet       

Michelle Ule is the best-selling author of six novels/novellas and the biographer of the forthcoming (Baker Books, October 2017). Learn more about her at www.michelleule.com
Mrs. Oswald Chambers

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: Mortal Arts


Anna Lee Huber
Mortal Arts (A Lady Darby Mystery, Book 2)
By Anna Lee Huber
Berkley, September 2013

About the Book

Scotland, 1830. Lady Kiera Darby is no stranger to intrigue—in fact, it seems to follow wherever she goes. After her foray into murder investigation, Kiera must journey to Edinburgh with her family so that her pregnant sister can be close to proper medical care. But the city is full of many things Kiera isn’t quite ready to face: the society ladies keen on judging her, her fellow investigator—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage, and ultimately, another deadly mystery.

Kiera’s old friend Michael Dalmay is about to be married, but the arrival of his older brother—and Kiera’s childhood art tutor—William, has thrown everything into chaos. For ten years Will has been missing, committed to an insane asylum by his own father. Kiera is sympathetic to her mentor’s plight, especially when rumors swirl about a local girl gone missing. Now Kiera must once again employ her knowledge of the macabre and join forces with Gage in order to prove the innocence of a beloved family friend—and save the marriage of another.

My Review

Mortal Arts is the second book in the Lady Darby Mystery series by Anna Lee Huber. The novel continues Lady Keira Darby’s story as she ventures to Edinburgh and encounters old family friends, the Dalmays. But a secret looms over the Dalmay household, one that threatens the engagement of the younger brother Michael. It was well known that the oldest son, William, once Keira’s art tutor, suffered “battle fatigue” upon his return from war. Mentally unstable and suffering from violent nightmares, the man suddenly disappears, leaving his own siblings searching for him in vain.

But William, Lord Dalmay, is  not dead, in fact he is alive and well and turns up back in the Dalmay household after ten years in an insane asylum, an extremely inconvenient fact for Michael’s prospective in-laws who covet the baronetcy for their daughter. More haunted than ever following his stay in the asylum, Will remains locked in the attic, confused and erratic, but his friends and family, including Keira, fear for his health and safety, particularly after hearing that the ill man occasionally escapes the confines of the house and that a local girl has reportedly gone missing.

Keira, who wants nothing but to believe the best of her old friend, witnesses Will’s unpredictable behavior, disturbed paintings, and violent tendencies. After getting only a taste of what Will experienced while confined in the asylum, Keira fears that Will may in fact be involved in the girl’s disappearance and knows that if he is not, it will take a lot to prove his innocence. Assisted by her romantic interest Sebastian Gage, Keira tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, to find the lost girl and to prove Will’s innocence once and for all.

Hampered by a self-important constable and people prepared to hang Will before the evidence is collected, Keira is the only chance Will has left. Against the backdrop of murder and intrigue, Keira wrestles with her feelings for the enigmatic Gage, a handsome and loyal man, who stays aloof when it comes to declaring his feelings for her.

An excellent commentary on the societal prejudice against and clinical mishandling of the mentally ill, particularly soldiers returning from war with PTSD, Huber provides a gripping mystery, one that tests Keira’s abilities and loyalties. Keira endures as an immensely likable lead characterstrong, loyal, persistent, passionate, and yet flawed and haunted by her own demons, she remains a worthy heroine.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Letters from Skye

Jessica Brockmole
By Jessica Brockmole
Ballantine, July 2013

About the Book

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912. Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940. At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity, and marks Jessica Brockmole as a stunning new literary voice.

My Review

Jessica Brockmole’s novel, set in the UK during both the first and second World Wars, follows a published poet, Elspeth Dunn, who lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland, and her American fan, David Graham, as they develop a pen-pal relationship across the miles. Written completely as letters, the book first follows Elspeth and David through the early days of WWI. The two could not be more different. Elspeth is an unhappily married woman living in a remote area of the world, while David is a carefree college student living in Illinois when they begin their correspondence. They share thoughts, dreams, and eventually love as they correspond against the backdrop of war. Elspeth is caught in the middle—the wife of a distant husband who is now a soldier at the front and the lover of an ambulance driver volunteering in the midst of battle.

The book then joins Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and Margaret’s sweetheart and RAF pilot, Paul, during WWII. Margaret longs to know more about her secretive mother and the true identity of her father when, as the WWII bombings of London begin, she stumbles across a suitcase of yellowed letters her mother has kept for decades. Following the trail, Margaret unravels her mother’s previous life, her lost love, and the secret of her own paternity.

This is a touching story of love, loss, and life in the midst of war. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of an introverted woman who had big dreams but had never left her remote island with the cocky, idealistic American college student who was never quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. Across miles, cultures, and battlefields, Elspeth and David are dreamers who find their soul mate in an unlikely person during a turbulent time.

Margaret, sheltered from her mother’s regrets and kept from her mother’s family, wants to uncover the past. In Margaret’s letters to Paul, the reader sees her grow up as war and her mother’s past affect how she lives her own life. The descriptions of distant Skye, somewhere most of us will never get the chance to visit, are really interesting and act as a buffer to Elspeth against the chaos that exists both in her personal life and on the battlefields of Europe.

This book is very readable; I read it in a single weekend. I think reading it makes you miss the days when letters were far more common than they are today. Email seems too fast and informal to capture the emotional connection that letters allowed. This book illustrates just how strong those emotions were by showing us a relationship that was mostly based on an exchange of letters. I highly recommend this book, both as an unusual glimpse into two world wars but also as a look at the triumph of love in letter form.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer's Dreaming Spies

By Michelle Ule

I stumbled on Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King recently when the cover caught my eye.

(Doesn't it always happen like that?)

 The cover pictured a young woman wearing a cloche hat gazing over the spires of Oxford with the Bodleian Library's distinctive dome.

 Since I had just started writing a chapter set in 1920s Oxford, I picked up the novel thinking I might find some insight or description of that dreamy place long ago.

 I was wrong.

 But very right.

 While Dreaming Spies starts in Oxford, it quickly dashes off to India and catches a cruise on a luxury steamship to Japan circa 1923.

 For those familiar with Laurie King's extensive series, you'll not be surprised to learn it stars the intrepid Mary Russell and her aging yet spry and wiley husband THE Sherlock Holmes.

(I'd read the first book in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, long ago and enjoyed it so much I bought a copy for my Sherlock Holmes-loving daughter.

 Unfortunately, I've not kept up, but mean to on these long languid and warm days of a Northern California summer. To think, 18 more books await me!)

Dreaming Spies

I'm not a mystery fan per se, but this book pulled me into the story right away.

 Told from the first person by a clever young woman who is having trouble living up to her even more clever husband's detecting abilities,

Mary actually is looking for a rest on the trip.

 Yet, that's not what happens as her brain clicks into overload, noticing odd events and a nearly paranormal and strong Japanese woman.

 Martial arts, along with marital arts, soon come into play and the reader is plunged into a story very different from the norm.

 While I've spent a day in Tokyo, I know next to nothing about Japan, and when Mary and Holmes hike through the countryside following a mysterious trail, early twentieth century Japan is revealed to be a lovely country of simple harmony and exacting beauty.

I loved learning about the Hermit Kingdom when it really felt like a closed country.

 The mystery seems to center on a missing book--or does it?

By the end, the 1923 Bodleian Library helps solve the riddle!

Mary learns a little more about marriage.

The Japanese woman dazzles often.

 And Holmes?

 He remains the same--doesn't he?

 Well worth reading, savoring and if you can figure out who did it, well, why not?

My Goodreads  Review:

I'm not a particular mystery fan and have never read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, but I thoroughly enjoyed this lengthy and detailed story.
Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife Mary Russell traveled the world unexpectedly caught unraveling a mystery for Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan while in the company of a female ninja!
It worked!
Along the way, I got to remember a sparkling day in Tokyo and a much different afternoon at the Bodleian Library, thanks to Laurie King's excellent writing and attention to detail.
Five stars for sure, the best book I've read in 2016.
  New York Times best selling author Michelle Ule is currently writing a biography of Mrs. Oswald
Chambers (Baker Books Fall 2017) and is the author of a number of novellas. Her most recent novella can be found at the end of The 12 Brides of Summer. Read more about her at www.michelleule.com  

Tweetables


Sherlock Holmes, wife, Japan and a missing book! Click to Tweet

Dreaming Spies: Sherlock Holmes and Mrs solve a summer mystery. Click to Tweet

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: At the Edge of Summer


Jessica Brockmole

At the Edge of Summer

By Jessica Brockmole
Ballantine, May 2016

About the Book

Luc Crépet is accustomed to his mother’s bringing wounded creatures to their idyllic château in the French countryside, where healing comes naturally amid the lush wildflowers and crumbling stone walls. Yet his maman’s newest project is the most surprising: a fifteen-year-old Scottish girl grieving over her parents’ fate. A curious child with an artistic soul, Clare Ross finds solace in her connection to Luc, and she in turn inspires him in ways he never thought possible. Then, just as suddenly as Clare arrives, she is gone, whisked away by her grandfather to the farthest reaches of the globe. Devastated by her departure, Luc begins to write letters to Clare—and, even as she moves from Portugal to Africa and beyond, the memory of the summer they shared keeps her grounded.

Years later, in the wake of World War I, Clare, now an artist, returns to France to help create facial prostheses for wounded soldiers. One of the wary veterans who comes to the studio seems familiar, and as his mask takes shape beneath her fingers, she recognizes Luc. But is this soldier, made bitter by battle and betrayal, the same boy who once wrote her wistful letters from Paris? After war and so many years apart, can Clare and Luc recapture how they felt at the edge of that long-ago summer?

Bringing to life two unforgettable characters and the rich historical period they inhabit, Jessica Brockmole shows how love and forgiveness can redeem us.

My Review

When Clare Ross’ father dies, she finds herself in the home of family friends, hoping in vain that the artist mother who abandoned her so many years ago will come back to find her. But Clare’s mother never reappears, and Clare is left to fend for herself as an artist and an individual until she meets the son of her hosts, Luc Crépet.

The two embark on a childish summer romance in the French countryside. Luc encourages Clare’s sketching, and Clare inspires Luc with her independence and bravery. Clare is eventually reclaimed by her grandfather and follows him abroad to study dialects. She and Luc write letters, most of which never reach the other.

Luc enters the army when World War I breaks out and he finds himself in the very fields in which he and Clare spent so much time together. Separated by space and experiences, the two never forget each other. That is until Clare finds herself working in a studio that creates masks for disfigured soldiers, and a certain boy from the past, now scarred and damaged, reappears.

Bittersweet, this is the quintessential first love story—the first love you never forget. This story felt uneven at times, but the love story between the main characters is just as riveting as the romance between the two leads in Ms. Brockmole’s earlier work, Letters from Skye. Filled with historical details including the carvings soldiers left in caves during the war, the masks created for mutilated soldiers after the war, and with a characteristic artistic flair, this is a story that will transport you to the French countryside, many years ago.



Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: The Other Daughter


Lauren Willig
The Other Daughter
By Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press, July 2015

About the Book

Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died suddenly. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father dated all of three month before. He’s an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter—his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past—even her very name—is a lie.

Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity. There she insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father’s perfidy and bring his—and her half-sister’s—charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: She finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn’t as simple it appears; and she might just be falling for her sister’s fiancé…

From Lauren Willig, author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Ashford Affair, comes The Other Daughter, a page-turner full of deceit, passion, and revenge.

My Review

Rachel Woodley is a governess in France when she gets a belated message that her adored mother is dying. She arrives back home too late, and is left only with the remnants of her mother’s life. As Rachel sorts through pictures and magazine clippings, she comes to realize that her mother had kept a life-altering secret from her, namely that her father did not die when Rachel was 4 years old. Instead, he assumed an Oxfordshire lordship, married an heiress, and had two more children, all while Rachel and her mother lived out their simple lives in obscurity.

Shocked at her mother’s betrayal and her father’s abandonment, Rachel joins forces with a gossip columnist to assume a new identity, ingratiate herself with the aristocracy, and reestablish contact with the father she thought long dead. But all this comes with an enormous cost—how will she return to her quiet life after she’s glimpsed all the comes with the upper-class life? How will she approach her father, who does not recognize her? How can she hurt a half-sister who has depths Rachel has come to appreciate?

This 2015 novel by Ms. Willig really lacked the punch of her other works I’ve enjoyed: Forgotten Room and That Summer. Rachel seems too clueless in her real life and almost maniacal when she transforms into Vera to insert herself into the upper-crust of society. The romance (I won’t give it away here) feels terribly forced— the hero is given redeeming virtues rather late to make him likable—and only Lady Olivia (Rachel’s half-sister) seems to ring true. The premise of the separation (Rachel’s mother telling Rachel her father died and starting a new life elsewhere) doesn’t feel authentic. Overall, it’s an interesting premise, if a bit forced with no real plot surprises. For a heroine with more pluck and a more engaging plot, I’d recommend Ms. Willig’s That Summer.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer