Book review: A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh

A Presumption of Death (Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane, #2)A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, and I was cautiously optimistic when I discovered that there were additional mysteries written by Jill Paton Walsh based loosely on notes written by Dorothy Sayers. There generally has not been a good track record of sequels of this sort, but the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane series seems to be an exception.
The mystery set in this book mostly falls to Harriet Vane to solve, but all of your favorite characters are there, from the Dowager Duchess of Denver to Mary and Charles Parker to the current Duke and Duchess of Denver. And, of course, Harriet and Peter.
As for how convincing the book is as a worthy sequel, I think the book holds up pretty well. Think of it as the first carbon copy of the original (I know–I date myself). The book is a strong and clean copy but definitely a derivative of the original. The most notable derivative is the Dowager Duchess. I adore her character and her unique combination of insight and rambling. In this book, she is there but is not quite her original idiosyncratic self, although still quite appealing.
The mystery is a solid Sayers mystery, with interesting secondary characters and the ubiquitous Bunter. All in all, this is a solid addition to the Lord Peter Wimsey canon.

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Book review: Satan’s Lullaby by Priscilla Royal

Satan's Lullaby (Medieval Mystery, #11)Satan’s Lullaby by Priscilla Royal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite mystery series, and I hoard the author’s books until her next one comes out (I know–it’s a really bad habit). The actual mysteries in the series are somewhat secondary to the quality of the author’s research in the time period and her ability to reflect medieval attitudes on various topics without 21st century judgment.
In this book, the two main characters of the series have to deal with a bishop-to-be who is “auditing” the religious house. This religious house is unusual in that it is run by women, and it is clear that the bishop-to-be is less than thrilled by the fact that women are in charge (since women are naturally inferior, of course).
I enjoyed reading about how deftly this character’s obstinacy and sense of superiority were dealt with in order to solve the murder. The fact that the two main characters were to some extent sidelined gave the author more opportunities to round out the secondary characters in the series, which only adds to the series’s depth.
This is yet another solid addition to the series. If you like mysteries set in medieval times, this is definitely not to be missed! (The series is best read in order.)

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Book review: Mary Russell’s War by Laurie King

Mary Russell's War: And Other Stories of SuspenseMary Russell’s War: And Other Stories of Suspense by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this series. I love everything about this series. I love the fact that it’s Sherlock Holmes. I love the fact that Sherlock Holmes found an apprentice worthy of him. I love the fact that the apprentice happens to be female. I love the fact that the books are (mostly) written in her voice. Did I mention that I love this series?
This particular book is a collection of short stories that either help flesh out cryptic details from various other books or add to the depth of particular books. It does NOT work as a standalone book as you will miss much of the context if you haven’t read the other books in the series. (If a female apprentice to Sherlock Holmes appeals to you, start at the beginning with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.”)
I am generally not a fan of short stories, especially for mysteries, because the length constraint prevents a mystery from properly unfolding. But the author is a gifted writer who can pack several clues within a single sentence. And since the short stories generally happen in between her full-length books, the short stories work.
If you are a fan of the Mary Russell series, this is a very good addition for your collection. And if you haven’t yet discovered this series, what are you waiting for? Head immediately to your nearest bookstore/library for “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice!”

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Book review: Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow

Everything Under the Heavens (Silk and Song Trilogy, #1)Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book because it is uncommon to find English language historical fiction books about China. This book takes place in 14th century China, at the end of the reign of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan). The main character is the granddaughter of Marco Polo and, due to a variety of reasons, leaves her home to find her grandfather’s people. She is accompanied by various friends and relatives.
The historical period is interesting enough, and the historical detail is well integrated throughout the book. But I found the writing flat and without depth. And the characters were not interesting enough for me to be deeply invested in their fate. In fact, the story ends on a cliffhanger (which also annoyed me because even in a series, each book should be self-contained enough to stand on its own), but even that is probably not enough for me to read the next one in the series.
I say this with some disappointment, as I was truly hoping I would like the book. And I did enjoy it–it was a fast and easy read of an interesting historical time. Unfortunately, the book just wasn’t compelling enough to entice me to read the next one in the series.

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Book review: The Trouble with Dukes by Grace Burrowes

The Trouble with Dukes (Windham Brides, #1)The Trouble with Dukes by Grace Burrowes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Grace Burrowes, and I was very pleasantly surprised. (I know–I’m on a romance kick.) The characters are deftly drawn, especially the secondary characters, which made the book particularly enjoyable. I expect the hero and heroine to be portrayed well in any romance, and they definitely were. But to have three dimensional secondary characters was a lovely surprise. The relationship between the heroine and her extended family was funny, perceptive, and humorous. Anyone with a large extended family would enjoy the interactions between the Windham family members.
If you’re looking for a fun and fast read where there are strong female characters and a happy ending for everyone but the bad guys, this is definitely your cup of tea!

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Book review: When Gods Die by C.S. Harris

When Gods Die (Sebastian St. Cyr #2)When Gods Die by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second in the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series and follows up on a strong debut novel (“What Angels Fear”). There are lots of things going on in this mystery–a countess is killed, and the Prince Regent is a strong suspect, threatening the monarchy. If that isn’t enough, there is the threat of a rebellion to overthrow the House of Hanover and replace it with a descendant of the House of Stuart. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that the two events may be connected. And then there’s the mysterious death of Sebastian’s mother and why her favorite necklace was found on the body of the dead countess.
This series has become a favorite of mine. I love the Regency historical period and as much as I love the lighthearted Regency romances, I also appreciate the grittiness and observations of the underside of Regency society that are a characteristic of this series. Sebastian St. Cyr is a flawed but extremely appealing hero, and the secondary characters are vividly portrayed. Especially heartbreaking in this book is the portrayal of the dead countess’s husband.
This series is a definite must for the TBR pile!

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Book review: The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

The Dark Enquiry (Lady Julia Grey, #5)The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Lady Julia Grey series, and I confess that I took my time reading it. I have loved this series since it came out—the first book, “Silent as the Grave” being a particular favorite. It contains one of the most romantic quotes ever: “For where thou art, there is the world itself.” (From Henry VI, Part 2)
The first few books deal with the courtship between Lady Julia Grey, the daughter of an earl, and Nicholas Brisbane, a half-gypsy, half-Scottish private detective. (Oh, and there are a few mysteries thrown in for entertainment as well.) In this final book, the two are married, and, in addition to the interesting mystery of who murdered a fake medium, we are treated to watching the couple coming to terms with their marriage and defining the parameters of their relationship. For Dorothy Sayers fans, the narrative arc of this book is similar to “Busman’s Honeymoon,” which covers a similar theme between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after their marriage.
I absolutely loved this book—the love between Lady Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane is well articulated and soaring, and the conflict caused by their disparate backgrounds is believable and handled well. The dialogue is witty and sharp. The mystery is well-crafted and provides enough superfluous and non-superfluous events to add to the development of the secondary characters. In addition, Lady Julia is one of ten children, and the interactions between the various siblings makes for entertaining reading.
The first book and this final book are my two favorites of the series, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that those are the two books where one of the main characters suffers a tremendous personal loss. The scenes describing the loss and its aftermath are the most heartrending of the book.
I highly recommend this series for those who like historical mysteries set in Victorian times. (And even if you aren’t a tremendous fan of Victorian times, the strong writing and well-rounded characterizations of these books are compelling enough to read them anyway.) The series is best read in order: “Silent in the Grave,” “Silent in the Sanctuary,” “Silent on the Moor,” “Dark Road to Darjeeling,” and “The Dark Enquiry.”

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Book review: Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North (The Saxon Stories, #3)Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd book in the Saxon series (I know–I am way behind), and this one is my favorite so far. (Which is not to say that I disliked the other ones.) But by book #3, Uhtred’s personality is well-established as one where he knows perfectly well what he should do but often ignores it in favor of what he wants to do. (Trust me, so far there is no moral lesson to be derived from Uhtred’s behavior.) He continues to be snarky and sarcastic and irreverent, and I love him.
This book also deals very little with Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of my favorite characters in history and so I’m not always thrilled with the treatment he gets in this series (suffice it to say that Uhtred is not a fan). That being said, I like the fact that the author is willing to go against the commonly held conceptions about Alfred even as I cling to my illusions.
As always, the book is quintessential Cornwell. It is gritty and violent and gory, with no attempt to prettify the historical context. You can almost hear the grunts and screams of the men in battle and feel their swords slice into flesh.
If you haven’t read this series, I highly recommend you do so (but do it in order). I very much look forward to reading the next installment!

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Book review: A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1)A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the author’s Julia Gray mystery series, so I was looking forward to the beginning of another series by her. But I was torn about this novel when I finished it. There are very few things in life that I am ambivalent about, but this book is one of them.
The narrator (heroine) really starts off the book as highly dislikable–Vernoica Speedwell is arrogant and smug and a know-it-all. It is a testament to the author’s skill that she slowly grows on you and, by the end of the book, is almost likable.
The hero of the book is likable enough in his irascible way but since the book is narrated in the first person, it’s difficult to get any sense of him outside of the narrator’s perspective.
The historical background is well-researched and well-integrated into the book. You get a sense of atmosphere and context without feeling like you’re reading a history tome. It’s well done. And the mystery is almost a side interest, as you become familiar with the characters and the secondary characters (who are mostly great fun).
There is no doubt that the second half of the book is better than the first half, but in a new series, that is understandable.
I think highly enough of the author and of the second half of the book that I will read the second book in the series when it comes out. But I still can’t decide what I think of this first installment!

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Book review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie King

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell, #13)Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy this mystery series and its unique and interesting take on Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, the past few books have been the weakest of the lot, so I was delighted that #13 in the series proved to be such a delightful read.
The book takes place in 1920s Oxford with a flashback to 1920s Japan. I’ve been to Japan several times and am reasonably familiar with Japanese culture, and the author did an excellent job describing pre-Westernized Japan as perceived through the eyes of the British. Her descriptions were quite accurate and perceptive and made for an enjoyable read (especially when you don’t have to throw the book figuratively against the wall and yell, “That’s simply not how it works.”).
In addition, the plot was extremely clever and well done. While I accurately picked out the major villain, there were several unexpected (at least to me) plot twists. I loved coming to the end of the book and having to do a re-read to pick up on all the clues that I missed the first time. That’s my favorite kind of mystery.
As always in these books, the characters are well drawn, and Mary Russell’s narrative is full of personality and character.
If you haven’t read this series yet, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore or library, and start reading. (It’s best to read it in order.) And if you’ve stopped reading the series, I highly recommend picking it up again. “Dreaming Spies” is a highly worthy addition!

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