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: 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: 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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Book review: What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris

What Angels Fear (Sebastian St. Cyr, #1)What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the first in a Regency mystery series featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, an aristocrat with an interesting set of skills learned in fighting for the British against Napoleon. Don’t let the Regency time period deceive you, however. This is not a Georgette Heyer-type mystery–lighthearted and mischievous (and I love Heyer Regency novels). This is a gritty Regency mystery, with dark descriptions of London’s underclass, the role of women in all levels of society, and a sadistic and unbalanced murderer. Sebastian St. Cyr is simultaneously troubled and appealing (but mostly appealing). And while there are definitely black-hearted villains in this book, there are no unflawed heroes or heroines.
Oh, and what angels fear is falling in love with mortals.
If you combined Georgette Heyer with Bernard Cornwell, you would end up with “What Angels Fear.”
I look forward to continuing the series!

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Book review: An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder (Josephine Tey, #1)An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am familiar with the actual author, Josephine Tey, who was a strong believer in the innocence of Richard III in the murder of his nephews, as evidenced by her book “Daughter of Time.” She was also the author of several mysteries, some of which I have read. And so it intrigued me to learn of a mystery series written with Josephine Tey as the main character of the series.
The author of the mystery series, Nicola Upson, writes a strong debut for the series. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the Josephine Tey written mysteries–they are very class-conscious, which is typical for the British of the time. This series, however, keeps all of the best of a classic British mystery–interesting characters, clever plot, and interesting historical detail–but jettisons the worst of the class-consciousness of British society. It’s there, of course–it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of post-WWI Britain if it wasn’t–but it’s not at the forefront of the book and so makes it more palatable to modern readers.
In this novel, Josephine Tey’s blockbuster of a play, Richard of Bordeaux, is heading into its last week of performance at the West End. There are interesting depictions of the West End theatre scene amid the backdrop of Britain trying to recover from the Great War. Josephine herself struggles with the ramifications of fame (if not fortune) while trying to keep her privacy and her integrity. Oh, and there is a murder or two sprinkled in as well.
I really enjoyed this book, with its sympathetic portrayals of survivors struggling with post-war trauma and guilt, and the struggles the British dealt with as they rebuilt their society and country after World War I. The book is extremely well-written with characters you’d like to know and be friends with in real life. I’ve already bought the second book in the series and can’t wait to read it!

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Book review: To Wear the White Cloak by Sharan Newman

To Wear The White Cloak (Catherine LeVendeur, #7)To Wear The White Cloak by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reminded recently by a professor of medieval English literature that the author of this mystery series was “a real historian.” In fact, the professor hadn’t even realized that the author had written a historical mystery series, being only familiar with the author’s academic work.
This is one of my favorite mystery series, and one main reason is that the series highlights a little-covered aspect of medieval life, which is the treatment of Jews in the Middle Ages. The topic is handled well, without judgment and within the context of its time. Catherine LeVendeur, the main character, is delightfully out of the mainstream, raised in a convent run by Abbess Heloise (of Heloise & Abelard fame) and who has Jewish cousins. (You’ll have to read the series to discover how that happened.) She is unorthodox for her time in many ways, but the author does not make the mistake that many do, and Catherine’s lack of orthodoxy is limited to what would have been tolerated during the time period. She is constantly praying that her Jewish relatives come to the true faith so as to not condemn their souls to everlasting hell.
In this particular mystery, a dead man is found in the house of Catherine and Edgar (her husband), wearing a white cloak, similar to the Templars’ outfits. Was the dead man a Templar? If so, why don’t the Templars know who he is? At the same time, a threat from the past comes back and threatens Catherine with exposure about her Jewish relatives.
The mysteries are often secondary to the fascinating look at medieval life from the view of the merchants. The author interweaves historical details beautifully, and you never feel like you’re reading out of a history textbook. The characters are all well drawn with fully realized personalities.
If you like historical mystery series, I highly recommend this one. Even if the period isn’t necessarily compelling, the unusual angle this mystery series takes on medieval life is well worth the read.
The series is best read in order but is well worth your time!

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Book review: Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1)Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first book in a mystery series set in 1920s Australia. Phryne Fisher is a very self-reliant young woman who grew up poor in Australia and whose family came unexpectedly into a British title and money after the death of more direct heirs. Armed now with money and influence, she returns to Australia at the request of a couple who suspects that their daughter is being poisoned by her husband. Various adventures and misadventures ensue, as Phryne ultimately breaks up a cocaine smuggling ring and unravels the mystery surrounding the daughter’s poisoning.
The tone of the book is lighthearted and informal. And while the mystery was not particularly difficult to solve, Phryne is an unusual heroine–on the surface a stereotypical flapper but whose character and upbringing give her unsuspected depths. The secondary characters were also interesting and well-written. I know very little about 1920s Australia (very little meaning nothing), and the book gives some interesting historical background on the time period.
I liked the book well enough to plan on reading the second one, so stay tuned…

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