Wednesday, July 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

I’ve found a new historical mystery series! I’ve come late to it but that means the others have already been released so hopefully I can get to them soon.

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean is the first in the series that features the cold, cynical Damian Seeker, an agent in the service of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, in London in the mid-1600s. Cromwell and his forces have deposed and beheaded King Charles, and now must be on their guard against Royalists who plot to bring Charles’ son back to the throne.

England is gripped by fear under Cromwell’s repressive regime. The freedoms promised by the revolutionaries have not materialized. Damian Seeker understands the complexities of the situation, but he has pledged loyalty to Cromwell and he’s standing by that pledge.

When one of Cromwell’s most popular army captains is found murdered on his own doorstep, the guilty party seems clear. Elias Ellingworth, an impoverished lawyer who is known to be critical of Cromwell’s government, is standing over the corpse with a bloodied knife in his hand.

Seeker begins the investigation at once by interrogating the widow. Her story convinces him that Elias is innocent. Truth matters to Seeker. He doesn’t want an innocent man executed. Plus, the real killer is still at large. Seeker sets about finding the real killer. He uncovers a web of conspiracy, multiple suspects, and a couple of unrelated crimes. Moreover, his veiled compassion for some of the oppressed Londoners, including Elias’ sister, Maria, yields something he wasn’t seeking: friendship? Maybe love?

The plotting is dense, with multiple intertwined subplots. Characters have depth. Seeker is one of those thrilling anti-hero types of detectives: fearless, ruthless, brutally effective. His dark, violent past renders him able to kill coldly without remorse, yet he has an inner core of goodness that leads good people to trust him as much as they fear him.

S.G. MacLean does a wonderful job of placing the reader into the time period, bringing us up to speed quickly on the politics at play that set the stage for the intrigues. I’m eager to read book 2!

Monday, June 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: First Comes Scandal by Julia Quinn

I’ve never read Julia Quinn before, but saw a favorable review of her new historical romance, First Comes Scandal, and decided to give her a try.

The novel is set in England in 1791.

Georgiana Bridgerton is a spirited young woman of twenty-six, who has never had a London Season partly because she was a sickly child and her mother still worries over her and partly because she doesn’t like crowds and fuss. As far as marriageability goes, she’s a bit past the expiration date. So when a local man courts her, she goes along with it, though her interest is only minimal. The man is awful. Only after her dowry. And when the courting isn’t proceeding quickly or successfully enough, he abducts her. She escapes before he can violate her, but she is “ruined” just the same.

Nicholas Rokesby, the 4th son of an earl, is in Edinburgh at medical school when he is abruptly summoned home. There, he learns that his father’s goddaughter, daughter of their neighbors and closest friends, was ruined by a scoundrel. His father tells him to marry the girl. Nicholas has nothing against Georgiana. They grew up together and are friends. But he is too busy with school to even think about marriage and when he does, he wants to choose his own bride.

Nevertheless, when he sees Georgiana again, and finds her as delightful as he remembers, he does propose. Not well. And things are awkward for a bit. But they like each other so much, love can’t be far behind.

Their light-hearted conversations are enjoyable, though some of the comedy is a bit forced. The serious conversations provide some depth. Period details give the story a solid base. There isn’t much in the way of conflict but it’s well-done historical romance and I’ll be looking for more of Quinn’s books.

Friday, June 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

I received this book free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.


I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome since her Falco series. Having brought that series to a conclusion, Davis continued the informer motif with Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. The latest novel is The Grove of the Caesars.

Albia is settling in to her new role as wife of Tiberius, a soon-to-be-retired magistrate who is doing well at his new enterprise as a contractor. Doing very well considering that he was struck by lightning at their wedding and was addled for a while. The author has been sidelining him in the last couple of books, which is a shame. The interplay between Albia and Tiberius made the initial books more enjoyable. Now it’s pretty much a one-woman show. That may be necessary since the love-story subplot that helped to drive earlier books is difficult to sustain once the couple is domesticated.

Tiberius has been called away to see to his sick sister, leaving Albia in charge. She sees to his business interests and stumbles into two separate mysteries, both involving an imperial park, the Grove of the Caesars.

First, her husband’s work crew, who are remodeling a grotto, discover some unusual old scrolls hidden amongst the rocks. A little sleuthing convinces Albia they are forgeries. Nevertheless, her father (Falco, who is now an auctioneer) will be able to sell them to bibliophiles. She’s happy with that, but curious as to the identity of the forgers and what else they might be up to.

Second, and more significantly, she learns that for decades women have been raped and murdered in the park. Generally the women have been prostitutes, so the vigiles haven’t paid much attention. This time, however, the rapist nabbed the beloved wife of a wealthy, well-connected Roman citizen who demands justice. The vigiles snap to. Also, an enforcer working directly for the emperor, a man named Karus, who Albia has come across before, is called in. Karus believes in blaming the first likely candidate in order to placate the victims’ families. It doesn’t matter if an innocent man is executed as long as someone is. Albia has to find the real killer quickly.

Albia sorts through clues with her trademark cynicism and snark. She’s clever and determined. She’s used to solving murders, but these crimes are darker than usual, making her more world-weary. Also, she misses her husband and worries about her sister-in-law.

The mystery is well-plotted and Albia remains an intrepid detective, who brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. I hope to see more of Tiberius in the next book, but this is really Albia’s series and I’m still addicted to it, waiting to see where it goes next.

Friday, June 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

James Meek is a difficult writer to read. I recently reviewed The People’s Act of Love and, although I struggled with the awfulness of the characters, it’s a story that stayed with me.

His current book, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, is another historical novel that is hard to read but rewarding to have read. Set in the fourteenth century during the Black Death, it’s particularly disturbing to tackle during the pandemic. The degree of superstition, denial, resignation, and grief feels suitable to the Middle Ages, which makes its parallels to today even more frightening and sad.

There are three protagonists, all starting from England where the plague is, initially, simply a rumor, who are heading to Calais for various reasons. In France, the plague is a deadly reality. As the protagonists move toward the disease, it comes to meet them.

Lady Bernadine is a young gentlewoman who is fleeing a marriage to an old man. The marriage was arranged by her widowed father who wants to exchange his daughter for that of his friend. Thus both old men can have pretty young wives. Berna, who yearns to model her life after the Romance, Roman de la Rose, was previously courted by a handsome young lord named Laurence Hacket. He asked for her hand, was refused, and left for his own estate near Calais–much to Berna’s chagrin. Since it didn’t occur to him to carry her off, she has decided to pursue him.

There is a young ploughman from the same village, Will Quate, who is in an uncomfortable half-free, half-serf position, whose greatest wish is to have his freedom recognized by the lord. To that end, he has trained as a bowman and has earned the chance to represent his lord by helping to garrison Calais. He leaves behind his betrothed, the village beauty, to whom he is not particularly attached. Along the way, he joins a band of archers who are every bit as awful as the soldiers in The People’s Act of Love.

Finally, there is a Scots proctor, schooled in Avignon, who is being sent back to France by his superiors. He will accompany the archers as a substitute for a priest, even though he insists he is not truly a priest and not qualified to hear confession or give last rites. (He hears quite a bit of confession.)

Even though the protagonists travel together, each a product of their time and place, they may as well be from different worlds. The author gives them each unique voices that add to the feeling of immersion into the fourteenth century. In many ways, they are as foreign to each other and unable to comprehend one another’s world views as they are foreign to the reader.

Ideas about war, sex, right and wrong, religion, and impending death are explored from the different perspectives of the protagonists and the characters they interact with. It’s fascinating to see how lines are blurred.

The novel is a slow read at first, but the tension builds. Even though I found the characters hard to like, it was still tragic to watch as the plague inexorably did its work.

Friday, June 12, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Say Yes to the Duke by Eloisa James

After finishing Eloisa James’ historical romance Say No to the Duke, I forged ahead with the more recent book, Say Yes to the Duke.

The heroine in this novel is Viola Astley, an adopted daughter of the Duke of Lindow. Unlike the rest of her family (tall, lean, self-confident, bold), Viola is short, voluptuous, and excessively shy. She doesn’t feel like she is a “true” Wilde, even though her family has always treated her as one of them. Dreading her debut to the point of physical illness, Viola is emboldened when a handsome, young, kindly vicar is recruited to their village. The vicar has a fiancee, but the woman is so shrewish and clearly wrong for him that Viola feels no qualms about hoping to steal him away.

Viola and her family (including her step-sister Joan who will be debuting at the same time) make their way to London. The vicar makes the journey as well. At Viola’s debutante ball, she asks the vicar to meet her in the library for moral support. But when she gets to the library, it isn’t empty. She overhears two men in discussion.

Devin Elstan, Duke of Wynter, is one of the men. Known to be cold, haughty, and anti-social, the duke has come to London in search of a wife, because that’s what dukes do. He has heard that a Wilde daughter is available and since he feels he must marry the daughter of a duke, and is entitled to do so, this one will do. He’s thinking of Joan, because the other one is not a real Wilde. Thus, he gives voice to Viola’s greatest fear. Rather than flattening her, it energizes her. The man is so obnoxious, she ends up giving him a piece of her mind.

He’s intrigued.

The courtship follows. Wynter is determined to win her. She is still attached to the idea of the vicar and has trouble forgiving the duke for what she has heard. The courtship is a growth process for them both.

What brings these two together mostly is sexual attraction. They have to marry before they have a chance to get to know each other very well because they are caught in a compromising position. The remainder of the novel is the married couple finishing the work of the courtship.

It’s a quick, entertaining romp. The characters are likeable. Viola is a particularly sensible and forgiving sort. The banter between them is fun. I look forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Say No to the Duke by Eloisa James

I needed some easy escapism and discovered I had fallen behind on Eloisa James’ latest Historical Romance series: The Wildes of Lindow Castle. Book 4 came out last summer: Say No to the Duke. So I read that in preparation for the newest release, Say Yes to the Duke. (Different dukes, I hope.) Although set in the 1770s and 1780s, these show essentially the same manners and mores as Regency Romances.

Previous books have looked at the elder Wilde brothers. Now the series is turning to the daughters. It’s a large family so the series should run awhile.

The eldest daughter is Betsy (Boadicea - they are all named for warriors). A strikingly beautiful, bold, composed young woman, Betsy is inwardly traumatized by the knowledge that her mother ran off with a Prussian, abandoning her husband and children. Her father remarried and moved on, but a segment of society hasn’t forgotten. A nasty incident at school has convinced Betsy that everyone is watching her for signs of her mother’s wantonness. Betsy is determined to be prim and proper in public, and to receive more marriage proposals upon her debut than any other debutante. She succeeds. But she also succeeds at boring herself near to death.

Staying at the castle is one of her elder brothers’ friends, Lord Jeremy Roden. Jeremy has PTSD after serving in the British army in America. In one ferocious battle, his entire battalion was lost. He was the sole survivor. He’s carrying a tremendous amount of guilt, which has turned him cynical and morose. He drinks heavily, though not as much as he pretends to, in order to put people off. The only company he can bear is that of his old friends, the Wildes, especially Betsy. He frequently finds her venting her boredom and frustration in the billiards room. He’s entranced, though he can’t admit it to himself.

When Betsy receives a marriage proposal from a duke, Greywick, the scene plays out in the billiard room where they went to be alone. They aren’t. Jeremy is there and interrupts. Even though he likes Greywick and pleads his case for him, Jeremy is horrified at the thought of Betsy saying yes.

Shortly afterward, when Jeremy and Betsy are again alone in the billiards room, they make a wager over a game. If Betsy wins, Jeremy will accompany her on an adventure. She wants to disguise herself as a man and attend an auction in a neighboring town where ladies are not allowed. If he wins, she must give herself to him for a night. Of course, he wouldn’t take advantage of her, but since she wins, that isn’t put to the test.

The story unfolds with Jeremy and Greywick vying for Betsy’s hand. Greywick is a standup guy and a friend of Jeremy’s. There really isn’t anything wrong with him, which has the potential to make this a difficult choice for Betsy.

Meanwhile, Jeremy must face what happened to him at the battle. And Betsy has to come to grips with what her mother did and what that means for her.

This is another entertaining Romance on the steamy side. Eloisa James writes fun characters with lively interactions. Even though Romance plotting can get repetitive, James has a way with dialogue and believable emotions that make her stories consistently enjoyable.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott is a collection of intertwined “mini-biographies” of journalists/foreign correspondents in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a booming time for journalists. Many young writers wrote for newspapers, which were in their heyday. Going abroad allowed many of these adventurous young men and women a chance to explore new places, learn about different peoples, and delve into the politics that were shaping the post-war world.

The four journalists featured in the book are Vincent Sheean, John Gunther, Dorothy Thompson, and Rayna Raphaelson. Each had a different idea about the way to do journalism. Each was enormously successful and yet they all have been largely forgotten.

The book traces a bit of their backgrounds and then launches into their careers, lives, and interpersonal relationships. This was a time of increasing sexual freedom for both men and women, and Fighting Words explores their sexual relationships as well.

They were all horrified by fascism rising in Europe and had contrasting opinions about communism. The book is less of a history lesson than a look into the lifestyles of foreign correspondents. It’s an interesting read. A little disorganized at first, the book settles into a more compelling narrative as the reader grows more familiar with the protagonists. This is a worthwhile read, if only to bring back into focus the importance of journalism and to awaken the memory of these four fine journalists.