Tuesday, December 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Grave Matter by Anna Lee Huber

My last review of the year is following up on a historical mystery series that I got started with last year: A Lady Darby Mystery. The latest release is book three – A Grave Matter by Anna Lee Huber.

Lady Kiera Darby is a talented young artist, a portrait painter, who became entangled in a very wrong marriage at a young age because she wanted to be allowed to paint, something ladies of her social status didn’t do. Unfortunately, her husband, Sir Anthony, was an anatomist who forced her to paint his dissections. He was cruel to her in other ways as well. There were other shenanigans going on in the medical dissection world at the time, including grave robbing and murder. Sir Anthony is now dead. In books one and two, Kiera’s reputation was in ruins. Kiera was beginning to make her painful way back into society, or to hide from it, sheltered by her loving sister, when murders that needed solving popped up. Because of her knowledge of anatomy, and all-around intelligence and good sense, she proved very helpful to the investigator, one extremely handsome and kind, if secretive, Sebastian Gage.

Sparks have been flying between them for two books, but other problems and suspicions have been keeping them apart.

Now, Kiera is back in her old family home, staying for a time with her brother while she mourns the death of an old friend and wonders what to do about Gage. In the midst of her aunt and uncle’s annual Hogmanay Ball, a servant stumbles in to report a killing and a grave robbery. Kiera should not want to get messed up with this, but oddly, she does. And not only because it likely means she will see Gage again, but because she wants to be useful and she has discovered she has a talent for crime solving.

The grave robbery is unusual because the victim is long dead so there is no corpse to sell. Nothing is left but bones and only these were taken. Clothing and jewelry was left behind. Kiera sends for Gage at the request of the victim’s family. When he arrives, it is with surprising news. This isn’t the first such incident. Someone is holding skeletons for ransom.

Once again, Kiera and Gage team up to ferret out clues and chase down culprits. There are a couple of false leads as well as an interesting and dangerous adversary that I expect we’ll see again in future books.

Kiera and Gage are a well-matched, engaging couple and their romance progresses apace. I did find myself starting to get a little frustrated with Kiera’s waffling, but there were reminders that she couldn’t let go of the trauma from her first husband and had serious trust issues, so I cut her some slack. It will be interesting to see where the pair will go from here.

While this book can stand alone, I highly recommend starting with The Anatomist's Wife, then reading Mortal Arts and following up with book three. Because who doesn't read series in order?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Disclaimer: I received this ebook for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I admire Jane Austen’s books, but confess I’m not someone who has read them over and over and over again and it’s been a good long time since I’ve read them at all. I haven’t been caught up in the recent wave of Austen fan fiction, although I did read Longbourn by Jo Baker because the premise caught my attention. Now, another Austen book has tempted me.

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett is not a book that revisits Austen’s plots and/or characters. It’s a literary mystery/thriller that jumps between Austen’s life and the present day.

Jane Austen is a young woman at the beginning of her writing career, struggling to find her voice. While out walking one day, she happens upon an elderly clergyman visiting a neighboring manor. Her initial impression of him (dull, stuffy) is way off base. They meet and become fast friends. More than friends. Richard Mansfield, a great lover of novels, becomes her mentor–a beta reader and editor. In fact, he helps her with plotting difficulties she’s having with Sense and Sensibility and suggests the plot/theme altogether for Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. Moreover, it is thanks to him that Jane switches her early books from epistolary novels to the style they are in now. In short, without Mansfield there may never have been the works we love so well.

In current day England, Sophie Collingwood, a recent Oxford graduate, Jane Austen fan, and all-round bibliophile, is struggling to decide what to do with her life. She’s hoping for some advice from her beloved Uncle Bertram, whose love of books and passion for collecting has inspired her own. However, she receives the horrifying news that he has fallen down his stairs and broken his neck. He’s dead.

Sophie cannot believe it was an accident.

Sophie inherits her uncle’s London flat. Unfortunately, his books are all sold to settle debts. Sophie finds a job at a rare book shop and begins her new life. This includes a friendship with an American man (just passing through, unfortunately) and then a romance of sorts with a handsome, sexy, Englishman who came to the shop looking for a very obscure old book by Richard Mansfield!! Sophie had never heard of it, but promises to look for it. Shortly afterward, a second request comes for the same book, over the phone, from a much more aggressive client.

The novel weaves Jane’s life in and out through the mystery that Sophie must unravel. Was her uncle’s death an accident or not? What connection does it have to this mysterious book? Why are these two men searching for it? Can she trust her new boyfriend? Her friend?

Usually in novels with contemporary stories interwoven with historical novels I find myself much more interested in the historical part. First Impressions is an exception. Jane’s story provides necessary backstory, but it was fairly dry. Sophie’s dilemma carried the novel. Swept away by her own first impressions, Sophie follows her heart as she chases down clues. It makes for exciting reading. Not only is Sophie’s life at stake, but the reputation of her literary hero. The book races to its conclusion and once caught up, I couldn’t put it down.

Friday, December 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar

With just a few days to spare, I’m finishing up my last 2014 challenge, the TBR pile challenge. A couple years ago I won a copy of Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar. I was excited to win. The book sounded wonderful. Nevertheless, it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. It wasn’t until reading Vanessa and her Sister by the same author that my attention was brought back to the book. So I chose it to finish up my challenge.

The actress is Nell Gwyn, the famous mistress of King Charles II of England. Nell (Ellen) is the younger of two daughters being brought up by an alcoholic mother in an impoverished home. Her father died when she was young. Nell and her sister, Rose, help to keep the household afloat by selling oysters–but that isn’t enough. When Rose is fourteen, she joins her mother’s trade, prostitution. Ellen is determined not to follow the same path. Luck is with her. She is offered a job selling oranges in the Theatre Royal.

Ellen is so full of fun, so natural, and so good-natured, that everyone takes to her at once. It isn’t long before she becomes a favorite of the acting troop. They discover she can dance and sing. She is taken under the wing of the leads and trained up to be an actress herself. She also becomes the mistress of one of the men.

Ellen is safe, secure, and loves being on stage. But she yearns for more. She wants love, and although she cares for the man who keeps her, she doesn’t love him.

As Ellen becomes well known as a stage personality, her path crosses that of the king, first by chance and then by design. King Charles has a wife and a string of mistresses, but when he meets Ellen, he finds her uniqueness irresistible. The attraction is mutual.

This novel is told partially in journal format from Ellen’s point of view and partly as a collection of letters, playbills, and scandal sheets. It’s a formula that works well for Parmar, allowing the intimacy of Ellen/Nell Gwyn’s first person account as well as a view from outside looking in.

Ellen is not particularly interested in the politics of the day, but discussions go on around her so there is enough historical context to add weight to the love story. London experiences a plague and the great fire during Charles’ reign, to significant dramatic effect.

Ellen is a likeable character. In fact, the book is filled with likeable characters. Even the antagonists are pretty mild and don’t affect/threaten Ellen much because she has so much support. She is presented as so consistently beloved, a stage presence that sparkled, the life of every party, so charismatic, that she made no enemies. Everyone loved her. Whether realistic or not, the novel presents her life as fascinating and surrounds her with so many interesting friends that I was caught up in the whirlwind as well.

I’m a big fan of Priya Parmar’s work and look forward to her next book. I won’t let it sit so long on my shelf.

Friday, December 19, 2014


The winner of The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan is Kaitlyn A.
Congratulations Kaitlyn!
I've sent an email. If I don't hear back by Christmas, I'll choose a runner-up.
Thanks to everyone for participating and to Bookhounds and I am a Reader for hosting!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


This is my final wrap-up post for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

I've completed all of the required AND all of the optional categories except for the movie review. I'm afraid I ran out of time before getting to see Howards End again and can't remember enough of it from when I saw it many, many years ago to review it. (So with this post I have two entries in the drawing.)

1. 20th century classic: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
2. 19th century classic: Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac
3. Classic by a Woman Author: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
4. Classic in Translation: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
5. Classic About War: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
6. Classic by an Author who is New to Me: The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Maddox Roberts

1. American Classic: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
2. Classic Historical Novel: I, Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Classic Mystery/Suspense: Study in Scarlet/Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
4. Classic Adapted into a Movie: Howards End by E.M. Forster 

Thanks again to Karen for hosting. This is one of my most rewarding challenges. I'm looking forward to choosing my books for next year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Towers of Tuscany by Carol M. Cram

Most of the medieval historicals I read are set in England or France, so I was excited to get my hands on this review copy of Carol M. Cram’s wonderful novel set in Italy in the 1300s: The Towers of Tuscany.

Disclaimer: I received this ebook for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Sofia Carelli is the talented daughter of a painter, Maestro Antonio Barducci. Having had no son, he passed on his skills to his daughter–not exactly the wisest move, since it is apparently forbidden for a woman to engage in a commercial artistic endeavor. Had she hidden away in her father’s home, she might have continued to work for him in secret, but she was a beautiful and willful young lady, who fell in love with a handsome, charming young man.

Sofia gets her way. (Sofia always gets her way.) She and Giorgio Carelli were married, against her father’s better judgement. It didn’t take long for Sofia to regret her choice. Giorgio drinks and gambles. And if he knew she snuck away to the tower in their home to paint, he would punish her severely.

The marriage is a disaster, but things get worse when her father dies during a fracas at a wedding feast. (Medieval Italy=dangerous family rivalries.) Giorgio is partly to blame for the fracas. Before dying, Sofia’s father commands her to take a panel she has painted and go to Siena to seek out a friend of his, who will take her in and help her continue her work.

It’s no mean feat to run away from your husband. And it’s no more permissible in Siena for a woman to work as a painter than it is in San Gimignano (Sofia’s hometown.) But Sofia is willing to undertake any hardship, accept any risk, in order to paint.

This is a vividly written story of a headstrong woman determined to follow her muse. She refuses to be bound by the conventions of her time. She’s also a passionate woman with an eye for a handsome face. So in spite of the fact that she tells herself she won’t make the same mistake twice. . .

The storyline is compelling and the details of each of the settings and particularly of the work of painting made this a particularly enjoyable read. I could have some sympathy for Sofia; she was trapped in a time and place where it was impossible to reconcile what she wanted to do with the options available to her. However, although I understood what she was up against and admired her talent, I couldn’t like Sofia. Her arrogance I could accept. Her high opinion of her art was deserved since she was not the only one praising it. But her blithe disregard for anyone else’s feelings, the excuses she made for the hurt she caused, and her willingness to put others in danger so that she could paint made me sympathize more with her friends and family. And yet. . .aren’t great artists always self-centered like that? Still, it isn’t necessary to like Sofia to love this book. There are characters enough to admire in The Towers of Tuscany.