Book Review: The Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge #4)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals – Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris’s past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son – a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.

Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

Many times, a promising series begins to fizzle out after several books. That is not the case with Allison Montclair’s Sparks and Bainbridge mysteries. The Unkept Woman is fourth in what I hope is a long-running series, and is, if anything, as strong or even stronger than the other volumes.

This time, Gwen is preparing to regain the life stolen from her when she spiraled into depression after her husband’s death during WWII. She is told that her behavior will not stand the scrutiny of the exam board, and that she needs to stick to matchmaking and avoid investigative work. Unfortunately, helping Iris with a ghost from her past may cost Gwen her son and her freedom.

This book authentically captures the struggles of working women of various classes. Even with all the war work women performed, they are still treated as second-class citizens and people with mental health issues aren’t treated much better than they were in Bedlam days.

Gwen and Iris are strong, confident characters, and the books are worth reading for them (and Sally!) alone, but the personal relationships between them, and their larger group of friends and family, provide even greater depth and examination of the culture and mores of the post-WWII austerity years. Both women are damaged, both are flawed, but both rise to overcome their pasts and are determined to be masters of their own destinies.

Book Review: Murder Through the English Post (Beryl & Edwina Mystery #6) by Jessica Ellicott

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A rash of poison pen letters has enveloped the sleepy English village of Walmsley Parva in cloud of suspicion and paranoia. But when rampant aspersions culminate in murder, enquiry agents Beryl Helliwell and Edwina Davenport must stamp out the evil-minded epistles . . .

What began for two dear if very different friends–an American adventuress and a prim and proper Brit–as a creative response to the lean times following the Great War has evolved into a respectable private enquiry business. So much so that Constable Gibbs calls upon Beryl and Edwina to solve a curious campaign of character assassination.

A series of anonymous accusations sent via post have set friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. In her new position as magistrate, Edwina has already had to settle one dispute that led to fisticuffs. Even Beryl has received a poison pen letter, and while she finds its message preposterous and laughable, others are taking the missives to heart. Their headstrong housekeeper Beddoes is ready to resign and one villager has attempted to take her own life.

The disruption of the peace goes far beyond malicious mischief when another villager is murdered. Now it’s up to the intrepid sleuths to read between the lines and narrow down the suspects to identify the lethal letter writer and ensure that justice is delivered . . .

Poison is in the pen in Jessica Ellicott’s latest mystery, Murder Through the English Post. This time, Beryl and Edwina must investigate a rash of poison pen letters that may have caused a death.

Beryl, Edwina, and Simpkins continue to grow and their unconventional partnership is a delight. The flip side of that is that there is a LOT of introspection, mostly by Edwina, in this book, and it does cause it to drag in places. I’m very happy that Edwina is opening herself up to new experiences, such as becoming a magistrate, but I don’t necessarily want to read an entire chapter of her inner thoughts about her life.

Pretty much everyone in the village gets a poison pen letter, some deserved, some not. Readers will probably figure out the solution before Beryl and Edwina, but this is an enjoyable visit to Walmsley Parva, and a great peek into post-WWI village life.

Miranda’s May Reading Wrap Up

We’re into June, so it’s time to share my reading journal spread and stats!

For May, the theme I went with centered around the Norse Goddess of Constancy and Compassion, Sigyn. In the myths, she’s Loki’s second wife and mother to two of his children, Narvi and Vali. I’m more or less a devotee of hers, so I chose to depict her out in the sun and flowers, away from the cave where she joined Loki in his punishment.

The lyric is from Florence and the Machine’s “Heavy in Your Arms”, and my shaky attempt at an ampersand. Purple and blue are colors I associate with Sigyn, as well as keys and flowers, so those are represented here.

In May, I read 14 books amounting to 1,849 pages, and listened to 14 audiobooks, amounting to 7,455 minutes. My favorite book of May was “The Girls I’ve Been” by Tess Sharpe, and I didn’t finish 2 books. I read a lot of fantasy, a number of graphic novels, some memoirs and non-fiction, and romance. The average rating was 3.2. So, pretty normal, so far.

This is an idea I shamelessly stole from a friend. On the calendar, you use washi tape to mark how long it took you to finish a book. Since I was finishing audiobooks in a day, or sometimes I read a graphic novel in a day, I also used stickers to mark a finished book. (This is actually missing a bit of tape and stickers in the fourth week, but wev.) We also have more decoration for things I associate with Sigyn; a deer, flowers, purples and blues. I basically just threw everything at this spread.

Last but not least, my mood tracker. I decided to try making my own this month, and I’m more or less content with how it turned out. I don’t draw flowers very often, so I’m not great at them. On the other side, I put my key (and yes, I put “productive” down twice by accident; I shortened up my options for June’s tracker) and some more decoration.

So, that’s it for me this month! June’s theme is probably easy to guess. Let’s just say… it’s very colorful.

Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 370, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Evie, Vivien, and Gracie are the Bloomsbury Girls, a not-quite sequel to Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, although Evie appears in both novels.

It’s 1950s London. There’s still austerity, but life has more-or-less resumed as it was before World War II…and that’s the problem. Women are in the workforce in increased numbers, to the consternation, and sometimes hostility of their male coworkers and some customers.

Each woman is trying to make her place in Bloomsbury Books, which has stood for over 100 years and has over 50 unbreakable rules. In the changing society of the 50s, though, rule-breaking is almost inevitable, and each of the “girls” must decide whether to go with the status quo or fight to carve out the place she deserves among the shelves and aisles.

In addition to being a great story with characters you want to spend time with, this is a great peek into the post-war working-class society in mid-20th-century London. It does focus more on the internal struggles for each woman, but there are glimpses into the wider world and how it impacts their choices.

You don’t have to have read The Jane Austen Society before reading this, but you will want to, if only to learn more about Evie Stone.

Book Review: All for One by Lillie Lainoff

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 12hr 23mins, audiobook
Source: Library

Tania de Batz is most herself with a sword in her hand. Everyone in town thinks her near-constant dizziness makes her weak, nothing but “a sick girl”; even her mother is desperate to marry her off for security. But Tania wants to be strong, independent, a fencer like her father—a former Musketeer and her greatest champion.

Then Papa is brutally, mysteriously murdered. His dying wish? For Tania to attend finishing school. But L’Académie des Mariées, Tania realizes, is no finishing school. It’s a secret training ground for a new kind of Musketeer: women who are socialites on the surface, but strap daggers under their skirts, seduce men into giving up dangerous secrets, and protect France from downfall. And they don’t shy away from a swordfight.

With her newfound sisters at her side, Tania feels for the first time like she has a purpose, like she belongs. But then she meets Étienne, her first target in uncovering a potential assassination plot. He’s kind, charming, and breathlessly attractive—and he might have information about what really happened to her father. Torn between duty and dizzying emotion, Tania will have to lean on her friends, listen to her own body, and decide where her loyalties lie…or risk losing everything she’s ever wanted.

This debut novel is a fierce, whirlwind adventure about the depth of found family, the strength that goes beyond the body, and the determination it takes to fight for what you love. 

Oh, I wish I could rate this higher, but there were a lot of flaws in One for All, most of them the author’s, but one that wasn’t.

The biggest issue I had was the pacing. Tania doesn’t meet Etienne until the 50% mark, and by that point, any relationship they might have had no room to breath or time to feel natural. Maybe this was intentional on Lainoff’s part, but I think there were better ways to go about it, so when the third act came along I would have been more emotionally engaged than I was.

There’s also the issue that the Musketeers fight for the King of France, and, well, Lainoff does attempt to flesh this out by having the characters criticize the King and say they’re fighting more for France, and that if the King dies then the poor will suffer most, and while that’s true… it still felt like it was mostly just pasted in and not really developed enough. Yes, the girls are fighting to prove women can be Musketeers, and they disagree with the villain’s plot, but they also don’t seem to have any alternate ideas as to how to improve things.

They say they want to avoid having the poorest people pay the price in blood, but frankly, their actions will kill those same people eventually, either through starvation or illness or any of the other myriad, slow ways people died while the rich did their thing. All that fell flat for me and left the characters not looking the greatest.

One for All does start out pretty strong, and I was engaged up until Tania leaves her village to go to Paris. There, the pacing combined with Wilson’s inability to differentiate her voices for the characters (or, when she does, her inability to stick to those voices) made it harder to follow.

The other issue was the choice of narrator. I like Mara Wilson herself well enough, but her skills at narration were… lacking. I’m not sure if this was a director’s choice or her own, but sometimes she had long pauses between lines, up to 2 seconds long, which made me think we were starting a new scene or a new paragraph altogether, only for the scene to continue. The pauses and the speed of her speech were so slow even at 1.50x speed that I had to turn it up to 1.75x just for it to be manageable for me to listen to. She wasn’t consistent in this, either, so sometimes we had long pauses, other times not, so it threw me off.

I suspect if I had read this instead of listened to the audiobook, I would have liked it slightly better. I’ll probably look into Lainoff’s next book, to see how she improves past the typical debut shakiness.

Book Review: The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 272, paperback
Source: NetGalley

The elegant Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, featuring four brand-new stories.

The Honourable Phryne Fisher—she of the Lulu bob, Cupid’s Bow lips, diamante garters and pearl-handled pistol—is the 1920s’ most elegant and irrepressible sleuth.

Miss Phryne Fisher is up to her stunning green eyes in intriguing crime in each of these entertaining, fun and compulsively readable stories. With the ever-loyal Dot, the ingenious Mr Butler and all of Phryne’s friends and household, the action is as fast as Phryne’s wit and logic.

Phryne Fisher is back with four new short stories in The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions. Her sleek bob and sharp wits remain unchanged, but there are minor alterations to a few of the other thirteen stories, which were previously published in A Question of Death.

Phyrne is always a joy to read. She is poised, confident, and intelligent, and uses her skills (and money) to pursue justice and solve mysteries. I wish there were more than four new stories, but it had been awhile since I had read the anthology with the others, so it was like catching up with an old friend who had exciting new news.

But Phryne does not act in a vacuum. While she may dine with the upper crust, she’s equally at home in humbler (and more socialistic) settings. She’s a chameleon, but she’s always true to herself and is sympathetic to people in unfortunate circumstances.

If you like mysteries with wit, sparkle, and charm set in the period between the World Wars, you should be reading Phryne. Even if you don’t think that’s your cuppa, try them anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Rotten to the Core (Lady Hardcastle Mysteries #8) by T.E. Kinsey

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 334, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Summer 1911. A scorching heatwave engulfs the quiet town of Littleton Cotterell and brings about an unusually early harvest. The villagers are thrilled, but events quickly turn sour when one of them turns up dead in an apple orchard, stabbed through the heart.

Amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her trusty lady’s maid, Flo, suddenly have a juicy case on their hands. Might the mysterious stranger they recently met in the village be to blame?

When a second cider-related murder takes place, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to these mysterious deaths than meets the eye. The daring duo uncover whispers of an ancient order and moonlit rituals. And evidence points to a macabre secret in the village stretching back years. A secret someone will do anything—anything at all—to keep hidden.

Something is rotten, that’s for sure. With the local constabulary baffled, Lady Hardcastle and Flo must use all their powers of wit and whimsy to get to the bottom of the dastardly deed. But can they catch the killer before any more people drop dead?

Old sins cast long shadows in T E Kinsey’s latest Lady Hardcastle mystery, Rotten to the Core. In the midst of preparations for a harvest festival, a local man is found dead in an orchard. Lady Hardcastle and her more-than-a-maid Flo are called upon to investigate. They find a benevolent society with some odd rituals, a tourist/newcomer who picks some odd local sites to visit, and more than one motive for murder.

Flo and Emily are back with the sharp skills and witty banter that we’ve come to expect and love. There are red herrings and suspects galore in this outing, indeed, maybe a few too many. But Flo and Emily persevere, and solve the case in time to enjoy cider at the festival.

I always enjoy spending time in Littleton Cottrell, and this book is no exception.

If you like an egalitarian aristocrat with an amazing jill-of-all-trades sidekick, pick up this series now!

Book Review: Prison of Sleep (Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2) by Tim Pratt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: April 26th, 2022
Pages: 400, paperback
Source: NetGalley

After escaping the ruthless Lector, Zax Delatree has a new enemy to fight in the sequel to Doors of Sleep.

Every time Zaxony Delatree falls asleep he wakes up on a new world. His life has turned into an endless series of brief encounters. But at least he and Minna, the one companion who has found a way of travelling with him, are no longer pursued by the psychotic and vengeful Lector.

But now Zax has been joined once again by Ana, a companion he thought left behind long ago. Ana is one of the Sleepers, a group of fellow travellers between worlds. Ana tells Zax that he is unknowingly host to a parasitic alien that exists partly in his blood and partly between dimensions. The chemical that the alien secretes is what allows Zax to travel. Every time he does, however, the parasite grows, damaging the fabric of the Universes. Anas is desperate to recruit Zax to her cause and stop the alien.

But there are others who are using the parasite, such as the cult who serve the Prisoner – an entity trapped in the dimension between universes. Every world is like a bar in its prison. The cult want to collapse all the bars of the worlds and free their god. Can Zax, Minna, Ana and the other Sleepers band together and stop them?

Prison of Sleep continues Zax’s journey through multiple worlds as he tries to stop the Sleeper cult from propagating and destroying space-time. Told from the points-of-view of Zax, and his former traveling partner and lover, Ana, we get insights (and, admittedly, info-dumps) about the cult and the people from various worlds who are working to defeat it. But, can a god who can traverse anywhere be killed?

Tim Pratt is a writer who’s work is always a joy for me. I became a fan with his Marla Mason series, and have liked everything since. I read The Twilight Empire at the same time I was reading Prison of Sleep, and was intrigued by how effortlessly he builds worlds and characters.

Zax has traveled over 1000 worlds, and he has lost several companions along the way. The cult are looking for him, either to convert or to kill him, and it’s becoming harder to stay ahead of them.

Ana has also become a traveler, after surviving near-madness due to exposure of the space between the worlds. She’s a bit more pessimistic than Zax, but also less idealistic. They balance each other well, and readers will hope for their eventual reunion.

We also meet back up with some characters I thought might be lost for good after the first book. No spoilers, but they’ve joined the fight as well, and are working their way to Zax.

Despite the large blocks of info, the plot moves well and makes sense. I think possibly it could have been improved by having two parts Zax to one part Ana in the chapters, but then too, Ana’s sections give us lots of the backstory of the cult and the group working against them.

This is a good, solid sci-fi series that will appeal to readers who like to imagine alternate times and places.

Book Review: Knit or Dye Trying (A Riverbank Knitting Mystery #2) by Allie Pleiter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2022
Pages: 304, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

Business is booming for Libby Beckett and her fabulous Maryland shop, aptly named Y.A.R.N., but when a town festival brings a fatality with it, Libby gets all tangled up in murder.

As spring comes to Collinstown, the village launches a food festival to draw a new group of tourists. Libby, proud owner of Y.A.R.N., has planned a yarn event to provide an alternative option to a foodie weekend. Artisan fiber dyer Julie Wilson–known for her work with animal-friendly, plant-based knitting fibers such as bamboo and hemp as well as her brilliant use of color–will hopefully draw a crowd with a special dyeing workshop.

The festival begins, but it draws more than crowds. First a flock of sheep parades down the street, herded by farmers protesting Julie’s antiwool stance. Then Julie’s celebrity chef sister appears, and the siblings resume a long-standing rivalry. Despite all this, Julie’s workshop has sold out. Libby is thrilled, and they’re preparing for a full house. But the night before the event, Julie is found alone in the warehouse event space–dead. The witty “Watch Julie Wilson Dye” workshop title now has a terrible new meaning–and it’s up to Libby to catch a crafty killer.

A flock of protest sheep welcome Libby’s most recent celebrity guest, a well-known, and much-disliked yarn dyer, in Knit or Dye Trying, the second in Allie Pleiter’s knitting mystery series. Libby owns Y.A.R.N, and is having an event to go along with the local seafood festival. Julie Wilson is her expert guest, and Libby gives Julie access to a local warehouse so that Julie can create her special, highly sought-after, colors. Julie gets trapped in the warehouse, and is overcome by fumes. Libby feels responsible, and decides to investigate.

This second outing for Libby is every bit as enjoyable as the first. Although she hasn’t been back in town long, she’s folded herself seamlessly into the life of her town, even running for local office against her blowhard fellow business owner George. One of the strengths of the series is the relationships Libby has forged and the growth we’ve seen from the first book. Libby is likeable and is a very relatable character, as are her almost-boyfriend Gavin, Gavin’s daughter, and Libby’s mom. They feel like real people whom you’d like to know.

Libby is a great cozy heroine. She’s thoughtful, and doesn’t jump to conclusions. She looks at the people involved in the case, and makes logical deductions. Maybe it’s a knitting thing? I can knit a decent scarf, and I admire people who can work large, complex patterns. Libby is amazing at unravelling (pun intended) the knotty skeins of the crimes which have come her way.

The crimes make sense, too, and there are enough clues scattered along the way to keep the reader engaged without letting them guess the solution too soon.

It’s a wonderful series, filled with life and love. I hope there are many more to come.

Miranda’s March Reading Wrap-Up

( A little late, but hey!)

March has come and gone, so it’s time to share my monthly spread from my reading journal. For March, I went with a Mardi Gras theme, because Easter isn’t really that big a deal for me. I definitely put all the work into the drawing and, when I got to the actual stats spread, I was like “idk just throw whatever on there.” So, a little lazy on my part, but oh well!

I don’t think it comes through on the picture, but I used Archer & Olive’s Arcylograph metallic markers for the beads, then a mix of Tombow and Copic for the rest of the outfit and lady. I had some foil cardstock that I cut up into random triangles just to give it more metallic sheen.

Now for the stats! I read 21 books in March, a big step up from my awful February stat of 7 books, totaling 3,161 pages. I DNF’d one book, and my average rating was 3.0. Unfortunately at the end of March I started listening to a bunch of audiobooks but I didn’t really have anywhere to put that statistic on this spread, but I listened to 2,725 minutes of audiobooks in March.

All in all, not a bad reading month.

I decided not to do a spread for my best book of the month, and going forward, I’m only going to do them if I have a solid idea of what I want. I don’t really see the point in making a spread about a book unless I can put stuff on it that actually relates to the book, instead of just whatever I have lying around. Maybe it’s a weird way to think about it, I dunno.

Unfortunately I missed two days in March for my Read Every Day challenge, but I had good excuses! On the 21st I had a migraine, and the 26th, I just… didn’t read. Oh well. I think I’m still doing pretty well.

I also have a new sticker page!

All of these except for the Belle sticker were purchased from RedBubble:

I Heart Books” by renduh
Books sticker” by deepfuze
flowers growing from book” by andilynnf
Pink and Blue Floral Bookstack” by Emma Mildred Riggle
Cat Tarot stickers by Thiago Corrêa
Forest moon” by Laorel

And that’s it for my March reading journal spreads! What does your reading journal look like for March?