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.

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: 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.

Book Review: Danger on the Atlantic (A Jane Wunderly Mystery #3) by Erica Ruth Neubauer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: March 29th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

For young American widow Jane Wunderly, there are worse fates than adventuring aboard a transatlantic liner with the only man who could change her mind about romance. Unfortunately, her first-class itinerary has an unexpected—and deadly—addition waiting just below deck . . .

Atlantic Ocean, 1926: Voyaging from Southampton to New York, self-reliant Jane is determined to prove herself a worthy investigator on the stately ship—even awkwardly going undercover as the fashionable wife of her magnetic partner, Mr. Redvers. Few details are known about the rumored German spy the duo have been tasked with identifying among fellow passengers, but new troubles unfold once wealthy newlywed Vanessa FitzSimmons announces the sudden disappearance of her husband at sea . . .

Miles Van de Meter, the man Vanessa rushed to marry in Monte Carlo, has allegedly vanished into thin air along with his luggage. Redvers guesses the shifty heiress may be weaving tall tales for fun between flutes of champagne, yet Jane isn’t convinced—not after the stunning murder of a trusted acquaintance sends them into uncharted waters. Facing two dangerous mysteries and a boat load of suspects, Jane must navigate a claustrophobic quest for answers before the culprits can slip from her grasp on land . . . or, worse, ensure she and Redvers never reach their destination.

In Danger on the Atlantic, the third installment in Erica Ruth Neubauer’s Jane Wunderly series, there are rumblings of unrest in Europe. Jane and Redvers pose as a married couple traveling on an ocean liner to discover who among three suspects is a German spy. But a missing newlywed husband and a gaslit bride distract Jane from her primary mission, putting her in peril from multiple sides.

For the character development and the backstories of Jane and Redvers alone, this is a great read. While the story does have some uneven pacing, the plot generally ticks along and there are enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing for a long while.

There are a few more will they/won’t they moments between Jane and Redvers, but they also serve to deepen their connection. He is a bit dismissive of her thoughts on occasion, but in general, he treats her as a partner, which allows her to trust again after her disastrous abusive marriage.

If you haven’t read the others, the only thing you’re missing out on is Jane’s overbearing aunt, so reading the first two is not crucial to enjoying this one. If you enjoy Christie-type puzzles, you’ll like this book.

Book Review: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments (Edinburgh Nights #2) by T.L. Huchu

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2022
Pages: 368, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Some secrets are meant to stay buried

When Ropa Moyo discovered an occult underground library, she expected great things. She’s really into Edinburgh’s secret societies – but turns out they are less into her. So instead of getting paid to work magic, she’s had to accept a crummy unpaid internship. And her with bills to pay and a pet fox to feed.

Then her friend Priya offers her a job on the side. Priya works at Our Lady of Mysterious Maladies, a very specialized hospital, where a new illness is resisting magical and medical remedies alike. The first patient was a teenage boy, Max Wu, and his healers are baffled. If Ropa can solve the case, she might earn as she learns – and impress her mentor, Sir Callander.

Her sleuthing will lead her to a lost fortune, an avenging spirit and a secret buried deep in Scotland’s past. But how are they connected? Lives are at stake and Ropa is running out of time.

Stop what you’re doing and go buy this series now. Seriously. Why are you still reading my review? Go!

If you love Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, you’ll be captivated by T. L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights. Ropa Moyo might finally have gotten a break after the disastrous events in the first book led to an unpaid internship and the loss of her primary ghostalking clientele. Her friend Priya offers her a job investigating the victim of a mysterious new magical illness. Ropa has to navigate post-catastrophe Edinburgh and, even worse, a high-society magical boarding school to get the answers. But what she uncovers is a threat hundreds of years old, and no one today may have the power to stop it.

Ropa is doing her best to stay under the radar of the various Edinburgh gangs, keep food on the table for her gran and her younger sister, and not get into any more trouble with the Library. She’s an amazing character, and you’ll root for her even as you marvel and the wonderful (and awful) world Huchu has created. While there are similarities to Aaronovitch’s series, Ropa is very much her own character and has had a much rougher time of it than Peter Grant. She meets every challenge head-on, and will undoubtedly change the magical society of Edinburgh before they change her.

Book Review: Crowbones (The Others #8) by Anne Bishop

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 384, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Crowbones will gitcha if you don’t watch out!

Deep in the territory controlled by the Others-shape-shifters, vampires, and even deadlier paranormal beings-Vicki DeVine has made a new life for herself running The Jumble, a rustic resort. When she decides to host a gathering of friends and guests for Trickster Night, at first everything is going well between the humans and the Others.

But then someone arrives dressed as Crowbones, the Crowgard bogeyman. When the impostor is killed along with a shape-shifting Crow, and the deaths are clearly connected, everyone fears that the real Crowbones may have come to The Jumble-and that could mean serious trouble.

To “encourage” humans to help them find some answers, the Elders and Elementals close all the roads, locking in suspects and victims alike. Now Vicki, human police chief Grimshaw, vampire lawyer Ilya Sanguinati, and the rest of their friends have to figure out who is manipulating events designed to pit humans against Others-and who may have put Vicki DeVine in the crosshairs of a powerful hunter.

It’s Trickster Night in Crowbones, the latest book in Anne Bishop’s The Others series. Vicki DeVine has introduced the non-human residents of Sproing to that world’s equivalent of Halloween. But the tricks turn to terror when a mutilated corpse is found and the Indigene block the roads so that no one can leave.

My recommendation is that you read the other books in this series before attempting this one. While there’s a reasonable amount of recap, the interpersonal relationships and the fear the residents feel will make a lot more sense with the backstory you’ll find in previous books.

I’m not a fan of Bishop’s other series, and this one felt a bit like some of her character quirks from those other novels made their way into this one. The human men are much better-defined and have less trauma than the human women. Overall, human women do not fare well in this series. They’ve typically survived all forms of abuse and violence, and can’t sustain healthy relationships.

However, the writing and worldbuilding is strong enough to compensate for a few flaws. There are many parallels with our world, but just enough differences to feel ‘alien.’ The idea that humans have somehow managed to coexist with stronger, faster, and quite frankly, usually smarter beings is fascinating. When contrasted against the Indigene, who are comprised of vampires, shifters, and other non-human species, you have to wonder how the humans managed to survive long enough to develop technology. But, humans being humans, they often find ways to alienate the Indigene, which leads to the deaths of those humans.

Come for the glimpse into a world where we aren’t top of the food chain and stay for the wonderful non-human characters.

Book Review: Front Page Murder (A Homefront News Mystery #1) by Joyce St. Anthony

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In this World War II-era historical mystery series debut by Joyce St. Anthony, small-town editor Irene Ingram has a nose for news and an eye for clues.

Irene Ingram has written for her father’s newspaper, the Progress Herald, ever since she could grasp a pencil. Now she’s editor in chief, which doesn’t sit well with the men in the newsroom. But proving her journalistic bona fides is the least of Irene’s worries when crime reporter Moe Bauer, on the heels of a hot tip, turns up dead at the foot of his cellar stairs.

An accident? That’s what Police Chief Walt Turner thinks, and Irene is inclined to agree until she finds the note Moe discreetly left on her desk. He was on to a big story, he wrote. The robbery she’d assigned him to cover at Markowicz Hardware turned out to be something far more devious. A Jewish store owner in a small, provincial town, Sam Markowicz received a terrifying message from a stranger. Moe suspected that Sam is being threatened not only for who he is…but for what he knows.

Tenacious Irene senses there’s more to the Markowicz story, which she is all but certain led to Moe’s murder. When she’s not filling up column inches with the usual small-town fare—locals in uniform, victory gardens, and scrap drives—she and her best friend, scrappy secretary Peggy Reardon, search for clues. If they can find the killer, it’ll be a scoop to stop the presses. But if they can’t, Irene and Peggy may face an all-too-literal deadline.

Front Page Murder is the first in a hopefully long series featuring a newspaper editor in Progress, Pennsylvania during WWII. Irene has assumed control of the local newspaper while her father is deployed. This has ruffled some feathers, including those of her cousin, who thinks he should be in charge.

Irene is investigating some hate crimes against Jewish members of the community when a murder occurs. She thinks they’re related, and turns her natural investigative skills to find the killer.

I’ve read many WWII mysteries, but usually, they’re set in England. I enjoyed seeing some perspective from the U.S. home front, and Irene is an engaging sleuth. The characters are well-written and show the varying viewpoints of people during this time period. Some feel that women shouldn’t be in charge, and Irene’s struggles to manage the newspaper are very believable. 

I’m not completely sure people in the U.S. were fully aware in 1942 about how much persecution and violence European Jews had suffered, but it makes sense that, if anyone would be well-informed, it would be the media.