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: The White Rose Network by Ellie Midwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bookouture
Publication Date: February 9th, 2022
Pages: 281, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Sophie was born to be a rebel, raised by parents who challenged the brutal Nazi regime. Determined to follow in their footsteps, she leaves for university, defying Hitler’s command for women to stay at home.

On her first day in Munich, Sophie’s brother Hans introduces her to his dear friend. When she meets Alexander, with his raven-black hair and brooding eyes, she knows instantly that she isn’t alone. There are more courageous souls like her, who will fight against evil.

Together, and with others who also refuse to back down, they form the White Rose Network. In an underground vault, Sophie and Alexander conspire in whispers, falling in love as they plot against Hitler. Promising her heart to Alexander is the most dangerous act of all––with each risk they take, they get closer to capture.

As snowflakes fall on a frosty February morning, Sophie and her brother scatter Munich University with leaflets calling for resistance: “We will not be silent; we will not leave you in peace!”

But their lives hang in the balance, with the secret police offering a reward to anyone with information on the White Rose Network. It is only a matter of time before the Gestapo closes in… And when Sophie is imprisoned in an interrogation room, staring a Nazi officer in the eye, will she take their secrets to her grave? Will she sacrifice her freedom for love?

Fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Alice Network and The Lilac Girls will be completely gripped by this heartbreaking and addictive page-turner. Based on a true story, this inspirational tale shows that, in the face of evil, giving up is not an option…

Ellie Midwood’s The White Rose Network is a fictionalized account of Sophie Scholl’s involvement in a student resistance against the Nazis in WWII Munich.

When Sophie arrives in Munich in the Spring of 1942 to study at the university, she has no idea that her brother Hans, his best friend Alex, and their fellow students have started publishing leaflets denouncing the Nazis. Sophie, despite being engaged to a Wehrmacht solider, is already a rebel, being one of only ten percent of women allowed to attend university. Her family do not support the Nazi regime, so it is natural that Sophie joins their group, called “The White Rose” and begins writing her own tracts.

Midwood uses contemporary sources and actual quotes which demonstrate the bravery and conviction of these students. Sophie’s refusal to condemn the others to save herself, despite the best efforts of her Gestapo interrogator to get her to do so, shows that, even in evil times, there are good people, and it is worth it to try to change things.

It’s not an easy read. You know not all of the group will survive the war, and there are definitely uncomfortable parallels to the political climates in several places. The content is rich, though, and Midwood brings each person vividly to life.

Book Review: The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden (A Laetitia Rodd Mystery #3) by Kate Saunders

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: December 7th, 2021
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In the spring of 1853, private detective Laetitia Rodd receives a delicate request from a retired actor, whose days on the stage were ended by a theater fire ten years before. His great friend, and the man he rescued from the fire, Thomas Transome, has decided to leave his wife, who now needs assistance in securing a worthy settlement. Though Mrs. Rodd is reluctant to get involved with the scandalous world of the theater, she cannot turn away the woman in need. She agrees to take the case.

But what starts out as a simple matter of negotiation becomes complicated when a body is discovered in the burnt husk of the old theater. Soon Mrs. Rodd finds herself embroiled in family politics, rivalries that put the Capulets and Montagues to shame, and betrayals on a Shakespearean scale. Mrs. Rodd will need all her investigatory powers, not to mention her famous discretion, to solve the case before tragedy strikes once more.

For readers of the Grantchester Mysteries, The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden is the charming third mystery in Kate Saunder’s series about Laetitia Rodd, the indomitable lady detective.

The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden is the third outing for Laetitia Rodd. Her clergyman husband’s death left her to earn her living, and she has embarked on a career as a private detective.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the series to date, and this story is no exception. Laetitia is asked by a neighbor, who is a retired actor, to assist in making a divorce settlement between a fellow actor and his wife. As it turns out, Laetitia’s brother is representing the husband, and welcomes her assistance. Not Laetitia’s usual fare, but it’s a paycheck, if either party truly has any money to spare.

But old sins cast long shadows, and the discovery of the body of a man who disappeared ten years ago plunges Laetitia into a murder investigation and crosses her path with that of Inspector Blackbeard once again, who, while willing to assist Laetitia, is still somewhat dismissive of her conclusions.

Laetitia is a well-drawn character. She is consistent and readers will cheer her on as she works to keep her independence and her modest living as a working woman in the mid-1800s. Her brother swoops in on a semi-regular basis, and we don’t know a great deal about him, his wife, or their ever-increasing brood of children.

Inspector Blackbeard, who is also widowed, may or may not become a love interest. For now, it’s enough to see them gain respect and understanding of each other, and assist each other in investigations.

Now, while I enjoyed it, I will say I figured out the motive well ahead of Laetitia, and honestly, as a clergyman’s wife, she should have seen this type of scandal before. Her naivety as a bit surprising, and caused the book to drag a bit. It’s not quite as strong as the first two in the series, but I still highly recommend it and am impatiently waiting for the fourth book.

Book Review: A Counterfeit Suitor (Rosalind Thorne Mysteries #5) by Darcie Wilde

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: November 30th, 2021
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Among the ton of Regency London, one breath of scandal can be disastrous. Enter Rosalind Thorne, a young woman adept at helping ladies of quality navigate the most delicate problems—in this charming mystery series inspired by the novels of Jane Austen…

It is every mama’s dearest wish that her daughter marries well. But how to ensure that a seemingly earnest suitor is not merely a fortune hunter? Rosalind is involved in just such a case, discreetly investigating a client’s prospective son-in-law, when she is drawn into another predicament shockingly close to home.

Rosalind’s estranged father, Sir Reginald Thorne—a drunkard and forger—has fallen into the hands of the vicious scoundrel Russell Fullerton. Angered by her interference in his blackmail schemes, Fullerton intends to unleash Sir Reginald on society and ruin Rosalind. Before Rosalind’s enemy can act, Sir Reginald is found murdered—and Fullerton is arrested for the crime. He protests his innocence, and Rosalind reluctantly agrees to uncover the truth, suspecting that this mystery may be linked to her other, ongoing cases.

Aided by her sister, Charlotte, and sundry friends and associates—including handsome Bow Street Runner Adam Harkness—Rosalind sets to work. But with political espionage and Napoleon loyalists in the mix, there may be more sinister motives, and far higher stakes, than she ever imagined… 

Rosalind Thorne, a “useful woman,” is back in A Counterfeit Suitor by Darcie Wilde. Having recently rejected a duke’s proposal, and having lost her housekeeper because of that choice, Rosalind is a bit adrift. Fortunately, her friend Alice is there to ground her, as she faces the greatest threat yet to her hard-won freedom.

Women of that era were rarely independent. Even if they built solid lives for themselves, it could be taken away by the courts and given to a male relative. So when Rosalind’s felon father escapes from her sister’s caretaking and is taken in by her enemy, she is understandably knocked for a loop. This happens at the same time as she is trying to organize a charity ball and help an anxious mother keep her daughter from possibly eloping. There are undercurrents there that threaten to sweep Rosalind away.

When Rosalind’s father is murdered, suspicion falls on her family, including her courtesan sister. Complicating the investigation are Rosalind’s feelings for Bow Street detective Adam Harkness, who is assigned to investigate the case. 

Wilde has written a wonderful mystery within a mystery for Rosalind to unravel. Bonapartists, blackmailers, forgers, and gamblers all combine in a knotty puzzle. It’s also good to see her interactions with Alice, and her childhood friend, Sebastian Faulks. Most of all, though, it’s good to see her start to examine her feelings for Adam, and admit to herself, and others, that she cares for him.

Book Review: The Return of the Pharaoh: From the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. (Nicholas Meyer Holmes Pastiches #5) by Nicholas Meyer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: November 9th, 2021
Pages: 272, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In 1910, Dr. John Watson travels to Egypt with his wife Juliet. Her tuberculosis has returned and her doctor recommends a stay at a sanitarium in a dry climate. But while his wife undergoes treatment, Dr. Watson bumps into an old friend–Sherlock Holmes, in disguise and on a case. An English Duke with a penchant for egyptology has disappeared, leading to enquiries from his wife and the Home Office. 

Holmes has discovered that the missing duke has indeed vanished from his lavish rooms in Cairo and that he was on the trail of a previous undiscovered and unopened tomb. And that he’s only the latest Egyptologist to die or disappear under odd circumstances. With the help of Howard Carter, Holmes and Watson are on the trail of something much bigger, more important, and more sinister than an errant lord.

Watson’s wife has consumption, and they travel to a specialized clinic in Egypt to effect her recovery. Holmes is also in Cairo, hunting a missing nobleman who disappeared from an apparently non-existent hotel room. The Return of the Pharaoh by Nicholas Meyer takes Holmes and Watson on a hunt for a missing nobleman, and a long-dead Egyptian king. 

Nicholas Meyer captures Watson’s voice well, although I might quibble that his Watson is a bit more progressive than Conan Doyle’s. The story is interesting, and a few historical characters, such as Howard Carter, are scattered through, which will delight Egyptophiles. Naturally, there’s a mummy, as well as a tomb, and the duo must navigate not only the unfamiliar terrain, but the political landscape as well. England is still in full colonial mode, and still stinging from the defeat at the hands of the Mahdi some decades before.

If Watson is more progressive, Holmes is more fallible. The missing hotel room should not have taken him long to solve, even with the distraction of a dead waiter, and the arrival of his demanding client. There’s also a revelation toward the end of the book that could change their relationship. 

Would Conan Doyle have sent Holmes to Egypt to search for a missing lord? Maybe, maybe not, but the story is well-written and I felt Meyer did a good job capturing the characters and crafting an intriguing mystery.

Book Review: The Dying Day (Malabar House #2)by Vaseem Khan

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hodder Stoughton
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Bombay, 1950

India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, is summoned to the 150-year-old Bombay Royal Asiatic Society at Horniman Circle. The society’s preeminent treasure, a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, has vanished, as has the society’s head curator, William Huxley, an Englishman with a passion for Indian history. 

Tasked to recover an item for which Benito Mussolini once offered one million pounds, Persis soon uncovers a series of murders, and a trail of tantalising coded clues that lead her into the dark heart of conspiracy…

Set in 1950s post-Partition and post-colonial India, The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan features a unique protagonist. Persis Wadia is the first female police detective in India. This is her second outing in the series, and features a DaVinci Code-esque hunt for a copy of The Divine Comedy, which has been stolen from the Bombay’s Asiatic Society archives by an English researcher.

Khan does a great job showing the effects of Partition and independence on post-WWII India and the impact on both Indians and colonists. Persis, daughter of a well-known Parsee Bombay bookseller, is the first and only female detective on the police force. She is called upon to solve two cases – the first is the missing manuscript, and the other is the death of a white woman found on the railroad tracks. She finds that old sins cast long shadows, and that events from the previous decade are still causing problems in the new. 

Persis encounters an old flame, while trying to decide whether to pursue a relationship with an English forensic scientist. She is also commanded, by her boss to speak at a women’s event, but Persis does not consider herself a trailblazer, and has no desire to call attention upon herself as a example of “the new woman.”

Khan is the author of the Inspector Chopra series, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Persis has a strong voice, and has a solid core, much like Chopra. Also much like Chopra at the beginning of his series, she is in transition, and trying to find her place in an unfamiliar role as her society changes around her.

The one thing I didn’t care for in the novel was the reappearance of Persis’s old flame. He seemed more of a throwaway, swooping in like a deus ex machina, when Persis was demonstrating that she was well able to take care of herself. He didn’t really add anything to the story for me.

Khan also recaps enough of the first book, Murder at Malabar House that readers will not feel like they’re missing backstory if they haven’t read it.

This fresh new series, set in a period and country not often found in mystery series, is recommended.

Book Review: Murder in an English Glade (Beryl and Edwina Mystery #5) by Jessica Ellicott

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Publication Date: October 26th, 2021
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

American adventuress Beryl Helliwell and reserved Brit Edwina Davenport may seem an unlikely pair, but they have reinvented themselves in the lean years following World War I as private enquiry agents. Now they’ve been engaged to stage a faux investigation–until murder makes it all too real… 

When a member of the Walmsley Parva upper crust, Constance Maitland, seeks to hire Beryl and Edwina for a sham investigation into an alleged dalliance by her sister-in-law Ursula to quell potentially scandalous accusations by an unstable cousin, it is with mixed feelings that they agree to pose as guests at her home, Maitland Park. Edwina is uncomfortable with the ruse, but Beryl is eager to escape tension with their feisty housekeeper and hobnob with bohemians as the Maitland family hosts an artists colony.

But when the painter suspected of having an affair with Ursula is found strangled beside his easel in a glade, the pretense turns into a genuine murder enquiry. With Maitland Park overrun by artists, every guest–not to mention family member–is now a suspect.

Beryl and Edwina must determine if they are dealing with a crime of passion or if there are more complex motives in play, which may include the family cigarette business, cutthroat artistic competition, or secrets from the war years. In any case, the intrepid sleuths will not leave until they have smoked out the real killer…

Beryl and Edwina are ostensibly investigating a case of adultery at an artist’s colony when one of the accused is found dead in Murder in an English Glade.

Beryl and Edwina are an odd couple that complement each other well. Beryl is (slowly) learning to temper her brashness and conviction that she knows the best way to manage things, and Edwina is opening up to even more change, both personally and professionally. Edwina even agrees to pose as an artist’s model in this book, so she’s come a long way in this fifth book in the series. 

This one was more reminiscent of Christie, with the artist’s colony, the possible adulterers, an eccentric poor relation, and a group of girl guides, one of whose precociousness may well get her killed. Even though many of the elements are familiar, Ellicott makes them seem fresh. I didn’t start suspecting who the killer was until fairly late in the novel. 

We learn a bit more of Beryl’s backstory and what she did during WWI. She and Edwina suffer a small misunderstanding that ends up strengthening their friendship and business partnership. Simpkins isn’t as present as much as he is in some of the other books, but he gives Beryl some food for thought, and helps her in her character growth.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I highly recommended it.