Book Review: Yours Cheerfully (Dear Mrs. Bird #2) by A.J. Pearce

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: August 10th, 2021
Pages: 288, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

London, November 1941. Following the departure of the formidable Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles (now stationed back in the UK) is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, is bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends. 

Yours Cheerfully is the sequel (and hopefully not last in the series) to A. J. Pearce’s novel, Dear Mrs. Bird. Both books are set during WWII in a London-based women’s magazine publisher, and feature Emmy (Emmeline Lake) as she learns her craft and becomes a contributing editor to the magazine.

The magazine is tasked by the Ministry of Information to help recruit women to war effort work. Emmy and her best friend Bunty befriend a young mother who works in a factory, and Emmy writes a series of articles on the women and their work. She learns of the heartbreak the women face when their husbands and brothers are killed in action, and how they struggle to provide for themselves and their families on the much lower wages they earn. Childcare is rarely provided, so some of the women are forced to bring their children to work, causing the women to be fired by their uncaring male bosses.

Did I know about the issues before? Sure, but Pearce does a wonderful job in showing the connections between the various characters and how the women learned that they’re stronger together. It could easily have been maudlin, or the women too “stiff upper lip.” These are more of the “make do and mend” mindset. They love their families and their country, and want to “do their bit.” Taking the journey with Emmy to learn about a world far removed from her own was wonderful.

While Emmy is seeing another side of the war, she is also preparing to marry her fiance, before he is sent off to fight. She struggles to accept that he will no longer be in London, and will be, in her turn, doing her bit like the factory workers. 

Book Review: A Baffling Murder at the Midsummer Ball (A Dizzy Heights Mystery #2) by T.E. Kinsey

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Publication Date: July 27th, 2021
Pages: 318, paperback
Source: NetGalley

A locked room. A mysterious death. Just another gig for the Dizzy Heights.

When London’s finest jazz musicians, the Dizzy Heights, are booked to play the glitzy Midsummer Ball at a country house in Oxfordshire, they expect a weekend filled with flappers and toffs having a roaring good time.

But the festivities at Bilverton House take a turn for the worse when the group are stranded by a summer storm. And when a member of the Bilverton family turns up dead in a locked room in an apparent suicide, Skins, Dunn and Ellie realise this is going to be a much tougher gig than they thought.

But here’s the lick. What if it was in fact cold-blooded murder? And what if the killer is still at large? It’s up to the Dizzy Heights to once again put down their instruments and get improvising if they want to solve this confounding mystery.

I love T E Kinsey’s Lady Hardcastle series, and enjoyed Skins and Dunn in those books. I admit, though, that I’m struggling to enjoy this spinoff series as well as the original one. A Baffling Murder at the Midsummer Ball is the second Dizzy Heights mystery. Kinsey’s writing is witty, the characters are engaging, and the story well-told. I adore country house and locked-room mysteries, and this combines both.

But…

I figured out whodunnit about 22% of the way in. Normally, that doesn’t bother me too much, but since the quality of the writing is so high, I think I expected the puzzle to be a bit more, well, puzzling. 

The band and entourage comprise a large number of characters, which, in addition to the family and servants at the country house, sometimes made it hard to keep up. Also, some of the characters, such as Skins and Izzie, are called by both their given and nicknames by other characters. 

Spoiler question: How did the murderer know there would be someone by the study when the gunshot sounded?

Book Review: Silence in the Library (Lily Adler Mystery #2) by Katharine Schellman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical mystery
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: July 13th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Regency widow Lily Adler didn’t expect to find a corpse when visiting a family friend. Now it’s up to her to discover the killer in the charming second installment in the Lily Adler mysteries.

Regency widow Lily Adler has just started to feel settled into her new London home when her semi-estranged father arrives, intending to stay with her while he recovers from an illness. To placate and avoid him, she takes his place in a social visit with Lady Wyatt, a woman Lily doesn’t know. But when Lily arrives for her second visit, she finds the household in an uproar: Sir Charles, Lady Wyatt’s much older husband and a friend of Lily’s father, is dead in his library. All signs indicate that he tripped and struck his head on the mantelpiece. But when Bow Street constable Simon Page is called to the scene, he suspects that Sir Charles was murdered.
Mr. Page was there when Lily caught her first murderer, and he trusts her insight into the world of London’s upper class. With the help of Captain Jack Hartley, they piece together the reasons that Sir Charles’ wife, sons, and nephew might have wanted him dead. But everyone who might have profited from the old man’s death seems to have an
alibi. With no clear suspect, the trio nearly conclude that the death was an accident after all… until Lily receives a mysterious summons to speak with one of the Wyatts’ maids, only to find the young woman dead from poison when she arrives.
Mr. Page believes the surviving family members are hiding the key to Sir Charles’ death, and it isn’t long before Lily realizes that her father may know what it is. To uncover the truth, Lily must convince the father who doesn’t trust or respect her to help catch his friend’s killer before anyone else in the Wyatt household dies.

Silence in the Library is the second book in Katharine Schellman’s Lily Adler mystery series. The book opens with Lily returning to her London home to find her father paying an unexpected and unwelcome visit. Her overbearing father manipulates her into calling on his friend and country neighbor, Sir Charles Wyatt, to congratulate him on his recent remarriage.

Lily and her friend Jack Hartley call upon the Wyatts. Sir Charles’ son, Frank, and his nephew, Percy, are also present, and there is some unpleasantness involving missing money that Lily quickly sorts out. Sir Charles’ wife, Winifred, invites Jack and Lily to ride with her the next morning, but when they arrive at the house, they discover that Sir Charles has been murdered.

Readers may figure out the motive and “whodunnit” fairly early on, but the story is strong, and the relationships between the characters are interesting. I’m not entirely convinced of how sympathetically many of the book’s inhabitants treated the neurodivergent characters, given that this was the Regency period, but did find it believable that Lily and her friends would not be prejudiced against someone who was different in some ways.

Book Review: A Rogue’s Company (Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery #3) by Allison Montclaire

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: June 8th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In Allison Monclair’s A Rogue’s Company, business becomes personal for the Right Sort Marriage Bureau when a new client, a brutal murder, two kidnappings, and the recently returned from Africa Lord Bainbridge threatens everything that one of the principals holds dear.

In London, 1946, the Right Sort Marriage Bureau is getting on its feet and expanding. Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge are making a go of it. That is until Lord Bainbridge—the widowed Gwen’s father-in-law and legal guardian—returns from a business trip to Africa and threatens to undo everything important to her, even sending her six-year-old son away to a boarding school.

But there’s more going on than that. A new client shows up at the agency, one whom Sparks and Bainbridge begin to suspect really has a secret agenda, somehow involving the Bainbridge family. A murder and a subsequent kidnapping sends Sparks to seek help from a dangerous quarter—and now their very survival is at stake. 

Things are looking up for Gwen and Iris in A Rogue’s Company, the latest Sparks and Bainbridge mystery by Allison Montclair. They’ve just expanded their marriage bureau and hired a new employee. Gwen feels she’s close to regaining custody of her son, and her relationship with her mother-in-law has become, if not close, at least no longer adversarial. 

The unexpected, and very unwelcome, arrival of Gwen’s father-in-law upsets them both, as it leads to trouble for Gwen, two kidnappings, and the making of some deals which may have long-term repercussions. Amidst this, Gwen and the her family are forced to reexamine the way their class views those of other cultures, and the way the British have treated their colonies.

While I love Gwen and Iris, Sally is my favorite character, and I was very glad to see him as an active character in this book. True, it’s still a case of him coming whenever either Iris or Gwen calls, but he seems content to hang on the periphery of their world, at least for now.

Iris is sassy, as always, but we do see a bit of a vulnerable side, as she faces what she had to do, and give up, during the war when she worked as a spy. She also interacts more with Gwen’s son, Ronnie, and we see that maybe she’s not the “tough broad” she makes out to be.

Readers may guess what’s behind the kidnappings before Gwen and Iris do, but the writing crackles, and the characters are so wonderful, that the mystery isn’t as important as the connections between them all.

Highly recommended, along with the rest of the series.

Book Review: Death in Daylesford (Phryne Fisher #21) by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 336, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Taking the waters has never been more delicious–or dangerous…

When a mysterious invitation for a spa holiday arrives for Miss Phryne Fisher from an unknown retired Captain Herbert Spencer, Phryne’s curiosity is piqued. Spencer runs a retreat in Victoria’s rural spa country for shell-shocked veterans of World War I. It’s a cause after Phryne’s own heart, but what can Spencer want from her?

Phryne and her faithful servant Dot set out for Daylesford, viewing their rural sojourn as a short holiday. While Dot gets to know the remarkable women who run the hotel where they are lodging, Phryne enjoys an enticing meal–and dessert–with the attractive Captain Spencer. But their relaxation is short-lived as they are thrown into treacherous Highland gatherings, a mysterious case of disappearing women, and a string of murders committed under their very noses. Meanwhile, back at home, Phryne’s three wards are busy solving a mystery of their own when a schoolmate is found floating facedown near the docks–and pregnant at the time of her death.

With her usual pluck and deft thinking, Phryne methodically investigates the strange goings-on in this anything-but-tranquil spa town.

Phryne and Dot visit a small town with big secrets in Death in Daylesford, the latest from Kerry Greenwood in the Phryne Fisher mystery series.

While the titular mystery gets most of the attention, there is a submystery that Phryne’s wards, Jane, Ruth, and Tinker, solve handily, with help from Dot’s police beau, Hugh. All the characters put in at least a brief appearance.

Phryne and Dot investigate the disappearances of several women in rural Australia, as well as the murders of several men. Are the crimes being done for love or money…or both?

Phryne is her effervescent self in this one, choosing her lovers and her libations with care. The book has a different tone than some of the earlier ones, and Phryne seems less patient with some foibles she might have shrugged off in earlier novels.

Still, it’s a solid entry in the series, and fans and newcomers alike will enjoy it and cheer Phryne on.

Highly recommended. 

Book Review: A Fatal First Night (An Ella Shane Mystery #2) by Kathleen Marple Kalb

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: HIstorical mystery
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Publication Date: April 27th, 2021
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Set in Gilded Age New York, Kathleen Marple Kalb’s adventurous new historical mystery series returns for its second installment starring the swashbuckling opera singer Ella Shane, an Irish-Jewish Lower East Side orphan who finds fame and fortune singing male trouser roles. But while her opera company’s latest premier manages to attract adoring crowds and rave reviews, it also attracts a killer who’s a real showstopper…

New York City, Fall 1899. Ahead-of-her-time coloratura mezzo Ella Shane has always known opening night to be a mess of missed cues and jittery nerves, especially when unveiling a new opera. Her production of The Princes in the Tower, based on the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two sons during the Wars of the Roses in England, concludes its first performance to thunderous applause. It’s not until players take their bows that the worst kind of disaster strikes…

Flawless basso Albert Reuter is found lurched over a bloody body in his dressing room, seemingly taking inspiration from his role as the murderous Richard III. With a disturbing homicide case stealing the spotlight, Ella can’t be so certain Albert is the one who belongs behind bars…

Now, Ella must think on her feet while sorting out a wild series of puzzling mishaps and interlocking mysteries. Yet even when sided with her aristocratic beau, does this scrappy diva have the chops to upstage the true criminal, or will this be the last time she headlines a Broadway marquee?

Opera diva-detective Ella Shane is back in Kathleen Marple Kalb’s A Fatal First Night. When one of her cast is murdered, and another is imprisoned, Ella must “determine to prove a villain” and save her company, all while staging an opera based on the princes in the tower. Her prospective beau, Gil, has come over from Britain on a quest he can’t tell Ella about, but which involves a beautiful widow.

Ella’s voice is much clearer in this second book. She also doesn’t mention every other chapter how hard the world is and how she does what she can to make it better. It’s nice to see a progressive cast of characters in a Gilded Age cozy mystery, and Ella handles racism against one of her cast as she handled homophobia against her cousin, straightforward and not tolerating the perpetrators for a moment. She shelters her loved ones and casts her net wide to help those in need.

It’s understandable that she does not want to give up the freedom that her career offers to enter into a formal relationship with Gil, and even nicer that Gil, and Ella’s friends, do not push her to do so. She does waffle a great deal, though, and she and Gil talk about their future children and marriage as though things were settled, when they have only an “understanding,” and not a formal engagement.

One small fact check – there are no polar bears in Antarctica, as mentioned by Ella’s housekeeper after she attended an “improving lecture.”

Recommended, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when Ella and her company cross the pond in the next book.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall by Jessica Thorne

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bookouture
Publication Date: March 26th, 2021
Pages: 347, Kindle
Source: NetGalley

September, 1939. The moon shines silver on the looming yew trees. Thinking of her fiancé, fighting for his life and country in the war, breaks Eleanor’s heart, but also gives her courage. She takes a deep breath, picks up her camera, and follows the dancing lights into the maze.

Present day. With her little brother Missing in Action, gardener Megan Taylor runs from her grief to take a job at Foxfield Hall – a centuries-old place full of myths and folklore – restoring the wild maze in the overgrown gardens. Throwing herself into shaping the tangled ivy, Megan soon becomes drawn into the mystery of Lady Eleanor Fairfax, the Hall’s most famous resident… the villagers say she disappeared without trace at the Harvest Festival in 1939, leaving behind a grieving father and a heartbroken fiancé.

Leafing through delicate old newspaper cuttings and gazing at an ornately framed portrait of the missing woman, Megan is full of questions. Although no body was ever found, could Eleanor have been murdered? Did she run away, unwilling to marry the man who loved her? Or, with her father working at the War Office, did Eleanor stumble upon a secret she shouldn’t have?

Then, one night under a full moon, a mesmerising light inexplicably draws her to the entrance of the maze. Megan is filled with a strange certainty that, if she follows it into the shadows, it will lead to the truth about Eleanor… but could Megan herself be the next occupant of Foxfield Hall to be lost forever?

A spellbinding, magical and addictive tale about the mysterious and ancient legends at the heart of the English countryside, and how to find those who are lost. Perfect for fans of Outlander, Susanna Kearsley and The Binding.

In The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall, Jessica Thorne has created a time-travel, alternate history/alternate future, Arthurian-inspired mystery and LGBTQTIA+ romance. What might have been, and what is, are unsettled, and garden restoration expert Megan Taylor must work her way through a literal maze to find the truth about the past.

Megan takes a job restoring the gardens at a luxury hotel and spa run by her friend from university. Her soldier brother has been declared MIA, and she wants a place to get away from her present. She literally finds that as she wanders through a garden maze and ends up in 1939, meeting Ellie Fairfax, the daughter of Foxfield Hall, which is the site of the present-day hotel. Megan makes it back to the present, and begins to research the estate. Ellie disappeared not long after their meeting, and Megan is determined to discover why. She discovers a curse, a witch, and how the past is not always immutable.

Megan and Ellie are strong and compelling characters, and readers will be heavily invested in their stories.

Book Review: A Lady Compromised (Rosalind Thorne #4) by Darcie Wilde

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: November 24th, 2020
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: Library

Fans of Jane Austen have fallen in love with Darcie Wilde’s mystery series featuring Rosalind Thorne, a young woman adept at helping ladies of the ton navigate the darker corners of Regency England–while revealing Society’s most shocking secrets…

Rosalind is pleased when she’s invited to Cassel House to help her friend, Louisa, prepare for her upcoming wedding. But that’s not the only event on her agenda. The trip will also afford Rosalind the chance to see Devon Winterbourne, the newly minted Duke of Casselmaine. Devon and Rosalind were on the verge of betrothal before the infamous Thorne family scandal derailed their courtship. Now Rosalind wonders if there’s a chance their love might reignite.

Devon is as handsome as Rosalind remembers and it’s clear the attraction they once shared hasn’t waned. But their time together is interrupted by one crisis after another–not the least of which is an awkwardly timed request for help from Louisa’s friend, Helen Corbyn.

Not long ago, the untimely death of Helen’s brother, William, was ruled a suicide, but few people truly believe he took his own life. Helen needs to know what really happened–especially since she’s engaged to the man some suspect of secretly killing William.

While Rosalind desperately wants to help, she fears her efforts might cast a pall over Louisa’s nuptials, not to mention her reunion with Devon. But when another untimely death rocks the ton, Rosalind has no choice but to uncover the truth before more people die…even if her actions threaten her future with Devon.

NOTE: There are spoilers for the book in this review!

The second half of A Lady Compromised was better than the first half, where Wilde purposely sidelines Rosalind in order to show that she doesn’t quite fit in with the setting. Because of this sidelining, the POV switches multiple times in several chapters, causing Rosalind to feel like a secondary player in her own story. This gets resolved almost half way through and things go better from there, but the first half was a struggle to get through.

A lot of characters are involved in the mystery of A Lady Compromised, to the point where I had trouble keeping track of a few and their relation to each other. It felt a little too spread out, and while I realize you need multiple red herrings for your mystery novel, something about the number of characters here was just a bit too much. Wilde brings up a lot of different moving parts and doesn’t quite successfully juggle all of them. For instance, there’s one point where Devon’s mother implies that Devon killed his brother to Rosalind, and in Rosalind’s next chapter, when she sees Devon, she makes no internal mention of it at all. Why bring that up and then not even have Rosalind make a small mention of it immediately afterward? Maybe it was to show that she trusted Devon too much to buy into his mother’s suspicion, but it still seemed odd.

I also question the resolution of the mystery. It felt too neat. Devon had the coroner falsify the death record by saying the victim died by accident, when Devon believes he died by suicide, to save the family the grief. This isn’t brought up in the rushed final chapter which details the trial. Was it not brought up? Did the coroner stick to the accident story when that would have put his reputation on the line? There’s no mention of it at all in the end, so I suppose it was just ignored. 

Still, I enjoy the way Wilde is able to incorporate all the little details of manners that everyone has to follow in high society and never make it seem like an info-dump or have it slow down the pace of a scene. I always feel a little constrained when I read these books because Wilde is great at showing how constrained life was for everyone, but especially women, in Regency England. I still love the characters in this novel, and I still adore this series. A Lady Compromised simply wasn’t my favorite of the series.