Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

1

IMG_0200The concept of women’s power being rooted in magic has become a regular theme in recent fiction, and The Secret History of Witches adds to that growing genre. Louisa Morgan has created a captivating tale of six generations of Romani witches, women whose talents include “simples” like healing potions, knowledge of the weather, affinity for animals or growing things, and, most importantly, seeing the future.

The story begins in Brittany in the early decades of the 19th century, where the Orchiere family is cornered in a ring of standing stones by an angry mob out to burn them. Matriarch Ursule, a powerful seer, uses her power to hide her family. This act takes her life, but not before she sees her family travel across the sea to a farm on a cliff, where they will live in peace. The family buries Ursule between the stones, and heads off across the sea, where they find the farm, just as Ursule predicted, on the Cornish coast. The sisters continue to perform the family rites in a hidden cave, but none of them possess Ursule’s magic until the youngest sister, Nanette, comes of age. Nanette is the only sister to whom Ursule’s scrying stone responds.

The stone becomes the thread tying the family together through subsequent generations. The stone is the indicator of magic – if it responds to you, you’ve got it. Each generation experiences its own heartaches and tragedies. At the same time, the belief in magic waxes and wanes, until we end up with Veronica, who has no mother or aunt to initiate her into the magic of the Orchiere witches. This is where the story stretches belief a bit, by introducing Veronica to a coven of aristocratic witches led by the Queen of England during World War II. The best part? The Queen is descended from the Glamis witches. If you know Shakespeare, you’ll get the reference. The Queen’s coven instructs Veronica in the magic of her ancestors and draws her into their work focused on defeating Hitler, including exhausting work meant to manipulate the weather to assist with the Normandy invasion.

Morgan has created a readable, entertaining story around women and how they acquire and wield power. The writing and character development is well done, with a strong thread binding each generation together. I found Morgan’s honest portrayals of each generation’s “witch” to be refreshing, meaning they were not all paragons. In fact, some were downright unlikable. She balances the stories of each generation skillfully to demonstrate the idea that magic and power can corrupt if not used properly, culminating in the decision by Morwen, the second-to-last witch, of putting it away altogether.

The introduction of the Queen’s coven was unexpected and rather delightful. This is the woman I’ve known as the Queen Mother – the dainty, perfectly coiffed woman off to the side of the current Queen Elizabeth. I found it interesting that the Queen laments that neither of her daughters has shown any inclination to the craft, although Margaret might still have a chance. I also appreciated the way in which the author brought the Orchiere line full circle by connecting Veronica with a young man of Romani descent from Brittany, where her family originated.

This joins The Witch’s Daughter and other books by Paula Brackston, the Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and the Waverly novels by Sarah Addison Allen as one of my favorite “witchy” books. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

 

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick


IMG_0195Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), daughter of James VI, wife of Frederick V, known as the Winter Queen due to her single winter as Queen of Bohemia. Not a familiar queen to most, but an engaging subject in this entertaining piece of semi-historical fiction from Nicola Cornick which blends history, mystery, mysticism, and romance.

The story opens at the close of Elizabeth’s life with a deathbed scene between her and William Craven, to whom she transfers ownership of the mysterious Sistrin Pearl. The pearl, we come to understand, is a powerful vessel for magic when combined with a particular crystal mirror. Elizabeth and Frederick, members of the clandestine order Knights of the Rosy Cross, use the pearl and mirror to foresee the outcome of battles and negotiations during their lifetime of effort to regain control of their Palatine lands. Craven, Frederick’s trusted advisor and defender, becomes the love of Elizabeth’s life, although hurt and betrayal abound throughout. Despite all the intrigue, or perhaps because of it, the pearl and mirror drive the actions of the 17th century characters through to Elizabeth’s final breaths.

Fast forward to present day, where Holly Ansell is woken in the middle of the night by a frantic phone call from her young niece, who reports that her Daddy, Holly’s brother Ben, is missing. Holly hotfoots to Ashdown Dean and the old mill where she and Ben grew up, only to find that no one seems to know much about why Ben was there and, more importantly, where he’s gone. As the days pass, Holly learns that Ben was researching family history, as well as Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. As she digs deeper, she discovers that Ben was searching for the Sistrin Pearl and the Crystal Mirror and that the story of the Winter Queen and William Craven has more significance than she could possibly imagine, both for her and the magnetic and handsome Mark, a local developer to whom Holly is attracted. Past and present come crashing together as Holly uncovers the stories of Elizabeth, Craven, and their descendants, and finally discovers what happened to Ben.

It seems I’ve been reading a lot of multi-century, historical-mystery-romances lately. Some are good, some are not so good. House of Shadows, fortunately, is one of the good ones. The author moves seamlessly between the 17th and 21st centuries, and paces the chapters and action well. Often in stories like this, the chapters are too long and full of extraneous detail, making it difficult to remember what happened in the previous chapters/centuries. Cornick devotes just enough time to each story – Elizabeth/William and Holly/Mark – alternating between past and present but always managing to tie the two together. The mystery of Ben’s disappearance keeps the action flowing in the present day, while William and Elizabeth tie everything together in the past.

The stories are interesting, and the characters are appealing. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the history, but I am intrigued enough by the Winter Queen to do some research and learn more about her, Frederick of Bohemia, and the Rosicrucians (Order of the Rosy Cross). When a novel prompts me to do that, I count it as a winner. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack


IMG_0190Part mystery, part psychic adventure, part romance – The Fortune Teller has it all. The story opens with a death, that of Marcel Bossard, renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts. That disturbing scene is followed by our introduction to Semele Cavnow, an employee of the auction firm hired to sell the Bossard collection. As she begins her work, she feels an immediate, unusual attraction to Bossard’s son, Theo, which only intensifies as she spends more time in the Bossard home in Switzerland. Eventually, she finds a hidden book, very ancient and very mysterious, but not as mysterious as the handwritten note left in the book by Marcel Bossard, which is addressed specifically to her.

As Semele translates the book, the story splits in two – the present day story revolving around the book, and the ancient story which begins in 45 bc at the Library of Alexandria. The book, it turns out, was written by a powerful seer, selected by the Egyptian Goddess Wadjet to shape the future. Semele is stunned to discover that the seer wrote to her by name in the book, and that the book foretells what will happen to Semele and Theo in the present day. Typical action-adventure ensues, with Semele eventually coming face to face with the evil genius who put all the story-pieces in play for his own demented purpose.

With this second novel, Womack cements her place in the genre with authors such as M.J. Rose and Kate Mosse. Her writing is engaging and clever, the characters and their stories are interesting, and the action moves along at a decent pace. Blending two story arcs – one in the past and one in the present – can sometimes lead to a disjointed narrative, but Womack has paced her chapters perfectly. The story is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time, and I loved the way Womack brought two strands of the story (Nettie and Lilyas) together at the end. The only dissonance for me is the way in which Semele’s adoption news is handled. (She found out she was adopted when looking through papers after her father died.) Her reaction seemed really extreme, although the scene where she confronts her mother over her father’s death rang true. Despite this one minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was captivated to the very end.

The Fortune Teller joins favorites such as M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series, Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea, and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre on my bookshelves. I read and enjoyed Womack’s first book, Memory Painter, but this, her sophomore effort, is even better. Recommended.

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes


IMG_0177What other city in the world is as associated with masks as Venice? Venice, where the stones are soaked with blood and history, and people are never what they seem. In City of Masks, we are transported to 14th century Venice, specifically 1358 when Venice was besieged by the Hungarians and lawlessness and treachery abounded.

Oswald de Lacy, also known as Lord Somershill, is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he and his mother are stuck at the home of John Bearpark, an English merchant living in Venice. De Lacy is running from something, and has clearly lost the will to live when first we meet. His problems are exacerbated by a new love of gambling, which leaves him broke and in debt to a nasty character. In the midst of his misery, he discovers the murdered remains of Enrico Bearpark, the merchant’s grandson. The elder Bearpark hires de Lacy to find the murderer, setting him on a quest that reveals as much about himself as about Venice and the people who live there.

This is a dense story, slightly reminiscent of Donna Leon’s contemporary Commissario Brunetti series in style, but filled with rich historical detail. Sykes brings 14th century Venice alive, from the stench of the sewage in the canals, to the island of lepers and the convent/brothel, to gilded palazzos. The action moves fairly slowly, but the story is captivating enough to keep you engaged. De Lacy is a troublesome character at first. It’s hard to find sympathy for him since we don’t know what has caused his melancholy (unless you’ve read the first two in the Lord Somershill series, which I hadn’t). However, as he begins his investigation and untangles a mess of clues and false trails, the clever, confident Lord reveals himself. Determined to find Enrico’s killer, de Lacy is unprepared for where the trail ultimately leads him.

The writing is quite good, with just enough scene descriptions to convey a sense of time, place, and atmosphere but not so much that the reader skims ahead. De Lacy’s relationships are most interesting here – with his mother, with Enrico, with Bearpark’s wife Filomena, and with his own past. Clearly de Lacy has lost his way; by the end of the story he has found his way back. I enjoyed this one enough that I will likely go back and read books 1 and 2, and will look for new entries in the series. Recommended for fans of historical mysteries.

Gospel of Mary by Philip Freeman


gospelEver since I read The Deeper Song by Patricia Pfitsch I have been fascinated by the relatively unacknowledged influence of women on recorded history, especially that of the Bible. Combine that with my love of historical mysteries and old Ireland, and you’ll understand why I gravitated to The Gospel of Mary.

Second in a series about Sister Deirdre, The Gospel of Mary begins with a flurry as Deirdre comforts an old and dying nun from a faraway abbey who made her way to Deirdre on purpose to entrust her with a very special document. Deirdre, who specializes in books and scrolls, takes ownership of the fragile papyrus and promises to keep it safe. After translating the first line, she understands that she holds a previously unseen gospel written by Mary, the Mother of Jesus the Christ. Deirdre also immediately understands that men of the church will be looking for the document and will likely stop at nothing to get it. Realizing that her presence in the abbey puts everyone at risk, she travels to the stronghold of an old friend and former lover, who she trusts will keep her safe while she translates the document and tries to preserve it. What she doesn’t know is that a priest is already hunting her. As Deirdre struggles to know who to trust, she learns more about the woman who gave birth to a god and comes to understand that she must keep the document safe at all costs, leading up to a surprising ending.

Freeman is a Celtic scholar, and his knowledge of this historical era lends an authenticity to the story that is often missing in others like it. Stories about lost gospels are common, but Freeman has taken an old trope and transported it back in time, when people lived and died by the sword, and no one was safe from betrayal. He has created a smart, gutsy, brave character in Sister Deirdre who is confident in herself and in her faith. Freeman paints a vivid picture of an Ireland teetering between the old religion and new Christianity, and lends authority to the characters who live with a foot in each world.

While I have not read the first in this series, I plan to go back and do so, then will look forward to the next. Recommended for lovers of historical mysteries.

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry


IMG_0157Murder mysteries that take place in 19th and early 20th century England are some of my favorites, so when I saw this one available on NetGalley, I thought I’d give it a shot. I didn’t realize it is #23 in the William Monk series by Anne Perry, although I do recall having read one or two of the earlier entries, and have read Perry’s Thomas Pitt series.

There are Readers out there who, for a number of reasons, will absolutely not read a series out of order.

I am not one of them.

For me, a *good* series is successful often because of the meticulous world-building the author performs, but a *great* series is written in a way that you can dip in and out of the author’s world. That is what I found here, with Commander William Monk, his wife Hester, and “son” Will. Perry provides just enough detail about past history of the characters as is necessary for *this* story. She doesn’t give away plot lines of earlier stories, so I can go back and read those without knowing how they end. The plot is the key, the characters’ past is incidental.

Perry offers an interesting plot in Echo of Murder. Monk is called to investigate an horrific crime committed against a member of the Hungarian community. It is violent, the product of extreme rage. At the same time, Will (also known as Scuff), meets an old friend of Hester’s, a surgeon with whom she served in the Crimean War and who is now suffering from what today we would call a severe case of PTSD. As Monk conducts his investigation into the murder and moves deep into the Hungarian community, his path crosses with Will’s and Fitz, the Crimean surgeon, neatly braiding their stories together into a clever and neat climax.

Perry’s writing is top notch, as always. I did feel as though she used the xenophobia directed at the Hungarians as a bit of a soapbox regarding immigration, and I found the end to be rushed, but otherwise this is a solid entry into a much loved series that makes me want to go back and read the earlier Monk books. Recommended.

Choices by J.E. Laufer


IMG_0137The plight of refugees is all over the news these days, so Judit Laufer’s tale of her family’s escape from Communist Hungary is particularly relevant. Laufer, an accomplished author of children’s books, has done a remarkable job of taking the bones of a story she has heard her whole life, a story she lived as a very young child, and layering on flesh to create a suspenseful, emotional story of courage and compassion.

In 1956, Laufer’s mother Kati Krausz Egett was the lever that pried her family loose from the early days of Communist rule in Hungary. Shortly after the failed Hungarian Revolution, when hundreds of thousands fled, or were imprisoned or executed, the Egett family realized their only chance for keeping themselves and their children safe was to flee the country. The decision was particularly poignant because the Egett’s were Jewish. Kati survived Hitler’s concentration camps, while her entire family, and Adolf’s sister, perished in the gas chambers. The unimaginable tension and stress of the Communist takeover happening so soon after the end of WWII is palpable in the whispered conversation between Kati and Adolf early in the book, when Kati asks “What if our parents had left when the rumors started twelve years ago?”

Laufer recounts the family’s secret journey from their home to the Austrian border, where they were met by the Red Cross. They managed to get to Vienna, where they were taken in by the Just family. Eventually, the Egett’s made their way to Canada where they built a prosperous life for themselves and their children.

I get the sense that writing this story was something of a catharsis for Judit Egett Laufer, and she has done a fine job of conveying the fear and emotion that drove her parents’ decision to leave Hungary. The fear and uncertainty were overwhelmed by the need and desire to have a better life – a free life – for their children. Laufer’s story strikes a chord today, given the numbers of refugees fleeing oppressive regimes, and it reminds us that those refugees are people first. They have hopes and dreams, and a fierce desire for a better life.

In telling her own story, Laufer has given us a poignant, powerful reminder that human kindness and compassion is always the way. I’d highly recommend this for a high school social studies class, as well as for general reading.

The Library of Light & Shadow by MJ Rose


IMG_0110MJ Rose continues the La Lune series begun in Witch of Painted Sorrows with this story of Delphine Duplessi and her gift of painting people’s secrets. The pattern is familar to fans of the La Lune series – a passionate love affair gone wrong, a young artist struggling with her gift, and people who want to use her and her gift in nefarious ways.

We first meet Delphine in New York City, where she is engaged to a wealthy young man and is the current cause celebre at all the fabulous parties where she performs her “party trick” of drawing people’s secrets while blindfolded. That, you see, is her talent. Having been blinded at age 8, then her vision miraculously restored by her witch of a mother, she can see all the things people want to keep secret when she puts on a blindfold, or when she looks in a mirror. Her talent is a form of scrying and makes her constantly in demand at parties, until one night when the “party trick” reveals a dangerous secret that results in tragedy.

Shocked and numb, questioning her art and her purpose, Delphine slides into a deep depression, rescued only when her twin, Sebastien, arrives to take her home to France. Once there, Delphine continues to struggle with her art, refusing to put on the blindfold again in fear of creating more tragedy. At the same time, Sebastien, who is also Delphine’s manager, pushes her to put the blindfold back on and resume her work, specifically for Madame Calve, who wants Delphine to draw the secrets of her castle in order to find a valuable book hidden there for centuries. Underpinning all this is a failed and painful love affair, which is what initially sent Delphine to NYC. We learn about her passionate affair with Mathieu through entries in Delphine’s diary, all leading up to the two meeting face to face at Madame Calve’s.

Rose layers on more fascinating detail to the world of the Duplessi’s with each entry in this series, while still keeping some key elements common to each story. In addition, there are connections to and mentions of characters from Rose’s earlier books worked in throughout, which add a great deal to the world-building going on here.

My only issue is the pace of the storytelling, which is super slow for the first half, then very rushed at the end. For me, the best part of the story is what happens once Delphine and Sebastien get to Madame Calve’s, which doesn’t happen until halfway through the book. All the angst and self-pity Delphine experiences in the first half just bored me, as did her diary entries about Mathieu. Rose is known for incorporating some pretty steamy sex in her books, and that remains true here in the diary entries; however, I find it is getting repetitive and not adding much to the story. I wish there had been less of the first half and more of the second half of this book. I found the ending to be very rushed and would have liked to see a resolution between Delphine and Sebastien, given the surprising revelation that occurs near the end.

All that said, I continue to be fascinated with the world of the Duplessi’s and all who inhabit it. The story is, as always with Rose’s work, captivating. I expect the final entry in the La Lune series will focus on youngest sister, Jadine, who can read people’s tears. I look forward to it!

By Gaslight by Steven Price


IMG_0083When I requested this book from NetGalley, I vaguely thought it would somehow be about Jack the Ripper. What I found, though, was an intricate, unique, if somewhat wordy story revolving around William Pinkerton of the American Pinkerton Detectives and Swell Mob Prince Adam Foole. Pinkerton and Foole collide over the death of Charlotte Reckitt, one of them hunting her and one loving her. What begins as a seemingly simple story takes many twists and turns throughout to an ending that leaves room for a sequel.

Pinkerton has traveled to London to find Charlotte Reckitt, who he thinks has information about the mysterious Edward Shade, a man who apparently obsessed Pinkerton’s late father. Just as Pinkerton closes in on Reckitt, she jumps off a bridge. Days later, her mutilated body, minus its legs, shows up in pieces. At the same time, Foole returns to London from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Charlotte asking for his help. Despite her betrayal of him years before, he responds.

The story begins to get all twisty once Foole and Pinkerton have the same goal – find out who murdered Charlotte Reckitt. Betrayal, deceit, and loyalty all drive the major passions of this story, which neatly ties up all the loose ends around Charlotte Reckitt, Adam Foole, William Pinkerton, and Edward Shade. For now.

Price does a fine job of drawing compelling characters, and his story is fresh. I was reminded of Caleb Carr’s classic The Alienist a few times while reading this one. Pinkerton, while totally driven to catch the bad guys, is also smart and has a sensitive side. Foole, the slick con man, also has a conscience and loves deeply. The secondary characters, Molly and Fludd, are appealing for their devotion and loyalty to Foole. I want to read more stories about all of these characters! My only quibble with this was the length. As I was reading an Advanced Reading Copy, I expect there is room for some editing. My issue here, though, was only my impatience to get on with the story because it was so good. I do suggest that the reader keep a dictionary of 19th century slang handy, because there’s lots of it here.

By Gaslight is a fine entry into the 19th century crime fiction class, and Pinkerton & Foole have the potential to become a Holmes and Moriarty should the author choose to write more about them. I hope he does. Highly recommended.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear


IMG_0082Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series has been one of my go-to’s for years, both for my own reading and for recommending to others.

Until, however, the 11th entry.

A Dangerous Place completely put me off the series because of the horrifying (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) tragedy our heroine experienced right at the beginning. I can’t remember being so shocked at a twist in a series. So, I put Maisie away for awhile.

Then In This Grave Hour was published this year, and I thought I’d get reacquainted with the series. I found an older and wiser Maisie, to be sure, but also a woman who has experienced tremendous grief and is only just recovering some semblance of “normal” life. She has returned to London and restarted her detective agency with the ever trustworthy Billy. She has the means to live comfortably, and she does, even if alone and lonely. Then, England goes to war with Germany, which changes everything…and nothing.

Finding the mysterious Francesca Thomas in her garden late one afternoon, Maisie is once again plunged into a mystery. Thomas, a secretive and powerful attache with the Belgian Embassy, asks Maisie to investigate the death of a former Belgian refugee who was found executed outside his place of work. While Maisie takes the job, she knows that Thomas has not been entirely truthful with her. As Maisie delves deeper into the investigation, she uncovers a web of deceit stretching back to the First War. This part of the story seemed incidental to the bigger story of Maisie herself. The plot here was a little muddied and not terribly compelling. The real story here is Maisie.

While the Thomas investigation gives us the professional side of Maisie Dobbs, the declaration of war reveals the unsteady and somewhat raw personal side. Maisie must cope with the possibility of her beloved “nephews,” the offspring of best pal Priscilla, going off to war and never coming home. She is also drawn back to Surrey, where her father, stepmother, and mother-in-law are coping with children from London being resettled to the country. Maisie is particularly taken with a small girl who doesn’t speak and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. Though both father and stepmother warn her not to get too attached to the child, Maisie can’t help herself.

In This Grave Hour is a watershed moment for Maisie. She has restored her career, she appears to have made as much peace as possible with her losses from A Dangerous Place, she is tentatively reconnecting with an old male friend, and I am predicting that the introduction of Anna, the displaced child, foreshadows a shift from Maisie the Student to Maisie the Teacher. She is slowly stepping into Maurice’s shoes (for those of you who haven’t read Maisie, Maurice was her mentor), bringing the series full circle. Winspear has won me back, and I am once again eagerly anticipating the next entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. Highly recommended.