A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond

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A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond Banner

 

 

A Christmas Carol Murder

by Heather Redmond

on Tour November 1 – December 31, 2020

Synopsis:

A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond

The latest novel from Heather Redmond’s acclaimed mystery series finds young Charles Dickens suspecting a miser of pushing his partner out a window, but his fiancée Kate Hogarth takes a more charitable view of the old man’s innocence . . .

London, December 1835: Charles and Kate are out with friends and family for a chilly night of caroling and good cheer. But their blood truly runs cold when their singing is interrupted by a body plummeting from an upper window of a house. They soon learn the dead man at their feet, his neck strangely wrapped in chains, is Jacob Harley, the business partner of the resident of the house, an unpleasant codger who owns a counting house, one Emmanuel Screws.

Ever the journalist, Charles dedicates himself to discovering who’s behind the diabolical defenestration. But before he can investigate further, Harley’s corpse is stolen. Following that, Charles is visited in his quarters by what appears to be Harley’s ghost—or is it merely Charles’s overwrought imagination? He continues to suspect Emmanuel, the same penurious penny pincher who denied his father a loan years ago, but Kate insists the old man is too weak to heave a body out a window. Their mutual affection and admiration can accommodate a difference of opinion, but matters are complicated by the unexpected arrival of an infant orphan. Charles must find the child a home while solving a murder, to ensure that the next one in chains is the guilty party . . .

As a longtime fan of Dickens classic work A Christmas Carol, this imaginative tale offers some clever and just plain fun speculation on the inspiration for the story. 

This is my first foray into the author’s Dickens series. I found a story full of lively, interesting characters, led by Mr. Dickens himself. I appreciate a series that a reader can step into past the first entry and still be able to follow the plot. There are some story threads that have carried over from previous books, but they are inconsequential to the plot and only prompt the reader to go find those earlier books and read them!

While there are many historical mysteries that feature famous people, often they fall flat because the author excels at historical accuracy or writing mysteries, but not both. Redmond, fortunately, does both equally well. The story is peopled with colorful characters, from Dickens to his fiancee and her family, to a frail but loud infant and a set of fast friends. I applaud the author for writing strong female characters who can lead as easily as follow. 

I will be seeking out Redmond’s earlier entries in this series and recommending this to fans of historical mysteries.

Book Details:

Genre: Historical Mystery
Published by: Kensington Publishing
Publication Date: September 29th 2020
Number of Pages: 320
ISBN: 1496717171 (ISBN13: 9781496717177)
Series: A Dickens of a Crime #3 || A Stand Alone Mystery
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Chapter One

Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, December 1, 1835

They hadn’t found the body yet. Old Sal was surely dead. Feathers had caught on candles, igniting the blaze. Maybe a yipping dog had some part in the fiery disaster. The marchioness’s advanced age had surely contributed to the fatal misadventure. The marquess, her son, had nearly killed himself in a futile attempt to rescue her.

Charles Dickens’s cough forced him to set down his pen. Ink dribbled from it, obscuring his last few words. He found it hard to stay seated, so he pushed his hands through his unruly dark hair, as if pressing on his sooty scalp would keep him on the pub bench. Only three hours of sleep before being dragged from his bed to make the twenty-three-mile journey from his rooms at Furnival’s Inn in London that morning. Nervous energy alone kept his pen moving.

He rubbed his eyes, gritty with grime and fumes from the fire, both the massive one that had destroyed the still-smoking ruins of Hatfield House’s west wing, and the much smaller one here in the taproom at Eight Bells Pub. Some light came in from out of doors, courtesy of a quarter-full moon, but the windows were small.

He called for a candle and kept working.

Putting the messy slip of paper aside, he dipped his pen in his inkwell. Starting again, he recalled the devastation of the scene, the remains of once noble apartments now reduced to rubble and ash. He filled one slip after another, describing the scene, the architecture, the theories.

When he ran out of words, he let his memories of massive oaken Tudor beams, half-burned; heaps of bricks; lumps of metal; buckets of water; black-faced people; and unending, catch-in- your-throat soot—all that remained of forty-five rooms of storied, aristocratic things—fade away.

The ringing of St. Ethelreda’s venerable church bells returned him to the moment. Had it gone eight p.m. already? Hooves and the wheels of a cart sounded in the narrow street outside. A couple of men passed by, discussing the fire. The door of the pub opened and closed,allowing the flash from a lantern to illuminate the dark room.

Charles noted the attempts to make the room festive. Greenery had been tacked to the blackened beams and draped around the mantelpiece. He thought he saw mistletoe mischievously strung up in that recess to the left of the great fireplace.

Next to it, a man slumped in a chair. He wore a tired, stained old surtout and plaid trousers with a mended tear in the knee. Next to him waited an empty stool, ready for an adoring wife or small child to sit there.

Charles stacked his completed slips of paper on the weathered table and took a fresh one from his pile, the pathos of that empty seat tugging at him. He began to write something new, imagining that last year at this time, a sweet little girl sat on the stool, looking up at the old, beaten man. How different his demeanor would have been then!

Charles drew a line between his musings and the lower blank part of the page. His pen flew again, as he made the note. Add a bit of melancholy to my Christmas festivities sketch.

Unbidden, the serving maid delivered another glass of hot rum and water. The maid, maybe fourteen, with wide, apple- colored cheeks and a weak chin, gave him a sideways glance full of suspicion.

He grinned at her and pointed to his face. “Soot from the fire. I’m sending a report back to London.” His hand brushed against his shoulder, puffing soot from his black tailcoat into his eyes.

She pressed her lips together and marched away, her little body taut with indignation. Well, she didn’t understand he had to send his report by the next mail coach. Not much time for sentiment or bathing just yet.

By the time he finished his notes, the drinks hadn’t done their job of settling his cough. He knew it would worsen if he lay down so he opened his writing desk to pull out a piece of notepaper.

Dearest Fanny, he wrote to his sister. Where to begin? I wrote to my betrothed this morning so I thought I should send my news to someone else. Was ever a man so busy? I am editing my upcoming book. Did I tell you it will be called Sketches by Boz? I have to turn in the revisions for volumes one and two by the end of the year, in advance of the first volume releasing February eighth. I am also working on an operetta, thanks to that conversation with your friend John Hullah, in my head, at least. I hope to actually commence writing it as soon as my revisions are done.

I remember all the happy Christmas memories of our earliest childhood, the games and songs and ghost stories when we lived in Portsmouth, and hope to re-create them in my own sweet home next year. How merry it will be to share Christmas with the Hogarths! To think that you, Leticia, and I will all be settled soon with our life’s companions. Soon we will know the sounds of happy children at our hearths and celebrate all the joys that the season should contain in our private chambers.

He set down his pen without signing the letter. It might be that he would have more to add before returning to London. He had no idea how long it would be before they recovered the Marchioness of Salisbury’s body, if indeed, anything was left. Restacking his papers, he considered the question of her jewels. Had they burned? At least the priceless volumes in the library all had survived, despite the walls being damaged.

His brain kept churning, so he pulled out his copy of Sketches by Boz. He would edit for a while before retiring to his room at the Salisbury Arms. No time for sleep when work had to be done.

Pounding on the chamber door woke him. Daylight scarcely streamed around the tattered edges of the inn’s curtain. Charles coughed. He still tasted acrid soot at the back of his throat. Indeed, it coated his tongue.

The pounding came again as he scratched his unshaven chin. Had the Morning Chronicle sent someone after him? He’d put his first dispatch from the fire on the mail coach. Pulling his frock coat over his stained shirt, he hopped across the floor while he tugged on his dirty trousers. Soot puffed into the air with each bounce.

“Coming, coming,” he called.

The hinges squeaked horribly when he opened the door. On the other side stood a white-capped maid. She wore a dark cloak over her dress. A bundle nestled between her joined arms. Had she been kicking the door?

“Can I help you?” Charles asked, politely enough for the hour. To his right, his boots were gone. He had left them to be polished.

The girl lifted her bundle. The lump of clothes moved.

He frowned, then leaned over the lump. A plump face topped by a thatch of black hair stared back. A baby. Was she hoping for alms? “What’s your name, girl?”

“Madge, sir. Madge Porter.”

“Well, Madge Porter, I can spare you a few coins for the babe if you’ll wait for a moment. Having hard times?”

She stared hard at him. He realized the cloaked figure was the tiny serving maid from the Eight Bells. “He’s my sister’s child.”

“I see. Is she at work?” He laugh-choked. “She’s not in here with me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Her mouth hung open for a moment. “No, sir, I don’t think that.”

“What, then?” He glanced around for his overcoat, which had a few coins in a pocket. “What is the babe’s name?”

“Timothy, sir.” She tightened her weak chin until her pale skin folded in on itself. “Timothy Dickens?” she warbled.

“Dickens?” He took another glance at the babe. Cherry red, pursed lips, and a squashed button of a nose. He didn’t see any resemblance to his relatives. His voice sharpened. “Goodness, Madge, what a coincidence.”

Her voice strengthened. “I don’t think so, sir.”

He frowned. The serving maid did not seem to understand his sarcasm. “I’ve never been to Hatfield before. My family is from Portsmouth. I don’t know if your Timothy Dickens is a distant relative of mine or not. Who is his father?”

“She died in the fire.”

He tilted his head at the non sequitur. “Who?”

“My sister. She died in the fire. She was in service to old Sarey.” Charles coughed, holding the doorjamb to keep himself upright. This was fresh news. “How tragic. I didn’t hear that a maid died.”

“They haven’t found the bodies.”

“That I know. I’m reporting on the fire, but then, I told you that. Thank you for the information. I’ll pay you for it if you wait a moment for me to find my purse.”

She thrust the bundle toward him. “Timothy is yer son, sir. You need to take him.”

Charles took a step back, waving his hands. “No he isn’t.”

“He’s four months old. It would have been last year, around All Hallow’s Eve. Do you remember the bonfire? She’s prettier than me, my Lizzie. Her hair is lighter, not like yers or mine.”

“Truly, I’ve never been in Hatfield before now,” he said gently. “I work mostly in London.”

She huffed out a little sob. He sensed she was coming to a crescendo, rather like a dramatic piece of music that seemed pastoral at first, then exploded. “I know yer his daddy, sir. I can’t take him. My parents are dead.”

He coughed again. Blasted soot. “I’m sorry. It’s a terrible tragedy. You’re young to be all alone with a baby.”

Her entire being seemed to shudder, then, like the strike of a cobra, she shoved the wriggling bundle into his arms and dashed down the passage.

His arms fluttered like jelly for a moment, as if his bones had fled with the horror of the orphaned child’s appearance, until the baby opened its tiny maw and Charles found his strength.

Then he realized the blankets were damp. Little fatherless, motherless Timothy whoever-he-was had soiled himself. The baby wailed indignantly but his aunt did not return.

Charles completed his reporting duties with one hand while cradling the infant, now dressed in Charles’s cleanest handkerchief and spare shirt, in the other arm. Infant swaddling dried in front of the fire. When Charles had had his body and soul together well enough to chase after little Madge Porter, the proprietor of the Eight Bells had told him she wasn’t due there until the evening.

He’d begged the man for names of any Porter relatives, but the proprietor had been unhelpful. Charles had tripped over to St. Ethelreda’s, still smelling smoke through a nose dripping from the cold. The canon had been of no use and in fact smelled of Hollands, rather than incense. He went to a barbershop, holding the baby while he was shaved, but the attendant refused to offer information.

When the babe began to cry again, he took him to a stable yard and inquired if they had a cow. A stoic stableman took pity on him and sent him to his quiet wife, a new mother herself. She agreed to nurse the child while Charles went to Hatfield House to see if the marchioness had been found yet.

He attempted to gain access to the marquess, still directing the recovery efforts. While waiting, he offered the opinion that they should pull down the remaining walls, which looked likely to kill the intended rescuers more assuredly than anything else in the vast acreage of destruction. Everyone coughed, exhausted, working by rote rather than by intelligence.

After a while, he gave up on the marquess. He interviewed those working in the ruins to get an update for the Chronicle, then went to the still-standing east wing of the house to see the housekeeper. She allowed him into her parlor for half a crown. The room’s walls were freshly painted, showing evidence of care taken even with the servant’s quarters. A large plain cross decorated the free space on the wall, in between storage cupboards.

The housekeeper had a tall tower of graying hair, stiffened by some sort of grease into a peak over her forehead. Her black gown and white apron looked untouched by the fire. When she spoke, however, he sensed the fatigue and the sadness.

“I have served this family for thirty-seven years,” she moaned. “Such a tragedy.”

He took some time with her recital of the many treasures of the house, storing up a collection of things he could report on, then let her share some of her favorite history of the house. But he knew he needed to return to gather the baby from the stableman’s wife soon.

“Do you have a Lizzie Porter employed here?”

“Yes, sir.” The housekeeper gave a little sob and covered her mouth. “In the west wing, sir. I haven’t seen her since the fire.”

His fingers tingled. “Do you think she died?”

“I don’t know, sir. Not a flighty girl. I doubt she’d have run off if she lived.”

“Not a flighty girl?” He frowned. “But she has a babe.” He was surprised to know she had kept her employment.

The housekeeper shook her head. “She’s an eater, sir, but there never was a babe in her belly.”

The story became steadily more curious. “Did she take any leave, about four months ago? In July or August?”

The housekeeper picked up her teacup and stared at the leaves remaining at the bottom. “An ague went around the staff in the summer. Some kind of sweating sickness. She had it like all the rest. Went to recuperate with her sister.”

“Madge?”

She nodded absently. “Yes, that Madge. Just a slip of a girl. Hasn’t come to work here but stayed in the village.”

“I’ve met her. How long was Lizzie with her?”

“Oh, for weeks. She came back pale and thin, but so did a couple of other girls. It killed one of the cook’s helpers. Terrible.” The housekeeper fingered a thin chain around her neck.

It didn’t sound like a group of girls made up the illness to help Lizzie hide her expectations, but the ague had been timed perfectly for her to hide wee Timothy’s birth. Who had been the babe’s wet nurse?

“Do you know where Madge lives?”

“Above the Eight Bells, sir. Servants’ quarters.” The housekeeper set down her cup and rose, indicating the interview had ended.

Charles checked around the pub again when he returned to town, just a short walk from the grand, if sadly diminished, house. The quarters for servants were empty. Madge seemed to have gone into hiding. How she could abandon her nephew so carelessly, he did not know, but perhaps she was too devastated by her sister’s death to think clearly.

A day later, Charles and the baby were both sunk into exhaustion by the long journey to London. Charles’s carriage, the final step of the trip, pulled up in front of a stone building. Across from Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside, it had shop space, three floors of apartments, and a half attic on top. He’d had to hire a carriage from the posting inn where the coach had left them on the outskirts of town. While he had no trouble walking many miles, carrying both a valise and an infant was more than he could manage. At least they’d kept each other warm.

He made his awkward way out of the vehicle, coughing as the smoky city air hit his tortured lungs. In his arms, the babe slept peacefully, though he had cried with hunger for part of the long coach journey.

Charles’s friends, William and Julie Aga, had taken rooms here, above a chophouse. The building exuded the scent of roasting meats. His stomach grumbled as he went up the stairs to his friends’ chambers. William was a reporter, like Charles, though more focused on crime than government.

Charles doubled over, coughing, as he reached the top of the steps. He suspected if he’d had a hand free to apply his handkerchief, it would come away black again.

The door to the Agas’ rooms opened before he had the chance to knock.

“Charles!” William exploded. “Good God, man, what a sound to torture my ears.”

Charles unbent himself and managed a nod at his friend. William had the air of a successful, fashionable man-about-town, even at his rooms on a Thursday evening. He wore a paisley waistcoat under an old black tailcoat, which fit him like it had been sewn directly on his broad-shouldered body. They both prided themselves on dressing well. His summer-golden hair had darkened due to the lack of sun. He had the look of a great horseman, though Charles knew that William, like he, spent most of his time hunched over a paper and quill.

“I like that fabric,” Charles said. “Did Julie make you that waistcoat?”

“Charles.” William waved his arms. “Whatever are you carrying in your arms?”

Charles dropped his valise to the ground. It grazed his foot. He let out a yelp and hopped. “Blast it! My toe.”

William leaned forward and snatched the bundle from Charles’s arm. The cloth over little Timothy’s face slid away, exposing the sleeping child. “No room in the inn?”

“Very funny,” Charles snarled. He rubbed his foot against the back of his calf. “That smarted.”

“Whose baby?”

“A dead serving maid’s. I remember you said that a woman across the hall from you had a screaming infant. Do you think she might be persuaded to feed this one? He’s about four months old.”

William rubbed his tongue over his gums as he glanced from Timothy to Charles, then back again.

“He needs to eat. I don’t want to starve him. Also, I think he’s a little too warm.” Charles gave Timothy an anxious glance.

“Let’s hope he isn’t coming down with something.” William stepped into the passage and gave a long-suffering sigh. Then, he crossed to the other side and used his elbow to bang on the door across from his. “Mrs. Herring?”

Charles heard a loud cry in the room beyond, a muttered imprecation, and a child’s piping voice, then the door opened. A girl about the age of his youngest brother, Boz, opened the door.

“Wot?” she said indistinctly, as she was missing several teeth.

“I need your mother,” William said, smiling at the girl.

The girl turned her head partway and shrieked for her mother. A couple of minutes later the lady of the house arrived, a fat babe burping on her shoulder. She appeared as well fed as the infant, with rounded wrists tapering into fat fingers peering out from her cotton dress sleeves.

“Mr. Aga!” she said with a smile.

Charles instantly trusted Mrs. Herring’s sweet smile. Her hand had gone to the top of her daughter’s head for a caress, the sort of woman who genuinely enjoyed her children.

“Good lady,” Charles began. “I’ve been given the custody of this orphaned child due to a rather dramatic situation. Might you be able to take him in to nurse?”

Mrs. Herring stepped toward William. She took one look at the sleeping Timothy and exclaimed, “Lor bless me!” She handed her larger infant over to her daughter, then reached out her hands to William. He promptly placed the bundle into the mother’s arms.

Charles saw Timothy stir. He began to root around. “Hungry. Hasn’t been nourished since this morning.”

“Poor mite,” Mrs. Herring cooed. “How could you have let this happen? They must be fed regularly.”

“I don’t know how to care for a baby,” Charles admitted.

“But I remembered my friends had you as a neighbor. Can you help him?”

“We’ve no room for the tiny lad,” Mrs. Herring said sternly. She coaxed her daughter back inside.

“I can pay for his board,” Charles responded.

Mrs. Herring didn’t speak but her eyebrows lifted.

“Just for tonight at first,” William suggested with an easy smile. “You can see the situation is desperate.”

Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out a shilling. “I’m good for it. Truly. This would pay for days of his care if I hire a wet nurse. He has an aunt but she disappeared. I couldn’t find her before I had to return to London.”

“We’ll talk to you again in the morning,” William said. “I won’t leave the building until we’ve spoken.”

“Where am I to put him?” she asked, staring rather fixedly at the shilling. “The bed is full and we don’t have a cradle.”

William nodded wisely, as if he’d thought of this already. “Mr. Dickens and I will consult with my wife and bring something suitable. If you can feed him while we wait?”

Mrs. Herring reached out her free hand. Charles noted she had clean nails. She seemed a good choice for wet nurse. He placed the shilling in her palm and prayed they could make longer-term arrangements for a reasonable price.

Timothy let out a thin wail.

“He sounds weak,” Charles said, guilt coloring his words.

“I’ll do what I can.” Mrs. Herring glanced at the babe in her arms, then shut the door.

***

Excerpt from A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond. Copyright 2020 by Heather Redmond. Reproduced with permission from Heather Redmond. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Heather Redmond

Heather Redmond is an author of commercial fiction and also writes as Heather Hiestand. First published in mystery, she took a long detour through romance before returning. Though her last British-born ancestor departed London in the 1920s, she is a committed anglophile, Dickens devotee, and lover of all things nineteenth century.

She has lived in Illinois, California, and Texas, and now resides in a small town in Washington State with her husband and son. The author of many novels, novellas, and short stories, she has achieved best-seller status at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her 2018 Heather Redmond debut, A Tale of Two Murders, was a multi-week Barnes & Noble Hardcover Mystery Bestseller.

Her two current mystery series are “A Dickens of a Crime” and “the Journaling mysteries.” She writes for Kensington and Severn House.

She is the 2020-21 President of the Columbia River Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC).

Catch Up With Heather Redmond:
HeatherRedmond.com, Goodreads, BookBub, Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook!

 

 

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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab


A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever—and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.From the Publisher

So many people have recommended V.E. Schwab to me over the years, but this is the first of her work that I’ve read. Why did I wait so long to read her work???

Put simply, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is one of the most unusual and enchanting books I’ve read in a very long time. Bookshelves overflow with tales of the old gods and retellings of familiar stories, but very few take those old allegorical tales and turn them into something new and fresh like Schwab has done here.

There is so much to unpack in this story – what it means to live and die, what people must do to survive, what it means to be remembered (“It is a lonely thing, to be forgotten.“), what it takes to resist temptation – but at the same time, there is the telling of a captivating story that keeps you turning the pages just to see what happens to Addie, Henry, and the green-eyed man.

I completely understand why Schwab’s work has been so highly recommended to me. Reading this story is making me seek out her earlier work, and I could see this sweeping through book clubs this fall. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Published By: Tor Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy

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The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy Banner

The Magdalene Deception

by Gary McAvoy

on Tour August 1 – September 30, 2020

Synopsis:

The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy

For two thousand years, believers have relied on Christ’s Resurrection as the bedrock of Christian faith. But what if the Vatican had been blackmailed into suppressing a first-century manuscript revealing a very different story about what happened after Christ’s death—and that long-hidden document suddenly reappears?

Michael Dominic, a young Jesuit priest expert in the study of ancient writings, is assigned to the Vatican as an archivist in the Church’s legendary Secret Archives. Hana Sinclair, a reporter for a Paris newspaper whose privileged family owns a prominent Swiss bank, is chasing a story about Jewish gold stolen by the Nazis during World War II—millions of dollars in bullion that ended up in the vaults of the Vatican Bank.

When Dominic discovers a long-hidden papyrus written by Mary Magdalene—one that threatens the very foundations of Christianity—he and Hana, aided by brave Swiss Guards, try to prevent sinister forces from obtaining the manuscript, among them the feared Ustasha underground fascist movement, Interpol, and shadowy figures at the highest levels of the Vatican itself.

Based on illuminating historical facts—including the intriguing true story of Bérenger Saunière, the mysterious abbé in the French village of Rennes-le-Château; and the Cathars, fabled keepers of the Holy Grail—“The Magdalene Deception” will take readers on a gripping journey through one of the world’s most secretive institutions and the sensitive, often explosive manuscripts found in its vaults.

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of action-adventure stories modeled after The DaVinci Code. Some are examples of fabulous storytelling, others are just okay – all are the result of passionate hard work from the author. In The Magdalene Deception, author Gary McAvoy falls into the first category. 

McAvoy delivers a crisp plot led by an attractive protagonist and complicated by evil, underhanded adversaries. The basis of the plot isn’t anything new – speculative stories about Mary Magdalene and the early church abound – but McAvoy’s storytelling skills keep this one fresh and interesting. Fans of Steve Berry and James Rollins will eat this one up. 

Book Details:

Genre: Suspense Thriller
Published by: Literati Editions
Publication Date: July 1st 2020
Number of Pages: 368
ISBN: 0990837653 (ISBN-13: 978-0990837657)
Series: The Magdalene Chronicles (Book 1)
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

The Magdalene Deception Trailer:

Read an excerpt:

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Southern France – March 1244

The relentless siege of the last surviving Cathar fortress, perched strategically on the majestic peak of Montségur in the French Pyrenees, entered its tenth month.

The massive army of crusaders dispatched from Rome, thirty thousand strong, were garbed in distinctive white tunics, their mantles emblazoned with the scarlet Latin cross. Knight commanders led hordes of common foot soldiers, some seeking personal salvation, others simply out for adventure and the promise of plunder. They had already devastated most of the Languedoc region of southern France in the years preceding. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been slain, regardless of age, sex, or religious belief. Entire villages were burned, rich crops destroyed, and the fertile land which yielded them was poisoned, in a cruel, single-minded quest to root out and extinguish a small and peaceful, yet influential mystic order known as the Cathars.

The defeat of the impregnable Montségur remained the ultimate prize for the Church’s troops. Rumors of a vast treasure had reached the ears of every soldier, stirring up the passion with which these feared European mercenaries carried out their holy mission. As was the customary practice during a crusade, whatever pillage remained after the plundering—spolia opima, the richest spoils for supreme achievement—could be claimed by the victor. That temptation, bonded by the personal assurance of the pope that all sins would be forgiven and their paths to heaven assured, was enough to seduce anyone, nobleman or peasant, to take up cudgel, pike, or arrow in the name of God.

In 1209 Pope Innocent III had ordered a Holy Crusade to crush the spirit, and if necessary, the life of each and every dissident in the Languedoc region bordering France and Spain.

This independent principality had distinguished itself by fostering an artistic and intellectual populace well beyond that of most northern European societies at the time. The people of the Languedoc practiced a religious tolerance that encouraged spiritual and secular diversity. Schools teaching Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic languages and the customs which accompanied them flourished, as did those espousing the Cabala, an occult form of Judaism that dated from the second century.

Most settlers in the Languedoc viewed Christianity with the utmost repugnance; at the very least its practices were perceived as being more materialistic than godly in nature. The irreligious of the region passed over Christianity in large part due to the scandalous corruption exhibited by its local priests and bishops who, unable to influence the heathens within their provinces, came to prefer the rewards of commerce and land ownership over the tending of a meager flock.

Consequently, the authorities in Rome felt compelled to deal with this unforgivable heresy once and for all, in towns such as Toulouse and Albi within the Languedoc area.

Consigning his troops to their commanders, Pope Innocent III invoked a special benediction to all, lauding the divinity of their mission. Asked how they might distinguish their Christian brethren from the heretics, however, the crusaders were simply told, “Kill them all. God will spare His own.”

And so the Albigensian Crusade began.

The new moon cast no light over Montségur as night fell on the first day of March 1244, obscuring not only the hastened activities of its occupants, but the lingering threat conspiring outside its walls. A dense alpine fog had settled over the mountain, and the castle that straddled its inaccessible peak had withstood nearly a year of unceasing battle.

Weakened by the tenacity of their predators and yielding to the hopelessness of their situation, Raymond de Péreille, Lord of Château du Montségur and leader of the remaining four hundred defenders, commanded his troops to lay down their arms, and descended the mountain to negotiate terms of their capitulation.

Though offered lenient conditions in return for their surrender, de Péreille requested a fourteen-day truce, ostensibly to consider the terms, and handed over hostages as an assurance of good faith. Knowing there was no alternative for their captives—nearly half of whom were priest-knights, or parfaits, sworn to do God’s work—the commanders of the pope’s regiment agreed to the truce.

Over the next two weeks, reprieved from the constant threat of attack they had been enduring for months, the inhabitants of Montségur resolved to fulfill their own destiny before relinquishing their fortress—and their lives—to the Inquisition.

On the last day of the truce, as if guided collectively by a single will on a predestined course, the surviving members of the last Cathar settlement made special preparations for their departure.

Four of the strongest and most loyal of the parfaits were led by Bishop Bertrand Marty, the senior abbé of the fortress, as they descended deep within the mountain down a long, stepped passageway carved into alternating layers of earth and limestone. The end of the passage appeared to be just that, as if the original tunnelers had simply stopped work and retreated without finishing the job. But, while the others held torches, Abbé Marty withdrew a large rusted key-like wedge from beneath his cassock, thrusting it into a hidden cavity near the low ceiling.

The abbé manipulated the key for a few moments. A muffled sound of grating metal from beyond the stone wall echoed through the tunnel, and the seemingly impenetrable granite slid inward slightly, revealing a door.

Aided by the parfaits, the door swung open into a small dank chamber filled with an enormous cache of riches—gold and silver in varied forms, gilded chalices and bejeweled crosses, an abundance of gems and precious stones, sagging bags of coins from many lands.

And, in a far corner removed from the bulk of the treasure itself, stood a wide granite pedestal on which rested an ornately carved wooden reliquary, crafted to hold the most holy of relics, next to which sat a large book wrapped in brown sackcloth.

Standing before the legendary treasure of the Cathars—glittering and hypnotic in the dim torchlight—would prove seductive for most men. But the Albigensians held little regard for earthly goods, other than as a useful political means to achieve their spiritual destiny. Ignoring the abundant wealth spread before them, the abbé fetched the sackcloth while the other four parfaits hoisted the ancient reliquary to their shoulders, then they left the room and solemnly proceeded back up the granite stairway. In the thousand-year history of the Cathars, these would be the last of the order ever to see the treasure.

But the most sacred relic of the Christian world would never, they vowed, fall into the unholy hands of the Inquisition.

Emerging from the stone passage, Abbé Marty led the parfaits and their venerable cargo through the hundreds of waiting Cathars who had assembled outside, forming a candlelit gauntlet leading to the sanctuary. All were dressed in traditional black tunics, all wearing shoulder length hair covered by round taqiyah caps as was the custom of the sect.

Once inside, the parfaits lowered the reliquary onto the stone altar. The abbé removed the ancient book from the sackcloth and began the sacred Consolamentum, a ritual of consecration, while the four appointed guardians prepared themselves for their special mission.

Armed with short blades and truncheons, the parfaits carefully secured the reliquary in the safety of a rope sling, then fastened taut harnesses around themselves.

“Go with God, my sons,” Abbé Marty intoned as he gave them his blessing, “and in His name ensure this sacred reliquary be protected for generations to come.”

The four men climbed over the precipice and, assisted by their brothers gripping the ropes tied to their harnesses, gently and silently rappelled hundreds of meters down the escarpment. Sympathizers waiting at the base of the mountain assisted the parfaits in liberating their holy treasure, guiding them away from the danger of other troops and hiding them and the reliquary deep in one of many nearby caves.

Throughout the night, those remaining at Montségur celebrated their brotherhood, their holy calling, and their last hours alive. Descending the mountain the next morning, in a state of pure spiritual release from the material world, Abbé Marty led the last of the Cathars as they willingly marched into the blazing pyres awaiting them, martyrs to their cause.

The holy reliquary of the Cathars has never since been found.

2
Present Day

Rounding the northern wall of the Colosseum with a measured stride, a tall young man with longish black hair glanced at the Tag Heuer chronometer strapped to his left wrist. Noting the elapsed time of his eighth mile, he wiped away the sweat that was now stinging his eyes.

Damn this Roman heat. Not even sunrise, and it’s already a scorcher.

Approaching the wide crosswalks flanking the west side of the immense Colosseum, he wondered if this was the morning he would meet God. Dodging the murderous, unrestrained traffic circling the stadium became a daily act of supreme faith, as the blur of steel sub-compacts, one after another, careened around the massive structure on their way, no doubt, to some less hostile place. Since his arrival here he had discovered that this was the way with Italian motorists in general, though Roman drivers excelled at the sport. Veteran observers could always tell the difference between natives and visitors: a local would cross the road seemingly ambivalent to the rush of oncoming traffic. Non-Romans, who could as likely be from Milan as from Boston or Paris, approached the threat of each curb-to-curb confrontation with a trepidation bordering on mortal terror.

Crossing the broad Via dei Fori Imperiali, his route took him through the Suburra, the most ancient inhabited area of Rome and off the beaten path of most tourists. As a newcomer to a city whose normal pulse was barely evident beneath the confusing ambiguities of new and old, the runner felt most comfortable here in the Suburra, a semi-industrial working-class neighborhood, much like the one he only recently left in New York. In the summer, people got up early to tend their gardens before the real heat forced them indoors. The early morning air was thick with alternating scents of Chilean jasmine, honeysuckle, and petrol fumes.

He ran another five miles, long blooms of sweat accentuating a lean, muscular frame beneath a gauzy white t-shirt as he burst into a sprint up the final few blocks, past the empty trattorias and shuttered shops whose merchants were just beginning their morning rituals.

Slowing to a cool down pace as he crossed the Sant’Angelo bridge spanning the Tiber River, he turned left up Via della Conciliazione as the massive dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica loomed suddenly ahead. Though it could be seen from almost anywhere in Rome, this approach always gave him the impression that the dome seemed to tip backwards, being swallowed up by the grand facade of the church the closer he got to it.

“Buongiorno, padre.” Several female voices, almost in unison, broke the cobblestone pattern of his reverie.

Father Michael Dominic looked up and smiled politely, lifting his hand in a slight wave as he swiftly passed a small cluster of nuns, some of whom he recognized as Vatican employees. The younger girls blushed, leaning their hooded heads toward each other in hushed gossip as their eyes followed the handsome priest; the older women simply bobbed a chilly nod to the young cleric, dutifully herding their novitiates into obedient silence on their way to morning Mass.

Though he had only been in Rome a couple of weeks, Michael Dominic’s youthful exuberance and keen intellect had become known quickly throughout the cloistered population of Vatican City, setting him apart from the more monastic attitudes prevalent since the Middle Ages.

But despite the fusty parochialism and an atmosphere of suspended time he found within its walls, Dominic still felt the intoxication of privilege at having been assigned to Rome so early in his religious career. It had not been even two years since he lay prostrate at the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, ordained by his family friend and mentor Cardinal Enrico Petrini.

It was no secret to Vatican insiders that the eminent cardinal’s influence was chiefly responsible for Dominic’s swift rise to the marbled corridors of ecclesiastic power now surrounding him. The young priest’s scholarly achievements as a classical medievalist were essential to the work being done in the Vatican Library. But the progressive cardinal was also grateful for the vitality Dominic brought to his vocation, not to mention the charismatic ways in which he could get things accomplished in an otherwise plodding bureaucracy. Though Dominic could not account for his mentor’s vigorous inducement that he come to Rome—and knowing this particular prince of the Church so well, it was surely more than a familial gesture—he had trusted Enrico Petrini completely, and simply accepted the fact that this powerful man had believed in him strongly enough to give him an opportunity which he most certainly would not have had otherwise.

Pacing slower now, Dominic drew in rhythmic gulps of searing air as he neared the Vatican. A block or so before reaching the gate, he stepped inside the Pergamino Caffè on the Piazza del Risorgimento. Later in the day the cramped room would be filled with tourists seeking postcards and gelato, but mornings found it crowded with locals, most nibbling on small, sticky cakes washed down with a demitasse of thick, sweet coffee.

Across the room Dominic spotted Signora Palazzolo, the ample wife of the proprietor, whose wisps of white hair were already damp with perspiration. Seeing the priest approach, the older woman’s face broke into a broad, gap-toothed smile as she reached beneath the counter and withdrew a neatly folded black cassock Dominic had dropped off earlier, which she handed to him with deliberate satisfaction.

“Buongiorno, padre,” she said. “And will you take caffè this morning?”

“Molto grazie, signora,” Dominic said, accepting the cassock graciously. “Not today. I’m already late as it is.”

“Okay this time,” she said with a gently scolding tone, “but it is not healthy for a strong young man to skip his breakfast, especially after making his heart work so hard in this unforgiving heat.” Her hand reached up to wipe away the dampness as she spoke, coifing what little hair she had left in a vain attempt to make herself more attractive.

Heading toward the back of the shop, Dominic slipped into the restroom, quickly washed his face and raked his hair into some semblance of order, then drew the cassock over his head and buttoned it to the starched white collar now encircling his neck. Emerging from the restroom minutes later and making for the door, he glanced back to see the signora waving to him, now with a different look on her face—one beaming with respect for the clergyman he had suddenly become, as if she herself had had a role in the transformation.

Of the three official entrances to the Vatican, Porta Sant’Anna, or Saint Anne’s Gate, is the one generally used by employees, visitors, and tradesmen, situated on the east side of the frontier just north of Saint Peter’s Square. Although duties of security come first, guards at all gates are also responsible for monitoring the encroachment of dishabille into the city. Dominic learned from an earlier orientation that casual attire of any sort worn by employees or official visitors was not permitted past the border. Jeans and t-shirts were barely tolerated on tourists, but the careless informality of shorts, sweatpants, or other lounging attire on anyone was strictly forbidden. An atmosphere of respect and reverence was to be observed at all times.

Vatican City maintains an actual live-in population of less than a thousand souls, but each workday nearly five thousand people report for duty within the diminutive confines of its imposing walls—walls originally built to defend against the invading Saracens a thousand years before—and the Swiss Guards at each gate either recognize or authenticate every person coming or going by face and by name.

One of the Guards whom Dominic had recognized from previous occasions, dressed in the less formal blue and black doublet and beret of the corps, waved him through with a courteous smile as he reached for his ID card.

“It is no longer necessary to present your credentials now that you are recognized at this gate, Father Dominic,” the solidly built young guard said in English. “But it is a good idea to keep it with you just in case.”

“Grazie,” Dominic responded, continuing in Italian, “but it would be helpful to me if we could speak the local language. I haven’t used it fluently since I was younger, and I am outnumbered here by those who have an obvious preference. You know, ‘When in Rome….’”

The guard’s smile faded instantly, replaced by a slight but obvious discomfort as he attempted to translate, then respond to Dominic’s rapid Italian.

“Yes, it would be pleasure for me, padre,” the young soldier said in halting Italian, “but only if we speak slowly. German is native tongue of my own home, Zurich, and though I speak good English, my Italian learning have only just started; but I understand much more than I speak.”

Dominic smiled at the younger man’s well-intended phrasing. “It’s a deal then. I’m Michael Dominic,” he said formally, offering a sweaty palm.

“It is an honor meeting you, Father Michael. I am Corporal Dengler. Karl Dengler.” Dengler’s face brightened at the unusual respect he was accorded, extending his own white-gloved hand in a firm grip. Recently recruited into the prestigious Pontificia Cohors Helvetica, the elite corps of papal security forces more commonly known as the Swiss Guard, Dengler had found that most people in the Vatican—indeed, most Romans—were inclined to keep to themselves. It was never this difficult to make friends in Switzerland, and he welcomed the opportunity to meet new people. He also knew, as did everyone by now, that this particular priest had a powerful ally close to the Holy Father.

“An honor for me as well, Corporal,” Dominic said a bit more slowly, yet not enough to cause the young man further embarrassment. “And my apologies for soiling your glove.”

“No problem,” Dengler said as he smiled. “With this heat it will be dry in no time. And if you ever want a running partner, let me know.”

“I’ll take you up on that!” Michael said with a wave as he passed through the gate.

Already the Vatican grounds were bustling with activity. Throngs of workers, shopkeepers, and official visitors with global diversities of purpose made their way along the Via di Belvedere to the myriad offices, shops, and museums—any indoor or shaded haven, in fact, that might offer escape from the heat of the rising sun.

Another Swiss Guard stood commandingly in the center of the street—looking remarkably dry and cool, Dominic thought, despite the obvious burden of his red-plumed steel helmet and the traditional billowy gala uniform of orange, red, and blue stripes—directing foot and vehicular traffic while smartly saluting the occasional dignitaries passing by.

To any observer, Vatican City appears to be in a state of perpetual reconstruction. Comprising little more than a hundred acres, the ancient city state is in constant need of repair and maintenance. Architectural face-lifts, general structural reinforcement, and contained expansion take place at most any time and in various stages, manifested in the skeletal maze of scaffolding surrounding portions of the basilica and adjoining buildings. Sampietrini, the uniquely skilled maintenance workers responsible for the upkeep of Saint Peter’s, are ever-present throughout the grottoes, corridors, and courtyards as they practice time-honored skills of the artisans who have gone before them, traditionally their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. It was quite probable, in fact, that a given sampietrino working on, say, a crumbling cornerstone of the basilica itself, could very well be shoring up work that was originally performed by his great-great-grandfather more than a century before him.

Dominic walked to the end of the Belvedere, then turned right up the Stradone dei Giardini and alongside the buildings housing the Vatican Museums, until he reached the northern wall of the city.

A priest learns early that his life will suffer many rituals, and in at least one secular aspect, Michael Dominic’s was no different. Every day he ended his morning run with a meditative walk along the inner walls surrounding the immaculately maintained papal gardens. The fact that many of the same trees which lined the paths have been rooted here for centuries—serving the contemplative needs of whichever pope might be ruling at the time—gave Dominic a more natural feeling of historical connectedness, in subtle contrast to other abundant yet more imposing reminders of where he now happened to be living and working.

“Ah! Good morning, Miguel.” It was a gentle breeze of a voice, yet Dominic recognized it clearly in the early warm quiescence of the Vatican gardens.

“Buongiorno, Cal!” Dominic said brightly. Brother Calvino Mendoza, prefect of the Vatican Archives and Dominic’s superior, was approaching the entrance to the building. Clad in the characteristic brown robe and leather sandals of his Franciscan order, Mendoza was a round, timorous man in his seventies—quite pleasant to work with, Dominic thought, if a little indiscreet in his obvious affection for men.

“You are up early today,” Mendoza said in heavily accented English, furtively appraising Dominic’s form beneath the cassock. “But then, defying the wicked heat and traffic of Rome is best done before sunrise, no?”

“It is, yes,” Dominic laughed easily, his damp hair glistening in the sun as he shook his head in amusement, “but in another hour or so I expect the pavement to start buckling.”

Dominic had come to enjoy Mendoza’s fey demeanor and playful flirting. Nearly everyone he had met here seemed overly stern and impassive to be really likable, and Dominic was naturally drawn to people he found more hospitable anyway. This gentle man had a quick mind for humor and was never, Dominic found, lacking for a proverb appropriate to the moment. It was also common for Mendoza to call many on his staff by the Portuguese equivalent of their name, maintaining an affectionate cultural touchstone to his native home of Brazil. As for the subtle intimations, Mendoza grasped early on that Dominic’s vow of chastity was not likely to be compromised, and particularly not by another man.

“You’ll get used to it,” Mendoza nodded, smiling. “It is worse in the mornings, to be sure, but come late afternoon we are blessed by the ponentino, a cool wind off the Tyrrhenian Sea.

“And besides,” he quipped, “’To slip upon a pavement is better than to slip with the tongue—so the fall of the wicked shall come speedily.’” He finished by glancing around the garden with mock suspicion, as if every word were prey to overcurious but unseen ears.

“‘Ecclesiastes,’” Dominic responded. “And thanks for the admonition.”

Pleased that the young priest indulged his occasional whimsy, Mendoza shuffled up the few steps of the entrance to the Archives.

“Now come, Miguel, your days of orientation are over. Let’s get on with the real work,” he said dramatically, his arms nearly flapping as his large body moved up the steps into the Archives. “Today is a very special day.”

“I’ll catch up with you shortly, Cal. I’ve got to take a quick shower first. But why is today so special?”

From the top of the steps, Mendoza turned around to face Dominic and, like a child with a tantalizing secret, whispered with barely contained excitement, “The treasures we are about to exhume have not been seen by any living soul for several hundred years.”

Clearly a man who enjoyed his work, Calvino Mendoza’s eyes gleamed with anticipation as he lifted one heavy eyebrow in an arch, then spun as quickly as his heavy frame would allow and disappeared through the heavy wooden door.

As Dominic walked back to his apartment at the Domus Santa Marta, the resident guesthouse just south of Saint Peter’s Basilica, two men in a golf cart were heading in his direction, both dressed in the familiar black and red garb of cardinals. The cart stopped directly in his path, and one of the men stepped out, approaching him.

“Father Dominic, I presume?” The heavyset man had a thick Balkan accent, with an intelligent face bearing an inscrutable mask of expression.

“Yes, how can I help you?” Dominic said.

“I am Cardinal Sokolov, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I simply wanted to extend a hand of welcome on behalf of those of us who have been expecting you.”

Dominic recognized the cardinal’s department, better known as the infamous Office of the Holy Inquisition before someone came up with a less intrusive name.

“Good to meet you, Your Eminence,” he said, surprised by the comment. “I didn’t realize anyone was actually expecting me, though.”

“Oh, yes,” Sokolov said, holding Dominic’s hand in an uncomfortably firm grip as they shook. “Having Cardinal Petrini’s endorsement carries a great deal of influence here. But it also comes with certain expectations. First and foremost, keep to yourself. Do not expect to make many friends here. One is surrounded by vipers masquerading as pious souls.

“Secondly, know that you are being watched at all times. Conduct yourself appropriately and you may survive your time here. There are many who were vying for your job as scrittore in the Secret Archives, and they will seek any opportunity to displace you.

“Lastly,” the cardinal said scowling, his eyebrows a black bar across his fleshy face, “come to me directly if you witness or suspect anyone of illicit or unbecoming activities. Such careful scrutiny will be viewed with admiration by His Holiness, for whom I speak in this regard.”

Dominic was dumbfounded by the man’s audacity, hardly the kind of welcome he would have imagined, one that shed a darker light on his exhilaration at now working and living in the Vatican.

“I will keep all that in mind, Eminence,” he said, forcibly pulling back his hand from the cardinal’s cloying grasp.

Sokolov stood a moment longer appraising Dominic’s face, then turned and shuffled himself back into the golf cart, which pulled away with a mounting whine as it headed into the papal gardens.

Troubled by the encounter, Dominic returned to his apartment, the fresh burdens expected of him weighing on his mind. What have I gotten myself into, he thought, stepping into the shower.

***

Excerpt from The Magdalene Deception by Gary McAvoy. Copyright 2020 by Gary McAvoy. Reproduced with permission from Gary McAvoy. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Gary McAvoy

Gary McAvoy is a veteran technology executive, entrepreneur, and author of “And Every Word Is True,” a sequel to Truman Capote’s landmark book “In Cold blood.” “The Magdalene Deception” is his fiction debut, and is the first in a series called The Magdalene Chronicles.

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The Lost Jewels by Kirsty Manning


22806394-AA34-438F-B7E6-456C5B452391From Netgalley & the Publisher:

From the author of The Song of the Jade Lily comes a thrilling story of a family secret that leads to a legendary treasure.

Why would someone bury a bucket of precious jewels and gemstones and never return?

Present Day. When respected American jewelry historian, Kate Kirby, receives a call about the Cheapside jewels, she knows she’s on the brink of the experience of a lifetime.

But the trip to London forces Kate to explore secrets that have long been buried by her own family. Back in Boston, Kate has uncovered a series of sketches in her great-grandmother’s papers linking her suffragette great-grandmother Essie to the Cheapside collection. Could these sketches hold the key to Essie’s secret life in Edwardian London?

In the summer of 1912, impoverished Irish immigrant Essie Murphy happens to be visiting her brother when a workman’s pickaxe strikes through the floor of an old tenement house in Cheapside, near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The workmen uncover a stash of treasure—from Ottoman pendants to Elizabethan and Jacobean gems—and then the finds disappear again! Could these jewels—one in particular—change the fortunes of Essie and her sisters?

Together with photographer Marcus Holt, Kate Kirby chases the history of the Cheapside gems and jewels, especially the story of a small diamond champlevé enamel ring. Soon, everything Kate believes about her family, gemology, and herself will be threatened.

Based on a fascinating true story, The Lost Jewels is a riveting historical fiction novel that will captivate readers from the beginning to the unforgettable, surprising end.

I’m a sucker for mysteries that involve jewels, and this one did not disappoint. The story is captivating and well-plotted, blending history and the present day in a way that keeps you turning pages.

I was unfamiliar with the “Cheapside Hoard” of jewelry unearthed in 1912 by workmen excavating a cellar in London. The author has taken that piece of history and woven a fascinating story about how those jewels ended up in that cellar, and what happened to some of them when unearthed. That history is blended with an emotional love story that spans decades.

Full of appealing characters, a cracking good mystery, and a solid dose of history, this will appeal to fans of Kate Morton, Elizabeth Lowell, and M.J. Rose.

Publication Date: August 4, 2020
Published By: Harper Collins Publishers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Vathek by William Beckford


cover182066-mediumVathek, written in 1782, is a gothic novel that chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek, who renounces Islam and pursues a series of unspeakable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. Instead of acquiring these powers, Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the fallen angel Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly.

I once wrote a paper on Vathek in high school during a time when I was immersing myself in horror literature. Re-reading it now, I am amazed that my English teacher allowed me to read it, given that I was a student in an all-girls Catholic school.

As Joe Lansdale says in the introduction, Vathek doesn’t exactly age well. The writing is typical of the time – flowery, overblown, and full of wonderful words one does not see in modern writing. Lonsdale also notes that William Beckford is rumored to have written this story over the course of three alcohol (and probably drug) soaked days. I can see how that could be true.

Reading this requires close attention but is well worth the effort. The story is still as sinister as I found it back in 1981. Vathek is, at his core, a narcissist who wants what he wants, when he wants it, and bends the truth to suit his reality. We’re all familiar with that today.

My library will likely not buy this as it still owns a copy of an older edition, and I doubt this newer version will gain much traction. However, publish a graphic novel version of this story and I think modern readers would gobble it up.

Publication Date: August 18, 2020
Published By: Poisoned Pen Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Hood by Jenny Elder Moke


cover182367-mediumYou have the blood of kings and rebels within you, love. Let it rise to meet the call. Isabelle of Kirklees has only ever known a quiet life inside the sheltered walls of the convent, where she lives with her mother, Marien. But after she is arrested by royal soldiers for defending innocent villagers, Isabelle becomes the target of the Wolf, King John’s ruthless right hand. Desperate to keep her daughter safe, Marien helps Isabelle escape and sends her on a mission to find the one person who can help: Isabelle’s father, Robin Hood. As Isabelle races to stay out of the Wolf’s clutches and find the father she’s never known, she is thrust into a world of thieves and mercenaries, handsome young outlaws, new enemies with old grudges, and a king who wants her entire family dead. As she joins forces with Robin and his Merry Men in a final battle against the Wolf, will Isabelle find the strength to defy the crown and save the lives of everyone she holds dear?

In Hood, author Jenny Elder Moke reimagines the world of Robin Hood in lush, historical detail and imbues her story with more breathless action than has ever come out of Sherwood Forest before. This novel is a must-read for historical-fiction fans, adventure lovers, and reluctant readers alike!

There has been a spate of creative re-imaginings of old stories, so I was curious to see how Moke reinvented Robin Hood. What I found was not a re-telling or even a re-invention but a freshly drawn sequel answering the question “so what happened to Robin and Marien?”

There is plenty of action here, featuring both men and women, and some gore which pushes this firmly up into end-of-middle-school category. Moke’s writing is crisp and lively, with memorable characters. Isabelle, daughter of Robin & Marien, sometimes is a little silly, but Moke successfully portrays her as the sheltered-girl-finding-her-spine. The climax was unexpected and sad, but Moke brings everything full-circle and sets the stage for what could be a really cool series. Well done.

Ages 12 and up

Publication Date: June 9, 2020
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper


cover180817-mediumA cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.

After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.

In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.

This romantic mystery from award-winning Australian novelist Tea Cooper will keep readers guessing until the astonishing conclusion.

Fans of historical mysteries will enjoy this look at the early days of Australian settlement alternated with Australia at the end of World War I. Written using the familiar convention of alternating chapters in different time periods, the story does require some close attention to keep track of which year you’re in with which characters.

The story revolves around a cursed opal that provides the red thread connecting the mid-19th century story to the WWI era. The two best things here are Fleur and Bert, who will worm their ways into your heart. This is a mystery, historical fiction, and a love story – everything that will appeal to fans of Kate Morton and MJ Rose (albeit without Rose’s supernatural additions). A good summer read. Includes discussion questions for Book Clubs.

Publication Date: June 16, 2020
Published By: Thomas Nelson
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Murder on Pleasant Avenue by Victoria Thompson


cover178623-mediumWhen Gino Donatelli is accused of a brutal murder, beloved sleuths Sarah and Frank Malloy have to catch a killer who is out to destroy their innocent friend’s life in the latest installment of the national bestselling Gaslight mysteries.

A victim is found, brutally murdered and the police are certain they’ve caught the killer. Their only suspect: Gino Donatelli.
Frank and Sarah know Gino is innocent but the police have a one-track mind. Once Frank struck it rich and left their ranks taking Gino with him, there has been a simmering resentment in the department. And now, someone has pulled out all the stops to make it look like Gino is the only one who could have committed the crime. With the clock ticking and evidence mounting against their friend, Sarah and Frank will try to unravel a treacherous plot before Gino is sent up the river for good.

Fans of Sarah & Frank Malloy will thoroughly enjoy this latest entry in Thompson’s Gaslight series.. This time, our friends use their deductive skills to help out old friend Gino Donatelli when he is accused of a heinous crime. Thompson comes through again with a clever plot, engaging writing, and wonderful descriptions of the relationships cultivated by the Malloys and the denizens of 19th century New York. While this can be read on its own, it is much more enjoyable if you’ve read the previous series entries.

Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Published by: Berkley Publishing Group
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate


cover182289-mediumFrom the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours comes a new novel inspired by historical events: a dramatic story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its vital connection to her own students’ lives.

In her distinctive voice, Lisa Wingate brings to life startling stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875: In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987: For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Augustine, Louisiana. The town seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled live oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

This book caught me by surprise. The concept intrigued me – parallel stories past & present about the “lost friends” letters in the Southwestern Christian Advocate that helped reunite former slaves and their families, and a modern story about descendants of some of those slaves who reconnect with their history.

It takes a skilled writer to construct a narrative that jumps between centuries but keeps a common thread running through both past and present. Often, one of the story threads is better developed and more interesting, but that doesn’t happen here. Both past and present are are equally captivating. I found myself reading swiftly through chapters because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.

The story set in the past, that of Hannie Gossett, is wrenching and raw. The unspeakable way slave families were broken up and sold and how black women and girls were treated by white men and women is hard to read, but it is an important part of the narrative which makes the end of Hattie’s story that much more satisfying.

The present day story about a naive but enthusiastic young teacher who finds a way to connect with her students through history is, at times, a bit too convenient. However, the teacher (Miss Silva), the adult characters, and the kids are well-developed and endearing.

This will appeal to Wingate’s fan base, for sure, and would make a decent book club book. It must be said that there are better novels about life as a slave out there (Beloved and certainly The Water Dancer by Coates), but The Book of Lost Friends is a good addition to that genre of books and will introduce readers to the Lost Friends letters which can be viewed online. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020
Published By: Random House – Ballantine
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey


cover178794-mediumA debut novel for fans of Sarah Perry and Kate Morton: when a young woman is tasked with safeguarding a natural history collection as it is spirited out of London during World War II, she discovers her new manor home is a place of secrets and terror instead of protection.

In August 1939, thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright arrives at Lockwood Manor to oversee a natural history museum collection, whose contents have been taken out of London for safekeeping. She is unprepared for the scale of protecting her charges from party guests, wild animals, the elements, the tyrannical Major Lockwood and Luftwaffe bombs. Most of all, she is unprepared for the beautiful and haunted Lucy Lockwood.

For Lucy, who has spent much of her life cloistered at Lockwood suffering from bad nerves, the arrival of the museum brings with it new freedoms. But it also resurfaces memories of her late mother, and nightmares in which Lucy roams Lockwood hunting for something she has lost.

When the animals appear to move of their own accord, and exhibits go missing, they begin to wonder what exactly it is that they might need protection from. And as the disasters mount up, it is not only Hetty’s future employment that is in danger, but her own sanity too. There’s something, or someone, in the house. Someone stalking her through its darkened corridors . . .

I seem to be reading a lot of gothic mysteries lately…the genre is definitely making a comeback!

Here we have all the elements needed for a first-class, spooky gothic thriller – intrepid heroine who is made of sterner stuff than is believed by those around her; a creepy country house; a tragic inhabitant; a prickly, horrible mystery; and a horrifying climax followed by a new beginning.

There is, however, a refreshing difference here. In the old 1970s gothics, the tragic inhabitant of the creepy country house was invariably a man. Here, it’s Lucy. The beautiful, delicate, sleep-deprived daughter of the master of the house. The story spun around Lucy and Hetty is delicate and charming, a piece of lace on the grimy, icky cloth of the horrible mystery, and one that gets ripped off, preserved, and sewn into something beautiful.

The story is captivating and creepy, the writing skillful and eloquent. Well done.

Publication Date: March 10, 2020
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy