Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan


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.

Homicide for the Holidays by Cheryl Honigford


IMG_0176I confess to having a soft spot for mysteries that take place around Christmas, so this one appealed to me.

Vivian Witchell, up and coming radio show starlet and sometimes-detective finds herself in the middle of a mystery that starts (and ends) very close to home. The loss of her beloved father stings ever more painfully as the Witchell’s approach the holidays. While her father has been gone a few years, Vivian still misses him terribly. The presence of a new man in her mother’s life especially annoys her, so she slips into her father’s study to have some quiet time alone with her thoughts in the place he loved best. While there, she finds a key to his desk, which has been missing for years. Opening the desk, she finds a wad of cash and a mysterious note. Determined to understand why her father, a famous defense attorney in 1920s Chicago, had so much cash on hand leads Vivian into a bigger and more dangerous mystery than she ever could have imagined.

Typically, I don’t mind stepping into a series where I haven’t read the earlier entries, but in this case the author provided enough details of Vivian’s first case The Darkness Knows that the reader knows how that turned out. Meaning, I won’t be going back to read the first in the series because I already know the end. Since this is an advanced reading copy, that’s something that could be handled better, and should be addressed because this is a crackerjack mystery series in the making!

Vivian is your typical, spirited Gal-Friday in her radio show career, but in real life, she’s an independent, stylish, forthright leading lady in the vein of Phryne Fisher. She’s smart and a little naughty but also vulnerable, which makes her very likable. Her relationship with PI Charlie Haverford is a blend of sexy banter and smart-assery, which has the potential to become a Nick & Nora Charles “after dark” relationship in future entries in the series.

The story here is clever, and set in the 30’s, although the roots of the mystery reach back into the 1920s. The history is accurate and colorful, and the author writes with authority. Vivian’s character is developed nicely as she moves from grieving-daughter-who-idolizes-dead-father to facing the fact that no one is perfect and sometimes we never really know the people closest to us. This is a promising series, and one I will watch. Recommended.

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.

Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood


Phryne1Phryne Fisher, the quintessential independent, daring woman of the 1920’s is back in this second entry in the popular series. If you’re a mystery reader and you haven’t heard of Phryne, you’ve been living under a rock. Greenwood’s first entry in the series – Cocaine Blues – gained modest popularity a few years ago, then Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries appeared on television with the incomparable Essie Davis in the lead role and Phryne claimed her rightful place on the throne of Aussie mysteries. Since then, Greenwood has pumped out close to 20 Miss Fisher mysteries.

I’d read Cocaine Blues and found it a passable mystery with a plucky heroine who I thought had a lot of potential to become a very memorable character. In Flying Too High, the author continues the character development while Phryne takes on two cases and solves them both neatly in 156 pages. First, she is retained by a distraught woman who fears her son will kill her husband. When the husband ends up with his head bashed in, Phryne steps in and saves the day. At the same time, she is also retained to find a young child who has been kidnapped. Within a few chapters, Phryne has solves both cases and is free to concentrate on seducing a handsome young doctor.

The mysteries are really incidental here: it’s Miss Fisher who takes center stage. Whether she’s walking on the wing of a plane, having unexpected sex with an Italian sculptor in the middle of the afternoon, tying herself to the back of a car driven by kidnappers, or shooting one of them neatly through the wrist – it is clear that Phryne is determined to live her life on her own terms. She is Nancy Drew mashed up with Madonna, and she is damned fun!

The books are different enough from the TV series that reading them isn’t a let down. My only issue with this one is the undercurrent of racism (Phryne actually uses the word “pickaninny”) which I suppose is indicative of the time period. I found it unnecessary and offensive.

Flying Too High is the first book I received in my latest postal book club, #WhoDunItByMail through the magnificent app, Litsy. There are about 30 people participating, and we all mail the next book on the 1st of every month. If you haven’t checked out Litsy, go get the app right now. I’m PatriciaU there, so follow me!

If you’re looking for a quick, light, entertaining reading experience, I recommend you spend some time with Phryne Fisher.

 

Ghost on the Case by Carolyn Hart


IMG_0160Here’s another series that I dropped down into without having read the earlier entries. I requested this one from NetGalley because I used to read Carolyn Hart all the time. I was especially fond of the Death on Demand series, until it became so formulaic and annoying I gave it up. I could not stand to read one more description of Max as “Joe Hardy, all grown up and sexy as hell.” Even so, I still enjoy Hart’s breezy, casual, tongue-in-cheek style of writing which is certainly evident in Ghost on the Case.

Bailey Ruth is a ghost. She died and went to heaven when her cabin cruiser sunk in the Gulf. Bailey seems to enjoy being a ghost because she can change her outfit at will, and appears as though she’s 27 (which was a very good year!). In Hart’s Heaven, ghosts are assigned to various “departments.” Bailey is assigned to the Department of Good Intentions, which means she gets sent back to Earth occasionally to help right a wrong which seems to involve investigating a crime. Here we find Bailey sent to her hometown in Oklahoma to help a woman who is forced into committing a crime in order to rescue her little sister, who is being held captive. Hi-jinks ensue, and through Bailey’s assistance, the bad guy is caught.

This is a perfect beach read – fast paced, clever, and fun. It doesn’t make you think too much, but certainly provided me with a couple hours of uninterrupted, enjoyable reading time. Is it a classic? No. But if you enjoy cozy mysteries with a sassy protagonist, give Bailey Ruth a shot. I’ll be going back to check out some of the earlier entries in the series.

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.

Swiss Vendetta by Tracee de Hahn


swizz vendettaYou know the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover?” Well, it was far from top of mind when I spotted this beauty buried in the Mystery section at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. Hadn’t heard of the author. Wasn’t discounted. Set in Switzerland. But the cover! It called to me. So, I bought it.

What I found was a first-in-a-series, gently meandering but totally clever whodunit featuring the completely likable Inspector Agnes Luthi, charming aristocrat Julien Vallotton, and a cast of memorable characters.

We meet Agnes as she negotiates rapidly deteriorating roads, attempting to reach the grand Chateau Vallotton in the middle of the worst snow & ice storm Lausanne, Switzerland has seen in decades. The body of a young woman has been found outside the chateau, and Agnes is called to investigate her first case in the Violent Crimes Unit of the Lausanne Police Department. She manages to reach the chateau, where she finds herself snowed in with two fellow detectives, members of the Vallotton family, and assorted other characters, one of whom is most definitely a murderer. Even while she is neck deep in the murder, we find that Agnes is also wrestling with some personal tragedy. Her investigation becomes her own catharsis, leading to a very satisfying ending.

The author manages to weave Agnes’ personal tragedy into the story, so that the reader begins to know Agnes at the same time Agnes begins to know her suspects. Agnes herself is a welcome female protagonist, a professional woman who is also a mother trying to do the best she can and not always succeeding. This is one of those unusual mysteries that ride the rails between “cozy” and “hardboiled” detective fiction, which is a niche in which I will happily hide. In some ways, Agnes reminded me a bit of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury, if that character had been female. I was delighted to find out that this is, indeed, the first in a series. The second in the series, A Well-Timed Murder, is scheduled for release in February 2018. Here’s hoping to finding an advanced reading copy!

Highly recommended.