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The Seige Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Ariana Franklin, best selling author of medieval thrillers, died while writing “The Seige Winter” in 2011.  It was completed and published by Ariana’s daughter Samantha Norman.

The narrator of the story is William, Abbot of Perton Abbey around 1180 a.d., who is telling the story on his death bed for a young monk to transcribe.  The story is one about his family and their household about 40 years earlier, during the wars between the daughter of Henry I, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen.  Henry on his death bed had declared Matilda his heir, but most of the barons of the land refused to swear alliegance to a woman and selected Stephen instead.  It was a time of great hardship as nobles loyal to Matilda were beseiged by Stephen’s superior troops and villages were plundered and burned.

One of the casualties during this time was the rape of a young girl in the Fens by a bunch of mercenaries led by a murderous monk loyal to Stephen.  One of the mercenary archers, Gwil, took pitty on the girl and defected in order to take care of her and to get her to safety.  He called the girl Penda since she could not remember her own name or the horrendous circumstances that caused her to be separated from her people.  To keep her safe on the road, Gwil insisted she disguise herself as a boy, and he taught her archery skills so that she would have a way of making a living.  After some years on the road as entertainers, they were forced into the company of a group of nobles who were fleeing from mercenaries, a group that happened to include Empress Matilda herself.  They all fled to Kenniford Castle, the home of Maud of Kenniford.  The Abbot, William, was the young boy at the time of the story who was Maud’s stepson.

One theme in this novel is about the place of women in medieval Anglo-Saxon and Norman society and how some were able to transcend their station in life through happenstance of birth and through hard work, skill and some degree of deception.  There are several very strong women role-models in this story, all of whom are to a large degree feared and admired by William.

There is considerable tension in this thriller as the reader waits for the inevitable second face-off between Penda and the murderous monk.

The Seige Winter” is well-crafted and informative about a period in history that was fundamental to the formation of the powerful Norman baronies in England during the Middle Ages.  It keeps readers on the edge of their seats to discover what will happen to several favorite characters, including Penda, Gwil, Maud and her love interest, Sir Alan.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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Death at St Vedast by Mary Lawrence

I enjoy a good historical mystery where you can tell the author has at least one foot in that era.  Such a mystery is “Death at St. Vedast” by Mary Lawrence.  Lawrence proved in her first “A Bianca Goddard Mystery,” “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” that she had thoroughly researched the social, economic, political and cultural history of England at the time of Henry VIII.  “Death at St. Vedast” is an inventive continuation of alchemist, healer and amateur sleuth, Bianca Goddard’s story.

This new story is set in 1543 in London and in a small village outside London called Dinmow. Bianca and her husband, John, have rented John’s master’s house when the Silversmith, Boisvert, prepares to move to the home of his bride, Odile Farendon, a wealthy widow of a Goldsmith.  Several suspicious deaths occur in and around St. Vedast, the church where Odile and Boisvert are to be married.  The deaths could be signs of poisoning, bewitching, or both.  Boisvert and the priest who marries the couple, Father Nelson, are both accused.  Similar strange deaths occur in the village of Dinmow, the place where the flour used to make communion wafers and a pax bread given to the bride before her marriage.  Bianca observes a number of suspicious happenings between members of the Goldsmiths Guild, the White and Brown Bread Bakers Guilds, an attorney, the warden at St. Vedast, and others, that cause her to suspect people are being framed to protect those who are really guilty.  She and John need to take a trip to Dinmow to investigate and start to unlock what really happened.

Lawrence carefully explains in an afterword where she has changed some details to fit the storyline, primarily in where she locates some of the guildhalls.  It is clear that she has a very good grasp of what life in Tudor England was really like.  There are plenty of colorful descriptions, interesting plots, exciting action and authentic dialogue to make “Death at St. Vedast” a page-turner for all who appreciate fiction set in early Renaissance England.

Reviewed from a supplied advance edition. This book is now available from Kensington Books.

Liz Nichols

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Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris

Behind Closed Doors” by B.A. Paris was an instant best seller in the UK perhaps because it taps into the fears every woman has when she starts a new relationship that may lead to marriage.  It is, in some ways, the British answer to “Gone Girl.”  The novel will keep the reader constantly engaged, but it will be depressing as well.  It was published in the US in hardcopy on August 9, 2016 and is doing well in sales in the US also.

Behind Closed Doors” is about what seems to the outside world to be an ideal marriage of two professionally-oriented people, an attorney who takes on domestic abuse cases, Jack Angel, and a buyer for Harrods, Grace.  Jack wants her to give up her career when then get married, and Grace agrees both to have more time with Jack and to prepare to take care of her sister with Down’s syndrome, Millie, who will live them them in the countryside once she completes school.  Jack buys and decorates the perfect house and the newlywed couple befriend a few of the neighbors.  Things look deceptively rosy in the beginning.

Very shortly, Jack holds Grace hostage even when they go on vacation in Thailand. He subjects her to brutal psychological torture.  Grace initially believes that she can get away and convince others that she is being held against her will, but Jack is always two or three steps ahead and is good at convincing anyone who is asked to help by his wife that she is mentally ill.  The preparations to take Millie captive and to take even more than psychological punishment out on the mentally disabled girl becomes heart-wrenching for Grace and for the reader as attempt after attempt to foil Jack’s plan fails.

Readers who liked “Gone Girl” will also like “Behind Closed Doors.”  It is tightly written, the characters are multi-dimensional and explored in detail, and the plot is complex and heart-wrenching.

The sad thing is, almost everyone knows someone who is, or has, suffered psychological and/or physical abuse at the hands of the person who should be most trusted.  I have a niece who is not allowed to contact her parents or any of her old friends. She is closely monitored by a jealous husband. She and her daughter are held virtually as prisoners by her husband and his family and yet no one has been able to get her out of this situation because of the constant psychological abuse she has received and her reluctance or inability to turn her husband in for abuse.  “Behind Closed Doors” is a frighteningly real piece of fiction written to expose this type of domestic abuse.  It’s not a pleasant book to read, but it gives a message that must be heard.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed from a supplied early readers edition.

Liz Nichols

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The Bursar’s Wife by E.G. Rodford

The Bursar’s Wife” is an old-fashioned gumshoe story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler.  I found it a little slow-going, but then I’ve read so many fast-paced thrillers lately that a more sedate British who-done-it like “The Bursar’s Wife” just doesn’t have enough action in it for my tastes, especially in the first half of the book.

This is the first novel in the “A George Kocharyan Mystery” series which is set in Cambridge, England.  George is an old fashioned PI who does almost all of his snooping the old-fashioned way by doing stake-outs and sneaking into crime scenes and suspected murder’s flats.  His only computer must be set to dial-up in order to gain access to the Internet.  When he needs online research done quickly he has to have his assistant or her son use their home computer.  This would be fine if the plot were set in the 1980’s, but it is supposed to be set in a modern-day Cambridge.

George is hired by the wife of the Bursar at Morley College, which is one of the colleges within Cambridge University.  She is concerned because her daughter is going out with an older man she is concerned might be capable of raping her daughter.  The wife is also being blackmailed because of a sex tape that was created of her by the same man years before while she was in college and was put under the influence of a date rape drug.  Mrs. Booker is afraid of history repeating itself and asks for George’s help to protect her daughter and possibly bring Quinton Boyd to justice.  Considerable murder and mayhem take place before George is able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Boyd is behind a series of sexual and drug ecapades.  Date rape and forced sex for porno exploitation are certainly a relevant topics and worthly of exploration in this novel.

I’d give “The Bursar’s Wife” one a one thumbs up.  The character Kocharyan is a memorable one and he should develop as a character sort of like fine wine ages over time.  The author is in the process of writing book two in this series entitled “The Runaway Maid” to be out in March 2017.  Hopefully, the pace will pick up in subsequent mysteries.

Liz Nichols

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

 

Rise of the Enemy by Rob Sinclair

Rise of the Enemy” is a good, old-fashioned spy thriller, the second in “The Enemy” series by Rob Sinclair. Sinclair is a forensic accountant living in northeast England.  He was challenged to write this series on a promise to his wife that he could pen thrillers that she could not put down.  I think he’s done it!

The protagonist, Carl Logan, is an experienced special agent working for a joint US-UK agency called the Joint Intelligence Agency sent in to Russia to do some industrial spying.  He and his accomplice are challenged almost immediately by officers from the FSB (formerly the KGB) and Logan is exposed to months of torture and deprivation in a Russian prison before he manages to escape.  It seems the worst of Logan’s enemies are not the Russians but people from within his own organization who would like to see him dead.

Logan is a likeable hero and someone who seems a lot more like the reader than the stereotypical, Bond-like spy.  He is a complex character who gets into an almost impossible situation.  We can especially feel for him when he is given such a raw deal by his own people, even though this theme has been explored by other series (the Bourne titles, Homeland).  It is hard to see how Logan can get out of the fix where he will be hunted down whether he tries to hide in Russia or he goes back to the UK or the USA.  The seemingly impossible situations Logan experiences make this a nail-biter of a thriller.

While the main character is certainly explored in all his complexities, I don’t feel the villains in the novel are given enough development.  They come off a bit one-dimensional.  Perhaps in future titles the author can make more of Logan’s main opponents.

In all, “Rise of the Enemy” is an excellent spy thriller and I look forward to reading more of this series.

(Reviewed from a provided copy.)

Liz Nichols

 

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Two Mysteries Set in 1700s

I generally like historical fiction, and specifically, mysteries set during an age when England was flexing its merchant muscle and coming to terms with such issues as making it illegal to import slaves.  In the Colonies the French and Indian War was setting the stage for revolution ten or fifteen years later.

The two books I’ve read over the past two or three weeks are “The Hidden Man” by Robin Blake and “The Constable’s Tale” by Donald Smith.  Smith’s book is due to be published Sept. 15, but can be ordered now through Amazon.  Blake’s book came out last March.

The Hidden Man” is set in Preston, Lancashire, England in 1742.  The protagonist is the town coroner who is charged with investigating suspicious deaths and holding inquests to determine cause of death.  The Coroner, Titus Cragg, has a partner in his investigations, Dr. Luke Fidelis, who ministers among both the aristocratic folk and the poor within the region.  They are constantly at odds with the local magistrate in trying to determine who murdered a local goldsmith and pawnbroker, Mr. Pimbo and left him in an office locked from the inside.  When it becomes difficult to explain how the murderer got out the Dr. makes the supposition that the killer escaped when the room was opened and a number of curious onlookers rushed in to see what was going on.  It seems far-fetched by both Cragg and the magistrate, but will Fidelis be proven correct?  It appears that Pimbo had invested in a shipping venture to buy slaves off the coast of Africa, take them to Barbados, and trade them for rum and other goods to be sold in the Colonies.  The venture was being investigated by a marine insurance agency because a claim had been made that the ship had been lost a sea. The insurance company investigator has a young black servant with him who turns out to be a young woman.

The Hidden Man” plot is fairly convoluted and there are multiple suspects for two separate murders that take place, including the young black woman.  There are so many details and characters it is easy to get lost and also easy to get impatient with the many blind alleys this story goes down before the mystery is resolved.  It brings up some major social issues, such as the slave trade, but then the discussion is dropped and never goes anywhere.

If I had only time to read one of the two books set in this time period, it would be Donald Smith’s “Constable’s Tale.”  The protagonist in this tale is also a lawman, the constable of Craven County, North Carolina, Harry Woodyard.  A family friend, Comet Elijah, an elderly American Indian wiseman, is accused of savagely killing a farm family on the edge of New Bern, North Carolina, and Harry is obliged to take him into custody.  He can’t believe his friend, Elijah, could kill a family in cold blood, and he finds a Masonic emblem pin at the crime scene that might indicate someone else visited the farm family and could have been responsible.  Harry goes on a lengthy quest to find the owner of the pin.  His travels take him to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia and points north into Canada, where Harry gets mixed up with the seige on Quebec, British and French double-agent, and several encounters with an old flame. The ending was a surprise I did not see coming.

The Constable’s Tale” as an exciting read from start to finish and I had a hard time putting it down until I was finished.  It is supenseful and provides insight into a violent and formative time in American history.  “The Constable’s Tale” is highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

(“The Constable’s Tale” was reviewed from a provided copy.

 

 

 

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Two British Mysteries from British Library Crime Classics

I was recently introduced to a revival series of long-forgotten British mysteries and crime novels from the 1920s and 1930s republished into the British Library of Crime Classics and made available in the U.S. through Poisoned Pen Press.  I found my first two reads in this series quite delightful.  They were “The Sussex Downs Murder” by John Bude and “Murder in Piccadilly” by Charles Kingston.

John Bude wrote “The Sussex Downs Murder” in 1936.  He was a full time mystery writer for 20 years before his untimely death at the age of 56 in 1957.  During World War II he remained at home in charge of the local Home Guard.  After the war he was a founding member of the Crime Writers’ Association.  Charles Kingston also published “Murder in Piccadilly” in 1936 but little is known about the writer.  He began writing crime novels in 1921 and continued for about 25 years producing about a book a year.

Of the two I find the plot and characters, as well as the setting, more memorable in “The Sussex Downs Murder.” It is set along the dramatic white cliffs of Sussex in England where the Rother brothers have a family farmhouse and a lime kiln business.  One day John takes off on a trip and never comes back.  His car is found abandoned. Suspicion builds among the investigating police on the brother, and also on the brother’s wife.  There had been rumors about an affair between the wife and her brother-in-law.  When human bones are found mixed into bags of lime from the Rother’s kiln the police confirm that John Rother was murdered.  There are a number of clever twists in the plot that will leave the reader second-guessing the killer.  “The Sussex Downs Murder” was one of those books that was hard to put down until the very end.

In “Murder in Piccadilly” a young member of the aristocratic Cheldon family, Bobbie, has fallen for a dancer named Nancy Curzon who works at a Piccadilly night club called the Frozen Fang owned by a gangland character named Nosey Ruslin.  Nancy is invited to the family estate to meet the family.  Bobbie wants to get his uncle’s blessing and a hand with his monthly expenses so he can afford to marry.  Nancy does not realize that her suitor is not already financially set.  Bobbie is initially the prime suspect when Uncle Massy Curzon is found murdered.  Is he just a fall-guy for someone else’s greed?

Any lover of the Golden Age of murder mysteries will love this duo of British crime novels.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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Death of a Liar by M C Beaton

Sergeant Hamish Macbeth is as irascible as ever in M.C. Beaton’s latest “A Hamish Macbeth Mystery,” “Death of a Liar.”  The novel is set, as usual, in Sutherland district of Scotland’s far north in a couple of fictional towns called Lochdubh and Strathbane.  Macbeth acts as the Lochdubh town constable under constant attack from his superior, Detective Chief Inspector Blair who is pressuring to bring all of the police force under one roof leaving the old folk in the isolated villages with no one to look out for their safety.  Needless to say, Hamish Macbeth is against the consolidation effort.

In this installment, Hamish is fooled by a young woman who claims to have been raped.  It turns out that she is a known liar and cannot follow through with a consistent story nor a description of the assailant. She ultimately admits that she made the story up.  The next time she calls for help she is ignored, and later is found brutally murdered.  A couple recently arrived from England also are murdered leaving Hamish with three challenging cases to investigate.  Are they related cases?

Ready to assist is a new forensic examiner, Christine Dalray who quickly develops an interest in Hamish beyond work.  Hamish, on the other hand, is longing to get to know a Polish baker who has recently settled in the area named Anka.  Anka takes a shine, instead, to Hamish’s police partner, Dick Fraser, and during the course of the story Dick leaves the police force to move in with Anka to become her assistant baker.  Once again, Hamish is left alone in his little police station home with no real prospects for a companion other than his dog and his cat.

There is one particularly wild scene toward the end of the book when the killers have Hamish locked in a coffin and are about to throw him  off a cliff into the ocean.  I won’t reveal the outcome, but it is not something I will forget anytime soon.

Death of a Liar” was an enjoyable read.

Liz Nichols

 

 

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The Counterfeit Heiress by Tasha Alexander

Tasha Alexander, author of “The Counterfeit Heiress” seems to have one foot in the Victorian era.  She has a good grasp of the people and places in and around London and Paris during that era, and particularly the world of upper class Victorian women.

When Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin attend a costume ball in London they are surprised to see another guest in a costume that looks much like Emily’s.  Some guests recognize that party-goer as the world-traveling heiress, Estella Lamar.  The next day Emily learns that the woman she saw at the masked ball has been murdered and is not Lamar at all, but a woman who for some unknown reason was impersonating her.  Who killed the impersonator?  Where is Estella Lamar?

This period mystery is set between London and Paris in 1897.  The Hargreaves are asked to solve this double mystery by one of Lamar’s old friends, Cecile du Lac.  The settings in Paris give this mystery a rather Gothic, noir feel for many of the scenes take place in and around a Paris cemetery and the catacombs under the city.  This is also a psychological suspense story because it delves deeply into the mind of a reclusive young heiress and the actions of her apparent captor.  The chapters jump between the investigation into the murder and the disappearance of Lamar, and chapters that set up the story about Lamar, her captivity and her mental state that leads to some surprising twists and turns in the plot.

The Counterfeit Heiress” is an exceptionally well-crafted and complex mystery that will be enjoyed thoroughly by fans of her Lady Emily Mystery series and many other lovers of fiction set in the late Victorian era.

Liz Nichols

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Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron

Barron’s “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas” is fittingly the twelfth novel in the “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” series.  Barron continues to write in the style of Jane Austen and uses the nineteenth century writer as a fictional character in the crime-solving series.

Jane and her family are invited to spend the holidays at The Vyne, a large manorhouse several miles from the parsonage at Steventon where Jane’s brother, James is vicar.  The invitation comes after Jane, her sister and mother are run off the road by a carriage with a mysterious gentleman who is headed to The Vyne rather as an apology.  At The Vyne they meet the Gambier’s the wife and young adult son and daughter of an Admiral, Mr. West, the son of a famous painter, and Thomas Vere-Chute, the brother of William Chute, the lord of the manor.   There are also assorted staff at the manor, including Benedict L’Anglois, secretary to Mr. Chute.  A messenger arrives from Admiral Gambier with the original of the Treaty of Ghent that signaled the truce between Great Britain and the United States in the War of 1812.  The charter required Chute’s review and signature as a Member of Parliament.  The young officer is killed before he even gets off The Vyne property the day after her arrived on his way back to London.  Jane finds a thin wire that was used to bring down the officer’s horse and several other clues also point to murder.  There is a second murder a couple days later.  Were the crimes committed by the same hand?

The solution to the murders is absorbing even though there are relatively few potential suspects and relatively little character development to help point toward one or more culprit.  The book also serves as a good reminder of how easy life is for most of us now compared to days before modern utilities and transportation.  A 15 mile trip in winter could easily take a couple days in a conveyance which might only have a few hot bricks to keep the feet warm.  Yet families braved the elements to celebrate the holidays with family and friends just as they do now.

Lovers of this series will enjoy “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.” It is certainly appropriate to curl up with this book on a cold winter’s night in front of a roaring fire.

Liz Nichols

 

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