Blyth Grove – a house untouched for 90 years

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Built in 1905, this National Trust house is fascinating — it’s a time capsule unchanged since the head of household, Mr. Straw, died in 1932. In their grief, the family kept the house completely unchanged until the last Straw died in 1991.

What a rare glimpse of life between the wars, and a beautiful example of interior decoration from 1923. Even the food in the pantry is authentic, including Bovril, a thick, salty meat extract developed in the 1870s.

For more photos and a video tour, check out the Daily Mail article. It’s moments like these that I wish I lived in England, so I could hop on a train and see these amazing pieces of history.

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A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

perilous.jpgThe second book in Deanna Raybourn’s new series is a romantic suspense with elements of mystery. Her prose and story-telling is excellent, very beautifully rendered, so that even if you’re not a big fan of the smoldering chemistry between the protagonists, you’ll stick around for the writing.

Set in England in 1887, Veronica Speedwell is a butterfly collector with a secret past and a passion for observing. She’s a cross between Flavia de Luce, Sherlock Holmes and a romance heroine. She habours a not-yet-consummated longing for the handsome Stoker, who may look like ruffian but acts not at all like one.

Veronica is asked to do the impossible – clear an artist convicted of murdering his pregnant mistress in one week before he hangs. Caught between the royalty and attractive but morally questionable artists, Veronica and Stoker have their work cut out for them.

If you’re a mystery lover, then the murderer will likely be obvious in the first few chapters. There are certain things you just know how to look for. But how Veronica and Stoker discover and trap the killer remains an interesting and satisfying read.

(Review of book #1, A Curious Beginning)

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

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A Study in Scarlet Women is a compelling take on Sherlock Holmes, probably quite distant from what Doyle would ever have imagined for his detective. Especially since he didn’t even want to keep writing Sherlock Holmes and was forced by public demand to revive him from an early death.

I intended to read only a chapter or two, but polished off the book in one sitting. There’s so much to love about the book, especially the feminine, food-loving Charlotte Holmes with a brilliant mind who gives herself the name Sherlock. The book’s concise characters, rapid pace and innumerable twisted threads gathered expertly together make this an excellent read. The mystery’s ending is rather dark, though handled with discretion.

Personally I was disappointed by her passion for Lord Ingram, though it is well written. I was hoping for Charlotte to prove as unusual in her love affairs as she is in habits. There’s something winning about the juxtaposition of a brilliant, daring mind with a fondness for baked goods, love of ruffles and a quotient of chins she allows herself.

I look forward to reading the next installment in the series. This is a NetGalley read that I decided I needed to purchase at my local bookstore!

Giveaway: “The Darkness Knows” mystery!

I’m excited to share the first giveaway on the blog! This is for a copy of the delightful “The Darkness Knows“, which I originally read as an advance copy but liked so much that I bought it at my local bookstore.

A 1930s radio star is thrown together with a private eye when she’s next in line for murder. This is a very enjoyable historical mystery that isn’t too gritty while still keeping the stakes high. A lot of fun to read. And look at that gorgeous cover!

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To enter, simply comment on this post by 8/21/2016. US shipping addresses only.

I’ll contact you to share your address with the publisher – if I don’t hear back within 2 days, I’ll draw another name.

Good luck!

Guest post: Writing an authentic historical mystery

I was thrilled to ask debut author Cheryl Honigford about how she researched the 1930s. Her novel, The Darkness Knows, is a vibrant murder mystery that sparkles with energy and authenticity. I love her answer!

“My debut novel, THE DARKNESS KNOWS, is set in 1938. I was not alive then and very few of the people in my life were either. I do have, however, a passion for the era and a passion for history, in general. To me, writing historical fiction is a way for me to spend inordinate amounts of time researching and “living in” an era that is not my own with the added bonus of being able to produce something tangible from all that research and daydreaming.

So how did I write characters that are products of a time I have no first-hand knowledge of? First, I sought out media (movies, radio shows, newspapers, magazines, etc…) of the actual time period. Immersion in the pop culture of the period was key for me – the music, the hairstyles, the fashions. That gave me a good overall impression of life during the 1930s, but it didn’t tell me how people actually lived. The next thing I did was find memoirs and first person narratives of those that were living in the 1930s. For example, I found a memoir of a radio actor written only ten years or so after that time period. That gave me mundane details about how shows were produced and simply what it was like to be an actor/actress for the radio in the late 1930s. It was invaluable since most information about radio in the era has more of a history text book feel – focused on dates, and names and events. History books, in general, don’t usually document the average details of people’s daily lives, and it’s those details that will bring your historical fiction to life. Diaries and letters can be helpful – especially if you’re dealing with a time period pre-mass media. And if you’re lucky enough to be writing a time period in the not so distant past there are probably people all around you that actually lived it. They’re likely more than happy to share what high school was like in 1963, or how they started and drove a car in 1980.

My two main characters, Vivian and Charlie, are fictional but they are products of a very specific time in history. They were born in the early 1910s and came of age in the late 1920s. Vivian, especially, was formed by the devil-may-care atmosphere of 1920s. Their speech, their interests, their references need to be firmly rooted in that time. My only advice for getting something like that right is to immerse yourself in the time period so that it becomes second nature to you to write in that “voice”. Luckily for me, a lot of pop culture source material of the late 1930s still exists – magazines, movies, old radio shows themselves. I’ve watched countless old movies and listening to hundreds of hours of period radio broadcasts. It’s become second nature to me to know when what’s “period” 1930s or 1940s speech, and I can tell in a heartbeat if something is off or anachronistic (just ask my husband who has to suffer through my pointing them out if we’re watching anything set prior to 1950). Still, it’s difficult to get everything right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled “First usage of <insert word here>”. Words have a way of worming their way into the language and acting like they’ve always been there.

Having said all of that, I think it’s also important to remember that people are people. Human beings’ main motivations remain the same no matter the time period. Love, hate, jealousy – that’s what makes the world go round. It’s the way your characters go about expressing those motivations, however, that may be a bit different depending on your time period. Vivian’s arch rival, Frances, can’t start name-calling on social media in 1938, for example, but she can wage a gossip war behind the scenes at the radio station that’s just as effective in undermining Vivian’s reputation. As long as you are true to your characters base emotions and motivations the historical voice is something that will fall into place if you’ve done your research.”

An excellent journey into writing historical fiction, thank you so much Cheryl!

Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen

heirsAn entertaining historical romance blended with mystery, very Downton Abbey.

In book #7 of the Royal Spyness series we meet Georgianna (Georgie), 35th in line for the throne and rather hard up for cash. After trying to write her flighty actress mother’s memoirs, Georgie winds up being asked to help the Dowager Duchess of Eynsford.

It seems the current duke is a bit of a man’s man and has no heirs, whereas his sister’s children cannot inherit due to the entail. Eynsford will therefore pass back to the crown as soon as the current duke dies.

But the Dowager Duchess is determined not to let the estate return to the crown, so she finds Jack, a male heir in Australia. Due to his normal upbringing, his manners are clearly not that of a “proper” English duke, so she wants Georgie to help him. Also on the scene is Georgie’s unofficial and handsome Irish fiancé, Darcy.

The murder occurs halfway through the book – overall this is a tad light on the mystery angle. Although there are red herrings a plenty and a case could be made for a few suspects, the murderer is fairly obvious early on. There’s not a lot at stake for Georgie in her personal life nor as a result of the murder. But Georgie is charming and energetic, her narration comes across like the confidences of a good friend a la Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I enjoyed the readability and the bright picture painted of the 1920s.

A Deadly Affection by Cuyler Overholt

DeadlyA romantic historical mystery brimming with loss and forgiveness.

A Deadly Affection brings to mind the books of Anne Perry and Deanna Raybourn. The setting is fresh and alive, an engaging portrayal of 1907 New York. Dr. Summerford is trying to succeed as a woman in a crowded medical profession, difficult enough, while dealing with a past full of the sadness she tries to cure in others.

Her honourable father wants her to use her talents properly, instead of wasting them on untested mental theories. Jealous male students seek to discredit her. And pushed down into the past is the stable boy well below her station who left her humiliated and heart-broken – until he appears in her life again as the one person who can help her.

The book begins with her trying to help a group of troubled young women. She encourages one of them, Eliza, to seek the baby taken from her. Unfortunately, the doctor who took her baby winds up dead that same morning. The police believe they have an open and shut case. Dr. Summerford’s anger and heartbreak with the stable boy Simon must be put aside if she is to solve the case.

As she attempts to prove the innocence of her client Eliza, she is forced to both confront her own past and the dark secret that lurks behind the death of the good doctor. The mystery twists and turns with an ending that was rather disturbing, but overall the book seeks to focus on the courage of the characters.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Death Comes to London by Catherine Lloyd

deathlondonEqual parts London romance and cozy mystery, inspired by Austen. 

The main characters in Death Comes to London are echoes of Austen, with outspoken yet sensible Lucy (Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood) and sweet yet emotional Anna (Jane Bennet, Marianne Dashwood).

The second book in the series, Lucy and the perpetually grouchy Major Kurland were obviously involved in a murder earlier. Now Lucy and her sister are headed to London so that Anna can marry well, while Major Kurland comes to reluctantly accept a baronetcy. The reader is soon enveloped in a whirl of ballrooms and society dinners, disrupted by the death of a disagreeable old lady, the Countess of Broughton, and the poisoning of her grandson Lt. Broughton.

The suspects are an interesting assortment. Lady Bentley who planned to sue the countess for stealing her jewels; the jilted Miss Chingford (an old enemy of Lucy’s) who wanted to marry the grandson Lt. Broughton; the troubled younger grandson Oliver who vanishes after the murder. Since Lucy’s sister Anna and Lt. Broughton were becoming greatly enamoured, there’s a faint suggestion that Anna could have done it.

It was very obvious who the murderer was early on, so the interest became in seeing how they would catch the murderer, who would die next, and whether Lucy and the ‘hint-of-Darcy’ Major would finally become an item. The murderer was unmasked with 4 chapters remaining, but the ‘real’ climax of the book is later when Lucy’s wealthy uncle demands to know the Major’s intentions.

Although the mystery was not the strongest I’ve read, Lucy is a compelling character and I’m looking forward to trying book #3.

Bretherton by W. F. Morris

brethA gripping account of WWI with a tragic love story and a psychological mystery. 

When officer Captain Gurney stumbles into a ruined chateau, he is mystified why anyone would be playing a familiar British tune in the middle of the war. He discovers a German officer at the piano and a beautiful woman in white beside him. Both are dead.

But even more mystifying is that the German officer is actually G.B., his old friend and British officer Gerald Bretherton. How did G.B. come to this eerie chateau and how did he die? Is he British or German?

It is impossible to tell if G.B. is German or British until the very end. An equally good case could be made for either. The story is told from many views, including other men in G.B.’s unit and the diary of G.B. himself.

This story was written by a British Major who served in WWI and his treatment of the boys on the front is touching. He captures a sense of camaraderie, exhaustion, anger and bravery. It’s permeated with a sad, typically understated humour. After receiving a medal, G.B. says “Headquarters give decorations as lightly as they give up bits of the line that have cost lives to take.”

The premise is excellent but I found the mystery’s solution wasn’t entirely credible, like Agatha Christie’s more obscure short stories where the ending is a pseduo-psychological phenomenon. It also became obvious where the story was heading, so the last few chapters of the book fell a little flat.

A worthwhile read for the account of the war and G.B.’s tragic love story, even if the ending does not hold up on the suspense angle. It would also make an excellent movie.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

curiousAn elegant historical romance with a hint of mystery and a butterfly collecting heroine.

The novel opens at a funeral with the unusual heroine, Veronica Speedwell, unable to shed a tear for her lately departed guardian. Veronica is a thoroughly modern woman despite her Victorian surroundings – she’s a lepidopterist or butterfly collector with a scientific bent, an unknown past and an enjoyment of love affairs. Imagine a grown up Flavia de Luce meets romance heroine.

After the funeral she startles a would-be thief and manages to put up a good fight before being helped by a baron. The baron dumps her in the lap of Mr. Stoker, a scarred, handsome and muscular taxidermist whose greeting is little more than a growl of displeasure. The baron’s murder puts them both on the run, winding up at a traveling circus, and things only go downhill from there.

I don’t often read romance, not through any special dislike but because I have a long backlog of mystery books. This prose is elegant and enjoyable, although it took some time before we reached the murder and the circus. Veronica is strong-willed, even if that’s unlikely for her upbringing with two spinster aunts, but it helps to move the story along as she gives the world as good as she gets.

The story spends a lot of time on the fire between Stoker and Veronica, while making it clear that Veronica is her own woman and will choose Stoker on her own terms or not at all. There are similarities to this and Deanna Raybourn’s first book, Silent in the Grave, but Veronica is stronger and far more scientific than Lady Julia.

The ending brings the plot to an interesting close without banishing all of the miscreants, leaving plenty of opportunity (and future revelations) when Veronica and Stoker agree to an expedition together…

30-DAY E-BOOK LOAN COURTESY OF NETGALLEY.