Take Six Girls by Laura Thompson

Takesix.jpgIntriguing look at the Mitford sisters in the shadow of WWII

The Mitfords traced their heritage back to the Norman Conquest and it was only due to an accident with the eldest son that their father became a Baron. Six daughters and a son must have been incredibly worrying, a real-life Pride & Prejudice trying to get them all married off. The girls grew up in country houses, barely schooled and disciplined yet always under strict supervision.

The sisters emerge as complicated and immensely flawed humans. Take Six Girls is a great book for anyone wishing to learn more about them or the atmosphere of late 1920s through 1930s England. There are eerie shadows of current affairs; the schism of political leaders, the famous for fame scandals, the plague of racism.

As nonfiction, it pulls heavily from many sources and feels well researched. But the story itself is also enjoyable, as the Mitford sisters emerge one by one — unique, but all with a consistent strain of Mitfordism. You can argue, as the book does, that the Mitford girls are products of their time and rebelled against it in remarkable ways, again for their time. Though they are remarkable, I found them narrow minded and self-centered. (Although I can’t exactly argue with the beautiful writing of Love in a Cold Climate…)

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

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!

thedarkness

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!

Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro

cover87970-medium.pngIncredible true stories of the women who dared to fly, fighting for a spot in history.

Inspired by true events, Crossing the Horizon is the heartbreaking and lovely story of women fighting for a spot in history against tremendous odds. In the 1920s, before Amelia Earhart made history with her solo flight, each of these women wanted to be first.

Elsie was the fierce daughter of an English peer who was sucked out of a plane during a loop maneuver and managed to hold on to a wire until the pilot could land. Mabel was the beautiful cigar girl who married into wealth, determined to be first. Ruth was the epitome of the new American girl – brave, cheerful and feminine – saving her beauty pageant earnings to learn flying.

Despite a few bits being dry, the stories captured me and I soon fell in love with Ruth and Elsie. Frances Grayson wasn’t one of the main characters but her exploits were included. I found Mabel to be spoiled and whiny, but I cried as I read about Ruth and Elsie’s daring flights. Inspiring and delightful!

Thanks to NetGalley for the 30-day ebook loan.

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!

Pitching at a writer’s conference

Over the past few days I’ve been attending PNWA 2016 in Seattle. I’ve attended many technical conferences but never one for writing. It was a very rewarding experience, especially as I’d done a lot of prep ahead of time.

A writer’s conference lets you meet the local community, learn from others and pitch to agents and editors. I had business cards printed and I got more active on Twitter since so many book folks are there. I definitely met a lot of great writers and hope to stay in touch with them.

One thing I wanted to focus on was the pitch…

Preparing my pitch

I spent weeks scouring the internet for tips about writing a pitch, a query letter and a synopsis. I found help everywhere from Writer’s Digest to personal blogs. I got advice from a friend who was also attending.

I finally realized that the pitch should be more of a conversation – starting with why I was interested in the agent, a quick sentence about my book, then answer their questions.

Finding the right agents and editors to pitch

Mystery commonly gets lumped in with thriller and suspense. Mystery is a whodunnit (starts with the crime), thriller is how to stop them, and suspense often has elements of both. Cozy and historical mystery are their own sub-genre, and someone who represents might not like noir, for instance.

So I looked at the list of agents and editors who would be there. I really wanted to find great matches – people who were interested in cozy / historical mystery and whose companies had represented similar books.

Once I narrowed down to about 6 people, I researched their agencies, bought books they’d represented or edited and honed an individual pitch for each of them.

The result?

I’m excited to say that all of them expressed interest in seeing more!!

Now I need to re-read my query letter, get a fresh pair of eyes on it and send it out. This is just the beginning of a long road – even if I am lucky enough to land an agent in this round, it’s going to take a while to get published.

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.

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

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.