Category Archives: General fiction

THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers (2017)

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Historical Fiction

Mrs. Placidia Hockaday is barely a teenager when she comes to live with her new husband, Major Gryffith Hockaday, on his farm in rural South Carolina.  They spend two days and two nights together until the Major receives the news that he must immediately return to his regiment.  The American Civil war has already been raging for around two years when the Major leaves his inexperienced young bride in charge of his 300 acre farm, his young son, and the few slaves and workers still attached to the farm.  Two years later he returns.  The gossip mongers are anxious to share some news with him; during his absence his young wife conceived and bore a child.  Yet there is no evidence of a baby and she is unwilling to share any information with her husband or the authorities.

This novel is told through a series of letters, journal entries, and legal documents and the narrative that emerges is a harrowing tale of abuse, deprivation, loss and even some heroics.  The truth is unveiled  to the reader slowly until the full story is exposed – with its many tragedies and a few triumphs.  This book would never be classified as “a mystery”,  yet there is a profound mystery at its core that must be unravelled by the reader.

This novel highlights the strength of one woman, forced  to overcome an almost impossible situation.  It also broached the topic of future generations and how they are affected by the circumstances of a war.  I think an interesting thing about this novel for me was how I actually changed my mind about certain characters as the novel progressed.

The epistolary novel was common until the beginning of the 20th century but there has been a resurgence in its popularity.  Some novels that come to mind –

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

Letters From Skye by Jesssica Brockmole (2013)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers Algonquin Books (2017)

 

 

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GOOD TIME COMING … by C.S. Harris (2016)

goodtime

Historical Fiction … A Novel of the American Civil War

I killed a man the summer I turned thirteen.  Sometimes I still see him in my dreams, his eyes as blue  as the Gulf on a clear spring morning, his cheeks reddened by the hot Louisiana sun. ”  page 1.

This is a powerful and harrowing story about a young girl named Armie coming-of -age in Louisiana during the American Civil War.  While almost every able-bodied man from the area is north fighting for the confederates, the women and children remain at home trying to maintain their dwellings, families and businesses. Almost every family has already lost a son, father, or relative, and the ones who haven’t, live in fear of that awful news.  Armie’s situation is unusual because, although her father is a physician with the confederate army,  her parents were staunch abolitionists before the war.  This earns them the mistrust of several of their neighbours at a time when  mutual  support is a lifeline.  In the spring of 1862,  the union troops were beginning to steam up the Mississippi River and the citizens were besieged  by army raiding parties; stealing and killing their livestock, burning their properties, and violating the women.  The population was starving and disease was rampant while the union soldiers helped themselves to anything and everything they could find.  Some women choose not to live with the repercussions of rape,  they would rather die.

And young Armie tries to make sense of a situation that is senseless, to understand a world that is in chaos, to recognise and adapt to the villainy and evil that she sees in men’s souls through their actions.  Not always successfully.  She asks lots of questions about God and she doesn’t get answers that satisfy her.  The two wisest people in her life are her own mother and an old former slave and they are only partially able to answer her questions.

“Life is unfair” is a quote from John Kennedy…and probably every teenager that ever lived.  But there is unfair  (my parents won’t buy me a new bike like all my friends have) and there is unfair ( I live in fear everyday over the new atrocities tomorrow could bring, and I wonder if I will survive.)

The truth is a little sickening and certainly not unique to this particular war; that the murdering, pillaging  and rape of women and children IS a weapon of war. It is demoralizing for the citizens and their fighting soldiers.

At one point in this novel young Armie is put in a position that no 13-year- old should ever have to face.  There are strong women in her family and she has some good role models. In fact the village women’s’ strength can be a revelation at times especially since some of them had been Southern Belles in their former life.   

I never like to give away too much with a plot but this novel had me riveted to every page. It was engrossing, interesting and thought-provoking.  It was also heartbreaking, agonizing and tragic.  

Many readers will be familiar with  C. S. Harris, since she is the author of the very successful   “Sebastien St. Cyr” mystery series with eleven entries so far. I have read them all (love them) and I suppose that is how I found this novel. I am glad I did because this is a powerhouse.

I am not a huge fan of the title although I can understand why it was chosen. GOOD TIME COMING  is a line from a song poular before the war and it certainly speaks of hope. And sometimes hope is all you have to get through. It just doesn’t seem strong enough for this powerful novel.—just my opinion.

GOOD TIME COMING

C. S. Harris

Severn House Publishers

2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IN FARLEIGH FIELD … by Rhys Bowen (2017)

in farleigh field     Mystery Fiction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I have been a Rhys Bowen fan for years and I  await each installment of her two current series with eager anticipation.  The “Molly Murphy” mysteries feature a capable and enterprising young woman – an Irish immigrant with an unfortunate past – rebuilding her  life in early twentieth century New York City.  There have been 16 installments in this series, with a new adventure available later this year.  It is always nice to have something to anticipate.

 The “Royal Spyness” mysteries  are set in England between the wars, and feature a young lady who is 35th in line to the throne.  Lady Georgiana  is dirt poor but rich with connections and usually finds herself performing some favour or another to stay in the good graces of her royal family.  In the background, her cousin Edward is courting a certain Mrs. Simpson.  There are nine books and counting in this more lighthearted series.

As soon as I heard that Rhys Bowen had a new novel coming out I knew I had to read it.   I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  This is a World War ll era novel with great characters (and in my opinion Rhys Bowen writes great characters)

 Farleigh Place is the stately English manor of Lord Westerham, his wife, and five daughters.  England is at war with Germany and half the estate has been commandeered by the British army; meanwhile the family learns to live in more reduced circumstances.  Middle daughter Pamela has a position at Bletchley Park, although her family thinks she is doing secretarial work.  Another daughter, Margot, is living in Paris and refusing to return home to England.  Ben is the son of the village vicar, and Pamela’s childhood friend.  (of course he is secretly in love with her)  A recent accident has kept him from enlisting but he does undercover work for the government and receives a lot of flack for not doing his part.  Another childhood friend – dashing flying ace Jeremy Prescott- has joined the RAF.

One day, as youngest daughter Phoebe is crossing the estate on her pony, she comes across a battered body in soldier’s clothing.  He has fallen from the sky due to a failed parachute.  This sets off  an inquiry with lots of  questions and Ben is tasked with discretely finding some answers.

 Each daughter has her own story.  This is where I always admire Rhys Bowen; I think she is great at writing characters that the reader can care about.  And she excels at writing women with good minds and strong personalities.  This novel has been promoted as a “stand alone” but I , for one, would love to see it become a series.  I feel the author has only scratched to surface with these characters.

IN FARLEIGH FIELD is a novel about WW ll with great characters and an exciting plot;  espionage, secrets and alliances of all kind are all explored in this excellent book.

The reader may want to read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) as a companion book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear (2017) …A Maisie Dobbs Novel

in this grave hour

Mystery Fiction

Historical Fiction

“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.  For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. ” — The opening lines of a speech given by King George Vl of England, on the day it was announced that England was at war with Germany. (September 3, 1939)

 The 13th novel in the MAISIE DOBB’S series begins with Maisie rushing to the home of her dearest friend Priscillia, so they can listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on the wireless: war has been declared. This is a time period the British often refer to as the “phoney war”, or Churchill’s term “the twilight war” where nothing much happens on land, involving the Allies,  for about eight months – ( although the seas are a different matter). The children of London are evacuated to country homes and the adults of London must carry gas masks and adhere to strict blackout rules. The initial  chaos contributes to the cases that Maisie must confront since the police force,  and the bureaucrats are overburdened.  Maisie is employed to investigate the murder of a man who was a Belgium refugee in the first war and she also attends to a little girl who is an evacuee with a mysterious background.

Fans of this series will remember that the first novel (MAISIE DOBBS, 2003) began in 1929 with Maisie, also a psychologist, opening her inquiry agency.  Many of the early cases had seeds in the first war and many of the characters were physically or mentally wounded by that war. But there was also healing and new life.  It is therefore terribly heartbreaking that many of the children that offered up hope throughout the series are now eligible to fight in the new war. And here is what separates a series from a stand-alone novel; the reader may become totally invested in the characters in a series. I thought the last book ( JOURNEY TO MUNICH, 2016) was the weakest in the entire collection but I still wanted more Maisie (and friends).

The author manages to convey an overall sense of incredulity among the older characters that there is – indeed – another war.  And some acceptance.  But the younger characters – meaning those who weren’t yet born during the 1st war or those who were too young to remember – often display a sense of excitement.

Overall I felt this was maybe not the best entry in this series – but it was good – and I will look forward to reading about the next chapter in Maisie’s life.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, a Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear, (2017), Harper Collins, 332 pages.

 

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THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home (2015)

Scottish Crime Fiction

Scottish Island Fiction

This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh,  named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and  a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.

Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event.  The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit.  This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands.  Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.

There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.

.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.

So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?

Published by Penguin Random House

383 Pages

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COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves …2016

This is the seventh cold-earthbook in Ann Cleeves’ delightful Shetland series featuring the dogged detecting skills of Jimmy Perez. I have been a fan of this series since the first book RAVEN BLACK appeared in 2007 and in some ways this book provides some closure from the first book.  Magnus Tait, a lonely old man and a suspect in RAVEN BLACK is being buried in the first few pages. We learn that in the intervening years, he had developed some friendships and his last years were not as lonely. It is during his funeral that a landslide sweeps through the cemetery and a nearby croft and exposes the body of a well dressed lady. It is determined that she was murdered before the landslide so Jimmy Perez calls Chief Inspector Willow Reeves to head the investigation. This is a character that has appeared in the last few books and, up until this book, I never cared for her much. I found her irritating and also wrong a lot of the time but in this entry she seems more reasonable (but I don’t think she is a good match for Jimmy.)  Jimmy is still grieving for his murdered girlfriend but he is at least open to the idea of a relationship.  Well…he is…then he isn’t…then he is….you get the idea.

Sandy Wilson is another character that has been along since the first book . The once raw  recruit has grown and is now a thoughtful contributor to the team. He is also in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if marriage is in his future.

In recent years this book series has been made into a television series – simply called SHETLAND.  I have only just recently had a chance to see it and it is well worth watching just for the spectacular scenery.  I love Douglas Henshall but I think he was miscast a Jimmy Perez.  Jimmy had a shipwrecked Spaniard in his family tree and is always described as dark and Spanish looking.

I love these books because Cleeves does a wonderful job of describing life on the Islands. This book does a great job of describing the contradictions of privacy – the homes can be miles apart with vast expanses of land in between yet there is that small town element where everybody knows your business. Private but no privacy.

Good addition to a fabulous series.

***  After the third book this was called a trilogy – after the fourth book it was called a quartet – now it is just called a series.  I mention this because in recent years I just fell in love will Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE TRILOGY….LOVED IT so I just want to remind Peter that there is no reason you have to stop a three just because you once called it a trilogy.***

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves   2016   Macmillon

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PLAGUE LAND (2014),THE BUTCHER BIRD (2015)…by S.D. Sykes

BUTCHERPLAGUE LAND

HISTORICAL FICTION

Before I have my say on these two books, I would like to introduce three quotes that I believe to be relevant to today’s books.

All great changes are preceded by chaos. Deepak Chopra

Without a struggle there can be no progress. Frederick Douglas

Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested  interest in the chaos in which they exist. Richard Nixon

So I think I will be discussing change.

In 1350 England was a changed country. Between one-third and one-half of the population had been wiped out by the plague and the survivors were living in fear and accompanied by grief. The plague years had not been productive and many citizens were also starving to death. And the great manor houses had not been unaffected. Young Oswald was recalled from his situation in the monastery when the Lord of the manor, the heir, and the spare suddenly and quickly succumbed to the plaque. I am referring, of course, to his father and two older brothers. Oswald was probably not well suited for the job ahead of him – he had been in the monastery since the age of seven, and at 19 he had no practical training.  England was still operating under the feudal system (fortunately the author explains that a little in the glossary) but all was not running smooth. So many people had died that the able bodied labourer had become quite precious. It was a matter of supply and demand. Laws had been in existence for centuries that bound the various levels of tenants, serfs etc. to the manor house and the wages were also set in stone. But fields needed to be harvested and if someone else was willing to pay more coin in the next county then the labourers might think about relocating. Lord and labourer would both be breaking the law but the number of sheriff’s men had also been reduced in the Plague years. Desperate times bring desperate measures and all that. And young Oswald had more problems…After finding a murdered girl he needed to find the culprit and deal with the priest that was telling everyone that “dog head’ creatures are doing the killing to avenge their sins.

Both these novels center on a murder and throughout the investigations Oswald is hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of those involved.He also needs to appease his narcissist mother and sour sister (although I think I would have been “sour” too if I had been a woman in those times.)

I enjoyed reading both these book for the insight into a difficult time and because I like a whodunnit.

 

PLAGUE LAND by S.D. Sykes (2014) Hodder & Stoughton 324 pages

THE BUTCHER BIRD by  S.D. Sykes (2015) Hodder & Stoughton 336 pages

 

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GIRL WAITS WITH GUN … by Amy Stewart (2015)

Historical Fiction Novel

GIRL WAITS

This novel begins in 1914 as three American sisters are heading into a nearby town, from their rural farm, to pick up a few provisions. Suddenly a motor car, driven by a young factory owner, slams into the ladies’ pony cart, causing extensive damages and narrowly avoiding serious physical harm or death. This is the only form of transportation for these three women so elder sister Constance has the  damages assessed and sends the bill to the factory owner. He ignores it. Constance decides to take the factory owner to court. At this point in the story the factory owner – a man by the name of Henry Kaufman – enlists his group of thugs to systematically harass, stalk, blackmail and endanger the three sisters. Not a nice guy.

One of the best aspects of this fiction novel is that it is based on the real life story of Constance Kopp – a woman who became America’s first female sheriff.  The factory owner is pretty easy to dislike; he sees himself as an entitled man with his inherited wealth,  and his treatment of all women and his employees is despicable.  Of course these events took place one hundred years ago so things would be different now (we wish –think of affluenza teen in the U.S.A.)

This is a great book to read for fans of strong female characters. Don’t suggest to these ladies that they may improve their life by finding a man to marry them. They will do whatever they can to stay together.  In their past we find that they would handle a problem “head-on” and find a solution, And yes they had problems (even secrets).

The ladies find assistance from the sheriff. He’s a good sort and not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

Throughout the story the woman have other difficulties as well, especially their dwindling cash reserves. They have recently realized that they can’t keep selling off packets of the farm or they will soon have nothing. Youngest sister Flaurette has some sewing talent but A paying job would sure help.

Perfect for fans of female fiction and historical fiction.

Possibly first of a series.

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN      HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT PUBLISHING      2015       408 PAGES

 

 

 

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THE GILDED HOUR by Sara Donati (2015)

THE GILDED HOUR HISTORICAL FICTION

I first encountered the novels of author Sara Donati Years ago when I was looking for something to bide me over until Diana Gabaldon came out with her next OUTLANDER novel. I loved the outlander novels and someone suggested I might enjoy INTO THE WILDERNESS (1998), as it too was a sweeping historical romance-adventure (without the time travel)set in America in the 18th century. I loved it enough to quickly read all six books in the series – often collectively referred to as “The Wilderness Series”.

In 2015 Donati published a new book called THE GILDED HOUR which she promises will be the first in a new series. This novel opens in 1883 and many of the protagonists are descendants of characters from her “Wilderness” series – a clever way to appeal to a built-in fan base.

The reader is introduced to the upper-middle-class, New York City home of elderly Aunt Quinlan. This eighty-something lady lives in the home with her nieces, who are both physicians. Aunt Quinlan was once Lily Bonner; conceived in the first Wilderness book and born in the second. The author should have included a family tree because there are characters from three different branches of the Bonner family. Fortunately, the motivated reader can access a family tree at thegildedhour.com. There is a noticeable lack of male relatives since the civil war was so thorough in cutting through the male population twenty years earlier. Photographs sit on the mantle – a sad reminder of the sons and nephews lost to war. The household is unusual for its time since it is a multi-racial home; and racism is an issue that the family must contend with everyday.

The actual phrase “the gilded hour” is used on the very last page of this novel, but I think it must also be a nod to a term coined by Mark Twain when he referred to the years 1870-1900 as the “Gilded Age”. Gilded on the outside but beneath the surface those years were characterised by crushing poverty, disease, prejudice, hunger, and horrible sanitation… Yet, the Vanderbilts could spend one million dollars on a single party.

I have made many references to Donati’s Wilderness novels but I need to be clear that the reader does not need to be familiar with those books to appreciate this one. This is the first of a series so some of the threads are left unresolved but there is one plotline that I felt should have been resolved in this book – my own opinion – but it just felt wrong. That is probably my main complaint but I think this novel is perfect for fans of historical-romance-adventure-fiction.

 

THE GILDED HOUR    SARA DONATI   2015    BERKLEY     732 pages

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Amateur Sleuths …… some thoughts

 

mama

I recently read and reviewed a mystery novel I enjoyed called “Murder at the Brightwell”,(Ashley Weaver,Minotaur 2014) featuring a spirited socialite named Amory Ames. It was set primarily in an upscale  seaside resort hotel in 1930’s England and the dialogue was cracking …sort of Nick and Nora Charles–witty. The reason I am writing this post is because I am actually quite confused with a review I read in Publishers Weekly–“….the affable Amory could carry a series, though plausibly involving her in future murder cases will require some imagination.” Wait–huh? Somebody should have spoken to Madame Christie before she wrote twelve novels featuring a elderly spinster with a hankering for solving murders…and knitting. This has sent me pondering on the nature of the amateur sleuth ( not including the P.I. or police consultant ) The book stores are full of them; bakers, knitters, cake makers, Jane Eyre, librarians, cat lovers, cats, basket weavers (okay, not really sure about that one) decorators,dog lovers, dogs , etc.—all solving murders!  I am not saying I am a fan of all these books but I am saying that the idea of any amateur sleuth is probably a stretch. I sincerely hope I never come across a single murder in my life,  to say nothing of double digits. I am thinking now of Alan Bradley’s brilliant series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce; a child who has solved at least six murders (did I mention she’s eleven-years-old). Bradley writes so well she is almost  believable.

So what is my point?  How about this….Amateur sleuth series…you like them or you don’t, they’re good or they’re not, but plausible, credible, believable—-probably not most of the time.

And don’t have dinner with Jessica Fletcher.

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