An Icelandic Mystery

THE FLATEY ENIGMA, Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Amazon Crossing, 2012, 9781611090970

I wanted to step away from Christmas books this week, and recommend something  for a good winter read that isn’t holiday-oriented. This review appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Historical Novels Review.

When seal hunters find a decaying corpse on a deserted Icelandic island, it triggers an investigation involving a secret runic code and a medieval manuscript. The body turns out to be a Danish intellectual who has been missing for months. A second victim is later found mutilated in the old Viking fashion. Kjartan, the district magistrate’s representative, is charged with finding the killer. He eventually solves the mysteries as the plot winds slowly through the quiet, austere, near-subsistence lives of the Flatey islanders circa 1960. The author lived on Flatey as a child, and the stark simplicity of the islanders’ lives comes through with vivid authenticity.

This Glass Key prize-nominated book moves slowly at first, with much emphasis on the remote Nordic setting. Readers looking for those best-selling Scandinavian thrillers that have been so popular recently will not find them here. This is a tale of people who eat fermented shark, start fires with dried bird skin, and hunt seals for food and fur. Every chapter ends with an excerpt from the Viking sagas found in the Flatey Book (Flateyjarbok). Often brutal and barbaric, they provide clues to the enigma that Ingolfsson has created and woven into the story. This book is complicated and intense, with Icelandic names making it difficult for an English speaker to keep track of the players. There is also a love story and a touch of whimsy.

The book is a one-off. It does not really compare to anything else, but Viktor Ingolfsson is a successful, multi-published author, with one of his six mysteries used as the basis for an Icelandic television series. The Flatey Enigma  is worth a look.

A 1940s Christmas Story

HOME AND AWAY,  by Dean Hughes, Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2015, 9781629720937

This World War II Christmas tale’s review appeared in the May, 2016 HNR.

During World War II, Glen Hayes is away fighting in Germany while his parents, younger brother Dennis, and two little sisters worry and wait at home in small-town Utah. This Christmas story alternates between war-torn Europe, where Glen deals with the horror of battle, and the family’s mundane life, with its strains of low income and class differences.

As Christmas approaches, Norma and Hal Hayes endure their tense marriage, with Norma often being wounded by Hal’s unkindness. Hal is hurt in his own way by feelings of inadequacy. Dennis struggles to accumulate enough money for Norma’s special Christmas gift, while exploring the thrill of a first crush. Sharon, age six, and nine-year-old Linda are the only family members seemingly unaffected by the miseries of wartime. Suspense builds as the Hayeses agonize over Glen. The reader will also worry as Glen’s outfit, the 101st Airborne, endures hellacious conditions during the Battle of the Bulge.

This is a short, sweet book, a nostalgic read that could make a nice holiday stocking stuffer. Readers should keep tissues nearby, as tears may start to flow toward the end of the story.

Creepy Christmas

A CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING, Anne Perry, Ballantine, 2011, 9780345524638

It’s Black Friday today, and not quite the Christmas season, so I thought I’d post my February, 2012  HNR review of this un-Christmassy Christmas story.

Perry’s 2011 Christmas novella has little to do with Christmas: the reader looking for holly and ivy will be disappointed. This is a Victorian, horror-tinged murder mystery with a vampire theme. A company of players is hired to help a wealthy family’s daughter rewrite and produce a play based on the then-popular book, Dracula. They all become snowbound in an isolated mansion, and a gruesome murder takes place. It is solved by Caroline Fielding, the mother-in-law of Perry’s policeman character Thomas Pitt.  She is at the mansion to accompany her actor husband, but there is no need to be familiar with the Pitt stories in order to understand this stand-alone short novel.

Overlooking the fact that there is no holiday warmth or cheer whatsoever, this is a gripping, fast-paced traditional mystery with an intriguing cast of both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. The vampire theme and gradually increasing sense of evil and horror keep the pages turning, although the story seems better suited to Halloween. If jolly carol-singing and hearty bowls of wassail are not necessary in your Christmas fiction, this shivery nugget makes for a fast, entertaining read.

Cultures Clash on the Frontier

THE WOODS’S EDGE, Lori Benton, WaterBrook, 2015,  9781601427328

I’m fortunate enough to live near many French and Indian  war sites. Fort William Henry in Lake George, NY,  makes an easy day trip, and while it is a reconstruction, the sense of history there is strong.   I reviewed The Wood’s Edge,  in the May, 2015, issue of HNR.

In 1757 when Fort William Henry falls to the French and Indians, Major Reginald Aubrey switches his dead newborn for a live Native American baby. Aubrey’s wife is not aware of the deception, but the Indian mother–actually a white captive–is conscious and remembers what happened. As the years go by, the Oneida family mourns for their lost child, and eventually discovers his whereabouts. Major Aubrey is tormented by guilt as he raises He-Is-Taken to believe he is William Aubrey, a British gentleman. William’s Oneida twin, Two-Hawks, secretly watches the property. He and Aubrey’s adopted daughter, Anna, fall in love.

The suspense is drawn out over many pages, as both William’s Native-American and English family and friends are deeply affected. Major Aubrey, widowed and tortured by his sin, has difficulty accepting new love from healer Lydia–who has always known the truth. William is horrified when he discovers his true identity. He disappears into Canada, even as his two families come together in determination to find him.

This novel is gripping but clearly needs the sequel which will come out in 2016. (I plan to post my review of A Flight of Arrows next week.)

Where is Keith Thompson?

SCOUNDREL! THE SECRET MEMOIRS OF GENERAL JAMES WILKINSON, Keith Thompson, NorLights Press, 2012, 9781935254638

This humorous, well-researched novel of the American Revolution seems to be a one-off. There never was a sequel, at least not so far. I reviewed it back in the August, 2012 issue of Historical Novels Review, and even now, seven years later, I’m keeping my eyes open for Keith Thompson’s next one.

Historian Keith Thompson blends facts and fiction to tell a hilarious, riveting tale of James Wilkinson and the American Revolution. Thompson wrote his master’s thesis on Wilkinson, and he knows this deplorable historical figure inside and out. Thompson pretends to have found Wilkinson’s secret memoirs, and thus is able to tar this self-serving, treacherous conspirator almost more blackly than history actually does.

“Wilky” joins the rebelling Americans in 1776. Moving in the highest circles, this future army general participates reluctantly in the siege of Boston and Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Canada. He crosses the Delaware with Washington, although his intent is to betray the Americans for monetary gain. Wilkinson is amoral and lacks any conscience whatsoever. He is cowardly, dishonest, a backstabber, and a seducer of innocent women.

Thompson’s interpretation of early American history is contrarian, rich in detail, laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely compelling. Heartbreaking descriptions of starving, ragged American troops in Canada and New Jersey provide dramatic counterpoint to the general tone of droll irreverence. The sensuality level is fairly mild, despite Wilkinson’s frequent skirt-chasing. His inventive love maneuver, the “Wilky Roll,” is probably impossible, but will have the reader rolling, too–onto the floor with laughter.

Thompson was lucky enough to obtain flattering cover blurbs from Wilkinson’s contemporaries. George Washington terms the novel: “A book that should be read by all Americans.” Thomas Jefferson comments: “I would recommend this book above all others.” Their “praise” is a little overstated, but Scoundrel, the first in a series, is highly recommended.

The Southold Chronicles Volume 1

A PLACE IN HIS HEART, by Rebecca DeMarino, Revell, 2014, 9780800722180

This 1600s England-to-New York family saga was later followed by To Capture Her Heart and To Follow Her Heart. I eventually reviewed them all, but this first book introduces the Hortons. My review appeared five years ago in the November, 2014 issue of Historical Novels Review. I’ve always felt that the author being a descendant made the stories more real, even though they are highly fictionalized.

Based on actual family history, this story opens in 1630 England and ends in 1640 Long Island, New York. Mary Langton has been jilted at the altar, but later falls in love with widower Barnabas Horton. She marries him knowing that he still longs for his dead wife, and much of the story relates how Mary raises his sons, manages their home, and accompanies him to America. Barnabas had not told Mary before their marriage that he planned to emigrate. Mary seems almost too good to be true as she leaves everything behind her to go to a new land with a man she knows does not love her. Her seeming barrenness is another problem for the couple. It is difficult to understand why Mary, with every advantage of beauty, personality, and background, would accept a man who is quite open about the fact that he grieves his dead wife, and only needs a mother for his sons, a bedmate, and a housekeeper. Mary’s history of being jilted is said to have made her unmarriageable in their village, but this seems unlikely. Her motivation seems to be simply that she loves Barnabas and will put up with anything to be with him.

Scenes set in England are vivid, but the story really takes off after the family comes to New England in 1637. They leave Massachusetts for Long Island, where their marriage meets one final test. A heartbreaking secret from Barnabas’s past is revealed, and he and Mary are finally able to look forward as a family to building their home and their church on Long Island.

This is a compelling debut for author Rebecca DeMarino, the ninth great-granddaughter of Mary Langton and Barnabas Horton.

Love is Never Easy on the Frontier

A MOONBOW NIGHT,  Laura Frantz, Revell, 2017, 9780800726621

I read and love so many books set in the United Kingdom and Ireland that an American setting can be a refreshing treat sometimes. This one has stayed in my mind since I reviewed it for the February, 2017 issue of Historical Novels Review. Part of my family lived/lives in rural West Virginia, and Frantz’s setting is close enough geographically that it tugs at my emotions and reads “home” to me.

This story opens in 1777 near the scenic Cumberland Falls in what is now the state of Kentucky. It takes settler Temperance Tucker and frontiersman Sion Morgan on a journey of hardship, danger, and emotional pain. As swarms of pioneers push through the Cumberland Gap into Native American lands, the Indians push back. Sion and Tempe both have experienced tragedy in the past, suffering greatly due to Indian activity.

Tempe guides Sion and his surveyors through beautiful, treacherous lands to the Green River country. Facing peril all the way, the two fall in love, but are haunted by their pasts. Even more harrowing problems loom in the wilderness as cultures clash. It is doubtful whether Sion and Tempe can even survive, much less work through their individual traumas well enough to build a life together. This is a Christian book, although not a “preachy” one, and the characters’ faith supports them throughout their distressing frontier experiences.

Laura Frantz is a Kentuckian who lives in a log cabin. Her writing portrays a gritty, rooted reality that helps bring three-dimensional texture to the story. Recommended.

A Good Series to Start Near Halloween

DEATH COMES TO THE VILLAGE, by Catherine Lloyd, Kensington, 2013, 9780758287335

I reviewed this cozy village mystery in the February, 2014 issue of Historical Novels Review. This was the first of what turned out to be seven Kurland St. Mary stories, with the seventh coming out next year. What I remember about this one is the spooky graveyard scenes that made me just a little jumpy and uneasy.  Readers unfamiliar with the series might like to start here. This book would be an entertaining read during the Halloween season, and a nice introduction to Robert and Lucy.

England, 1816. In the charming village of Kurland St. Mary, Major Robert Kurland is confined to bed, recovering from wounds suffered at Waterloo. His old friend Lucy Harrington, the duty-bound rector’s daughter, has been of great assistance to him. When Robert sees something suspicious outside his window in the moonlight, he enlists Lucy to help him discover what sinister events may be unfolding in this peaceful backwater. Together they investigate thefts and possible murder, unaware that their own lives may be in danger. A blend of cozy mystery and Regency romance, this first book in a series has enough dark undertones to give readers the shivers. The mysteries are solved satisfactorily, but enough loose ends are left dangling to ensure readers will want to see what happens to Lucy and Robert in the next book.  Recommended. Lloyd is London-born and holds a master’s degree in history from the University College of Wales.

One More Scary Story

I don’t think of medieval author Alys Clare as writing horror, but this Aelf Fen mystery will have you reading with the lights  on at night. I originally read and reviewed it in May, 2016. It is another good Halloween book.

THE NIGHT WANDERER, Alys Clare, Severn House, 2016, 9780727895202

In this seventh Aelf Fen mystery, apprentice healer Lassair, an 11th-century young woman from a Fen village, has just returned to Cambridge following a previous adventure. She is a student of Gurdyman, a beneficent magician who dislikes to be called a wizard. Soon a wealthy merchant is found murdered near the river, his throat ripped out as though by a huge, clawed animal. Evil seems to pervade the air as fear grips the town.

Gurdyman leaves the area, and Lassair and sheriff’s man Jack Chevestrier work together once again to solve the increasing numbers of gruesome murders that are terrorizing Cambridge. Even Aelf Fen is not a safe haven from the evil scourge.

Clare’s fans will enjoy this gripping story that combines a mystery with horror, fantasy, and romance. As Lassair and Jack’s attraction for each other becomes stronger, her old love, Rollo Guiscard, returns from Constantinople and re-enters the picture. The wizard Hrype comes to a life-changing decision, urged to it by Gurdyman. This novel stands alone, but new readers will want to go back to the earlier titles to fill in the characters’ back stories and get better acquainted with Aelf Fen.

A Spooky Story for Halloween

AN INQUIRY INTO LOVE AND DEATH, Simone St. James, Berkley, 2013, 9780451239259

I reviewed this book for the May, 2013 issue of Historical Novels Review. I think that it would make a better October read! My review says it all–and, no, the stickers did not appear in the magazine.

Some years after World War I, Oxford student Jillian Leigh must leave her intensive studies and go to the seacoast village of Rothewell to identify her dead uncle and pack up his personal effects. Uncle Toby had been a ghost hunter, and there is no doubt that terrifying events in Rothewell called for his services. The reader will wonder why Jillian does not simply retreat from such a frightening, clearly supernatural threat, but her reason is soon revealed. Uncle Toby was murdered, and Jillian feels that as a family member she is honor-bound to help Scotland Yard’s Inspector Andrew Merriken discover the particulars. An old, unquiet ghost is not the only danger facing Jillian and a cast of intriguing village characters. Suspense builds as another, more modern peril looms. Jillian goes through harrowing experiences as she tries to sort out the circumstances of Uncle Toby’s death and the truth about who she really is. A love story winds its way through the plot which, in its own way, imperils Jillian as much as the ghost and the criminals.

This story is a keeper. There is some uneven pacing at first, with slow spots that impede the tension rather than build it, but this is a minor quibble. Anyone who loves Daphne du Maurier and Victoria Holt will enjoy this book. Readers will cheer for a brave, intelligent heroine fighting overwhelming odds to defeat evil, help people both dead and alive, and find her own happiness at the end.

This second novel by the author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare is highly recommended, but don’t read it alone at night.