Category Archives: Miscellaneous

A Cozy Read

THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE CONFEDERATE ROSE, by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley Prime Crime, 2012,  9780425247761

As we all deal with the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve decided to post reviews of books that are pleasantly entertaining–nothing heavy, nothing horrible . This mystery is number three of eight. I reviewed it in November, 2012.

This third mystery in an ongoing series is a sweet, nostalgic, regional puzzle set in Depression-era Darling, Alabama. The Darling Dahlias are a fourteen-member garden club. For some first-time readers, keeping them and their story lines straight may be a little overwhelming. This well-written novel by a multi-published author blends a fond look back at the 1930s with a hard dose of the period’s difficult realities. Garden portrayals are lyrical, and the elaborate descriptions of everything from medications to cars–including what everything costs–put the reader solidly into the setting. The intertwining mystery lines involve a Confederate spy, a missing $15,000, and the inexplicable behavior of an agitated garden club member.

Loose ends are tied up satisfactorily by the end of the story. Enough is left hanging to make the reader want to return to Darling and see what happens in the next installment. The characters become real people whom many readers will wish to see again. The author includes a historical note, a resource list, and even tempting Southern recipes. Fans of the Deep South, gardening, the Confederate cause, and cozy mysteries will enjoy this multilayered novel. Yankees should visit Darling, too.

Last Irish Title for the Month

THE DEVIL’S SEAL, by Peter Tremayne, Minotaur, 2015, 9781250059727

This review appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 73 (August 2015)

Ireland, 671 A.D. In this 25th book of a series, clerical visitors from the East mystify the rulers at Cashel. The delegation refuses to reveal why they have come. A string of inexplicable murders has Dálaigh Fidelma and her Saxon husband, Eadulf, struggling to solve this complex, early medieval puzzle. When the delegation from Rome finally reveals that they want to determine which religious house will oversee the others, Fidelma cannot believe that this is the whole story. She digs deeper to understand what is really happening. Meanwhile, Eadulf is dealing with a new-found relative and the issue of two working parents struggling to find time for their little boy. Other characters deal with disability and issues of romance as the death count rises, and Fidelma searches for the unknown menace. Peter Tremayne is the pseudonym of respected Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis. Anyone interested in the old Irish language and history should like this book. It stands alone, but will whet new readers’ appetites for the earlier titles. A guide to Gaelic pronunciation would be helpful, but can be found in other places online, such as the Sister Fidelma Society website.

Another Irish Medieval Mystery

CROSS OF VENGEANCE, by Cora Harrison, Severn House, 2014, 9781847514929

This appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 67, February 2014

This is the tenth book in Cora harrison’s 16th-century Burren mysteries. Set in the west of Ireland, it begins with Mara, the Brehon of the Burrren, traveling with her law students and family to attend Mass at Kilnaboy church. As Brehon, Mara is the lawgiver and judge in the district. A routine duty turns into a mystery when first a holy relic is destroyed, and then a pilgrim is murdered. Harrison takes the reader through many twists and turns as Mara attempts to discover who killed the pilgrim, how it was managed, and why.

Mystery fans will enjoy Harrison’s tricky red herrings; this reviewer solved the mystery quite early, but was totally wrong. There were several other false trails throughout the story. Irish history lovers will like the information about medieval Brehonic law and the lifestyle of the times. Natural history buffs should enjoy vicariously visiting the ancient and ecologically unique Burren. There is no need to read the other books in the series to enjoy Cross of Vengeance, but it does whet the appetite for more. Recommended.

Another Irish Story

ONLY WITH BLOOD, by Thérèse Down,  Lion Fiction, 2015, 9781782641353

This review appeared in HNR Issue 75 (February, 2016)

Set in rural Ireland during World War II, this gripping story combines family drama with nerve-wracking political thrills. As 17-year-old Caitlin Spillane is sold into marriage with a much older man, certain Irish factions are trying to forge an alliance with Nazi Germany and overthrow the British. At first these strands do not seem to be related. Then Caitlin meets covert IRA man Donal Kelley, and the two plot threads start to intertwine in frightening, heartbreaking ways.

On her husband’s hardscrabble farm, Caitlin continues her schooling while cooking and cleaning for him. At first seeming like a reclusive boor, Jack Flynn soon emerges as a complicated man with tragic reasons for his behavior. He is old at 43, prematurely aged by his difficult life, and made ill by it. Caitlin detests him and the bargain her father made that trapped her into this marriage. She and Flynn mostly play fair, and she takes care of him stalwartly–albeit with little grace. Donal has hurt and compromised his own family, but makes up for it as best he can. He loves Caitlin from a distance, and manages at least in part to get back at the Spillanes for what they did to her. Donal makes a pivotal political decision during a moment of crisis that will change his life–and probably Caitlin’s–forever. This story’s resolutions at least provide satisfaction and closure for the reader, if not entirely so for the characters.

Readers should not start this book in the evening, or they will be up all night. A multi-layered, compelling page-turner, this is a must-read. Highly recommended.

An Irish Setting for St. Patrick’s Day

March seems like a good time to look for titles set in or related to Ireland in some way. I reviewed this one in HNR Issue 83, February, 2018.

GROUNDED HEARTS, by Jeanne M. Dickson, Waterfall, 2017, 9781542045537

Nan O’Neil is a devout, widowed midwife in rural, politically neutral Ireland during World War II. When downed RAF pilot “Dutch” Whitney appears on her doorstep, Nan treats his injuries and conceals him from Local Defense Force officer Shamus Finn. At that time, Ireland was interring captured combatants of either side in prison camps. Nan and Chris fall in love, although she is still haunted by her troubled first husband’s death. She tries to help Dutch travel two hundred miles north to Ulster where he can re-join the Allied forces.

Toward that goal, a host of varied Irish characters is introduced. Shamus Finn continues to be a nemesis. The plot–full of subtle humor and derring-do–progresses to a surprising ending for those not familiar with Ireland’s World War II history. Readers who know the country will recognize the backdrop and some of the cast–probably with a chuckle. The book is slightly flawed by too much phonetic spelling of the Irish accent and by the one-dimensional, buffoonish villain, Shamus. Still, this heartfelt, witty debut is entertaining, illuminates a piece of obscure history, and is worth a look.

Medieval, Supernatural, Historical Fantasy

This review of the late poet Douglas Nicholas’s debut novel appeared in the HNR Issue 63, February, 2013. He went on to publish three more titles in the series, the last one posthumously.

SOMETHING RED, Douglas Nicholas, Atria, 2012, 9781451660074

In 13th-century England, four travelers try to cross the rugged northwestern Pennines during a harshly cold winter. The formidable but nurturing Molly, her enigmatic granddaughter, Nemain, and Molly’s strange but stalwart lover, Jack, are all more than they seem–as the young apprentice boy, Hob, discovers during the journey. All the troupe’s skills and strongest character traits will be tested as a terrifying, supernatural danger follows them from monastery to inn to castle. It is sheer evil, it is implacable, and they may not be able to stop it.

Partly a medieval historical novel, partly a horror story, and partly a love story–of more than one pair–this tale is seasoned with strong lashings of fantasy, mythology, and coming-of-age. Hard to pigeonhole, this is the debut novel of an award-winning poet. The language is lush and evocative, but the reader is not tempted to linger over the beauty of the prose. The racing plot keeps pages turning, and nervous types should not read this book alone late at night.

The shocking but satisfying resolution does not quite end the story. There is a second ending that is more positive, if a little predictable. The reader who has become engaged with these characters will want more. There is no indication that a sequel is on the way, but fans of Molly, Jack, Nemain, and Hob will be asking, “What’s next?”

This book is highly recommended even for those who don’t usually like this type of thing. Give it a try.

A Title from an Excellent Tudor Mystery Series

This review appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 79, in February, 2017.

THE HERETIC’S CREED, Fiona Buckley, Crème de la Crime, 2017, 9781780295749

In this 14th book of the Ursula Blanchard Elizabethan mysteries, the year is 1577. Ursula is again given a secret assignment from her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth. As always, she has both personal and political reasons for doing Elizabeth’s bidding. This time, she and her faithful companions, Brockley, Dale, and Sybil, take a seemingly innocent journey to Edinburgh. The assignment is straightforward: hand-carry a secret letter from the Queen to a Scottish contact, assuring him that Elizabeth does not intend to release Mary Queen of Scots from imprisonment. An uncomplicated task–except that two men have already disappeared while trying to deliver this information. There is another job to do, too, as Ursula is requested to obtain a valuable medieval book from a quasi-religious community of women living in a large, isolated, stone manor. Queen Elizabeth’s advisor John Dee, a learned man and noted scientist, wishes to examine the book. These errands appear uncomplicated enough, but Ursula and her friends are soon embroiled in an intricate story of intrigue and superstition during a cold northern winter.

It is difficult to discuss plot points without giving too much away, but Ursula’s fans will enjoy her latest escapades and will sympathize as she starts to realize she is aging. There are glimpses into the long back story, but the book does stand alone. New readers might enjoy starting at the beginning of this engaging, well-written series and following the illegitimate, fictitious Ursula all the way through. She is more interesting than some of the real Tudors.

A Valentine’s Bonbon

THE TAMING OF MALCOLM GRANT: THE MacGREGORS: HIGHLAND HEIRS, by Paula Quinn, Forever, 2015, 9781455519521

This story, Book Four of The MacGregors: Highland Heirs, is set in 18th-century northern England. Emmeline Grey is blind, but a capable healer. Her unprincipled brother had abandoned her during her tragic childhood in France. Now he has brought her home to his brothel in England. Highland warrior Malcolm Grant and his brother, Caelean, are visiting the brothel to rid Caelean of his innocence. When a patron mistreats one of the girls, Malcolm and Caelean intervene. A man is killed, and the brothers are injured.  They must remain in the brothel to recuperate while danger threatens in the person of the dead man’s brother.

This is a sensual, romantic fantasy with only the thinnest of historical backdrops. There are many toe-tingling love scenes as purple passions (and prose) are unleashed. Trysts in the beds, in the woods, on the beach, and in the sea will leave readers entertained–and amazed that the characters have any energy left to advance the plot. Malcolm and Emmeline do find their happy ending. Caelean is not so fortunate–yet–but his story will continue in a sequel.

This review appeared in HNR Issue 75, (February, 2016)

A Fun, Fluffy Romance for Valentine’s Day

This review appeared in the August, 2015 issue of Historical Novels Review. 

DEVIL’S MOON, Amanda Scott, Forever, 2015, 9781455556663

The Scottish Borders, 1428. When Devil Ormiston follows a cattle raider home, he is surprised to find that the thief is 19-year-old Robyna Gledstanes, the twin sister of Devil’s recently deceased best friend, Rab. Robyna is beautiful, feisty, and headstrong. When “Dev” is appointed warden of her family’s castle, the haggis hits the fan. Robby and Dev are at loggerheads, but their love for each other is undeniable, and a really clunky plot device gets them married. Robby learns some decorum, and Dev spanks her only once as the relationship progresses. There is a buried treasure, and a nine-year-old laird whom Dev and Robby nurture carefully. Robby’s dead brother speaks to her frequently, although other characters cannot hear him. Rab’s italicized dialogue coming out of nowhere is probably as startling to the reader as it is to Robyna. As the plot resolves, Dev turns out to be not so devilish, the English are not invading after all, and the villain has some redeeming qualities. This is entertaining fun. It is served on a solid foundation of Scottish history by a multi-published author well known for this type of fiction.

The Last of Fourteen Burren Mysteries

AN UNJUST JUDGE, by Cora Harrison, Severn House, 2017, 9780727886729

I reviewed this story by multi-published Irish author Cora Harrison for the February, 2017 issue of Historical Novels Review. I have gone back to the first book and read them all in order, but I didn’t realize until just now that  An Unjust Judge was the last in the series. The story stands alone, but readers may want to obtain earlier titles to follow the characters’ back stories. Harrison lives in the Burren, which gives these mysteries a strong, authentic sense of place.

This is the fourteenth Burren mystery, set in western Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII. It features the sleuth Mara, the Brehon of the Burren. Now in late middle age, Mara continues to serve as a judge dispensing justice under Brehonic law and also solving mysteries. A new judge metes out unduly harsh sentences to five miscreants and is then found gruesomely and creatively murdered. Naturally the five offenders are suspects, as is a very young widow, and others who have motives. Mara must investigate the crime, although it has taken place outside her usual jurisdiction.

As she sifts through too many suspects, the reader may discover the murderer early on, but Harrison is an expert at laying false trails, and the true resolution isn’t revealed until the end of the book. There is a really dramatic seacoast scene that will leave readers reluctant to dip a toe in the Atlantic ever again. As usual with this series, the unique,  scenic Burren and adjacent areas are characters in themselves.