A Review: The Spymistress

I recently finished the book The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini. Though it was the first of Ms. Chiaverini’s books that I’ve read, it will not be the last. I can’t believe how much I learned from it (it’s a novel of historical fiction) and for days now, I’ve been regaling anyone who will listen with tales of Civil War spies. Luckily, I had four Boy Scouts in a car with me on a trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend and they were more or less a captive audience for my stories.

The Spymistress is a book about Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who actually existed. She was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a slave-owning aristocratic family. She was also a spy for the North during the Civil War and this book tells the tale of how Elizabeth became a spy, how she managed to remain a spy, and how she survived the Civil War as a spy in the South. There is also a very interesting note of Ms. Van Lew’s life after the War. I was quite surprised by the events of the later years of her life.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a brave woman who embodied the ideals of equality and freedom long before they became rallying cries in the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements. Though she and her mother technically “owned” slaves, it was only because a clause in her father’s will prevented his widow and daughter from selling them. They therefore paid their slaves and treated them well and showed them the respect they deserved. She was shrewd, too, managing to convince Southern officers and prison adminstrators that her kindness and charity for northern soldiers was because of her Christian duty to them and not out of any misplaced loyalty to a bunch of Yankees. And she used her wealth and social status to her advantage, gaining access to northerners who needed her help and managing to get other Union sympathizers into positions of authority in Richmond prisons.

I liked the rising tension in the book that came from the main characters living in a house of Northern sympathizers as the Civil War progressed and as their neighbors and the citizens of Richmond became increasingly entrenched in the fight for Southern independence. The author does a great job describing the atmosphere of Richmond as it goes from elation and hope to concern to desperation and despair, and she also conveys nicely the physical appearance of Richmond during the War. As was the case with the last novel I reviewed (Anything But Civil), it is obvious that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book–not just research about Richmond, but also research about troop movements and prison conditions and Civil War heroes and villains.

I would recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and Civil War buffs.

Has anyone read any other good books lately? Share them in the comments!

Until next week,

Amy

P.S. Update from last week’s post: still no birds. But I will persevere! Also, thanks to the person-who-shall-remain-nameless who pointed out that robins are really wormatarians, not seed eaters. I should have known that.

A Review: Anything But Civil

Last week I finished Anna Loan-Wilsey’s Anything But Civil. It is the second in a mystery series featuring traveling secretary Hattie Davish. I won a copy of the book at a Facebook “tea party.” The author mailed it to me and was kind enough to inscribe the front of the book with a lovely message.

Anything But Civil cover 2   Anything But Civil note

 

Here’s a quick synopsis: Ms. Davish is secretary to Sir Arthur Windom-Greene, an Englishman with a love of American history. He is working on a biography of General Cornelius Starrett, a war hero from Galena, Illinois.

Sir Arthur and Hattie travel to Galena to meet General Starrett and to interview him, as well as to visit other places in Galena of interest to Civil War scholars, including the home of Ulysses S. Grant. While in Galena, Sir Arthur and Hattie have the dubious honor of meeting General Starrett’s son, Captain Henry Starrett, a blustering hothead with a grudge against a member of the community who was branded a traitor during the Civil War by some citizens of the town.

It’s not long before Hattie finds herself dragged into a murder mystery involving old wounds that reach back in time to the War. Convinced that Captain Starrett has something to do with strange and violent events that occur in town, Hattie must walk a delicate line between investigating the mystery, staying focused on her work for Sir Arthur, and not getting herself hurt or killed in the process.

Oh, and Sir Arthur is a suspect in the murder. And it’s Christmastime. And Hattie also has to decorate Sir Arthur’s house, plan menus for the holiday, and buy and wrap gifts from herself and Sir Arthur. She has a lot on her plate, to say the least.

My verdict: I loved the book.

Anna Loan-Wilsey does a great job of intertwining the story lines and the characters, and the amount of research (on not only the Civil War, but also on the town of Galena, the clothing of that period in history, the holiday customs of that era, and the rules of social interactions during that time) that obviously went into this historical cozy is staggering. I was very impressed. I did guess the identity of the killer, but not until the very end, about a paragraph before the answer was revealed. Just like Hattie, I kept running lists of the possible suspects and red herrings. The book was a fun read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction or historical cozies.

I haven’t yet read the first book in the Hattie Davish mystery series, A Lack of Temperance, but you can be sure I’m going to. Anything But Civil, though it’s the second book in the series, can be easily understood without reading the first book, but I’d love to learn more about Hattie’s background.

Incidentally, the third book in the series is called A Deceptive Homecoming, but it hasn’t been released yet. I’m looking forward to it!

Until next week,

Amy

 

A Review: The Impersonator

I am a member of Goodreads, a website I’ve mentioned on this blog before. As a quick review, there are lots of things I like about Goodreads: first, once a reader reviews a certain number of books, the site offers suggestions of books to read that are specific to the reader’s preferred genre(s). Second, the site allows readers to tag books that they want to read, books they’ve read, books they’ve reviewed, and many other categories. Third, readers can make friends on Goodreads that also post their reviews, suggestions, and reading progress. Fourth, a reader can join as many groups as she’d like. These groups have discussions that can be very interesting.

One of the groups I’m part of on Goodreads is called Gothicked. I’m also a member of the group called Ladies & Literature and one called Retro Reads. On the Gothicked feed one day, I came across a woman by the name of Mary Miley. She caught my attention because she asked me a question about one of my books. She indicated that she’s also an author of The Impersonator, a Roaring Twenties mystery. Not long after I heard from Ms. Miley, I went to Virginia to the Suffolk Mystery Writers Festival. While I was there my husband took our three kids to Colonial Williamsburg and explored the sights in the village. One of their stops was a bakery, where they bought me a treat – one of the best muffins I’ve ever tasted. It was a sweet potato muffin, and it’s not something I ever would have ordered. But it was delicious. At that bakery they also bought me a souvenir – a cookbook featuring recipes of some of the goodies at the bakery. Alas, the sweet potato muffin recipe wasn’t in the book, but something else was: the foreward, written years ago by none other than Mary Miley.

I emailed Ms. Miley and asked her if she was the same person who wrote the foreward to the cookbook and she answered that yes, she was the one who wrote it, long ago in a former life when she worked in Colonial Williamsburg.

It seemed like a sign: I was running into Mary Miley everywhere, so I needed to read her book.

I’m so glad I did.

The book follows the story of a young woman who is hired to play the role of Jessamyn Carr, the daughter and heiress of a couple who drowned at sea in the early 1900s. Jessamyn, or Jessie, herself disappeared in 1917 at the age of fourteen. Whether she ran away, fell to her death along the rugged Oregon coast where she lived, or was the victim of some other mishap, no one knows.

Well, almost no one.

Almost seven years after Jessie’s disappearance, her maternal uncle, Oliver Beckett, thinks he recognizes Jessie in a vaudeville performance. When he approaches the actress after the show, he finds out that the actress is not Jessie, but is, in fact, Leah Randall, who has been in vaudeville since early childhood. Oliver, a hard man with a love of money, asks Leah if she would be willing to take on a new role: that of his niece, Jessie. If Leah, a dead ringer for Jessie, can convince the trustees of the Carr estate and more importantly, the rest of the family, that she is really Jessie, then she and Oliver can live out their lives in leisure. There are only a couple problems: the charade has to go smoothly and quickly, before Jessie’s twenty-first birthday (at which time her cousin will inherit the fortune), and there’s a lot to learn. Oh, and there’s at least one person who really knows what happened to Jessie, so that person will know Leah’s an impersonator.

Leah initially refuses Oliver’s suggestion, but after she finds herself out of work and out of money, she agrees to take on the role. As the days and weeks go by, Leah finds that being part of a family, something she’s never experienced, has its highs and lows. She has made a promise to herself that she will find out what really happened to Jessie, and her investigations lead her into speakeasies, the seedier areas of 1920s-Portland, and some very dangerous circumstances.

I loved The Impersonator. Ms. Miley does a beautiful job exploring the worlds of vaudeville and Prohibition-era speakeasies. I love the descriptions of the Oregon coast and the house Leah moves into; it’s fun to read about the lives of the wealthy in the 1920s. Leah and the members of Jessie’s family are a group of well-developed characters; Leah is tough, but spunky and kind; her cousins, twin girls, are naive and fascinated by her; her male cousins are less so-they have a hard time believing that Leah is really Jessie and aren’t afraid to tell her so; Jessie’s aunt is cautious and can be overbearing; Jessie’s grandmother can be distant, but is shrewd and has a soft spot for Jessie.

The book is fast-paced and never feels like a history lecture. It had me guessing up to the very end, and what a satisfying ending it was! I found myself suspicious of almost everyone at one time or another, and it was great to be kept on my toes throughout the novel.

The Impersonator was the bee’s knees!

Until next week,

Amy

A Review: The House Girl

I hope everyone had a happy, safe, and relaxing Thanksgiving. My family had a great holiday and it was surprisingly relaxing, given the eighteen people who were there. The day after Thanksgiving was low-key since I try to do as little shopping as possible on the day that has come to be known as Black Friday.

But I did discover something new on Black Friday. At least it’s new to me. Want to know what it is? Wait for it…

I have a new top-ten Christmas movie to add to last week’s list, with thanks to my sister and her kids. It’s Eloise at Christmastime, an adorable movie starring Julie Andrews as Nanny and Sofia Vassilieva as Eloise. Eloise and Nanny live in the penthouse at the Plaza in New York City. Eloise’s mom travels often, so Nanny is Eloise’s second mom and the two of them make a perfect team. The story is based on the book of the same name by Kay Thompson. I would have enjoyed Eloise at Christmastime with or without my kids, but kids make it even more fun!

So on to this week’s topic, which is my review of The House Girl, a novel of historical fiction by Tara Conklin. The story alternates between two time periods: the mid-nineteenth century and the early twenty-first century. In a very basic nutshell, the novel tells the stories of Josephine, a house slave in Virginia, and Lina, a lawyer in a big New York firm. The lives of the two women intersect following a search to find the real artist behind a collection of works allegedly painted by Josephine’s “owner” and Lina’s search to find the perfect plaintiff for a slavery reparations lawsuit being handled by her firm.

I liked the author’s use of the alternating time periods to tell the stories of Josephine and Lina. There are some surprising parallels between the two women that are revealed as the novel progresses, but this is a no-spoiler zone. Believe me when I tell you that the reader is swept into the horror and seeming impossibility of Josephine’s situation and also feels deeply Lina’s pain and confusion over her own past. The history I learned in the book was eye-opening, too, especially one ingenious method possibly used by the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom. Several important truths are revealed in the book in the form of letters written in the past and preserved for the present and future. I loved the letters- they are written in a beautiful and authentic nineteenth-century style. The last letter, arguably the most important, is wonderfully written and holds tragic secrets. I only wish the writer of the letter had been revealed a bit earlier, since trying to figure out the author of the letter distracted me from its actual words.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a novel with a solid historical basis and an intriguing dovetail of past and present.

What are you reading?

Until next week,

Amy

A Review: Twelve to Murder

I wanted to give you all a sneak peak of the cover of my new book that comes out in April, but unfortunately I don’t have the cover art yet. So stay tuned! Maybe next week.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book on my blog, so I want to do that today. Twelve to Murder by Lauren Carr is the seventh book in the Mac Faraday series. It’s the first one I’ve read, but I intend to read the rest as soon as I make a dent in my to-be-read pile. I won a copy of the book and promised that I would give an honest review of it.

Lauren Carr is a very good storyteller. Her mystery starts with the discovery of two dead bodies, a husband and wife, in their home on the shore of Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The couple is discovered by their son, who quickly becomes a suspect in their deaths. But he’s not the only suspect, and the clues and bodies and persons of interest continue to pile up right until the end of the story, when the twists and turns iron themselves out into a very satisfying conclusion.

Mac Faraday is a retired detective who has come to Deep Creek Lake to live following his divorce and the death of his birth mother, a world-famous mystery author. Upon her death, Mac inherited a huge fortune from her as well as her estate on Deep Creek Lake. Mac’s trusty sidekick is a German Shepherd, Gnarly, who is also retired from service, though Gnarly served the U.S. Army, not a police force. Both Mac and Gnarly have love interests in the book, and both are charming and entertaining. Mac’s lady love is Archie Monday, who was the research assistant to the author who gave birth to Mac; Gnarly’s lady love is Molly, a white German Shepherd who is trained to detect and warn her master of impending seizures.

The story centers around Lenny Frost, a washed-up actor who was a big star as a child and teen and who sank into drug abuse and alcoholism as an adult. The woman who is discovered dead as the story opens was Lenny’s agent, mother of Lenny’s former best friend, and the owner of the comedy club where Lenny appears regularly, mostly in front of audiences who do not find him all that funny. When the dead couple is discovered, it’s Lenny’s name that’s written in the wife’s blood at the crime scene. Did Lenny do it? Or was he framed? Lenny swears he’s been framed, and to “prove” it, he takes a number of bar patrons hostage and threatens to kill them if the real killer isn’t caught by midnight.

I really enjoyed this book. I found the plot to be sophisticated and fast-moving, with realistic dialogue and clues that kept me guessing until the end. The romance, to me, was secondary to the mystery and that’s the way I like it. And the story is timely, too. With all that’s been in the news lately about former child stars, this story makes the reader think about many such kids and how their lives don’t always reflect the promise they held as children.

I recommend Twelve to Murder to anyone who likes a good mystery paired with a little romance and fun. Four stars!

A Review: The Plum Tree

For those of you who have been reading my blog, you may remember that one of the books on my TBR (to-be-read) list was The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. I’ve finished reading it and I hope you’ll read it, too.

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The Plum Tree is a beautiful story about a young woman, Christine, who lives in Germany during World War II. She is in love with a young Jewish man, the son of her employer, and the horrors of the Third Reich and pre-war Germany begin early in the story. Christine’s journey of love and loss and hope is heart-wrenching; the reader easily forgets that this is a work of historical fiction, not a memoir. The story is filled with characters and events that seem so real and so close that one is sure that there must be a real Christine out there and Ellen Marie Wiseman has somehow read her mind and put Christine’s feelings onto the page, into words that are at once touching and terrifying.

More than once I had to put the book down because I didn’t want to read what came next, like the scene where a little boy is torn from his mother’s arms upon their arrival at Dachau. More than once I gasped out loud because of my revulsion over what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, making my own children ask what in the world I was reading that was having such an effect on me. More than once I flipped ahead (I know, I know) because I couldn’t stand not knowing who would live and who would die.

But I always went back because I had to read the rest of the story.

And the story didn’t end where I expected it to. It introduced me to the shocking conditions that existed in Germany after the war ended, something I’d never thought much about. It reminded me that innocent Germans suffered, too; many of them paid a steep price simply because they were German.

If you’ve ever read Sarah’s Key, you’ve experienced the haunting feelings that linger after you’ve read the last paragraph of The Plum Tree. It’s a book that will stay with me, as I’m sure it will stay with anyone who reads it. I think it would be an excellent reading selection for a high school history or English class.

Next up from Ellen Marie Wiseman: What She Left Behind. If it’s anywhere near as good as her first book, I’ll love it.