Friday, December 28, 2007

Queen's Ransom by Fiona Buckley

The third appearance of Ursula Blanchard, Lady of the Privy Chamber to Queen Elizabeth I, reads more as an action/suspense novel than a mystery/whodunit. Mistress Blanchard desperately wants to get away from the intrigue and dangers of court for a while. Queen Elizabeth, wanting to help her escape, sends her on a mission into France, a country on the verge of civil war. She gives Ursula a message to deliver to Queen Caroline, offering assistance and arbitration if war breaks out.

Ursula is accompanied by her former father-in-law, who is traveling to France to pick up his ward. Ursula has never gotten along with the father of her first husband Gerald and he has yet to forgive his son for marrying her.

The path they take through the country is meandering and takes time with back-tracking to cater to the young ward's whims. She is Helene, a sixteen-year old shrew, who claims she aspires only to be a nun. Ursula is not convinced, but she uses the girl's demands as a cover to contact her estranged second husband, Matthew de la Roche, a wanted man in England but living nearby in France. They manage to spend a few passionate hours together before the inn is set on fire. She helps Matthew escape and soon finds out that the men in her own traveling party were responsible for the arson. They were using her as bait to flush de la Roche out.

Seething with fury, she presses forward to Paris and delivers Elizabeth's message to Catherine. Before she can turn towards home, her own maid-servant is arrested and accused of plotting to poison Queen Caroline. To free Dale from the French prison and certain execution, Ursula races to Antwerp to find a treasure hidden two years earlier by her first husband. It is a large enough treasure to ransom a queen.

A merchantman with murderous Turks on his trail joined the group while on its way to Paris and now accompanies Ursula to Antwerp. With her intelligence and wit and his connections and worldliness, they outwit Turkish assassins and French mercenaries loyal to Catherine, bent on getting the treasure for themselves.

Back in the French Court, a meeting with an Englishman also carrying a message from Elizabeth to Catherine reveals just how deeply she has been betrayed by her own queen, making her decision about staying with her husband crystal clear.

In "Queen's Ransom", Ursula is not called upon to solve mysterious murders by person or persons unknown, rather to pierce the veils of secrecy, conspiracy and treachery to prevent her servant from being burned at the stake and to protect her husband from the queen's court from arresting him and taking him back to England. She finds herself surrounded by betrayal from all directions.

Fortunately, this novel is kept moving as Ursula travels to Paris, Antwerp and back to Paris, facing numerous and exciting adventures along the way. The story does not get bogged down while the reader waits for Ursula to interview suspects and search for clues. Her adventures keep up a fast pace and the result is an exciting page turner. Ursula Blanchard is the Elizabethan Renaissance equivalent of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.

(previously published on

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Terror of the Spanish Main by Albert Marrin

Marrin’s non-fiction work on the pirate Sir Henry Morgan and his Buccaneers is a children’s book but it is well-researched and documented with copious references and bibliography.

It seems to be geared mainly for the teenaged crowd, who are more likely to enjoy the “gross-out” factor as Marrin describes various tortures inflicted upon the Spanish captives and the buccaneers’ victims. Younger audiences may enjoy it as well as it is rich with pictures and written sound effects like “KABOOM!”.

For older readers, however, these aspects tend to detract rather than add to the historical facts in the story. Marrin’s abundant use of clichés, such as “hard nut to crack” or “shaken a hornets’ nest” become tedious (but remember it was not written for adults!).

Nearly one half of the book is devoted to the social climate and politics of the Western Hemisphere during the seventeenth century. For the remainder of the tome, Marrin relies heavily on three earlier works on Morgan, including the extraordinary account “The Buccaneers of America” by John Exquemeling.

Some of Marrin’s facts differed significantly from the other works of piratical history I have read. For example, Marrin dubs the pilot or helmsman of the pirate ship as the “sea artist”, a term I have never seen before. He also maintains that the golden earrings worn by the pirates were that their comrades could identify one another during the heart of mano a mano clashes. He makes no mention of earrings being worn because of superstition.

On the surface, “Terror of the Spanish Main” is a good historical resource for those wanting (or needing) a quick Readers’ Digest synopsis of Sir Henry Morgan. It is excellent for a homework project. For the pirate aficionados and enthusiasts, this book should be passed over for the more informative and detailed works listed in the bibliography.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To criticize any of J. K. Rowling’s work would be akin to spitting into the wind, but in her first five novels (I know! I know! I’m just a bit behind on reading Harry Potter!) of the boy wizard, she has proven herself to be a very talented story-teller.

“The Order of the Phoenix” opens with Harry, trapped with his relatives during the summer, struggling to hear any news of Lord Voldemort’s reappearance or activities. Instead, what little information he can pick up is rather detrimental to Professor Dumbledore and himself. Nobody believes the Dark Lord is back and Potter is branded as a narcissistic glory-seeker. This attitude toward Harry persists through much of the novel and eventually becomes tiring, since only his closest friends believe him.

As usual, Potter has a different Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Delores Umbridge (sounds like umbrage?). She is quite odious and seems to have the upper hand on everyone on staff including Professor Dumbledore. She quickly enforces many new rules on the Hogwarts students and fellow professors. Professor Umbridge often locks horns with Professor McGonagol, a worthy adversary, usually with unsatisfactory results.

Hermione Granger points out that Professor Umbridge’s class objectives do not include actually practicing spells to use against the Dark Arts. She and Ron Weasley manage to convince Harry to teach them and “one or two” others these spells, since he has gone up against Lord Voldemort more than once.

At least we get to see Harry showing some passion and emotion in this year at Hogwarts. Teaching his fellow students spells, falling in love an dealing with the temperament of teenaged girls, his anger towards Umbridge and Snape, the absence of Hagrid and being barred from playing Quidditch all fray Harry’s nerves.

Soon with the help of a former antagonist and from a strange classmate, opinion of Harry begins to turn, but it isn’t until he and a handful of friends confront Voldemort and a group of Death-Eaters in the halls of the Ministry of Magic, that the wizard world finally comes to its senses.

Rowling also deepens the characters of Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley and perpetual whipping boy Neville Longbottom. We see the depth of Hermione’s intelligence and cunning as she engineers Professor Umbridge’s downfall. It is great to see once quiet and shy Ginny Weasley snap at Harry in fury. And Neville outgrows himself and becomes a force to be reckoned with. The young wizards and witches along with Ron Weasley step out of Potter’s shadow and prove themselves to be formidable as well.

However, Draco Malfoy and his cohorts among the Slytherins make frequent but seemingly obligatory appearances to antagonize Potter. Nothing new at all here.

As I read through Potter’s interactions with his professors, I wondered how much Rowling fashioned the teachers after her own experiences in school. Certainly, everyone can relate to Professors Snape and Umbridge.

“The Order of the Phoenix” is a fun and wild ride. It lacks the many adventures and characters of “The Goblet of Fire”, but stands tall above the first four with its thrills and chills. It will have you cheering the wizards, while jeering and sneering at the Death-Eaters. It will leave you hungry for more.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Murder on the Boulevard by Anne Sloan

Set in 1912, Anne Sloan’s “Murder on the Boulevard” gives the reader a rather intimate look into the city of Houston, Texas during the years before WWI and the time of suffragettes. For those who are familiar with present-day Houston will enjoy reading about well-known street names and the wonderment of the characters as they gawk at buildings up to sixteen stories high!

Sloan’s heroine Flora Logan is summoned back to Houston Heights from New York City after being banished by her father four years earlier. The mystery surrounding her father’s death and the fate of his marble company bring her back in contact with family and friends that she left behind. On the train ride from New York City, she meets a young millionaire pumping big bucks into Houston’s skyline and his lawyer.

Flora’s adventures bring her in frequent contact with the lawyer Max Andrews and, much to her chagrin, begins to fall for him, entirely against her feminist ideals. She alternately views him as charming then antagonistic.

As she begins to probe into her father’s death, Flora finds hints that there may have been some shady dealings within his marble company. The secretary her dad hired seems to have duties outside the office that aren’t exactly aboveboard. What disturbs Flora the most is the man indirectly responsible for her banishment is a supervisor, also hired by her father. Before she was sent away, Flora had made a trip alone to Beaumont when her parents had left town on a short trip. For a young woman to travel unaccompanied was unheard of in those days. A business associate of her father’s gave Flora a ride from the train station in Beaumont to an isolated place of botanical interest to her, promising to return for her later in the day. When he failed to show up, Flora walked back to town, only to find out that her parents had returned early. Finding her not at home, they had alerted the police departments all over southeast Texas for her.

She refused to implicate the man and therefore brought “shame” to the family, resulting in her exile. Four years later, that same man is now working at the marble company and appears to have no remorse or conscience about his abandonment of her.

Flora’s stay in New York City has put her far ahead of her friends’ ideals of marriage, men and womanhood, and sometimes put her in conflict with the Houstonian way of thinking at that time. Her training in botany gets her into as much trouble as her liberated woman views do. It was unusual for a woman to have any type of advanced education.

Her wit, intelligence and spunk help her solve the mystery, but those characteristics are what draw the reader to Flora. Ms. Sloan has developed a character that we like, cheer for and sympathize with. The confrontation between Flora and her father’s secretary was a great scene, but too brief and the only one in the book. More pages like this could help bring out Flora’s personality much more and would make reading more fun, as well.

We can see how far our culture has progressed from the attitudes a century ago, as Flora rages against the limited expectations of women, who were raised to be wives, mothers and homemakers and not to think for themselves or have opinions.

“Murder on the Boulevard” is a pleasant and enjoyable read that does not take itself too seriously. It remains well-grounded and charming.

(previously published on

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin" by Robert Begiebing

In 1684, the body of a young woman, who had been violated horribly, is found in a New England river. The tagline of the book states that the story is based on an actual unsolved murder from Colonial American records. However, Mistress Coffin reads more like historical literature than a murder mystery.

Begiebing is an English professor at New Hampshire teaching American Literature (at the time of the copyright), so his writing style reflects the writing of the latter half of the seventeenth century. As historical fiction, the book is superbly written and paints a colorful picture of Colonial life, as a stream of people continues to pour into New England seeking new beginnings and possible fortunes.

As a mystery, it falls flat. No words were wasted on building suspense, as there was no sense of urgency to find the murderer, since the book takes place over the course of over thirty years. When the final solution is revealed in the final pages, the reader is left wondering why we had to wait so long for such a mundane and unsurprising finish, especially when Richard Browne (the "sleuth") was informed halfway through the book. The widower Coffin had pursued a suspect in his wife's murder, but dropped proceedings against him. In this, Begiebing makes no sense, when Browne reveals the conclusion to his children.

In most novels when the author has based a fictional story built on the backbone of actual events, a note is written at the end of the book, informing the reader of the facts surrounding the mystery. The author discerns which characters are real and which ones are fabrications. Begiebing does nothing of the sort, frustrating those of us who enjoy knowing the research and planning it took to put the novel together.

However, since Begiebing's strength is Colonial America, he concentrates on recreating the style of that era. Nearly one-sixth of the book is dedicated to Mistress Coffin's journal, which is given to Browne by the deceased woman's husband. Here the reader is treated more to the literary musings of a frustrated and abandoned young woman than clues to solving a brutal murder. Lines such as "What a mystery is the heart inflamed with desire!" [page 96] appear throughout Coffin's journal as well as Browne's own thoughts as he falls deeper in love with the main suspect's wife: "For you see I have not written to relate such descriptions of the turmoil and delights of these seaborne rocks which I temporarily inhabit, but rather to tell you that I can no longer pretend the indifference of mere proximity or even friendship toward you." [page 192].

Such writing may be a bit high-brow for the casual mystery buff, but literary aficionados will love it.

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

David Laskin's meticulously researched novel of the Dakota/Nebraska blizzard of 1888 is a heart-wrenching yet beautiful work of literature. He painfully describes the struggles of early settlers from Norway, Sweden and German Russia as they left their homes and countries behind for the promises of easy and fertile farming in the Great Plains of the United States, along with the monetary rewards for their labors. These emigrants found life here not to be anything like the U.S. railroads had ensured, for it was their brochures that lured people across the seas. Land was abundant and free, but many settlers still struggled through harsh seasons. Laskin follows several families from the beginning of their sojourn to the harsh reality of their destination.

Laskin's portrayal of the Signal Corps, which served as the weather forecasting entity of the time is very reminiscent of Erik Larsen's phenomenal Isaac's Storm. The Signal Corps at the time of the blizzard of 1888 and the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (Larsen's work) was rife with politics, drama and bureaucracy. Regulations had to be followed to the letter. Words like "cold front" and "hurricane" were only to be used under strict circumstances or forbidden entirely. The men of the Signal Corps, who took daily readings of temperature, barometric pressure and wind speed, were often arrogant to the point of delusional. So confident were they in their abilities to predict the weather that they felt the weather phenomenon had ceased to be a mystery. The main observer in The Children's Blizzard does not or refuses to recognize the clear and concise data that is available to him that a massive and dangerous blizzard is descending from Canada. Just like the Signal Corps in Galveston that fateful September in 1900 who considered the Cuban weather observers to be far less knowledgeable than them and actually tried to suppress information from Cuba that an enormous hurricane was heading for the Texas Gulf Coast.

What makes The Children's Blizzard much more tragic, even though a more deadly blizzard struck New York City a few years later, was the fact that so many of the Dakota/Nebraska victims were children. The storm hit on an unusually warm day in mid-January just as school was let out for the day. Scores of children were caught unaware on the open plains. Some were lucky and found shelter and safety. So many were not and froze to death.

Laskin interviewed survivors' descendants and scoured hundreds of historical records, newspaper accounts and genealogical charts to piece together an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute recreation of the unfortunate settlers as the ferocious storm hit, changing their lives forever. He tells the stories of teachers trying to save students, frantic parents wandering out in the storm to find children and siblings trying to protect each other as the blizzard became so violent that survivors said that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
It is heart-breaking to read the accounts of men and women who lost children after thinking they were safe at school only to find their frozen bodies the next day. Laskin pulls no punches in describing parents' grief in the days following the disaster.

Fortunately the Great Plains have not known a tragedy like this since weather forecasting models can more accurately predict weather patterns and warn citizens ahead of time. Modern technology has also advanced such that severely frost bitten or frozen people may be resuscitated. Had such conveniences had been realized then, the death toll would certainly have been lower.

Laskin's acknowledgements and sources, which are cited at the end of the book, are nearly as exciting as the story itself. The resources he relied upon to reproduce such intricate tales seems almost insurmountable. But in The Children's Blizzard, Larsen weaves a story that feels like a suspense novel but tugs hard at the heartstrings.

(previously published on

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Jekyl Island Club by Brent Monahan

Brent Monahan’s mystery, ‘The Jekyl Island Club’ is a great glimpse into the lives of the incredibly filthy rich in the last years of the nineteenth century. The setting is Jekyl Island off the coast of Georgia near Brunswick, which was the playground for the ultra-wealthy such as J. P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer, both of whom appear in the novel.

The story opens as a member of the club is found murdered and Morgan tries to pressure the local sheriff, John Le Brun, into concluding it was an accidental death by a poacher. An open and shut case. Le Brun, not one to be bullied, insists on a thorough investigation to find the murderer but also what the millionaires are hiding on their exclusive resort. With his somewhat duplicitous deputy Warfield Tidewell, Le Brun sets out interviewing the members on the island and, at length, uncovers some very ugly truths and politically motivated agendas. President McKinley visits the club during the events in the mystery but never becomes more than a peripheral character and exits the story without incident.

Although the details and facts behind the island and club, its members and the political climate of the time are historically accurate and wonderfully written, the story tends to drag for much of the book. Since clues to the murder are few and no one is willing to cooperate, the sheriff and deputy spend most of their time interviewing and re-interviewing club members, making little progress.

The most entertaining part of the novel is Monahan’s portrayal of Joseph Pulitzer, the news tycoon, as aging and nearly blind but still sharp and very witty. I’m not certain how precise the depiction is but this Pulitzer adds much to the story, with his jokes and over-bearing ego.

The story does pick up the pace a bit after one of the club’s servants is murdered in what appears to be a random act of burglary at a bar on the mainland. The action moves along from that point with the sheriff and the deputy finding more clues and finally gaining respect among the titans of industry.

The conclusion, however, is rather complicated, which is a sharp contrast to the rest of the story. For the first three-fourths of the book, the sheriff and the deputy find very few clues and even fewer are given to the reader when, in the last chapters, the bulk of the evidence is found. The sheriff reveals the solution in a long and meticulous monologue during which the reader is as impatient with him as are Morgan and Pulitzer, when they angrily urge him to get to the point.

It is an entertaining read, despite the lull in action. The characters are colorful and the writing is superb. One can get a great lesson in U. S. history if one is paying attention. This certainly was much more enjoyable than any history text book.

(previously published on

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

C. J. Sansom's second novel, featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, "Dark Fire" is set in the latter days of Thomas Cromwell as King Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves continues to decline. Cromwell engineered the marriage (the king's fourth) between Henry and Anne, mainly by over-embellishing the beauty of Anne. Henry was repulsed by Anne's homeliness and Cromwell was soon out of favor.

To reverse his descent, Cromwell has learned of a substance known as "Greek Fire" or "Dark Fire", a liquid that can set a ship aflame stem to stern in seconds and schedules a demonstration for the king. Gambling that this could be his path back into favor, he charges Shardlake to retrieve the formula from the men who had given Cromwell an earlier demonstration of the Dark Fire's power. Matthew is extremely reluctant to become involved in Cromwell's schemes but the earl has managed to stay the execution by press of one of Shardlake's clients, a girl accused of her young cousin's murder.

The girl Elizabeth is the niece of a friend of Matthew's and he has hired him to defend her even though the evidence against her is overwhelming. Elizabeth has not spoken a word since the alleged murder of her cousin Ralph. Even the threat of a slow agonizing death has not loosened her tongue. She is on her way to the press when Cromwell intervenes.

Matthew is grateful for the two-week reprieve to try to prove the young girl's innocence, despite her grandmother, surviving cousins and the uncle with whom she was living, viciously assert that she murdered her sweet endearing cousin in cold blood with no more motive than being cruel.

Adding to Shardlake's discomfort is a street-wise young man Barak who has been charged by Cromwell to assist Matthew's search for the Greek Fire. They find the men claiming to have the formula brutally murdered. The assassins seem to be one step ahead of Shardlake and Barak at every turn of the mystery and make several attempts on their lives. Who hired the thugs is the big question facing Shardlake and his cohort. One suspect is a wealthy young lady of a family that has fallen out of favor with the king. She catches Matthew's eye and it seems that she likes him in return, a feeling quite alien to the deformed lawyer.

Their two-week deadline draws closer and they realize that the Greek Fire is a fraud concocted to disgrace Cromwell in front of the king. Shardlake is pulled in all directions as he and Barak search for the conspirators behind the fraud and investigate the murder of Elizabeth's cousin.
In the final conclusion, the person behind the Greek Fire hoax is revealed to Shardlake and Barak just as they are to be silenced permanently. They barely escape only to find they are too late. Cromwell has been sent to the Tower.

Quickly before Cromwell's supporters are rounded up as well, Matthew and Barak confront Elizabeth's ice-cold grandmother with the hideous truth about her grandson's death and in the process nearly lose their lives again.

This novel is more exciting and contains more action and physical exertion for Shardlake than Sansom's previous work, the excellent "Dissolution". In both, Sansom paints a gritty and candid picture of London in the last years of Henry VIII's reign. His portrayal of Newgate Prison is as graphic as Anya Seton's in "Devil Water" (reviewed earlier), picturing it as a stinking, reeking Hell-hole that few emerged alive.

Lifestyles and prejudices are laid bare as Barak's Jewish heritage (although his family converted generations ago) puts him at a greater disadvantage than dark color of the apothecary Guy's skin. Shardlake believes that his deformity is something that can finally be overlooked by a beautiful lady, but finds out that the lines between classes cannot. One of the best scenes was a vicious but all-too brief exchange of words between Elizabeth's venom-tongued grandmother and the Lady Honor, the woman who captures Matthew's heart. The grandmother brutalizes Shardlake when she discovers he has a lady with him even though he is humpbacked. Lady Honor bares her claws, defending Matthew, and proving that she is more than a match for the old hag.

Vanity also knows no bounds as Sansom describes the era's use of the poisonous nightshade, which in small doses dilates the pupils of young girls' eyes to enhance their loveliness. This fact is what ultimately helps Shardlake save himself and the life of his friend Barak.

Sansom's work continues to amaze and entertain. As he develops Shardlake, we find the hunchback lawyer becoming an upright and stalwart hero. There are other sleuths with handicaps: Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding and Caroline Roe's Isaac of Girona both of whom are blind; but Matthew Shardlake seems to be the most fragile, whose main weakness is his heart. However, he is resilient and tough and stands tall even next to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew.

(previously published on

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Deadly Brew by Susanna Gregory

Finding a hard back version of Susanna Gregory's fourth installment of her chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew proved to be an impossible task, so I had to settle for the lowly paperback. I soon found out why no hard backs could be found. "A Deadly Brew" is a big step up from the first three novels, which are extremely good books, and no one wants to give up their hardcover editions. Gregory's portrayal of Cambridge in the mid-fourteenth century is very descriptive and detailed, giving the reader an all-too-realistic view of life following the devastation caused by the Black Death, and the struggle to survive.

"A Deadly Brew" takes place during the winter of 1353 when torrential rains have flooded nearby Fens, a hotbed of smuggling, which is even more profitable now that the mild weather has made the waterways deeper and more navigable for larger boats. That in turn has made the thieves and outlaws more brazen and are not only attacking travelers through the Fens, but even houses outside the city walls, before the Sheriff's men can overtake them.

Then three people connected with the University die from poisoned wine. Matthew tries to distance himself from the case, but is soon called to Ely by the Chancellor of the University who has been injured during an attack while traveling through the Fens. Matthew is suspicious of the message and is warned by nearly every one of his friends and family not to go.

Against their warnings, he sets out for Ely. It turns out to be a trap and Matthew barely escapes with his life. Unavoidably, he is pulled into a convoluted plot that involves an elderly nun, who is an important and valuable King's spy, members of the Cambridge faculty, and nearly every merchant in town, maybe even his own sister Edith.

Gregory spins a very complex mystery that takes on several identities as Matthew tries to find out the source and the reason for the poisoned wine and the smugglers. At each turn, he gets frustrated at the criminals' ability to be one step ahead of him. Additional attempts are made on his life but is finally rescued by someone whom Matthew has no reason to trust.

With his unlikely ally, they manage to break up the smuggling ring and the murderers get their just desserts.

This is the best work of Gregory of the first four books so the series promises only to get better. Gregory herself is a Cambridge academic and before that, a coroner's officer, which explains her ability to describe crime scenes vibrantly and bring Matthew Bartholomew and his physician abilities to life. She has now started a new series set in Restoration London, but I hope that she returns to Cambridge and Matthew soon!

(originally published on

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Devil Water by Anya Seton

There is very little to say about Anya Seton’s historical fiction work that is not positive. Published in 1962, after four years of exhaustive research, Seton chronicles the life of Charles Radcliffe, the titular 5th Earl of Derwentwater, the last Scotsman to be executed for the uprising of 1715, to replace Catholic James on the throne and remove Protestant Hanoverian George I (the Pretender as he is referred to by the Catholics).

Charles is reunited with his older brother James, who at the time was the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and made his home at Dilston. While James is re-settling in his home after 6 years of absence, Charles begins a dalliance with a peasant girl, Meg. Their trysts seem harmless until Meg realizes she is pregnant. Without telling Charles of her condition, she flees back north to family. Blissfully ignorant and very confused by Meg’s sudden departure, Charles beings a formal courtship and engagement with Lady Betty Lee, a match considerably more acceptable than a peasant girl. On the eve of his marriage, Charles is kidnapped and taken by Meg’s father and a friend, Rob, and forced to marry Meg just as she is about to give birth. A little girl is born and named Jenny.

Charles is surprisingly proud of his daughter and wants to take her with him, knowing that she will live more comfortably with him than among her mother’s poor kinfolk. But Meg and her family are done with him and she tells him to leave, never to return upon the threat of being killed if he does.

Reluctantly he leaves Jenny behind. Knowing that he cannot commit bigamy, he confesses what has happened to Lady Betty Lee, who is furious, but is allowed to end the engagement herself, with her reputation in tact.

Charles follows his brother James as they try to rally support for the exiled King James to reclaim the throne. They expect King James to return to Scotland very soon and use that as their basis for gathering supporters. King James never shows up and the rebellion is squashed by King George. Charles and James Radcliffe are thrown into Newgate Prison.

James is tried and convicted for his part in the Rebellion, although most of the rebels are acquitted or released. A year later, James is beheaded. Charles is also convicted, but the Lady Betty Lee, who has never fallen out of love with him, comes to his aid. She takes Jenny, who has re-entered Charles’s life now that Meg is dead, in to her household. She is also able to get reprieves from the Princess of Wales, knowing that the princess’s father-in-law George I, will be most annoyed.

Charles is well aware that the stays of execution will not continue, especially not after King George returns. Charles escapes with the help of Lady Betty Lee and his manservant, and goes into hiding. He takes Jenny and returns to Dilston, which has fallen into ruin since James’ capture and execution.

Jenny’s heartthrob Rob who appears throughout the book, when Charles first met Meg, when Charles is forced to marry Meg and when Charles escapes from Newgate, travels with them. He takes Jenny to visit the place of her birth. Her grandfather has deteriorated in health and mind, since Meg’s passing.

Charles cannot stay long in England and sails to exile in France, while Jenny remains with Lady Betty Lee. Jenny befriends a young girl, slightly older, whose family is returning to their home in Virginia. Having learned that Rob is now there as well, Jenny sails to Virginia with her friends, against the will of guardian Lady Betty and her father. Rob was convicted of murder, while saving Jenny from certain rape.

Eventually, she locates Rob and buys his freedom since he is an indentured servant and an escaped criminal. They marry and settle on a large parcel of land about 100 miles west of Richmond on the James River.

Here, like her earlier work “Katherine”, Seton moves very quickly forward in time. Up to this point, Seton separates sections with only 5 or 6 years. Now in Virginia, Seton skips ahead 11 years for a short section, and then another 9 years. Soon, Rob and Jenny have been married for 20 mostly uneventful years. They had a son who did not survive and this has become a source of pain between them.

When Jenny learns that her father has been recaptured in England and faces certain execution, she flees back across the Atlantic. She and Rob exchange hateful parting words as Jenny leaves.

She spends as much time as she can with her father, even taking a job at a local tavern to earn her keep. All of her friends she left behind in England, including Lady Betty Lee, have died, with the exception of her father’s faithful servant.

Jenny soon accepts the fact that she is pregnant again with Rob’s child, but refuses to believe there is any future for them now, after their painful parting.

Unbeknownst to her, Rob has followed her to England to patch things up. He finally catches up with her just as Charles is executed. The story ends with Jenny recovering from the shock of seeing her father beheaded to find her beloved husband, whom she is happy to see, standing over her. They reunite.

Like “Katherine” Seton has crafted a well-written story based on extensive research. In a note Seton, stated that she had spent 4 years researching this story, and remained scrupulously true to the facts, from England to Virginia. This story is somewhat of a genealogical study since Ms. Seton is a descendent of the Snawdons, Meg’s family.

I am not a huge fan of historical fiction but Ms. Seton was such a magnificent story-teller, one cannot help but to enjoy her novels. She can describe people and settings clearly without overloading the reader with details. She can make you tremble in fear at an upcoming execution and then make you fall in love. Her depiction of the characters in the story is her best talent. Mid-eighteenth century people leap off the page with their passion, anger and love. Unfortunately, Miss Seton passed in 1990, but her works continue to carry her into immortality.

(previously published on

A Play of Dux Moraud by Margaret Frazer

The second series following Joliffe Ripon and the band of performers is a bit of a let-down, which disappointed me since Margaret Frazer is one of my favorite authors. Set in fifteenth-century England, Joliffe’s Lord Lovell sends his performers to one of his feofees, whose daughter is soon to be married as a wedding gift. The daughter Mariena was betrothed earlier but her fiancé, hearty and hale, took ill and died suddenly. Lord Lovell has reason to believe that all may not be well at Sir Edmund Deneby’s household. Joliffe is instructed to find out what he can.

The rest of the book is a slow moving story with Joliffe asking many questions but getting few answers. There was little suspense in any of Joliffe’s experiences. Even the “accidents” Mariena and her younger brother add little to the sense of mystery. Unfortunately, these few events were all there was for any intrigue, and did not entertain. Joliffe spends most of his time pondering the same questions over and over, that we heard from Lord Lovell at the beginning of the story.

The final solution is revealed, but it is rather unsatisfying, since we are already given a strong sense of what may come through Joliffe’s musings. There are very few surprises at all through out the book.

Although the book was disappointing, Frazer still tells a great story, bringing fifteenth century England to life, with historical facts as the backbone of the novel, embellished with Frazer’s own brilliant imagination.

Her Dame Frevisse is far better than what we’ve seen of Joliffe so far. As she develops this character and his friends, perhaps this off-shoot of Frevisse will improve.

(previously published on

Ashes of Aries by Martha C. Lawrence

In Martha C. Lawrence’s fifth Elizabeth Chase novel, “Ashes of Aries”, our favorite San Diego psychic private investigator is called in to assist in finding the kidnapped son of a local telecommunications executive, a man who turned his company Starcomm into a multi-million dollar industry.

During her meeting with the missing boy’s parents, which takes place shortly after being handed the case, Elizabeth smells smoke. A quick search of the huge place reveals nothing amiss. She doesn’t realize it until afterwards that the smell of smoke was a premonition. Later that day, the whole neighborhood goes up in flames, killing the Starcomm exec and his wife, who become trapped in their car inside their complex by closed iron gates. The fire knocked out power in the area and the gates’ controls did not work, blocking the unfortunate couple’s escape.

Chase’s parents’ home is nearby. In her panic to see if her parents and house are safe, Elizabeth ventures into the flames. She encounters a firefighter named Zev, from whom she feels strange vibes that she can’t explain.

At the same time, she meets Randy Twain, a television reporter, who had tried to interview her at the executive’s house that morning. His photographer was filming the blaze and is now stranded, needing evacuation. Elizabeth agrees to help Twain’s photographer if Zev will give them permission to enter the fire zone, which he does with great reluctance.

They rescue the photographer Jane but the three of them barely make it out of the fire zone alive. Although she doesn’t get to find her parents, she soon finds them alive and well at a nearby Red Cross station, unhurt, much to her relief. A television at the station is broadcasting live reports from a news helicopter and she sees her parents’ house, still standing and undamaged. She also sees a news clip of the burning car in which the Starcomm exec and his wife perished.

Her psychic power warns her that the fire was no accident and the exec was the intended victim. Arson investigators find proof that shows she was right. Now, it’s a murder investigation.

Elizabeth continues to receive images of Scooby-Doo, a favorite of the kidnapped child, and concludes that he is still alive. Unfortunately, she cannot shake Twain, the reporter, who has discovered who she is and has correctly speculated her role in the investigation.

Soon there is another suspicious fire, which destroys part of the Starcomm building and a nearby apartment complex. After the blaze has been extinguished, Elizabeth’s power leads her to a fireproof safe in the burn zone, which contains a note threatening more fires. Unfortunately, it does not reveal any more clues to the kidnapped boy.

The tone of the letter leads Elizabeth to believe that radical environmentalists may be behind the fires to protest Starcomm’s urban assault on the landscape. But kidnapping is not their forte.

A third fire breaks out. This time the firefighter Zev dies from burns he received when his fire truck was overrun by the inferno. Chase realizes then that the weird vibes she received from him were premonitions of his death, instead of any involvement in the kidnapping and arson.

Getting more anxious than ever to find the boy and convinced he is still alive, Elizabeth uses her powers and some good ol’ footwork to locate a house where she knows the boy is. Detectives are called in to search the house, but it takes Elizabeth’s clairsentience and her Rhodesian Ridgeback’s nose to find the boy, well-hidden in a crawlspace behind a closet.

The house belongs to a disgruntled employee who blames Starcomm and its executive for the death of her father. Unfortunately, she is not home at the moment.

In a rare instance of talking to a stranger, the rescued boy gives Elizabeth a clue to his kidnapper’s whereabouts.

She is going to burn down Elizabeth’s house.

A close watch is kept on Chase’s place while she evacuates to her parents’ home. Too late doest Elizabeth realize that the arsonist does not know she has a separate address from her parents’ house, which is actually the intended target.

Elizabeth sees a fire in a shed behind the house, getting dangerously close to a propane tank. As she attempts to battle the flame, the arsonist attacks her, knocking her unconscious and tying her up. Elizabeth is about to become PI flambé but her mother intervenes, saving Elizabeth and the family home from fiery destruction.

Although this is Lawrence’s fifth novel, it is only the second one I’ve read. I started with her fourth, “Pisces Rising” after finding it in a bookstore and was intrigued by its premise. I was hooked. Before I finished “Ashes of Aries” I had purchased her first three novels on-line.

“Aries” seems to have Chase relying on her powers more and applying them to her case more so than in “Pisces”. Of course, in “Pisces” Elizabeth was investigating a murder, whereas here, she was trying to locate a missing child.

When Elizabeth applies an ability known as ‘remote viewing’ to locate the kidnapped boy, Lawrence clearly makes her own knowledge and opinion of the government’s project to study this talent known. That the government now denies such research does not deter Ms. Lawrence from discussing aspects of the program.

When Lawrence’s Chase receives premonitions, she does not try to explain them if she does not understand them herself. This is what sets Elizabeth far above other ‘psychic detectives’ who are shams. Apparently, Elizabeth has been perceived as such, but has grown thick skin.

My favorite part was how Elizabeth finally tracked down the boy. She had a vision that included a trail, a white picket fence and a K-Mart. She hopped in her truck and scoped out each K-Mart in the San Diego area until she found the area and subsequently the house and boy.

I like Elizabeth’s boldness and confidence in her powers. Anyone who applies them to private investigating would have to be, but Lawrence portrays her without cockiness or arrogance. She is a girl who has a job to do and she does it well while caring for her dog and cat and parents.

I also like Elizabeth’s shaman instructor, the mysterious Sequoia, who’s powers surpass hers but is training her to better her powers and how to use them.

Because of these aspects of the two novels I have read, Elizabeth Chase has become a source of inspiration for me and the psionic detectives that I have developed, since they possess similar abilities. However, Ms. Lawrence has an enormous advantage over me in that she has fashioned her books based upon her own psychic experiences. I have had no such experiences, so the events and powers that my officers encounter are purely my own wild imagination.

In “Aries”, Lawrence pulls Chase into the supernatural realm, while visiting the reporter Twain’s house. Elizabeth has an uneasy feeling upon entering his home and he explains that people have thought it to be haunted. She soon has a vision of a body in a bathtub, tells him his house is definitely haunted and bolts. My experience with the supernatural is much more limited that with the psychic phenomenon.

I may not be qualified to write for either genre, but I find the psychic or paranormal fascinating and will continue to write; agent, publisher or no.

In the meantime, I will continue to follow the beautiful Lawrence’s work.

“Ashes of Aries” is a great read!
(previously published on

Our Lady of Darkness by Peter Tremayne

Tremayne continues his phenomenal series based on sleuth Sister Fidelma, a religuese and dalaigh in seventh century Ireland. She has been summoned back to Ireland from a pilgrimage as her friend and companion Brother Eadulf has been accused of murder. When she arrives at the castle of the kingdom bordering her brother’s, she finds that Eadulf has not only been convicted of raping and strangling a young girl, he is sentenced to hang the following day. Working quickly, Fidelma finds more than a few breaches in the law and the manner in which court was held.

Late that same evening, Fidelma argues for an appeal. The youthful and unfriendly king and his spiritual advisor, a long-time adversary of Fidelma’s, will deliver their decision the following morning. During the night, Eadulf is rescued from the abbey’s prison and whisked away to a place of sanctuary. He is soon told that he is free to leave the fortress by someone he has never seen before. Curious and suspicious, Eadulf walks out of his sanctuary only to find it is an attempt to murder him. He barely escapes with his life.

Fidelma is suspected by everyone to be an accomplice to the escape but she has no idea of his whereabouts. She continues her investigation and finds more deaths and disappearances surrounding the abbey and its quay on the river. A certain merchant seems to be at the center of the mystery, but when Fidelma finally locates him, the Abbess Fin is standing over his dead body with a bloodied knife in her hand.

Meanwhile, Eadulf heads east to reach the shore and find passage back to Saxony. His desire to see Fidelma overrides his need to escape and he heads back to the abbey. He encounters a blind man living alone. The blind man has heard of Eadulf but believes his story. He directs Eadulf how to return to the abbey by a circuitous route, stopping at a small monastery where he can have sanctuary before returning to the abbey.

On his way, Eadulf finds two captured girls, who tell him a tragic story of being sold by their dirt-poor fathers into slavery. Convinced that this is part of the mystery surrounding the abbey and the girl he was convicted of murdering, he takes them with him to the Yellow Mountain monastery. He thinks he is safe in the monastery but is rousted in the middle of the night by the young king and his hunters who had been lodging nearby. The King pronounces that Eadulf shall hang at dawn, but he is saved at the exact moment of his execution. One of Fidelma’s men has returned in the knick of time with one of the highest authorities in the five kingdoms of Ireland, the Brehon. They all return to the abbey where Eadulf is reunited with Fidelma.

She argues her case efficiently and with a precise detail to the situation and the knowledge of the law. She not only proves Brother Eadulf’s innocence but that of another Brother who was accused, convicted and executed for a murder he did not commit. It is a sordid tail of buying young girls from poor families and shipping them off to lives of slavery, in which the abbey played an important role. Fidelma exposes the mastermind behind the crimes.

Having saved Brother Eadulf from the gibbet, Fidelma is unsuccessful in convincing him to return with her to her brother’s kingdom of Cashel. Instead, he convinces her to return to Canterbury with him.

As usual, Tremayne takes the reader through a dizzying whirlwind of action, non-stop events and a complex story full of clues, which do not fall into place until Fidelma’s closing arguments. Tremayne also embellishes his stories with rich details of ancient Ireland its lands, cities and cultures, inserting many of the actual terms from the language of that era. Tremayne is the pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, who is an expert on ancient Ireland. He relies heavily on this knowledge to bring seventh century Ireland alive and easily visualized by the reader.

The story switches back and forth between Fidelma’s point of view and Eadulf’s. We see and feel Fidelma’s fear and agony worrying about the fate of her close friend as she desperately tries to save him. Her intelligence, quick wit and temper give her the edge in every argument, but she continues to face opposition. Through Eadulf, we find that he has matured and is becoming as shrewd as Fidelma through his confinement, escape, recapture and near execution. He keeps his wits about him, a far cry from the earlier novels where he appeared to be mainly a mental punching bag for Fidelma.

As a result, this novel becomes a fast-paced, page-turner as we fear for Eadulf, a character we love, during several near-death experiences. There is no shortage of excitement, close-calls and strange events for him or Fidelma, as all lead and contribute to the final solution. Tremayne wastes no words on anything that detracts from the mystery. There isn’t even a backstory. Fidelma does not have many red herrings thrown at her, because everything has a place in the end. The reader has all the clues that Fidelma discovers but delivered in such a manner that they only make sense when the good Sister finally assembles them.

This is probably Tremayne’s best work since Suffer Little Children”, the third Fidelma mystery. Its excitement keeps the reader glued to the pages until the very last word.