Book Review: The House on Tradd Street by Karen White

Title: The House on Tradd Street
Author: Karen White
Narrator: Aimée Bruneau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: 2008
Print length: 329 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 10 minute
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Practical Melanie Middleton hates to admit she can see ghosts. But she’s going to have to accept it. An old man she recently met has died, leaving her his historic Tradd Street home, complete with housekeeper, dog, and a family of ghosts anxious to tell her their secrets.

Enter Jack Trenholm, a gorgeous writer obsessed with unsolved mysteries. He has reason to believe that diamonds from the Confederate Treasury are hidden in the house. So he turns the charm on with Melanie, only to discover he’s the smitten one…

It turns out Jack’s search has caught the attention of a malevolent ghost. Now, Jack and Melanie must unravel a mystery of passion, heartbreak, and even murder.

This contemporary novel might not have been an obvious choice for me, but since it was my book group’s pick for May, I felt compelled to give it a try. And while it held my attention, there were a few too many eye-rolling moments for me to feel that it was anything more than just an okay read.

In The House on Tradd Street, main character Melanie is a realtor who specializes in Charleston’s historical homes, although she secretly hates them with a passion. She may tell herself it’s because they’re all money pits, but in reality, as a woman who’s spent her whole life seeing and hearing ghosts, these old homes are just too fraught with supernatural encounters for her to ever be able to appreciate them.

As the book opens, a man she thinks is a potential seller ends up leaving her his beautiful but utterly decrepit home, as well a letter imploring her to find out the truth about his mother’s disappearance over 70 years earlier. The local gossip would have it that she ran off with another man, but her son never believed the story, and his dying wish is for his mother’s reputation to be cleared.

To complicate matters, a bestselling author who specializes in historical mysteries asks to partner with Melanie, offering to assist with the house restoration project in exchange for access to the house’s attic and stashes of old records. Stuck with an unwanted house and ghosts who don’t want to leave her alone, Melanie reluctantly agrees.

There are multiple mysteries to solve — what really happened to Louisa Vanderhorst? Are there really diamonds hidden somewhere in the house? What does the menacing spirit that haunts the house want from Melanie? And who will she choose in the evolving love triangle?

Sorry, that one’s not actually a mystery… it’s obvious from the start which way the love story piece of the plot is going. As is so much else of the novel, unfortunately.

The answer to Louisa’s disappearance is pretty clear from the get-go, with only the details needing to be spelled out. The writing makes it fairly obvious early on that the commonly accepted explanation isn’t the true answer. It’s amazing to me that anyone buys it, and it certainly takes Melanie long enough to clue into the truth.

I was caught up enough in the story to just go with it most of the time, and the investigation into the house’s mysteries includes some clever clues and interesting answers. Overall, though, the plot is on the hokey/cheesy side, and the book — written in 2008 — hasn’t aged particularly well.

Some of the datedness probably can’t be helped. If an author is going to include references to technology in a novel, chances are that it’ll feel out of date within a few years. Here, between mentioning her IPod and Blackberry and hanging up a call by “closing” her cell phone, as well as the office secretary handing Melanie a stack of message slips, it’s clear that the characters are not living in the same tech world as we are. Again, that’s not usually a problem for me, but maybe because these kind of things happen a lot in this book, it was distracting.

More problematic are some of the social/interpersonal descriptions that are not only dated, but also highly cringe-worthy. Jack, the main love interest, is such an alpha male, asserting his dominance in all sorts of irritating ways, including insisting on using a nickname for Melanie despite being asked repeatedly not too. I think his arrogance is supposed to make him sexy and roguish, but to me, he just comes off as an ass.

There’s also an awful moment where the main character mentions that she’s going to donate some of the proceeds of her inheritance to the Daughters of the Confederacy (because — spoiler!! — the diamonds were originally from Jefferson Davis, and his intent was apparently to use them to support war widows and orphans). I’m sorry, but I don’t care what the intent was… supporting anything connected to the Confederacy just is not a good look. Ick.

On top of this, Melanie is a bad friend. Her best friend is a historical preservation professor at the College of Charleston (convenient!), but in every single scene with her, Melanie thinks about how terribly she dresses or disparages her in other ways. It’s awful. Ick again.

As I said, this was mostly a quick read, and it held my attention — but the annoying and/or problematic and/or predictable aspects of the story keep this from being a great reading experience. There are more books in the series (presumably more stories about haunted houses), but I don’t intend to continue.

Book Review: A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong

Title: A Rip Through Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this series debut from New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, a modern-day homicide detective finds herself in Victorian Scotland—in an unfamiliar body—with a killer on the loose.

May 20, 2019: Homicide detective Mallory is in Edinburgh to be with her dying grandmother. While out on a jog one evening, Mallory hears a woman in distress. She’s drawn to an alley, where she is attacked and loses consciousness.

May 20, 1869: Housemaid Catriona Mitchell had been enjoying a half-day off, only to be discovered that night in a lane, where she’d been strangled and left for dead . . . exactly one-hundred-and-fifty years before Mallory was strangled in the same spot.

When Mallory wakes up in Catriona’s body in 1869, she must put aside her shock and adjust quickly to the reality: life as a housemaid to an undertaker in Victorian Scotland. She soon discovers that her boss, Dr. Gray, also moonlights as a medical examiner and has just taken on an intriguing case, the strangulation of a young man, similar to the attack on herself. Her only hope is that catching the murderer can lead her back to her modern life . . . before it’s too late.

Outlander meets The Alienist in Kelley Armstrong’s A Rip Through Time, the first book in this utterly compelling series, mixing romance, mystery, and fantasy with thrilling results. 

In this engrossing start to a new series, Canadian detective Mallory is visiting her dying grandmother in Edinburgh when she stops to investigate a woman’s cries down a dark alley. As Mallory is attacked, she sees a strange optical illusion, but quickly passes out as the unknown assailant strangles her.

When she wakes up, she’s in a strange house, in strange clothing, including — of all things — a corset. Weirdly true despite being hard to believe, it would appear that Mallory has been transported into the body of a housemaid named Catriona, who was attacked and strangled in the same alley as Mallory — but 150 years earlier.

Quick-thinking Mallory figures out the truth of her situation fairly quickly, and uses her head injury as an explanation for her severe memory loss and marked change in personality. The housemaid who’d claimed illiteracy previously can suddenly read and write, and what’s more, takes an interest in her master’s forensic work that’s decidedly new and different.

As Mallory spends more time as Catriona, she realizes that while she doesn’t have an obvious way back to her own life, she can make a contribution where she is by applying her knowledge of 21st century police procedures to help solve the case of a potential serial killer haunting Edinburgh. Unfortunately for Mallory, she also discovers that Catriona was not a sweet, innocent 19-year-old, but a young woman with a gift for thievery, deceit, and no moral compass. As Mallory struggles to make sense of her new life, she also is confronted by the mistrust and dislike earned by the person who’s body she inhabits.

Can’t say I’ve ever read a plot like this one before!

A Rip Through Time is fascinating and utterly immersive, exploring a fish-out-of-water situation through the eyes of a strong, accomplished woman forced into a life where she has none of the “womanly” qualities deemed necessary to fit in. Mallory is a terrific character, confronting her bizarre circumstances with intelligence and determination, applying her years of experience as a detective to both help her employer solve the mysteries he sees in his line of work as well as to solve the huge unknowns about her own case.

Not only is Mallory in the wrong century in the wrong body, but she’s been targeted at least once by a killer, and as her time in Edinburgh of the 1860s continues, she learns that she/Catriona is still in danger. There’s a mystery to solve and a killer to catch, and the action is fast-paced and totally fun to unpack and follow along.

This may all sound like an unbelievable set-up for a story, and I suppose in a less-skilled writer’s hands, that might make it unreadable — but here, Kelley Armstrong confidently weaves a story about crime, women’s roles, time travel, connections, independence, and family, and makes it all work.

It’s really fun to see Mallory’s takes on her life in this new time and place:

If I had to cast him in a period drama, it’d be somewhere between “mad scientist” and “brooding lord with his wife locked in the attic”.

I love how she compares everything she encounters to the way the era is portrayed in film and fiction:

I’m trying to pass back through time by returning to the place where I crossed over. My brain says that makes logical sense, but I am well aware that it only makes sense because I’ve seen it in movies and read it in books. […] I am basing my entire theory on the imagination of fiction writers. Not scientists, because there is no science. People can’t travel through time. Therefore, writers don’t need to worry about “getting it right.” They make up whatever they want.

{…]

If so many writers used that particular trope, maybe there was a kernel of truth to it. It’s like meeting a vampire while holding a vial of holy water and not throwing it at him.”

The writing throughout is fresh and fun, and while there is plenty of danger and some more serious moments, Mallory’s 21st-century voice keeps the story from feeling like a stodgy historical piece.

I was a little bit hesitant at first when I learned that A Rip Through Time is the first in a series, rather than a stand-alone. However, now that I’ve finished, I’m delighted that there will be more! I can’t say much about the ending or what I might expect from book #2 without entering spoiler territory… but let’s just say that I found the ending of this book very satisfying, and yet with plenty more to explore in future books. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Book Review: An Impossible Impostor (Veronica Speedwell, #7) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: An Impossible Impostor
Series: Veronica Speedwell, #7
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 15, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

While investigating a man claiming to be the long-lost heir to a noble family, Veronica Speedwell gets the surprise of her life in this new adventure from the New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated author Deanna Raybourn.

London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

But now a man matching Jonathan’s description and carrying his possessions has arrived at Hathaway Hall with no memory of his identity or where he has been. Could this man truly be Jonathan, back from the dead? Or is he a devious impostor, determined to gain ownership over the family’s most valuable possessions–a legendary parure of priceless Rajasthani jewels? It’s a delicate situation, and Veronica is Sir Hugo’s only hope.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.

A new installment in the deliciously smart Veronica Speedwell series is always cause for delight, and book #7 is no exception.

Veronica and Stoker are a well-established couple at this point, but they’ve lost none of their spark or chemistry. Their passion continues to simmer, and they’re fulfilled by their work together on the natural history collection of Lord Rosemorran. But when Sir Hugo Montgomerie of Scotland Yard asks a favor, he’s awfully hard to ignore, and their peaceful moments are interrupted by a call to adventure.

Our fearless duo sets off to the Hathaway estate to discover whether the long-presumed dead eldest son has miraculously returned — which would have enormous ramifications for his surviving siblings, especially the brother who has legally inherited in his stead.

Veronica and Stoker discover a situation much more complicated than expected, further muddled by Veronica’s own distant past which included an acquaintance with the missing Hathaway son. While uncovering the truth, Veronica and Stoker once again end up in mortal peril, fighting for their lives, solving multiple mysteries, and using their wits to find solutions.

It’s all very charming, and the adventure itself is fun even while taking a while to build up stakes. Once our favorite couple are themselves in danger, of course it all escalates and becomes much more dramatic — but even then, the banter and sexy glances and innuendo continue.

I had a few qualms about a certain plot complication which the romantic in me found upsetting, but never fear, it’s more or less resolved by book’s end. The mystery is tied up nicely, although Veronica and Stoker are left in a status that’s less settled than in previous books… so can I have #8 now please???? (Sadly, no — I expect it’ll be another year’s wait for the next one).

As in all the books in this series, the humor is silly and fun, and Veronica is a treat — a fierce, intelligent woman of science who’s not afraid to follow her own path, including becoming romantically and physically involved with a man who’s very much her partner and equal.

And really, when else would we get to read a book that includes such delightful words and phrases as “fritillary”, “amatory arts”, “passamenterie”, “osculatory”, and “inanition”? Not to mention a quick little aside in which a character educates us on the origins of the bandanna?

An Impossible Impostor is just a super fun adventure. Each book in the series goes by too quickly, and I always tell myself to slow down and savor them… but I never do. An Impossible Impostor could potentially work as a stand-alone mystery. The key players and background are explained well enough to be able to follow along. But, I don’t really recommend this approach — you’d be missing out on all the delicious history of Veronica and Stoker’s relationship, as well as their individual backstories, and truly, those are too good to miss!

If you want to get to know Veronica Speedwell, I’d say start with book #1, A Curious Beginning. I’m pretty sure you’ll be hooked! And isn’t it nice to know that there are already another six books to enjoy after that one?

This series has become one of my favorites. Check it out!

Book Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Title: The Plot
Author: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then… he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

Hailed as breathtakingly suspenseful, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is a propulsive read about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Plot is an unputdownable page-turner. I finished it within 24 hours — I just couldn’t stand waiting to see how it all turned out!

In The Plot, our focus is on Jacob Finch Bonner, a has-been writer who burst onto the literary scene years earlier with a well-reviewed first book, then flamed out on his second book and couldn’t even find a publisher for his third or fourth. He can’t bring himself to write, and supports himself through teaching at a mediocre MFA program that’s open to anyone who wants to write, no competitive admissions process required.

When the super obnoxious Evan Parker shows up for Jake’s class, Evan is dismissive and rude, and asserts that he’s just there to get the initials MFA into his credentials. He insists his plot is amazing, can’t fail, and will make what he writes a huge bestseller and get him a major movie deal. Jake can’t believe Evan’s arrogance, but when he finally coaxes the plot out of Evan, he has to reluctantly agree that Evan has something unique and possibly quite valuable. Of course, it’s insulting that Evan insists that it doesn’t take writing talent to make a great book — all that’s needed is a great plot, and he has one.

Years go by, and Jake supports himself through online teaching and an editing business. But when he hears that Evan has died, he’s curious about the plot of his book. Surely, if someone had published such a story, he would have known. After googling and poking around, Jake becomes certain that Evan never did write his book… and since the plot was never used and never truly left Jake’s mind, well, why not?

Jake’s book is everything that Evan knew his plot would lead to. Crib is a huge bestseller, an Oprah book, and is about to be optioned by Stephen Spielberg. But Jake’s success is disturbed when he receives an email calling him a thief. His anxiety leads him into a deeper look into Evan’s life, and the more he digs, the more he understands about how someone like Evan could have come up with this amazing plot in the first place.

I can’t go into more detail than that, because spoiling this book would be unforgivable! Suffice it to say that Jake’s investigation reveals plenty of weirdness and unexpected twists, and I found it fascinating.

The Plot gives us a lot to think about, both in terms of the book’s storyline and the suspenseful elements, but also in terms of the world and inner life of a writer. As one character points out, ideas can’t be copyrighted. So if someone has a story idea but never uses it, and someone else knows about the idea and does use it, is it stealing? On the surface, yes… maybe? Was it ethical for Jake to write a book based on a plot concept that, as far he knows, was never used and was never even written beyond the draft of a first chapter? If Jake took the story outline he heard from Evan and turned into a compelling novel, was that Jake’s work in reality? How much credit, if any, does he owe to Evan? The questions are fascinating to think about, and my feelings and opinions on these issues continued to change throughout the novel.

I did pretty much nail the biggest plot twist early on, but that doesn’t mean that I truly figured it all out. I may have had a good idea of the “what”, but the “why” and the “how” were surprising and really well put-together, and I loved all the little ups and downs of Jake’s search for the truth.

I will say that the very end was not what I expected, and I’m still struggling with it! Not because it doesn’t work — it absolutely does! But I will say that my sense of fairness feels upset. This is not the ending I wanted for the characters… but it totally works in a very creepy sort of way.

The Plot has lots of disturbing developments, but it’s not graphically violent. As I said, beyond the actual intrigue and action, I also appreciated the thoughts on a writer’s life, the highs and lows of success as an author, and the various questions brought up about who gets to tell whose stories and whether it’s true to say that each person has a story that’s uniquely theirs to tell.

I think one sign that The Plot is really well done is that even though I felt disappointed by some of Jake’s actions and decisions and what these say about his morality or lack thereof, I still rooted for him and cared enough about him to want him to find a way out of the increasingly perilous place he finds himself.

The Plot is one of the buzziest books this summer, and with good reason. It’s a fast, engrossing story that kept me hooked until the very end. Check it out!

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Book Review: An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 2, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A princess is missing, and a peace treaty is on the verge of collapse in this new Veronica Speedwell adventure from the New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated author Deanna Raybourn.

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Six books in, the Veronica Speedwell series shows no hint of getting stale or slowing down. In An Unexpected Peril, our intrepid lepidopterist finds herself once again embroiled in a murder investigation, putting her own life at risk as well as that of her hot, devoted, decidedly dangerous lover Stoker.

Veronica is Victorian-era spunk and determination personified. She’s a fearless explorer, a scientist passionately devoted to pursuit of rare butterfly species and the works of Darwin, a devoted sensualist, and a woman who does not back down. So when she and Stoker are commissioned to put together an exhibit dedicated to Alice Baker-Greene, a pioneering mountain climber who died tragically while attempting to summit an alp in the small (and fictional) country of Alpenwald, she finds herself unable to look past evidence that the death was murder.

Meanwhile, Veronica’s noted physical similarity to the princess of Alpenwald comes in handy when the princess disappears and the country’s diplomatic entourage to England recruits Veronica to act as a public stand-in. Naturally, nothing goes quite according to plan, and before long, Veronica and Stoker find themselves — yet again — in mortal danger as they pursue the truth.

The princess watched us in bemusement.

“Do you always take your own attempted murder in your stride?”

I considered this. “The first time is unnerving,” I admitted.

“But when it gets to be habit,” Stoker added, “one must adapt a rational attitude and make certain to eat to keep up one’s strength.”

An Unexpected Peril is a fun romp of a book, with royal glamour, risky adventures, misleading clues, and the deliciously passionate relationship between Veronica and Stoker. Their banter is always funny and outrageous, and their connection and relationship remain unconventional yet deeply loving.

The through-story of the series, related to Veronica’s background and her connection to the British royal family, remains simmering in the background, and I’m sure will be explored further as the series continues. (Book 7 should be released in 2022, and I hope there will be many, many more to come!)

This series is worth starting at the beginning. Veronica is a delightful character, and her adventures never fail to entertain. Start at the beginning (A Curious Beginning), and keep going!

Shelf Control #251: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Published: 1920
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Who poisoned the wealthy Emily Inglethorp and how did the murderer penetrate and escape from her locked bedroom? Suspects abound in the quaint village of Styles St. Mary—from the heiress’s fawning new husband to her two stepsons, her volatile housekeeper, and a pretty nurse who works in a hospital dispensary.

With impeccable timing, and making his unforgettable debut, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on the case.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a Kindle edition a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

After reading the excellent new novel by Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, my interest in Agatha Christie is definitely piqued! I’ve only read one of her books so far, but I’ve been intending to read more.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie’s first published novel, and it’s also the book where she introduced Hercule Poirot. I feel like this would be a great starting place for me, and if I enjoy it (as I suspect I will), I can pick and choose more of her works to read.

Are you an Agatha Christie fan? Any recommendations on which books to read? Particular favorites?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

Title: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Author: Marie Benedict
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: December 29, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Marie Benedict, the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, uncovers the untold story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.

The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted. With her trademark exploration into the shadows of history, acclaimed author Marie Benedict brings us into the world of Agatha Christie, imagining why such a brilliant woman would find herself at the center of such a murky story.

What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play, and what was he not telling investigators?

A master storyteller whose clever mind may never be matched, Agatha Christie’s untold history offers perhaps her greatest mystery of all. 

In this fascinating new release, author Marie Benedict creates an Agatha Christie-worthy mystery out of a real-life mystery from Christie’s own life.

Agatha Christie really did disappear for eleven days in 1926, and when she was located, her missing days were attributed to amnesia. That was it — a rather vague and unsatisfying resolution to a headline-making missing person story. (Read more about the actual events, here.)

But what really happened? Is there more to the story than meets the eye? In The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, we get a tantalizing view of a possible (and highly entertaining) answer.

The novel follows two narrative streams in alternating chapters: Agatha’s courtship and marriage to Archie Christie, told from Agatha’s perspective starting in 1912, and Agatha’s disappearance in 1926, told from Archie’s point of view. As the two weave together, we come to understand Agatha’s brilliance, and just how much of herself she sacrificed in order to please her moody, controlling husband.

I laughed at his rare joke, a mad cackle that I knew was a mistake the moment it escaped my lips. It sounded brash and overreactive, and Archie wouldn’t like it. It smacked of disorderly emotions.

I really don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t talk about outcomes at all. What I will highlight is the shock and dismay I felt reading Agatha’s narration of how she devoted herself to her husband, pushing down her own successes, her natural vivacity, and even her love for her daughter in order to cater to a man who demanded to be constantly at the center of his wife’s attention. It’s heartbreaking.

On those nights when I longed to hold my baby in my arms, even sleep with her in my bed, I told myself that this distance was necessary practice. How else could I ensure that Archie maintained his position at the center of my affections?

Even after her beloved mother dies, Agatha is made to feel responsible for neglecting Archie and causing his infidelity:

It was likely my fault that he’d become fascinated with Nancy. Hadn’t Mummy always warned me never to leave my husband alone for too long? And hadn’t I emotionally and physically abandoned him this summer in my grief? Even when he was in Spain, he knew my heart and mind weren’t with him but lost to my sorrow over Mummy.

Argh. It’s just so upsetting to see this amazing woman tie herself in knots as a result of her husband’s passive-aggressive, emotionally manipulative and abusive behavior. He even manages to suck the joy out of Agatha’s early writing successes, making her feel unsupportive of her husband if she became too happy about her publishing contracts and the beginnings of her fame.

I mostly write because I adore creating worlds and puzzles, and I want to succeed at it wildly. But ambition is a dirty word when it’s used by women; it’s decidedly unladylike, in fact.

The author weaves together the historical facts to create a police procedural crime investigation in the chapters set in 1926. If it starts to feel like we’re in an Agatha Christie novel, well, kudos to Marie Benedict! She employs Agatha’s wittiness and intelligence to create a puzzle out of Agatha’s own life. According to The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Agatha first started writing her stories as a result of a dare from her sister, who just didn’t believe that Agatha could create an unsolvable puzzle for readers — so naturally, she had to prove her sister wrong. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, this book delivers clever plotting and intriguing twists that manage to surprise and delight.

I was a little hesitant about reading The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, as I’ve only read one Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None), although I’ve seen adaptations of several others. I needn’t have worried. The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is perfectly accessible for a Christie novice like myself, and I imagine that it’ll be very enjoyable for the great lady’s more ardent fans too.

And now, of course, I need to read more Agatha Christie books! Do you have any favorites? Where should I start? I’m also definitely going to want to read more by Marie Benedict! So far, I’ve only listened to an audiobook novella written by her, Agent 355, and I loved it.

For anyone who’s a Christie fan, or for those who just enjoy a good literary puzzle with a strong, smart woman at its center, I highly recommend The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes, #1) by Nancy Springer

Title: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes, #1)
Author: Nancy Springer
Publisher: Puffin
Publication date: 2006
Length: 228 pages
Genre: Middle grade
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Meet Enola Holmes, teenaged girl turned detective and the younger sister to Sherlock Holmes.

When Enola Holmes, sister to the detective Sherlock Holmes, discovers her mother has disappeared, she quickly embarks on a journey to London in search of her. But nothing can prepare her for what awaits. Because when she arrives, she finds herself involved in the kidnapping of a young marquess, fleeing murderous villains, and trying to elude her shrewd older brothers—all while attempting to piece together clues to her mother’s strange disappearance. Amid all the mayhem, will Enola be able to decode the necessary clues and find her mother?

After watching the delightful Netflix adaptation of this book (more about this below), I just had to check out the source material! I’m glad I did — the first book in Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series is clever, funny, and full of adventure.

In The Case of the Missing Marquess, Enola wakes up on her 14th birthday to discover that her mother is missing. When her older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, arrive on the scene, it’s clear that they have no faith in the ability of a woman to fend for herself or to think rationally. As for what to do with Enola, boarding school is the obvious choice, as far as the men are concerned.

Enola is having none of it, and resolves to run off and go in search of her mother. Using clues left for her by her mother, Enola sets out in clever disguise, making use of the awful requirements of women’s dress (including corsetry and bustle) to find hiding places for money and other essentials.

Along her journey, she stumbles across the case of the missing Marquess — a 12-year-old boy from a prestigious family who’s been reportedly abducted, but Enola sees enough through her own perspective to realize that he’s probably run away as well.

As Enola travels to London, she crosses paths with the Marquess, and together they endure hardships, threats, near-death encounters with bad guys, and a thrilling escape.

By the end, Enola has not yet found her mother, but she’s learned a lot about the ways of the world, how women are viewed and how to use that to her own advantage, and how to survive on her own.

Enola is a delightful character, and the book is a fun caper story. It’s geared toward a younger crowd than YA, which is why I’d call it middle grade, although it might skew somewhere in between.

The writing and dialogue are clever, and it’s quite fun to see how Enola uses society’s view of women to her own ends, subverting the patriarchy right under the patriarchy’s chauvinistic noses.

I’m not sure that I’ll continue with the series — while this book was really enjoyable, I’m not really feeling the need to carry on with something that’s essentially a children’s book series. (If my kids were still in the the target age range, I might feel differently.)

In terms of the Netflix adaptation, well.. it’s not really a fair comparison! The books are a great read for the right age group, but as an adult, I just loved the Netflix version, its cast, and its super-clever approach to the story.

The adaptation also has a much more intricate plot and more story threads to unwind. I do wonder whether some of these other pieces will come into play in later books, but not really enough to make me want to keep reading.

I’d recommend the books for middle grade readers (and parents/teachers/friends of middle grade readers), but for adults looking to enjoy the essence of the story, Netflix’s Enola Holmes is the way to go!

Shelf Control #237: Dragon Bones by Lisa See

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Dragon Bones
Author: Lisa See
Published: 2002
Length: 368 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In a magnificent land where myth mixes treacherously with truth, one woman is in charge of telling them apart. Liu Hulan is the Inspector in China’s Ministry of Public Security whose tough style rousts wrongdoers and rubs her superiors the wrong way. Now her latest case finds her trapped between her country’s distant past and her own recent history.

The case starts at a rally for a controversial cult that ends suddenly in bloodshed, and leads to the apparent murder of an American archaeologist, which officials want to keep quiet. And haunting Hulan’s investigation is the possible theft of ancient dragon bones that might alter the history of civilization itself.

Getting to the bottom of ever-spiraling events, Hulan unearths more scandals, confronts more murderers, and revives tragic memories that shake her tormented marriage to its core. In the end, she solves a mystery as big, unruly, and complex as China itself. 

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback copy at a library sale, sometime within the last 3 – 4 years.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read many of Lisa See’s more recent books, including two of my all-time favorites, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and The Island of Sea Women. This book is a little different. Written earlier in the author’s career, Dragon Bones is one of three mysteries in the Red Princess series, although from what I understand, they can be read as stand-alones. (At least, I hope this is true, since I only have this one, and Goodreads says it’s #3.)

The plot itself sounds really appealing. I do love a good mystery that involves archaeology and a mix of ancient and recent history. Plus, I feel confident that any book by this author will be worth reading!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!