Sherry Thomas: The Art of Theft Wednesday, Oct 16 2019 

Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock Series returns with the fourth, The Art of Theft, another in the feminist series that has Sherlock as Charlotte, who solves crimes with Mrs. Watson.

With a complicated family situation and lots of tendrils of involved relationships that Thomas explains, the case comes down to the theft of a painting that has secrets hidden behind the canvas.

Those secret letters are need to be recovered for an old and close friend of Mrs. Watson, and Charlotte agrees to help. Enlisting the aid of her aristocratic team brings them to a gaudy Parisian costume ball during the holiday season at a French chateau where the painting in question is hidden, waiting to be auctioned off.

There will be an elaborate scheme that starts with the architectural drawings of the chateau and advances to include the dreaded Moriarty and his own team. Soon dessert-loving Charlotte is disguised in such an ingenious way even her own mother wouldn’t know her.

A wealth of historical details show the depth of Thomas’s research. She weaves this tale with social mores of the times and shows the difficult position of women yearning to be acknowledged for their brains as well as their beauty.

A strong thread of romance and wit add to prose that reflects the era in this historical re-imagining with Charlotte’s formidable and accomplished brain at the forefront.

Nicola Upson: Sorry for the Dead Tuesday, Oct 8 2019 

After the tremendous success of the stand-alone Stanley and Elsie, Nicola Upson’s tour de force of the artist Stanley Spencer’s complicated marriage and art from the view of his housekeeper, Elsie Munday, the author gives us the the eighth in her series the Sunday Times calls “historical fiction at its very best” featuring Josephine Tey as its main character in Sorry for the Dead.

Upson takes readers in part to Tey’s younger years, alternating with the time period associated with the majority of the previous novels in the 1930s, with a few brief forays a decade later. It is to Upson’s credit that the details for each period ring true and cement each era without confusing the reader. Indeed, the reader becomes immersed in each time frame, in its details and its mores within history.

These periods are needed to tell the story that starts in 1915, when a young Josephine is present as a teacher at Charleston Farmhouse on the Sussex Downs when a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances.

Decades later when Josephine returns to the same house, the memories of those days already brought to the forefront of her mind by recent events, she remembers the two women who ran the farm and taught horticulture to young women during the Great War.

Georgina Hartford-Wroe and Harriet Barker had a difficult time with the neighboring farmers, with whispers about their personal relationship they might have overcome, if not for the tragic death of the girl in their care. That death will turn out to haunt both women for the rest of their lives.

Deftly weaving the storylines between young Josephine’s life and choices then to the path she has chosen as an adult, readers are given privy to her backstory and the events surrounding the death; and later as an adult as she determines she must follow up on the death of that young woman.

In each period, Upson’s language captures the essence of any scene, such as when Josephine as an adult peers into the former site of the girl’s death: “Everything was covered by a silver labyrinth of spiders’ webs, miraculously strong enough to hold the past in place,” presenting a wonderful foreshadowing of the secrets from that long-ago day.

In the earlier time frame, she illustrates the pathos of a WWI train station:

“The platform had filled up quickly, with no one willing to board the train before the last possible moment. She scanned the faces of those who had come to see their loved ones off: wives who talked too much to hide their fear; fathers standing strict and silent; children for whom a uniform hadn’t lost its glamour … As for the men themselves, their faces were set and impassive, and she noticed how few of them dared to look for long at the people they loved.”

This sense of loss, the effects of war, the horrors it brought to those who fought and to those left behind, are indicated in such a subtle but discerning way that it is impossible to forget the aura of the day in the earlier chapters, and in those of 1938, the lead up to the brink of new horrors.

The ending brings with it not so much a sense of justice as that of survival and ultimately, unending love. This is an accomplished novel, as moving as it is complex, with the mystery of a young woman’s death at its heart. Highly recommended.

Marlowe Benn: Relative Fortunes Sunday, Aug 4 2019 

Marlowe Benn’s debut, Relative Fortunes, is filled with issues and social mores, not to say fashion, too, of 1924. It’s a stylish mystery that evokes the blues of the Jazz Age in which it’s set.

Benn introduces American Julia Kydd, who returns to New York after living in England where she’s incubating the germ of an idea for a small, elite press. Loving all things type, font, and paper, she dreams of establishing her own imprint. With women just able to vote, this is a heady time for women.

Julia’s half-sibling, Philip, controls her allowance until her soon-to-occur 25th birthday, but brings a suit to attempt to claim her half of their father’s estate. While this battles out, Julia is forced to stay in Philip’s home, and learns more than she wanted to about the brother she’s been estranged from and never really knew growing up.

Then the sister of a friend dies and she’s pulled into what she comes to believe is a murder, not a covered-up suicide the family hopes to pass off as a brief illness. Naomi Rankin was a well-known suffragette, and her younger sister, Glennis, is Julia’s new friend. Present with Glennis at the family home for a closed memorial service for Naomi, Julia is shocked to see the lack of regard for Naomi and the miserly way this wealthy family has treated her because of her beliefs in woman’s rights.

When Glennis begs Julia to help her prove Naomi was murdered, Philip’s wager that if she can find out what happened she will keep her inheritence is too good to pass up.

Peopled with real figures from the era in the world of bibliophiles, Benn brings her own love of book arts to Julia, while exploring the few options open to women at this time. If one didn’t have money, those options shrunk even smaller.

Benn also shows Julia and Glennis, and even Naomi through her friends, who must consider their futures and how those differ for men and women. In the stunning climax, this disparity between genders is brought to the forefront in a tragic yet realistic way.

An accomplished debut.

Dan Fesperman: Safe Houses Sunday, Jun 23 2019 

The dizzying cover of Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses mirrors the exhilarating pace readers will find inside in this tale of how Cold War Berlin events reach into the present day.

The CIA’s Helen maintains a safe house in Berlin, despite yearning to be the agent she knows she can be. Male power abuse reins her in until a situation occurs that changes everything.

In the present, Anna is determined to find out who murdered her parents in their rural Maryland home, refusing to believe it could be her brother. Both are strong women; both storylines alternate in a seamless way that brings the dual mysteries to life.

There’s a spareness to Fesperman’s prose that adds to the twists and action of the book, whose themes underscore the ideas of loyalty and betrayal in mmany guises that adds to the timeliness of the storyline.

Fesperman’s background as a war correspondent adds to the thorough research he’s done to bring the Cold War to life. With realistic dialogue and believeable characters, this is one chilling novel where a Cold War mystery collides with a present day murder.

Allison Montclair: The Right Sort of Man Sunday, Jun 16 2019 

Allison Montclair’s new series starts off with a delightful bang with the charming The Right Sort of Man.

The second World War has just ended in 1946 London, and two young women who couldn’t be more opposite are thrown together. Iris Sparks is the unmarried, savvy woman with an Oxford education and a shady past; Gwen Bainbridge is the war widow with a young son, still grieving the loss of her handsome husband, and subjected to living with her staid in-laws.

The two meet at a wedding and agree to start a new business to cement their independence, and do it in one of the Mayfair buildings that escaped bombing with The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. They approach it in an organized manner, trying to match suitables, and even have had a few marriages from their pairings.

New client Tillie La Salle sets off Iris’ warning bells as someone who might have her own checkered past, but the women set her up with her first date. Then Tillie is found murdered, and the man arrested for the crime is Dickie Trower, the man they matched to Tillie, who claims he never met with her at all.

Now the duo have a two-fold problem: try to rescue Dickie from the hangman’s noose, and try to reclaim the reputation of their new business. The two will ennlist their friend, Sally, a budding playwright who reminded Auntie M of Stephen Fry, to cover the office as they take turns sleuthing Tillie’s life.

The thing that struck Auntie M about these two well-developed characters (make it three if you include Sally) was their snappy dialogue, which hums and zings off the page. The period details are spot on, and the the light-hearted feel is contrasted with moments of the realities of a post-war nation.

An assured start to what promises to be a wonderful and interesting series for fans of historicals, this one will be snapped up and not put down until it’s done.

Nicola Upson: Stanley and Elsie Thursday, May 2 2019 

In a departure from her Josephine Tey crime series (London Rain, Nine Lessons), Nicola Upson beguiles readers with a stand-alone with her trademark historical realism in the compelling story of Stanley and Elsie.

Stanley Spencer is an artist, as is his wife, Hilda Carline. Elsie Munday is the housemaid they hire soon after the birth of their first daughter, Shirin. Living in rural Burghclere after the First World War for Stanley to work on the vast commission that will be Sandham Memorial Chapel, we see their marriage through the lens of Elsie’s eyes, as well as their artistic temperaments. The chapel’s many paintings represent the war through Stanley’s eyes, a series that recreates moments of redemptive camp life mixed with the trauma he experienced.

Elsie quickly learns Stanley is charming but stubborn, and as she and Hilda bond, so do Elsie and Stanley over his art as he explains it to her. His yearning to return to his hometown of Cookham, with Hilda missing her own home in Hampstead, is only one of the many hurdles the couple will face in the strong light of Stanley’s obsessions.

Elsie’s keen observations form an important part of the book; so does Stanley’s capacity for genius and torment. There are themes of unity and of what is sacred that run throughout the novel, while the harsh reality of what really happened between the couple cannot be denied. Yet their art is something that had control over them both at times, and after finishing the book, Auntie M was driven to research the images that haunted them both.

This look at two tortured souls, one trying to heal the wounds of war through his art, the other trying to prove her love over and over, is captivating reading as Upson beautifully renders the period after the war in her elegant prose. Highly recommended.

Timothy Jay Smith: The Fourth Courier Wednesday, Apr 3 2019 

Auntie M recently had the pleasure of interviewing Timothy Jay Smith about his new thriller, The Fourth Courier. Having lived in Warsaw in the early 90’s, Smith witnessed the upheaval of that time, and his experience brings a clear eye to the time. Don’t miss the video at after the interview, where you can see the town and listen to Smith explaining his premise. Welcome Timothy!

Auntie M: Your new novel, The Fourth Courier, is set in Poland. Tell readers what it’s about:

Timothy Jay Smith: The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia.

Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands.

My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era.

AM: What prompted this particular story?

TJS: The Fourth Courier goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachav introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for two years in Poland.

At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.

I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”

Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!

AM: Have you always been a writer?

TJS: In the sense of enjoying to write, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.

AM: And what was the story?

TJS: For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.

If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.

AM: The Fourth Courier has a strong sense of place. It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living there, what special research did you do?

Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.

I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?

It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.

My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about that. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.

If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.

We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.

Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?

AM: No, actually, I can’t! Today you’d probably be on the NSA’s radar just by making those calls. You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles?

TJS: The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish.

I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them.

For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story.

AM: I can see that and have a similar way of writing, visualizing the story in scenes. In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds?

TJS: It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace.

AM: It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters?

TJS: I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me.

For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview with National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen.

I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers.

AM: In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?

TJS: Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.

I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.

To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

AM: You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, if it did?

TJS: Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.

The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.

AN: What do you want your readers to take away with The Fourth Courier?

TJS: What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish families at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience. The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.

AM: Now that your interest is on high alert, here’s a link to purchase the book:

AM: And now as promised, here’s Timothy in Warsaw:

Kjell Ola Dahl: The Courier Sunday, Mar 24 2019 

Kjell Ola Dahl’s The Courier starts out in Oslo, where in 1942 a young Jewish courier, Ester, escapes the Gestapo and the horrors of Auschwitz.

Turid is the young daughter of Ester’s best friend, Ase, murdered after Ase helped Ester flee to Sweden. And then there is Falkum, Ase’s husband, baby Turid’s father, and years later, Ester’s lover?

With the action alternating between events of the time, and now with Turid almost grown, the plot resonates with emotion in each period. The complex story never loses the reader yet brings the horrors of WWII to the forefront and it reverberations to so many.

It is an accomplished writer who can combine the tragedies of historical fiction with what is essenntially a murder mystery. The thriller aspects of each time period, the 1940s, the 1960s and the close present, are highly articulated and create a visual and cinematic timeline.

Dahl does a great job keeping the tension up as the narrative threads become increasingly intertwined and the truths of each era become apparent. The jumps in this timeline, far from disturbing, feel natural as the characters are well developed both in physical appearance and the way they change over the years.

The pace continues to pick up, from the opening when Ester sees her father being arrested, to the climax as the story becomes increasingly gripping.

A solid, dark mystery with elegant prose, Dahl won two award for The Courier when it was first published before being translated into English.

Deanna Raybourn: A Dangerous Collaboration Tuesday, Mar 12 2019 

Deanna Raybourn continues her Veronice Speedwell series with the compelling entry A Dangerous Collaboration.

The fourth in the Victorian-era mysteries to follow the intrepid lepidopterist, Veronica and her colleague Stoker, the adventurous brother of a titled Lord. When said brother, Tiberius, asks Veronica to accompany him to a house party thrown by his oldest friend in Cornwall, Veronica readily accepts with the promise of a rare species of butterfly to add to her vivarium. She’s turned her attention to preserving the species instead of pinning them.

That she must pretend to be Tiberius’s fiancee` for the Catholic Lord Malcolm Romilly doesn’t bother the broad-minded and modern Veronica, until Stoker shows up and she finds her self juggling the brothers and their egos.

It soon becomes clear that under the guise of a house party, Lord Romilly has assembled several of his extended family who were present on his wedding day when his bride disappeared, wedding dress and all. Locals on the remote Cornwall island are only too happy to invoke the piskies and other spirits that might have taken the lovely Rosamund away, but Veronica knows the woman’s disappearance has a more human culprit.

It’s not quite the party Veronica had imagined, but the island is ruggedly beautiful and the locals gossip easily, twigging her sleuthing antenna. Soon she enlists Stoker’s help. Before it’s over, there will be deeply-held secrets revealed that affect them all, as well as seances destined to bring out the spirit of the presumed-dead Rosamund.

With a nicely twisted plot and more than a touch of romance, the era’s details are accurate and pleasing, as is Veronica’s independence. She’s an intelligent woman to admire, as well as a daunting sleuth.

Rhys Bowen: The Victory Garden Tuesday, Feb 12 2019 

Rhys Bowen’s newest stand-alone, The Victory Garden, brings the horrors of WWI close to home with its young protagonist, Emily Bryce.

The judge’s daughter, with a mother who is class conscious, has lost her beloved brother to the war. When she meets an Australian pilot convalescing at a local home, they fall in love, only to have that love thwarted by more than her parents.

Determined to make a difference, like her nurse friend Clarissa has done, Emily joins the Women’s Land Army, to her parents chagrin. Learning things that will come in useful brings Emily and a few of her cohorts to the small village of Bucksley Cross to work the garden of Lady Charlton, a widow who has lost her son and grandson to the war.

An unlikely friendship breaks out between the older woman and the educated girl, and when things change dramatically for Emily, she returns to the small, dark cottage Lady Charlton owns, where the journal of another young woman soon finds Emily concocting herbal potions that will do more than she could ever have imagined for the village and for herself.

With a hearty dose of self-determination, Emily finds a new family of unlikely friends at the same time that she finds her own strength.

Bowen encapulates the huge horrors of war by bringing them to the heartache of one young woman on a voyage of self-discovery. A satifying read from a talented writer at the top of her game.

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