What I Did On My Christmas Vacation

What I Did On My Christmas Vacation

by Erica Ruth Neubauer

I read. A lot.

I had that personal reading challenge to finish up, and a lot of catching up to do from the last few months of retail purgatory. Since it was the holidays I was definitely feeling nostalgic—all I found myself craving were old movies and a slew of period novels. Luckily for me and my whimsy, there are a number of excellent historical novels both newly released and coming soon. I recommend each and every one of these:

JANE STEELE

by Lyndsay Faye

Putnam

March 2016

Hand to my heart, this book positively made me swoon. I will be forcing copies into the hands of every reader I know this year, and it will undoubtedly make my top five for the year. JANE STEELE is an homage to Jane Eyre, yet infinitely better, since Jane Steele is no one’s victim; she bends life to her will instead of drifting along according to fate’s whimsy.

As a child, Jane and her beautiful but fragile French mother live on her family’s estate. But when her mother commits the crime of suicide, Jane is left alone. Her aunt would like to find another place for her, but her cousin tries to force himself on her—leaving no choice for Jane but to put an end to him. Feeling that she is a dangerous person, Jane decides to go to boarding school, where she battles the sadistic headmaster—who also comes to an untimely end. Jane makes her own way in London for many years when she sees that the estate where she lived as a child has been entailed to a distant relative. Curious, she applies for the governess position advertised, and finds Mr. Thornfield. A medical man, Thornfield was raised in India and has installed a very unusual and unorthodox household in his new English estate. Jane finds herself fitting in quite nicely—under an assumed name, and afraid of both her feelings for Thornfield, and of revealing the truth of who she is and what she has become. The cozy family at the estate comes under attack for secrets being protected by other members of the household—bringing everything to a thrilling climax.

Jane is a thrilling protagonist. She can certainly take care of herself, but she’s isn’t invulnerable. She worries about her actions and what they mean about her—and her future—but Jane soldiers on doing what needs to be done. She is a wonderful mix of toughness and vulnerability, which makes her an empathetic and lovable character. In fact, nearly every character in the book is lovable—except the league of villains that cross Jane’s path, of course, and deserve every last thing that comes to them. I wish that I could read this again for the first time—but I’ve no doubt it will be just as good when I read it for the third and fourth times.

DESIGN FOR DYING: A LILLIAN FROST AND EDITH HEAD NOVEL

by Renee Patrick

Forge

April 2016

As effervescent as champagne and as charming as Myrna Loy, DESIGN FOR DYING is an enchanting debut that promises fun and adventure in vintage Hollywood—1937, to be precise. Lillian Frost is a salesgirl at a local department store. She has no hopes of a future on the screen like many young ladies do—her one screen test might have been the worst on record. When the cops come asking questions about her glamour-seeking ex-roommate Ruby—and the falling out Lillian had with her—Lillian starts to dig around. Because Ruby was killed wearing a stolen gown from Paramount Pictures, and Lillian uncovers a whole trunk of pilfered movie goods in the basement of Ruby’s rooming house. Famous costume designer Edith Head is not yet famous and barely hanging on to her job at Paramount. So news that expensive gowns and jewelry have been going missing under her watch is not the best of news. Soon Edith and Lillian join forces to find out the truth behind Ruby’s web of lies—and Lillian finds herself in a whole lot more trouble than a salesgirl ought to.

Lillian Frost is a very appealing character; she has a great head on her shoulders and is resourceful as well as curious—much to the consternation of the detective assigned to the case. And the pairing of Lillian with the illustrious Edith Head is a delightful treat. DESIGN FOR DYING is a highly engaging mystery with great characters—bumping up against some of my favorite characters in golden Hollywood. Who couldn’t love a book where Barbara Stanwyck is the driver in a high speed chase? Here’s hoping this is the first in a long-lived series.

A CURIOUS BEGINNING

by Deanna Raybourn

NAL/Penguin

September 2015

Veronica Speedwell is a lepidopterist—a butterfly expert, and a student of all things natural history. She is accustomed to traveling alone to foreign lands in search of rare butterflies which she sells to collectors—under her initials of course, since any such undertaking is nearly unthinkable for a woman in 1887 England. After burying her spinster aunt, Veronica is ready to move on to her next adventure, arriving home to interrupt a break-in. She chases the villain, only to find herself in need of rescuing from a mysterious German baron. He offers to take her to safety in London, and while Veronica isn’t sure she is in any danger, she’s not silly enough to pass up a free ride. Once in London, the baron installs Veronica with his friend Stoker—an unwashed, disagreeable man in a shady part of town—promising to return for Veronica and tell her the truth about her birth mother, something Veronica knows nothing about but would dearly like to. When the baron is killed before he could return, Stoker drags Veronica on the run and into an investigation of what secrets in Veronica’s past are worth killing for.

Veronica Speedwell has plenty of sass and a lot of moxie; two things I absolutely crave in a female protagonist. She openly admits to having affairs abroad, and is never afraid to express her opinion or do precisely what she pleases. The banter between Veronica and Stoker was a great deal of fun to read, and I look forward to seeing how their relationship progresses in future books. The reveal of the big secret was unexpected and while the big secret is somewhat unrealistic, it was still fun to imagine as a possibility.

MRS. ROOSEVELT’S CONFIDANTE

by Susan Elia MacNeal

Bantam

October 2015

The fifth novel in this series set in WWII takes our intrepid Maggie Hope to her native homeland of the good old USA. She is accompanying Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who is paying a visit to President Roosevelt now that the US finally entered the war. Unfortunately Eleanor Roosevelt appears to have gotten mixed up in what has the makings to be a first-rate scandal, which could damage support of the war effort. Eleanor has been trying to support a young black man on death row for a crime committed in self defense. When her South-loving secretary turns up dead, Maggie sees that it wasn’t suicide—and the note left behind would look terrible for Eleanor if it got out—even if it is a fake. Maggie must clear up the murder and keep Eleanor out of the press, all while trying to save a young man from the politics of the South.

Elia MacNeal always does an outstanding job of historical research, seamlessly integrating it into a compelling story. The politics of the South and the entry of the US into the war were especially interesting—but of course my favorite part of this installment was the Roosevelts themselves. I loved this depiction of Eleanor, relentless champion of the people—all people. I only hope this is what she was really like. Maggie, as always, is tough and hands out a few deserved ass-kickings; she’s a heroine easy to root for. I also thoroughly enjoyed where the storyline took Maggie’s personal life—I’m looking forward to seeing what develops for her in the next book, and what trouble she’ll find next.

DEATH WEARS A MASK

by Ashley Weaver

Minotaur Books

October 2015

Amory Ames and her roguish husband Milo are back in this follow-up to the Edgar nominated MURDER AT BRIGHTWELL. When society matron Mrs. Bennington confides to Amory that some of her jewelry has been going missing during dinner parties, Mrs. Bennington is convinced that Amory can set a trap to catch the thief. Amory finds herself intrigued—and it will be a welcome distraction from the photos of her husband with that French actress. A trap is set during Lord Dunmore’s masquerade ball, but before the thief can be caught red-handed Mrs. Bennington’s nephew is found murdered…with quite a few loose jewels. Amory soon finds herself investigating in some of the seedier parts of town, and discovering that some members of their social set aren’t quite what they first appear to be.

There’s a reason Weaver was nominated for the Edgar for the first in this series—beautifully written, these books are nothing short of transporting. Amory Ames is chic and sophisticated, and curious to the core—she can’t help but get involved when intrigue is afoot. The prickly romance between herself and her playboy husband is a captivating change of pace from the usual—Milo and Amory certainly keep each other guessing about where they stand, and keep the reader on the hook. The series offers readers a glimpse into the English high society of the 1930’s as well as a diffuse cast of interesting characters. Weaver does some great sleight of hand with suspects—you can never be certain who the actual rogue in the room might be.

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