Many readers of the bestselling novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry have wanted to read more about Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. Finally, we have a companion novel told from Queenie’s point of view. Twenty years after she left the brewery, Queenie is living by the sea in a small bungalow with a unique sea garden, decorated with rocks, driftwood, flowers, and even seaweed. Illness forces her to move to St. Bernardine’s Hospice. Queenie is clearly very ill, as are the other residents, but they gradually bond and become a family, especially while they are waiting for Harold Fry to arrive. We learn about Queenie’s past, how she liked to dance, her sorrows and her big secrets. Queenie’s affection for Harold is not a big surprise, but her friendship with Harold’s son David is unexpected, as is the guilt she feels about keeping the friendship from Harold. The focus of this story is daily life at the hospice, which is surprisingly uplifting reading. Queenie’s story is definitely bittersweet, and may move the reader to tears. I suggest this for readers who would enjoy a character-driven novel that is reflective, at times emotionally intense, and always memorable. Other reviewers have said that this novel can be read on its own, but I would read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry first.
An enjoyable adventure for fans of Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes. This book, while it’s the 13th to feature Russell and Holmes, can be enjoyed after reading the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In 1924, they are on a cruise ship traveling from India to Japan. Holmes and Russell enjoy a leisurely cruise, despite Mary’s seasickness, and Holmes tries to determine if Lord Darley, traveling with his new wife and his grown son, is a blackmailer. Neither Russell nor Holmes has visited Japan, and they learn about Japanese customs and some of the language together after Mary befriends American educated Haruki Sato, the daughter of an acrobat. Haruki is more than she appears to be, and sets the couple a challenge once they reach Japan. Japan in the 1920s is a unique setting, which I very much enjoyed. The emperor’s son needs a large favor, which appears to be solved in dramatic fashion at a dinner party. However, a year later in Oxford, England, Haruki reappears and the adventure continues. This is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read in a while, although the mystery is not the strongest element in the book.
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin
Another notable historical novel from Ariana Franklin, finished after her death by Samantha Norman, her daughter. The story is narrated by a dying abbot to a young monk, which makes a good frame for the book. After 11-year-old Em is attacked in the fen country of Cambridgeshire, archer Gwilherm de Vannes rescues her. Em has amnesia, so Gwil calls the red-headed girl Penda, dresses her as a boy, and teaches her archery. They join a troup of tumblers and travel as entertainers, giving archery exhibitions. Along the way, Gwil is searching for Thancmar, an evil monk who preys on redheads. Then their story joins the larger one of war in 12th century England between Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, fighting for England’s throne. During a blizzard they meet Empress Matilda and two of her knights, and end up at Kenniwick castle, where young Lady Maud is forced to play host to Matilda. The castle is soon under siege by King Stephen, and the archers’ skills are needed. While it is wartime and there is violence, the tone of this book is not dark, as it focuses on the relationships and daily lives of Gwil, Penda, and Lady Maud, all appealing and memorable characters. Readers of medieval fiction will enjoy this book, especially fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries.
How to Be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
A very readable, often entertaining look at daily life in England in Victorian times. Ruth Goodman, a historian, has spent considerable time immersed in Victorian life for British television series, including Victorian Farm. Goodman’s experiences provide added interest, although there were things she didn’t experience, such as the London smog. Several families are described at different points in the Victorian era, which lasted 63 years, and the reader learns about their typical diets, working and living conditions, and even different modes of transportation. The hardest part to read is about the lives of children, including the lack of modern medicine and knowledge of nutrition, opium tonics for babies and long hours of work for children as young as six. Conditions and education for children did improve over time, and the section on education is quite interesting. The format, taking people through a typical day from dawn to bedtime, works well. On a chilly day like today, I’m happy to live with central heating and hot running water, the things Goodman missed most while re-enacting Victorian life, but she does succeed in making the idea of a visit to the Victorian era sound appealing.
Two novels being published this month feature Jane Austen as a fictional character. Jane Austen and the Twelve Days of Christmas, by Stephanie Barron, is the twelfth book in a mystery series, but this book can be enjoyed without reading the other titles. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and other relatives are guests at a house party at The Vyne over the Christmas holidays in 1814. When Jane isn’t socializing, being a dutiful daughter, or penning her novels, she is a witty and observant amateur sleuth. Spirits are high because Napoleon is in exile and the War of 1812 seems to be over. But when a military courier falls from his horse and dies after visiting The Vyne, Jane suspects murder. Fans of Jane Austen novels or historical mysteries will find this book a real treat, and it’s been selected as a Library Reads pick for November.
First Impressions: a Novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett is the author’s second book, following The Bookman’s Tale.
Upset by her uncle’s death and the loss of his personal library, recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller who knew her uncle. Within a week two customers ask for the second edition of an obscure book by Richard Mansfield. One threatens her, the other man, Winston, takes her to dinner. In the past, Jane Austen has made a new friend, the elderly cleric Richard Mansfield, who admires her writing. Jane has not yet published anything, and struggles to find time to write. Sophie’s quest for the book turns into a mystery that questions Jane Austen’s authorship of Pride and Prejudice, in a romantic and suspenseful book. I would have liked more scenes with Jane and less of Sophie trying to decide whom to trust, publisher Winston or book-loving American Eric. Both Sophie and Jane rely on their sisters for advice and friendship, which is a nice touch. I enjoyed this book, but it’s not as absorbing and memorable as Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Since You’ve Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Holly Jefferson’s life basically consists of working at her bakery with her assistant Jesse, walking the dog, sleeping, and visiting her sister’s family once a week. That’s all she can manage since the death of her husband Charlie almost two years ago. Their partly renovated cottage is unchanged, and Holly is completely uninterested in a social life. A series of unusual cake commissions and deliveries lead to memorable encounters with handsome Ciaran Argyll and his hilariously rude father, wealthy developer Fergal, completely shaking up Holly’s boring routine. I quite enjoyed this charming British romantic comedy.
The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter Wimsey, his wife Harriet, and the faithful Bunter return to Oxford in 1952. This is the fourth mystery featuring the trio that Jill Paton Walsh has written or finished writing, continuing the books written by Dorothy L. Sayers. Peter has unfortunately inherited the title of Duke of Denver, and discovers that it includes the office of Visitor of St. Severin’s, a fictional college in Oxford, and is called upon to referee a dispute. St. Severin’s is far from peaceful; the head of the college is missing, and there have been recent deaths (presumably accidental) and other incidents. Oddly the deaths and two accidents echo Peter’s detective cases and Harriet’s mystery novels. The college’s finances are shaky, and there is an ongoing debate about selling a rare manuscript with connections to King Alfred in order to buy land near Oxford that could be developed.
Oxford itself is a character in the book, full of memories for Peter and Harriet, and instantly recognizable to 21st century visitors. While the atmosphere at St. Severin’s is increasingly unpleasant, reading this mystery was a real pleasure.