Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine


Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.

++++++

Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Title: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions: The Ultimate Miss Phryne Fisher Collection

Author: Kerry Greenwood

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

If you are not yet familiar with the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, then this collection of short stories is a wonderful introduction to the elegant, sensual, and sassy lady private detective, while established fans will enjoy the opportunity to again accompany the intrepid investigator on her adventures in 1920’s Melbourne, and occasionally further afield.

In her introduction to The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood shares a little about how she developed Phryne, and her writing process. Greenwood also reminds readers that there are several significant differences between the world of the book series and that of the television series – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. That said, anyone familiar with only the show will recognise Phryne’s companions, as well as several settings and scenes.

I was a little disappointed to find that of the seventeen short stories offered in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, there are only four new tales, set around the same time as the 21st book in the series, Death in Daylesford which was published earlier this year. The bulk have been published previously in a 2008 collection, A Question of Death, though Greenwood comments that some of these have since been edited to fit better with the chronology of the series.

Regardless, whether Phryne is searching for a missing husband, or a hat, outsmarting a blackmailer, or a cheat, or identifying a murderer, I found all of the story’s in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be engaging. As always, I love Phryne’s dry observations and quick wit, her disinclination for suffering fools and her bent for natural justice.

Clever, entertaining, and charming, I found The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be a delight to read,.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

 


Title: The Last Reunion

Author: Kayte Nunn

Published: 30th March 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read March 2021, courtesy Hachette

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Last Reunion is a rich and absorbing story about art, war and friendship from internationally bestselling Australian author, Kayte Nunn.

Art dealer intern Olivia Goddard is excited when she’s given the opportunity to evaluate the authenticity of a unique collection of netsuke (small three dimensional carvings traditionally used by Japanese men to secure their kimono sash) including the elusive figure known as the ‘fox-girl’. Arriving at the Wiltshire estate of its owner, Beatrix Pelham, Olivia is focused on assessing the pieces and returning to London but illness and a snow storm results in an enforced stay. Keen to learn more about the netsuke, Olivia is intrigued as Beatrix reveals how the ‘ fox-girl’ first came into her possession as a gift from her first love when they were both serving in Burma during WWII.

Employing a dual timeline, Nunn seamlessly combines historical fact and fiction that centres on the unique role women played in the ‘forgotten war’, in The Last Reunion. Around two hundred and fifty Women’s Auxiliary Service members were posted to Burma during WWII where the ‘Wasbies’, as they were known, ran canteens that catered to the troops engaged in fighting the Japanese.

In 1944, Beatrix, Plum, Bubbles, Lucy and Joy are assigned to a mobile canteen unit where they find themselves working long days, and nights, to supply soldiers with food, drink, sundries and a dance partner. I enjoyed getting to know these authentically portrayed, interesting female characters, admiring the strength and courage they displayed in such physically, and emotionally, challenging circumstances. Nunn’s vivid descriptions of the environment and the ‘Wasbies’ role in Burma is fascinating, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this relatively obscure facet of wartime history.

Events related in the wartime timeline play into the later time period, as in 1999, to sell her precious collection of netsuke, Beatrix needs to prove provenance, and to do so must confront a shocking incident that occurred during her time in Burma. Fortuitously an invitation to a reunion of the women Bea once served with arrives while Olivia is at Bea’s house, and sets the scene for a long overdue reckoning.

Offering intrigue, action, and a touch of romance, the well paced plot of The Last Reunion is enough to hold any reader’s attention, though it’s the Wasbies and their role in WWII that I found most compelling. This is interesting, well crafted historical fiction that I’m happy to recommend.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

 



Title: The Shape of Darkness

Author: Laura Purcell

Published: February 2nd 2021, Raven Books

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in Bath in 1854, The Shape of Darkness is a atmospheric historical novel from Laura Purcell.

Agnes Darken supports her ailing mother and orphaned nephew with her work as a silhouette artist, but with the growing popularity of the daguerreotypes, she’s finding it harder to attract clients. She is shocked when the local Sergeant calls on her to ask questions about a recent sitter who was brutally murdered shortly after their appointment, and worried that notoriety might attach to her business. Her physician and brother in law, Simon, is quick to assure her that all is fine, but when a second and then third client dies, Agnes fears she may somehow be connected to their deaths. Desperate for answers to both the current circumstances and a past tragedy, Agnes reaches out to a mesmerist Myrtle West and her young half sister, Pearl, known as ‘The White Sylph’ who is said to communicate with the dead.

The Shape of Darkness embraces all the elements of a Victorian gothic tale – a physically and emotionally frail heroine, high emotion, a bleak, wintry setting, murder, and the supernatural. Purcell deftly builds suspense and dread as she develops the plot, revealing dark secrets and making good use of misdirect to ensure the final twist is a surprise.

Fragile and high strung, Agnes has an nervous energy that plays into the narrative. Her suspicions about the connection between the dead and her silhouettes seems fanciful, but her panic is almost contagious as she becomes more certain she, and her family are in danger from an unknown foe. With hints of a tragic background, involving a doomed romance, and a grievous accident, she is exactly what you’d expect as a gothic heroine, except for perhaps her age.

Pearl is a desperately sympathetic character, used terribly by her her half sister, Myrtle. Blamed for her mother’s death during her birth, her father now lays dying gruesomely, a victim of phosphorus poisoning. An albino, eleven year old Pearl is easily envisioned as a medium, but there is an ambiguity to her ability that Purcell exploits, so that you’re never quite sure where the line between this world and the next lies.

Though overall I found it a touch melodramatic for my taste, The Shape of Darkness is evocative, haunting and enthralling.

+++++++

Available from Bloomsbury

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Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

Title: Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Author: Sue Williams

Published: 5th January 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Based on the lives of Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Macquarie, the wife of Australian colonel governor Lachlan Macquarie, and Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of a prosperous colonial woolgrower, Sue Williams blends fact with fiction to present an interesting story of adversity, courage, love, and friendship in Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

Thirty one year old Betsey Macquarie arrived in Sydneytown with her new husband, Lachlan, who was to replace Captain Bligh as governor, in December of 1809. Viewing the appointment as an adventure, with her keen interest in architecture, landscaping and social welfare, Betsey had hopes of working alongside her husband to grow the colony.

At the time of Betsey’s arrival in New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur, had been living in the colony for twenty years. Her husband John, a Corps officer and successful grazier had been called to England to answer charges of sedition for his role in unseating Captain Bligh, leaving Elizabeth to manage their home farm, three daughters, and Camden Park estate, where they raised their valuable flock of merino sheep.

In this novel Williams conjures a friendship between the two women that overlooks the political enmity of their husbands. Both intelligent, strong, and practical women, Elizabeth and Elizabeth grow to respect and admire one another despite their differences, and become confidantes. The friendship is delightfully rendered by Williams, and permits her to present a well-rounded picture of the ‘Elizabeth’s’ lives, disabusing history’s notion they were simply no more than extensions of their husbands.

History favours the role of men in the building of our nation, but Elizabeth & Elizabeth gives these two women credit for contributions to the betterment of the colony. Williams suggests Betsey was the driving force behind the design and construction of several of Sydneytown’s public buildings, including The Courthouse and St James Church, the ‘Rum’ Hospital, and The Female Factory in Parramatta, and the development of what is now known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Her support of her husband was also crucial to his many accomplishments as governor, despite the opposition he faced from ‘exclusivists’. Elizabeth Macarthur’s role in developing the family’s wool export business is better recognised today, though her husband continues to garner the lions share of credit. In her husband’s long absence from the colony however, she ably managed their extensive holdings, and oversaw the improvement of the merino flock that solidified their fortune.

Well-written, rich in historical detail and engaging, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is a lovely novel and recommended reading especially for those interested in Australia’s past.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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