Reading journal 1: history, mystery, rinse and repeat

Is there anything as satisfying as turning over to a fresh page of your reading journal to begin the record of new books for the new year? Of course, it’s a digital page, because I haven’t kept a physical reading journal for a few years. Not since I transferred my book reviews, and occasional book rants, to book coasters.

I thought I’d try something a little different for my journal this year – I’ll still keep a record of numbers and when I read them, and if they meet one of 15 book reading challenge, but since I usually have a backlog to report on, I thought I’d clump them into genres or topics a bit. I hope it makes it easier for other readers to find something they might like.  So, since it’s halfway through February ALREADY!!, I shall get cracking with my first lot of books for 2015.

And it’s historical fiction and mysteries, for the win! Even better, some of these are historical mysteries, and, hey! That’s two categories in our reading challenge. Coincidence? I think not.

#1Island of Bones cover Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson (Read 04/01/2015) I enjoyed this third book in the series featuring the outspoken Mrs Westerman and Daniel Crowther, a reclusive anatomist. Set in 1783, it sees the protagonists travel to the Lakes District and Crowther’s family home, and a resolution of some of his past history. It will be a much more enjoyable read if you start with Instruments of Darkness. I think the author does an excellent job of giving the feel of the time without burdening the reader with too much authenticity – for example, the speech patterns sound more formal than our own, but are not as hard to read as material written at that time. The mystery part is also nicely handled, and the suspense is well paced. It really is a very enjoyable series.

#2Locked Rooms cover Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King (Read 07/01/2015) This is the eighth book in another excellent series – the thirteenth will be published this year. I missed this book for reasons that elude me. I’m very glad I went back and filled in the gap, not because there is any flaw in the continuity – the author does a good job of trying to make sure there are no spoilers for other books – but because it was a really enjoyable read. Set in San Francisco in 1924, it allows the character of Mary Russell to put some of her ghosts to rest. The historical details, of the city in the 1920s, as well as earlier events around the earthquake in 1906, are fascinating. Sherlock Holmes is his usual fascinating self, and I liked his conspiring with Dashiell Hammett.

#3Turning the Stones cover Turning the Stones by Debra Daley (Read 17/01/2015) Em (short for Mary) is a foundling, raised in the country home of the Waterland family. She is like a second daughter, but more pleasing and more pleasant than the true daughter of the house. Not that that will save her… Set in the mid-18th century, I found the historical details on this book a little patchy, and the mystery more so. Unfortunately, much of the suspense relied on the main protagonist not being able to remember the events of a single night, which is just one of those plot twists that annoys me. I also found the mystical Irish aspects wearing – I have no problem with characters who want to throw around a good curse or talk to the spirits, but I don’t like it when the narrative remains ambivalent about whether this is just nonsense, or utterly effective. Another negative – the “oh I hate him, but I loves him” romance. Still, I very much enjoyed a couple of the scenes, so perhaps I’m not a complete curmudgeon. Al least, not today.

#4Winter siege cover Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Norman (Read 28/01/2015) I love Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series, set in the reign of Henry II, and like many of her fans I was selfishly saddened to hear of her death, because I thought that would mean no more books. But, happy day! This novel was partly written by her, and finished by her daughter Samantha Norman, who is also (hooray!) working on finishing her mother’s fifth book in the series. This is a beautifully told, stand-alone historical novel. It details events during the bitter war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. It is about ordinary people as well as the nobility, about the horrific crimes that people can sometimes get away with – especially during wars – and about love, loyalty and family. The true story of how Matilda escaped from a siege, during a snowstorm, is fabulously incorporated into the fiction.

#5The Lavender Keeper cover The Lavender Keeper by Fiona McIntosh (Read 31/01/2015) Set during World War II this is a gripping tale of espionage, lies and romance. The three characters at the heart of the story are Luc, a French lavender farmer; Lisette, a young woman recruited to be a British spy; and Markus, a German colonel stationed in Paris. All three feel real – this is not a book with cliche “good guy vs bad guy” morality – with strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and passions. Plus, I thought the historical detail and description of places was top notch. I’ve met Fiona and I know she travels a lot, researching  for her books, but it really pays off in giving the reader a sense of place. She is a compelling storyteller, as you will find if you start reading this book. The charm of the Provencal village in the opening will suck you in and before you know it, you won’t be able to put the book down until you finish it.  Enjoy!

#6Circle of Shadows cover Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson (Read 2/02/2015) Following on from the third in the series, reviewed at #1 is this excellent fourth book. The protagonists are well out of their depth in the German Duchy of Maulberg. Harriet’s brother-in-law is accused of murder while on his honeymoon, and the intrepid investigators race across Europe to prove his innocence. There is so much to like in this book, it’s hard to know where to start – political machinations and court intrigue, cunningly wrought automata, old school alchemy and exotic poisons, Manzerotti the ruthless castrato, a mathematical prodigy of dubious morality and best of all (as if all of that were not enough to make me a very happy reader) a fictional version of the Bavarian Illuminati. Ah, excellent stuff! I think too few works of historical fiction incorporate secret societies… I guess because they were secret, no? Anyway, if that hasn’t convinced you to read this excellent series, or at least chat in the comments about conspiracy theories and how we might rule the world,  I just want you to know that you are dead to me.  Dead. To. Me.

Be that as it may, more from my disorderly reading journal soon. I promise.