Thursday, April 28, 2016

Belgravia Tour Continues - Episode 4

The Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour continues this week with the release of Episode 4! Here are links to the first three recap/reviews followed by a link to this week's episode discussion. Enjoy!

April 14 – Austenprose.comEpisode 1: Dancing into Battle
April 14 – Edwardian PromenadeEpisode 2: A Chance Encounter
April 21 – Fly High!: Episode 3: Family Ties

And here is the link to this week's installment discussion:

April 28 - Calico Critic: Episode 4: At Home in Belgrave Square

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Belgravia Tour Continues - Episode 3

This week the progressive blog tour for Julian Fellowes' Belgravia continues with the release of episode three. In case you missed the first two episode recap/reviews, or you need a refresher, here are the links:

April 14 – Austenprose.comEpisode 1: Dancing into Battle
April 14 – Edwardian PromenadeEpisode 2: A Chance Encounter

And here is the link to this week's installment discussion:

April 21 - Fly High!: Episode 3: Family Ties

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: A Fool & His Monet by Sandra Orchard

A Fool & His Monet (A Serena Jones Mystery #1)
By: Sandra Orchard
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-2671-3


Rookie FBI agent Serena Jones of the Art Crime Team, fresh off her first successful undercover operation, returns to St. Louis eager to prove to herself -- and her mother -- that she's capable of doing a dangerous job. Her passion for fighting Art Crime is born from not only her love of art but her hope that her work might help her discover who murdered her grandfather years earlier during the theft of his prized Blacklock landscape. When Zoe, her best friend and head of security at a local museum, calls to report the loss of two paintings -- one a priceless Monet -- she leaps at the chance to further prove her professional prowess on her home turf. But a relatively straightforward theft soon reveals itself to be anything but, drawing Serena into a web of conspiracy and cover-up that threatens not just the recovery of the paintings, but her very life.

Several years ago, USA Network aired the pilot of a television show called White Collar, a procedural centered around the unlikely partnership between Neal, an accomplished thief and art connoisseur, and Peter, a by-the-book FBI agent on Neal's trail. It was their adventures in the high-stakes world of art theft that captivated my imagination and immediately piqued my interest in this title. This fun and frothy set up brings a unique spin to the novel's chick-lit premise, coloring Serena's world with a welcome dose of wealthy intrigue and high-stakes suspense.

Orchard peppers Serena's world with a colorful, quirky family and not one but two would-be suitors. Her parents are British ex-pats, and her aunt a thrill-seeking senior fond of conspiracy theories and rumored gangsters. Tanner Calhoun, her former field training agent, is by-the-books, dedicated bachelor #1...although this guy seems to be actually good at his job, so I don't know what Serena's aptitude says about his training skills. Bachelor #2 is Nate Butler, superintendent of her apartment building, tea connoisseur, and classic movie aficionado. I ask you, what's not to love? Serena is, of course, hopeless in the romance department -- though not for lack of trying (or her mother's lack of praying) regarding the subject -- and Orchard does a creditable job setting up both romantic possibilities and not tipping her hand toward who she views as Serena's possible end game.

I have no issue suspending disbelief when it comes to my chick-lit reads and happily do so readily when losing myself in the pages of a favorite Meg Cabot or Jill Mansell. But a general rule of thumb in the genre is that if a woman is hopeless when it comes to her love life, she's usually (somewhat) competent when it comes to her career. And on the latter score, Serena falls incredibly short. I realize television and films are not the most accurate metric by which to grade a job's difficulty level, but common sense screams that there is no alternate universe in which Serena would have graduated from Quantico, empowered with a badge and a gun.

Serena pulls her work-issued sidearm under stress four times (at least) in this book, and three of those times are for no apparent, verifiable threat (chapters 1, 9, and 23). Honestly, anything over ONCE doesn't get a pass in my book when there are so many top-notch romantic suspense authors out there who color their stories with realism. Given the hysteria and stress with which Serena so often approaches life-or-death situations, it's frustrating to see a female lead in a position of responsibility dumbed-down to such an extent, chick-lit trappings of her world notwithstanding. When your heroine's job requires a gun, there's no excuse for hysterical sloppiness on the job -- that's not a personality quirk, that's a liability. And when she doesn't know how to responsibly use her sidearm -- or her common sense (for someone so paranoid the idea that she would travel to a shady part of town late at night is ludicrous) -- it detracts from what is otherwise an engaging light mystery.

Despite my issues with Serena's immaturity, I really liked the premise of this series and plan to read the sequel, Another Day, Another Dali, when it releases this fall (mainly because I am firmly #TeamNate and want to see how that plays out). The art theft premise adds color to the storyline and brings a high-gloss shine to the standard mystery formula. I hope that future installments of the series see Serena grow and mature into the responsibilities her job (and frankly, her age) requires. One can have a fun and frothy chick lit-flavored suspense novel without a heroine who is often gratingly incompetent in her professional life. But, one could do far worse, and Orchard's colorful premise and quirky supporting cast make for an engaging few hours of cozy escapism.

About the book:

Sketchy politics and a palette of lies can't stop Serena Jones from exposing the mastermind behind the daring theft of a priceless work of art.

Serena Jones has a passion for recovering lost and stolen art -- one that's surpassed only be her zeal to uncover the truth about who murdered her grandfather. She's joined the FBI Art Crime Team with the secret hope that one of her cases will lead to his killer. Now, despite her mother's pleas to do something safer -- like get married -- Serena's determined to catch thieves and black market traders.

When a local museum discovers an irreplaceable Monet missing, Serena leaps into action -- and a whole heap of trouble.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour

Today is an exciting day for fans of Downton Abbey -- today marks the beginning of the progressive blog tour featuring Julian Fellowes' new novel Belgravia, which is being released in a weekly serialized format. Since today marks the release of the first installments, I wanted to give you a brief introduction to the tour and links to this week's episode discussions.

Award winning creator/writer of Downton Abbey presents his latest endeavor, Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, a new book blending the Victorian-era serialized novel with modern technology.

Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will be featured in a progressive blog tour April 14-June 16, 2016. Similar to a “progressive dinner party,” where a group of friends each make one course of a meal that moves from house to house with each course, a “progressive blog tour” is the same concept applied to the Internet. Eleven historical fiction bloggers and authors are participating, each taking one episode of the novel and offering a recap and review for that week. As a participant, you will follow the tour and join in the read-along and conversation. A fabulous give-away contest, including three (3) hardcover copies of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will be open to those who join the festivities.   

April 14 – Episode 1: Dancing into Battle
April 14 – Edwardian Promenade: Episode 2: A Chance Encounter

As the Belgravia tour's inimitable hostess, Laurel Ann of Austenprose provides an introduction of the tour which you can read here


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: Dressed for Death by Julianna Deering

Dressed for Death (A Drew Farthering Mystery #4)
By: Julianna Deering
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1411-0


Married six blissful -- and mercifully murder-free -- months, Drew and Madeline have the luxury of indulging in a little match-making, hoping Nick and Madeline's long-time friend Carrie will finally realize the potential of their long-simmering attraction. The perfect setting to foster a bit of romance is a week-long Regency house party at Winteroak, the family home of Drew's old school pal Tal Cummins. Though he's loathe to dress as Mr. Darcy for a week, Drew is happy for the chance to please his bride and introduce her to the scene of so many of treasured memories of his youth, having always considered Tal and his parents a second family. Joined by Carrie's younger brother Will as an overly enthusiastic chaperone, a well-intentioned roadblock to their matchmaking efforts for Nick, Drew and Madeline throw themselves into the week-long affair of Regency clothes, food, and -- to the horror of all men attending the party -- dancing lessons.

But in spite of the fanciful trappings of the wholly immersive, historically-themed party, it becomes quickly obvious to Drew that all is not well in his old friend Tal's life. His fiancee, Alice, is wary and fearful, hiding secrets she is loathe to reveal. Alice becomes increasingly erratic, until on the night of the ball her simmering fear erupts, resulting in her collapse and death. To Drew's horror, he recognizes her behavior as symptomatic of cocaine use, an overdose of the lethal drug resulting in her death.

In a shocking twist, Tal's father is arrested as the source of the cocaine that killed Alice, revealed as the subject of a long-term, covert police investigation into drug smuggling, shattering Tal and rocking Drew's once stable belief in everything he thought he knew to be true. For if he could so misjudge the man he viewed as a second father, how can he ever hope to ascertain right from wrong, to discover the truth behind the cases he increasingly cannot seem to avoid?

Drew and company agree to stay at Winteroak to help Tal and his mother through the immediate aftermath of the arrest and investigation, little suspecting that a far deeper danger lurks in their midst. Though Tal's father remains imprisoned -- and maintains his innocence in Alice's death -- he refuses to give up the workings of his smuggling operation. As Drew investigates, other, less-seasoned "detectives" like Will attempt to help -- and when Will is brutally murdered, Drew is faced with a choice -- to continue fighting for truth and risk all whom he holds dear, or give up his investigative calling as a failed endeavor.

With each successive installment of the Drew Farthering mysteries, Julianna Deering gets better, proving over and over her facility for the tropes of golden age mystery-style storytelling in the vein of masters like Christie and Sayers. This is Drew's most engaging, thrilling adventure yet, sure to leave readers eager for the next installment which -- if it follows the pattern of its predecessors -- is sure to provide even more thrills. I absolutely ADORE the Regency house party set up of this installment. It's a unique and colorful premise which allows Deering to blend two of British inspiration's most enduring literary themes -- the murder mystery colored with an Jane Austen-esque sensibility.

I've loved Nick, Drew's best friend and estate agent-in-training since his introduction in Rules of Murder, and it is a long-awaited delight to to his own romantic possibilities take center stage here, now that Drew and Madeline are at long-last wed. Not only does Deering begin to develop the promise of the sparks that flew between Nick and Carrie when they first met three books ago, but she uses Nick's budding romance as a springboard for touching on issues of class and social position (similar to how the character of Branson was incorporated into the Crawley family on Downton Abbey). Drew has never treated Nick as anything less than a brother, but given the time period and the social mores associated with Drew's position, its interesting to see Nick grapple with his hopes versus social expectations.

One of the aspects I most appreciate about Deering's period mysteries is her fearless willingness to take on darker subjects like marital affairs and here, drug use and its ramifications, all while blending in a thread of faith that realistically shines a light of hope and redemption in one's darkest hours. Drew is a believer, yes, but faith is never an easy cure-all fix for the problems he encounters in his investigations. In less skilled hands Drew's struggles to reconcile the fallen world he lives in with his faith would result in pat answers -- but here, Deering  explores a faith that is big enough to handle the tough questions, to help those grappling with the devastating affects of sin, violence, and addiction in such a way that never denies the often overwhelming sense of hopelessness such events can foster, if left unchecked..

In previous reviews I've mentioned some frustration with Madeline's character, but post-marriage she possesses more of the flavor of a spunky, Myrna Loy-esque sleuth I'd always hoped she'd be. Here, she is far more confident, more of an equal partner in her husband's investigative efforts. And joined by Nick and Carrie, the result is an unstoppable crime-solving quartet. I loved seeing both Madeline and Carrie more involved in the resolution of this mystery, and while they are in peril -- they are never damsels in distress. Deering has a knack for crafting characters that are fully-fleshed, relatable, and best of all, wholly of the time in which they lived, true to the manners and expectations of their social sphere.

Dressed for Death is the most ambitious and enjoyable Drew Farthering mystery yet. It possesses all of the trademarks I've come to appreciate in Deering's fiction -- well-crafted characters, in-depth relational arcs, and enough red herrings and plot twists to keep one's head spinning. I absolutely love the fact that the series has followed Drew into marriage -- where most novels (or series) may stop at the wedding, Deering proves that there are plenty of sparks and room for adventure post-wedding. This series continues to shine with each successive release, a continued welcome addition to the cozy period mystery genre. Sparkling with wit, warmth, and style, Dressed for Death is an unmissable treat for fans of all things mysterious and British. I can't wait for Drew's next book!

About the book:

A Regency-era costume party should have been an amusing diversion, but it seems wherever Drew Farthering goes, mystery -- and murder -- are on the guest list.

Drew and Madeline Farthering arrive at a Regency-era house party at Winteroak House, excited to be reunited with old friends, including Drew's former Oxford classmate Talbot Cummins. Tal is there with his fiancee, Alice Henley, and though many present seem worried about the couple, nobody is prepared when Alice dies from an apparent overdose. Tal refuses to believe she'd taken the drug inentionally, and a dark question arises of whether the death is an accident or murder.

The police have their own information, though, and Drew is shocked when they arrest someone he's trusted since childhood -- someone who's been smuggling drugs into the country for years. Stunned by what has happened, Tal begs Drew to get to the bottom of everything, but Drew has never felt more unsettled. Questioning his own ability to see people as they really are, Drew doesn't know whom to trust, and he's not ready for the secrets he's about to uncover -- or the danger he'll bring down on everyone he holds dear.