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The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig (2005)
American grad student Eloise Kelly travels to England to conduct research for her dissertation (and to get over a cheating boyfriend). She’s fascinated by the spies (with flowery aliases) who saved England during the Napoleonic era and is trying to solve one of history’s greatest mysteries: the identity of the Pink Carnation.

Most of the story takes place in the early 1800s. Amy Balcourt travels to France to join the League of the Purple Gentian. She wants to avenge her parents’ deaths and dreams up schemes to defeat Napoleon. Lord Richard Selwick – aka the Purple Gentian – isn’t quite prepared for Amy (nor does he reveal his secret identity). Several English citizens work to stop Napoleon’s nefarious plot to invade England – the Pink Carnation among them – but you’ll have to read the book to discover the spy’s identity! The author’s debut, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, is the first in a series.

I think Meg Cabot describes it best: “This genre-bending read—a dash of chick-lit with a historical twist—has it all: romance, mystery, and adventure.”

Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom

Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. SansomSet in the reign of Henry VIII, these novels bring to life the sounds and smells of Tudor England. Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer renowned as the sharpest hunchback in the courts of England, finds himself entangled in the intrigues of the Tudor court, and the dangerous schemes of Thomas Cromwell, the feared vicar-general.

In Dissolution (2003), under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries and ultimately get rid of them.

In Dark Fire (2004), Shardlake must find a lost cache of dark fire, a legendary substance which was used by the Byzantines to destroy Arab navies.

In Sovereign (2007), Shardlake becomes a part of Henry VIII’s Royal Progress to the farthest reaches of his realm and becomes involved in murder.

In Revelation (2008), Matthew Shardlake must find the perpetrator of a series of horrific murders with connections to the dark prophecies of the Book of Revelation.

Sansom, who has a PhD in history and was an attorney, writes with wonderful attention to period detail and an artful handling of suspense.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009)
Eleven-year-old Flavia De Luce is old and wise beyond her years. When first a dead bird and then a dead man turns up on the doorstep of her family's English country estate, she sets out to solve the crime herself. Set in 1950, Flavia's household consists of two older self-involved sisters, a remote father, and a faithful gardener, shell shocked from the war. Flavia researches old newspapers and tracks down village eccentrics to quiz about current and past events to solve the crime and get her father off the hook for the murder.

You might also like Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes (1996) for another depiction of a young sleuth or I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948) for a story about an eccentric English family told from the point of view of the youngest daughter.

Discover more about the author, read reviews and an interview with the author at Amazon.com, and visit the Flavia de Luce Fan Club.

Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein

Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein (2009)
Set amid the treasures of the New York Public Library, Linda Fairstein gives us a fascinating glimpse into the history of the NYPL including its start as a scholarly research facility that housed rare books, documents, and maps. What I enjoyed, besides the mystery itself, was learning about the curators, cartographers, conservators, special librarians and rare, priceless donations still housed in the building. It was very cool that librarians with their special knowledge, background and expertise were crucial in helping the police solve the mystery.

Go to the author's website and watch the video tour of the NYPL before you read the book! Read an excerpt from the book and check out Harlan Coben's review plus others at Amazon.com.

Bubbles Unbound by Sarah Strohmeyer

Bubbles Unbound by Sarah Strohmeyer (2001)
Bubbles Yablonsky (yes, that’s her real name) is a single mom hairdresser trying to make a better life for her daughter. Her latest community college course – journalism – pays off when she stumbles across two allegedly related murders and has to battle a corrupt police force and influential town leaders to get the story told. Aided by her quirky mother, her mother’s conspiracy theorist friend, and a mysterious AP photojournalist, Bubbles’ quest for the truth will keep you amused and curious till the end.

If you like Meg Cabot’s “Heather Wells” mystery series, Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” series, or Sophie Kinsella’s novels, I think you’ll enjoy the escapades of Bubbles.

Visit the author's website and read reviews at Amazon.com.

The Companion by Ann Granger

The Companion by Ann Granger (2006)
Set in Victorian London, we meet Lizzie Martin, an impoverished young woman who takes a job as companion to Mrs. Parry, her godfather's widow. Lizzie is 30, outspoken and curious enough to get involved in the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Parry’s previous companion. Crossing her path in this investigation is a childhood friend of Lizzie's who just happens to be the police inspector from the Scotland Yard, Ben Ross.The pair encounters the dead girl's body, runs afoul of an unsavory pastor, a foreign service worker, a hen-pecked son and some hard nose laborers. But they manage, with the aid of a cabdriver and a downstairs maid, to solve the mysterious death and disappearance of the girl. If you enjoy reading about Victorian London, this novel will please you.

Read an excerpt from the book and look at reviews at Amazon.com.

The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow

The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow (1994)
Setting is Manhattan after Civil War. This suspenseful story takes place in 1871 and the descriptions of life in New York City with the corrupt Tweed government are a good reminder that all was not well for people in historical times. A good mystery thriller for those who like the true grit of Doctorow's writing. Easy, enjoyable reading with a good tied together ending.

Learn more about the author and his writings at BookBrowse and read reviews at Amazon.com.

Murder Inside the Beltway by Margaret Truman

Murder Inside the Beltway by Margaret Truman (2008)
A typical Margaret Truman mystery. I love the way she weaves the local color of Washington, D.C. in the book. It had some interesting twists and turns. Two of the main characters are intriguing blends of current political figures.

Check out other titles in the Capitol Crimes mystery series, and read a review of this book on Amazon.com.

A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen

A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen (2008)
The Queen of England invites Lady Georgina Rannoch to tea. The Queen wants Lady Georgina to chaperone a young Bavarian princess with the hopes of setting her up with the Prince of Wales. The Queen's son is enamored with an unsuitable American widow and Her Highness will not tolerate the arrangement. Georgina, who is 34th in line for the throne, willingly accepts the assignment but has to improvise to provide the comforts of wealth to her house guest. The fact is Georgina is impoverished and cleans houses in disguise to support herself. The Bavarian princess turns out to have an American accent from watching gangster movies and a vocabulary to boot and likes to shoplift! Georgina has her hands full as she keeps the princess out of harm’s way, solves murders and develops a handsome love interest. This story will have you laughing out loud.

Read a summary and review at Bookreporter.com and visit the author's website.

Spotlight: Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine

Spotlight: Ruth Rendell and Barbara VineRuth Rendell, who also writes under the name Barbara Vine, is an English bestselling mystery and psychological crime writer. Her Ruth Rendell novels are about police detective Chief Inspector Wexford, guardian of fictional south of England town, Kingsmarkham or about individual psychological suspense thrillers, with no detective and no recurring characters. She specializes in examining the inner darkness of her characters, whether they are ordinary or alarmingly aberrant. Try Murder Being Once Done, a Chief Inspector Wexford title, for a taste of this fine series.

Writing as Barbara Vine, she crafts psychological crime novels (such as A Dark Adapted Eye) which explore the minds of people who commit murder, often through obsession or social inadequacy. The Vine books maintain the theme of relationships between families by delving back into the past, which set them apart from the Rendell work.

Under either name, her novels are complex in character development and precise in sense of place. Always suspenseful and viscerally compelling, I highly recommend them.

Check back next month to read Sally’s review of The Minotaur by Barbara Vine.

The Torment of Others by Val McDermid

The Torment of Others by Val McDermid (2005)
Bringing together an excellent woman police inspector and a top police psychologist to solve serial killings in West Yorkshire provides a chilling story and an insight into the criminal mind. This book is very intense and you are rooting for the detectives to find the killer. McDermid writes with compassion both for the victims and the detectives.

Visit the author's website to read an excerpt and learn more about the author. Read reviews of the book at Amazon.com.

Angel’s Tip by Alafair Burke

Angel’s Tip by Alafair Burke (2008)
As a huge fan of James Lee Burke, I picked an Alafair Burke (his daughter) book more out of curiosity than anything. She has inherited her dad's gift for writing. Angel's Tip is a compelling mystery, with enough twists and turns to make it interesting, but not so many that the plot becomes unlikely. New York detective Ellie Hatcher is an interesting character, struggling with a painful family history and the old boys' club in the police department. Burke has written a strong woman character, who has grown and developed in just two books. She first appeared in Dead Connection.

Browse the book online and visit the author's blog.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (2008)
I really enjoyed this book, staying up until 1:00 am reading it. There is a mystery entwined in the story – what happened to Dr. Hunter? But it’s really about the characters and relationships. The four main characters are well defined and interesting. One of them, Reggie, is a 16-year-old orphan who has the determination to make it even though everything seems to be against her. This sentence sums up her current state of affairs, “Reggie got off the bus and turned the corner of the street to find that the all-too-familiar calling cards of catastrophe were waiting for her - three fire engines, an ambulance, two police cars, some kind of incident van, and a knot of bystanders – all muddled up in the street outside her flat. Reggie’s heart sank, it seemed inevitable that they would be there for her.” Flashes of wit and humor brighten the story and Atkinson’s descriptive writing will make her characters linger in your mind.

Check out the Random House website for information about the author and reviews of the book. Read another interesting review from The New York Times.

Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry

Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry (2008)
Anne Perry researches the Victorian era thoroughly so her stories are historically accurate. The real bonus in this mystery is the plot that encircles the Prince of Wales. It’s a cliff hanger. Perry also introduces a new character, Gracie into the series. Gracie infiltrates the servants’ staff of the Prince and is a source of vital information for special investigator Thomas Pitt. Perry revitalizes the historical mystery.

Visit the author's website, read reviews and an excerpt from the book.

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin (2008)
Adelia, the heroine of Ariana Franklin's bestseller, Mistress of the Art of Death, finds herself again in the service of King Henry II, who wants to know who murdered his mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Rosamund was poisoned in the tower in which she lived. Just as in her previous novel, Franklin's story is great fun. Adelia is part CSI investigator and part medieval detective. The story moves forward in this second book of the Adelia Aguilar series. Adelia has given birth to Allie whose father is Rowley Picot, king Henry's staunch supporter.

Read an excerpt, visit the author's website, and read reviews.