Book Review: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner @sl_penner @parkrowbooks

************

Title: The Lost Apothecary
Author: Sarah Penner
Publication Date: March 2, 2021
Genres: Mystery, Historical

************

Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Apple Books // Amazon
Google Play // Indiebound // Bookshop.org
Books-A-Million // Audible // Target // Libro.fm

************

The Lost Apothecary
Sarah Penner
Park Row Books, March 2021
ISBN 978-0-7783-1101-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In this addictive and spectacularly imagined debut, a female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Pitched as Kate Morton meets The Miniaturist, The Lost Apothecary is a bold work of historical fiction with a rebellious twist that heralds the coming of an explosive new talent.

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to The Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Just imagine if a woman could go to her local pharmacist and ask for a “special” medication to give to a particular man in her life, a man who has done her wrong in some way. Then take it a step further and imagine that this woman lives in a time when there were very few protections for women who were controlled in every meaningful way by a husband, a father, a suitor, a banker, a lawyer, essentially any male figure. Such is the the premise of this wonderfully creative story and it’s made even better by having the perspective of a modern-day woman as well as those from the 18th century.

This is a tale of three women—Nella, the apothecary in 1791, the young maid, Eliza, and Caroline, a modern woman who is at an important crossroads in her life—and all three come to vivid life in the author’s talented hands. Most intriguing to me was delving into how Nella turned to the dark side of what had been a respected profession and the visibly damaging effect her actions had on her physically as well as psychologically with each succeeding client.

Mystery fans will find much to chew on here and one suspenseful thread after another certainly kept me engaged till deep in the night. Well done, Ms. Penner!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2021.

************

An Excerpt from The Lost Apothecary

Nella

February 3, 1791

She would come at daybreak—the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.

I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan.

But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead.

I lifted the blush-colored paper, illuminated by the dying flame of a single rush wick candle. I ran my fingers over the ink of her words, imagining what despair brought the woman to seek out someone like me. Not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise.

Her request was simple and straightforward. For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb. At once, I drew to mind a middle-aged housemaid, called to do the bidding of her mistress. And with an instinct perfected over the last two decades, I knew immediately the remedy most suited to this request: a chicken egg laced with nux vomica.

The preparation would take mere minutes; the poison was within reach. But for a reason yet unknown to me, something about the letter left me unsettled. It was not the subtle, woodsy odor of the parchment or the way the lower left corner curled forward slightly, as though once damp with tears. Instead, the disquiet brewed inside of me. An intuitive understanding that something must be avoided.

But what unwritten warning could reside on a single sheet of parchment, shrouded beneath pen strokes? None at all, I assured myself; this letter was no omen. My troubling thoughts were merely the result of my fatigue—the hour was late—and the persistent discomfort in my joints.

I drew my attention to my calfskin register on the table in front of me. My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.

In the front pages of my register, the ink was soft, written with a lighter hand, void of grief and resistance. These faded, worn entries belonged to my mother. This apothecary shop for women’s maladies, situated at 3 Back Alley, was hers long before it was mine.

On occasion I read her entries—23 Mar 1767, Mrs. R. Ranford, Yarrow Milfoil 15 dr. 3x—and the words evoked memories of her: the way her hair fell against the back of her neck as she ground the yarrow stem with the pestle, or the taut, papery skin of her hand as she plucked seeds from the flower’s head. But my mother had not disguised her shop behind a false wall, and she had not slipped her remedies into vessels of dark red wine. She’d had no need to hide. The tinctures she dispensed were meant only for good: soothing the raw, tender parts of a new mother, or bringing menses upon a barren wife. Thus, she filled her register pages with the most benign of herbal remedies. They would raise no suspicion.

On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.

Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. My register laid it all bare: these were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.

Oh, but if only the register told my own secret, the truth about how this all began. For I had documented every victim in these pages, all but one: Frederick. The sharp, black lines of his name defaced only my sullen heart, my scarred womb.

I gently closed the register, for I had no use of it tonight, and returned my attention to the letter. What worried me so? The edge of the parchment continued to catch my eye, as though something crawled beneath it. And the longer I remained at my table, the more my belly ached and my fingers trembled. In the distance, beyond the walls of the shop, the bells on a carriage sounded frighteningly similar to the chains on a constable’s belt. But I assured myself that the bailiffs would not come tonight, just as they had not come for the last two decades. My shop, like my poisons, was too cleverly disguised. No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.

I drew my eyes to the soot-stained wall that I had not the heart, nor the strength, to scrub clean. An empty bottle on a shelf caught my reflection. My eyes, once bright green like my mother’s, now held little life within them. My cheeks, too, once flushed with vitality, were sallow and sunken. I had the appearance of a ghost, much older than my forty-one years of age.

Tenderly, I began to rub the round bone in my left wrist, swollen with heat like a stone left in the fire and forgotten. The discomfort in my joints had crawled through my body for years; it had grown so severe, I lived not a waking hour without pain. Every poison I dispensed brought a new wave of it upon me; some evenings, my fingers were so distended and stiff, I felt sure the skin would split open and expose what lay underneath.

Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.

At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me.

Excerpted from The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Penner. Published by Park Row Books.

************

About the Author

Credit Laura Foote

Sarah Penner is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, to be translated in eleven languages worldwide. She works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit slpenner.com

Social Links:

Author website: https://www.sarahpenner.com/

Facebook: @SarahPennerAuthor

Instagram: @sarah_penner_author

Twitter: @sl_penner

************

**A copy of this book was provided by the publisher
via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff @PamJenoff @parkrowbooks

The Lost Girls of Paris
Pam Jenoff
Park Row Books, January 2019
ISBN:978-0-7783-3027-1
Trade Paperback

A history of the world will be written one day with particular emphasis on the dangerous decade of the 1940s. A monstrous world war, the development of Atomic weapons and missile warfare, and a realignment of national priorities across the world. And there we began to see shifts in social structure.

In America, the public beginnings of greater gender equality became noticeable as women assumed a variety of jobs in manufacturing and other business traditionally held by men. Women pilots became a crucial link in getting replacement fighters and bombers to forward bases to continue the war effort. Rosie the Riveter became a recruitment poster. In England, women filled many roles heretofore reserved for men and that gradually included the world of spying and espionage, which brings us to this enthralling historical novel.

In 1940, British authorities established the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine agency designed to pass disinformation, arms, munitions and agents into occupied Europe. The novel focuses on the difficulties of incorporating a significant cadre of women agents, even though it was acknowledged that women moved around France more freely than could men. Eventually, due to persistence and grim determination, the head of F section was allowed to recruit and train a group of young talented women to operate in German-occupied Europe. This story tells the emotional and often tragic tales of the director of the unit, Eleanor Trigg, and several of the women agents.

The novel is a well-researched and very well written book. It is important, however, to recognize that this is a historical novel, based and well-rooted in reality, but is, in fact, fiction. Two agents who were flown to France in 1944 are the main characters and the story follows them from training through their adventures in tension-filled France and the post-war time.

The novel is saturated with the voices and unique perspectives of the women, including that of Grace Healey, a young woman living and working in Manhattan when the novel opens in 1946. Passing through Grand Central Station, she almost inadvertently acquires some pictures of former agents of the SOE. Notes intrigue her and she begins an odyssey to find and return the pictures to their rightful owners.

Now the scene shifts to London in 1943. Readers will discover that the structure of the novel shifts by chapter from place to place and from year to year. The structure is very well handled, the events are carefully and logically written to weave an emotional, tension-filled story fabric that will grasp and hold all but the most jaded readers through to the surprising and very well-conceived resolution. Just a fine, fine novel in all aspects.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper @TeaCooper1 @ThomasNelson @TLCBookTours

The Woman in the Green Dress
Tea Cooper
Thomas Nelson, June 2020
ISBN 978-0-7852-3512-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.

After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.

In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.

It seems as though I’ve been reading quite a few books in the past year or so that feature mutiple timelines, as does The Woman in the Green Dress, but there’s a difference with this one. Rather than a contemporary setting that flashes back to an earlier time, here we have an historical setting that takes us back to a still earlier time, a nice change from the norm. Added to that, for me, having the stories take place in Australia is a bonus because there’s so much about that country that I don’t know.

Fleur Richards sets out on the long journey to her husband’s home country because she doesn’t really believe he’s dead and she wants to see to it that his estate goes to his remaining family. Well-intentioned as she might be, the inheritance is hers, an old shop and a farm, and it’s the shop that garners her attention with its collection of oddities, including a number of taxidermied creatures. Fleur learns that another young woman, Della, had continued her father’s work back in the early 1850’s, showing a fine touch in preserving such beautiful, exotic specimens.

Fleur begins to unearth more about the unusual Della, including a long-lasting mystery and, with each turn of the page their stories and the mystery regarding a beautiful opal, I became more and more engaged with this appealing tale. Tea Cooper is a new author to me but I’ll be looking for more of her work.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2020.

Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Books-A-Million
Amazon // Indiebound

************

About the Author

Tea Cooper is an Australian author of historical and contemporary fiction. In a past life she was a teacher, a journalist and a farmer. These days she haunts museums and indulges her passion for storytelling.

In August 2011 Tea joined Romance Writers of Australia and her debut novel Tree Change was published in 2012. In 2015 her book The Horse Thief won the Australian Romance Readers Award for Favourite Cover.

Connect with Tea:

Website // Facebook // Twitter // Instagram

************

Follow the tour here.

************

Book Review: The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

The Hidden Key
A Steve Stilwell Thriller #3
David E. Grogan
Camel Press, April 2020
ISBN 978-1-60381-580-2
Trade Paperback

Having never read David E. Grogan’s previous books, when I finished this one, I read reviews of Sapphire Pavilion and The Siegel Dispositions.  Having done so I discovered I am definitely in a minority when it comes to Grogan’s books.  Praise for those previous stories abounds but I just could not get on board (no pun intended).  I found both the story and the writing not even close to believable including his use of verbs that just did not match the emotions being communicated.

The Hidden Key begins with two men breaking into the home of a former Navy Seabee looking for an artifact, a clay tablet stolen from Iraq, that he advertised for sale on the internet.  Unbelievable violence ensues when the Seabee denies any knowledge of the artifact.  This is just the beginning of the body count.

About a week later Steve Stilwell, a lawyer in Virginia and a retired Navy JAG officer, meets a prospective client for dinner in London, having been contacted by the man and asked to join him in London as soon as possible.  The prospective client wants to hire Stilwell to probate his estate in the US.  As they are discussing the matter, two armed men enter the restaurant and the client ends up dead.  Stilwell later discovers that the client has wills in the US, India, and Italy but his job involves only the one in the US.  However, in addition to his will, the client has  left specific instructions as to how cash he left in a safe deposit box was to be distributed and where he was to be buried, specifying that his wife in India might not agree to either but he wanted his wishes honored.

Of course, the man’s wife needed to be informed of these instructions so Stilwell’s law partner, Casey, a former Army helicopter pilot, is dispatched to India to meet with her.  Despite a warm welcome from the woman, Casey ends up being attacked after their meeting.  Meanwhile, Stilwell has gone to Italy to meet with his client’s mistress where, perhaps you guessed it, more violence and murders ensue.  Meanwhile, the artifact that started this whole venture has been found, then lost, then found again.  It turns out that the artifact is a map to the Garden of Eden.  And, oh yes, the FBI, New Scotland Yard, and the Italian Carabinieri (because of a heist of the Shroud of Turin) are also involved.

Because I found this book beyond fantastical, I cannot recommend it but if you liked Grogan’s previous books you will probably like this one too.

Reviewed by Melinda Drew, April 2020.

Book Review: Queen’s Gambit by Bradley Harper @bharperauthor @SeventhStBooks

Queen’s Gambit
A Mystery Featuring Margaret Harkness
Bradley Harper
Seventh Street Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-64506-001-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Spring, 1897. London. Margaret Harkness, now in her early forties, must leave England for her health but lacks the funds. A letter arrives from her old friend Professor Bell, her old comrade in the hunt for Jack the Ripper and the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Homes. Bell invites her to join him in Germany on a mysterious mission for the German government involving the loss of state secrets to Anarchists. The resolution of this commission leads to her being stalked through the streets of London by a vengeful man armed with a powerful and nearly silent air rifle who has both Margaret and Queen Victoria in his sights. Margaret finds allies in Inspector James Ethington of Scotland Yard and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who aspires to follow in Margaret’s cross-dressing footsteps.

The hunt is on, but who is the hunter, and who the hunted as the day approaches for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee when the aged empress will sit in her open carriage at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral? The entire British Empire holds its breath as the assassin, Margaret, and the Queen herself play for the highest of stakes with the Queen’s Gambit.

I wouldn’t want to have lived in the Victorian era but I really do enjoy reading books set in the period and, with an author’s effective worldbuilding, getting immersed in it. Bradley Harper does that for me very well.  Not only can I envision myself settling in for a chat with Margaret and all her friends; I think I would truly like these people should they suddenly become real today (many actually were real more than a hundred years ago).

I did miss having more of Margaret’s interactions with Arthur Conan Doyle and Professor Bell as I had enjoyed those characters so much in the first book but James and Elizabeth were delightful additions to the cast. Also, Queen Victoria comes across as a woman to be reckoned with, perhaps a sort of role model for young women who resist their “place” in the world. Margaret is one of those young women, a journalist and author who dares to overstep the bounds of her time.

After her adventures with Doyle and Bell, I found this latest undertaking a little less engaging which is more than a little ridiculous when you think about it. I mean, Margaret and company are involved in international intrigue and trying to prevent anarchists’ terrorist activities; what more could I possibly want? Let’s just chalk it up to my own fascination with Jack the Ripper and the efforts of the Victorian police 😉

One of my favorite parts of this book is the Afterword in which Mr. Harper provides tidbits of very interesting information regarding the people and events depicted in this novel based on facts. After an ending that made me tear up more than a little, I’m truly anticipating the next book featuring the intrepid Margaret Harkness, should there be one, and I certainly hope there will be.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2019.

Book Review: The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

The Girl in the Ice
A Detective Erika Foster Novel #6
Robert Bryndza
Grand Central Publishing, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5387-1342-6
Trade Paperback

This debut novel introduces DCI Erika Foster, and is the start of a new series.  The next novel in the series will be entitled The Night Stalker.   In The Girl in the Ice, she is brought in from her previous post in Manchester, where she led a flawed operation which resulted in the deaths of several police, including her husband.  Although she has yet to come to terms with her past, the detective superintendent believes her to still be an effective detective and places her in charge of the investigation of the murder of a prominent young woman from a well-to-do family.

The woman’s body is found frozen in ice.  Death was caused by strangulation.  Foster’s efforts are hampered by interference by the powerful father, a wealthy defense contractor, and police politics.  She stands her ground, but suffers for her principles and supposed clues, while attention is focused by higher-ups on other possible “clues,” which she feels are false.

Foster is a flawed character in need of growth.  Her efforts seem to be haphazard and insubordinate, resulting in her being removed as SIO of the case.  The novel progresses by fits and starts, and concludes with a denouement for which no basis is laid in the preceding chapters.  However, it is a good read and can be [and is] recommended, only hoping that the sequel overcomes these stated objections.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2018.

Book Review: Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis

Crow Mountain
Lucy Inglis
Chicken House, June 2016
ISBN: 978- 0-545-90407-0
Hardcover

Sixteen year old Hope lives in London with her extremely feminist, scientific researcher mom. She has very little contact with her actor father who took off with his pregnant co-star around the time Hope was born. Mom is extremely controlling…Of Hope’s schooling, her diet, what she can do, pretty much everything.

When Mom heads off to do an ecological study on a Montana ranch, one of the few remaining unspoiled ones that practices environmentally friendly ranching, she drags her daughter along, even though Hope wants to stay in London and be with her friends.

Crow Ranch has been in operation since the 1870s and run by the same family. When a handsome young man, Caleb, the owner’s son, meets Hope and her mother at the airport in Helena, she feels an immediate attraction, but her shyness keeps her from saying anything. When they stop in Fort Shaw and the local sheriff harasses Cal, as he prefers to be called, while hinting to Hope about unsavory behavior in Cal’s past, it’s her first inkling that there’s trouble ahead.

It doesn’t take long for Cal and Hope to start talking and become very aware of their growing mutual attraction. After he shows her the room above the barn where she can hide out from her mother, Hope discovers a diary written by a girl named Emily who was on her way to an arranged marriage in San Francisco via Portland Oregon, by stagecoach in the early 1870s. She’s fascinated by the story and takes the diary with her the following day when she and Cal head off through back country roads in the national forest on a trip to get Cal’s mother who has been caring for her sister in law following a broken bone. They’re also hauling a horse trailer as they’re to bring back a couple horses.

At this point, the book begins to alternate chapters between Hope and Cal following a scary accident, and diary entries telling the story of Emily and the mysterious young man she first sees outside her hotel room in Helena, as they encounter an eerily similar fate. To say more might spoil the plot, but I can say that first off, I bought this immediately following my reading of her other book City of Halves, which is equally stellar.

This is an excellent book, part adventure, part love story, part historical fiction and a book that forces you to keep reading because of the tension and uncertainty facing both couples. It’s one that deserves a place in many libraries, both school and public. If you like it, read her other book, City of Halves.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, June 2018.