Book Review: The Butterfly Conspiracy by Vivian Conroy


The Butterfly Conspiracy is a historical mystery with the undertone of an adventure novel.

Miss Merula Merriweather is different from other girls. She has an unconventional family life, not knowing what became of her real parents or who they were. She isn’t the prettiest of ladies, relying on a spotless reputation to secure her future. She puts that spotless future in danger by pursuing her passion: zoology.

Merula has a special interest in butterflies. Her uncle allows her to use the greenhouse as a place to raise imported creatures from their cocoons. She has an impressive collection of butterflies, but one of them—the largest—is her pride and joy. She has raised it and seen it hatch, and makes the decision to let it out during a zoological lecture.

When Merula’s prize butterfly lands on a wealthy woman’s arm, the woman dies immediately. Blame is placed on the insect, which is killed by the butler. It was heartbreaking to read about Merula’s butterfly being disposed of mercilessly, but under the circumstances, what else could they think to do?

Lord Raven Royston was present during the scene at the lecture. He knows that Merula’s butterfly was not the cause of the death, and he wants to bring justice. He helps her rescue the last cocoon of her butterfly species, escaping a greenhouse that has been set on fire. He introduces her to a chemist friend who collects bizarre creatures such as scorpions and giant spiders. When it becomes clear that police are after her, he gives her shelter at the home he hasn’t visited in twenty years.

Merula and Raven are a great team. She isn’t the fainting sort—after all, she worked with insects for fun—and does well under pressure. He is a deep thinker and willing to try explanations that seem absurd. Together, they work out what happened to the woman. If the butterfly did not kill her, and Merula insists it isn’t venomous, what did?

Rarely do I come across a book and realize from the blurb alone that I need to read it. This was the case with The Butterfly Conspiracy; I cheated my October reading list in order to devour the mystery. The characters are very well developed, the mystery seamless, and the ending satisfying.

There is even an air of steampunk to the world described here—I was waiting for the mechanic creatures to come out!

I had already found a great mystery series in the Lady Hardcastle books, but now I will be looking out for these books too. If you want to try a new mystery series, or if you like visits back in time, The Butterfly Conspiracy is a great book!

Books I’m Reading in September


Autumn is kicking in—the best time to get reading done! Chilly weather, a cup of tea, and a warm blanket set the mood, making your journey into a story somehow more tangible. As the world outside begins to settle into its slumber, we find in the pages of books a way by which we can live even more.

Do you know what you’re reading this month? My September TBR includes:

Stonehenge: A New Understanding by Mike Parker Pearson

I started reading this in late August. It’s not the sort of thing to speed-read; you’d lose a lot of interesting information! I’ve been interested in Stonehenge since I was very young, but the shows on television—at least at the time—seemed to focus on the ‘spooky’ reputation Stonehenge has, especially around Halloween.

While I love ghost stories, in this case it is more interesting to learn about the archaeological aspect of Stonehenge. With October near, I get the best of both worlds this year!

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I want to make two resolutions: First, to read a classic every month. I keep meaning to read all of the best known classics but keep getting distracted. Second, to reread a favorite every month. Dracula falls into both of those categories. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed both times; this was almost a decade ago, so I’d be going into it now almost as if it were a new book.

C.S. Lewis said, ‘I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.’ While it’s true that there are many books to read, I’d like to revisit some favorites and remember why they’re favorites. Dracula is also fitting for the season!

Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey

I’ve become a big fan of historical fiction. It’s the genre lean to when writing. Though I’ve dabbled a bit in mystery/crime fiction, it doesn’t come naturally. Investigating the fine points of crime is not as fun as researching the past!

Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey is one of the books I most look forward to. It’s set during the years of WWI and was in a list of books to read if you enjoy Downton Abbey (which I do—I’ve been rewatching the first season and it never gets old!)

In the Market for Murder by T.E. Kinsey

I read A Quiet Life in the Country, the first Lady Hardcastle mystery, last month. The clever characters and witty writing style has me hooked! Combining mystery with historical fiction, it’s perfect–those are the two things I enjoy most in a book!

If you’re looking for a good series to get hooked on, I’m a huge fan of Lady Hardcastle and plan to read all of the books!


What are you reading this month? Do you have any go-to books that set the mood for Halloween? Let me know in the comments!

Mona Lisa’s Romantic Disappearance


Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti is a book that helps put Mona Lisa’s fame into perspective. Most people know her as Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

We can get a better grasp of her fame after learning about the drama that took place in 1911.

In August 1911, the Louvre Museum was stirred from its routine by horrific news. Usually displayed in the Salon de Carré, where she was visited by artists and suitors, Mona Lisa had vanished. Under the spot where the portrait had hung was a plaque reading her name, but she was nowhere to be found.

Her empty frame was discovered in one of the corridors, as well as the glass case meant to protect her from outsiders. A broken doorknob indicated a route of escape that the thief might have taken.

1910 Map of the Louvre

Pre-Theft Louvre

How was this possible in a museum containing so many treasures? The ugly truth is that the Louvre Museum before Mona Lisa’s theft was lax in security. It was understaffed and too large for there to be guards everywhere.

The director of the museum was fired after Mona Lisa’s disappearance.

In 1911, the Louvre had more exits available for thieves to slip through. Visitors were allowed to grab paintings for photographs without written consent. Curators and guards were so busy that none of them noticed Mona Lisa’s disappearance for three days.

She was last known to have been in the Salon de Carré on Sunday evening; her absence was not discovered until Tuesday morning.

Parisians were outraged that it had been so easy for the painting to disappear under guards’ very noses. The greatest available detective would be required to solve such a mystery.

Alphonse Bertillon was called in the very Tuesday that Mona Lisa’s disappearance was noticed.

Alphonse Bertillon, detective. He pioneered in using photography to help solve crimes.

Sherlock Holmes’ Hero

Alphonse Bertillon was Chief of the Judicial Identity of the Paris Prefecture. He was the closest they could get to Sherlock Holmes in this most Holmesian of cases.

In a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of the Naval Treaty, Holmes tells Watson that he admires the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon. Naval Treaty was published in a collection of Holmesian short stories in 1893.

Sherlock uttered these words before the Mona Lisa disappeared. Was it a premonition?

Bertillon came with all of the tools of the trade. This included his magnifying glass, dusting powder, and a trail of assistants to photograph the scene. Photography of crime scenes was a new practice which Bertillon pioneered.

He examined Mona Lisa’s empty frame and the glass case that held her. Using his magnifying glass, he searched for evidence that could give a name to the heinous thief: fingerprints.

A perfect thumbprint was discovered on the glass case which had held Mona Lisa.

Paris, France: MONA LISA THEFT, 1911. The gap on the wall of the Carre Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris, where the Mona Lisa was exhibited before it was stolen 1911. ©Mary Evans Picture Library / The Image Works

Salon Full of Suspects

Louis Lepine, Prefect of the Seine, arranged for the theft to be repeated by two groups on a different painting of the same size.

The first group to recreate the theft was comprised of ordinary gendarmes. They struggled to remove the art from the frames and did a clumsy job of it. The second group was made up of Louvre workers–people familiar with the museum and comfortable handling art in their cases.

The Louvre workers removed the painting from its frame and case in moments. This provided clues for Bertillon—and a great deal of embarrassment for museum staff.

It suggested that the theft had been committed by someone who worked at the museum. He must have been familiar with the halls and glass cases, so that they wouldn’t be such obstacles.

Could a thief have been mingling with curators and guards long enough to plan a heist?

Seeking a Match

Lepine requested that a list be compiled naming everybody who’d had access to the museum between that Sunday and Tuesday.

The long window of time was discouraging. Whoever had stolen the painting could have escaped France by the time guards noticed her absence. He might be on a ship halfway across the world.

Proceedings continued, though officers began to doubt that Mona Lisa would ever be seen again.

Each Louvre custodian, curator, workman and photographer on Lepine’s list was fingerprinted and interrogated. One guard confessed that Mona Lisa had been left alone from eight to ten o’clock on Monday morning. He had been called away from the Salon de Carré to help move paintings in another part of the museum.

This gave the thief two hours’ free rein to remove the painting from its frame and flee.

Mona Lisa’s Lover

The guard then confessed an unnerving detail.

He had been seeing a young man pay weekly visits to the Mona Lisa. Sometimes this man would bring her flowers, as if they were lovers. Could this obsessed visitor have been alone with the object of his affections that Monday? Was he deranged enough to have stolen her?

This revelation provided the Louvre with a way to save face. The thief was not necessarily one of their staff; it could have been one of her unstable courtiers. While police continued to question museum workers, the public was told about Mona Lisa’s admirer.

It was the sort of story that the media cannot resist. Chicago Tribune commented wryly on the matter:

So, Mona Lisa has another lover! … Now, after four and a half centuries, Leonardo’s subtle lady wins another lover, and her tantalizing discretion quite forgot, she flees with her wooer. Ten thousand dollars for her return, cries Paris. … No one man should have exclusive right to feed on that mysterious loveliness.


This ends the first part of my series on Mona Lisa’s disappearance. After I’d read Vanished Smile, I struggled for a way to sum up the story for my blog.

When Mona Lisa disappeared, the world reacted in outrage. When newspapers and the French government offered rewards for her return, false paintings were provided by people hoping for money. Billionaires like J. P. Morgan and artists like Pablo Picasso were pulled into the matter.

To leave out one surreal detail does this story a disservice. There is more to the Mona Lisa than her mysterious smile; there’s a reason why she now has a bulletproof chamber at the museum.

Behind every great story is an even greater story; the Mona Lisa’s is no exception. I will post more about the investigation in a few days.

Death at Scarclaw Fell: SIX STORIES by Matt Wesolowski


Have you ever wondered what would happen if you examined a situation from multiple angles? Round up all of the people involved and ask them about what happened. You’d watch their opinions differ and their accounts mix and match.

Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories follows this premise. It is the written transcript of Scott King’s podcast. Scott’s goal is to rake up old graves. He takes cold cases and looks at them, not as a detective or reporter. He gives people involved a space to talk, and they are drawn to him because of this perspective.

The characters interviewed felt so real that it might have been a true story. I appreciated how people with disabilities were given compassion. It was refreshing to read a piece where the narrator (in this case, Scott King) takes into account the status of a vulnerable adult.

The six points-of-view were flawless to me. Motives were clear, backgrounds separate. While they all lived through the same tragedy, they approached it in distinct ways. Some were ashamed by it; others were almost indifferent. Everyone who knew the murdered kid was affected by him in distinct ways. This affected how much sympathy they showed for him later.

I have to admit it: their stories made it easy to single out who was “it.” I wasn’t surprised when the big reveal happened. I don’t know if the author did this on purpose, focusing on the different voices and how they lead to the same conclusion. It did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel.

Perhaps what was creepiest about the situation was how normal it felt. These teenagers were behaving like teenagers. The trouble they got into with smoking and drinking was what you would expect from angsty teens.

Right until the end, when we learn of the horrific, we struggle to believe they are being interviewed about a murder. It might have been an intervention.

This well-written thriller has a wonderful mythical, horror flavoring. I sometimes wondered if there could be spirits and monsters in the marsh. It is bleak, detailed, and–in my opinion–a great idea for a mystery book.

A heads up for those who mind: the novel has strong language. It wasn’t bad enough to distract me from the plot. If you want a good thriller, I encourage anyone reading this to give Six Stories a try.

Top Three Books – Week 2


It’s been a year of experimenting with different genres. For example, I hadn’t in the past enjoyed any mystery books. Now I’ve done some research and am excited to give the genre a second chance. I can find the hook in a mystery novel–if it is well written!

I haven’t posted about any of the books featured here. There are reasons–for example, Marigolds for Malice is part three of a series. I didn’t feel comfortable reviewing it having dropped in so late. That’s why, instead of a long blog post, I’ll limit my thoughts to a few sentences.

1- Marigolds for Malice by Bailey Cattrell

Marigolds for Malice is a cozy mystery. It’s the sort of mystery you can read when you’re awake at night with insomnia–nothing disturbing or terrifying disrupts the sense of who did it?

Cozy mysteries are good in small doses. They’re essentially fairy tale mysteries, mysteries without the alarm or thrill. If I read too many, would I become accustomed to not being alarmed? Isn’t that important in the mystery genre? It’s only an opinion, though, from a newbie. I do plan on reading more cozies!

The main character Ellie is a young woman who, recently divorced, makes a living with her perfume store. Magic is a thing in this book: she knows which herbs to mix into potions to soothe any malady. This reference to the language of plants and flowers charmed me. As a gardener, I believe that different plants have different purposes–though I don’t see myself putting together healing potions!

2- Like You Love Me by Adriana Locke

Like You Love Me is a romance. I had just finished an intense murder mystery and my mind was reeling; I wanted to read something light and entertaining. This was the right choice. There aren’t complicated mysteries or love triangles. It’s straightforward, sweet, and everything you expect a romance to be.

For a romance, the characters are well done. They have goals other than falling in love, they make mistakes and feel sorry. The story might be simple for a reader, but it isn’t simple for the characters at all. How do you pretend to be married for a week–and what do you do if you actually fall in love?

I breezed through this charming story in a day. Setting was also painted for us carefully and with great detail: by the time it was over, I wished I could visit Honey Creek. The place itself has a character to it that I haven’t found in other books.

3- Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The online description of Excellent Women summarizes this book quite well:

Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a spinster in the England of the 1950s, one of those ‘excellent women’ who tend to get involved in other people’s lives – such as those of her new neighbor, Rockingham, and the vicar next door.

Some people don’t want to get involved in the affairs of the person next door–but it happens anyway. Mildred is content with her uneventful life. She’s involved at church, organizes rummage sales, and always seems to be making a cup of tea for someone who needs it.

I laughed when, at one point, she asked herself why she always seemed to be making tea for people.

It’s a simple book, but the beauty is in that simplicity. When Mildred’s new neighbor brings problems with her that Mildred isn’t accustomed to, she finds herself in a series of awkward situations. Will these situations shake her out of her comfort zone?


Of these three, I enjoyed Excellent Women most. Barbara Pym’s comedy is subtle; you want to pat Mildred’s hand and tell her it will be okay, but you also giggle each time she reaches for the teapot. I thought it the best written of the three.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a cozy mystery to recommend? I hope July brought you happy reading!

Top Three Books – Week 1


This year I decided to start a reading journal and practice intentional reading–which involves taking note of character names and ages. I also record sentences that are powerful or elements that will shape my own writing.

This has helped give my blog renewed purpose–book reviews, thoughts on literature, and history. It’s also a journal as I explore genres such as mystery or thriller. Reading an average of ten books a month (I’m a fast reader) and not having reviewed them all, I’m going to have a weekly feature called Top Three Books.

Some posts will echo praise for titles I’ve written about; others will be special mention for novels I enjoyed but didn’t earn blog post glory. I’m excited to track my journey this way. I hope it will make me a better writer and thinker.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

One of my greatest pet peeves is the claim that literature is somehow in danger.

It’s a complicated topic, but pinning the blame on eBooks or audiobooks simplifies the matter too much. We should not be afraid for the future of books, and Gottschall makes a fantastic argument as to why.

Story comes from the human mind. Humans were telling stories before there were ways to write them. Even if in another universe, paper books vanished–we will never be without story.

I love the smell of ink on paper, but isn’t story the most important aspect of a book?

The Seine by Elaine Sciolino

I love history. This explains my preference for classic novels–I often find more in an old book that was published as a serial than a hastily written novel penned to earn numbers on Amazon.

Elaine Sciolino went to extraordinary lengths to learn the history of the Seine river in Paris. The Seine is a diva, moody and vengeful. Sometimes she’ll save a life, but sometimes she’ll take it.

This quote from The Seine forever changed how I see Paris:

Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there would never have been a Paris.

If you want to learn French history without plunging into complicated details, Sciolino’s account is written in a language that’s easy to follow. It’s absolutely gripping.

You might not be able to travel this year, but let a book take you to Paris.

All The Good Girls by Willow Rose

I did not review All The Good Girls for the simple reason that it’s a quick read. I didn’t take many notes; it’s so fast-paced that I couldn’t have found the time to set it aside and jot down quotes.

It’s a murder mystery which in my humble opinion (I’m new to the mystery genre) was worth the time. As a writer, I thought some plot twists could have been handled better. The characters might have been written with more depth.

I liked All The Good Girls; I’ll read the rest of the series. There is a focus on God and prayer in this novel, so Christians would enjoy it. There are no “skippable” scenes, if you’re looking for a clean read.

I wonder if the focus on writing a clean book took away from what it could have been. All The Good Girls still deserves mention for its breakneck pace and the sheer fact that it was a page-turner.

Conclusion

Where I wrote blog posts reviewing a book, I linked to it in the title. Click on them and read for more thoughts.

This was a fun selection to make. Do you have comments on any of these books? I would love to hear your opinion!

Review: The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett


The Queen of England is a mystery to us. It only seems fitting that someone should write her into a mystery novel as The Boss, investigating a gruesome murder. The Windsor Knot shows her in a new, delightful light.

When a famous Russian pianist is found dead in Windsor castle the morning after a lavish party, the police first assume that it was a suicide. Soon, a new theory surfaces involving politics and Russian spies. 

Authorities walk on eggshells around Her Majesty while investigating, assuming that she can’t handle the gruesome details–except they’re wrong. The Queen has been solving mysteries since she was a young girl, and she’s tougher than they give her credit for.

There are guest appearances by public figures that we know, such as Sir David Attenborough and President Obama. It’s a shoot off of Netflix’s The Crown. All of these characters, though, are bland compared to SJ Bennett’s portrayal of Prince Philip. 

Philip is the only character who provides comic relief. Despite his unfiltered behavior, it’s clear that he keeps the Queen balanced. He makes her feel like a human, even when he says things that annoy her, and sometimes you just need someone around who’s not afraid to annoy you.

The Queen, of course, never goes to make inquiries herself. She sends her secretary, Rozie Oshodi, to meet people and ask questions. Rozie is a fantastic character. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she represents strength and diversity. She had a humble beginning, but is now the Queen’s confidante. The strong female character trope is often pushed onto readers until it becomes annoying; this did not happen with Rozie. We get to watch her do her job and do it well, never standing over us to announce her presence. I believe this is how the strong woman character should be written: she ought to be admired because of what she is doing, not what she is announced to be. Remember–show, don’t tell.

I don’t know if it’s my fault–sometimes I skim a book–but I never had a solid grasp on what happened to the Russian pianist or why. Descriptions of royal palaces and guests filled my mind with imagery, I suppose. I did not pay enough attention to the clues or the resolution. When I had finished reading, I needed to make a list of events on a separate page. I had to piece them together myself in order to understand what happened.

I cannot say if it was my fault or if there was some flaw in the writing of the mystery; I am, after all, new to the genre. Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the fact that the mystery was lost in the forest of famous locations and people.

In all, I recommend this book to anyone who likes The Crown or is curious to see famous people in novels. It’s well-written, with a crisp writing style that pulls you along. There was never an instance in which I stumbled over word choice. The setting, characters, and portrayal of the Queen made this a light book worth reading. 

I give it three stars only because the mystery aspect was rather lost on me, but again, my mind might have wandered. I’ll figure that out when I reread it one day. If you like royalty or mysteries, you should definitely read The Windsor Knot; it is a charming, entertaining novel, great for lifting the spirits and for escapism.

Entering the Mystery Genre


For the book lover, literature becomes more beautiful over time. With the passing of the years, our tastes in books evolve. We learn about a certain genre, falling for it to an extent that we live in it, and suddenly–another genre whisks us to a new place. We then see the world from a different angle.

I have been immersed in historical fiction for at least three years. I’ve learned a great deal about important events, how life was lived, the way people dressed, and social interactions. This information molded most of my recent manuscripts. Historical fiction continues to be an important part of what I write and will eventually publish.

I didn’t like mysteries when I was younger. Maybe the mysteries that I chose to read were not the best, but I found them tedious and boring. I was more interested in emotional books than the mechanics of building a whodunnit. I never considered reading thrillers–I guess too many of them were overrated? Too many used paperbacks were sent in droves to the thrift store? I can’t account for my aversion to thrillers.

This year, towards the end of May, I was barricaded with ideas for a mystery. I won’t give details, but it is set in the present day (pre-Covid, mind) and it has been delightful to work with characters who have the same advantages that I do. They’re all over my imagination now; I can’t focus on banal tasks without a new scene filling my head. I even find reading difficult to do, since these new characters want to have my attention; they won’t share it with a novel.

Aware that I haven’t the slightest idea of how to write a mystery, I began searching for good ones to read. Ever loyal to the classics, I am reading Agatha Christie–but since what I’m writing is present-day, I’m also looking for modern mysteries. The thrillers that I find present a welcome change in pace from the classics that I had been reading, though Alexandre Dumas still paints better pictures in my imagination.

In short, I am reading things I never thought I would be reading before; is this a sign of maturity in a reader?

The first thriller I’ve read was suggested in a book group. The Couple Next Door was part of a bookhaul I got at a yard sale, and it had been sitting in the back of my closet for three years. It was delightful when I realized that the most popular thriller in that group was already within my reach. I found it and finished it–in one day.

What a change in pace. What a race to an unexpected ending. I definitely want to read more; I’ll be looking for the next book.

The reader’s life involves many forms of growth. Some of them can only be understood by other readers. As I enter the genres of Mystery and Thriller, I want to learn all about them. The first thing I looked up after finishing The Couple Next Door was Which are the first thrillers that were written? Though I did not find a direct answer, I did discover a good list of thrillers here. A couple are good old classics that I was planning to read anyway, including The Moonstone and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

It feels like I’ve taken an unexpected turn in the road of reading and writing, and I’d like to find people already deep in those genres to share with. Do you have a favorite mystery or thriller book? Do you know of any blogs that might help me on this new path? Please comment and let me know!