Book Reviews

Posted February 18, 2020

Heather Gudenkauf: Before She was Found

Three middle-school girls – Cora, Violet, and Jordyn – visit the abandoned railroad depot in the middle of the night, looking for thrills. But once there, the girls scatter and one of them is critically wounded. Who would do such a thing, and why? Did they turn on each other – again, why? – or was someone else involved? These questions need to be answered before the town explodes with suspicion and rage.

Heather Gudenkauf is an excellent writer; the story kept me hooked to the end. She’s adept at not just creating interesting characters, but at evoking the dynamic way characters relate, the way people show different sides of themselves depending on who they’re with. The way she depicts the shifting friendships between the girls was beautifully and horribly evocative of the volatile intensity of sixth grade. My only quibble is that I felt that Gudenkauf played a bit loose with some of the conventions of mystery writing. It is entirely possible that this is not meant to be a mystery as much as an exploration of relationship dynamics, in which case my objection doesn’t hold, but this felt so much like a mystery to me that it set up certain expectations. Specifically, everyone in the book seemed to understand what had happened before I did; I only got it in the epilogue. Once I did, I didn’t have the “Oh, of course” realization as previously obscure bits of information clicked into a pattern – instead I wondered how I was supposed to have figured that out, given the information that was being withheld from me as a reader. Maybe if I were to go back and re-read the book I would see the signposts clearly, but at that point I didn’t feel the need. So – do I recommend this book? I do, especially if you haven’t read anything of hers before. As I said, it’s an excellent story and she’s a tremendous writer; you may not have the same issue I have, in which case you’ll love the book.

Posted January 11, 2020

Peter May: The Critic

Gil Petty was the world’s most influential wine critic, until he disappeared on a wine-tasting tour of the Gaillac region. His reviews would have put Gaillac wines on the map – or destroyed them entirely. That was four years ago. His body has just been found, preserved in wine and dressed in ceremonial robes. Enzo Macleod will have his hands full with this investigation, especially since the locals and the local authorities don’t like outsiders, and his personal life isn’t going to benefit much, either.

The Critic was a bit of an intense read – a shocker of an opening scene, followed by Macleod’s battle to gather information of any kind, along with his and his assistant’s separate challenges in navigating their personal lives. The plot gets a bit tangled as well, which is a joy to follow, and the denouement is satisfactorily both complicated and clear. I would not consider Peter May a light read, but he is an excellent choice for an engrossing story.

Posted December 29, 2019

Donna Andrews: Terns of Endearment

Meg Langslow and her family are all at sea – literally. Her environmentalist grandfather is the guest lecturer on a cruise ship, and the family has taken advantage of the discount as an opportunity for vacation. It’s not a promising sign when Grandfather’s assistant isn’t to be found on board, nor when a diva-esque novelist seems to be set on seducing all the men aboard and annoying all the women. Then the cruise ship breaks down in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, and things start to get very messy indeed…

Terns of Endearment is number 25 in Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series, and still going strong. There’s a boatload (sorry, couldn’t resist) of strong returning characters that are growing more nuanced as the series progresses. The writing is entertaining and quirky, and the plotting takes a few turns I wasn’t expecting. I thought that the resolution wasn’t as strong as in some previous books, with a few loose ends not tucked in as tightly as I’d have liked, but it’s still a hilariously entertaining book and a good mystery. Recommended

Posted December 20, 2019

Shari Lapena: Someone We Know

Amanda Pierce is missing. Her husband Robert made the report when she didn’t return from a weekend away, and he found out that she had lied about her plans. When evidence of murder surfaces, secrets begin to emerge. Everyone in the small and until now close-knit neighborhood seems to have something to hide. The question is – whose secrets are motive enough for murder? And whose face hides a murderer?

Someone We Know is Shari Lapena’s fifth book, and it is amazing. The intertwining of the characters’ lives and stories is complex and almost incestuous, and everyone seems to have a credible motive. I think I suspected everyone at some point, which is of course Lapena’s plan. In the end, I was still wrong – and impressed at how well Lapena set it up. Definitely recommended

Posted December 4, 2019

Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Circular Staircase

Generally, one expects life in the country to be simpler and more restful than in the city. Certainly, this is what Rachel Innes expects when she rents a country house for the summer. She is about to be deeply disappointed and deeply discomfited by strange noises at night, and strange and suspicious behavior by both her niece and her nephew. Rachel Innes does not back down from a challenge. The question is, will the challenge back down before her?

Mary Roberts Rinehart is “the American Agatha Christie.” (In truth, her first books pre-date Christie, but no one will de-throne the Queen of Crime.) The Circular Staircase is considered the start of the Had-I-But-Known style of mystery, where the protagonist (usually female) ends a chapter or the recounting of an event with blatant foreshadowing, in a “Had I but known what the next day would bring, I would never have slept so soundly” style. it’s an interesting style, if a bit dated, and I rather enjoyed Rachel’s first-person narration for the bits of side commentary now and again. While I enjoyed reading the book, I did find it a bit scattered at times, although the ending was quite satisfactory. Give Rinehart a try – you may be pleasantly surprised.

Posted November 19, 2019

Patricia C. Wrede: The Seven Towers

Prince Eltiron doesn’t trust his father’s new advisor, and suspects he was involved in having the previous advisor, Jermain, wrongly exiled for treason. But there’s little time to worry about this, as Eltirion is about to be married off to a foreign princess to improve political ties, and there are rumors of war, and dark magic, on the horizon.

The Seven Towers is a nice high-fantasy read involving multiple countries, magic, politics, sorceresses, and threats from all directions. It has a certain young adult feel to it, possibly because several of the viewpoint characters are about that age. I enjoyed it for the most part, although I didn’t feel like it quite found its feet as far as tone went – the humor never seemed to land quite right for me. On the whole, though, the storyline is interesting and kept me reading, and the characters are for the most part compelling; it’s a good choice for a casual read.

Posted November 12, 2019

Stella Rimington: Present Danger

Liz Carlyle may wonder why she’s been reassigned to Belfast now, but she doesn’t have much time to speculate. Just because The Troubles are officially over in Northern Ireland doesn’t mean that the unrest is over and everyone is happy with the new order. Far from it – there are several splinter groups who mean to carry on from where the IRA left off, and one of them has been quite specific about wanting to kill a British Intelligence officer. When one of her colleagues disappears, Liz suspects the worst… especially when all the prime suspects disappear as well.

I will admit that I picked up Present Danger at least in part because Stella Rimington was at one point the head of MI5, aka the British Intelligence agency, which gives the book a certain aura of authenticity. It turns out that Rimington is a good workmanlike writer, too, with a knack for interesting situations and unexpected turns of events. I find myself curious as to what happened to Liz prior to these events, and how things continued after. Happily, this can be answered by reading the other books in the Liz Carlyle series; Present Danger is volume five of 10.

Posted October 24, 2019

Kate Ellis: A Perfect Death

DI Wesley Peterson was in France on holiday, and the last person he expected to meet was former classmate Ian Rowe. He hadn’t thought of Rowe for years, but here he was, and he wanted Peterson’s professional help. But before Peterson could find out exactly what he wanted, Rowe disappeared, and Peterson thought that might be the end of it. Back at home, though, he discovers it’s only the beginning, as he investigates murders connected by fire and by an archaeological site that’s slated to become a housing development.

A Perfect Death is an interesting story, with just the right amount of interlock and separation between the various subplots. Ellis is brilliant with misdirection, leading me to make wrong assumption after wrong assumption before revealing the truth. Her characters are interesting and occasionally reprehensible, and the ending was both surprising and satisfactory. Recommended.

Posted: October 18, 2019

Kate Quinn: The Alice Network

Charlie St. Clair has a problem. Well, actually, she has a lot of them – her brother’s post-war suicide haunts her, she is on the verge of failing out of college, she has not heard from her beloved cousin Rose since sometime during the war… but her problem now is one that needs to be dealt with by a discreet visit to a clinic in Switzerland, run by an even more discreet doctor. Charlie deviates from her parents’ plan and finds her way to Eve Gardiner in London, who was the case agent who handled Rose’s file. Eve is not what Charlie expects, and from Eve’s doorstep, Charlie starts a journey that will take her vicariously through two world wars and a network of female spies – the Alice Network.

Wow. And wow again. I read The Alice Network in two sittings, because I had to stop halfway through and take a breather. The story is intense, the stakes are high, and the suspense twangs all your nerve endings. Kate Quinn has written an amazing story that is even more impressive for having a deep factual basis. Just… just go read it. It’s more than worth it.

Posted October 12, 2019

Sophie Hannah: The Next to Die

Two pairs of best friends have died. Each of them had just received a small white booklet containing a quote from a poem. And then comedian Kim Tribbeck comes forward to say that she received one of these booklets, and yet no one has made an attempt on her life, which throws off all the theories that the police had developed so far. DC Simon Waterhouse and the rest of the task force pursue a variety of leads to a strange conclusion.

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Sophie Hannah’s books before, and this one swept me along like the rest. The plot is well-paced, and suspicion goes everywhere and nowhere. However, without spoiling the ending, I will just say I found the ending disappointing. If you haven’t read Sophie Hannah before, maybe start with one of her others (all (except the authorized Hercule Poirot titles) featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer investigating.), and leave this one unless – or rather, until – you’re hooked on Hannah.

Posted September 11, 2019

Elly Griffiths: The Crossing Places

Dr. Ruth Galloway is called on to use her forensic anthropology skills by the police, specifically DCI Harry Nelson, to determine the age of bones found in the Saltmarsh. To Nelson’s disappointment, the bones are two thousand years old, not the remains of Lucy Downey, the five-year-old who went missing ten years ago. This should have been the end of Ruth’s involvement, but it was only the beginning, and as the number of bodies ancient and modern rises, the danger increases for Ruth as well.

I wasn’t entirely impressed when I began reading The Crossing Places. Author Elly Griffiths has chosen to write the book in present tense, which creates an off-kilter immediacy. The story itself captured me from the first moments, though, and after a chapter or two I mostly stopped noticing the writing style. The interconnection of the characters, and the lines drawn between the ancient past, the recent past, and the present seem a jumble almost to the very end, until Griffiths picks them all up and sets them out in their rightful pattern. The pacing is spot-on and the suspense keeps growing to the final reveal. This is the first in Griffiths’ Galloway series; there are eleven to date, which makes me very happy. Definitely recommended.

Posted August 31, 2019

James Patterson: The Thomas Berryman Number

Jimmie Lee Horn is a rarity – a black politician making his way up the ladder of federal politics in 1974. He has made friends – among them a reporter named Ochs Jones. Horn has made enemies, too, as is evidenced by his assassination on July 4 of that year. The newspapers reported that the killer was a madman named Bertram Poole. Ochs Jones is about to find out that the killer is, in fact, a hired assassin named Thomas Berryman.

James Patterson’s first novel, the Thomas Berryman Number, is a high-speed ride through some of the darker corners of human nature. Bon Toy, Oona Quint, Joe Cubbah, Thomas Berryman himself, not to mention the people who hire Berryman for various reasons, all are granted their time on stage to explain or not explain themselves, their motivations and their actions, before they’re whisked away and another aspect of the story is brought into view. The result is a story that tumbles uncontrollably onward from the moment Ochs Jones learns that there’s more to the story of Jimmie Horn’s murder, until the final moment of the Thomas Berryman number is revealed. Suspenseful, absolutely, but I found it also a bit choppy and occasionally hard to follow – but I will admit that the amount of laudatory quotes plastered on the cover and first five pages of my copy may have turned me contrary and looking for things to be annoyed by. Still, it was a good read.

Posted August 13, 2019

Brian Freeman: Spilled Blood

The towns of St. Croix and Barron are more than rivals – they are mortal enemies. When Ashlynn Steele, the teen daughter of the wealthiest man in Barron, is found dead, Olivia Hawke, a St. Croix girl, is arrested. Olivia’s father is a lawyer, and he is determined to prove her innocence, in spite of the overwhelming evidence against her. But he hasn’t seen her for three years. He doesn’t know her any more. He will need to dig out a lot of secrets – not just hers – in order to find out the truth, and any secret that isn’t immediate common knowledge in a small town is buried very deeply indeed.

Spilled Blood was immediately immersive, and impressive. There’s a lot going on under the surface in this small town, and Brian Freeman has it all under perfect control. Each separate subplot comes into play at the right time, for just as long as needed before cutting to the next story, the next fact, the next discovery. The suspense keeps building, and the finale is killer. As a bonus, my edition of Spilled blood included, not an excerpt from a forthcoming novel, but a complete short story. I’m sold. I’m going looking for more Brian Freeman as soon as I need another adrenaline hit.

Posted August 1, 2019

Jillian Cantor: Margot

Margie Franklin is a secretary in a Jewish law firm. Her life is quiet and somewhat circumscribed, and she prefers that. A movie that comes out in the summer of 1959 and a potential client who approaches her boss shake apart her world. The movie is The Diary of Anne Frank; the client a woman who survived Auschwitz. And before coming to America, Margie Franklin was once Margot Frank, and now she must decide if she is ready to come out of hiding, even a little, and come to terms with her past.

My first thought, picking up Margot, is that this was a fascinating premise – that one of the Frank girls had survived and made it to America. In execution, the story is no less fascinating – the small details of a deliberately small new life, the assault of accidental reminders as her sister’s diary and their story becomes public fare, the tension between the life she wants, the life she left behind, and the life that she has built in the space between them. I read this in two sittings. “Enjoyable” is not really a word I’d use to describe it, (as one of the characters in the book says when asked if he enjoyed watching The diary of Anne Frank) but it was definitely worthwhile, and very good. And it is definitely recommended.

Posted July 29, 2019

Ellery Queen: There was an Old Woman

A postponed trial gives Ellery Queen the chance to be a spectator at a different case – a slander suit brought by one of the heirs to the Potts Shoe fortune. When the trial degenerates into farce and the case is dismissed, Thurston Potts declares he will settle the next insult to his name with a gun instead, and Ellery is asked by Potts’ lawyer to try to minimize the damage that can be done by an angry and eccentric man. But what Ellery ends up with is a murder where he knows who pulled the trigger, but not who the murderer is.

I knew I’d read There was an Old Woman years ago, but it was long enough that I’d forgotten it completely, so I had the delight of rediscovering it and being surprised by every plot twist. Ellery Queen is a writer in the classic style, with a heavy emphasis on a complicated puzzle to solve, and light on violence, gore, and general grittiness. (There was an old woman was originally published in 1943.) As a classic, it has its problematic moments, with characters showing flashes of sexism and racism, but these are fairly rare. Queen has a nice clean style, and the story flows. If you’re into classics and period pieces, this will be your cup of tea.

Posted July 9, 2019

Cara Robertson: The Trial of Lizzie Borden, a True Story

Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. She was acquitted of the charges after a lengthy (for the time) trial in 1893. And yet speculation about the crime and her role in it continues today, as many questions remain unanswered and many contradictions in testimony and evidence remain unresolved.

Cara Robertson returns to the story in The Trial of Lizzie Borden, a True Story. She draws on historical record and newspaper coverage of the day to create the most complete account possible of the crime and the trial, without trying to push any particular candidate as the murderer. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about guilt and innocence, and about how the biases of the day may have influenced the outcome of the trial. A chapter on some of the depictions of the Lizzie Borden story in popular culture bring the narrative into present day. While it’s a very readable and clear book, it didn’t really cover any new ground, but given how long ago the murders happened and how haphazardly evidence was collected and stored, it’s not really surprising. An interesting true-crime read, and a comprehensive introduction to the story at the heart of the Lizzie Borden mythos

April 25, 2019

Robert Galbraith: Lethal White

Robin Ellacot is newly married and a partner in the detective firm where she was once an assistant, but neither one of those things is going as well as she’d hoped. Throwing herself into an undercover assignment in the halls of Parliament only compounds the confusion, as the many avenues of investigation both she and working partner Cormoran Strike are following up never add up to a cohesive story. Both Robin and Cormoran have a lot riding on the outcome of this case – the question is whether they will be able to work together to solve it.

My main question after finishing Lethal White is “How does she do this? No, seriously, how does she do this?” She = JK Rowling, writing under the name Robert Galbraith; this = put together such a masterful, complicated plot so perfectly. There was so much going on that I may need to reread the book to pick up what I missed, and that re-read will be a pleasure; not only is the plot at another level of convoluted and tricky, but the writing is also brilliantly done. Read Lethal White. You will not be sorry.

Posted March 29, 2019

With her life shattered, Jenna runs from everyone to a remote village, hoping to at least escape some of the reminders. But as much as Jenna is running from the events of the day, the investigative team is searching, hoping for something to break loose so the driver of the hit-and-run car can be found and brought to justice.

I read Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go in a sitting. Jenna’s new life, as it unfolds chapter by chapter, is played off the slow progress of the investigation. Mackintosh made me care about and believe in everyone involved, even to the point of my saying aloud to one of the characters “No, please don’t do that; that is so entirely the wrong decision!” as if I could make them hear me. Now, the book flap says something about a twist, so I was alert for the unexpected, but even with the advance warning Mackintosh had me bamboozled to the end and managed to upend my understanding of everything that had happened more than once. Brilliant writing, with a lovely chill at the end. I had stated my intention of finding and reading this book back in 2017, when I came across I See You; I regret having waited this long – it’s that good.

Posted March 19, 2019

Katherine Woodfine: The Clockwork Sparrow

Having work is one thing – there are very few jobs out there for Victorian girls of gentle breeding and minimal practical skills. But to be working in a place as beautiful and magical as Sinclair’s department store is an unbelievable opportunity for Sophie Taylor. But before Sinclair’s even opens, valuable jewels and objets d’art are stolen, and Sophie and her friends are caught up in the aftermath.

I was a little surprised by The Clockwork Sparrow; at first, because I wasn’t expecting it to be a middle-years mystery, and later by how much I enjoyed the breathless pace and the grand ending of this mystery. There are some nice Victorian touches, and everything seems to fit together nicely – no anachronisms, and all the characters stayed true to themselves and their abilities. This was an enjoyable romp with just enough peril to keep me hooked. Keep this one in mind for that kid in your life who enjoys adventure and a bit of mystery

Posted March 5, 2019

Donna Andrews: Toucan Keep a Secret.

It may be Meg’s husband Michael who sums it up best when he says “Why do our local murderers always manage to commit their crimes when you’re around?” This time (volume 24 and counting), it’s a body in the columbarium at Trinity Episcopal church that Meg discovers, and Meg is immediately up to her eyeballs in police detectives, next of kin, the aftermath of a thirty-year-old jewel theft, and protecting a toucan who might be in danger if it’s believed he was a witness.

Toucan Keep a Secret is a pretty typical Donna Andrews mystery, in that it’s a light read that combines eccentric side characters with pretty down-to-earth people, humor and peril, and bits of ordinary life with the out-of-the-ordinary. I do wonder though, how Meg has made it through these many threats to her person and family still managing to be as unflappable as she is. Still, as long as Meg is detecting, I will happily ignore that wonder and keep reading

Posted February 7, 2019

Shari Lapena: The Unwanted Guest

Mitchell’s Inn was an ideal weekend destination  for those who want to get away from it all – a lovely location, picturesque and quiet. But with “quiet” comes “isolated”, and a snowstorm strands a dozen people, both guests and staff, in a remote location without power and without cell phone reception, waiting for the snowplow to clear the roads and get them out. And then the killings start…

The Unwanted Guest is Shari Lapena’s take on the classic English country-house murder idea, with a group of disparate people trapped in one place, trying to solve a murder. This is a beautifully-executed update of the concept; in this day of constant connection, it’s still perfectly logical for this particular isolation to occur. And that’s just the setting – the characters have their variety of reasons for coming, and most of them fall under suspicion at different times. Lapena surprised me several times, sometimes with who the victim was, sometimes with a different plot development, and definitely by the solution to the murders – I did not see that coming. Definitely recommended.

Posted January 21, 2019

Nele Neuhaus: Bad Wolf

Detective Superintendent Pia Kirchhoff is dismayed to find a bad-penny former colleague has reappeared in her life, and is planning on using his new Internal Affairs position to make trouble in his old department. But Pia has work to do and a crime scene to investigate – a young woman has been found drowned near the locks. What appears to be a summer drinking party gone wrong turns out to be much more complicated, and much darker and more horrifying, than anyone suspected.

Bad Wolf is an intricate and complex story with a large number of plot threads that eventually all fit together beautifully. It’s also a collection of a wide variety of characters, some likeable, some definitely not, all with motivations and internal drives that force them into coalitions and conflicts. And it’s a deeper-than-usual dive into the child abuse and its far-reaching effects. Bad Wolf goes to some dark places, but allows space for hope as well. This is German author Nele Neuhaus’ second title in the Kirchhof and von Bodenstein series; so far there are four translated into English, and a further five that have not been translated. This is a shame – I want to read them all. Recommended.

Posted January 11, 2019

Megan Miranda: All the Missing Girls

Nicolette Farrell is reluctant to come back home to Cooley Ridge. Not just because she’s leaving her fiancé and her apartment behind to live in the dilapidated mess her family home has become. Not just because her father’s grasp on reality is worsening by the day. Not just because she will need to face Tyler, the boy she once thought she’d marry, and the rest of her long-ago friends. It’s because her best friend Corinne disappeared ten years ago, and no one has ever found out why or what happened to her. And when another girl disappears just after Nic comes back to town, Nic will need to search through both the present and the past to find a way out of the nightmare.

All the Missing Girls is an exceptional thriller, with a unique interweaving of past and present. There are frequent flashbacks to the events of ten years before, which is hardly new, but the structure of the story is unusual: after the first day, when Nic arrives home, Megan Miranda flashes forward to two weeks later, and then begins to work backward, day by day, to the night of Day 1, before continuing the story. It’s an intriguing idea, well-executed, and I want to re-read the story, now that I know how it ends – or rather began. Miranda creates a world rich with telling details and interesting characters, and while I can’t say that I agree with Nic’s idea of paying her debts, it makes perfect sense, given all she’s lived through before. Well worth the read.

Posted December 23, 2018

Roger Hobbs: Ghostman

No one knows his name; even he hasn’t used it for years. He’s the best ghostman in the business – the person you turn to when you want an entire heist crew to disappear into new identities – and he’s particular about the jobs he chooses. But when a message comes to “Jack Delton”, a long-ago name linked to a long-ago catastrophe, Ghostman knows this is a job he has to take, to balance the scales. Things are about to get interesting…

Ghostman is a fast-paced thriller that plays moments of poetry and philosophy against scenes of brutal violence. The story cuts between present day and the Jack Delton incident, playing the one off the other, and in the process explaining quite a few things about Ghostman and why he has become who he is. This is the first book by Roger Hobbs (written at age 23, which is hard to believe) and it’s a winner straight out of the gate. Hobbs wrote only one other book before his untimely death in 2016, and it’s a shame there won’t be more.

Posted December 12, 2018

Kylie Logan: And then there were nuns

Bea is the owner of a B&B on the coast, and things are going well – it may be the off-season, but she has some assorted guests, and a gig helping cater for a retreat center on the nearby island. Her friends from the Literary Ladies Society, a reluctant book club (there are several points where the group starts to discuss their current book, but abandons it after minutes), are helping her with food prep and delivery, and it’s only natural, given the Literary Ladies’ involvement in past mysteries, that when one of the retreat participants goes missing, that Bea and her friends pitch in as well. Trying to sort out what happened against a backdrop of complications in her personal life, while looking after her B&B guests, isn’t going to be easy, but Bea has her reasons for powering through.

I picked up And then there were nuns pretty much on the strength of the title, and I was not disappointed. This is the fifth book in the series, and it’s a great read – an interesting mystery, a good setting, and a quality dash of comedy to season the lot. Nothing farcial, nothing far-fetched (well, aside from the usual cosy-mystery conventions about the concentration of murders in a small town and that sort of thing), and nicely plotted, with the personal-life storyline fitting in tidily without taking too much prominence. I really enjoyed it, and I would probably binge-read through another few if I had them stacked beside my chair right now. As it is, I can only recommend that you hunt up Kylie Logan and her Literary Ladies Society.

Posted November 16, 2018

Jenn MacKinlay: Books can be deceiving

Lindsay is just finding her groove as a small-town librarian, and finding the way everyone knows everything about everyone else to be… interesting. Like the way everyone knows her friend and co-worker Beth has an appointment with a visiting book editor to show her manuscript for the children’s book she’s been working on. When Beth’s boyfriend interferes with the process, things don’t look good. When Beth’s boyfriend is subsequently found dead, things look even worse for Beth, and Lindsay realizes the course of justice is not going to run smoothly unless she gives it some help.

Books can be deceiving is the first in a new series for Jenn MacKinlay, and it’s a fun read with a lot of promise for further entries. Lindsay is an intelligent person who generally makes smart choices, without being the perfect amateur detective surrounded by idiots, or a fool who bumbles into the truth. MacKinlay also has a deft touch in tying in minor characters in unexpected but appropriate ways. Recommended.

Posted October 30, 2018

Julie Kramer: Stalking Susan

In the newsroom, you’re only as good as your last major story, and Riley Spartz hasn’t had a real story for a while. When a friend and source gives her a lead on something that might turn that around for her: two murders exactly a year apart, connected by the first name of the victim – Susan. Riley’s investigation takes her to the homes of grieving families, state jail, the psychiatrist’s office, and the office of the mayor… and into fatal danger.

Stalking Susan is Julie Kramer’s debut novel, and it’s impressive. She writes about TV news with an insider’s understanding, which comes from her day job in television news production. Kramer also has a knack for creating interesting and varied characters – Riley in particular is certainly imperfect, but she’s interesting and sympathetic, and I would enjoy having coffee with her during her downtime. The plotting is good, there’s certainly a good bit of personal peril to keep the suspense high, and while I had an idea of who might have done it, the why didn’t occur to me until it was laid out for me in detail. There are five more Riley Spartz novels, and I plan to read them all. Definitely recommended.

Posted August 3, 2018

Karen Sturges: Death of a Baritone

All Phoebe Mullins really knew about Frank Palmero was that he was a good baritone, albeit given to annoying levels of enthusiasm about his current interest. Why would anyone want to kill him? But someone at the music camp has done exactly that, and the director has asked Phoebe to take on solving the mystery alongside her secretarial duties – a task considerably more dangerous than anything in the official job description.

I thoroughly enjoyed Death of a Baritone; Karen Sturges has neatly depicted the opera world (quite accurately, as far as I can tell from my limited experience) and created a cast of interesting characters. I particularly liked Phoebe, whose reactions to being plunged into this particular circle and the investigation are realistic and relatable. The plotting is tight, and the descriptions of the music and the production add to the overall picture, rather than slowing down the action. I’d love to read more of the series.

Posted June 24, 2018

Gregg Hurwitz: Hellbent

Evan Smoak never expected to get this call: his mentor, calling him for help – or to say goodbye. That last message sets Evan on a collision course with his past and a rapidly shortening future. He is going to need every skill and every resource he has garnered from his time in the extremely black-ops Orphan program, and a few he’s never learned anywhere, in order to make it through – but Evan’s survival may no longer be his highest priority.

For some reason, I had difficulty getting into Hellbent. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience; it was more that once I put it down (due to interruptions of various kinds) it took me a long time to pick it up. However, I decided it was high time I actually read the book, so I sat down and dug in.

It was well worth it. Hurwitz brings in some fascinating new characters, but what really impressed me was what he did with returning characters. All of them – Evan, the other Orphans, the woman who lives in his apartment building – change and evolve in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. And the plot – the plot starts with a bang and doesn’t let up until the last page. This is a brilliant book, and is well worth the read.

Posted May 29, 2018

Lisa Jackson: You Will Pay

Then: a summer camp on the ocean, and group of teen-age counselors dealing with secrets and hormones and the issues and consequences that arise from the combination. Then: two female counselors disappear within a week, and camp shuts down forever. Now: human remains are discovered on the old camp property, and the former counselors return to assist with the reopened investigation. Now: senior detective Lucas Dalton finally has the opportunity to discover the truth – if that’s what he really wants. Because Dalton was a counselor that summer, too, and he too has been keeping secrets.

You Will Pay is a story that unfolds Then and Now simultaneously, showing the events from multiple viewpoints, although the primary point-of-view is Dalton’s. There are a lot of characters to follow, and I found it took me a little while to settle into the story. But once I did – hoo, boy, I did not want to put the book down. I will note that, as one might expect in a book about young adults discovering the power of desire and sex, there are a lot of sex scenes. An intriguing and suspenseful book, with some interesting character developments and side stories, and a series of quite unexpected plot developments right at the end. After reading this, I find myself thinking I need to see what other Lisa Jackson titles I can track down…

 

Posted May 15, 2018

Val McDermid: The Vanishing Point

In the middle of the hassle that is airport security checks, Stephanie almost doesn’t register at first that the TSA agent is leading six-year-old Jimmy away and out of sight. By the time she can convince anyone to listen to her, Jimmy is long gone. In interviews with the FBI, Stephanie has to do a lot of explaining as to why she has Jimmy, son of a former reality starlet from the UK, and who might want to kidnap him and why. And even with all the backstory and all the explanations, the crucial bits of evidence are discovered with painful and possibly deadly slowness…

First of all, wow. I have always been impressed with Val McDermid, and this was no exception. There is no one in this book, with the possible exception, of innocent Jimmy, who will not surprise you in some way, good or bad. Not just a suspenseful mystery, The Vanishing Point is also the story of a friendship, a look at what fame can bring you, and a reminder of how impossible it is to ever truly know someone completely, and how complex and surprising people can be.

Posted May 5, 2018

Shari Lapena: A Stranger in the House

Karen Krupp has been in an accident, and she can’t remember what happened immediately before it. This is a problem, because there are a number of suspicious circumstances that are attracting police attention. Her husband Tom and her best friend Brigid are standing behind her, but none of the three know what they’re standing against. The strain begins to show in their relationships as suspicions of each begin to grow.

Once again, Shari Lapena writes a twisty mystery that manages at the same time to turn a relentless eye on a relationship strained by secrets and suspicions. A Stranger in the House is a sequel of sorts to The Couple Next Door, which I reviewed a while ago, but in my mind only a sort of connection – the investigators are the same in both, but to me they were a bit of a cipher, very secondary indeed to the dissection of the relationship. This was an edgy, unsettling, and brilliant story, and I look forward to more.

Posted March 19, 2018

Sarah Pinborough: Behind Her Eyes

When Louise arrives at work, still thinking about the man she’d met in the bar the night before, she’s introduced to her newest boss, David – who turns out to be the very-married man in question. Shortly after, she makes a new friend, Adele – who is David’s wife. Louise and Adele secretly bond over the night terrors they both have, and the intimacy between David and Louise builds as well, but those secrets, combined with the secrets within David and Adele’s marriage, are destructive in a way Louise could never have imagined.

Behind Her Eyes is a thriller of the first order – original, twisty, and terrifying. From the first moment, that the relationship triangle is doomed is never in doubt, but you’re kept guessing as to when and how it will explode. At the same time, it is fully understandable why Louise doesn’t cut and run. Sarah Pinborough has a deft touch in creating distinctive voices for her characters, balancing the current-day storyline with flashbacks to the past, and in directing or misdirecting your suspicions at the perfect moment. The final reveal is almost perfect, and the ending made me shiver. Highly recommended.

Posted February 23, 2018

Shari Lapena: The Couple Next Door

Anne is not enjoying the dinner party, even if her husband Marco and their hosts Cynthia and Graham are. Anne and Marco’s infant daughter Cora is asleep next door, and even with the baby monitor and the half-hourly checks, Anne hates leaving her alone and hates the dinner party more. And then a crime is committed, and Anne and Marco come under suspicion. In the hours that follow, fault lines appear in their relationship, and the damage will extend to the people who are nearest them.

The Couple Next Door was a compelling read – I finished it in two sittings only because I had commitments that wouldn’t allow me to read it through in one go. Everyone has secrets, everyone is capable of betrayal; as the story unfolds, each act will be significant. Brilliantly and unsettlingly written, with every plot twist a full-on surprise, this is an impressive suspense debut for Shari Lapena, a Toronto author. Better yet, she has a second novel, A Stranger in the House, featuring the same detectives as The Couple Next Door. Recommended.

Posted February 19, 2018

G.M. Malliet: Wicked Autumn

Max Tudor is not your typical English vicar, even if he does live in the very typical English village of Nether Monkslip, where gossip is rampant at the local pub and the tea room, and the Women’s Institute is the only social outlet. Max is retired MI-5, trying to leave his past behind and fit into the round of Sunday services and home visits, christenings, marriages, and funerals. The Harvest Fayre offers a bit of a change from the usual pace…even more so when one of the members of the Women’s Institute is found dead next to the plates of biscuits. Max finds himself drawn (or is it pushed) into searching out the reasons for her death, and the identity of the serpent in his little Eden.

Wicked Autumn is unquestionably a cozy mystery in the classic British sense. It could easily have turned into a cliché, what with the village setting, the usual characters and tropes (the single attractive vicar with a past, the village bombshell, the overbearing woman who pushes people to their limits, the meek follower/victim, the single women in the village vying for the vicar’s attention), but Malliet’s writing reminds me that these come up so often because they’re true; they are typical of the human experience, especially in small and somewhat isolated areas. It’s a nicely-plotted story full of good characters, and I’m pleased to note that this is the start of a series, and there are five more to come, including the one slated for publication next April.

Posted February 3, 2018

Daniel Palmer:  Forgive me

There will always be runaways, and although their names are different, their stories are depressingly alike. But not to Angie DeRose. Her business, DeRose and Associates, is a PI firm that specializes in locating runaways, and she is dedicated to finding them and bringing them to safety. But when Angie comes across a picture of a little girl in the attic, with the words “May God forgive me” written across the back in her mother’s handwriting, the need to find out what secret her mother had kept until her death divides Angie’s attention between the case at hand and the mysterious child.

This was a great introduction to Daniel Palmer for me – he had two very strong plot lines running that kept the suspense high throughout, and he balanced them well. He writes vividly and with nuance about human trafficking and what it might look like from the inside. There were lots of interesting characters, some of them hiding tremendous depths and big secrets, and the whole book ended on a note of hope – not unbounded optimism, but realistic hope, given everything that happened in the book. Forgive me was a suspenseful and surprising read;  I would love to read more Palmer in general, and more about DeRose and Associates in particular.

Posted January 25, 2018

Thomas Perry: Sleeping Dogs

Michael Schaeffer had been leading a completely uneventful life in England for the last ten years. That life came to an abrupt end when someone noticed him at the racecourse – someone who knew him in his previous life as a hit man in the United States. Now Schaeffer – if that’s his real name, if anyone, including him, even knows what it is—is on the run, leaving a trail of bodies and shed identities behind, as he tries to figure out who tracked him down, and how to make them leave him alone.

Sleeping dogs is a high-octane chase novel that repeatedly reminded me of Day of the Jackal. It’s not just because of the hitman main character and the view of the hunt from both his perspective and that of the authorities on his trail; it’s because I found myself sympathetic to both sides. In spite of Schaeffer’s hair-trigger violent nature, I was still hoping he would come through this alive, and I was also hoping that the authorities, especially the main case agent, would also survive unscathed. This was an impressive thrill ride with a high body count, and the ending wrapped everything up beautifully. It turns out that this is the sequel to a previous book, The Butcher’s Boy, so that goes on my to-read list.

Posted January 14, 2018

Roz Nay: Our Little Secret

Angela’s world has shrunk to the size of a police interrogation room, and the latest in a series of officers is asking her about Saskia again. Angela decides it’s time to explain everything, to help “fill in the picture” – but it will be on her terms, and she will fill in the whole picture, a story that goes back to high school and her first love – Saskia’s husband, HP.

Our Little Secret is a story about lost love and shifting alliances; it’s a story about untrustworthy people and strained relationships; it’s ultimately a story about love and what one will do for love. The ending lands solidly, inevitable but still unexpected. This is a first novel by a Canadian writer, and a psychological thriller of considerable skill. I can only hope that this is the start of a long and prolific career for Roz Nay.

Posted December 21, 2017

Tara Altebrando: The Leaving

Five teenagers show up in town, confused and without clear memories of where they’ve been. They’ve been missing for eleven years. But six of them went missing, back when they were kindergarteners. Avery is Max’s sister. Max is the one who didn’t come back. Avery wants answers. The five? They want answers, too – and at the same time, they fear them.

The Leaving caught my attention with its basic premise, so I dove right in. We see the story from different perspectives, as the five returnees struggle with returning to “normal” life without any normal memories or background, and with the weight of loss and expectation and damage done to the people left behind. Both the mystery and the return are well-handled, albeit a bit sparsely for the latter. This was an interesting young adult read.

Posted November 30, 2017

Donna Andrews: Gone Gull

Meg Langslow would be enjoying teaching her blacksmithing classes at the artists’ retreat, and the truly amazing food being served, under other circumstances. The circumstances that are currently spoiling the experience are the instances of vandalism last week, and the presence of an extremely annoying oil-painting instructor. It’s while Meg is on patrol for signs of the former that she discovers the body of the latter, and the stakes get unnervingly high. Meanwhile, Meg’s enormous and eccentric family swings into action in their own inimitable (and varying levels-of-helpful) ways.

Gone Gull is the twenty-first in the Meg Langslow series, and as always, it was highly entertaining. The mystery is serious, yes, but there’s a lot of comic relief coming from Meg’s family, who I’ve come to know and love over the course of the series. It’s not the most light-hearted of the stories, but it was still amusing as well as being a well-plotted and well-executed mystery. This gets my recommendation, as does the entire series.

Posted November 3, 2017

Andrew Mayne: Black Fall

A town vanishes completely: buildings, people, everything. A dead man predicts an earthquake. In a corner of the FBI, Agent Jessica Blackwood and the rest of her tiny department try to make sense of the strangeness: is it magic, or is it a con? Blackwood knows both, as a former magician from a family of magicians. She thinks it’s a setup for something big, but she’ll need to find out what it is, and who is responsible, before a skeptical and frightened nation plays right into someone’s hands.

Black Fall is the third in the Jessica Blackwood series, and it’s excellent – lots of twists in the plot, and a number of intriguing people, on both sides of the table. I did find this one a bit on the dark side – I’m not fond of stories that threaten the breakdown of civilization, even locally. The series is also moving away from specific stage illusions as plot points, and simply using Blackwood’s background in magic as one of her skills. I’m enjoying seeing the evolution of her character, and I look forward to more.

Posted October 29. 2017

Nancy Werlin: Then There were Four

Five students are invited to a meeting of student leaders in a picturesque clubhouse on the school grounds. While they’re waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, the roof collapses. Surviving that experience brings the motley group of five together: Saralinda (determinedly optimistic girl despite some medical issues), Antoine (handsomest and nicest boy in school), Evangeline (beautiful, rich, and mean), Kenyon (prickly lesbian activist), and Caleb (even he thinks he’s a psychopath). Then one of them dies, and it becomes clear that all of them are targets for more than just bad luck – someone wants all of them dead.

I rather enjoyed Then There were Four. The story is told from Saralinda’s and Caleb’s perspectives, which is an interesting choice. They are truly unique voices, and while Saralinda’s minimalist punctuation was a bit on the annoying side at times, the story pulled me along to the end. The plot, and what the characters were capable of doing, was believable and the right level of horrifying. The ending was a little unclear to me at first – I want to reread it so I can figure out exactly what happened when. Still, a very good book.

Posted October 15, 2017

Heather Graham: The Killing Edge

Chloe is one of only four survivors of a killing spree at a house party, back when she was a teenager. Now an adult and an art therapist, she no longer sees the ghosts of the ones who didn’t survive that night, but that will change when an aspiring model vanishes and a cult-like religious group linked to the spree killers reappears on the scene. Chloe may not like Luke Cane, the PI searching for the missing girl, and Luke may not believe that Chloe saw her ghost, but they’re going to have to put all of that aside, at least long enough to find the killer.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Heather Graham before, and I have to say it was a thrill ride – lots of twists, personal peril, and strange happenings. Graham handles the paranormal element quite well, so it seems logical in that world and fits well into the plot. It’s romantic suspense, so be aware that there are a couple of explicit sex scenes. I had some suspicions of the identity of the killer, so that was a bit disappointing, but all told, it was an entertaining story and a good way to spend a few hours.

Posted October 2,2017

Lynda La Plante: Cold Shoulder

Lorraine Page had everything – a rising career in the police force, a loving husband, two sweet girls – and she lost it all because of one horrible night. Now she’s a skid-row alcoholic who has hit bottom, and she doesn’t know if she wants to fight her way back up or not. Lorraine is still fighting her need to drink when she falls back on old habits, and as a result finds herself in the middle of a hunt for a serial killer.

Lorraine Page is the epitome of a tough lady – even though she’s been through everything, her old skills are still killer sharp. Lynda La Plante has written a gritty, twisty, nuanced book that balances the protagonist’s recovery against a deadly investigation. The characters are complicated, to say the least, with a lot of moral ambiguity about the characters that make this a fascinating book. Definitely recommended.

Posted September 11, 2017

Clare Mackintosh: I see you

On her regular commute home, Zoe Walker sees her picture in the paper, in an ad for a website she’s never heard of before, called FindTheOne. Confused and disturbed by this discovery, she finds other ads for the same website, each with a different woman’s picture. Then she discovers that some of those women were victims of crimes shortly after their picture appeared…

I see you is a dark trip into fear: fear of the stranger sitting across from you on public transit, or bumping into you on the street, fear of discovering you don’t actually know the people you love. The storyline rockets to a white-knuckle conclusion, and the final reveal was appropriately shocking. I’m definitely hunting up Clare Mackintosh’s first novel, I let you go, while I wait for her next book to be published.

Posted August 17, 2017

Nick Hornby: High fidelity

As breakups go, the breakup with Laura didn’t even make Rob’s Top Five Worst list. (Yes, he has a Top Five Worst Breakups list. He makes lists like that for practically everything.) But somehow, in spite of all his experience with breakups (one every two years, more or less), and even in spite of the distractions of running his own record store and meeting a rather nice musician, he can’t quite seem to get over her and get on with things. Instead, he finds himself contemplating a lot of things about his life that he’d never really considered before.

I’ve been meaning to read High fidelity for years now, and finally getting down to it was an odd experience. It wasn’t what I expected – it was more personal, written as it is in Rob’s voice, and much more about life than about music. It took me a little while to get into it, and some of Rob’s behavior made me cringe a bit on his behalf… but once I got into it, it was an excellent read, a window into the mind and heart of a man who is suddenly wondering if the life he’s made for himself is really the life he wants, and if not, what is he going to do about it? It’s a good read, and I’m looking at other Nick Hornby titles with renewed interest.

Posted July 24, 2017

Camilla Lackberg: The Ice Princess

Erica Falck wasn’t back in her hometown to rekindle childhood friendships, but that didn’t mean she was prepared to find one of those friends dead in a bathtub of frozen water. There was something about the way Alex died that intrigued the writer in Erica, and as she began to examine the trajectory of Alex’s life and death, she (and the police, in the guise of Detective Patrick Hedstrom, also a childhood connection) began to suspect that there was something dark and deeply sinister going on, something that wouldn’t be limited to a single death.

The Ice Princess is the first in the Falck/Hedstrom series, and it’s a great start. Regrettably, I figured out a few things far too early, but I got them right for the wrong reasons, so if you read more carefully than I did, you should be pleasantly baffled by most of it. The characters are well-developed and run the gamut from charming to repulsive (sometimes in the same person). This is true Scandinavian Noir (translated from the Swedish), dark and gritty and full of the cold bleakness of a Scandinavian winter. Definitely recommended.

Posted June 16, 2017

Sherri Smith: Follow Me Down

Mia Haas has left her old hometown far behind and has moved on. Now she has no choice but to return when she learns that her twin brother, Lucas, has been accused of murdering one of his high-school students, and has now disappeared. Mia is ostensibly there to answer questions about her brother to assist the local police in their investigation, but she doesn’t trust them, and is determined to find out what happened to her brother herself.

Follow Me Down is an impressive first novel: the pacing is tight, and you find yourself at various turns convinced of Lucas’ innocence, convinced of his guilt, believing he is alive, certain he is dead, and doubting everything you believed about the entire story, start to finish. Mia is a believable narrator – blinded to some things by her past, using some highly questionable coping mechanisms, and still managing to keep digging until she unearths the truth – and there are a lot of truths that have been hidden away for a long time. In this first novel, Sherri Smith has shown she deserves a spot in the big leagues… and as an added bonus, she’s a Winnipeg author.

Posted May 27, 2017

Jeffery Deaver: XO

Kayleigh Towne is riding high in her career as a country singer, but her fame has attracted some highly unwelcome attention. Ordinary fan letters and hate mail she can deal with, but this fan believes her form-letter replies to his emails are both coded messages of undying love and desperate pleas for rescue from her entourage. Edwin’s attentions are unnerving her, and when the head of her road crew is murdered, Kayleigh’s friend Katherine Dance, a CBI agent, offers to help. It quickly becomes clear that whoever or whatever has Kayleigh in his/her sights is very clever, and the easy solutions will be less than useless. As always, Deaver crafts a twisty plot, and just when you think everything’s been neatly wrapped up, you realize that there are too many pages left in the book, and that your understanding of what’s been going on is about to take a swift and unexpected turn.

This sounds a little hipster-ish, but I’m a little smug that I first came across Jeffery Deaver before he was popular and every book was a bestseller. I started with The bone collector (before it was made into a movie), read every book he’s published since, and have gone back to track down most of his earlier ones. The man is a master plotter, highly skilled at anticipating what readers will think, and then confounding their expectations. His characters, especially the villains, can also turn psychopathically violent, so be warned: no one is ever safe, and no one can be trusted. Even with all that to live up to, XO is one of Deaver’s better books, and comes with my high recommendations.

Posted May 18, 2017

Claudia Rowe: The Spider and the Fly

When Kendall Francois confessed to the murder of eight women in Poughkeepsie in the 90s, reporter Claudia Rowe thought she had found the story she was looking for. Kendall wasn’t talking, but she thought she could befriend him, and over time, draw out the story of what had led him to become a murderer. But Kendall wasn’t looking for a chance to tell his story. He said he wanted a friend, a real friend and not just a reporter, and challenged Claudia to reveal her life to him before he would follow suit. She thought she could game Kendall’s rules and still get her story. She was wrong.

The Spider and the Fly is unusual in that it’s sort of true crime, sort of memoir – we meet Kendall (the author always thought of him as Kendall from the beginning) in the same way Claudia does, through the correspondence between them, interspersed with the biographical facts she uncovers along the way. As we go, we also meet Claudia, as she debates and decides how to answer Kendall’s letters and demands, whether or not to disclose aspects of her life… and she also shows us how the ongoing interaction affects her life. It’s an oddly compelling read – in some ways more like a memoir of addiction than the true-crime narrative – and the ending is not what one expects. Definitely worth reading if you enjoy psychology or true crime.

Posted May 15, 2017

Agatha Christie: Murder at Hazelmoor

It was just another one of the Willets’ odd get-togethers that afternoon. It was to be expected – the Willets were just renting Captain Trevelyan’s house for the winter, and they didn’t know how things were done in the village, but there you go – it was a distraction. And as the afternoon waned, why not have a go at a séance? It’s not like that sort of thing is real or anything. But the table spelled out that Captain Trevelyan was murdered, and his friend Major Burnaby was concerned enough to walk the six miles through a snowstorm to Trevelyan’s current abode to check on him. And Trevelyan was, in fact, dead…

Murder at Hazelmoor (originally published under the title the Sittaford mystery) is a classic Agatha Christie puzzle. It’s neither a Poirot or a Miss Marple. Instead, the investigation is officially done by Inspector Narracot, and unofficially by Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of the primary suspect. I rather enjoyed Emily as a character – she’s forthright and take-charge, but in a subtle way that lets her appear like a proper and demure young woman of her society. One thing I appreciate about Agatha Christie in general is that she has a good percentage of strong female characters, good and bad. This is a nicely plotted mystery that sends you off in a few different directions before finally revealing a rather unexpected killer.

Posted May 5, 2017

Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, Diane Hunt, Denise Hunter: Secretly Smitten

Secretly Smitten is a quartet of novellas that take place in a small and picturesque town in Colorado named Smitten. When the sawmill closed, the town looked like it would close down too, until an enterprising group of people decided to capitalize on the name and rebrand themselves as a romantic getaway destination. In this second book about the town, four women grapple with starting and maintaining businesses, uncovering the mystery of an unusual find in their mother & grandmother’s attic, and finding love. The four novellas are from the viewpoints of these four different characters, and each tells that woman’s story, as well as furthering both the resolution of the mystery and Smitten’s progress in becoming the destination they want it to be.

I enjoyed these stories. Since they’re shorter than a standard romance, the course of true love has to be slightly less complicated than it is in a full-length novel, which I liked. The characters were relatable, and the four authors maintained the feel of the book and the story threads that run through the book, which is not an easy feat. Secretly Smitten is a fun light read with a lovely series of happy endings, and would be wonderful to read on a lazy afternoon.

 

Posted April 25, 2017

Robin Benway: AKA

Growing up in a family of spies is pretty cool, especially if you’ve been cracking locks since you could walk. Now that she’s sixteen, Maggie is more than ready to take on a solo assignment, instead of assisting on one of her parents’ missions. But that means going to… ugh… high school, wearing a uniform, and discovering that it’s hard to have a real friendship when you’re only being as honest as you can.

AKA is an entertaining story. I found myself cheering for Maggie, hoping she’d be able to find a way to reconcile her background and her assignment with the loyalty and honesty friendship and relationships demand. Confession: I’m not always fond of young adult titles, because it seems that some main characters are either angsting about their lack of competence in some area or other, or are overconfident and launch themselves on some obviously dangerous tracks. Here, Maggie is competent but realistic about her abilities, and as a result, the story flowed well and I enjoyed reading it. I discovered later that there are at least two more books in the series, and I am giving serious thought to tracking those down.

 

Posted March 29, 2017

Teresa Toten: Beware that girl

“Survival of the fittest, baby” isn’t the motto you’d expect from a student at the elite Waverly Academy in NYC. But it’s Kate O’Brian’s mantra; she’s a have-not scholarship student who wants – no, needs – to get into Yale and get herself a bigger and better life. And for that to happen, she needs to find just the right friend. Olivia Sumner is the perfect candidate – rich, beautiful, and high on the social ladder… but at the same time, deeply damaged. Kate’s plan is going beautifully until the very handsome and brilliant Mark Redkin joins the Waverly faculty, and takes a little too much interest in both Kate and Olivia, and in the secrets they hide.

Beware that girl is a thrill ride, no question. The characters, Kate in particular, are vividly drawn, and it’s almost disturbing how easy it is to understand and even condone Kate’s actions in carrying out her less-than-ethical plans. I had been told that I wouldn’t see the ending coming, so as an experiment, I stopped twenty pages from the end and tried to predict the final twist at the end. I came up with several possibilities. They were all wrong, and inferior to the actual ending. It’s an intense read, especially towards the end; it will keep you up late, so be warned. Definitely recommended.

 

Posted March 16, 2017

Gail Carriger: Etiquette and Espionage

In a world where girls of a certain class are expected to be ladylike and butlers and maids are steam-powered mechanicals, Sophronia fits like a round bolt in a square hole. She has much more interest in understanding how the dumbwaiter works than in acting like a lady, so her mother is greatly relieved when Sophronia is invited to attend Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Sophronia is less thrilled with the idea, until she discovers that the school is on an airship that floats over the moor, and that the ladylike arts are screens for intelligence gathering and occasionally finishing people in a rather more… permanent way.

Etiquette and Espionage is a steampunk boarding-school romp, with all the weird and wonderful instructors, scooting out after hours, and roommate confidence and conflict you could want. Add in the mystery of a missing prototype Sophronia is determined to find, and Etiquette is a fast light read; aimed for young adults, but equally fun for me (several years past that stage, in case it needs to be said). There are a few more in the series, and they promise to be equally good. Recommended.

 

Posted March 1, 2017

Ann Cleeves: White Nights

A man bursts into tears at the opening of an art exhibition. He’s a stranger, and he says he remembers nothing before the moment when he first saw the painting. The next morning, he is found dead in a beachside storage hut. It’s suicide, of course, it must be – but Detective Jimmy Perez finds certain aspects of the death suspicious. He begins digging into the lives and relationships of the community, searching for a connection or an explanation. What he finds is more death, and in the midst of death, a possibility of new life for himself. He also finds that seemingly no one is unaffected by the long hours of daytime and the short periods of darkness that make for the white nights of Shetland’s summers.

I find Ann Cleeves fascinating for a number of reasons. She writes strong characters, particularly the recurring Jimmy Perez and his fellow investigators, and there’s always some growth or development in their characters or ongoing storylines. Her plots are intricate and far from predictable. One of her greatest strengths, though, is her evocation of place – I feel I could recognize some of the landscapes, and sense the hint of madness that comes on during the unrelenting light of long days. Excellent reading.

 

Posted February 23, 2017

Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy

What do you do if you suffer from depression and anxiety? If you’re Jenny Lawson, you vow to be furiously happy, to grab any opportunity to do fun and interesting things with both hands and wring every bit of happiness out of it – you don’t know when the depression and anxiety will drop down on you again. Jenny’s essays show she has a knack for brilliant humor writing and finding joy in the absurd, be it raccoon/cat rodeos, taxidermy, or arguments with her husband (numbered for your convenience). In between, she writes honestly about some of her struggles and vulnerability – and she can make that funny, too.

Jenny Lawson is also known as The Bloggess, and I find her writing is truly laugh-out-loud funny, which is rarer than you might think. She’s equally gifted in writing about her mental health issues, and making them relatable. In the end, I don’t have anything else I can say about Lawson or Furiously Happy than: Read it. You’ll be happy you did.

 

Posted February 15, 2017

Sophie Hannah: Closed Casket

Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpole of Scotland Yard have been invited to a country weekend at the home of Lady Athelinda Playford. They, along with Lady Playford’s two children and their partners, and Lady Playford’s solicitors (oh, and the help – in a British cozy mystery, you can’t overlook the help!)  make up the house party that is the setting for the announcement of a change to Lady Playford’s will, one that will disinherit her children in favor of a dying invalid. In spite of Poirot’s best efforts, murder is committed that night, and in the face of a close-minded police investigation, it is up to Poirot to find the killer.

I admit to being disappointed in Closed Casket. It has all the trappings of an Agatha Christie mystery – the country-home setting, the houseful of characters, the steely-willed head of the family and the radical disinheritance… even Hercule Poirot. Yet, to me, this didn’t feel like a Christie – too complex a plot, too contemporary in its views on people and psychology. Poirot felt mostly authentic, but too much like a side character. That said, if you can approach the book as an entity in its own right, as a Sophie Hannah instead of an Agatha Christie, it is well-written and well-paced – really, a very good story. However, I’d much sooner read Hannah’s  Waterhouse and Zailer series  – those I can endorse without any reservations.

 

Posted February 9, 2017

James Rollins and Grant Blackwood: The Kill Switch

1900 C.E.: In a South African cave, Boer soldiers prepare to stand against the incursion of the British Army. They are not prepared, however, for the enemy that lurks within.

Present day: Tucker Wayne, former US Army Ranger, and his military dog Kane are summoned from the end of a protection detail to provide escort for a scientist fleeing Russia. It was supposed to be a simple mission, but it grows in size and scope, with the enemy preternaturally aware of every change in plan. Even if they make it out of Russia, they still need to get their recalcitrant charge to a site deep in Namibia, where the Boers met their fate underground.

If you’re looking for a high-octane thriller, look no further. The plot rockets from danger to ever-increasing danger, with a sizeable side order of treachery and betrayal. Tucker Wayne is a complex character, flawed and interesting, and his bond with Kane keeps him grounded in some way. Kane is almost unbelievably intelligent and definitely a force to be reckoned with.  This is the first Tucker Wayne novel, and a spinoff of Rollin’s Sigma Force series, both of which sound like promising leads for future reading, if they live up to the quality of The Kill Switch.

 

Posted January 26, 2017

Anne Emery: Lament for Bonnie

Bonnie MacDonald is the youngest member of the Celtic band Clan Donnie. She is twelve years old, and she stepdances and plays the fiddle for audiences province-wise. And now, after a house party, she is missing. No one believes she’s run away, and Bonnie’s uncle, Monty Collins, offers his legal expertise to the family, as well as a bit of unofficial investigating, as suspicion touches various family members. Monty’s daughter Normie also tries to make sense of her cousin’s disappearance, and the fears that grow the longer Bonnie is missing…

Lament for Bonnie is the ninth mystery in Anne Emery’s Collins/Burke series, and it’s intriguing. The writing is suspenseful, and Emery evokes the Nova Scotia setting beautifully. I was caught off-stride a bit by the multiple viewpoints, including but not limited to Monty, Normie, and RCMP investigating officer Pierre McGuire. It’s not easy for me as a reader to switch viewpoints between an eight-year-old and her father, although it became easier as I got to know the characters. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, as well as a complicated plot with a number of side trails and dead ends, and Emery handled them neatly. I’m looking forward to hunting up the earlier titles in the series.

 

 

Posted January 15, 2017

David Morrell: Murder as a fine art

Forty-three years ago, in in 1811, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders terrified all of London. Now, in 1854, a similar murder scene sets off even greater fear, as it appears history is repeating itself. Caught in the middle of all this are Thomas de Quincey, author of the infamous Confessions of an Opium-Eater, and his daughter Emily, although their connection seems inexplicable. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker make use of the best methods of the day, as well as de Quincey’s brilliant mind, to try to solve the mystery and keep London from exploding – metaphorically or possibly literally.

Murder as a Fine Art is not your typical historical mystery. David Morrell has done a lot of research into De Quincey, as well as life in the London of 1854, to create a vivid and detailed setting for a twisty story. Morrell’s writing is elegant and his characters intriguing, and I finished the book in a single sitting. Occasionally there are passages where Morrell spoon-feeds us background information, but most of the time the illusion of living in 1854 is seamless. I’m further intrigued to discover that Morrell’s debut novel (Murder as a Fine Art is number twenty-nine) was First Blood – yes, the novel that introduced the world to Rambo. Having read Fine Art, I’m now beginning to think that First Blood  (and quite possibly the other twenty-seven) would be worth a read as well.

 

 

Posted January 8, 2017

P.D. Martin: The Murderers’ Club

A vacation in Arizona with a detective friend sounds like the perfect thing for Sophie Anderson – time away from her profiling work with the FBI and a chance to recover from a brutal case six months ago. But almost as soon as she arrives, a body is found, and everything about the case screams serial killer.  There are several distinctive features about the case that line up with previous cases already in VICAP, but each one points to a different MO and a different killer. Sophie ends up in the middle of the case even as she struggles with newly-reawakened psychic abilities that may help solve the case, or simply leave her emotionally scarred.

The murderers’ club was a nice crisp read that combined several interesting elements: not just Sophie’s visions, but the ongoing trend in reality shows, the anonymity of electronic communication, and he ability to find someone who shares your interests – any interests – online. The plotting and pacing was good, and I felt Martin treated Sophie’s grappling with whether or not to try to use her visions in a realistic way, without letting the story getting bogged down in angst. For my taste, the ending was a little too obvious about being the setup for a future book, but other than that, it was excellent, and I will gladly read more about Sophie Anderson.