Friday, December 13, 2019

Beating About the Bush by M.C. Beaton: Reading Room Review

Another great Agatha Raisin mystery from M.C. Beaton. Agatha is true to form in this 30th book in the series, being in the wrong place at the right time, beating the police to a solution, irritating both friends and others (but still managing to remain a friend), seeking love in all the wrong places, and comparing herself to others instead of realizing what an accomplished and attractive woman she is. Our Agatha is quite the force, and it's always an adventure seeing her push her way through obstacles that would hinder her in solving a murder. All the sidekicks we've come to love are there--Toni and Patrick at work, Mrs. Bloxby, Roy Silver, Bill Wong, and the on-again, off-again lover Charles Fraith. The ensemble is in perfect form for proving an accident is a murder and a donkey is innocent.

Agatha Raisin's detecting firm is hired by a battery-making factory to investigate possible industrial espionage. Indeed there are secrets running rampant at the company, but it has little to do with espionage. Agatha and Toni Gilmour are working the case, as all other personnel at the detecting agency are busy with other cases. They are immediately confronted with a strange atmosphere at the company, with odd employees and a shady HR director. When a death occurs on the grounds of the factory, a donkey named Wizz-Wazz is blamed, but Agatha becomes a champion for the donkey, as she is sure that the death was murder and not an accident. Agatha has fallen for some different sorts over the years, but her affection and support for Wizz-Wazz is a delightful dedication to behold, and it has connections to her childhood wish for a donkey. Just when readers think Agatha is becoming rather crotchety in her middle-age, she shows a soft side that endears her to us all over again. 

The ongoing search for a man who will fulfill her dreams and complete her life is still going strong in book 30. Agatha is an accomplished businesswoman and astute detective, but she is terrible at choosing men. She and Sir Charles Fraith have been involved on and off, and they seem to be great together at their best, but something always breaks them apart. And, now Charles is engaged, again. Agatha isn't too worried because Charles' engagements never seem to make it to the alter, but this fiancée might prove a bit more determined. Of course, Sir Charles' butler doesn't want him to get married to anyone, so he might find a way out for his long-time employer.

This series is a great mixture of murder mystery and Agatha's personal mishaps. Readers cheer for her to find her happy ending, but we also have to laugh at how she bungles it. M.C. Beaton has managed to keep readers entertained and thrilled through thirty books now. Beating About the Bush is as much fun as all the other Agatha adventures. I hope that there are many more to come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Brooklyn Legacies by Triss Stein: Reading Room Review

I’ve thought for quite some time that fiction authors make great tour guides. I’ve even suggested (okay, begged) an author or two to create an actual, physical tour of the places of which they write. Well, Triss Stein, with her Erica Donato series set in Brooklyn, is one of the best tour guides I read. She brings Brooklyn and its history alive to readers, while Erica, a present-day historian, works on solving historical and murder mysteries. Each book in the series deals with a different area and historical period of Brooklyn, so I keep adding to my knowledge of this fascinating place. In Book #5, Brooklyn Legacies, it’s Brooklyn Heights, New York’s first suburb and first historic district, that gets the attention and storyline, pitting beliefs and traditions and motivations against one another of people deeply entrenched in the community. This story once again has me googling Brooklyn history and looking up further information on Brooklyn Heights. Reading Triss Stein’s Brooklyn series is for sure taking a leap down the rabbit hole for me, but it’s a rabbit hole I delightfully pursue.

So, at this juncture in the series, Erica is now Dr. Donato, having completed her PhD in urban history studies, and she works at the Brooklyn Art Museum, which affords her a financial security she hasn’t had in ages. Her teenage daughter Chris is a responsible, independent young woman whom Erica has raised by herself. And, Erica’s relationship with Joe is progressing nicely. So, life is going well, and Erica is doing the work she spent so much time studying for. When she takes on a project to find out more about a missing Walt Whitman plaque, it takes her to Brooklyn Heights, a location where posh old generational homes are in danger from modern development. Although it is the plaque that first takes Erica to this grand old neighborhood, there is another interest prodding her research. A book editor has suggested that Erica write a book about Brooklyn, or a piece of Brooklyn, and Erica thinks that Brooklyn Heights would make a fascinating subject. 

Louisa Gibbs is a long-time resident and preservation activist in the Brooklyn Heights community, and her devotion to her aging family home, a Victorian brownstone, is often at odds with her Jehovah Witness (Watch Tower Society) neighbors. The Watch Tower Society made its headquarters in Brooklyn Heights starting in 1909, so it’s presence and influence was well-felt there, too, but the organization had recently started selling off its property to relocate to upper state New York. Erica meets Louisa as she is having a property line dispute with one of the powerful leaders of the Jehovah Witnesses who has offices in the building next door to Louisa’s house. Louisa’s age doesn’t prevent her from being a powerful force herself, and Erica realizes that getting to know Louisa and her family’s history in Brooklyn Heights, plus what Louisa knows about all the other history of it, would be a tremendous boon to Erica’s research and aid in settling on a focus in her writing. As Erica gets to know Louisa better, she feels protective towards this elderly woman who is a living part of history, although Louisa doesn’t feel the need for protection, wanting to fight her own battles. And, with the entrance of real estate developers wanting Louisa out, too, Louisa needs Erica’s research and help. It will be a heated contest in more ways than one.  

The secrecy of the Jehovah Witnesses is indicative of the secretiveness of most of the characters in this Brooklyn Heights tale. People know more than they are telling, and the information being withheld can be crucial to solving a murder of a Jehovah witness leader. As is so often the case, the past connects to the present and the reasons for the murder. Even the people seem to appear from the shadows at times, as Erica explores the neighborhood and runs into characters who seem to offer a tidbit of information and then disappear. Witches and homeless and restoration experts and religious and pillars of the community and eager new business proprietors co-mingle in an atmosphere of addressing past grievances and moving forward. Can there be one without the other? The murder seems to suggest not. And, someone is writing letters to scare those involved, including Erica. Erica is trying to keep her “real” life going while delving into the mysteries of the past, but it’s taking a toll, and her focus is becoming myopic in scope. Brooklyn Heights is quite literally keeping her up nights, and her agreement to work with the police on gathering information helpful to their murder investigation isn’t making things any easier. It’s fortunate Erica is a historian because it’s going to take a lot of digging into the past to unmask a killer in the present. 

Mystery with history is my favorite mystery/crime reading, and Triss Stein’s Erica Donato series is one not to be missed by fans with this reading preference. Brooklyn Legacies carries on the astute research, fascinating characters, and superb writing that Stein has achieved in all the books in this series. I can’t wait to learn more about Brooklyn in the next book, which I hope is soon.  I have to give a shout-out to Poisoned Pen Press, too, as they publish this series and so many of my favorites. 

I was fortunate to receive an ARC of Brooklyn Legacies from the author. This review is based entirely on my honest reflections and opinions.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

No Man's Land by Sara Driscoll: Reading Room Review

No Man’s Land by Sara Driscoll is the 4th book in the F.B.I. K-9 series, and once again the subject matter covered is a step into unchartered territory for me. I love how this series expands my knowledge. In the first book, Lone Wolf, the theme addresses bombings, a homegrown terrorist, and how rescue with dogs works in a bombed building or site. In the second book, Before It’s Too Late, there was the cryptanalysis and Civil War sites. In the third book, Storm Rising, readers saw what went on during search and rescue efforts after a hurricane and the horrific issue of human trafficking. And, now, in book #4, readers learn about the world of exploring abandoned, dilapidated buildings to observe their rate of decay, an activity called urbexing. As with each of the books, there is a term defined at the beginning of each chapter helping to explain the subject matter, just a short sentence that aids in understanding the jargon used by those involved. At the heart of all these books is the theme of rescue, both physical and mental. The pairing of the main character Meg and her dog Hawk came about as a rescue of one another, she from a job where she had lost a beloved dog and Hawk from being homeless. Their rescue of one another makes for a firm bond that helps them succeed in the F.B.I.'s Human Scent Evidence Team and is a part of the appeal of this series.

No Man’s Land starts out with a day trip to an abandoned psychiatric hospital for Meg, her dog Hawk, Meg’s firefighter and paramedic boyfriend Todd Webb, and Todd’s firefighter friend and urbexer Chuck Smaill. It’s a chance for Hawk to get in some training and exercising, and it’s an interesting forage for the humans into some amazing old architecture and a world long forgotten. But, Hawk seems to be on alert from the beginning, indicating that perhaps other humans have tread the grounds and buildings recently. Meg finally realizes that Hawk might be onto something and takes him off leash to do his thing. The result is the discovery of a body, an elderly woman who has been dead for at least several days. Whether she was dead before ending up at this site or died on site is uncertain, but one thing is for certain and that is she couldn’t have gotten to the area she was found by herself. Foul play was at some point involved. A tragedy, but one for local authorities to deal with, until in talking about their day at the home of Meg and her sister Cara, Cara’s journalist boyfriend Clay McCord mentions a similar case six months earlier where an elderly person was found dead at an urbex site. Meg doesn’t like the coincidence and brings the matter up to her boss Craig at the F.B.I.’s Human Scent Evidence Team, who discovers more deaths of the elderly at abandoned urban sites. When another senior goes missing in the area, the team starts an active investigation into trying to find the victims before they die and trying to find a murderer who is preying on those too old and infirm to defend themselves. The rescue efforts take the team into places that are dangerously unstable structures, and the murderer seems to pick some of the most precarious perches in the buildings to leave the helpless, dying elders. It is as time sensitive as rescues can get, and Meg must deal with her aversion to heights in situations where the highest point is a favorite disposal location for the murderer being chased. With the crimes being particularly cruel in the fear factor to the elderly victims, first kidnapped and then left to die alone in a decaying and scary structure, the team and their outlying sources of Todd Webb, Clay McCord, and Chuck Smaill are on a 24-7 schedule to stop the madness. 

This F.B.I. K-9 series checks so many boxes for me. As a fan of the television show Criminal Minds (an F.B.I. team unit show), as a dog lover, as a puzzle enthusiast, I get lots of interests addressed. The dogs and their handlers are always racing against the clock, building suspense on every page. These stories are just plain exciting. It’s truly like Criminal Minds with dogs. This series, like all series, builds on each book, especially in the character and relationship areas, but what is rather unique about this series is that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this last book or any of them as a stand-alone read. Of course, I have wanted to and have read them all and consider each book an amazing story, but if someone were particularly interested in one of the subjects addressed, like urbexing in No Man’s Land, I would green light it as a single read. However, that brings us to the character development that Sara Driscoll (Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan) is so adept at.  Each book brings more insight into these strong, confident characters that work together so well on unmasking danger and murder. Meg and Hawk, while the stars of the show, benefit and need the help of her boyfriend Todd Webb, who is a D.C. firefighter and paramedic, her sister Cara, who is a dog trainer and yoga instructor, and Cara’s boyfriend Clay McCord, who is a journalist with connections and super human research skills. Then there are the rest of the dogs—Blink, Saki, Coy, and Lacey. All the dogs, those that are rescue and those not, will help readers see dogs as important anchors in life. The rescue dogs, Hawk and Lacey, are fascinating in their abilities as part of the F.B.I.’s Human Scent Evidence Team. And, the storylines and subject matter are endlessly captivating, a constant source of learning for me.

I highly recommend No Man’s Land and the entire F.B.I. K-9 series. It’s an adventure you don’t want to miss. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from the publisher, and the thoughts and opinions above are absolutely my own assessment.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen: Reading Room Review

When I first saw the title and cover of Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders several months before it was published, I was smitten with both. I was almost afraid to read it, unsure if Poppy could possibly be a character as great as her name or the story could possibly match that stunning cover. Well, she is, and it does. The history and the mystery are combined beautifully. The English village of Little Buffenden in 1942 is a charming setting, despite murder seeping into the dark of night. I’m a fan of stories that show the importance of women during WWII, and this book does that, showing the courage, commitment, and sacrifice required by the British women on the home front.

There has been an invasion in the village of Little Buffenden, but it’s a friendly one. American pilots and Airforce personnel have arrived to man the newly built air base adjacent to the village. There are mixed feelings towards the soldiers, a welcome for the much-needed help against the Germans they provide, but at the same time resentment that help is needed from them. Poppy Redfern and her grandparents have reason to resent the Americans, as it is the Redfern’s family home of Reaches and farmland that have been requisitioned and turned into the new airfield. But, they seem fine with their temporary lodging, as they are honor bound to do their duty and make the sacrifice in the war effort. Young and enthusiastic, Poppy has just returned from London and her training to be the air-raid warden for Little Buffenden, and she is eager to help keep her village safe. Making the rounds at night to ensure that all the villagers have properly secured their blackout curtains and that they understand the dangers of non-compliance, she is accompanied by her small dog Bess. But, when danger shows up, it’s not the Germans bombing them in the dark, it’s a murderer preying on the young women of Little Buffenden. 

Poppy has barely started her job as ARP Warden when Doreen Newcombe, a young woman whom Poppy had known since a child, is found strangled. Doreen had been dating an American serviceman, and the villagers immediately cast suspicion upon him as an outsider. When another young lady is found murdered, Poppy’s doubts about an American being responsible for the murders prods her into doing some of her own investigating. She’s encouraged and aided by handsome, charming American pilot Griff O’Neal, who is concerned about American servicemen being blamed and who also provides the romantic element of the book in connection to Poppy. The list of suspects in the murders are eliminated one by one as Poppy digs into alibis and motives, and the shorter the list, the closer Poppy is to becoming a victim herself. 

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders is the first in A Woman of World War II Mystery series by Tessa Arlen, and I’m happy to say that it was a smashing success for me. In the beginning of the book, Arlen acknowledges her father and grandfather for the many stories of WWII that they shared with her. It’s quite obvious by the details of the story, from the bombings in London to the daily rationing in Little Buffenden, that the author listened carefully to her primary human sources and then did continuing research to give the reader not only an accurate depiction of the time, but a sense of being there. Bringing history alive in a narrative takes a special skill, and Tessa Arlen has that skill, the ability to make it personal and approachable.  There is even an appendage at the conclusion of the story explaining certain unique aspects of Britain’s home front during WWII. 

The characters for this new series have had a great start in development in this first book, with the main characters, especially Poppy, gaining a firm foothold in WWII England and her part in serving her country. I especially like that Arlen sets up expanding possibilities for Poppy’s role in doing her duty, and her personal life is wide open, too. No closed boxes here, lots of room to grow. Poppy will endear herself to readers as a plucky, fearless, compassionate young woman who takes her responsibilities seriously and doesn’t stop until justice prevails. Readers will be eager to see where those responsibilities lead her. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Current by Tim Johnston: Reading Room Review

I'm so pleased that I used both audio and print to read The Currrent by Tim Johnston. I needed a book for several short road trips, and this book was a great audio choice, being a storyteller's story where pauses built suspense and prevented glancing ahead. But, I read the last half of the book in print, and this format allowed me to linger on the beauty of the language and reread parts I desired to do so with. The Current is simply a great story, a pulsing, living thing that does its title proud. The twists and turns mimic those of the river, too, and like the river, there is a history of beauty and heartache. Author Tim Johnston has an eye for detail and a talent for weaving those details into a tale of far-reaching effects. He has created a cast of compelling characters in this book, too, and readers will become emotionally invested in and touched by more than one of their struggles. 

Audrey Sutter and Caroline Price are traveling from a college in the South to Audrey's home in Minnesota, where Audrey's ailing father is running short on time, his lung cancer gaining on him daily. When the girls make a pit stop at an out-of-the-way gas station in the Iowa countryside, Audrey is attacked by one of two young men who mean her harm, and it is only by Caroline's quick thinking and mace spray that they get away. Driving fast to put distance between them, Caroline, who grew up in the South and isn't used to driving on icy northern roads, loses control of her car and the girls end up teetering on the edge of a bank over the Black Root River, frozen over on its top. As they teeter there, a vehicle's headlights come up behind them, but it's not there to help, as it taps their bumper and sends them plunging. One girl will live and one girl will die, and a ten-year-old case of another girl who lost her life under suspicious circumstances in the Black Root River in Audrey's hometown will be dredged up for further investigation. Two investigations, one river, and one town that has secrets waiting to surface. Who pushed Audrey and Caroline into the river? Who threw Holly Burke into the same wintery river ten years ago further along its path? If I said more, I would risk the chance that new readers wouldn't enjoy the discovery of those secrets and the characters who possess them for themselves. 

Told from a limited, multiple third-persons point of view, it was easy to become engaged in the characters' personal stories and heartaches. The sorrow of those affected by the ten-year-old death of Holly Burke and the new death is a palatable one. From law enforcement, including Audrey's retired sheriff father, to an old dog named Wyatt, grief and a weariness cloud the community. Futures once bright were forever darkened with the first river tragedy, and a desperation for answers and a demand for responsibility has reached its boiling point. And, yet, the characters don't strike one as defeated, just muted for a period, waiting for their world to be righted. Of course, muted may be an odd choice here, as one of Johnston's many writing strengths is dialogue. Never superfluous, but always on point, the dialogue is one of the currents that move the story. 

The book does begin rather slowly, with its build-up to the girls' car going into the frozen river, but hopefully readers will experience that measured part as I did and as Audrey and Caroline did, as the motion of falling, moving slowly toward their fate, but then with rapid chill, lives are changed from normal college girls in the world to the darkness and cold of a winter river. This excerpt brings you to the moment of the momentum change, although Johnston is not one to be hurried in the continued telling, and the reader will be happy for that. The following excerpt is an observance of the author's amazing command of language, as well as pace.
      “The nose of the car drops over the edge of the bank and the world pitches, and their own weight rolls forward through their bodies as at the top of a roller coaster just before the drop – the deep human fear of falling, the plunging heart, and there’s no stopping it and no getting out and nothing to do but hold on. And down they go, fast and easy in the snow, toboggan-smooth, hand in hand, their grips so tight, the grips of girls much younger, girls who will not be separated, their faces forward, watching the surface of the river, the black glistening ice as it rushes up toward them, larger and larger, until there’s nothing in the windshield but the ice, dark and wide as an ocean and they are going to it, they are going to strike it nose-first with the car and they can imagine that, the sudden ending of forward motion as the car meets the plane of the ice, but after that they cannot imagine, they have never been here before and there is no way to know what will happen next except to go through it…”

The Current is an exceptional novel, and Tim Johnston is an author I will be following from now on. His debut novel, Descent, an NPR Best Books of 2015 honoree, will be on my nightstand soon. Already on numerous "best" lists for 2019, including audio ones, The Current has landed on my Best Reads of 2019, too. I'm torn between advising readers to listen to the spellbinding audio read by Sarah Mollo-Christensen or pour over the print version to enjoy re-reading Johnston's smooth flowing prose. I feel that I had the best of both worlds by dividing it between audio and print. However readers choose to take in this amazing tale, it will be a memorable read that will make Tim Johnston one of your must-read authors.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson: Reading Room Review

Catriona McPherson is a born storyteller. She can no sooner stop from spellbinding readers with her writing than she can from entertaining them when she speaks. I've often wondered if she was born with a story flying out of her mouth instead of a cry. She creates the tales that grip a reader and haunt their dreams. Could a story be any better than that? Of course not. McPherson's latest thriller, Strangers at the Gate, is as chilling as the cold, wet weather that blows through the hollow of its Scottish setting. This is the magic of a Scottish author writing about the harsh, beautiful country that is itself a character of unsettling presence, a character to love, but to respect for its fierceness and its peril.

Finn and Paddy have come to the small village of Simmerton from the large, busy city of Edinburgh after accepting what appear to be perfect jobs, their dreams coming true before Finn ever imagined they would. It's a big change, but when Paddy had told her of the offer for him to become partner in a law firm, a partner before he was 40, and shortly after that, she was offered a full-time position as deacon the local Church of Scotland there, Finn knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The proverbial ship had come in, and moving to Simmerton was the only logical decision, especially with the offer of the rent-free gate house on Paddy's boss' estate for them to live in. It was a falling into place like few others. The name of the estate, Widdershins, did give Finn pause to wonder, as it was an unlucky name, and the closeness of the mountains and trees crowding into the valley and blocking out the sun produced a rather an ominous feeling, but the opportunities overshadowed the, well, shadows.

Within days of moving into the gate house, Finn and Paddy are invited to dinner by Lovatt Dudgeon, Paddy's boss, and Lovatt's wife Tuft at their house up the drive. The Dudgeons live in the dowager house, as the main estate house was consumed by fire many years prior. After a rather harrowing walk for Finn down the drive, with strange noises that Paddy convinces her are innocuous country reverberations, Finn is delighted that Tuft is such a breath of fresh air. Tuft makes Finn feel like Simmerton is going to indeed be a "golden" place. But, Finn's optimism is short-lived when she discovers she has forgotten her hand bag while walking back home, and she and Paddy return to the Dudgeon's house to retrieve it. Arriving back at the Dudgeon's, Finn and Paddy find the door open, so they go into the house to check things out, and what they find is a brutal murder. No one has seen them come in, so instead of calling the police, Paddy convinces Finn to return to their gate house, where he will explain why they can't call the police, something from his past that he doesn’t want scrutinized. So, they sit on their gruesome discovery and wait for someone else to come forward. Going about their days, trying to act normal, is a tall order for Paddy and Finn, as they wait for murder to be announced Meeting their nearby neighbors brings only more strangeness into their lives, and everyone seems to have a personal agenda and secrets that compound the suspense. I was wrong more than once in thinking I'd figured out what was and had happened, and I couldn't be more pleased to have been kept guessing.

Strangers at the Gate has quickly become one of my favorite suspense thrillers. No one does atmosphere better than Catriona McPherson. As Finn describes the saturation of her very being with the rain, I felt that same saturation in the atmosphere of the story. Characters are always a strong point of this author, too, and Finn is a deacon only Catriona McPherson could create. While she is not your mother's deacon, Finn is, with her full-spirited, smart, witty, and resourceful personality, still a disciple of the church and what is right and good. In the end, she must call upon all her strengths to survive both the ghosts from the past and the evil in the present. The plot of this tale is complex, delightfully twisty, but never unfairly.

Strangers at the Gate is my #1 recommendation for a Halloween mystery/thriller read, but it is a great read at any time. It is one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to reread it next Halloween. Truth be told, I've already reread the first thirty pages of it, and I can tell you that in rereading it, the cleverness of Catriona McPherson's writing will pop out at you all over again in those carefully chosen words, which we call clues.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced reader's copy from the author, and I am giving my honest, gobsmacked reaction and review to this book.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Strangers in the Attic: A Halloween Tale by Catriona McPherson

Halloween is my favorite time of year.  The leaves have all changed colors, there's a crispness to the air, the Halloween candy over-floweth, pumpkins and goblins and ghosts and witches and bats are everywhere, and scary stories are read with a special apprehension.  I have old favorite stories, like "The Legend of Sleep Hollow" by Washington Irving and Halloween Party by Agatha Christie , and I have new ones that are absolutely, wonderfully chilling.  My favorite new scary read this year is Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson.  I'll be posting a review for it the first of next week, but let me just say now that it might be my favorite book by this brilliant author, and that's saying a lot because I love everything I've read by her.  I highly recommend Strangers at the Gate for your Halloween read this year.   It will be this coming Tuesday, Oct. 22nd, so there's plenty of time to pre-order it still and read it by the fire with the lights turned low.  

And, now for a special treat, before Strangers at the Gate comes out, Catriona has written an account of her own spooky encounter in "Strangers in the Attic."

Strangers in the Attic by Catriona McPherson

It’s lovely to be back in the Reading Room. Thank you for having me, Kathy. And thank you for asking me to write a spooky blog for this spooky month.

Strangers at the Gate has some shivers and jumps in it – or so people are saying (thank you!) – and I certainly made myself freak out now and then as I wrote it, all alone in an isolated house up a dirt road, with just a black cat for (slightly ironic) comfort.

But it was nothing compared with the worst “all alone in an isolated house with only a cat” freak out. Gather round, closer to the firelight, and I’ll tell you . . .

In Scotland, we lived in  creaky old farmhouse in a valley, with no other houses in sight. There were no lights at all visible from our windows after dark, just trees and black sky. And my husband travelled a lot, so I was alone there much of the time. I read Stephen King there, slept with the windows wide open, never worried about anything much. Until the night I decided it would be a good idea to watch Panic Room.

                                                    the old farmhouse

Now Panic Room, for those who don’t know, is a film about a woman all alone in a big house in the dark. Well, she wasn’t really alone: she had her daughter. And actually I wasn’t really alone: I had two cats.  It was them that started the trouble.

There I was watching Jodie Foster slowly realize that there were intruders in her house, when all of a sudden both cats sat bolt upright, ears back, and stared at the living room door. Then they slunk down off the couch and went creeping along the corridor, bellies close to the floor.

I followed them. When I got to the kitchen they were peering round the door that led through a back hallway to the old dairy – a place of peeling paint, crumbling plaster and cobwebs. Together the three of us made our way there and looked around. Or should I say, around and up? Up the ladder that led, via a trap door, to the cheese loft. 

“Huh,” I said. “That’s weird. Why’s the trap door open, Pop-?” I glanced down to the floor. “Poppy? Spud?” But the cats had fled.

(not actual attic)

Now then. I could have got my car keys and driven forty miles to check into a hotel. I could even have walked straight out the back door and gone along the road to the nearest neighbors. I could have phoned my husband, or a friend, or the cops. But all of these plans included me having to say “Funny coincidence. Hahaha. I happened to be watching Panic Room when I realized there were intruders in my house too!” And then I’d feel like a chump and never hear the end of it.

What would you have done? Left the house? Gone up the ladder? Finished watching the film? Or would you have done what I did, which was as follows: switch the telly off, get the two fire pokers from beside the living room fireplace, go to bed and try to stay awake, planning – when “he” came down the ladder and crept through the house to find me – to throw a poker at him across the bedroom. Then, I thought to myself, he’d think I was defenseless, on account of how in most households pokers come in units of one, like kettles. So he’d advance, cackling maniacally with his eyes glowing red, and I’d bring the other poker out from under the covers and clobber him to mush with it.

Perfect plan. 
 Scottish Weapons

I didn’t have to put it into action because, surprisingly, he left in the night without bothering to come and find me. Or it was a pigeon. I still don’t know why the trapdoor was open, mind you. And a couple of weeks later, when I was all alone in the house again, and I paused The Sixth Sense to make a cup of tea, and had to go down to the old dairy to the fridge to get some milk, I didn’t look up. Would you?


                                       Halloween is sunnier at the new house. 

Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which STRANGERS AT THE GATE is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.

Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie: Reading Room Review

There’s a question that surfaces every so often for readers. What books would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island. As with most questions concerning favorite books, I fudge a little and give myself some license to expand the question. So, I choose the entire Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid mystery/crime series by author Deborah Crombie. Granted, there are a few other series that would be sitting with my supply of coconuts, but Gemma and Duncan will always be there. Every book in this series has been an immersive experience in exceptional characters, old and new, engrossing setting, and gripping story. Under the direction of Deborah Crombie’s masterful pen, the words flow into phrases, the phrases into sentences, and the sentences into pages of unforgettable journey with two of the best characters in crime fiction. There is life in these stories that sweeps the reader into complete engagement. And, the latest entry in this series, A Bitter Feast (#18), is one of the best books of one of the best series. Yet, having said that last statement, if I were to go back and read an earlier installment in the series, it’s probable that I would also deem it one of the best. How great is that? Always knowing that you will love a book and it will be a best read.

Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James and their three children have been invited to the Cotswold estate of Melody Talbot’s parents. Melody is Gemma’s proved detective sergeant and has always been rather reticent to discuss her wealthy background, Melody’s father being the publisher of a major London newspaper, and her mother being the money behind the paper. So, the invitation to spend a weekend at Beck House in one of England’s most beautiful locations, the Costwolds, is a lovely getaway for Duncan and Gemma, and it’s a step forward for Melody in dealing with blending her two lives. Doug Cullen, Duncan’s right hand man, is also in the guest party. They all arrive in different ways and at different times, and Duncan’s arrival turns out to be quite the perilous one that leads to a busman’s holiday for Duncan and Gemma. 

Melody’s mother, Lady Adelaide, is hosting a charity luncheon for the community, catered by the local chef, Viv Holland, who is also the proprietor of the Lamb Pub. Chef Viv has gained a loyal local following after returning from some years in London to her home area and making a concerted effort to use local produce and goods in her dishes. The luncheon could bring national attention to Viv’s culinary skills, something she finally feels ready for. Author Deborah Crombie has created some of the most memorable new characters, those outside of the constant family of characters, in the different books, keeping the series fresh while satisfying readers’ need for the familiar, too. Viv Holland is the latest in those memorable new characters, and A Bitter Feast is very much Viv’s story, as her life past and present connects directly to the plot’s unfolding and resolution. 

The problems, as must always arise, start with Duncan’s perilous journey to Beck House when he is involved in an auto crash with two fatalities, one of whom has a history with Chef Viv. Duncan is quite shaken in the crash, but he still gets involved in the investigation into it, as does Gemma. An investigation into the accident becomes necessary mostly due to the discovery that one of the two fatalities, from the same car, was dead before the accident occurred. That particular fatality has ties to Viv when she lived in London and involves information she would rather see stay in the past. But secrets from the past are a hard ghost to keep buried, and when the danger to others intensifies, Viv worries she hasn’t outrun her past. 

Told from multiple points of view, it is captivating to see how cleverly all the information comes together to answer all the questions and solve all the mysteries. As I noted earlier, this story belongs to Viv, and it is with Crombie’s smooth transitions readers will travel back with Viv to her London days and what brought her back to the village of Lower Slaughters in Gloucestershire. The inner workings of a high-end restaurant and the food descriptions in the book are fascinating. The artistry and passion of a chef’s work is evident, and the drive to achieve a Michelin star is an intense struggle. Insight into Gemma’s and Duncan’s and the police’s investigation, their process, of the crimes allows the reader to feel the suspense of getting closer to the killer. The staff of Viv’s pub and Viv’s daughter provide additional information that connects to those murdered and the murderer. 

Another multiplicity that the author deftly handles is that of a number of intriguing characters. Under Deborah Crombie’s direction, there is never any confusion nor difficulty in remembering the characters, as they are blended beautifully into the thrilling plot. We have Duncan and Gemma and their children—Kit, Toby, and Charlotte—and, readers will enjoy an expanded part for Kit in this story. The characters from Viv’s pub, which she co-owns with Bea Abbott, and Viv’s daughter all play important parts. Then there are Melody’s parents and Melody, their staff, and the village residents helping to move the plot forward, with Melody’s father making introductions between Duncan and the local police. It’s another first-rate cast that performs brilliantly. And, of course, nobody does setting any better than Deborah Crombie. Her books set in the different parts of London make the reader see, feel, and taste the place. She does no less for the Costwolds, bringing the beauty of this tranquil setting right into your heart. 

The many fans of this series will heartily attest to the pleasure of reading from book one to this book, #18, and getting to know Gemma and Duncan and the other familiar characters. But, here is the hidden gem to A Bitter Feast. It could be read as a stand-alone story. Again, there’s nothing quite like reading the development of characters from one book to the next, but a reader who hasn’t read the previous 17 novels could read this current book with immense satisfaction. However readers come to A Bitter Feast, long-time fans or new readers, the result is an outstanding read. For me, A Bitter Feast was a delectable feast indeed.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of A Bitter Feast from the author.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Body in Griffith Park by Jennifer Kincheloe: Reading Room Review

Reading a book in the Anna Blanc series by Jennifer Kincheloe is jumping into an exciting adventure with a lively, enthusiastic main character. It is rather like having a conversation with the author, because she, too, is an person full of enthusiasm, and it spills over to her creation of Anna. The phrase "never a dull moment" was invented for this series, and with the third installment of The Body in Griffith Park, Jennifer Kincheloe has established that the Anna Blanc series is one of the best new mystery/crime series readers will enjoy. I'm especially fond of the historical connections in the series, with the setting in the first years of the 20th Century, and Anna being a police matron in the Los Angles Police Department, where women are extremely limited to their involvement in actual crimes and investigations. Well, that is unless you're Anna Blanc whose fiancé Joe Singer is a detective in the department, a source for Anna intruding in places she doesn't belong, according to the LAPD and society. Her passion for crime solving is one not easily deterred. And, with the character modeled after a real female pioneer in the LAPD and the author meticulously researching the time period and activity of crime then, the authenticity of the series is a given. Of course, it is Kincheloe's outstanding storytelling skills that makes the stories irresistible. 

1908 in Los Angles sees our disowned heiress and now hard-working police matron Anna Blanc madly in love with Detective Joe Singer but resisting his proposals that they should marry as soon as possible. Anna likes her freedom, and she doesn't quite trust any man to not want to limit it. She's also wondering who keeps sending her flowers that, having familiarized herself with the "language of flowers", she interprets as friendly but not too friendly. She knows it's not Joe because he would never do anything to bring attention to their relationship at the police station, where fraternizing with one another could get one or both of them fired. Another reason he's pushing for marriage.

The action of the story has three events that will expand and come together happening very quickly into the story line. Anna and Joe try go to a romantic, hidden spot in Griffith Park to finally express their passion for one another, but instead they find a dead body. As thrilled as Anna is to be on the scene of a crime in its initial stages, she does feel cheated that she and Joe once again must settle for a lingering kiss before she has to leave. So, the murder of a young man has occurred and will be pivotal to the plot. Next, Anna meets the man who has been sending her flowers, with Joe bopping the man in the nose after following her to the meeting. It's then that Ann learns the man's identity as her half-brother Georges Devereaux, and she discovers that her father had kept a French lover for years while married to Anna's mother. The third bit of action that comes into play is the arrival of a young girl named Matilda Nilsson, who reports that she has been dishonored by a man while living at the Jonquil Apartments run by a Mrs. Rosenberg. 

Coming to terms with having a brother, a brother who is rich from Anna's father, unofficially investigating a murder, and trying to save young girls from being "spoiled" at the mercy of needing a place to live will be a full plate for Anna Blanc. There are no simple explanations or answers to any of it, and when Anna and Joe have different theories on the person responsible for the tangled web of lies, deceit, and murder, that difference will threaten to end their love affair before the affair part can even get going. There are so many dramatic and often comical situations in which Anna and Joe find themselves, usually at the instigation of Anna, that readers will fly through the pages in pursuit with them. The historical details of the story are fascinating, and the crimes themselves are taken from actual cases. I'm betting that readers will be surprised by certain details, such as someone having their own rail car to attach to a train when they travel. 

The characters are absolutely ones that the reader will want to know more about, and the author obliges the reader in this. Anna's family tree is certainly filled out in this story, and her father shows up in the story, too. He's still an unforgiving twit, but Anna no longer kowtows to his wishes or his shaming of her. Anna's brother, Georges, and her true love, Joe, will butt heads, but Kincheloe shows us the different kinds of love that a person needs in life through this. The police station crew and the girls and women coming through the station are all of great interest, too, and Kincheloe is a master at showing the glimpses that tell the most about these characters. Of course, it all comes back to Anna and the breath of fresh air this character is in crime fiction. Her love of hats and crime and Joe and protecting those who need it make her a formidable force, and her feisty, fearless nature makes every adventure with her thrilling.

The Body in Griffith Park is the continuation of a story of which I just can't get enough. I think readers will love it for so many reasons, and I am looking forward to #4 in the series with great anticipation of reading pleasure.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason: Reading Room Review

Originality is something that readers crave but don't often get. That doesn't mean that great reads don't exist without being considered original.  But, when I refer to originality, it is a reference to something unique, a story based on an idea other writers wish they'd thought of, a smack your head moment of creative recognition. Jamie Mason in The Hidden Things has achieved the pinnacle of uniqueness, starting with a brilliant idea and developing it into a story full of unexpected twists and consequences. The characters are some of the most interesting and distinctive you're likely to encounter, and they will all surprise you in some way. No one will surprise you more than fourteen-year-old Carly Liddell, smart and capable beyond her years. At the center of the tale is a painting, a 400-year-old painting, that has had an unusual journey since its theft as a part of the art heist of  paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. All the stolen paintings disappeared, and the fear is they will never resurface. But, in an extraordinary set of circumstances in a most ordinary setting, the most popular of online activity reveals one of the treasures. Social media meets ancient art in an explosion of secrets unearthed.

Carly Liddell doesn't notice the boy following her until she's on her doorstep ready to let herself in with her key. She attempts to slip inside her house and shut the door on him, but he pushes his way in, and a struggle ensues, one that doesn't go the way the intruder intends. An interior camera in Carly's hallway records an unbelievable maneuvering by Carly in which she frees herself from the boy and knocks him out with a boot kick to his jaw. However, by the time Carly runs to her neighbor's house and the police arrive, the intruder has fled the scene. The police use the video from the exterior and interior security cameras to post online and find their suspect. 

But, while celebrating Carly's narrow escape, she and her mother, Donna, realize that Carly's stepfather hadn't informed them of the interior camera in the foyer. The stepfather, John Cooper, has some explaining to do, and, yet, that's the least of his worries. The video of Carly's ninja capabilities has gone viral on YouTube, with people all over the country interested to see how this young teenager defeated her attacker. John's got a big problem with the popularity of the video because his painting that his wife had insisted on hanging in that hallway has a corner of it visible to viewers, and that painting is a 400-year-old stolen masterpiece worth millions. There are people who are looking for it and for John, and his new life and safety zone is in danger of becoming a minefield of danger if the wrong people see the video.

John has created his new identity carefully, and his wife and stepdaughter are clueless about the painting and his part in an art deal gone terribly wrong four years ago. People died because of the painting, and people have been waiting for some flicker of John, or Jonathan, to show. And, show it does through that small corner of a painting from a video inside an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood. First, John hears from a man whose homelessness has kept him drifting in and out of John's life for a handout, a man who knows way too much about John's previous life. Then, two other people, who have a vested interest in the painting and a sour taste from past dealings with John, show up in town. The man and woman both want the painting, and while their motivations are different, it's the personal stake that drives them. As John becomes more and more nervous about being discovered and held accountable for his past actions, Carly becomes more aware that her stepfather harbors some serious secrets. And, Carly also becomes cognizant of a strength inside her that started with an innate ability to save herself.  John and Carly engage in a cat-and-mouse game of high stakes and potentially deadly outcomes. Who ends up with the painting will bring both closure and new beginnings.

The Hidden Things is the first book I've read by Jamie Mason, but I already have a past book of hers in my TBR lineup, Three Graves Full, and I'm looking forward to her next one. Mason's writing is a smooth flow of building suspense, with sentence structure I appreciate as a former English teacher. Sentence structure can be an art form, a mixture of complex and simple sentences that move a story forward in its natural state. No awkwardness here. The dialogue does its job, too, revealing character and story. As I've already mentioned, this author's character development and creation of interesting characters is a large part of this reader's enjoyment of this book. I can't wait to read other books by Jamie Mason to see what captivating characters appear. I purposefully didn't describe all of the characters in this story because I wanted readers to come to three other of the major players in the story with the same delight and discovery as I did. As the story is told from the characters' different points of view, a complete picture is formed by the end, with each character building on knowledge as the reader does. With The Hidden Things, I think Mason has established herself as an awards contender and go-to author for thrilling reads.

I received a copy of this book from the author, and this review is an honest description and reaction to this amazing read. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena: Reading Room Review

Shari Lapena is one of those authors who is consistently adept at creating suspenseful, thrilling stories for readers. No writer is better at dealing with the secrets people keep from one another--from their husband, from their wives, from their children, from their parents, from their neighbors, from their co-workers. Secrets have a way of compounding into more secrets and lies, and Lapena may have just given us her most layered set of secrets yet in Someone We Know. And, if you love twists like I love twists in a story, you will be delighted that this book will make you hang on to your seat as you take one hairpin turn after another. The brutal murder of a young, attractive wife from an upstate New York, middle-class neighborhood presents a closed room like scenario, with one neighbor and then another becoming a suspect. With all those secrets behind closed doors, whose secret is the one that leads that person to commit murder.

Olivia Sharpe is worried that her sixteen-year-old son Raleigh is too unfocused in his life and getting lazy, but when she discovers that he's been busier than she thought, she yearns for the problem of laziness. After seeing some damning text messages on Raleigh's phone, Olivia listens to him confess to breaking into houses in the neighborhood and hacking into the residents' computers. Filled with guilt over what her son has done, but not wanting him to suffer legal repercussions, Olivia writes anonymous letters of apology to the two residents where Raleigh says he broke in. She drops them into the mail slots of the houses before without telling her husband Paul that she wrote them and delivered them. In one of the two houses, a woman named Carmine lives by herself, and Carmine is most upset and determined to let the entire neighborhood know that there is a housebreaker among them. Olivia fears that Raleigh will be found out with Carmine's gossip, but then another neighborhood matter eclipses Raleigh's misadventures. A young wife, whose husband had reported her missing, is found brutally murdered and stuffed into the trunk of her car in a lake.

Thus begins an intriguing parade of neighbors who fall into the suspect pool, beginning with the dead woman's husband, Robert Pierce. His wife Amanda and he didn't have the closest of relationships, and Amanda was not reticent about seeking comfort elsewhere. Although Robert reported her missing when she didn't return from her supposed weekend with an out-of-town girl friend, his lies and omissions will come back to haunt him. The police detectives, Webb and Moen, leave no stone unturned in their investigation to find who killed Amanda Pierce and sent her to a watery grave. But, even these skilled detectives will change their minds several times as to who the murderer is and why. Before the final reveal, suspicions about infidelity and murder will wreak havoc in more than one marriage. 

The story is told from multiple points of view, with the different neighbors adding their voices to the narrative, but it's not an omniscient telling. Lapena truncated the characters thoughts before anything revelatory could occur, until the very end when the secrets were all out and the characters' thoughts were completely accessible. The suspense builds with each character's newfound connection to the murder victim, but the reader is still guessing what those connections mean for the resolution of the story. I'd like to say that I figured it out before it became obvious, but although the killer's guilt did cross my mind at one point, and my reasoning was right about why, I had thoughts of others' guilt, too, leading me to different conclusions.  It's what makes reading a twisty book so much fun, the many possibilities. Shari Lapena is brilliant in writing domestic suspense or just suspense. Her pace is pitch perfect, and her characters are an excellent blend of likeable ones and repugnant ones. In Someone We Know, there are characters that could go either way, too, as they struggle with moral dilemmas of their own making. There are a good number of characters to keep up with in the book, but the continuity of interaction among them makes it easy to remember them and keep them straight. 

From chilling prologue to chilling reveal, Someone We Know is a book readers will not want to close until the last intriguing sentence, a mystery from beginning to end, and then some.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

New Reads for September

When I took a look at the new reads for September on my 2019 New Books list, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of books I had added, and I don't include all books, just the ones I will choose from for my reading.  I think I'm going to have to adjust my expectations for September, unless I learn to read faster.  However daunting the number of new books is, it's great news for readers, as there will be something for everyone.  I've included a couple of non-mystery/crime by favorite authors, too.  So here's a list, not a complete list, but one from which readers should be able to find plenty of great stories to welcome in the coming days of fall.

Sept. 3rd

The Long Call (Two Rivers #1) by Ann Cleeves
Iced in Paradise (Leilani Santiago Hawai'i Mystery #1) by Naomi Hirahara)
The Great Shelby Holmes and the Haunted Hound (Young Adult, Book #4) by Elizabeth Eulberg
This Tender Land: A Novel by William Kent Krueger
Word to the Wise (Library Lover's Mystery #  ) by Jenn McKinlay
The Institute by Stephen King

Sept. 10th

Fatal Cajun Festival (Cajun Country #5) by Ellen Byron
Judge Thee Not (Quaker Midwife #5) by Edith Maxwell
The House of Hallowed Ground (Misty Dawn #1) by Nancy Cole Silverman
The Testaments (sequel to The Handmaiden) by Margaret Atwood

Sept. 17th

On My Life by Angela Clarke
Gallows Court by Martin Edwards
The Stranger Inside: A Novel by Lisa Unger
A Cruel Deception (Bess Crawford #  ) by Charles Todd
Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay
Murder on the Chopping Block (Red Carpet #7) by Shawn Reilly Simmons
Heaven, My Home (A Highway 59 Mystery) by Attica Locke

Sept. 24th

Murder in the First Edition (Bookstore Mystery #3) by Lauren Elliott
The Dutch House: A Novel by Ann Patchett
The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural by Agatha Christie
The Skeleton Stuffs a Stocking (Family Skeleton #6) by Leigh Perry


Image result for the long call by ann cleeves  Image result for the great shelby holmes and the haunted hound  Image result for word to the wise jenn mckinlay

                                   Image result for fatal cajun festival

Image result for judge thee not by edith maxwell  Image result for the house of hallowed ground by nancy cole silverman  Image result for a cruel deception charles todd

                                   Image result for the stranger inside lisa unger

Image result for elevator pitch by linwood barclay  Image result for the dutch house by ann patchett  Image result for the last seance agatha christie

                                    Image result for the skeleton stuffs a stocking

Image result for iced in paradise  Image result for the testaments margaret atwood  Image result for on my life by angela clarke

                                   Image result for this tender land by william kent krueger

Image result for the institute stephen king  Image result for murder on the chopping block by shawn reilly simmons  Image result for heaven my home attica locke