Friday, December 21, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2018

I'm not going to apologize for my long list of favorites.  It could well have been longer, but at some point I grabbed control of myself.  It seems like every book I read touches me in some way, and it's a rare read indeed that I don't enjoy.  So, I could list all the books I've read this year and, with maybe one or two exceptions, talk about how each one had something in it that called to me.  With much restraint, I have instead listed the following books published in 2018 that thrilled my reading heart.  An additional few words of explanation.  If you click on the Reading Room Review link under the cover picture for each book, you can read my entire review for that book.  I have included two short reviews for the two last books.  The order of the books is mostly chronological, from January through December, but I may have missed a beat on that.  There are cover pictures for three books for which I'm currently writing reviews, but they aren't ready yet, and I want to publish my favorites today in case anyone is still looking for some great reads to buy for Christmas.  And, there is one book that was published in the UK in November, but it won't be out until next March in the states.  However, as The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths was one of the most amazing books I read this year, I have to include it, too.  I hope you enjoy revisiting my reviews for these books that have made 2018 a spectacular reading year for me.



Last Spring I broke my hand, and it was difficult to type for a short bit.  This condition resulted in a different type of review for a couple of books, a shorter, but just as heartfelt review.  Two of my favorite books fell under these shorter reviews, The Broken Girls by Simone St. James and Scot Free by Catriona McPherson.  So, I've decided to include the entire short reviews for all these books in their entirety with their cover pictures.

Scot Free is the first in Catriona McPherson's new Last Ditch Mysteries (because writing two to three books a year isn't enough for this Scottish madcap author)--marriage and moving from Scotland to America isn't what Lexy Campbell had hoped it would be, major understatement--finding herself stuck in California, divorced and using her ex-husband's credit card without his knowledge to stay afloat in a run-down hotel and her marriage consulting practice with a dead client doesn't defeat Lexy--this is, as the cover of the book says, "the lighter side of the dark underbelly of the California dream--Mrs. Bombarro, the other half of Lexy's couple who has the dead person, is suspected by the police of killing her husband and is the reason Lexy missed her flight and is still in California--Lexy is determined to prove Mrs. Bombarro innocent--needing a cheap place to stay, Lexy moves into the Last Ditch Motel and finds you really can find friends in low places--the cast of characters is one of the most entertaining a reader could wish for--laugh out loud is not an overused phrase for this book, it is what you will do from the first page to the last--I am entirely smitten by this new series.



Simone St. James has given us some great novels with a touch of the ghost, and The Broken Girls may be the most deliciously creepy yet--story is set in two different time periods, 1950 and 2014 in a small town in Vermont--Idlewild Hall, a girls' boarding school in the 50s sits empty and decaying in 2014, but it figures prominently in both time periods--resident ghost Mary Hand has been a feared presence on the school grounds since its beginning--four girls become close friends and allies in the school for wayward/unwanted girls in 1950, but one of them will go missing on a cold December evening--Fiona Sheridan, a freelance journalist in 2014 can't let go of her sister Deborah's murder twenty years ago and the field at Idlewild where her sister's body was found haunts Fiona--after thirty years of lying in disuse, Idlewild Hall is bought by a new investor who has plans to reopen the school, and Fiona feels drawn to cover the story of its restoration--Fiona still has questions about her sister's death and covering the story gives her access to the grounds--complicating the plot further is Fiona's boyfriend is a local policeman and his father, police chief at the time, investigated Deborah's death--a discovery on Idlewild's property during renovations will be the impetus to change everything--great melding of different timelines and connecting the dots--a mystery and and a thriller and a book to keep you up and keep you reading to the haunted end.

The Stranger Diaries out in the UK in 2018, but not in the States until 2019:

The Three Books for Which Christmas Craziness Has Interfered with My Finishing Their Reviews:

Sunday, December 2, 2018

December New Releases: Because You Still Read Even When You're Busy

December.  Wow!  That got here fast, again.  While trying to catch up on all the 2018 titles from the year before 2019 begins, here are a few more that you might want to add to your year-end reading.

December 2018 Titles:

The One That Got Away by Joe Clifford (Dec. 3rd)

Murder at the Mill: A Mystery (The Iris Grey Mysteries) by M.B. Shaw (Dec. 4th)

For the Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon, Edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger (Dec. 4th)

The Mansion: A Novel by Ezekiel Boone (Dec. 4th)

Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfield (Dec. 4th)

Bryant and May: Hall of Mirrors: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery #15 by Christopher Fowler (Dec. 4th)

Broken Ground (Karen Pirie #5) by Val McDermid (Dec. 5th)

A Baker Street Wedding: A Baker Street Mystery by Michael Robertson (Dec. 11th)

Murder on Cape Cod by Maddie Day (Dec. 18th)

Fear No Truth (Faith McClellan #1) by LynDee Walker (Dec. 18th)  

The Frangipani Tree by Ovidia Yu  (paperback, e-book already out)  (Dec. 18th)

Liar's Paradox (Jack and Jill #1) by Taylor Stevens (Dec. 18th)

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (Dec. 26th) 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier: Reading Room Review

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Wow! This book will grab you and spin you round by its story and characters and make you think long and hard about the repercussions of a horrific crime. But, what gobsmacked me was how Jennifer Hillier forces the reader to acknowledge that murder is not always a black and white matter and ask the question, "Are there degrees of guilt?" and "Can there be redemption for a monstrous act?" This story lays bare what happens when the wrong path is chosen, when an otherwise sane and good person falls into the dark abyss of evil. And, it makes you ponder the "what if" questions of choices that lead to just another normal day or the worst day of your life and murder. The writing is simply superb and the timeline in which Hillier reveals the story and back story is brilliant. This author knows how to maximize the suspense and shock. Just when you think you know what the whole story is, you are given yet another piece of the puzzle that changes everything. 

The basic story is that Georgina Shaw at the tender age of sixteen falls in love with a bad boy, a very bad boy who is five years older than she. Events and choices lead to the death of Angela Wong, also sixteen and Georgina's best friend since fourth grade. It's no secret to readers that Georgina's, or Geo's, bad boyfriend Calvin James killed Angela, but Geo helps cover it up for fourteen years. After fourteen years of uncertainty for Angela's parents and other friends, her bones are found buried in the woods behind Geo's house where she grew up. Now thirty and in a successful career with a rich fiance, Geo is arrested for her part in the crime. She gets off with a five-year sentence for testifying against Calvin, whom she hasn't seen for all those years. Calvin is also charged with three subsequent murders, having acquired the name Sweetbay Strangler in his infamy, and the prosecution wants him put away. The most gruesome part of Angela's murder that the public learns is that Angela's body was cut up into pieces and buried in several different grave sites. Geo's life quickly changes, as she's sentenced to five years in prison. Her prestigious job is gone, her fiance is gone, and the community of Sweetbay in Seattle turns against her. She is resigned to her fate of prison and feels that it is where she belongs for covering up the murder of her friend whom she loved dearly. 

Jennifer Hillier doesn't sugar coat Geo's time in prison. It's prison and it's tough. Geo's time spent incarcerated is handled with an honesty of description that gets ugly at times, but there's nothing included that isn't authentic and relevant. The adjustment that Geo has to make to "normal" life after prison must be all to familiar to those who have served time and had their freedom of movement and choice curbed. It's another example, too, of how Hillier gives a complete picture of Geo and her emotions and character. I became wholly invested in Geo, caring about the outcome of her tragic story. Much of the story begins after Geo is released from prison and comes back to live with her father (mother died when she was five) in the same house in which she grew up, the same house by the woods where she and Calvin had buried Angela. Geo's homecoming is not a welcome one by the community, but she is a strong person who believes in putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. 

But moving forward will be interrupted by a new series of murders which started right before Geo gained her freedom again, murders with the bodies of the women victims dismembered, and the first one buried in the same locations as Angela was. Detective Kaiser Brody (Kai) is the policeman who breaks it to Geo about the new murders that he thinks are by Calvin James, too, which is possible because Calvin escaped from prison shortly after his conviction. Kaiser is also the cop who arrested Geo for her part in Angela's murder, and he happens to have been her other best friend before Angela died in high school, a part of the trio comprised of Geo, Angela, and Kaiser. And, he was in love with Geo when she chose Calvin as her first love. Lots of history, lots of emotion, lots of unfinished business. 

So, now Geo is living under the threat of Calvin returning to her life with murder on his mind and on his agenda. Kaiser is hellbent on catching Calvin again and returning him to prison to rot out his remaining days. But, there are many miles to go before they sleep and many secrets to unravel, secrets that the reader won't see coming, which, of course, makes them that much more chilling. The road to the truth is a long and twisted one, and revenge is still a dish best served cold.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

With elements of the best Gothic classics set in the present-day world of conveniences and police work, The Stranger Diaries is an absolute thrill from start to finish. Elly Griffiths, known for her outstanding Ruth Galloway and Magic Men series, has taken her brilliant writing to the creation of a stand-alone that will take your breath away. Wilkie Collins and Dame Daphne du Maurier, you can rest easy. Elly Griffiths has this now, and atmospheric mystery never had a better guardian than she. The suspense is unrelenting, as it should be, and use of setting to drive it is inspiring. 

Clare Cassidy teaches English at Talgarth High in West Sussex, where she moved to from London after her divorce five years ago with her now teen daughter Georgie. Clare is also writing a book about her classic author obsession, R.M. Holland, who happened to live in the house still used for some classes on the Talgarth campus. In fact, Holland’s third floor study is preserved as it was when he lived in the house, an unexpected bonus for Clare when she came to teach there. R.M. Holland’s most famous work was a short story entitled “The Stranger,” and Clare is currently teaching it in an adult education creative writing course during a Talgarth school break. 

Griffiths’ book begins with an excerpt from “The Stranger,” as Clare is reading it to her class. It is as Gothic and atmospheric a tale as one can imagine, and reading it on a late October afternoon, with the sky darkening, creates the perfect storm of a setting, an ominous setting that turns out to be a harbinger of what follows. During the class coffee break, Clare receives a call from the head English teacher that another Talgarth English teacher, a close friend of Clare’s, has been found murdered. What shakes up Clare even more is when the police later tell her that a note bearing the words “Hell is empty,” was found by her friend Ella’s body. Clare knows that quote. It’s from R.M. Holland’s ghost story “The Stranger.” Of further concern is that the stigmata symbol cut into Ella’s hands after her death is another item from Holland’s story.

Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur is the lead investigator into Ella Elphick’s death, and she doesn’t waste anytime zeroing in on Clare Cassidy’s connection to Ella, their friendship and the R.M. Holland tie-ins. Harbinder takes an instant dislike to Clare, who is tall and beautiful and polished, but Harbinder is a crack detective and doesn’t let personal feelings enter into her dogged pursuit of the truth. She is capable of letting the facts lead her to a fair opinion. When a second murder occurs, this time the head English teacher at Hagarth, Rick Lewis, DS Kaur probes further into the relationships between Ella, Rick, and Clare. Kaur is herself a former student of Talgarth and had a supernatural experience in the old Holland house she has never discussed with anyone. 

Clare in the meantime has made a chilling discovery of her own in her diary she regularly keeps. Looking back in her diary at the time she, Ella, and Rick attended a conference together, she is terrified to see that someone else has written in her diary at that time with “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.” It won’t be the last time she finds such an entry. Notifying DS Kaur of the unknown contributor to her diary, Clare ends up giving all her diaries she’s kept to Harbinder to review. 

And, daughter Georgie is keeping secrets from her mother as she writes in an online diary site for teens. Georgie’s writings and some of her friendships are something she wants to keep private from both her mother and her father Simon, who is in London. These friendships are a result of a creative writing course the students are taking together, and one of those students sent an inappropriate Valentine to Ella in the last year. What isn’t secret is Georgie’s 21-year-old boyfriend Ty, who is six years older than she is. Although Clare doesn’t approve of the age difference, she’s trying hard to be open-minded about it. And, Georgie does give comfort to Clare, along with their white-ball-of-fur dog named Herbert, yet another link to the R.M Holland story. 

The setting in this book is completely in tune with the plot, as all great Gothic style stories are. The house where H.M. Holland lived and wrote, where his wife mysteriously fell down stairs to her death, and where the legend persists that it is haunted—that part of the setting is the strongest presence of Gothic. The isolation of the school and where Clare lives, near an abandoned cement factory from which an occasional light is seen, lends added suspense and mystery. The time of year is the icing on the setting cake, with it being October when the winds are blustery, and the skies get dark by late afternoon. The chill in the air is a tangible, pervading element and contributes to the chilling effect of the story. 

As Griffiths does so many things well, in this book and all her others, it’s impossible to single out one aspect of her talent that is the most commanding, but one aspect of her stories that keeps readers returning for each book she writes is the undeniable genius of creating unforgettable characters. Ruth Galloway, Cathbad, DI Edgar Stephens are three of my favorites from her series. The Stranger Diaries too has an excellent cast of characters, with Clare and DS Harbinder Kaur being at the forefront. They are both independent women who have had to make their own way on their own terms. Clare has established herself as a serious academic despite her ex-husband’s lack of confidence in her and the responsibility of being a single mother. Harbinder is a smart, capable policewoman who has had all the challenges of advancing as a female, and then some. Although distrustful of one another at first, a respect for each other develops over the course of the investigation. And, there is the looming presence of the long-dead H.M. Holland and his tragic wife, characters still affecting the living. Minor characters are also a Griffiths’ forte, including Clare’s daughter Georgia and Byrony Hughes, as a practicing witch with a sinister sway over her writing group of teens, and Henry Hamilton, a Cambridge professor offering some interesting H.M. Holland materials to Clare.

The way in which Elly Griffiths chooses to tell this tale is perfection itself. Beginning with the brief reading of part of H.M. Holland’s “The Stranger,” the book is then divided into parts labeled Clare, Harbinder, Georgia, and further excerpts from “The Stranger.” This arrangement allows the reader to get different characters’ points of view and different clues to the who-done-it question. The Georgia parts are much shorter than the Clare and Harbinder ones, but they allow the reader to fill in some blanks that otherwise would make an incomplete story. As the killings mimic the ones in Holland’s story, its inclusion is both helpful and wonderfully atmospheric. The complete story at the end of the book is quite the satisfactory finishing touch.

I anticipated that The Stranger Diaries would be a great read, as Elly Griffiths is one of the best writers/storytellers writing today, but I was still blown away by its extraordinary accomplishment. Threading Gothic elements into a tale of police procedural and psychological thriller makes for some of the best reading I’ve had, ever. The stand-alone is yet another area in which this exceptional author excels.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of this book from the author, and my review is an honest, unbiased one. 


Monday, November 26, 2018

Books for Christmas: Some Different Ideas

There is no end to the books mystery/crime fiction readers could choose to give or receive for Christmas.  The novels in this amazing genre give hours of reading enjoyment, and there's nothing better than hunkering down for a good read.  However, with the holidays being so busy, both before and after Christmas Day, there's another choice for some shorter spurts of reading time.  2018 has given us some excellent choices in non-fiction and shorter reading materials, too.  I've gained a new appreciation for short stories this past year, and I've bought some non-fiction books that go beautifully with my love for mystery/crime.  So, I'm going to share some items worth considering for your Christmas giving, both to others and yourself. 

And, don't forget the anthologies for the different mystery/crime conferences and festivals, such as: