Monday, May 27, 2019

Murder at Morrington Hall (A Stella and Lyndy Mystery) by Clara McKenna: Reading Room Review

As a lifelong resident of Kentucky but an ardent fan of British mystery and crime books, how could I not be drawn to a new series featuring a young woman from Kentucky who is betrothed to a young English lord. Add to that Stella Kendrick is an independent thinking horsewoman whose father is famous for his race horses and horse farm, and Murder at Morrington Hall is an irresistible read for me. The time period is a favorite of mine, too, the early 1900s, 1905 to be exact, when so much change is occurring in the world, and inventions are on the rise to bring the 20th century into a wonder of convenience never before seen. The Daimler car Stella, her father and her aunt arrive in at the English estate of Morrington Hall is the first taste that the proper English family of Lord and Lady Atherly have of the Americans and their faster, less formal approach to life and an example of the changes coming.  And, there is the matter of murder to sweeten the pot.

Stella Kendrick is excited that her father has included her in his trip to England where he is taking his prize thoroughbred and a couple of other horses to an English estate where their stable is in dire need of new blood. Her father even included Stella's horse Tully that she rides so that she wouldn't miss him while in England.  And, while visiting, there will be a wedding to attend.  Or, this is the scenario Stella believes up until it becomes painfully obvious upon arrival and upon meeting Viscount "Lyndy" Lyndhurst, the son of Lord and Lady Atherly, that the real reason for the horses accompanying them is a marriage deal between the set of parents, that the wedding is to be hers.  With Stella's mother being deceased, it is Stella's unfeeling father who decides that his daughter will help to raise his social standing by marrying the young Lord Lyndhurst. Furious with her father and tripping all over herself from being out of step with the English way of doing things, Stella is miserable. So, she does what she has always done in her loneliness growing up with a disinterested father, she goes to the stable for comfort from her horse where she runs into Lyndy, who also uses horses as an escape from tedious responsibilities. While they do bond over their love of riding, and Lyndy is quite the charming, considerate man, Stella is far from convinced that marrying him is her fate. Of course, she soon has an encounter with her father who ensures her that she will do as he says. Mr. Kendrick is not a nice man, and readers will be impressed by Stella's strength in the face of his brutality.

As is the English custom, tea must be observed that first afternoon, and the vicar who is to marry the couple will appear at tea to discuss matters. When the vicar doesn't show up at the appointed time, Lyndy offers to show Stella around the house while they look for him, as the vicar was to have been waiting at the house. The two find the vicar in the library, but he won't be performing anybody's wedding every again. He is dead and it is murder. Yes, my anglophile self, lover of British mystery, is quite happy with the "dead in the manor's library and found at tea time" situation. But, this is no simple Professor Plum in the library with the fire poker. Well, it was the fire poker, but finding the murderer is going to be a journey any mystery reader will savor. Stella and Lyndy learn to trust each other quickly as they are thrown into uncovering facts and evidence that will lead to the killer. While Stella's American style of conducting herself may clash with the English approach, it is helpful to her and Lyndy's efforts to accomplish that goal, and Lyndy gets the chance to see Stella as she really is, something he is intrigued by and most receptive to.

I can say without a doubt in my mind that Clara McKenna has given readers the first book in what will be a winning series. The consistency of its engaging writing from page to page is what makes it a book that's unputdownable. Murder at Morrington Hall is simply a well-written, captivating story. The characters have all been given an excellent start in their development. Stella and Lyndy have already shown a maturing of minds and an ability to evolve into a future that they control. Their witty dialogue demonstrates the intelligence and relatability of the two. While Stella's father and Lyndy's parents could be said to be stereotypical of the boorish American and the uptight British, it is the place where they must naturally start, with the future determining whether they can overcome their prejudicial temperaments. The minor characters that include Lyndy's sister Alice, the staff, and the police have also presented a great potential for growth and inclusion in the continuing story line. And, the setting should get a nod, too, the New Forest region with its wild New Forest ponies and countryside. It speaks of much mystery to unfold, which every great mystery series should have.  

Another aspect of the series that interests me is the historical fact in which it's based of the American "Dollar Princesses," who married into British aristocracy for a better social standing and for a much-needed infusion of money for the British aristocrat whom the rich American woman was marrying.  McKenna's fictional book is likely to cause further examination of this practice in the real life stories of such well-known people as Winston Churchill, whose mother was a "Dollar Princess."  This mutually beneficial arrangement of Americans gaining status and British gaining money happened between the late 19th century and WWII.

I received a copy of Murder at Morrington Hall from the author, and my review is my absolute true assessment of how much I enjoyed it and how much I think other readers will love it, too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Queen of Spades by Kristi Belcamino: Reading Room Review

Having fallen in love with the Gia Santella series by Kristi Belcamino, I am thrilled that the author has extended the story backwards to Gia's family roots in Sicily with Eva Lucia Santella's, aka The Queen of Spades, story. Readers of the Gia books have already been introduced to Eva, who has come to Gia's aid both in Italy and Gia's home of San Franciso. In A Queen of Spades, the dark past of the Santella family is revealed, their Sicilian Mafia past, where Eva Lucia Santella learned in her teens how to be a powerful and much-feared assassin. When Eva's father dies in prison, she takes over the running of the family and the position of Mafia boss, a decision of her father's that leaves her two stepbrothers unhappy. In the brothers' attempts to descredit and overthrow Eva, Eva kills one of her brothers. As in any men's world organization, other bosses side with the remaining brother and decree a death sentence for Eva. Of course, they have to catch her first.

Twenty years from her Sicily days, Eva has found a place to hide in Los Angles, California and is living a "normal" life with a husband and two children. It's been a wonderful decade since she married and became a member of the PTA and lived the good life of a Malibu Beach resident. But, she hasn't been complacent. Eva has been careful to keep a low profile and make arrangements for herself and her family if the Sicilians catch up with her. Sitting in a PTA meeting, Eva receives a message on her phone that turns a fund-raiser meeting into a scramble for her family's lives. The tables of vengeance soon turn, as Eva discovers too late that the worst has happened, but even the worst brings unexpected evil and betrayal. Now, vengeance is all that Eva lives for. Training her body, her mind, and her emotions to be a killing machine again is her focus. And, yet, the author brilliantly is able to show readers in Eva’s interactions with a young boy that Eva’s compassion and looking out for those unable to do so for themselves is a large part of who this tough survivalist woman is. Her concern for the less fortunate was ingrained into her as a child, and she has not lost touch with that core piece of herself even in the depths of tragedy. However, her quest for revenge must be fulfilled, and after she learns the name of her target, she is relentless in her pursuit.

I have yet to read a Kristi Belcamino book that doesn't grab me up in its excitement. Her ability to engage the reader is masterful. And, who writing novels creates more kickass characters than Kristi--Gabriella Giovanni, Gia Santella, and now Eva Santella. Kristi Belcamino is truly the queen of kickass characters. Perhaps there should be an addendum to that title though, Queen of Kickass Characters with Heart. Each of these three strong women show their strength not only in how tough they can be, how they can fight, but also in how dedicated they are to righting a wrong. Eva, the Queen of Spades, could be a super-hero in any world of right versus evil. She is someone you will be invested in from the beginning of her tale. I'm so pleased that Kristi Belcamino made the move to bring us Eva's story, but then this is an author who instinctively makes all the right moves.

I received an advanced copy of Queen of Spades from the author, and my enthusiasm at sharing its publication is a genuine expression of my delight as a reader and reviewer.  This book is magnifico!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A Deadly Feast by Lucy Burdette: Reading Room Review

It's #9 in the Key West Food Critic Mysteries, and this series is still as fresh as the seafood that can be found at the Eaton Street Seafood Market in that island paradise. Every book gives us new insights into the fabulous food and unique life that Key West boasts. As you read about Hayley Snow's visits to different food venues in the series, you begin to make your own list of familiar restaurant names, places Hayley has already taken you and places that are new, and there are always new places to add. And, yet, with all the mouth-watering food dishes and interesting places Lucy Burdette includes in the books, she expands beyond the cozy factor of these mysteries to issues that real people face in a setting that on the surface looks picture perfect. There is a balance to the stories that, while readers absolutely enjoy a positive and fun read, the issues like homelessness and island politics and drugs are weaved into the story lines. Of course, even in a mystery set in paradise, there must be places where the sun doesn’t quite reach.

A Deadly Feast sees Hayley gearing up for a busy Thanksgiving week. Not only is there the big turkey dinner with family and friends, she and Nathan Bransford are getting married the day after Thanksgiving. So, Hayley's trying to keep other activities to a minimum and have an uncomplicated build-up to her big day. There will be enough stress with her father, step-mother, and step-brother coming to town for a Thanksgiving Day meal and the wedding. Hayley is nervous about her father meeting Sam, her mother's new husband, and Nathan, Hayley's husband-to-be. Hayley's job as food critic at Key Zest, the online cultural zine for Key West, is looking like a breeze to get through during wedding week, as she only has to go on a seafood tour her friend Analise is running and do a write-up on it. But then, one of the attendees on the food tour dies, drops dead on the last stop, which is sadly her last stop ever.  Haley has heard rumors that the woman had a stroke, but then Analise calls Hayley in a desperate state, worried what effect the death will have on her food tours business if the death is ruled suspicious, Hayley promises her friend to do some investigating of the places on the tour. With every intention to just ask some questions and try to ease Analise's mind about it, Hayley feels she is keeping her word to her fiancé Nathan to stay out of police business. Anyway, Nathan himself is buried under a hush-hush operation the Key West Police Department is involved in.

Although Hayley is reassured by Steve Torrence, Nathan's colleague at the police department and the officiant of their wedding ceremony, that all will go smoothly at the ceremony, Hayley is just hoping there is a ceremony. She's getting more and more involved in the dead tourist on the food tour situation, and Nathan seems to be repeatedly unavailable because of his secret assignment. Hayley’s hopes of the food tour problem going quietly away are dashed when one of the chefs on the ill-fated food tour admits that her key lime pie in jars she served may have been tampered with. Haley thinks there's much more that this chef, Martha Hubbard, isn't disclosing. As if Hayley's and Nathan's investigations aren't complicating things enough, the houseboat that Nathan bought next to Miss Gloria's houseboat (Hayley's current abode) has fallen through the cracks of work on recent hurricane repairs in the Keys, and the contractor has put their houseboat at the bottom of a long list. It looks more and more like Hayley’s gotten a bad hand dealt from Lorenzo.

One of the great benefits of reading a series is having the opportunity to watch the established characters grow and new characters find their niche. Lucy Burdette has created one of my favorite set of characters in a mystery series. They are supportive of one another and bring their interesting lives to the table in different degrees in different books. By this ninth book, A Deadly Feast, Hayley and Nathan have gone through some real growing pains of a relationship and are ready to bring compromise and thoughtfulness to their communications. Nathan being willing to live on a houseboat (he’s not a fan of them) so that Hayley can be next to her octogenarian best friend Miss Gloria is a brilliant way to establish how committed he is to Hayley. Readers, don’t miss A Deadly Feast to see if Hayley and Nathan make it to the alter on their chosen day. And, don't forget the bonus of some delicious recipes at the end of the story.

I was fortunate to receive a copy of A Deadly Feast from the publisher, and the above is my honest review of a delightful book.

Friday, May 3, 2019

May Mystery and Crime Titles: A Killer Month

This year continues with lots of great new titles for mystery and crime.  Here are sixteen of the books that have gotten my attention for May 2019.  I've already read The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths, and I'm currently reading A Deadly Feast by Lucy Burdette, so I'm dead (pun intended) serious about May being a killer of a month for mystery and crime reading.  

May 2019

One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson (May 1st)
The Stone Circle (Ruth Galloway #11) by Elly Griffiths (May 7th)
A Deadly Feast (Key West Food Critic Mystery #9) by Lucy Burdette (May 7th)
The Body in the Wake (Faith Fairchild #25) by Katherine Hall Page (May 7th)
The Road to Grantchester by James Runcie (May 7th)
The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Liv Constantine (May 7th)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (May 7th)
Breaking the Dance (A World of Spies Mystery) by Clare O'Donohue (May 8th)
The Night Before: A Novel by Wendy Walker (May 14th)
The Satapur Moonstone (A Mystery of 1920s India) by Sujata Massey (May 14th)
If She Wakes by Michael Koryta (May 14th)
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (May 21st)
The Island: A Thriller (The Hulda Series) by Ragnar Jonasson (May 21st)
Deception Cove (Neah Bay Book #1) by Owen Laukkanen (May 21st) 
Queen of Spades: A Thriller by Kristi Belcamino (May 23rd
Murder at Morrington Hall by Clara McKenna (May 28th)
Borrowed Time (A Chicago Mystery, #2) by Tracy Clark (May 28th)

Scot & Soda (A Last Ditch Mystery) by Catriona McPherson: Reading Room Review

We were first introduced to Scottish therapist Lexy Campbell in Scot Free, and she was such a wonderful reflection of author Catriona McPherson's personal wit and humor that you knew it was the beginning of a fabulous new series. Like the author, character Lexy Campbell is a Scottish transplant to northern California, but unlike the author, Lexy's introduction to the states has been a series of mishaps and murder. Lexy has landed in the fictitious town of Cuento, California at the Last Ditch Motel and is currently living on a houseboat anchored in the slough next to the motel. While this situation sounds less than desirable and certainly has its share of problems, Lexy has formed close friendships with the long-term residents of the motel, which also boasts the Skweeky Kleen Launderette. It's a crew of diverse backgrounds and talents, and in Scot & Soda the bug-a-phobic, fashion enthusiast doctor and germophobic owner of the Skweeky Kleen have some interesting ideas about how they can combine their talents with Lexy's therapy business. Quirky rules the day at the Last Ditch Motel. But, I've gotten ahead of the story.

Lexy is trying hard to make her Halloween party on her houseboat an American celebration, in spite of her unfamiliarity with many of the non-Scottish traditions. There are some glitches, but Lexy and her friends from the Last Ditch are enjoying the infected toenail chips, the phlegm cups, and the hen's feet treats and the festive atmosphere of the creepy holiday. But, there's creepy cool and creepy bad, and when Lexy tries to pull up the beer chilling in the slough off her boat, the creepy gets way too bad and way too real. Tangled up in the rope and beer is a dead body, a real body, not some Halloween prank, and the man is dressed in Scottish attire, a kilt and a tam o'shanter (red wig and tam) stapled to his head. The coincidence of a dead body in Scottish attire showing up attached to the boat of the only Scottish person in the vicinity seems way too close for comfort. That a ring Lexy saw around one of the fingers of the dead man disappears before the body can be examined sets Lexy's curiosity radar ablaze. It's not surprising that the Last Ditch "family" of friends becomes involved in discovering who this party crasher is and why he ended up dead in the slough. When they uncover his identity as one Tam O. Shanter attending his 50th high school reunion, there's no holding this oddball investigative crew back. They are in it until the bitter end, and the road there is a twisty, bumpy one.

Catriona McPherson is a born storyteller, and whether it's a gruesome, dark tale or a spirited, witty romp, she creates the characters who are perfect for their parts. The Last Ditch mysteries will entertain you page after page with humorous antics and witty dialogue. Lexy trying to straighten out her Scottish take on the American language is hilarious. I'm looking forward to the next adventure this charming Scot and her friends jump into with a ready smile.

Thanks to Midnight Ink for an ARC of Scot & Soda and to Catriona McPherson for a grand story that kept me in stitches.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary by Terry Shames: Reading Room Review

When I first saw Loretta's name in the title of the new Samuel Craddock series, I was absolutely delighted. Loretta Singletary is one of those supporting characters in a series who makes a return to it a must. Of course, I dearly love Samuel Craddock, the main character, and he is one of the fictitious characters I'd most like to meet, but he does need a stellar supporting cast who make Jarrett Creek a destination of return time and time again. Fortunately for readers, author Terry Shames is a master at creating intriguing characters who are never stagnant but are always evolving, with their Texas charm masking a strength and determination of achieving their goals, be they good or bad. Even Samuel's new puppy, Dusty, adds to our enjoyment of and telling of the story.

It seems that Chief of Police Samuel Craddock isn't the only one in Jarret Creek with romance on his mind. His new relationship with Wendy, whom he met at a Thanksgiving dinner his then girlfriend Ellen couldn't attend, is giving Samuel new pause for wonder at how being in sync with another human being can be so thrilling again. When long-time friend Loretta Singletary stops by Samuel's house to speak to him about the annual goat rodeo in town, Samuel is surprised she's not bringing baked goods like she usually does, and she's dressed up as if going somewhere special. She even has a new haircut and is wearing make-up. But, Samuel has no idea what has sparked Loretta's new interest in her appearance until she turns up missing. Then he learns that his old friend, whom he had taken for granted as a pillar of the community and predictable down to the delicious cinnamon rolls she bakes has joined the 21st century by signing up for a senior citizens' online dating service. 

While allowing for the fact that Loretta was spreading her wings into new territory outside of Jarrett and her beloved Baptist Church, Samuel knows that Loretta would not have just taken off without informing someone. No matter what newly enlightened attitude Loretta was adopting, she was still a highly responsible person and a thoughtful mother, friend, and community member. When another older woman using the same dating site as Loretta turns up missing and then dead, Samuel and his new, efficient deputy Maria Trevino start investigating on a urgent schedule of combing through Loretta's dating profile and interviewing anyone who might have any useful information. The investigation is a great police procedural to follow. The Chief of Police at Bobtail, the other town where the missing woman was from, is most cooperative with Samuel, as they work towards finding the person they think is responsible for both disappearances and the one death. Samuel is desperate to find Loretta and not have her name added to the dead. There are lots of interesting items that come up during the investigation of the dating site, some of concern about a Jarrett Creek member of the site, but there is nothing more surprising than the ending of this tale. Shames has given readers a magnificently mastered twisted treat of a finale.

While dealing with the issue of online dating, this story delves into an area of it too often neglected, that of senior citizens using this avenue to meet people and prospective partners. Senior citizens are especially vulnerable, with people preying on them for their money and family maybe being miles away. But, this isn't the tale of frailty or tragedy. It's actually a wonderful look at Loretta becoming more than just a taken-for-granted, reliable person. It's a wake-up call for her friends, especially Samuel, who consider her a close friend and yet haven't the first clue about how Loretta feels as an individual woman and just how generous her baking for everyone is. The book gives a new depth to many of the characters, just when you think you couldn't love them any more. For me, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary is a landmark story in the Samuel Craddock series, from which there are so many more stories waiting to be told. Of course, Terry Shames all along has led us deeper and deeper into the community of Jarrett Creek, making it impossible for readers to ever get enough of its residents and their stories.