Sunday, December 19, 2021

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker: Reading Room Review


Thirty years ago, when Vincent King was just fifteen years old, he accidentally killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley, the younger sister of his girlfriend Star Radley. Vincent was tried as an adult and spent thirty years in prison. The testimony that sealed his fate was given by his best friend Walk. Walk was devastated at the part he played in Vincent's conviction, and even though Walk became Chief of Police of the small coastal California town where his friendships were his life, Walk was a prisoner of his own making for those thirty years, too. Walk's inability to move on from his idealized version of the world, where Vincent, Star, and Walk's girlfriend Martha were the future has made his world a small one. Walk's mission has been to look after Star and her two children, who are now thirteen (Duchess) and five (Robin). Walk can't really change the poor, depressing circumstances of Star and her children, but he does what he can to protect them. Walk's girlfriend from 30 years ago, Martha, moved on long ago to another town and a career of being a lawyer. Walk was stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for Vincent to come home.

Star Radley is thirty years past the promise of a happy life for a girl born beautiful and talented. She is an addict, drugs and alcohol, and she's living on fumes. Her two children, thirteen-year-old Duchess and five-year-old Robin, are mostly a fond memory in Star's addled brain. Duchess is the care taker for her brother Robin and would do anything for him, often going without food so he can eat. It is Duchess who shows the strength and responsibility in the family. It is Duchess for whom the reader can't stop reading this story. Her fate is the one in which we become invested. Like Duchess is willing to endure any misery to ensure that Robin is loved and provided for, the reader will suffer through the heartbreaks, one after another, of these two characters to keep hope alive.

Vincent is finally released from prison thirty years after his incarceration, but don't expect a happy return to his hometown. Oh, he returns, and he doesn't mope around. He starts fixing his house up that he left all those years ago, when his parents still lived in it. But, shit happens, and it seems to happen to the people who least deserve it in this story. Walk is there for his friend, but Walk himself is broken and has a debilitating disease that he's keeping secret. Star is no longer an option for Vincent, and soon her situation becomes more tragic. Did I mention that this story is achingly sad? At one point in the story, Duchess thinks that she surely is due some good luck, but good luck seems an unattainable dream for the down-trodden characters of We Begin at the End

There's so much story I haven't touched upon in this review, but to say more would be a disservice to readers yet to begin their journey through this tale. I was deeply affected by this book, but I can't say I enjoyed it. Sometimes, a powerful read is like that, and sometimes enjoyment isn't the goal. I'm still trying to sort through what to take from this read. Obvious is the futility of living in the past, and how it occludes any meaningful life in the present.  Of course, it's grief and guilt that make an albatross of that past.  Where's a good grief counselor when you need one?  Cape Haven could surely have used one.  Reading and reviewing We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker has left me spent, but I will forever keep the character of Duchess Day Radley, self-proclaimed outlaw in my mind and heart, and I will dream for her a beautiful life.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Untrue Blue (Lord and Lady Hetheridge #7) by Emma Jameson: Reading Room Review


A new Lord and Lady Hetheridge book by Emma Jameson is a read I always look forward to, as the characters and the plot are steadfast in their deliverance of an entertaining, thrilling story. Untrue Blue is the 7th book in this series, and once again, it's my favorite. I've had seven favorites now. Jameson never shies away from taking the characters on a roller coaster of emotions, and readers are swept up (and down) in those emotions, too. The stories are fraught with danger for the characters, too, and the suspense that builds toward a confrontation with evil causes me to remind myself to breathe. 

I can't stress enough how this series should be read in order, starting with Blue Ice. There's just too much great story and character development that you would miss if you did otherwise. Where the characters are in Untrue Blue means so much more when the reader has suffered through their growing pains with them. <br /><br />Do not read past this point if you are just starting the series.

In Untrue Blue, Kate (Lady Hetheridge) is on leave from the London Metropolitan Police and on bed rest for her final month of pregnancy. Tony (Lord Hetheridge), retired from his position of a Superintendent in the MET, is fully into his work as a PI and sometimes consultant to the police. DI Paul Bhar is a delighted new father and is married to Emmeline. There's lots of good feeling for these couples and friends, but a death among Kate's and Paul's colleagues stuns everyone (and readers). DC Amelia Gulls is discovered dead in her flat, murdered by an unknown assailant. Even though Kate is on bed rest, she joins Paul and Tony, who has been called in as a consultant, in trying to find the murderer. Granted that Kate has to work at home, but she and Amelia shared a bond of females struggling to be taken seriously on the force, so she will do what she can from her bedroom confinement. 

Amelia Gulls had been working as an extra pair of hands on three separate cases, and the investigation into her death starts with looking at what she had found on those cases. Turns out that there are cross-over connections in two of the cases that will lead those investigating on a wild ride, a ride that readers will follow on the edge of their seats. I prefer to let readers experience the investigation without further description on my part. It's complex and exciting, and the losses leave big questions on who will fill certain shoes in the next book. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Midnight Hour (The Brighton Mysteries #6) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

When the Brighton series by Elly Griffiths began in 2015 with The Zig Zag Girl, it was also called The Magic Men or Stephens and Mephisto series. The two main characters, DI Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto are best friends, having met during WWII as members of the Magic Men, a small unit of men whose job it was to use illusion to deceive the Nazis and give the Allies the advantage. Over the previous five books of the series, and especially the last one, Now You See Them that jumped ahead ten years from #4, the characters and story lines have evolved to where The Brighton series more aptly describes the series. Elly Griffiths is such a brilliant writer/storyteller, and she knew that the ten-year leap was just the thing required at that point. 
From book one, I've loved learning more about the 1950s in Brighton and the live variety circuit, then the winding down of the variety circuit and the movement toward television, and now the 1960s with its changes. I also have enjoyed the character roster growing, as Griffiths is a master of unique and mesmerizing characters, and more women stepping into leading roles. With the second book set in the 1960s (and the 6th book overall), the women of the series are getting their full due in the story line and running the show. But, I was delighted to still see a strong connection to the older days of the variety circuit in the story.
The mid-sixties in Brighton is on the cusp of change, but it is still very much a man’s world with women eagerly pushing the boundaries as they can. Our regular characters are well ensconced in their endeavors and pursuits, but as the author is always moving them forward, by the end of the book some of them will be on the cusp of change, too. Edgar Stephens is comfortable in his role as Superintendent and Emma Holmes, although married to Edgar and mother of three children, is more determined than ever to make her private detective agency a working concern. Emma was Brighton’s first policewoman, but married women aren’t allowed to be on the force yet. Emma’s business partner, Sam Collins, continues her full-time job as a journalist and is also working hard to make a success of the detective agency. Max Mephisto has established himself as a movie actor and is still married to the mother of his two young children, American actress Lydia Lamont. In fact, Max is currently living at his country estate in England while the movie in which he plays Dracula’s father is filming in Whitby. Ruby, Max’s daughter and former fiancée of Edgar Stephens, is a bigger celebrity than ever with her starring role in a British television detective series. DI Bob Willis is showing signs of growth in both his role as Detective Inspector and his mentoring of a female police officer, although he can’t change the rules, like women on the force not yet being allowed to drive police cars. The female police officer, WDC Meg Connolly, has stayed the course to be on the force despite the derision she faces from the male members. And, in speaking of the fantastic female characters, I can’t leave out Astarte Zabini, the medium, who has seen her share of challenges and maintained her autonomy. Of course, the characters either introduced or brought back from a previous book for the storyline of The Midnight Hour are all captivating and engaging, too.

Bert Billington, the renowned theatre impresario who started his career on the variety circuit, is dead at the age of 90, but old age isn’t a factor. Bert has been poisoned with rat poison, and although many people had reason to hate him, it won’t be easy to find his murderer. His widow, Verity, now 75, was once famous in her own right as Verity Malone, the most beautiful show girl and singer on the circuit. She and Bert produced three sons. Seth is a successful actor, and he is Dracula in the movie that Max Mephisto plays Dracula’s father. Son David has taken over the theatre business from Bert, and son Aaron owns a mechanic shop. It seems no one in Bert’s family would benefit greatly from his death, but Aaron suspects his mother Verity might have wanted Bert dead. 

When Aaron shares his suspicions with the police, Verity hires Emma’s and Sam’s detective agency to investigate and prove her innocence. Verity prefers to deal with women in both the private and the police investigations, so it is WDC Meg Connally from the Brighton police force who conducts the interviews and develops a rapport with Verity. During the investigation, Emma and Meg become friends, as they share information and often join forces. Bert’s marital infidelities over the years left a trail of heartache and destruction, not to mention offspring, so the fallout from his affairs is a major part of the inquiries. The suspect list for Bert Billington tells a sad and sordid story of a self-indulgent life. Readers might be rooting for the killer to get away with the murder. 


The Midnight Hour is by no means a diatribe against the obstructions to women’s independence, but Elly Griffiths does a deft job of showing how women are progressing in spite of the constraints put on them in the 60’s. The women are front and center in The Midnight Hour and demonstrating just how capable they are, dealing with those constraints to become more than the “female” roles society has assigned them. Emma must deal with being the one responsible for child rearing while pursuing a career she is both passionate about and excels at. Ruby is ahead of the curve by being an independent woman of means and success. Sam has had to use the advantage of her first name to get her jobs in journalism and prove she is equal or better than a male reporter. Meg is learning more about expanding her views of her abilities and those of all women. Reading The Feminine Mystique by feminist Betty Friedan is quite a shock to Meg, but it is presenting ideas about the strength and importance of women that will serve her well. 

I highly recommend The Midnight Hour as another riveting read by the brilliant Elly Griffiths. I thank NetGalley and Quercus Publishing for an advanced reading copy.

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Corpse with the Granite Heart by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review


I used to be a real stickler for reading a series in order, start with #1 and proceed, and I still prefer that. However, with age comes letting go of some of my hard, fast rules and learning to be more flexible. I have wanted to read Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan series for some time, and I kept getting further and further behind. Well, with this year’s book, The Corpse with the Granite Heart, #11, I decided to dive in. I’m so glad I did. 

Cait Morgan and her husband Bud Anderson have traveled from their home in Canada to visit their good friend John Silver in London and meet his new fiancée, Bella Asimov. Cait, who lived and worked in London previous to her move to Canada, is looking forward to visiting favorite London spots with Bud and enjoying the Christmas cheer of the season.

Though they both are fighting jet lag the afternoon they arrive, they are scheduled to attend a dinner at John’s fiancée’s home. The dinner is a strange affair to begin with, a morbid memorial dinner for the fiancée Bella’s recently departed father. The recently departed Asimov patriarch, Oleg Asimov, was an ardent admirer, if not an expert, on Shakespeare and financially supported local projects and endeavors concerning the famous playwright. His family thinks it was his only redeeming quality. Upon arriving, Cait realizes she knows Bella’s sister and brother-in-law from the time in Cait’s life before she gave up on her beloved London, a time in which they were part of her trouble. But, Cait has impeccably good manners and knows that they are there for John, not old grudges. All Cait and Bud really want to do is get through the dinner and go back to John’s to collapse in bed. However, it turns out that their rest will be delayed.

As the guests prepare to go into dinner, an odd routine of everyone taking a bathroom break before entering the dining room is announced. While the business of taking care of business is occurring, there’s a burst of activity at the front door as Cait’s and Bud’s driver rushes in to raise the alarm. Someone has fallen from the top room of the house to the driveway below. Cait, who is a well-respected criminal psychologist, and Bud, who is a retired cop, immediately react and get involved. The dead person is Sasha, Bella’s sister, and suicide is suspected. 

A man who is obviously law enforcement but rather shadowy arrives with his subordinate to question everyone, still leaning towards a suicide. Cait has misgivings about that call and realizes that the case is being handled very carefully, which is no doubt due to the revered standing of the family and the father’s wealthy success. At last being given clearance to go back to John’s house, Cait hopes that she and Bud can go back to their plans of just being tourists. 

Of course, a trip filled with visiting museums won’t happen, as the story is obviously going to involve Cait’s detecting skills. When another death, Sasha’s husband, occurs at the Asimov mansion on the hill, nothing seems done and dusted except for the bodies. And, there will be more death to befall the house. It’s a treacherous time to be in Beulah House, and the reader has to wonder if it will be a case of “then there were none.”

The detective, Mr. Worthington, finally checks out Cait’s credentials, which include solving other murders and an eidetic memory, and allows her to help him. There are all sorts of peculiar and sordid facts about the Asimov family, but who seems to want to kill them off? It’s interesting to watch the clues unfold and the guilty revealed. A nasty business it is, being at the top. 

I enjoyed this, my first Cait Morgan, book. I hesitated to jump in on #11, but author Cathy Ace makes it possible to glean past information needed for the present story. I quickly became a fan of Cait and Bud, with their easy-going relationship and trust and respect for one another. There were many unreliable characters, for whom it wasn’t clear if they were trustworthy or not, and that added greatly to the suspense, which built with every death. The characters’ fear of who would be the next victim is keenly felt by the reader. There’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up in this narrative where money has built an empire of ill will. 

I hope to go back and pick up at least some of the previous Cait Morgan books I’ve missed, as I’m curious about Cait’s and Bud’s relationship in its beginning and the cases they've solved together. Of course, I’m not surprised I would enjoy this series, as I’m a fan of Cathy Ace’s writing in her Wales series and her stand-alone, The Wrong Boy. Ace has a good eye for interesting characters in all her stories, and a deft hand at writing stories that capture the flavor of a setting. The use of each chapter being headed by a quote from a Shakespeare play foreshadowing the chapter’s contents was a clever vehicle to use for The Corpse with the Granite Heart, as it connected to Oleg Asimov’s one true passion and created a dramatic atmosphere. So, I will happily recommend this latest book in the Cait Morgan series and the series itself.

Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of The Corpse with the Granite Heart from the author.