Category Archives: mystery

Reading: January Book Notes

31st January 2017

As someone whose job and life revolves around the beginning, middle, and end of university semesters, January is always a respite for me. The holidays are over, and my hours and days are free for reading. This January was no different, and I read eight books this month. Here’s what I thought:

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina doesn’t have much of a problem with her pa’s edict never to venture into the forest, as the entire Biltmore estate is her playground as well as the place where her father works and where they both live in secret. She isn’t sure why her existence is hush hush, but she doesn’t question him, happy being the estate’s CRC, or Chief Rat Catcher, until the night she witnesses a man in a black cloak hunting and seemingly killing a young girl before narrowly escaping his clutches. That night, everything changes, and Serafina must do what she must, even seeking out the mysteries of the forest, to save herself and the other children of Biltmore.

While Serafina’s mystery was evident to me nearly right away, I still enjoyed reading about her stalking the halls of Biltmore, or enjoyed it enough to pick up the second book in the series.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff by Robert Beatty

Serafina is coming to terms with the revelations she uncovered at the end of her adventures with the awful powers of the black cloak. She has built a fragile friendship with the orphan nephew of Mr. Vanderbilt when she witnesses yet another evil, deep in the forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and must embrace her newfound legacy to protect those she loves.

Once Beatty removes the mystery of Serafina’s discovery about her identity, the series takes off. Serafina has been sheltered, living alone with her pa below stairs, so watching her develop and jealously guard her friendship with Braedon was at once irritating and endearing. However, the mystery is more developed here, and the villain pretty dark for a middle grade book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

When I teach American Literature, I always teach an excerpt from this book, but I’d never read the book in its entirety until now. I read it start to finish one evening, and I don’t know that I’d recommend that – the book is full of grief, as Didion stops and starts, retelling the story of her marriage and her husband’s sudden death while their daughter was in a coma. For someone like me who guards against emotion, I could relate to so much of what Didion wrote, as she processed her thoughts and feelings, and was pretty shocked at the wide array of reviews out there for this – because of her and her husband’s backgrounds in film, many, many seem to discount her writing. I, for one, found it a fascinating foray into one woman’s grief.

Starflight by Melissa Landers

I really don’t know how this quirky little book landed on my Goodreads “to-read” shelf. Part sci-fi, part romance, and part futuristic adventure tale, I wasn’t in love with this book, but from the Goodreads reviews, people who loved the show Firefly seem to be all about this one.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is impossibly impossible. Her daughter Bee adores her. Her genius Microsoft husband seems slightly in awe of her, but everyone else seems to despise her. When Bee calls in a promise to leave Seattle for a trip to Antarctica, Bernadette’s quirks seem to amplify until she has no choice but to disappear. Bee must seek out the facets of Bernadette she and others couldn’t or wouldn’t see to find the mother she cannot live without.

Sometimes my tendency to avoid the “hot” book works against me. This book was all anyone could talk about several years ago, and I thought, “Nope, not for me.” Oh, Jennifer Hopeless, how you were wrong. This book ended all too soon for me. Reading Bernadette’s emails to her virtual assistant in India and piecing together what exactly went wrong was fascinating, even though, at times, you definitely feel like you are witnessing the mental breakdown of an individual. Still, it was fun and fast, and I loved it.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Dublin pathologist Quirke finds his brother-in-law in his morgue one evening, during an office party with a file he shouldn’t have. That’s strange enough, but when the body is gone the next morning, Quirke embarks on a self-destructive path to seek out the truth of what happened to Christine Falls.

You can almost always count me in for an Irish detective novel. This time, though, I’m lukewarm. Christine Falls has no real mystery to it and very little suspense.

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Puzzles and potions. Christopher Rowe learns both when he is rescued from an orphanage and apprenticed to Master Blackthorn, but across London, apothecaries are being murdered. With the help of his only friend, Sam, Christopher must use Blackthorn’s last gift to him to stop the killing and learn what secrets his master was guarding.

A complete win for me, this middle grade novel was fun, suspenseful, and interesting – never speaking down to its audience. I look forward to reading the sequel.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Twelve-year-old Milo is finishing up homework and planning on enjoying his winter break at Greenglass House when the guest bell rings. As he and his parents welcome an odd guest, the bell rings again, and again. Frustrated that he’ll have to work during the break, Milo feels slightly better when a series of odd events introduces him to Meddy, the cook’s daughter, and they embark on an adventure to discover why each guest is really at Greenglass House.

This! A middle grade, locked room-type mystery, Greenglass House was full of intrigue, folklore, extreme winter temperatures, and self discovery, making it the perfect January read.

Series Obsession: Aunt Dimity by Nancy Atherton

29th July 2015

My reading has taken a distinctly different path since I complained about my “all cozy mystery, all the time” reading diet. However, reading about the Pacific War all the time could get a girl down, so for every nonfiction book or so, I throw in a cozy mystery.

My first experience with Aunt Dimity was Aunt Dimity & the Lost Prince back in 2013, and as fun as I proclaimed the series, it wasn’t until this year that I picked her up again. Since then, I’ve read six others, and Atherton’s latest, Aunt Dimity & the Summer King is no less charming. Aunt Dimity isn’t exactly a ghost, per se…but she does “speak” to Lori Shepherd through her notebook. For someone who really hates reading anything supernatural, Dimity’s presence doesn’t bother me. In fact, she is frank enough to often put Lori in her place when she needs it, something more cozy mystery heroines could use.

In Aunt Dimity & the Summer King, Lori’s beloved Finch seems to be in some kind of trouble. There are rumors of a developer coming in, changing the pastoral neighborhood (nosy neighbors and all!), and pricing out the locals.

But Lori can’t get any inside information. Upset about the possibility and distracted by family events and a looming birthday, Lori is thrilled when she meets her father-in-law’s eccentric neighbor Arthur Hargreaves. However, his name is mud with Lori’s neighbors over some ages-old feud between Finch and the adjacent village, of which Hargreaves is a part.

Lori (with Aunt Dimity’s ever-present help) is just the person to sort out such a mess and put to bed old grudges.

Aunt Dimity & the Deep Blue Sea was one of my favorites. Lori’s husband Bill receives a series of death threats. Scotland Yard believes it must be a former client (Bill is a family estate attorney), but to be safe, Lori and the boys are ferried to a remote island off the Scottish coast. The boys have their own bodyguard, as does Lori. But the island is harsh and unforgiving, proven when a human skull washes ashore.

A chance encounter with a family friend puts even more suspicion in Lori’s head, and with the evidence mounting, Lori is sure the island’s inhabitants have a secret.

More suspenseful than others I’ve read in this series, Aunt Dimity & the Deep Blue Sea would be a great entry into the series.

In Aunt Dimity & the Family Tree, Lori’s hair is on fire. She’s attempting to event plan and hire her father-in-law’s staff all at one time. When a local gets herself into trouble, Aunt Dimity offers up a plan that’s sure to work…if absolutely everything goes perfectly. But of course, in Finch, there is no perfect, but Lori is more concerned about Willis, Sr. and his new live-in staff. They’re a little too good at their jobs, and Lori worries they may be trying to hoodwink her father-in-law.

Dimity keeps her from jumping to too many conclusions, and she learns a lot more than she bargains for by the end of the day.

Aunt Dimity seems to be a well-loved series, as each time I mention it or post a book on Facebook or Goodreads, someone comments. There’s little violence here, but Atherton’s look at village life in the Cotswolds has me aching to visit.

*While Aunt Dimity & the Summer King was sent to me by the publisher for review, I have purchased the other Aunt Dimity books I have read and have given my honest opinion of each.

My 10 Favorite Un-Scary Halloween Movies

31st October 2014

10 FUN

For a girl who hates anything scary (we’re talking I hide my eyes and sing when a Law & Order: Criminal Intent commercial comes on), I love Halloween. Maybe it’s that Halloween means fall and changing leaves and chili, but I really enjoy it.

Growing up in my small town, we had a lady everyone called the Good Witch of Groves who sat outside with her pointy had and talked to children and passed out candy minus bloodcurdling screams and bloody eyeballs in a bowl. I loved it. My mom has taken to doing the same in her neighborhood, and I usually go out there for a bit and enjoy the more kitschy side of the holiday.

But my favorite thing to do on Halloween is curl up with some chili (usually with cheddar thrown in for good measure), leftover candy, and a good Halloween movie. Mine may not be traditional, but these have all been in the rotation in the past years, and if you haven’t seen them, I give them all high scores as being perfect for the Halloween weekend:

1. Arsenic and Old Lace (Of course my first pick would star Cary Grant. What do you take me for?)

Mortimer Brewster is flying high on his wedding day and stops off to tell his sweet old aunts and pack his bags…until he discovers they have a dirty little secret, or actually, over a dozen dirty little secrets buried in the basement. What follows is a funny, unsettling romp as Mortimer tries to figure out where to stash the body he’s discovered and how to deal with his psychopathic, criminal brother who suddenly makes an appearance.

2. Clue

This movie needs no introduction really, but in case you haven’t seen it, it is inspired by the game of the same name and takes its characters into the library, the dining room, AND the kitchen to determine who is responsible for the suspicious and sudden deaths. Oh yeah, and just why are they all gathered? Inspired performances by Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, and many more.

3. Murder by Death

Though not as well known as Clue, Murder by Death is just as endearing. A mystery writer gathers other famous mystery writers at his home, ones with names like Dick and Dora Charleston and Sam Diamond. The invitation is for “dinner and murder,” and murder is, indeed, on the menu. Watching these supposed experts in their fields devolve in the ensuing chaos is absolutely hysterical. Peter Sellars really shines in this one.

4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

When I taught ESL, I was able to really incorporate the holidays into my lesson planning, and each Halloween I showed this classic, and my students loved it. But who am I kidding? I love it too.

5. Monster House

I rarely watch animated films these days. I don’t have kids, and a lot of them (animated films, not kids) just don’t look that appealing. However, a few years ago I picked this one up and thought it was just the best.

Nebbercracker is known across the neighborhood as the bad-apple neighbor. He destroys anything that lands on his lawn, so when DJ and his friend lose their basketball in his yard, bad things happen. It doesn’t take long before they figure out that something strange is going on, and they’re determined to expose the monster house.

6. The Thin Man (any of them)

If you haven’t read the book, it’s a real treat. And the movies extend the pleasure, particularly as the acting duo of Myrna Loy and William Powell have such amazing on-screen chemistry that they went on to make five additional films, all based on Dashiell Hammett’s characters.

Nick and Nora Charles have returned to New York with their dog, Asta. No longer a detective – and now living off his wife’s money – Nick has some unsavory friends but is determined to go straight. But when a family friend who has been missing is accused of killing his girlfriend, Nick knows he has to get up to his old tricks.

7. The North Avenue Irregulars

Oh how I love this movie. I’m so grateful to my mom and dad for movie nights when we’d watch films that were often before their time as well.

The North Avenue Irregulars is just plain fun. A young Edward Hermann is a progressive minister in a traditional town. When one of his church members loses money meant for the church while gambling, he determines to do something about it. But the local government hasn’t been able to do much good, and it’s only when a group of church women gets in on the action that the crooks begin to worry. Cloris Leachman is absolutely hilarious in this film.

8. That Darn Cat!

Another Disney film, That Darn Cat! stars Haley Mills and Dean Jones. A local bank robbery and kidnapping has Patti Randall’s imagination in high gear. So when her cat comes home with a wristwatch around its neck, she’s convinced it’s a message. She contacts the FBI who then sends out an agent who is – of course – allergic to cats to follow the cat back to the hideout.

9. American Dreamer

I actually haven’t seen this film in ages, but I remember loving it. I need to just buy it.

JoBeth Williams stars as Cathy Palmer, a housewife who wins a trip to Paris in a contest ghostwriting a story about Rebecca Ryan, an international spy. A freak accident sends her into the hospital, and she wakes up thinking she is Rebecca Ryan. In her altered state, she encounters real spies in a laugh-out-loud film.

10. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

No one does cowardly like Don Knotts. Playing local journalist-hopeful Luther Hegg, he is asked to spend the night in the Old Simmons House, the site of a murder-suicide 20 years earlier, to commemorate the anniversary. Ghostly happenings abound, and Luther may just stumble upon the answer to a decades-old mystery, get his dream job, and win the girl before it’s all over.

Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoy your evening!

 

Review: The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams

6th February 2014

pg1*I received this book from the publisher Bourbon Street Books in exchange for an honest review.

Jessica Mayhew’s psychotherapy office is a sanctuary of sorts. She goes in, listens to her patients, and goes home. Her life is routine, and she likes it that way. But her routine is disturbed when her husband admits to sleeping with a younger woman in what he says was a one-night stand. Her teenage daughter Nella has pulled away from her. And at work, a new client, Gwydion Morgan, an actor and the son of famous film director Evan Morgan, unsettles Jessica.

Gwydion has a phobia of buttons and is concerned it may affect his work in a period film. However, as their sessions continue, a recurring dream Gwydion has dominates their sessions. In the dream, he is a child on his father’s boat. He hears a disturbance and then a splash before he wakes up, unnerved. When Jessica makes a house call after Gwydion’s mother calls her, concerned he may be suicidal, she learns Gwydion’s au pair drowned at their cliff side home, and she begins to wonder if Gwydion’s dream is reality. What really happened to the au pair?

The House on the Cliff – beginning with its cover – looked like an absolutely perfect read for the dreary January weather we’ve been having. Set in Wales, the tone and the subject matter are eery and dark. However, the longer I read, the more I had to shake my head. I thoroughly enjoy mysteries whose detecting character isn’t necessarily a detective. That said, the main character should also exhibit a sense of investigation that makes his or her foray into detecting plausible. Instead, Jessica is a bit of a mess. She is certainly curious, but she never seems to pair her curiosity with rational, measured thought. Unable to forgive her husband for the affair, she quickly entangles herself with her patient (!), delves into his family history without authorization, manages to alienate and place her daughter in danger, and make an altogether ridiculously foolish move at the end of the book. Though I enjoyed the writing, The House on the Cliff left me wondering if Jessica Mayhew is capable of leading a mystery series.

If you’re so inclined, add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

14th January 2014

pg1*I received this book from the publisher Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review.
Rebus is back on the force after it increases the retirement age in Saints of the Shadow Bible. Though he had to come back as a lowly DS under his former protege Siobhan, now a DI herself, Rebus is eager to get back to the business of solving crime in a more legitimate capacity, having left Cold Cases by the wayside.
The pair’s newest case involves a car accident with a few fishy details. But Rebus’s attention is derailed by a meeting with his former team. At his first posting 30 years ago, Rebus was inducted into the Saints of the Shadow Bible, a group of men who did what they had to – legal or not – to get a collar. When Malcolm Fox of the Complaints (internal affairs) department comes calling, Rebus isn’t sure where he stands. Did his buddies let a murderer go to cover up another crime? Or is this just a case of new procedure versus old?
Rebus is never one to sit idly by and allow investigations to go smoothly, and this novel is no different. What his superiors fail to understand, however, is Rebus’s intent. He has no will to cover up any crime, past or present. In fact, it is his intense need to uncover the truth that so often gets him into trouble as he blasts past procedure.
In Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rankin pulls his past few novels together. When he first introduced Malcolm Fox, I eyed him warily, but here, Rankin pulls Rebus, Clarke (Siobhan) and Fox together brilliantly. Specifically, Fox, I think, begins to grudgingly respect Rebus and his methods, even if he would never approve them. Siobhan, on the other hand, is both helped and hurt by Rebus. She’s a smart detective in her own right, and much of that is owed to Rebus, but she also knows she must tread the line carefully, particularly as a woman in the department.
In some ways, watching Rebus in Saints of the Shadow Bible is watching a man deftly and determinedly setting a path of self destruction. There are crucial moments when instead of doing something just because he thinks it’s right, Rebus seems to make a misstep to intentionally make his situation worse, doggedly holding on to his old ways. He’s obviously facing his mortality – literally and figuratively – both after seeing his former boss in bad health and seeing his methods and means of policing fall by the wayside. Yet it only makes me more eager to see what Rankin does with his character next. Though part of me is sad that I can feel the end coming, I also love waiting to see how or if Rebus will evolve as the world around him does. Which is, of course, why I love this series so much: Rebus is no static character, doomed by his maker into an eternal pattern of solving crime, and watching him interact with other solid characters continues to be a true pleasure.
Saints of the Shadow Bible is out today; add it to your Goodreads shelf.