A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King (Literary Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

The first in the Kate Martinelli mystery series (for which she won an Edgar), and I’m completely hooked! Completely bizarre, twisted plot, fully developed characters and tight writing. Writing quality is right up there with Louise Penny (which I don’t say a lot) — feels more like literary fiction embedding an intriguing mystery rather than a (boring) cozy or a mystery that is all plot/action filled with stock characters.

A serial killer has begun murdering young girls, depositing them all on a road in the midst of an odd colony outside of San Francisco. A seasoned cop and a newly promoted Detective (Kate) have been assigned the case with no real leads — and then they find out that one of the colony residents was associated with a similar crime many years before …

Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this book — a complete page turner with engaging characters, a twisted plot, and a hippie commune backstory that I just loved. Raquel Laing is an unintentionally non-conforming behavioral investigator for the SFPD — working on an old serial killer case (The Highwayman) when a body is unearthed from beneath a giant statue on the Gardener Estate outside of Palo Alto, California. The statue was erected 50 years ago — could this be another of the Highwayman’s victims?

This is the perfect kind of mystery for me — character driven, never boring but also never stressful (except for a short bit at the end), and a plot and backstory that never allow my interest to flag. Plenty of interesting psychological details on all the characters — including the serial killer lying in a hospital bed. I read a few of Laurie King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes books a long time ago, but I didn’t like the premise (I don’t like books that add their own characters to existing fiction), but I liked this book so much I’m now planning on checking out her non Mary Russell books which look pretty interesting. This is a stand alone novel, though I do see opportunity for additional volumes!

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine, Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 11th, 2022.

The Rising Tide by Ann Cleeves — A Vera Stanhope Novel (Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5
A group of friends have been meeting for reunions on Holy Island for fifty years. One — a particularly obnoxious media star who just lost his job due to a #metoo style accusation — is surprisingly upbeat with a new plan he is hatching. At least until he is found hanging in his room the next morning. Suicide? He didn’t seem the type but … Vera has to untangle a pile of messy relationships and a forty year old tragedy before she gets to the bottom of it. I didn’t figure out whodunnit until very near the end.

I’m a long time fan of the ITV Vera series, but this is the first book (number 10) that I’ve read and ,it was completely impossible to put down! There is a lot more (interesting) depth on the team dynamics and internal states of the main characters — definitely not apparent in the TV series. But Cleeves’ real strength lies in her stories — perfect pacing of new information twisting and shifting current assumptions. No filler (i.e. no gratuitous taking of tea, repeating what everyone knows twenty times to other characters, etc) — constantly kept my brain engaged in trying to figure things out. Some very interesting political commentary as asides to the story — not your standard PC or standard non-PC Stuff.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 6th, 2022.

Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Character:4/5

Number 21 in the Temperance Brennan series. Tempe is a forensic archeologist, and this series is full of interesting technical bits of the trade (sometimes a little too gross for me but so easy to skim if necessary!). This one opens with an unexpected eyeball delivery to her doorstep one find winter morning. From there things escalate rapidly as a madman appears to be copycatting many of Tempe’s cases, but they go off the charts when Tempe’s newly returned Afghanistan vet daughter goes missing. Plenty of action but not a lot of needless stress for the reader (this is a good thing). Some fascinating tidbits about knotology, preppers, and crematorium offerings pepper the mix. Additionally, Reich’s writing style cracks me up — I add a few of her one liners for illustration. This series is the basis for the TV crime drama “Bones.” I’ve only read a few of the books — absolutely not necessary to read in order. Fun read.

Quotes:
“Fine,” I said with the enthusiasm I typically reserve for plunging a toilet.

“The grapes were at least half a decade past their prime. And warm from the hours spent cuddling the sandwich.”

“After waiting out customers with requirements more complex than Patton’s at El Alamein, my turn finally came.”

“Inadequacy vied with melancholy for control of my emotions.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 5th, 2022.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5

A three-layer nested story merging a murder mystery, the evolution of friendships, and some fascinating insight into a writer’s process.

Australian Hannah Tigon is a writer, and in a semi-epistolary shell to the novel, she writes a chapter which is followed by detailed feedback and comments from an e-colleague living in Boston where her story is set. These comments get stranger and stranger as the book evolves. In the story itself, Winifred Kincaid (Freddie) is also a writer — trying to get some work done in the Boston Library when a bloodcurdling scream is heard. She — and the three others nearby — form a friendship after the scream as they try to figure out what happened. In the third layer of the story, she bases her characters on these three new friends.

Twisted. Engaging. Quite well written in the spare, thoughtful style that I like. The story is told from Freddie’s first person perspective and her internal dialog is clever, colorful and full of insight into a writer’s thoughts. I found it interesting that she presented some un-PC perspectives such as a white author bemoaning the fact that he never got to benefit from white privilege (see quote) and took an interesting perspective on race — never telling us the race of the characters while simultaneously being harangued for same by the man sending her feedback.

A few interesting quotes:

“I open my mouth to explain, to assure him that I’m a writer, not a leering harasser, but of course this is the reading room, and one does not conduct a defense while people are trying to read. I do attempt to let him know I’m just interested in him as the physical catalyst for a character I’m creating, but that’s too complex to convey in mime.”

“But they all smile while they talk — that’s the difference I think, that’s what makes it American. Australians don’t seem to be able to smile and talk at the same time — unless they’re lying, of course.”

“I write her terror gently, allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”

“The reality is, I suppose, that I am a straight white man with no diversity disadvantage to offer as a salve for the fashionable collective guilt that rules publishing. I understand that popular correctness demands that men like me be denied to compensate for all the years in which we were given too much. I just wish I’d had a chance to enjoy a little of that privilege before it became a liability.”

“I’m not sure if they have more information or if it is simply an inevitable evolution of sensationalism.”

“Cain smiles at me, and the fact that he’s handsome is again very salient.”

“New, but already beloved, wrapped in the excited crush of friendship’s beginning, untarnished by the annoyances, disappointments, and minor betrayals which come with the passing of time.”

Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

The Shop on Royal Street by Karen White (Mystery / Fiction)

I love Karen White’s Tradd Street series — ghosts, mysteries, and the kind of characters you’d want to befriend (while simultaneously being tempted to wring their little high maintenance necks at times). This book is the first in a spin-off series about Nola Trenholm (step daughter of Tradd Street’s protagonist) who is setting up shop on her own in the Big Easy (where I am conveniently visiting atm for the first jazz fest in three years — hooray!)

Nola buys an historic fixer-upper that comes complete with dissatisfied spirits, a long festering mystery and plenty of architectural pearls.

Well-written and plenty of fun. High in puzzle solving but low in stress.

Tne World of Pondside by Mary Helen Stefaniak (Audio Book / Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5
A rather bizarre story about an “old geezers” home, an online game designed to allow players to experience things their (old geezer) bodies no longer allow, and Robert (the game’s designer) — a (youngish) man near the end of his battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

While initially appearing as a murder mystery (Robert’s body — in wheelchair — is discovered in the pond at the very beginning), it’s really more of a novel following the lives of a set of pretty interesting characters ranging from the “kitchen boy” to the facility’s frustrated director, the nurses and CNAs, and of course, the many inhabitants — all in different states of physical or mental decline.

I listened to this on audio — the reader was very good. It was a little bit slow with more filler than I like, although once I realized it wasn’t actually a murder mystery, the filler magically turned into character development and I was happier. Quite a bit of the story revolved around the “kitchen boy” — who had helped Robert implement the game. A high school dropout who was a bit of a loner, I found him likable but kind of slow for my taste. Still, he did develop nicely giving a kind of hopeful view about those who don’t have an easy time making their way in our society.

Overall an interesting listen (I would probably have preferred to read as I could have made my way through it much faster, and it wouldn’t have felt so slow paced).

Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on April 19th, 2022.

The Key to Deceit by Ashley Weaver (Mystery)

A real palette cleanser — light, fun, non-standard characters, the closure of a good mystery, and some historical context. The second in the Electra McDonnell series (I have not yet read the first), the semi-reformed Ellie (her family was happily living on the wrong side of the law) teams up again with the well-bred and straight-laced Major Ramsey to break up a spy ring in London, 1940. Some very likable thieves and forgers, a pleasant clash or classes, and a background mystery concerning Ellie’s own (long deceased) mother all make this a great read in the cacophonous world of today!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 21st, 2022.

Racing the Light by Robert Crais (Action / Mystery)

Elvis is back! Well, Elvis Cole that is — sorry — couldn’t help myself! Cole and his quiet (but definitely-the-guy-you-want-to-have-your-back) partner, Joe Pike, help an old woman find her missing adult son, Josh. But it’s not just any old woman and not just any missing son. Adele Schumacher pays in cash, doesn’t trust phones, and talks about conspiracies and aliens as obvious facts. She has a couple of very buff “helpers” who follow her everywhere. And Josh is the controversial podcaster of In Your Face with Josh Shoe (with a listenership of approximately 20 people).

Laugh out loud funny, with plenty of action (the good kind where a lot happens and it happens quickly but we don’t have to suffer through long car chases or drawn out battles — ugh) and plenty of colorful characters. A fast and thoroughly enjoyable read. This is book 19 but you can really start anywhere — a few references to previous cases but nothing problematic.

Thank you to G.P Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 1st, 2022.

A Sunlit Weapon by Winspear

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

Historical mystery at its best. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a “psychologist and investigator” well connected with both the war office and the local chapter of Scotland Yard) continues to solve complex crimes while the timeline moves from early WWI (the first volume) through 1942 (WWII) in this 17th installment. Unlike many mystery series, these never get repetitive, nor are they replete with filler (as way too many are!). Each story draws from history to lay out a context in which the particular mystery takes place. The series reminds me of Foyle’s War — one of my favorite British television series — which similarly retells history via specific and accurate events.

The plot of A Sunlit Weapon centers around the women pilots who comprise the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). One crashes near Bromley for no apparent reason, and when a second goes to the area to investigate, she finds an American soldier — a black American soldier — left tied up in a barn with a second (white) soldier missing in action. At the same time Eleanor Roosevelt is heading to Britain, and there is real fear around trying to keep her safe, given that she likes to talk with everyone — particularly those whom others find uninteresting — the workers and the women.

Major themes of racial prejudice pervade — both with the American soldiers (who strive to maintain color segregation in Britain despite the fact that there is no such practice or policy there) and for Maisie’s adopted daughter, whose darker skin tone leads to bullying in the local school. Good writing, appealing characters whose lives also progress from one volume to the next, and a satisfyingly twisted plot. Full of real history — my favorite: the female ATA pilots were the first governmental employees to achieve pay parity with men.

I love this series — hope she keeps going!

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22, 2022.