A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

The start of a new mystery series (and her first stab at the mystery genre, no pun intended) by one of my favorite historical fiction writers — Julia Kelly. WWII – London – 1940. There is a body, there is a mole in Whitehall, and there is a smart, sharp heroine who insists on equal billing with the agent assigned to ferret out the answers. Best of all — the action takes place in the Churchill War Rooms with a detailed and accurate (as far as my two fascinating visits to the place informs) depiction of the environment and activities within. As always, she really brings it all to life! A nice complicated plot, characters with good backstories, and of course, a time period and place that is rife with opportunities for mystery.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

The Last Remains by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Thank you to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 25th, 2023

Number 15 in the Norfolk based, archeologist Ruth Galloway series. I’ve read every single one so obviously think it’s a great series! This one takes place in mid-2021, smack dab in the middle of Covid lock downs / ease ups, etc. In this story, a body is found bricked up in the wall of a local cafe during remodeling which is quickly identified as the body of a young student who had gone missing in 2002. The regulars are all back: single-mom forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, the gruff and somewhat tormented DCI Nelson, and the intuitive Druid Cathbad. As always, plenty of history — both bone and myth related. One character suffers from Long Covid, declining enrollments threaten to shut down the archeology department of the University of North Nofolk, and — for those who have been following the series — I will say (with no spoilers) that there is some real closure on one aspect of the long range storyline. Also, a delightful surprise near the end of the book.

Always enjoyable — read in a day.

The Bones of the Story by Carol Goodman (Thriller)

A highly selective literary honor society at the Briarwood school in upstate New York. An even more selective senior writing seminar with a famous writer. A group of students who would do anything to get into both. What happened then? What is happening now, 25 years years later? In this eerie, academically oriented, psychological thriller, Carol Goodman explores themes of vengeance, retribution, guilt, and the impact of one’s “minor” misdeed on the person who feels wronged. Lots of literary references for me, plenty of action and Agatha Christie style “pop em off one by one until you suspect absolutely everybody,” and a surprise ending. I did have a little trouble keeping track of all the characters — my advice is just to write down the names as they are introduced so you don’t forget any 🙂

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 11th, 2023

Murder at Midnight by Katharine Schellman

Number four in the Lily Adler series, it is the first I have read, and I quite enjoyed it! I was looking for a nice palette cleansing non-stressful mystery, and this fit the bill beautifully. A regency era (1816) mystery starring the widow, Lily Adler. A snowstorm (according to the author’s note, based on the historical “Year Without a Summer” resulting from the eruption of Mount Tambora) forces a number of Christmas Ball attendees to stay the night. The next morning, one of the party is discovered — quite dead — in the chicken coops.

Regency manners, the impact of scandal on women, the greater (unspoken) freedoms allowed a widow over an unmarried woman and two (!) hints of lesbianism pepper a narrative surprisingly free of filler and with some Upstairs / Downstairs thrown in. Lily Adler is smart, self assured, and takes charge of cases without having to beg, look demure, or manipulate — bravo! The plot is clever, twisted, and not obvious (though I did figure it out before the end), and I liked the characters. There were tiny bits of romance tossed in, but of a more Austenian style — there are bodices but they are never, ever, ripped.

I’ll probably go back to check out volumes one to three as I am always happy to discover a nice, reliable, series.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 19th, 2023

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto (Cozy Mystery)

This book really grew on me. At first I just thought it was a (very silly) cozy mystery, but in reality the mystery is just an excuse for Vera Wong — a kind of Chinese Mary Poppins — to make everything better for everyone. Definitely upbeat!

Vera Wong runs a tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Vera Wang’s World Famous Tea House in fact, though it is named after the famous Vera Wang not the proprietor Vera Wong, and doesn’t appear to be very terribly famous as it rarely has any customers. Everything changes one morning, though, when Vera heads down to the shop and finds a dead body clutching a thumb drive on the floor. Based on her unshakeable premise that a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, Vera soon has four “suspects” who, while still under suspicion (from Vera’s perspective), also become close friends and subjects for Vera’s meddlesome, tyrannical and yet heartfelt ways.

What started as a kind of stereotypical Chinese auntie persona for Vera really blossomed with individual personality as the story went on. One of my favorite scenes: Vera reads Rumplestiltskin to an impressionable young girl and rails against the utter stupidity of the story in favor of an alternative Chinese folk story that addresses the situation … differently. Some actual interesting comments on tea as well. And the resolution of the mystery nicely surprising. Very pleasant read.

Some good quotes:

“In Chinese culture, respect only flows in one direction, from the younger to the older, like a river. The older generation doesn’t owe the younger ones respect; if any is given it is done so out of kindness and generosity, not necessity.”

“Lipton, like many other Western brands of black tea, uses inferior tea leaves that are then roasted at a higher temperature, killing all traces of subtle flavoring. The result is a strong black tea that can stand up to aggressive boiling and generous amounts of sugar and milk.”

As an opening line, this one tickled me: “Vera Wong Zhuzhu, age sixty, is a pig, but she really should have been born a rooster.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 14th, 2023

Winter’s End by Paige Shelton

Number four in Shelton’s Alaska series following Beth Rivers in tiny-town Benedict, Alaska. Beth — a famous novelist in hiding in Alaska after a traumatic kidnapping that occurred before the first book in this series.

This episode starts with the annual Death Walk — where every citizen is expected to come to town and “be seen” after the long winter to make sure everyone made it through.
Add a longstanding feud between two families, a budding friendship for Beth that ends abruptly when her friend goes missing, some rumors of gold, and a charming new criminal who is “assigned” to the halfway house where Beth is living and you have the recipe for an easy-to-read, fun, cozy. (My) Favorite town characters — Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; and Gril, the relocated Chicagoan grizzled police chief continue to be involved, and I enjoyed getting to “say hello” through my reading.

In truth, I have no reason to believe that anything in this series is particularly realistic about living in a small town in Alaska. I don’t have any real reason not to believe it either. It doesn’t really matter; I like the community, I like the specific characters, I like the plots, and I always have a fun time reading them. Oddly enough, I don’t particularly enjoy her other series, but I really love this one!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on December 6th, 2023

Hard Rain by Samantha Jayne Allen (Mystery)

Second in the series about budding PI, Annie McIntyre.

Small town Garnett, Texas is suffering from a (very) wet natural disaster as heavy rain causes the river to jump its banks and bring massive floods. Preacher’s wife and old friend Bethany Richter hires Annie to find the man who rescued her from the flood while being swept off himself. The case gets muddied when the trail leads to a woman who is found dead in her truck, floating in the river. But she didn’t drown — she was shot. Nice and convoluted, with a wide variety of characters from drug dealers to preachers to drifters to Annie’s atypical family, their circle of friends, and their ties to law enforcement.

For me it was a little too long — I favor a more spare prose — but if you’re enjoying the story you night appreciate all of the novelistic commentary on scenery, character background, and fully fleshed out experiences. Annie suffers from occasional bouts of self-doubt which I hope she has less often in the future (I like to see characters grow!)

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 April 18th, 2023

A World of Curiosities by Louis Penny (Literary Mystery)

Number 18 in the extremely (and understandably) popular Inspector Gamache from Louise Penny. An absolute page turner; I read it in just a couple of sittings (was preparing to host a party — had to take some breaks to cook and clean!).

In addition to the actual who-done-it or who-is-about-to-do-it plot line, I found it full of scenarios that triggered thought about when to trust your instincts and how even well-trained professionals can be subject to bias and manipulation. Also — despite Gamache’s overwhelming kindness and ability to see potential in people who have been tossed aside by the rest of humanity — the book appears to admit to some people being beyond redemption, broken to the point of no return, even hinting at some genetic predisposition to “badness.”

As always, the book is full of interesting arcana — literary references, historical notes, and art commentary, including a full description of an enormous (and unfortunately fictional as I would love to see it) painting called “A World of Curiosities.”

I can definitely pick a few holes of the “why wouldn’t he have thought of that” variety, but why bother? Completely gripping.

A Most Intriguing Lady by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Not at all my typical read but I confess I did find it entertaining. A “Novel of the Victorian era,” it reads like a (much) steamier Jane Austen style novel (and yes, I know that Austen was Georgian period, not Victorian, but it still has lifestyle similarities in my mind). In Ferguson’s novel, there is a stronger (and more interesting) theme of well-born women wanting more from their life than obedience to husband, mother to children, and gardening. They want to be useful. At least our heroine, Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, daughter of Queen Victoria’s good friends, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, wants that and wants it very much indeed. Intelligent and determined, she becomes a kind of (unpaid) lady detective, focussing on issues that call for a knowledge of society and utter discretion. There is also a non-traditional romance fluttering through the pages as Lady Mary struggles to integrate her strong attraction (both physical and mental) to a Darcy-style Colonel Trefusis with her desires to have a full life that does not involve subservience to another being.

Most of the characters in the novel were real people and the authors (in small print it does say “with Marguerite Kaye”) go into the historical detail about their real lives as well as the history of women detectives which I found quite interesting. One expects that by her rank and previous membership in the Royal Family, Ferguson has a kind of “in” when it comes to the kind of house parties, hunts, and what not that populate a novel of this sort. I can’t verify any of it but I enjoyed reading it and am now extra thankful that a) I live in an era where being a woman did not limit me in any way and b) that I do not ever have to attend any of what appears to be the most tedious gatherings on Earth!

I enjoyed the more modern take on an historic period. While the time period is not necessarily known (to me) for women empowerment or feminist leanings, Lady Mary’s feelings and worries did not feel at all anachronistic, and I could readily identify with her. I liked the balance between the description of time and place, the types of mysteries, the romance, and Lady Mary’s inner thoughts and motivations. Again, not my typical book but I did quite enjoy it!

Thank you to Avon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 7th, 2023

Holmes Coming by Kenneth Johnson (Audio book)

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

Pretty entertaining audio book with a fantastic radio-style cast of readers (including the author) who make it a very entertaining background for driving or long, solo walks. Part speculative fiction, part crime novel, and part literary novel, the premise is that Hubert Holmes (the real man behind Sherlock) put himself into a cryogenic hibernation and woke up a few years early in 2022 in a Marin based manor home maintained faithfully through the years by successive generations of Hudsons. With the help of Dr. Winslow (a female pediatrician who happened to be visiting the house when Holmes “woke up”), Holmes discovers not only a fresh but a world with decidedly different moral tenets, attitudes towards women, and delightful sources of data (think — Internet).

Nicely convoluted plot, some very good characters, fantastic readers (loved all of the accents), and some fun and thought tweaking contrasts between the world of 1899 and 2022 as seen through the eyes of someone who “popped” quickly from one to the other. Personally, I had a little trouble with the superior attitude of Dr. Winslow who continually pointed out Holmes’ inferior empathy / emotional engagement attributes (but oddly enough I had no problems with his superior attitude towards … everything else. Go figure!). She was actually my least favorite character but perhaps that says more about me than the book. I happen to love know-it-alls (men or women) who actually do know-it-all and don’t always like others putting them in their place for not “playing well with others.” As I said … more about me than the book!