Cold Wind by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Writing: 3/5

I enjoyed this book — the first Paige Shelton book for me (although it looks like she has written a ton of mysteries across multiple series). I’m a sucker for interesting settings, and I love reading stories that take place in the more remote parts of Alaska. The writing was decent, the characters interesting enough for me to care, and I found the plot intricate and not terribly predictable. I was particularly happy that the book didn’t have a lot of filler which is something I find in a lot of genre fiction — especially when the authors are on their umpteenth episode and appear to have run out of fresh ideas. This was fun, I read it quickly, and I was able to read it at night (not an edge-of-your-seat thriller which is absolutely fine with me!)

This was number two in her Alaska series — I haven’t read number one and was able to figure everything out just fine (but may go back and read the first!)

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 1st, 2020.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

Plot: 3/5 Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Crime novelists keep turning up dead in this second Harbinder Kaur novel by Elly Griffiths. The first to go is Peggy Smith — resident of Seaview Court in Shoreham and murder consultant to the literary stars. While our 35-year old lesbian, Sikh, still-living-at-home detective grumbles her way through the case, she is aided (against her will) by a beautiful Ukranian carer with a history of cybercrime, an ancient BBC producer, and an ex-monk turned coffee shop owner, shyly looking for a woman with quirks.

Griffiths’ books always grow on me — they can start off kind of klunky, but I always get involved and want to finish. I like the characters, and although these are definitely cozies with a capital C, there are enough surprises to keep me going.

I do prefer the Ruth Galloway series — this book felt like it was written a little more quickly, had more filler, and was slower paced than some of her previous books. On the other hand, I’ve had many Galloway books which see the characters fully develop, and I am personally more interested in the details of forensic archeology than I am with literary murder writers. There are a lot of fun crime fiction references (both book and film) that I enjoyed.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Mystery / Literary Fiction)

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

Loved this 5th installment of JK Rowling’s (written as Robert Galbraith) Cormoran Strike books. 925 pages would have been off-putting from any other writer but the pages just flew by. Part mystery / part novel, the books are character driven and — most important to me — the characters are people I am happy to spend 925 pages with!

In this book, Strike and (his now partner) Robin have to one year to solve a cold case — the 40-year old disappearance of a female doctor with a young child at home. The investigative threads have to consider the (temporary, but severe) mental illness of the original investigator, the now incarcerated psychopath whose killing spree overlapped with the disappearance, and the hosts of secrets and red herrings presented by original witnesses who have had forty years to shift their memories and priorities. In the meantime, the agency is handling other bizarre cases and Strike and Robin each have their own issues to face and wade through.

Lots of great dialog reifying individual perspectives on a number of current issues such as Scottish (and Cornish) independence, race relations, social identity theory, gender stereotypes, and dealing with fame (I wonder what informed Rowling’s ideas on that!). Plot delightfully twisted and engaging. Read it in three days and was never tempted to skim.

House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

Thank you to Severn House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 5th, 2021.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

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 February 2nd, 2021.

The Survivors by Jane Harper (Mystery)

A small town on the Tasmanian coast. An intense storm 12 years ago that led to two deaths and a disappearance. And now — the inexplicable murder of a young, well-liked, visiting artist that is somehow connected to events of the past. With Harper’s expert pacing and character development, we witness small town life through two lenses: one where everyone seems an irreproachable member of a tight-knit community and the other where each feels like a reasonable suspect. Through a maelstrom of online community postings, we see how the anonymous amplification of suspicions and accusations can bring a community to its knees. As with all Harper’s books, it is just about impossible to put down.

Thank you to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart (Mystery/Historical Fiction)

The second book in the series and (sadly) the last one for me to read. Another exquisitely written mystery fully evoking the rhythms, culture, and political machinations of early 18th century China (1708 to be exact). In this book, our scholar and prior Imperial librarian Li Du, has stopped in a small valley on the way to Lhasa where his caravan discovers the dead body of a monk with a small white mirror painted on his chest. Thus begins a journey into artistry, beautiful descriptions of relationships of all kinds, and Tulkus — reincarnated lineages, the most powerful of which is the Dalai Lama.

I’m going to miss this series and I hope the author’s latest book (which takes place in London in 1703) does not mean that she has given up on Li Du forever!

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Mystery / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
I am loving these Chinese mysteries by Elsa Hart. They go far beyond genre fiction with beautiful language that brings China in the early 18th century to life — detailed descriptions of history and culture embedded in the story rather than a dry droning.

Li Du was a scholar and a librarian in the Forbidden City before events five years past saw him exiled for his friendship with a man found to be a traitor. In his new life as a “scholar recluse,” Du finds himself in the far corner of China near the Tibetan planes just before the Emperor is due to arrive to predict a solar eclipse and strengthen his divine hold on this remote region. When a Jesuit priest turns up dead, Du feels compelled to learn the truth. The story progresses through the six days preceding the eclipse.

That’s the description, but the story is so much more. I was completely drawn to Li Du — a thoughtful, deliberate and highly moral man with a drive for the truth. I was also drawn to the idea of his quiet scholar’s life with quiet, beautiful physical books, and few people. Hart’s powers of description made me slow down and pay attention (I’m not a description person — I usually skim description in favor of dialog, action, or reflection).

This is the first of a three book series — I’ve already read (and loved) the third. I’m sad that I have just the second to go. I really think the BBC should do a mini-series!

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons (Mystery)

Number 17 in the ever enlightening, ever entertaining Bryant & May series. In this episode, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) — finally tipped over the brink of being shut down permanently — is “temporarily” reinstated to solve a series of high profile murders that appear to be following the verses of the age old children’s nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”

As always, the writing has me in stitches as well as completely gripped by the story. We have an intriguing new character — Sydney — who when queried about whether or not she is “on the spectrum” responds that she prefers to think of herself as “over the rainbow.” When accused of being offended by something, she responds “It’s the millennials who take offense. I’m Generation Z.” I love her. Each of the misfits of the PCU is bursting with an off-canter personality of some sort, especially Arthur Bryant who dwells happily in the arcana of existential English history and alternate forms of knowledge.

And also as always, I never saw the end coming until it smacked me in the face.

This is a unique mystery series — I’ve never read another one quite like it.

Thank you to Ballantine Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on NovDecember 8th, 2020.