A Necessary Evil by Abir Muhkerjee (Historical Mystery)

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

Book two in the Captain Sam Wyndham series. Sam is a white Scotland Yard Calcutta police import with a pesky Opium habit. In this book he investigates the murder of the forward thinking heir of Sambalpore — one of the Indian “native states” not formally part of British India. Accompanied by his trusty (and well-educated and far more sympathetic character) sidekick Surrender-not, they unravel the knots of displeasure that might have led to this murder (and a few others as well).

These books always include a lot of interesting history and culture focussed on lesser known parts of what after all is a huge and populous country. It’s always just enough to get me to look up additional detail. Most interesting to me in this one — the whole concept of the “native states” and the Council of Princes the Viceroy was trying to put together; Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; and the use of elephants as a means of execution. There are also many references to the spoken and unspoken rules regarding the roles and interactions between different castes, ethnicities, and colors.

The writing is good — very crisp and clear — and I like the characters. My only complaint might be that I honestly don’t see the point of his even having an opium addiction. It doesn’t really play into the stories at all, and he doesn’t (thankfully) make stupid mistakes because of it. I believe it is to make him more human but really the story would be exactly the same without it.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

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

A new mystery series for me! Post WWI, Scotland Yard’s Captain Sam Wyndham finds himself in Calcutta, heading up a new post in the police force. A senior British official has been found dead in an unsavory part of town, and he is immediately plunged into the nexus of politics, policing, and racial tensions that are near the breaking point.

In this first person narrative, Sam is a remarkably self aware Englishman who is constantly noting the inequities that constitute the British Empire in India. He works to tease apart the agendas, morals, and corruption of those around him with the aid of the bitter Digby — ten years in the Imperial Police Force and passed over for promotion — and the Indian sergeant Surindher Bannerjee known as “Surrender-not” by the English speaking officers who can’t manage his name.

Lots of interesting history, wry humor, and individual philosophy. I was particularly interested in the depiction of the different cultures within India — most specifically the Bengali personality within Calcutta. Very engaging.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Historical mystery)

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

The Bombay Prince is the third title in the Perveen Mistry series. 1920s India — Perveen is Bombay’s first female solicitor. With prestigious legal training from Oxford, as a woman she is not eligible for a degree. This particular story takes place during the 1921-22 Indian visit of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. With Gandhi’s call for a hartal (boycott) and others anxious to show loyalty to the crown, a great deal of violence and turmoil ensures. And in the middle of this, the body of a young female student is found on the missionary college grounds.

While the pacing is a little slow for me, the writing is good and the characters and historical situation are well described and embroidered with detail. I learned a lot from the descriptions of different religious groups, practices, and attitudes towards independence, toward the British, and toward women. Individual characters representing foreign journalists, businessmen, servants, and others were all well-done and enlightening. I’ll plan to go back and read the first two.

Thank you to Soho Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 1st, 2021.

The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs (Mystery)

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

I haven’t read any of Reichs’ previous Temperance Brennan books but I’ve seen a few seasons of the TV show so I’m familiar with the characters. In this installment, Tempe (forensic anthropologist extraordinaire) goes up against a vicious killer who appears to have struck again after a 15 year hiatus. In a timely subject, the mystery centers around vaccines and genetic engineering, including details about CRISPR gene editing (the work which netted the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry). Full of wry commentary, some romance, and plenty of forensic detail, the story is a gripper. My only complaint — and this is a spoiler alert — is that part of the story depends on using a vaccine to spread bad juju to unwitting recipients. With all the anti-vaxxers freaking out about vaccines, do we really need that in the story?

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
This was a real palate cleanser for me. A light and funny murder mystery written by a woman who typically writes award-winning Steampunk and Horror novels. Leda Foley is an “inconsequential psychic” who is struggling to get over the murder of her fiancée (Tod) a few years before. Her life consists largely of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” at a local bar and getting her travel agency (Foley’s Far-Fetched Flights of Fancy) going. Until one day she manages to save the life of a Seattle cop who is investigating a murder that just might be tied to Tod’s murder … Lots of fun references to the Seattle goth scene (I think? Some scene anyway!) and favorite (to me) places such as Elliot Bay Books and the Seattle Central Library. Irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Some good quotes: Quotes:
• “But this was the granddaddy of them all — eleven geometrically styled stories of pure, weapons-grade knowledge.” (About the Seattle Central library)
• “Dude pronoun for the sake of statistical likelihood, though I wouldn’t count out his wife. If anyone hated that guy as much as I did, it’s probably her.”
• “Steve folds like a paper crane any time someone mentions about the cops.”
• “… and a waistcoat with a pocket watch that said he visited the nineteenth century in his downtime, for funsies.”
• “An army of ankle-high canines spilled out of the house, swarmed Grady’s feet like furry piranhas, and followed both men back inside — where they thoroughly sniffed the newcomer, deemed him harmless, and immediately began fighting over whose belly he’d pet first.”

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 26th, 2021.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Keep writing, Elly! I always look forward to a new Ruth Galloway book and it never disappoints. I’m so glad Ms. Griffiths is making good use of her pandemic time to up her (already high) prolificity (I may have made that word up — not sure).

These books are a great mix of mystery and novel — full of Norfolk folk lore and history with plenty of archeology — with no repeats so far. In this novel we also get a group of Detectorists (defined as a person whose hobby is using a metal detector); an interesting (fictional but plausible) theory about the Beaker people who came to Britain about 4400 years ago and left only 10% of the native population after 200 years; and a timely plot line around dangerous and illegal vaccine trials. A high body count, some progression in the Nelson / Ruth saga, and a variety of eccentric and interconnected characters make this a real page-turner. Enjoy!

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 June 29th, 2021.

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

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

Number 16 in the Maisie Dobbs series starts in October, 1941. As Britain is well immersed in WWII, Maisie is working with the War Office to psychologically vet potential recruits for undercover work in Nazi Germany — young, determined men and women who face low survival rates. Simultaneously, Maisie gets involved in a murder witnessed by a young (and disbelieved) boy that ties into high-level espionage with high-level allies.

I like the Maisie Dobbs series because each book moves us forward in time. Starting in the post WWI era, each installment features challenging situations that are set in the specific events of that period of history — it reminds me of one of my favorite British mystery series: Foyle’s War. Maisie is an interesting and ever-evolving character, leading an unusual investigation practice that blends psychology, forensic science, philosophy, and compassion in approaching tangled, often avoided or ignored problem knots. An appealing cast of expanding supporting characters helps set the mood and context.

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 23rd, 2021.

The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (Mystery / Thriller)

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

Carol Goodman writes the most intriguing, convoluted, surprising novels. She is a master of setting the mood (in this case — creepy, mysterious, righteous, and fearful). The Stranger Behind You is a woman-centric, Gothic-style, mystery-thriller whose plot lines and main characters keep twisting together in unexpected ways. It all comes together beautifully but with constant surprises and a real sense of not ever feeling like you know the characters all the way. The theme might be — you never know who you can trust. Parallel stories weave together police corruption, mobsters from the past, and #metoo style manipulation of women. I’m not generally a reader of books that induce anxiety or stress, and I did have to limit myself to daytime reading for the first third of the book — but it was not the kind of thriller that induces too much anxiety (for me). I’m not a fan of heavy-handed books where all the men are horrible and the women manage to thrive regardless, so let me hasten to say that this is not one of those books. There are some pretty nasty men, and a few nasty women — but there are also plenty good men and women and possibly even a delightfully drawn and mysterious guiding spirit. Enjoy trying to figure out which is which in advance!

Great writing, great storytelling.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 6th, 2021.

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (YA / Mystery / Thriller / Romance)

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

I loved this book! Daunis Fontaine is 18 years old, 6 feet tall, an ice hockey ace, and a science whiz. While she grows up in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan with her white mother and grandparents she is also deeply ingrained in the local Ojibwa community of her father. What starts off looking like an upbeat teen romance takes a sharp left turn and becomes mystery, intrigue, and thriller (romance takes a back seat — pun intended). The plot keeps swerving — surprise after surprise after surprise — with Daunis giving us an intelligent and fiercely community oriented view of the ride. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll give you a hint — Daunis ends up being a Confidential Informer (she calls it being a Secret Squirrel) for law enforcement.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way the many characters in the Ojibwa community are portrayed. While references to past injustices are present and individual incidents of prejudice occur (Daunis and her friend like to play Bigotry Bingo — see quote below), they are not front and center. This is a novel of today — various members of the community are successful (by personal definitions of the word) while others are not; some are greedy and conniving while others are supportive and helpful; some have drug and alcohol problems while others have steered clear. In other words, no group stereotypes and no group victimhood. An array of well-drawn individual characters.

Daunis is a great character — I love her scientific approach to life, her fearless and unconcerned approach to typically male endeavors, and her deep involvement with the tribal culture and people. Great themes, great unfolding of the many mysteries past and present, and an absorbing view into a culture unlike my own. Ojibwa is a matriarchal society, and the story includes many strong women characters of all ages. I enjoyed the embedded language and cultural practice tutorials.

A couple of quotes:
“When Lily and I were on Tribal Youth Council, we all played a game called Bigotry Bingo. When we heard a comment that fed into stereotypes, we’d call it out. Dream catchers were the free space. Too easy. There are so many others though. ‘You don’t look Native.’ ‘Must be nice to get free college.’ ‘Can you give me an Indian name for my dog?’ ”

“My mother’s superpower is turning my ordinary worries into monsters so huge and pervasive that her distress and heartache become almost debilitating.”

“When you love someone, but don’t like parts of them, it complicates your memories of them when they’re gone.”

Thank you to Henry Hold & Co 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.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton (Mystery)

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

I’m loving this new (to me) mystery series. Thin Ice is book one which I’m reading out of order after enjoying the pre-release of book two (Cold Wind). Beth Rivers has run away to the small (fictional) town of Benedict, Alaska to hide from her still-on-the-loose kidnapper. Growing up with the local police chief (her grandfather), she has a talent for crime scene measurement and an education in deduction. She is also a well-known (by pseudonym) crime novelist. All make her useful in helping solve cases in her new (temporary?) home. The plots of both books blend the solving of a current murder with Beth’s slow memory recall of her harrowing kidnapping experience and the search for the perpetrator.

So what attracts me to this series? I love the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness; I love the lack of filler and just-the-right-level and not over-the-top amount of tension; but mostly I love the characters who populate the town: Viola, the tough-as-nails manager of the halfway house; Orin, the peace-sign flashing librarian and computer genius; Gril, the relocated Chicagoan grizzled police chief; and others. This reminds me of what I originally loved about the Louise Penny novels — characters that I can both admire and like!

The writing is decent — clear, not full of fluff, moves along. I like the straightforward, first person tone — as she is telling the story Beth admits to her ignorance, reflects on how she is handling things and what she needs to do to improve, and what she is thinking when she moves forward with “stupid” decisions.

I haven’t tried her other series but I’ll probably give them a try!