When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (Literary Fiction / Mystery)

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

A crashed plane in the middle of the night in a small airfield in North Carolina. The dead body of a local black man is found nearby. A sheriff up for reelection in a week and very likely to lose to a younger man who is at the very heart of a good old boy network — to which many of the deputies also belong. And a daughter who returns home suddenly after the heartbreaking loss of her baby. These are the elements of this literary mystery.

The writing is very good in terms of the carefully crafted sentences and the sensitivity and depth of the main characters (Winston Barnes, the sheriff; his daughter; and to some extent Jay, the young black boy who is sent to live with his sister, the now widow of the victim). For me, the plot teetered between gripping and extraneous. Although the crime and the sheriff are front and center, this reads like literary fiction far more than crime fiction and the elements of plot that work to solve the crime are like sudden jagged edges introduced in spurts. I had a very hard time with the characters as well (other than the three I’ve mentioned). They were deeply stereotyped, reinforcing the dangerous divides our country is facing. Bradley Frye — property developer, running against the sheriff for reelection — drives a truck with confederate flags, calls black people the “n” word regularly, and has no trouble terrorizing the town. I also hated the ending — there was enough obvious foreshadowing that it was easy to see what was going to happen but somehow the sheriff didn’t. He behaved uncharacteristically, and I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. The daughter theme resolves but had little to do with the crime plot.

I did enjoy much of the reading, but the ending and the stereotypes were such that I can’t recommend it.

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 was published on September 21st, 2021.

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves (Mystery / audio book)

This is the second book in Cleeves’ new Two Rivers series. The series is already slated to follow predecessors Vera and Shetland into (my) favorite British mystery shows.

An elaborately staged murder — the weapon, a beautiful piece of glass crafted by the victim’s daughter is the first murder to intrude on the idyllic North Devon countryside, but it won’t be the last. Detective Matthew Venn — calm and focused, works with colleagues Jen Rafferty (a now-single mom of two who left Liverpool and an abusive husband to come to Devon) and Ross May, a local boy.

I haven’t read any of Cleeves’ earlier books, but I have watched all of the mini series. What I really liked about reading (listening) to this one is how much depth her characters have. I liked that all the background and ongoing personal lives were integrated into the action — which after all is what life is like. I particularly liked that her characters have depth but are not overflowing with repetitive faults, as in so many of the newer TV series — I suppose that’s to make us readers / watchers happier about our own faults but I would prefer to engage with realistic characters who work to improve themselves than with screw ups who make me feel better about myself.

This was an audio book — the first I’ve ever reviewed. The reader — Jack Holden — was excellent. He read at exactly the right pace (so many readers are simply too slow), a lovely British accent, and good at doing the various accents and voices so that it was always clear who was doing the speaking. I’m not a huge audio book person — I read so fast that an audio book just takes far too long — so I’m very picky about readers and this is one I’d be happy to listen to again.

Complex characters, twisted plot, beautiful environment — I’m definitely going back to read book one and look forward to the ITV series.

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz (Fiction / Humor / Mystery)

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

Funny, acerbic, and irreverent (Lisa Lutz’ signature trio). The action follows two best friends — Luna Grey and Owen Mann. No, they never slept together; yes they are the most important people in each other’s lives.

The story spans time, bouncing between 2003 and 2019 with important (and weird, always weird) flashbacks to the familial primordial ooze from which each has sprung. Four murders — connected but not in the way you think — and an intricate web of secrets, trust, suspicion, and guilt pervade the narrative.

The plot is consistently surprising and the characters engaging — plenty to love and plenty not to love. The pages are full of bizarre details that help us deep dive on who Luna and Owen really are and how they became that way. As an aside, I love the way Lutz describes her minor supporting characters — deftly reducing them to one to two sentence descriptions that capture the essence of what they present to outsiders — it’s a talent.

I always have fun reading Lisa Lutz — I was a big fan of the Spellman Files, but I’m glad she is moving to stand alone stories as I think Izzy Spellman is at the point where she can’t acgtually develop any more without losing what makes her interesting in the first place — the Spellmans are spent!

A few fun quotes:

“Thinking about being good didn’t make you good. Sacrificing individual happiness didn’t make the world a better place.”

“Sam didn’t believe in using words to state the obvious, or fill up silence, or attempt to ease discomfort.”

“I don’t like it when you ask me to explain men to you, like I have special insight into lascivious behavior.”

“He wasn’t Teflon; closer to particleboard. He soaked everything, letting it warp him, become part of him.”

Once, Owen had tried to talk to the guy. He asked Mason what he did when he wasn’t smoking pot. Dude, that’s like a really personal question, was Mason’s response.”

“He was obsessed with variety, which Luna had only recently correlated with his inability to stay faithful.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 25th, 2022.

The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
In this latest book in the (now named) Brighton Mysteries, the newly formed partnership of Emma Holmes (prior WDC and now wife of police chief) and Sam Collins (prior journalist) tackles the murder of 90-year old Bert Billingham, theater impresario and wild womanizer. They were brought into the case by his wife, the unsuitable grandma Verity Malone and star variety performer who had plenty of reasons to kill him herself. Taking place in the 60s, there are many opportunities for inserting the feminist angle — it’s only been 60 years but it’s a bit shocking to remember how things were in those days for women: Emma Holmes was forced to leave the police force when she married; women police officers (WDCs) were not allowed to drive police cars; and God forbid any male made the coffee when needed. Plenty of twists and turns, some fun characters, and a fast, fun read. I still like the Ruth Gallagher series better, but these are definitely worth reading.

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 December 7th, 2021.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarity (Australian Fiction)

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

Impossible to put down, this is a twisted, gripping, family drama / mystery that explores the violence and cruelty as well as the compassion, kindness, and personal development of ordinary people.

Stan and Joy Delaney are tennis obsessed — champs in their youth, they ran a successful school for training and coaching tennis players, including their four tall, talented, (and now adult) tennis offspring. All appears well until one day Joy Delaney disappears, and the police turn their (frankly not so laser focused) gaze on Stan.

Let me hasten to say that this is NOT one of those tense books about false accusations and a man desperate to prove his innocence. What I just described is the structure of the story but not at all the point. The story alternates between the present day and clearly labeled time periods in the past. In Moriarity’s signature style, the plot keeps twisting, the people get more interesting, and sleep becomes impossible as you have to race to the finish. I’ve read many (most?) of Moriarity’s books. Some I like better than others — this is now one of my favorites.

Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman (Fiction / Mystery / Humor)

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

Another fun title (the second) from Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series. In this episode, our four retirement village oldies take on the local drug lord, the useless baddie who attacked their most timid member, and a tangle of spies spying on spies — one of whom happens to be Elizabeth’s very-ex-husband.

A reminder on the characters from my first review: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

As an American, I had not heard of Richard Osman before reading the first book, but I gather he is well-known in Britain as “an English comedian, producer, television presenter, writer, and the creator and co-presenter of the BBC One television quiz show Pointless.” I like his writing a great deal — funny, wry, with characters who could appear dull on the outside but are actually intriguing on the inside (as so many people are if you take a deeper peek). His spare style distills what you need to know without muddying the waters with a lot of extraneous fluff. I gulped it in a single sitting.

BY the way, I feel like I just reviewed Osman’s first book — The Thursday Murder Club (link) but apparently that was about a year ago. Time flies when … everything is closed and you’re stuck in the house? In any case, one benefit of Covid is that every single one of my favorite authors appears to have tripled their productivity. My “to read” pile is overflowing.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White (Fiction / Mystery)

The seventh (and possibly last) book in White’s immensely popular Tradd Street series sees family, romance and historic house restorations Charleston-style (read: expensive and persnickety) come together in this exciting story of betrayal, old and new. And did I mention Ghosts? No? They populate every corner — friendly ghosts, malevolent ghosts, and immensely sad ghosts still seeking justice after many, many, years. For those new to the series, Melanie Trenholm — star realtor, new mother, and label gun enthusiast — can see and often speak to the dead.

A nice combination of women’s fiction (relationship issues, shopping, extravagant theme parties), mystery (cold cases as presented by sad, justice-seeking ghosts), and historical fiction (plenty of interesting research into Charleston’s history as it bears on the cold case du jour). A fun mix of humor and over-the-top lifestyles with complicated plot twists, an overly dramatic research librarian, and intricate treasure hunts. You could certainly read this book on its own, but given the five months to publication, I recommend starting at the beginning with The House on Tradd Street. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the series.

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 Nov. 2nd, 2021.

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.