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.

 

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

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

Ex-editor / publisher Susan Ryeland is living in a not-so-glorious involuntary retirement in Crete after the events of Horowitz’ Magpie Murders in which her primary author (Alan Conway) was murdered and her publishing company offices burned to the ground. Now she is approached by a pair of distraught parents who want to help find Cecily Treherne, their missing daughter. Why Susan? Because just before she went missing Cecily had called them to say that upon rereading Conway’s Atticus Pund Takes the Case, she realized that the wrong person had been jailed eight years ago for a murder taking place in the Treherne hotel. I love British murder mysteries but I am constantly amazed that anyone is left alive in the country!!

This is a murder mystery steeped in literary detection. Right in the middle of the novel we are treated to the entire text of Atticus Pünd Takes the Case to try to decipher what Cecily read. I didn’t figure it out and neither will you (let me know if I’m wrong — I’d love to hear!). The literary “clues” are deeply embedded in the book and we need the main character to unpack them for us. Luckily there are also a lot of un-literary clues that follow more traditional murder mystery lines.

Lots of fun to read, though I admit to having had a hard time keeping track of the initial characters once the book-within-a-book began (it is not short). Horowitz is an adaptable writer — he does a great job of writing in the style of another (his Sherlock Holmes stories are a case in point). The embedded Atticus Pünd book is in the style of Agatha Christie and Pünd himself is a thinly disguised Poirot (I literally just finished watching the entire David Suchet series so it was easy to spot).

Possibly a little long — especially the embedded book. I like the Horowitz style of writing better than the Agatha Christie-like writing so that also added to the feeling of wanting to get back to the main story a little faster. As always, though, the plot twists were just the right amount of convoluted and surprising. Worth reading.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 10th, 2020.

 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Mystery)

Coopers Chase retirement village — a place where everyone has done something interesting with his or her life and everyone has a story. And trouble with technology, memory, and joints. They aren’t afraid to play the dementia card if it suits them. The Thursday murder club meets every — you guessed it — Thursday to talk about cold cases to see if they can solve the cases to its own satisfaction. That is, until a real murder falls into their lap. And then another, and possibly a third.

Sounds like your everyday cozy but it isn’t at all. The ocatgenarians of the club are interesting and smart: 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.

The plot is convoluted with all sorts of intertwining stories, some with actual bearing on the case and others simply with bearing on individual lives. Great writing that had me in stitches, completely gripped, and even tearful at times.

My one word summary: fun! Make that two words: Great fun!

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 22nd, 2020.

 

The Cousins by Karen McManus (YA / Mystery)

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Dec. 1, 2020.

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

Another excellent YA thriller / mystery by Karen McManus who seems to have an endlessly twisted repertoire of stories stored in her brain. These books are hard to put down — well-written with engaging characters and a set of twists that I never quite figure out until it is too late.

The Cousins is about three cousins who are each invited to work at the resort owned by the grandmother who cut off all ties with their parents decades ago. Secrets abound and are unraveled at just the right pace. While it is labeled as a thriller, and I was on the edge of my seat, I didn’t find it to be anxiety provoking. Thriller-lite?

As a side note, isn’t it funny that teen angst is so refreshing in a pandemic? It’s so soluble!

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I gulped this book down in (almost) a single sitting. Perfect for long quarantine days: part novel with great characters who have evolved over the 12 books in Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway series and part mystery with all that closure we crave in these anxious days.

Four dead woman and a convicted murderer, but do they have the right man? In this installment, Ruth has moved to Cambridge with a new partner and a new job but is drawn back to Norfolk by the prisoner offering to disclose the location of additional bodies if Ruth promises to do the excavation. An artist colony and cycling group feature prominently in the story with plenty of local history, folklore, and archeological digs. All our favorite characters are back, each slowly progressing in their own long term narrative arcs.

Now I just have to wait for the next one…

p.s. For those who are new to this series, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who, before this book, lived in a remote area near Norfolk amidst the marshes near the sea. She works with the large and brooding but spectacularly capable Detective Chief Inspector Nelson. Another favorite character is Cathbad — part-time University employee and full-time modern druid. You can start the series anywhere, really, but the it never hurts to start at the beginning!

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 July 14th, 2020.

One Fatal Flaw by Anne Perry (Mystery)

Like many people, I’m sticking to light and entertaining books these days.  Although I’m not posting a review of it (because I’ve already read it 4 times and multiple reviews is CHEATING) my favorite go-to destresser book is Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins.  Just in case you need it!

And now for this latest mystery from Anne Perry…

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 April 7th, 2020.

The third book of Perry’s new series starring twenty five year-old Daniel Pitt (Inspector Thomas Pitt’s now grown son pursuing a legal profession). It’s the first of this series that I have read — decent, twisted, plot; some good characters including Daniel himself and and 40-year old Miriam fforde Croft — a talented scientist who has been denied entrance to an all-male profession. The plot of this novel hinges on the expert testimony of a most unpleasant man who argues that a cracked skull is the result of a fire’s high heat and not a bludgeoning. Strong themes of the importance of justice and proof, and the lengths to which some will go to maintain their (unearned) high reputation.

I liked the themes and the characters — I found the whole thing a little repetitive but overall entertaining.

A Roomful of Bones by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Number four in the Ruth Galloway series — they just get better and better. The whole series has great characters, good writing, and intricate plots. Each installment includes some new piece of history and plenty of character banter on current social topics.

This story includes the surprising contents of of a medieval Abbott’s coffin, a drug ring with a creative transport mechanism, the push to repatriate a collection of Aboriginial bones, and of course, a couple of mysterious deaths. The regulars — now single-mom forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway, the gruff and somewhat tormented DCI Nelson, and the intuitive Druid Cathbad — are joined by an Aboriginal visiting scholar, a trans local expert on Bishop Augustine, and the Lord who owns the local museum and racing stables.

Fast, engaging, read. I’ve already ordered number five.

Backpacking Book Review #1 …

A recent backpacking trip left me exhausted and able only to read genre books — so here are reviews of three Mystery / Women’s Fiction / Romance novels that were quite enjoyable for a relaxing read on a rock facing gorgeous scenery. Review number 1…

Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

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 December 3rd, 2019.

The 5th book in Griffith’s Magic Men series, this episode takes place in Brighton in 1964. The Mods and the Rockers are coming into the public eye, getting into brawls and leading to moral panic amongst the British. DI Edgar Stephens (newly promoted to Superintendent) is investigating a string of missing girls though all the best ideas seem to come from his wife (previously his star sergeant and now frustrated mother of three), her equally frustrated journalist friend Sam, and the very tall, 19-year old, WPC Meg Connolly, a promising new policewoman. For those not in the know (like me), WPC stands for ‘Woman Police Constable” (the term was discontinued in 1999).

I’m a big Elly Griffiths fan, but haven’t read any books in this series. In comparison with the Ruth Galloway series and her standalone novel, I found this book to be a little more disjointed — particularly in the beginning where much of the text seemed extraneous to either the plot or the characters. However, the plot was gripping and I found the focus on intelligent women in constrained circumstances managing to accomplish a great deal fascinating. The sixties seem not that long ago (to some of us), but cultural expectations for women were vastly different than they are now. Reading the descriptions of the earlier four books, they seem to focus much more on DI Stephens and Max Mephisto (the variety magician), while this one seems to relegate them to a secondary role in solving the mystery. Interesting!

A Better Man by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
The latest installment of the beloved Inspector Gamache series is a bit disappointing, to be honest. I loved every one of her books until Glass Houses which I thought was terrible. After that came Kingdom of the Blind which was gratifyingly back to Penny’s typical level of excellence. Unfortunately, A Better Man appears to be a regression. It’s a decent story — Gamache and crew try to find a missing, frequently abused, woman and, eventually, identify her murderer. In the background is the threat of an every one-hundred-years flood, Gamache’s demotion to Head of Homicide after a nine month suspension, and the potential clash between Gamache and Beauvoir for the three overlapping weeks where they both wear the same title. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written, repetitive, and trite.

The book is overly emotional — many pages are devoted to Gamache and Beauvoir imagining their own feelings had it been their daughter who had been abused and eventually murdered. And while I love Gamache’s calm, steady, and kind manner, I swear that word kindness was presented multiple times on each page. It was as though Penny didn’t trust her readers to get the message and felt she had to repeat it over and over again. Or maybe she just didn’t have enough plot to fill the pages.

It was not a hard book to read — her writing style is clean and the plot twists were interesting. There were a few scenes in Three Pines which I always enjoy, but even there I think her characters have run their course — there is nothing new, and watching all of the hand wringing has become boring.

She also included a fairly shallow portrayal of a woman named Dominica Oddly — an all-powerful online art critic who, using her extremely popular online presence, could build or destroy artists with a single post. Oddly’s description was “wild black woman in dreadlocks and combat boots,” but she was given no further depth. This was combined with some plot around the dangers of social media with two tweet storms causing real pain for two of the characters. I feel like Penny is trying to update her fictional world but doesn’t have enough real understanding of it herself to give the characters the kind of depth she has been so successful with.