The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I really like Elly Griffiths and I guess I now have to go back to start the series from the beginning. Good writing, appealing characters, twisted plots that I don’t figure out until the end and lots of archeology and pagan traditions thrown in. I did notice that her “families” are largely non-traditional — I actually had a little trouble keeping up with who was partnered with whom and who fathered whose children — but found the variety interesting and possibly more in keeping with the times? Gorgeous (but not too lengthy) landscape descriptions of Norfolk and coastal environs. This is #11 and I’ve only previously read #9. The characters definitely develop across the series so while I was never “lost” I definitely need to start at the beginning if I want to get to know the people as well as enjoying the story. Unlike some other series I’ve read, she is still pumping out full stories and not bulking out with lots of filler because the basic idea has run out of steam…

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

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

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

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 December 10th, 2019.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mystery)

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

Thank you to Mulholland Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Race is always front and center in this second “Highway 59 Mystery” book following the work of black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. In this episode, he is investigating the disappearance of a 9-year old white boy whose father (now incarcerated) was big in the Aryan Brotherhood. At the outset, it seems likely that the boy will be following in his father’s footsteps based on his early and nasty harassment of his black and native American neighbors. Set in the time period of the Trump election, the plot tangles together potential hate crimes, peculiarities of East Texas geography, and convoluted connections to history, family, and communities whose borders are not always what they seem. The latter is where Locke really shines.

The writing is good, the characters have real depth (FYI the black characters are far more sympathetic than any of the white ones). Darren Matthews is a great lead — strong, competent, and human — driven from an intense moral core. I appreciated his constant struggles with the morality of his actions, coupled with an awareness of his own flaws.

I read an advance reader copy and did find the writing to be a little muddier and in need of editing than the first novel (which I thought was spectacular). This is a solid mystery — convoluted plot, deep characters, good writing — but it doesn’t achieve the literary level of book one in which I found many, many, lines of perfect craft and deep beauty (see my review of the prior novel — Bluebird, Bluebird  — at:https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2018/11/07/bluebird-bluebird-by-attica-locke/).

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5

I love Jane Harper — this is her second book written and the third that I have read. I seem to like them best in reverse order of their writing which bodes well for the future!

In this book, five women set off on a multi-day trek into dense bush as part of a corporate retreat (note to self: Never go on a corporate retreat of this sort! Never!). Only four of them come back. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk — who features in Harper’s The Dry — gets involved as the missing woman has been an informer for his work in the Federal Financial Investigations Unit. Lots and lots of complexity, psychology, strange relationships, suspicion, and suspense. Told in chapters alternating between what Falk and his partner are discovering and what actually happens during the four days the women are out. As the personalities of the five women slowly unravel during their ordeal, Falk is simultaneously coming to terms with his own.

A complete page turner — a kind of modern-day, corporate version of Lord of the Flies amidst threads of money laundering, serial killers, anorexia, and fear.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (Mystery)

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

The latest in Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (#15) finds Maisie investigating the murder of Catherine Saxon — the irrepressible American journalist from a wealthy, politically connected, and a defiantly isolationist family.

This series never feels stale — each volume moves forward in time (the first took place in 1929 and we’re up to 1940 now) and is based on a factual piece of British History. In this case, the Blitz and the effort to get the U.S. to enter the war. Woven into the plot is Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-Hitler, then American ambassador to England and the U.S. Organization America First. I’m sure it’s not an accident that she chose this particular topic for this year’s entry.

Always fun to read these — very little “filler,” a twisted plot, and Maisie’s character progresses as well.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction / Mystery)

I’m a big McCall Smith fan — I like the ethical foundations of and philosophical ruminations in all of his books. This book marks the beginning of a new series which differs from his other three in two primary ways: the action takes place in Sweden (as opposed to Botswana and Scotland) and features a male protagonist.

In general, I don’t like the result when a writer chooses to write a main character of a gender opposite the writer’s own — it’s a personal thing — but for some reason I love McCall Smith’s female leads. Isabelle Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe are the kind of women I like — perhaps because they blend an emotional sensitivity with a strong rational thought process that resonates strongly with me. Ulf Varg — the senior policeman of the titular Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority — has a very similar personality, albeit clothed in a man’s body.

Ostensibly about “sensitive” crimes (a knife attack on the back of a victim’s knee, the disappearance of an imaginary boyfriend, a spa owner subject to apparent werewolf fits…) the stories primarily revolve around the ethical dilemmas we all face in everyday life. The characters have arcane interests (such as Nordic Art) which in typical McCall Smith style are presented in ways that spark an interest where none was present before, and the action is propelled forward by the intriguing and detailed flow between their rich interior worlds and the physical world around them.

A good read — I don’t know that the Swedish environment has been presented with the same depth as the Botswana and Scotland environments had previously, but then this is only book one. On the other hand, nice to read a Swedish mystery that isn’t steeped in horrifying scenes (e.g. the Dragon Tattoo books — yuck!)

Terminal by Marshall Karp (Police Procedural)

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

There are some book series that you keep reading simply because you have already invested so much time in them you just feel you have to keep going — this is NOT one of those series. Every single one of Marshall Karp’s Lomax & Biggs mysteries fall in the standalone, great entertainment category. Half-comedy (laugh-out-louds on every page), half-mystery (complete curve balls every couple of chapters), and half-character driven novel (yes, I’m aware my math skills look sketchy here but just go with it), these are my go-to “let me have an entertaining and engaging read” books.

Opening with an hysterical scene where Mike Lomax dressed (sort of) in a hospital gown gaping open at the back while he chases a shooter in a medical complex, this fifth installment of Lomax & Biggs tackles Big Pharma. Someone is recruiting terminally ill patients to knock off specific Big Pharma execs as their final act and it’s up to Lomax & Biggs to figure out the why.

In addition to the regular cast of wise-cracking characters (all of whom I’d be happy to have in my life), we have a couple of new additions. My favorite: Eli Hand, recovering rabbi who chose the medical field least likely to have complaining patients (pathology) — after his experience at the synagogue he referred to as “Temple Beth Oy, Do I Have a Problem.” I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

You can start this series anywhere, but I’d start with number one — The Rabbit Factory.