A Most Intriguing Lady by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Not at all my typical read but I confess I did find it entertaining. A “Novel of the Victorian era,” it reads like a (much) steamier Jane Austen style novel (and yes, I know that Austen was Georgian period, not Victorian, but it still has lifestyle similarities in my mind). In Ferguson’s novel, there is a stronger (and more interesting) theme of well-born women wanting more from their life than obedience to husband, mother to children, and gardening. They want to be useful. At least our heroine, Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, daughter of Queen Victoria’s good friends, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, wants that and wants it very much indeed. Intelligent and determined, she becomes a kind of (unpaid) lady detective, focussing on issues that call for a knowledge of society and utter discretion. There is also a non-traditional romance fluttering through the pages as Lady Mary struggles to integrate her strong attraction (both physical and mental) to a Darcy-style Colonel Trefusis with her desires to have a full life that does not involve subservience to another being.

Most of the characters in the novel were real people and the authors (in small print it does say “with Marguerite Kaye”) go into the historical detail about their real lives as well as the history of women detectives which I found quite interesting. One expects that by her rank and previous membership in the Royal Family, Ferguson has a kind of “in” when it comes to the kind of house parties, hunts, and what not that populate a novel of this sort. I can’t verify any of it but I enjoyed reading it and am now extra thankful that a) I live in an era where being a woman did not limit me in any way and b) that I do not ever have to attend any of what appears to be the most tedious gatherings on Earth!

I enjoyed the more modern take on an historic period. While the time period is not necessarily known (to me) for women empowerment or feminist leanings, Lady Mary’s feelings and worries did not feel at all anachronistic, and I could readily identify with her. I liked the balance between the description of time and place, the types of mysteries, the romance, and Lady Mary’s inner thoughts and motivations. Again, not my typical book but I did quite enjoy it!

Thank you to Avon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 7th, 2023

Holmes Coming by Kenneth Johnson (Audio book)

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

Pretty entertaining audio book with a fantastic radio-style cast of readers (including the author) who make it a very entertaining background for driving or long, solo walks. Part speculative fiction, part crime novel, and part literary novel, the premise is that Hubert Holmes (the real man behind Sherlock) put himself into a cryogenic hibernation and woke up a few years early in 2022 in a Marin based manor home maintained faithfully through the years by successive generations of Hudsons. With the help of Dr. Winslow (a female pediatrician who happened to be visiting the house when Holmes “woke up”), Holmes discovers not only a fresh but a world with decidedly different moral tenets, attitudes towards women, and delightful sources of data (think — Internet).

Nicely convoluted plot, some very good characters, fantastic readers (loved all of the accents), and some fun and thought tweaking contrasts between the world of 1899 and 2022 as seen through the eyes of someone who “popped” quickly from one to the other. Personally, I had a little trouble with the superior attitude of Dr. Winslow who continually pointed out Holmes’ inferior empathy / emotional engagement attributes (but oddly enough I had no problems with his superior attitude towards … everything else. Go figure!). She was actually my least favorite character but perhaps that says more about me than the book. I happen to love know-it-alls (men or women) who actually do know-it-all and don’t always like others putting them in their place for not “playing well with others.” As I said … more about me than the book!

Homecoming by Kate Morton (Literary Fiction)

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

A dual timeline story in the Adelaide Hills (Australian Outback). In 1959 an inexplicable tragedy occurs with a nasty, but generally accepted explanation which is never actually proved. In 2018 Jessica Turner-Bridges races back to Sydney when the grandmother who raised her suddenly takes ill. A free lance journalist, Jessica gets obsessed with the 1959 story which she has stumbled on and which — it turns out — is closely related to her family.

Vivid writing bringing to life the surroundings and individual, interconnected stories. Good pacing continually introduces new stories and sources that shift your understanding at the same pace as it does for Jessica. I kept thinking I knew what had happened but was continually surprised. There was a little more scenic description than I like (I’m not a visual person) but I was able to skim those sections if they got too long. Plenty of drama (but not melodrama — the events were dramatic but the characters got on with doing their best and didn’t descend into wailing and teeth gnashing). It was difficult at time knowing in advance what happened (and that is is awful) and watching the narrative slowly unfold to explain the details. On the other hand, in a weird way it is less stressful knowing the end as there is no way to avoid it.

Some beautiful commentary on books and reading and a nice array of literary and cinematic references. Some genuine and insightful reflection on loneliness, community, motherhood, purpose, identity, and the impact of events on a wider assemblage of persons than might be suggested by the event itself.

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 April 4th, 2023.

A Death in Denmark by Amulya Malladi (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 3/3 Characters: 3/3 Plot: 3/3

I believe this is Malladi’s first detective novel (I’m far more familiar with her literary novels which I’ve liked very much). Gabriel Praest — her Danish detective — is a dapper ex-cop, part-time blues musician, and avid quoter of existentialists. An ex-girlfriend (the one who got away), asks him to clear her Muslim client of the brutal murder for which he has been convicted. The racism that has helped lead to his conviction is paralleled in the link to the Nazi murder of a particular group of Danish farmers and the Jews they were hiding during WWII.

This book may work for some people — plenty of interesting (though disappointing in that I thought the Danes were one of the few countries that valued and helped their Jews) Danish history, a look into modern Danish life (which is new for me), and a main character who has all the hallmarks of the brash, tenacious, undauntable PI with some modern trappings such as a flair for dressing, tight connections with both the under and over world, and (of course) relationship problems. He didn’t work for me — too many cliches and nothing particularly deep or insightful. The writing is decent but a lot of time is spent on political agendas and maneuverings while the rest is spent on describing clothing, interior design, and details of every day Danish living that don’t particularly interest me. Lastly, a lot of the writing was of the “tell, don’t show” variety, so long explanations of what happened when, but with no action and somewhat stilted dialog. To be fair, there was a lot of action in other parts.

I really loved her book “The Sound of Language” which I remember giving a genuine feel to the story of an Afghan refugee settling in Denmark. Obviously, this book is a detective novel which tends to be written differently, but I miss the good characterization and pacing of her previous works. This book didn’t work for me as either a literary novel or as a detective story, but it may work for others who like thrillers and more canonical hero types.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 28th, 2023.

The Bullet that Missed by Richard Osman (Mystery)

The continuation (third book) of the adventures of the Thursday Morning Murder Club hosted at Coopers Chase Retirement Village.

A reminder on the characters from my first review: Elizabeth, with the mysterious (MI5? MI6?) 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. Additionally, a (relatively) new character was introduced: Viktor, the retired KGB general with a knack for getting confessions and an interesting “history” with Elizabeth.

In this case, the group tries to track down the murderer of a young journalist who was hot on a case of massive fraud — and are hampered by the lack of a body.

The book was entertaining but not quite as much as the previous two. Some of the character quirks have become stale and while the whole series requires a certain willingness to suspend massive disbelief, this one didn’t blend well enough to make me forget I was doing that.

Still — it was a page turner, and I’m sure I’ll read the next one but I’ll probably get the next one from the library, rather than shelling out the $$ (or in this case the ££ as I was in London)

Suspect by Scott Turow (legal thriller / audio book)

Great audio book! Action both in and behind the courtroom. It’s no secret who the bad guy is but figuring out the game and finding the evidence is a whole other story (the story of this book in fact!). I was also very impressed with the fully integrated roles for women, different ethnic groups, and those with varied sexual preferences without making that the point of the book (I’m getting very tired of the heavy handed agendas of current literature!). Each character is a character with his/her own personality, flaws, interests, etc. in addition to his/her various hashtag-identifiers.

Lucia Gomez is the police chief of Highland Isle and has managed a good balancing act between authority and camaraderie until she is accused of exchanging promotions for sexual favors. Talk about a gender bender! The accusations are false, of course, but there is enough “activity” to make the accusations at least plausible. It’s fun to imagine the story where the genders were switched. Hired by her lawyer to uncover the truth is PI Pinky Granum — she of the misspent youth. As an aside, Pinky is somewhat obsessed with her new and mysterious neighbor whom she suspects of being up to something. Or is it an aside? Maybe there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

Excellent reader, twisted plot, and really interesting characters. Turow writes really good female characters. He writes good male characters, too (obviously) but it’s honestly rare for me to like female characters written by most men. So Bravo! At any rate, this book kept me entertained and thinking for a good 12 hours of driving. Much obliged!

Thank you to Hachette Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 27th, 2022.

The Ink Black Heart by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith (Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
I’ve been a JK Rowling fan since I bought the first Harry Potter book in England before it was released in the US. She is just a fantastic writer. This book was over 1,000 pages, and I got through it in three days because I could not stop reading, much to the irritation of family and friends whom I was supposed to be paying attention to!

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth book in the Cormorant Strike series. Best one yet. This one tackles murder both spawned and executed within the anonymity of social media with the convoluted detection progressing simultaneously in both online and real life. Edie Ledwell, the now successful author of a surprise hit cartoon, approaches the agency begging them to help her uncover the identity of an online figure who has been publicly tormenting her for years, almost driving her to suicide. With the agency already overloaded and no real skillset in cybercrime, Robin rejects the request, only to be shocked days later when Edie is found brutally murdered.

The ensuing puzzle to identify Anomie — the anonymous tormentor — is muddied by an incredibly complex web of characters — both online and in real life. Reminded me of the old logic puzzles I used to love where you have to match which person goes with which car which goes with which dessert etc. While I’ve been “aware” of some of the nastiness that happens online, the progressing story included plenty of excerpts that brought the nastiness to life in a way that made it finally real for me. From incels (involuntary celibates) to alt-right nasties to pedophiles to naive victims, it was a whole unsavory world I’m glad I have no contact with. And it’s a world that I’m guessing Rowling knows first hand as she has been targeted by various “unhappys” in some very aggressive and loathsome ways. As an aside, I always search out the original comment or event that gets people riled and rarely find anything worthy of the reaction. Certainly not in Rowling’s case. I sure wish people would think and investigate before they jump on the vicious attack bandwagon.

So why are these books so good? Firstly, Rowling has a writing style that I just love — it’s so clean that you completely forget that you’re reading and yet she manages to reduce very complex topics and events to easily comprehensible dialog and action. Yet the complexity is not oversimplified, it’s just explained clearly. Maybe she should run for office. The plots mimic the cacophony of real life — lots going on, plenty of opinions, multiple opportunities for internal biases to raise their ugly heads, and tedious and slow moving mechanisms for verification. Rowling has an incredible ability to juggle multiple complex plot lines into a cohesive whole. Plenty of philosophic commentary on people, the internet, and the inability to think for themselves. Nothing she writes about fits neatly into a “type,” an “identity,” or a “role.” I love it.

I also like the characters a lot — while they are flawed (as is the preference these days in crime fiction) — they have characteristics and values that are important to me — they care about right and wrong, they are intelligent, they understand their flaws and actually work to improve themselves. I would be very happy to spend time with these people were they so inclined!

The Devil You Know by PJ Tracy (Mystery)

Book number three in the Margaret Nolan series (I still haven’t gotten around to reading number one but I really liked number two). This one has all the glitz, glamour, and ultimately scumminess of Hollywood. A beloved celebrity is found dead — accident, suicide, or murder unclear — days after a nasty-nasty (but deepfaked) video of him sped out over social media. Nolan and partner Crawford have a more difficult time “reading” the persons of interest as they are all actors and good ones at that.
Very good writing (see a couple of quotes below) and I like the regular characters who have depth and develop with each book. I didn’t love the “bad guy” characters as much as last time — they seemed more shallow and two dimensional — but it’s Hollywood and I expect that comes with the territory!
A fun read, and I’ll be happy to check out book four when it comes!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 17th, 2023.

Exiles by Jane Harper (Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
Aaron Falk from Harper’s The Dry reappears with previous partner Greg Raco in this suspenseful story of a once local woman who disappears at the town’s annual Festival, leaving her six week old baby and purse in a stroller on the grounds. As always, Harper is a master of suspense, painting the every day lives of a rural Australian community amidst the slow understanding that not all was what it seemed. I can never stop reading any of Harper’s books once I’ve started them. Well written, characters that I would love to spend time with, and some well done detailed reflection on what a policeman sees, thinks, and handles that little niggling in the back of a trained mind that whispers “you’re missing something.”

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 January 31st, 2023.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett (Mystery / Fiction)

The first of the Amy Gallup series. Unfortunately I read book three first so I already knew the resolution of this one. Still liked it but it is very strange knowing “whodunit” from the beginning!

This is the story of a writing class, taught by the anti-social and acerbic Amy Gallup — who appears to have a “sniper” member. This member leaves nasty grams for students, which is bad enough, but when two members suddenly drop dead, things get a little … tense.

The writing is excellent — at least three cuts above your typical genre fiction. She loves to make lists. My favorite — her list of “funny looking words.” This included prepuce, piebald, knothole and obnubilate. She’s right — they do look funny! And I hadn’t really ever considered how words could look funny as I’m too busy absorbing them at max rate. She includes brilliant commentary on writers, readers, and the writing process.

Stay tuned for book two which I’ll be reading next…