Book Review: No Saving Throw by Kristin McFarland

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Title: No Saving Throw
Series: A Ten Again Mystery #1
Author: Kristin McFarland
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication Date: May 14, 2019
Genre: Cozy Mystery

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound

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No Saving Thow
A Ten Again Mystery #1
Kristin McFarland
Diversion Books, May 2019
ISBN 978-1-63576-582-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A supremely geeky murder mystery perfect for Whovians, gamers, and Muggles alike.

Autumn has everything she could possibly want: Loving friends, a successful business, and a gaggle of gamers in her store every day.

Welcome to Ten Again, a tabletop gaming store that attracts nerds of every kind and fosters a community Autumn’s pretty proud of―a community that also keeps business afloat. And now that Autumn’s in the running for a grant, Ten Again’s future is looking bright.

That is, until one of Autumn’s gamers is mysteriously murdered. With everyone in the mall as a suspect and accusations flying, Autumn is going to have to do some sleuthing of her own to save her shop and her gamers from a fate more dangerous than having no saving throw.

I surprised myself by wanting to read this book because I’m about as far from being a gamer as I could possibly be but a couple of things drew me to it. First, I’m really overdone with the crafty and culinary cozies and, while I’ll certainly keep reading some of those, I appreciate the thought of something just a little bit different. Secondly, I may not be a gamer but my grandson is and I’ve at least picked up some of the jargon when he tells me about campaigns and so forth. Besides, watching LARPers is fun.

Although I thought this was a tad lightweight and perhaps even slightly juvenile, it’s an enjoyable story and I think the author “got” the gamers nicely in their geeky exuberance and determination to figure out who killed their fellow player without doing any actual sleuthing. Autumn is an appealing character, too, and as a former shop owner, I truly understand her need to protect her store’s future.

I loved all the sidelong nods to certain things claimed by nerds but beloved way beyond their world, things like Star Trek, Dr. Who and Veronica Mars, and the plethora of potential perps made this a lively mystery worth some cogitating on my part. I think I might recommend this to my grandson 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2019.

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“A cozy shop, a tricky murder, geek humor, and gaming
lore galore―what’s not to love in No Saving Throw?
This book is a winner, and I can’t wait to take another turn!”
–Leigh Perry, author of The Family Skeleton Mysteries

“Enjoyable debut….Readers will hope to see a lot
more of the plucky Autumn.” –Publisher’s Weekly

“A nat 20! No Saving Throw is a fun, tight mystery that perfectly
encapsulates the difficulties gamers face at being taken seriously.
Protagonist Autumn Sinclair will stop at nothing to save not
only her store, but also the geeky community it fosters.”
―Alex Erickson, author of the Bookstore Café Mysteries

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About the Author

Kristin McFarland has a Master of Arts in Journalism from Indiana University, which launched her on a short-lived but very exciting career as a newspaper reporter. After graduate school, she worked for five different newspapers around the country, writing about politics, crime, arts, environmental issues, crack addicts, prostitutes, and parades. She eventually wised up and decided that making up political fights and crime scenes would be a lot more fun than reporting on real ones. Today, she lives in southern Indiana, where she spends most of her time daydreaming about fictional lives and/or thinking about wool.

Website // Twitter // Instagram // Goodreads

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Book Reviews: Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson, Gone Gull by Donna Andrews and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Booke of the Hidden
Booke of the Hidden #1
Jeri Westerson
Diversion Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-050-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

To get a fresh start away from a bad relationship, Kylie Strange moves across the country to open a shop in a seemingly quiet town in rural Maine. During renovations on Strange Herbs & Teas, she discovers a peculiar and ancient codex, The Booke of the Hidden, bricked into the wall. Every small town has its legends and unusual histories, and this artifact sends Kylie right into the center of Moody Bog’s biggest secret.

While puzzling over the tome’s oddly blank pages, Kylie gets an unexpected visitor―Erasmus Dark, an inscrutable stranger who claims to be a demon, knows she has the book, and warns her that she has opened a portal to the netherworld. Kylie brushes off this nonsense, until a series of bizarre murders put her, the newcomer, at the center. With the help of the demon and a coven of witches she befriends while dodging the handsome but sharp-eyed sheriff, Kylie hunts for a killer―that might not be human.

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate towards witchy books but this one had a couple of things going for it before I even started—the description sounds awesome and I already knew I’d enjoy this because it’s written by Jeri Westerson. If you ask me, Ms. Westerson is one of those authors who is way under-recognized and I’ve been happy with everything by her I’ve ever read.

When Kylie finds that book, she does what anybody would do, she opens it. What follows—a coven of witches, a possible demon, murder and a bit of romance—turn this find into something quite out of the ordinary but Kylie keeps her cool, for the most part, and her interactions with Erasmus are often laugh out loud funny. Even the name of the town, Moody Bog, draws out a smile and, while the pacing is a little on the slow side, I chalk that up mostly to setting things up for the books to come. I came to feel really attached to the kind of creepy but appealing Moody Bog and its inhabitants and to the story that leads Kylie and her new “friends” down a most unlikely path on the way to solving the murder.

So, did Booke of the Hidden live up to its description? Yes, it certainly did and its essential differences from Ms. Westerson‘s other work make this a really fun departure from her  straightforward historical mysteries. Despite my slight aversion to witch-related stories, I’ll definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Gone Gull
A Meg Langslow Mystery #21
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07856-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Meg is spending the summer at the Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, helping her grandmother Cordelia run the studios. But someone is committing acts of vandalism, threatening to ruin the newly-opened center’s reputation. Is it the work of a rival center? Have the developers who want to build a resort atop Biscuit Mountain found a new tactic to pressure Cordelia into selling? Or is the real target Meg’s grandfather, who points out that any number of environmentally irresponsible people and organizations could have it in for him?

While Meg is trying to track down the vandal, her grandfather is more interested in locating a rare gull. Their missions collide when a body is found in one of the classrooms. Can Meg identify the vandal and the murderer in time to save the center’s name―while helping her grandfather track down and rescue his beloved gulls?

You would think that this series would have begun to show signs of becoming stale and tired by now but that hasn’t happened. Donna Andrews has the magic touch and always seems to come up with fresh ideas and new things to laugh about but the early books still stick with me, especially particular characters beyond Meg.

This time, we have to get along without some of the old regulars (although two of my favorites, Spike the Small Evil One and Meg’s dad, are here) because Meg has gone out of town but her grandparents do a lot to make up for the missing. Meg’s blacksmithing has taken something of a back seat over the course of the series but it’s central to the story in Gone Gull as she’s agreed to teach classes for a few weeks at her grandmother’s new craft studio. Unfortunately, someone seems to have it in for the center, perpetrating small acts of sabotage, and no one is sure who’s doing it. Then Meg discovers a body and the real sleuthing begins.

I have to say the mystery to be solved isn’t as much in the forefront as the wild and quirky activities of the characters but it’s still a good one with some twists and turns to keep the reader occupied while chuckling at what’s going on. Oh, and the gull referred to in the title? That bird and Meg’s grandfather are the source of more than a few laugh out loud moments and, for me, was the icing on the cake. Having said that, I’ll be glad if we have Meg back in her usual surroundings next time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-8021-2689-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.

It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, I encounter a book that just leaves me cold and this is one of them. On the surface, I should have loved it because it’s apocalyptic (one of my preferred subgenres) and follows the physical as well as mental/emotional journey of a young family trying to cope with a world gone sour. To my dismay, I couldn’t connect with this in any way.

Characters, worldbuilding and plot are the three main components of any work of fiction and there is an interesting plot here in that the protagonist and her husband and baby are forced to find a way to escape the floodwaters and the devastation that has crushed London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no worldbuilding; we know the water has risen to submerge much of England but that’s all we know. What caused this? A meteor strike, global warming, some dastardly act of a mad scientist, an alien attack of some sort? It’s hard to really feel what the survivors have to deal with when we know so little.

Worst of all, the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts when no one even has a name, just an initial. To me, this is a writing style that is almost pretentious and, coupled with the first person present tense that I so dislike, well, I just didn’t care very much. I find this happens fairly frequently when I read what’s called “literary fiction”.

The one thing that helps to lift this above the abyss is the author’s attention to the bonds between mother and child and she does that extremely well. I think perhaps that was intended to be the core theme and the apocalyptic elements just got in the way. Certainly, a lot of readers and inhabitants of the publishing world have a much more favorable reaction and, although I didn’t care much for this story, I think Megan Hunter is an author to watch..

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Reviews: Body Parts by Jessica Kapp and Yom Killer by Ilene Schneider

Body Parts
Jessica Kapp
Diversion Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-166-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.

But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.

Determined to save the rest of her friends at the center, Tabitha joins forces with her rescuers, led by moody and mysterious Gavin Stiles. As they race to uncover the rest of PharmPerfect’s secrets, though, Tabitha finds herself with more questions than answers. Will trusting the enigmatic group of rebels lead her back to the slaughterhouse?

I’d like to say the idea of raising children for organ harvesting is a shocking idea but it isn’t entirely when you think of those families that have a child to harvest the stem cells for an older child. The big difference is that those families mean no ill will towards that younger child, unlike the drug company in Body Parts. Just imagine the betrayal Tabitha feels when she learns the truth. For 10 years, she has believed that her foster home guardians have her best interest at heart and that all the hard work getting and keeping her mind and body in top shape will win her a place with a loving family.

The time is about 2030 (based on a reference to a tv show), not so far in the future. When Tabitha first learns the truth, she isn’t at all sure who she can trust but, clearly, it isn’t the adults who’ve been involved in her “care” all these years and she fears for the friends still at the Centre. The tension at this point is high but then it sort of slides into a muddle of romantic confusion that, to my way of thinking, is neither necessary nor logical, given the need to concentrate on saving the kids left behind. When Tabitha accepts the reality of what’s going on, she becomes driven to join in on missions to rescue others but she isn’t really qualified.

Overall, this story is a good one and, while I can’t say I formed any real attachment to Tabitha or any of the other characters, the premise did provoke a bit of thinking. The real discomfort, to me, comes from the knowledge that we in developed countries are becoming much too reliant on pills and potions to make everything better, to “preserve” ourselves, if you will. Perhaps we should pay attention to the possible dangers that might seem like pure fiction.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Yom Killer
A Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery Book 3
Ilene Schneider
Aakenbaaken & Kent, December 2016
ISBN 978-1-938436-19-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

No time is ever good for a family emergency, but for a rabbi the period just before Yom Kippur is especially difficult. Yet even though the Holy Day is approaching, Rabbi Aviva Cohen rushes off to Boston to be at the bedside of her mother, who was found unconscious in her apartment at an assisted living facility. The big question is: was it an accident or an attack? The search for the truth uncovers everything from old grudges to family secrets to fraud – and possibly murder.

When you, or someone close, reach a certain age, assisted living facilities loom large and, for the responsible family members, safety is a major topic of conversation and research. However, murder or even the perception of murder, is not usually in the list of things to look out for. Small wonder, then, that Rabbi Aviva’s suspicions are aroused and she heads right to Boston to see about her mother, accompanied by her ex-husband, Steve Goldfarb, who just happens to be acting chief of police in their New Jersey town. Of course, she doesn’t immediately suspect attempted murder. After all, senior citizens fall a lot so why should her sleuthing senses be alerted? When she does begin to look at things askance, her snooping—for that is what it is—seems at least moderately appropriate because this is her mother. Besides, rabbis (and other religious professionals) do have a way of encouraging people to talk, don’t they?

Aviva is an engaging character, one that brought a smile to my face quite often, and a lot of the others also appealed to me, especially Steve, who’s not as much of an ex as you might expect, and Aviva’s fabulous mom. Since the author is Rabbi Ilene Schneider, I think it’s safe to say Aviva’s background, beliefs, behavior, etc., are as accurate as it’s possible to be within the confines of fiction and I appreciate that because my knowledge of the Jewish faith is limited. I learned things about Judaic customs and certain religious periods to add to my small collection of facts and that added to my overall enjoyment of this lighthearted, intelligent mystery.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

Book Review: The Semper Sonnet by Seth Margolis

the-semper-sonnetThe Semper Sonnet
Seth Margolis
Diversion Books, April 2016
ISBN: 978-1-68230-056-5
Trade Paperback

Academic Lee Nicholson discovers a long lost sonnet written by William Shakespeare in an old book, but when she announces the find on a television program, all sorts of evil things happen. First is the murder of the tv cameraman she’d taken to her bed in a euphoric response to the program. The problem is, she is the one accused of murdering him, and soon she is on the run, attempting to prove her innocence before she’s convicted and they throw away the key.

Violent events escalate. More people are murdered, usually right after she’s spoken to them. As Lee realizes the deaths are related to the sonnet, she examines the document ever more deeply. What she discovers is a hidden code, and the final word is Semper, which means “always.” As the plot thickens, she finds the sonnet was written to Queen Elizabeth I’s specifications, with a message for future generations. But also revealed is the presence of what could unleash a pandemic on the whole world and wipe out mankind.

Convoluted? You bet. I admire the way the author unfolds the mystery and the way Lee makes these discoveries. I didn’t, however, particularly admire Lee herself as a heroine. What thinking woman, particularly one supposedly as smart as she is purported to be, would climb into bed with so many men on one night stands? Especially when a basic stranger has already been murdered in her bed? Worse, she accepts yet another man into her life when she already suspects him of duplicity.

Even so, as the story winds down and as the reader flies from the U.S. to London and back and forth, the action ramps up to a high level. The book is well-written, and though much of the story is a bit predictable⏤we’ve seen it before in The Da Vinci Code and it’s like⏤I still enjoyed the way this played out.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.