Book Review: Solemn Graves by James R. Benn

Solemn Graves
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #13
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2018
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5849-7
Hardcover

The adventures of Billy Boyle during World War II bring him close to the front lines shortly after the D-Day invasion of Normandy to investigate a suspicious murder of a communications major in a farmhouse. He arrives with Big Mike at the house which was occupied by a Nazi military police group and now serves as headquarters for an American battalion.

The investigation is hampered by the existence of a ghost army nearby operated by actors and technicians who perform theatrical stunts to mislead the German forces.  Shrouded in secrecy, it makes Billy’s task more difficult.  And, of course, the various potential witnesses have their own agenda, withholding information vital to Billy’s solving the case. As a result, Billy dives into the biggest operation of the invasion forces, seeking to interview a Nazi officer behind German lines.

Like all the previous novels in this wonderful series, the descriptions of the battles and army operations are real and gripping. The Billy Boyle series only gets better with each new book.   Each has been highly recommended, and Solemn Graves joins that list.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2018.

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Book Review: A Veil Removed by Michelle Cox

A Veil Removed
A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel #4
Michelle Cox
She Writes Press, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-63152-503-2
Trade Paperback

Short intro: Clive and Henrietta Howard return to Chicago after his father’s unexpected death; whether or not Alcott’s death is the accident it seems is unclear.

Clive Howard was an Inspector for the police before his return to Chicago.  When his father dies in an apparent accident, Clive is called home from his honeymoon to manage the family business.  Clive and Henrietta had made other plans, plans which are tossed by the wayside in light of this recent death.  The Howard Detective Agency is not, at least for now, an option.  This does not, however, mean that Clive and Henrietta are done with detecting.  Based on discoveries made by Clive as he takes over the business, the two decide that Alcott’s tragic demise was no accident.  Finding out who killed him will answer a myriad of other questions.   Why?  Why now?  Where’s the money?  Who can Clive trust?  How much does his mother know, if anything?  What does Alcott’s partner, Bennet, know?  Who is Susan?  The list goes on.  Every stone the pair turns over leads to another rock or another hard place. Trying to deal with all of this, and the business, and his grieving mother . . . Clive is under considerable pressure.  As tenuous connections to Henrietta are solidified, the pressure only gets more intense.

Henrietta has problems of her own to confront.  Her younger sister Elsie is “a fallen woman”, having succumbed to the charms of a ne’er-do-well.  The family, meaning Clive’s mother and Elsie’s grandfather, believe her best option is to make the best marriage she possibly can under the circumstances; a love match is out of the question, given her poor taste so far.  Elsie is not enthused about this option; she is also not truly in a position to do what she wants, even if she knows what that is, which is pretty much not the case.  She knows she does NOT want to marry the men who are interested in her, no matter how honest they are about their motives, which are not all that pure.  Henrietta thinks Elsie should go to college – a local, Catholic college run by nuns and affiliated with Loyola.  Elsie is smart, although she doesn’t think her self-taught knowledge is good enough to get her into any college.  She is wrong, and Mundelein College proves to be a wonderful place for Elsie.  She does have some delightfully collegiate interactions with the boys from Loyola.   The German custodian brings some adventure into her life, although certainly nothing that anyone would have thought of, given the chance.  Elsie, of all the characters, probably makes the greatest leap in personal knowledge and growth over the course of the novel.  It’s a pleasure to read.

There are other sub-plots and story lines, some of which connect previous books in the series to this one.  There is ample room for at least one or two more books about Clive and Henrietta, given some of the loose ends left lying around.  Chicago in the 1930s has so much to offer a historical novelist: gangs, high society, the changes in technology, societal mores shifting, the immigration landscape changing.  Cox mines what she needs for her story, and makes it all work very nicely.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Clive and Henrietta, although the sex scene in the middle did seem VERY gratuitous, considering the general tone of the book around that scene.  Other than that, I’m inclined to go start reading this series from the beginning.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, May 2019.

Book Review: Trial on Mount Koya by Susan Spann—and a Giveaway!

Trial on Mount Koya
A Hiro Hattori Novel #6
A Shinobi Mystery
Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books, July 2018
ISBN 978-1-6338-8415-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

November, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo travel to a Buddhist temple at the summit of Mount Koya, carrying a secret message for an Iga spy posing as a priest on the sacred mountain. When a snowstorm strikes the peak, a killer begins murdering the temple’s priests and posing them as Buddhist judges of the afterlife–the Kings of Hell. Hiro and Father Mateo must unravel the mystery before the remaining priests–including Father Mateo–become unwilling members of the killer’s grisly council of the dead.

Anyone who is a fan of Agatha Christie will recognize the tip of the hat this book is to her And Then There Were None with the isolated setting and the killer who picks off the victims one at a time and that really adds an element of fun to the story. This unusual pair of sleuths—a Portuguese Jesuit priest and his shinobi companion/bodyguard—have come to this remote temple because Hiro has been ordered to deliver a message to an Iga spy but they soon find themselves looking for a murderer among the monks and a couple of visitors. Although each investigation these two have conducted has its own peculiarities, this time Hiro is off-center, partly because of a personal sorrow but also because he comes to believe his friend may be in real jeopardy.

Along with the investigation, we also learn a little about the Buddhist religion in the 16th century and why the killer might be posing his victims, one by one, as the judges of the afterlife. The juxtaposition of the Buddhist tenets with those of a Catholic priest is striking and sheds more light on the relationship between Hiro and Father Mateo, two men who are vastly different and yet so respectful of each other. Each brings a unique perspective to the investigation and they are made even more interesting by their positions in feudal Japanese society.

Ms. Spann, as I’ve come to expect, creates vivid settings—her ability to evoke a visual understanding of the surroundings is full of the small details that bring them to life—and her characters are so fully fleshed out as to make our sleuths seem like people we actually know. It’s not just the two investigators that draw the attention, though; others are just as memorable, such as their housekeeper, Ana (a favorite of mine from earlier books).

Wonderful use of atmospheric language, very appealing players and an intriguing plot make Trial on Mount Koya another brilliant entry in this series I’ve come to love. Hiro and Father Mateo are among my very favorite historical investigators and I can barely wait for their next adventure, Ghost of the Bamboo Road, due out later this year.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2019.

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Re-issue/New Cover Reveal

Claws of the Cat
A Hiro Hattori Novel
A Shinobi Mystery, Book 1

A master ninja and a Portuguese priest investigate the murder of a samurai in medieval Kyoto. May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan.

Re-issued by Seventh Street Books, April 23, 2019.

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Giveaway

To enter the drawing, just leave a comment
below. There will be two winners. One
winner will receive a trade paperback copy
of Trial on Mount Koya and the second
winner will receive a trade paperback copy
of the re-issued Claws of the Cat. The drawing
will be held on the evening of Thursday,
April 25th and is open to the US and Canada.

Book Review: The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Anstey

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Title: The Hummingbird Dagger
Author: Cindy Anstey
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Publication Date: April 16, 2019
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Young Adult

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

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The Hummingbird Dagger
Cindy Anstey
Swoon Reads, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-17489-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

From the author of Suitors and Sabotage comes a suspenseful and enthralling new Regency novel, perfect for readers who like their Jane Austen classics with a side of mystery and murder.

1833. A near-fatal carriage accident has deposited an unconscious young woman on the doorstep of Hardwick Manor and into the care of young Lord James Ellerby. But when she finally awakens, it is with no memory of who she is or where she came from.

Beth, as she calls herself, has no identity; the only clue to her circumstances is a recurring nightmare of a hummingbird, blood dripping from its steel beak.

With the help of James and his sister, Caroline, Beth tries to solve the mystery of her own identity and the appalling events that brought her to their door. But nothing could prepare her for the escalating dangers that threaten her and the Ellerby clan. From the hazardous cliffs of Dorset to the hostile streets of London, Beth will fight to reclaim her past, hunted by a secretive foe with murderous intentions.

Years ago, when I was a mere whippersnapper 😉 , I was really into the Regency era and read voraciously, both fiction and nonfiction. While the Regency Period historically lasted only from 1811 to 1820, the accepted definition of Regency Period literature is broader, generally from just after the French Revolution to about 1830 or so, just before the Victorian era. As time went on, I drifted away from the period and, as often happens with readers, my tastes changed and my interest moved on to other times.

Then, not long ago, I began to read a bit again in the period and Cindy Anstey was one of the authors who pulled me back in. This time, the setting is just a little beyond the Regency era but it’s close enough to not matter and I continue to regain my appreciation of the time, thanks at least in part to The Hummingbird Dagger. Ms. Anstey has created a nice blend of mystery, dark happenings and romance with a dash of mayhem, making this a fun book to read, although I do think the plotting left something to be desired.

What should be (based on the particulars) a crafty and intriguing mystery dragged somewhat and it took too long to begin unraveling things and, while I liked the characters, I didn’t think their behavior rang true to the period. Still, I wanted to know what had happened to Beth (did real people of the time use nicknames such as “Beth”?) and how the Ellerbys and Beth would figure things out. As the clues began to add up and a murder occurred, I became more invested in Beth’s past and what might still be endangering her and those around her.

The characters need more chemistry and the plot could use less—MUCH less—talking and more action but, all in all, this was a pleasant read and I’ll check out more of Ms. Anstey’s books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2019.

About the Author

Whenever she is not sitting at the computer, throwing a ball in the backyard, gardening or reading, Cindy can be found–actually, not found–adventuring around the world with her hubby.

She has lived on three continents, had a monkey in her yard and a scorpion under her sink, dwelt among castles and canals, enjoyed the jazz of Beale St and attempted to speak French.

Cindy loves history, mystery and… a chocolate Labrador called Chester.

Author links:
Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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Follow the tour here.

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Book Review: Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Loewenstein

Death of a Rainmaker
A Dust Bowl Mystery #1
Laurie Loewenstein
Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic Books, October 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61775-679-5
Hardcover

I’ll start out by saying this is a book that’s already been added to my “Best Books Read in 2019” list.

Death of a Rainmaker features dust storms so brilliantly written they’ll have you choking from the dirt and grit filling your eyes, your mouth, your lungs. Historical fact: Did you know Dust Pneumonia was/is a real malady? It killed many a child during the dust bowl years. You’ll also learn about the everyday life of the inhabitants of this small and steadily shrinking Oklahoma town. They’re people you’ll get to know as if they’re your own neighbors.

Be prepared to feel the despair of the people, families, especially the rural families, who tried everything they knew to make a living during this heartbreaking time, but who could only watch their wells dry up and their livestock die. As they watched their children die. And their hopes and dreams die, buried in dust that piled in drifts around the buildings and got in through every little crack in the boards of their dried-out houses.

So, when a stranger claiming to be a rainmaker shows up vowing to bring moisture to the parched earth, why is he murdered outside a movie house run by a blind man, in the middle of a huge duststorm?

Was it because he failed to bring rain? Was it because of a fight he got into with a young CCC worker when they’d both had too much to drink? Or was it because he eyed another man’s wife?

These are all questions Sheriff Temple Jennings is going to need to answer. Quickly, because the election is coming up and for the first time in years he has a man running against him for the job. Etha, his wife, has her own ideas about the murder, and they don’t coincide with her husband’s.

So much goes on in this novel. It’s a history of those years when poverty stalked a large portion of the population, especially in the rural areas of Oklahoma and thereabouts. It’s a grouping of character studies. It’s a mystery. And it’s wonderful.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2019.
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of Paris
Pam Jenoff
Park Row, January 2019
ISBN 978-0-7783-0861-4
Hardcover

One simple statement changed the course of Eleanor’s life forever.

It was 1943 when the infuriated Director of Special Operations Executive called a meeting. As his secretary, Eleanor was present. As his metaphorical right-hand, she understood the operations better than anyone else in the room. The SOE, created three years prior to light Europe up with sabotage and subversion, had run smoothly and successfully until now.

Too many agents were being caught, and the captures seemed to quickly follow infiltration. The Director demanded to know why. The answer so apparent, it exploded from Eleanor, “It’s that they are men.”

After her outburst, albeit an accurate assessment, Eleanor was tasked with recruiting and training female spies. Working harder and longer than she ever imagined, she did everything in her power to ensure the safety and success of ‘her girls’; but she never considered the possibility of a saboteur within the SOE.

This historical-fiction magnificently manages to demonstrate how we’ve come so very far, while simultaneously showing a stubborn stagnation—but in an oh-so-subtle way. The improbable intermingling of three ladies’ lives, over three tumultuous years, spanning several countries, certainly takes center stage.

I was buoyed by the strength, drive and determination of those in training and totally intrigued with the spy techniques. Easily invested in the characters, many emotions were evoked as they worked diligently—both independently and collectively—to identify the traitor in the ranks.

I am psyched to submit this copy to my favorite classroom library. It brings me great joy to introduce historical fiction highlighting how much harder it is for the person breaking through barriers built from determined ignorance and I know the students will love Ms. Jenoff’s entertaining and engaging writing.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2019.

Book Review: A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper—and a Giveaway!

A Knife in the Fog
Bradley Harper
Seventh Street Books, October 2018
ISBN 978-1-63388-487-8
Trade Paperback

Jack the Ripper and Arthur Conan Doyle clash in this story and with the help of Dr. Joseph Bell, on whom Doyle supposedly based his fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, an investigative trio is created. More fun yet, is that the Dr. Watson of the story is not Doyle himself, but a woman, Margaret Harkness, a writer of extraordinary wit and intelligence, who lives in the East End.

History says the man who claimed the sobriquet “Jack the Ripper” was never discovered, although the gruesome murders he perpetrated upon the prostitutes of Whitechapel abruptly ceased. No one actually knows why. In this story, the author shows the reader why, and frankly, I can’t imagine a more fitting reason.

Although the quasi-romance aspects of the story seemed a bit half-hearted, I felt all the characters suited to the parts they played. The writing is good, the characters well fleshed out, and the action well depicted. The historical aspects of the setting and the attitudes of the people, both high and low, including politics and racial/class discrimination, are very well done.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2019.
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

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To enter the drawing for a print copy
of A Knife in the Fog, just leave a
comment below. The winning name will
be drawn on Sunday night, April 7th.
This drawing is open to the US and Canada.