Book Review: Wishing Caswell Dead by Pat Stoltey

Wishing Caswell Dead
Pat Stoltey
FiveStar/Cengage, December 2017
ISBN 978-1-4328-3440-1
Hardcover

The story, set in the early 1800s, opens with the discovery of Caswell Proud’s body propped against a tree in the Illinois wilderness woods. Obviously murdered, his throat has been cut. Who has done it? Authorities, though lacking on the frontier, aren’t overly concerned because Caswell richly deserved to die. The suspects? Everyone in the small village of Sangamon, but especially his fourteen-year-old half-sister, Jo Mae. She is pregnant, Caswell having sold her body to nearly everyone in town from the time she was big enough to be used. Sadly, the young man’s mother had indulged his every whim and failed to protect her daughter.

But support for Jo Mae comes from unexpected sources. Has one of them carried the protective spirit all the way to murder? And how did anyone catch the wily Caswell off guard enough to get the drop on him, a man whom even a lightning strike couldn’t kill? Just know that with the universally hated Caswell dead, most everyone gives a sigh of relief, hoping now their worst secrets are safely hidden away. But are they?

The novel is filled with flawed characters, only a couple who have generosity of spirit and deserve sympathy. Caswell may not even be the worst of the lot. Readers will have to decide for themselves in this rock-solid, riveting tale.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Mean Girls by Micol Ostow

Mean Girls
Micol Ostow
Based on the Screenplay by Tina Fey
Scholastic Inc., September 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-08756-7
Hardcover

I’m not pleased to admit that I picked up Mean Girls with preconceived notions and possibly an internal sigh.  Yes, girls can be despicable, particularly during the terrible teens; and sure, for so many students, high school certainly sucks.  Both truly important topics, but how many ways can that be covered?

Well.

This book is based on a screenplay, a unique concept for me; mostly certainly nothing I’ve read yet.  Oh, and said screenplay was written by Ms. Tina Fey.  I am a fan.

Turns out, this tantalizing twist of transition is not the only tweak on a traditional tale.  There is, indeed, a new facet of this oft admired gem.  Some may say high school is like a jungle, but Cady could quickly squash that simile. Born, raised and home-schooled in Africa by her scientist-parents; the jungle, she understands.   However violent and messy it may appear, there are absolute rules.  Law of the land, yes; but clearly defined with potential consequences equally easy to assess.

Nothing is apparent or effortlessly understood in this American high school.   Well, sure the “no green ink” and absurd requirement to obtain permission to use the restroom; but absolutely absent is any advice about interaction among the species. Cady realizes, of course, that if she wants to fit in, she will need to observe and mimic.

But first, does she want to fit in?  If so, with which group?  Unsolicited answers are offered up, different questions are asked, and in no time, Cady is in the thick of things.  With the support of two obvious outcasts, she attempts to take on typical teen traits and immerse herself in the adolescent atmosphere.   Much like a jungle kitten on a muddy, slippery, slope; Cady is soon over her head and seemingly all alone.

Because Mean Girls plays out from pivoting point-of-views, the whole picture emerges as if puzzle pieces are studied, sorted then clicked into place, perfectly.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2017.

More Teeny Reviews

lost-in-wonderlandLost in Wonderland
The Twisted and the Brave #1
Nicky Peacock
Evernight Teen, May 2016
ISBN 978-1-77233-867-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Monsters, serial killers, and imaginary friends—being a Wonderlander can be murder… Once upon a time, Kayla was lost. Then she found Wonderland, but not the one you know. Run by ex-government agents and funded by an eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire, this Wonderland is the name of a collective of highly trained vigilantes who hunt serial killers. Now Kayla, aka Mouse, works tirelessly alongside her fellow Wonderlanders, Rabbit and Cheshire, baiting dangerous murderers. But even her extensive training hasn’t prepared her for the return of her older brother…

Shilo has spent most of his life in an insane asylum, convinced his mother was abducted by a sinister Alaskan monster who lures the lost away to feast upon their flesh. And now he’s certain that his sister is in the same monster’s crosshairs. But if Shilo is going to save what’s left of his family, he’ll have to convince his sister that maybe, just maybe, we’re all a little mad.

The retelling of fairy tales has become almost a cottage industry but, for me, the fun is in discovering how a particular author approaches the task. Now, Wonderland is not, precisely speaking, a fairy tale but, hey, it’s close enough and I quite simply loved all the oddities and eccentricities, the madness, to be found in any Wonderland, even one that involves vigilantes and serial killers. That does mean there’s a certain amount of violence and the tale is quite dark so the squeamish may want to think before reading Lost in Wonderland. Still, I believe many will like Kayla a great deal and appreciate the story as much as I did.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

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house-of-silenceHouse of Silence
Sarah Barthel
Kensington Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-4967-0608-9
Trade Paperback
From the publisher—

Oak Park, Illinois, 1875. Isabelle Larkin’s future—like that of every young woman—hinges upon her choice of husband. She delights her mother by becoming engaged to Gregory Gallagher, who is charismatic, politically ambitious, and publicly devoted. But Isabelle’s visions of a happy, profitable match come to a halt when she witnesses her fiancé commit a horrific crime—and no one believes her.

Gregory denies all, and Isabelle’s mother insists she marry as planned rather than drag them into scandal. Fearing for her life, Isabelle can think of only one escape: she feigns a mental breakdown that renders her mute, and is brought to Bellevue sanitarium. There she finds a friend in fellow patient Mary Todd Lincoln, committed after her husband’s assassination.

In this unlikely refuge, the women become allies, even as Isabelle maintains a veneer of madness for her own protection. But sooner or later, she must reclaim her voice. And if she uses it to expose the truth, Isabelle risks far more than she could ever imagine.

Desperation sometimes leads to dire measures and none is more dire than pretending mental illness and landing in an asylum. In the days when treatment of mental patients was something close to horrific, such an escape would have been even riskier but Isabelle certainly couldn’t have expected to find friendship with such a woman. That in itself leads to some interesting conversations and behaviors but the overall tone wasn’t as ominous as it should have been considering the setting and the times. The appeal of the story was further lessened for me by somewhat stilted language that could have been “softened” just a little to make it more amenable to the modern reader and yet there were also occasional anachronisms that simply didn’t work. Overall, while I don’t really consider this to be one of the better historical fiction novels I’ve read, I do see potential for future works from Ms. Barthel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

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the-purloined-poodleThe Purloined Poodle
Oberon’s Meaty Mysteries
Kevin Hearne
Narrated by Luke Daniels
Audible, September 2016
Downloaded Unabridged Audio Book

From the publisher—

Thanks to his relationship with the ancient Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, Oberon the Irish wolfhound knows trouble when he smells it – and furthermore, he knows he can handle it.

When he discovers that a prizewinning poodle has been abducted in Eugene, Oregon, he learns that it’s part of a rash of hound abductions all over the Pacific Northwest. Since the police aren’t too worried about dogs they assume have run away, Oberon knows it’s up to him to track down those hounds and reunite them with their humans. For justice! And gravy!

Engaging the services of his faithful Druid, Oberon must travel throughout Oregon and Washington to question a man with a huge salami, thwart the plans of diabolical squirrels, and avoid, at all costs, a fight with a great big bear.

But if he’s going to solve the case of the Purloined Poodle, Oberon will have to recruit the help of a Boston terrier named Starbuck, survive the vegetables in a hipster pot pie, and firmly refuse to be distracted by fire hydrants and rabbits hiding in the rose bushes.

At the end of the day, will it be a sad bowl of dry kibble for the world’s finest hound detective, or will everything be coming up sirloins?

There are a handful of series that I always read by listening because I’m so entranced with the narrator and the Iron Druid Chronicles is one of those. Further, I also always get the ebooks because there are foreign and/or mythological names and terms that I can’t always pick up by listening so I play the audio books and then use the ebook to verify those words.

Besides the delights of Luke Daniels‘ narration, Oberon, a goofy Irish wolfhound, is one of my all-time favorite characters. Oberon talks to his druid pal, Atticus, and is totally charming while being very dog-like, focused largely on his next meal, and he has an eye for the ladies, particularly of the French poodle variety. When he finds out that a nefarious ring of dognappers is operating in the Northwest, he naturally feels it’s his duty to sniff out these bad guys so off he goes, with a little help from his friends. What ensues is an entertaining story with a satisfying resolution and I smiled all the way to the end. As always, Oberon’s voice alone had me going and I highly recommend readers who haven’t tried the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne listen to this tale for a taste of the joy you’ll get from these audio books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

Book Review: Nobody’s Child by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Nobody's ChildNobody’s Child
A Georgia Davis Novel of Suspense #4
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, August 2014
ISBN 978-1-938733-46-8
Trade Paperback

Private investigator Georgia Davis expects a routine case of employee revenge when she meets with Shelly and Reggie Field, owners of a discount designer store in Evanston, Illinois. A flash mob boldly struck their store, making off with over five thousand dollars in merchandise and hurting Reggie so badly he ended up in the hospital. Reggie suspects a former employee of the store, a suburban kid he hired as a favor to his parents, who was fired for dealing drugs. Positive that this was payback for firing the kid, Reggie wants Georgia to investigate.

While working on the case, Georgia receives a hand delivered message—the contents rock her world. It’s scrawled on a sandwich wrapper and has traces of what appears to be blood. It says: “Georgia, I am your half-sister Savannah. I’m in Chicago and I’m pregnant. I need your help. Please find me.”

Georgia discovers a man is following her, but before she can discover his identity he is gunned down before her eyes. Soon she is swept into an underground network of human trafficking, black market adoptions, and murder.

The book is told from both the viewpoints of Georgia and Savannah. Readers who enjoy a gritty story with a hardworking detective who keeps one step ahead of the bad guys will find this a satisfying read.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

Book Review: Murder of a Sweet Old Lady by Denise Swanson

Murder of a Sweet Old Lady
Denise Swanson
Signet, 2001
ISBN 0451202724
Mass Market Paperback

Poor Skye Denison. Her life just keeps getting more and more entangled in the little hometown she’d like to escape for a second time and now she’s involved in another murder, this one of someone very dear to her. Some of Skye’s family resents her snooping and the rest of her family can’t keep their noses out of her business. Her job as school psychologist has all kinds of students, parents and school officials riled up at her and her love life is, well, unsettling to say the least. She’s even managed to miff the local survivalists. Oh, yes, and now Bingo the cat has moved in.

Will the local cops ever take Skye seriously? Will her mom get over her snit? Is the killer after Skye or is it a low-life parent with a grudge? Where is the missing caregiver? Why do some of her relatives look at Skye as if they just smelled something peculiar? And will she still have a boyfriend when all is said and done?

Denise Swanson has followed up Murder of a Small-Town Honey with a story that is every bit as delightful as the first in the series, a true cozy that is charmingly entertaining while having a well-developed mystery plot and plenty of red herrings. Ms. Swanson‘s characters are nicely defined—I could visualize every one of them, good and bad—and Skye herself is so likable because her life is just as messed up as yours and mine. Murder of a Sweet Old Lady firmly entrenches Denise Swanson on my list of favorite mystery authors.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, 2001.
Review first published on murderexpress.net in 2001.